Correspondence Course

One of the things I like about Occultism is that it comes in many flavors.  Some people like to specialize, but I tend to prefer sampling lots of different things.  I love a buffet…

If I can sample from among a bunch of different options (instead of just having a big plate full of only one dish), I'm usually pretty happy!
If I can sample from among a bunch of different options (instead of just having a big plate full of only one dish), I’m usually pretty happy!

Occultism offers just that kind of buffet, too: if I’m permitted to lump fields under the “Occult” umbrella fairly freely, then we’re talking about disciplines such as Tarot, Astrology, Runes, the I Ching, the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life, Crystal studies, Chakra studies, Color theory, the Ouija Board, and a whole gigantic slew of other forms of Divination and other sets of symbols.  These are all like different lenses through which one can choose to view Reality, and each has its own specific details, and its own pros and cons as a system for such viewing.

One tricky bit of business that pops up with some regularity, though, when you happen to study two or more of these disciplines, is the correspondence.  That is, people will often ask — or tell you — which specific symbol or element from one field corresponds to which specific symbol or element from another.  “Which Zodiac Sign does this Crystal correspond to?” and “Which I Ching Hexagram corresponds to which Tree of Life sphere?” are examples of the millions of variations of correspondence-themed questions you can land on once you start getting into multiple Occult fields.

The Equivalency symbol -- which Occult elements are equivalent to each other...which ones correspond to each other??
The Equivalency symbol — which Occult elements are equivalent to each other…which ones correspond to each other??

Now, on the one hand, setting up valid correspondences is a great sort of mnemonic aid that can really be of tremendous help when you’re trying to get your head around different sets of symbols — if you have a great handle on Tarot cards, for example, then sure, why not help yourself out in learning the I Ching Hexagrams by relating the still unfamiliar latter to the more familiar former?  On the other hand, though, there are a couple of possible pitfalls to going this route that I wanted to flag here…

First of all, relying too heavily on correspondences may shortchange a given symbol, and rob it of its uniqueness and individuality.  It’s pretty widely accepted, for instance, that the Strength Card in Tarot corresponds to the Zodiac Sign of Leo in Astrology, and using this correspondence to jog your memory as you’re learning one system or the other can be a useful tactic…but it would be a mistake to go no further than that, and to just think of the two symbols as synonyms for each other.  They do correspond, and they do share some similarities…but they’re not identical, and they’re not interchangeable.  Yes, both have to do with attributes represented for humanity by the Lion, and they’re arguably each the other’s closest counterpart within their respective systems…but they’re not the same exact thing just showing up in two slightly different contexts.  The Strength Card does deal with those qualities summed up by the Lion as a creature and as a symbol — raw power, potential ferocity, appetites, baser urges and impulses, prowess, a certain regal fearsomeness — but the Strength Card will virtually always also feature a Maiden, as well, and she’s a crucial counterbalancing force to the Lion, a sort of Yin to the Lion’s Yang that together make up a full system of their own (with the Maiden representing attributes such as civility, grace, self-control, compassion, altruism — things the Lion doesn’t possess but might benefit from, even as the Maiden lacks the Lion’s traits, but can gain from their presence when the two beings work together).  The Sign of Leo doesn’t involve any Maiden, though — it’s just the Lion.  And Leo involves other core characteristics that seem to always come up when discussing Leo in Astrology — traits such as self-expression, a need to perform, extroversion, generosity — but which rarely factor into the first few paragraphs (or pages, even) written about the Strength Card.  There’s definitely some overlap between the Strength Card and the Sign of Leo…but they’re not identical all the way down the line, and it can only help the budding occultist to grasp that, and to get on top of the differences as well as the similarities…

The classic Rider-Waite-Smith deck's Strength Card -- it depicts a Lion, yes, but it's not Leo the Lion from the Astrological Zodiac (and in fact, a lot of modern deck artists even use animals or creatures other than a lion in this card now)...
The classic Rider-Waite-Smith deck’s Strength Card — it depicts a Lion, yes, but it’s not Leo the Lion from the Astrological Zodiac (and in fact, a lot of modern deck artists even use animals or creatures other than a lion in this card now)…

