Julie Cuccia-Watts, artist and creator of the Ancestral Path Tarot, shares her experiences of painting the Blue Moon Tarot: a 22-card Major Arcana deck, depicting the journey of the Moon throughout the Wheel of the Year. In the Blue Moon Tarot, she combines elements of both Tarot and astrology to form an original concept of the Major Arcana. Julie Cuccia-Watts discusses the evolution of her creative process from her painting of the Ancestral Path Tarot, The Blue Moon Tarot and her newest work, the Maat Tarot.
Valerie: When you where creating the Blue Moon Tarot, did you encounter any unusual moments of connection?
Julie: I was trying to think of something to teach for a class at the Women and Spirituality Conference in October 1997. I had submitted my description for the conference that previous spring, promising information about tarot and the Wheel of the Year. My class had been accepted so I needed to figure out in detail what I would be teaching. I laid out the 78 Ancestral Path cards to see if I could decipher where the Major Arcana fit within the Wheel of the Year. I divided the cards into six sets of 13; 13 weeks for every season composes four sets. Then, I separated thirteen cards to correspond with the thirteen moons, the Moon card as the Blue or 13th Moon; this comprised the 5th set. I was left with the World card, the four aces, and eight other cards. I realized the cards would align with the eight cross-quarter days: the Sun card for the Summer Solstice and the Lovers for Beltaine was easy to match. I saw Judgment as Samhain/Halloween when the dead ascend from their graves…I was so excited! I gathered up my cards, grabbed my purse and the car keys and ran to the car to go to my best friend’s house and show her what I had discovered. The radio came on and the announcer said,” Be careful, it’s Friday the 13th.” Everything came together in my mind. It was June 13th, 6/13, relating to the six sets of 13. I couldn’t ignore the confirmation. Over the coming winter, I began work on 22, 3-by-4 feet new images to better illustrate what had happened that June morning.
Valerie: As in the Ancestral Path Tarot, the Blue Moon presents a tapestry of pantheistic imagery from diverse cultures to create a worldview of the tarot. What was your philosophy behind this approach?
Julie: Because I’m an All-American mutt, it’s hard for me to identify with any single culture or spirituality; I tend to think eclectically. When you’re living in America, you’re part this, and part that…Some Native American spiritual beliefs ring true for me, yet I am not genetically Native American. I feel strongly connected with Celtic Paganism, but I’m not Irish. My Catholic upbringing has never brought me a feeling of completion. I view Spirit as a clear trans-cultural, interpersonal energy. I utilize a variety of cultural and spiritual symbols to illustrate the complexity of divine energy. This is the reason I portray the nude body so often in my work as the symbol for human purity. The nude body shows our universal humanity projecting from the heart, and not from cultural bias or instituted programming.
Valerie: In the Death card, the red wall is hung with the heads of bulls. Could you explain the link between death and regeneration with the Bull?
Julie: The woman in the Death card finds herself in an ancient tomb at Catal Huyuk where large stone bull heads grace the walls. When you look at a bull’s head, it resembles a womb in the ninth month of pregnancy. I see the bull’s head as an engorged womb: the place where souls are stored between the cycles of death and birth. There is a connection between the symbolism of the bull’s head and the sacrifice of bulls with the power of blood—the menstrual cycle. There is a rhythm and there is a covenant of the sacred blood of women that was shed so karma could be released. The image of the sacred blood continues into Christianity, but the symbolism has been lost through masculinization. I see the bull’s head as the covenant between the woman’s blood that is shed, though she doesn’t die. She brings life from blood. With her drumming, she brings sound and silence—the rhythm of life. Death is silence, and life is sound. It continues as the drum beat—the rhythm of life.
Valerie: When I first viewed Blue Moon Tarot, I was struck by the number of images of the archetypal Mother in different stages of creation. I was surprised when I saw the Devil depicted as a pregnant woman preparing to give birth. You share a very strong facial resemblance. How did your experiences giving birth factor into your painting of the Devil?
