For the past several months I have been on a personal Tarot search. Most of that search is to understand how symbols store meanings in the cards. Another part of the search is to understand how the symbols and meanings got there. This article is about an exercise that I set for myself that involves both those aspects. The project is a Zodiac wheel containing the planetary, elemental and qabalistic symbols, their Tarot “assignments,” and the divinatory meanings assigned them. I used the Golden Dawn’s set of meanings both because they are a major source for the Waite Colman Smith deck, and because they are not bound by copyright. The latter is important because if it’s useful to me, it’s useful to others, and this means anything I put together as part of this project can be “sharable.” I offer it to all who think they may learn from it. I also offer the “source” so that if there’s a part of it they disagree with, they can make their desired changes and create their own wheel.
This actually started out from an analysis I started working on of the Wheel of Fortune card. We’ll post that analysis soon. First let’s look at the background so that we can understand what goes into these calendars.
A number of Tarot calendar mappings based on Astrological calendars have been drawn over the years. The form takes the circular shape of the Zodiac, though other things, such as the order of the cards, the start of the calendar, and the sets of symbols selected for inclusion may vary. For example, Papus, in the Tarot of the Bohemians (1892) created the following (it is actually just one of several charts he included):
Note that the suits are strictly divided by season, in ascending order by passage of time. Aries is traditionally the first sign of the Zodiac, and appears at the 9 o’clock position. The ruling planets form bridges from one side of Papus’ wheel to the other. Papus includes various gods such as Apollo, Juno and others. Within his book, Papus ties each card to the deccans as they appear in the chart. He states that the Egyptians designed the Zodiac. He states the wheel of the twenty first card (the World) is the template for understanding Astrological Tarot, and places the four evangelists in the corners. While elsewhere in the Tarot of the Bohemians Papus assigns qabalistic meanings to the cards, the qabalistic content is separated from the chapter on Astrology and the chart above. As can be seen in the chart, numerological significance is noted, however.
Levi, Papus’ 19th century French compatriot, placed his chapters on Astrology and Tarot next to each other in his Mysteries of Magic (1886), the book which Arthur Waite translated into English and for which Waite wrote a preface. Levi links the Qabalah, Astrology and Tarot more closely together than Papus. He cites planetary influences upon the Bible: Mars influenced the parting of the Red Sea for Moses. He cites the qabalistic meaning for the number 3, which was the day of Creation, to the third of the Major Arcana, the Empress. He goes on to say that Tarot is the cumulative or universal key of the magical arts; that it encompasses all others including numerology and astrology. Like Papus he invokes the symbols of the four evangelists around the wheel, although it is the ROTA, the Wheel of Fortune, rather than the World. He places the parts of the Sephiroth onto a North/South/East/West matrix, though does not draw a full diagram as does Papus. He emphasizes the correspondences of the Hebrew alphabet and the major arcana. He ties the minor arcana to the Sephirot; the four twos to Chocmah, the four threes to Binah, and so forth. Levi did not anchor his charts to the calendar as Papus did. He preferred letter and numeric matrices to express his ideas. It is said that Levi met with Kenneth MacKenzie, a member of the Golden Dawn, shortly before his death, and it was then that the two of them re-organized the Tarot/qabalistic correspondences for the cards. In effect, they had a sort of mini Council of Nicea that gathered the threads of French and English tarot together, set up an agreed framework for the derivation of divinatory meanings, and adopted or tossed out previous traditions according to whether they fit into the new “canon” or not. Though the opinion expressed here is a bit dramatic, I suspect it’s not far from the truth.
Shortly thereafter, the Golden Dawn group took the qabalistic, numerological and astrological layout to the next step. They added in the qabalistic values and meanings into the numeric and astrological placement of the minor arcana. In place of Papus’ segregation of the suits by season, the Golden Dawn’s Book T specified a rotation: 2,3,4 suit one, 5,6,7 suit two, 8,9,10 suit three, 2,3,4 suit four, 5,6,7, suit one, and so forth. More importantly, the explanatory text (they published no charts like Papus’ but I’m sure they had some) provide the link between the divinatory context across astrological and qabalistic meanings for each of the minor arcana. They composed (or collected) a coherent set of divinatory meanings across the lines of astrology, numerology and qabalah. These laid the foundation for the popular decks to follow, though leaving room for interpretation. This loose but coherent schema allowed for the “branching” off of Waite and Colman Smith’s work on the one hand and Aleister Crowley’s work on the other.
Bill Heidrick has a good explanation for the construction of the key meanings:
In assigning ruling planets to the decans, the Golden Dawn used the method of Ptolemy… In the Rider or Celtic (Waite) Deck, these factors are sometimes translated into corresponding Major Trumps and used as a basis for the design; e.g. the Two of Wands has Aries ruled by Mars. This is the Emperor (Aries) and the Tower (Mars), so the card shows an Emperor standing on a Tower. The Key Expression used by the Order of the Golden Dawn usually derives from this Astrological correspondence.
