The Major Arcana of the Tarot
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The Major Arcana of the Tarot
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Golden Dawn and G.D.-inspired authors aside, there is little consensus on the analogies and connections between the Tarot and Astrology. Many of the attributions provided by various writers appear quite arbitrary, if not forced, at times, much like the kabbalistic correspondences, for that matter. And yet, this is a very interesting topic, which has been sadly under-studied in its deeper implications: a thorough and coherent astronomical-astrological basis to the Tarot has not, to the best of my knowledge, yet been put forth, much less a serious examination of any potential calendrical correspondences.
One French author posed these questions one hundred years ago, and for the most part, they still have not been satisfactorily answered. In spite of its slight historical errors and out-dated information, the chief merit of this work was to have adopted both a logical and analogical approach to the study of the Tarot. The article in question may be found here, for those who read French, and the entire issue of the journal may be found here (minus the last few pages).
This author, Antoine Rougier, a professor of law, like his contemporary Joseph Maxwell, was acquainted with many of the noted fin-de-siècle occultists, although he seems to have remained rather discrete and removed from the intestine quarrels which plagued that milieu, preferring to write articles pseudonymously for some of the occultist journals of the day, and occasionally giving lectures on various metaphysical topics. A selection of these wide-ranging articles was collected and published posthumously, and this hard-to-find work is once again in print.
It is one of these articles, “The Major Arcana of the Tarot”, to which we now turn. In this prescient and insightful article, first published under the pseudonym Georges Du Valoux in 1920 in Le Voile d’Isis, a journal founded by Papus, Rougier examines and diplomatically debunks most of the occultist claims to the antiquity of the Tarot, as well as their fanciful interpretations. Although he was not the first to do so, he does so in a reasoned, systematic manner which leaves little room for dispute. This is in marked contrast, for example, with the manner in which A. E. Waite’s sober analysis is stymied by his own mystical bent and taste for supposedly initiatory secrecy.
Furthermore, Rougier makes a case for the astrological origins of the Tarot in a tentative manner, and one which is highly instructive: by proceeding in a way which employs analogical reasoning, the reader can observe many useful techniques by which a theory may be more closely examined. In this, Rougier was possibly one of the first to read the Tarot as an “optical language,” although he does so as a means, not an end in itself. Incidentally, Joseph Maxwell would later adopt both of these viewpoints – the astronomical connection and the method of close observation and logical reasoning – in his own book on the Tarot a few years later.
The article is divided into six parts, along with a brief introduction. The first part deals with the history of the Tarot such as was then known from the documentary evidence, the second deals with the occultist interpretations thereof, chiefly kabbalistic, and the third presents the author’s conclusions as to the validity of this last. The final three parts deal with the connection between astrology and the Tarot. Rougier lists Oswald Wirth, Papus, Stanislas de Guaïta, Éliphas Lévi, J.-G. Bourgeat, Vaillant and Fugairon, along with the inevitable Court de Gébelin as his sources on the occultist Tarot – all the usual names. But curiously, no later author, with one exception, ever seems to have mentioned his work.
Incidentally, although the Voile d’Isis did later publish a special issue devoted to the Tarot in 1928, and many of the occultist journals of the time also had articles on this theme, not one of these mentions Rougier’s article, nor do they, for that matter, even begin to address some of the historical and symbolic problems which he posed. The sole exception to this neglect is the brief note by the editor Jean Reyor in the commented bibliography of the special issue of Le Voile d’Isis on Tarot, which calls Rougier’s article “one of the best studies on the Tarot.”
Considering the fractious and often litigious nature of the usual exchanges between occultists, this silence is somewhat surprising at first, but perhaps not so surprising if we consider that a great many folk, then as now, prefer the realm of fantasy and speculation to research and reasoning, even were it inductive.
This is a reworked and completed version of a partial translation posted elsewhere online some time ago. Some paraphrases or additional details are included in square brackets. The titles of the cards have mostly been translated into English, but some have been left in French.
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The Major Arcana of the Tarot
Georges Du Valoux (Antoine Rougier)
The object of the present study is to draw the reader’s attention to some singular resemblances which may be observed between the Major Arcana of the Tarot and the symbols of Astrology such as we know them beneath the veil of Greco-Roman myths.
This is not an essay on the interpretation of the Major Arcana, there is as yet too much uncertainty surrounding the origins of the Tarot, on the essential characteristics of this monument, on the meaning of its allegories, and this threefold problem is too arduous for us to propose a solution. However, we may formulate the wish that it may bring the matter to the attention of learned scholars and archaeologists. Their patient labours may help to frame the contours of the question, to specify its terms, and to cast some rays of light through the clouds which surround it.