The second major potential issue with relying too heavily on correspondences is that they involve a very heavy undercurrent of subjectivity to them.  That is, if you’re a newcomer to an Occult field, you might be inclined to swallow whole whatever a more learned author or teacher tells you…but in your eagerness to learn, you may not realize that what the author or teacher in question is saying stems greatly or entirely from their own individual and subjective take on things, and isn’t necessarily shared by other practitioners in the field the whole world over.  What if, hypothetically, you’re learning Tarot from someone who’s found over the course of 20 years of practice that the Strength Card almost always seems to pop up in questions about relationships that end in a break-up…so that teacher comes to associate the Strength Card with break-ups.  And maybe that generally does hold true for that teacher, too, and everyone she/he reads for over the years does suffer break-ups in relationships marked by the Strength Card in that teacher’s readings.  If you came to this teacher as a total neophyte, and just swallowed whole a statement that “Strength = break-up,” however, you’d just be adopting that one person’s unique take on the card, without understanding the greater Tarot community’s views on it, and probably even more importantly, without ever developing your own interpretation about it.  What if you then try to read for people by applying that “Strength = break-up” principle, but that principle doesn’t actually hold true for you?  Never mind that it likely doesn’t hold true for most people out there, either (which you might not realize if you never question the thing in the first place) — you may start receiving consistent feedback that this take isn’t working out whenever you try to apply it…and you may then get discouraged, and assume you lack some necessary connection with the cards or some such, and if you’ve also taken on even more such personalized interpretations that belong really only to your teacher, as well, then you may even get disgruntled enough to walk away from Tarot entirely…

So it’s vitally important to question correspondences that you come across.  If they’re being laid down by some source that you trust, then sure, you can try presuming them valid until proven otherwise…but the more I’ve learned about various Occult disciplines, the more I feel that lists of correspondences very often strike me as almost arbitrary, with no basis I can perceive beyond what the individual putting them forth may have established for herself/himself over time in their own private experiences…experiences that I wasn’t privy to (and you probably weren’t, either).

This guy may well be as Occult as his get-up would imply, and his notions may be totally valid, objectively, and applicable to everything, always...or they might only be relevant in his own little corner of the Universe, and won't help you at all...
This guy may well be as Occult as his get-up would imply, and his notions may be totally valid, objectively, and applicable to everything, always…or they might only be relevant in his own little corner of the Universe, and won’t help you at all…

I bring this up because I was recently reminded of how this very issue threatened to trip me up in a very large way as I began studying the Elder Futhark Runes.  As I’ve mentioned here before, the Runes comprise an actual alphabet that was, in fact, used for communication purposes by the Germanic tribes that wandered Northern Europe a few centuries ago…but they also fit hand in glove with Norse Mythology, and were/are used for things like Divination and Magic.  One of the resources that I picked up early on in my quest to learn the Runes, was a workbook designed to give a newcomer some hands-on exercises to work through.  I usually respond really well to this kind of learning method, so I was excited to jump in.  The workbook, though, contained not just some basic info about each Rune and some exercises; the author also listed a bunch of correspondences for each Rune.  These included not just figures from Norse Mythology that each supposedly corresponded to, but also gemstones, plants, animals, Astrological symbols, and Tarot cards.  I was already pretty well-versed in Tarot at this point, but the correspondences given there just baffled and confounded me.  I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that the author’s proposed correspondences seemed to miss the mark by a very wide margin far more often than they came close to striking it.  I was going into this assuming that the author’s work was The Runic Gospel, though, and so I began to despair that I’d never be able to understand the Runes.  I even started to wonder if my grasp on Tarot was as solid as I’d felt it had become by then…

Only after it suddenly occurred to me that Hey, wait — this author’s correspondences may belong only to this author, and I’m not obligated to adopt them!, did I find myself able to start relaxing.  Only then did I really start to learn the Runes (and it helped that I also put the workbook down, and moved on to other sources of learning).

So anyway, the point is that if you’re just starting to learn an Occult field, always try to remember that you’re picking up things for which a subjective interpretive component will always be at play — you’re not just memorizing scientific constants that will never vary, such as the boiling point of water or the speed of light.  There will usually be a large patch of conceptual territory that most people will agree on for a given symbol in any Occult field…but then there will also be a possibly even larger stretch of turf that others don’t generally recognize in connection with that symbol, but which can be equally valid for you as an individual practitioner.  The most helpful correspondences you’ll ever find are the ones that you ponder and verify for yourself…

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