Julie: I think being a woman was a stronger factor than my birthing experiences. I’ve had three births. My first birth was in the hospital. It was sterile and clinical. My last two births were at home, and I really loved having a midwife and being in control in my own space. The births were beautiful and peaceful. Birth is such an intense experience, like death. My husband said “You have the same look that my mother had in her eyes when she was dying.” It scared him—the gateway between birth and death. You’re really putting yourself at risk when giving birth. It’s a really vulnerable, volatile period.
The pregnant mother about to give birth is a symbol of the consequences of lust—the traditional tarot meaning of the Devil. This card also illustrates the controls placed on women’s bodies and the issue of ownership as well the karmic connection between mothers, children, and partners. The reason I painted the pregnant woman as the Devil is because of my Catholic upbringing and the symbolism of the medieval period showing the diabolical woman. The female was often considered to lack a soul in early Catholicism and was depicted as something that stood in the way of men’s union with God. The imagery of the devil has a face where the genitals were supposed to be, along with breasts, hairy legs and grotesque facial features. If a medieval man walked into the birthing room, what would his impression be? He would see his wife screaming, “You did this to me!” In Medieval times, it was illegal to give painkillers to women in labor. Many midwives were burned at the stake for administering painkillers. The connection between midwives and witches is fitting.
Valerie: I can imagine a man looking into the birthing room and seeing something very powerful and really not having any control over what is happening, watching from an outside perspective. I can understand how many of those medieval images of the Devil could come from men’s reactions to birth.
Julie: Catholic male creation stories, where people are made from dust and spontaneous generation turns rags into rats, make the whole idea of birthing foreign, because birthing is women’s work. Men didn’t become involved with the birthing process until later, when doctors took over for midwives as a co-opting of women’s power, and the practice of midwifery was outlawed.
Valerie: You correspond the Moon cycles to the Wheel of the Year, beginning with Aries in the Pagan New Year of Halloween. Could you describe the progression of how you envisioned the full Moon cycles as a birthing calendar? I’m thinking about how in the traditional tarot; it’s the Fool’s journey, but it seems more of the Moon’s journey in the Blue Moon.
Julie: The Emperor starts the journey as the annual king when he recognizes his mortality. The next card is Judgment, whereupon his death the King realizes there are two worlds that run congruently and intertwine with each other. The Taurus Full Moon is the Death card. As the goddess at the gateway between the two worlds, She shows the rhythm of life and death. The Full Moon in Gemini is Strength. The ancient twins of death and sleep, the Evening Star and the Morning Star, dwell between the Earth and Sky. The Winter Solstice is Temperance, the Crone pouring light into measured vessels from one hemisphere into another. The Full Moon in Cancer is the Magician as the Mother. What can be more magical than pulling another human being out of your body?
Valerie: It’s true. As a culture, we take the power of birthing for granted.
Julie: If men gave birth, it would be monumental! There would be stadiums and trophies for the men who produced the most offspring.
Valerie: There would be no football! There would be huge birthing stadiums!
Julie: The Wheel of Fortune is the Natal Chart, the stars, and the Milky Way. Candlemas, February 2nd begins with the return of the ewe’s milk, and the birth of lambs. I thought about the origin of the Milky Way. Egyptian Isis pulls her breast away to create the flow of stars. In ancient Greece, Hera pulls her breast away from Hercules to form the Milky Way. The primal feminine worldview begins with the Wheel of Fortune: Astrology starts and the milk flows in combination. Next comes the Chariot of the sun and moon. The passive duality begins to separate from the Mother as the child becomes the sun cleaving from the moon. The different paths they travel are about integrating and understanding opposites. The Full Moon in Virgo is the High Priestess, the virgin female, during the time of the year when everything is brown and seemingly dead, but is on the edge of growth like the prepubescent girl.
Valerie: I loved your link with the High Priestess to the Sleeping Goddess of Malta.
