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The Chariot of Hermes

by Tony Willis    

Unlike the situation with Trump 6, the Lovers, when we come to Trump 7, we find that the image on the card appears, with the extremely rare exception, to have been that of a single figure riding in a chariot; and the title appears universally to have been The Chariot, and not as one might have expected, the Charioteer. Some depictions have the chariot travelling right to left across the card, others have it travelling from left to right; less frequently in the earliest cards it is shown head-on, as if it were coming straight at the observer. The gender of the person riding in the chariot is sometimes indeterminate, the contours of the body masked by clothing, and long hair being as applicable to a young male as to a female in a Renaissance setting. A selection of depictions of Trump 7, from the fifteenth century up to and including the Waite-Smith version (twentieth century), are shown below. I include one example of a design with five figures riding in the chariot, but as I have already remarked, it is atypical for there to be more than one person in the chariot in any decks dated between the early fifteenth and the early twentieth centuries.

early chariotearly21issychariot

caryyalechariot07 II7ChariotRiderWaites

Just as the image and title of Trump 7 have a simple history when compared with that of most other Trumps, so are its divinatory meanings relatively simple, too. They are all tuned to the same note, so to speak. Most commentators assume that the charioteer is riding in a victory parade, a form of celebration common in ancient and classical Rome. A Roman general, having won a series of battles, or having made one highly significant conquest, was allowed to ride the streets of the capital wearing all the panoply of triumph, with a slave standing at his shoulder murmuring in his ear, “Remember you are but a man.” The slave is absent from the tarot card and so, therefore, is that part of the symbolism. The rest remains in tact, and in textbook delineations for The Chariot one finds the words “victory”, “triumph”, and “conquest” repeated over and over again.

S.L. Mathers, for instance, puts forward the meanings: Triumph, Victory, Overcoming obstacles. Frank Lind re-words the core idea as: Conquest, Progress, Driving ahead, Achievement in a big way. Mathers echoes Papus and Paul Christian, both of whom assign Victory and Triumph to the card. Lind, inspired by the image of a chariot apparently moving forward adopts the terms Progress and Driving ahead, and substitutes Achievement for Triumph.

At the time Mathers was writing (1888), an “occult” title had been attached to the card: The Chariot of Hermes. The Greek god Hermes, whose Roman equivalent is Mercury, was accepted as a symbol of human intelligence, and as a result Trump 7 became associated in some schools of esoteric thought with the idea that what the card emblemized was the human mind obtaining a victory over some portion of the material world. Reflecting this concept, Sepharial assigns the card the meaning: “Victory gained by the intelligence, the subjugation of the elements by the work of man”, and he is not alone in doing so. When writing under the pseudonym Grand Orient, A.E. Waite reveals what he actually thinks about the individual Trumps. Grand Orient’s reading of the Chariot is, “Triumph of reason; success in natural things; . . . conquest, and all external correspondences of these.”

These notions go back to Paul Christian, and possibly to his teacher Eliphas Levi. They rest on the symbolical representation of the number 7 employed by the Mysteryimage4 Schools. Occultly speaking, Seven is embodied, in its positive aspect, as a triangle (3) above a square (4). The triangle is Spirit, as we find it represented in the Christian Trinity and in Divine Triads the world over, such as the Hindu Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The square symbolizes Matter with its Four Elements, Four “Corners”, Four Cardinal Directions – North, South, East, and West. A triangle standing on a square indicates Spirit directing or guiding Matter. For this reason, Paul Christian describes Trump 7 as signifying “The dominance of spirit over natural force”; and, at a lower level, as denoting “The submission of matter to the intelligence and will-power of man.”

One gypsy meaning I have come across offers, simply, a one word meaning: Victory. Another gypsy meaning, drawn from a different source, is that the card “Announces great honor for the client.”

Levi also introduced to the meanings of this card the idea of providential protection. This was taken up by Paul Christian and later by Papus. In The Tarot of the Bohemians, Papus gives the card the meaning Providential Protection, while in The Tarot of Divination, he says it denotes “Protection through divine providence”. This is not a meaning with much currency among today’s tarot readers, not in the English-speaking world at any rate.

As is often the case, the reversed meanings of Trump 7 are the plain opposite of its upright meanings.

Sepharial has it signifying defeat or quarrelling. Mathers gives: Overthrown, Conquered by Obstacles at the last moment. “Quarrelling” may be assigned to the reversed card image5because it signals division in contradistinction to the upright card which symbolizes Spirit and Matter working together, the former directing or acting as mentor to the latter. The geometric image associated with the Trump reversed is a square standing over a triangle with its apex pointing downward. In this figure material requirements dominate spiritual impulses, the result, it is to be presumed, being an antagonistic relationship between the two in contrast to the image of a triangle resting on a square, where all is assumed to be as it should be, Spirit and Matter cooperating in harmony and equilibration. This interpretation of the geometric figure is reflected in a gypsy reading of the card reversed, namely that “the client will be unhappy at home”, no doubt due to a lack of concord on the domestic front.

