The Sun is the midpoint of the Chaldean order of planets, with three planets slower than it (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars) and three faster (Venus, Mercury, Moon). Although we know the Sun is a star, it’s often called a planet in astrology, since for astrological purposes, it essentially behaves like the true planets do. Even so, the Sun is first among equals. As the physical sun is the center of the solar system, so the astrological Sun is the heart of the natal chart. In natal astrology, the Sun represents the sense of self, the ego, who you think of yourself as. The ego is independent but basically a solo act, and its aloneness is reflected in some of the Minor Arcana cards that have the Sun in their astrological correspondences. Many tarot cards depict people alone. Still, it seems notable that three of the five cards associated with the Sun show an individual set apart from others. The Sun is like the other astrological planets…and not.
Three of Wands: Sun in Aries
Aries is a sign that the Sun feels comfortable in. There’s a lot of overlap here, between the essentially solitary Sun and Aries, a sign of solo action. Aries is the cardinal fire sign, geared towards taking the initiative (cardinal) and expressing willpower and creativity.
Whichever sign the Sun is in shows the kinds of experiences that the self needs in order to grow. In Aries, that means taking risks and doing things that call for courage, usually as an individual rather than with others. In the Waite-Smith Three of Wands, we see a man looking out over a harbor in which three ships are sailing. One common way to interpret this scene is that the man is a merchant whose ships are either setting out on a voyage or returning from one. Either way, the success of the venture is not yet known. The man has put plans into action and committed himself, and this is risky. He’s far from the ships and the people on them, showing that he’s acting alone.
The Sun in Aries symbolizes the explorer or pioneer, someone who initiates a venture. Perhaps the man in the Three of Wands is sending his ships along a familiar, established trade route—although that can be risky—but he may be gambling on a new route into uncharted territory, where the risks and the rewards are even greater.
The Golden Dawn’s name for the Three of Wands was Lord of Established Strength, while Crowley went for Virtue. This is not virtue in the sense of goodness or the archaic definition of chastity, but an older definition of courage, valor, and strength. Either name, of course, reflects the courage and determination of the Sun in Aries.
Six of Cups: Sun in Scorpio
The Golden Dawn named the Six of Cups Lord of Pleasure. The differences between this card and its astrological association may leave one wondering what kind of pleasure they had in mind. The Waite-Smith Six of Cups seems to show the joys of innocence and nostalgia. A boy presents a cup filled with flowers to a smaller girl, while in the background, a man with a staff or spear walks away. Both children are heavily dressed for what looks like warm spring weather: they’re wearing hoods and we see a mitten on the girl’s hand. Some have observed that the boy’s proportions aren’t really that of a child, and have speculated that he’s more magical than human (a dwarf, perhaps). The slight unreality of the picture has led people to associate this card with nostalgia—a not-quite-accurate recollection of times past.
Over on the astrological side of things, the association for this card is the Sun in Scorpio. Scorpio is fixed water: feelings that change slowly, if at all. Since those feelings are so stable, they have time to build in intensity and grow deeper. So the Sun in Scorpio shows that the sense of self grows through intense emotional experiences. Unlike the Three of Wands, there’s more than one person in the Six of Cups, and two of them are interacting with each other. This card isn’t about acting alone, but maybe that’s because it’s a Cups card, and emotions have so much to do with relating to others.
I’m having trouble seeing a connection between this card and its astrological association. The Six of Cups does not radiate intensity and passion; the Sun in Scorpio has little to do with innocence and nostalgia. Honestly, the Sun in Cancer seems like it would be a much better fit for the Six of Cups. Cancer, the cardinal water sign, also pertains to feelings and relationships, but it’s associated with nurturing and caring for others, and it’s known for its sentimentality. But the Sun in Cancer doesn’t appear in the astrological associations, and we don’t get it as an option if we’re going to follow the system faithfully. So I’m left guessing at the apparent mismatch here. Did the Six of Cups have a traditional meaning that simply doesn’t fit in the decan system? Or does the general association of the Sixes with happiness mean that the Six of Cups gets a happy scene even if that seems to go better with a different sign of the zodiac?
Ten of Swords: Sun in Gemini
The Ten of Swords is another card where the connection between the meaning of the card and its astrological association isn’t immediately obvious. The Golden Dawn called this card Lord of Ruin, which pretty much sums up the mood here: everything has fallen apart and it’s the end. It seems odd that such a grim card is matched with the Sun in Gemini which hasn’t got nearly as bad a reputation as this card.
