The symbolism behind the Chariot’s correlation to Cancer in the tarot just came to me.
First, it helps to understand how the assignment of the cards to the planets and signs came about. In fifteenth century minchiate decks, twenty additional trumps, including cards assigned to the astrological signs, the four elements, and the four virtues, were added to the usual twenty-two trumps (minus the Papesse and with some other revisions) for a total of forty-one trumps. However, an ingenious eighteenth century theory made the need for extra cards no longer necessary.
In 1781, French metaphysicians proposed a correspondence between the twenty-two traditional tarot trumps and the Hebrew alphabet.
In the Sepher Yetzirah, one of the primary texts of kabbalah, the Hebrew letters are assigned to the elements, the planets, and the astrological signs. So once the philosophical transition to seeing the tarot keys as correlating to the Hebrew letters came about, there was an automatic pairing of card to planet and sign, which precluded the need for additional cards to represent those symbols of occult importance.
The cards were assigned to the Hebrew alphabet in order–the only exception being that the traveling Fool, the hero on this journey, didn’t have a set place and so through different positioning produced alternate ways of making the correspondences. But in the late nineteenth century when the Golden Dawn revised previous correspondences, their series of assignments became standard, at least in the US (I got in an online argument once with a British tarotist who seemed to think I was making this stuff up).
The Sepher Yetzirah describes the Hebrew alphabet as consisting of three mother letters, seven double letters and twelve single letters. The three mother letters correspond to the three elements (in medieval cosmology, the element earth was often considered to be comprised of the other three elements and so could be considered in some ways redundant). The seven double letters were assigned to the seven visible planets. The twelve single letters were assigned to the twelve zodiacal signs. So it was very simple, once the cards were put in order, to plug in the alphabet to the trumps, and then everything else falls into place.
Well, almost everything, because the Golden Dawn was clearly not satisfied with the Sepher Yetzirah’s correlations of letters to planets–it didn’t match up to our Western way of assigning planets and deities to the days of the week, and so I think they decided to take a little free rein here. And of course aligning card to letter also brought about the eternally confusing switch of Trumps 8 and 11–the lady with the lion seemed like a shoe-in for Leo whereas the scales on Justice seemed pretty obvious for Libra–so those cards were re-arranged and re-numbered accordingly so that they matched the order of the Hebrew alphabet. (Incidentally, Renna Shesso includes some very excellent and fascinating astronomical information supporting this swap in her book, A Magical Tour of the Night Sky.)
Very simply, when the Fool is assigned to aleph, the Chariot gets cheth and according to the Sepher Yetzirah, cheth is Cancer.
Too bad there was a picture of a chariot on this card. Cancer is the sign of the mother, the womb, the homebody. The Chariot shows a dude speeding away from town like he can’t wait to get on the Appian Way. Definitely not Cancerian energy at all. Ok, well most of our more modern decks show him speeding away. And the early Visconti Sforza shows the chariot in motion–the horses are prancing. But actually, if you look to the Marseilles illustrations, which I believe started layering mythology onto the cards, not just contemporary moralistic teachings, the chariot seems paused. Yes, the horses’ feet are up, but one horse is going one way and the other is turned opposite. However, both of them and the driver–who does not hold reins–are looking the same direction. As if something caught their attention and they stopped, paused mid-step to see what was going on.
And all of a sudden it came to me. The beginning of Cancer is marked by the summer solstice. The time of the sun standing still–it has been growing in power, the days have been getting longer, and then we reach the longest day of the year. And the sun stops. It stands still. It no longer travels north, it turns the other direction. This is the symbolism of the Chariot. The Chariot, which is one of the primary symbols of the Sun god Apollo, stops, then turns.
The path of cheth on the Tree of Life connects Binah and Geburah, the mother and the warrior, the limitations of Saturn with the driving ambition of Mars. Binah on the Pillar of Severity shows limitation that gives form and protection. Below Binah is Geburah, the breaking down of form to release its energy. The path of cheth, as seen through the eyes of the charioteer, is about finding the moment when protective limitations must explode into the release of power or recognizing the time to carefully protect the spark so that it may grow into the flame. The Chariot is knowing when to change direction.
The Chariot, Apollo’s vehicle as it stops to turn, is the perfect symbol for the sign of Cancer. It represents the nurturing, compassionate God who does not, like Phaeton, try to see how high he can climb, but rather chooses his own sacrifice, who knowingly stops his heady climb towards heaven to descend towards his own cyclic destruction. This is the God who is willing to take the middle way–perhaps symbolised by his being centered between the horses of different colors, the way of compromise and balance, the way of equilibrium. Like the crab he moves sideways on the summer solstice, honoring cheth, the fence, the boundary of his territory, despite his ability to easily pass beyond it. Knowing that in his compassion he must not try to exceed his power, but must descend his slow way into darkness when, at the winter solstice, Capricorn, the Devil, he is destroyed, but born again of sparking light, rises into a new journey.
Joy Vernon has been teaching energetic and esoteric modalities for over twenty years. She is one of the Psychics of Isis in Denver, Colorado and also reads at Northern Lights in Fort Collins. She teaches Tarot, Astrology, Qabalah and Traditional Japanese Reiki. She is a Certified Professional Tarot Reader and a member of the American Tarot Association. She began her study of qabalah in 2006 and led the Denver Tarot Geeks in a detailed two-year cycle investigating the Tree of Life as it corresponds to the tarot. Her specialty is Empyrean Key Transformational Guidance, which helps her clients break through blocks and align with their higher purpose. For information on upcoming classes or to schedule an appointment, please visit JoyVernon.com.
© 2013 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.