Thursday, October 15, 2015

Of Kings and Constellations: Exploring Papus’ System of Celestial Courts

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A Look at the Tarot Court Cards Through the Eyes of Papus, Thierens


by Race MoChridhe


Most experienced tarotists are familiar with at least one system of correspondences between the major arcana and the constellations, often on the model of Oswald Wirth or the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Less common is a tarotist well-acquainted with the system of Papus for relating the constellations of the zodiac to the court cards of the suits. As even quite proficient readers often find the court cards difficult to interpret soundly, Papus’ system deserves much more attention than it typically receives as a means to refining a court reading.

Papus himself viewed his correspondences less as a practical tool in reading and more as a proof of the validity of his account of the origins of the Tarot, which he held to be a fugitive record of the wisdom of the temple priests of ancient Egypt. To demonstrate this, he devoted a whole chapter of his most famous work, Le Tarot des Bohémiens, to elaborating what he saw as the precise fit between the Tarot and the ancient Egyptian calendar, including its twelve zodiac-aligned months. Where many others started from the cards and then attempted to fit astrological meanings to them, Papus started from an astronomical phenomenon and looked for its pattern in the cards.

He found it in the courts, with the Egyptian division of the year into four seasons in the four suits. In each season, the king corresponded to the first, “active” month, the queen to the second, “passive” month, and the knight to the third, “realizing” month. Astrologers will recognize in this the arrangement of the zodiac into cardinal, fixed, and mutable signs, as well as the system of angular, succedent, and cadent houses. (Philosophers will recognize in it echoes of Hegelian dialectic.) The pages represented the “transition”, reflecting the Egyptian custom of placing an intercalary day (a day unnumbered on the calendar) in between the seasons.

While other systems of rectifying the court cards to the zodiac rely on matching suits to elements or modalities, or in some other way matching qualities held in common according to traditional interpretations, Papus’ fundamentally calendrical approach obliged him to match cards and signs in fixed order. Thus, he uniquely linked the wands to spring, so that the King of Wands corresponds with Aries, the Queen with Taurus, and the Knight with Gemini. Cups were then linked to the summer, equating the King of Cups with Cancer, the Queen with Leo, and the Knight with Virgo. Swords then linked to autumn, equating the King of Swords with Libra, the Queen with Scorpio, and the Knight with Sagittarius. This left the pentacles to link to winter, equating the King of Pentacles with Capricorn, the Queen with Aquarius, and the Knight with Pisces.

The potential uses of this system are manifold, and the reader is certainly directed to Papus’ book to explore his theoretical applications more deeply. A.E. Thierens, in his General Book of the Tarot, built on this set of correspondences in one particularly interesting way that is relatively easy to apply to readings:

"This Spiral of Evolution may be divided into at least three parts, that is, three different beginnings may be seen. There is the Divine Beginning, starting in Aries, the sign of Initiation and highest abstraction, the divine cycle being completed in Pisces, where it is handed over or 'offered' or sacrificed to the world of appearances. The cycle of the spiritual in Man begins in the fifth sign, Leo, the individual cycle being that of the Spark or the Ego, and it runs from this sign of the heart to Cancer, the sign of memories. Subsequently: a cycle of the personal being of the Ego, the cycle of the soul in Man, which we may call the personal cycle, starts from Sagittarius, the sign of thought and manifestation, and ends in Scorpio, the sign of death. (pp. 27-8)"


The reader must be referred to Thierens’ book for the full implications of his view, but in brief it may be said that Papus’ correspondences offer a useful tool for applying these cycles to readings, as it renders each of the court cards suggestive of a particular stage in the development of both the lesser, egoic self and the higher, True Self of the querent. For example, the Knight of Swords, being linked with Sagittarius where the personal cycle begins, could be taken as an indication that the querent is coming into a fuller sense of themselves on the level of ordinary personality, or has need of asserting or finding themselves on that level more fully. 

The Queen of Swords, on the other hand, might suggest that the querent is coming to a point where a transcendence or sublimation of the ego is demanded, since she represents the culmination of that spiral in Scorpio. The querent’s anxiety about such a step could be eased by pointing out that, while this marks a culmination of a personal cycle, it is still an early step on an individual cycle and the development of the higher self associated with it. Thierens’ work expands this system to many other levels of manifestation, offering further applications depending on the nature of the query. While this could, of course, be applied to any of the more common zodiac-court mappings as well, Papus’ linear one is especially clear for tracing the transformation of the self through its various maturing stages, since these then run in order through the court cards, forming microcosmic parallels for different aspects of the self to the grander story of the Fool’s Journey.

More difficult to apply, but profitable for those willing to make the effort, are the insights Papus’ system affords on traditional continental readings of the court cards as representing persons in the querent’s life. For example, traditional readings of the Queen of Wands as representing “a serious woman, a good counsellor, a mother of a family” are not readily intelligible following the most common contemporary associations of this card, but they become much more natural when viewed in light of Papus’ equation between the Queen of Wands and the sign of Taurus—the earthy, stalwart, grounded nature of which is reflected in this old description.

Papus' book has long been regarded as unusually arcane, and new students of the art of Tarot are generally warned by more experienced practitioners to shy away from it, despite the seminal influence it had on figures such as Arthur Edward Waite and Aleister Crowley. In most cases the advice is sound, while Papus’ byzantine paradigms are often too unwieldy for practical readings. More experienced readers, however, will find that he often offers an alternative perspective that, especially when paired with other paradigms, can deliver new and useful insights. As Papus’ astrological correspondences remind us, there are more things in heaven and earth than were defined by the Golden Dawn.

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