The Minor Arcana are interesting. Most people are immediately attracted to the Major Arcana when they come to the Tarot, and this is understandable. The pictures are captivating, and they hold all manner of symbols and secrets. Even in the RWS and similar decks, where the Minor Arcana cards are illustrated, they tend to get brushed to the side in favor of the Majors. I’m often guilty of this, I admit. But the Minor Arcana deserves to be studied, as well.
The Minor Arcana consists of two different kinds of cards: Court cards and small cards, also sometimes called pips. We’ll deal with the small cards first.
If the Major Arcana is considered like an alphabet (an esoteric hieroglyphic alphabet, perhaps, but it can be considered an alphabet nonetheless), then the Minor Arcana small cards are like numbers. Two concepts we learn in grade school today, and the two fundamental building blocks of communication. The small cards consist of numbers one through ten, a complete numeric cycle. The full deck of Tarot cards therefore becomes a sort of code of letters and numbers, almost like its own language.
Of course, there are four suits in the Minor Arcana, with ten small cards per suit, making a total of forty small cards. The number four is significant for many reasons. It represents stability, it represents the four elements (with which the four suits identify), the four Hebrew letters that spell the unpronounceable name of God, and finally, it represents the physical world (as opposed to the number three, which represents the spiritual – this is why seven is such a holy number, being the sum of the worldly and spiritual). I think this last reason fits best with why there should be four suits to the Minors. After all, the Minor Arcana is supposed to represent the mundane physical world, in contrast to the spiritual realm of the Majors. The four elements are the stuff of which this world is made, which is why each element is assigned to a suit.
These suits represent abstractions related to the elements as well as the elements themselves. These are usually associated with realms of human experience. Wands are associated with Fire, which is associated with spirituality, creativity, and passion, Cups with Water, which is love, emotions, and social interactions, Swords with Air, which is intellect, conflict, and sorrow, and Coins with Earth, which is the material world, money, and work.
In this way, with the numbers representing levels of gradation or concentration of the appropriate element, the entirety of worldly human experience is theoretically contained within the small cards. Each number is significant in itself, as is each element, and these two factors are combined in each small card to give a distinct meaning. In many cases, this meaning is further refined with the addition of astrological or other esoteric correspondences.
The cards of the Major Arcana symbolize various aspects of the spiritual realm; the small cards symbolize various aspects of the worldly realm; the court cards, then, bridge the gap by symbolizing the only thing that has ever made such a connection between these realms: human beings.
There are sixteen court cards – four to each suit (there’s that number again). They are pictured as different ranks of medieval society: usually a page, knight, queen, and king, although almost as common is to call the page and knight princess and prince. Each of these is often given an elemental association aside from their suit, namely: king – fire; queen – water; knight – air; and page – earth. Thus, the Knight of Coins would be associated with Air and Earth, by virtue of his rank and suit, respectively. Astrological associations are often applied to court cards as well, which is a popular method of selecting significators.
Using astrological and elemental qualities as a basis, personality traits are assigned to each court card. This allows them to signify real people should they turn up in a spread; alternatively, they could signify something about the querent’s personality that may be influencing a given situation. Each card has positive and negative traits attached to it, illustrating that no one is perfect, and any good quality in an extreme measure can turn bad.
There are many other possible ways to interpret court cards, and as such, they are often the most difficult cards for beginners to understand. I won’t go any further into detail about the myriad of possibilities represented by the court cards here, though. Another time, perhaps.
Most people recognize in the Minor Arcana a pack of regular playing cards (the main difference being the addition of the Knight among the court cards). The Tarot as a full deck or as a partial deck can indeed be used for gaming – there is even a trick-taking game that was specifically designed for this deck.
A lot of Tarot enthusiasts forget this frivolous function of the deck amidst all of the occult and esoteric hullabaloo that has come to be associated with it. As far as we can reasonably tell, though, it was for gaming purposes that this deck was originally created, and nothing more. That might seem disappointing, but I find a certain comfort in it. After all, just because all the symbolism came as an afterthought doesn’t make it any less real or true. If anything, it makes it all the more potent that it occurred naturally over time, or so I believe.
The humble beginnings of this magical deck as a mere game serves as a reminder to never take things too seriously. It’s a lesson that I think a lot of people in this age of Information and all the stress that comes with it would do well to remember. Tarot is a metaphor for life, and life is a game. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But as long as you’re this side of the grave, you’ll be dealt a new hand at the end of each turn. It’s all for fun if you let it be. That might just be the most important lesson the Tarot has to offer, and it’s not even taught by the haughty Major Arcana, but rather by the lowly Minors. They deserve a little more credit.