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A book called The Kybalion: A Study of the Hermetic Philosophy of Ancient Egypt and Greece by Three Initiates was published in Chicago in 1912. It presented seven fundamental working principles of Hermeticism. But, what is Hermeticism?
At the base of the occult tarot and especially the tarot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Builders of the Adytum (BOTA) lies a philosophical system or religious philosophy. It derives from a series of anonymous writers who used the nom de plume Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice-Blessed), a composite of the Greek Hermes, Roman Mercury, and their Egyptian counterpart, Thoth. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E., the set of writings known as the Corpus Hermeticum brought about a brief renaissance of pagan thought. Read the rest of this entry »
For those who are interested in material about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, you can see original ritual tools and pages from Golden Dawn notebooks at the William Butler Yeats Online Exhibit—brought to you by the National Library of Ireland. The whole exhibit is one of the most amazing web productions I have seen and worth a trip just to see what can be accomplished online.
When you get to the site, launch the exhibition, and then view “interactives”. The 8th item down is “The Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn”—click. This takes you to a virtual museum case. Click on any item you want to see, then click again on that item when it appears in the gray box. For the notebooks, a selection of pages will appear below it, which you can individually examine and read. The notebooks are from Yeats’ uncle, George Pollexfen, and some of the illustrations are quite lovely.
I hope you spend time “walking” around the two exhibition rooms. You’ll find videos, Yeats’ own reading of the “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” a re-creation of a corner of his chambers, Florence Farr’s psaltery, and much, much more.
Charles San introduced the 1973 Causeway Books edition of Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot with an essay, “How to Read the Cards,” in which he recommended this Major Arcana-only spread. It features an interesting way of selecting the cards and, when I first tried it, the cards themselves suggested a way to give the reading additional definition and depth. Here is the spread with my own modifications. (San did not state where to place each card except that they circle around the Significator.)
- Shuffle the Major Arcana and deal out six cards face down on top of each other. Turn the seventh card face up and place it in the middle of the reading area. This is the Significator and represents a starting point for the reading. Return the other six to the bottom of the deck.
- Deal two cards face down and turn one card up, placing this third card at the 10 o’clock position (relative to the Significator). Do this seven times placing every third card in a counterclockwise circle around the Significator [this order is added by me as a result of the example spread that follows]. You will end up with seven cards circling the card drawn in step 1.
- Optional: if unsatisfied that these cards suffice, deal three more cards from the remaining thirteen, taking the third, tenth and thirteen cards, and place them above the circle.
San says you are to build a vision of the “present place in the ebb and flow of one’s life,” as “the individual cards and the combining of them provides one with the reading.” You can read this spread for yourself or one friend, but if three people are present then “the reading that results concerns all three as part of the society in which they live and work.”
Here is my spread using the Golden Dawn / Whare Ra Majors: Read the rest of this entry »
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn introduced what I consider the most extensive and elegant set of correspondences among the tarot and other magical systems. Here is a permutation I hadn’t seen before. It’s from The Magical Writings of Ithell Colquhoun edited by Steve Nichols. Colquhoun was an artist, magician and the biographer of MacGregor Mathers (Sword of Wisdom-o.p.). Magical Writings contains over a hundred pages of text on the Major Arcana (material on the last five cards added by Steve Nichols), plus reproductions of pages from Colquhoun’s tarot notebooks. It’s a treasure-trove for the discerning reader.
THE PLANETARY TRIPLICITIES – based on correspondences to the planets and the signs they rule.
MERCURY: Magus, Lovers, Hermit (Mercury, Gemini, Virgo)
MOON: Priestess, Chariot, Hanged Man (Moon, Cancer, Elemental Water)
VENUS: Empress, Hierophant, Justice (Venus, Taurus, Libra)
SUN: Sun, Strength, Judgment (Sun, Leo, Elemental Fire)
MARS: Tower, Emperor, Death (Mars, Aries, Scorpio)
JUPITER: Wheel, Temperance, Moon (Jupiter, Sagittarius, Pisces)
SATURN: World, Devil, Star (Saturn, Capricorn, Aquarius)
(Fool = Elemental Air)
These groupings can be very handy in a reading where the occurrence of two or three cards from one of the triplicities indicates a strong influence by that planetary energy. Mythically, it suggests the presence of that God/dess messing around in one’s life.
An issue came up on one of the forums about which is the best book from which to learn about the Crowley-Harris Thoth deck. The answer for almost everyone is, without question, Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth. This, despite the fact that, for most beginners in esoteric studies, it seems impenetrable. Books by Duquette and Banzhaf are proposed as intermediaries and I agree they are excellent choices, but a problem occurs when Angeles Arrien’s name comes up. Her Tarot Handbook: practical applications of ancient visual symbols takes a completely different approach to the deck, which is often characterized as the “make up anything you want” variety—though it isn’t that at all. I should mention I took several classes with Angie on the Thoth deck starting in 1977, and so I’m not at all objective in my views.
