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Tarot Deep Dive - The Sun

Every card represents an aspect of humanity that has echoed through time. In this series we are going to dive into the history of the imagery found within the tarot, the meaning of the cards and how that meaning changed over time, and the symbols present within the images of what is arguably the most well-known tarot deck of all time - the Rider-Waite (Smith) Tarot Deck. So, grab your favorite RWS deck, a cup of tea or coffee, and join me live on Sunday mornings over on YouTube as we Deep Dive into each one of the 21 Major Arcana cards continuing now with the bright and shinning Sun! A note to the reader - The Sun is a topic of such great breadth and depth that entire books have been written on the subject and would be nearly impossible to summarize in this blog. Instead we will look briefly at the art historical depiction and symbolic nature of the Sun as it pertains specifically to the Sun Card within the Tarot. If you are interested in further readings on the Sun I would highly recommend the book The Esoteric Sun by Abraxas Aletheia.

The Sun, Il Soleil, Lord of the Fire of the World

Hendrick Goltzius, 1588.

Much in the same regard as the Moon, the Sun has undoubtedly played a pivotal role in human civilizations across the world. From the ancient Egyptian sun god Ra, to Apollo, and even Jesus Christ, solar deities have held significance to world religions since the dawn of civilization. It really is no wonder considering it is the largest and brightest heavenly body in our skies. The ancients understood that it brough warmth and life to our world and venerated it in nearly every ancient cavillation. The daily cycle of the sun has almost universally associated itself across cultures with the cycles of birth, life, and death. For this reason we see symbols associated with the solar and life cycle often with the sun specifically representing these cycles and the idea of resurrection. Because We often see many myths and legends surround solar deities, resurrection cycles, and the sacred union, be it the story of Horus, Jesus Christ, Huitzilopochtli or Persephone. All of this has woven together over the centuries to build a rich and symbolic history with the Sun.

Jesus Christ Pantocrator (Detail from the deesis mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul)

I always personally have a good chuckle when reading occult texts, or books on the Tarot, as they try to dissect and link obscure mythos and meaning to the images we see on the cards, particularly The Sun, as if no legacy of iconography or symbolism akin to what we see in the Tarot existed before. We can gain a better understanding of this card if we take a moment and step outside of occultism and into the realm of art history - which had it's largest influence on the Major Arcana as we know it today, having its roots in early renaissance Europeans art, as the decks were created as luxury playing card decks for the wealthy and reflected the popular culture of the day that naturally held social significance and allegory.

Monas Hieroglyphica

Historically, as Christianity took over from Greco-Roman Paganism many holidays and festivals were... commandeered? The festival of Sol Invictus, the god who became the Sun after he was murdered and resurrected... sound familiar? This is thought to be an influential reason why Christmas was placed on the 25th of December, but is widely debated amongst scholars. Interestingly, a time of year when a solar effect known as parhelion occurs frequently and is believed to be associated with solar deity resurrection myths, including Christ, and was incorporated into the earliest depictions of the halo as we know it today. Those keen on their symbolism may also recognize the monad or astrological symbol for the sun, .

Parhelion or "Sundog" in Sweden

Visual Evolution

Interestingly, the earliest depictions of the Sun Card combine the traditional depiction of Sol, or Helios, with the Christian Iconography of a Cherubim, indicated by his wee little blue wings holding the solar disc aloft. This depiction of Sol was revitalized by the popularization of Astrology and Alchemy during the period and was used to represent the sun in astrological and alchemical imagery and texts. This iconographic tradition of depicting the Sun with rays and with a human face developed in earlier on in the high medieval period and became widespread in the Renaissance, harking back to the sun god (Sol/Helios) wearing a radiant crown in classical depictions.

J. D. Mylius, from Philosophia Reformata (Rosarium philosophorum sive pretiosissimum donum Dei), Frankfurt, ca. 1622

Likewise, the young child or children we see on the cards, in my opinion, originate similarly as representations of the Filius Philosophorum, or the Alchemical Child a symbol of the union of opposites and the final step before attaining the philosophers stone. Many alchemical and astrological texts of the period depict the Filius Philosophorum as a naked child representing the union of oppositions and rebirth into a nigher higher state of existence. While other scholars say that the children or figures depicted on later Italian, French and Swiss decks are the Gemini Twins - Castor and Pollux or Romulus and Remus. While others connect them with Cane and Able. There really is no shortage of associations to be drawn really, but likely from an art historical perspective the former is the most likely we don't have any significant body of primary source material that says otherwise to my knowledge.

