Tarot Symbolism in Carnivàle Episodes 16 and 17

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Banner from the HBO portal for Carnivàle.

Throughout human history, only one show ever mattered. That show was Carnivàle.

There’s been Game of Thrones, but Game of Thrones was not Carnivàle. There’s been Stranger Things, but Stranger Things was not Carnivàle. There’s been Lost, Walking Dead, The Simpsons…all shows that were not Carnivàle.

None of them mattered. Only Carnivàle.

In a series of pieces, of which this piece is one, I’m going to dissect allusions and symbolism I’ve noticed in Carnivàle. I’m doing this for no other reason than to indulge my obsessive love for the series and, perhaps, to draw like-minded lunatics into my lunar circle.

Because these pieces are intended for fans of the show, they won’t include explanations of characters or backstory or any of that. Either know the show or go away — you have no place here.

Back to the basement with you. Back to the damned shadows from which you’ve come.

Where the Dog and Wolf Howl at the Moon

In the sixteenth episode (titled Old Cherry Blossom Road) of the second season of Carnivàle, Ben meets his grandmother, Emma “The Crone” Krohn. She gives him an important trench knife (after seeming to consider stabbing him in the face with it) and then tells him that he will need it in the place “where the dog and the wolf howl at the moon.”

That “dog and wolf howling” image is repeated in the next episode (episode seventeen, titled “Creed, OK”), when Sofie reads Ben’s cards. This time, Ben figures out the location is in Damascus, Nebraska, which of course is one of the most important locations in the series.

So, this imagery clearly plays an important role in the narrative, but it’s never explained within the series.

Initially, I thought the bit about the dog and wolf howling at the moon was goofy. Something about it just struck me as corny and below the usual visual and esoteric excellence of the series. It really just flat-out annoyed me, honestly.

That is, it annoyed me until I saw the Moon card from the Rider Tarot Deck and noticed no less than a dog and a wolf howling at the moon. Well, the dog is clearly howling at the moon, while the wolf seems to be growling. However, the wolf’s position is close enough to imagine that it’s between howls.

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The Moon card from the Rider Tarot Deck.

Then, in the distance beyond the canines, there are two towers. They’re not exactly Damascus, Nebraska, of course, but they’re basically a symbol of civilization. Between the wolves and leading to the towers is a road. Carnivàle Episode Eighteen, which follows the aforementioned episodes that first brought the dog and wolf image to our consciousness, is titled “The Road to Damascus.”

There’s other weird stuff in the card, as well. I looked through my books and online sources and the most meaningful explanation I could find came from Biddy Tarot. They explain:

In the foreground is a small pool, representing the watery, subconscious mind. A small crayfish crawls out of the pool, symbolising [sic] the early stages of consciousness unfolding. A dog and a wolf stand in the grassy field, howling at the moon, representing both the tamed and the wild aspects of our minds.
Biddy Tarot

What fascinates me most about the discovery of the Moon imagery is that it feeds into my overarching hypothesis of what Carnivàle is really about. I suspect that the whole show plays upon the notion shared by multiple occult traditions, Christian mystical traditions (even many mainstream Christian theologians), Buddhists, Hindus…basically, nearly everyone who has thought deeply about the “spiritual” composition of reality.

I think an example of my broader thesis is nowhere more apparent than in the way the dust storm and the drought seem aligned with Ben and Sofie’s inner workings, but that’s another subject to be explored another time.

I t’s pretty clear that the Moon tarot card was used for the Damascus narrative. Why?

It’s possibly significant that Ben and Sofie (the Alpha and Omega) consummate their love there. However, I think Ben’s discovery of Scudder and eventual killing of Management are most important. This is where Ben finally begins to fully embody his fate as an avatar. He is a healer (highest symbol of domestic virtue) but also a killer when he needs to be (the wolf).

It’s here that he finally begins to fuse the two sides of his psyche.

That’s where my instinct goes, but I’ll be diving more deeply into my idea of the show’s “real” meaning over time. For now, I wanted to share this discovery that I, personally, found fascinating.

Since finding it, I’ve discovered lots of other Tarot imagery embedded in the narrative itself. I’ll be exploring that in coming installments of this series.

I do hope, dear friends, that you’ll follow along.

And if you haven’t seen the show yet then good lord go rectify that terrible lapse in judgment and come back to discuss. Carnivàle matters. Every other show in human history does not.

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I’m not in the Matrix. I AM the Matrix.

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