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Introduction to the Occult Tarot

June 15, 2020

by Tony Willis      

During this period of social distancing and self-isolation, opportunities to make face to face tarot readings are much reduced. It is a time, too, when many students of tarot are questioning their purpose in life as well as their individual usefulness to the evolutionary process of the planet. “Why is the pandemic happening?” and “What lessons are we humans supposed to learn from the turmoil and dissention my nation is going through at the moment?” are questions I hear regularly. Whilst I can’t answer those questions, I can point tarot students at a path that may lead them to an answer. That path is the Occult Tarot.

On Correspondences

The Occult Tarot has been around for as long as the predictive tarot has. In some older books, one sometimes finds occult significances for the Major Arcana mixed in with the predictive and psychological meanings of the cards. For tarotists who have never explored the field of Occult Tarot, it can be a puzzling place. Bemusement often begins when the student embarks on an investigation of what are called the “Correspondences” associated with the tarot Trumps. These are astrological attributions given to the Major Arcana cards by occultists. There are several schools of thought on the matter, with one occult school tending to contradict the teachings of all the others. At this point in their researches into the Occult Tarot, some students throw up their hands in irritation and simply walk away from the subject. There is an explanation for these apparent discrepancies, however, one covered in part by remarks made by Dion Fortune concerning the attribution of the deities of particular pantheons to the spheres of the Tree of Life.

In Dion Fortune’s opinion, a hard and fast attribution of these deities to the different spheres is impractical. This, she informs us, is because aspects of, for instance, the Egyptian goddess Isis are to be found in the spheres of Binah, Netzach, Yesod, and Malkuth. Likewise, aspects of the god Osiris, husband to Isis, are to be found in the spheres Chokmah, Chesed and Tiphareth. The British occultist Murry Hope has said the same thing. Unlike Dion Fortune, Ms Hope was not a Qabalist, and so her terminology was not the same as D.F.’s, but her conclusions were identical. Both women, high adepts in their own traditions, set out the guideline to making attributions, which was articulated by D.F. thus: “We must look for the principle behind the multiform manifestation, and realize that it assumes different forms at different levels.”

To the newcomer to the Occult Tarot this may sound like a high-flown phrase, clever word-play that leaves the novice wondering how the pronouncement works out in practice. To understand the process better, let us look at attributions given to just one of the Major Arcana.

When the French occultist Oswald Wirth gives it as his opinion that the card Temperance corresponds astrologically to the zodiac sign Aquarius, it is because he recognizes a correlation between the Trump and the sign. Since Aquarius is the sign of the Water Barer, usually depicted as a kneeling man dispensing water from a large ewer, and the image on the tarot card is that of a figure carefully decanting water from one vase into another, it is obvious where Wirth got his inspiration for the attribution from.

Arcane-Arcana-14-temperance            Arcane-Arcana-14-temperance

When Papus, author of The Tarot of the Bohemians, assigns Scorpio to Trump 14, it is because he detects a resonance between the two factors, the sign Scorpio and the card Temperance. The key to Papus’s thinking can be found upon perusal of Paul Foster Case’s B.O.T.A. version of the Trump. Symbolically the B.O.T.A. card is an alchemical interpretation of the concept of temperance – which in this instance does not indicate a total abstinence from alcohol. The eagle found on the B.O.T.A. card represents water, while the lion represents fire. Therefore one interpretation of the symbolism is of fire being plunged into water and of water being poured onto fire. In neither case does the water evaporate or the fire become extinguished. The elements blend, forming a third distinct quality – although that outcome is not depicted on the B.O.T.A. card. Aleister Crowley’s version of Trump 14 is a variant of Case’s. In the imagery of both cards we see the Scorpionic concepts of transmutation and transition vividly illustrated.

bota 14T_t          14T thoth

Then again, when an organization such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn ascribes Sagittarius to Temperance, it is because the Order’s founders recognized a parallel between the sign of the Archer and Trump 14. Sagittarius is ruled by Jupiter, a highly fortunate planet. The card Temperance is universally accepted as signaling a beneficent result. In the B.O.T.A. version of the card, a rainbow arches above the central figure. This rainbow, at times referred to as the bow of promise, is identified by the G.D. with the archer’s bow, and this accounts for its appearance at the top of the B.O.T.A. card. In the Cicero Golden Dawn Tarot pack, the rainbow has been painted onto an actual bow, with an arrow set in it ready to be fired upwards. In this case, also, the reference is to the G.D.’s association of Sagittarius, the bowman, with tarot Trump 14.