Traité d'astrologie Hartlieb, Johannes (1400-1468)

With regards to the card itself, we can see through time this also has not changed significantly in it's depiction. From the earliest cards to the most modern The Sun card has employed nearly identical compositions and symbolism. It is however interesting that Waite and Smith decided to go with a depiction more akin to the Visconti and Viéville than the popular depiction of two figures we see in so many other decks. Even in the Visconti we can see the scarlet banner and another key symbol in the red coral necklace, a traditional symbol of good luck and protection, popularly given to children in the period.





















Evolution of Meaning
  • De Mellet (1781): The Sun. The Creation of the Sun and union of man and woman.

  • Mathers (1888): The Sun. Happiness, contentment, joy.

  • Golden Dawn (1896): Lord of the Fire of the World. Sun. Glory, gain riches, sometimes peaceful Happiness.

  • Waite (1910): The Sun. Material happiness, fortunate marriage, contentment.

  • Crowley (1944): The Sun. The card itself symbolizes this broadening of the idea of the Rose and Cross. The Cross is now expanded into the Sun, from which, of course, it is originally derived. Its rays are twelve-not only the number of the signs of the Zodiac, but of the most sacred title of the most holy Ancient Ones, who are Hua. (The word HUA, "he", has the numerical value of 12.) The limitation of mundane law, which is always associated with the number Four, has disappeared. Gone are the four arms of a Cross limited by law; the creative energy of the Cross expands freely; its rays pierce in every direction the body of Our Lady of the Stars.

The Symbols

The Sun

The sun here is a classical depiction from the ancients of the sun god Helios or Sol. A symbol of the divine light that nourishes us and leads us to truth and understanding.


 

Sunflowers

Sunflowers turn to face the sun. A long standing symbol of turning away from darkness and into the light.


 

Red Banner

This was included by Waite and Smith based on the writings of Levi who references the sun card from the Vieville Tarot. Red and scarlet colored banners have long been heraldic symbols of revolution and courage in war. Though Waite does not comment further on the inclusion of this. We can take this as a symbol of the the conquest of light over darkness, good over evil, and the revelation that comes with that.

 

Wall

It is thought that the wall here is another indication of the dividing points within the major arcana. The transition to magical Adept, or the those who are reborn. Some scholars draw parallels to the veil we see in the High Priestess, while others see it as a fortification from the past.


 

Child on White Horse

As we discussed before the child here may represent the Filius Philosophorum or alchemical child - the product of the union of opposites. The step before the creation of the philosophers stone. Others view the child as a symbol of new found purity and simplicity. White horses have a special significance in the mythologies of cultures around the world. They are often associated with the sun chariot, warrior heroes, fertility, or end-of-time saviors. The first of The Four Horseman of the apocalypse, Pestilence, is said to ride a white horse. The keen eyed observer may also notice a red feather in the crown of the child - linking our child figure directly with The Fool, whom also has a red feather in his cap.

 

As always be sure to check out our live discussion on this very topic over on YouTube:

 
References
  • Abraxas. The Esoteric Sun: Unlocking the Secrets of Alchemy, Magick, and Sacred Symbols. Self Published, 2022.

  • Barbier, L. (2021). Tarot and divination cards: A visual archive. Cernunnos, 2021.

  • Butler, B. Dictionary of the Tarot. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.

  • Chang, T. Susan. Tarot Correspondences: Ancient Secrets for Everyday Readers. Llewellyn Pulbications, 2018.

  • Crowley, Aleister (aleister Crowley). Book of Thoth - (Egyptian Tarot). Red Wheel/Weiser, 2017.

  • Dean, Liz. The Ultimate Guide to Tarot: a Beginners Guide to the Cards, Spreads, and Revealing the Mystery of the Tarot. Fair Winds Press, 2015.

  • Decker, Ronald; Dummett, Michael. A History of the Occult Tarot. London: Duckworth, 2019.

  • Farley, Helen. A Cultural History of Tarot: From Entertainment to Esotericism. Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

  • Fiebig, Johannes, and Evelin Burger. The Ultimate Guide to the Rider Waite Tarot. Llewellyn, 2013.

  • Katz, Marcus. Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot: the True Story of the Worlds Most Popular Tarot: with Previously Unseen Photography & Text from Waite & Smith. Llewellyn Publications, 2015.

  • Place, R. M. The fool's journey: The history, art, & symbolism of the tarot. York, 2010.

  • Waite, A. E. Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Dover Publications Inc, 2005.

  • Wen, Benebell. Holistic Tarot. North Atlantic Books, 2015.





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