Changing of the Guards and the Tarot


by Dearbhla Egan

I would like to preface this review by stating that I have no expertise on the music of Bob Dylan or on the life of Dylan himself and neither have I anything more than a cursory knowledge of the meanings associated with the images on Tarot cards. So, now that I have blown the possibility of any credibility I might have used to my advantage I will go ahead with this review and ask you to read it with an open mind as, in the end, it amounts to no more than a hunch or opinion that I have.  I simply think I may be on to something and thought I would share it with you.

I listen to music almost all day, every day.  I find it helps me focus on my work. For some time now I have been listening to Dylan in a very concentrated way as I tend to re-play the same CD over and over, sometimes for weeks at a time, before I can muster up the enthusiasm to change it.  I know, as an artist (painter), that Dylan’s work is overflowing with imagery.  Dylan, as an artist, (poet, storyteller, songwriter, and musician) has always had a strong sense of the visible picture, the visual symbols, even if he often makes it difficult for us to make out what these images are about.

But, when he sings those songs that he writes in a narrative style, for me, it is as if there is a film reel running in my head.  Listening to ‘Tangled up in Blue’ or ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ or ‘Not Dark Yet’ or ‘Hurricane’ and so many others, it is like watching a short film unfolding in my mind.  I am not just hearing but also mentally envisaging these stories with their colourful characters and moving stories.  It is all very visual stuff and there are a lot of his songs that fall into this category.  Many poets rely on visual imagery to convey an idea.

I can remember thinking, a long time ago when I first heard ‘Changing of the Guards’, that certain specific references made me think that the song was about the practice of witch-hunting which fitted into the Medieval setting along with a lot of the language he used, implying that the female object of his affection was being tried as a witch, perhaps most specifically in the third verse:

They shaved her head
She was torn between Jupiter and Apollo
A messenger arrived with a black nightingale
I seen her on the stairs and I couldn’t help but follow
Follow her down past the fountain where they lifted her veil

But this theory, like many others one might have about individual verses of this song is knocked on the head when the supposedly captive witch is free to do her bidding by the seventh verse where:

She wakes him up
Forty-eight hours later, the sun is breaking
Near broken chains, mountain laurel and rolling rocks

(I will refer again to the ‘broken chains’ in a different context later)

And it begins to feel almost as if Dylan has been strolling through a Medieval film set, picking up on a new idea as he rounds each corner and is greeted by another vista.  He notes the previous view, puts it behind him and writes about what he next sees and so on.

I now believe that this perception is something very like what actually happened except that instead of a film set for inspiration he used the Tarot deck. I don’t think that he either knew enough or was interested enough in the historical values/meanings attributed to the cards to choose the images on the basis of that but he was merely taken by the captivating images and so he chose some based on their visual impact and cast others aside.

Ultimately, I believe, the first seven verses of this nine verse song are simply an attention-catching vehicle to keep us perplexed until the last two verses which are the real agenda here.  He was cautious enough to know that he couldn’t just write a song expressing the sentiment of those last two verses without getting a backlash although he had braved up enough one year later in 1979 with ‘You Gotta to Serve Somebody’ leaving us in no uncertainty about our spiritual doom, debts and duties.

He had become embroiled, perhaps trapped to some extent, in an unwavering belief system and in the certainty that through his music he had a duty to tell all of us that we needed to pick a side, what side that should be and what would happen if we failed to choose correctly.   That was not for Dylan or anyone to say and I think it was a failing on his part at that time to use his kudos as a popular musician to pontificate about religion.

However, I digress, and this rhetoric is not hugely relevant to what I really wish to discuss although I do feel strongly about it having now spent a good deal of time studying this song in detail.

So, at last, I am going to attempt in a some way to point out the references I have found in this song that relate directly to images from a pack of Tarot cards.  I am not going to go into long explanations around the meaning of the cards as I am fairly sure Dylan was not looking at them from that perspective and also because, as I stated at the outset of this review, I do not hold any particular expertise in this area and would merely end up quoting from books.

I still hold the belief to some extent that there was a theme of witch-hunting present in some of the lyrics and so there is a crossing over in parts between the two themes.

I see a theme of witch-hunting being set down in the first verse with the lines:

Desperate men, desperate women divided
Spreading their wings ’neath the falling leaves

Bearing in mind that it was common practice in Mediaeval times for a suspected witch to be hung by the neck this might explain the image of a desperate woman, spreading her wings (now angelic and winged in death) beneath the leaves on the tree on which she was hung.  Just an observation. 

