Wrestling with the Angel: Random Thoughts on Temperance and the “Water of Spirit”

It has taken me the better part of 40 years to come up with a reliable working definition for the 14th Major Arcanum, Temperance (Art in the Thoth deck). The common understanding that it signifies nothing beyond “moderation” or “forbearance” has never convinced me, and the concept of “healing” is even more foreign to me as a student of the esoteric tarot; the notion that “Temperance = Sagittarius = the mythological centaur Chiron = healing” is just a little too mystically convoluted to swallow. Nor have I been greatly swayed by all of the elevated talk in the literature about spiritual transmutation and the reconciliation of opposites (Fire and Water); V.I.T.R.I.O.L and the need to seek within for the philosophical “Stone of the Wise;” and the relation of this card to ATU VI and the “consummation of the alchemical marriage.” Beyond its association with the sign of Sagittarius, there is a wealth of ideas to contemplate but precious little to immediately apply at the level of a routine reading. Other than the repeated reference to transmutation, about the only straightforward things Aleister Crowley said about it are: “combination of forces; success after elaborate manoeuvers.”

The quandary for me has been in grasping the “active” divinatory potential in this card; since its keynote is “reconciliation of opposites,” it would seem to produce a state of neutrality that is essentially passive. However, while mutable Sagittarius is the most subtle of the Fire signs, the intersection of Fire and Water would still release Air, as Crowley notes. This would link it to Atu VI and the opposite sign of Gemini, as well as the “decision” implied by The Lovers. Consequently, the mode of activity indicated would be significantly mental in nature, and the concern would be with bringing a high-minded sense of propriety and fairness to bear on the subject at hand.

I got more value out of Paul Foster Case’s book “The Tarot, A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages:”

“Temperance, in the day when Tarot was invented, meant “tempering” or “modifying.” It therefore suggests “adaptation.” To adapt is to equalize, to adjust, to coordinate, to equilibrate.”

Therefore, I generally see this card in a reading when there is a need to strike a delicate balance between an enthusiastic, spontaneous response (Fire, Sun, Tiphareth in qabalistic terms) and a more dispassionate, reflective reaction (Water, Moon, Yesod); between what the ego is insisting that you do and what the emotions caution you not to do. To me, “adaptation” and “adjustment” suggest the idea of successfully modulating one’s stance when there are two equally compelling but contradictory forces in play. It’s the “fine Art of Right Action” (neither too much force nor too little) when a discriminating finesse is called for. There can be a need to walk a fine line between over-reacting and under-reacting. There is also a need to be flexible but firm. (Ill-dignified by element, position or reversal, it could mean compensating behavior that offsets but doesn’t directly confront an imbalance; another possible interpretation in the Sagittarian vein is an exaggerated sense of self-importance.)

Transmuting an instinctive, self-righteous and overtly forceful urge into an impulse to follow one’s conscience or “moral compass” in the matter could be the best course to take. The desire to “set things right” in an ethical sense can be a powerful driver, but the tendency of Sagittarius to be 100% convinced of the correctness of its own principles can result in missing some of the subtle nuances of the situation. If you’re getting this card repeatedly, independent of any particularly pressing issue in your life, maybe you need to pay closer attention to that “inner voice” and let it speak more loudly in your daily affairs. A profound (Major Arcanum) philosophical (Sagittarius) attitude (egoistic/emotional, Sun/Moon) adjustment (Temperance) could be in order.

Tarot author Tony Willis once posted an article on the auntietarot blog about Temperance. (https://auntietarot.wordpress.com/) Most of it is an exhaustive and well-written recapitulation of ideas that I’ve come across before, but I took one entirely new concept away from my reading of his observations: that of “reversibility.” His insight was that the figure of Temperance will pour all of the fluid out of the upper vessel into the lower one until the latter is full, then switch their positions and reverse the process, repeating ad infinitum. My personal take on the image is that it shows an absolute economy of effort and exquisite finesse, with no wasted motion and not one drop spilled.

In practical — that is, divinatory — terms, Tony’s revelation has me thinking that Temperance may offer the possibility of reversing direction in a situation, especially if the path my sitter has been on hasn’t been an especially fortunate or productive one. I sometimes see Temperance as a “tipping point” card anyway, since reaching a nexus of equilibrium creates an opportunity to go either way with its influence. Balance can be a delicate (and temporary) state of suspended animation, and it is more often one of dynamic tension than of static rest. It suggests a “pause to regroup” before continuing on, and is not necessarily a destination but rather a “way-station” on the journey. In short, it is more about “process” than “product.”