Julie: Girls would sleep in the temples to dream about the child that they would give birth to in the future; they would try to merge with the dead to receive visions. The Vernal Equinox is the Fool: the virgin male, and the idealistic, immortal youth. He is at once the trickster, the shaman, and the comedian. Then, the Full Moon in Libra is Justice, teaching that the Law is Love. Beltaine is the Lovers: the choice of a partner, the unfolding of life. The Full Moon in Scorpio is the Empress: the newly pregnant mother who is the gateway back into the physical world. The Full Moon in Sagittarius is the Hierophant: the great Father, the consort of the great Mother. In ancient Egypt, the High Priests were the only men who were permitted to mate with the High Priestesses to father children. The connection isn’t to a celibate father or pope, but to the Green Man and the Great Father Dagda in Celtic lore. Then comes the Summer Solstice, the longest day as the Sun card. The Sun card is traditionally the child, so there is a beautiful progression of the mother, father, and the child at the height of the season's light. The Full Moon in Capricorn is the Hermit, the holy couple taking solitude. The Full Moon in Aquarius is the Star, relating to universal timing as the sun loses light in the sky.
During the dog days of summer, Sirius disappears and the Nile floods. The Egyptians believed that Sirius was the tear of Isis, and that it would fall into the water, causing the yearly flood. The flooding of the Nile began the Egyptian New Year and everything was almost dead before Sirius would disappear. Every year when that star fell, the water from the high mountains at the source of the Nile melted, emptied into the river and caused the flood. Next is Lammas, the Hanged One, the first grain, in opposition to the first milk. It’s the sacrifice of the grain and can be associated with vasectomy—the need for infertility in order to make space for new growth. If you had a plant overripe with pumpkins, you may want to remove a few pumpkins to yield a stronger harvest. For increased fertility, you may want to sacrifice to produce a better crop.
Valerie: I loved the image of the child within the grain as a way of looking at another form of life, as being analogous to human life.
Julie: When you get down to the microscopic level, the structure of life is very similar. The embryos of humans, the embryos of chickens, and mutating cells are all very close. Then there is the Full Moon in Pisces, the Devil who brings fertility and the energy of life. The last card in the Blue Moon cycle, the Tower, shows the breaking down of life. There is a trauma and a shock at the start of fertility for the prepubescent female as well as for the menopausal woman on her way out of fertility.
Valerie: Freedom from Fertility!
Julie: It’s a transition as well. In the Maat Tarot, I placed the Tower as the first card, because I needed to begin with an event that shocks the annual king into realizing his mortality.
Valerie: That is an amazing way to begin, with the breaking down of consciousness, and then working through all of the images of the Tarot to rebuild.
Julie: The cycle of building, destruction, and rebuilding works better than other systems that seem to be bits and pieces stuck together. I need structure. I need to see cause and effect. I need to see polarities. The world has enough fragments. When you’re creating a divination system, you have to encompass every aspect.
Valerie: When you were creating the deck, were you thinking of the cards as a gateway for mediation or as a tool for divination?
Julie: I haven’t done any readings with the Maat or the Blue Moon. My focus was to create an image that most clearly defined the energy and symbolism of each card. I was trying to illustrate the idea of the tarot as a composition of calendar points. How people use the cards is their choice. I don’t have clear intentions for the outcomes of my work. As a painter, I channel the compulsion to create the images and illustrate the ideas.
Valerie: With the Ancestral Path, there is some evidence of the Rider-Waite-Smith tradition, but with the Blue Moon you have created a new concept of the Major Arcana. Did you intend to create a new approach to the Tarot or was the process more intuitive and instinctual?
Julie: The idea of the cards evolved. When I had almost finished the Ancestral Path, I was working with a prototype deck, and I took out the Aces and lined up the cards with the 52 weeks of the year, and the four suits seemed to naturally align with seasons. It was all experimenting. When the Ancestral Path came out, I didn’t understand the placement of the Major Arcana in this calendar wheel. Painting a lunar calendar for my friends Ron Losczyk and Janet Berres made me consider the lunar months and the cross-quarter days. If I hadn't painted the calendar, I doubt that I would have discovered the connection so quickly. It would probably have taken a lot longer.
