How to describe the Italian Sibilla cards?
It’s like going to your great-aunt’s house when you’re quite small, where the smells are old and the furniture ponderous. All is dusty and dim but for the brilliant light streaming in the kitchen window, spilling onto vivid purple African violets and red geraniums. Silence hangs heavy as brocade drapes, yet sometimes you think you hear laughter from another room. Your great-aunt is kindly, offering tidbits of unaccustomed food and conversation. She’s ancient, but sometimes unexpectedly, for an instant, her lissome, younger self bubbles forth.
Everywhere in her endless house are framed pictures, full of people in strange dress. They’re standing en masse in a garden or perhaps smiling around a big table, or sitting out among picnic baskets by a river. These old photos–clustered on the big sideboard, or atop the piano’s fringed scarf–are different from the ones at home, those snapshots of your small family in shorts and flip-flops, all smiling at the entrance to Disney World.
You’re not even sure you like going to your great-aunt’s house, but something draws you. Long after, when you are grown and the house has slipped from view, you think perhaps it was a link to a distant kind of wisdom, where the daily round was the spiritual path, and self-indulgence was a dab of eau de cologne behind the ears.
These cards are quite a change from the iconic images of Lenormand, the archetypal Tarot trumps, the Morse code of pip cards. As in La Vecchia Signora (The Old Lady), they’re replete with velvet armchairs and elaborate wallpaper, flouncy dresses for the ladies and quaintly formal outfits for the men. No minimalist drew these pictures–they are as crammed full of colors, people, and objects as the old house with its bric-a-brac. So much to tell you, good we’ve got the whole afternoon! Hence their “chatty” reputation.
I’ve loved the Italian Sibilla for a few years. Without particularly knowing what I was doing, I’d found that these somewhat kitschy, busy-looking cards spoke with insight and nuance. They talked like that great-aunt, whose life of work and hardship had forged a chain of humbly-spoken truths. But I got caught up in other studies and let my humble Sibilla cards languish.
When the Sibilla began to call to me recently, I decided to take them on their own traditional terms. This has become much easier for English speakers of late. I am indebted to Matt Sybill’s insights, and most of all to my generous master-teacher Kapherus, for a way into these cards. These readers use reversals, and of course the cards have traditional meanings–mostly, but not always, intuitive from the image. Me, I like my Tarot cards upright, I pay attention to the figures’ direction of gaze, colors, and so on. But just when I am coming into my own as an opinionated card reader, I decided to turn docile rule-follower for a while.
Here’s a two-part shocker. The first: I don’t do the “daily readings” that so many card-lovers feel is absolutely essential. For me, asking for vague guidance gives, well, vague guidance. I prefer to read for actual questions. The followup: I decided to do daily readings with the Sibilla cards, for the extremely vague question of “What will happen today?” Just to see what would happen.
A disclaimer: I did not conduct this experiment with scientific rigor or good experimental design. I was fine with being hazy about whether I was trying to fit the cards to my actual day, in order to understand their meanings, OR get some info from the cards so as to adjust the day to come. I pulled a fan of three cards in the morning, then looked up their traditional meanings if I had time. At night I thought about what the day had held, looked at the cards and their meanings again, and tried to find a connection–preferably organic. Force fits would be duly noted.
A more rigorous approach, of course, would be to pull the cards without turning them over, reflect on the day at its end, and then look at the spread to see if it matched. That way my actions would not be influenced by the cards. But no way was I going to pull cards and not look at them–I’m way too curious for that. Still, getting a fan with Disperato per gelosia (Despair Due to Jealousy) and Letterato (Man of Letters), both reversed (Rx) –“a crisis involving a contract”–gave me pause on a morning when I was planning to rock the boat in my very small world. I waited a day to act. So while I was ostensibly doing the exercise to enhance my understanding of the cards, I allowed my days to be a bit colored by them–not a clean experiment, but more fun.
Quickly I noticed just how boring my daily life is. I’m happy about this–there was a long stretch where it was way too eventful. Yet, even the well-known advice to ratchet down the colorfully dramatic Sibilla meanings took creativity to apply. I mean, Despair Due to Jealousy has a man with a gun to his head. Sure, it’s hard to get up for work at 5 am, but still.
