The Swords are the most ominous of the suit symbols. They are associated with the element of Air and the realm of the Mind or intellect. They can also indicate communication issues and conflict. And sorrow.
Certainly a Tarot must incorporate some un-happy cards. Each suit has them. But the Swords seem particularly heavy with them. It’s unsettling to see a spread dominated by their cold steel.
You’d think the element Air would be a bit lighter than this. What’s going on, here?
Air is associated with the mind, because it is clear and tall, as opposed to the murky wellspring from which our emotions flow. Our thoughts are not constrained by the gravity of earthly reality.
The mind is the realm of thought, lofty and ever-moving, but capable of great precision. Our capacity for abstract thought seems to be a large part of what sets humans apart from animals. Without it, civilization and all that we take for granted simply could not be.
A sword is a good symbol for the intellect. It’s either used to stab or to slice. A good thought is a good point, and to analyze something is to dissect it, metaphorically or otherwise. We understand things better by taking them apart. We even call a very smart person “sharp”.
Furthermore, a sword takes training and practice to use. It’s not a weapon for the everyman. It is a symbol of status. A man with a sword is a learned man, not to be trifled with. It is wielded by heroes, as so many fantasy stories illustrate.
But make no mistake: the sword is a weapon. It has one purpose.
The mind truly is a double-edged sword. Certainly, we wouldn’t enjoy the benefits of civilization without it. Math, science, philosophy, and literature, art and music, architecture and technology, our societies and cultures – all of that and countless more can only exist through the workings of the mind. But civilization has its pitfalls, as well. Everything good comes at a cost, and even if the end goal is supposed to be good, attaining it involves risk. When mishandled, whether from poor practice or for a nefarious purpose, a sword can cause serious, irreparable harm. If we can honestly, truly enjoy the benefits of civilization, we do it at the expense of unimaginable suffering that it’s caused.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the option to lay down these arms; to live is to suffer, such is the tragic human condition. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away, not really. We cannot deal the Swords out of the deck.
If life’s suffering is inescapable, life’s meaning comes from what you do with it. The Swords teach responsibility. Put your mind to it, and you can accomplish anything. Just strive to accomplish something worth the risk, because there will always be risk. And of course there have been mistakes – there will always be mistakes, too. Don’t make mistakes in vain. Always learn, and work for improvement. The Swords represent wisdom through sorrow. When a reading turns up fraught with Swords, it’s a good idea to take a step back and consider the consequences of your thoughts or actions, lest your lessons be learned the hard way.
“Draw me not without reason; sheathe me not without honor.” I read that once in a reference volume on American-made swords through the Civil War. Apparently it’s an inscription on a sword blade, although I can’t remember anything more specific than that. I really like it, and I bring it up because I think it perfectly encapsulates the responsibilities of this suit.
This post is, in a sense, a continuation of the series of posts for the Tarot beginner I’ve called the “Basics“, the most recent of which deals with getting started using the cards (it’s really just a dip of the toes in the shallow end, but you gotta start somewhere, and there’s only so much objective advice I can give; click here to read it).
Learning all 78 cards of the Tarot when you are a complete novice can seem a daunting task, and I believe that finding ways to personally relate with your cards will, if not alleviate the challenge, at least make it more immediately interesting.
When I succeeded in introducing my friends and fellow Council members to the Tarot, I devised two (not remotely original) exercises to help them identify personally with their cards (and to help me know who I’m looking at when they turn up in my own readings). These exercises are not necessarily designed to help anyone learn divinatory meanings or anything like that. They are designed rather to connect the reader with his or her cards while simultaneously allowing for the opportunity to see how that person views him or herself. I like to think of it as giving the deck an opportunity to “learn” about who you are while you learn about it. The first of these exercises is to select your significators.
Now, I’ve already written at least two posts that center around the idea of significators, so I don’t think I really need to go too in-depth here with explanations about what a significator is or how it might be used in a reading. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a significator, click here for an introduction, and here for a little context on how I like to use them for divining.
This exercise deals only with Court cards, so separate these from your deck before continuing. Because the Court is often the most difficult part of the Tarot to understand, I think doing this exercise first out of the two has the added benefit of getting familiar with them early on.
