Ash and Stardust, a monthly column by artist and writer DHIYANAH HASSAN, explores the intersections of tarot with healing and creativity. These are personal essays and articles sharing experiences of growth as someone who has recently found a deep connection to tarot. You can read the rest of the pieces here.
“To be strong does not mean to sprout muscles and flex. It means meeting one’s own numinosity without fleeing, actively living with the wild nature in one’s own way. It means to be able to learn, to be able to stand what we know. It means to stand and live.” – from Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Last year I designed a spread that was meant, according to my earlier notes, for days when you’re “intellectually and emotionally fucked up.” I named it the Chaos Spread. Here’s how you use it:
1. Question: Where am I right now? Or: What’s happening to me right now?
2. Unleash your chosen deck and tune in to your breath (shuffle them in whatever way feels right, spread them out, or simply unpack them from their resting place – then take three deep breaths).
3. Use your hands to shift and move the cards so that it looks like a pile of mess. Keep messing the pile up until your breathing feels lighter, easier. Draw the first card, capture it by writing it down somewhere or taking a photo. Spend a few breath cycles with it. Return the card to the pile and without second guessing yourself, dive back into the mess and draw the next card. Repeat the same process of capturing & breathing with the cards that come up. Do this for 5-13 cards. Close the reading, thank the cards.
This spread emerged as an instinctive response to a desperation I was entertaining at that time. I wasn’t yet used to making space for rest, but rest was all I was craving. It was a time when I wasn’t used to meditation, practising slowness, journalling, or finding ways to use movement to move energy from, through, or into the body. I was so resistant about taking my time with my own healing that I was often angry and frustrated about it. I realize now that the frustration came from not listening to my intuitive, inner self. It was, after all, a self I had been conditioned to keep shutting up, keep shrinking.
It’s a self that doesn’t take well to being made small – it becomes a hunger that grows its own teeth.
I’ve always known the wars inside me were ancient and exhausted, that what had to die was something I had been so, so afraid of letting go.
In the book I’m currently reading, Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes relates to us the story of Vasalisa and Baba Yaga. Vasalisa’s mother, who loved and cared for her, dies. She leaves behind a doll for her daughter. Estes calls this doll a talisman, symbolic for the woman’s intuitive voice.
The absence of a protective mother left Vasalisa vulnerable and defenceless – she gets thrown into a household with an abusive stepfamily. The doll supports her through her ordeals and through the near-impossible tasks she faces under Baba Yaga’s care.
Estes writes about how the challenges Baba Yaga presents Vasilisa are really exercises to secure Vasalisa’s connection with her intuitive self, represented by the doll. She learns to listen to the doll’s voice from a place of trust, to feed it when its hungry, allowing the doll’s guidance to strengthen her in becoming a more empowered and fulfilled being. She learns to integrate the doll’s intuitive wisdom as her own. Strengthened by this deep connection with her intuitive self, she was able to carry the fiery skull back home. The light from the skull – her newly found truth and power – burns the cruel stepmother and stepsisters to ashes, eliminating their toxicity from Vasalisa’s life, for good.
Empowered by the full knowledge of her intuition and wildness, Vasalisa neither feared nor needed her abusive stepfamily anymore. The death of her mother left her in such a vulnerable state, that if she were to stand and live, she had no other option but to fully and thoroughly be transformed. Estes describes this experience as, “Letting die what must die. As the too-good mother dies, the new woman is born.”
One of Baba Yaga’s task had Vasilisa sifting through piles of ingredients to separate mildewed corn from whole corn, then poppy seeds from dirt. Estes writes about how the challenge here was to help Vasalisa establish the skill of divine discernment.
“Baba Yaga is not only asking Vasalisa to separate this from that, to determine the difference between things of like kind – such as real love from false love, or nourishing life from spoiled life – but she is also asking her to distinguish one medicine from another.”
This sifting through messy piles to rearrange them into an organized depository of medicinal ingredients reminded me so much of the gestures involved in the Chaos Spread. What I find most powerful about this spread is how lost you might feel when you begin – your head loud with worries and fears – and how at ease you can feel once you’re done.
Something happens each time you draw or return a card, each time the pile shifts from the movement of your two hands. You exercise agency. You step away from the wars inside you and become at first a spectator, watching each card appear and disappear, leaving behind traces of its narrative. A puzzle then shows up: what works for me? what doesn’t? what resonates? what needs to be released?
You trust your hands to pull and release. You keep listening to the movement of your body, the waves of your breaths – when you pull the last card, you know you’re done. Something, perhaps something miniscule, has been transformed.
This spread combines elements of meditation, deep listening, and accessing intuitive guidance through movement. It’s no longer a spread I pull out when I feel things are fucked up, but one I use to strengthen my bond with my inner self. It is an exercise in surrender. It’s the spread I turn to when I need to listen to the wild chaotic mother that is my own heart. I surrender to that part of my selfhood as I read each card that comes up and once the session is done, I know I’m no longer in the same space I was when I started. I return back to myself knowing I always have the power to. And this knowledge scorches those lingering toxic worries to ashes.
Surrender is a tricky lesson. We’ve equated that word with giving up or losing, and so have cut off our ability to let go what needs to be released from our systems. Vasalisa surrenders to the cruelty of her stepfamily, but she has the guts to surrender to the doll’s guidance. The latter act of surrender saves her life, teaches her how to thrive. This type of surrender is the very same thing we, as women, have been taught to fear. That the Baba Yaga is a type of monster is a patriarchal interpretation meant to disconnect us from our divine wildness, our brutal kindness, our blazing light.
A woman freed from this fear is one who has reclaimed her wild, raw, and untamed self. As with Vasalisa, the integration takes time, journeys, and challenges. It also involves support, guidance, and trust – she surrenders to the parts of herself that needs to be heard. By doing so, she also surrenders (releases) her fears back to their source. She is renewed through her ability to discern one medicine from another, and can now remove what no longer serves her – for good.
Dhiyanah Hassan is an artist and writer whose works investigate the importance of personal narratives, particularly in the context of healing. She lives in Malaysia and is the Art Editor of Burning House Press. Find out more about her and her works on Instagram, Twitter, and her website.