I was recently browsing in a second-hand bookstore and happened upon Seventy-eight Degrees of Wisdom, Part I: The Major Arcana — a commentary on the symbolism of tarot cards by Rachel Pollack.
The book deals primarily with the popular Rider-Waite deck but makes frequent references to other versions of the tarot. One of Waite’s major innovations (which was also followed by other Golden Dawn-influenced tarotists) was to make Strength the 8th card and Justice the 11th, reversing the traditional Marseilles numbering of those two trumps. Pollack devotes some space to a discussion of Waite’s reasons for making the change, and of the relative merits of the two numbering systems — but never mentions what I feel quite sure was Waite’s real motive for switching Justice and Strength. Since it seems not many people know about this, I thought I might as well post on it.
One of the most basic assumptions most occultists make is that, given any two sufficiently interesting sets of the same cardinality, there must be a one-to-one correspondence between their respective members. There are four suits of tarot cards, for example, so these must correspond to the four classical elements, the four cardinal directions, the four seasons of the year, and any other interesting foursomes you care to think of. “Tables of correspondences” were a huge thing among Golden Dawn types.
Well, if the Fool card is lumped together with the 21 trumps, that makes a total of 22 “major arcana.” Since there also happen to be 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet (and since that alphabet has been given great mystical significance by the Kabbalists), a one-to-one correspondence between the cards and the letters can be assumed.
Since there are not too many sets of 22, and since correspondences are the heart of the occult, the Kabbalists broke up their 22-letter alphabet into three smaller and more “significant” numbers: 3 + 7 + 12. Seven of the Hebrew letters are considered “doubles” because each has two sounds (aspirated and unaspirated); of the remaining 15, three (aleph, mem, and shin) are designated “mothers” for reasons which are not clear to me, and the remaining 12 are “singles.”
An appendix to the Sepher Yetzirah lays out astrological correspondences for each of these subsets of the Hebrew alphabet. The three “mothers” correspond to the earth, made from water; the firmament or air; and the heavens, made from fire. (We think of “firmament” and “heavens” as synonyms now; in the past, the latter was a solid vault, and the former was the empty expanse between it and earth.) The seven astrological “planets” (i.e., those planets visible with the naked eye, excluding Earth, plus the Sun and the Moon) are assigned to the seven “doubles,” though which is assigned to which seems arbitrary. Finally, the 12 “singles” are mapped in a straightforward way to the 12 signs of the zodiac: he, the first of the doubles, corresponds to Aries, the first sign of the zodiac; vau, the second double, is Taurus; and so on.
The Golden Dawn attempted to add the tarot trumps (plus the Fool) to this schema, assigning each card astrological correspondences by way of the Hebrew alphabet.
Before looking at the actual mappings decided on by the Golden Dawn, it might be instructive to look at the traditional Marseilles-style tarot trumps (on which Waite’s were based) and see which astrological correspondences would make the most intuitive sense.
Starting with the seven astrological planets, obviously the Sun maps to the Sun, and the Moon to the Moon. Venus should be the Lovers, and Mars should be the Chariot (called “Victory” in older Italian decks). The Hermit was originally called the “Old Man” or “Time” and so of course maps to Saturn. Mercury, patron of tricksters and thieves, fits well with the Magician (clearly depicted here as a juggler or mountebank, not a genuine wizard; however, Hermes was later associated with “real” magic as well). The Emperor, with his throne and eagle, suggests Jupiter.
As for the twelve signs of the zodiac, only a few have obvious matches. The Star card clearly depicts Aquarius, the water bearer; and the Moon (if not mapped to, well, the Moon) is obviously Cancer. (The crayfish on the card doesn’t look like a “crab” to us moderns but is consistent with traditional depictions of Cancer. Historically, it is probably intended to represent Cancer, which is ruled by the Moon.) Likewise, if the Sun were not the Sun, it would obviously be Gemini. The lion of Leo appears on the Strength card, and the scales of Libra on Justice. Although the traditional tarot Devil is not goat-like, tradition nevertheless associates the devil with that animal and thus with Capricorn. The Lovers card is already taken by Venus, but it also features an archer — Sagittarius. The House of God could also be Sagittarius, since one of its oldest names is the “Arrow” (a reference to the lightning bolt). The remaining signs suggest no obvious mappings. Neither do the three “mothers,” which are too vague and abstract to find any clear echoes in tarot symbolism.
