A Brief History

Elihu Vedder, The Questioner of the Sphinx, 1863
Elihu Vedder, The Questioner of the Sphinx, 1863

One thing you must first know, is that a poet will try their best to trick you.  Lines assembled beside each other may conjure a crystalline sentence, but they are like bones, light and disjointed when you move to pick them up.  They somehow remain separate, and so belong, to the poem.  When it comes to sacred poetry, political agitprop, heroic histories or tragedies of collapse, we can expect the poets to tell even greater lies.  So it is, we have artifacts like the Tarot, that are misunderstood but can’t ever be fully understandable at all, given that the arrangers are long gone.  So we see the familiar lines tossed like salad, goading us to make sense of it.  And it is this, the enlivening of the imagination and the sidestepping of sensible correspondence, that gives us something in the cards to read.  Set aside all hopes that the Tarot is a complete theory of everything, or remotely helpful in clarifying details about the past we shall never likely know, for the past is, ultimately, a story.  What we are left to know then is something dynamic about the relationships of symbols in our minds, and how to shuffle, deal, and put them in play.

The origin of the Tarot is not mysterious or lost in time.  Originally, it appeared as a card game, more accurately the marriage of two separate card games into a new one.

The first game appeared in the hands of the Mamelukes, a name meaning ‘owned’ for they were an army of slaves.  Many of of them were from the far north, captured by Vikings and sold through the Byzantine empire to Caliphs in Egypt.   They became a North African warlord caste that briefly came to rule Syria, taking over the Ottoman Empire for a little while as well.  From these hands a deck of cards with four suits that we still know well today, spread across Europe in the hands of soldiers.

Mameluke Cards – Suit of Cups

The second game used a Renaissance educational deck, which became the ‘triumphs’.  These trionfi combined with the soldier’s poker like deck, made up the game of Tarocco (Imitation), perhaps because the trionfi contained many virtues to imitate.   The trionfi were a selection of cards drawn from another series of decks which made games of a wide range of pictures, including the states of man, the parts of the cosmos, the sciences (at the time better known as natural magic) and the virtues.

The first of these decks were luxurious, hand-painted and even gilded delights made for elite children.  For the ruling class, a sense of inheritance from the lost civilizations of Antiquity was important, as much as a reformation of cultural values, and both desirable goals are folded together in these types of cards.  Teaching decks have been found with upwards of fifty cards.   The Tarot was clearly a selection made out of these kinds of games, and reduced to a convention of 22.  Whether the 22 were chosen more by design or by popularity is unclear, but the trumps are all interesting, and it is a game.   The first decks have variances in the number and genders of horse riders and pages, possibly representing actual family members.

Virtue Cards
Giuseppe M. Mitelli, Engraved Minchiate Cards

As the Tarot was getting started, it was one among many games of decks larger and smaller, of a similar composition – a now beta version of Tarot called Minchiate included twenty more trumps, for more than 90 cards in the game.  We do not know in most cases who painted the earliest Tarot decks, but the game became much more widespread and easier to trace once a printer in the ancient port city of Marseilles carved the first series of plates in the mid 1600s, and in doing so set down the first real standard for the deck’s overall design.  The more affordable printed cards brought the game into the public domain.   Though various printers made their decks signature with novel cards (the Ace of Coins typically carrying the maker’s imprint), and you will find that many of the names would be new in later decks, most of the key symbolism in the Tarot has not changed since the printed Marseilles.

Hard Times

The time period between the first appearance of Tarot in 1400 and the arrival of printed decks in the mid 1600s was very rough for the common people, who had much cause to crave a separation from their past, and to consider new outlooks.  The Hundred Years War dividing the church left economic troubles and strife in France, and nearly a quarter of the people died, mostly of starvation followed by a plague which further reduced some places to less than a third of their populations.  But by the turn of the 18th century, recovery was speeding along, thanks in part to the humble introduction of the potato, and attitudes had changed among descendants of the survivors.   The Inquisition was forced to reduce its severity towards witchcraft, but while it was losing cases in court, it motivated by prospects of seized wealth collected during the centuries of conflict.   The scars of whole communities erased and defrauded as heretics still fresh in popular memory.  England had fallen into Civil War, but likewise, the accompanying sharp spike in witch burnings had cooled off, leaving the fate of Joan of Arc symbolic of much more loss for French minds.  She would also live on in the minds of English speakers, for defeating King Charles in single combat as much as her execution as a witch, thanks to Shakespeare’s play Henry VI.

