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Minor Arcana–Divinatory Meanings

January 8, 2019

The vast majority of the divinatory meanings ascribed to the cards of the Major Arcana found in the earliest publications concerning the tarot have stood the test of time. Only a very few have undergone a drastic overhaul. The qualities each Trump symbolizes have been almost universally accepted because the parallels between the image on the card and the qualities allocated to it are so blindingly obvious. The symbolism of the card Justice suggests a law suit, and that of the card Death, the end of something; the Hermit, since he is a sage, specifies wisdom (sagacity), and so on for each of the twenty-two Trumps. Until relatively recently, the logic behind these associations safeguarded them from ill-informed tampering. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the meanings dispensed to the cards of the Minor Arcana.

r-w-JUSTICE            image

The tarot masters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tended to focus their attention on the Trump cards at the expense of the minors. Oswald Wirth designed an impressive tarot deck, but it consisted only of the 22 Major Arcana. The original “Egyptian” tarot (the brainchild of two nineteenth-century Frenchmen) likewise was limited to the 22 Trumps. This imbalance of explanation left a vacuum that had still not been adequately filled when A.E. Waite published his Key to the Tarot in 1910 (expanded into The Pictorial Key to the Tarot in 1911). Over the decades, various attempts to fill the void found their supporters. However, no one method attained widespread popularity, and there was certainly never one set of meanings that looked remotely as though it would gain ascendancy over all others.

Some tarotmancers adopted the meanings for the Minor Arcana put forward by Etteilla (A way to entertain oneself with the pack of cards called Tarots, 1785), even though most occultists branded him a fraud and an esoteric carpetbagger. Papus presented his own ideas for interpreting the Minor Arcana in his The Tarot of the Bohemians (1889). Yet when he came to write The Divinatory Tarot (1909), he returned to Etteilla’s meanings for those cards. In England, Charles Platt’s meanings built up a decent following (The Art of Card Fortune Telling, 1921). S.L. Mathers had published a set of meanings for the Minor Arcana in 1888 (The Tarot: Its Occult Signification, Use in Fortune Telling, and Method of Play, Etc.) based on Etteilla’s, though with a few alterations; these meanings, too, acquired adherents.

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, cartomancy by means of playing cards was popular in the British Isles while the tarot pack was practically unknown. It was only those who had an active interest in the occult – here signifying something beyond the fortune-telling aspects of palmistry, astrology and crystal gazing – who had heard of it. In the late nineteen fifties, no one in my social circle knew what a tarot deck looked like, though a handful had come across the name. At that date, the situation in the United Kingdom regarding the Minor Arcana, among those who were familiar with the tarot, was much as it had been in Waite’s day – which is to say, confused. In some ways the situation was more confused since other methods of interpreting the minors had come into play since 1910, when the Waite-Smith deck was first published: the Brotherhood of Light’s meanings, Richard Huson’s (similar in many ways to those gathered together by Charles Platt); there was Frank Lind’s method, and also the Golden Dawn’s interpretations of the minors, made available through the writings of Paul Foster Case and Aleister Crowley. Confusion flourished because the more recent additions tended neither to agree with one another nor with those interpretations already in circulation. To make matters more impenetrable still, methods loosely based on Pythagorean numerology, as often as not imported from playing card fortune-telling, had gained a foothold, too.

The rise in popularity of the Waite-Smith deck, where scenic images appear on all seventy-eight cards, changed all that. Sometimes, tarot packs of the Waite-Smith stamp are termed “fully illustrated” decks. It is these scenic images that fueled a new development in tarot reading, which I shall come to in a moment.

In the late nineteen sixties, interest in all things occult, from astrology columns in daily newspapers and monthly periodicals, to radiesthesia and astral projection, was growing in the public’s mind. The tarot was part of this blossoming of interest in matters esoteric. Tarots had been hard to come by in the Britain of the nineteen fifties, but a growing demand stimulated supply.

If tarots of the Tarot de Marseille type were available in the UK in the fifties and sixties, I never came across them. Virtually the only deck one could lay hands on in post war Britain was the Waite-Smith tarot, or a de Laurence rip-off imported from the States. For several years after I was introduced to the tarot, I assumed that all tarot cards were illustrated with scenes like those on the Waite-Smith cards; that is how pervasive a presence the Waite-Smith tarot was in those days.

