Welcome to the archive of the John Barleycorn blog, produced by Howard Gayton and Rex Van Ryn during the process of creating their graphic novel John Barleycorn Must Die. As part of that process, you'll find discussions of magic, of creativity, and 'Around the Table' discussions with a range of internationally known artists, writers and film makers. The graphic novel was printed in a limited edition, so if you managed to get one, good for you! Although this project is over now, we're leaving this blog online as an archive and as a snap shot in time.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Around the Table with...Amal El-Mohtar


Amal El-Mohtar is a Canadian-born child of the Mediterranean, currently pursuing a PhD in English literature at the Cornwall campus of the University of Exeter. She is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose inspired by twenty-eight different kinds of honey; and she's the co-editor of Goblin Fruit, an influential journal of fantastical poetry. Her short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Steam-Powered, Welcome to Bordertown, The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, Strange Horizons, Shimmer, Stone Telling, Mythic Delirium, and Cabinet des Fees. Her long poem "Song for an Ancient City" received the 2009 Rhysling Award. She is also a harpist and singer, a folklore scholar, and fluent speaker of Arabic. You'll find her online at amalelmohtar.com and Voices on the Midnight Air.


The Tarot art in this post comes from two different Fairy Tale Tarot decks. Those cards marked Karen Mahony are designed by Karen Mahony, with artwork by Irena Triskova and Alex Ukolov. (This is the deck that Amal uses.) Visit here to learn more. Those cards Marked Lisa Hunt are by American illustrator and author, Lisa Hunt. You can visit Lisa's website to learn more.


Amal, Howard and Rex.