The Marseille – Charles Cheminade deck

Another arduous change was for the Dutch – after sixty years of war, helped by the sudden and uncanny destruction by storm of the great Armada built by Spain with gold plundered from the New World, they finally evicted the Spanish occupation of their country and put an end to the witch trials there, creating another oasis of a more tolerant, more rebellious society, and it was already improving their economy. These improvements in the quality of Dutch life were comparable to life in the Free Imperial Cities of the German speaking world, points in that patchwork mess of small kingdoms and seats that was any map of the region in 1700.  Granted charters a thousand years before by Charlemagne, their people had fared better than most and became beacons driving alternative methods of government and society, and the people in France must have felt some credit was due for this.  Louis XIV openly declared that he didn’t believe in witchcraft, and in 1685 reduced the crime ‘pretending sorcery’, a step removed from blind superstition, effectively freezing the taint, and economic drain, of the inquisitor.  The changing of the question, “Are witches to blame for this?” to “Do you think witches are real?” was not just part a process that would lead to separating of church power from the state, creating greater tolerance, it also helped to create the occult, which was born with the enlightenment.  It would become acceptable once again to have eccentric and creative magic folk in the court, and many of them would become pioneers of science.

The world had clearly changed and the tarot came into popularity during these dramatic centuries.  A pastime born into eerily empty villages, fields abandoned, roads adrift with displaced people, wandering beggars and highwaymen.  A society recovering from having forgotten how to function smoothly after centuries of neighbors turning on each other.

Decadent Recovery

The countless women that had been lost in the long age of witch hunts is a possible reason for the Tarot taking the shape that it did.  It is easy to see as a response to the times why these packs had such a selection of powerful female characters and symbols.   Several of them are matches of a popular Renaissance theme in the art of the elite, called the Power of Women.  Another painting theme born in this time, especially in the north, was a decadent vernacular dedicated to witches, now boldly adding a fantastic and erotic correlate to the Bacchanal that shapes modern visuals of the conjuring woman today.  New visuals for a culture recovering from ravages, new ethics more universal than what the powers and authorities blamed for the ruin had allowed.

Serravalle Sesia Italian Deck

In addition to the Marseille, prints reveal a popular interest in grotesqueries as well, horned creatures and monsters were found to decorate table wear and wallpaper, as though to make up for centuries of censorious living.  It was a time when the beliefs of the Medieval era, including  a strong vein of expecting the world to end very soon, was giving way to a preference to try their luck, since the other outlook hadn’t worked so well.    To the rich, new blood was being added from outside the system of nobility, changing the balance of power by adding something flexible and able to innovate, a middle class.  Galileo and Isaac Newton were changing ideas about accessibility to knowledge, and inventions like Jethro Tull’s seed drill were putting an end to famine.  Though the newspaper as we know it dates to the same time period as the Tarot, very few would have known the year 1700 had brought the prediction of microbes, the idea of extraterrestrial life, and the first correct identification of a dinosaur fossil (a claw).   In this context the Tarot’s purpose, thanks to technology and new attitudes, can be understood from the beginning as an instrument that looked towards the future while it also served as an escape into story and legend.  And because it was dear to the enjoyment of life, because it is a game, it survived when so many things began to change swiftly.

Etteilla’s Deck – No longer a game…

Occult Adaptation

The transition of the Tarot from an amusement in the Renaissance to its reputation as a key to arcane lore happened quickly.  Books had already been written, offering different takes on to what the cards mean, such as the Discourse by Francesco Piscina, as early as 1565.  It is an individual named Etteilla (Jean Francois Alliete) who is credited with printing the first truly occult deck in 1791, that includes interpretive words and astrological associations.  He is credited with applying the associations of planets and signs, most of the names and, along with a book by Antoine Court, cemented a story that the Tarot had originated in Ancient Egypt, which he called the Book of Thoth, the Egyptian god equated with Hermes.  Though he created the groundwork that is so often repeated today, reports of the Marseille in use for fortunes run much earlier than that, and probably were impossible to resist from the very beginning.


