The four corners of the World

Discussions of the arcane symbols of Tarot and other decks
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Symbols appear on each and every tarot card - visual signs that convey meaning. Some of them are highly individual and personal, others time-honored and traditional. Some are easy to understand, others difficult and multivalent. In this forum, we want to study symbols from different decks, traditions and cultures together using books, websites, lwbs and our own intuition.
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Nemia
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The four corners of the World

Post by Nemia » 05 Oct 2017, 00:30

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In the four corners of the World card, there are four faces - a man, lion, bull and eagle. They are among the most well-known symbols of the tarot and Western iconography. The roots of these symbols are in Sumerian culture.

The people of Mesopotamia had identified constellations in the night sky and connected them with the four seasons. Until today, we call these four constellations of the zodiac (following the path of sun and moon on the sky) the fixed signs: Aquarius, Taurus, Leo and Scorpio.

Aquarius was symbolized by a man (the water-carrier), Taurus by a bull, Leo by a lion and Scorpio by its neighbour in the sky, the eagle.

This basic concept of a world separated into four recognizable parts corresponds with our own body feeling - the basic directions of movement are forward, backward, to the left and to the right, i.e., the four compass directions.

Each of these zodiac signs/constellations rules a season and an element:

Aquarius - winter - air

Taurus - spring - earth

Leo - summer - fire

Scorpio/Eagle - autumn - water

(the Eagle-water-correspondence has confused some people, but the explanation may be astronomical - Eagle and Scorpion are quite close, more about the history of the constellations here. Traditionally, the Eagle is seen as "exalted" form of Scorpio, and on Crawley's Death card, they both appear. Because of its connection to Scorpio, the Eagle symbolizes water, not air).

Greek philosophers based their theory of the bodily humours (fluids) on the four elements and sought to heal diseases by finding out which humour was missing or out of balance. According to the predominant fluid in one's body, four different temperamental types can be identified.

Air was associated with blood - the sanguine type

Earth was associated with black bile - the melancholic temperament

Water with phlegm - the phlegmatic temperament

Fire with yellow bile - the choleric temperament

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We use the words sanguine, melancholic, phlegmatic and choleric until today to describe a person, even though we don't believe any more that black bile causes melancholy.

So this fourfold concept of the world developed into a proto-scientific model of human health and behaviour. It also developed into a religious concept.

The Jewish prophet Ezekiel lived at the time of the Jewish exile in Babylon and may have met there the symbolic figures of the fixed zodiac signs. They appear in his famous vision.

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The weird "living creatures" he saw in this vision, among other fascinating things, had four wings and four heads - human, lion, eagle and bull.

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It is difficult to imagine, and artists have struggled a bit with these creatures. They're also called tetramorphs - four-shaped creatures, or cherubim, because they're angelic beings.

Christianity based its symbolic language and also artistic iconography on Jewish symbols (Jesus was Jewish after all and thought in the symbolic language of the Hebrew Bible, and so did his followers). In the Revelation of John, the saint has a vision of these same living creatures.

The first four books of the New Testament are the Gospels, four different accounts of Jesus' life, death and resurrections. The four authors of these texts, the four Evangelists, were from quite early on identified with the winged tetramorphs.

The winged Human (often seen as angel) is associated with Matthew.

The Lion is associated with Mark (that's why the winged lion is a symbol of Venice, where St. Mark is supposed to be buried - St. Mark's church!)

The Bull is associated with Luke.

The Eagle with John.

There are explanations why each evangelist "fits" with his symbol but they're probably later and sound a bit forced imho.

It's interesting that these animals were separate in Babylonian culture, merged in Ezekiel's vision, and then separated again in Christian tradition.

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These symbols often appear in manuscripts of the Gospels - here in the insular Book of Kells, the picture of the four animals starts the chapter of the four Gospels.

Often, each Gospel begins with an author's portrait, i.e., a portrait of the Evangelist who wrote the Gospel. Here is Matthew from the Book of Lindisfarne, a bit earlier than the Book of Kells:

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and in the same book, in the same a bit awkward style, Luke with the calf/bull:

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If Western Christian artists want to portray Jesus in his glory and majesty, as ruler of the world, they paint him in a mandorla, an almond-shaped aureola, surrounded by the four symbols of the Evangelists and sometimes holding a book, indicating the authority of the Scripture. At the same time, these symbols show the corners of the world, i.e., Jesus Christ as ruler of the world.

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That's why this iconographic formula is closely related to the Eastern Christian formula of Christ as Pantocrator, ruler of All, ruler of the World. These are sometimes mixed up on the Internet ;-)

Examples of the tetramorph motif in Christian art can be found here, here, and of course Wikipedia has an interesting entry about the tetramorph with many details.

The idea of four-fold correspondences appears everywhere in popular culture.

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Do you remember the houses of Hogwarts? J.K. Rowling, well-versed in folklore, mythology and ancient beliefs, as chosen different symbolic animals, but the connection to the four elements is clear.

Gryffindor - lion - fire - ambitions - and their common room with its red hanging and fireplaces.

Ravenclaw - eagle - air - intelligence - and their common room is high on a tower.

Slytherin - water - snake - depth of cunning - and their common room is under the lake.

Hufflepuff - earth - badger - industriousness and kindness - and their common room is next to the kitchens.

Fantastic four - their superpowers correspond to the four elements.

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In short, our popular culture is soaked with hommages to the ancient idea of the Four. These are just two examples, there are SO many.

But now back to the tarot (where we have the four elements and the four suits, of course).

