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Do We Need a New Tarot Paradigm?

At the Bay Area Tarot Symposium (BATS) last weekend, I nearly fell off my chair during the Sunday afternoon panel discussion when Mary Greer asked rhetorically, with a slightly exasperated tone, if we’re ever going to get beyond the Rider Waite Smith paradigm. This is like the Pope asking if we’ll ever get beyond going to mass every Sunday! I think Mary has done more than anyone, except perhaps Eden Gray, to enshrine the Waite Smith deck and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn astrological correspondences as our unquestioned tarot paradigm.

I haven’t used a Waite Smith type deck for many years, so when I attend Tarot events I often feel like a Russian Orthodox monk at a Southern Baptist convention. We have the same God, but our imagery, vocabulary and style of worship are so far apart, we seem to be on parallel tracks.

If I hadn’t used the Robin Wood deck for years before immersing myself in historic decks, I would have been out of my league in some of the workshops at BATS last weekend. I speak Tarot de Marseilles now, but fortunately Waite Smith was my first tarot language, since several presenters assumed we all had a Waite Smith deck in our mental file cabinets.

I’ve never understood why so many “little white books” give card meanings based on Rider Waite Smith images, when the decks they accompany bear no resemblance to the RWS. Barbara Moore’s adventures working for Llewellyn and Lo Scarabeo helped explain that phenomenon. In her presentation at BATS last weekend, she told us her first assignment at Lo Scarabeo was to write a booklet for an Italian deck. She said she spent hours torturing the deck to conform to the Rider Waite Smith paradigm because she couldn’t think about tarot any other way. I was shocked to hear that writers of little white books rarely consult with the deck’s artist. Barbara said she was expected to churn out a booklet with only two or three hours of rapid-fire free association on a deck’s images. No wonder most booklets are confusing to the point of being worthless.

The Golden Dawn’s system of astrological correspondences was even more ubiquitous than the Waite Smith deck at BATS last weekend. I came home with two sets of handouts mapping these correspondences – and I didn’t even take the workshop on the system.

Our current tarot-astrology dogma got its start in the 18th century when an occultist had a flash of insight and said “OMG! There are 22 major arcana cards and 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. There’s got to be a mystical connection!” Tarot hasn’t been the same since.

Then in the late 19th century, the folks in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn lined up the Hebrew alphabet with the major arcana cards, starting with Aleph and the Fool. Since each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a zodiac sign or a planet associated with it, these astrological correspondences were slapped onto the corresponding cards. Never mind that Justice and Strength had to be switched from the positions they held for 400 years to make the system work. And don’t get me started on some of the really incongruous pairings like Temperance as Sagittarius and the Chariot as Cancer.

Eden Gray included this system in her 1970 book A Complete Guide to Tarot where she goes Kabalistic with charts and lists of correspondences. Mary Greer gives us a more contemporary and psychological take on the same system in her 1984 book Tarot for Yourself, reissued in 2002.

The beauty of this system is that you don’t need to actually know anything about astrology or understand the archetypes that are being forced into an arranged marriage. With the help of your handy one-page printout, you can state authoritatively that the Devil is Capricorn, with the assurance that centuries of Kabalists are behind you.

The planets actually show up in 15th-century Italian decks, but not in the way Golden Dawn devotees would have us believe. Personified images of the seven planets and the people born under their influence were widespread in medieval culture. In the image above, from a 15th century engraving, Children of the Moon are being duped into playing a shell game with a travelling magician, another lunar type. With these images as a starting point, I believe it’s possible to construct a system of astrological correspondences that is less arbitrary than the Golden Dawn system, and more respectful of both tarot and astrology.

If we didn’t have the Waite Smith paradigm and the Golden Dawn astrological dogma, would the tarot community be hopelessly Balkanized into specialized enclaves? Does the Waite Smith deck unite the tarot community with a common vocabulary, or does it stifle innovation?

What are your thoughts on the pervasiveness of the RWS deck?

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lovely to hear a viewpoint from outside the RWS lockstep. Thanks for sharing, Sharyn

    November 13, 2011
  2. Argenta #

    I don’t feel expert enough to even try tackle the questions you put at the end, and they may as well be rhetorical.

    What I can say is that I’ve never gone for RWS-style decks except to admire the pictures on screen. They seem so arbitrary to me, and oftentimes threatening. I love my TdM, and wish there were more sites like this one!

    Please keep up the great work, it’s really inspiring and helpful to a beginner who keeps bumping into RWS explanations, books, videos, and what not. I often wish I could speak French — perhaps it would be easier to find some valuable information on reading with TdM cards.

    I do speak a little Italian, though, and wondered if you could reccommend places to visit on-line for more information?

    Thanks in advance!

