Temperance—A Pandemic Virtue

"What trumps Death, number thirteen?" "Why, number fourteen, of course. Temperance!" Here go I, looking for a bit of exemplary virtue in the Tarot in the midst of this World Pandemic of 2020, stumbling across a message of hope specifically stating that humans will survive the dark night of plague, and arrive at a bright morning when it’s all done. Waite has overlaid an extraordinary, two-part message upon Temperance. It is that firstly, though many may die, God made a promise to never kill off the human race (again). Secondly, that the light and joy of the divine kingdom, AKA the second coming, is imminent. You don’t have to believe in Jesus to be moved by these messages. Think of it as a perfect example of Tarot’s ability to touch a person deep inside with an unexpected insight which happened to be exactly what was needed, when it was needed. And while those who sit out the pandemic on a sofa with a drink in hand may think of temperance as something having to do with alcohol, it is indeed a virtue daily practiced by many essential workers, either through dedication or by necessity. The Temperance of RWS promises them heaven. With references to self-restraint, survival after plague, and the promise that God won’t kill off all mankind, Temperance may be the most appropriate card of the Tarot deck for us at this time, during the pandemic of 2020. The message of Temperance in RWS is "hold on, have faith, we’ve nearly arrived at a better place."

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Justice – Imperial Astraea

What we talk about when we talk about Justice today is, understandably, quite different than how a well known member of British society who grew up in the reign of Victoria might have spoken about it. Or for that matter, a rich member of European renaissance society playing a game with the cards we now call tarot. This article traces some of the symbolism of the Justice major arcanum, as well as looking closely at A.E. Waite’s description of it. By considering Astraea, the Faerie Queene, several immortal poets and Augustus Caesar himself, we find that our modern concept of Justice—particularly in time of pandemic—may be far divorced from empire and the divine right of kings. Yet Waite places the Virgin Queen herself, Elizabeth I, right there in the card you drew, the one that we talk about when we talk about Justice.

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Strength – Christian Mauls Lion

The classical idea of the virtue of Strength has little to do with physical strength. It involves a physical or metaphysical confrontation with a threat that must be overcome, or through perseverance, survived. Waite, in his Strength major arcanum, adds another element: the Holy Spirit. There was historical precedent, for the Roman Catholic Church had already linked the two. Waite’s chief graphical element making the link is the lemniscate, otherwise known as the infinity sign. A number of visual references additionally may tie Strength to various Christian martyrs, Saint Andrew in particular, and of course, to Androcles and his friend, the lion. But beyond the Christian mysticism, the “spin” that Waite adds to the classical virtue, that of overcoming and persevering based upon the strength of deeply held moral belief (or faith) may be appropriate for our own time of the plague. Such belief does not have to be religious. Just knowing right from wrong is probably enough to “persevere” and do the right thing no matter what the cost. Nurses and doctors treat patients even if personal protective equipment is in short supply because helping patients is their deepest belief. Making a grocery run for a neighbor who is temporarily unemployed, when you’re also temporarily unemployed is also a form of Strength. Some of us may not survive, but I hope that we put up a strong fight. Maybe Strength is a good starting place.

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The Two of Cups – A One Page Guide

The youth and maiden of the Two of Cups seem such a nice couple. Then we notice how differently they dress, and how solemnly they look at each other. Still, there seems little doubt that Colman Smith’s illustration is generally appropriate for the divinatory meanings. Love is in the air. Along with a couple of unexpected symbols: the caduceus, and a lion’s head solar disk. With our tarot wheel as starting point, we find tension between Cancer, the sign, and Venus, the ruling planet. It is love vs. death, creation vs. destruction. An uneven match, given that Venus was amongst the most powerful of the gods… but you know what they say, "a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." Venus being nice, however, negotiates. The caduceus was used as a symbol of diplomatic negotiation in Rome. As for the lion’s head solar disk, it leads us to Baphomet, who had a caduceus where his reproductive organs should have been, the Demiurge, the artisan who fabricated the universe but didn’t create it, and Ariel, a fallen angel. They help us identify Waite’s strange phrase at the end of his divinatory meanings as a rather progressive statement (for 1910, at least) about homosexuality: that though homosexuality may not be "natural," in that it does not have the power of re-generation, love as represented by Venus is yet able to sanctify it. But then, I already told you Venus is powerful.

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The Tower, the Black Death, the Antichrist and the Apocalypse

Recent scholarship indicates that the first wave of the Black Death which swept Europe in the fourteenth century convinced Petrarch that apocalypse was nigh. He identified Avignon, site of the immense Papal Palace built by Pope Clement VI as a contemporary Tower of Babel. The flowers on the papal coat of arms of Clement, sculpted on the exterior of the palace, bear a remarkable resemblance to what Waite calls the “mystic rose” on Death’s banner. This provides not only a minor tarot mystery, but an insight into Waite’s “curation” and re-use of the jumble bag of historical tarot symbols in his seemingly unbounded endeavor to inject Christian mysticism into the modern tarot he and Colman Smith popularized so successfully.

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Recurring Card Patterns and Probabilities

If you’re like me, you have no doubt looked at what seems to be a wildly notable pattern of cards having something dramatically in common in a spread, and wondered, “what’s the odds of that?” We’ll start with a simple example. In a three card spread, what are the odds of getting three Eights? I’ll tell you. The odds are 19,019 to 1. If you see some cards and know they had odds against them all appearing together of nineteen thousand to one, you’re going to pay attention. And in fact, the 19th and early 20th century experts took note of these patterns. You’ll find that Waite, in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, has an entire section on "The Recurrence of Cards in Dealing." He even provides additional meanings for these patterns. For example, in the case of those three upright Eights, Waite writes that it signifies marriage. Waite most likely was looking at a layout of ten cards. Given seven additional opportunities to draw an Eight in a ten card layout, the odds drop all the way down to 175 to 1. But more than just numeric patterns, we can also ask what the odds are for getting all the cards associated with Capricorn. Or if we see four of the six cards associated with Venus, we can look up the odds of that. Fortunately modern spreadsheets provide something called a hypergeometric function which allows us to answer questions like these. And you’ll be able to download a spreadsheet in which you can plug your own numbers.

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Two Questions On the Hermit

Two questions about the anonymous but enlightened hermit: (1) who is he and (2) why the six pointed star? Less mysterious but also important is the question of why Waite included the very, very negative secondary set of upright divinatory meanings in the Pictorial Key to the Tarot? As we examine the questions, we’ll find links to Father Time, the Christian God the Father, and the head of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. We’ll also stumble across that famous number, 666. In the end, the identity of the Hermit is in the eye of the beholder, since he seems to hold more than one identity. But that may be appropriate for a major arcanum associated not just with prudence, but also with dissimulation and treason.

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