The essence of the exercise is simple enough to explain: select any and all of the court cards that you feel you identify with.
It is, of course, a little more complex than that in practice, because there are many ways of choosing which cards you identify with. The simplest and most straightforward of these is simple intuition and aesthetics. What cards just strike you? Which ones look most appealing to you? You can pick significators in this fashion with absolutely zero other knowledge of the cards.
Another very popular method is selecting your significator based on its zodiacal attributions, and while I think this method is perfectly valid (and indeed, is how I came to choose the Knight of Cups as one of my own), it requires a bit of knowledge or study on the part of the chooser. There are also divergent ways of assigning astrological correspondences with the Tarot, which adds another layer of confusion to the mix. The methods of the Golden Dawn are probably the most prevalent, and they are the ones that I use.
Aside from astrology and aesthetics, there are many other ways to choose. I highly recommend Understanding the Tarot Court by Mary Greer and Tom Little as a starting point. Among other things, this book elaborates on MBTI personalities associated with each card, career types, elemental dignities, and the admittedly outdated physical characteristics traditionally attributed to them. The possibilities are virtually endless, and they’re all valid. Whatever makes most sense to you is what I’d recommend you go with.
However you feel compelled to continue, choose at least one card to represent yourself. I suggest considering what sorts of issues you can imagine approaching the Tarot with, and come up with a separate significator for each of them (work, relationships, spirituality, etc.).
Once you’ve selected as many significators as you feel is apt, take some time to consider why you picked these cards, what roles they fulfill, and how they might relate to each other; consider the ways in which you are these characters.
For example, when I choose a significator, I almost always choose a knight for rank and either pentacles or cups for suit.* Occasionally, I’ll choose wands or a page or king; it is very rare that I choose a queen, and rarer still that I choose from among the suit of swords. There are many conclusions that can be drawn about my character and my perceptions about both myself and the world around me based only on this information.
If you follow any Tarot forums or other Tarot blogs, there is a very good chance you’ve not heard many positive opinions on the significator. This drives me up a wall, because I consciously try not to totally trash ideas that I don’t agree with when it comes to the Tarot, and it bothers me (though it doesn’t surprise me) that so many people do not do the same. Tarot is an incredibly open-ended method of fortune-telling (or whatever else you might do with it), and no two people approach it in the same way – there is no wrong way. There are, however, a lot of people lurking out there in cyberspace who would like you to think they know everything there is to know, and that there is a wrong way – namely, any way that doesn’t match theirs. Don’t fall for it. Do it your own way, and the first suggestion I have for you in that vein is to try any suggestion you are offered while you are still learning what works for you.
It is true that the significator is not an essential component of divination – the success or failure of the spread should not depend on whether or not you’ve specified to the cards ahead of time which one of them represents you.** With that being said, though, many spreads exist that require or at least suggest the use of a significator, and I see no reason not to comply in those instances. What harm is there in that? (there are arguments that there are problems with it, but I’ve found these problems to be of negligible consequence to the validity of a reading)
But all this back and forth among the online Tarot community about the use of the significator in divination is missing the point, I think. If you don’t think it’s necessary to use a significator while reading a spread, by all means, don’t use one. But, if you are reading this post, and you are a complete Tarot newbie, I urge you to at least try this exercise. It is a very useful way to begin building a more personal relationship with your cards. Even if you’re not new to the Tarot, it’s a good way to get to know the court cards in a new deck, or even an old one if the courts give you trouble. This post is not necessarily an exercise to determine how you will read from now on; it’s rather an exercise in the theory of significators and how they might apply to your readings. Whether or not you continue to use them after choosing them is entirely up to you.
Given what I’ve written about the subject of significators in the past (linked above), this post might be a little redundant in places. However, I think the next post about Tarot familiarization exercises (the Tarot Patron) will make a bit more sense with this one to build on.
