Category Archives: Tarot

Why Waite switched Justice and Strength

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.

Trumps and Fool from the Jodorowsky-Camoin deck, a

Trumps and Fool from the Jodorowsky-Camoin deck, a “restored” Tarot de Marseille

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.

“Major Arcana” (trumps and Fool) from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck

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.)



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Suits as elemental qualities rather than elements

Most interpretations of the suit cards (“Minor Arcana,” if you must) in the tarot deck are based on mapping each suit to one of the four classical elements. Typically Clubs (Wands) represent Fire, Swords are Air, Cups are Water, and Coins (Pentacles) are Earth. Sometimes Clubs and Swords are switched. This is pretty standard, but I’ve always found it symbolically unsatisfying. This post explains an alternative system I developed some years ago.


In Whitley Strieber’s tarot book The Path, he interprets the suits in a way which bypasses the traditional elemental mappings and instead focuses on the suit symbols themselves, drawing on the Gurdjieffian idea of triads. “In the Tarot, the two great opposing forces are symbolized by Swords and Clubs. . . . Masculine violence penetrates, feminine violence crushes. But when the two are in harmony with each other, there is a vast leap into another energetic level entirely. The suit called Money in old Tarots reveals the nature of this energy.” Money, as the power of “codifying wealth into a system of universally recognized symbols,” is “considered to have magical properties” and “actually represents the mind and the energy of seeing, which will be symbolized by the card of the Sun.” As for the remaining suit, Cups, it “contains the three other suits, which, in balance, make a fourth and much greater whole.”

Strieber makes no reference to the classical elements, though his reference to the Sun would seem to link Coins more to Fire than to the traditional Earth. However, in identifying Swords  and Clubs as the two opposing active forces, “penetrating” and “crushing,” respectively, he reminded me of Aristotle’s analysis of the elements in Book II of On Generation and Corruption. In Aristotle’s theory, underlying the four elements are four even more fundamental qualities: hot, cold, dry, and moist.

Hot and cold, and dry and moist, are terms, of which the first pair implies power to act and the second pair susceptibility. ‘Hot’ is that which ‘associates’ things of the same kind (for ‘dissociating’, which people attribute to Fire as its function, is ‘associating’ things of the same class, since its effect is to eliminate what is foreign), while ‘cold’ is that which brings together, i.e. ‘associates’, homogeneous and heterogeneous things alike. And moist is that which, being readily adaptable in shape, is not determinable by any limit of its own: while ‘dry’ is that which is readily determinable by its own limit, but not readily adaptable in shape.

. . .

The elementary qualities are four, and any four terms can be combined in six couples. Contraries, however, refuse to be coupled: for it is impossible for the same thing to be hot and cold, or moist and dry. Hence it is evident that the ‘couplings’ of the elementary qualities will be four: hot with dry and moist with hot, and again cold with dry and cold with moist. And these four couples have attached themselves to the apparently ‘simple’ bodies (Fire, Air, Water, and Earth) in a manner consonant with theory. For Fire is hot and dry, whereas Air is hot and moist (Air being a sort of aqueous vapour); and Water is cold and moist, while Earth is cold and dry.

. . .

The ‘simple’ bodies, since they are four, fall into two pairs which belong to the two regions, each to each: for Fire and Air are forms of the body moving towards the ‘limit’, while Earth and Water are forms of the body which moves towards the ‘centre’. Fire and Earth, moreover, are extremes and purest: Water and Air, on the contrary are intermediates and more like blends.

Hot and Cold are the active qualities according to Aristotle, and they map readily to Strieber’s Swords and Clubs, respectively. The cutting blade of the Sword represents the separating, centrifugal power of Heat; and the crushing Club (think of crushing not as breaking into pieces, but as mashing skin, flesh, and bone together into a single mass) corresponds to the centripetal, bringing-together force of Cold.

The mapping of the remaining two qualities and suits is less straightforward. One could argue for mapping Cups to Dry, since a cup contains other things and imposes its shape on them. Coins, especially if interpreted, following Strieber, as abstract “Money” rather than physical coins, could them be considered Moist, since money has no proper form of its own. However, this seems inconsistent with the identification of Money with the fiery Sun, and to use Cups as a symbol of Dry seems so counterintuitive as to be perverse.

