I had a revelation about the Temperance card the other night, courtesy of Oswald Wirth. Before I get into that, though, I will share some more general thoughts about this card.
This card has always intrigued me, and I’ve been meaning to write about it for quite some time now, but for some reason or other, I just have not been able to figure out just what it is I wanted to say.
To me, this card illustrates first and foremost the successful reconciliation of Binary Opposites in an individual’s life. The symbolism is there in the mixing of the fluids in the two cups, not to mention the very word ‘temperance’ being used as the title. Of course, the World shows a similar reconciliation, but it can be argued that the individual is no longer an entity in that card, whereas in Temperance, the individual still exists. Here opposition has been transformed into a Golden Mean, which still requires the existence of two poles. In the World, opposition has been totally overcome, revealed to be nothing more than illusion.
If we break the Major Arcana into groups of seven, Temperance ends the second set. Folks who interpret the Tarot in this way usually suggest that the first seven indicate stages of worldly endeavors, the second spiritual, and the third to be transcendent towards truly divine (or cosmic, however you want to word it) enlightenment. Temperance brings about the achievement of the goal of the second set, uniting the spiritual with the worldly, shown by the triangle (spirit) inside the square (world) upon the angel’s chest.
So, a person can conceivably work their way through the first fourteen stages and stop with Temperance, being a perfectly happy and balanced spiritual being, and getting reasonable fulfillment from life.
Of course, there’s much more to be experienced by those willing to brave the next card, but that’s another story for another time.
This card is also sometimes called “Art”, referring to the art of alchemy.* In these versions of the card, the figure (not necessarily an angel anymore) is pouring substances from two vessels into a third, rather than a substance from one vessel into another. These two substances represent fire and water, elemental opposites blending together to create life. Some of these details are significant in their differences, but overall, the theme of blending and balancing found in traditional Temperance cards still rings true here.
So there you have it. That’s the significance I always found in Temperance. Balance and reconciliation of personal opposites. Or living life by the laws of moderation. It’s a message that plays a very important role in my life, and as such, I’ve always held a certain respect for the angel of Temperance. I believe moderation is the key to personal happiness. Everything in moderation, as they say (even moderation). But there is something more to this card that until recently eluded me.
For one thing, it always confused me that this fairly positive card would fall between the two cards which are arguably the most negative in their connotations, namely Death and the Devil. I always figured its placement in terms of the Fool’s Journey, perhaps a moment of necessary respite between these two harrowing experiences. A silver lining, so to speak, on an otherwise dark and oppressive storm cloud. But why Temperance?
Hajo Banzhaf in his book Tarot and the Journey of the Hero equates the Temperance card with what he calls the “guide of souls,” evoking the concept of the psychopomp in my mind. Alright, I suppose that’s a natural association to make given its place in the sequence of the Major Arcana, but again, why Temperance? How does a card of balance and moderation fit that role? In my opinion, Banzhaf’s book is phenomenal, quite possibly the best work available as far as mythic archetypes in Tarot are concerned, and overall very well-written and thought-provoking. But in the instance of Temperance, I failed to understand his connection. Probably it is my own shortcomings as a reader, and I intend to re-read that chapter with my newfound appreciation for this card, but until I read Wirth, I simply did not get it.
Of course, having now read Wirth’s interpretation of the card, it seems so obvious to me. It’s not necessarily about balance and moderation at all, but rather a different angle from which to view the action of the card. What if the Angel of Temperance isn’t mixing the liquids at all, but instead is just transferring them from one vessel to another?
This is how Oswald Wirth intended his Temperance to be understood, and its place directly following Death is very significant. The vessels are transient matter, and the liquid is the eternal soul moving from one body to the next. It is a statement of eternal life in spite of the inevitability of Death. And it is the angel guiding the liquid, careful not to spill a drop. The psychopomp’s job in mythology was to guide the recently deceased soul safely to the underworld or afterlife (Hermes is considered a psychopomp, by the way). Banzhaf uses other examples that aren’t strictly psychopomps, such as Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy. But while Virgil isn’t really a psychopomp in the sense that Hermes is, his role in Dante’s epic is certainly that of guidance through the underworld.
Looking back at this card as Art, the guide of souls doesn’t really fit quite so nicely. But while Art is a valid interpretation of Temperance, it’s not particularly traditional, and so I think it’s safe to say that Temperance in its most original form (as we know it) can indeed stand for the eternal nature of the soul. But that’s not to say that interpretations of balance and blending are wrong. In fact, I still think of these things as foremost when faced with the Temperance card by itself. It pleases me, however, to have a more sensible meaning to resort to when dealing with the card in the context of the Major sequence. Wirth’s description of Temperance succeeded in doing just that for me.
*First named so by Mr. Crowley.