The earliest copies of Tarot cards that we know of date back to the 15th century approximately; the characters they represent wear Renaissance dress. One document positively proves that the game was known in France from 1392; the accounts of the superintendent of the Finances, Poupard, which mentions 3 sets of gilt Tarot decks illustrated by Jacquemin Gringonneur for the amusement of king Charles VI. (1) [Romain] Merlin thinks that these images were copied from a pre-existing model, likely Italian. Nevertheless, the case is such that we have been unable to find any positive trace of the existence of Tarot cards prior to the naïve figures drawn by the medieval image-makers. (2)
Do the allegories represented on these cards hark back to the remotest antiquity, and where might they come from? If we are to believe popular opinion, they would have an ancient origin, but the hypotheses in support of such an assertion differ significantly between each other and are founded on inductive reasoning too inconclusive to make one clearly preferable to the others.
The renowned savant Court de Gébelin declares without hesitation that the Tarot is Egyptian. The twenty-two cards, he says, are reducible to twenty-one since “The Fool” counts as zero in the game. Now, 21 is a multiple of 7 and we know that Egyptians especially esteemed the number 7. This is hardly a convincing argument and the reader remains equally sceptical when Court de Gébelin declares recognising Isis, Osiris, Typhon, the great hierophant and other Egyptian symbols in the Tarot. The learned Court de Gébelin’s conviction seems to be more intuitive than rational, it is founded on the idea that since the Tarot must be an initiatory book and must contain profound teachings, then only a people of sages and initiates such as the Egyptians could have come up with it. (3)
The fortune-teller Etteilla, who lived in the 18th century, further added to the ideas of Court de Gébelin by calling the Tarot the Book of Thoth, and this designation has had some success.
Éliphas Lévi, the renovator of occultism, no less categorically affirms that the Tarot is of Hebrew origin. The Hebrew priests were in the habit of consulting the oracle or the divinity by means of cards [lames, i.e. sheets of metal] engraved with symbolic characters, called the Teraphim. When the kingly function ceased in Israel, a wise man who wished to preserve these mysteries while protecting them from the profane, would have engraved the allegories corresponding to the symbols of the Teraphim. (4)
Between these extreme opinions, we find the more eclectic doctrines of Papus and Dr Fugairon. Papus teaches that the Tarot came from India, whence it was brought by the Bohemians who would be but a dissident tribe who left or were expelled from India. India would have received this monument from Egypt, which brings us back to the theories of Court de Gébelin. On the other hand, the analogies between the Tarot and the Kabbala pointed out by Éliphas Lévi may be explained by an Egyptian origin. (5) Most contemporary occultists have adopted the explanations of Papus.
For Dr Fugairon, the Tarot would be an initiatory book of Persian origin, and the Persian Mages would have found these symbols in the doctrines of Chaldea, combined with those of Egypt. Transmitted by the Mages to the Hebrews, the Tarot would have received the influence of the Kabbala in Palestine, then would have been overloaded with Greco-Roman allegories by the Jews of Alexandria, before entering France, Spain and Italy. (6)
Next, we shall mention the opinion of a contemporary author who has studied symbolism, especially that of the Tarot, for over twenty years. Oswald Wirth declares that it is impossible to go further back in history than the 14th century documents, and that the Egyptian or Oriental origins of this monument are less than proven, and finally, that if the Tarot presents a symbolic value, it is the result of a slow adaptation of the types created by the image-makers of the middle ages, of the sort of divination due to the collective soul of the masses. (7)
It is highly likely that the image-makers of the middle ages were inspired by more ancient models, but adapted them to their own epoch in such a way that nothing allows us to discover their origins. Some of the Tarot cards express clearly Christian ideas, such as “The Pope” and “The Resurrection of the Dead” [The Judgment]. Perhaps it is the new face of a pagan symbol, but we cannot say a priori of which. The dress is Renaissance-era, and we believe that those interpreters who think they see an ibis in the crudely-drawn bird of the 17th card, “The Star,” and conclude an Egyptian origin of the Tarot, have been the victims of their own imaginations.
The parallels between the Tarot and other monuments of antiquity could shed some light on the matter if we possessed elements for comparison, but it would seem that these are rare or lacking. According to Court de Gébelin (8), there would be a Chinese Tarot. Valliant (9) and Papus (10) have also mentioned this, but without describing it. This Tarot would consist, not of allegoric figures, but of characters engraved on the cards. What do these characters mean? It would be interesting to know. As to the number of the cards, they are 77 in number, whereas our Western Tarot consists of 22 major arcana and 56 minors, giving 78 cards in total.
