Some thoughts on Temperance


Temperance Image

Thought I'd share some discoveries I ran across concerning Temperance. As usual, Waite's meaning is hidden in plain sight. He says, "It has one foot upon the earth and one upon waters, thus illustrating the nature of the essences." So the nature of the essences are earth and water, plain enough. But what do they symbolize? To answer this question I found some references in two books Waite was associated with. The first The Hermetic Museum which he wrote a Preface for in the 1893 English translation; he also edited this work. The other is Levi's Transcendental Magic, 1896, which Waite translated and edited.

Water and earth represent two principles, the fixed and the volatile. The fixed is self-explanatory, anything fixed or solid. The volatile, as its name suggests, isn't something necessarily explosive, but that which is changeable or fluid. Here are two quotes from The Hermetic Museum:

"When God had created our first parent Adam, and set him in Paradise, He shewed him two things, namely, earth and water. Earth is fixed and indestructible, water is volatile and vaporous. These two contain the elements of all created things:"​

This one comments on the words of Hermes Tismegistus in the Emerald Tablet:

"By the words which follow: 'That which is above is also that which is below,' he describes the Matter of our Art, which, though one, is divided into two things, the volatile water which rises upward, and the earth which lies at the bottom, and becomes fixed. But when the reunion takes place, the body becomes spirit, and the spirit becomes body, the earth is changed into water and becomes volatile, the water is transmuted into body, and becomes fixed. When bodies become spirits, and spirits bodies, your work is finished; for then that which rises upward and that which descends downward become one body."​

Here are two from Levi:

"As we have said, there are two palmary [preeminent] natural laws—two essential laws—which, balanced against another, produce the universal equilibrium of things. These are fixity and motion, analogous to truth and discovery in philosophy, and in absolute conception to necessity and liberty, which are the very essence of God. The Hermetic philosophers give the name of fixed to all that is ponderable, to all that tends by its nature towards central rest and immobility. Whatsoever obeys more naturally and readily the law of motion, they term volatile; and they compose their Stone by analysis, that is, the volatilization of the fixed; then by synthesis, that is, the fixation of the volatile . . ."​


"We may refer our readers also to an admirable treatise attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and entitled 'Minerva Mundi.' It is found only in certain editions of Hermes and contains, in allegories full of profundity and poetry, the doctrine of individual self-creation, or the creative law consequent on the harmony between two forces which are termed fixed and volatile by alchemists . . ."​

Levi's "doctrine of individual self-creation" is particularly interesting where Temperance is concerned. Waite makes it very easy to see that the triangle represents the volatile by coloring it orange; it also "rises upward." The square obviously represents the fixed. We can also see the process of "harmonizing" the two and the consequent liberation of consciousness symbolized by the sun—Levi's "self-creation." :)


Waite refers to the harmonizing of the "psychic and material natures." By "psychic" I think he probably means emotional, at least that's how I understand it. The emotional nature represents the volatile and the material nature is the fixed. The harmonizing of the two has an effect on Mind which allows it to transcend.


Abrac, Thank you for sharing your research; your evidence is convincing. I have no doubt that you've discovered much of what Waite's symbols mean in this card, which is not easy. It's a shame that such an intelligent man enjoyed obscuring truths as much as revealing them. Your digging has paid off.

The harmonization of duality is constant theme in Waite's version of the major arcana, and is the key to unlocking the mysteries of many cards, including Temperance. I wonder if Waite himself recognized the duality that lay underneath all these different depictions.


There's no question in my mind he recognized the duality, it was a big part of his philosophy.

Re. symbolism he wrote in Azoth, or The Star in the East: "It is to be remembered that symbolism, though it is meant to act as a veil, is also designed to be understood, if we are to regard its creation as occurring under the law of right reason. It is intended to raise a difficulty, but not an insuperable barrier." :)


Some Thoughts on Temperance

The pillars of Mercy and Justice ( or Severity ) on the TOL belong to the Tree of Good and Evil. This duality is reconciled in the central pillar of Benignity. In Christianity the Tree of Knowledge is represented by the crosses and the persons of the two thieves crucified on either side of Jesus. The latter with His cross is the Tree of Life. Concepts which I'm certain were familiar from an early age to Waite.
According to the FRC rituals, Waite assigned Will to the Pillar of Mercy and Desire to that of Justice with Mind assigned to the central pillar although I'm not entirely sure why that was the case . If we take desire as being related to love , we then have the familiar love and will formula ( e.g. Saint Augustine : " Love and do what you will " ).