14 trad

All these correspondences are valid to some degree. It isn’t a question of one set of attributions being ‘right’. As with the divinatory significances assigned the cards, it is of little moment which set of attributions the student chooses to adopt in their investigation of the Occult Tarot. The most important thing by far is to stick with the chosen system until it is mastered and not to chop and change between one method and another. No good will come of accepting that Trump 14 corresponds to Sagittarius (as per the Golden Dawn system of attributions) while at the same time accepting that The Chariot corresponds to Gemini (in line with the Papus attributions).

I chose to name the sign Gemini in my previous comment because it is the opposite sign in the zodiac to Sagittarius. The energies of opposing signs are also polar opposites. For that reason, a ceremonial magician might seek to counteract an over-plus of Sagittarian energy by applying, as a corrective, a Geminian force to the situation. Where Temperance is accepted as mediating a Sagittarian vibration, The Lovers will represent the appropriate Geminian antidote. The Chariot, the Papus equivalent to Gemini, will not restrict an out-of-control Sagittarian force in any magick performed by someone following the Golden Dawn path. The group mind of the Golden Dawn accepts The Lovers card as having the same vibratory rate as Gemini; it associates Cancer with Trump 7, The Chariot. Therefore, bringing Chariot energy to bear on the matter is more likely to inflame the situation since Cancer energies foster those of Jupiter, ruler of Sagittarius. To the beginner this may seem an abstruse point, but at the higher levels of ceremonial magick disastrous results can be obtained by the uninformed intermixing of systems.

An early question to be answered, then, becomes: Which system ought I to follow? There are a number of esoteric schools of thought to which one might turn to in search of enlightenment on this point, but, thankfully, a good many of them can be discounted right away. Wicca, for instance, does not have its own esoteric tarot tradition. The wiccan forms of tarot reading I’ve had sight of have been borrowed from elsewhere. Early convert to the modern manifestation of Wicca in Britain, Arnold Crowther, produced an insightful set of divinatory meanings for the Major Arcana. It was published by his widow Patricia Crowther. I commend it to my readers. Mr Crowther’s meanings are excellent, although they are purely exoteric – that is to say they are fortune-telling meanings, not ones pertaining to High Magick. In consequence, one doesn’t have to be a wiccan or a witch to find them practical as well as intellectually satisfying.

The four main sets of esoteric attributions in use today are those of Oswald Wirth, Papus, the Golden Dawn, and C.C. Zain’s Church of Light correspondences. There have been others put forward over the years but few have stood the test of time. Most tarotists adopt the G.D. correlations. These are readily available (because almost every author in the English-speaking world covering tarot divination has written about them) and in addition they fit the images found on the Waite-Smith cards. These meanings are often taken up by beginners purely because they are presented to them in virtually every book produced on the tarot from the middle of the twentieth century onwards.

A newcomer to the Occult Tarot may understandably be led to adopt the correspondences associated with their favorite tarot pack. Those who are happiest working with the Waite-Smith deck or one of its many clones, from the Aquarian Tarot (artist David Palladini), published early on in the explosion of interest in the cards that occurred in the 1970s, through to the Sharman-Caselli Tarot Deck (2005) and beyond, would manage well enough working with the Golden Dawn correspondences.

On the other hand, anyone who works most often with a deck that declares itself to be of G.D. origin – whether it be the Cicero cards or those designed by Robert Wang – should obviously stick with the Golden Dawn correspondence that inform the design of those decks. By the same token, anybody with a deep devotion to the Church of Light cards should enter the realm of Occult Tarot with that group’s attributions etched upon their memory. The packs designed by or for the French masters of tarot tend not to be so popular in the anglophone world but they are available. They don’t have the appeal for the twenty-first-century mind that the Waite-Smith pack and some of the modern tarots have. This is largely because of their unorthodox Trump order. The Fool is often placed between Judgment and The World, and sometimes it is numbered 21, in which case The World is numbered 22. It is, however, worth looking these packs over before making a final decision as to which system to follow. You never know, one of those decks that you have never examined closely before may just ‘speak’ to you or impact on your psyche with such force that an undeniable bond is formed between yourself and it.

