Tarot, Alchemy, and Modern-Day Science

The chorus of “The Tower” is an enumeration of different cards of the Major Arcana, the part of a tarot deck which contains twenty-two pictorial cards representing general ideas. The verses, however, are full of imagery which can be interpreted differently when using different schools of thought or religions. I claim that they should be seen in the context of alchemy. I will offer my interpretation and view in the following, but, considering that this song is based on tarot, I must stick to the rules of the “introspective” tarot (I will come to this in a second): these are my interpretations and my views. In short, this is what I make of the song and how I see it. I think that “The Tower” contrasts modern-day science with alchemical mysticism – both representing schools to acquire knowledge and how to use it. You may come to a different interpretation. This song is practically a tarot reading in itself.

A Basic Introduction to Tarot

To get any closer to “The Tower”, one must know tarot imagery and how to deal with it. For example, no matter what you see in movies, “Death” does not refer to death; “the Lovers” do not always refer to actual lovers; “the Hanged Man” is not a case for the gallows.

Tarot can be used twofold. The first method is divination, also known as cartomancy. This is most likely how you know it. A clairvoyant telling you your future by repeating universal and unchanging interpretations of each card. What I called “introspective” understanding of tarot uses the decks for a view into the own subconscious by monitoring the own reaction towards the tarot cards. This means that every person has to lay tarot cards for him- or herself. Instead of some cosmic insight into the future all you see are your own expectations towards the future that lurk into the murky realms of your mind. The one big difference is that in the first case scenario, the cards are supposed to hold spiritual and magical powers. I have found the suggestion to keep them enveloped in black or purple silk to preserve their power. In the second case scenario the cards are coloured bits of paper. The important aspect about them is the encoded symbolism, but, the main act is your reaction towards them. The main act is you.

I compare this essay to the “introspective” tarot because all I note down here are my views of the symbolism and archetypes found in the song.

“The Tower” and all other persons as well as objects listed in the refrain are cards of the Major Arcana. The Major Arcana consists of twenty-two cards representing and depicting archetypes, general ideas. They are numbered through and in some decks, such as the Wiccan tarot deck designed by Paul Mason, they tell a story. I will refer here, for the sake of simplicity and because of its popularity, to the Rider-Waite tarot deck, although it is not the deck that was used for the accompanying video clip.

The Minor Arcana pretty much resembles the playing cards you will know. It consist of four colours (wands, pentacles, cups and swords) which are numbered through and feature four court cards. We do not need to pay any more attention to this.

The Imagery of the Verses

I would say that we start out with astrology,  the twelve signs. The mentioning of a trinity however, can hint at different schools of thought or religions. First of all there is of course Christianity and the Holy Trinity of God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. But, at least to my mind come also the three manifestations of the Goddess in Wicca: the virgin (spring), the mother (summer) and the old woman (autumn). But, we have two more indicators as to where to look: a “fountain” and the “stone of infinity”. We are looking for alchemy. I would suggest the Rosarium philosophorum (1550).

This book contains several woodcuts depicting an alchemical process, and, I think I do not spoiler here when I say that many of them depict a king and a queen naked together (which is, indeed, the one and real chemical wedding, I will come to this at a later point in this project). We are now interested in a fountain with three streams. These three streams represent the female aspect of the soul, the male aspect of the soul (which have to be married later on) and the water of life. Together they form the “inner Mercury” (the metal, not the planet). (cf. http://www.levity.com/alchemy/roscom.html) So, there is a “fountain” containing a trinity: three streams which correspond to three liquids and three aspects of the soul. I think we can live with that.

The stone connotated with alchemy is, however, the Philosopher’s Stone. The Rosarium philosophorum refers to a white stone and a red stone. The call for infinity hints at an even higher goal, which is most likely not a stone in the literary sense.

So what is it that the alchemists are looking for? Purification. Be it the purification of metal to obtain gold, which might be a rather earthly goal, or, the purification of the soul (the last wooden depiction of the Rosarium philosophorum shows Christ – as I said, I will talk about this in more detail in the future). Let us say, that, in sum, the goal is purification. Or “to look for his own free will”. As I assume for reasons mentioned in my introduction that this line is most likely linked to Aleister Crowley’s Thelema, this should refer to its basic principle “Do What Thou Wilt”. “Do What Thou Wilt” means that the thelemist is looking for his “True Will” which is in accordance with the general universe. It is his predestined way. “Do What Thou Wilt” is not the licence to do what one pleases. I would definitely let this count as another form of “purification”. But what does the modern, nowadays version of alchemy, the natural sciences, look for?

Alchemy versus Modern-Day Sciences

Modern-day sciences lack the mysticism and religious context of alchemy. I argue that the song refers to the atomic bomb. Mars is here most likely the Roman God of War and not the planet. Modern sciences break elements on an atomic level, extinguish the sun, thus killing many and starting a war. That is why I say that these lines might refer to the atomic bomb. As I said, you are free to come up with something entirely different.

This new version of science, modern-day science, does not seek purification, lest alone an improvement of the soul. It gives birth to death and war. Which ends in disregard of religious faith. The religion here, according to my reading, must be alchemy. The new adept searches for blood-shedding instead of purification. Seaking his true will is not in accordance with the universe anymore. “Do what thou wilt” is reduced to the simple wish to do what one pleases without considering consequences. Like starting an atomic war.

The Tarot Cards in the Chorus

The “fool” is the first card of the Major Arcana, so it is time to go back to tarot. If I interpret the refrain by using the tarot meanings, I arrive at something like this:

A decision has been taken (lovers) which leads to a destructive renewal (tower). The subconscious, magic (moon) and self-awareness, self-reliance (sun) do not work together anymore. A complete reformation takes place; old ways are left for now ones (hanged man). Playfulness and naiveté (fool) take over. Reason (magician) wins over intuition (priestess). I come to this last sentence as the former laughs and the latter kneels. The “priestess” is not in a powerful position.

This is probably nothing but a self-fulfilling prophecy, meaning that I find what I want to find, as this short narrative seems to tell the same story over again: modern day science has been restructured and it was decided to separate it from mysticism and the aspect of soul development. Self-awareness is now free of any control it might have been given by the unconscious. Reason thus triumphs over intuition and feelings, allowing naiveté to take its decisions.

The Destructive Change / The Tower

When reason triumphs over intuition and naiveté takes the rudder, the true will is indeed the true will only. The stone that is sought here is related to the flood – the flood killing all life on earth except of Noah and his family. This stone is gained by deaths. Multiple deaths. The removal of mysticism leads to a lack of moral conscience. Reason does not offer moral advise; it is not too vulnerable to qualms. That would ask for the emotional side and the emotional side is vanquished.  The destructive change, the tower, is the change from the all-encompassing alchemy to modern-day sciences. The fact that this statement is actually told by symbols which are not part of any common scientific canon gives it all the more impact: the “old arts” may still hold valuable messages for us.

Trivia: the Video Clip

The video clip of “The Tower” actually pokes fun at the prejudices against tarot. A young girl flees in panic after she was shown the “Death” card. The clairvoyant then casts a reproachful glance at the culprit. Obviously, since he had had the card in his hand, the clairvoyant had removed it from the deck first as not to scare her customers – two lovers in a tower (yes, two actual lovers in an actual tower, just like in the chorus). This precaution of the clairvoyant of removing somewhat “difficult” cards from the deck as not to scare her customers is of course highly ironical.

Dickinson presents himself hanging upside down, suspended by one leg, the other crossed behind his knee and the arms tied firmly behind his back – the Hanged Man.


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