Valerie: The process of how seemingly small connections lead to greater knowledge can be so amazing.
Julie: The ancient mysteries are hidden in plain sight. The weatherman still talks about the equinox, the solstice, and the cycles of the Moon, but no one thinks about how these cycles pertain to their own life or how they had affected their ancestors. This basic hunter-gatherer wisdom would have been significant in ancient cultures, but we have become very disconnected from them.
Valerie: That’s true. Were you able to paint any of the images in correspondence with the Wheel of the Year and the cycles of the Moon?
Julie: The only image I painted according to the Wheel was the Chariot. We were in the middle of a house renovation when I started the Blue Moon and I had 22 giant canvases. The contractor who finished the work in our kitchen offered to do the renovation for half-price if we started immediately. I’m in the middle of painting and half my house was being demolished. The contractors removed the walls from the upstairs all the way down to the ground. They added an entire second story to the house while I was painting in this little four-by-four space in the eating area. The day they installed the electricity, I was working on the Tower; I was so worried! The symbolism of your house being a vessel for your mind and your thoughts became clear to me as my ideas of the tarot were changing with the manifestation of each new card. As I paint, I seem to invite the energies of the cards into my house.
Valerie: While writing poetry for Celtic Goddesses within the Wheel of the Year, this powerful energy seemed to arise out of the ether and enter my life. I kept questioning: “Where is this coming from?”
Julie: Right. You summoned it. I remember painting Grandfather Thunder for Ancestral Path, and there was so much angst in the house. Until I made the Moon, the Queen, to balance him out, there was no peace in my life. My husband was irritable and everyone was crabby. I painted the tenth face, all the time understanding I needed the Moon to regain the balance offset by Grandfather Thunder. It was so stressful. I kept thinking, “I realize it’s the Moon! Why do I have to paint all of these faces? Give me a break! I don’t need to paint 28 faces! I get the point!”
Valerie: With all of the construction, how long did it take you to paint the Blue Moon?
Julie: I started painting in January 1998 and I was finished in May—about five months. I was driven. I had nothing else to do. I couldn’t be distracted by housework because the house was demolished. I couldn’t cook because everything from the living room was in the kitchen and everything from the upstairs was in the living room. It was impossible to do anything other than paint. Because of the renovations, the whole family had to sleep in the living room. I woke up to the constellation Leo shining through the southern exposure window. As I gazed at the image of the reclining Lion, I saw the silhouette of the Sphinx; I saw the two wheels as the path of the differentiating orbits of the Sun and Moon. Originally, I had an entirely different image for the Chariot: a Celtic king and a stone circle, symbolizing the Wheel of the Year. I didn’t know what Leo was supposed to be until that moment. When I had painted the Maat Tarot, I was more conscious of working within the Moon cycles and cross-quarter days.
Valerie: Your depiction of the figures in the Hermit card and the woman in the Star are much smaller in scale than traditional Major Arcana figures. My response to both cards was similar to viewing a richly colored landscape rather than a portrait. Did you feel inspired by particular settings in nature from home or travel when painting the Hermit and the Star?
Julie: I didn’t consciously notice the scale, but perhaps it relates to my ideas of time in regard to humanity. I think of the Hermit as earthly timing and the Star as universal timing. The landscape for the Star has a deep spiritual meaning for me.
When I was 22, I was home at my parent’s house for Easter break, sleeping on the couch, I had the most tremendous astral journey. When I woke up, instead of being in the living room, I was lying on a woven linen mattress seated upon a stone slab. I stood up and saw white curtains billowing between two pillars. I looked beyond the curtains and I saw water that seemed to go on forever. To my left was complete darkness. To my right I saw brilliant red cliffs, and below on the shore, there was a three-tiered temple with flickering torchlights. The cliffs behind me were green and lush with ferns, and there were square white buildings nestled into the vegetation. I thought to myself, “Where the hell am I?”