The other option, which I prefer, is to see Cups as Moist and Coins as Dry. Here the suit of Cups does not represent the cup itself so much as the contents of the cup (in line with the traditional identification of Cups with Water), and as such stands for fluidity and the Aristotelian quality of Moist. Strieber’s Cup represents the surrounding environment in which the Sword-Club conflict takes place, and is thus readily identifiable with the Air and Water (the two Moist elements) in which living things live and move. Coins, as the universal and unchanging unit of value, can then represent Dry. The Coins in tarot are generally pictured as gold, and gold (like the diamond, the French-suit counterpart to Coins) is famously unchangeable and incorruptible — that is, “Dry” in the Aristotelian sense. The two Dry elements are Earth and Fire, allowing this system to accommodate both the traditional identification of Coins with Earth and Strieber’s link between Money and the Sun.

In fact this system is for the most part compatible with more traditional interpretations of the suits. Cups as Moist retain their association with Water, and Swords as Hot can be identified with either Air or Fire. The only radical departure from tradition is the identification of Clubs (which, like Swords, have traditionally been mapped to one of the Hot elements) with Cold.


Aristotle’s elements have a natural hierarchy. Earth (purely centripetal) is the lowest (heaviest, closest to the center), then Water (relatively centripetal), Air (relatively centrifugal), and Fire (purely centripetal). The Hot elements are the highest, the Moist are in the middle, and the Cold are the lowest. There is also supposed to be Fire at the center of the Earth, so Dry should probably be considered even lower than Cold.

The suits also have a natural hierarchy, since they most likely derive ultimately from Chinese money-suited cards. Coins (single coins) are the lowest, then Clubs (strings of 100 coins), then Cups (tens of thousands), and finally Swords (hundreds of thousands). This order is still mostly preserved in French-suited cards, where Spades (Swords) are generally considered the highest (as in the expression “in spades”) with Hearts (Cups) in second place. In Bridge, Clubs are lower than Diamonds (Coins), but many other card games preserve the original ranking.

The hierarchy of the elemental qualities matches the original order of the suits. From lowest to highest: Dry/Coins, Cold/Clubs, Moist/Cups, Hot/Swords.

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The accidental is second only to the ideal

The following is Constantin Constantius (a.k.a. Kierkegaard) in Repetition, commenting on the farce (Posse, the German equivalent of vaudeville) performances at the Königstädter Theater in Berlin. The translation is Howard and Edna Hong’s, and I’ve added paragraph breaks.

Two . . . geniuses are enough for a farce theater; . . . The rest of the cast need not be talented; it is not even good if they are. Nor do the rest of the cast need to be recruited according to standards of good looks; they should instead be brought together by chance. . . . No one needs to be excluded even for a physical abnormality; on the contrary, such an accidental feature would be a splendid contribution. . . . That is, the accidental is second only to the ideal.

A wit has said that mankind can be divided into officers, servant girls, and chimney sweeps. In my opinion, this remark is not only witty but also profound, and it would take a great speculative talent to make a better classification. If a classification does not ideally exhaust its object, the accidental is preferable in every way, because it sets the imagination in motion. A somewhat true classification cannot satisfy the understanding, is nothing at all for the imagination, and for that reason it should be completely rejected, even though in daily use it enjoys great honor, because people for one thing are very stupid and for another have very little imagination.

If there is to be a representation of a person in the theater, what is required is either a concrete creation thoroughgoingly portrayed in ideality or the accidental. The theaters that exist not only for entertainment should produce the first. . . . In farce, however, the minor characters have their effect through that abstract category “in general” and achieve it by an accidental concretion.

In this way, one gets no further than actuality. Nor should one, but the spectator is comically reconciled to watching this accidental concretion make a claim to be the ideal, which it does by stepping onto the artificial world of the stage.

This is very perceptive, as the bit about officers, servant girls, and chimney sweeps demonstrates. That haphazard classification does indeed set the imagination in motion in a way that a more systematic attempt would not. Upon reading it, I immediately began to think about which category Kierkegaard himself would fit into, and then to consider myself and various people I know, and it was a very useful and mind-expanding exercise.

Tarot cards, when I first discovered them, had a similar effect on me. Any fortune-telling system is an attempt at a universal ontology of things that can happen. Cartomancy’s implicit claim is that anything that could conceivably happen to the querent can be symbolically represented in the 40-morpheme language which is the tarot deck — and trying to force the cards to make good on that promise sets the imagination in motion like nothing else. And the reason it works as well as it does is that the cards are such a haphazard conglomeration of what-have-you — the virtue of temperance, a conjuror, a tower being struck by lightning, and ten cups, to name a few. The haphazardness is indispensable; my attempts to create an alternative deck with a more systematic structure have been complete failures. I’ve also tried replacing the too-systematic Minor Arcana with an even more haphazard assortment, though (with such cards as “walking the dog,” “glyptodon,” “monkey with a shovel,” and “Zeppo”), and that works just fine.