The Dictionnaire de l'Art et de la Curiosité (11) reproduces 11 figures of a Persian Tarot whose ivory pieces depict turbans, sabres, helmets, crowns and cartouches with inscriptions. This Tarot would have 50 cards and does not appear to have been studied by specialists.
The etymology of the word “Tarot” has not provided an Ariadne’s Thread to researchers, which would allow them to escape from the labyrinth. Court de Gébelin finds it in two Egyptian roots, which would be Tar, ‘path,’ and Rosh, ‘royal,’ giving the Royal Path. Valiant draws a connection between the Hebrew Astaroth or the Indian Ottara, which denotes Ursa Major.
Éliphas Lévi reads Tarot “kabbalistically” into the monogram of Christ formed by an X and a P intertwined between the A and O. Other authors maintain that the dots engraved on the cards were formerly called tares. (12)
Is the figure of the monument we are examining well-defined at least? It would seem that it is. We know the more or less big differences between the Tarot of Court de Gébelin, the Tarot of Marseilles, the Italian Tarots and the German Tarots. They have no bearing on the number of cards, nor on their essential designs. These different Tarots are obviously copies of a primitive model.
But what is this primitive model, and what degree of authenticity can we accord it? Merlin’s research on the Italian decks which would have inspired the French image-makers is of singular interest to this question because the number and symbols of the Italian decks does not coincide with those of the classic Tarot. (13)
In the Tarocchino of Bologne, there are 62 cards of which 22 Major Arcana or Tarots which correspond to the ones we know. The Venetian deck has 78 cards including the 22 classic Tarots [i.e. cards]. But the Florentine Minchiate consists of 97 cards of which 41 are Tarots. These reproduce the 22 known symbols, with some variants, to which are added the 4 elements and the 12 signs of the Zodiac. Finally, the so-called “philosophical game of Mantegna,” or “Baldini cards,” consists of 50 Tarots arranged in five series of 10, relating respectively to the estates of man, to the Muses, to the arts, to the sciences, to the virtues and to cosmology.
It would seem that the primitive image-makers slowly chose from among multiple allegories the ones that might best suit the Tarot, whether it is considered as a game of cards or as a divinatory instrument, and that they determined the current type in a series of trial-and-errors and redrawings.
This process of trial-and-error has produced sometimes considerable variations in the drawings. Eliphas Lévi mentions Tarots [i.e decks] which, in truth, we do not know of [i.e. have not seen], in which the 19th card, rather than depicting a sun and two children, depicts instead a shooting star, or a child mounted on a horse bearing a scarlet banner. Within more confined limits, the modifications brought to bear on a figure can modify its analogical meaning. We shall take as example the 12th card, the so-called “Hanged Man.”
In the Tarot of Marseille, the Hanged Man has a splendid head of hair, which inevitably makes one think of Apollo, and the gallows is set across two branches which each have six stumps where the branches have been cut off. This may signify the sun at the Winter Solstice, the twelfth month of the year.
From these variants, which appear to have arisen due to carelessness by the engravers, there are the deliberate and systematic variants of certain interpreters. Here we enter into the realm of fantasy. Recall how Court de Gébelin, finding himself at a loss to explain the Hanged Man, came up with nothing better than to turn the card upside-down and to put the Hanged Man back on his feet, or rather on one foot only, the other remaining in mid-air. This trick allowed him to declare that the “man hanging by his foot” was in reality “the man with one foot in the air,” homo pede suspenso, a symbol of prudence.
Oswald Wirth drew a Tarot, remarkable in its execution, but corrected in such a way as to illustrate the interpretations of Éliphas Lévi. For example, the Juggler of the first card should hold a magic wand in his hand, and on the table, there should be some coins, a cup and a sword, in order to satisfy the requirements of the tetragram. None of these accessories are to be found within the classic Tarot, which depicts, on the contrary, the tools of the juggler’s trade: dice, goblet, nuts, knives, etc.… The Juggler’s hat, which is some sort of hat or other, is shaped in such a way as to depict the algebraic sign ∞ which represents infinity. Was this sign known in the 14th century with this signification?
Papus has gone even further into the realm of imagination by drawing an Egyptian Tarot, with ankhs, scarabs, sparrow hawks, horned hairdos, etc., which would have delighted Court de Gébelin. We must recognise the artistic merit of certain cards, notably the feminine figure of the 17th card.
There are also Tarot decks by Etteilla, Mademoiselle Lenormand, etc.
Along with the question marks raised by the design of the cards, there are others relating to their numbering, as well as to the legends which accompany them.