H: Amal, welcome!
Amal: Thank you, Howard.
H: So, we're going to talk about Tarot today....
R: ...and can I just say, Amal, I understand that you're an expert Tarot reader.
Amal: See this face, Rex, that I am making at you? It is one of profound hatred and enmity.
H: That’s weird, because most guests do that!
Amal: Really?
H: Yeah, at some point in the conversation I’ll always catch a glimpse of pure disdain pointing in Rex’s direction.
R: Wow!
Amal: So let me begin by contesting Rex’s outrageous statement. I am by no means an expert at Tarot. I’m hardly even a novice. Tarot is something that has interested me since I first discovered there was such a thing as divination, though I first learned to read with runes. For a long time, Tarot seemed like this very elaborate system that would be a goal much further down the line. So I started with Norse runes…
H: How did you discover runes?
Amal: A dear friend of mine, Martin Flintoff, who was in no way mystically inclined, had a set, which had with it a very thin book of explanation. It was more of a parlour game, really. He gave me and another friend readings -- the kind of readings where every step of the way you are consulting the book. I was fascinated enough to borrow the book, which actually recommended making your own runes. So I went to a creek near my house, which lead out into the Ottawa River, and took some stones from there. Then I ruined an X-Acto knife trying to scratch runes into the varying hardnesses of stone. I learned to read them from that thin book -- which I’ve subsequently learned is one of those fluffy kind of ‘digest’ books, and didn’t really go into the history of runes. I strongly believe that each system of divination is a language. There is no wrong way to learn divination, because when you are learning for yourself, you are learning a language, and when you lay the runes out, they will reflect what you know. So if I learn a certain meaning for a rune, then whenever I lay it out, that’s the meaning that it has in my reading. It won't have a different meaning that's in some other book that I haven't read.
H: So there’s not necessarily any right or wrong interpretation?
Amal: I think it is a very individual relationship between you and the runes.
H: And would you say that relationship is between you and the runes, as the rune-maker or reader, or between you and the person you're doing the reading for?
Amal: Both. If I'm doing a reading for someone who has no knowledge of runes, it’s very much my interpretation of them, but if I'm reading for someone who has their own knowledge of the runes, then they bring that to bear as well. At that point there's more than one dialogue going on; there’s you, the cards , and the querent. I discovered that as I read further books about runes, books that contradicted my initial understanding, then the runes came to reflect that new knowledge. It was like building up a vocabulary.
H: I like your analogy to language. It sounds very similar to learning a foreign language. You travel abroad and learn a very simple form of the language, and get by. Then you reach a certain level where you can be ‘conversational,’ and once you are conversational, you start picking up more vocabulary, which means that you can become more nuanced in your conversations.
Amal: Absolutely.
H: Okay, so you’ve made a disclaimer about your skill as a Tarot reader, but you are fascinated with Tarot, yes? And other systems of divination too?
Lisa Hunt
Amal: Absolutely.
R: I actually made a set of runes one time, too. I chose to take the meanings from the Anglo Saxon runic poems, which are poems about the characters. I decided that was probably the oldest source of information about them.
Amal: That’s really fascinating. Part of the mystique surrounding runes comes from the fact that they were a first written language for Germanic peoples. The rune-makers were inscribing symbols that had meaning, an early alphabet. There is a certain potency to runes because they were used in a non-literate culture. In literate cultures, we find divinatory images instead.
H: Runes are images aren’t they? Letters are images.
Amal: They are images as well, that's true.
H: A couple of years ago, when I looked at a set of runes, it made me think about the power of words. Words play a massive part in how our perception of the world is created. Written language has become a force in constructing how we perceive the world, and therefore how the world “is.” Now in the West, with political correctness, we have words you can and can’t use in our culture, with certain words now verboten. Probably quite rightly, in some cases; but it is a restriction of language, and in a sense, then, of thought, for thought is created by words. It's interesting that you've said that when the runes were first created they had a mystique, a magic to them. Rex and I see magic as 'the creation of perception.' Both magick (wooji-wooji) and magic (tricks) are concerned with perception -- and language is a big part of that. Most people are unaware of it, and on the whole just read stuff in the papers, for example, and move on, without thinking about how the words themselves affect them. An example that has always stuck in my mind comes from the invasion of Iraq in 2003. There was a point, just after George Bush declared that the ‘war was over,’ when our press, literally overnight, changed the way they referred to the Iraqis fighting the invasion. The day before they'd been soldiers, and suddenly they were now ‘insurgents’ and ‘terrorists.’ And, of course, the changing of the name changed the public perception. Sorry, that was a rather long interjection…
R: That's okay. We’ll edit it out!
H: Ah, but will we, Rex? Will we...?
R: Er, no. Probably not.
H: So Amal, back to the runes, to ‘images’ which are the start of language. Eastern languages, of course, have their writing in pictograms.…
Amal: ...yes, and there are many other dimensions to language. There is the image of language and also the sound of language. Think of the way that rhyme tends to be associated with spells.
H: Oh, yeah…
Amal: I'm currently writing a Ph.D. on representations of faeries in Romantic literature. The Romantic period is ostensibly from somewhere in the 1780s to somewhere in the 1830s, though it tends to fall into the long 18th century, and the long 18th century sometimes stretches as far back as the 1600s! William Temple, writing in about 1690, was looking at the evolution of English literature. He pointed out that the Germanic tribes, the Goths, used rhyme -- which was a kind of devolution from the High Greek Literature of Homer and the Illyiad -- and that these rhymes were usually associated with incantations. Actually, Temple may have been completely wrong about that; 17th century scholarship is somewhat suspect! But it struck me at the time, because he associated rhyme with magic - which is certainly something that modern occultists do to some extent, composing dreadful doggrell and calling it a spell! There is, though, something about the aural quality of language that makes it have a certain effect. There is a specialness to rhyme, a sense in which it ‘wraps’ something around -- and as a spell is thought to have a circularity to it, then a rhyme helps to stick it in place. The end of many scenes in Shakespeare end on a rhyme, to give a cue to someone else that it’s their turn to come into the scene. So even if it’s been glorious blank verse up until that point, the rhyme is what signals that change.
H: It makes me think of music, and songs, which are now such a major force in culture, and which use rhyme, obviously. You play the harp, don’t you?
Amal: Yes.
H: Which is an instrument traditionally associated with altered states.
Amal: Yes, it is. I think that music changes people, in the way that a string is different when it's still and when it's vibrating. You know, if you put two harps in the same room, and you start plucking on one, the other one will start resonating.
H: Really?