So, what mappings did the Golden Dawn actually make? Well, the Hebrew letters had an established sequence, as did the tarot trumps (though there was some historical variation in the latter), so that didn’t give them too much leeway. Aleph and the Magician map to the number 1, beth and the Papess to 2, etc., giving the following correspondences:
- 1. Magician = Aleph = Firmament / Air
- 2. Papess = Beth = Moon
- 3. Empress = Gimel = Mars
- 4. Emperor = Daleth = Sun
- 5. Pope = He = Aries
- 6. Lovers = Vau = Taurus
- 7. Chariot = Zayin = Gemini
- 8. Justice = Heth = Cancer
- 9. Hermit = Teth = Leo
- 10. Wheel of Fortune = Yodh = Virgo
- 11. Strength = Kaph = Venus
- 12. Hanged Man = Lamedh = Libra
- 13. Death = Mem = Earth / Water
- 14. Temperance = Nun = Scorpio
- 15. Devil = Samekh = Sagittarius
- 16. House of God = Ayin = Capricorn
- 17. Star = Pe = Mercury
- 18. Moon = Tsade = Aquarius
- 19. Sun = Qoph = Pisces
- 20. Judgment = Resh = Saturn
- 21. World = Shin = Heavens / Fire
- 0. Fool = Tau = Jupiter
As you can see, this schema doesn’t work very well. It features none of the intuitive matches discussed in the previous section, though a handful of the mappings — shown in bold above — do at least make some kind of sense. The Sun has always been associated with kingship and so matches the Emperor. The Pope, with his shepherd’s staff, makes sense as the ram — the leader of a flock of sheep. The Taurus-Lovers match is a bit of a stretch, but at least Taurus is ruled by the planet Venus. Probably the most satisfying aspect of this admittedly unsatisfying schema is that the three “mothers” map to three obviously “special” trumps — the Magician, Death, and the World.
Overall, though, the above schema was not accepted by the Golden Dawn. Instead they opted to jettison the strongest Tarot-Kabbalah link — namely numerology — and to associate the first trump with the second letter, the second trump with the third letter, and so on, as follows:
- 0. Fool = Aleph = Firmament / Air
- 1. Magician = Beth = Moon
- 2. Papess (renamed “High Priestess”) = Gimel = Mars
- 3. Empress = Daleth = Sun
- 4. Emperor = He = Aries
- 5. Pope (renamed “Hierophant”) = Vau = Taurus
- 6. Lovers = Zayin = Gemini
- 7. Chariot = Heth = Cancer
- 8. Justice = Teth = Leo
- 9. Hermit = Yodh = Virgo
- 10. Wheel of Fortune = Kaph = Venus
- 11. Strength = Lamedh = Libra
- 12. Hanged Man = Mem = Earth / Water
- 13. Death = Nun = Scorpio
- 14. Temperance = Samekh = Sagittarius
- 15. Devil = Ayin = Capricorn*
- 16. House of God (renamed “Tower”) = Pe = Mercury
- 17. Star = Tsade = Aquarius*
- 18. Moon = Qoph = Pisces
- 19. Sun = Resh = Saturn
- 20. Judgment = Shin = Heavens / Fire
- 21. World = Tau = Jupiter
This yields somewhat better matches. Two of the trumps — the Devil and the Star — even have the intuitive matches we discussed, and the others in bold above are at least somewhat intelligible. The nothing-card of the Fool (not even a proper trump) makes sense as aleph and air. The Moon, as Hecate, is patroness of sorcery. Scorpio, the most sinister sign, fits well with Death. The angel of Judgment comes from the heavens. (One might also consider Pope-Taurus a hit, if the pun on “papal bull” counts for anything.)