*I should say “at the time of this writing,” because my suit and rank affiliations are liable to change, as are anyone else’s. As a pentacles sort of man, though, I think it’s safe to say that any changes in this area are going to be a very long time in coming. The point of this footnote, though, is that you should not feel constrained to whatever significators you choose. Nothing is permanent, least of all in the fluid world of Tarot-reading.
**Or the querent, if you’re reading for someone else. Having the querent select a significator, even if he or she has no knowledge of Tarot, can be handy because it gives you a bit of insight into them before the reading has even really started.
The watchtower has been built, and the sentinel has ascended to his (or her) post at the summit. It is now time to get your bearings.
The title of this portion of the spread should make it pretty obvious what the next four cards represent. More than just the cardinal directions, though, these cards are supposed to be resources (in a metaphorical sense) that you have at your disposal. Because of this combination of meanings, I generally tend to think of these cards in terms of walls: there is one facing each direction, and they serve to “defend” the tower in the center from potential dangers on the horizons. Right now, all you will see is what you have to use. It won’t become clear how you might use them until later on.
The walls are the intermediary cards between those of introspection we drew in the previous post and those of external influences we’ll draw in the following one. They stand in the middle, delineating the inside from the out. They are yours to use, but they are not you in the sense that the tower is, nor are they fully separate from you in the sense that the cards in the next post will be.
Each direction is associated with an element and its corresponding Tarot suit. Everybody has his or her own way of matching directions and elements and suits, so by all means, if you have a favorite method, use it. For me, I tend to associate East with Air and Swords, South with Fire and Wands, West with Water and Cups, and North with Earth and Coins.* I always begin laying cards with the East because that is the direction of the sunrise.
For the current exercise, I drew the following cards as the walls for my sentinel outpost:
East / Air – My Eastern wall is constructed of Four Swords. Air is the element of the mind, and swords in this quadrant are generally (but not necessarily) a good sign, because it is their natural habitat. Numbering four, these swords are balanced and stable, too, so all in all, I think we can conclude that, at least for the issue at hand,** I’m possessed of a strong mental capacity that doesn’t unnecessarily overexert itself. I should be adequately equipped do deal with any intellectual obstacles ahead.
Basically, I know what I’m talking about here, and while putting words to the cards isn’t always easy, particularly when trying to explain a reading such as this one (by which I mean it’s a sample reading that seems to have turned out with some degree of self-awareness), I ought to be more than capable of getting my point across. I want to make sure that I don’t try too hard, though. I do have a tendency to ramble.
South / Fire – The South is the realm of passions, spirit, creativity, or whatever you wish to call the driving force in your life. The southern wall is the Six of Coins. The coins are the suit of tangible things, and this card in particular is sometimes associated with giving and receiving. Six is another balanced number, but one with a bit more abundance than the four.
What’s driving me at this moment is a desire to make the abstract in my head a little more concrete, and what better way to do that than write it out and share it with others?
West / Water – To the West lies the realm of emotions, and facing this direction is the Three of Coins. This is usually considered a card of work, particularly the beginning stages of an endeavor. It is a number of initial results, the first time in the numerical sequence that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
This card poses a slight difficulty, because the subject of this reading is one that is more or less devoid of emotional attachment. Perhaps this is why we see the cold solid coins, rather than the cups that would be typically associated with this quadrant. Perhaps it’s referring to the simple emotion of contentment that comes with working on something that I’ve created. This spread isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s something I’ve orchestrated all the same, and I enjoy working with it.
North / Earth – Earth is the element associated with the physical realm, and so the Northern wall tends to represent the closest thing to an actual “material” resource. Here we have the Two of Wands, however, and wands are arguably the least material of the suits.
The Two of Wands usually evokes potential in my mind, perhaps representing a spectrum of possibilities that would have stemmed from an initial idea (the Ace). In the quadrant of earth, this suggests to me an ability to bring these ideas into reality. Notice that the northern and southern walls relay similar messages about making the abstract concrete, but while the south shows a drive to do so, the north shows a capacity to make productive use of that drive.
