I’m gonna tell you a classic Halloween folktale through the cards. Try and guess what it is from the tarot alone. Scroll down to read a retelling of the story, and see if you’ve figured it out.
Once upon a time . . .
There was a Character:
With a Backstory:
And a Goal:
Scroll on down.
Stingy Jack was thirsting for a good time one night. (Goal: Nine of Cups) He entered the pub with a mind to con himself up a few drinks, but found only regulars and no fresh marks. No seasoned local would pick up the tab for a jerk like Jack.
Jack was hunched by the fire, fuming and muttering to himself when a fresh face strode in. The pub cleared out for the Devil himself, but Jack saw nothing but opportunity, and no good reason to leave.
The Devil said, “Jack, I like your style. I’ll drink to your health.”
“Ah Devil, I’d drink to yours,” said Jack, “but I haven’t the means to furnish a round befitting tastes so refined as your own.”
“Nonsense,” said the Devil. “I’ll take the shape of a gold coin. You order off the top shelf and get us two glasses. I’ll slip the till and the barman’ll faint half dead as I shift back into myself. Then we’ll drink our fill and have ourselves a nice long chat.”
That sounded fine to Jack, so the Devil winked, leapt into the air, and landed down on the table in the form of a gleaming, freshly minted, golden coin. Jack scooped him up, and slipped the Devil into his pocket, alongside a pair of silver coins, a grubby pack of cards worn soft around the edges, crumbs of stale tobacco and woolen lint, and a small wooden crucifix.
“I’ve got you now, Devil” said Stingy Jack. “You can’t change back with a cross upon you. If you value your freedom and your figure, you’ll grant me this promise: I’ll have a jug of the finest whiskey, for one, to go, and you’ll never come after my body nor soul again. I’ll have no place in your Hell.” (Conflict: Seven Of Swords Crosses The Devil)
“The deal is done” said the Devil, and Jack let him go.
Jack felt nigh invincible after that, but not a soul would suffer him long enough to hear of the time he tricked the Devil. He crooned his bloated gloating into his jug of finest whiskey, and the drink took him down to the grave before the last drop passed his lips.
Stingy Jack rose up to heaven’s gates, but found them locked and barred. St. Peter said, “look at you, Jack, you’re a mess. You’ve met everyone you’ve known with cruelty and lies, and spread drunkenness and misery everywhere you’ve been. There’s no place for you here. You’d do better in Hell, if I’m honest. Seems more your speed.”
“The Devil won’t come to take me,” said Jack. “I’ve seen to that.”
“Not my problem, Jack,” said Peter. “You might’ve seen to the Devil, but you haven’t seen to us. Best go find the Devil yourself then, eh?” (Climax: Judgement Reversed Crosses Death)
Peter vanished along with the light of heaven, and all its clouds evaporated from under Jack’s feet, and he fell down down down through the dark and cold for longer than he could figure. As the woozy tug of falling crept from Jack’s stomach, all remained dark and cold but a faint red glow in the distance. For lack of any better plan, Jack followed the glow an unfathomable distance further, up to the gates of Hell.
There was light and heat beyond the gate. The sounds of screaming and laughter, strains of fiddle music and a tuneless guitar with a missing string, and the scents of sulfur, smoke, and booze drifted on the air, if you could call the surrounding blackness a thing like air. The Devil leaned against the gate with a smirk and all the patience of a warm and knowing void.
“I guess you’ve had the last laugh, Devil” rasped the spirit of ragged old Jack. “Heaven is closed to me, and I wouldn’t trick my way in if I could. I suppose you’ll have to take my soul after all.”
“Ah Jack, we could’ve been good friends, but you spurned me, remember? ‘I’ll have no place in your Hell,’ you said. The deal is done, by your own words, and it can’t be broken now.”
“I’ve got nowhere else to go but here.”
“You’re half right there.”
“I’m so cold. It’s dark and I cannot see,” Jack was on his knees. “God has shown me no mercy. If you keep your word in every bargain, would you not keep your word to oppose His will in all things. Have you no mercy for me?”
The Devil reached into his pocket, and took out a blazing coal from the fires of Hell. “Catch!” he said. “A bit of light in the darkness, for your troubles, and to light your way off my doorstep. It’ll never go out, and neither will you. It was a fine trick you played, Jack. Make your own fun now if you can; you’ll get no more from me.” (Consequence: Devil crosses The Star reversed)
The Devil vanished, and Hell along with him, leaving Jack alone in the chilly, dark betweenness of the world. The coal burned his fingers, so he stuffed it in his own pocket, but it burned a hole right through.
Out fell the cards, the silver, and the crucifix. Out fell the woolen lint, the crumbs of stale tobacco, and a raw turnip Jack had pinched for his supper. Jack used the crucifix itself to hollow out the turnip, and placed the coal within, and with his makeshift lantern, set wandering through the world, to make his own fun if he could. (Resolution: Eight of Cups crosses The Hermit)
Jack treasured his light and warmth in the dark and cold, and could bear nothing brighter ever after than the deep, dull red of that infernal coal. That’s why, to this day, smart folks light hollowed pumpkins, turnips, and gourds with bright candles whenever the openness and betweenness of this world drift close—to ward off lost and mischievous souls like Jack of the Lantern.
If there’s any moral to this sorrowful tale, any warning but to keep your night lanterns lit bright, let it be this: keep your friends close and treat them well. Some nights you drink for free, and some nights you pay. (Moral: Six of Coins crosses The Three of Cups)
A) Matching cards to a classic tale you already know is a wonderful way to memorize card meanings and deepen your understanding of tarot. Track how the cards combine and play off each other to tell stories in a reading.
B) Use this game as a tarot spread to plot short stories, novels, and art projects:
8. Moral OR Core Themes
Note the use of crosses. You could draw a single card or a cross of cards for any of the positions in this spread. I prefer crosses. All tarot cards tell stories. A single card tells the story of a character, essence, or quality. When two or more cards come together, action, reaction, and tension emerge.
In crosses, two archetypes converge. The pairing can be antagonistic, as when the Seven of Swords (trickery and sabotage) crosses the Devil. One card covers or crosses another in the sense of the top card eclipsing, troubling, or foiling the card beneath.
The pairing may be complementary or synergetic, as when the Six of Coins (commerce, exchange, and fair dealings) crosses the Three of Cups (companionship and good times). Both cards intersect, and their patterns come together in a harmonious blend.
Use your imagination, intuition, creative preference, and analysis of the two cards to decide whether a cross in this spread is antagonistic or complementary. Every card has multiple meanings. What makes the best story?
In position eight, morals are only appropriate to select media and genres. Most fables, fairy tales, and folk stories and songs have morals, as do some children’s stories. Trying to pin a neat, pat moral on a more complex, mature, or contemporary story veers icky and patronizing. If your project has more nuance than a fairy tale, use this space to draw two or more cards on core themes and repeating motifs.
There are several versions of this story. In some, Jack tricks the Devil into climbing an apple tree and sets crosses around the trunk so he can’t climb down. In others, Jack evades the Devil multiple times through multiple tricks.
I’ve retold this story in my own words, taking a few liberties and fleshing out a point or two, but the core of it’s true to the originals. Keep those lanterns lit bright, my turtles!
Thanks for reading! Have a wonderful and pleasantly haunted Halloween!