Angie’s approach is based on Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and the meaningful repetition of archetypal images and themes across world-wide human cultures. The statement by Arrien that probably infuriates people the most is: “I read Crowley’s book that went with this deck and decided that its esotericism in meaning hindered, rather than enhanced, the use of the visual portraitures that Lady Frieda Harris had executed.” Of key importance was that Arrien experienced a powerful response to the deck that did not arise from an esoteric OTO or Golden Dawn background. It was not specifically a rejection of Crowley, though it is easy to take it as such.
Instead, Arrien recognized most of the symbols from her study of anthropology and mythology. As a result she felt that “a humanistic and universal explanation of these symbols was needed so that the value of Tarot could be used in modern times as a reflective mirror of internal guidance which could be externally applied.” She believed that the Thoth deck symbols could be read in an other-than-esoteric way—specifically, as cross-cultural psychological symbols (archetypes from the collective unconscious). Her book offers this alternate perspective, based on the work of Carl Jung, Marie Louise von Franz, Joseph Campbell, Ralph Metzner, Mircea Eliade and Robert Bly.
In essence, Arrien asked: What do these symbols tell us if we strip away the esotericism and look at them purely as symbols and archetypes from the collective unconscious reflecting myths and images that have appeared across many cultures?
I see this simply as an alternate reading of the deck—not as a demand that we discount Crowley—but, rather, asking what can be seen if we do ignore Crowley? Is there anything else to this deck? Do real ‘true’ symbols transcend fixed definitions? Can they transcend any and all dogma?
We might also ask: If Crowley’s book were lost (along with all other esoteric texts), would future generations be able to reconstitute and find anything meaningful in these 78 images? Would this deck still offer something capable of informing our thoughts and actions?
It turns out that this is a valid question, for at least one person involved in the online discussion (and perhaps many others) felt that the Thoth deck is based on a specific language of symbols, defined by Crowley, such that, without his text the symbolism and the deck become meaningless. To remove Crowley, then, is to kill the Thoth deck—to make it worthless. In fact, as explained to me, symbols contain no meaning outside of the stated definitions of an individual. Strip symbols of definition and they either convey no information or they mean anything one likes.
This is absolutely contrary to the understanding of symbols held by such people as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, the French magician, Eliphas Lévi, and countless others who have written extensively on symbolism and who believe that the meaning of the symbol is inherent in its nature. “Symbols can thus be understood as metaphors for archetypal needs and intentions or expressions of basic archetypal patterns . . . which are ultimately inherent in the human mind-brain” (Anthony Stevens, Ariadne’s Clue: A Guide to the Symbols of Humankind).
Furthermore, symbolism is a sacred, living language that reflects divinity through like vibrations. From this principle arose the occult ‘doctrine of correspondences,’ which says that something that is red, for instance, shares some kind of energy and meaning with other things that are red. Thorns that pierce are the protective weapons and barriers to the alluring rose whose scent also draws the bees. Even an esoteric interpretation takes such elements into account.
Many spiritual teachers do not fear the subjective, for they see each person as partaking of the Divine. The esotericist Manly Palmer Hall wrote in The Secret Teaching of All Ages: “Like all other forms of symbolism, the Tarot unfailingly reflects the viewpoint of the interpreter himself. This does not detract from its value, however, for symbolism is one of the most useful instruments of instruction in the spiritual arts, because it continually draws from the subjective resources of the seeker the substance of his own erudition.”
Certainly Crowley’s erudition is great, and we benefit from the knowledge that he put into the Thoth book and deck (his book is magnificient!). But, if we stop there, we have not done our own work. There may be other interpreters of the Thoth deck who can also point us down what has been called “the royal road” of Tarot. Still, eventually we must make the path our own—there’s no getting around that.
The Egyptologist, R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz in Symbol and the Symbolic tells us that symbols are different than an abstract alphabet in that we can reconstitute their meanings: “Any manner of writing formed by means of a conventional alphabetical, arbitrary system can, over time, be lost and become incomprehensible. On the other hand, the use of images as signs for the expression of thought [hieroglyphics] leaves the meaning of this writing, five or six thousand years old, as clear and accessible as it was the day it was carved in the stone.” In The Temple in Man, Schwaller de Lubicz talks about the living quality of the symbol that can not survive too rigid of a definition: “To explain a symbol is to kill it; it is to take it only for its appearance; it is to avoid listening to it. By definition, the symbol is magic, it evokes the form bound in the spell of matter. To evoke is not to imagine. It is to live, live the form.” (See Schwaller’s Egyptianized Tarot Trumps here.)
Most of all I appeal to Oswald Wirth who created the first truly esoteric Tarot deck (1889; revised in 1926) that is a significant influence behind all that have followed. Wirth, in Le Symbolisme Hermétique (translated by P. D. Ouspensky), wrote that symbols are meant to awaken us to our own freedom:
“Each thinker has the right to discover in the symbol a new meaning corresponding to the logic of his own conceptions. As a matter of fact, symbols are precisely intended to awaken ideas sleeping in our consciousness. They arouse a thought by means of suggestion and thus cause the truth which lies hidden in the depths of our spirit to reveal itself. . . . They especially elude minds which . . . base their reasoning only on inert scientific and dogmatic formulae. The practical utility of these formulae cannot be contested, but from the philosophical point of view they represent only frozen thought, artifically limited, made immovable to such an extent, that it seems dead in comparison with the living thought, indefinite, complex and mobile, which is reflected in symbols. . . . By their very nature the symbols must remain elastic, vague and ambiguous, like the sayings of an oracle. Their role is to unveil mysteries, leaving the mind all its freedom.”
