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Meaning & the Minor Arcana

July 10, 2019

by Tony Willis      

As I wrote at the end of my previous post, entering into an exposition of the meaning of the tarot’s minor arcana from a divinatory point of view presents me with a host of alternative approaches to choose from. I could explain the symbolism of the Waite-Smith cards – it is, after all, the most popular tarot pack in the English-speaking world. Then again, I could relate the Waite-Smith symbolism to the occult philosophy of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn where its roots undoubted lie. However, this ground has been covered with great thoroughness in The Western Mysteries by David Allen Hulse (Llewellyn Publications, U.S).

At the present time, though, tarot studies are approaching a crossroads in respect of the minor arcana, if indeed that crossroads has not already been reached. A movement is gathering impetus to work with Marseille-type minor arcana cards displaying merely the suit sign repeated, where two swords adorn the 2 of Swords card, five chalices the 5 of Cups, and so on and so forth. The movement is in its infancy; there remain thousands of tarot readers who depend, in one manner or another, on the Waite-Smith images to inspire their interpretations. To please the Waite-Smith multitude is to disappoint the up and coming Tarot de Marseille contingent and vice versa. But in any case, those leaning towards the Waite-Smith model have been well catered for over the years. From Eden Grey’s The Tarot Revealed of 1960 (the first of a series of books by Dr Grey exploring the relationship between the symbolism of the Waite-Smith cards and their divinatory meanings) to Mr Hulse’s book mentioned at the end of the preceding paragraph, there are a plethora of texts available to those wishing to plumb the mysteries of that particular deck.

In addition, my proposition, voiced in an earlier post, that different symbolism applied to the minor arcana, in combination with an alternative attribution of Elements to suits, results in distinctive and divergent interpretations of the cards, turns us in the direction of an enduring question: ‘What are the true meanings of the tarot cards, especially those of the minor arcana?’ Many will be disappointed by my answer, which is that if by true one means “the one set of meanings against which all other sets are to be accounted false”, then there are no true meanings. So far as divination goes, one of my first tarot instructors opined that it made absolutely no difference which set of meanings the student embraced. This was in the 1950s when there were a number of sets available – that presented by Papus in The Tarot of the Bohemians, that popularized by Frank Lind, those published by Charles Platt, C.C. Zain, Minetta and several others. My teacher believed that the essence of accurate tarot reading lay not so much in the various significances attached to individual cards as in the innate ability of the cartomancer. My experience of tarot reading and tarot readers extending over a half a century has convinced me that my teacher was right.

Today books on the tarot tend to be sold by presenting the idea that “anyone can read the tarot”. In a sense that dictum is true; it is true in the same way that it is true that anyone can learn to play the piano – but let it not be forgotten that it is equally true that not everyone can play the piano well enough to give a concert at Carnegie Hall. Speaking only of the predictive tarot, I would say that a reasonably intelligent eleven-year-old, armed with a tarot deck and a book of instructions, could deliver a successful tarot reading that touched all the main bases. If the question posed was “Will the family feud that has me and my siblings not speaking to one another be healed?”, the cards would give a clear yes or no, and our reasonably intelligent eleven-year-old would be able to discern that fact from the lie of the cards. But in the case of a no, our reasonably intelligent eleven-year-old, would probably not be capable of teasing out all the nuances of the situation. The tarot might be explaining that, while the inquirer and her brothers are prepared to bury the hatchet, their perpetually indignant elder sister is not. In that case, while the overall answer to the question is no, the reason why it is no (the sister’s intransigence) may elude our eleven-year-old cartomancer no matter how intelligent she is. To go deeper into a reading than a blanket yes or no, win or lose, succeed or fail, it is not clearer divinatory meanings that are required but a more profound understanding of how one card impacts upon another, toning down or ramping up its implications, promoting or de-emphasizing its impact upon the spread as a whole. This is something that cannot be taught.

Meaning – Attached or Projected?

There are readers of tarot who accept that the message of the cards can be extracted from the spread by the simple expedient of assigning distinctive and definite meanings to all seventy-eight. Those who fall under this heading (and I confess that I am one) could, if we so wished, adopt any set of meanings we chose; the only proviso being that it be a rounded set of meanings, covering all the normal exigencies of human life – love, animosity, friendship, marriage, birth of offspring, illness, recovery from illness, elevation in the world, thwarted ambition and such like incidents that everyone encounters year in and year out during the course of their lives. As long as this condition is fulfilled, the cards will yield an accurate view of the inquirer’s situation as it stands at the time the spread is laid out. That at any rate is my experience, having been a student of tarot since 1959.