Is the numbering of the cards invariable? Court de Gébelin has asked whether the usual order should not be reversed. The ancient Tarots from Bologne or Venice place the Fool before the Juggler, with the number 0, whereas we usually give him the 21st place. The Bologne Tarocchino knocks over the classic sequence by placing Temperance in the 8th place, Justice in the 9th, Force in the 10th, the Wheel of Fortune in the 11th, the Old Man in the 12th, the Hanged Man in the 13th, Death in the 14th, the World in the 20th, and the Resurrection in the 21st.
No one knows why the cards are ordered in one sequence rather than another, whether this sequence is arbitrary or whether it constitutes a series. In any case, it does not relate either to the rules of the games of cards, or to divination by the Tarot.
The titles of the cards vary little. Nonetheless, we see an Emperor of the East and an Emperor of the West appear in the Minchiate in the place of the Emperor and the Empress (cards 3 and 4). The World (22) becomes Renown. The incomprehensible title of La Maison-Dieu [The God-House] (16) is replaced by La Foudre [The Thunderbolt] in the Bologne Tarocchino.
All the captions seem to be modern. Were we to suppose that the allegorical drawings of the Tarot had a remote origin, the image-makers have cloaked them in the terminology and dress taken from their own times. The Juggler and the Court Jester [i.e. Fool] are Renaissance characters. The Pope and the Devil, the Judgment and the Hermit presuppose Christian beliefs. But these terms are but translation. Court de Gébelin mentions that some of the traditional designations for the cards have a clearly Oriental physiognomy: Mat for Fool, or Pagad for the Juggler. The others have undoubtedly been lost.
What is the symbolism of the Tarot? Do its allegories have various meanings, without coherence or sequence, or do they refer to the same order of truths, do they contain a teaching, do they compose a secret book of loose leaves? Court de Gébelin and Etteilla have interpreted these symbols according to the whims of their imagination, without any systematic concern. But from Éliphas Lévi onwards, another idea has prevailed, one which has had an enormous success and which has become classic with all modern occultists. The 22 cards of the Tarot would be the symbolic representation of the secret meaning of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In the book of Thoth we would find the mysteries of primitive hieroglyphics, and by combining the 22 letters according to fixed rules, we might develop all the arcana of the kabbalistic science.
Once accepted, this system of Éliphas Lévi led all the authors to limit themselves to developments and commentaries on this essential idea. Some have drawn correspondences between the 10 Sephiroth. Barlet draws parallels between the Tarot and the Nuctemeron, and uses it to describe the phases of initiation. (14) Papus, finally, attempts to find the very key of this symbolism in the famous tetragram that contains the laws of quaternary motion, of the generation of numbers, ideas and forms, and he erects an edifice of rigorous proportions, with geometric perspectives where the application of a purely arithmetic law would provide the key to all the arcana of the Tarot, whether major or minor.
We cannot here undertake a critique, or even a detailed study of this system of interpretation which has resulted in many remarkable works due to thinkers of high calibre. This would require long and painstaking work, which has not yet been done. The idea of Éliphas Lévi seemed so simple and so attractive to the writers who have adopted it enthusiastically, without giving a thought to asking for solid proof for his assertions. Yet, it is easy in the study of symbolism, to force and to deform the meaning of an allegory or of a hieroglyph to the point where one is unconsciously guided by a preconceived idea.
We shall limit ourselves here to maintain that the classic interpretation of the Tarot is not something of which exactitude is a given. It may be true, it may be false, it may be partly mistaken. But it would be necessary to study the matter closely, and that the disciples not make the appeal to the authority of the master to dispel any doubts.
The delicate point of any theory is to determine precisely the hieroglyphic meaning of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order to know whether the images of the Tarot have a connection with them. We fear that the partisans of the system we are to examine have attributed purely fictional and imaginative meanings, picked in such a way as to coincide exactly with the corresponding image.
Where might we find an authority which would determine their hieroglyphic sense? The Sepher Yetsirah, the fundamental work of Kabbala which deals with the mystery of the 22 letters springs to mind immediately. On that front, the disappointment is total. There is no possible connection between the correspondences which the Sepher Yetsirah assigns to the letters and the mysterious figures of the Tarot. For example, the letter Aleph א symbolises the atmosphere, or the chest of man: the corresponding card is The Juggler. The letter Vau ו symbolises the head, hearing and deafness: the corresponding card is The Lover, etc.
Éliphas Lévi states that he gives the meaning of the Hebrew letters as they have been established by various Kabbalists, but without saying whom. To each letter corresponds, not one, but six or seven derived ideas, sometimes extremely dissimilar. Thus, Aleph א would signify at the same time “the Being, Man or God, the comprehensible object, the mother-unity of numbers and the prime substance.” The letter Quoph ק would signify “the mixed/compounded, the head, the summit, the prince of heaven.” It is difficult to grasp the truth of how the card called The Sun might well illustrate this assembly of ideas: the analogy does not spring to mind.
