Funny thing about the esoteric correspondences used in tarot reading. Sometimes you don’t need them at all, other times you can get nowhere without at least a cursory nod to them. They’re especially useful when a spread serves up a disjointed mish-mash of contradictory meanings that resists all tactics of intuition, inspiration, imagination and ingenuity. The analytical skill required to seamlessly integrate a range of different, often complex, associations in a single reading is one that amply rewards the time and effort spent on mastering it. Although its assimilation may imply rote “memory work” with little appealing fluidity, in practice it opens up a whole parallel world of unique insights that dovetail with remarkable coherence.
I have a hierarchy of approaches that I use in most situations: “just the cards” and their images, with no additional considerations beyond suit; classical elemental qualities (including “humours” and “temperaments”) that arise from the suits; occult number theories (usually called “numerological” but technically something else); astrological correlations in terms of sign and planet; qabalistic Tree of Life connections, both Hermetic and Hebraic; mythical and literary allusions; and esoteric color symbolism. The context of the question and the nature of the emerging answer help to determine which of these I will jump to, but the first four are fairly standard in my own practice.
This array of theoretical relationships was developed at the end of the 19th Century by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, following in the footsteps of French occultist Elpihas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant). They were erected on the bare bones of earlier tarot decks like the Tarot de Marseille, and were principally created by Order Chief Samuel Liddell (“MacGregor”) Mathers, and subsequently enriched by Aleister Crowley. It has since been retooled by more recent writers but, except for some largely gratuitous tinkering (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”), the core of the system remains mostly unchanged.
That is not to say that I offer these arcane assumptions in undiluted form to my clients; it would be like trying to explain molecular bonding to a 3-year-old (although a pre-school teacher would probably get farther with Lego blocks than I could with unvarnished esoteric jargon). At most I might ask how much astrological knowledge they have. I’m more likely to clothe the naked details in illustrative anecdotes or evocative metaphors and analogies that get the point across without delving into the mechanics.
I recently performed a public reading for a woman who gave me no advance information about her circumstances. The 8 of Cups (the Golden Dawn’s leaden Saturn in stagnant Pisces) came up in the “challenges” position of the spread I was using, and the Knight of Cups was moving away from it toward the future, holding out a conciliatory cup in front of him. The 8 of Cups in the Waite-Smith deck has always reminded me of a “poisoned well;” the man has looked in the eight cups and is moving away in disappointment and dejection; there was nothing there for him. The woman told me she had already been through that. I suggested that the Knight of Cups might be showing someone new (or possibly a returning “ex”) in her future who would offer her a new “cup” of emotional stimulation. Then I said “Just make sure he doesn’t reach back into the 8 of Cups to get it,” which made her laugh in appreciation.
I’m an iconoclast when it comes to cartomantic systems (except for the traditional Lenormand method because it works so well, at least as far as I choose to take it). I tend to cherry-pick what works for me and ignore what doesn’t. The RWS tarot deck is a good example. When reading with it, I disregard most of the narrative vignettes built into the scenic pip cards and the folk-lore style of interpretation that has grown up around them, and just use my Thoth-based knowledge and experience (although a flash of inspiration will occasionally arise from one of them). Another example is esoteric correspondences. If I don’t need them to make narrative sense out of a card, I don’t bother with them. It’s an entirely utilitarian approach. That stuff is always there when I need it, but sometimes it just gets in the way, especially in public reading where few clients know anything about it.
However, any tarot enthusiast who pursues the Golden Dawn approach (and, by extension, Aleister Crowley’s) must invariably come to grips with the system of esoteric correspondences common to both. In my view, the key thing is to recognize which of them have universal applicability across all decks and which are more specialized in their application. Trying to use all of them all of the time is like a juggler trying to keep too many balls in the air.
The two that provide the broadest utility are suit and number. I’m not sure suit extends to the classical elemental associations (Fire, Water, Air and Earth) since I’ve seen no evidence that decks in use prior to the Etteilla/Eliphas Levi/Golden Dawn era of occult exploration incorporated that philosophical model. These factors are serviceable for interpreting all types of tarot deck, including non-scenic “pip” decks like the Tarot de Marseille. The suit meanings seem to derive largely from playing-card divination, and metaphysical number theory goes back at least to Pythagoras. Apart from the usual number markings on the cards, numerical considerations can be used to deconstruct the various structural elements of a card’s imagery. (One of the best treatments of this subject is in Joseph Maxwell’s challenging book, The Tarot.)
Slightly more arcane is the concept of astrological attributions. If elemental assignments are given to the cards, zodiacal and planetary assumptions follow in an entirely natural and organic way. The cross-system match isn’t a seamless one; the numbers don’t add up all that well. There are 22 trump cards, 16 court cards and 40 minor cards, while astrology offers 4 seasonal quadrants, 12 zodiacal signs (broken down into 36 decans) and seven traditional planets, Sun through Saturn. The Golden Dawn did a workmanlike “cut-to-fit” job of sorting things out in this area. Although I could (and an argument can be made for doing so), I don’t typically extend these correspondences to my “pip” decks.
The third main category involves associations drawn from the Hebrew kabbalah and the Tree of Life (ToL) diagram. Although it fascinated me for years, I no longer have the time, patience or inclination to absorb all the minutiae of this elaborate system, so I limit myself to what I call the ToL’s “descending energy” model of reality: the spiritual Source of All occupies the pinnacle of creation, and the material Universe devolves from that via a series of ten increasingly palpable “emanations.” The idea that the Aces are the least tangible expression of their element (thus “potential” rather than “kinetic” energy) and the Tens are the most substantial flows literally “downhill” from this concept. Again, I’m not prone to use this system with my “pip” decks except to the extent that it mirrors number-theory interpretation.
After that, things get more rarefied. Color theory has its place in the scheme, and the Golden Dawn had complex sets of “color scales” for the different kabbalistic divisions of the ToL, but I tend to stick with the basics for practical purposes: Wands = Red = Action; Cups = Blue = Emotions; Swords = Yellow = Intellect; and Pentacles = Green (although a case can be made for Black) = Physicality. White is reserved for Spirit, the so-called “fifth element.” I use color theory with my “pip” decks, but only in the most fundamental way.
There are also mythological, historical and cultural attributes that apply to some decks but not others (especially in the area of trump and court cards). Outside of the traditional medieval archetypes that cut across many modern decks, these have little universal applicability and are best limited to use with their source decks.
When first encountering these nested layers of meaning, rather than trying to swallow them whole, it’s prudent to have an orderly “plan of attack” that ranks them according to their relative value in interpretation, always with an eye to the fact that they may not be crucial, in whole or in part, to success in every instance.
Originally published at http://parsifalswheeldivination.com on October 9, 2017.