Eruption at the End of Things: the Tower Sequence in the Tarot

I was thinking about how the Lovers card is an expression of Gemini and brushing my teeth when this sequence dropped into my head, almost fully formed.

These three cards — The Devil, The Tower, and The Star — are in order, and what’s more remarkable about them is that they are two Saturn cards bookended around a Mars card. And with that, an entire sequence, a narrative, forms around the three cards that is worth investigating to increase our facility with reading with and meditating on these cards.

Signs and Planets

The Devil is not, of course, Saturn’s card of the majors: that’s The World. But The Devil is the card of Capricorn, which is one of the two signs that Saturn rules. Aquarius is the other sign, and its card in the majors is The Star. So these two cards represent Saturn’s domains, the places in which Saturn is the most powerful. It’s also important to note, for this story I’m telling, that these two signs are the furthest reaches of the zodiac.

That has to do with the Thema Mundi, the legendary distribution of planets in the signs when the world came into existence. In this diagram, the Sun and Moon were next to each other, in Leo and Cancer. And the rest of the signs were given to the rule of planets in ascending Chaldean order. So Gemini and Virgo are ruled by Mercury, and so on, so forth. Finally, Aquarius and Capricorn were given over to Saturn, the furthest planet. So, in effect, these two signs are the outer limits of the astrological world, with only the fixed stars lying further out. Given that the fixed stars have a very different relationship to humanity than the planets, we tend to ignore them when we think of the boundary of our lives. The fixed stars are the beginning of "out there," whereas Capricorn and Aquarius are the end of "in here."

Fences and Spaces: Capricorn and Aquarius

As Andrew Watt has put it, Capricorn can be seen like good fences making for good neighbors. Capricorn knows where everything is, what the bounds of every property are, and will never step accidentally onto someone else’s property.

On the other hand, I have a significant Aquarius placement in my natal chart and I was notorious, when I was a teenager, for emerging from the woods on someone’s property and just crossing it to walk home on the road. People would call my dad all the time about it. In later years, someone who moved into my neighborhood called the cop down the road on me, only to be told I’d lived there forever — this, however, being while I was on the road, I was an adult, I’d learned more about the necessity of respecting property laws when my callow youth could no longer rescue me from mistrustful shotguns.

I’m telling you that to tell you that while both signs are about boundary lines, Aquarius is weird. Capricorn is about building a fence; Aquarius is about leaving the fence behind to see what’s past it. You always come back to that fence, though. The fence is a necessary lodestone, a guiding star.

And Aquarius’s card in the majors in The Star. For reasons that are likely more obvious now, The Star is usually one of my favorite cards. But I suspect that a lot of us misread it a bit. I do, still, despite efforts to recalibrate.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: "the Star card represents a guiding light, a light in the darkness. You should have hope and continue on your path, keep working toward your goals." Yes, sure, that’s all true, but it’s the Aquarius card: sometimes, if you sail out into open water with nothing but the stars to guide you, you drown. You have to know exactly where those "fences" are at all times in order to leave their safety behind.

Aquarius placement people like me can sometimes feel that Capricorn placement people are a little too safe — but look, never ask the idiot who wanders in the woods with no hunter’s orange during hunting season what is or isn’t safe. We really want to just wander off; we learn, eventually, that we can do that under very carefully guided conditions.

The Star isn’t really about blind hope or good vibes: it’s about knowing exactly how your GPS works so you can take a new path to the grocery store, knowing all the while that you’ll get the guidance you need. If your GPS is busted, you better drive the route you know well.

An Eruption

Now, in between these two cards lies The Tower, which is the Mars card of the majors. It isn’t a sign, it’s a planet. And it depicts an explosive ruination. Plenty for writers have talked, very well, on the Tower’s position in the trump sequence and how it represents the disastrous change that ultimately leads to beneficial changes, especially spiritual awakening.

This tracks to the card’s history. Many people, quite sensibly, assume the card depicts the Tower of Babel. Many Waite Smith clones made in the past 80 years reinforce that assumption by depicting it in their versions of the card. But Paul Huson has effectively argued that it is probably the Harrowing of Hell instead. Medieval miracle plays often depicted Christ’s descent into Hell, and usually there would be a pyrotechnic special effects display as Christ rives the gates and causes the tower to fall.

And there’s no better spiritual awakening than being spirited away from Hell, right?

At this point we have to ask what this eruption accomplishes. All the things in tarot are symbols of other things, right? And we all know the stereotypical thing that we have to tell querents when the Tower shows up: itay be bad, but it’s clearing the ground away for something new, and maybe something better. So on , so forth.

And the trumps, in order, are a kind of journey right? From the Fool’s freedom to the World’s depiction of similar freedom couples with knowledge. And the Tower is quite obviously that last big problem, the final act’s complication, that threatens to ruin everything but somehow narrowly avoids doing so.

The Devil is, in this case, about learning one’s limits and stopping at the border of things. Coming from the heady sequence of trumps before, visionary hermits and their visions of the Wheel of life, virtues and the starkness of Death and a tempering, the Devil shows the Fool saying they’ve finally gone far enough. After all, Temperance follows Death, and can be the fool shaping themselves to this new restriction, this new understanding. The poison of Scorpio has injured the Fool badly.

But when the Tower falls, when the world erupts, the Fool sees that these limitations can actually be overcome. Yes, there are limits we absolutely cannot go beyond, but death — or perhaps simply the fear of it — is not one of those immutable limitations.

And after the fall, the Fool sees the stars, the real outermost (astrological) borders of the world. From the edge you can see it all. We can imagine and describe this transition as going from the final entrapment — that of matter itself — to a clarity of vision about the world around us, brought on by the realization that matter itself decays and falls, demonstrated by the devastation caused by the Tower.

Winding It Up

These kinds of narratives are helpful for a number of reasons. They increase our recall of the cards, their sequence, and their meanings. But they also provide us with stock narratives to use with clients. A story is always going to work better than dry information — though ideally you would use both, of course. This could be the story you use of two or all three of these cards appear. There are others, to be sure, that fit as well. But this one fits too.

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