One factor that can knock on the head the maxim that “it doesn’t matter which meanings one takes up” comes into play when the tarot student joins a school of initiation. Every mystery school I’ve ever known has had its own method of reading the tarot, the meanings ascribed to the cards, Trumps and minor arcana alike, forming the most substantial part of that method. In order to make headway in the school, the student needs to accept the meanings said school gives to the cards. To refuse to do so puts one on the outside of the group mind of the Order, thereby risking non-acceptance by the group mind.

The Knowledge Papers of the Order of the Golden Dawn have been made public; one can buy books outlining the Order’s rituals and the correspondences it relies on to make contact with the Unseen. Among these correspondences are those relating to the tarot cards, and examination of the same will throw light on the meanings assigned by the Order to the cards. For the G.D., Trump 2, which it calls The High Priestess, is ruled by the Moon and accordingly the meanings it associates with the card are “Change, Alteration, Increase and Decrease. Fluctua­tion (whether for good or evil is … shown by cards connected with it.)” All these are understandably Lunar characteristics to anyone versed in the art of astrology; even a close observer of the night sky will recognize these traits from the behavior of the moon in the sky evening by evening. Shakespeare, a diligent student of Nature, has one of his characters declare:

“O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circle orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.”

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Taking this view of the Moon as its premise, the G.D. accordingly bestows on Trump 2 the meanings outlined above: Alteration, Fluctuation, Increase but also Decrease. The Order also assign the Trumps to the twenty-two ‘paths’ on the Tree of Life diagram. It is the Order’s positioning of Trump 6, The Lovers, that gives that card a meaning outsiders find aberrant: “Inspiration (passive and in some cases mediumistic). Motive-power and action, arising from Inspiration and Impulse.” The meaning makes sense within the G.D. world-view though it diverges from almost every other meaning ever attributed to The Lovers. For the G.D., Trump 6 is associated with the 17th ‘path’ on the Tree of Life, and this in turn connects it with the high level virtue of Faith and, at the same time, the intimations of a part of the human psyche known within the G.D. as the Holy Guardian Angel. In A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism, Gareth Knight says of this situation: “Such intimations will, of course, be above the levels of mind and so they manifest . . . as Faith.” (p. 160) It is associations of this kind that directed the founders of the G.D. to redefine the divinatory significance of The Lovers as they did – Action arising from Inspiration and Impulse, etc. Altering the meaning of the card necessitated the creation of a completely revised image for Trump 6. See below. The founders of the GD believed they were right to make these changes. Whether you agree will depend on your acceptance or rejection of the G.D.’s comprehension of the tarot Trumps.

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If one does accept the premise, then the G.D.’s correspondences are interlocking: the Order’s interpretation of the Moon in astrology impacts upon its interpretation of Trump 2, and Trump 2 in turn will be aligned with a geomantic figure and particular Enochian squares; the same applying to all the remaining Trump cards. Members of the Order need to hold this mesh of correspondences in mind whenever they are working the G.D. system of magick. Under these conditions, adherence to the Order’s system of correspondences is vital to a successful outcome, whether we are talking about ritual magick or tarot divination.

For those tarot readers who are not members of a school of the instituted mysteries however, I maintain that it is of no great importance which set of divinatory meanings is espoused. So as to be clear, I will restate my main point again: If a person’s only desire is to read the tarot predictively, all that is needed is a pack of cards and a comprehensive set of divinatory meanings, one that encompasses all the most commonplace circumstances of life. After that, the art of interpretation must be acquired, and this objective is best achieved through constant practice, although a degree of insight can be gained by the diligent observation of a true tarot maestro at work.

If, on the other hand, a person desires to read the tarot at a metaphysical or spiritual level, the above rule is countermanded. The occultist or the mystic may choose to work with a specific deck. One of my pupils, who adhered to the teachings of the French school of tarot, claimed she was able to give more accurate readings using the Papus Tarot Deck. (This was at a time when this deck was available at a reasonable price.) But note the ‘may’ in the sentence above: “the occultist or the mystic may choose to work with a specific deck”. This is not a given. In the early days of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, initiates made readings either with a French or Italian tarot of the kind we would identify as being in the Tarot de Marseille mould, or with a handmade G.D. tarot. Since few had the necessary skill to draw and color a tarot for themselves, it was most often a Marseille-type tarot that was used. So, clearly, for these initiates, a specific deck was not regarded as an essential element of a successful tarot reading.

It is of greater importance by far that the occultist or mystic grasp the significances attached to the cards by the initiate-expositors of the esoteric path they have elected to tread. Once these significances have become part of the student’s mental furniture, they will come readily to mind whatever tarot deck is used. And so it would have been for the early initiates of the G.D.

I am going to move next in the direction of the more abstruse meanings of the cards for a while. Specifically, I will be looking into the magickal implications of the four Aces. I have in mind an experiment all can participate in, those of us that have the mind to do so, and I shall be describing that experiment in my next article.

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