[This turned into a really long post. If you just want to see my correspondences of Tarot cards to the Wheel of the Year, without a lot of rambling context and explanation, skip to the list immediately after the picture of the Tree of Life.]
Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while doubtless know about the strange quasi-religious devotional practice I have with my Tarot cards. (Although now that I’m all Wiccan, I’ve been doing less of this. It’s still there, but the landscape is changing.*) This post is going to go into a little bit more depth regarding what I do in that practice.
Now, because my Tarot polytheism is entirely, 100% made up by me, I didn’t really have a lot to work with when I started my hoobedy-hoobedy groove. I didn’t have existing sources talking about how to honor (or, if you prefer, “worship”) Tarot cards, how to build an altar, what kinds of things to use as offerings or invocations, and so on. There’s maybe a little bit of stuff in Crowley and Thelema that could have been reworked to suit my purposes,** but for the most part Thelema is its own thing. I’ve taken a lot of Kabbalistic concepts, and correspondences from Liber 777 (where I can see some kind of underlying, sensical system to them), but that’s it.
So, in search of religious practices to mimic, I stole (ahem, syncretized) a lot of practices from Neo-Paganism and European polytheistic reconstructionists. One of the most important of these practices was the use of the Wheel of the Year.
For those of you who don’t know, the Wheel of the Year is a Neo-Pagan calendrical (Calendric? Calendarian? Calendar-ish?) system with eight seasonal holidays: the winter and summer solstices, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and the halfway points between them. I always liked this calendar, and liked the idea of incorporating it into a devotional practice. It’s about seeing and feeling the cycles of the changing seasons, and cyclicality is an extremely important concept in Tarot. So I set out on a quest to find a way to map Tarot onto the Wheel of the Year.
It was a harrowing journey. I had many missteps as I wandered from one winding, treacherous road to another. At one point, I almost froze to death at the top of a mountain, only to be taken in by a kind ogress who brewed her own mead and had a pet St. Bernard the size of a horse. She nursed me back to health, but even she could not think of a satisfying way to bring the two systems together, so eventually I was forced to leave her and continue on my quest. I met giants and dwarves, knights and queens and rooks and pawns. There was even a rather bellicose pixie. But that, I think is a tale to be told another time. The point is that I went through a lot of different iterations of my Tarot Wheel of the Year, shaping it and reshaping it to try to get it to feel right.
Stop here. Before you read this post any further, stop and think about how you would try to connect these two concepts. My goal was to use the Wheel of the Year to craft eight Tarot holidays. And remember, the idea here is to make a devotional calendar for meaningful work with Tarot–in other words, each holiday should ideally be for one card at a time. Maybe two or three, but three is really the outside limit. You don’t want to have a holiday devoted to “The Ace, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, and Ten of Wands”. It’s just too much.
Now, consider. There are 78 Tarot cards. There are only eight holidays in the Wheel of the Year. You can decide (as I quickly did) that you want to restrict yourself to the Major Arcana, to make your life easier, but even so, you have 22 cards and 8 holidays. That’s an average of 2.75 cards per holiday. Yikes.
A second challenge arises. You don’t just want to assign cards to holidays willy-nilly; ideally, they should mean something. You want each card to be at a holiday that in some way matches up with its symbolism–so, for example, it would be downright silly to have the Sun at Samhain (Halloween, the end of autumn, and a generally not-sunny time of year).
And there’s a third challenge. Not just because things come in threes, but because I’m the sort of hyperanalytical whoosabawhatzit that desperately needs my world to be systematized. Intuition is great and all, but I hate having to rely on intuition alone. If I’m going to assign 22 cards to 8 seasonal positions, I won’t be satisfied unless I’ve done it in a rigorous, systematic way that makes sense and can be explained with a more compelling argument than “I dunno, I just felt called to do it this way”.*** (This is actually my big complaint with the way the Wildwood Tarot links Tarot to the Wheel. WHERE’S THE SYSTEM, PEOPLE?)
