Monday, February 1, 2016

The Tarot and Chronobiology


After writing my dissertation at university on chronobiology I have been interested in the interplay between genetics, light and time ever since. In the Western Magical Tradition the 22 letters of the Hebrew Alefbeit are arranged around a DNA like diagram called the Tree of Life while the nucleus of the cell contains 23 chromosomes*. It is also interesting to note that the Greek Alphabet contains 24 letters while our modern clock is divided into 24 hours.  Can we say that the Tarot and the Alefbeit are somehow clocks?


As discussed in Replication and Deviation most of our life is dominated by replicated action - sleeping, eating, excreting, breathing - and even action which seems original can in fact be replication at a smaller or greater scale - for example meeting the same type of person over and over. This cycle of need/appetite fulfilment can be altered by living without light entrainment i.e. underground or by removing certain genes which acts like taking cogs out of the clockwork and alters the 24 hour cycle to between 22 and 26.

From chronobiological research scientists know that there are light sensitive molecular clocks scattered throughout the tissues of the body, with master clocks in the suprachiasmatic nuclei, (a cluster of cells behind the eyes next to the pineal gland), the liver and the gonads. These clocks react to light signals by altering the levels of serotonin and melatonin, two hormones produced in the pineal gland which not only alter the physiological functions of the body by influencing other glands in their hormone production, but our very consciousness itself - affecting our appetites and sex drive. These clocks are tuned by the wavelengths of light they receive, the predominantly red end of the spectrum in the morning activates the serotonin while the blue light of the evening reduces these levels, and vice versa for melatonin.**  Depending on when you rise then each hour the corresponding wavelength of natural light calibrates the clock. Some phases of the cycle may be extended in duration because of environmental factors and some phases may diminish but it is very likely that all will take place throughout the day at some point or another.


Does the Great Wheel of the Tarot represent a chronobiological clock - the cards acting like the numbers on the face of the clock and relating to key parts of our daily cycle?
  • The Fool - Dreaming in astral universe
  • The Magus - Lucid dreaming, early morning hypnopompic hallucinations
  • The Priestess - Waking up
  • The Empress - Passive awareness of internal needs (excretion, cleanliness, hunger, cramps, etc)
  • The Emperor  - Active awareness of external needs (days tasks - breakfast, shower)
  • The High Priest - Recognised need for source of nutrition - social, financial, etc - i.e. work
  • The Lovers - Finding location of source of nutrition 
  • The Chariot  - Movement towards source of nutrition 
  • Strength - Acquisition of nutrition
  • The Hermit - Satiated appetite
  • Fortune - Recognised changing conditions of nutrition source
  • Adjustment - Adaptation to changing conditions of nutrition
  • The Hanged Man - Tired individual, least effective hour of work, 'end of the day'
  • Death  - Separation from nutrition, journey home, exhaustion
  • Temperance  - Relaxation
  • The Devil - Degeneration of consciousness - pleasures of the evening
  • The Tower - Exhaustion of the body, yawning, tiredness
  • The Star - Memory ''filing'' - light sleep
  • The Moon - Sleep paralysis to deep sleep, hypnagogic hallucinations 
  • The Sun - REM sleep
  • Judgement -Answers to dream questions, judgements on days action
  • The Universe - Connection to astral universe, unconscious mind
Although we can divide the 24 hours of a day into 22 tarot cards yielding just over an hour per card we should understand that some of these phases will last more or less time  and some of them will overlap - for example we may be sleepy for a number of hours after waking up.  If we get up late and rush to work, our preparatory time of waking up, cleaning, dressing, breakfasting, etc are compressed and overlap with the consequential ill effects on the success of the organism.  A long commute can stress the Chariot... If we put off sleep for a long time our consciousness blurs as well - so the sleep/dream/hallucinate phases outlined above will become active even though we are still technically awake.  We also need to bear in mind that this system best describes, in terms of the time spacing, the lifestyles we have evolved to live in i.e. hunter gatherer, as opposed to those we are forced to work within because of the needs of modern society - I would argue that many of the illnesses and stresses we experience are down to the fact that our working lives are completely out of step with the way the body naturally processes time.

In exploring this metaphor then, the hormonal gear shift is controlled by The High Priestess who switches the pineal from melatonin production to serotonin as the first rays of dawn fall on the sleeper. The light and increasing serotonin arouse first the ''feminine'' part of the mind (the Empress), that part which can receive influences or passive awareness and the recieved signals in turn activate the ''masculine'' part of the mind, the active awareness (the Emperor).  It is at this point when fully awake that one recognises The High Priest, who issues the demands of daily life - food, money, sex and other essential needs of reality that you must obey.  These cards will roughly cover 5am - 9am on a typical day.

As we reach the Lovers stage of the great wheel, serotonin has outgrown the influence of melatonin and a source of nutrition, be it social, financial, or simply biological has been recognised, be that a work place or play place and one is compelled to move towards it on The Chariot. Once the individual has arrived at the source of nutrition they begin to nourish themselves with its energy, and gain Strength. The Hermit represents the fully satiated individual, midday rest, but as energy levels drop again, they are forced to look for more nutrition and recognise the changing conditions (Wheel of Fortune) of the source - the Justice card represents the subsequent adaptation to these conditions - think of the changing demands from a hunting/fishing zone.  

The Hanged Man represents what is probably the least effective work hour, when the body is exhausted and the mind a little depressed, Death represents the close of work, accompanying exhaustion and the return home to relax (Temperance). The Devil signifies the further degeneration of the mind in preparation for the evening's pleasures/indulgences and yawning and tiredness are the symbols of the body's collapse (The Tower).

The Star symbolises all the memories of the day, and your subconsious sifts through them in a pre-sleep/light sleep state in order to concoct dreams, forget the meaningless and remember the meaningful.  As we enter the phase of The Moon, we enter sleep paralysis and then a state of deep dreamless sleep, our mind is dead in the barge sailing for the underworld.   The light of an astral Sun meets us at the end of this voyage and as the gates of our dreamworld open before us into REM sleep our dreams then stand in Judgement of our actions of the day, or we make our own judgements based on where we are and what we have done.  The World card symbolises the final step into the larger astral universe and The Fool shows us lucid dreaming there, but not remembering - careless and innocent.  Contrast this with the lucid dreaming and hypnapompic hallucinations of The Magus in the early hours before we wake, bearing in mind that the secret of magic is to dream into reality.*** 

*In Kabbalah we are taught of the mythical four headed Shin of the world to come - a 23rd letter of the Alefbeit

**  Our Tree of Life is often associated with different colours - Chokmah and Binah, grey and black respectively could code for whether light is present or not, and Chesed and Gevurah, blue and red could code for various ends of the spectrum. 

***Dividing 24 into 22 and then looking at the cycle from The Star to the Magus we get a figure of 7.7 hours for the full sleep cycle.

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