The Tarot Salad Bar

For those of us who use esoteric correspondences in reading the tarot, pulling cards for a reading is like ordering a “tarot salad” with special dressing This is especially true if there are several cards of a similar “flavor,” whether elemental, astrological or numerical. Many writers have addressed what happens when you have an abundance of one flavor in a spread and an absence of others. Lots of Aces can mean that the querent is thinking hard about doing something but hasn’t really done much of anything yet, while many Tens might be saying that they’re all “played out.” A herd of court cards could show a crowded house or a case of multiple personalities (but more likely just a range of possible responses to contend with in the situation). And, of course, numerous trump cards are often seen as a “fated” complex of forces that is largely outside of the querent’s control. A marked absence of any of these influences may reflect either relief at not having to deal with them, or a challenge in trying to bring that missing energy to bear on the matter.

The most common emphasis is the elemental factor. Since there are only four of them, Fire, Water, Air and Earth, pulling more than four cards is bound to give you at least two of any one, assuming that you translate trump cards into their elemental associations through planetary or zodiacal correspondence. There is some controversy about how this is to be done due to conflicting testimony in medieval and Renaissance sources about the “elemental and planetary humours,” but I tend to stick with modern assignments and make some judgment calls. For example, is Mercury as the Magician an airy planet (Gemini), an earthy one (Virgo), or a neutral one befitting its chameleon-like ability to blend with any other planet with which it is combined?  The same is true of Venus, typically representing the Empress; is it an earthy planet (Taurus), an airy one (Libra) or a watery one that matches its moist temperamental nature (at least in esoteric theory)? In each case, I would go with the one that suits the complexion of the rest of the spread. It’s also helpful that both of those planets have connections with other trump cards (Mercury with the Hermit through Virgo and Venus with the Hierophant through Taurus) that take some of the urgency out of the dilemma.

Things get especially interesting (and rewarding) when the planetary links to the 36 Chaldean decans are considered.  For instance, take Saturn; like all of the seven traditional planets except Mars (which has an extra assignment), it is associated with five of the minor cards, all of them nasty: the 7 of Disks/Pentacles (“Failure”), the 5 of Wands (“Strife”), 3 of Swords (“Sorrow”) the 10 of Wands (“Oppression”) and the 8 of Cups (“Indolence”). These are all related to Saturn’s dour reputation as the “Taskmaster” and the “Great Teacher,” as well as its reference to the unfortunate geomantic figure Rubeus. It is also assigned to the World, which is generally seen as “completion and success,” but I note its Saturnian side in that you often have to be patient and persistent in order to get there, those benefits don’t just fall into your lap. When there is an abundance of Saturn cards in a spread, it’s possible that things are going nowhere fast!

On the other hand, the Sun is a mixed bag: most of its related decans are benevolent, with the 3 of Wands (“Virtue”), the  8 of Disks/Pentacles (“Prudence”), the 6 of Cups (“Pleasure”) and the 4 of Disks/Pentacles (“Power”) showing a positive emphasis. The harsher side of the Sun (which might be construed as “too much of a good thing”) shows up in the 10 of Swords (“Ruin”), which makes me think of a desert scorched by merciless sunshine; there is no place to hide from it. There are five sets of seven planets totaling 35, but there are 36 slots to fill, so Mars is given both the last decan of Pisces (the 10 of Cups, “Satiety”) and the first decan of Aries (the 2 of Wands, “Dominion”). The somewhat fanciful thinking behind this seems to be that an extra burst of the fiery Mars energy is needed to break out of the Winter doldrums into Spring, so it is given back-to-back expression. Among the trump cards, the Sun is aligned with Strength through the Fire sign Leo, and of course it personifies the Sun card itself.

The court cards all have elemental assignments through their suit connections, but the three at the top of the hierarchy (in the Golden Dawn system, that would be the fiery Knight supplanting the old King, the watery Queen and the airy Prince) also have a more abstract secondary derivation due to the “shift” in their alignment with the 12 sets of three decans. Each court card partakes of two decans of one sign, and one decan of the previous sign. Beginning at 0° of Aries in the “natural zodiac,” the four Queens are two-thirds cardinal Fire, Water, Air and Earth, respectively, and each one backtracks into one-third mutable Water, Air, Earth and Fire. The active Knights are predominantly mutable Air, Earth, Fire and Water with a “minor chord” in fixed Earth, Fire, Water and Air. The more deliberate Princes equate to two-thirds fixed Earth, Fire, Water and Air and one-third cardinal Fire, Water, Air and Earth. In all cases, the “back-door” influence of the preceding sign might be seen as a “hidden” aspect of the personality that only comes into play when stimulated by reinforcing elements in the rest of the spread.

The Princesses, which would upset the symmetry if  forced into the arrangement, are neatly excluded from this scheme (along with the four Aces) by giving each of them one quadrant of nine decans centered on the middle decan of the fixed signs Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius; the Princesses are considered “earthy,” so this association with fixity suits their nature quite well. Although this elaborate system complicates the picture considerably, it makes for some fascinating juxtapositions when blended with the elemental “signatures” of the minor and major arcana in a reading.

The situation with numerical correspondences is similar, but there are ten different “flavors” to deal with rather than four. This comes into play more often in larger spreads like the Celtic Cross, but a preponderance of any one number out of a population of four sets of ten in a smaller spread would be remarkable and therefore carry even more weight in the reading. With the 16 unnumbered court cards and the 22 trump cards, numerological reduction to bring them into the 1-to-10 range is not performed for this purpose, and they are rolled up only according to their rank (that is, as a group of cards of similar hierarchical level). A good example of numerical abundance would be many Fives in a spread; the Fives all represent change, usually of a disruptive nature that nevertheless creates opportunity for growth. This could very well describe a stubbornly unsettled period for the querent that offers no hint of near-term resolution. Everything may be “up in the air” with no end in sight.

This system of correspondences offers many insights and avenues for achieving subtle shades of interpretation. Where intuitive free-association from the images fails (especially when confronted with non-scenic “pip” cards), they are often the only way to make intelligible sense of  a disjointed jumble of cards in a layout. A fall-back, to be sure, but definitely an excellent tool for imposing order on chaos.


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