Abrac, That's a great quote. It a directly addresses Waite's perspective on symbolism in general and sheds light on the deck he made.

One question a reader might have is what Waite meant by the words "meant" and "designed" and "intended." Symbols are hard to understand because they represent archetypes, which involve material from the unconscious. But they are not "meant" to be hard to understand any more than quantum chemistry is meant to be hard to understand.

The quote you gave (p58) occurs in a section dealing with alchemy, and it contains other interesting bits now that I look at it, thanks to your prompting.

Soon after Waite says that symbolism is meant to act as a veil he says
...the key to the [alchemical] process ‒ or rather, to the nature of the mystery of the process ‒ was held out without any evasion or subterfuge, and in many cases was almost as much paraded around as the sacredness of the Art, while at the same time it was of such a kind that it was likely to be discovered only be those who deserved to possess it. It was adapted to the quality of the mind that the Mystics desired to attract; it would be passed over by those who were devoid of that quality.​

So if it's true that spiritual truth is "likely to be discovered only by those who deserve to possess it," why go to the trouble of hiding it? Why does alternative spirituality have to be occult, according to Waite?

Waite's use of the phrase "paraded around" suggests he disapproved, that holding important truths out without evasion or subterfuge is somehow disrespectful of the "sacredness of the Art." This is a common feeling about value: that it's only present if it's protected, insulated, used carefully and selectively. If it's freely passed around then it has little value; it's degraded, worthless. This is part of what Waite calls the "law of right reason."

On the same page Waite says:
The alchemists must have had some object in writing and circulating their innumerable books, and we may take it that they served as decoys which attracted the wonder of a concourse of curious enquirers, and out of the Turba Vulgorum the elect were picked and preserved by a kind of intellectual selection. Alchemical symbolism was thus designed to be caviare to the crowd, but not impenetrable to the prepared.​

So Waite infers from the innumerable books on alchemy that they were meant to confuse the uninitiated, which is in keeping with his idea that the sacred must be hidden. Of course there are many truths that one must hide if one wants to function in a world filled with taboos, but Waite seems to believe that all (spiritual) truths of great value are "meant" to be hidden, that they're somehow "intended" to be obscured from the weak-minded.

One can imagine a secret Renaissance society in which Galileo's evidence that the Earth goes around the Sun would only be revealed to initiates of the highest grade after they've proven themselves worthy. In this vision knowledge is jealously hoarded; it becomes power, commodified. Certainly there are aspects of society in which that is the case, and Waite wanted to make it true for spiritual truth as well, through his efforts in secret society building.

And yet his deck now stands as a monument to many who seek mystical knowledge, serving less as the barrier that Waite meant to put in place and more as an enticement to delve more deeply into the human condition.


According to the FRC rituals, Waite assigned Will to the Pillar of Mercy and Desire to that of Justice with Mind assigned to the central pillar although I'm not entirely sure why that was the case.

I've struggled a bit also with Waite's assignments of Desire, Will and Mind on the Tree. What follows is my present understanding of what it all means. I'm glad to have other insights though, it's helpful.

The right pillar (Will) is Fire and the left pillar (Desire) is Water. Desire represents an "emotional" state, for lack of a better word. It is aspiration, faith and zeal; and love also. Will is purpose-driven, goal-oriented; it is direction. In Waite's ideology, both Will and Desire should have God as their goal. These two (Will and Desire) balance and compliment each other. The combining, harmonizing, and ultimate marriage of these two has a transforming effect on the "Mercury," that is, Mind. The transformation of Mind produces a rebirth into Spirit, the Christ-Spirit within.

