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The Tower: A Mythic Descent into Chaos and Transformation

BY Monica Martinez September 10, 2023

In the intricate tapestry of the Tarot, the sixteenth card stands as a potent symbol of upheaval and transformation, the tumultuous nature of the human journey. This card, known as The Tower, resonates deeply with the wisdom of mythologist Joseph Campbell, who explored the universality of the hero’s journey and the transformative power of chaos. As we delve into the archetypal landscape of The Tower from Campbell’s perspective, we uncover layers of meaning that illuminate the human quest for self-discovery and growth. Which, between you and me is, in most cases, not done without pain.

Joseph Campbell, renowned for his concept of the Hero’s Journey, emphasized that myths are mirrors of the human psyche, reflecting universal themes that transcend cultural boundaries. The Tower card, with its vivid imagery of a towering structure struck by lightning and figures plummeting, encapsulates this notion. 

Let’s take a closer look at card sixteen. The Tower is in the process of falling down or being destroyed, perhaps by fire or lightning. The forces of “heaven” (the Self) are “angry” (“listen to me!”) and attacking the structure (the Ego). In the Waite-Rider-Smith deck, a crown has been blown off by the impact, and two human figures (an elder and a young person) are catapulted from the windows. The social mask (persona) that served so well until then, either in the construction of the Ego towards adulthood or in its deconstruction in maturity, is no longer balanced, and the divine part of the psyche (self) is generating a rattle to see if the mask can be peeled off like an old snake skin that needs to be shed so it can grow.

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The fall from the tower parallels Campbell’s “belly of the whale” stage, wherein the hero faces a perilous ordeal that is often characterized by the disintegration of the ego. This phase signifies the descent into the unconscious where the hero must confront their deepest fears and challenges. Campbell viewed this ordeal as an essential part of personal growth, as a profound encounter with the hidden aspects of the psyche that must be reckoned with in order to achieve transformation. The Tower, in its catastrophic imagery, mirrors this descent into the abyss—an archetype Campbell would recognize as a critical element in the hero’s transformative journey.

It’s an easy Subject to think about and reflect on, but rather difficult to digest when you’re going through it. In 2020 (two or three weeks before the global pandemic lockout) I was working in Paris and stopped to rest for a few days in Florence before returning to Brazil. There, I intended to buy a new tarot card deck. Serendipitously I came across the Golden Tarot—a beautiful gift set including a faithful reproduction of the historic Visconti-Sforza tarot deck and a book describing its history and symbolism—in a neighborhood bookstore. Looking back on those days, I am still surprised that I was in doubt about whether to buy it or not, despite its affordable price (I suppose it may have been because it was missing the purple satin cloth for readings it usually goes along with the box). Fortunately, the box accompanied me on the flight back home and was a source of inspiration during the difficult times of coping with Coronavirus.

The Sforza deck, commissioned by the Duke of Milan in the 15th century, is a significant precursor to modern Tarot decks and provides a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of Tarot symbolism. I learned, from reading its accompanying book, that four cards had to be recreated in modern times, for they were lost from the original Visconti-Sforza tarot deck at some point in history: The Tower, The Devil, the Three of Spades (not by chance called La Sinistra – left –in Italian, meaning delusion), and the King of Diamonds. 

I am not sure about the missing King of Diamonds – the book suggests it would mean a person who wants money but doesn’t work to get it. However, it never hurts to remember Campbell talking about the mentality that reigned in the Middle Ages and how people of that time literally believed in figures like God and the devil. Therefore, the absence of The Tower (as well as The Devil, and La Sinistra) may represent a narrative tampering—tampering by someone in the Middle Ages, who pilfered the cards so that there would be no representation of evil in the beautiful cards decorated with real gold. But, of course, this hypothesis is my fantasy rather than historical fact.

The Tower’s collapse and the figures plummeting suggest a confrontation with personal and collective shadows, challenging individuals to grapple with aspects of themselves that have been suppressed or ignored. From Campbell’s perspective, this confrontation is integral to the hero’s journey, as it paves the way for growth and self-integration.