A hundred years later, the tarot would undergo another paradigm shift at the hands of the extraordinary Pamela Colman Smith, a synesthetic artist whose paintings of visions induced by music led to her creation of the iconic Waite-Smith deck, after the Marseille the most imitated and modified tarot, and still the best known tarot today.  Her major contribution was to add individual vignettes to each of the suited cards, transforming them from the stacked symbols of playing cards and making them considerably more individual and readable.  For many years, decks drawn from her designs were better known as the Rider-Waite, but recently her contribution has come to be recognized properly.

Pamela “Pixie” Colman Smith (b. Feb 16 1878 d. 1951)

Is it Egyptian?

For much of Antiquity until this time, many have believed that the ruins of Egypt were an origin point of true civilization, along with a notion that ancients were essentially better humans than we are. It is true that it is among of the longest continually surviving civilizations. It is also in part due to more recent religious traditions, that the people of ancient times lived much longer lives, or were larger and stronger than we are today, and miracles were thought to be more visible.  Welcome to the world view of a world in inevitable decline, where the beginning is more noble than the end will be.  We are still influenced by this apocalyptic world view in popular culture today.  Into the medieval period, it is reported that many were taught to expect this great end quite soon.  The Renaissance might be defined as a change in attitude regarding this coming doom, as being less reliable as one century after another had passed by.   The growing need for alternative views that could promise a future is evident in retrospect.

This may explain some of the significance of claiming the cards were from Ancient Egypt, an earlier wisdom that was more like a wheel and less like a car about to crash.  And the fetish for lost wisdom and secret origins is something that our culture still generates.  Just keep in mind that in the days when the Tarot was created, old Egypt’s distant walls were covered with hieroglyphics absolutely no one could read, and almost no clues to the words, names and stories in them were available, outside of second-hand accounts from historians.  While there is a strong case for a Hermetic expression being contained in the cards, or at least the selection,  the deeper origins of that long lost culture are not exclusively Egyptian.  While much of the surviving body of Hermetic works and its link to the origins of the alphabet were compiled in the late libraries of Egypt, it belongs to a shared culture from a lost age, pointing towards neolithic stone sites, bards, and sacred groves, found many lands far and wide, including places where trees no longer grew.  To a modern, the idea of looking backwards for origins does not include this antique focus of being necessarily bigger and better.  This can’t be a bad thing, but it may explain a great deal of confusion about the Tarot.

As the game’s popularity had faded, people started leaving the trumps out to play other games, and it fell out of favor to games using the smaller 52 card deck it contained.  Its reputation as a tool of divination took over, claiming the original Tarot almost exclusively for the occult world.   And here we are now, trying to claim usefulness  of reading as cognitive exercise, and we are able to clear the table without much trouble to make them relevant for a modern mind.  It’s quite a story.


So, once again, though we can date when most of the occult ideas were first applied, that is almost exclusively offered with a new pack of the cards today, a more liberal, poetic view of these cards in the context of social change remains to be written.  Examples include the rebellious choices for many trumps, that respond in a very direct way to social and economic troubles specific the the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  In these cards there are hidden meanings, but they apply themselves far better to the rise of Humanism and reformative thinking, than they do anything Egyptian.   For example, the Papess card (picturing the non-existent and surprising concept of a female Pope in a patriarchal society) was transmitting whatever its irreverent original message was (we’re not precisely sure, there was possibly still a feast holiday for a then seven centuries old legend of a woman who disguised herself as a man, Pope Joan),  in any case clearly loaded with a double meaning.  That card would become the High Priestess once the occult got hold of it, eclipsing its original name, still a card symbolizing a woman of spiritual authority.