    February 17, 2012
    • Hi Argenta. Thanks so much for your comments. I’m glad you’re finding my website useful. I haven’t spent much time looking for online information in Italian, but I just went to to see what I could find with a quick search. The first site I checked out that offered card meanings was illustrated with the Rider Waite. Aaack! This deck is really infiltrating Europe. I get the feeling tarot authors think a fully illustrated deck will be more attractive to beginners; so there is a general trend to “dumb down” tarot.

      I found this website that has card meanings and is illustrated with various historic decks:
      I’m impressed with their card meanings – they are thorough and intelligent, don’t owe much to Waite, and they refer to the TdM. But I noticed their list of astrological attributions to the major arcana uses the Golden Dawn’s method. This is strange since Oswald Wirth dominates European tarot theory.

      One of my favorite websites is rather scholarly and doesn’t teach card reading, but it has tons of articles on early Italian tarot including articles on each trump card which will help you understand these cards without having to resort to Rider Waite meanings. There’s an English version of the site but I’ve noticed that the English versions of the essays are shorter, so you might want to switch to the Italian site so you won’t miss anything.

      The owner of the site, Andrea Vitali, is a respected scholar, so I was excited to see that he’s teaching card reading now. Excitement turned to dismay when I saw that he requires his students to use the Rider Waite. It’s interesting to see how Europeans are abandoning their traditional decks just as Americans are discoverng them.

      Good luck with your studies

      February 17, 2012
  3. Hi Argenta, i have my own system of Astrological attributions. See my fb page or my website

    April 2, 2012
    • Hi David – I’m so glad to see someone else thinking outside the box on tarot and astrology. I’m working on my own system based in medieval astrology that I hope to post in a few months.

      April 2, 2012
      • Hi Sherry, I’m an astrologer in Oz. Have you finished your correspondence system yet between the tarot and astrology? I’m particularly interested in your intuition to go back to medieval astrology.
        thanks so much and thanks for the great website! If you have a document of correspondences I would be very interested.

        June 5, 2014
  4. lyvea1265 #

    Hi Sherryl, I’m an Oz astrologer and I’m keen to know if you ever finished your list of corespondences! Your intuition to use medieval astrology seems spot on to me. Let me know that would be great, Lyvea

    June 5, 2014
  5. lyvea1265 #

    Oh I forgot to press “notify me of comments” so I will do that now

    June 5, 2014
    • Sorry for the delay in responding. I’m glad you asked, as I’ve been procrastinating on writing up my astrology correspondences. The Children of the Planets show up in the cards. I’m not sure if it was deliberate or if the images were so common they couldn’t help but appear. Here they are:
      Sun and Moon = Sun and Moon cards
      Saturn = Hermit
      Jupiter = Pope and Emperor
      Mars = Chariot
      Venus = Lovers
      Mercury I’m not sure about. Mercury’s children are people who work with their hands, so the Magician/bagatto with his prestidigitation would fit. But there are Children of the Moon images that show figures almost identical to the bagatto. But the Moon could also be the Fool.
      I can see certain aspects of the planets in other cards, as well. For instance, before Pluto was discovered, Saturn carried a lot of meanings that have been shifted to Pluto. So the Devil could also be Saturn. Jupiter in his role as ruler of Pisces seems more like the Star than the Emperor.
      I’ve come to the conclusion that any astrological correspondences are arbitrary and subjective and one person’s system is as good as any other. I’ve come up with my own mandala that’s rather astrologically incorrect, for instance assigning the pip cards to the houses and dividing the houses into decans.
      But anything has got to be better than the totally arbitrary Hebrew alphabet lineup.
      Stay tuned!

      June 8, 2014
      • thanks sherryl that’s interesting and i’m glad to hear you feel its all a bit arbitrary as that is my feeling too after studying both systems.

        June 12, 2014
  6. YOU are my hero!!! You have captured so many of my thoughts and feelings about this subject, so eloquently, we could have been twins separated at birth!

    I seriously wonder (doubt) whether any deck “creator” (or maybe I should say “cloner” or “mimic”) has had an original thought or concept about the deck that have produced…yet again, just more WS concepts and images re-clothed in circus regalia (Zirkus), or mechanicals (Steam Punk), or hyperbolic over-the-top saturated imagery (Illuminati) passed off as the latest and greatest new and original

    April 4, 2015
    • Hi Paul,
      It’s good to hear from a soulmate! Even though there has never been a better time for creativity in deck design, with all the self-publishing opportunities out there, it seems the RWS paradigm has become cartomantic kudzu and is strangling any hope of innovation. Oh well, why worry about 21st century clones, when you can escape to the 15th century with a quick shuffle of your hand-crafted Sola Busca.

      April 4, 2015
  7. This was a lovely bloog post

    August 9, 2022

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