So far, we have looked at practical questions, and the ways in which the direct meanings of the cards can give people guidance. As we have seen in the card descriptions, however, there are many layers to The Burning Serpent, and the deck can give powerful messages to deeper questions on fundamental issues. Recently, a very close friend asked me to help her plan her funeral. She was not on the verge of death but had gone through a long, hard struggle with illness, and a sudden crisis had made her conscious that she did not want to wait until it was too late. We talked about what she would like, and who would be involved, and what would be meaningful to the strong loving community of friends and family who she knew would want to mark her passing. Then we decided to consult the cards.
As soon as we set them out, we knew they were not about the practical, or even emotional preparations for a funeral. They spoke about death itself, and the passage of her soul. Here are the cards in the reading (we set them out in a row, but for the sake of fitting them on the page we will show them here in an arc).
For thousands of years, people have visualized the journey of the soul after death as a voyage over water, sometimes a river, but sometimes the sea. Having the Voyage right next to the Dead Tree seems to announce that this passage will be the subject of the reading. Such an interpretation is only strengthened with Hermes the Messenger and the Hound, for one of Hermes’s major roles in Greek myth was to guide the dead to their next existence, and one of the mythological layers of the Hound is Anubis, the jackal (dog) headed god who filled that same role in Egyptian religion. These two sometimes became linked as one figure, Hermanubis, and the presence of both cards, and the Dead Tree, in a reading about a funeral, was like an announcement of what the deck wanted to tell her. At the center of the line, the Hound, facing left, looks back on the life she’s had. At the very end of the line,
Hermes, facing right, brings her the message of looking beyond life to something new. The Gold Ring represents the funeral itself. Or rather, the powerful bonds and commitments that lay behind it. The woman wanted to plan her funeral partly to make a statement about the life she had lived, but even more, to acknowledge the community to which she had dedicated her life. An interfaith minister, she had struggled with hardships and illness to devote herself to her town, her family, and her friends. Though she had been married twice her truest bond was to her community, and it was this Gold Ring of commitment that would be honored at her funeral. On the other side of the Hound from the Gold Ring stands the Bear. The Hound looks backward to her life, and the ending of it in the Dead Tree, as well as the beginning of her Voyage. The Bear can represent something she might encounter as her spirit leaves the funeral behind. One of the card’s specific meanings is a mother, and the woman’s relationship with her own mother had been intense and difficult. If indeed we meet our relatives on the other side,this particular meeting would not be the gentle warm embrace we sometimes see in movies.
Beyond the narrow meaning of mother, the Bear can represent a fierce protectiveness, derived from the way a mother bear guards her cubs. We tend to assume with this interpretation that we are either the protector or the protected. But what if we’re the outsider? Around the world, traditions of religion, mythology, and visionary meditation speak of a fearsome “Guardian at the Threshold” who guards—protects—the secrets of the afterlife. For some it’s a demon, for others a powerful animal. One of the prime functions of Anubis is to guide the soul past such a monster. Might the Bear signify that kind of meeting? We might recall that the very oldest ceremony known to human history, dating all the way back to the Neanderthals, yet carried through into the modern era bythe Ainu peoples of Japan, is a funerary ritual involving a particularbone from the spine of a bear.
The reading is phenomenally symmetrical. At the center stands the Hound. His body faces right, the direction of new experience, but he looks backward, towards the Gold Ring, symbol of the commitments the woman made in life. It’s as if the Hound is saying “When you’re ready, I’m here for you. I can guide you and guard you when you face the Bear.” The particular dog in the card is an Irish Wolfhound. The woman is Irish-American, with deep roots in Ireland, both through family and through love of the culture.
The symmetry becomes strongest when we move outward another step from the center to encounter cards Two and Six, the Dead Tree and the Flaming Tree. The death of the body and the life of the soul.
At the beginning of this whole section on readings, I noted the suggestion of Donnaleigh de la Rose that we should decide between alternative readings for any particular card so we will know what it means when it appears. I also mentioned Caitlin Matthews’s suggestion that we allow each card to speak to us on its own. For some, the traditional card of the Tree means health problems. For me, however, this card speaks of life and good health, a good omen in most readings (unless the cards around it show problems or danger). In this reading it seems to suggest the promise of an afterlife or a new life that is meaningful and that flourishes.
Finally, at the opposite ends of the reading, cards 1 and 7, we find the Voyage, the soul’s journey, and Hermes the Messenger, the soul’s guide. In the center the Hound looks back to the life that was lived. Hermes looks ahead, to the mystery of what will come next.
This reading is an example, not just of how we can answer spiritual questions, but also the value of such qualities as symmetry, beauty, and rhythm when we interpret the cards. What it does not do is interpret them in a freeform, purely intuitive style. All the meanings given for the individual cards in the reading derive from those given in the text. In fact, apart from the Gold Ring and the Bear, each of the cards in the reading was cited in the text for the Dead Tree.