Anyone who has ever tried to slog her way through the writings of Arthur Edward Waite knows what a chore it can be. His prose style is alternately preachy and pedantic, dismissive of others while ever laudatory of himself; his only truly “readable “ book, in your humble blogger’s opinion, is his translation of Eliphas Levi. During his career he made arbitrary changes to the design of the Tarot with scant explanation, and his interpretations of his own cards are, at times, cryptic and contradictory. Egocentric to a fault, he alienated many of his closest colleagues—including Aleister Crowley, who mockingly referred to him as the “aged saint.”
For all his self-serving bluster, though, Tarot students and scholars alike owe Arthur Waite an un-payable debt of gratitude for his single greatest contribution to the Tarot canon: The pictorial narratives depicted on the cards of the minor arcana, or Trumps Minor, originally conceived by Waite and executed by illustrator Pamela Colman Smith.
Until publication of the Waite-Rider deck in 1910, only one other Tarot deck in history (an Italian deck from the late 1400s) was known to have incorporated illustrations into the Trumps Minor. In every other deck, the only visual representations were the obvious ones: The Two of Cups was just an image of two cups—basically identical to an ordinary pack of playing cards. It’s for this reason, most likely, that a number of the earliest Tarot scholars, such as Levi, didn’t devote much time or energy to interpreting the minor cards. Compared to the power and majesty of the Trumps Major, the minor cards seemed to cheapen the value, and dilute the purpose, of the deck: After all, they could be used for gambling and parlor tricks as well as for divination!
By adding illustrations to the Trumps Minor—some of which were greatly influenced by the aforementioned Italian deck—Waite and Smith essentially “liberated” the cards from their recreational function, and gave the student of Tarot an entirely new set of analytical tools with which to study. Most importantly, the images on the minor cards made the Tarot a much more intimate “user experience,” and they help to explain, in part, the explosion in popularity that the Tarot enjoyed in the 20th Century; for as the images on the Trumps Major are symbols of archetypal forces, most of the images on the minor cards portray ordinary people in the course of their everyday lives. As such, these are the cards we look for to provide guidance and insight in our everyday lives as well.
(Note: For the sake of this survey, and for purposes of accuracy, we are overlooking the so-called “Lenormand” or “Grand Tableau” decks that were popularly used for divination in the 19th Century. These cards do have accompanying illustrations to accompany the spades, diamonds et al, and many of the decks are quite lush in design; but old-school cartomancy differs from Tarot by lacking a Trumps-Major component, and the interpretations of the corresponding “pip” and “court” cards in cartomancy adhere to a more rigid and doctrinaire regime than the more multilayered and nuanced approach Tarot requires.)
The characters that populate the Trumps Minor are dressed in quasi-medieval garb, and they exist in mostly bucolic settings, though some cards are purely symbolic (such as the Three of Swords) and others meld together elements of concrete and symbolic language (such as the Seven of Cups). Why Waite or Smith chose to portray the denizens of the Trumps in the manner they did, no one knows for certain, though by casting the cards in an Arthurian mist—connecting them with a mythic time of dragons and warlocks and magic swords embedded in stone—the reader draws an unconscious-archetypal connection to the Trumps Major. Now, however, there is room enough in the world for us to walk alongside the giants and Titans of the major cards.
The Four Suits
As we noted earlier in our review of Kabbala, the number “4” has a special meaning inasmuch as it signifies the completion of a cycle and the reconciliation of opposites in a perfected, multidimensional form, i.e., the square or cross, in much the same manner that a sequence of four Hebrew letters “perfects” the name of God. The four suits of the Trumps Minor fulfill many of the same functions, and communicate many of the same concepts that the number ‘4” implies in kabbalistic teaching.
The attributions to the suits listed here are meant to give approximate meanings to each. As you become more familiar with the cards, you will likely be able to add more qualities and characteristics to the list. The Trumps Minor, while revealing vignettes of everyday life, are also rich in symbolism and hence defy oversimplification; and a few of them are more difficult to decipher than any of the cards of the Trumps Major.
The suit of Wands corresponds to the world of Atziluth, the supernal world of emanation, to the first letter of the name of God (yod), and to the element of Fire and the fire signs of the Zodiac (Aries, Leo and Sagittarius). It is the suit of active creation, the mature masculine, the Kings of the Trumps Minor, the first spark of Divine light that brings life, and elemental motion that sets forth all other motions; it is the suit of creativity in the arts or business, of adventure and travel; of fiery destruction, but also of purification and regeneration. It is the card of “Judgement” of the Trumps Major.
