Home|The Pholarchos, an introduction

The Pholarchos, an introduction



   Presenting the Pholarchos Tarot at IASD in Scottsdale, 2018

My hometown, Positano, nestles high on a mountainous coast that is dear to old myths. Greek colonies settled along this stretch of land and not far south was a place called Velia where the philosopher Parmenides lived in the 5th century BC.  Evidence has been found of him being one of the mysterious Pholarchos which are the figures that give the deck its name. I say mysterious as it is not certain what the word means—this in itself is like a dream, already we are set to travel unknown territory. I like to go with Peter Kingsley’s idea that what is literally a Lord of the Lair (as in animal lair), is one that enters a cave and waits for helpful dreams that can be taken back to the community. This practice developed into the healing dream temples dedicated to Asclepius and the Snakes. These are the traditions of the land I was born in but surely, since we have lived and breathed upon this earth, in every part of her great rich body, we have sought out caves for ritual dreaming. And today our beds are secret healing temples—we have no idea how much dreams do for us each night.  

I had a series of dreams and visions and knew that these had a momentum towards something. We have a lot of direct experience of other realms but translation into this one is often where we fall short and give up. I used to visit Tiber Island in Rome regularly. In the third century BC they built one of the temples there dedicated to Asclepius where people would go to ask the God for healing dreams. While I was standing in what was probably the temenos at the time, near the remains of a statue of Asclepius and the Snake, I had a brief and experiential waking dream of priestesses burning herbs, creating a certain kind of enclosure for patients to feel an ecstatic dimension of their existence beyond the divisions of life and death. This was not a literal vision of the temple at the time but it was certainly something I had to explore further. This was the start of the deck.

I began with the High Priestess, influenced by the vision mentioned above. By her shoulder a sage leaf opens its eye. Another layer denotes this young woman as the Oracle at Delphi receiving prophecy. This figure, the Pythia, was like a complete tarot deck in herself, pronouncing oracles for visitors from the far reaches of what was considered the known world. Imagine, this young woman on a tripod in a cave, inhaling gases from a crack in the Earth beneath her and having visions in a place named after delphus or womb. And all this taking place in a temple dedicated to both Apollo the sun god and Dionysos, god of ecstatic abandon. These two opposites had to share a worship space. It gives us food for thought as to how we wage war in the world and in ourselves—what we like to consider a singular being called ‘me’ is in truth multi-faceted, rich, contradictory and endlessly surprising. The inscription at the entrance reminds us at every entry: “Know thyself”—which intends all of thyself, whatever that may be.

The card leading up to the oracle is the Magician. In this version we are in the same territory of engaging polarities within the Self. With two heads, the overseer of the alchemical operations is male and female both, having found the secret for opposites to unite. A Magician indeed—this is a way through the wars mentioned above, and it starts within. Here the female head is working with the male energy of dragon and sun in her glass/alembic while the male works with the feminine wolf and moon in his container. This is inspired by original alchemical double headed figures such as in the Codex Germanicus Monacensis from 1417.

Following along these lines of internal travels and discovery of the Self, and as a tribute to “know thyself” inscribed at Delphi, the deck continually encourages journeys into unknown territory. Take the 8 of wings that has these words scrawled across it: “Negotiate your rebirth”. The man is blurred with pain but the infinity bird flies unimpeded in his brow. This is not simply positive thinking as the shadow in alchemy is the Prima Materia or muck that can become the gold; this needs careful tending and attention as we discover pockets of obstructed vitality wanting expression. If we plaster over these areas with affirmations without exploring deeper, it is like sticking a band-aid on a volcano and hoping for the best. A card is not a fate to just swallow but a possibility for relationship and collaboration. And the images need to come from the deep if they are to really be transformative. They belong to the Imaginatio Vera as Henry Corbin would call it.

This brings me to lineage and to how the deck draws on certain strands of the Western Mystery Tradition, particularly those connected to the use of the imagination for direct experience. Apologies for the over simplification as a variety of cultures spanning many centuries contributed to the syncretic nature of this tradition and there isn’t time to go into it in any kind of depth. These include greco-egyptian influences from antiquity where the Pholarchos, dream temples, myth, alchemy, astrology are very much alive. Then we have the Corpus Hermeticum, a group of texts assigned to Hermes Trismegistus. It is now thought different writers contributed to these somewhere between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. These are particularly relevant here as they are crucial to medieval and later alchemists. They gain great exposure through the astrologer Marsilio Ficino’s translations from Greek to Latin in 15th century Tuscany, and along with other classical works he translates, they contribute to the flowering of the Renaissance. This is the same century and rough geography as the first recorded tarot cards, making it the same fertile ground. Traveling backwards again within this weave of influences, to 300 AD, we encounter the Neoplatonist Iamblichus of Syria. He worked with the Chaldean Oracles and its Theurgy or God Work. It involves experiential rituals whose specific purpose is to have direct contact with our Divine Nature; and they involve working with the imagination—with image. And this is the crux of the Pholarchos Tarot.