A final option worth given serious consideration to is the Tarot of Marseilles. The designs may seem quaint and even old-fashioned compared to the decks being published today but some find it immensely liberating to work with. The lack of images on the spot cards frees one from pictorial representation and throws one back on number symbolism: the Fours of any suit, for instance, being interpreted as aspects of what we might call ‘the archetypal concept of ‘fourness’, however the practitioner choses to interpret that term. As with most decks from continental Europe, the Trump Justice is numbered 8 and the Strength card is numbered 11. If you definitely cannot get your head around this ordering of the Major Arcana then the Tarot de Marseille is not for you. But before dismissing it out of hand, pause and remind yourself that this was the original numbering, successfully employed by tarot experts and occultists of note from Court de Gébelin to Eliphas Levi and Papus.

Following years of neglect in the English-speaking world, the Tarot of Marseilles is currently gaining more support. Anyone used to relying on the illustrations borne by the spot cards for inspiration concerning meaning and interpretation is likely to be put off at first by the paucity of clues in that direction appearing on the Tarot de Marseille spots. Working with the Marseilles tarot demands another way of viewing the cards, one possessing its own rationale. But the method functions remarkably well if the student is prepared to embrace it. Moreover, it was the way of approaching the spots for two centuries, from the time that Court de Gébelin brought the tarot to the attention of occultists up until the publication of the Waite-Smith cards, the first fully-illustrated Occult Tarot, a span, as said, of approximately two centuries. During that period our tarotist forebears worked exclusively with this system and achieved perfectly acceptable results through it. Don’t dismiss it before trying it out.

It is likely that some of my readers will have been shocked to find me saying that essentially it doesn’t matter which tarot pack one adopts when setting out to study the Occult Tarot. I understand that reaction only too well. It was my reaction when the same instruction was given me at the outset of my attempts to investigate tarot from an esoteric perspective. However, I bit the bullet and did as I was bidden, and I can tell you that the advice proved to be sound. I started by familiarizing myself with one Tarot deck, and my thinking branched out from there in what always seemed to me a very natural process. No one tarot pack bears all the esoteric data on its cards. The occult tarotist is doomed forever to work with a deck that is to a greater of lesser degree deficient in that regard. What is missing from the physical cards occult tarotists have to supply themselves, from memory.

This means that the student of Occult Tarot is involved in mental effort, in memorizing information, and in the retrieval and application of data to individual cards as circumstances demand. That may be why so few tarot readers today set out on a serious study of the Occult Tarot. Committing information to memory tends to be regarded as an unnecessary waste of time by many who have been taught to draw what they need to make a tarot reading from the details of the illustration on whichever card they have under review. Those inured to this way of working can find the demand to commit information to memory taxing, frustrating, and boring. It is easier to terminate one’s studies than submit to the discipline required to master the technique. But for those who persevere, there are untold benefits to be gained.

You may take your time choosing a deck because we will start our investigation into the Occult Tarot by examining the Major Arcana, and, apart from post-modern packs such as the Steampunk Tarot and the like, the symbolism of the Trump cards does not alter greatly from deck to deck. The Tarot de Marseille Empress, for example, is undoubtedly a close cousin of the Gabriel Gouilinat, Oswald Wirth and Knapp-Hall Empresses laid out below. (M. Gouilinat’s designs grace the pages of Papus’s The Divinatory Tarot.)

3t tdm               Arcane-Arcana-03-imperatrice-empress

Arcane-Arcana-03-imperatrice-empress       3 knapp hall

In the next article, we will take up a closer study of the tarot Trumps, inspecting them from an esoteric perspective.

One Comment
  1. Some excellent points. For what it’s worth, the French occultists never reached a consensus on correspondences, whether astrological, elemental or kabbalistic, and the divinatory significances, especially of the pip cards, vary in consequence. Outside of France, Piobb’s system of correspondences became popular in Spanish-speaking countries, a table may be found here:

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