I’d like to take a moment now to make a point about this reading: as I’ve mentioned, the issue in question is the spread itself. It’s an instructional reading, broken down to explain how the spread works, but it is a real reading. I’ve drawn all of these cards at random (except the sentinel, of course), and done my best to make sense of them. I did not, however, dream up a hypothetical scenario upon which to base my interpretations, and as a result, the cards reflect only what I brought to the table – that is, an intent to explain the structure of the spread.
This is therefore an intellectual exercise more than anything else, and that’s clearly expressed by these walls I’ve placed around the sentinel.*** The eastern wall is the one with the card that makes the most sense – the suit of the mind in the quadrant of the mind, and a particularly stable and balanced card at that. After that is the southern wall. This card isn’t as straightforward as the eastern one, but it still makes plenty of sense to me.
On the other side of the coin we have the western and northern walls, which I’ve had a little more difficulty deciphering. This is because this hypothetical reading does not center around an emotional issue, nor is it grounded in any physical matter. I can still make sense of these cards, but it’s apparent to me that they do not have much to contribute to the overall point of the reading, at least so far.
The reason I approached this spread sans-question is because it is specifically designed to give an overview of your life, taking into account many levels, regardless of which of those levels have directly to do with what’s on your mind. I rarely use this spread with a particular question in mind, and when the entire spectrum of my life is taken into account, all four quadrants will normally have a message for me. I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that, while this reading is intended as an instructive sample, it is by no means representative of the depth that this spread can sometimes reveal. It’s the sort of thing that’s difficult to express through a generic example, and yet a generic example is the best way I know to really explain how all the parts work together.
Now we have a watchtower and a perimeter; the outpost is complete. At this stage, I like to arrange the cards to align with the actual points of a compass, like so:
The numbers three and four are integral to the structure of this spread. Considering the sentinel as separate, the outpost so far is constructed of three (the tower) plus four (the walls) cards, totaling seven. In numerology, three is sometimes considered the number of spirit, and four the number of earth (precisely because it’s the number of classical elements and cardinal directions). Seven is traditionally considered a holy number because it combines the spiritual and the mundane, simultaneously grounding the lofty spirit and raising up the lowly material. Even though the individual cards of the tower generally represent body, mind, and spirit, they can be taken as a whole to represent your non-corporeal self, which in turn is brought down to earth with the addition of these four walls, which represent how you connect with the world around you. Thus the seven cards of the outpost combined represent your entire self at the time of the reading.****
Three and four multiplied equals twelve, which just so happens to be the number of cards required for the next part of this spread.
*This is how I usually lay out the spread, but sometimes I wonder if the South shouldn’t be Air, and East Fire, so that the elemental opposites (that is, Earth and Air, Fire and Water) actually sit opposite each other on the compass. It ultimately doesn’t matter, though, so long as I’m clear with myself about what’s what before I actually start laying down any cards.
**I did not approach this exercise with a specific question in mind, which means I’m leaving it up to the cards to illustrate the main issue of their own accord. If you will recall, I interpreted the three cards in the previous post (linked above) as representing my purpose here, namely to share my spread and my methods of reading with it. Having established that as the subject of this reading, I will continue to interpret the cards in this vein unless something comes up that makes me seriously reconsider it.
***Or rather, it’s been pretty clearly expressed to me. Whether or not I’m expressing it clearly in my turn is up for debate.
****Alternatively, you could consider each of the walls to be one of the classical elements, with the central cards collectively representing Aether or Quintessence. This means that there are five “points” here, analogous to the five points of the pentagram. As I briefly mentioned in another post, the pentagram is a symbol of the microcosm, and the six-pointed star is correspondingly a symbol of the macrocosm. Therefore, the cards that make up the outpost reflect the querent; the next twelve cards (keeping in mind that twelve reduces to six) reflect the querent’s world.
In my post about the suit of Coins, I discussed the inherent magical power of Earth. In short, Coins represent magic made tangible, the magic of the physical world around us, which is so often taken for granted. As a magic-wielder, I identify very strongly with Earth. But Earth isn’t the only magic. Not by a long shot.
Today, I’m going to take the discussion to the opposite end of the elemental spectrum: Fire. And while Fire is not necessarily a more powerful form of magic than Earth, it is certainly much flashier, and as such, much more easily associated with magic in general.