**parsival, I found this reference in Lamps of Western Mysticism. You may already be aware of it.

"The only excellent way is that of love in its activity towards all in God and God in all. This is the sense of St. Augustine's: "Love and do what you will." Hatred is a canker in the heart and eats up this passion. Universal love maintains the passion for God till that time when God enters and takes over the work:"​

Exactly what you said. :)


I'm not entirely sure Waite's use of "paraded around" necessarily indicates his disapproval. Right after that he says "while at the same time it was of such a kind that it was likely to be discovered only be those who deserved to possess it." In other words, the symbolism was designed to protect itself. The right kind of symbolism, even if "paraded around," will make no one the wiser, except those properly prepared.

Waite acknowledges this point of view as having some validity but also acknowledges the need for secrecy. From what I can tell, he seems to have adopted both courses. There's a somewhat difficult reference in Lamps of Western Mysticism in which Waite can be seen grappling with these two viewpoints:

"I am acquainted with several persons whose opinions on these subjects would be entitled to respect, and by whom it is questioned seriously whether there is anything in the Mysteries which might not be put forth in the open day, because secrets of this kind in the last resource always protect themselves. That this is true within wide limits I am resolutely assured. At the same time, from the circumstances under which they are imparted, I am not less convinced that they will always remain secrets, and in these pages I at least have done nothing to unveil them. There are moreover other points of view from which reticence is entirely necessary, and it is not a convention which issues from an arbitrary pledge. If this were the only protection afforded to the Mysteries they would have been betrayed long ago, but at a certain stage the initiate knows why a discretion has been imposed upon him, and during all which precedes that stage, half-secrets and preliminary instructions are alone within his reach."​

He seems to have the view that at a certain point the initiate understands why some things had to be kept secret; by this point he/she will be prepared to handle them. I believe a lot of this has to do with power. Knowledge is power and too much power in the hands of an unstable person could be devastating to themself and others.

In the FRC, the Trinick "Devil" has now become Lucifer. In Waite's description he says, "The Lucifer of this diagram is the desire after spiritual things, to empower the life of sense and to equip the mind in separation." Spiritual power in the wrong hands, the misuse of that power, leads to all kinds of evil.


I ran across an interesting bit of info in Waite's Doctine and Literature of the Kabalah, p. 313. It's in a section on a treatise called Aesh Metzareph, or Purifying Fire, which deals with Kabbalistic Alchemy.

"The three Supernals, namely, Kether, Chokmah and Binah are the three fountains of metallic things. The thick water, that is, Mercury, is Kether; Salt is Chokmah; and Sulphur is Binah. These are the three principles of the alchemists. This attribution, says the treatise, is 'for known reasons.' "

These attributions are those which Waite adopted in the FRC, i.e., Sulphur on the pillar of Severity, Salt on the pillar of Mercy and Mercury on the central pillar. Seems a good possibility this was his source. :)

Ruby Jewel

There's no question in my mind he recognized the duality, it was a big part of his philosophy.

Re. symbolism he wrote in Azoth, or The Star in the East: "It is to be remembered that symbolism, though it is meant to act as a veil, is also designed to be understood, if we are to regard its creation as occurring under the law of right reason. It is intended to raise a difficulty, but not an insuperable barrier." :)

In its simplistic version, the duality here lies in water, which, universally, represents the unconscious, and earth which I, personally, think represents the conscious; and the element being transferred between the two jugs is "psychic energy"..... the balancing of psychic energy between unconscious and conscious. As a painter of symbols, I have always seen symbols as a form of universal communication meant to transcend the limitations of language rather than a veil to obscure communication. I tend to think the Golden Dawn folks overly intellectualized the meanings of these cards in order to create an impenetrable cloud of confusion, thereby implying that they are inaccessible to the average person. But, historically, these cards were, and are still, quite accessible to simple gypsies, and persons who communicate with the cards intuitively. The deeper levels of meaning are buried in the unconscious, and to the extent that you bring them into conscious is the psychic energy transformed. That is a form of transformation to which the cards 13 through 18 clearly refer and is meant to be healing....not confusing. To say that symbols are to act as a veil and yet are designed to be understood is a contradiction in terms.