Campbell’s exploration of mythology and symbolism sheds light on The Tower’s potential for personal enlightenment. Just as the hero, amidst trials and tribulations, ultimately discovers the elixir of transformation, so too The Tower card offers an opportunity for self-discovery. Campbell asserted that the journey’s ultimate boon is self-realization and integration—a state of being that transcends ego and embraces a deeper understanding of interconnectedness. The Tower, with its violent upheaval, provides the impetus for this transformative journey. It catalyzes the destruction of old structures that hinder personal growth, and leads to the revelation of a more authentic and resilient ego.

Ok, the old structure is crumbling. What do we do now? The Tower’s chaotic energy resonates with Campbell’s interpretation of myth as a psychological blueprint for navigating life’s challenges. Mythology, in Campbell’s view, serves as a repository of collective wisdom that can guide individuals through the labyrinth of existence. The Tower’s symbolism, marked by lightning and destruction, aligns with Campbell’s notion of mythic events as representing internal psychological processes. Just as lightning illuminates the darkness and reveals hidden truths, the upheaval depicted in The Tower card unveils the hidden aspects of the self. Through this lens, The Tower can be seen as a wake-up call inviting individuals to embrace chaos, if it presents itself, as a catalyst for transformation.

The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung used to say “when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as Fate” (Aion, CW 9ii). So, the call here may be to open up and deal with the situation in an adult, autonomous way, without waiting for the necessary transformation process to be present by external means. Throwing yourself off the symbolic tower is difficult, but letting yourself stay in the burning building can be even more psychologically lethal.

This universality underscores the card’s resonance as a mirror for personal experience, and invites individuals to navigate their own heroic journeys. After all, Campbell’s concept of the “monomyth” underscores The Tower’s universal significance. The monomyth, or Hero’s Journey, posits that all myths share a common structure reflecting the human psyche’s universal stages of growth and transformation. The Tower card, despite its variations in imagery across different tarot decks, encapsulates a core archetype that resonates with the monomyth’s stages: call to adventure, ordeal, confrontation with the shadow, and ultimately, transformation. 

Finally, The Tower emerges as a powerful emblem of chaos, transformation, and self-discovery. In the light of Campbell’s insights into the hero’s journey, mythic symbols, and the transformative power of the unconscious, The Tower reveals its deeper significance as a catalyst for personal growth. As lightning strikes the tower and figures plummet, myth and archetype intertwine, inviting individuals to embrace the chaos and upheaval that propels them into a realm where profound transformation is possible. Just as the hero faces trials and descends into the unconscious, so too does The Tower card beckon the individual to journey inward, ultimately echoing Campbell’s call to embrace the mythic adventure of being yourself, confronting one’s shadow, and emerging transformed.

Monica Martinez is the former Joseph Campbell Foundation Mythological RoundTable® Program South American Coordinator. She is a trained Jungian Psychoanalyst with a private practice in Brazil. On the academic field, she is full professor on the Communication and Culture Graduate Programme at the University of Sorocaba, Brazil, and visiting professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences de l'Information et de la Communication (Celsa) of the Sorbonne Université (France). She holds a PhD in Sciences of Communication (University of São Paulo) and completed her postdoctoral studies at the Methodist University of São Paulo. She has been interested in mythology since the first book of Greek mythology she ordered from a catalog when she was 9 years old.

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In this episode, Tyler Lapkin of the Joseph Campbell Foundation sits down with Michael Meade.
Michael is a renowned storyteller, author, and scholar of mythology, anthropology, and psychology. He combines hypnotic storytelling, street-savvy perceptiveness, and spellbinding interpretations of ancient myths with a deep knowledge of cross-cultural rituals. He is the author of Awakening the Soul, The Genius Myth, Fate and Destiny, Why the World Doesn’t End, The Water of Life, and the creator of the Living Myth Podcast.
Michael is the founder of Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, a nonprofit network of artists, activists, and community builders that encourages greater understanding between diverse peoples.
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