As the second half of the twentieth-century wore on, it became normal practice to pentacles 5interpret the Waite-Smith illustrations rather than to assign meanings to the Minor Arcana that may or may not have been in agreement with the image on the card. Adhering to this formula, the picture on the Waite-Smith 5 of Pentacles, depicting two unfortunates battling their way through a snow storm, would be interpreted as symbolizing poverty, loss of money, or financial difficulties. The 2 of Cups, whereon a young couple toast each other with golden chalices, was seen as an image of mutual love. Having pictures on the spot cards made learning their meanings easier. At the same time, however, the pictures direct the meanings. Someone attempting to memorize the significances given in C.C. Zain’s Sacred Tarot, which do not line up with the symbolism of the Waite-Smith spot cards, would be constantly wrong-footed by the Waite-Smith illustrations.

The go-with-the-flow approach is to relinquish all attempts to commit to memory meanings that do not concur with the illustrations, and many tarot students adopted that attitude. So many people came to rely on the Waite-Smith illustrations to indicate what the spot cards portended that, by the end of the twentieth century, meanings dependent on those illustrations were all but standard, at least throughout the English-speaking world. Gradually, voices began speaking up for what we might call “traditional meanings”, until at the time of writing there are books available such as Caitlin Matthews’ Untold Tarot, which is a compendium of lore and techniques applicable to non-fully-illustrated decks. The wheel has almost turned full circle, for it looks as though we are on our way to the return of the broad spread of any number of different methods of tarot interpretation that held sway in Waite’s day.

Inevitably, this raises the question: Is one method of reading the tarot intrinsically superior to any other? I would say not. I base my opinion on personal experience and my observation of tarot readers at work over a fifty-year period. I, myself, have learnt three quite distinct approaches to interpretation of the spot cards. All of them achieved results. I moved from one approach to the next from necessity, not because I found any particular method ineffective. That is what happened when I entered a Golden-Dawn-type mystery school. I accepted an invitation to become a member of the Order and was then trained in its Qabalistic method of interpreting the spot cards, even though this meant I had to abandon the meanings I had learnt previously. In order to progress within the Order, it was expedient that I embrace its teaching on the tarot along with everything else it was giving me instruction in.

I’ve known people who read the tarot successfully using all manner of meanings. Thinking the matter over in the nineteen-nineties, I decided that there were no “true” attributions; that it made no odds which of the sets of meanings was employed. What did make a difference, it seemed, was the type of deck the reader worked with. Once a person had moved away from meanings dependent on the pictures on the Waite-Smith suit cards, that deck became more of a hindrance than a help. Somebody convinced that the suit of Swords is under the rulership of the Fire Element will find the symbolism of the Waite-Smith Swords court cards jarring because it revolves around the Element of Air. The Queen of Swords wears a cloak embroidered with a pattern of clouds, butterflies and the head of a winged cherub are carved on the side of her throne, while a bird soars overhead. The airy symbolism of clouds, butterflies and birds is picked up, too, on the cards of the Knight and King of Swords. At the same time, the Waite-Smith Wand court cards are imbued with fiery symbolism. All of this is a distraction to the tarot reader who associates Wands with Air and Swords with Fire.

swords queen   swords king   swords knight

Similar distractions arise when the reader has a sincere belief that, let us say, the number 5 possesses affirmative connotations. In the Waite-Smith pack, the brawling youths on the 5 of Wands, the figure mourning the tipping over of three chalices on the 5 of Cups, the beggars hurrying through the snow on the 5 of Pence, and even the aftermath of battle, with a man collecting up discarded weapons, shown on the 5 of Swords, are not easily capable of positive interpretation. The images pull in the opposite direction to the significances the reader is attempting to bring to mind. Even if they distract only a little, it would be better that the obstruction be removed. Today, many readers are doing exactly that by putting aside the Waite-Smith images in favor of one or other of the Tarot de Marseille-type decks so as to have no distraction when attempting to interpret the Minor Arcana cards.

wands 5  swords05  tarot-cups-05

The answer to the question “Why has there never been a broad agreement on the meanings of the Minor Arcana cards?” is simple. There is no tradition behind them such as lies behind those of the Major Arcana. The Minor Arcana come to Europe from Arab nations where different symbols were employed: the Swords were curved scimitars, and the suit we call Wands or Rods were polo mallets. The Minor Arcana arrived in Europe bearing much the same form that modern playing card decks have. The Major Arcana were grafted on to it, though nobody can say for certain why this new pack – that we now call ‘the tarot’ – was created.

Early attempts at assigning meanings to the suits do not concern themselves with the Elements, whereas modern introductions to the tarot often fixate on the correspondence between the suits and the Elements the moment the Minor Arcana comes under discussion. In the mid-sixteenth-century (that is to say approximately one hundred years later than the earliest tarots still in existence), one author aligns the four Tarot suits with what he terms the four “goals of human life” – riches, arms, literature and pleasure. The correspondences are self-evident: Riches refers to the suit of Coins (that being its name long before anyone thought of calling it Pentacles); the bearing of Arms refers to Swords; and, of the two suits left, Cups must be pleasure – love, fornication, time spent with friends or loved ones – leaving literature to the suit of Wands or Rods.

Another set of correspondences, later taken up by Etteilla, imagined a link between the four suits and the renaissance class system. In this interpretation, Swords are equated with the nobility – i.e.,all those who are allowed to bear arms (not everyone was); Cups symbolize the priesthood (the chalice holding the blood of Christ offered by the priest to communicants during the Mass); Pence/Coins the merchants; and Wands or Staves the farmers. These designations had a small but noticeable effect on some sets of meanings. Because Wands/Rods were associated with farming and the countryside, the King of Rods often had bestowed upon it the interpretation “a man living in the country”, and the Queen, similarly, “a woman who enjoys country life”. Occasionally, the effect reached as far as the spot cards, with the 8 of Wands at times regarded as predicting “a trip to the country”.

Despite the assertion by occultists of today that the deck was explicitly designed along Qabalistic lines, the spot cards, ace to 10, were not initially associated with the ten spheres of the Tree of Life. This, again, is a correspondence all modern books covering the esoteric aspect of the tarot tend to make much of. It does not, however, appear to have been adopted by tarot commentators of the eighteenth century and didn’t gain credence in the nineteenth century until Eliphas Levi advocated the idea in his books on magick.

That strange publication Practical Astrology (1901) (which, despite its title, contains a good deal of information about the tarot) aligns the spot cards with the first ten numbered Trumps, an approach later adopted by C.C. Zain in his Sacred Tarot (1936) and which can still be encountered from time to time in books on tarot published today. According to this practice, the four aces are deemed to have qualities identical to some, at least, of those attributed to the Bateleur/Juggler. The four twos, likewise, are thought to share qualities identical with certain traits assigned to The High Priestess, and so on down to the four tens, which are considered as reflecting the qualities of The Wheel of Fortune. Vestiges of this practice can be found in those sets of meanings that make the 10 of Pentacles signify alternate financial loss and gain; Frank Lind and C.C. Zain being two authors who accept this as a meaning for the card.

Papus’s The Tarot of the Bohemians is crammed full of recondite Qabalistic data concerning such things as the Four Lettered Name of God and the correspondences between the Hebrew letters and the twenty-two Trumps. When he turns his attention to the spot cards, however, he does not align them with the spheres of the Tree of Life. Papus’s tortured language when describing his system for assigning meanings to the spot cards has befuddled many a tarot student for the past century and more. To anyone wishing to gain a better understanding of his method, I recommend Fred Gettings’ The Tarot: How to Read the Future where there is a chapter devoted to it (though Mr Gettings does not say where the interpretations he describes originated). Mr Gettings (an accomplished occultist) possesses a thorough grasp of Papus’s method and explains it more clearly than Papus himself managed to do in his chef-d’oeuvre, The Tarot of the Bohemians.

To sum up, Papus has his interpretations for the spot cards, Etteilla has his; Charles Platt has another set; and there are those who align the spots with the first ten numbered Trump cards. Into this quagmire of conflicting information stepped A.E. Waite when he came to write his Key to the Tarot. As a consequence, the wands 10descriptions of the meanings for the spot cards Waite records in that book are often chaotic and confusing to the reader. Of the 10 of Wands he writes that one tarotmancer invests it with the significance of “honour and good faith” before continuing: “it is also fortune, gain and any kind of success of these things. It is also a card of false-seeming, disguise, perfidy.” Later in the book, he records it as having, in some quarters, the significance “[d]ifficulties and contradictions, if near a good card.” To this hodge-podge of ideas he attaches his own meaning, or rather the meaning he had absorbed whilst a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Order gave the 10 of Wands the title “Lord of Oppression”, and Waite dutifully records, “It is oppression simply”. Accordingly, the image on the Waite-Smith version of the card is that of “[a] man oppressed by the weight of the ten staves which he is carrying.”

For several decades, I have marveled at the popularity of The Key to the Tarot and its illustrated companion, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. The text always struck me as not fit for purpose. Waite has a tendency to make assertions about the tarot or about its symbolism but refuse to back up his claims. He will say that he himself is satisfied with the truth of his statement but go no further than that. When it comes to the divinatory meanings of the Minor Arcana, Waite simply lists a miscellany of interpretations drawn from any number of sources, whether they are in agreement or not. I have given an example of his method in the paragraph above on the 10 of Wands. The result is that the novice tarot reader has no clear guidance from Mr Waite as to what the minors signify. One would do better to base one’s interpretations on the images on the cards – which is what most newcomers to the tarot have been doing for the past one hundred years.

A publicity blurb for Key to the Tarot reads: “The symbolism of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is based on profound occult studies by Waite, and his exposition in this book of its use and meaning is unexcelled. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the Tarot.” I could not disagree more. My opinion of the book closely resembles that displayed in a review posted on the Amazon website: “I find this book useless apart from information about what the various contained symbols depict. At best it is rambling and incoherent (left brain), at worst it is misleading. There is a suggestion that he deliberately "veiled" his secrets. I think he was just a poor analyst.” And yet the book has never been out of print since it first saw the light of day in 1910! I surmise that in every generation, students who have acquired a Waite-Smith tarot pack have turned to The Key to the Tarot hoping to find instruction there, and that this desire for guidance accounts for the book’s apparent popularity. But how popular is it? How many people, having bought it and read it, have actually found it useful when attempting to interpret a tarot spread using the meanings Waite supplies? And yet it is not entirely without worth.

Waite has an unfortunate way with words, being inclined to set aside a one syllable word wherever English has a three syllable synonym for it that he can replace it with. When writing about The Fool, he gives one meaning for the card as ‘bewrayment’. My teenage self went through every dictionary in the house looking for the word. (This is circa 1960, when dictionaries took the form of books – imagine that!) I couldn’t find it. Eventually I consulted an eight-part Oxford English Dictionary at the local library and discovered that it meant “betrayal or to be exposed”, whether to criticism or as a fraud wasn’t made clear. As an aside, let me remark that my 2018 spellchecker doesn’t recognize bewrayment either!

But there are some valuable comments in The Key to the Tarot as well as some diktats that, though we now know them to be false, were widely accepted by the best minds studying tarot in the early years of the twentieth-century. By an odd turn of fate, probably fueled by a never-ending supply of human perversity, the valuable comments have been ignored by most readers and the errors of fact fastened upon as key examples of Waite’s brilliant scholarship. The book could benefit from a being given a good dusting-down, the obscure passages explained, the errors and shortcomings exposed. As no one has taken up this task, I intend to pass on fa ew observations of my own in my next post.

  1. Ashe Skyler permalink

    I have learned so much from your in-depth articles and history on the Major Arcana. I look forward to what you write about the Minor Arcana.

    • Thank you.
      What I write about the minor arcana will have to go in a different direction to the articles on the major arcana, for reasons given in my latest piece. But I’ll do my best to stay informative.
      Tony Willis

  2. Thanks for this, Tony. At last, someone who shares my dissatisfaction with The Pictorial Key to the Tarot as a useful companion to the RWS deck. The lack of cohesion between Waite’s text and many of Smith’s scenic images had me thinking that Smith was willfully hijacking the meanings for her own dramatic purposes. But maybe Waite was simply rolling up everything that was lying about in the dustbin of his memory like some oversized dung beetle (I do see hints of his “Grand Orient” eclecticism in it), similar to what Aleister Crowley did with his Thoth writing, but at least Crowley acknowledged he was doing it. I’m about halfway through Matthews’ “Untold Tarot” now, and it seems she sticks mainly with suit and number symbolism, which in my experience with the Tarot de Marseille is about the only interpretive bedrock we can rely on. I never took a shine to trying to decode the decorative embellishments into some kind of meaningful language. As I understand it, prior to Etteilla, Papus, Levi, Wirth, et. al, there never was a “traditional system” for reading the pip cards beyond what was grafted on from playing-card cartomancy. I’ve absorbed books by Ben-Dov, Jodorowsky, Elias, Jean-Michel David (his course material), have a passing acquaintance with Enrique Enriquez’s ideas, and am awaiting Andy Boroveshengra’s TdM book, but so far the only material that has made a lasting impression on me is Joseph Maxwell’s “The Tarot,” even in its inadequate English translation. (Matthews’ touches on some of his combinative techniques, but she stops short of calling the results “isomorphs.”) Your comment about Waite’s preference for three-syllable words reminded me of my take on Charles Dickens’ writing: he would never use ten words when one hundred words would do.

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