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Tarot Card Meanings, Intrinsic or Imposed, Continued

February 26, 2012

The Tarot de Marseilles became the deck of choice for occultists in eighteenth century. Not that they had any alternatives to choose from; tarot was a card game back then, played with the Tarot de Marseilles cards or decks bearing designs closely related to those of the Tarot de Marseilles. Then Etteilla produced his own tarot (1789). The history of tarot reading would look very different if Etteilla’s tarot had become ‘top tarot’ with the Tarot de Marseilles designs falling by the wayside. But that didn’t happen, probably because the images on the Etteilla cards bear no relation to those of the Tarot de Marseilles, which, M. Etteilla aside, were unanimously seen as the one true starting point for the tarot historian, the link between the modern Tarot and the, as it turned out sadly mythical, ‘historical’ tarot – the so-called Book of Thoth.

The format of the Tarot de Marseilles’s minor arcana is analogous to that of a playing card deck. The court cards show people, kings, queens, jacks and knights, and the spot cards are decorated with suit-signs and little else – three cups on the 3 of Cups, five rods on the 5 of Rods, seven coins on the 7 of Coins and so on. Images gracing the 22 Trump cards of the Tarot de Marseilles, on the other hand, are one and all drawn from European culture of the fifteenth century or earlier. As The TarotL History Information Sheet on the Villa Revak website ( explains: “The symbolism of the trumps is drawn from the culture of Medieval and Renaissance Europe.  Most tarot subjects are distinctive to European Christendom.  Illustrations virtually identical to each of the tarot subjects can be found in European art, and such precise analogs are not found in other cultures.”

These Trump images remain stable over many centuries. They are not much changed in the Waite-Smith deck (c. 1909). Waite makes distinctive alterations to only three: The Magician, The Fool and The Lovers. The Hierophant is given a new name (instead of The Pope) but the illustration continues to depict a figure of religious authority, garbed in priestly vestments and crowned with the distinctive papal triple tiara. Otherwise, The Devil card continues to depicts a devil, The Hermit is still recognizably a hermit, the card Justice carries, as it always had, an image of the virtue ‘justice’, and so on through the rest of the Major Arcana.

As already touched upon, the divinatory meanings of the Trumps flow directly from the way they are depicted, and to some extent from the titles associated with them; for, however Justice, Strength or Death are depicted, from the predictive angle they will always represent justice, strength or death, if not literally then metaphorically. (Death of hopes, for example, in the case of Trump 13.)

True, a change in the illustration can trigger a change in interpretation. Those Lovers cards that depict a man standing between two women, the god of love above the tableau aiming his bow at one of the three below, suggest a choice. In a Christian society, the man cannot align himself with both the women in the picture; he must select one and reject the other. The Waite-Smith Lovers contains no element of choice. On this card Adam and Eve are shown in the Garden of Eden as it was before the Fall. An angelic presence in the card’s upper register appears to bless their union. This image lends itself to the interpretation ‘attraction, love and beauty’, these being the keywords preferred by Waite himself for this Trump, and by Paul Foster Case who follows Waite in a good many respects.

As I’ve said, until the arrival of the Waite-Smith deck, the Tarot de Marseilles acted as the yardstick for those who wanted to experiment with or improve the tarot deck or who sought to impose their ideas upon it. Case, although he at first used the Waite-Smith Trump images to illustrate his essay on the Tarot (later expanded into The Tarot, Macoy, USA, 1947), later replaced them with those from a deck he had drawn up to his own specifications. He based his own deck (known as the B.O.T.A. deck) on the Tarot de Marseilles, preferring its depictions of the Sun and Death to those favored by Waite, adjusting the images on The Emperor and Judgment in the light of the Tarot de Marseilles template and retaining only the Waite-Smith images for The Lovers, The Magician (keeping the name too) and The Fool.

At the present time, the Waite-Smith images dominate the Tarot world in English-speaking nations. The Tarot de Marseilles tends to dominate in countries where Romance languages are spoken, from France and Italy to Brazil and Mexico. As the Trump images differ so little between the two decks, there is great agreement as to what they mean in a divination across the globe. Disparities of interpretation occur mainly, if not exclusively, in respect of those cards that bear dissimilar images – The Juggler/Magician, the Lovers and the Fool as previously cited. (There are also cases where certain cards are assigned special meanings by those of a particular esoteric or religious persuasion – the Golden Dawn’s interpretation of the Lovers (to which the Order also gives a ‘rectified’ picture of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the sea-monster) is a perfect example of what I mean; and there are Wiccans who interpret The Devil, Trump 15, as a positive force in the world – but these interpretations have not as yet caught on with the wider public and so do not play a part in the development of the Tarot being examined here.)

The situation with the minor arcana was entirely different until the creation of the Waite-Smith deck. Prior to that time, whenever there were pictures on the spot cards, which was not a general occurrence, they were merely decorative. Once occultists started taking notice of the Tarot, Etteilla became an early exception to the rule. He designed a deck his own, reordering the Trumps and re-drawing their images. He also placed symbols in the lower parts of his spot cards which, unfortunately, do not adhere to any coherent symbolic formula. In the main, they defy interpretation. In the odd instance when a piece of symbolism can be successfully interpreted, this comes about through happenstance, not as the result of following through some line of coherent symbolic thought. Unlike the Waite-Smith deck, the Etteilla deck did not catch on; nor did it have any influence on the designs of subsequent packs in respect of either Arcana.

Other Tarot packs designed by occultists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries tended to make symbolic use of the suit-signs. The Knapp-Hall deck and the B.O.T.A. deck are fine examples of this trend. In both, the suit-signs of the spot cards are set out so as to form geometric patterns. The four swords on the 4 of Swords, for instance, are laid out in the shape of a square; the five coins on the 5 of Coins may be set out in the form of a pentagram with, as often as not, the outline of a pentagram visible behind them. On the Knapp-Hall deck, ten cups are arranged so as to indicate two pentagrams, as if superimposed over two actual pentagrams, on the 10 of Cups card. The geometric shapes have meanings of their own. The square, for example, signifies restriction, symbolizing the querent trapped within the square, unable to break free without applying great exertion. Thus Papus gives the meanings of the 4 of Rods/Wands as ‘obstacles to an enterprise’, of the 4 of Cups as ‘obstacles to a love affair’ and of the 4 of Coins as ‘loss of money’. (The Tarot of the Bohemians, p. 311 ff.) In short, the geometric symbolism is a clue to the meaning of the card. Fours (the Square) and Twos (the Cross) are generally inauspicious cards, while Threes (the Trine in astrology, the Trinity in theology) and Nines (Three times Three) are most often beneficent cards. Sixes may relay positive or negative forces depending on whether they are seen as two Threes (or Three doubled) or as two triangles pulling in opposite directions, as they do when placed in hexagrammatic formation.

The Golden Dawn follow this trend in the designs of their spot cards. They approach the matter from another angle, however. The picture on the card still points to the card’s general meaning but from a different symbolic standpoint. Take the Cups cards. On all Cup spot cards from 2 to 10 in the G.D. deck there is a lotus. If the lotus is issuing water, fountain-like, into some of the cups, the card is earmarked as a fairly auspicious omen. On those spot cards where water runs into the topmost cups and then overflows those cups, descending into the lower ones so that every cup depicted is overflowing with water, the implication is that these cards are extremely favorable from a divinatory perspective.

On the G.D. Pentacle spot cards a rosebush is depicted behind the suit-signs. Where the bush bears no roses, the card carries an unfortunate significance. But where there is a rose for every suit-sign – e.g. nine roses on the 9 of Pentacles card – the card is highly auspicious. Some roses, but not one for every suit-sign: the card is moderately beneficent. On the Wands spot cards, the presence or absence of flames at the point where the Wands cross are visual clues as to whether the card carries a benign or malign significance. Most G.D. Sword spot cards have red five-petaled rose featured as part of their design. The state of the red rose, or its occasional absence, along with other symbolism, such as the presence of a cross of light, indicate how fortunate (or unfortunate) any particular Sword card is.

The Tarot de Marseilles spot cards are more like those found in ordinary playing card decks: two swords on the 2 of Swords card, six cups on the 6 of Cups, eight pence on the 8 of Pence, ten batons or staves on the 10 or Rods. Little or no further embellishment. Under these conditions, there are only two indicators of what any individual card might signify in divination: the suit to which the card belongs and the number of suit-signs. The meanings of the suits were not much squabbled over: Rods/Wands were often associated with business matters, Cups with love, Swords with enmity or opposition and Pence with finances. But there was no uniform agreement as to what the numbers 1 to 10 indicated. Frank Lind (How to Read the Tarot) assigns almost the same meanings to the numbers as C.C. Zain in The Sacred Tarot (1936): Aces, News; Twos, Work; Three, Partnership; Four, Benefit; Five, Good Luck, Six, Betterment; Seven, Changes; Eights, Expenditure; Nines, Hopeful Outlook; Tens, Profitable Result. Other cartomancers applied Pythagorean principles to the numbers. According to Pythagorean thought, odd numbers were celestial and fortunate while even numbers were terrestrial, earth-bound, and adverse. One-time member of the Golden Dawn, J.W. Brodie-Innes, has recorded that he was taught to read the tarot by a gypsy, one Mrs. Lee. (The Tarot, in The Sorcerer and His Apprentice, Aquarian Press, 1983.) Brodie-Innes states that the gypsy meanings he learnt for the Minor Arcana had an admirable “Pythagorean” logic. Sadly, except for the fact that some kind of distinction is made between odd and even numbers, it is not clear exactly what he meant by “Pythagorean.”

Ideas about the meanings of numbers were drawn from old Greek texts by Pythagoreans and works written later, such as H.C. Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy. The result was a wide variety of groups of meanings relating to the numbers 1 to 10. Here are two examples out of many.

Example One

1     The Spiritual World, unity, origin, root, beginning, initiative, equality.
2     Terrestrial, unlucky, opposition, dualism, duality, antithesis, contradiction, division.
3     Multiplication, growth, on-going development, synthesis, natural perfection.
4     Matter, order, classification, solidification, reality, obstacles, stumbling block, natural (i.e. material) objects.
5     Marriage, mediation, adaption, activity, life & love, friendship, justice.
6     The Created World, equilibrium, a Perfect number, physical perfection, six directions (not including Centre).
7     Completion, duration, stability, rest, safety, security, perfection, wisdom, mysticism.
8     Dissolution, separation, death, revolution (i.e. to revolve), rhythm, vibration, alternate cycles, correction of previous error.
9     Three times three; incessant reproduction, multiplication, fecundity, stability, valor, resilience, self-regeneration, freedom from strife.
10     Completion, attainment, realization, harmony, perfection. Its Greek name was Panteleia = “all complete” or “fully accomplished”.

Example Two

1          unity, origin, commencement.
2          duality, the choice between two opposing forces.
3          success in first choice; blending and unifying of the subject.
4          solid & practical efforts required to overcome trials.
5          practical solutions to practical difficulties. Assistance from outside.
6          failure assured; undertaking disrupted in the midst of apparent success. Sudden catastrophe.
7          beginning of fulfillment.
8          last difficulties to overcome; test of strength.
9          completion, consummation, success assured. Proof from further trial.
10        a transitional state, implying the opening out of the new from the old. Also hiatus, rest or pause in effort.

Running counter to the Pythagorean view was that of the Qabalists. In Qabalistic lore, 1, in relation to the spot cards, corresponds to the Aces as the roots of the Four Elements. The number 2 corresponds to Wisdom – the Cross may still be its symbol but now instead of a cross that blocks or cancels out we have the Cross of Equilibrium, representing the middle way between two extremes. The numbers 3 to 9 are associated with the planets Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury and Moon in that order. Fives in this system are unfortunate cards because they come under the rulership of Mars, the god of war. Thus the 5 of Wands indicates strife, the 5 of Cups a broken romance or loss of friendship, the 5 of Swords defeat and the 5 of Pentacles monetary troubles. The 10s come under the rule of the Earth, more or less as Mother Nature: they represent growth or expansion, an increase of whatever it is the suit stands for, with results sometimes good, sometimes not. The 10 of Pentacles stands for wealth and the 10 of Cups for marriage and children (as depicted on the Waite-Smith version of the card). But as the suit of Wands represents Power, the 10 stands for power used to oppress. Swords, being the suit of opposition and enmity, the 10 symbolizes ruin, disruption and sudden misfortune.

With all these competing views in play, it is not surprising that no uniform or standardized list of meanings for the spot cards emerged to dominate the scene. Cartomancers amateur and professional learned card meanings often from a friend or relative and sometimes from a book, of which a scant few were published in the nineteenth century, rather more in the first half of the twentieth. However these meanings came to the cartomancer, she/he was often under the impression that they were the only meanings in use. There was not the easy flow of information on esoteric matters that there is today (card reading was illegal in England until the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1952), and cartomancers rarely got the opportunity to engage in an exchange of views on the subject.

The modern mind is used to seeing illustrations on the spot cards, in the manner of those found on the Waite-Smith deck, and of relating the picture to the card’s meaning. This was not the way of things in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was not the accepted way of things in the early twentieth century either, even after the publication of the Waite-Smith cards. Mid-century Tarot authorities, such as Frank Lind, fulminated against Waite, questioned the provenance of the images on the spot cards of the deck with which his name is associated, and, declaring them non-traditional, argued to have them ruled out of court. It is a very modern concept that (to quote again from Melissa’s email) “the Five of Swords means defeat, the triumph of your enemies; the Six of Wands is victory or success”, and that these are the cards’ “unique meanings” from which no major deviation may be made. Study of the books published by Sepharial, Minetta and others, even Waite himself, from around a hundred years ago will adequately demonstrate to the sincere seeker how diverse the meanings assigned the spot cards were in that era.

There is, however, one group of people for whom the view Melissa propounds has great significance. I shall turn my attention to that group in my next post.

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