Those who prefer an entirely intuitive, visual approach to reading tarot cards are in the habit of pushing back vehemently against the use of any kind of knowledge-based occult symbolism or esoteric correspondences in their practice. In some cases a certain dismissive elitism is behind this resistance, in others it’s simply a matter of being unable to come to grips with the complexities involved. For many it’s too dense and lacking in fluidity, more analytical than psychically expressive. It’s easier to just let it go. I stand slightly to the right of the midpoint in this debate, having adopted a 60%/40% split between analytical and intuitive reading styles; I tend to fall back on correspondences when my inspiration runs dry and I don’t want to grope for meaning in front of a client.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is responsible for much of the system of correspondences in use today. Its contributions underlie two of the major deck designs of the last 100 years, the Thoth and the Rider-Waite-Smith. Chief among its innovations are the models for assigning astrological associations to the Major and Minor Arcana. The first of these is largely based on principles derived from Hebrew mysticism (primarily the Sepher Yetzirah and the qabalistic Tree of Life) and Hermetic philosophy; the second takes its cue from the zodiacal decans of the Chaldean astrologers. Elemental dignities, color symbolism and occult number theory are also important ingredients in the mix.
The head of the Order, Samuel Liddell “MacGregor” Mathers, variously “G.H. Frater S.M.R.D” and “G.H. Frater D.D.C.F,” seems to have been the author of much of the text contained in the Golden Dawn’s tarot “papers,” titled Liber T. My copy of Israel Regardie’s compilation of Golden Dawn material, The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic (aka “the brick”), also has one contribution by “G.H. Soror Q.L.” (Harriet Felkin). This publication presents the core of the Order’s approach to the esoteric tarot. Liber T was later enriched substantially by former Golden Dawn member Aleister Crowley in his Book of Thoth, as well as by other Order alumni like Gareth Knight and Paul Foster Case.
Correspondences are like seasoning in the story-teller’s narrative “stew.” Akin to the “color” commentary in a sports broadcast, they bring the dry play-by-play recitation to life. It seems sterile to say that the Tower portends traumatic developments, when you could say “The Tower is of the fiery, violent, destructive nature of Mars. It’s onset can be swift and devastating, but its duration is likely to be brief. Oddly, according to Henry Cornelius Agrippa, its number, 16, was considered the number of felicity by the Pythagoreans. It reduces numerologically to Seven, the number of the Chariot arcanum and also a number of Venus. Thus, there can be victory and a kind of redemption hidden in the wreckage. It may very well act as a catalyst that clears the way for building a bigger and better structure on the ruins of the old one. Qabalistically, Mars relates to the number Five, harbinger of necessary but often chaotic and painful change. Think of breaking eggs to make omelets.”
In my personal hierarchy of correspondences, elemental associations come first (the familiar suit assignments), number symbolism – both Pythagorean and Qabalistic – takes second place, and astrological signatures round out the field. In certain instances, occult color theory also plays an important part, especially if the deck I’m using adopts the Golden Dawn’s “color scales.” Of them all, astrological earmarks provide the most vivid insights into the operation of a card beyond its fundamental textbook meaning and its visual clues. If you’re looking for a book on the subject, Corrine Kenner’s Tarot and Astrology is a decent place to start. As a long-time astrologer and Thoth fan, I can see that she stayed mainly within the bounds of the Golden Dawn tradition, although she takes some liberties near the end of the book that I can’t support.