Amal: I'm writing a chapter on Coleridge right now. He wrote a poem called ‘The Eolian Harp’ in which he explored the notion of music slumbering on its instrument. It's a gorgeous poem! It moves through thoughts and moods of the soul as if we're all but harps waiting for a breeze to pass through us to animate us. I feel the same way about art: that it is something that on many levels colonises you, gets inside you and changes you from the inside out. I find that happens with books, too. After I’ve read a book, for a couple of days afterwards I think in the patterns of the book’s writing, because the act of reading is an act of organising your own thought process. If you are reading someone else’s writing, you are having to organise your perception along someone else’s structure. So if I read a book by Terry Pratchett, a few days later there is still a little Terry Pratchettness to my thoughts. When I read something by Catherynne Valente, for quite a few days there is a kind of ‘jewelled’ quality to my thoughts. To read a book is to let someone else reach inside me and reorganise me. As a writer, I find it very difficult to start writing immediately after having read another writer's book. I have to digest it first, and let the influence pass….
H: You said something there which brings us back to our main topic: “The act of reading is the act of organising your own thoughts.” So let’s apply that to the act of reading runes or Tarot. I have my own views on how Tarot cards work, and I do find them very powerful. Our book, John Barelycorn Must Die, explores the nature of archetypes, and we've created our own Tarot deck for it, so Rex and I have had many discussions about Tarot and archetypes as metaphysical concepts. I think that, on the whole, metaphysical thought is no longer honoured in our society. So I’d like to ask you, Amal: how do you view what the reading of a Tarot spread means? When you lay out a spread, does it simply help you to focus your thoughts and hone your intuition, or is there something more esoteric, or metaphysical, or 'magical' going on?
Amal: This is a fascinating subject to me, and I’m really glad you brought it up. It's what I was going to come to when I said that yes, I’m an absolute novice at Tarot, but what I feel I'm becoming an expert on is the reading and interpreting of texts. As someone who is doing a Ph.D. in English, who has been reading for ages, and who has read fairy tales and folk stories to the point where I recognise those stories even when they are wearing different clothes, I feel that that this expertise in stories is what I bring to a Tarot reading. The deck that I have is 'The Fairy Tale Tarot,’ and every card, be it major or minor arcana, has a fairy tale associated with it. These tales connect to the standard interpretations of each given card, but also offer additional nuances, which I often  find more helpful than the ‘traditional’ 18th Century interpretations. 
For example, the Eight of Swords is Rapunzel. Now, the Eight of Swords has its associations, and the story of Rapunzel has others. When I'm doing a reading, I might find much more to connect with in the story of Rapunzel (where there are more characters and more situations) than in the straight interpretation of the Eight of Swords alone. I'm no longer limited to just one interpretation of this card.  If you look at divination as language, and as story, then whole worlds open up. So when it comes to reading Tarot, I love the fact that, on a literal level, I am connecting stories to each other; and that, on a metaphorical level, I am deciphering two layers of text (at least two layers of texts): the fairy tale layer and the symbolic Tarot layer. 

Karen Mahony
When it comes to what ‘divination’ is, on the other hand, my answer has to be: You get from it what you bring to it. If you absolutely, sincerely believe that the Tarot is going to tell you what is going to happen in your life three-to-six months down the line, I think it will actually have that place in your life. You will find that your life is becoming organised around these lines. I am just observing that as an effect that happens. Whether someone says, “You're creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, and therefore you'll obviously find that your Tarot is correct,” or they say,  “Clearly this person's life is organised around a principal where the universe tells them stuff about the future,” is kind of irrelevant, ultimately. If divination is working for someone, it’s working for someone! 
For me, the most astonishing thing about Tarot, whether I’m doing a reading for myself or for anyone else, is when I see a situation that I'm enmeshed in, or the querent is enmeshed in, laid out for me in the cards. It makes me think, “There are seventy-eight cards in this deck, and somehow I have picked the three to five of them that are absolutely the most relevant.” And while on some level the interpretation of texts means that you are always going to find some relevance in the cards at hand, being cognizant of the other cards in the deck makes you aware of how the chosen cards are the ones that are prevalent and profound about your situation. I don’t have a magical power that draws me to pick one card over another, and yet there is clearly some connection going on in order to turn those cards over.

