The original edition of the Xultun Tarot and its companion book The Maya Book of Life: Understanding the Xultun Tarot by Michael Owen are available from Kahurangi Press at www.xultun.com
The Xultun Tarot was created by New Zealander Peter Balin in 1976. It is also known as the Maya Tarot or the Maya Book of Life. It consists of twenty-two cards of the major arcana plus two cards representing the masculine and the feminine principles and fifty-six cards of the minor arcana (Cups, Jades, Staffs and Swords). The Maya “x” is pronounced “sh” so Xultun is pronounced “shool-tun.”
Where did the tarot come from?
The Maya Book of Life: Understanding the Xultun Tarot challenges the Western-centric notion that archetype of the tarot belongs solely to one geographical place and one historical period.
Tarot cards first appeared in Renaissance Italy in the 14th century. With the late 19th century esotericism of the Order of the Golden Dawn, for example, the cards and their interpretations tended to become more and more arcane as with the Rider-Waite or Crowley decks. Early European decks, such as the Marseilles Tarot, give us a clearer view. Unlike many later tarot they are not burdened with self-conscious symbolism nor do they attempt to make the cards conform to a particular metaphysical or psychological theory. In the last twenty or thirty years there has been an explosion of New Age tarot decks. Unfortunately, most of these have little or no connection to the underlying archetypal structure of the tarot and are often a collection of pictures that solely reflect the author’s conscious intent.
Western culture emerged from the last physical Ice Age over 10,000 years ago but in the last 2,000 years it has succumbed to a spiritual Ice Age. The tarot first appeared in Europe when it was being ground under the glacier of Christianity and had been almost completely severed from its indigenous and instinctual roots by 5,000 years of “progress” and “civilisation.” We shall see the significance of this historical time period and the year 2012 in the Planet Earth card. When spirit and nature become estranged in a rational culture, as had occurred in medieval Europe, the result is that divination and other non-rational pursuits have to live in the shadows. At the same time they become increasingly needed, not to foretell the future but to bring about balance between spirit and nature, this world and the other world, head and heart.
Carl Jung said, “The ideal of spirituality striving for the heights was doomed to clash with the materialistic earth-bound passion to conquer matter and master the world. This change became visible at the time of the Renaissance.” It was a time when scholars had returned to the only roots they could find that they thought were “civilised” enough and were in the neighbourhood—classical Greek and Roman culture. Their desire was to be reborn into an age of light out of the ignorance and superstition of what they called the “Dark Ages.”
The brilliant but highly specialised consciousness of the Renaissance later became the “Age of Enlightenment” of the 17th and 18th centuries. This philosophical and cultural movement, seen in the writings of John Locke, Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, for example, had an abiding faith in the power of reason to engender progress and enlightenment. However, this enlightenment came at a price. What was of the earth, the feminine and nature fell into the collective shadow. Just as a dream compensates for the one-sidedness of personal consciousness so archetypes compensate for the one-sidedness of cultural consciousness. The tarot emerged from the collective unconscious during the Renaissance as a compensation for the excesses of what was to become “Western” culture.
The tarot is a gift, created not by any individual consciousness or particular culture, but by spirit or, in psychological terms, the collective unconscious. It was not invented but emerged in response to a need for balance and beauty. Not balance between humans but for humans to be able to hold the balance between nature and spirit within themselves. The tarot allows spirit and nature to come into balance through the intercession of humans, a theme we shall return to throughout the book.
When an archetype emerges from the collective unconscious it arises in different places and cultures and historical times. The form of the archetype may be different but the essence is the same. We see the same archetype that underlies the tarot in the Cabala with its 22 Sephiroth, alchemical manuscripts like the Rosarium Philosophorum with 20 woodcuts and Splendor Solis with 22 paintings, the biological structure of DNA and the 20 or 22 amino acids, the Maya vigesimal system based on the number 20, the teachings of the Twenty Count, and the 20 + 2 cards of the Xultun Tarot major arcana.
What is the tarot?
The tarot is an aide-mémoire for the soul. It is an archetype in itself as well as a series of archetypal images that tell the story of the stages of spiritual and psychological development that are possible over a lifetime. It is the story of the flowering of the soul and how it participates in the great cycles of creation. It is a symbolic depiction of the soul’s journey from spirit to substance and back to spirit, from heaven to earth and earth to heaven, and finding heaven on earth and earth in heaven. If we look at the major arcana we see the Great Light at the top of the deck above the Fool and the Sorcerer. At the bottom of the deck we see the zigzag design symbolising the earth. All the human action happens in between and in the process both spirit and substance are changed.