“. . . Leaving the mind all its freedom.” It saddens me that the fears and anger provoked by Angeles Arrien’s book indicate a deep mistrust that the Thoth deck can survive the common touch of the “masses,” or that it has any worth whatsoever outside of Crowley’s text. It is felt that the mistakes and misconceptions in Arrien’s book (of which there admittedly are many) could create a devastating sense of betrayal in those who eventually find out that Crowley intended something different. This supposedly-fearful juxtaposition, however, led me to a much deeper appreciation of Crowley, while Angie encouraged independence and freedom in how I work with the deck and its symbols (not a good thing to those who see Crowley as the absolute and only fundament).
Although Crowley professed love for “the scarlet woman,” yet he feared the prostituting of his work, insisting that the deck and book always be sold together (it isn’t) and describing the deck’s potential use in fortune-telling as being a base and dishonest purpose (here -see text at the end). In fact, it seems that Crowley feared even the thought that anyone might claim independent insight into his deck for, despite her working diligently for five years with him to produce the deck, Crowley made clear that his student and artist, Frieda Harris, at no time contributed “a single idea of any kind to any card, and she is in fact almost as ignorant of the Tarot and its true meaning and use as when she began.” What hope is there, then, for the rest of us?
But, hope does exists, for the ever-contradictory Aleister Crowley (using the pseudonym “Soror I.W.E.“) wrote in the introductory biographical note to the Book of Thoth, that “the accompanying booklet [this book] was dashed off by Aleister Crowley, without help from parents. Its perusal may be omitted with advantage.“ And Frieda Harris’ innovative use of Steinerian ‘Synthetic Projective Geometry,’ described here, certainly deepens the effect of its imagery on the psyche.
I can only hope that, if you care about the Thoth deck, that each of you are brave enough to make up your own minds and feel free to “do as you will.” I leave you with this thought from old Aleister:
All ways are lawful to innocence.
Pure folly is the key to initiation.
Addendum: An interesting look at how Crowley has been fictionalized in novels both before and since his death is found here.
Tree of Life on the Tarot in the Four Worlds
I am delighted to provide this previously unpublished text, which is from a hand-copied manuscript of Sub Spe [John Brodie Innes] I apologize to those who will find many of the references difficult, but the information can help greatly in understanding the Golden Dawn approach to the Minor Arcana and also the Rider-Waite-Smith and Crowley’s Thoth decks. A glossary of Golden Dawn terms is available at The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn website (click on H.O.G.D. Dictionary in the directory).
The Breath of God passes down through the Four Worlds of the Qabalah from the purely Spiritual to the absolutely material. In each world there is a Tree of Life and the Breath passes down from Sephira to Sephira from Kether to Malkuth and thence to the Kether of the new lower World.
Atziluth, Yetzirah, Briah, Assiah (Wands, Swords, Cups, Pentacles).
Thus in Atziluth the Archetypal World it passes from Eheieh the Creative Breath to Adonai Malekh. This gives its impulse to Kether of Briah the Archangelic World, and in this plane it passes from Metatron the Male Kerub to Sandalphon the Female Kerub. This in turn gives its impulse to Kether of Assiah the Astral Plane where it is received by Chaioth ha Qadesh. The Holy Living Creatures, i.e. the Zodiac which is a wheel or Vortex and goes down to Ashim the Souls of Fire. The work of this Plane being to disintegrate the Astral Form that it may pass through the veils of Negative Existence and be reborn on the Material in Kether of Assiah. Here it is received by Rashith ha Gilgalim the Primum Mobile or Lord Kelvin’s “Vortex ring” and passes down to Cholem Yesodoth. Material Wealth. Malkuth of Assiah.
Thus we have four Trees one above the other containing 40 Sephiroth; i.e., the 4 Aces & 36 small cards of the Tarot arranged in 4 suits corresponding to the Worlds, each attributed to a Planet in a Decanate, and ruled by 2 Angels of the Shemhamaphoresch. This allocation of symbols gives the meaning ascribed to each card.
[The results and names of the cards are arrived at by combining the meanings of the numbers, with the meanings of the suits and interpreting by the Kabbalah. I have added clarifying material from other sources in brackets[ ]. Tarot card illustrations are from the Golden Dawn Whare Ra deck. —mkg]
Meaning of Numbers:
2. unites the Forces of the Positive and Negative, the King and Queen of the suit. Hence it signifies a beginning or Initiation.
[Unites forces of King and Queen, Fire & Water, Postive & Negative = reflection, love, pleasure, harmony. Chokmah is exalted above every head. Sphere of Wheel of Change and the Zodiac.]
