We go through phases of favourite cards, but there is always one that anchors us to the tarot; the card we identify with, the card whose various facets – whether upright or reversed – speak to us on any given day at any given time. There is something about the Moon card in the tarot which never fails to pulls me in, as indeed it should because that is what moons do; pull us in and subject us to tides, to cycles and rhythms. And it is nothing to do with my zodiac sign. Moons captivate (in a way that Temperance never can) and have done throughout history. So for all the talk of lunacy, there is some comfort in life to be found in the rhythms and cycles. Then there is the crayfish. What exactly is it doing there, between watch towers, between howling dogs? I’ve heard all the explanations – hard outside, soft ego inside – but still something is found wanting. I also remember reading years ago about how the crayfish moves between land and water – as we ourselves shift between states of consciousness. Then today, quite unexpectedly, I came across the above painting, An Allegory of Inconstancy (1617) by the Flemish artist Abraham Janssens, which gave me a tarot flash across the centuries. How strange to see the figure holding a moon in one hand, a crayfish in the other. How very tarot. So the crayfish must, by extension, be a symbol of fickleness and whim. It makes sense. In César Rippa’s description of inconstancy in Iconologia, he refers to the crab (not crayfish) as “an animal that walks forwards and backwards with the same inclination as those who are irresolute and love contemplation.” So do Crayfish walk backwards like crabs?
All this made me reflect on how I have seen card meanings and symbology change over the last few decades. I think of meanings I used to see in books in the 1970s, (like “false friends” for the Moon), meanings you don’t hear mentioned much nowadays. Plus the moon itself has been hijacked somewhat as a feminine force in contemporary tarot decks and I see it drifting increasingly, permanently in that direction. The fact that the figure in this allegorical painting is female is probably an extension of the age-old stereotype that women are fickle and inconstant and therefore not to be trusted with important things like politics and landowning. So maybe we should question the moon’s traditionally feminine qualities. There might be a little bit of misogyny in there somewhere. We should also remember that in some cultures, the sun is in fact feminine and the moon is masculine. In the Aryan of India, in Ancient Egyptian, Arabian, Slavonian, Latin, Lithuanian, Gothic, Teutonic, Swedish and the South American cultures, the moon was a male deity. In the English language, influenced by classical models, the moon has become more feminine so we have come to accept this as one of its chief symbolic characteristics. But it wasn’t always like this. In a Serbian song we hear a girl exclaim “O brilliant sun! I am fairer than thou, than thy brother, the bright moon” In a Slav song, we hear “‘My mother is the beauteous Sun, and my father the bright Moon.” But the moon has become associated with femininity in more modern times (and decks) perhaps because of its 28 day cycles. Whatever the reason, this painting by Abraham Janssens made me stop in my tracks and reflect a little more on the symbolism of the Moon card, how almost every Moon card from the historic decks, up to and including the Rider Waite Smith deck, has a crayfish prominantly displayed. The Vacchetta (an exception) doesn’t and has the Sun as Apollo and the Moon as Diana. The Cosmic crayfish (see below, together with The 1jj Swiss on the right and the Lasenikův on the left) is one of my favourites – the crayfish to end all crayfish. Never has a more Jurassic crayfish risen to the Moon’s spellbinding charms.
But the crayfish in the Janssens’ painting is intriguing – who is this figure sitting on billowing “inconstant” drapery (that holds no shape) and how does holding the moon in one hand and a crayfish in the other denote inconstancy? The word for crayfish in Latin is the same as crab (apparently) which links it to the moon in the zodiac. But then The Moon is linked to Pisces. I have also read that etymology links it to the scarab beetle. The word may well have the same root. I didn’t think that crayfish shed their outer casing, but certain sources say they do so they are also (invariably) a symbol of renewal. However, there is a danger of being led in more and more different directions and understanding the image less and less.
The fact is, the Moon card is perhaps the most mysterious in the tarot deck. For me it has always had connotations of weirdness and the crayfish only adds to it (especially when on a dinner plate such as in the Ancient Italian/1880 Serravalle Sesia Tarot and Soprafino decks – see image above). I rather like the meanings that nobody gives it anymore – lunacy, deceit, illusions and, of course, false friends, none of which are probably inferred by the crayfish. We have now tamed it to mean anything to do with the unconscious. But it seems in most cases to be the “safe”, gentle unconscious, not the unconscious of compulsion and derangement and murder. New ageness wants it to mean intuition, not dangerous urges. When I first started buying tarot cards, this was the card that summed up everything mysterious about tarot cards. In the Soprafino decks it has – for me – the perfect amount of twilight eeriness. Something wrong. For me, that’s what a good moon card should have. Something is wrong in the half light. The Lasenikův is more explicitly spookier but then the whole deck is. The 1jj Swiss Moon card is another peculiar one; the man serenading (must be lunacy – why else would you possibly love?) but then there is the peculiar composition. Why is the crayfish set apart in a different picture plane? There is no water in this image, no towers, so why the need of a crayish? It isn’t moving between water and land. It is framed like something on the wall of a collector’s cabinet. It must be the inconstancy theme again. The inconstancy of the lover.
Looking at Janssens’ allegorical painting, I wonder why it wasn’t used in Kat Black’s Touchstone Tarot since it is from the same period as most of the other images as well as having all the required symbolism and being consistent with the overall atmosphere. I love the Moon card so much that it is rare for me to find a Moon card which I get nothing from. There is so much in it that speaks to me, so many layers that some of its symbolism will always be covered. It is the card with which I never draw a blank during readings. And yet, the Moon card in the Lenormand deck always leaves me a little stumped in comparison. I have to repress my tarot meaning for it. I have to force myself to think differently about it; it is reputation, it is work (why?) But in the tarot it is all the magic and strangeness and danger I desire in a deck compressed into one single image. I feel comforted when this card comes up in readings. A brief, illuminating flash of all that inner self to explore. It can be a prism for weirdness, shorthand for urges, compulsions, things we know are wrong but do them anyway; anarchy, irrationality. Surely there is still space in our overworked, regimented, hurried lives for just a little of this?