The Trial and the Verdict

Those new to tarot have many symbolic puzzles to solve when confronting the archetypes presented in the Major Arcana, but one that arises promptly is why there are two trump cards that seem to be about the same thing: Justice and Judgement. One of the simplest and most satisfying explanations I’ve seen is that Justice represents the personal “trial” involved in a situation and Judgement reveals the more transcendent “verdict.” This is captured in the imagery; the figure in Justice is holding a balance and a sword implying that deliberations are still ongoing and could go either way, while the angel in Judgement is blowing a trumpet-call to awaken the dead to a new life. The subtle difference in the two is that Justice, as the card of “just desserts,” suggests commensurate payback in the form of exactly what one has earned from one’s actions, while Judgement reflects the “end of the road” from which there is no turning back, delivering what the Universe has in store regardless of any quibbles about “balancing the books.” It’s generally too late for consideration of mitigating circumstances.

There is a tendency to view Justice in a more favorable light because of its connection to harmonious Libra, but it is truly impartial in its action (after all, implacable Saturn is exalted in Libra); the trick to making the most of its influence is to be found deserving of its mercy rather than wanting in virtue. There is still time to make amends before the gavel comes down. Judgement, on the other hand, I think of as “an offer that can’t be refused,” while at the same time representing an opportunity for a significant make-over. Although the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn assigned elemental Fire to Judgement, modern thinking has it as corresponding to Pluto. While I’m still unconvinced of the merits of this variance, there is one point in its favor: back in the 1980s (before his conversion to classical techniques), astrologer Robert Hand stated with great conviction at a seminar “There is absolutely nothing superficial about Pluto.” That, in a nutshell, is Judgement.

Aleister Crowley made a similar observation about Judgement – which he re-titled “The Aeon” – in The Book of Thoth: “Final decision in respect of the past, new current in respect of the future; always represents the taking of a definite step.” His commentary on Justice (renamed “Adjustment,” which in my opinion tends to conflate it with Paul Foster Case’s “adaptation and adjustment” characterization of Temperance) is similarly revealing: “This card in the old pack was called Justice. This word has nothing but a purely human and therefore relative sense; so it is not to be considered as one of the facts of Nature. Nature is not just, according to any theological or ethical idea; but Nature is exact.” This strikes me as a perfect analogy for Judgement; there is little or no “wiggle room” for avoiding the summons when its wake-up call is received. In other words, Justice is relative, while Judgement is absolute.

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