There’s a general consensus among Tarot scholars that the visual and symbolic depictions in Trump XIV, “Temperance,” are among the weakest of the Waite-Ryder deck, and certainly of the Major Arcana; particularly when we consider that the card appears midway in a sequence that contains some of the deck’s most arresting—and spiritually significant—images: Trumps XII and XIII (The Hanged Man and Death) and Trumps XV and XVI (The Devil and the Tower). The obvious interpretation of the card—essentially, “everything in moderation”—seems like a pretty vague directive compared to the transformative spiritual signposts that precede and proceed from it. If we consider some alternative iconography, however, perhaps the meaning of this Trump can be made clearer.
In his Thoth deck, Aleister Crowley titled this card “Art” and used it to portray the “angel” of the Waite deck as an androgyne performing an alchemical process—the mixing of the elements of fire and water.
Engraved into the giant orb behind her are the words Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies, Occultum, Lapidem: “Examine the inner parts of the earth. By refining you will find the hidden stone.” Crowley adds that the initials for these words form the acronym VITRIOL, the “universal solvent” of alchemy that can separate all compounds in a solution into their most elemental forms. Those of us who are familiar with the typology of Jungian psychoanalysis will recognize the process of alchemy as a symbolic representation of the process of individuation, where we break down (solve) the elements of our psyche that have fallen out of balance so that they might be reassembled (coagula) in the perfected form of the “mature masculine” or “mature feminine.” By examining the “inner parts” of our psychic “earth”, Crowley implies, we too shall find that “hidden stone” that represents the perfected work that exists within each of us. In that regard, perhaps we can view the alchemy depicted in the Crowley card as representing the “art of becoming”—which is to say, the art of living, and our ability to master it.
With this in mind, a review of the Waite-Rider card suggests, perhaps, a more appropriate message of “going with or against the flow.” The angel pours out his living waters against the flow of gravity (since the fluid’s moving sideways—and who knows, the water might even be flowing upward. Angels have been known to perform miracles, after all!), and this reminds us that we only find true solace in life when we release ourselves from the burden of being “weighed down” by the worries of the world and allowing ourselves to be “borne up on wing” —relying at times on faith over reason—even though we know not where it may lead us. On the other hand, it also reminds us that sometimes we may need to “swim against the tide” in order to achieve a higher state of self-awareness, and that a life lived in a true state of “temperance” is one that has learned to properly balance these countervailing spiritual forces in everyday life. Given the ever-shifting demands of the world, and our own fragile egos, this is easier said than done! But try we must—for if we don’t, we risk being trapped in the living hells of ego and insanity implied by the cards that follow—The Devil and The Tower. These conditions of chaos and imbalance, the card of Temperance implies, are not inevitable and can be overcome. But we must be willing to undertake the work.