Liz Greene recently wrote a book called: Jung’s Studies in Astrology, Prophecy, Magic and the Qualities of Time. In it she mentions the personal daimon, the soul guide we all come in with, and how this figure is woven into that of the guardian angel in Islamic, Jewish and Christian lore. The various religious traditions have these messengers that assist our unfolding. She says they are: “capable of being theurgically invoked through the organ of the imagination”.

Numerous esoteric practitioners took up such rituals throughout the centuries. Different names, costumes, styles—same essential drive to find the sacred center. Today we tend to think we are inventing all these new ways though generally they are very old ways and we belong to a lineage: Iamblichus, Ibn Ezra, Agrippa, Jung just to name a few. Greene reminds us that: “Theurgic practices provided the basis of most of the medieval and early modern grimoires: the foundation texts of the Western magical tradition.” And more to our point, she specifically mentions paintings in relation to Jung’s Red Book: “the paintings might thus be understood as magical talismans that invoke and serve as gateways, and they are aspects of an ongoing theurgic ritual aimed at integration into, and of, the Self.”

And this leads to the main point, that dreams are our first images. Do dreams and contemplative work with images bring to the fore the dialogue with our daimon and our life’s meaning? It is how the soul brings forth something of the oceanic mysterious substance that is invisible but very real. This is the Imaginatio Vera, not fantasy as we conceive it. Image-ination, the process by which the unconscious makes visible the great underlying currents of existence. Dreams are the purest form of this communication. By responding, by working with image while awake, we can further this exchange consciously. That is why cards can be soul dialogue rather than prediction.

To assist the journey I have switched the Knights in this deck to Trails. They hold a special function as guides or psychopomps to the realm of the Aces or the One. The Trails are liminal figures and as such can take us quite far into other dimensions. Knights must always have missions, they are of service when they go out on their quests, so here the Knights as Trails or Paths serve safe passage on our deep travels—they know how to navigate the territory. In Greek mythology, if you want to go to the Underworld you have to take the boat and pay the fee to Charon. There are several rules of conduct, you can’t just go anywhere by wishing it, nor is it always advised. It is a useful metaphor for inner work, it doesn’t just happen willy-nilly and one would do well to tread carefully in certain regions. Dreams often warn us of areas that are not ready to be opened.

Pholarchos Trails & Aces are in black and white to mark the world of possibilities before  we choose something specific. Let us call it the turning at the Crossroads. The Aces are the potential of a suit before it manifests in specifics and details and story; there is no separation yet, only Oneness. There is a kabbalistic echo in the numbers, with the Ace being the undivided One, simmering with all possible life. We then move in color and complexity up the numbers until we reach the 9 which is the climax of the experience just before slipping into the 10 which is in full color and with a focus on the lucid eyes that are blindfolded at the beginning. The 10 adds consciousness as we become aware of what we are living. We become the meditative observer who sees one’s experience and therefore gains new perspectives on Reality.  

In the deck booklet I use the word hoodwinked rather than blindfolded for the Aces. It is an active word, as if consciousness puts a hood on the querent and winks, plays games. Mercury, who governs this realm in astrology, is quite the trickster. He gets up to all sorts in myth thereby injecting spice and laughter into every episode. We have to be deft mind acrobats if we are to catch him stealing cows and walking them backwards so as not to get into trouble with Apollo. Life does this all the time, as dreams do. Awareness needs to be honed and a sense of humor always comes in handy. What is interesting is that in every culture you have a trickster god, be it Loki, Coyote, Mercury. It’s a vital part of the equation.

I’d like to close on a creative note. I was stuck with coloring the minors as I did not want neat illustrations but something alive that the seeker could step into and experience as life’s movement. I made an experiment as I unleashed my 6 year old into my favorite dream location. I told her she had total freedom to do whatever she wanted with the drawings I’d carefully crafted during endless hours of sketching. The dream location I chose is charged with a heightened beauty that is full of creative scope, a place where she could let loose with color: splash-roll-smear-mess and shake it up! I felt a marked difference as she worked fluidly through my adult body with a conviction that only children have when they are completely taken in by their magic play. I had some cleaning up to do after, not only in the studio but to the images themselves… yet she filled them with a liveness and originality I could not have found without her.

What will we do to cover up our vital force and then what will we do to reclaim it? I’m hoping such a deck of dream healers can inspire those who come across it to walk into the personal caves of limitless potential where dreams and visions lead the way through the labyrinth. The deck is not about my dreams, though there are plenty of those in there—it is about the cultivation of liminal places where the Imaginatio Vera thrives. No matter how often we lose faith, dreaming is always ready to flood us with renewal.   


                                                            Carmen Sorrenti

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