3. produces the Prince. The Resultant of that union. A spiritual card.
[Produces the Prince (resultant (perfect manifestation) of union of King and Queen). Saturn = steadiness and restraint.]
4. produces the Princess. The Realization making the matter fixed or settled. Often taken as a new beginning. A material card.
[The Princess. Realization (4) of Power (Jupiter). Makes the matter fixed and settled. Chesed = the receptacle of all the Holy Powers and from it emanates all the Virtues).]
5. compounded of the first odd and the first even numbers denotes Opposition.
[Sphere of Mars. 5 = opposition, strife. Geburah = severity. Unites Wisdom and Knowledge.]
6. called by Nichomachus the form of form and by the Pythagoreans the Perfection of Parts, is taken to imply Accomplishment.
[Sphere of Sun = power, rank, rule. 6 = Accomplishment. Tiphereth = Mediating Intelligence for it causes that influence to flow into all the Reservoirs of Blessings.]
7. in Hebrew called ShBV Shibo or abundance unites the spiritual 3 to the material 4 and signifies a Supernal Force, also a possible result to be obtained by skill and courage.
[Sphere of Venus = external (outer) splendour. Netzach = the Refulgent Splendour of all Intellectual Virtues. Force transcending the material plane.]
8. The first cube of energy and the only evenly even number in the decade. Signifies material success, but sterile – not heading further. Solitary successes.
[Sphere of Mercury = Genius. Hod = Solitary Successes. 8 = Feeble Force, lacks initiative. Martial force without restraint.]
9. The triple Three, the first square of the odd number, of the Spiritual three. No further elementary number is possible hence it is like the horizon. All other numbers are bounded by it. Hence it implies Fundamental Force.
[Sphere of the Moon which governs the Waters of earth, the feminine & negative. 9 = a strong fundamental force. Yesod – the Path of Pure Intelligence.]
10. The beginning again of the decimal scale. Completed Force.
[Sphere of the Elements/Earth. Fixed and completed force. Power exercised in material things only.]
The 4 Aces are always the Roots of the Powers of their element. For other meanings see “Extracts from Book T., given in Ritual N.”
YOD-HE-VAU-HE is the Supreme God of the Plane of Earthly life governing material, mental and psychic forces by immutable laws. The “God” of the Old Testament.
ELOHIM = the Guiding Spirits who under YHVH sway the material forces. Always used collectively and usually translated Lord.
The ELOHIM contact humanity. YHVH does not – directly.
ADONI = the Planetary God of Earth. To a certain extent answers to Christ when looked at from his Human aspect, but recognising His Divinity. YHShVH is His Divine Aspect.
Ace of Wands: (Kether of Atziluth, Root of the Powers of Fire) Eheieh is the Creative Sigh, the Divine outbreathing – the Eastern Hamsa. The Greek _?_. The Spirit of God in Genesis. By this Divine Life first enters the Kether of the highest of the Four Worlds and penetrates to Malkuth of the Lowest. In the Tarot this influence comes from the Keys to the Ace of Wands.
Two of Wands: (Chokmah of Atziluth, Lord of Dominion, Mars in Aries) Unites forces of King & Queen. The Union of Fire & Water. The Spirit of Yod [Jehovah]on the face of the Water. Chokmah is exalted above every head. Mars in Aries representing the decanate is absolutely powerful. Hence influence over others. Good or bad according to dignity.
Three of Wands: (Binah of Atziluth, Established Strength, Sun in Aries) Produces the Prince. Resultant of union of King and Queen. Here the union of the Earth God Yod-He-Vau-He with the Lords of Creation Binah Elohim is the basis of Primordial Wisdom. The forms of Faith and its Roots. Amen. Sun the center of Power to the Earth in the fiery Aries give realization of hopes of energy = Established Strength.
Four of Wands: (Chesed of Atziluth, Perfected Work, Venus in Aries) Produces the Princess making the matter fixed and settled. EL is the definite article. The absolute. Chesed is the receptacle of all the Holy Powers and from it emanates all the Virtues. Venus in the fiery Aries has her full fruition. Hence have we perfected work.
Five of Wands: (Geburah of Atziluth, Strife, Saturn in Leo) Opposition. Elohim Gebor is the Lord of Severity [and battles]. He intensifies opposition. Geburah is itself severity. It unites Wisdom and Knowledge. Here gloomy Saturn dulls the light of Leo hence we get Strife. Ultimate success or failure is otherwise [elsewhere] shown.
Six of Wands: (Tiphareth in Atziluth, Victory, Jupiter in Leo) Accomplishment. The dual influences of the Earth God and the Directing Lords of Creation Elohim [Jehovah Aloah va Daath] directed to NETZACH or Knowledge give absolute success to skill and courage. Jupiter power in the shining light of Leo completes the idea. Tiphereth is the Mediating Intelligence for it causes that influence to flow into all the Reservoirs of Blessings. Hence is Victory after Strife.
