Of Stories and Symbols


The following is an extract from a book I am writing about the journey of the Fool through the Major Arcana in the Tarot.

The chapter it comes from is called ‘of Stories and Symbols’ …………

The Fool sat down. There was no doing otherwise.

 ‘You think stories are only for children?’ The stranger said. ‘No, not at all. Stories are powerful things. They can change the world.

Now, cast your mind if you will, to way back when. Long before the dawn of civilisation had even been imagined. Now, can you imagine what it was like? The wildness of it all, how very different it was.’

The Fool nodded though he hadn’t a clue about way back when. He’d never been there and didn’t know where it was. He hadn’t even known there was a time before the dawn of civilisation and he thought it must have been very dark indeed.

‘Well’ said the stranger, ‘The story I’m going to tell you goes back even further than that, to a time when people weren’t like they are now. They did look much the same as you and I, or at least they would have done if they’d been given a scrub and a haircut. They used their minds and their brains in a different way though, but whether this was for the better or for the worse is not for me to say.

It wasn’t that they weren’t intelligent because they were and it wasn’t that they didn’t think, because they did.

But it was a different type of cleverness that they had, a different kind of thinking and a different way of being in the world that we can’t even begin to imagine.

Nor could they have imagined the way that we are now, because their imagination hadn’t developed yet, at least not in the way that we perceive it now.

Those people back then, they had no stories. They had no words or pictures or books. They didn’t think of abstract things, like time or the meaning of life. They may have had other, more ancient types of wisdom, they might have known stuff that we can’t even begin to dream of, not even in our wildest of dreams, but that wisdom is mostly lost to us now, or at least it is for the time being.

These people dealt with actual things, with wind and rain, and sun and drought, though I guess they had feelings just the same as we do. They lived in the world and were part of the world. They gathered and hunted and lived a day to day kind of living. Not for them the paranoid musings of the modern mind.

But then something happened and the planet got warmer. Trees disappeared and the land became exposed and dangerous.

I dare say you already know that living things have to adapt to survive and so these people adapted to protect themselves. They began to live and hunt in larger groups and they began to use weapons and tools. And one day they discovered how to control fire.

Imagine that. Imagine the difference it would make to have fire for protection and warmth. It meant that now they were able to cook and preserve meat. Imagine it.’

The Fool realised that in the short time he’d been sitting there the daylight had completely gone. He thought this was strange, but stranger still was the fire that suddenly seemed to have appeared from nowhere and was crackling away merrily in front of him. He looked at the stranger with his mouth open. How did that happen? The stranger must have made it appear.

The stranger ignored him and carried on. ‘Imagine these groups of people becoming larger still and more sociable as they gathered round the fire for warmth and safety.’

The Fool stared into the fire and imagined.

‘But all these differences made their lives more complicated. There came a point when their minds and their brains could no longer cope. If they were to survive then their brains would need to evolve and so they did.

Their brains didn’t get bigger but they developed millions more connections between the cells, connecting parts of the brain that hadn’t been able to communicate until then. Now this was a big deal indeed because what it meant was they could now make connections between unconnected things in the outside world as well. You see it always follows that whatever happens on the inside will always happen on the outside too.

Now they began to draw because they could see that a mark on a wall could mean something else and so now they could leave symbols or messages if you like, to communicate and preserve information for later. It was a new way to remember things that they would otherwise have forgotten.

In time they began to speak too. Just think of the difference that would have made. Imagine how much information the brain could file away now under the label of a single word.

Just think of the word ‘water.’

As he said the word a stream of images entered the Fools mind, one after the other.

He thought of a mountain lake, a wishing well, a drink to quench his thirst on a hot summers day and droplets of rain on a windowpane. All these things and more came to his mind when he thought of the word ‘water’.

‘You see’ declared the stranger. ‘I said the word and you had the thoughts. I influenced your mind. You see how powerful one word can be? Think about how much more power there is in a whole story of words?

Imagine these ancient people gathered round the fire telling their stories. Think of it. They have become like us. They have developed the ability to imagine.

The fire was their sanctuary. It was their warmth, their comfort, their protection and their inspiration. It was a place to sit and eat and be together. Stories became part of their life. Stories were their entertainment and their connection to each other.

Those who told the best stories were revered. They became the shamans, the wise ones.

Picture it now, you’re gathered round the fire with the people you’ve lived with all your life. The flames are flickering and crackling, the fire is banishing the darkness and warming your bones. You can smell food cooking. You know there’s creatures out there who’d do you harm, you can even hear their howls, but right now you’re safe, you’re listening to a tale of the hunt and you’re watching the shadows dancing all around you.

The Fool stared into the fire, he thought he heard a howling from somewhere amongst the trees.

The stranger continued ‘Story telling became a way to pass knowledge down the generations. The stories grew longer and carried more weight. Those who carried the stories carried the power.

Now, for the first time, these people could imagine a future and so they began to make plans. They could hunt in bigger groups because they could tell each other what to do and where to go.

They began to plant because they could imagine how a seed would grow and provide the next seasons food.

All these developments gave them the upper hand and soon they had no real predators. They could dominate other creatures for their own ends, capturing, enslaving and consuming.

There were those who used the power of speech to manipulate others. Words are a type of magic you see. People who master the use of words can master the minds of others.

In time they began bartering, exchanging this for that and then they invented money, one of the greatest symbols there’s ever been, or, depending on your point of view, the root of all evil, as it’s often been called.

Think of a crown and all it represents, authority, royalty and power. Place it on a mans head and he becomes a king. He’s somehow bigger in your eyes now isn’t he? He’s become more important and all because of a piece of jewel-encrusted headwear. But has he really changed? Has he really?

And symbols are everywhere. Hearts, roses, flags, moons, stars, numbers, colours and shapes. The meanings of some are secret and known only to a few. Others are recognised by us all because somewhere deep inside us are memories that go all the way back through the ages of man, to those ancient times around the fire when we listened to the very first tales of the hunt. So now do you see? Is it becoming clear to you now?’

The stranger looked at the Fool, he was fast asleep and beginning to snore.

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