An Insight into The Chariot, from Sufi Lore
(a guest blog for Tarot Dame)
There has been age-old speculation that the Tarot was handed down by wandering Middle Eastern mystics and alchemists. The speculation is well-founded, in that the imagery of Sufi lore is reflected in Tarot iconography. For thousands of years, Sufi masters have used dervish folktales as tools to unlock insights in would-be illuminates. Like the cards of the Tarot, esoteric dervish parables shine light upon hidden trends in the events of life, revealing the significance of seemingly unimportant details. The allegorical stories are meant to constructively affect the inner consciousness of the seeker, develop higher mental functions, raise awareness, and ultimately foster self realization.
One particular fragment of Sufi wisdom offers insights into the psychological meaning of The Chariot card. The fragment was recorded by scholar Idries Shah from the notebook of a Persian dervish. The fragment invites us to picture a charioteer, seated in a vehicle, propelled by a horse, and guided by himself. These three symbolic forces must work in tandem to attain their goal:
"Intellect is the 'vehicle,' the outward form within which we state where we think we are and what we have to do. The vehicle enables the horse and man to operate. This is what we call tashkil, outward shape or formulation. The horse, which is motive power, is the energy which is called ‘a state of emotion’ or other force. This is needed to propel the chariot. The man, in our illustration, is that which perceives, in a manner superior to the others, the purpose and possibilities of the situation, and who makes it possible for the chariot to move towards and to gain its objective."
The fragment notes that any one of the forces may be able to fulfill a function, "but the combined function which we call the movement of the chariot cannot take place unless all three are connected in the Right Way. Only the ‘man,’ the real Self, knows the relationship of the three elements, and their need of one another. Among the Sufis, the Great Work is the knowledge of combining the three elements. Too many men, too unsuitable a horse, too light or too heavy a chariot—and the result will not take place.”
The reference to the "Right Way” will be familiar to anyone versed in Taoist philosophy, just as the "Great Work” echoes the symbolism of Alchemy. Naturally, we also find parallels to Sufi wisdom in the metaphysical literature of Gnostic Christianity, Hasidic mysticism, Vedantic Hinduism, and indeed all of the Mystery schools.
In Tarot for Your Self, Mary K. Greer explores John Blakeley’s attempt to trace a Sufi origin of the Tarot. Parables of the Spanish Muslim mystic Ibn Al-‘Arabī are compared to imagery of the Marseilles Tarot in Islamic Sainthood in the Fullness of Time: Ibn Al-‘Arabī’s Book of the Fabulous Gryphon by Gerald Elmore. Any collection of Sufi allegories may indirectly yield insights on the meanings of Tarot cards. The fragment about The Chariot is featured in Tales of the Dervishes by Idries Shah.