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The old savanna calling

In my “One After 909” post, I showed that the titular number is 11/11 (that is, 1), which comes after 10/11 (that is, .909), and that moving over twice from 11/11 brings us to 9/11. I also mentioned, but didn’t discuss in any detail, the fact that the song ends with “Oh, Danny Boy, the old savanna calling.”

That the song ends with the word “calling” is significant, since 911 is also a phone number. A reference to a phone call also appears, together with the “move over once, move over twice” pattern, in another Beatles song, “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” which includes the line “Sunday’s on the phone to Monday, Tuesday’s on the phone to me.” (9/11 was a Tuesday.)

But in this post, instead of focusing on “calling,” I want to look at the significance of “the old savanna.” The original version of “Danny Boy” doesn’t say anything about a savanna; the first line is “Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling” (meaning, presumably, the bagpipes calling Danny off to war). But in the Beatles’ version, it’s not pipes but a savanna. This made me think of Magritte’s famous “this is not a pipe” painting:

As it happens, there’s another Magritte painting with the same concept, only it uses an apple (sorry, a non-apple) instead of a pipe.

The apple, of course, is a symbol of New York. It also occurs in several other Magritte paintings, including this one, which also includes shapes evocative of the Twin Towers.

The same apple appears in the Magritte painting below, which is called “The Son of Man” after a biblical figure who appears in the Book of Daniel.

So by conspicuously not being a pipe, the Beatles’ “savanna” leads us to Magritte and the Big Apple, a connection which is reinforced by the use of the name Danny. But there’s more to it than that. A savanna is, as I mentioned before, a kind of plain (sounds like “plane”). More specifically, the savanna is the natural habitat of the lion (or, in Arabic, osama). “The old savanna calling,” then, could refer to a phone call from a lion — or, as it says in the They Might Be Giants song “The Guitar,” “Hush my darling, be still my darling, the lion’s on the phone.”

I’ve mentioned the 9/11 references in “The Guitar” in a previous post. In addition to the phone reference (the number the lion is calling is of course 911, and the music video cuts to footage of buildings collapsing right after the word “phone”), it contains the line, “In the spaceship, the silver spaceship, the lion takes control.” The lion hijacks a spaceship rather than an airplane because this song is from the 1992 album Apollo 18, which has a space travel theme. (The year most closely associated with space travel is, naturally, 2001.) Here’s the album cover.

The reader will perhaps already have noticed the significance of the number 18 (9/11 = .8181818…) and the similarity of the words Apollo and apple. The name Apollo also resembles Apollyon, which in fact is an anagram of “Apollo NY.” This connection is reinforced by the giant squid on the cover. It brings to mind that other giant cephalopod, the North Pacific Giant Octopus. The standard scientific name for this species is currently Enteroctopus dofleini, but dated synonyms include Polypus apollyon, Octopus dofleini apollyon, and Octopus apollyon. Apollyon is the angel of the abyss, which is probably why the name was chosen for a deep-sea creature; as such, it would actually be more appropriate for the giant squid, which frequents much deeper waters than the octopus. What’s the big deal about Apollyon? Well, you see, the name appears in the Bible only once — in Revelation 9:11.

Aside from the apple/Apollyon connections, the Apollo 18 is clearly meant as a reference to the lunar missions of NASA’s Apollo program. The use of the number 18 in connection with the moon is significant, because the 18th tarot trump is called “The Moon” and features two towers.

If we move over once, move over twice, from XVIII to XVI, we find an image even more obviously evocative of 9/11.

A well-established occult tradition, derived from mapping the 22 Major Arcana to the 22 Hebrew letters and their astrological correspondences as given in the Sefer Yezirah, associates Arcanum XVI with the planet Mars. Nostradamus’s 9/11 quatrain (quoted here) mentions Mars, and Tuesday is also the day of Mars (diēs Mārtis). In most English-language decks, Arcanum XVI is called simple “The Tower,” but in the Tarot de Marseille its title is, oddly, “La Maison Diev” — that is, the house of God. If the god in question is Mars then the Tower represents the House of War or Dar al-Harb, the Islamist term for the infidel world. Another old name for this trump is “Sagitta,” the arrow, which brings us back to Apollo.

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