Tarot Cards


One of the fragments of the ‘Burial of the Dead’ details a meeting with Madame Sosostris, a Tarot Card reader, who reads the fortune of the persona that happens to be speaking at that point of the poem. We would expect this to be significant for a number of reasons:


Firstly, the motif of a prophet or visionary echoes throughout the poem, most notably in the allusions to the Sibyl and Tiresias and indeed there is a strong reason to believe that Eliot partly sees himself in this role as he seems to feel that he is one of the few who can see and understand the corrupt and desolate state of the world around him while most of us remain oblivious to it.


Secondly, once we have recognised that the world we are living in is a Waste Land, we want to know whether we will be able to make it better and a fortune teller would be in an ideal position to let us know if we will succeed. Unfortunately Madame Sosostris is unable to give us a clear answer. However, this is perhaps fitting as Eliot himself seems unsure, at least in this first part of the poem, whether or not we will successfully be able to undergo the arduous process of spiritual, emotional and cultural rejuvenation required to regenerate the Waste Land.


There are a number of partially unconvincing analyses of the character of Madame Sosostris that focus on the first three letters of her name (S.O.S.) or that it is possibly a parody of Betrand Russell, one of the most brilliant philosophers and mathematicians of the 20’s and one who had an affair with Eliot’s wife Vivienne (Mrs. Equitone?).


Most of these I would ignore, however there is a character called Madame Sesostris in a novel called ‘Crome Yelllow’ written by Aldous Huxley in 1921 and this is an allusion that does seem to provide at least some interesting grounds for analysis. Madame Sesostris was also a fortune teller but in Huxley’s novel she was a fraud, a man pretending to be a fortune teller in a village fair. I feel that the idea of a fraudulent fortune teller works well on at least two levels, firstly as a simple reflection of the corrupt times that we live in (as Eliot himself writes a little later ‘you have to be so careful these days’) but more significantly it may suggest that we have still not managed to properly open our eyes to the state of the world around us. We are still misled by false prophets and, if we continue to follow them, then we definitely will not be able to make it out of the Wasteland. In this case Madame Sosostris would contrast with the more reliable prophet Tiresias that we meet later in the poem and who perhaps has a clearer understanding of the state of the world we are living in. This could explain the unreliability implied by she ‘had a bad cold’ and the fact that this seems to undermine the claim that she was known to be ‘the wisest woman in Europe.’ In this case, perhaps it is the ‘she was known’ that is key here. Maybe Eliot is attempting to point out that the people we all think are wise are, in fact, have no better insight into what really matters than we do.


Regardless of all this, the most interesting thing in this section is the cards that Eliot uses in the reading. Some are real and some are invented but analysis of the symbolic role of these cards does seem to carry a message. This message remains unclearly buried amidst the cards and misleading hints and this is perhaps reflective once more of how we have not yet clearly perceived the Waste Land or how we will have to work hard to find our way out of the Wasteland in the same way that we will have to work to decipher the message hidden in the cards.



The Drowned Phoenician Sailor

This is not a card from the traditional tarot deck but here it certainly seems to be foreshadowing Phlebas the Phoenician who dies in ‘Death by Water’ later on in the poem … however we must remember the thirst-quenching, revitalising and regenerative connotations that water has in the Wasteland and so perhaps this ‘death’ is not such a bad thing after all. Indeed, given that water also suggests baptism, purification and rebirth and that the general mood and tone of ‘Death by Water’ is of a calm transformation and letting go of worldly and material cares then we might in fact view this drowned sailor as Eliot’s ultimate goal for us: a spiritual form of purification through which we learn to let go of our material obsessions, our lusts and our vices in order to make our way out of the Wasteland.


Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks


This is another invented card, however it is thought that Eliot might have been referring to Da Vinci’s painting ‘Our Lady of the Rocks’ a copy of which hangs in the Louvre with a further copy hanging in the National Gallery. The authenticity of the second painting is disputed but both show the same scene, that of a meeting between Jesus and John the Baptist. In Christian mytho-theology John the Baptist, 6 months older than Jesus, is seen as the immediate forerunner of Christ, a messenger sent by God to prepare the way for the messiah. Thus this would then continue the theme of prophecy that runs through the text but Baptism is also obviously significant in itself as the Baptist metaphor of using water to wash away sins so that people can be ‘born again’ is a clear echo of the kind of spiritual, moral and cultural revitalisation and rebirth that Eliot envisages as necessary to purify and regenerate the Waste Land.

The man with three staves


This card has at least two different readings: the first is that of exploring the unknown, undertaking a journey or going in quest of new adventure where you leave behind security and tackle something different. This has obvious echoes of the spiritual journey that Eliot wants us to undertake as we leave behind the comforting warmth of the forgetful snow that he mentions in the first stanza of Burial of the Dead.


The second reading is related to foresight and leadership. The man stands perched atop a cliff looking out into the distance. Perhaps this echoes Eliot’s sense that he is a visionary who has a clear view of the world around us and is capable of leading us towards the same realisation that he has had.

The Wheel


The wheel might firstly suggest the cyclicality that recurs as a motif throughout the Wasteland: the cycles between the seasons, between rain and drought and between a better past and the degraded present. More importantly, the wheel also suggests a turning point. Perhaps Eliot is trying to indicate that we also are at turning point; that we may be at a position where we can begin to make it out of the Wasteland.

The One Eyed Merchant and the Blank Card

These are both invented cards. However, it is possible that the merchant’s inability to see fully reflects our own blindness to the Waste Land around us, an idea further emphasised by the blank card that is on his back. Perhaps also Eliot is suggesting the imperfection of Madame Sosostris as a fortune teller or guide. If you compare her lines and her placement in the poem to Tiresias she certainly lacks the tone of confidence, certainty and clarity that he commands.



The Hanged Man


Despite its sinister sounding name this card actually has many positive connotations. As the central figure is hanging upside down this perhaps reflects the idea of a seeing things from a new angle or perspective or perhaps overturning old priorities. One story behind the card tells of how the character lost all of the coins from his pockets whilst hanging upside down but, because of his new perspective on the world, he viewed the coins as no more than shiny discs and was content to let them fall. As such the card may also be a metaphor for letting go of our material possessions and seeing money for what it really is. Ironically, while hanging upside the main character is unable to act and this perhaps also reflects the position that Eliot finds himself in: although he can see clearly the extent of the desolation evident in the Waste Land around him, is unable to do anything about it. The card is also sometimes read as requiring a sacrifice for a higher cause which again perhaps hints at the trying spiritual and emotional journey that Eliot believes we need to undertake if we are to regenerate the Waste Land.