Esoteric Tarot Associations: Practical Uses

Recently someone asked me how I use the more esoteric associations in tarot to clarify readings, or, at least, how do I use them without getting involved in vague esoteric mumbling? (Hi Vathy!) I kept thinking about it, and thinking about it some more, and realized this is probably a post instead of a few sentences for a discord. So that’s what this post is about! The ways that I use the correspondences between tarot and various esoteric strata of information, such as kabbalah and astrology, in a more or less practical way.

Theory

First, briefly, if you don’t already know about these association layers: over the years, information has been layered onto the tarot cards, which were fairly information-light to begin with, since they were just for gaming. To oversimplify, three systems have been added to the cards.

  1. The four classical elements
  2. Kabbalistic imagery, particularly the Tree of Life and its connections between “nodes”
  3. Astrological information, such as signs, planets, and decans

The four classical elements are earth, water, air, and fire. They each correspond to a suit of the minor cards: earth-disks-material matters; water-cups-emotional matters; air-swords-intellectual matters; and fire-wands-inspirational matters.

The Kabbalistic imagery includes, but is not limited to, Hebrew letters and positions on the Tree of Life. For instance, the Fool is given the attribution of Aleph, the beginning and the “ox goad,” as well as the first “path” on the Tree of Life, connecting Kether, the unknowable Godhead, with Chokmah*.

Astrological information includes, but is not limited to, planets, signs, and decans. For example, Mars is associated with the 2 of Wands and the 10 of Cups. The 8, 9, and 10 of Cups are associated with Pisces. And they each represent one decan of Pisces.

It’s likely you know what Mars and Pisces are, but you may not know what decans are. So as a brief aside: the decans are ten-degree sections of the zodiac. As each sign is thirty degrees, each sign has three decans in it. Each decan has a planet that is its “ruler,” which means that in the sign of, say, Pisces, everything is ruled by Jupiter, who rules the sign, but a small area of it is ruled by Mars – the final decan, between 19 and 29 degrees. Plenty of models and descriptions abound for understanding that relationship, but you can think of it this way for now: if Jupiter rules everything in Pisces, it must need administrators to help keep things going smoothly, and Mars is the administrator of the last section of Pisces.

I’ve ordered the three groupings in ascending levels of complexity – and I know, the Tree of Life isn’t exactly simple. Maybe it’s more accurate to say I have ordered them in the sequence I learned them in. Most any book you get on tarot will mention the elemental associations, at least briefly. I learned Kabbalah imagery because I bought a “Golden Dawn tarot” in Memphis, TN and wanted to make sense of it. And I learned the astrology stuff as I got more interested in the Thoth deck and its tradition in tarot.

Praxis

Now that I’ve given you background information we can get to the practical advice, insofar as I have any! Given how common the elemental correspondences are, you likely know what to do with those, but here are a few ideas. If you get a preponderance of swords cards when you have a problem, take a second to ask yourself if it’s a concrete or an abstract problem. Swords, associated with air and the intellect, often point to abstraction, and even anxiety. If you get a lot of disks cards, check your wallet! If you get a lot of cups mixed in with a few majors, ask if any life events (majors) are uncontrollable but negatively affecting your emotions (cups), and begin to pick apart the things you can control (which would be, to a greater or lesser degree, your emotional responses or, at the very least, the amount of time you give something. After all, if you can’t control something, you might as well go play Pokemon and wait it out).

Kabbalistic imagery can often give you pointed advice. Let’s say you get the Fool card. Well, is the deck calling you stupid? Probably not (though, sometimes…). The Fool often means something like “freedom” or “innocence,” and that’s fine, but if you’re asking how to get a promotion at work it’s not all that helpful.

Let’s survey The Fool’s description from a few decks off my shelf. In the book for the Lubanko Tarot we find that the Fool is “about one at the beginning of their journey. Optimism, ignorance (often blissful), dumb luck, and pitfalls avoided by chance.” The book goes on to say the lesson is to “acknowledge[e] when we ourselves are at this stage [of ignorance].”