So it’s important to understand that the deck, specifically the trumps, are a collection of separate ideas before they are structured points leading to a specific conclusion.  The cards are a mixture of old ideas, especially those which stand in for things that have apparently been true for a long time, and new ideas, like the illustrating of teaching principles.  The cards were made new for successively new purposes – to teach, to gamble, and ultimately, to tell fortunes.  We can add a new development to this, by using the cards to exercise the mind.


The Triumph Cards (0 – XXI)

The pictorial fifth suit for the 78 card deck still played in a few corners of Europe.  A triumph meant both a win and a procession, like a parade. Many people read the trumps as being ordered intentionally, from 0 Fool at the beginning to XXI World at the end, one card being a development from the last.  This approach is called the Triumphant Procession, or the Fool’s Journey.  This book does not rely on that narrative approach alone.  Instead it looks to the trumps as a crowd of performers on the march, mummers, each their own character, presented en masse to those watching.  In game play, the higher numbered trumps do beat lower ones, but they are also clearly ordered in groups, like chapters in a book.

Rather than a ladder, I see the cards arranged in little groups, as though to describe a world view.  I’ve named the first three cards Wisdom Types for the fact that the Fool and the first two trumps are traditionally afforded important roles in self realization, mirrors of the self if you will. The wanderer is wild, the Magician is active, and the High Priestess is the higher self. The second class I call Power Types after some contemplation, as the first two (Empress and Emperor) are notoriously vague in their interpretations (with little to distinguish them from the four kings and queens in the suits). I realized these cards could be seen as three successive power structures, from old to new, that might explain their order, and it would make sense to have them follow the cards of the self. The third class of trumps I call Treasures, here we encounter four virtues that are very humanist in their aim. The next class is Trials and Labors which appear to go on and describe a range of complications and learning opportunities that are part of growing into this world. The last group I call Splendors of Nature beginning with the Star, and summarize both cosmic and earthly totalities.

The first and second column is the most common numbering and typical titles.   Third column in italics are my own one-word terms for the card’s meaning.  The Items marked with an (*) asterisk means the cards that match the famous illustrated poem of the time, Petrarch’s Triumphs, with the name in bold.   In the fourth column are neo-Classical myth symbols represented in the images.

Wisdom Types
0. Fool Wanderer  Hermes
I. Magician Entertainer  Hermes
II. Papess Teacher  Hermaphrodite
Power Types
III. Empress Matriarch  Athena
IV. Emperor Patriarch  Jove
V. Pope Oligarch Roma
VI. Lovers Love*  Eros
VII. Chariot Liberty  Victory
VIII. Justice Justice  Nemesis
IX. Hermit Truth  Chronos
Trials and Labors
X. Wheel of Fortune Station Fortuna / Tyche
XI. Strength StruggleChastity* Diana / Hercules
XII. The Hanging Sacrifice Hermes / Green Man
XIII. Death Death* Death
XIV. Temperence Discipline Virgo / Janus
XV. The Devil The Wild Marsayas
XVI. The Tower Vainglory Mars / Toranis
Splendors of Nature
XVII. The Star The Star  Venus / Aphrodite
XVIII. The Moon The Moon  Artemis
XIX. The Sun The SunTime*  Splendor Solis
XX. Judgement Return, Fame*  Victory
XXI. The World The World  The World

About the Illustrations

The deck I chose as the main illustration for each Trump later in this work are from the Paris Tarot, also known as the Anonymous Tarot because the deck isn’t signed.  While in the Marseille style and period, it shows the most overt signs of purposely trying to distinguishing itself as esoteric.  The other card examples are at least as early, including a more standard Marseille for comparison, and various versions of the Visconti, among the earliest known Italian hand painted decks.

The narrative of the world depicted by the Tarot, set in the 1400s, suggests an agenda and probably is not a good example of general public thinking at all, if we are to include everyday people. With a virtual absence of Christian themes, it promotes parallels and alternatives.  While the Pope is present, the curiously unreal inclusion of a Papess raises questions.   The female equivalent to the patriarch card sandwiches Empress before Emperor as though to mirror this point.  Placing her before the Emperor is interesting.  Absent are any images of Christ, Saints or Apostles – the deadly sins and pious virtues are left out as well.  The idea of Judgement and the resurrection it usually depicts is related to memory, not the end of the world.  As the second to last card it is an interesting choice, for it is followed by the notable absence of any kind of afterlife, but instead is completed with the World, almost an outright denial of apocalypse if read in sequence, as though to start again.