The tarot embodies two principal archetypes. First, the archetype of the Self and how it manifests over a lifetime. Jung defined the Self as the organising centre of the psyche or the “God-image within.” Second, the archetype of number which Jung said was the archetype of order become conscious.
The Xultun Tarot is similar to other tarot decks in that there are twenty-two major arcana and fifty-six minor arcana. However, it differs in several important ways.
The names and numbering of the Xultun cards differ from the European tarot. Rather than Roman numerals, the Xultun cards are numbered at the bottom of each card using the Maya notation where a “dot” is one and a “bar” is five.
The Xultun is the only tarot where the major arcana, when laid out, form a picture. This is not an artistic convenience or an aesthetic gloss but a reflection of the fact that the tarot is an interconnected whole with multiple cross-connections between the cards. Although the illustrations in this book show a two-dimensional picture, the Xultun Tarot is actually a spherical, 3D hologram. Each card resonates with all the other cards in specific patterns that we shall explore further in the Loom of Time chapter.
As well as a richly cross-connected web, the cards also form a linear sequence that tells the story of the transformation of the soul. Many interpretations of the tarot lean towards considering the cards individually in isolation from each other rather than as part of a coherent and connected developmental sequence. Because the European tarot do not emphasise the developmental sequence of the cards they have blurred the difference between the first and second halves of the deck. The cards in the first half of the Xultun Tarot, from the Priestess (2) to the Balance (11), have more to do with personal and collective processes whereas the cards in the second half of the deck, from the Hanged Man (12) to Planet Earth (21), are more concerned with impersonal and archetypal processes.
The Xultun Tarot was the first tarot not based on traditional images derived from the medieval European tarot or the Western occult tradition. The imagery and teachings of the Xultun Tarot are indigenous to the Americas so the cards are less encrusted with the layers of European tarot interpretation that have accrued over the centuries.
Finally, because of its imagery the Xultun Tarot reveals more clearly the archetypal pattern that underlies all tarot decks.
Peter Balin was born near New Plymouth, New Zealand. A self-taught artist, he travelled widely and by the mid-1970s was living in Los Angeles. In a talk he gave in 1977 he relates how, on the evening of December 21, 1975, some friends came to his house and one of them had a tarot deck. It was the first tarot deck he had ever seen and Balin thought it was sort of medieval and uninteresting. Later in the evening one of his friends suggested that he should draw a tarot deck but Balin thought it was a silly idea and said so. Right in the middle of his protestation:
“Something occurred which had never happened to me before in my life, and which is extremely difficult for me to explain. The only way that I can do so is to say that it approximated a colour slide going on in my brain. That is all of a sudden, I was telling her how crazy I thought she was, and the next minute… Voom! I should say about like that, it’s very difficult to describe because it was not quite like that either. But this large thing appeared in my head it seemed, or somewhere inside of me, I just really don’t quite know where.”
The image was of the twenty-two cards of the major arcana assembled to make one picture and all the figures were in Maya dress. The next morning Balin had a tremendous urge to paint. He took a sleeping bag to the art gallery where he worked and slept on the floor. He painted almost day and night for three months. Balin said, “Apparently I had a lot of the qualifications necessary to be able to make this deck. One of [which] was that I knew nothing about the Tarot. Because if I did, obviously I would be tripped up by what I knew. There would be a great battle in my head.… Within a year of the time that the original cards were painted, they were printed and out on the market. Obviously something somewhere felt that it was very important to get these cards out.”
For the 2010 edition Kahurangi Press have reproduced the cards in their original size and vivid colours. And, in cooperation with Peter Balin, they have redesigned the back of the cards in cinnabar red with a new feathered serpent design and the box in green with a blue feathered serpent encircling it.
Historically, almost all tarot decks were named after their creator but Balin didn’t want the deck named after him. So he made a list of Maya place names and selected Xultun, the name of a Maya site near Tikal in north-eastern Guatemala. Sometime after painting the cards, Balin discovered that the word xultun also means “a storage place” where the Maya stored water or maize. The limestone of the Yucatan peninsula is so porous that no water collects on the surface. The only sources of water are a few cenotes—deep, steep-walled sinkholes with water at the bottom. So the Maya had to dig bottle-shaped cisterns or xultun beneath the ground. These had broad, sloping surrounds, plastered with limestone, to funnel rainwater into the cistern. The bodies of human sacrifices were thrown into abandoned xultun and in shamanic healing ceremonies the conjured evil spirit was cast into a xultun. So the Xultun Tarot is a storage place, a container for the light and the dark, and a repository for seeds of knowledge.