Seven of Wands: (Netzach in Atziluth, Valour, Mars in Leo) A possible result. A force transcending the Material Plane. Mars in Leo gives this a martial direction. Jehovah Tzabaoth the Earth God of Hosts shows terrific force but restrained. Netzach is the Refulgent Splendour of all Intellectual Virtues. The sum of all these gives Valour.
Eight of Wands: (Hod in Atziluth, Swiftness, Mercury in Sagittarius) Solitary Successes. The Name is the Lord of Armies Elohim Tzabaoth. Martial Force without restraint. Mercury in the fire of the Sagittarius Centaur also gives the idea of too much force suddenly applied. Swiftness of the horse but running nowhere. Success but leading to nothing.
Nine of Wands: (Yesod of Atziluth, Great Strength, Moon in Sagittarius) Strong fundamental force Shaddai el Chai = the Vast & Mighty One. Both are of the same character but less fierce than the 10. The gentle Moon somewhat restrains the fire of the Centaur Sagittarius – it giving great strength but benignly used. The Sephiroth is the Path of Pure Intelligence.
Ten of Wands: (Malkuth of Atziluth, Oppression, Saturn in Sagittarius) Fixed and completed force. Adonai Malekh = The Power of Earth as a King. The two give to the Fire of Wands an overpowering Force which = Cruelty. Gloomy Saturn rides but does not control the fire of the Centaur Sagittarius which is the Airy Fire. Such fierce blast of Fire whirls to the Male Kerub, Metatron, in Kether of Briah. [The Divine Impulse … by growing materially powerful becomes sheer cruelty and oppression.]
CUPS – The Tree of Life in Briah
Ace of Cups: (Kether of Briah, Root of the Powers of Water) The Right Hand Male Kerub [Metatron] receives the influences from Adoni Malekh. See Key Table for further information.
Two of Cups: (Chokmah of Briah, Love, Venus in Cancer) Unites the King and Queen. Positive and Negative forces of Love and Pleasure. Ratziel the Archangel of the forces of a Vortex or wheel gives Power. Venus in Cancer is especially Venusian. All the Ideas tend in the same way to the unmodified and uncombined ideas of Cups – Love.
Three of Cups: (Binah of Briah, Abundance, Mercury in Cancer) Produces the Prince. = Abundance resulting from Love. Tzaphkiel has to do with forces of Saturn giving the steadying quality to Mercury, the versatility which qualify the overstrong cup-action making it fruitful.
Four of Cups: (Chesed of Briah, Blended Pleasure, Moon in Cancer) Produces the Princess. Realisation. Tzadkiel is the power of Jupiter so far good, but Moon in Cancer gives change and instability. Happiness approaching an end. Too passive to be perfectly complete.
Five of Cups: (Geburah of Briah, Loss in Pleasure, Mars in Scorpio) Opposition neutralises the force of Cups. Khamael is the Archangel of the Mars forces. Quarrels and fighting – the antithesis of Love. Mars in Scorpio = the stirring up of stagnant water. All intensify the idea. End of Pleasure. Sadness. Deceit. Treachery in Love.
Six of Cups: (Tiphareth in Briah, Pleasure, Sun in Scorpio) Accomplishment. Raphael is the Archangel of the Sun. United influence brings to pass what is wished – e.g. on the material plane. Sensual Pleasure. The influence of Sun in Scorpio is enervating breeding corruption. If Sun is strong – vanity, etc.
Seven of Cups: (Netzach in Briah, Illusionary Success, Venus in Scorpio) A possible success. The Supernal Forces Haniel is the Archangel connected with the Venus forces. Success is only outward. Supernal forces bring it to nothing. Nogah the sphere of Venus represents external splendour. Venus in Scorpio the gleam on stagnant water. All repeat the idea.
Eight of Cups: (Hod in Briah, Abandoned Success, Saturn in Pisces) Solitary Success. Michael the Archangel of Fire is too strong for the feeble force of the 8. Saturn in the airy Pisces gives indolence and dispondency. The whole shows temporary success abandoned as soon as gained.
Nine of Cups: (Yesod of Briah, Material Happiness, Jupiter in Pisces) Strong fundamental force. Gabriel is the Archangel of Water on the material plane. He presides over birth and generation. Hence he was announcer of the birth of Christ and of John the Baptist. More material than Sandalphon as 9 is less complete than 10. Jupiter is not such a perfect combination with Pisces as Mars, so this card is almost perfect happiness.
Ten of Cups: (Malkuth of Briah, Perfected Success, Mars in Pisces) A fixed and Completed Force. Sandalphon, the Female Kerub, an Archangel yet Chief of the Angels. Showering influence of Chaioth ha Qadesh [Kether] – being the Female Kerub receiving its influence from above and transmuting it to the Zodiac, the Wheel of material creation. Mars gives the balance of Fire; Pisces that of Water. Hence this is an extremely good and fortunate card.
SWORDS – The Tree of Life in Yetzirah
Ace of Swords: (Kether in Yetzirah, Root of the Powers of Air) The Holy Living Creatures [Chaioth ha Qadesh], represent the Zodiac itself as Chokmah of Assiah represents its sphere. Hence a vortex receiving the influence through the veils of the negative from Malkuth of Briah which is Perfected Happiness.