While the original deck designers certainly pursued their own esoteric purposes, there was always a great variety of decks of educational game cards made by Renaissance artists, which included the muses, the arts, the Olympians, the Zodiac, the seasons, theories of science, and so on.  These decks could run upwards of 50 cards.  The triumphs in the Tarot, the most common 22, match and are a distillation of those larger teaching decks, pared down to a selection.  This selection, and the selector’s reasons for it, constitute the mystery of the Tarot.

The memory of all those Trumps can be found in a single card included in our modern Poker decks, and that’s the Joker, included as a pair.  Historians dispute whether the Joker is at all linked to the Fool trump, as it first appeared in Poker decks in 1863 following a gap in time.  But the Fool most often appears as a Jester in contemporary Tarot decks on the continent, and both have a ‘wild card’ role, numbered zero as outside the deck (indeed the Fool is the card of a ‘wild man’) so I lean towards the idea of a connection.  It’s not hard to imagine an immigrant to North America adding a little spice back to the poker deck, remembering a more complicated game they grew up enjoying back home.


The Four Suits

Air, Water, Earth, Fire (L to R)


Background: The Four Elements

In setting about the study of natural magic, or the way nature does things when properly prompted and observed, we encounter things which she might not do without prompting, and so we have the very definition of revealing one of her secrets.  The revealing of secrets, as technology and science bloomed, appeared to simply get easier as time went on, and it did, because it was based on the cumulative experience of human culture.

Distillation by H. Brunschwig, Liber de Arte Distillandi de Compositis,1512
Distillation of Medicine by H. Brunschwig, Liber de Arte Distillandi de Compositis,1512

Part and parcel of the progressive, humanist mind was to consider the way the world might work, the number of things that had yet to be explained in a way that could be observed.  One of the few things inherited from the ancients that was known to be continuously useful, was the theory of the Four Elements.

The dividing of the world into four is one thing the people in the Renaissance could know for certain extended through time.  There are of course the four cardinal directions of North, South, East and West, which define the Earth in a way; now draw a circle around this the way the Sun circles the earth (not so true anymore) and you get a wheel with four spokes.  Draw another wheel around that and you get the ‘serpent skirt’ of stars which does the hoola-hoop around us continually like a snake eating its tail, the ‘girdle’ of stars divided into twelve Zodiac wedges, to roughly match the twelve phases of the Moon.

The Moon domain was beyond, and by all appearances ruled the rhythm of the year.  The count of its twelve cycles controlled the cycle of planting and sowing that kept everyone alive.   And to match the four cardinal directions on Earth, you had four cardinal points of the Zodiac, whichever was overhead making each season like a direction of its own.  The two wheels combined describe space and time.

Lani Kennefec

The cardinal signs of the Zodiac have survived beyond antiquity’s symbolism by being renamed for the Four Evangelists.  The Lion, the Eagle, the Bull and the Man can easily be matched to old the accounts of ‘four living creatures’, which are sometimes combined to form a chimera.  Leo for the height of Summer, Aquarius the low point of Winter, Taurus for the Spring and the Eagle for the Fall equinoxes within the Northern half of the planet.  Don’t let the Ophiuchus the Snake Handler constellation in the chart above for throw you off, for in the sky, it is right beside Scorpio, which took its place for our culture.   In Babylon, the constellation was seen as a titan with snakes for legs.  A reference to many myths, but in general belongs to the Hercules family (which describes a time period), it describes the combination of the sky and the earth, the above and below in one.  Several of our 88 classical constellations feature snakes.

Johannes Mylius, 1622, the Alchemical Sun in Four Stages. Scholars were aware that the new cardinal points had shifted ahead one full sign since the old days.
Johannes Mylius, 1622, the Alchemical Sun in Four Stages. Scholars were aware that the cardinal points had shifted ahead one full sign since the old days.