Notice that not a single one of the “doubles,” with the possible exception of Magician-Moon, is a good fit. But fortunately, as I mentioned above, the order of the seven planets as given in the Sepher Yetzirah seems entirely arbitrary, and so can be safely modified without doing any obvious violence to the system. The Golden Dawn reordered the planets as follows:
- 1. Magician = Beth = Moon Mercury
- 2. Papess (renamed “High Priestess”) = Gimel = Mars Moon
- 3. Empress = Daleth = Sun Venus
- 10. Wheel of Fortune = Kaph = Venus Jupiter
- 16. House of God (renamed “Tower”) = Pe = Mercury Mars
- 19. Sun = Resh = Saturn Sun
- 21. World = Tau = Jupiter Saturn
Virtually all of these mappings are defensible. The Magician is Mercury — i.e. Thoth or Hermes Trismegistus. The two female figures are mapped to the two female planets — the virginal Papess to Diana, and the married Empress to Venus. The House of God, depicting a lightning bolt, might more appropriately have been mapped to Jupiter, but Mars works as well because of the martial connotations of a tower. The Sun of course is the Sun. The Jupiter and Saturn mappings are not exactly obvious, but neither do they seem obviously wrong.
With the above changes made, all the “mothers” and “doubles” are acceptable. That leaves the “singles” — the 12 signs of the zodiac. These unfortunately have a well-established non-arbitrary order and cannot be rearranged at will as the planets were. The order of the trumps themselves is slightly more flexible, though; the Marseilles ordering, though standard now (or before Waite, anyway), is only one of several ordering schemes which were used in the early days of tarot. The order of the cards representing the cardinal virtues of Fortitude (Strength), Temperance, and Justice was particularly variable; the earliest known ordering (given in Sermones de ludo cum aliis), has Temperance as VI, Fortitude as IX, and Justice as XX, which is entirely different from the Marseilles sequence. Therefore, when Waite decided to switch Strength and Justice so that the Lion and Scales would map to their corresponding zodiac signs, he was not entirely without precedent.
It would have been nice if the Moon could somehow have been mapped to Cancer, which the card so explicitly illustrates, but breaking up the established sequence of Star, Moon, Sun — which is invariable in all known historical orderings of the cards — would have represented a much more serious and disruptive break with tradition. Also, the Pisces-Chariot mapping which would result from such a change has no obvious merits. Therefore, Waite made no changes other than swapping Justice and Strength.
Having come up with this reasonably-good mapping, Waite reinforced it by tweaking the iconography of the tarot to illustrate the new correspondences.
Notice in particular the following changes:
- The “High Priestess” (Papess) is now depicted as Isis, with a lunar headdress, and with the Moon under her feet.
- The Empress’s shield, which formerly bore the imperial eagle, is now (it pains me to say) heart-shaped and bears the astrological sign for Venus.
- The Emperor has also lost his eagle and now sits on a throne decorated with rams’ heads (for Aries). (Surprisingly, the Marseilles tradition of having the Emperor’s body form the alchemical sign for Sulfur has also been abandoned. Junking such a neat “correspondence” seems out of character for Waite and the GD.)
- The Lovers has been totally redone. Instead of one man choosing between two women, it now shows Adam and Eve — a twosome suggesting Gemini.
- Temperance now features iris flowers — suggesting the rainbow goddess Iris and thus Sagittarius.
- The Devil is now portrayed as more goat-like, so as to suggest Capricorn.
- The Gemini imagery has been removed from the Sun card. (Oddly, no corresponding change was made to Moon card, which still shouts “Cancer!” despite officially representing Pisces.)
All in all, I can think of very little good to say about Waite’s innovations, nearly all of which stem from this ham-handed attempt to force “correspondences” between two systems that were never meant to correspond, rather than from the internal logic of the tarot. If he really wanted a deck of cards depicting astrological concepts, he could have just made one, instead of messing up the tarot in this ultimately unsuccessful attempt to turn it into an astrological cipher. (His even more innovative handling of the pip cards is likewise a disappointment, but that is perhaps a subject for another post.)