Though we don’t have a Golden Dawn group chart, the words describing the assignment of the deccans are easy to follow, and others created the charts. This blog reprinted Papus’ chart plus two others, and provides links to where the others were found. Unfortunately, there’s no hint of who the original authors or copyright owners are. Note that the second chart provides no dates. The third chart provides a wealth of information such as dates and planetary signs. It is, however, positioned the wrong way. Astrologers explain that they position the chart “backwards” because “directions on a sky chart are the opposite of those on an earth map since we’re looking up at the heavens instead of down at earth.”. As you may gather, I am reluctant to reprint the other wheels due to the questionable copyright status.
I intend to trace some of the astrological/qabalistic meanings from the Golden Dawn group’s work to their incorporation into the illustrations for the minor arcana of the Waite Smith Colman deck in the next post. (As previously noted, the minors had meaning previous to that, but the meanings appear to vary widely according to the source. For example, today we look at Alliette/Eteilla and the meanings printed in his cards as “odd.”)
First though, let’s post the first version of our calendar, along with a few notes. As the illustration directly below is a Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) document, it is also editable. (Note: the one at the top of this page is a bitmap; the WordPress theme requires a bitmap for the featured article graphic). Try selecting text in the graphic. Try going full screen and zooming in and in and in…
As mentioned, this is a self-learning exercise which bore fruit that I think may help others. We had seen (in the previously linked Greer article) that there was a “formula.” Having a visual platform to follow that formula on a page (paper or virtual) makes it easier to trace the origins of the meanings.
We have included the Golden Dawn esoteric meaning, the divinatory meaning and the qabalistic meaning (the latter two drastically summarized; the qabalistic is in italics) for each of the minors. For each deccan, we include the ruling planet (the colored calendar part denotes the planetary ruler) and the Sephiroth member. In this way we can follow the chart and see the derivation of the meanings. Note, by the way, that the Golden Dawn colorings were also described in the Heidrick article in an an easy to follow summary, though I limited them to solid colors.
Hopefully I’ll get some feedback… I still consider it in early stages. In a week or two I will post the “source” for it… a Visio document. Publishing the “source” document is one of the most important parts of the exercise.
Both the SVG version and the “source” (like the original articles at this site) will be under the most free of the Creative Commons licenses. As mentioned, there are a couple of graphics out there of unknown parentage and copyright. This one can be used anywhere, for any purpose with confidence because the only source is that Golden Dawn document long out of copyright. And even if there are “safe” charts for use, this is most likely the first vector format file.
The specific terms of the license are if you use it as is, just attribute it to this website. If you create a derivative work (and I encourage all to do so… but “derivative” means that you have to actually introduce a new idea or two, not just change a word or color or font), I hope you’ll put your new work under a Creative Commons license, too, but that will be entirely up to you.
The real potential of working with the “source” is its extensibility. Don’t agree with the Golden Dawn meanings? Plug in your own. Want to change the planets to a more modern group (Neptune, Pluto and Ceres)?… go ahead. Working on a new deck? Use it to promote your version of the “Little White Book.” Change some of the backgrounds to the bitmaps you’ve developed for your deck and make it a sales tool (every “box” in there is capable of having a picture for its background). You can edit the SVG to include additional information in popups… you could include complete explanatory text per card in a popup the user sees by hovering their mouse over it. Or you can reduce the information if you think it’s too much. Working on an article about one sign or one deccan? You can explode it out like the segments in a business pie chart (though to be honest I think the last suggestion falls in the category of useless eye candy).
As mentioned, everything in there right now is vector… you could put it on an 8K monitor in a couple of years, and it will look perfect. You can use it today as the basis for a printed poster big enough to cover a wall. Do you wish to sell huge laminated Tarot wall charts? Now you can. Not to mention that I expect to translate it into Spanish, too.
But I think the main purpose is to drop in the every day divinatory meanings that you as a reader have settled upon based upon however much time and experience you have. You may find that given the birds eye view of a chart containing your own meanings that you may learn a few things about tarot that you knew, but never realized that you knew.
The Visio “source” is organized and descriptive. Each type of data has its own layer: zodiac, planets, elements, calendar, deccan, etc. Each layer is protected (Microsoft Visio has an unusual approach to layers. You want to un-protect and edit only one layer at a time, else you’ll find objects on multiple layers). I chose Visio over Adobe Illustrator because even though it’s less powerful, it’s easier to use and is widely available. If you don’t have a copy of Visio, download Inkscape, which unfortunately will be a bit difficult to use for most people; it’s much more like Illustrator than Visio.
So in any case… this is a call for comments and suggestions. With a bit more input, I will be happy to finalize the graphic and make the Visio file available to all. I will come back and update this post when the graphic is finalized.
- First posted: 05 July 2019
- Graphic updated to “beta 2:” 12 July 2019
The Bill Heidrick excerpt is ©1976 and 1989 by Bill Heidrick