Three challenges, then: dividing 22 by 8, having the card/holiday match make intuitive sense, and producing some kind of systematic categorization that allows the Tarot and the Wheel of the Year to play nicely together. I spent years (literally years, although to be fair it was only three or so; I haven’t spent a decade) trying to piece something together that would answer these challenges to my satisfaction.
I’ll spare you the details of all my failed attempts, except to say that they were numerous. At one point, I published a (now-outdated) version of my project in the American Tarot Association‘s quarterly magazine. If you’re a member of the ATA and you really want to see what anterior versions of my Tarot Wheel looked like, feel free to comb through the archives.
I’m a thousand words into this post and I still haven’t actually said anything about my Wheel of the Year. Yikes. I really do ramble, don’t I? Well, here goes. The current version of the Tarot Wheel of the Year that I work with is based on my personalized model of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. For those of you who don’t know it, it looks like this:
The Tarot-to-holiday correspondence I use is as follows:
- Samhain (October 31st): The Chariot, Death, the Moon
- Yule (December 22nd): Judgment, the Fool, the Hanged Man
- Imbolc (February 2nd): The Lovers, Justice, the Star
- Ostara (March 21st): The Empress, the Tower
- Beltane (May 1st): The Hierophant, the Hermit, the Devil
- Summer Solstice (June 21st): The Magician, the Sun, the World
- Lammas (August 1st): The Emperor, Strength, Temperance
- Autumn Equinox (September 22nd): The High Priestess, the Wheel of Fortune
So. I’ve given you the Tree, and I’ve given you the correspondences. Now, why and how does it all make sense for my practice? (Note here that I say “for my practice”. These correspondences might not make any sense at all to other people, and I’m certainly not trying to claim that they’re RIGHT or that other people should use them. I’m just doing my funky funk, and figured I’d share it with the world.)
Obviously, because there are so many Major Arcana, there has to be some doubling- and tripling-up with the holidays. It’s unavoidable. (I once tried to get around it by doing something involving the lunar cycles, but it was an ugly business. I do not recommend going that route.) So I decided to group the cards in ways that were meaningful–if not in an exoteric, surface-level way, then at least in a deeper, esoteric way.
And where do we look for deeper esoteric meaning? The Golden Dawn, of course!
In the afore-linked Liber 777, astrological correspondences are provided that connect the Major Arcana to the signs of the Zodiac, the planets of classical astrology, and the three primary elements of Kabbalah. I’ve written about these correspondences many, many times before. I love these correspondences. So it’s no surprise that they should be the basis of my manufactured fake Pagan calendar.
I split the Zodiacal signs up into groups by element: the three Water signs, the three Earth signs, and so on. (They’re also in a convenient visual grouping in the Tree of Life above; this is just one of many reasons why I prefer this version of the Tree to the traditional structure.) And then I assigned these groups to the four cross-quarter holidays (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lammas). I wanted to have the Zodiacal cards dispersed evenly across the Wheel, rather than having them all clustered together in, say, the wintry half of the year.
“But Jack,” you protest, “How did you decide which elemental Zodiac group went with which holiday?”
I’m glad you asked.
The answer to this is actually quite simple: I looked at the time of year. Samhain takes place while the Sun is in Scorpio, a water sign, so I put the three water cards there. Imbolc is in Aquarius, so it has the air cards; Beltane is in Taurus with earth; and Lammas is in Leo with fire. And actually, I think these correspondences work quite well. Some of them (like the Chariot at Samhain) are a little funky, but if you take each elemental trio as a collective unit, I think the cards do a good job of capturing the energies of their respective holidays.****
Whew. Okay. That’s twelve cards and four holidays out of the way. We now have ten cards left, and four days to spread them across.
Here, I admit, I reverted a bit to intuition. It seemed obvious to me that the Sun belonged at the Summer Solstice. I can’t really give a good systematic explanation for this, but it’s just mind-numbingly stupid to put it anywhere else (although I suppose if you really wanted, you could make an argument for Yule. But it definitely has to be one of the solstices).
So I took the central pillar of my Tree of Life–the Magician, the Sun, and the World–and stuck those three cards on the solstice. And then, just looking visually at the Tree of Life, it seemed to me that the best cards to balance these three out would be the cards on the horizontal paths: Judgment, the Fool, and the Hanged Man. After all, they cross each other. It makes sense to me (although once again, I admit this is more an intuitive sort of sense than anything intellectually rigorous) that they should oppose-slash-balance each other on the Wheel. (Plus, I like the symbolism of having the Fool at Yule. It feels right.)
That leaves four cards: the Empress, the Tower, the High Priestess and the Wheel of Fortune. We also have two holidays: the two equinoxes. I decided to group the cards vertically, in keeping with the way I had the Magician-Sun-World group. (i.e. Empress/Tower and Priestess/Wheel, rather than, say, Empress/Priestess and Tower/Wheel). And as for which group went where, well, I fell back on intuition once again. The Empress, as a card of nurturing and growth, belongs more in spring than in autumn, and the High Priestess is an appropriate psychopomp to lead us into the dark half of the year. So I stuck the left-hand pillar at Ostara and the right-hand pillar at the autumnal equinox.
Well, I certainly do talk a lot, don’t I? If this post was boring to you, or excessively detailed, I really am sorry. I’m just really excited (and, I’ll admit, proud) of my little Tarot Wheel. It’s deeply personal, a Tarot gnosis that I didn’t get from a book or from another author but that is entirely representative of me and of the work that I’ve put into building a relationship with the cards. Maybe it’s silly. Maybe it’s uninteresting to anyone with a third-person perspective. But my Tarot Wheel of the Year is so, so important to my practice, and I’m glad to be able to share it with all of you. This is a post that I’ve wanted to write pretty much since I started this blog, but I hadn’t been able to do it because there was so much contextual information that I needed to front-load with other posts first.
I could write a lot more about this topic, and I have detailed thoughts on each of my Wheel of the Year correspondences and why I feel they work, but I’m going to leave off here. Goodness knows I’ve already said enough. If any of my correspondences don’t make sense to you, if they strike you as wrong, if they confuse or upset you, please leave me a comment and let me know. I’ll gladly explain to you my rationale for why each thing is in its place. And remember also that this is not a system I’m asking anyone else to use. If the idea of connecting Tarot to the Wheel of the Year (or, for that matter, of having a Tarot altar, building a devotional Tarot practice, using a modified version of the Tree of Life, etc.) speaks to you, fantastic! You’re more than welcome to use my system for yourself, or to take inspiration and build your own system from scratch. But I make no claims on my system’s worth beyond my own personal practice, and I really want to stress that.
Finally, before I leave you, keep in mind that my system is constantly changing. At this point, I’ve gone through no less than half a dozen versions of the Tarot Wheel of the Year (and probably closer to ten). I have no doubt that this version, too, will change, as it becomes less meaningful to me or as I see a way that I can do it better. Nothing about this is static. It’s constantly in flux, and the purpose of having this system is not for me to have some made-up dogma I can reference, but rather to have some way to express my fluid, ever-shifting transcendent experiences with Tarot.
Okay. We’re over 2,500 words. Enough is enough.
*I’ve been spending more time with the deities of Wicca. It’s complicated.
**And indeed, I looked pretty seriously into the OTO as a way of fulfilling my religious needs. I ultimately decided against it for two big reasons. Firstly, the OTO charges dues, and I just don’t have a hell of a lot of money. Secondly, and more importantly, Thelema isn’t really a Tarot religion, it’s a Crowley religion. It reeks of him, especially with holidays like “The Feast for the First Night of the Prophet [Uncle Aleister] and his Bride”. And I just get such a visceral ICK vibe from Aleister Crowley that I really don’t think I would do well in his cult.
***I mentioned above that I’m all up in the Wicca thing now. Naturally, Wicca being what it is, much of my work in that religious tradition has been a matter of embracing intuition and accepting the validity of subjective, experiential narratives for personal growth. I guarantee you that if my High Priestess ever reads this post, she or her spouse will say aloud, “Well, someone‘s stuck up in his head”. And rightly so.
****Whoa. As I typed that sentence, I had a major moment of déjà vu. Have I written about this before? I don’t think I have…