Together the four cardinal signs form a turning wheel, a symbol known from the earliest petroglyphs, so old it can’t properly be said to belong to any culture we would recognize at all.  Don’t be thrown off by these seasons not matching their signs, a great deal of time has passed since they were invented, and the Zodiac no longer matches our calendar the way it once did (the sun has drifted off by about one full month against their background).

January 1, 2000 BCE
January 1, 2000 BCE
January 1st, 2000 CE
January 1st, 2000 CE

The old philosophers also found four elements useful to describe interactions in nature.  These were also distinct as though cardinal, but could be mixed in various ways.  So what practical use did the elements of fire, earth, air and water continue to have here on Earth?  In the Renaissance, the elements were still in circulation in the sciences for their value in describing two things – chemical behaviors (we still refer to alcohol as ‘firewater’, to use an example, or the highly corrosive liquid acid Aqua Regis calling it a ‘water’). Most commonly, it was used to diagnose physical symptoms of illness.  Inherited from the ancients as part of the early sciences, the four elements in reference to conditions of the body were called the Four Humors.  The four humors were Red Blood (Huma), Yellow Bile (Cholia), Black Bile (Melancholia) and Green Phlegm(a), matching Air, Fire, Earth and Water respectively.  The levels and mixing of these humors in the body were believed to give rise to four temperaments as symptoms.

By studying these various layers of a four-fold wheel, you will grasp the tone and interpretation that has long been applied to the four suits right away, and see why the Renaissance humanists reached for them immediately as a pre-existing model of ancient philosophy upon which to add their trumps and invent the Tarot.  In this case, I wholly support this method, it’s great mental exercise.


Stanza della Segnatura, 15th Cent. An example of developing Church humanism, with its own Elemental correspondences on display.
Stanza della Segnatura, 15th Cent. An example of Church humanism, with its own Elemental correspondences on display.  The Tarot presents a four-fold humanist formula of symbols that looks further back in time.

Putting them to Use

Of course we no longer have any scientific use for the four winds, the cardinal directions, elements or humors, so the old mystic power of the number four might not have much common sense value to us.  But we can look at four wheels as the most stable arrangement for a car, and some still cross themselves with an intersection.  But we did eventually discover that there are actually a limited list of stable elements that making up most every bit of matter in the cosmos, and while there’s more than four (instead, there are eighty elements), their interactions do make for all natural phenomena just the same, from starlight to photosynthesis.   Their combinations and interactions with energy result in shape changing from gas to liquid to solid.  It is every bit as the classical philosophers were trying to understand, only more wonderful, and detailed, and surprising… to an exponential scale.

Beyond this we discovered that all the elements are atoms of different sizes, confirming another theory long held before seen, and now have found the atoms are made of even smaller basic elements: the neutron, proton, and electron, and we have managed to take a picture of an electron at last.  So while we have eighty kinds of stable atom, we find that these are the result of just a handful of even smaller elements, bringing back to a similar reality once imagined as the classical earth, fire, water and air.   So in modern times, we’ve never departed from being able to say, in a sense, that the universe is indeed made up of just a few elements, and the world as we know it is produced by the interaction of different forces working by and upon combinations of these elements.  Real magic is just something that science has yet to explain.

So it’s important to absorb that this subject, the way the suited cards will be handled, was the poetic understanding of natural magic at the time of the Renaissance, and that it was not occult, it actually represented a scientific theory of the time.  It was dry and practical, not a subject of veneration, and only in the occult do you find attempts to revive magical meaning by pointing a sword in each direction or writing a mystical symbol of each of these.  The old conjuration of placing yourself as the center of the earth by drawing a circle divided by the four directions, a prehistoric shamanic practice, of course has more meaning as internal, personal action than it does anything to do with the way the outer world works.  Perhaps we will see attempts to draw the symbols of all 80 elements, that would be a thoroughly modern magician to be sure.

The Techno-Chemical Receipt Book, 1886
The Techno-Chemical Receipt Book, 1886.  A manual of chemistry.