The philosophical complexion of its astrological correspondence — Sagittarius — is facile and adaptable as befits a mutable Fire sign. Although erudition and orthodoxy are ascribed to this “higher mind” exponent of the zodiac (I often think they would be a better fit for the Hierophant, since 14 reduces to 5), I see it more as manifesting the quicksilver fluidity of the mystical visionary than the exacting rigidity of Establishment mores or dogma that one all-too-frequently encounters in modern academia. Sagittarius is thus a predominantly “mental” sign that is light on its feet thanks to its Jupiter rulership. Temperance should therefore have a deft and discreet touch as an agent for arbitration of opposing viewpoints and not, for example, the adjudicatory brusqueness of Justice. It has been said that what is passing between the two vessels isn’t physical water but spiritual essence; in that light, Temperance’s mode of operation might be seen as one of “aeration” and not simply homogenization — increasing the buoyancy and permeability of its charge in readiness for its transmutation.

The thing that is most obvious when examining the two Major Arcana cards that portray the pouring of a liquid — Temperance and the Star — is that the figure on each is manipulating a fluid that has been symbolically linked to the ethereal elixir of Spirit. Temperance is sloshing it back-and-forth between two chalices (and much has been made of the fact that, in the Waite-Smith image, the remarkable liquid is falling — and rising — diagonally and not vertically, apparently immune to the effects of gravity, thus testifying to its rarefied nature), while the Star shows it being poured from two vases onto water and land, anointing both equally with its spiritual largesse.

Copyright US Games Systems, Stamford, CT

It seems to me that Temperance is concentrating, conserving and purifying that elixir. In old metal-working terms, to “temper” a metal meant to refine it into a more durable state through a physical transformation at the molecular level, and the alchemical process of transmutation that esoteric writers ascribe to Temperance means much the same thing. Temperance isn’t a card of “moderation,” telling us to pull in our horns, keep our feet under us, and take a more balanced, restrained stance, it is one of “modulation,” which means to “adjust,” “attune” or “harmonize.” It has to do with bringing subtle forces into alignment through an act of Will, which is why I consider it a card of consummate finesse. It is cautionary in symbolizing a kind of “high-wire” tightrope act, like an envoy shuttling between warring factions (a friend once equated it to walking a knife’s edge), but not in the sense that we should step back from confronting the challenge.

The Star, on the other hand, is a card of introspection and inspiration; to inspire (or “in-spirit”) a thought is to endow it with noble vision that is generally seen as deriving from a higher source. It suggests the “Aha!” moment when a fuzzy outlook snaps into focus with great clarity and precision. When that epiphany can be brought down to Earth, it offers the realization of one’s fondest hopes; when it can’t, it amounts to little more than wishful thinking of the Joe Hill “pie-in-the-sky” variety. The flowing water represents the outpouring of illumination from above; unlike in the Magician, it’s not a consciously channeled and directed current but more of a spontaneous gusher. At its best it stimulates aspiration to “reach for the sky,” at its worst, it leads down a rabbit-hole of misplaced optimism (especially if it turns up reversed or otherwise ill-dignified in a reading).

The main difference I see between the expression of Spirit in these archetypes is that Temperance is a card of measured ambition that prefigures the more cerebral ardor of the Star. Temperance presents an active scenario that demands engagement with its principles, whereas the Star is much more passive, imparting its infusion of visionary insight in a benign, meditative way that could even be seen as a mystical extension of the water flowing away from the feet of the High Priestess, the exalted agency for all such things.

To summarize, the exoteric definitions of Temperance are “maintaining balance and exercising moderation;” but in truth it is more about the active reconciliation of opposite energies than about simply remaining calm and “keeping one’s nose clean.” “Mediation” and not “moderation” is its principal function, the creation of compromise out of conflict. It lobbies in favor of an adroit transmutation, changing one thing into another, and not merely an affirmation of morality through self-denial; as such, it represents a principled response to unbalanced stimuli, one that accommodates and reconciles discordant inputs. It has a harmonizing effect but not necessarily a palliative one, so “healing” does not loom large in its repertoire (except perhaps in an Ayurvedic sense).

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at www.parsifalswheeldivination.com.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store