In the Tarot, Fire is symbolized by the suit of Wands, sometimes also called Batons or Scepters or Staves or something along those lines.
Where the Coins are connected to the material realm, the Wands are connected to the realm of passion, creativity, and spirituality. In other words, where the Coins represent the finished product, the Wands represent the initial spark which drives beginning. It is inspiration.
It is also energy when all other elements are matter (well not Aether, but that’s a different story). In fact, without Fire, there would be no Water or Air, only a cold, dead Earth (and as much as I like Earth, that’s just unappealing). It is the energy represented by Wands which transforms Earth into Water, and Water into Air. Energy is Fire. Transformative energy is Wands.
In many decks, the Wands are pictured as flowering or with growing leaves. This further demonstrates the notion of transformative power, especially in terms of growth. Out of all the suits, the Wands are the most productive, the suit with the highest concentration of pure potential.
Now, I don’t believe any one element is better or more important than any of the others. Existence as we know it wouldn’t be possible without the perfect blend of all four. But I do think that each is the most important in its own way (if that makes any sense), and this is perhaps most apparent when dealing with Wands. There would be no motion, no change, without the energy of Fire.
It’s no coincidence that Magicians and Wizards of fiction use a wand or staff to direct their magic. They point their wands at something, perhaps speak an incantation, and that something changes according to their intentions. The wand works as a conduit for their magic. It is symbolic of the Wizard’s ability to transform the world around him (or her) according to his (or her) will.
The Magician of the Major Arcana holds a wand over his head as means of focusing energy from above so he can work his magic on Earth. He is using the power of the wand in a deliberate, creative way. And then there is the Hermit, a figure also often associated with wizards, who leans on a wand for support as he climbs to the heights of spiritual enlightenment. His use of the wand is also deliberate, although he uses it for inward transformation, as opposed to the outward transformation exercised by the Magician. And then there is the Fool, who has a wand over his shoulder and is blissfully unaware of the possibilities it represents.
Yes, the Wands are a driving symbol throughout the entire Tarot, not just its own suit.
The Wands represent a zest for life, a love for what you do. Without the passion of the Wands, life would be as dull and cold as a world without fire. Be sure to feed the creative spark in your life, but be careful not to let your passions get the best of you. Fire burns. It is a life-saver, but there are few forces quite so destructive as fire when it gets out of control.
The names change, but they all still mean the same: Earth.
When referring to the classical elements for occult purposes, Earth often seems to get the short end of the stick. It’s the lowest of the low.
And how come Fire, Water and Air each get a Major Arcana card (Judgement, Hanged Man, and the Fool, respectively)? What makes them so special, while Earth is excluded (yes, I know, Crowley and some others attributed Earth to the World card, but that’s an afterthought, and its double-dipping, because the World is already associated with Saturn)?
Something should probably be explained about the traditional conceptions of the classical elements. I’ve discussed previously that the classical elements are more a philosophical way of understanding the world than scientific.That’s important to keep in mind, because things are about to get abstract.
The idea was that the elements of Water, Air, and Fire existed in their pure forms in layers above the Earth. Water was closest, being the heaviest or least energetic, followed by Air, and finally Fire on top, just before we reach the first sphere of Aether (occupied by the Moon). Earth, being the heaviest of all, sinks right to the bottom. You can’t see these elemental layers; they are the pure essences of the elements, invisible and intangible. Earth, on the other hand, is solid and material by its very nature – its essence, in other words, is as it is. This means that what we perceive as water or air or fire on earth are really debased forms of themselves. They are the elements manifested upon the Earth, and we only perceive them as components of the Earth element. Does that mean that you should be calling your drinking water Earth? Well, no, it’s still water. But it is not the essence of Water; pure Water does not exist as a physical thing that can be touched or drank. Consider the suits of the Minor Arcana: They all deal with abstract human experiences. Only the Coins deal in the physical realm.
So, when we consider the Major Arcana in terms of their astrological/occult associations, in descending order, we get the twelve Zodiacal cards, the seven planetary cards, and the three elemental cards. The lowest layer is the Earth, which in this context, consists of all four suits of the Minor Arcana. This means that if we consider the Fool to be the pure Elemental Air, the suit of Swords becomes the earthly element of air, or the stuff that we breathe.
In a sense, the lowest of the low (Earth) shares a characteristic with the highest of the high (Aether). In the post linked above, I discussed how Aether carries within itself the potential for all of the other elements. This refers to the essences of the elements. Earth, on the other hand, contains within itself the potential of all of the other elements in their tangible form, except for Aether. Just as the Earth only exists in a tangible form, so does Aether exist only in an abstract form. The other three elements exist in both forms, to varying degrees (water being more tangible, fire being least), giving us a sort of gradation scale of the elements.
The Earth does not contain Aether, but because the Aether does contain Earth, a loop of sorts is created. Energy descends into matter, and when it falls finally to Earth, the lowest point, it is transferred automatically back into Aether, beginning the process again. To put it in Kabbalistic terms (which you will hear a lot if you study occult Tarot, especially of the Golden Dawn tradition), Aether is the highest Sephirah, called Kether. Energy descends down the Tree of Life, through each of the next eight Sephirot, until it reaches the last one, which is pure Earth, called Malkuth. What is Malkuth on the first Tree is Kether on the next one, thus ever-renewing the cycle. Or rather, Malkuth leads to Kether. The Ten of Wands is not the same thing as the Ace of Cups, after all. In the Tarot, each suit is its own Tree of Life, all connected to each other as described above, beginning with the Ace of Wands and ending with the Ten of Coins. Of course, the Ten of Coins isn’t really the end. It’s associated with Mercury, which you may remember is also associated with the Magician, or the first card in the Major Arcana, which I like to think of as the Suit of Aether. At the bottom and back up to the top, in an ever-turning wheel. The 22 Major Arcana represent the paths between the ten Sephirot, rather than the Sephirot themselves, so in this sense, the Suit of Aether is not like the others of the Minor Arcana. Rather than having its own Tree, paths of Aether are present in all of them. However, the Magician is on a path leading directly from Kether, so the principle of the bottom-to-top still applies by virtue of his connection with the Ten of Coins.
This is complex stuff, and I’m sure I’m doing a perfect job of mangling it.* The main point I’m trying to get at, though, is that Earth may very well be the lowest of the low, but that very aspect of it makes it special. At first glance, it might seem like it’s less important than the others, but in reality, the others would not exist if not for Earth. All of the lofty ideals represented in the Tarot can only be made a reality through the power of Earth. Earth might be muddy, dirty, and dark, but it’s only so because it combines everything else into one. Like when you mix all of the bright colors while painting, eventually everything turns brown. In short, Earth is everything, made tangible.
When I think of the suit of Coins (or Pentacles or Disks or Stones), I naturally think about the material world and money, the two things typically associated with the suit. But I also think of the inherent power of Earth as an element. It is tangibility when everything else is an abstraction. I always thought it was unfair that the Court of Coins is often associated with boring or otherwise lackluster personality traits (there are reasons, but still). There is a depth and a strength to Earth that is difficult for many to fathom. Invisible as a grain of sand, or imposing as a mountain, the Earth is always there with firm resolve. As the Ace of Stones from the Wildwood suggests, it is the Foundation of Life.
*For those of you interested, I got most of my information on this Kabbalah stuff from Tyson’s book on Tarot Magic, and Duquette’s book on Crowley’s Thoth deck (and to a lesser degree, Crowley’s own book). In fact, I recommend reading these sources for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that I was working totally from memory while writing this, so I very likely didn’t get everything straight. I believe I got the gist right, though, and because this was a post meant to explore the suit of Coins and the element of Earth, and not a Kabbalah study, that’s all I was really aiming for. I’m not qualified to talk Kabbalah seriously, anyway.
Addendum: Happy Earth Day, everybody! This was a happy accident.
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.
I like significators. Not everyone does, but I think they are useful when working with the Tarot. Some spreads require significators, and some do not, but regardless, I like to know which cards represent me in the deck I’m using before I lay out a spread.