Along with boring, my personal life has relatively few people. This modern, isolated culture–smaller families, nobody sitting on the proverbial stoop or threshing wheat together. In my job I see at least a hundred people every day–teenagers mostly. Encountering some 60 young males in a day makes L’amante Rx a bit hard to pin to one individual. “An idle young man” describes half of my 3rd period class–the ones who assure me they don’t need to do their homework. I love them all but–obviously–I’m not in love with any of them.
Anyone who pulls cards regularly notices that cards repeat–presumably to get our attention, but also to reflect the over-arching tenor of our lives. A while back I was doing Lenormand Grand Tableaux regularly for myself, and scoffing at how Clouds and Coffin fell near the Lady month in, month out. Ha!–ain’t no clouds on my horizon! After a while it dawned on me that my life of exhausting 60-hour work weeks, which seemed normal to me, might be considered a tad oppressive by most people. Simplistic statistics: If I pull 3 cards a day for a month or so, I’ll have gotten all 52, both upright and reversed. Of course, this isn’t so. No matter how much I shuffle, some cards make an appearance again and again. Lately, whatever that Desperation guy is about, I’ve got it in spades (pun, sorry–he’s 8 Picche, 8 of Spades). On the other hand, I’ve got plenty of Lightness of Heart too. We are creatures of contrast.
As for my experiment: Most of the time, my daily cards fit nicely with some small landmark in the day. And yes, my desperate friend appeared repeatedly, both upright and reversed, all this past week. Belatedly I realized there had been an undertone of frenzied funk. Call it spring fever, or maybe I was actually getting a fever, but my burdens suddenly seemed particularly unfair. As I stomped around I was jealous of all the people who have it easier than me (out of some 7 billion, this is probably a pretty small percentage). Finally the card turned upright, it was no longer all about me, as in this daily:
That day I interviewed parents of prospective students at a marvelous school with competitive admission. I interviewed the parents while their children were being interviewed by the staff. So here I was the old lady, and it was their crisis. I knew they were nervous and my job was as much to calm them down as to quiz them. And the final card? It’s really the student’s interview that counts, not the parent’s. That fit nicely with the reversed Donna di Servizio (“little worth”).
Here’s a reading I did regarding a yearly creative project I undertake. It always takes a lot out of me, so I posed this question:
How can I conserve my energy and still do a good job on the project this year?
Well look who’s taken central stage once again.
This line is all diamonds and spades–flickering energies and lotsa problems. The first three cards are not an auspicious beginning: An open enemy who robs you of energy makes you wildly desperate. Nice. Assuming the enemy is the drain of energy I’d like to avoid, this is pretty blunt and accurate. Room Rx next to my desperate self–“embarrassing secrets”–blows my (fanciful) self-image of boundless youthful energy. More apt, perhaps, is Room Rx as “inner disorganization”–I’m not great under pressure. The upright Bambino ending the line is the light at the end of the tunnel. The creative project gets birthed after all the angst.
A chatty friend doesn’t necessarily answer the question you ask. I want to know how to keep my energy (maybe my sanity) while doing the project, but the answer is: you can’t. You want to birth this baby, accept the fact that it’s going to suck your energy till you despair. Try to keep your crazed feelings to yourself (Disperato-Stanza Rx) and your reward will be a nice healthy bambino.
But no, I insist, please, answer the question I asked. Well, if you must, then how about you be the enemy? Fight off and rob that sense of crisis of its central power (first three cards)? Remove those crazed thoughts you’re afraid you can’t hide (central three cards)? You know, inner desperation is actually your labor pains talking (last three cards).
The Sibilla speaks in graphic metaphors, with a touch of nostalgia for the old country thrown in. Like a combination of self-help book and People magazine, it illustrates every point with long, gossipy stories. Stories stay with us. In some deep way, we seem to need them to make sense of things.
Long before my time, a despairing uncle threw himself into his wife’s grave at her burial. It’s a family story that’s become a kind of internal short-hand for certain of my wordless feelings. My grandparents arguing over their young child’s baptism. My cousin’s dad sleeping with a pitchfork next to his bed, ready for when they’d come for him. Getting to know the Sibilla is like asking your great-aunt about each of the family pictures in the old house. It will take some time to answer. There’s a long, extraordinary tale of an ordinary life in each one, with rambling bits of wisdom tucked in.
Luckily, you two have all afternoon.
The cards: Every Day Oracle (La Vera Sibilla), Lo Scarabeo.
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