Good and bad tarot cards
Good and bad tarot cards

Good and bad tarot cards

Lately I have been doing a lot of work on the Golden Dawn version of the angels of the Shemhamphorash. For those who came in late, the Angels of the Shemamphorash are based on a cabbalistic system connected to the 72 letter name of God. The Golden Dawn did some serious surgery to the system by orientating them to Leo rather than the more traditional Aquarius and assigning each of the two angels a Tarot card connected to their decan.

While I will probably report back later on my experiments, one thing that all this has taught me is that there are no good or bad cards in tarot.
The Golden Dawn attributed some pretty nasty titles to some of the cards. Perhaps the worst was the Lord of Ruin connected to the Ten of Swords, which often leads to a reading sliding down the pathway to Doom. You can have a reading with lots of good cards and then suddenly the ten of swords pops up and you start seeing the riders of the apocalypse.
But equally you can have readings with lots of good cards when evidence suggests otherwise. For example a person whose life has collapsed has cards which say everything should be coming up roses right now.
The Golden Dawn said that each of the minor keys (without the aces) were under the control of the zodiacal trumps. Most of these are seen by readers as being more powerful and get a more optimistic reading than the minors.
The list is

Emperor controls the Two, Three and Four of Wands
Hierophant controls the Five, Six and Seven of Pentacles
Lovers controls the eight, nine and ten of Swords
Chariot controls the two, three and four of Cups
Strength controls the five, six and seven of wands
Hermit controls the eight, nine and ten of Pentacles
Justice controls the two, three and four of Swords
Death controls the five, six and seven of Cups
Temperance controls the eight, nine and ten of Wands
The Devil controls the two, three and four of Pentacles.
The Star controls the five, six and seven of Cups.
The Moon controls the eight, nine and ten of Cups.

Focusing on the doom card of the ten of Swords we see that it is controlled by Gemini which is probably the lightest major arcana. True the GD did try to give a more pessimistic image of it (Andromeda rescued by Persius) but that is still no justification for the pile of doom which the eight, nine and ten of swords are attributed. True Air is not exactly “happy” in the stodgy element of Earth

The Angels of the Shemamphorash who look after the ten of swords are Damabiah and Manaqael.
Damabiah takes the energy expressed by the Lovers card and converts it to the 10 of swords and Manaqael releases it so that it can move into the next decan (in this case the “extremely positive” two of cups).
So what then is this energy expressed by the Lovers’ card. The lovers appears in tarot it is always sorting out wheat from chaff, dividing things apart. This makes the Tarot attribution “the Lovers” all the more stranger as you would think that Love is a unification. But this is one of the Mysteries of the Tarot. You are separating things knowing that they are One thing. You are saying this is man and this is woman, but they are separate aspects of One Thing. This is real love or true marriage. The couple are both separate but at the same time working together. The only time they express true union is during the sexual act, but the rest of their lives are working together at something they call their relationship, or their marriage.
So based on these combined meanings, the ten of swords should be read as an ending or separation which which leads to a new beginning or union (emphasized by the two of cups in the next decan). In a relationship reading this meaning would be more obvious but in a business reading, it would mean that a project will end and the result will be good.

This is far from the Lord of Ruin of the Golden Dawn. In fact I have said before that this card is better to be called the Lord of Endings and Beginnings. The connection between the Lovers (zain) suggests that there has to be a separation before there can be a union.
So what about so called positive cards. The sort of cards people like to see are the two of Cups which suggests partnership and union. Is it possible then to see a negative aspect to the Lord of Love, which is the Golden Dawn title of this card?
The cards are ruled by the Chariot and the Hebrew letter Cheth. While the Chariot is generally optimistic card, Cheth rules over the Hebrew month of Tammuz which was seen as a “month of tragedies.” Tammuz was a Babylonian god and the Babylonians enslaved the Hebrews. It is connected to the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf and begins is the three week period which commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Cheth is seen as a force which brings things together which might not normally be joined (it even looks like a vav and a Zain linked together). Since the two of cups shows a bringing together of things it does not necessarily mean that this is a good thing. A sword and a nail are opposites. One joins and the other splits apart. Cancer is the co-dependant sign of the zodiac and tends to want to hold relationships and families together no matter how destructive they are.
With the Two of Cups follows in sequence from the ending of the ten of swords. Our first Shemhamphorash angel is Eiael and as we have seen he has elements of the ten of swords the second angel is Chabuiah who has elements of the three of cups. Inside these two elements can be found the negative aspects of the cards. Eiael suggests a possibility that two things have been bought together, but it could contain the seeds of an ending, it has has been bought together too soon, or is two things that should not be together. The energy of Chariot (opposites bought together) could contain the seeds of destruction. Chabuiah suggests that it could move into a more friendly aspect over time or established partnership (three of cups).
So looking at this in a reading we can have a negative from a positive card.
Say a querant wants to know if their relationship will last. The card representing the relationship is the two of cups. Traditionally you could say that this is one of the great loves which should be able to overcome everything. But when you look at other cards you see negative ones which indicate there could be arguments and quarrels. Indications that there are two sides at odds with each other. The near future is the ten of swords but the long term future is the two of swords. This would indicate that the relationship is probably one of two people who have different world views and are not getting along. The ten of swords may not mean that the relationship is doomed (although it could) because it is followed by the two of swords. This would suggest that the couple work out away to resolve their differences and the problems end at least in the short term.


  1. Very interesting post. I have noticed this myself with regard to readings and often been thrown by it – namely that amidst a generally positive reading you suddenly have a negative card (or vice-versa) that seems to blatantly contradict the rest of the reading. So, I am thinking your explanation here could be right – that no card is really “negative” or “positive” in itself (I put these terms in inverted commas as they are relative and not absolute – i.e. what is negative for one thing is often positive for another).