One school of thought has the reversed card signifying rescue from pressing difficulties at the eleventh hour, the total opposite of Mathers’ reading of the card. This interpretation is linked to the upright significance assigned the card by Levi that I just mentioned: Providential protection. Here Providence is assumed to be willing to allow the inquirer’s woes to pile up, the situation becoming steadily more precarious until, at the very last moment, she steps in to save the day. Again this is a meaning one doesn’t encounter very frequently in tarot circles in the English-speaking world.

From time to time, but not often, one finds the two views yoked together, as in the following delineation put together by Richard Huson, father of Paul Huson (himself the author of two books on tarot, The Devil’s Picture Book and Mystical Origins of the Tarot).

This card symbolizes victory, triumph over snares and obstacles, and the help and protection of Providence. Reversed, it indicates discouragement, quarrels, defeat.


Qabalah, the Tarot and me

by Tony Willis     

Some readers have shown an interest in my attitude toward the Qabalah. For the benefit of those who have not heard of it, the Qabalah is a spiritual-philosophical system having its roots in mystical Judaism. Over the centuries a Christianized form of Qabalah emerged and it was in this mode that it was employed by the Order of the Golden Dawn.

The pseudo-occultist treats the Qabalah as little more than a virtual filing system. That is to do it an injustice. There is an exercise Qabalistic students are expected to undertake whereby an idea, such as an ocean-going liner considered conceptually, has its component parts, from galley to bridge, projected on to the Tree of Life; but that is a method of training the mind, not the be all and end all of Qabalism. To maintain that the major ration of Qabalistic practice lies in its function as a filing system is as absurd as insisting that the major part of portrait painting consists in color-mixing. In both instances, one is a the necessary preparation for the hard work of the other. As Dion Fortune so aptly put it: “The value does not lie in the prescribed exercises as ends in themselves, but in the powers that will be developed if they are persevered with.” The Mystical Qabalah, p. 16. Elsewhere in the same book, D.F. explicitly states: “The Tree of Life is a method of using the mind, not a system of knowledge.”

One of the ways this method works out in practice can be demonstrated with an anecdote from my own life. In the 1970s, I became interested in the Runes, the magickal alphabet of the Norse and Anglo-Saxon races. As one who had undergone a G.D. training in Hermeticism along much the same lines as Dion Fortune herself, one of the first things I did was attempt to place the twenty-four runic letters onto the twenty-two Paths of the Tree of Life. I had to work out from first principles the Paths to which the runic letters should be ascribed, taking into account that there are more letters than Paths. That is where the hours of arduous training in assigning apparently arbitrary factors to the Tree paid off. By formulating these correspondences, I added considerably to my understanding of the Runes on the one hand and of the Paths on the other. This is an object lesson in the manner in which the Tree may be used as a clearing house for otherwise uncategorized information, or for the verification of data whose classification has, for whatever reason, become doubtful or adulterated.

Three Steps on the Path of the Mysteries

My occult life may be divided into three unequal portions. In the days of my early studies I knew nothing whatever of the Qabalah; I hadn’t even heard the name. At the age of twenty-one I entered a G.D. Temple and there I put on the mantle of a Qabalist; I became for a time a die-hard, died-in-the-wool exponent of Qabalah. Twenty years later, my primary Inner Plane Contact suggested that I forsake Qabalism, offering sound and rational reasons why it would be beneficial for me to do so. I explained what I had been asked to do to an occultist friend and her response was that she could never under any circumstances abandon the Qabalah. She would not, she said, be in a position to orient herself if all the familiar landmarks were removed.

Frankly, I felt much the same. But my IPC had put forward the suggestion and I therefore felt it my duty at least to give it serious consideration. At this point, one of Aleister Crowley’s reminiscences floated up into my conscious mind, something to the effect that the Qabalah is a ladder by which the occult student may ascend to a certain psycho-spiritual vantage point, but that once that vantage point was gained, in Crowley’s opinion, the ladder should be kicked away. Curious to know what would happen if those circumstances were invoked, I kicked out at the ladder . . . and became a lapsed Qabalist – albeit one freighted with a solid comprehension of Qabalistic lore.