H: So maybe when you lay a Tarot spread out, it acts like a neuro-linguistic programming, going into such a deep archetypical level of the pysche that it programs you to start living your life according to the reading...an introduction of mythic thought at an archetypal level. John Barleycorn touches on this: the re-introduction of myth, of mystery, into life. To a large degree I think that we've got rid of this mythic way of thinking -- certainly in the West, and in much of the rest of the world too  firstly due to the rigidity of various fundamentalist religious dogmas, and secondly due the rigidity of various kinds of scientific thought. And yet science is now opening up to mystery again; in quantum physics, scientists are looking at this new dimension and going: “F*****g hell, this is bizarre!” Every time they look deeper at the quantum world, it gets more mysterious. 

But I do think that as a culture, we are flattening out; that we are loosing an element of the point of life. There seems to be something inherent in us, in our consciousness, in being human, that connects to mystery, but we are not connecting with that very well at the moment. Perhaps the reason Tarot cards fascinates us is that they tell such deep archetypical stories that they trigger something which activates that deeper part of our brain.  

Amal: Yes. One thing I want to add to that is that something we all have is a 'hard-wiring' for narrative. Our experience of things is wired to have a beginning, middle, and end.  

H:  I did an experiment with that once, when I was running a puppetry workshop in Birmingham. At the time I was fascinated with the idea of the ‘object’ and the neutral puppeteer. I did some work on getting the puppeteers to be as emotionless as possible. Then I would set them off walking, holding two objects -- a purple cloth and a small box -- along a very simple, straight-line path. They were meant to stay neutral in their energy, but with very focused attention.

Amal:  Mmm.

H:  They didn’t ‘perform,’ they just walked forward. And we, the observers...well, you can’t not create story...so in our minds, we were coming up with these amazing tales of revolutions, and kings being overthrown, and battles, and people dying. All from two people walking in a straight line with these simple objects!


Lisa Hunt
       R:  It’s what happens when you’re a child, isn’t it?  I mean, you put two kids together in any situation, and providing they don’t hate each other, which I suppose is a narrative in itself, they will begin to play. They’ll create situations, and they’ll do it with nothing. They’ll work with each other to make a story, and inhabit it totally, and then they’ll play it. That’s what we do until we’re about 10...or in my case, I’ve never stopped! Perhaps kids stop earlier these days. I remember that when I started secondary school at 11, I stopped playing in that imaginative way. 

Amal:  That in itself is fascinating to me. There’s a level at which that ability to play with story is enabled by a kind of unawareness of your own self which you have as a child. You’re unaware of yourself because you’re so busy experiencing everything for the first time that you don’t really have scope in which to have self-consciousness. You know who you are, you know that you are playing, you know that you are climbing a tree, and there’s an immediacy to all that sensation because there’s no time to second guess. There’s no framework, even, in which to kind of watch yourself ‘at play’.  But I think that as you get older, when you go to secondary school, and then high school, that self-consciousness appears, and is ‘blocking’ somewhat, which is why high school is a terrible time for so many people.

H/R: Yes!!!

Amal: It certainly was for me. Everyone becomes so hyper-aware of themselves, and of other people, and relationships...and it becomes this game of ‘representation.’ So where as a child you can ‘make believe’ and the ‘representation’ is just the default setting, because everyone is playing in a way in which there are no stakes, suddenly this matter of ‘representing’ yourself is... there’s a huge stake, there’s ‘your self’ at stake, because you’re now aware of it. It’s just occurred to me that it’s sort of an interpretation of the ‘original sin’ of the Adam and Eve myth...you know, there’s so much of it turns on that moment of awareness of one’s nakedness and stuff.

R: Yes!

Amal: But its not like you weren’t naked before, its just that the awareness of it becomes an awareness of vulnerability -- this feeling that there is no protection on which you can rely. There is nothing you can take for granted any more. Anyway, that’s just a tangent, fueled by my bitterness at having had to go through high school!

H/R: Amen to that!

R: When you were talking about nakedness, I remembered when we were kids...and this is going to make me sound really old now...we didn’t have costumes. When I played superhero games, for instance, I saw my friends as superheroes, I 'saw' them in the costumes of the comic books, but they didn’t have those costumes. Nowadays, kids have got actual costumes -- like really tiny kids dressed as Spiderman and stuff -- so they actually are Spiderman, and they’ve got the costume to prove it. 

H: Interesting Rex, and a great insight into your psyche, but may I bring the conversation back to Tarot?  

R: Yes, of course!

H: We were talking about having a hard-wired necessity for story.

