Rites of Passage and Celebration: The Four of Wands, the Three of Cups, and the Six of Wands in the Tarot
My last few posts were a bit bleak, depending on your perspective. Liminality, death, rebirth, lack, the nigredo — these are not topics suggestive of levity and, I admit, they reflect a current mood. While contemplating the Provisional Life — something that I’ve been seized of lately — it’s hard to stay focused on the things we take for granted: namely, life’s little victories.
Not all Tarot cards portend to weighty matters. After all, certain cards signify good news: a pregnancy, marriages, a new job, small windfalls, or the celebration of all these things. Happier passages require just as much exploration as their shadow counterparts. Life is characterized as much by ups as by downs, though the former rarely inspire the same amount of soul-searching.
In considering three cards — the Four of Wands, the Three of Cups, and the Six of Wands — I’ll examine the role of celebration in our lives: what these moments say about us within the nexus of society and why we can’t ignore them as important psychic experiences.
According to etymonline, “celebration” comes from the Latin celebratus, meaning “much-frequented; kept solemn; famous.” The past participle can also mean “assembling to honour,” “sing praises of,” or “practice often.” In these definitions are connotations of public performance, gathering in great numbers, and demonstrations of joy (though it’s worthwhile noting the positive valence ascribed to “celebration” occurred around the mid-sixteenth century as celebrations had previously been “demonstrations of sorrow or regret”).
Accordingly, I think we can all agree that celebrations are very much tied to assemblies, practices, and performances of certain rites, even outside of a religious context. Birthdays are often accompanied by cakes, marriages with ceremonies and elaborate dinners, imminent births with a gathering of celebrants offering gifts and wisdom to the expectant parent(s). In all these instances, individuals are feted for their achievements — whether a new life phase or attainment of a specific goal.
I noticed a lot of pop psychology written about the need to celebrate the “little things.” In doing so, we are better able to cultivate an “attitude of gratitude,” enhance resilience, and offer respite from the stresses of day-to-day living. In none of these articles, however, did the authors get at the reason why we are moved to celebrate certain events over others: for instance, why do we privilege a promotion over the simple act of going into work day after day?
Therein lies the first distinction of celebrations: their extraordinary character. Celebrations elevate an event out of the banality of existence, giving the circumstance being feted greater import within the narrative of our lives. These events standout against the backdrop of ordinary living and possess a quality of being momentous — perhaps even taking on mythic proportions. “Tell us how you landed that job,” someone might ask us over the dinner table, inviting us to recount the heroic quest where we slayed the HR dragon and won the prized position. In short, the thing being celebrated is somehow special and distinct from the monochromatic palette of our lives and often fits within a narrative: how we met our soon-to-be spouse, how we won an award, or what we hope to name a baby.
According to Deborah L. Smith-Shank, “festivity and celebration are important to both individuals and communities… [providing] relief from the day-to-day activities of human life and are welcome events of fun, reward, hope and order.” Citing the argument that humans are “social creatures,” she argues that being with others fundamentally boosts mood and foster feelings of belonging. While this may reinforce my initial observation about the extraordinary character of celebrations, it fails to provide insight into the psychic effects of celebration beyond the feeling of belonging that we all inherently seek. Given the proportion of attention that we devote to certain life events, there must be a deeper meaning beyond wanting to build community, which, invariably, is one of the by-products of celebrations.
Another body of literature around celebrations is more anthropological, focusing on rites of passage and initiation. These events are distinct for the celebrant, ushering in changes of life stage and creating a division between the individual that came before and the individual that they are now. We may be most familiar with these types of celebrations because they are often embedded within a cultural or religious context. Sometimes these celebrations can have a biological and psychic connection as well, and can be tied to an age of maturity and a stripping away of a previous, unformed, or childhood identity, now supplanted by a new psychic state, governed by chronological time and ideas about the wisdom inherent in the shifting stages of life.
Although dated, Mircea Eliade writes that, “in philosophical terms, [rites of] initiation is equivalent to a basic change in existential condition; the novice emerges from his ordeal endowed with a totally different being from that which he possessed before his initiation; he has become another” (Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation, x). We see this taking place more within the realm of cultural, social, and religious celebrations that demarcate life phases: communion, bar and bat mitzvah, quinceañera, marriage, and so forth. Further, “Initiation introduces the candidate into the human community and into the world of spiritual and cultural values. He learns not only the behavior patterns, the techniques, and the institutions of adults but also the sacred myths and traditions of the tribe, the names of the gods and the history of their works; above all, he learns the mystical relations between the tribe and the Supernatural Beings as those relations were established at the beginning of Time.”
In C. G. Jung’s collected writings on the symbolic life, he writes about the function of ceremonies in detaching people from their “preceding stage of existence” (365). Ceremonies help people “transfer [their] psychic energy into the next phase.” This strikes me as the more central purpose inherent in celebrations: as both Eliade and Jung suggest, there is a distinct crossing of a threshold of understanding and existence, and a shift towards a new phase on our individual’s journey within the collective.
While celebrations within the context of social and cultural structures have a very distinct purpose, in all instances we can agree that there is both an integration and an unfolding of the individual within the mythology of existence. Ceremonies are both thresholds that impel the individual from a liminal period to a new, meaningful state, and punctuation marks on our solar journey — “See, the conquering hero comes,” for instance.
All this may be a bit much for a Tarot pull; after all, isn’t the Three of Cups a simple portend to an engagement, marriage, or birth? Isn’t the Four of Wands a sign that the fruits of our labours will end in success? Unquestionably, but to go deeper with the meanings, we may want to probe that which is being celebrated and how it fits into our life’s narrative. The Six of Wands, for instance, can signal something about the very public ways in which our successes might be recognized, but it also transmits something about the hero’s journey: it may hint at the obstacles we might have had to clear from our path or how far we’ve come in our personal development. In short, these three cards, while seemingly simplistic in their meanings, offer us a gateway to exploring that which we have occasion to celebrate and what these moments of honour signify within our own personal journeys.