    I recently did an analysis for a student on the relationship between the astrological aspects of the Minor Arcana numbered cards and the title of the card.
    The process was a learning experience for me as much as for the student. In attempting to give an explanation as to why certain cards had certain titles, I had to really think the thing through carefully, and make constant references to Book T.
    One of the conclusions I came to was that to determine whether a card is essentially “negative” or “positive” it was necessary to look at 3 main aspects – the Planet, Sign and Sephirah which are associated with the card in question and determine if these three aspects are in harmony with each other, or not. If they are in harmony,they are generally positive, but if not, then generally negative. For example, 10 of swords is Sun in Gemini in Malkuth. Sun in Gemini is not internally disharmonious, but falling in Malkuth could be construed as very disharmonious. Sun in Gemini is fiery and airy, ethereal, bright, free-bounding and even “heavenly” we might say, whereas Malkuth is a Sephirah which is dark, earthy and restrictive – thus Sol in Gemini feels hemmed-in by Malkuth and in fact has its high ethereal energy thwarted and repressed – hence leading to “Ruin”. In the case of 9 of Swords, “Cruelty & Despair”, we see Mars, Gemini, and Yesod – the aggressive, action-oriented nature combines badly with the intellectual, theoretical Gemini, the gentle lunar-nature of Yesod at odds with Mars and so on – hence causing a person to be cruel or attract those who are due to an internal conflict of psychologically incompatible energies. In other words,
    the idea that the 8, 9 & 10 of Swords are covered by the Lovers card is really tied in with the fact that these cards are astrologically Gemini and Lovers corresponds to Gemini, but here it is more than just Gemini, it is the planetary and Sephirotic influences that need to be taken into account – at least that was my theory as regards the Book T/GD naming of the Minors.

    All that said, we *could* still argue that no card is good or bad in itself – for example, we could argue that, in the case of 10 Swords, that Sun in Gemini is earthed and stabilized by Malkuth, rather than restricted by it. We could, with the 9 of Swords, argue that Mars gives energy and activity to an otherwise too theoretical and intellectually-bound Gemini, and that the whole combination is nicely centralized by Yesod on the balanced Middle Pillar.

    On another level, the idea that there are no good or bad cards reminds me of a discussion some years ago on one of the GD forums about the god Set – is he really an evil god – for afterall in some places he is the protector of Ra, rather than the destroyer of Osiris. And if I remember correctly, it was Joseph Maxx who made the good point that perhaps we need to really question if there can be such a thing as an evil god, since a god by definition is a divine being and hence ALL Gods are part of a divine plan and all have their place in that plan and hence none can really be described as evil or “negative”. The same idea might well be applied to Tarot cards!

  2. A tarot reading is a story, a statement, a fable, not just a collection of individual words. Context is everything.

    “…destruction…” sounds bad, until it’s in the sentence, “…so your wise decision resulted in the destruction of the obstacles holding you back!”

    Set as “Satan” – a god of evil – is nonsense. Set did not “tempt” humans to do evil, or plot to “overthrow” Ra. Set can be the protector of Ra and the destroyer of Osiris at the same time. He’s a god, and can only do his godly purpose. If Osiris’ place in the cosmos is to be slain and risen god, he’s the Green Man, and *must* be destroyed, and reborn, again and again.

    It’s a very old song…

    There was three kings come into the east,
    Three kings both great and high,
    And they hae sworn a solemn oath
    John Barleycorn should die.

    They took a plough and plough’d him down,
    Put clods upon his head,
    And they hae sworn a solemn oath
    John Barleycorn was dead.

    But the cheerful Spring came kindly on,
    And show’rs began to fall;
    John Barleycorn got up again,
    And sore surpris’d them all.

  3. Yes, I should have added, “and even as the ‘Destroyer’ of Osiris, his role is absolutely necessary.” Without death, there can be no Resurrection, and without the scythe there can be no bread 🙂

  4. Or whiskey!

    John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
    Of noble enterprise;
    For if you do but taste his blood,
    ‘Twill make your courage rise.

    ‘Twill make a man forget his woe;
    ‘Twill heighten all his joy:
    ‘Twill make the widow’s heart to sing,
    Tho the tear were in her eye.

  5. Minor Arcana cards are minor in nature and should never derail a card reading.

    All minor cards will simply flavor the dominant trump (or sometimes a player ie: court card). Only in a single question, single card pull should any weight be put on those little words on the bottom of the Thoth minors(same goes for Book T’s minor description quick reference).

    And i agree about the Lovers card. The title and hollywood have mislead the egregore about this card’s essence. Elisabeth Haich said that this card was originally titled “The Parting of the Ways” and symbolizes a tough decision. A special decision where you know what you want, but you also know what you won’t give up. The surrounding cards (especially minors such as the 10 of Swords) will help reveal what the Lovers card that was just thrown actually means.

    JosephMax: Dude, the Moon was the other blog’s subject, or Pisces that is…lol

  6. Anonymous

    I think the tarot, in general, has a lot of “false friends” when being translated into meaning, in the English language and Western ideas. Since tarot is meant to be universal, I would like to see how these particular cards are understood by other cultures.

  7. Just drew 3 and 9 of swords today with Lovers, and your post was very timely and helpful to my understanding as I learn more about Tarot for both personal reasons and for research for my novel in progress, working title “Yoga For Smokers.” Thanks for the insights! As a newbie anytime I pull a card that can be perceived as negative I do tend to freak out a little. Reverse cards – upside downers – are also disconcerting.

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