First of all, for those of you who may not know, a significator is a card that represents a specific person. This person can be you, but anyone you may know can also have a significator. Usually, significators are chosen from among the 16 court cards, but this does not absolutely have to be the case. The court cards are most appropriate for significators for a reason, though, so most people who use them will use a court card. The court cards, while also possibly representing actions or abstractions, are normally taken to represent people of various ranks, genders, skills, temperaments, occupations, or sometimes, in older systems, physical characteristics. Because they represent people, the court cards are better suited for significators than small cards or Major Arcana cards, which refer generally to situations and concepts.
I use a few different court cards for significators, with at least one from each suit. These all represent specific areas of my life: work, music, magic, and one card that represents my general personality. I chose the latter significator based on a popular method: its zodiacal attribution. I admit, I tend to the side of skepticism when it comes to accuracy in astrology, but the personality traits described for my card in every book I’ve read on it are remarkably similar to mine. Coincidence? Maybe. I also like the way this card looks in most decks.
For my other significators, I used other methods. My work significator just made sense based on the nature of my employment and my “rank” within. For music, I laid out a spread using the same number of cards as there are members in the group, in the positions we occupy on stage, and with only court cards. In this way, I discovered which significator applied not only to myself, but to each member of the ensemble (or at least as they relate to me, that is, as a musician).
For magic, I based my significators on my element: Earth. Therefore, the suit of my magic significators is Coins (which is surely surprising for some, as most people seem to think Coins is a significator for work, because of its associations with money and materialism. I don’t say that’s wrong, but my situation calls for different associations). As an individual, practicing wizard, I use the Knight of Coins (or Pentacles, usually, because I generally use the RWS when dealing with these significators). As a member of the Council, I use the King of Pentacles.
The Council is a small group of like-minded wizards who discuss magical theory and practice. My fellow Council members each identify with one of the other four elements, and are represented in the Tarot by the respective King of their suit (or a Knight, if they show up in a spread that is oriented around magic but not around the Council).
Depending on which of these significators in a given deck appeals most to my aesthetic sensibilities can help me decide which deck I use for a specific situation. I always know what my significators are, so even if the spread I’m using* doesn’t call for a significator, I pay special attention to one if it pops up. Of course, what one of these cards really means when not previously set aside as my significator depends on many factors, and it doesn’t necessarily have to represent me (the same can be said of any court card; there are significantly more than 16 people on this planet, so it should be understood that, as with anything else, context is key).
Sometimes, I do use the Major Arcana for significators, most especially the Hermit, the Magician, or the Fool. I reserve these for very special situations; more often, these cards represent some aspect of how I approach the Tarot, magic, or life in general (the Hermit especially, as should be obvious to anyone who notices how often he shows up throughout this blog, but as far as I’m concerned, the Magician is really just another side of the same figure and is therefore equally important to me). So I do identify very strongly with the Hermit and the Magician (and yes, the Fool, although I think that’s a card for everyone, no matter what other significators you use), but more often they represent an ideal for me to strive to achieve, whereas the court cards actually represent me as a regular human, with all the fallibility that comes with the condition of my frail mortal frame. Of course, it should go without saying that when a Major Arcana card shows up in a spread, I do not assume it’s the significator for anyone unless there are clear signs that indicate I should do so.
When it comes to significators, it really boils down to personal preference. I’ve noticed that many people don’t like them, don’t understand them, or just don’t see any practical reason to use them. If for no other reason, though, I do like them because they allow me to connect with my deck on a deeper level. It’s as if, with cards that can signify myself in them, I become as much a part of my decks’ lives as they are of mine. I feel like the Tarot is something with which you build a relationship, and it makes sense that it should get to know me in its own terms, just as I get to know it on mine.
*I read almost exclusively for myself. This is why I have no offers on this blog for readings like I see on many other Tarot blogs. It is also probably why I can afford to be so free and easy with my methods of interpretation. I only use this space as a place to exercise my writing chops and explore the Tarot and the messages it has for me. I’m eager to share, of course, and I hope that anyone who reads is positively affected by these thoughts, but even if no one does read, I still benefit from the mental activity.