Welcome to Lesson One. You will notice that I am fond of using italics and boldface to highlight specific words. Anything highlighted can be considered a vocabulary word or concept that I want to bring special attention to. Boldface is a topic that I recommend doing further personal research about.
Attributes & Making Attributions
Everything that exists has at least one characteristic: a distinctive quality or attribute.
For example, some things that are my characteristics or can be attributed to me are that I am biologically female, my first name is Laurel, I have Capricorn as my sun sign, and Loracular.com is my personal website. I share the attribute of being biologically female with about half my species, being a Capricorn with a much smaller percentage, being named Laurel with even less and then I’m pretty unique in owning that specific domain name.
Some characteristics associated with being a Capricorn include being ambitious, hardworking, persistent, stubborn and practical. It would be a mistake for me or anyone else to automatically attribute all of those characteristics to me simply based on my Sun Sign. If you expect a Capricorn to be those things? Chances are good that, after having a long coffee date with me, you would say I have those qualities. Human perception generally latches onto things we already think to be true. This phenomenon is called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias isn’t always a bad thing; it’s just an important thing to be aware of especially when it comes to reading tarot.
One of the characteristics that distinguishes a tarot deck is that they possess 78 cards. I’m biased to believe that all tarot decks should have exactly 78 cards divided into a 22 card Major Arcana and a 56 card Minor Arcana. I’m biased to believe that Minor Arcana should further be divided into four suits of 16 cards and that these suits should correspond to the four classic elements and be numbered Ace to Ten and then four court cards. It is conventual for divinatory decks with a different structure to be called Oracle cards.
So from now on, you can be assured that when I use the term tarot cards or a tarot deck I’m only referring to decks that have the structure above and you know that ~most~ tarot readers do the same which is why it gets to be called the convention.
Associations vs. Attributions
One of the first things that usually hits someone right in the face as they begin to read books about tarot is a deluge of titles, symbols, letters, numbers, musical notes, color scales, animals, and deities ascribed to each and every card. The reader might told that some are attributes and some are correspondences. Very convoluted explanations might be included that can be summarized as “Someone influential had an idea, wrote about down this way, we learned it this way and so now we teach it this way too.”
There is a huge difference in two things being associated together because they share some common characteristics and one thing being an attribute or characteristic of another. Unfortunately, this isn’t usually clear in the way that esoteric tarot has been conventionally written about.
Divination isn’t never the primary use of tarot cards in the Golden Dawn-style occult organizations. I believe the occultists of the early 1900s used tarot primarily as a way to:
- teach/learn symbol systems and the Qabalah
- for meditation (specifically pathworking which is Qabalastic)
- for ritual work (ceremonial magic)
There is nothing wrong with those big lists that associate a wide range of things with each tarot cards. But for the most part those associations are pretty subjective and they definitely can’t be applied equally to all esoteric tarot decks. Don’t worry about memorizing them, especially if your immediate goal is to just read tarot for personal development or fortune-telling. I read and teach tarot for personal development. I personally use the word divination to cover both but some authors and readers associate divination more specifically with fortune-telling.
Examples Of Attributions & Associations
Imagine pouring yourself a glass of ordinary whole milk. From merely looking at it, you’d be able to describe milk as a white liquid. Milk therefore can be said to have the attributions (qualities) of being white and being a liquid. Therefore white and liquid are two qualities you can attribute to that specific glass of milk but attributing them to milk in ~all~ its forms would be a mistake. You can have milk that isn’t white (chocolate milk is brownish, strawberry milk is pinkish) and you can have milk that isn’t currently in a liquid state (like powdered milk).
Attributing the names The Loracular and Laurel to me is correct for present. I could, however, rebrand myself as something besides The Loracular in the future or legally change my name from Laurel to something else. Humans make a lot of associations of what attributes something possesses based on its name.
A mistake comes when someone starts to (consciously or more likely unconsciously) automatically apply characteristics to a person, place or thing based its name. My name tells you who I am but not what I am. There’s a diversity of things in a grocery store called milk. The attributes “contains 2% milk fat” or “comes in a plastic gallon container” is true for some milk products but not all milk products. Even associating the idea of milk with cows is limiting because we live in a culture that has expanded the concept of milk beyond that to include coconut milk, almond milk, etc. Even before that, lots of people worldwide didn’t have cows but they had goats and used goatmilk in corresponding ways.
Sometimes what we apply as a characteristic or attribution is subjective; it’s based completely on a matter of taste. For milk this could be literally how milk tastes to us either in general or at a specific time and place. If I handed you a glass of milk today and you sipped it, you might describe it as “refreshing”, “creamy”, “chalky”, “delicious”, “sweet”, or even “gross” and mean that sincerely.
