Foreground, Middle-Ground and Background Cards

Author’s Note: For those of you who work with the esoteric tarot, this isn’t a conventional explanation of the astrological decanates as they apply to the 36 minor cards (the Aces are a “special animal” in that regard) which mostly stop at sign and planet associations. I’ve expanded upon that model by looking more closely at the “modalities” (aka “quadraplicities”) for those signs and drawing some conclusions about their practical application.

I’ve found in my tarot readings that certain cards jump out and “grab the headlines” in the narrative while others kind of melt into the wallpaper and still others hang around in the middle distance, not sure whether to advance or retreat in the story-line. I attribute this phenomenon mostly to the astrological correspondences that have been given to the cards by esoteric organizations in the last century-and-a-half. For example, all of the zodiacal signs have three expressions that are further modified by their element: Cardinal signs are the upfront “headline-grabbers,” Mutable signs are the meticulous (maybe fussy or “insufferably precise” are more apt terms), adaptable and impressionable but ultimately noncommittal “wallflowers” and Fixed signs are the plain-spoken, steady-going “middlemen” (often with “one cautious foot in and one out”). The Fire signs are distributed as follows: Aries is Cardinal, Leo is Fixed and Sagittarius is Mutable. Among the Water signs, Cancer is Cardinal, Scorpio is Fixed and Pisces is Mutable. In the Air signs, Libra is Cardinal, Aquarius is Fixed and Gemini is Mutable. The Cardinal Earth sign is Capricorn, the Fixed sign is Taurus and the Mutable sign is Virgo.

The elemental qualities are overlaid on these modalities such that we have the formidable “wildfire” of Cardinal Aries, the steady-burning flame of Fixed Leo and the refined and rarefied glow of Mutable Sagittarius that manifests most visibly in a light-bulb. In the Water signs, Cardinality is expressed as the restlessly heaving ocean in Cancer, Fixity as the focused hydraulic force that exits a deep-well pump in Scorpio (although a cynic might say a “trash pump” is a better analogy), and Mutability as the limpid water of a quiet lake that can easily stagnate in Pisces. The signs of the Air element can be equated somewhat fancifully to the three innermost layers of the Earth’s atmosphere: Cardinal Libra partakes of the nature of the dense, near-Earth troposphere, where nearly all active weather events take place; Fixed Aquarius emulates the mid-level stratosphere which exhibits very stable atmospheric conditions with virtually no turbulence; and Mutable Gemini suggests the extremely desiccated, icy and aloof mesosphere, where no human warmth intrudes. The Earth element is at its most restive in Cardinal Capricorn, where it is prone to seismic and volcanic upheaval; at its fertile best in Fixed Taurus; and at its fallow terminus in Mutable Virgo. (Note that these are my own provisional notions.)

Going back to my original premise, the minor cards that are associated with attention-getting Cardinality are the 2, 3 and 4 of Wands (Fiery Aries), the 2, 3 and 4 of Cups (Watery Cancer), the 2, 3 and 4 of Swords (Airy Libra) and the 2, 3 and 4 of Pentacles/Disks (Earthy Capricorn). Those with an affinity for stolid Fixity are the 5, 6 and 7 of Pentacles/Disks (Earthy Taurus), the 5, 6 and 7 of Wands (Fiery Leo), the 5, 6 and 7 of Cups (Watery Scorpio) and the 5, 6 and 7 of Swords (Airy Aquarius). Capricious Mutability harbors the 8, 9 and 10 of Swords (Airy Gemini), the 8, 9 and 10 of Pentacles/Disks (Earthy Virgo), the 8, 9 and 10 of Wands (Fiery Sagittarius) and the 8, 9 and 10 of Cups (Watery Pisces). These three-card sets encompass the 36 “decanates” of the 12 astrological signs, three 10-degree decanates (or “decans”) per sign. What should be remembered is that all of the Twos, Threes and Fours are Cardinal (active), all of the Five, Sixes and Sevens are Fixed (stable), and all of the Eights, Nines and Tens are Mutable (changeable); these qualities will affect the relative elemental dominance of the cards when they appear in a spread. In keeping with their astrological counterparts, the Cardinal cards can be upbeat, forthright and dynamic, the Fixed cards can be impassive, implacable and tenacious, and the Mutable cards can indecisive and equivocal, prone to “hedge” and answer in riddles.

These characteristics show up to best effect in the Minor Arcana of the Thoth deck. (There are a few glaring exceptions to this model, but in general it holds true: the Thoth 3 of Swords is anything but “upbeat” (although it can be grievously dynamic); the Thoth 4 of Disks is “solid and foursquare” rather than feisty and light on its feet; the Thoth 8 of Wands is exquisitely poised and not at all scattered; and the Thoth 8 and 10 of Disks – instead of being hesitant and inconstant – are overflowing with a radiant stability.) Whether the astrological modalities work this way in all reading scenarios will be entertaining and instructive to find out.

Cardinal, Fixed and Mutable Cards of the Thoth Deck (left-to-right). Copyright US Games Systems, Stamford, CT

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