This is going to take a minute to explain. Feel free to pull up a chair.
On November 20, 2011, I wrote a post about “Judith as the Queen of Hearts” that discussed the history of modern playing cards – culminating in historical and mythological characters depicted as European royalty in court cards for four suits (hearts, diamonds, clubs, spades). In these playing cards, Judith was the basis for the concept of the Queen of Hearts.
But before the playing cards we know today, there were tarot cards. Tarot cards were playing cards throughout much of Europe – although not in English-speaking countries in which they were primarily used for the occult practice of divination (or fortune telling). Tarot decks were/are composed of twenty-two Major Arcana cards and Minor Arcana cards that roughly correspond to the four suits in current playing cards: cups = hearts, pentacles/coins = diamonds, wands/clubs = clubs, swords = spades. Each Minor Arcana suit has four court cards (king, queen, knight and knave) plus cards one through ten. Insight into the past, current and future situations is acquired by cartomancy, or posing a question to the cards and relying on associations to understand the messages. These associations were outlined in books by occultists Etteilla (aka Jean-Baptiste Alliette) in in 1770 and Court de Gébelin (aka Antoine Court) in 1781 – supposedly based on an ancient book of arcane wisdom from the Egyptian god of writing and knowledge, Thoth.
Still with me?
While there have been many versions of tarot decks over the years to dispense this ancient wisdom and many depictions of the characters, the Italian Giovanni Vachetta created a deck in 1893 in which the Queen of Swords was depicted as Judith (1). Although she is not named, there can be little doubt that this card is an illustration of Judith leaving the enemy camp with a sword in one hand and holding a lumpy bag in the other. Oh, and leaving a headless body behind.
Giovanni Vacchetta, “Queen of Swords,” 1893, tarot card
It’s getting deeper.
Finally we come to the Thoth Tarot, a deck of Tarot cards designed by Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) and co-designed and painted by Lady Frieda Harris (1877-1962). Describing Crowley is a task too large of this blogger, so I will give you the simplified version: he was an occultist, ceremonial magician, poet, painter, novelist, mountaineer, and self-described spy who founded the religion and philosophy of Thelema and identified himself as the prophet entrusted with guiding humanity into the Æon of Horus in the early 20th century. In 1937 and short of funds, Crowley decided to write another book in his series The Equinox, called The Book of Thoth : A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians and enlisted Harris as the artist for the accompanying tarot deck. The book was printed as a limited edition of 200 in 1944, but neither Crowley nor Harris lived to see the deck itself printed in 1969. (2)
The symbolism of the Thoth Tarot differs from the more popular and familiar Rider-Waite deck, instead drawing from Egyptian, Hebrew, Chinese and astrological esoteric schools of thought. Harris’s illustrations are uniformly stark and vivid throughout. Her depiction of the Queen of Swords is not obviously Judith but does seem to draw on the archetype of the decapitating female.
Marguerite Frieda Harris (1877-1962), “Queen of Swords,” 1944, ink on card stock, 9.5 cm x 14 cm, Thoth Tarot Cards, Distributed by Samuel Weiser, 734 Broadway, N.Y. 10003
While I feel qualified to talk about Judith for days (obviously), I need some assistance to understand the layered symbolism of this card. So I defer to Lon Milo Duquette’s analysis of the cloud and the severed head (3):
One look at this lady tells us she means business. Water of air is suggestive of clouds that promise either life-giving rain or the threat of a torrential cloudburst. She holds the severed head of a bearded man in her left hand and the sword that probably did the job in her right. One may think this grisly touch is just another gruesome Crowleyism. It is not. This image is the classic Golden Dawn description of the Queen of Swords, and makes a fundamental Qabalistic statement.
The suit of swords represents Yetzirah, the formative world – the mind’s eye of deity. Sword’s and Yetzirah’s counterpart in the human soul is the Ruach, the intellect, which is centered in the brain – the human head. Using the sward of discretion and reason, the Queen has separated the higher faculties of the intellect from the influences of the lower nature (the Nephesh, the animal soul). She is quite literally, Crowley points out, the “Liberator of the Mind” …
The influence of Virgo moving into Libra gives the Queen of Swords the practicality and grace of a great monarch. This native “should be intensely perceptive, a keen observer, a subtle interpreter, an intense individualist, swift and accurate at recording ideas; in action confident, in spirit gracious and just. Her movements will be graceful, and her ability in dancing and balancing exceptional.” If ill-dignified, she can be as cruel and dangerous as she looks.
But what Duquette does not tackle the symbol “she wears, as a crest, a winged child’s head.” For an explanation of that, I went directly to the source, Temple of Thelema (4)
Hers is not the way of the finished product. The child she nurtures is a work in progress. Hers is not the practical management of completed affairs but, rather, the on-going brainstorming of creative solution.
Oh NOW I GET IT!! Judith was an incessant blogger with her head in the clouds and a liberated mind. And that explains why I spent an entire day writing this post while the dust piled up and my family starved. It was already in the cards.
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(1) Lee A. Bursten, “Tarot of the Master by Giovanni Vacchetta”, Fourhares.com newsletter, January 2003.
(3) Lon Milo Duquette, Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, Newburyport, MA: Weiser Books (November 1, 2003)
(4) James A. Eshelman, Liber Theta: Tarot Symbolism & Divination,www.thelema.org
Special thanks to iwisewoman.com for sharing the lovely image from the Thoth deck.