So Many Heads So Many … Correspondences

Some famous members of the Golden Dawn photo

When I started out studying the Tarot somewhere in the nineties, I would diligently try to search for ‘true’ meanings and correspondences of the cards.  I wrote everything down neatly in my Tarot journal and all went well for a while.  But then I came to notice that the correspondences of the elements, the astrological correspondences or even the meanings were different everywhere!  And no one could clarify what ‘the truth’ was (alltough many claimed they could).  This was extremely frustrating! 

The answer, in my opinion, is indeed that there is no truth.  As long as man has existed, symbols have played an important part. Man always tried to give meaning to the world around him.  The symbolism does not only change with time, it is also culture bound.  Take, for example, the assignment of the elements to the suits in the Tarot;  Most common is the assignment: Pentacles =>  Earth, Swords => Air, Cups => Water, Rods => Fire.  Ancient alchemists like Agrippa attributed all kinds of properties to the elements, such as density, purity, and speed.  The most common view is that Earth, for example, is slower than Fire.  So we associate Earth with stability and Fire with action.  Yet you can come across different meanings within the Tarot literature everywhere. 

In much older traditions one can determine that the assignments of the elements are different.  People also ‘think’ differently in the west than in the east, a phenomenon Carl Jung liked to explain with his concept of collective (un)consciousness. For example, it is much more natural for Chinese people to see that elements cannot be categorized but that it is fluid. When they have to assign elements to the ‘Sword’ they will easily see that it originates from the earth, is forged in Fire, cooled with Water and then be able to whiz through the Air (and end up in the earth – or a stone! – again). In principle, this is also what Agrippa described, but in my contemporary western culture we tend to put things in boxes.  The same is true of astrological correspondences.  Although in ancient times people were intensively involved in astrology, and they possessed an enormous amount of knowledge, some planets we know of today were not visible with the naked eye. They were only discovered in later eras  (i.e. Uranus, Pluto). 

'The Holy Kabbalah' of Arthur Edward Waite
‘The Holy Kabbalah’ of Arthur Edward Waite

The occultists like Eteilla, who started to describe the symbolism of the Tarot in detail in the 17th and 18th century have made a first attempt to incorporate all kinds of correspondencies into the Tarot decks. Many authors derived a system out of this and applied this on their Tarot decks (e.g Eteilla, Papus, TdM).  Later, the Golden Dawn have put much effort into studying these older works and to rewrite the content in a more modern way.  They improved (or rather adapted) the symbolism and correspondence with the knowledge they had available in their times (A.E. Waite, Dionne Fortune, S.L Macgregor Mathers). 

The Golden Dawn has largely based its Tarot symbolism on the ‘Zohar’ which is one of the most difficult books to interpret.  So it makes sense that many discussions and different points of view arose as a result of which this system was also improved and adapted by the ‘younger’ generation (including Aleister Crowley and by Paul Foster Case). 

The conclusion is without a doubt that there is no fixed system, symbolism or correspondence system and that nobody knows ‘what is true’.  Although working with Tarot cards is not about tables and correspondences, it is nevertheless an important part of the Tarot study. 

Firstly, because there are always people who want to know the details (yes, guilty!).  Secondly, because alchemical, religious or astrological symbolism simply works well if you want to address the unconscious.  It is a way of ‘feeling’ the cards to feel the energy and thus it gives direction to your interpretation of the cards.  But how to tackle the discrepancies?  Well, my advice is to read a lot and see for yourself what feels good or makes sense to you.  You could look at the specific deck or system you are using and then follow the theory of the ‘maker’ of the deck.  So: if you work with the Rider Waite Smit deck, you follow the correspondences of the Golden Dawn.  If you work with older decks, you follow the ‘traditional’ interpretation.  Furthermore: go with the flow: if something ‘clicks’ at a certain moment, you have found your own system and allocation!  If it works then it works.

After all, we also have be practical because that is the way to use the beautiful tool Tarot for ourselves and for others!  Because I have saved all my lists and tables of all the symbols and assignment I ever created, I thought that it would be nice to share them in case someone who is just starting finds this interesting. So here one can find a small list with only the astrological correspondences according to the Golden Dawn (English tradition). But please make your own as it is the process of thinking about it that is fun and usefull.

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