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One the one hand, the iconography of the World card acknowledges Christian tradition with the Christ in Majesty formula seen above. On the other hand, by replacing Christ with a female figure, probably Sophia, the symbol of wisdom (revered also in Christianity - compare the churches dedicated to Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom), there is a certain daring and implied distance from Christianity.

There are many beautiful World cards - you can look at some collected by Albi Deuter.

I want to mention here the wonderful interpretation of this card by M.M. Meleen in her Tabula Mundi tarot.

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If you look into the corners of this card, you don't see only the faces of the tetramorph/cherubic creatures, you see constellations - and stars.

The constellations changed over the centuries (which may be one reason for the confusion about the Eagle, see above), but the fixed stars didn't. Four of the most characteristic (and easy to find) stars of the night sky are to be found in the fixed constellations, and Meleen paints each of them.

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These royal stars of the sky can be used as coordinates to the four directions.

Now let's see how Meleen gives us not only a symbol of the constellations but the stars themselves.

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Aquila, the Eagle, with Antares - the reddish Anti-Ares, i.e., opponent of the reddish planet Mars/Ares

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Leo, the lion, with Regulus (the "little king") - the star on the lion's breast

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Taurus, the bull, with Aldebaran as its red eye

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And Aquarius pouring down water into the mouth of Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, with the star Fomalhaut

These four stars, Antares, Regulus, Aldebaran and Fomalhaut, are not difficult to find. There are nights when all four are visible - that means you have to catch them between dusk and dawn because they're spread arund the whole ecliptic, and it depends on how close the sun is to each of them. When you look at one, you know where the others are - they're arranged in a circle. Circle and square meet in the idea of the four royal stars on the zodiac.

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All this is contained and hinted at by the four faces in the four corners of the World card.

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Arcange
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Re: The four corners of the World

Post by Arcange » 05 Oct 2017, 06:22

Wow.
I've learned lots today. Thank you for posting this.
Channel K loves U :grin:

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Re: The four corners of the World

Post by theFeeLion » 05 Oct 2017, 19:57

What an amazing post Nemia (as always )!

As a side note; that image you have of Jesus, looks to me, quite like a combo of the World and the High Priestess...
Come faeries take me out of this dull world. For I would ride with you upon the wind and dance upon the mountains like a flame. - W B Yeats

May you touch dragonflies and stars, dance with faeries and talk to the moon. - Unknown

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Re: The four corners of the World

Post by Nemia » 06 Oct 2017, 08:44

Yes, you can see the medieval-Renaissance origin of the tarot on nearly every major card. Pope portraits, depictions of the Madonna, the decision of Heracles, the virtues, death and the devil... I plan to write more about it. (I wrote a bit about the iconography of Death in the Sun and Moon study group.) It's a very interesting subject (at least for me :icon_redface: ).

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Re: The four corners of the World

Post by 2dogs » 06 Oct 2017, 10:40

This is very good Nemia, I'm so glad to hear the symbols go back so far and are have originated with these stars, I never knew that :icon_cool: . Crowley also has this eagle pulling the chariot of the Prince of Cups down into the water.
If the Lord Almighty had consulted me before embarking on creation thus, I should have recommended something simpler. Alfonso X (the Wise)

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Re: The four corners of the World

Post by Nemia » 06 Oct 2017, 11:02

Oh yes. If and when I write about the Thoth courts, we'll definitely look at all those animals :-)

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Re: The four corners of the World

Post by theFeeLion » 06 Oct 2017, 15:52

Nemia wrote:Yes, you can see the medieval-Renaissance origin of the tarot on nearly every major card. Pope portraits, depictions of the Madonna, the decision of Heracles, the virtues, death and the devil... I plan to write more about it. (I wrote a bit about the iconography of Death in the Sun and Moon study group.) It's a very interesting subject (at least for me :icon_redface: ).
I saw that The Death card I think is one that can turn me off about a deck, I have to admit I'm not a fan of the traditional RWS version and prefer others like Night Sun and Faeries Oracle (not a tarot I know but it still has a fantastic Death card).

I'm looking forward to more from you Nemia
Come faeries take me out of this dull world. For I would ride with you upon the wind and dance upon the mountains like a flame. - W B Yeats

May you touch dragonflies and stars, dance with faeries and talk to the moon. - Unknown

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Re: The four corners of the World

Post by CharlotteK » 06 Oct 2017, 16:48

This world is from Tarot de St Croix, a deck I only discovered the other day. (I don't have it but I love it and hope one day I can afford the shipping.)

Lisa talks in her blog spot about Anima Mundi being surrounded by the constellations of Leo, Aquila and Taurus with the angel representing the great mystery.

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Re: The four corners of the World

Post by Nemia » 06 Oct 2017, 17:04

Oh yes, fascinating deck! But I confess, my eye is really really searching for Aquarius in this picture! I can't bear the empty corner :icon_lol:

http://lisadestcroix.blogspot.co.il/201 ... world.html

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Re: The four corners of the World

Post by Nemia » 21 Oct 2017, 02:48

We went to eat in an Armenian restaurant last night. Beautiful setting - many old icons, jewelry, ceramic tiles, I love Armenian culture and find it fascinating. And I saw this:

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An Armenian cross with the four evangelist symbols at the end of the cross' arms. I'm sorry for the bad picture quality, I didn't feel comfortable taking the picture but thought of you all ;-) and took it nevertheless.

Eagle: St. John - Aquila/Scorpio - Water
Lion: St. Marc - Leo - Fire
Bull: St. Luke - Taurus - Earth
Angel: St. Matthew - Aquarius - Air

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