Another other use for the xultun was as a star-tube. The Maya created a sophisticated astronomical calendar for marking the progression of time. For them, time was alive and events were conducted on dates that were most charged with ch’ulel or life force. To make their calendrical calculations they observed the movement of the stars during the day as well as at night. The Maya priest sat at the bottom of a xultun looking up at the sky through its narrow neck. [xultun] Here, even at midday, he could see the stars quite clearly overhead. In the early 1600s the Italian astronomer Galileo used a similar method for observing stars during daylight by sitting at the bottom of a deep well. So when we open the Xultun Tarot we are looking through the star-tube of the tarot, in the daylight of consciousness, at our stars—the patterns of our soul’s movement in time.
Balin had lived for some months in a small Maya village with many ruins close by. He spent the summer of 1972 sketching images at Tikal. The first six figures in the cards (Fool, Sorcerer, Priestess, Consort, Ruler and Priest) are all drawn from wooden lintels in Temple III at Tikal as are the glyphs running across the base of the platform that the last three figures stand on. The glyphs between the second and third rows come from Stela 26 at Tikal. Additional designs are taken from Stelae 1 and 31. A stela (Latin for standing stone) was an upright stone slab or pillar often carved with glyphs. Maya called them tetun, or “tree-stones.”
Balin said he did find a way of signing the cards. He was born on a farm on the slopes of Mount Taranaki in the North Island of New Zealand. At the bottom left hand side of the Sorcerer card we see the same mountain.
Beginning in the early 1970s, with the publication of Carlos Castaneda’s books, a loosely-connected body and lineage of teachings which had previously been an oral tradition became accessible to the public. Since the mid-1970s they have been taught by Harley SwiftDeer Reagan and written about by various authors such as Teisha Abelar, Lynn Andrews, David Carson, Florinda Donner, Jamie Sams and Hyemeyohsts Storm.
The source of knowledge was a teacher or teachers to whom the author apprenticed or a tradition or lineage from which the teachings came. For Andrews it was Agnes Whistling Elk and Ruby Morning Star from Saskatchewan, for Castaneda it was Don Juan and Don Genaro, for Storm it was Estchimah and the Zero Chiefs, and for Reagan, who studied with Storm, it was Navajo medicine man Tom Two Bears Wilson and the Twisted Hairs Medicine Council of Elders.
Traditionally, Twisted Hairs were medicine people, shamans and storytellers who travelled throughout the Americas (Turtle Island). What differentiates a Twisted Hair from a traditional medicine person is their ability and desire to seek knowledge from outside their tradition. These men and women gather knowledge from every direction of the wheel of life in order to find their own centre and come into alignment with the Creator. Hair symbolises knowledge and a Twisted Hair is one who braids knowledge from all traditions and ways into his or her Path with Heart and makes it their own knowledge. Their purpose, their dream, is to preserve the beauty and integrity of the web of life that has been dreamed by the consciousness of this planet. They hold the breath and blood of this first dream, so that we can feed it, remember it and dream their dream onwards.
The name Xultun has Twisted Hairs associations. At its height Tikal was the largest Maya city with a population of 90,000 people but was abandoned around 900 CE. Tikal was the name used by the local Itzá Maya people and means “Place of Voices” or “City of Echoes.” But this is not the original name of the city. The name glyph of Tikal was recently deciphered by epigrapher David Stuart as Mutul. The glyph appears in the Sorcerer card. A name glyph was like a national flag or coat of arms for a Maya city-state. The central part of Tikal was called Yax Mutul which means “Great Green Bundle.” The surrounding area over which Tikal ruled, which likely included Xultun, was referred to as Mutul which means “knot of hair,” “hair bundle,” or “hair twisted or coiled and tied into a bun.” The Temperate Man, the number 14 card, is one of the most important cards in the Xultun Tarot and he is a Twisted Hair.
Some Twisted Hairs carried a medicine item similar to the Xultun Tarot in their medicine bundles. These “cards” were made of sandpaintings on thin wood and covered with animal glue and contained something from each of the Mineral, Plant, Animal and Human Worlds. It was known as the Book of Life or the Children’s Fire. The Xultun Tarot is the Holder, Keeper and Teacher of many of the Twisted Hairs teachings (or Shields of Knowledge) in symbolic form.
[Michael Owen is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Tauranga, New Zealand]