Chances are though that if I gave an identical glass of milk to someone else who didn’t hear your response they would use a completely different words in their response even if they liked or disliked it equally to you. Both of you would be giving an opinion on how that milk tasted and even if those opinions contradicted each other, they would not be intrinsically right or wrong. You both expressed an opinion.
Every tarot reader is like every milk drinker. Even people using the same type of deck who lay down the same cards in the same positions in the same spread are going to make their own unique interpretation. A reader who’s invested in learning the “esoteric language” of tarot is probably going to have deeper insights, especially when it comes to readings about personal development and relationships with other people.
Keeping track of what is really an intrinsic characteristic of a tarot card, what is something conventionally associated with that tarot card, and what is someone’s personal truth or opinion about either is helpful.
I use/study/teach with RWS-style decks, the Thoth deck and the BOTA deck. Many of the things that A.E Waite, Aleister Crowley and Paul Foster Case include in their writings about their tarot decks are simply personal insights. They describe what cards and symbols represent to them based on their own subjective perspectives. Their personal truths may not resonate with you.
Likewise, take what feels right and leave the rest from authors who’ve written their own books about tarot in general or whatever specific deck they focus on. Use the attributions and associations that feel true whenever they feel true. Write down and research ideas you aren’t sure about. Put aside everything else; it might feel more relevant later. It might not.
So, a correspondence in esoteric tarot can mean one of two things, which is part of the confusion. In the first context, when I say that the suit of pentacles corresponds to the element of earth, what I mean is that is the suit name (pentacles) and suit symbol (a pentacle) is just a substitution the name and symbol for the element of earth. Suit names and suit symbols are a bit like brands and logos. You can brand your elemental suit as pentacles, disks, coins, worlds, anything that symbolizes what earth symbolizes as long as there is an equivalency, a correspondence.
Two cups of liquid corresponds to a pint of liquid, at least in the United States. I say at least in the United States because until recently? I thought eight fluid ounces corresponded to a cup of liquid anywhere. I was shocked to learn that in the UK Imperial measurement of system? A cup of liquid is nine ounces! Now, in both baking and tarot, its okay to be “close enough”. A picture of a cup or chalice is so easy to associate with the element of water that even if they are not identically the same thing, they can still be said to correspond.
Alchemy, Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese philosophy and astrology all have symbols and principles that filtered into the Western occult tradition and often get expressed either in the pictures on certain tarot cards or influenced the authors/artists of those cards. Western alchemy and astrology have a particularly long and entwined history together. Saying “the moon corresponds to silver” is just shorthand for saying “the way most astrologers metaphorically conceptualize the moon is equivalent for the way most alchemists metaphorically conceptualize silver“.
But there is a slippery slope in using the word correspondence too broadly in esoteric tarot. Sometimes the equivalency is really in the eye of the beholder. For example, there is now a conventional way to associate a specific Hebrew letter with a specific tarot card- or two conventional ways because Crowley swapped a pair in the Thoth deck.
I will delve much much more deeply into the symbolism of the Hebrew alphabet as it is applies to esoteric tarot in future lessons. For right now? Let me just say that it was when some occultists first began to conceptualize the tarot cards as representing the same concepts as the Hebrew letters represented in Kabbalah (a form of Jewish mysticism) the Qabalistic tarot tradition was born.
Everything I said about the great occultists, historical or modern having a lot of interesting personal insights that you should filter into your own paradigm as best fits you? This very much applies to what everyone says about how specific tarot cards should be associated with specific Hebrew letters and astrological planets/sign. I am happy to teach you the most conventional associations- and I call them associations not attributions or correspondences.
As for the keywords that almost every LWB offers for the tarot deck it is included with?
Every experienced tarot reader can rattle off a quick list of traits and concepts they personally apply to every card in their favorite deck based on:
- what they perceive by looking at the card image
- what they learned by reading about tarot and catalogued in their brain as true
- what they discovered through journaling, pathworking and doing lots of readings
End of Lesson Exercises
If you don’t yet keep a tarot journal? Start one now. This can be in a paper notebook, a google doc or any format you prefer. How private or public you keep it will be completely up to you. Here are a couple of exercises to do between now and when you read the next lesson in this series.
Go through the lesson and write down every word or phrase that I italicized in your tarot journal. Do you feel confident you know what they all mean? If not, look them up in online dictionaries until you do feel confident.
Find at least one good online article or YouTube video about the explains a)confirmation bias b)personal development and c)fortune-telling to your satisfaction and write about what comes to mind about them and reading tarot cards.
If you don’t already own your own paper version of a RWS-style deck? Consider purchasing one. I personally use the Universal Waite but anything that has an art style based on the RWS will work just as well.
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