On the first line of the second verse I think there is the first reference to the Tarot.

‘Fortune calls’

Well, typically, although technically incorrect, the Tarot has been considered a method of telling fortunes and that there is an element of divination attached to a Tarot reading.   Card number 10 of the Major Arcana is called ‘The Wheel of Fortune’.

He goes on to create a sort of theatrical set in this second verse ending with the lines:

She’s smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born
On midsummer’s eve, near the tower

Card number 16 of the Major Arcana is ‘The Tower’. The Tower shows a tall tower pitched atop a craggy mountain. Lightning strikes and flames burst from the building’s windows. People are seen to be leaping from the tower in desperation, wanting to flee such destruction and turmoil. The Tower signifies darkness and destruction on a physical scale, as opposed to a spiritual scale. Certainly the kind of imagery that would tie in with his words in the last two verses of the song.

Moving on to the first line of the third verse:

‘The cold-blooded moon’

This line seems to stand alone, somehow disconnected from the rest of the verse other than to set a scene.

On the fourth line of the third verse he sings:

Whose ebony face is beyond communication

I have thought that perhaps it is possible that this may be an obscure reference to the illustrator of the commonly used ‘Rider Waite’ Tarot Deck, first published in 1910 in England.

The illustrator of these cards was a young artist of mixed race called Pamela Coleman Smith. She was born in London, the daughter of a wealthy English merchant and a Jamaican mother.  Her family moved home regularly between London, Brooklyn and Jamaica as a young woman but she finally settled in England. In 1911 at the age of 33 she converted to Catholicism and this may have interested Dylan.

Although she enjoyed some degree of recognition, she struggled all her life to make a living as an artist, writer and theatrical designer but ultimately died penniless in Cornwall in 1951 with all of her artwork and literature being sold off to satisfy her debts.  I suppose there is a tiny chance that this is the ‘ebony face’ he refers although I think I am clutching at straws here.  Nevertheless it is an interesting piece of history, isn’t it!

On the second line of the third verse he sings:

‘She was torn between Jupiter and Apollo’

Card number 1 of the Major Arcana is the ‘High Priestess’ who, in Greek Mythology, is regarded as the wife of Jupiter.  The sun god ‘Apollo’ is connected with any of the cards that depict a chariot as Apollo is seen in mythology to be riding his chariot across the sky so that the day might progress.  So, if Dylan was looking at a spread of cards one might assume that one of the cards was placed between the ‘High Priestess’ and ‘The Chariot’ thus being torn between Jupiter and Apollo.

In the fourth verse he sings:

 ‘I seen her on the stairs and I couldn’t help but follow’ 

I simply regard this line as a possible reference to how Dylan was looking at the spread of cards which has many possible formats but almost always takes the form of cards being stepped like ‘stairs’ and so his eye was following the layout of the spread.

Skip a few lines. On to verse five and the third line:

With the stitches still mending ‘neath a heart-shaped tattoo

The ‘Three of Swords’ card depicts a large, red, heard that is pierced by three swords.

And the next lines on verse five:

Renegade priests and treacherous young witches
Were handing out the flowers that I’d given to you 

It is anyone’s guess what he is getting at here.  The obvious connection to the Tarot is with card number 5 of the Major Arcana, the ‘Hierophant’, known as the High Priest in some decks.  One suggested meaning says:

The Hierophant is very conventional and this Tarot card suggests that you have a desire to follow due process and to stay within the conventional bounds of what is typically an orthodox approach. Instead of being innovative, you will need to adapt to the existing set of beliefs and systems that are already in place. You will         need to do what is expected of you. The appearance of the Hierophant in a Tarot reading indicates that this is  certainly not a time to challenge the status quo!

Well, if Dylan understood this to be the meaning behind this card it certainly would not have sat well with his own dogma and agenda.  The Hierophant might easily have been degraded to the position of ‘Renegade priest’.

Perhaps the ‘treacherous young witches’  from the same line is just another throwback to that earlier reference I made suggesting that parts of the song referred to Mediaeval witch-hunting and, if so, this is more than just a mere suggestion that some of those alleged witches were the real thing!

