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Elza's Tarot Cards and Visions

A reader asked about Elza's Tarot cards in the last section I posted -- was that a real deck, and did the reading actually work?

Oh fun question! Elza's deck is based on a 1792 Italian deck, but I have changed a few things and incorporated elements of other period decks to give it a few touches I prefer. For example, in the 1792 Italian deck the King of Cups has brown hair. He has red hair in a slightly later different deck, and I mashed those two together because Michel has red hair and I wanted the correspondence to be immediately evident to the reader.

There are some significant differences between Elza's deck and the modern ones that are most popular and familiar. The biggest one is that there are no reverses of the suit cards except the court cards. Like a modern poker deck where the six of diamonds looks the same whether you have it upright or upside down, the six of coins in Elza's deck looks exactly the same either way. You can read reverses of the Major Arcana or of the court cards, but not of the suit cards.

The biggest difference is that in this period the Tarot lacks the syncretic elements that have become familiar thanks to the "standard" Rider-Waite deck. The deck is based purely on European symbolism and stories. Some Classical imagery is evident, but the emphasis on universal or archetypal storytelling, and certainly on non-Western symbols or influences, simply isn't there yet.

The biggest reason for that is that heiroglyphics have not yet been translated! At the point where this book takes place, Bonaparte's expedition in Egypt is current news. The Rosetta stone has just been discovered and won't be read for two decades yet. Most of the famous ruins and tombs we associate with Egypt have never been drawn or portrayed in popular media. Imagine -- Elza has never seen a picture of the pyramids! No tombs in the Valley of Kings have been excavated. There is no Egyptology. It doesn't exist. Not one single person in three thousand years has walked the descent to the underworld in Seti's tomb. The Ramesseum is under sand. Dion's astrological ceiling at the Temple of Hathor in Dendera is the ceiling of a ruin sometimes used to shelter cattle. The stories are lost.

And to this comes Bonaparte and his expedition. Elza, hired to do fake seances, renders up the following:

“Let M. Noirtier have his turn,” Lebrun said. I assumed he was directing traffic around the Sibyl. I did not move my eyes from the mirror. The candle flame’s reflection wavered.

A different voice. “How shall fare Bonaparte’s expedition in Egypt?”

This time I did not have to seek for the words. They were there as if they always had been. “He who would conquer Egypt must prepare to be conquered by it.” The arching sky looked back at me in the mirror, clear as faience, blue as dreams. My voice ran on, my will somewhere behind it. “There is a ship with an eagle spread upon its sail, great oars moving in unison. Caesar has come in relentless pursuit of his enemy, to conquer and to be conquered. The Black Land does not give up her secrets easily, for we are older than time. We were old when he last came here, golden warrior, son of the gods.”

There was a swift intake of breath behind me. Noirtier knelt down. “Can you tell me more?”

The light blurred, streaked like fire on water. “There will be fire on the deep, and Orient’s loss will blind the eagle,” I said. “It is not the sea that answers to his hand, but the deep buried mysteries of the land. He has come to Alexandria now as once he came to Siwah, seeking truths that only the Black Land can show him, and there he must find his destiny, in the place where he chose it once before, when he turned away from the rest that was offered. It is easy to descend to the underworld, but returning is the difficulty.”

Elza has no idea what any of this means. Many readers may not have any idea either, and that works. But those who have read Hand of Isis or Stealing Fire will have some theories! Elza's visions, like her readings, have to work on two different levels. They have to work for the new reader who finds them as mysterious as Elza does, and they actually have to predict the future or reveal the past for the old reader, or for the reader who is going through the book for the second time.

For example, in the piece I put up yesterday:

Or perhaps even now the dice were rolling, the cards turning. That night, encamped on the mountain beside a small fire, I took them out and felt them in my hands, cool and smooth as silk. Wordlessly, I laid them out. The Chariot gleamed gold and white, the Emperor's red cloak billowing soundlessly behind him. The Star gleamed in the heavens. The Sword Queen held her blade before her while the tempest raged about her, grip foremost, like a crusader bending to kiss the cruciform hilt. Six staves entwined, gold and blue.

Isabella came and sat down opposite me wordlessly, her pink shawl bundled tightly around her shoulders.

"What is next?" I asked, and turned the card.

The Emperor sat enthroned, the orb of the world in his hands.

Elza is the real thing, a real oracle, and she's reading on things that are very, very big and getting answers she doesn't understand. She has ability but not discipline and not structure to control her abilities, so she's asking what's going on, meaning for her and her friends, and getting a much bigger story.

The most important card in this reading is the Chariot. This is generally used to mean that one is torn between two different decisions, or that one's own self discipline and intellect are needed to thread a course between two alternatives -- for example between angering people at work by pointing out flaws in a plan and passively going along with it until the plan crashes. However, in macro political readings the Chariot is the card of the ship of state, drawn in opposite directions by Left and Right, the white horse and the black horse that do not want to be harnessed together and that pull together only reluctantly when skillfully guided by the head of state.

That's the situation at the moment -- will France be torn apart once again by the struggles of Left and Right? Will there be a second Terror? Will there be a return to the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons? Will there be a Jacobin purge? A White Terror? Will the events of the last ten years, which have claimed more than 60,000 lives, be repeated? Will the nation simply be torn to pieces, the chariot smashed by horses pulling in opposite directions?

The Star, the second card in the reading, says not necessarily. There is hope. There is a chance of avoiding purges to the Left and Right alike. It's not impossible.

The Sword Queen holds her blade before her while the tempest rages around her. This is Elza herself. She is the Sword Queen. Her path through the storm is before her -- the blade she holds like a knight, the oaths she can keep faith with. She must become the Sword Queen. Her path through the tempest is to become who she has the potential to be, Companion and Oracle. The storm rages around her, but it does not blow her away. The Sword Queen is master of the element of air. She is the queen of the winds. As Michael names her a little earlier, she is "a gull to face the winds far out to sea, and come at last stormtossed to shore, if you are lucky." Gulls belong to the tempest and don't fear it.

Six staves entwined, gold and blue, is the next card, and Elza does interpret that one correctly -- battles and conflicts lie ahead. Whatever happens there will be battles. Those are inevitable.

And last -- "The Emperor sat enthroned, the orb of the world in his hands." The detail here is interesting -- of all the regalia of an emperor, the one that's emphasized is the orb. Not the sword, not the crown, not the spear -- but the orb, the symbol of prosperity and law, of authority used positively, and of the world knitted whole. The orb is a globe, the world intact. This is the Emperor's Story, and Elza has been a part of it for a long time. That's where the Sword Queen is going through these battles.

And this is also the literal future. At the moment she is reading they are on the eve of the Battle of Marengo, which four years from now will give Bonaparte the crown. Marengo leads directly to that coronation in Notre Dame, to that portrait by David of the Emperor enthroned, the orb in his hands.

So Elza's readings and visions are very interesting and tricky things! They have to work on a lot of levels and they're fascinating to write! You are very welcome to ask questions or discuss them -- I'm happy to talk. What do you think?


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 26th, 2012 01:29 pm (UTC)
How do you map all of this out? How do you keep tabs on how the future reflects the wheel of the past, and how the prediction says both?

Also, how familiar does one need to be with Tarot for this book? It seems that not knowing what each card means hampers me from even guessing as much as Elza knows, much less catching foreshadowing or agreeing or disagreeing with her interpretation of the reading.
Apr. 26th, 2012 02:47 pm (UTC)
I don't think one needs to know anything about the cards, and I don't think one needs to have read the other books first. I think for readers who have read the other books, especially Hand of Isis, there will be a level beneath what's on the page, but for people who haven't read it, it will still all make sense. The thing is that Elza doesn't understand the things she sees either! She doesn't know what's real and what isn't yet, so the reader will discover along with her. It's just that readers who are very familiar may be able to make some early guesses!

How do I map it all out? It's all one big piece to me. For example, these scenes I used as examples were written between Black Ships and Hand of Isis, so for example the references to Caesar coming to Egypt were here before those sections of Hand of Isis were written! I knew where the foreshadowing pointed before I wrote the scenes where it happened, if that makes sense? I've been working on these stories, different pieces of them, since 1991. It's all one big tapestry. It's just that each book highlights a small piece, tells a part of a much greater story.

The pieces fit together because they're all part of one whole, not something I came up with later and stitched on. Before I wrote Charmian I had already written Elza playing Charmian on stage in The General's Mistress in Cleopatra! So for the new reader, it's interesting to see her in the role and the reader may wonder why it seems so oddly resonant. For Elza, she wonders why it makes her so emotional, "Come dear lady, the day is done, and we are for the dark." For you -- oh for you seeing her saying once again what she said before, "Very well, as befits the last of so many noble rulers," it has entirely different depths.

In short, you as the reader share the perspective of Mik-el, of Michael. When he says, "Should I call you Elza, or the name of some mask that you do not remember but who seems as near to me as you are?" you share his perspective. Elza doesn't remember. But Mik-el does. And so do you. Does that make sense?
Apr. 26th, 2012 04:34 pm (UTC)
I really love the Aboukir Bay/Battle of the Nile bit in the seance passage.

It is very interesting to think of all that the Egypt expedition brought to the modern world. I *knew* that, having been fascinated with Ancient Egypt and archeology and all, but I hadn't thought about it that way.
Apr. 26th, 2012 06:54 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you like that bit! It's one of my favorites too.

It really is interesting to realize that Vivant Denon, who was on the Egyptian expedition, is really the father of modern Egyptology, the first person to conduct any kind of scientific surveys of sites or to record writings, paintings and carvings. His book will feature in the third Elza book....

But at this point -- lost stories! No one knows these stories anymore, and they're about to be found again.

Is it spoilery to say that thirty years after this seance scene Elza will go to Egypt and travel widely and come home to write a book about it, popularizing the brand new science of archaeology? And her front engraving? Dion's astrological ceiling!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )