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
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.
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).