Astro-Tarot: The Magician and a Nursery Rhyme

Astro-Tarot: The Magician and a Nursery Rhyme


Do you recall the day of your birth? A neat little fortune-telling rhyme goes:

Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace
Wednesday’s child is full of woe
Thursday’s child has far to go
Friday’s child is loving and giving
Saturday’s child works hard for a living
And the child that was born on the Sabbath day
    is bonny, blithe*, good and gay.

I loved this as a child, because I was born on a Friday which made me a rather lovely person, if the rhyme was anything to go by. The rhyme probably originated in the 1500s. But where do the day meanings coming from? With my tarot-reader’s curiosity, my first thoughts drifted to those Week Ahead tarot spreads which follow the classical planets – Mars, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter, the Sun and Moon (the Sun and Moon were classified as planets then – you can find the Week Ahead spread in The Ultimate Guide to Tarot). So let’s see if the planetary and tarot-card associations match the rhyme:

Monday              Moon            Fair of face                         Planet of inner life
Tuesday              Mars              Full of grace                       Planet of war
Wednesday         Mercury         Full of woe                         Planet of communication
Thursday             Jupiter           Far to go                            Planet of expansion
Friday                  Venus            Loving and giving               Planet of love
Saturday              Saturn           Works hard for a living       Planet of time and restriction
Sunday                Sun               Bonny, blithe                     Planet of life and self

* In some versions, ‘wise’

Some alignments work perfectly. Sunday’s happy child is favoured by the Sun, planet of optimism, which we see in XIX The Sun. Friday, Venus’ day, is just right for the child born on Friday – loving and giving, just like our tarot Empress, who bears a Venus glyph on the Rider-Waite-Smith versions of her card. Saturday’s child works hard for a living neatly chimes with Saturn – the taskmaster planet whose influence brings slow, hard work. The World card is ruled by Saturn, expressing the work and culmination of the journey through the major arcana cycle. Thursday’s child has ‘far to go’, which links to Jupiter, planet of expansion, education and development. No surprises there. And Jupiter’s tarot card, X The Wheel of Fortune, reflects Jupiter’s reputation as a bringer of luck – just as the Wheel turns, bringing good fortune (at least in the upright position in a spread). Monday’s child is ‘fair of face’. In contemporary astrology, the moon represents the interior rather than the exterior – inner life, intuition and dreams. In Greek mythology the moon relates to the Greek goddess Selene and the Roman Diana, both known for their beauty. And with a dose of enchanting moonlight, I can be bewitched enough not to glitch too much on this one.

At first glance, Tuesday looks like an anomaly. How does Tuesday’s ‘child being ‘full of grace’ relate to Mars, planet of war? Given the age of the rhyme – and its Christian theme – ‘grace’ may have been meant in the Christian context of ‘unmerited favour of God toward man’: a warrior’s prayer for God’s favour in battle. Mars’ tarot card is XVI The Tower, also known as the House of God, or the call to surrender to a higher power. I can just about countenance this. But what of Wednesday’s child of woe and its association with Mercury, planet of communication?

Mercury is the planetary ruler of I The Magician in tarot – one of the most energising and positive cards of the major arcana. Here’s the possible reason it’s literally woeful (bear with – I’m just having a sip of tea and a biscuit.) If we look at the etymology of Wednesday as ‘Woden’s Day’, we find Woden/Odin, the Norse deity of magic, wisdom, poetry and war. To me, it seems that ‘woe’ may have been short for ‘Woden’ , but we got landed with ‘woe’. Which is pretty miserable.

Working on this basis, I reckon that Wednesday’s child is not full of woe, but full of magic. And I’m also thinking of generations of children who misguidedly believed that they were destined to be, well, a bit dour, little knowing that the true meaning of their day of birth was rather more exciting. Woden/Odin spent nine days and nights suspended from Yggdrasill, the World Ash, a spiritual initiation which gave him the gift of reading the runes (and he was known as the ‘father of charms’). The Magician card shows the Greek deity Hermes (the Roman Mercury), who travelled between the realm of humans and the realm of the gods. As a messenger, Hermes was a god of communication, magic and divination. Now this diminution of Woden may have been deliberate (the Church, seeking to suppress our Pagan ways) or one of those slippages that no one thought to correct. But I’m going to begin doing that at a micro level.