Before I joined the G.D., I had had three great loves: magick, astrology and the tarot. Cutting my ties with the Qabalah made not one speck of difference to my attitude to magick and astrology. It did, however, transform my relationship with the tarot. First and foremost, it freed the Trumps from the Paths of the Tree of Life, and from the Hebrew letters and their esoteric associations. It also freed the Trumps from their G.D. ordering. I no longer had to accept The Fool as leader of the Trumps, nor Strength as Trump 8 and Justice as Trump 11. This realization led to further insights that I have neither the time nor the space to go into here.

I was free to explore, unencumbered by GD preconceptions concerning the tarot, a method explained by Papus whereby the twenty-one numbered Trumps are considered as three septenaries, or groups of seven cards, with the Fool separated from these septenaries, a factor distinct in a number of ways from the rest of the tarot deck. I also experimented with the Naples Arrangement (see The Tarot For Today by Mayananda, 1963) in which the Trumps are set out in a circle, making the Fool both the beginning and the end of the sequence of Trumps, an idea much loved by the British occultist Madeline Montalban. Slowly a different understanding of the tarot started to build up, and another method of using the Trumps for guided visualizations was developed that was not the same as the Path-workings D.F. speaks of in The Mystical Qabalah but which yielded results nevertheless.

However, one thing I want to make clear is that, in divorcing myself from the Qabalah, I was in no way repudiating it. The Qabalistic system affords an effective blueprint for the training of an Adept, and I will be forever grateful for the esoteric grounding it gave me. At the same time, it is well to remember that Qabalah is but one system among many. Indeed, it should be borne in mind that there are a number of competing Qabalistic training systems in existence besides the plethora of non-Qabalistic ones. Judging from what I have seen, all do the job they set out to do.

The Qabalistic schools fulfill a need, but not every mind finds Qabalistic training congenial. It is not a Path for all. Thankfully there are other mystery schools available to those who are tuned to a wavelength other than the Qabalistic one. The sincere seeker will always find her- or himself led to the training method appropriate to her/his temperament – though the quest itself can on occasion take the form of a minor initiatory experience.

Inspiration & the Predictive Tarot

by Tony Willis

As we saw in the previous article, the Golden Dawn’s handbook on the tarot assigned a keyword to Trump 6 in the tarot, the Lovers, that is found nowhere else in occult literature. The keyword is Inspiration and it refers particularly to the type of inspiration that has such an impact on the mind into which it flows that its result is a physical action. On account of this, the G.D. text contains the expression “motive-power”, signifying that the inspiration is an impulse to action on the material plane.

The Lovers card is endowed with this meaning by the G.D. because the Order aligns it with the 17th Path on the Tree of Life, a path that leads from the realm of Understanding to that of Harmony. The idea is that a beam of energy descends from the sphere of Understanding and penetrates the central sphere of the Tree of Life, whose function is ever to seek equilibrium. The energy beam transmits a concept that, if acted upon, will restore harmony to the life of the person in whose mind the process is being enacted. The image the G.D. chose to depict the event was of the Greek hero Perseus descending, drawn sword in hand, to rescue the North African princess Andromeda from a sea monster, symbol of inertia born of fear.

The G.D. text is careful to distinguish between the inspiration represented by the Lovers and that associated with the Magician, the Hierophant and the Hermit. It is a distinction of vital importance to occultists for whom the principle “magic is the science of causing changes in consciousness’’” is a key tenet. However, to the average tarot reader, not to mention the average person, the distinction means precious little. For that reason the G.D. interpretation gained no foothold in the world of tarot divination.

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Another factor for its non-acceptance may have been that, in the French school of tarot established a generation or two before the founding of the G.D., Inspiration was recognized as a meaning for Trump 5, the Pope, In conjunction with the symbol of the Pope, emblematic of the link between the Divine mind and the human mind, inspiration indicated a hunch or presentiment.

     05 II     r-w-hierophant

Even people who have never themselves had a hunch know what one is. They will have met the idea in t.v. crime dramas, where lead detectives are forever having hunches that, when followed up, lead to a breakthrough that solves the case. This meaning at least can be of use to the exponent of the divinatory tarot, and therefore one occasionally comes across delineations of the order:

Sometimes,this Trump presages a forthcoming inspiration which, if followed, can lead to a way out of present difficulties or to financial gain.

Otherwise, the idea of inspiration strikes a dumb note predictively. One hears it rarely in connection the the Pope (or Hierophant), and outside of a G.D. Temple, never in association with the Lovers.

Love, Choice, Temptation, Test

by Tony Willis

The image on the sixth Trump in the Tarot de Marseilles is unlike the earliest illustrations of the card still in existence. They show either a man and a woman holding hands, the god of love hovering overhead, or a parade of couples below and

early 6   caryyalelovers   L'Amoureux_tarot_charles6

one or more cupids in a nimbus above. If Gertrude Moakely is correct in her surmise that the tarot Trumps, sometimes called Triumphs, were based on parades popular in Italy in the fourteenth century and also known as Triumphs, then Trump 6 would have represented the triumph of Love, and would have been named accordingly. The fifteenth century Trumps lack titles and so we may never know for sure the names by which all twenty-two were known in that era.