I was thinking with my own mind, and then I looked down at my body, and my body was not my own. I was shorter and smaller in stature and my hair was really long, trailing past my knees. My hair was wavy and black, as it is now, but my skin was much browner. I saw lightning flashing in the distance and I heard low thunder. I saw a big black cat with a narrow head. Suddenly, I was back on the couch, a black cat was sitting on my chest mewing loudly; I was completely paralyzed and I couldn’t speak. The sound and the light from the thunderstorm were all around me. Then I woke up again, and the cat was gone, and I could move, but the thunderstorm was still clashing.
The next day, at my mom’s house, I was paging through old encyclopedias because there was nothing else to do. I saw a picture of temple ruins where the uppermost tier was gone. It was Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri in Egypt, part of the Necropolis—the City of the Dead, across the Nile from Luxor at Thebes. The temple is situated east of the Valley of Kings beyond the red cliffs. It took me ten years to find any information or to discover whether there was a cliff near the temple, or if the Nile had risen so close to the temple in the past. I painted Hatshepsut’s temple in the Star picture in the Blue Moon, in the Ten of Staves in the Ancestral Path, and in the Two of Wands as well. This was the most intense astral journey I had ever experienced. The memory is still so strong and so powerful.
Valerie: What have you discovered about Hatshepsut since your vision?
Julie: Hatshepsut was the only female pharaoh. Her name had been scratched out and all the evidence of her reign was deposited in one location. I have been following the archaeological finds about her. My main question at twenty-two, since I was divorced, and raising a child alone was, “Why is there so much prejudice against women?” I struggled with how hard it was to be a woman back in 1981. I felt the law held women back. After Hatshepsut, women could never be pharaohs, women could never be kings, and women could never be priests. I really think that Hatshepsut may have been the pharaoh who, in the Bible, released the Hebrews. Her stepson, from whom she took power, was about nine years old when he was supposed to be king. Her husband, who had been appointed by her father Thutmoses I, was a weak ruler, so she had the responsibility of running the country during his lifetime.
Her stepson Thutmoses III, the son of a consort, was supposed to take her place. Even though the dating by Biblical scholars doesn't correlate, there are archaeological studies that name her as the pharaoh from the story of Moses. After the Hebrews had been set free, Moses disappeared and no one knows what happened to Hatshepsut; her death was not recorded. There is evidence that her stepson took over and stayed in power for about forty years. My out-of-body experience happened at Easter and Passover, so there is a correlation. It was a wild time travel journey and nothing similar has ever happened to me again. It makes me think there is so much more to this universe than I could possibly understand. Was it the timing of the holiday weekend? Was it my question? Was it the power of the thunderstorm? Were the ions just right? I don’t know, but the experience certainly changed my life. It made me a researcher before I ever worked with the tarot.
Valerie: How did you discover the Tarot?
Julie: At a UW-Whitewater college seminar for the Native American study program, I raised my hand in response to the professor asking if anyone had remembered any strange experiences from childhood. When I was about five, a woman had walked into my bedroom when I called for my Mom to bring me a drink of water, and the woman just disappeared. A guy who had attended the workshop with me loaned me his Rider-Waite pack. He said: “See if these speak to you.” As I flipped through the deck, I noticed the Queen of Wands with her black cat. Since a black cat had always accompanied me in my meditative journeys, seeing the image of the cat made me curious. I didn’t begin studying the tarot until after my second son was born, when I was 28. Six years passed before I began to work more seriously with the tarot.
Valerie: That is even more amazing because once you had committed to studying the tarot, you were able to create your own deck within only a year of research.