Papus determines the hieroglyphic sense of the 22 letters according to Fabre d’Olivet, a savant whose opinion might be authoritative. [cf. The Hebraic Tongue Restored.] But he takes pains to add to the meaning indicated by Fabre d’Olivet a second or third derived meaning, which the latter does not mention and which allow him to arrive at the meaning of the card under consideration. Let us give a few examples of this method:
- Beth ב; Fabre d'Olivet: “The mouth of man, his dwelling, his interior.” Papus: “The mouth, organ of speech. All productions emanating from a retreat, teaching, law, gnosis, kabbala.” Card: The Popess.
- Dzayin ו; Fabre d'Olivet: “Javelin, arrow, line.” Papus: “Arrow, weapon, instrument to dominate and conquer, victory.” Card: The Chariot.
- Heth ה; Fabre d'Olivet: “Field, work, effort.” Papus adds: “Power, balance, equilibrium, justice.” Card: Justice
- Lamed ל; Fabre d'Olivet: “The arm of man, the wing of a bird, anything that stretches and extends.” Papus: “Expansion, divine expansion among humanity occurs via revealed law. The law brings about punishment, whence punishment.” Card: The Hanged Man.
- Mem מ; Fabre d'Olivet: “Woman. All that is fertile and formative. Papus adds that as all creation necessitates destruction, Mem can symbolise Death. Card: Death.
- Quoph ק; Fabre d'Olivet: “Edged weapon.” Papus derives the idea of material existence and universal Life. Card: The Sun.
- Schin ש; Fabre d'Olivet: “The part of the bow from where the arrow is let loose, it is also a sign of relative duration.” Papus connects this to the “satisfactions of the flesh.” Card: The Fool.
We believe that this brief overview will be enough to justify ourselves for having expressed some doubts as to the value of the concordances of the Tarot with the Hebrew alphabet. Is it not to follow the fantasies of the imagination to consider the image of Death as the symbol of fertility, or to establish a correspondence between the Sun and a blade? The truth is that certain correspondences between the cards and the letters are plausible: Aleph א, which designates man, may relate to The Juggler; Caph כ, which designates the gripping hand, may relate to Force; whereas between the other letters and cards we see no connection, even remote or indirect.
Another consideration would be worthy of the attention of researchers. We know how the fortune-teller’s tradition gives a certain meaning to the each Tarot card in order to deduce the oracle when the cards are combined according to the rules of the art. There is every chance that this meaning is very ancient, if the Tarot were really a monument bequeathed from antiquity. It may be the case that this meaning was the true meaning of the drawing to which it refers. And it is interesting to note that the “divinatory” meanings of the Tarot cards often differs from the classic and supposedly kabbalistic meanings. In particular, we mention the following cards (15): – The Juggler, skill, diplomacy, cunning. – The Empress: fertility, generation. – The Lover: Love. – The Wheel of Fortune: Elevation/promotion. – Temperance: Metamorphosis. – The Devil: Force majeure.
Aside from the kabbalistic interpretation, a number of other systematic explanations of the Tarot are conceivable. One of those which most naturally comes to mind while contemplating a supposedly ancient monument [such as the Tarot] is the astronomical, astrological or mythological interpretation. Some authors have opined that the Tarot could be some sort of calendar, but without finding the key to its construction.
Papus, in the first edition of his book [The Tarot of the Bohemians] mentions the possible analogy between the Major Arcana and the Zodiac. Dr Fugairon, in a thorough and erudite study [Interprétation des vingt-deux arcanes majeurs du Tarot, L’Initiation, 1893-1894], attempts to find in the 22 Arcana the symbols of the planets and the Zodiac. Unfortunately, rather than allowing himself to be guided by analogy in this undertaking, Dr Fugairon bases himself on the preconceived idea of the kabbalistic interpretation. He thus divides the 22 letters into 3 groups: the 3 Mothers, the 7 Doubles, and the 12 Simples. The first, with which he seems a little awkward, would have a general or philosophical sense; the second would represent the 7 planets; and the third, the 12 signs of the Zodiac. By drawing correspondences between the cards and the letters, we may establish the following significations:
- Wisdom [The Popess]: The Moon
- The Empress: Venus
- The Emperor: Jupiter
- Force: Mars
- The Judgment: Saturn
- The Star: Mercury
- The World: The Sun
- The Pope: Aries
- The Lover: Taurus
- The Chariot: Gemini
- Justice: Cancer
- The Hermit: Leo
- The Wheel of Fortune: Virgo
- The Hanged Man: Libra
- Temperance: Scorpio
- La Maison-Dieu: Sagittarius
- The Devil: Capricorn
- The Moon: Aquarius
- The Sun: Pisces
With the exception of two or three striking coincidences, (Emperor = Jupiter; Devil = Capricorn), the table of correspondences drawn by Fugairon is entirely arbitrary, and could not be otherwise, since it stems from an a priori base. In order to determine whether the Tarot possesses an astrological meaning, the kabbalistic interpretation must be left aside, and we ought to let ourselves be guided by the direct meanings of the images themselves.
Casting a glance over the 22 Arcana of the Tarot, and ignoring the usual hieroglyphic correspondences and sequences, we were struck that almost all the cards present a noticeable and sometimes quite obvious analogy with the planetary and zodiacal symbols. Let us examine these resemblances beginning with the most obvious ones.
First of all, two cards stand out – The Sun and The Moon. The first quite precisely depicts the Sun in the sign of Gemini, a radiant sun overlooks and shines down on a pair of scantily-clad, similar-looking young children who are embracing each other.
The second no less precisely depicts the Moon in the sign of Cancer. At the bottom of the image is a crayfish (or Cancer) in the middle of a stream. Above are two towers, a symbol by means of which the ancients designated the solstices, which mark the boundaries of the sun’s path (we know that Cancer marks the Summer Solstice). Near the two towers, we find two dogs. Court de Gébelin maintained that the Egyptians symbolised the tropics by dogs. If this is true, then we find a repetition of the concept expressed by the towers. In the sky shines the Moon, whose astrological domicile is justly the sign of Cancer.
For these two images, the astrological sense appears quite obvious, and it offers an altogether clearer explanation than the correspondences of the Hebrew letters.
Next, we find seven cards bearing a zodiacal symbol as detail, rather than being the chief element of the composition. The sign is visible and recognisable, but it is clearly not to the fore. They are:
Force, wherein is depicted a lion [Leo] with its jaws clamped shut by a young woman;
The World, representing a naked virgin [Virgo] running within a circle marked by the four poles of the year (the sign of Virgo marks the sixth month, the middle of the year);
Justice, holding a set of scales [Libra];
Le Feu du Ciel [lit. “heavenly fire”, i.e. La Foudre, or La Maison-Dieu], which would correspond to Scorpio. Note that the bolt of lightning striking the tower is in the shape of a crooked stinger ⦢ which ends and characterises the sign of Scorpio. Note also that Scorpio, domicile of nocturnal Mars, is a fateful sign which portends ruin and demolition. We may also wonder other this card is not also a play on words: the ancients called certain fortress-demolishing siege engines ‘scorpions.’
The Lover depicts Cupid under the traits of Sagittarius, readying himself to loose an arrow into the lover’s heart;
The Devil, with his horns and goat’s feet, represents Capricorn. He bears two chains, along with two devil-imps, to mark the Winter Solstice, just as the towers of the Moon mark that of Summer.
The Star represents a goddess crowned with stars pouring the contents of her urn onto the ground full of flowers. We recognise therein the classical allegory of Aquarius, spreading on the ground the fluids of life which revive sleeping nature.
Three more cards could be interpreted as depicting zodiacal signs, but the analogy becomes indirect and vague.
Temperance offers a certain resemblance with the sign of Pisces. The latter is usually depicted as two fish linked together by their heads. The astrological symbol is but a hieroglyph of this image. The two vases, united by a stream of liquid, such as the designer of the Tarot has placed in the hands of the Angel of Temperance, reproduces a similar diagram to that of the zodiacal Pisces.
The Wheel of Fortune, it seems, represents Aries, or better yet, the Spring Equinox. A wheel is balanced between two fantastic creatures, one ascending, the other descending, symbols of life appearing and life disappearing, of the creative force and of the destructive force. It is the point of equilibrium between Summer and Winter, the moment of the equality of day and night. The wheel symbolises the year or the ecliptic: it has six spokes, divided each into two parts. A crowned creature bearing a sceptre occupies the point of equilibrium at the top of the wheel. It is difficult to say with certainty what kind of animal it represents exactly as the engraving is rather crude. Etteilla saw a monkey, Éliphas Lévi a sphinx. We could just as well consider it to be a ram [Aries].
The Chariot would be Taurus. Two reasons are in favour of this interpretation. The first is that there are flowers growing beneath the victor’s chariot, which would indicate a sign of Spring (Taurus corresponds to April-May and is the astrological domicile of Venus).
The second is that the young victor bears a singular and quite characteristic detail on his armour, namely, a lunar crescent on both shoulders. In astrology, the Moon is in exaltation in the sign of Taurus. As regards the animals drawing the chariot, just as with the ram, they are crudely drawn and have rather bovine features instead of looking like horses. There is nothing to say that they are not, in fact, two bulls.
On the front of the chariot is a heraldic shield which most exegetes of the Tarot replace with a lingham. If this version is well-founded, it reinforces our interpretation, the lingham as symbol of love and fertility being a symbol of the terrestrial Venus, whose domicile is in the sign of Taurus.
Let us admit, for a moment, that the foregoing hypotheses are correct, and that the Tarot does, in fact, contain twelve cards bearing zodiacal symbols. Ten cards thus remain. What could they signify?
These ten cards present certain analogies which allow us to group them, two by two, into five pairs, as follows:
The Pope and the Emperor; The Popess and the Empress; The Juggler and The Fool; the Hermit and the Hanged Man; Death and Resurrection [Judgment].
Let us recall that two of the seven planets, the two luminaries, the Sun and the Moon, are already represented among the twelve zodiacal cards. Let us also bear in mind that in astrology, each of the other five planets have two domiciles, one diurnal and the other nocturnal, and that the influence of the diurnal planet does not have the same quality as that of the nocturnal planet.
The idea thus naturally comes to mind to examine whether there is a link between the five planets in their ten domiciles and the ten remaining cards.
The Juggler is a symbol of diurnal Mercury, god of skill and cunning, of commerce, eloquence, and protector of charlatans.
The Fool expresses the negative influence of nocturnal Mercury, which warps one’s reason and one’s heart, and which makes thieves, madmen, eccentrics and neurotics, etc.
The Popess represents diurnal Venus, or Venus-Urania, goddess of Science, Wisdom, and of ideal Love.
The Empress corresponds to nocturnal Venus or Aphrodite, queen of men and gods by the power of love, creator of all vegetal and animal forms.
Resurrection and Death are the two aspects of diurnal and nocturnal Mars, creator and destructor. Astrologically, Mars is fire. This vital fire descends to Earth in the Spring (Aries) and awakens all sleeping life, and raises the dead from their tombs. In the Autumn (Scorpio), the vital fire returns to the heavens, destroying all created forms: it is the death of nature. Note the hands and heads reaped by Death on the thirteenth card of the Tarot seem to be growing out of the earth, which could indicate vegetal productions.
The Pope and the Emperor are two allegories of diurnal and nocturnal Jupiter, that is, the spiritual royalty, and the temporal royalty. This last resemblance is so striking that all exegetes of the Tarot have accepted it, along with that of Venus-Urania – The Popess.
The Hermit expresses the qualities usually attributed to diurnal Saturn: wisdom, prudence, religiosity, isolation. Perhaps we ought to see in the holy man’s cloak and lantern an allusion to the fact that diurnal Saturn corresponds to Aquarius, at the end of the month of January, when it is cold and the days are short.
As to the Hanged Man, he is a victim of nocturnal Saturn, the great malefic, who threatens humans with catastrophes, death, tribulations and the overthrowing of the social order. Death by hanging is a saturnine end, and death by hanging upside-down is, so to say, a doubly saturnine end. But beyond the mythological sense, the allegory of the Hanged Man has a very precise astronomical meaning. Let us recall that the nocturnal house of Saturn is Capricorn, which corresponds to the Winter Solstice, and we will immediately grasp that the chief victim of Saturn is the Sun itself, having reached the lowest point of its path, in a way hanging upside-down, beneath the reign of Saturn. We then understand why the engraver of the Tarot has given the Hanged Man the splendid [blonde] hair of Phoebus and placed him in a gibbet of twelve cut branches. [see notes]
We will refrain from drawing hasty conclusions from the foregoing similarities, and which, to the best of our knowledge, have not yet been pointed out. In order to profitably discuss them and make them the basis of a system of interpretation, the scope of the problem must be widened to research the origins and signification of zodiacal and planetary symbolism, a delicate and arduous task which has already exhausted the efforts of many great minds.
It is only by recovering the key to the astrological symbolism that we might usefully compare the Zodiac and the Tarot, and if this comparison were to lead to a positively established relation [between these two systems], only then might we move onto the next question: Is there a relationship between the Minor Arcana of the Tarot and the calendar?
(1) See Dictionnaire de l'Art et de la Curiosité, Paris, Didot, 1883, and Oswald WIRTH, Les Origines du Tarot, Voile d'Isis, 1912, P. 37. – Grande Encyclopédie, s.v. cartes.
(2) Romain MERLIN, Origine des cartes à jouer, Paris, 1869.
(3) COURT DE GÉBELIN, Le Monde primitif, Paris, 1773-1783.
(4) Éliphas LÉVI, Rituel de haute Magie, chap. XXII, Paris, 1861.
(5) PAPUS, Le Tarot des Bohémiens, Paris, 1ère édition, 1889 ; 2ème édition, s.d. (1912). One will find in the Grande Encyclopédie, in the article Cartes arguments in favour of the Hindu origins of the Tarot.
(6) Dr FUGAIRON, Interprétation des vingt-deux arcanes majeurs du Tarot, L’Initiation, 1894, vol. XXII, P. 30 ; 1893, vol. XX,
(7) Oswald WIRTH, Les Origines du Tarot, le Voile d'Isis, 1912, p. 37. Let us quote a few lines from this article: “When, shortly before the Revolution, Court de Gébelin thought he had discovered an Egyptian book hidden within the Tarot, one whose illustrious origins were hitherto unsuspected, he accorded undue influence to then prevailing opinion according to which anything that presented a mysterious or symbolic nature was to be unhesitatingly attributed to the ancient Sages of the Nile valley. … Since then, the great antiquity of the Tarot has become a sort of dogma among occultists, whereas archaeology has sufficiently progressed as to put paid to any such illusions in this regard for serious researchers. … In reality, the medieval Tarots, of which copies are preserved in the National Library, represent the most ancient copies we know of.”
(8) Op. cit.
(9) VAILLANT, Les Rômes. Histoire des Bohémiens (ca. 1853).
(10) Op. cit.
(11) Loc. cit.
(12) MARCUS DE VEZE, A propos d'un Tarot persan; L’Initiation, 1889, p. 264. – Grande Encyclopédie, Loc. cit.
(13) These findings have been reproduced in the works by PAPUS. La Grande Encyclopédie (s.v. Cartes) also contains very interesting documents on this point.
(14) BARLET. Initiation, L'Initiation, 1888, vol. I, p. i, and Le Tarot des Bohémiens, L'Initiation, 1889, Vol. IV, P. 222.
(15) We borrow the divinatory meanings of the cards from Bourgeat’s book, Le Tarot, Paris, 1913, while noting that Bourgeat is a partisan of the classic theory and that he seeks to base the entire interpretation of the Tarot according to the system of Éliphas Lévi.
(16) Op. cit., P. 253.
(17) Op. cit., L’Initiation, Vol. XX, P. 123.
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In another, later, article, “Sol Stat”, Rougier expands on his interpretation of the Hanged Man, the Winter Solstice, and the connection with Saturn:
“There is a Tarot card which illustrates this mystery [the spiritual dimension of the Winter Solstice], the twelfth card, called the Hanged Man. Between two tree trunks, each having six stumps where branches have been cut off, swings a hanged man from a gallows, head downwards. Most Tarot decks give him a splendid head of blonde hair shining forth, and it is possible to see him as the god Phoebus, of whom the sun is one form.
On the material level, we can see in this image the astronomical symbol of the Winter Solstice, since it depicts the sun at its lowest point (head downwards), and at the end of the twelfth month of its course (the twelve cut branches).
But Phoebus or Apollo is not only the Sun, he is above all the manifestation of the Spirit. In this way, the twelfth card expresses the idea of the Spirit crucified by the power of Destiny, or sacrificed to Destiny, to the power of evil, say, to Saturn, to remain within Greco-Roman mythology.”
It is worth pointing out that all of the historical decks on the Tarot of Marseilles Heritage website, with one exception – the latest one (Arnoult-Lequart) – have blonde-headed Hanged Men. Moreover, the Chariot in the deck by Bernardin Suzanne bears a lozenge-shaped glyph which does conceivably have a passing resemblance to a lingham, or at least to what the later occultists put on the heraldic shield instead. This is a subject worthy of further study.
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Beyond the correspondences themselves, what is interesting in this article is the mixed approach: on the one hand, we have an intuitive, visual, or mythographical way of drawing analogies between the cards and the deities or zodiacal symbols; and on the other, we find a system within this overall take, namely, the diurnal/nocturnal connection, which is less obvious, but still quite functional. As Rougier points out, most other authors take the opposite course, trying to fit the symbols to the system.
Obviously the value of such a piece is in pointing out the personal work of study, contemplation and reflection which must be undertaken, rather than accepting wholesale the theories of others, regardless of whether one accepts their sets of correspondences and logic or not. In other words, and to cite the author himself, "to let ourselves be guided by the direct meanings of the images themselves."