The image had changed considerably by the time the Marseilles Tarots were printed. Three people fill the lower portion of the card: a man stands between two women. The one constant is the bow-wielding cupid fluttering above. (Card on the left below.)The card’s title may have altered, too, if it was originally Love, as The Tarot de Marseilles card has L’Amoreux, the Lover, printed at the bottom. Translated into English, this became The Lovers, and that is how Trump 6 is known throughout the English-speaking world today. Change of image accompanies a change of meaning. This is reflected in a title occasionally awarded to the Tarot de Marseilles version of the card, namely The Two Paths. In many decks, the two paths can be seen quite distinctly. (Card on the right below.)

amoureux 2    mmTarot 06

The meaning derived from this tableau is Choice. The central male figure is assumed to be choosing between the two women standing either side of him. Each wishes him not only to choose her as his mate but also to follow her along the road that lies on her side of the card. They are often taken to represent Virtue and Vice. In the design from Papus’s Tarot of the Bohemians (card on the left below), one of the women wears a crown to mark her out as a symbol not just of virtue but of supreme good, for the highest Sphere on the Qabalistic Tree of Life is represented by the image of a crown. The message is made even clearer in some decks, where the figure of Vice has no hesitation in flaunting her physical charms at the man. This is the case in the illustration on the right below, which depicts Vice bare-breasted while Virtue points heavenwards, towards the divine realm of lofty thoughts and pure intentions.

PapusWirth06   6-lovers-version-1

By the end of the nineteenth century, both meanings – Love and Choice – were current in tarot divination circles. A few taroists accepted one and rejected the other, while in some circles attempts were made to accommodate them both. In the middle of the twentieth century British occultist Frank Lind successfully blended the two in his manual How To Read the Tarot (written in the 1950s but not published until the 1960s): “Affection. Choice. Indecision. Desire. Temptation. Two ‘loves’ or rival interests”.the-lovers-6

The French esoteric tradition tended to view Trump 6 as foreshadowing a Test. Paul Christian, in the translation of his work I consulted, uses the word Ordeal, though S.L. Mathers, writing in English and without his Golden Dawn hat on, opts for Trial. Other experts (C.C. Zain for example) interpret the test as a Temptation. (See Lind’s set of keywords above.) For Mathers the upright card denotes “trials surmounted”. Similarly, for those who take the card to signify Temptation, Trump 6 upright will indicate the ability to resist the temptation; just as, for those who favor the meaning Choice, the upright card generally signifies “making the right choice”.

When Mathers came to write a handbook on the tarot for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he adopted novel image for Trump 6 – Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the sea-monster. Along with this image went an equally new meaning. But as this meaning has had almost no impact of the world of tarot outside the Golden Dawn (and not much impact within it if my and Auntie’s experiences are anything to go by), I will say no more about it for now.

Yet another innovative image, and like the G.D. picture, one havingBOTA Lovers no antecedents among the cards of earlier tarots, was created for the Waite-Smith tarot deck, first published 1909. It depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. To my mind the better representation of this image is to be found in the Builders of the Adytum deck, and it is that version you see here on the right.

In the book he created to accompany the Waite-Smith deck (The Key to the Tarot), Waite concentrates on the love/affection/ harmony aspect of the Trump, to which he appends the keyword ‘test’. He says nothing about the G.D. meaning, not because it was at that time an occult secret, but because he rejects it. Writing under the pseudonym Grand Orient, Waite revealed the meanings he personally favored for Trump 6: “Material union, affection, desire, natural love, passion, harmony of things; contains also the notions of modus vivendi, concord and so forth; equilibrium.” This approach to the card parallels that favored by Paul Foster Case [see The Tarot (Jeremy P Tarcher)]: “Attraction, beauty, love. Harmony of inner and outer life.” Neither Waite in the guise of Grand Orient nor Case reference Test or Choice in the meanings they offer their readers. Nor do either cite the G.D. meaning for the card, Inspiration, although both were graduates of the G.D. school of Hermetic occultism. As was Crowley, but he does retain the G.D. meaning albeit alongside several others most of which I have already touched on in this article: “Openness to inspiration, intuition, intelligence, childishness, attraction, beauty, love, self-contradiction, instability, indecision, union in a shallow degree with others, superficiality.” The later meanings apply to the card when it is in reverse, or ill-dignified as members of the G.D. were more apt to say.

In over sixty years of working with the tarot I have used all the meanings put forward above. My experience is that, from the predictive angle, the meaning that yields the best results is ‘Love’, taken in its broadest sense. Depending on the nature of the question asked, The Lovers can represent the start of a love affair, familial affections or the entry into the inquirer’s life of someone who will become a firm friend. As one old book of delineations puts it, “This card expresses love and all that treats of the affections”.

Who’s Who in the Tarot

by Tony Willis     

As they represent the Five Elements, the essences, one might say, of which everything in the cosmos is composed, the first five tarot Trumps hold a special significance. They are more likely than the other cards of the Major Arcana to indicate people. In a horoscope spread, the card falling in the first house will convey the state of the inquirer’s mind at the time of the reading, and can be taken to represent her (or him) at that specific moment in time. But that is not the effect being described here.

Take Trump 1, the Juggler or Magician, for example. This card references the inquirer. To understand this better, imagine that the following line of cards comes out as part of a tarot spread: 5 Pence, 9 Swords, Juggler, 9 Cups. Keeping to the divinatory meanings that originated with the Golden Dawn, we can make sense of the tableaux in the following way. It will be the inquirer themselves (Juggler) who overcomes the problems signified by the 5 of Pence and the 9 of Swords, and brings about the success, pleasure and happiness forecast by the 9 of Cups.

mmTarot 74  mmTarot 28mmTarot 01   mmTarot 42

There are exceptions to this rule, the most obvious occurring when the horoscope spread is employed. In that case, the Juggler in the third house of siblings indicates that the inquirer’s brother or sister is about to make an important change to their circumstances, one that will be accomplished smoothly if the card is upright, or that will be beset with obstacles and setbacks if it is reversed. But in most other types of spreads, Trump 1 stands for the person consulting the cards.

On the contrary, Trumps 2 to 5 tend to represent other people, their intentions, motives and actions. This approach can be particularly useful when working with the Trumps alone. It does, however, raise certain problems, such as whom each of these cards should indicate. Depending on the question asked, either the High Priestess or the Empress can represent the inquirer’s mother. Likewise, either the Pope/Hierophant or the Emperor can represent the inquirer’s father. In matters of love, I take the Empress to indicate the female inquirer and the Emperor to indicate her love interest. For a male inquirer, I reverse the signification and take the Emperor to represent the inquirer and then the Empress is his lady love. The High Priestess, should the card appear in a spread relating to a love question, might then indicate the inquirer’s mother, and the Pope their father. Other solutions to this problem have been suggested but this is the one I find works best for me.

Again exceptions occur when the horoscope spread is employed. The High Priestess in the first house of a horoscope spread, for instance, registers that, at the time of the reading, the inquirer is in a reflective frame of mind. The gender of the inquirer makes no difference to the interpretation. Either way, the inquirer is most probably in planning mode; or if the inquirer works in literature or the arts, they may have finished a painting or a novel and be in that lull that falls on the creative mind between the completion of one piece of work and the start of the next.


The first five Trumps also have particular meanings when any two of them occupy houses 1 and 7 in a horoscope spread. In such an instance, the combination forms a comment on the relationship between the inquirer and his or her other half.

The Juggler and The High Priestess occupying those houses, no matter which card is in the first house, signifies that the two people concerned have much in common but that there is enough divergence in interest to add spice to the relationship.

The Juggler and The Pope in these houses is a sign of complimentary personalities: the desire to direct events in one party is balanced by the good judgment and the inclusive approach of the other. In this, and in all other examples, the actual gender of the people involved is of no relevance. In the present instance, both parties could just as easily be female and the implications would remain unaltered.

The Juggler and The Empress. The common factor shared by these two cards is creativity. The pair may work together in some creative activity, like David and Elizabeth Emanuel, who designed Princess Diana’s wedding dress. Or the person designated by The Empress could be the other’s muse or inspiration. Or the couple could have careers in the same field of artistic endeavor, as Victorian poets Robert Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning did. Sometimes the person represented by The Juggler is a business woman or man while the person represented by The Empress is their Rock, the ever-dependable, sure foundation to whom the business-oriented person can turn for reassurance, love and unquestioning support.

The Juggler and The Emperor indicates great compatibility in respect of material goals. Whichever partner is represented by The Juggler is an instigator of actions; the one represented by The Emperor has the focus to see a thing through to a conclusion. It is the symbol of the power couple.

The High Priestess and The Empress are also complementary. The party represented by the High Priestess is knowledge-orientated, without necessarily being wise. Yet the card describes someone who can plan effectively. The Empress provides the emotional intelligence that The High Priestess often lacks. It can be an edgy partnership if one or both parties isn’t able to honor or accept the other’s input.

The High Priestess and The Emperor. The High Priestess’s accumulated data will be put to good use by The Emperor thus ensuring that The High Priestess’s vision becomes reality.

The High Priestess and The Pope. This pair have the same religious, spiritual or ethical outlook on life. However, each may strive in their own way to make the world a better place. Humanitarian interests or ecological concerns are at the heart of what they do, on whatever scale they choose to do it. It is a combination ideally suited to fostering or adoption.

The Empress and The Emperor. The couple are soul mates. They may well have been together in a previous life.

The Empress and The Pope. Both parties have charitable dispositions and display generosity of spirit. Neither is a push-over, however, as both are grounded individuals. It can be a very formidable combination when applied to the realm of art or spirituality.

The Emperor and The Pope. Ideally the personalities complement one another and this acts as a spur to them to shape the material world through their joint efforts. The Emperor’s practical rationalism is balanced by the philosophical or spiritual motivations of The Pope.

The Devil

Besides these five cards, there is one other that can signify an individual. It is The Devil reversed. In that state Trump 15 can represent an enemy or rival.

All other Trumps should be assumed to relate directly to the inquirer. Death is a symbol of some kind of loss: it is the inquirer’s loss. This tends to be true even when the card appears in a horoscope spread. Death in the eleventh house of friends, for instance, is more likely to forecast the end of a friendship than to indicate that one of the inquirer’s friends will suffer a loss. By the same token, The Chariot is a symbol of victory: it is the inquirer’s victory. The Tower is a symbol of disruption or destruction: it is the inquirer’s life that will be disrupted, something of the inquirer’s – it may be a relationship or their career – that will be destroyed.

From ‘Vicarius’ to Hierophant

by Tony Willis      

The image of The Pope that graces Trump 5 of the Tarot de Marseilles doesn’t reference any specific pope. It is more a general symbol of the papal office; a symbol of a type that was perfectly acceptable in the fifteenth century, the era to which the earliest examples of tarot imagery are assigned.

05_le_pape_millennium  Arcane-Arcana-05-pape-pope

05 II  Visconti-sforza-05-pope

What did The Pope mean to the Europeans of that age? First and foremost, he was the Vicar of Christ, the word ‘vicar’ coming from the Latin vicarius, deputy or substitute. Put bluntly, the Pope was Christ’s representative on earth. As far as Christians were concerned, Christ was one of the three aspects of God, commonly known as the Trinity. It is for this reason that, on the Ghent altarpiece (see below), God is shown wearing a papal tiara, swathed in papal vestments, one hand raised in benediction, sharing many of the attributes of Pope tarot cards stretching from the first quarter of the fifteenth century to the creation of the Marseilles tarot in eighteenth century, and beyond (see above).


Another of the pope’s titles is Supreme Pontiff. The latter word is another derived from Latin and has a curious derivation. It means ‘bridge builder’, from pons, bridge. The pope, as God’s representative on earth, is, or should be, the organ via which the Almighty makes his will known to the people. In short, he acts as a bridge between Deity and the masses. This is the theological position behind the doctrine of papal infallibility, the idea that what the pope says is in effect the word of God.

In a broader sense Trump 5 represents the office of the priest. It must be borne in mind that in Christian Europe only a priest had the authority to marry people. We shall see in a moment how this affected the interpretation of the card.

Trump 5 has a number of divinatory meanings associated with it in the predictive tarot. They may not seem to sit happily together but all have their roots in the thinking outlined above.

Since the pope is, self-evidently, a man of God, the card can stand for an individual endowed with spiritual or moral authority. It can represent someone possessing the qualities of kindness, goodness, compassion, and generosity of spirit; somebody with an understanding of human frailty, and who at the same time can be relied on to treat others fairly; wise and gentle but firm. The Trump can also indicate an advisor or counselor, some dependable person the inquirer can go to for understanding or guidance.

The Pope doesn’t necessarily represent a person, however. Sometimes the card can mean that a bridge has formed between the Higher and Lower Selves of the individual consulting the cards, and that a message will come through into the conscious mind, if space is given for it to do so. In which case, the inquirer will have a hunch, presentiment or intuition that will lead them to a way out of the difficulties they are currently experiencing.

Because, back in time, only a priest could perform a marriage ceremony, The Pope can forecast marriage. Nowadays, positioned near other cards signifying marriage, Trump 5 can point to a church ceremony. Since marriage is a union, by a linguistic twist The Pope can also indicate a reunion (re-union) of some kind.

In reverse, Trump 5 can highlight the misuse of spiritual or moral authority, the desire to control others rather than guide them. Alternatively, it can signify over-kindness, and the foolish exercise of generosity, such as letting someone off the hook who later proves unworthy of being given a second chance.

Yet another meaning the card can sometimes carry is the opposite of ‘good advice’; thus ‘misinformation’, ‘bad advice’, which may not necessarily be delivered with malicious intent. By the same principle of “reversal of card equals reversal of meaning”, The Pope is not a happy omen for either marriage or reunion.

And, just at the upright card may signify a useful hunch or presentiment, in reverse it may portend a warped inspiration or inner prompting which the inquirer would do well to resist giving in to.

In his book The Key to the Tarot, A.E. Waite gathered together all the meanings he could track down that had been applied to the Trump cards by his predecessors and contemporaries. For Trump 5 – which he calls The Hierophant – he records the following.

Marriage, alliance, captivity, servitude; by another account, mercy and goodness; inspiration; the man to whom the Querent has recourse. Reversed: Society, good understanding, concord, overkindness, weakness.

Most of the areas already explored are to be found here, though the upright and reversed meanings appear somewhat scrambled.

The Waite-Smith design for Trump 5 appears below.

r-w-hierophantIn adopting The Hierophant as the name of the Trump, Waite was adhering to the practice of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, of which he was at one time a member. The title had a special meaning for members of the Order: all initiations in the Golden Dawn proper, often referred to as the First Order, were carried out by an officer named the Hierophant.

Today’s widespread interest in the tarot was sparked by the publications of French occultists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They regularly assigned the keyword Teaching to Trump 5, on the grounds that, according to the Catholic church, the only place to turn for guidance in matters spiritual was the clergy, priests having received instruction in that notoriously thorny subject, theology. In the Golden Dawn hierarchy, the hierophant was also a teacher. It is worth remarking that not only does the Order assign the meaning Teaching to Trump 5 but its ex-members, such as Paul Foster Case and Aleister Crowley, do also. I have found the attribute useful when the cards are consulted by someone “on the Path”, as occultists say, but not otherwise.

Because the card carries so many apparently disparate meanings, it can be one of the hardest to interpret. Back in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, continental Gypsies, having no attachment to Catholic ideology, solved this Gordian knot of a problem with a single stroke. They associated the upright card with “the courage to escape from temptation”, and took the reversed card to counsel wariness, adding the warning “beware of deceivers and intriguers”.

The Holy Roman Emperor

by Tony Willis    

The Emperor on the Tarot de Marseilles version of Trump 4 (first illustration below) is seated, and he wears a helmet that serves also as a crown. In his right hand, he holds a scepter incorporating the symbolism of the orb, both emblems of royal power. His left forearm rests on the arm of his throne, and around his neck is a chain of office with a medallion hanging from it. He is turned to one side, bearded, and his right leg is crossed over his left. Beside his throne is a shield carrying the image of an eagle, wings outstretched. This marks him out as following in the footsteps of the Roman Emperors, the eagle being one of the chief emblems of imperial Rome. Converting the symbolism into words, the tarot’s Trump 4 is intended to represent the office of Holy Roman Emperor, a title assumed by Charlemagne in 800 C.E. and which remained in use until the early nineteenth century. It represents the office only, not any particular emperor.

The second illustration below is of Trump 4 from the Waite-Smith tarot deck. Note how at odds it is with the Marseilles’ version. While there are some similarities, the Waite-Smith Emperor faces out of the card. The shield with its eagle emblem is gone and in its place are rams heads adorning the throne.

4marseille      w-s-emperor

The Tarot de Marseilles image itself differs from those found in earliest tarot decks still in existence. The Cary-Yale Emperor (mid-fifteenth century, first card in the row below) is presented looking straight out from the card, seated, surrounded by servitors, and with a thin staff of office in one hand. He has a forked beard and on his head is a hat on which appears the all-important eagle, signaling his imperial status. The Visconti Emperor (also mid-fifteenth century, second card in the row below) shows an enthroned man, bearded, holding a scepter and an orb, and on his head is a large hat again imprinted with the image of an eagle. In the so-called Charles VI tarot (late-fifteenth century, third card in the row below) the Emperor is seated, crowned and furnished with a scepter, its upper end fashioned to resemble a fleur-de-lis, and an orb. He is bearded and there are two servants kneeling at one side of his throne. On the upper part of his torso he wears armor and he is seen side on.

4 cary yale  4 visconti  charlesV 4

While the Cary-Yale Emperor crosses his legs at the ankles, none of these early emperors have one leg crossed over the other in the manner of the Tarot de Marseilles’ Emperor. The leg-crossing is a detail added innocently to the design of the Marseilles card, and originally it possessed no hidden significance. However, occultists of the nineteenth century made much of it. They saw, buried in the picture, a triangle whose points were the Emperor’s head, the hand in which he holds his scepter, and the elbow of his other arm as it rests upon the throne. His crossed legs were regarded by those same occultists as intended to form a cross. The two geometric shapes taken together produce an upright triangle set above a cross, replicating a sigil used by alchemists of Middle Ages to denote the element Sulfur.

More importantly, it is the sigil of the occult principle known as Sulfur. According to alchemical lore, there were three primordial principles: Salt, Sulfur and Mercury. It was from these that the Four Elements were born, and the Elements in their turn produced by their interaction everything that exists in the physical universe. The principle Salt has much in common with the Elements Earth and Water; Mercury is similar, though not identical with, Elemental Air; and Sulfur is likewise similar, but not identical with, Fire.

Having discovered the sigil for Sulfur “hidden” in the design of the Tarot de Marseilles rendering of the Emperor, these occultists felt certain that the card must refer to that principle and to Fire, the Element most associated with it. This assumption unfortunately sets the qualities assigned to Sulfur at odds with ages old resonances given to the number Four, for that number has its strongest affinity with the Element of Earth. The connection is discussed by Michael S. Schneider in his A Beginners Guide to Constructing the Universe: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science (HarperCollins, New York, 1994), p. 66.

“The planet earth below us, solid ground, terra firma, is the supreme symbol for substance, mass, volume, strength, and stability. We organize space on the ground by the four cardinal directions of the compass and our body, dividing the circle of the horizon around us into four quarter in front and back of us, to the left and right. The four-cornered cross in a circle has long been the astronomical symbol for planet Earth. The four traditional winds blow across the four corners of the globe. We quarter not only our space but time, naturally dividing the year into four seasons based on the relationship of the sun with the earth around two equinoxes and two solstices.”

Let us next look at the divinatory meanings assigned The Emperor by some of the earliest commentators concerned with the predictive value of the tarot cards. There we will find the qualities Michael Schneider associates with Earth, such as substance, strength, stability, making a reappearance.

Trump 4 can represent a secure or stable situation. As one of its keynotes is Stability, it may indicate that matters in a certain area continue “as they were”. The Emperor in the fourth house of a horoscope spread, for example, would suggest that now was not the time to contemplate a house move, as the fourth house signifies the inquirer’s home and Trump 4 for continuance, or things remaining unchanged.

Moving forward through the trumps from 1 to 4, all four Elements are revealed, or manifested in the tarot cards. For this reason, Trump 4 equates with Completion or Realization, and can forecast the completion of a task or phase in life, as well as the realization of an ambition. Due to its associations with Earth, The Emperor is reckoned a fortunate card where material things are concerned.

While it stands for Stability in all the various areas of life, it can, by extension, indicate a person who is protective of the inquirer and who is ready to lend his support, should it be required. Thus, in books concerned with the predictive tarot one comes across such delineations as “A man of power who affects the inquirer’s future life” and “A man who can be relied on”. Similarly, in connection with the keyword Realization, one encounters interpretations such as “The realization of the inquirer’s desires depends on someone more powerful than himself.”

When the card is reversed, the opposite indications are apparent: Obstruction to plans, failed ambition, support not to be relied upon. In place of a firm foundation we find shifting sands, upon which no one is encouraged to erect an edifice since it would certainly come tumbling down ere long.

4marseille  bota trump 04  w-s-emperor

Up until the free-for-all of the post-modern period of tarot design, the Tarot de Marseilles had an enduring influence on the way the Trumps were drawn. When Paul Foster Case came to have the Builders of the Adytum tarot created in the 1930s, he often took as his model the pictures of the Waite-Smith deck. In those instances where he deviates from this formula – The Emperor, Death, The Sun – Case turns to the Tarot de Marseilles for inspiration. It will be observed, by studying the row of cards above, how Case has overlaid the Tarot de Marseilles’ template with features from the Waite-Smith depiction. The Emperor’s posture is copied from the Marseilles card, as is his headgear, albeit with the addition of the sigil for Aries on the top. The bleak mountainous background is borrowed from the Waite-Smith card, along with the scepter and the use of rams heads as adornment; but Case’s orb is modeled on the one that tops the scepter of the Marseilles’ Emperor’s.

Case and Waite took it as an article of faith that the Emperor corresponded to the astrological sign Aries. Occultists of a generation earlier, however, allied him with the planet Jupiter because the eagle, so prominently displayed on the Emperor’s shield in the Marseilles card, was sacred to the king of the gods. Thus Waite and Case banish the eagle from the design and instate in its place the ram’s heads of Aries, leaving behind no clue to the card’s former astrological attribution. Here we see, heavily underlined, a fundamental rule of symbolism: A change of design will cause a change of meaning; and its corollary: A change of meaning will prompt a change of design.