The Ten of Swords is the final result of the Swords suit: intellect taken to its conclusion. I’ve heard a couple of explanations for why the Swords suit ends so unpleasantly. One is related to the Tree of Life, saying that air and fire (Swords and Wands), are weighed down as they approach the earthiness of the final sephirah, Malkuth, while water and earth (Cups and Pentacles) feel more at home. Another says that the nature of the intellect is to dissect everything, until at last there’s nothing left to dissect except itself, and that’s the end. Whatever the reason, at Ten, the suit has bottomed out. A man lies facedown on the ground, with the swords stuck in his back. The sky above him is unnaturally black, although the clouds give way to a golden sky on the horizon. However horrible things have gotten, this is as bad as it gets, and there’s nowhere to go except up.
When the Sun is in Gemini in real people’s charts, it has as many positive and negative qualities as any other planet/sign combination. The Golden Dawn seems to have decided to emphasize the negative in their system, however, perhaps to go with the idea that the intellect eventually dissects itself if there’s nothing to balance it. The Sun tends not to feel comfortable in the air signs: the fiery life force can find cool detachment and analysis jarring. This is more of an issue with Libra and Aquarius than Gemini, but as with Cancer, there aren’t cards that represent these combinations, so the Sun in Gemini ends up standing in for the Sun in any air sign. The Ten of Swords appears to warn of one way in which the development of the self can go awry. In Gemini, the mutable air sign, the worst-case scenario is that all humanity evaporates into an ice-cold rationality that kills the passions, the life force. (Note that the man is wearing red and orange, the colors of fire and life.) But the Sun doesn’t stay in any one sign forever, hence its reappearance and revival on the horizon.
Four of Pentacles: Sun in Capricorn
The Four of Pentacles, the Lord of Earthly Power, is paired with the Sun in Capricorn. Capricorn is the cardinal earth sign, taking the initiative to be productive in the material world. At the same time, 4 is the number of stability. So here, movement and growth slow. This is shown fairly literally in the Waite-Smith Four of Pentacles. To maintain control of his pentacles, the man cannot move. He’s seated outside a city, separated from the human contact that suggests—yes, this is another one of the cards in which the individual is separated from the community—but he doesn’t look unhappy.
There are several ways to interpret this card. Perhaps it’s the love of material goods and power that limits your life to acquiring and keeping. Perhaps it’s maintaining useful and necessary boundaries with others. I like Barbara Moore’s observation that this is a card of “gathering power,”* which makes me think of batteries, savings accounts, and other earthy ways to store reserves. To me, that fits with an oddity in the picture: the way the man is holding one of the pentacles. If you wanted to hold a large coin, wouldn’t it be natural to hug it to your chest with your arms across it? Instead, his arms encircle the pentacle, reminding me of energy circling and building in power.
The Crowley Thoth Four of Disks (Power) focuses more on the security and stability aspects of this card than the inflexibility and rigidity. Or rather, how those qualities are depicted can alter their interpretation. Rigidity and inflexibility in a person are generally seen as negatives, which may be what was intended in the Waite-Smith picture. Rigidity and inflexibility in a fortress, on the other hand, are usually considered selling points. (That’s a picture of a fortress as seen from above, with a moat surrounding it, and one road leading in.)
Eight of Pentacles: Sun in Virgo
It’s pretty easy to see the Sun in Virgo in the Eight of Pentacles. Like Capricorn, Virgo is an earth sign, mutable in this case. Both signs are responsible, dutiful, and willing to work hard, but Capricorn is the more ambitious of the two, and it often works with an eye towards earning recognition and reward. Pamela Colman Smith took the time to give the man in the Four of Pentacles a crown, suggesting he’s a king in some sense of the word. Virgo, however, is associated with service. In the Eight of Pentacles, the man is more likely an apprentice working to improve his skills. This is the third card in this group in which the main character is shown apart from others, and here it can mean that he’s not working for admiration or recognition. He’s working to make a better pentacle, which is totally in keeping with Virgo, which values improvement and attention to detail.
The Sun in Virgo suggests that the self develops through diligence and material service. Although this man is as isolated as the one in the Four of Pentacles—both sit alone, with a distant city in the background—the man in the Eight of Pentacles is using the material energy instead of saving it up, and the pentacles he’s making may someday be put to practical use.
Although both the Waite-Smith and Thoth cards are called (Lord of) Prudence, the Eight of Disks has a different feel to it. A plant doesn’t have to practice flowering to get it right—that comes naturally. This plant protects its flowers with its leaves so that they won’t get knocked off before it’s able to fruit. The meaning of the Eight of Disks goes more with the definition of prudence as “caution or circumspection as to danger or risk” while the Waite-Smith Eight of Pentacles seems more in keeping with “skill and good judgment in the use of resources.”**
*Barbara Moore, Tarot for Beginners: A Practical Guide for Reading the Cards, pp.201-203.
**Definitions of prudence from Merriam-Webster.