Two of Swords: (Chokmah of Yetzirah, Peace Restored, Moon in Libra) Unites King and Queen thus producing Harmony. Auphanim is the Wheel of Change. Thus the Angels of the Revolving Symbolism restore peace. The gentle influence of Moon on Libra fiery air, restores and pacifies.
Three of Swords: (Binah of Yetzirah, Sorrow, Saturn in Libra) Produces the Prince. = The beginning and ending. Giver of Death. Aralim called Thrones more properly. Heroes intensifies the Prince. Hence Sorrow. Gloomy Saturn in fiery Air repeats the idea.
Four of Swords: (Chesed of Yetzirah, Rest from Strife, Jupiter in Libra) Realization. Chasmalim = a brillant metal, perhaps gold or silver. The Angels characterised by brightness [Shining Ones]. The realization of Brilliance. Thus = Rest after Strife. Jupiter Power in Libra fiery Air. Holds its heat restrained. This repeats the idea.
Five of Swords: (Geburah of Yetzirah, Defeat, Venus in Aquarius) Opposition. Strife. Seraphim = Angelic Beings whose character is burning or Fire [fiery serpents]. There is nothing to modify the fiery heat of strife which must bring defeat. Venus in the soft nature of Watery air succumbs to any Force.
Six of Swords: (Tiphareth in Yetzirah, Earned Success, Mercury in Aquarius) Accomplishment. Malachim – King Forces & those who obtain success by commanding it. Hence success not by luck but by effort. Mercury = Genius. Versatility acting on the plastic material of watery Air strives for and obtains success.
Seven of Swords: (Netzach in Yetzirah, Unstable Effort, Moon in Aquarius) Forces transcending the material Plane. Elohim = the idea of strength; hence effort but Supernal Forces overcome & render it unstable. Aquarius – Watery Air acted on by the inconstant Moon increases this result.
Eight of Swords: (Hod in Yetzirah, Shortened Force, Jupiter in Gemini) Solitary Successes. Beni Elohim = Sons of God. A lower and inferior order of Angels. Not able to prevail against the restrictions of the number 8. Jupiter = Power, but having only the Airy Air of Gemini as a basis, cannot exert Power to the full.
Nine of Swords: (Yesod of Yetzirah, Despair and Cruelty, Mars in Gemini) 9 = A strong fundamental force. Cherubim = Sphinxes compounded of the Elements. The supporters of Diety who fly with a swooping or circling motion, the beginning of a whirl, outcasting answering to Rashith ha Gilgalim [Kether’s First Swirlings]. The strong force tending to break up, appears like cruelty & despair. Mars has his full unmodified sway in the Airy Air of Gemini.
Ten of Swords: (Malkuth of Yetzirah, Ruin, Sun in Gemini) 10 = a fixed & completed force. Ashim = the Souls of Fire. These complete their work, which is to break up, disintegrate and ruin the Astral form that it may pass through the negative veils to be reborn in Kether of Assiah. Sun = very fiery energy, destructive unless it acts on very solid material & is modified. Acting on Gemini the tenuous or most Airy Air it is destructive. Compare the deadly arrows of Apollo. [Here the ideas take form, but the Astral Shells are broken up in Ruin by the Souls of Fire that the forms may be reborn in the Material.]
PENTACLES – The Tree of Life in Assiah
Ace of Pentacles: (Kether in Assiah, Root of the Powers of Earth) All Aces are the roots of the Powers of their Element. The Primum Mobile [Rashith ha Gilgalim] Beginning of Whirlings = Primary Vortex Ring. This is the Germ of all Matter (vide Lord Kelvin).
Two of Pentacles: (Chokmah of Assiah, Harmonious Change, Jupiter in Capricorn) Unites King and Queen. The Sphere of the Zodiac counter charges all. All forces acting on Earth. Jupiter = Calm Power on Capricorn = Barren Earth. Gives Harmonious Change but no product.
Three of Pentacles: (Binah of Assiah, Material Works, Mars in Capricorn) Produces the Prince = The perfect manifestation of the forces of Earth. The Sphere of Saturn [Shabathai= rest] restrains his influence. Mars shining on Capricorn the barren earth brings about material works and no more.
Four of Pentacles: (Chesed of Assiah, Earthly Power, Sun in Capricorn) 4 = Realization. Sphere of Jupiter = Power [Tzadekh = righteousness]. Thus the realization of Power. Sun = Power and force on Capricorn = a barren and desert land. Dominates, but leads to nothing beyond.
Five of Pentacles (Geburah of Assiah, Material Trouble, Mercury in Taurus) 5 = Opposition & Strife. Sphere of Mars [Madim = vehement strength] accentuates this. Mercury = Genius but etherial and erratic. Quite unable to deal with the dull heavy earth of Taurus.
Six of Pentacles: (Tiphareth in Assiah, Material Success, Moon in Taurus) 6 = Accomplishment. Sphere of Sun = Power, Rank, Rule [Shemesh = Solar Light]. These give abundant success. Luna in her exaltation of Taurus. The Mistress of the Floods. Breaking up the dull heavy earth under the influence of Sun = Great fertility.
Seven of Pentacles: (Netzach in Assiah, Success Unfulfilled, Saturn in Taurus) Force transcending the material Plane. Nogah = Sphere of Venus = External Splendour. The outside fair, but Supernal Force destroys the promise. The gloom of Saturn on the heavy dull earth of Taurus gives no success in farming.
Eight of Pentacles: (Hod in Assiah, Prudence, Sun in Virgo) Solitary Successes. Sphere of Mercury = Genius [Kokab = The Stellar Light]. This when only ocasionally successful is over careful. Sun = prudence and punctuality in Virgo the fertile earth gives success in farming. Mercury unrestrained by the forces of 8 lacks initiative energy.
Nine of Pentacles: (Yesod of Assiah, Material Gain, Venus in Virgo) 9 = A strong fundamental force. Levanah = Sphere of the Moon which governs the Waters of earth. A force which governs the feminine & negative is usually termed luck. This = gain. Venus the generative power in Virgo the fertile earth = material increase.
Ten of Pentacles: (Malkuth of Assiah, Wealth, Mercury in Virgo) 10 = Fixed and completed force. Sphere of the Elements [Cholem Yesodoth] = Power exercised in material things only . Mercury extremely versatile genius employed in Virgo = the fertility of the earth. Therefore successful completion of material gain = Material Wealth. Malkuth of Assiah. There is nothing human below this. [The acme of worldly prosperity and progress.] (Hereafter it must take an upward curve or pass out to The Qlippoth.).
[Note: the following zodiacal attributes relate to the elemental qualities of the decanates and the cards associated with those decanates. mkg]
Aries: Ascending Flames. A Great and Ruling Force.
Leo: Rushing Flames. A Force Wise.
Sagittarius: Darting Flames. A Force Great and Potent.
Taurus: Fertile land in a valley. A Force Exalted.
Virgo: Undulating land and low hill. A Force Just.
Capricorn: Precipitous, rocky and barren land. A Force Strong and Mighty.
Gemini: Cirrhous and flecked cloud. A Powerful Force.
Libra: Cumulo-stratous clouds. A Force Illustrious.
Aquarius: Rain descending from clouds. A Force Manifesting and Manifested.
Cancer: Eddies of swirling water. A Force that renders Powerful.
Scorpio: Undulating surface of water. A Wisely Dispensing Force.
Pisces: Breaking waves of the sea. A Force Avenging.
Elemental Dignities is the most misunderstood topic in Tarot. It is a method of giving importance to cards in a spread that is based on the relationship between the cards’ elements (fire, earth, air, water) and used to identify cards that strengthen or weaken each other.
It was first discussed by MacGregor Mathers, for members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, in a manuscript called “Book T,” which included his instructions on reading the cards. The problem is that few people study “Book T” and really look at the examples that Mathers gives for using Elemental Dignities.
The system was a way for determining how ‘strong’ (i.e., powerful and important) each card or set of cards was in a reading and, therefore, which cards to pay most attention to. It was also a way to eliminate irrelevant cards. It was designed to go with specific spreads in which the cards were read in pairs and triads.
You need to actually lay out the cards he used as examples and follow closely what he did if you want to understand the GD system. For one thing, Mathers used the terms “neutral” and, in a different context, “neutralize,” and they signify two different but important things. Secondly, the term ‘friendly’ does not mean that the cards act nicely toward each other. Any combination can be for ‘good or ill’ depending on the cards!!!
Here are Mathers’ basic rules (see my book 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card for a more complete explanation):
1) Cards are “Strong” when the suits/elements are the same; they are “very strong for either good or evil, according to their nature.”
In other words, two swords cards are like-minded and egg each other on. They can greatly increase either the good or ill in each (depending on their individual meanings).
2) When the suits/elements are both masculine/active or feminine/passive, they are “moderately strong because they are friendly to each other.” [Fire+Air; Water+Earth.]
They increase the power and strength of the other, but whether this is good or bad depends on the specific cards.
3) When the suits/elements complement each other, they are “somewhat friendly” (also called neutral). [Fire+Earth; Air+Water.]
They show relatively ineffectual interactions. (Personally, I like to think of them as irritants that can be mildly correctional and therapeutic to each other but without great impact as to whether they strengthen or weaken the other.)
4) When the cards are of contrary elements they tend to “weaken each other greatly for good or evil, and neutralize [cancel out] their force.” They are sometimes referred to as enemies or ill-dignified. [Fire+Water; Air+Earth.]
In practice, Mathers often cancelled out the effect of cards with contrary elements. He simply did not read PAIRS that were of contrary elements!! (They could not co-exist in the same room so BOTH would leave.)
In TRIADS, if the two cards flanking a central one were contrary to each other, he simply didn’t read those flanking cards but, instead, concentrated on the center card as if it were alone.