Amal: Yes, and actually this is what I was going to say about the connection of that hard-wiring to Tarot. There is a level at which (without the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect of it) if you recognise the beginning of a story in a Tarot spread, it makes sense to then extrapolate from that beginning to the rest of the story. You say, well, okay, here is a card representing the beginning of a journey, and the fact that I see the beginning of a journey in the card will make me think: Where is this journey going to go? If a Tarot spread presents you with a beginning, or the middle, or even the end of a story, there’s a sense in which we’re always going to be looking for the rest of it: what brought us to this point, where are we going to go after this?  Um, am I allowed to talk about the fact that I gave Rex a Tarot reading last night? 

R: Yes.

Amal: I won’t go into the details....

H: A dark place, I’m sure!


Lisa Hunt
       Amal: A terrible, dark, but interesting place! Rex and I were talking about archetypes and how interesting it is to let archetypes guide us in certain parts of our lives...to have times in your life when you feel close to one archetype, and other times when you feel close to another. As a tangent, one of the reasons I feel I'll never be able to lay claim to the title of Expert in Tarot is that a dear friend of mine has been doing Tarot for something like twenty-odd years, and he got to a point where he was going through the major arcana in order, each one of them being the subject of a year-long meditation. So beginning with The Fool and then moving on, he had a Year of The Fool, a Year of The Magician, a Year of...you know, and so on.  And I found that absolutely amazing. He was dwelling on the ways in which this one card, this one archetype, was going to govern a whole year for him.

H: Wow, that’s huge dedication.

Amal: It's incredible dedication -- and the reason why I'll never be a Tarot expert is because that’s not what I’m going to do! And this relates to Rex’s reading, because he was asking about his next archetype. He felt like he’d been through a great deal of them, you know, being the well-travelled and well-rounded individual that he, of course, is....

R: Indeed.

Amal:  He was feeling a bit ‘driftless’ in terms of what the next archetype would be. And I said, “Well, there’s a sense in which we tend to look for these big things to move us forward, when sometimes, in fact, all we have to do is look at the little things, yet very few people will take a minor arcana card as something archetypical that will govern them in some way.” This is before we did the spread, and I said that I had a feeling that most likely what he was going to encounter was a minor arcana card as the thing that was going to lead him on. And sure enough, when we did the spread, this was the case. It began with a major arcana card representing his current situation. This was a ‘threshold spread,’ so there was another card on the other side of it...and this was a really complex minor arcana card that he found difficult to relate to. So we talked through it, talked about the story, talked about the image and looked at it in many different ways. The more we talked about it, the more we delved into the different layers of the card, the more relevant it became. So there was definitely an act of ‘story-making’ going on there. Looking at all the different ways one could read this card provoked reactions that clicked some understanding of its relevance.  And it was very relevant, wasn’t it Rex?  

R: Yes, very much so.

Amal: And as the other cards around it were turned over, they gave still more relevance, focus, and direction. But it's all an act of story-making. We could have potentially gotten to the same place by just talking and talking and talking, but having the focus of the images, having that shock of the layout of them, of a threshold to cross, of pillars holding this threshold up, of an influence governing the step taken over the lintel, made it all far more...resonant.

H: So far we’ve been talking about Tarot almost as a psychological process.  

Amal: Yes, yeah.

H: Which I think mirrors, in a way, how esoteric thought has changed over the years. Once it was all ‘magick’ and ‘out there’ and now it has perhaps become much more internal.

Amal: Yes, but a lot of people still want there to be something ‘out there’ governing what’s happening in the cards. So I usually give them a number of options, and they can pick whichever one is most comfortable to them; some people want the psychological, introspective approach, some want the ‘something out there’ approach, and others don’t care and just want to see what comes out. To me, each of those options is a language of its own, a paradigm. The way that science is a language, or that religion is a language. They are all organising principles, in which we slot the same experiences but seek to make them intelligible to us. So what you’ve put forward to me is another language and one that I absolutely think is as valid as any other, and tends to be more the way that I personally think about Tarot. But to me, when I’m laying a spread out, I am not just laying it out from within myself, I'm sort of in dialogue with...with the Universe.

H:That’s a fascinating way to look at it.

R: Im going to change the subject now.

H: Okay, Rex.