Verse six is basically unfathomable to me other than that the language of it lends itself to the general historical context (insofar as there is one) of the song.  There are Tarot cards with images of dogs (for instance, if you look at the image of the ‘Sun’ card you will see dogs in the picture but not as guards or soldiers) so for this one he was doing his own thing.

Verse seven.  The unexplained miracle has occurred and she who was held captive is now up and about and:

She wakes him up
Forty-eight hours later, the sun is breaking
Near broken chains, mountain laurel and rolling rocks
She’s begging to know what measures he now will be taking
He’s pulling her down and she’s clutching on to his long golden locks

There are three cards that I associate with this verse. First is Card number 19 of the Major Arcana ‘The Sun’. The

Second is Card number 15 of the Major Arcana, ‘The Devil’ and the third is card number 7 of the Major Arcana, ‘Strength’.

The ‘sun’ is simply the sun.  The second card, The Devil, is significant in that the two lovers are chained together in front of the devil figure but the chain is breakable so that they can escape.  This would seem like a fairly logical reference to line three of this verse (near broken chains).

Then, with the ‘Strength’ card  I think he makes an error in the meaning he draws from the image…He’s pulling her down and she’s clutching on to his long golden locks except that in the many incarnations of the Tarot deck, this card always depicts a woman opening the mouth of a lion but it is not always clear that she is doing that at first glance.  It is often easy to mistake this image as being one of submissiveness on the part of the woman with the Lion depicting ‘strength’ as he draws the woman down who ‘clutches on to his long golden locks’.

After this seventh verse, Dylan loosens his grip on the Tarot as he goes on with great ardour to deliver his overly zealous warning urging people to choose their God wisely lest ‘cruel death’ befalls them. I have considered if perhaps the words ‘marked your cards’ in this verse are, apart from the obvious meaning of giving fair warning, an allusion to the cards that have accompanied him throughout the song and that perhaps it is a play on words. Maybe. Maybe not.

In the very end he makes a return to the Tarot using the image of the ‘Death’ card in its most misunderstood form, as a harbinger of doom and destruction which is not what this card is considered to mean (And cruel death surrenders with its pale ghost retreating).

Then, finally, ‘King of Swords’ and the ‘Queen of Swords’ which are two entirely different cards with different meanings thus suggesting that the last line is of no particular consequence unless they had a meaning for Dylan if he was looking at both placed with another card between them on a spread. I think this final line is as random and ultimately meaningless as much of the language used in the song.  It works because it just sort of fits.

Of course, it is not for me to say how or where Dylan should have looked to for inspiration to write his songs.  I just have a small problem with this one in trying to reconcile how it is possible that he drew on images from a deck of Tarot cards which have always been linked with the occult (rightly or wrongly) in order to go on to write a song where the slam-dunk at the end is a dose of the most high-minded, craw-thumping, Christian sermonising imaginable.

‘But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination

Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards’

There is certainly no ambiguity in those two lines. Tarot or no Tarot, I have to say that I am in full agreement with Tony Attwood’s final sentiments in his review about the ending of the song because it is so disappointing that Dylan spoke/sang to us in this way. In a way it leaves me wondering why I have bothered going to the trouble of delving into Dylan’s interest in Tarot cards.  Frankly, it has just been a sort of puzzle solving exercise for me with fairly underwhelming results although there is always something to be learned by such an exercise.  I still love Dylan’s work.  He has brought me and continues to bring me great joy but I don’t like what he is playing at in this song.

At the end of Tony Attwood’s review he says:  “brace yourself for elimination”  must be the Second Coming, which means the next line says you either are  for Him or against Him, and I really, truly dislike that sentiment.  If that is the God we have ruling over us, then I am still to be counted out.  Blind faith is not something I am willing or able to offer, and I am   so sorry that Dylan felt he could at this time.  Of course, my judgement is meaningless, who am I to say what’s right or not?  But then who is Dylan?  He can write the most staggering songs, but does that give him, or any Christian, Muslim or Jew the right to tell me that you are either part of the fold or an outcast?  No, for  me the answer is totally “no”.

The answer is definitely ‘NO’ for me also.

All the Untold Dylan songs reviewed

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2 Responses to Changing of the Guards and the Tarot

  1. Maude says:

    You could certainly see your expertise in the work you write.
    The world hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe.
    All the time follow your heart.

  2. John Minett says:

    A great mysterious song. Bob Dylan is on par with Mark Twain.

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