Chasing the Sun and Moon: The Astro-Psychology of the Major Arcana

According to the psychological astrology that had its roots in the groundbreaking work of Dane Rudhyar and Marc Edmund Jones and its initial flowering during the 1970s, the zodiacal (sign) placement of the Sun shows our Ego-center or, in more poetical terms, how we can “shine” most brightly in our personal self-expression (the house placement describes where in the experiential landscape that is likely to emerge). In tarot, the Sun is considered a card of greatest good fortune; when it appears in a reading, the stimulus it confers promises sweetness and light, encouraging us to “squeeze the eagle” for all it’s worth in the way of ego-gratification. The astrological Moon reveals how and where our emotional nature reaches its zenith; its influence is inherently more elusive or “slippery” than that of the Sun. The tarot Moon card is not perfectly analogous to its astrological counterpart in that there are more ominous undertones to its interpretation, even though it can be similarly ambiguous. Call it more “illusory” (devious) than “elusory” (equivocal) as befits the shadowy lunar half-light beneath which nefarious things often lurk. Although it is common among uncritical tarot readers who have also been exposed to astrology to conflate the meanings of the two, there is little commonality between them, and neither one really supports the popular “Hallmark” vision of the Moon as mistily romantic.

All of this is by way of preamble to my main objective here. After having reached the conclusion through long experience and contemplation that the Major Arcana cards – although they might create the “atmosphere” or “environment” for such things – very seldom predict the intrusion of significant life-changing events into one’s daily life with any great precision or reliability (that is, they lack robust evidence of repeatability), I’ve decided that what they mainly do is denote the broad situational mood or theme within which the more specific circumstances identified by the Minor Arcana cards develop. (If a reading were a stew, one provides the “broth” and the other the “meat-and-potatoes.”) They suggest a kind of panoramic continuum that modulates the underlying (or, if you prefer, overarching) state of affairs according to their nature; another intriguing analogy is that of a figurative “gravity well” that draws random events into its orbit and gives them an organized framework for expression. As archetypal principles, their import tends to be more philosophical than pragmatic, and I’ve come to see them as “wallpaper” or “background noise” for the events described in a reading. But I think more can be done to harness them to the psychoactive dimensions of the subject as experienced by the querent within the situation.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn went to great lengths to ascribe an astrological planet or sign designation to each of the Major Arcana (not always with the most convincing results). Most of these attributes can be equated to the principles of psychological astrology as they define the personality; the traits they embody can be brought within the purview of the Major Arcana in a reading and used to define the querent’s characteristic response to the details that emerge from any accompanying Minor Arcana cards. What follows is a loose attempt to pull these threads of meaning together in a useful (although hardly exhaustive) way.

The Sun card (astrological Sun) shows how we can benefit from identifying with the best possible outcome offered by this card and behaving as if we believe it. I won’t go so far as to tout the dubious Law of Attraction, but aligning our actions with positive universal forces when they’re offered to us might just give us a “free ride” or at the very least smooth the road ahead.

The High Priestess (astrological Moon) cautions that we should not assume we are in touch with our deepest feelings on the matter; we may be only scratching the surface, and we should contemplate that possibility before committing to an emotional response that we might regret later.

A brief digression here: the High Priestess is one card where I disagree strongly with the Golden Dawn attribution; the astrological Moon belongs with the Moon card as surely as the astrological Sun belongs with its tarot avatar. Therefore I reassigned Pisces to the enigmatic High Priestess because it is the most mysterious and mystical of the signs, and the path of the High Priestess on the Tree of Life crosses the Abyss on the “Way of Return” for the Christ-Consciousness, a Piscean paradigm. (You can find more information here:

Here is an alternate take for the revisionist Moon card (astrological Moon): Our emotions may be leading us astray and shouldn’t be trusted implicitly. We should “take five” and regroup before jumping in with both feet. There may be a more fulfilling (and less potentially unnerving) way to exercise our emotional prerogatives than by simply flying on “gut-feeling.” Hypersensitivity can lead to overreaction if a serene sense of perspective isn’t maintained.

The Magician card (astrological Mercury) suggests that it might be worthwhile to recalibrate our mental machinery and perhaps grease the gears with a bit of cognitive calisthenics. We may be too clever for our own good and pull the trigger on a half-baked scheme that is not in our best interests. Rethinking and retrenching our suppositions could be in order. Best to learn as much as we can about the situation and proceed with exquisite tact.

The Empress card (astrological Venus) personifies the things we desire most and exhibits the best attitude for bringing them within reach. Creativity is one hallmark of the Empress, and we should be alert for ways to engage it in the matter. But she also advises that “all good things come in their own time,” so it isn’t prudent to be relentless in pushing for what we want and wind up spinning our wheels fruitlessy. Patience and quiet confidence in an advantageous outcome form the recipe for satisfaction.

The Emperor card (astrological Aries) and the Tower (astrological Mars) are two sides of the same coin. If Venus shows what we value most, Mars shows how far we’re willing to go to get it. These cards must be taken as a duo since Mars-ruled Aries is the obvious “frontman” for the planetary energy. If the Emperor wants something (especially in the service of his consort, the Empress/Venus), he feels perfectly justified in taking it (this is the principle behind the “Divine Right of Kings”), and Mars in the driver’s seat never looks back nor second-guesses. In socio-sexual terms, if Aries delivers the salacious come-on, Mars revels in the male climax (the Tower suggests an orgasmic event). Mars is the “strong right arm” of the Sun and is instrumental in stoking the fires of the Ego in addition to being the “procurer” for Venus. When either card appears in a relationship reading, a male querent should be careful that he isn’t “thinking with the wrong head” about the situation, while a female querent should ensure that she doesn’t fall victim to the alternative (unless that’s all she wants out of a man). The Emperor can also be the “Father knows best” card and the Tower his “big stick.”

The Wheel of Fortune (astrological Jupiter) embodies the “Greater Benefic” of traditional astrology, the expansive and salutary Jupiter. Modern thinking largely ignores this association; to most, the Wheel represents change, period, since its revolving rim ascends and descends endlessly, suggesting an alternating rise and fall of one’s fortunes. But I’m inclined toward Aleister Crowley’s opinion in the Book of Thoth that this change of fortune “generally means good fortune because the fact of consultation implies anxiety or discontent.” In other words, few people sit for a reading if their lives are going swimmingly, so in most cases things can only get better from where they now stand. Thus, at first blush the silver lining presupposes the leaden cloud so, on balance, I shade the Wheel slightly to the positive side. The psychological advice for a querent is two-fold. They shouldn’t shy away from “grand gestures” during this time since they are likely to have the desired effect, especially if constructive change and advancement are the goals; on the other hand, excessive optimism and unbridled enthusiasm should be guarded against since the winds of change are always blowing and it’s important to remain light on one’s feet. The “all eggs in one basket” cliche applies here, as do “counting the chickens before they hatch” and “the door swings both ways.”

The World (astrological Saturn) and the Devil (astrological Capricorn) must also be examined together. This is another awkward fit in my opinion. Apparently, the Golden Dawn gave Saturn (the densest planet recognized by the ancients) to the World (the densest manifestation of spiritual energy in the Major Arcana) largely due to their common bond in materialism. But Saturn has to do with one’s sense of duty and obligation, as well as the practical lessons one has to learn, while the World is generally seen as a positive card that brings closure. Saturn can certainly bring closure, but it comes more often with a dull “thud” than a gold medal and a round of applause. In its connection to the Devil card, Saturn-ruled Capricorn is more the “real deal” in portraying Saturn’s dour reputation as “The Taskmaster” and the “Great Teacher.” However, to reinforce this correlation, in my own system I relocated Saturn to the Devil card for obvious mythological reasons, and moved Capricorn to the Hermit (who is standing in Crowley’s “high place”) and Virgo to the World as an expression of the “harvest.” These associations are more esoterically conformable and make me much happier from a Qabalistic standpoint.

So, to conclude: when the Devil appears in a reading, the querent might reasonably expect the “chickens to come home to roost.” In other words, it could be payback time, and it may be prudent to circle the metaphorical wagons and prepare for a lengthy siege; the phrase that comes to mind is “bunker mentality.” Now is not the time to entertain any delusions of the “Panglossian” kind (to wit, “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”), since we will surely be disabused of our fantasies; it is instead a time for hard truths and an even harder resolve to confront them.

Regarding the modern or “trans-Saturnian” planets Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, I haven’t accepted later attributions like those of Aleister Crowley since they don’t sit comfortably on the Tree of Life. To me, assigning Uranus to the Fool makes sense because it represents a sublimation of the elemental Air that formerly accompanied that card, while aqueous Neptune replaces elemental Water as the affiliate for the Hanged Man, and Pluto works best with Judgement because that card represents the kind of volcanic upheaval that accompanies any cataclysmic “meeting of the worlds.”

When the Fool (astrological Uranus) appears in a reading, the querent may be clueless about what is going on, but feels an electrifying sense of anticipation that something is about to happen, and that what is coming may be entirely unprecedented. All that can be said in preparation is to remain open to any eventuality and look to one’s personal “gyroscope” to avoid being knocked off-balance. In one of my “Thoth clone” decks (Navigators of the Mystic SEA), the Fool appears to be riding a surfboard, and “catching a wave” as the Uranian force ripples through one’s life is as good an analogy as any. As Crowley observed, the Fool represents “an original, subtle, sudden impulse or impact, coming from a completely strange quarter.” Sounds like Uranus to me.

The Hanged Man (astrological Neptune) embodies the very essence of that nebulous planet. In psychological terms, when this card is pulled the querent might feel adrift, unmoored from waking reality. There is a dreamlike giddiness arising from having one’s feet in the stars and head sunk in the depths, just the opposite of what is usually aspired to in exoteric self-realization scenarios (feet solidly on the ground, head held high with eyes on the summit of achievement). There can be an enervating sense of inertia that resists dissipation by any amount of flailing about while seeking purchase in the flood. Cliches like “go with the flow” are all that can be mustered in the way of conventional advice, so the unconventional must be sought. That would be to open one’s eyes wide while suspended and drink in the unfamiliar country that presents itself to an inverted point of view, creating new points of reference within the boundless void. When the world begins to right itself and gravity starts to return, these will serve as convenient handholds by which to climb back out of the existential morass.

Judgement (astrological Pluto) takes a cotton to the Lord of Upheaval since the two conspire nicely to create a new world from the ashes of the old one. I call this the “offer you can’t refuse” card because there is no option but to accept the terms and climb aboard the “train to Jordan.” Crowley’s “General Character” snapshot for this card is instructive: “Final decision in respect of the past, new current in respect of the future; always represents the taking of a definite step.” Astrologer Rob Hand once said “There is nothing superficial about Pluto,” so this is not a small step by any means. After the “makeover,” the querent may not even be able to recognize the old ways that once seemed so comfortably familiar, and most certainly won’t be able to tread those paths again. The advice is to pack lightly and gird one’s loins for the arduous but inescapable transit.

The rest of the cards have only zodiacal attributions with no direct planetary associations; their psychological implications are secondary to their situational import. In astrology, the planets are “where the action is,” so in the realm of psychodynamics they represent the “movers and shakers” of a person’s mental/emotional response mechanism; the signs show the psychic milieu in which those defining actions take shape, and the houses describe the “field of operation” where the consequences materialize.

The Hierophant is related to zodiacal Taurus in the Golden Dawn model. He is a paragon of traditional values and customs, as one can deduce from the cautious, conservative nature of Taurus. It suggests “pulling in ones horns” and retiring from the field in sanctimonious distaste when confronted with anything more daring than the accepted norm in the other cards of the reading. There can be a pronounced, stiff-necked stubbornness when asked to consider more imaginative alternatives to the “straight and narrow.” Risk-taking is neither recommended nor expected at this time.

The Lovers is assigned zodiacal Gemini, principally (I would suppose) because of the dualistic nature of its premise; rather than having to do directly with love, it is a card of critical choice or decision. I usually find it to represent a “crossroads” in the querent’s circumstances, one with which he or she must make peace because there is no “third way.” I always characterize it as showing a “high road” that is morally superior and a “low road” that may be more convenient (think “taking a shortcut”) but less ethically defensible. Only the querent can select the best path for the situation at hand, and he or she must therefore live with any negative fallout from an unfortunate choice.

The Chariot card is paired with zodiacal Cancer, which has always seemed like a poor fit to me, so I don’t draw much value from it. The card is a fortunate one that conveys the idea of “victory.” Those who free-associate strictly from the image of the chariot see it mainly as a card of movement in a situation, but I find that too simplistic a viewpoint since there is no meaningless or wasted motion in this archetype and there is always a goal in sight. Waite considered it an indication of practical rather than spiritual triumph; in short the querent should not be looking for a more layered or nuanced significance in its testimony, and should instead be satisfied with the simple pleasures of mundane success.

The Strength card vibrates to the zodiacal sign of Leo, a connection that is amply borne out by the image of a lion. I consider it the card of applied solar force since Leo is a pragmatic “fixed” sign, whereas the solar energy in the Sun card is less interested in results; it shines on all equally and impersonally. Strength is a card that “helps those who help themselves” in that it gives the means but not necessarily the motivation, without which it is merely a theoretical potency. Therefore, it is more of a “carpe diem” card than the Sun itself.

The Hermit card as the exemplar of Virgo is another weak astrological link in my opinion so I make little use of the zodiacal correspondence. In a reading, the Hermit suggests a state of contemplative isolation (or maybe just plain loneliness) and a need to fall back on one’s own resources and “native wisdom.” He has lessons to teach but is choosy about those to whom he imparts them. The implication is that “going it alone” without the benefit of mentoring is where the querent is likely to wind up; also, without a societal frame of reference, it’s all too possible to become “a legend in one’s own mind” and act accordingly.

The Justice card (in the Waite-Smith deck) is connected with the Scales of zodiacal Libra, and the reasons need no elaboration. Some have named it the “trial” card, with the eventual “verdict” being shown by the Judgement card. This is not a “good” card as such; the querent can expect to be tested and, if found wanting, to be administered his or her “just desserts.” Motives are laid bare and lies are sniffed out when this exacting card appears in a reading; not for nothing does the uncompromising planet Saturn find its exaltation (sign of greatest effectiveness) in the Halls of Justice. “Nobody expects the (Saturnian) Inquisition!”)

The Death card as the representative of zodiacal Scorpio is well-chosen, since that sign is “as deep as death” and often just as secretive. Generally, I see Death as indicative of an “ending” of some kind but not necessarily of epic proportions. It might even represent relief from some kind of suffering (Poe’s “balm in Gilead”). It’s fashionable these days to view it as implying a constructive type of “transformation,” often of a regenerative or rehabilitative kind, but that opinion seems to be a little too ingenuous unless it presupposes the demise of something else to clear the way, as illustrated by the old platitude “You can’t make omelets without breaking eggs.” After all, as a famous tarot writer of my acquaintance once said, “There is nothing more transformative than rotting in the ground.”

Temperance is joined by zodiacal Sagittarius, a match that I find less than ideal; it’s another one I don’t bother with much since Sagittarius is a barren Fire sign (albeit the least volatile one) and the image in Temperance portrays the fluent and fertile mediation of the “Water of Spirit.” In a reading, Temperance’s reputation for perfect balance strikes me as a demand for finesse in exerting its stabilizing force in just the right amount (neither too much nor too little), at just the right time and in just the right place. The problem with Sagittarius is that it can wax a bit too philosophical about these distinctions and never arrive at a workable equation.

The Star resonates to the pellucid nature of zodiacal Aquarius, an arrangement I find acceptable since the idea of the starry “firmament” aligns well with “fixed” Air. Crowley – in addition to the usual meaning of “hope” – ascribed to it “clearness of vision” and “spiritual insight,” and I find no quarrel with his assumptions since both the Star and Aquarius have a “crystalline” feel to them. However, in a reading it can be cautionary, advising against the risks of wishful thinking and a tendency to overreach one’s ability to grasp and hold the prize, since its remoteness can defeat all aspirants.

Here is a link to my comprehensive rethinking of the Golden Dawn astrological attributions. I make no claim of legitimacy for any of this, it was only a “brain-dump” of everything I could come up with in the way of reasonable (and hopefully defensible) esoteric assumptions. If you’ve read all the way through to this point, I trust that you’ve found this essay thought-provoking. Many of these brief descriptions have been explored at much greater length in my earlier posts.

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