During the the 9th and 10th Centuries in Western Europe and spreading to the Middle East and India was a new craze in domicile construction. The Castle. To be specific a castle is technically the fortified residence of a lord and his family and his retinue. But over the time many people referred to fortifications and ruins as “castles” and the name has stuck. By the time the Rider Smith Waite Tarot deck was designed, most castles were ruins. And their history, myths and legends loomed large over the landscape of the early modern era. Hi, I’m Raleigh and today we will be looking at the symbolism of Castles in the Tarot here on the Bear Oracle.
So imagine you are a European lord in the late 9th century. The once strong centralized government of the Carolingian Empire has collapsed. Saracens are invading from the South. Magyars are invading from the East. Vikings are raiding from North. You have territory to defend, vassals to take care of, and a family to house.
The answer? Build a castle!
Lords, military orders, even some monasteries, got in on the castle building craze that last almost 900 years. They could control towns, trade routes and resources. Castles provide great bases to stage raids on neighboring nobles. Their military usefulness is written in its architecture. But they were also homes. And administrative centers where entire towns grew nearby.
The first castles in Northern Europe were wooded structures. But they like the unfortified palaces of the Carolingian Kings were subject to a terror even more common than warfare.
Here on the Bayeaux Tapestry we can see Norman soldiers attacking the Chateau de Dinan with torches. But kitchen fires and the like were much more often.
So the stonework we see today began to replace those early wood structures. And the familiar outline of the classic castle begins to take shape: curtain walls, arrow slits, portcullises, ditches or moats, and towers.
Each new medieval technology to topple those towers was met with a new technology to make them taller and stronger. Not until the High Renaissance and improved cannon fire did castles lose their military/strategic purpose. But besides being centers of military and civil authority, they also existed as symbols of power.
We see that castles were not always built during times of war nor in zones of warfare. Castles were often built in peaceful areas far from raiding vikings or saracens. But their sheer size, looming over the landscape, must have been an impressive site. Any lord in a castle was speaking in stone: I am impregnable here, don’t even try to challenge me!
As mere homes, castles had proven themselves uncomfortable. But their architectural forms continued to be used. Stately mansions, like those in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley began to morph away from strictly defensive structures into stately palaces. These chateaux retain some of the original architectural embellishments of the original castles.
Castles spread to the Middle East and developed independently in India and in Japan. In each case the basic idea of a fortified home for a lord and his family and retinue is the same even if the forms of the castle are modified to meet the regional designs.
But Time was unkind to the castles themselves. Often perched on inaccessible mountaintops, or too close to arable land, they were left to crumble or were dismantled stone by stone to build the factories of the Industrial Age.
Instead of symbols of real authority they became symbols of Authuriana. Merlin studied here. Lancelot trysted with Guinevere here. Arthur built his Camelot over there? Or was it over there?
In our collective imaginations we see the denizens of the castles feasting in drafty banquet halls draped in tapestries. Troubadours sing of courtly love. Jongleurs toss balls in brightly colored orbits. Venison and boar roast on spits over massive fires. Inside the high crenelated walls lay miniature towns with stores, gardens, chapels, chambers.
Children build sand castles and read stories of knights on noble quests. It here in the heart of the castle our innermost selves can live out its imagination. Does a princess languish or a prince plot revenge? Is there a dragon protecting a hoard of glittering treasure? Or does a sorcerer draw glowing sigils to summon spirits for arcane knowledge?
Hidden passages hide spell-bound maidens. Invisible hosts serve the Holy Grail. Negotiating these mysterious corridors is to navigate one’s own psyche. Castles are the places of dreams, of desires.
Notice how the charioteer has left the castle in order to achieve his goals? The portcullis was raised, the drawbridge lowered, it was time to seek victory and glory in the outside world. The Chariot asks us: what are you reluctant to leave?
Ace of Wands
Having left the castle in the Chariot, we can turn around to see it is a crumbling ruin. Those old walls of tradition also represent barriers to growth. This influx of new energy and creativity is available to everyone once we let go of outdated ideas. The Ace of Wands asks us: what part of your life is finally off to a good start?
Four of Wands
The romanticism of castles lingers in our collective imaginations. Today they are often rented out for wedding receptions and the like. Here on the Four of Wands the garlands are hung and the party is ready to begin. Castles often make inspiring backdrops for these celebrations: they link us to our ancestors and our traditions and yet also for our hopes for the future. They ask us: what bounty are we grateful fo today?
Six of Cups
If we consider the castle as a metaphor for the psyche, then the real treasure must be treasured memories. We all have recollections of simpler times where we could follow our imaginations to our heart’s delight. Reminiscing can reopen the lid to that treasure chest like here on the Six of Cups where we see a children at play within the walls of a castle safe from the pressures of the so-called real world. Trauma and broken relationships are all a part of our present lives. The Six of Cups reminds us that the past can be a place of deep healing too.
Eight of Swords
If the charioteer left the castle to see fame and fortune then the poor woman on the Eight of Swords needs to return to its safety. Castles were places of sanctuary. Hospitality was a great virtue to lords in their halls, providing shelter to weary travelers beset by adventure and weary from the their trials. If only she could sense the swords around her could cut loose her binds! She could lift off the blindfolds and see that succor is close at hand! The Eight of Swords asks: How can you open yourself up to new ideas?
King of Pentacles
All of the court cards, many kings and queens sit on their thrones but only this King is near his castle. His eyes care closed in contentment. His prudence and hard work have built his castle and now he can enjoy the garden that grows outside. He has moved beyond worries of material success. He asks us if we ourselves are enjoying our lives to their fullest?