Funny thing about esoteric correspondences. Sometimes you don’t need them at all, other times you can get nowhere without at least a cursory nod to them. They’re especially useful when a spread serves up a disjointed mish-mash of contradictory meanings that resists all tactics of intuition, inspiration, imagination and ingenuity. The analytical skill required to seamlessly integrate a range of different, often complex, associations in a single reading is one that amply rewards the time and effort spent on mastering it. Although its assimilation may imply rote “memory work” with little appealing fluidity, in practice it opens up a whole parallel world of unique insights that dovetail with remarkable coherence.
I have a hierarchy of approaches that I use in most situations: “just the cards” and their images, with no additional considerations beyond suit; classical elemental qualities (including “humours” and “temperaments”) that arise from the suits; occult number theories (usually called “numerological” but technically something else); astrological correlations in terms of sign and planet; qabalistic Tree of Life connections, both Hermetic and Hebraic; mythical and literary allusions; and esoteric color symbolism. The context of the question and the nature of the emerging answer help to determine which of these I will jump to, but the first four are fairly standard in my own practice.
This array of theoretical relationships was developed at the end of the 19th Century by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, following in the footsteps of French occultist Elpihas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant). They were erected on the bare bones of earlier tarot decks like the Tarot de Marseille, and were principally created by Order Chief Samuel Liddell (“MacGregor”) Mathers, and subsequently enriched by Aleister Crowley. It has since been retooled by more recent writers but, except for some largely gratuitous tinkering (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”), the core of the system remains mostly unchanged.
That is not to say that I offer these arcane assumptions in undiluted form to my clients; it would be like trying to explain molecular bonding to a 3-year-old (although a pre-school teacher would probably get farther with Lego blocks than I could with unvarnished esoteric jargon). At most I might ask how much astrological knowledge they have. I’m more likely to clothe the naked details in illustrative anecdotes or evocative metaphors and analogies that get the point across without delving into the mechanics.
I recently performed a public reading for a woman who gave me no advance information about her circumstances. The 8 of Cups (the Golden Dawn’s leaden Saturn in stagnant Pisces) came up in the “challenges” position of the spread I was using, and the Knight of Cups was moving away from it toward the future, holding out a conciliatory cup in front of him. The 8 of Cups in the Waite-Smith deck has always reminded me of a “poisoned well;” the man has looked in the eight cups and is moving away in disappointment and dejection; there was nothing there for him. The woman told me she had already been through that. I suggested that the Knight of Cups might be showing someone new (or possibly a returning “ex”) in her future who would offer her a new “cup” of emotional stimulation. Then I said “Just make sure he doesn’t reach back into the 8 of Cups to get it,” which made her laugh in appreciation.