The Robin Wood Tarot says, more simply, “Thoughtlessness, folly, lightheartedness, innocence. Purity of heart. Lack of discipline. One seeking fulfillment and experience. Freedom, lack of restraint.”

The Botanica Tarot says, “a dreamer. Freedom, a life without worry. The start of an adventure. A happy lack of responsibilities.”

If we asked something like “how will my vacation go?” this would be fantastic! But in other contexts, like the “how do I get a promotion?” question from above, we may be left wondering a little. The Fool is associated, as above, with the “ox goad.” So there’s a piece of data: get moving! Force yourself! The Fool doesn’t stop walking, they keep going and going, even off that cliff! The Fool also connects Kether and Chokmah: Kether is the infinite source of all things, while Chokmah is the head of the pillar of mercy. So maybe you need to “go back to the source?” That’s reinforced by the Fool’s connection to Aleph, the first letter. The pillar of mercy is open and receiving, so you need some force but you need to avoid being forceful. Apply energy to keeping yourself open, while moving forward at a constant clip, even if it’s a slow one.

Astrological associations can work in a similar way. Let’s say one’s question is something like “what should I do to find a romantic partner who respects me?” I really did, this time, shuffle my cards up and pull one for this example: we’ve got the 5 of Swords, notorious smirky man. Waite says the meaning of the card is “degradation, destruction, revocation, infamy, dishonour, loss, with the variants and analogues of these. Reversed: the same; burial and obsequies.”** That’s… well… all right, Arthur. Oof. Honestly, that’s not a bad start to answering the question: cut and run! But the question was about avoiding “degradation, destruction” and so on, surely?

So the astrological information for the 5 of Swords is that it’s the first decan of Aquarius, administrated by Venus. Venus is not exactly at home in Aquarius, but she’s got an office here, at least. Maybe just a desk. Aquarius is ruled by Saturn. Aquarius is a fixed sign, which means it’s the middle of the air triplicity: Libra -> Aquarius -> Gemini. That means it’s somewhat stubborn, “fixed” in its ways, as opposed to the cardinal signs’ tendencies to start things and the mutable signs’ tendencies to change or finish them.

So if the card means loss and degradation and all those things, and it’s fixed, and it’s associated with Venus and Aquarius, what can we do to improve the outlook of our querent? Venus isn’t a bad planet to get in connection with a romantic question, obviously. But just as obviously, things aren’t going so well. This is the “cardinal” decan of Aquarius, too – some models map each decan of a sign onto the same triplicity model as above, so every sign as a cardinal, fixed, and mutable section to it. So, beginning of fixity, uncomfortable Venus administrating a section of Saturn’s land, and Aquarius as the “weird sign,” the world outside the boundaries that Saturn sets up in Capricorn…

OK, OK. How about this? You’re going to have to cut and run, suffer some losses, and then you need to think very carefully about the next step. Do something new, and stick with it, don’t waver partway through. Govern your romantic sensibilities with a careful eye for details and limitations. Set boundaries before you meet anyone and guard them: if anyone tries to cross those boundaries, cut and run.

And that’s it!

The thing about Kabbalistic and astrological correspondences is that you don’t always need them. Sometimes the card is extremely clear about things. But sometimes it’s not, and if you can dive into on a deep pool of signification, mapping connections and correspondences, then often you can clarify a mysterious card, connect cards in a spread that may not be obviously connected otherwise, and offer more information to querents than otherwise possible.

If you want to learn all these correspondences, and more, I can’t recommend Fortune’s Wheelhouse enough. I didn’t even get into the images associated with the decans by Agrippa and the Picatrix, or the four worlds of Kabbalah and the elemental connections between them, or the royal family YHVH and its esoteric marriage to connect one suit to the suit following, and, and and… You see the point. There’s always more there there, if you know how to squint just right.

If you found this article useful, well, as my dad always said, “don’t clap, just throw money.” I mean, you should clap too, if you want, and leave a comment! But here are some ways you can “throw money” if you’d like to see me do more stuff like this in the nearer future:

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~

*This is the first piece of information I had to look up: I was blanking on Chokmah’s name.

**Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Arthur Edward Waite. US Games Systems, Inc. 1971. Print.

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