My younger sister was born on a Wednesday and I remember that when she cried we’d say ‘Full of woe!’ This happened a lot as we lived near the beach and she hated sand – there’s many a picture of her making sandcastles with a pretty woeful expression. Thankfully she got over her dislike of the beach, and her woe. Maybe I should tell her now that she, and anyone born on a Wednesday was never a child of woe at all, but Woden’s child – full of abracadabra.

Main image: The Magician from Tarot of the Heart, Liz Dean/Oliver Burston
Dropping the Virtues

Dropping the Virtues

Now before you think I’m about to delve into Doreen Virtue’s conversion (see Lisa Frideborg Eddy’s excellent blog for this), here I’m talking about the tarot virtue cards: Strength, Justice and Temperance.

Given that the major arcana cards were not originally numbered – this came later – I wondered what would happen if the deck’s three surviving virtue cards vanished, just for a moment and then how the remaining cards might reconnect. Would there be another story?

Why, you might say. Why oh why, Liz. Well, while researching the Hermit, I found myself pouring over the symbols in a fifteenth-century engraving, The Triumph of Time (above), inspired by Petrarch’s lyric sequence poem Trionfi. (It’s the kind of thing I’m drawn to when I have a cup of builder’s tea in one hand and a Jaffa cake in the other.) Anyhow: in this image, one of the predecessors of the tarot Hermit, I recognised a number of symbols pertinent to other major arcana cards. First up, the chariot of our Hermit, or Father Time, is redolent of card VII, the Chariot. Artists inspired by Trionfi included triumphal chariots for all six paintings in the sequence, but the connection for me is the sense of force and determination: more Chariot, less Hermit. The chariot’s wheels are clock faces, which suggest the Wheel of Fortune, the next card. Father time’s chariot is speeding along – as does time, symbolised by the hourglass. His crutches represent infirmity and his wings, the onset of ascension. These original symbols in van Heemskerck’s illustration seems to embody both the Chariot and the Wheel of Fortune. Time, like fate, is beyond our control. It moves quickly, a chariot chasing after our egos, or quest for Fame. With Strength vanished, we get the Chariot, the Hermit and the Wheel as a trifold lesson on time. 

Drop Justice, and we have The Wheel of Fortune followed by the Hanged Man and Death. This makes a kind of narrative sense: life deals us what it will – we enter the world between worlds (the Hanged Man), and if really unlucky, we die. (If we see Death as the Black Death of the Middle Ages, Death’s Danse Macabre would have felt literal rather than symbolic). Without Justice, Death feels even less discriminating. There is no human intervention, or judge to pass sentence – no orderly process of assessment. There is simply Fate, a hanging, then a dying. But what if we see the Hanged Man as a response to the Wheel? Again, without Justice, the arbitrator, there’s no go-between, nothing telling us how to respond to or interpret the world – we must be guided by our own knowing. The Hanged Man exists on the earth plane, but he is in a spiritual bliss-state, beatific, glowing. When exposed to the vagaries of Fate and the universe, which has ultimate power over us, we are changed by the experience. The Death that follows, then, is the death of the ego.

Drop Temperance, and we get Death followed by the Devil and the Tower – the unholy trinity of change, bondage and chaos. With no angel of Temperance between the Devil and the Tower, we hurtle straight from temptation, addiction, entrapment or lust into an almighty calamity, which eventually brings a release. (There’s more to say on this, of course – see The Ultimate Guide to Tarot, which dives deep into the symbols of these wise, dark cards…)

Without the virtues of Strength, Justice and Temperance, there’s no reckoning; no pause in which to find order or assimilate our experiences. With these cards in the deck, we are called upon to seek the higher ground, the higher self; to find a greater authority either within ourselves (Strength, Temperance), or externally (Justice). The moral lesson, then? Perhaps, that we can intervene in our own stories and respond accordingly – whatever happens. 

There’s also virtue in exploring the ‘lost’ virtues of the tarot, too, if you’re interested: once, there was Prudence (absorbed into the Hermit, Justice or/and The Hanged Man); and Faith, Hope and Charity. Faith may have made her way into The High Priestess; and Hope most likely into The Star. My theory on Charity is that she surfaces as Temperance by way of Chastity – but that’s another story, coming up in Understanding Tarot.

Thanks for reading, tarotistas… til next time.

What’s with the Tarot Kings?

What’s with the Tarot Kings?

I love getting reader questions. Michael recently asked me about the elemental association of the tarot’s four Kings. (Each King takes the element of his rank and the element of his suit, which give us clues about his character.) Michael had been discussing my Ultimate Guide to Tarot 
in his study group, and noticed that my association of Kings with the Air element contradicts the Golden Dawn teachings, in which Kings take the element of Fire. So, for example, the King of Swords would take Fire of the suit of Air (Swords) according to the the Golden Dawn, whereas, according to little old me, he’d be Air of Air. 

Yes, I know I’ve broken with tradition. But here’s my thinking.

Kings as Air relate to the various associations between rank and suit. The Kings, as holders of wisdom and authority, align with the mind-oriented suit of Swords (Pages with Coins, dynamic Knights with Fire, Queens with Cups). Then there’s the medieval social hierarchy of the suit of Coins with merchants, Wands with peasants and other lower orders, Cups with the priesthood and Swords with noble warriors – the warrior aspect of the Kings.

If we look for the warrior in the Rider Waite Smith Kings, we see this in the King of Pentacles’ armour and of course the sword held aloft in the King of Swords. Then, if we consider that the four Kings are aspects of IV The Emperor, we see too that the Emperor wears battle-armour under his cloak: a representation of the ‘noble warrior’.

Staying with the Emperor as the essence of the four Kings (as The Empress is for the Queens), there’s another interesting correspondence here, too. On the RWS World are the bull, lion, man and eagle. These can be interpreted as symbols for the four suits (bull – Earth, Pentacles; lion – Fire, Wands; man – Water, Cups; eagle –Air, Swords). Take a look at the Visconti-Sforza tarots’ Emperor and we see the emblem of the eagle on his hat, signifying fatherhood and the eagle’s natural element of Air (and the eagle also appears on the Marseilles Emperor’s shield). So, the four Kings, as aspects of the Emperor, have been assigned Air in my book. (Naturally if we look at The Emperor’s element of Fire as assigned in the Golden Dawn system, one might equally argue that the Kings should take this element.) However, Air makes sense to me.

You might also wish to look at Tarot: The Open Reading, Yoav Ben-Dov, Kings as Air/Swords, p. 187; illustrated with the Marseilles (CreateSpace 2013); Tarot Mysteries, Jonathan Dee, alignment of Kings as Air (Zambesi Publishing, 2003).

When the Lyrics Get You: The Led Zep Spread

When the Lyrics Get You: The Led Zep Spread

When the lyrics get you: The Led Zep spread

Ever wake more than one morning with an insistent tune in your head? This week, it’s Stairway to Heaven.Taking me right back to warm cider and joss-stick burns on my mam’s carpet, it’s one of the defining rock anthems from the Greatest Band in the World Ever. The lyrics keep running around my head from around 6.30am, which is horrendously early for me, so I’m giving in to this, getting up, making tea and finding my notebook, writing down the words I recall… May Queen, piper, gold, makes me wonder, bustle in your hedgerow (whatever it means, it feels epically poetic). I don’t have my glasses on at this point, and the daylight’s just coming through the kitchen window… so I’m not sure my scribbles are even legible. But the words, reading them back, echo with laughter (sorry, couldn’t resist) and soon the song bird will soon be singing. Yes, I decide to do whatever respectable tarot read should do in the circumstances to make sense of this: create a spread. I’ve used fragmented lyrics from Stairway to create card positions. Try it and see what you think.

Discovering the Origins of the Tarot: Saturnalia

Discovering the Origins of the Tarot: Saturnalia

The Duke’s Tarot Inheritance: Saturnalia


The Tarot’s ‘characters probably evolved from the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which took place around Christmas time each year.  This is also the principal theory of the often-quoted librarian and Tarot researcher Gertrude Moakley who in 1966 published The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family (who painted the cards, however, is another subject in itself).

According to Moakley, during the Roman Saturnalia festival, slave and master became equal, and the people in Italian cities celebrated by dressing up in costumes and masks. The festival consisted of a lavish procession of ‘triumphs’ in chariots –  actors dressed as major arcana characters – culminating in the ritual murder of the Carnival King, or Bagatino. The source we have for this is Petrach’s poem I Trionfi, or ‘The Triumphs’ of 1354, which predates the earliest tarot cards. In it he describes how the procession told a story of ‘triumphs’, as follows, beginning with:

1 The Lovers, followed by:

2 Chastity (Temperance), which triumphs over the Lovers, or love; followed by:

3 Death, which triumphs over Chastity. Then came:

4 Fame (Judgement), which outlives Death, followed by:

5 Time (The Hermit), which triumphs over Fame. (In fact, the earlier tarot cards show the Hermit with an hourglass to represent time, which later became a lantern in the Rider Waite Smith deck). Then finally comes:

6 Eternity (The World), which triumphs over Time.

The Dukes Tarot Carnival

In the Duke of Milan’s day, many years later, the carnival would have included more tarot characters: Justice, The Hanged Man and the cosmic cards, The Sun, The Moon and The Star. The crowd would have laughed at the obvious sexual reference of Temperance with her cups and Strength, shown as a man with a phallic club. Other cards that may have been part of the procession because they appeared in the early decks have been abandoned, however, as tarot continued its 600-year journey: Faith, Hope and Charity. These ‘lost’ cards made sense in the original decks, as they fit perfectly with the other ‘virtue’ cards of the major arcana: Temperance, Strength and Justice.

Faith  Her signifiers are a cross, for her faith, and a chalice, symbolising the vessel of Christ.

Hope Her signifier is an anchor, the sailor’s symbol of safe return from peril.

Charity Her signifier is a pelican, for generosity and the family.

These three cards’ meanings appear to have been absorbed into other cards:

Faith: The High Priestess

Hope: The Star

Charity: Temperance and the High Priestess. This may not be obvious, as the image shows her with a child more in keeping with The Empress. However, in Catholic catechism charity is aligned with Chastity (more the virginal nun, or High Priestess) and the virtue of Temperance.

Images below are from the Cary-Yale Tarot Deck




Discovering the Origins of the Tarot: The Ghosts of the Visconti

Discovering the Origins of the Tarot: The Ghosts of the Visconti

Discovering the Tarot’s Origins: The Ghosts of the Viscontis

While there’s much debate on the origins of the cards – and many accusations from the church that they were ‘the devil’s picture-book’ – most evidence points to the cards’ early origins in Italy during the 1400s. The first tarots were not used for divination, nor for any occult practice, but were painted and printed to celebrate a royal family and a public holiday.

The first cards: the Visconti Sforza tarots

The earliest surviving tarot cards were created for the family of the third Duke of Milan, Filippo Visconti. There are many early versions of this deck, kept in collections in Italy and NewYork; 239 surviving cards, in total. One version is believed to commemorate the the wedding of Bianca Maria Visconti, daughter of the Duke of Milan, to Francesco Sforza in 1441, joining together two of the most influential families in Northern Italy; The Lovers card depicts Francesca and Bianca Maria beneath a wedding bower.

The Duke made this deck, and others he commissioned that we now refer to as Visconti or Visconti Sforza [link to deck in Market] not only unique but controversial: he painted other members of his family into the major arcana sequence.

The Visconti Sforza Family Album

The Hanged Man Francesco Sforza’s father, Muzio Attendolo Sforza –  a mercenary who changed his allegiance from Pope John, who had him caricatured as a traitor – the alternative name for the card.

From the Pierpont Morgan Bergamo Tarot


The Hierophant, or Pope Pope John XXIII

From the Pierpont Morgan Bergamo Tarot

The High Priestess Sister Manfreda, a relative of the bride and an Umilata nun elected as a female Pope by the Guglielmite sect and burned for heresy in 1300.

From the Pierpont Morgan Bergamo Tarot

The Empress Bianca Maria, also depicted on the Lovers

From the Cary Yale Visconti Tarot

The Lovers Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti

From the Cary Yale Visconti Tarot


Is there evidence for any earlier major arcana?

While it’s likely the earlier playing cards, from which the minor arcana evolves, came from China, there’s another contender for the majors: the Grigonneur deck, or Charles VI, supposedly of 1392. Griggoneur was a Parisian painter who, according to an early record, was paid to paint three packs of cards, ‘ornamented with many devices’, for the French king. However, it’s now believed these cards are mid-fifteenth century and Venetian. One clue lies in the Page of Swords, whose armour appears more fifteenth than fourteenth century in design. Seventeen cards from this deck are held at the Bilbiotheque Nationale in Paris.