The suit of Cups corresponds to the world of Briah, the archetypal world of emanation, to the second letter of God’s name (heh), and to the element of Water and the water signs of the Zodiac (Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces). It is the suit of receptive creation, the mature feminine, the Queens of the Trumps Minor, the Divine idea in gestation, intuition, romantic love, feelings and dreams; of drowning and madness, but also of baptism and surrender. It is the card of “The Hanged Man” of the Trumps Major.
The suit of Swords corresponds to the world of Yetzirah, the formative emanation that begets our material world, the third letter of God’s name (vav), and to the element of Air and the air signs of the Zodiac (Gemini, Libra and Aquarius). It is the suit of consciousness and ego, the youthful masculine, will and wisdom, the Princes of the Trumps Minor; of dividing and healing, of intellect; of violence and strife but also of striving and achieving; of devastation, but also of heroism. It is the card of “The Fool” of the Trumps Major.
The suit of Pentacles corresponds to the world of Assiah, the earthly world of matter, to the final letter of God’s name (heh), and to the elements of Earth and the earth signs of the Zodiac (Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn). It is the suit of the material world, money in all its aspects, that which is willed into being, work and industry, everyday relationships, the youthful feminine, the Pages of the Trumps Minor, and sexual love; of the world as we perceive it; of poverty and privation, but also of charity and giving.
The Court Cards
The so-called “Court” cards of the Trumps Minor—the personified Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses (respectively, “Knights” and cryptically, “Pages” in Waite’s deck)—have been the focus of a spirited debate among Tarot scholars for many years. In a reading, do they stand for actual people who may influence our lives, or do they represent aspects of our own personality, or the personalities of others? Do they represent various spirit-forces that are influencing us? The answer, I think, is—not to be coy about this—that it all depends on where these cards fall in any given Tarot spread. For instance, a Court card that falls in a position that suggests the distant past might signify a parent, ancestor or teacher, or simply an aspect of the suit that accompanied us into the world at birth: Inherited traits and characteristics, for example. By contrast, a Court card that falls in a position that suggests the present day or the immediate future might indeed represent someone the querent has met, or will meet. A Court card might signify the querent herself, and that’s why it’s a good idea to ask for the querent’s birthday before laying out the cards. A predominance of Court cards in a spread might mean a family gathering, or some similar social function: A convergence of events involving other people (birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, etc.). Like the rest of the Tarot “system,” the interpretations of the Court cards should be flexible and dynamic, never static or rigid. “I see a dark-haired man in your future” undoubtedly holds true for everyone eventually, but it doesn’t yield much in the way of useful insight.
Remembering our previous review of the ten Sephiroth on the Tree of Life, the general qualities of the cards of the Trumps Minor can be roughly defined as follows:
Aces: The root or wellspring of the suit; the suit in its original form; beginnings, revelations, and gifts of creativity, intuition, will, or matter. As a rule, Aces signify birth and renewal because, like Kether, they represent the “first force” by which the rest of creation is put in motion.
Twos: The opposites apprehended, separated and reunited; equilibrium of force.
Threes: The holy trinity; body, mind, and spirit; birth, death and rebirth; the cycle of life.
Fours: Completion and accomplishment; the circle squared; the suit in its perfected aspect.
Fives: Imbalance, conflict and strife; the world of sensation and illusion.
Sixes: The crossroads on the Tree where the paths of the Divine and man intersect.
Sevens: Breakthroughs; emotions, feelings and intuition; the collective unconscious.
Nines: Ego, the dream; beauty or terror; the individual unconscious.
Tens: The matter made manifest and/or brought to an end; the waking consciousness of man.
Princesses (Pages): Apprenticeship and study; news and messages.
Princes (Knights): Initiation and ritual; the coming or going of a thing or event (the Princes are all pictured on horseback and facing either to the right or left).
Queens: The mature feminine; family and domestic affairs; teaching; the sciences.
Kings: The mature masculine; social and business affairs; government and law.
As a rule, the lower-numbered cards in all of the suits—cards Ace through Four in particular—tend to be the “purest” and “least corrupted” in terms of the suit’s characteristics when compared to the higher-numbered cards. This mirrors the process of transformation that takes place on the Tree of Life as the limitless light of Ein-Sof is “broken down” until it forms the coarse mortal matter that comprises our world. Similarly, the higher-numbered cards—cards Six through 10—speak more immediately to our everyday concerns than do the lower-numbered cards because they are “closer” to our level of consciousness; the process of breaking down spirit into matter has already begun with them, thus the higher-numbered cards can be said to bear a greater “resemblance” to us. We may not always like what the cards have to tell us—as we will discover when we examine the suit of Swords—but if we enter into their world in good faith and with an open mind, we can learn a great deal about ourselves, and provide some additional meaning to our world beyond what we perceive. We’ll begin our survey of the Trumps Minor tomorrow, with an overview of Wands.