However: “If the contrary element is only in one flanking card, then the other becomes a connecting card so that the first [center] is not weakened, but is modified by the influence of both cards and is, therefore, fairly strong.” In other words, the center card overcomes the neutralizing force of its contrary flanking card through the support of the flanking card that is more ‘friendly’ to it – for good or ill.
If both flanking cards are contrary to the center one then they dominate it completely; the effects of the central card become extremely weak.
People have modified this system to make sense to themselves (and often because they didn’t understand the original). It’s fine to modify the idea to your own use, just understand that you are doing so, and that none of these adaptations are “right” while others are “wrong.” The important thing is what works for you.
When looking at a spread in terms of pairs, what you end up with are, if it were a book or movie:
1) Strong: the leading characters (they can be lovers or antagonist and protagonist). The focus of the action is on them.
2) Friendly: supporting actors – secondary characters – the best friend, a mentor, the malicious co-worker: those who further the action of the story through support or by throwing a spanner in the works.
3) Somewhat Friendly/Neutral: those who add in a little but aren’t terribly significant: brief encounters, comedic relief, etc.
4) Weak (neutralizing): non-speaking parts: crowd scenes, background at a restaurant, faces on the street, etc. If these people are alone in a room (without the characters mentioned above) then simply NOTHING happens.
This is not an exact analogy, but it should get the point across. I want to emphasize again that you can devise a system of elemental dignities that goes beyond this, using psychological, astrological or even alchemical principles for the interaction of elements. But, then understand that this is a personal adaptation of the original idea.
Want more? Step-by-step instructions for reading all variations of Elemental Dignities with three-cards can be found at Tarot Elements.
Someone asked about the varieties of astrological correspondences among the Tarot Major Arcana cards on a tarot forum: “I assume that the Tarot of Marseilles is a totally different tradition than the Golden Dawn?”
This is my attempt to give an overview of how the astro-alpha-numeric correspondences used by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (founded in 1888 ) came to be formulated. The creators of the Golden Dawn (GD) tarot system were familiar with the French tradition (Marseilles), but deviated markedly from it in creating their own tarot lineage.
Part of the “secret” material taught in the GD were their unique attributions for the Tarot, which formed the basis for their levels of initiation. Centering on the 1880s, the Tarot was treated as a puzzle, and both French and British ceremonial magicians were racing to solve it. At the heart of this race was discovering the “real” correspondences among the Hebrew letters, astrological signs & planets, and numbers. Tarot author Christine Payne-Towler in The Underground Stream coined the term “astro-alpha-numeric correspondences” to cover these.
In the late 18th c. le Comte de Mellet in de Gébelin’s Le Monde Primitif suggested one solution—linking the last card with the first Hebrew letter (World=Aleph).
French magician Eliphas Lévi, working in the mid-1800s, came up with his own solution based on the fact that the Hebrew letters ARE the numbers (Magician = 1 = Aleph). Furthermore, a Kabbalistic document, the Sepher Yetzirah, relates these directly with the astrological signs (the planets were not so explicitly related – creating all kinds of controversy). Writers like Paul Christian, Oswald Wirth, Papus, and members of the Brotherhood of Luxor (and the later Brotherhood of Light) continued along these lines.
The Golden Dawn had yet another solution. Before he died, Lévi and a British Freemason and occultist, Kenneth MacKenzie, met in Paris. Lévi showed MacKenzie a deck he had designed (but which disappeared after his death) and they discussed this Hebrew letter “puzzle.” MacKenzie was not satisfied with Lévi’s attributes and worked on his own solution to the puzzle (“I work it with the aid of astrology”), but he died before he could publish it. He wrote one of the founders of the GD (Westcott) that it was too ‘dangerous’ to be revealed to the masses:
“I am not disposed to communicate the Tarot System indiscriminately although I am acquainted with it. To do so would put a most dangerous weapon into the hands of persons less scrupulous than I am.”
As soon as MacKenzie died, William Westcott bought a box of papers from MacKenzie’s widow. With two other “chiefs” (all who belonged to various Masonic and Rosicrucian societies) he started up the GD, using as its basis a manuscript written in cipher describing a series of rituals (translated and worked up by MacGregor Mathers). These rituals were based on initiation grades from the 18th c. German “New and Gold Rosicrucians,” combined with the GD correspondences as given in the cipher manuscript (two books have since been published reproducing the manuscript and discussing it in depth). Although there is no absolute “proof” that MacKenzie wrote the cipher manuscript, the evidence is pretty strong.
Both Aleister Crowley and Paul Foster Case (American member of the GD) made some minor changes to the MacKenzie/GD alpha-astro-numeric correspondences – Crowley switched positions of the Emperor and Star, and Case replaced the three “elemental” cards with the more recently discovered outer planets.
A. E. Waite always declared he was dissatisfied with the correspondences, but used them in his own GD-based rite, until, in the 1920s, he finally created a revised set of Major Arcana, changing their order to fit with mystical rituals he devised for his Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. A few of the black-and-white versions of these cards that are so different from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck are illustrated in Dummett & Decker’s A History of the Occult Tarot: 1870-1970 and in K. Frank Jensen’s The Story of the Waite-Smith Tarot.