Julie: Painting was my way of studying the tarot. My husband and I had been heavily involved with Native American spirituality in the ‘80s. We participated in spirit fairs selling leather pouches, decorated feather fans, paintings, and jewelry. Psychic readers were just beginning to have tables. Whenever I had a spiritual journey, I expressed the nature of my experience through painting. Sometimes I put those paintings out for sale. I thought tarot images would be interesting to sell, and when Terry Principii, who had commissioned a chakra portrait, saw my tarot paintings, she introduced me to Tracey Hoover, who wrote the book for the Ancestral Path.
The next year, I had finished 64 paintings as my two-year-old was running around my feet. With Tracey’s encouragement, the Ancestral Path was completed and published. I started painting the cards in ’88, and the deck didn’t come out until ’96. It was such a slow process, but I could not put a price on getting my name out there and getting recognition for my art.
Valerie: I read that a first edition of the Blue Moon had sold for $250 on eBay after it had gone out of print.
Julie: I heard that it went for $350 from a woman who had bought the deck from me! The first edition of the Blue Moon was laser-printed paper glued onto card stock. I was so disappointed because the printer was supposed to print directly on card stock and it didn’t work. I glued endlessly. I received orders for 20 decks from the Mystic Eye and other sellers who wanted wholesale copies. I was cutting the cards by hand and getting sick from the glue until my printer finally wouldn’t print another card. I couldn’t afford to fix the printer so the first edition went out-of-print for three years. I received e-mails every week asking, “When are you going to print the Blue Moon again?” Finally, I thought, “It’s 2004. I stopped printing the deck in 2001 and people are still asking for it.” We took a risk, and we printed a second edition.
Valerie: How do you feel your ideas of the tarot have evolved from the Ancestral Path to the Blue Moon to the Maat?
Julie: With the Ancestral Path, I was just learning. I had Stuart Kaplan’s “Encyclopedia of Tarot,” Eden Gray’s “Mastering the Tarot”, the Rider-Waite, the Thoth, and the Aquarian decks. I asked myself, “What does this mean to me?” As I studied the divinatory meanings, I looked at the image of the card and associated it with a culture. I discovered my own interpretations of the symbolism and began diverting from the traditional path with the Hanged Man and Judgment cards.
With the Blue Moon, I was experimenting. I was seeing what would happen if I painted the cards like a mural. When you lay out all of the cards together, especially the Moons, the images flow into each other to make one big picture. I taught classes with the paintings about the Wheel of the Year. I used art and music to explain the sacred calendar. I began working on a Minor Arcana for the Blue Moon before 9/11.
The Maat Tarot evolved from the ideas of the calendar in the Blue Moon and the weeks of the year in the Ancestral Path. After 9/11, I wanted to be at home with my family, and I put away the canvases even though I had already started a few paintings. Last September, I began painting through the Wheel of the Year. The ideas were flowing and didn’t stop. By the time the Blue Moon came out in July, I had completed the Maat.
Valerie: How much of what you had painted before 9/11 did you actually use for the Maat?
Julie: I kept the Ace of Coins, but I repainted the majority of the cards. The images that started to come through me for the Maat became so intense around 9/11, I just couldn’t paint. The violence in the external world combined with the violence in the swords was very harsh. I could not master the dove impaled by the three swords. Last September, I started with the swords and I moved on to the wands, and then to the cups. I painted the coins last spring. It was very different from the Ancestral Path, because instead of the weeks of the year, I worked with the Moon phases. I had to think about the astrology of each lunar phase and consider the polarities, like the New and Full Moons in Sagittarius and compare them with the waxing and waning moons in Sagittarius. I wasn’t sure whether the traditional meanings of the tarot would fit the Moon phases, and surprisingly, the meaning of each card was there.
Click here for more information about the art of Julia Cuccia-Watts or to purchase signed copies of the Blue Moon Tarot and the Ancestral Path Tarot.
Valerie Antal is a Dianic Pagan living in Philadelphia, PA. She is currently writing a book of ritual meditations to the Goddess to honor the Celtic Wheel of the Year. She works as a Tarot reader, specializing in Triple Goddess Readings and Celtic Animal Meditations. Visit her website here.
Interview © 2004 Valerie Antal
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes