Someone posted this question on Facebook in a forum. I’d like to share the question and my response here so that this information is more readily available, and not lost forever in the labyrinth of Facebook.
Here’s the question:
“As an astrologer, I’m struggling with the idea that the Moon tarot card represents Pisces rather than the Moon. Instead, the High Priestess represents the Moon. The Sun card represents the Sun, so why doesn’t the Moon card represent the Moon? Does anyone have any input on this that might clarify why the moon isn’t represented by its own card??”
The subsequent comments veered off in a variety of directions and started to get into speculation as to who developed the correspondences (fingers were pointing at Crowley, who is probably to blame for a lot of things, but not this!). I tried to put the answer in a historical context as well as explain where the tarot’s astrological associations come from.
Here is my answer:
1. The Major Arcana tarot cards started being associated with the Hebrew alphabet by Comte de Mellet in an essay in the book Le Monde Primitif by Court de Gebelin in the 1770s.
2. Subsequent French esotericists, particularly Eliphas Levi, began working with the system. Levi published it in the mid-1800s, corresponding the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet with the Magician card, then applying the letters in order, with the Fool placed in the next to the last position.
3. In 1888 Samuel McGregor Mathers and a couple other guys started the Golden Dawn. Mathers was a tarotist and esotericist and that same year published a monograph on tarot in which he followed the Levi correspondences.
4. In the late 1800s Arthur Edward Waite, a member of the Golden Dawn, translated Levi into English.
5. Subsequently Mathers began teaching, to GD initiates only, a new system in which he corresponded the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet to the Fool, and then the second letter to the Magician, and then so on in order. (This led Waite to write in the Pictorial Key to the Tarot that all the associations were wrong except for one–the World, which is the same in both systems.)
6. Crowley published Mathers’s work in his journal the Equinox in 1912.
7. Once the tarot cards became associated with the Hebrew letters–and everyone agreed on which system to use–then the astrological associations naturally arose. The Sepher Yetzirah (well-known to and translated by some of the GD members), which dates back at least to the 1st c. CE, modified in the 10th century, and which was further refined and different texts compiled in the 16th century, lists an astrological correspondence for each Hebrew letter.
8. So once the tarot cards found their order with the Hebrew letters, the astrological correspondences were already made.
9. In Hebrew, according to the Sepher Yetzirah, each letter is considered either a mother letter (3 letters), a double letter (7 letters) or a single letter (12 letters).
10. The three tarot cards associated with three mother letters (aleph–the first letter–with the Fool, mem with the Hanged Man, and Shin–the next to the last letter–with Judgment) are associated with the elements air, water, and fire. (Earth at that time period was often considered to be composed of the other elements and was not always included.)
11. The seven double letters were associated with the planets (beth-Magician-Mercury, gimel-High Priestess-Moon, daleth-Empress-Venus, kaph-Wheel of Fortune-Jupiter, peh-Tower-Mars, resh-Sun-Sol, tav-World-Saturn)
12. The twelve single letters were associated with the twelve astrological signs. I won’t write it out–it should be pretty obvious now.
13. So the cards are associated with the Hebrew letters, in order, starting with the Fool, and then the much older correspondences already established by the Sepher Yetzirah just fall into place. Mathers switched Strength so it would match Leo and Justice to match Libra, which is why those cards have been switched since the advent of the RWS deck.
14. The system is brilliant in its simplicity, tradition and accuracy, and although sometimes it might make sense to someone on a personal level to not follow the attributions, no other system is as comprehensive or logical.
15. To answer the original question, the Moon/Luna is assigned to The High Priestess because the High Priestess is gimel (third letter, third card) and gimel is a double letter, therefore a planet.
16. The Moon card is associated with Pisces because it matches up with qoph (19 letter, 19th card) and according to the Sepher Yetzirah, qoph is Pisces.
Here are some of my thoughts on the matter that I didn’t have room for on Facebook.
As I see it, the problem that arises when people want to start switching things around to “what makes sense” is that then we lose the layered correspondences–if the letter qoph is Pisces, and the tarot card the Moon is assigned to qoph, but we want the astrological correspondence to be the moon/luna or Cancer or Sirius or whatever our heart desires, then we lose the layering of symbols that is most fully realized in a comprehensive system.
If you have personal or alternative systems that work for you, and you’re not interested in qabalah or taking it more in-depth or working in a system that is universally used, then I have absolutely no problem with you developing your own set of correspondences that work perfectly for you–your system will work for you! And using something that works is what’s important. And you won’t be the first tarotist to do it–there are plenty of important, experienced, knowledgeable readers and authors who have tweaked the system.
Furthermore, the system developed by Levi never died out–Oswald Wirth used it and his book is a popular seller to this day. I first learned the correspondences from Wirth and worked with them for years before learning the Golden Dawn system. I threw up my hands in frustration when I discovered that there was another way to make the correspondences! But ultimately, I learned both systems and eventually chose to work with the Golden Dawn system.
I hope this helps provide the background and structure as to why the correspondences are made the way they are. And I’d be pleased if I also talked you into using them!
If you liked this, you might also like my recent post, Using the Hebrew Letters in Tarot Divination.
If you want to ask a question about any tarot or Reiki technique or metaphysical philosophy, please feel free to ask it in the comments! You just might see an answer from me in the very near future!
Joy Vernon has been studying and teaching energetic and esoteric modalities for more than twenty years. She is the organizer of the Denver Tarot Geeks, Denver Tarot Meetup and Denver Traditional Reiki Meetup, and she served on the faculty of Avalon Center for Druidic Studies. She is one of the psychics at Isis Books and is a Certified Professional Tarot Reader and a member of the American Tarot Association and Tarosophy Tarot Association. Joy also teaches Traditional Japanese Reiki. For information on upcoming classes or to schedule an appointment, please visit JoyVernon.com.
© 2015 by Joy Vernon. All rights reserved.
Joy Vernon is widely recognized by tarot professionals as an expert tarot teacher and respected community leader. With over twenty years’ experience teaching energetic and esoteric modalities, Joy brings expertise and practiced familiarity to her specialty of esoteric tarot, which layers astrological and qabalistic symbolism onto the traditional tarot structure. Under her leadership, the Denver Tarot Meetup has grown into one of the largest and most active tarot-specific meetups in the world. Joy works as a tarot reader, astrologer, and teacher at Isis Books. To learn more, please visit JoyVernon.com.