R: Amal and I were talking the other evening about the different decks, and what the different decks might represent. About whether they’re focused on the dark aspects of the subconscious, or the light aspects of the subconscious.

H:  And did you come up with a conclusion?

R:  Well, some decks were probably created by people who...

H:  Crowley!

Amal: Yeah. 

R: We were thinking in terms of the Crowley deck, yes, but maybe to some people that’s actually a good deck. It isn’t an objective darkness, if you like. 

Karen Mahony
Amal: What I was saying to Rex is that the Crowley deck is a fascinating one for me because the first time I saw it, I was about sixteen and I was being shown it by this guy who...best just not even to talk about him. But I couldn’t even touch the cards; they had such an effect on me just to look at them. I remember they were coloured in sort of acid greens and dark blacks and it seemed very poisonous to me. That was when I was sixteen. But two years ago, I was visiting my friend Erzebet, and her husband offered to give me a reading with the Crowley deck. As he was laying them out I’d never seen anything so beautiful! It was the same deck, and I just, I couldn’t associate these cards that I was seeing with the cards that I remembered from ten years before. The only thing I could conclude was that at that time I was being sensitive to something else, that I was being sensitive to a situation, as opposed to the images on those cards; that the person who showed them to me in the first place was someone who looked at those cards in a certain way that was repellent to me, whereas Erzebet’s husband looked at the cards in a way that clearly resonated with me a lot more, and gave me a very accurate reading.

H: Another interpretation, of course, would be that in those ten years, you’ve...

Amal: ...changed. 

H:  Yes. That story makes me think of Buddhist and other esoteric mandalas where there are fiery demons guarding gates. They look fierce, but they are ‘paper tigers,’ and if you don’t turn back at this frightening thing but have the courage to go past them, then you look back and find they weren’t real, they were an illusion intended just to challenge you. It seems that we have these projections of the 'Devil,' or 'demons,' but really they are internal processes, and the question is: How do I cope with the darkness within myself? How do we cope with the darkness within society?  How do we find a balance?

Amal: Yes.

H: In Native American traditions, on the Medicine Wheel you have the West, which is a dark place...but a place that's valuable, because there’s learning there. Just don’t get stuck in it.


Karen Mahony
Amal: Yes, yes.

H: If you keep moving around the Wheel, then the darkness serves it’s purpose. Again, these are psychological interpretations. Another possibility, regarding the Crowley deck, is that the person who showed it to you was dark himself, and you were picking up on that.  

Amal: Yes! At first I wondered about whether I had changed in some significant way that made me view the cards differently. But I ended up thinking that I hadn’t, because certainly where magic and Tarot are concerned my views have certainly deepened and developed, but along the same path. There hasn’t been some shocking change in the way that I perceive things. But it's one possibility all the same, and I think it comes back to this notion that readings, like music, change us...even if it's just the change from being static to being dynamic, you know, on a metaphorical level. There’s something very true about us being instruments with music slumbering on us until we’re animated into a certain space. And we can be animated in different ways; we can resonate with someone one day, and then find that we’re attuned slightly differently the next day and be dissonant.

R: That’s so true!

H: Is there anything we haven’t covered, before we wrap up?
R: I just wanted to talk about the John Barleycorn Tarot. At some point we’d like to get them published -- but I feel that because they came out of the creation of the book, in order to get at the meanings of the cards, especially the major arcana, you’d have read the book to know the true meaning of each card. 

H: Which is what you were talking about, Amal: that Tarot is a language, a set of stories.

Amal: Absolutely. I love that fact, actually. I mean, I think this ties it around brilliantly, that you would have to perform an act of interpretation on the art!

H: And that’s sort of what we’ve done with John Barleycorn: we laid the art out and then told a story!

Amal: Exactly! And then that story that you developed led to the creation of other art, right? And that back and forth, that story-building, was what Rex and I were doing in his Tarot reading. I offered a narrative, he countered with a different narrative, and I said, “Well, what about this narrative, as a result of what you’ve said?” And you kind of incorporate this, and end up building one together that ends up encompassing the whole. I think the fact that you’ve got Tarot embedded in John Barleycorn is completely wonderful, and just incredibly appropriate.  

H: That’s a good place to stop, I think.

R: It is. Thank you very much, Amal.

Amal: Thank you.  


Lisa Hunt