The Acolytes of Beltane: Re-examining the Sabbat Through the Tarot

The Lovers. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

Beltane is the last of the three Planting festivals. In the old days these festivals revolved around the agrarian year, and for some they still do. However, my urban self relates to all the festivals in a slightly different way. For me these are more personal festivals, encouraging and celebrating more personal types of growth.

Beltane is usually the hardest of all the sabbats for me to find personally relevant. I’ve written about it before, and every year it’s still a bit of a struggle.

However, this year I took a new approach and examined Beltane through the lens of Tarot. It works for almost everything else, right? The most obvious Tarot card to start with for Beltane is the Lovers, but as you’ll see my examination rapidly expanded out from there.

 The Lovers

Beltane is almost always associated with love and marriage. The union of the Lord and Lady (as seen through any number of sacred marriage stories) is perhaps the single most common symbol of the holiday. The aptly named Lovers card perfectly encapsulates that whole concept.

However, no card of the Tarot exists in a vacuum. The Lovers is linked, by both image and theme, to other cards too. In fact, it’s one of six Acolyte Cards.

So I had to wonder. If one of the Acolyte Cards relates so well to Beltane, could the other Acolyte Cards somehow relate too?

The Acolyte Cards

In addition to the Lovers, the Acolyte Cards also include the Devil, the Hierophant, the Chariot, the Six of Pentacles, and the Tower.

The Acolyte Cards are called that because, in all six cards, we have two “acolytes” at the feet of a larger figure or archetype. The visual composition of each card is almost identical, and their meanings are similar too. In all six cards the two figures in the foreground are submitting to whatever the figure behind them represents. The only difference lies in what precisely that happens to be.

The Lovers. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Lovers. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

In the Lovers, the figures commit themselves to each other under the eyes of an angel, making this a sacred marriage. By so doing they collectively place their relationship above their individual desires, submitting to its influence in their lives. While it depicts a sacred marriage, this card can refer to any great love to which we commit ourselves.

The Devil. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Devil. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Devil is often called the shadow card of the Lovers, and it’s easy to see why. The figures in this card don’t submit to each other, but to the worst parts of themselves. The chains represent the attachment of the figures to fears, addictions, self-serving behaviors, and hedonism. They’re wholly committed to that which holds them prisoner, but they retain the ability to free themselves from bondage any time they choose. The Devil is ultimately a helpful card, because it points out that which holds us back and encourages us to pursue self-improvement, independence, and true freedom.

The Hierophant. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Hierophant. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The monks of the Hierophant submit to the leader of their faith, and by so doing commit themselves to a higher purpose. I also think it’s significant that, out of all six cards, the monks of the Hierophant are the only figures with their backs to us. Part of their devotion is a rejection of the world, while the other five cards are of the world and face it more directly.

The Chariot. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Chariot. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The sphinxes of the Chariot submit to their princely driver, who is completely focused on worldly conquest. Since the world can never truly be conquered by one person, the drive to succeed is never-ending. Total success isn’t really the point, though. The sphinxes are committed to the journey itself and carry the driver onwards regardless.

The Six of Pentacles. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Six of Pentacles. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

As befitting the only Minor Arcana of the set, the Six of Pentacles shows a more scaled-down version of the dynamic seen in the other cards. Here the two acolyte figures submit to their need for aid from a wealthy benefactor, who is committed to helping them. Unlike the other cards, though, the benefactor isn’t a larger-than-life archetypal figure. He’s human too, and a quick reversal of fortune could cause the acolytes and the benefactor to switch places. This unites the acolytes and the benefactor in a way not permitted by the other cards.

The Tower. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Tower. Centennial Waite-Smith Tarot.

The Tower is also considered an Acolyte Card, but it differs from the others in two fundamental ways. For one, the archetypal figure in this card – the Blasted Tower – represents the destruction of commitment. The figures in this card were dedicated solely to their own egos, and that is the sin that could not be borne. That’s why the lightning physically removed them from their high station and returned them screaming to the earth below. None of us are immune to natural law or natural forces, and the figures of this card were required to submit to that if nothing else. And that leads to the second fundamental difference between this card and the others: the lightning didn’t ask for or require the consent of the figures in the card.

If the other cards are facets of life we’re invited to explore, the Tower tells us that the worst thing we can do is ever think we’re done exploring.

The Acolytes of Beltane

As a culture, we’re kind of obsessed with the values represented by the Lovers card. It makes total sense that the type of submission and commitment explored there is the one that gets its own holiday, especially when we consider the history and focus of modern Paganism.

However, maybe this singular focus is unnecessarily limiting. The Acolyte Cards invite us to explore love, self-improvement, faith, drive, and a recognition that we’re all in this together. They also caution us against the idea that we’re ever done growing and provide an ego-check when we need it.

All of the Acolyte Cards, even or maybe especially the Tower, provide us the tools we need to grow into our best and most authentic selves. That sounds like the very definition of what Beltane is supposed to be, and to my mind makes this holiday much more interesting and personally relevant.

Now I’m eager to see what kind of light a similar study might shed on Midsummer!

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