Being able to read the suited cards relies upon this old understanding of the elements and their interaction, and combined with some basic numerology, you will eventually be able to read the numbered cards with ‘instinct’ and not rely on a fairly arbitrary system of titles alone.   The four suits that make up the Minors in a deck of Tarot have no better match for free association than the four elements, central and enduring for breaking apart and analyzing the natural world.    They lend themselves well to visualization, non-binary comparison, and conceptual interaction.  Spilling a liquid that burns is fiery, one that refreshes is watery, while anything liquid is watery in some respect in the first place.  Filling a barrel with wine will make it earthy in the sense that it weighs more, and pouring the barrel out is an airy thing to do, or perhaps a fiery one if it was done in the heat of anger.  Thinking too much is having a storm in one’s head, with too much wind.

Leonhard Thurneysser, Quinta Essentia, 1524
Leonhard Thurneysser, Quinta Essentia, 1524.  Alchemical macrocosm.

By introducing the elements I do not recommend actually believing that these four ideas are materially accurate in explaining the behavior of the natural world.  It would miss the mark to say the elements should be classed as beliefs for the 15th century either, rather they are attempts at analytical thinking.  We’ve discovered microbes and the nervous system and many other better, though considerably more complicated, explanations for what the body does than the four vague Humors the Renaissance doctors stumbled around with.  We are certainly better off for it.

Once used to them, the Four Elements are highly valuable as poetic classifications, a non-rational structure that can help loosen up fixations and mental road-blocks.  Use them as solvents, to dissolve hardened ideas and break them down into something you can observe and measure.  The four elements are good fun, and they won’t conflict with your rational knowledge by having to digest volumes of archaic information literally, instead they make of the Tarot a kind of virtual stage for nonlinear free-association that has everything to do with its endurance.


The Suit of Coins – Earth

Coins, Disks, or Pentacles evolved into our Diamonds, and in German culture, Bells.  The suit stands for what we call the Aristotelian element of Earth.  In the case of Earth, we have a tradition of the element standing for material activity.

Coins have the association of commerce, wealth and growth.  The attitude of the element includes concepts like elegance, generosity and management. Diamonds, like gold, cut through worldly affairs like nothing else.  Coins inversely can deliver a meaning of waste, squander, hoarding, and the diseases caused by greed.


The Suit of Cups – Water

Cups evolved into our own Hearts, as it is known in almost all western playing cards, except in the Swiss deck, where the suit became Roses.

The suit traditionally stands for the element of Water.   In the case of water, we have a tradition of the element standing for matters of the heart.

Cups have the reputation for questions of romance, happiness, joy, and freedom.  They also may attract inverse interpretations that come from excess, mad desire, disappointment, illusion and obsession.   What’s helpful in distinguishing the ‘heart’ of Cups from the ‘fire’ of Staves is that Water settles and pools, so the Cups suit describes the experiences of the heart.  Fire spreads and radiates, the suit of Staves then describes actions of the heart (among your other parts).

The Suit of Swords – Air

Swords evolved into our Spades, as well as Leaves, and in Switzerland, Shields.  The suit traditionally stands for an element, that of Air.  While no one can take a physics class that teaches the classic four elements as a theory of science any longer,  the symbolic meaning of the element, in terms of personal development, still has value.

In the case of air, we have a tradition of the element standing for mental activity.  Swords have a reputation for trouble and conflict, a good fit for the suit of plots, schemes and strategy.  The Ace of Spades is widely regarded as the most sinister single card.  I think it’s appropriate that mental activity has an edgy reputation.  Swords can also deliver meanings of wit, skill, negotiation and judgement.

The Suit of Staves

Staves in Tarot are variously called Wands, Rods, Batons, and sometimes Arrows.  The suit of Staves actually evolved from a Mameluk suit of Polo Sticks, the only of their suits changed by the Tarot, which in turn became our familiar French suit, Clubs.  Staves can appear as a club of the sort Heracles carried, ordinary sticks, or the emblem of a Clover or Tree.  The Germans turned it into Acorns.

The suit traditionally stands for the element of Fire.  In the case of Fire, we have the element standing for natural interactivity and human passion.

Staves have a reputation for impulsive action and daring, for tempers and mob rule, and also for “the explosive interaction of things that nature has set aside spectacular outcomes for” as Agrippa, a lawyer who defended accused healers against the Inquisition, once explained about the confusion between natural magic (science) and malevolent witchcraft in his time.  Wood is a useful material, stacked like fuel, put on the fire to draw heat from its stored energy, and shaped into useful objects, like boats, buildings and machines.

German Suits

The Court Cards

The Minors, the cards that bear four suits, the numbered cards and court cards, constitute the single most popular deck that travelled from east to across Europe, and is still in daily use for every hand of Poker and Blackjack.  The formula that is found in the Tarot, of ten numbered cards and four court cards, is the way they arrived as the Mamluk game preferred by the warlord caste of North Africa, Egypt and ultimately, the Ottoman Empire.  Surviving packs of these cards are often of great beauty, with the four suits kept virtually identical when added to the Trumps for the creation of Tarot – coins, cups, swords and polo sticks.  Some of them have inspirational quotes and contemplative poems written into their design.

Mamluk Officer Cards

The four suits did not change at first, but the four generals for each suit quickly shifted from the battlefield to a landed hierarchy in European hands, usually with kings, queens, knights, and princelings.  Many early hand painted decks, and prototypes for standard decks, featured specific people in fact, such as family members.  As Tarot was replaced by other games, the court cards were here reduced to three, the King, Knight and Knave, and there, a Queen was added back in, restoring four in some decks, bumping out the Knight or Knave in most others.

The court cards are a succession of human rank, specifically of the nobility kind.  They range from the princeling squire to the ruler.  Many books tells you all kinds of stories about interpreting the court cards, but they’re never much help if we want to let instinct guide us.  It’s up to you to find a natural way to fold them into the story.  Typically a fortune teller will tell the client the court card is a real person, a mysterious stranger or friend.  But why make something up?  Why not consider the court cards as different forms of mastery of their particular suit’s qualities?  In this way, the court cards become aspects of yourself.  Mirrors to evaluate where you are on your journey.  It especially helps if you have a strong grasp of gender – then you won’t feel confused by the significance of Queen or King, archaic concepts themselves for us, and can focus on their abstract qualities.

Mamluk Ranks

In Tarot, there are four court cards for each suit.  The court cards lend themselves to personalities, and these personalities in their respective ways run a ‘house’ that is conceived by the elemental character the suit.  The four houses are the four suits, each with its own ruling style.  Get to know the reputation of each house, and the personalities living in it will be easier to imagine.  I simplify them thus:

Also known as the Prince, Princess, Knave, Page, Valet, Squire and 2nd Lieutenant. This is the servant character in the Court cards, not only the young searching for position within an established order, but acting in favor of the suit, the one that does all the actual work.  The mastery of procedure, the executor, and the tool.

Also known as the Chevalier or Horseman.   The easiest way to remember the Knight is to consider them as being on a quest, one specific to their house’s qualities.  This is a hero character, they begin from a point of unproved title and end by gaining, or failing, in the service of their suit.  A Knight is bound by oaths and fealty, not so independent as the Jack, but not a servant, and without the responsibility of a Monarch.

Interpret the queen as mastery in the inclusive sense, of bringing home the fruits, the thriving of the suit in question.  Integrating new lessons into one’s life,  knowledge of how to bring the house under complete control.  Combining facility with enterprise, the Queen is the emblem of a city built with the qualities of the suit she represents.

Interpret the king as mastery in the exclusive sense, of the appearances and legends of mastery that accompany the suit in question, the throne and the arms and the seat of this power.  The outward expression, including the way in which his suit would dominate, how he is known to the world at large, and to history.


The Numbered Cards (1-10)

The numbered cards are part of the Lower Arcana, a division of the deck whereby the trumps are the Major Arcana. The truth is, there are more suit cards (56) than trumps (22), and if the whole deck is to be put to use as a creative tool, it isn’t enough to revere the trump cards, we’ll want to understand how to make a story of the bulk of the deck to make good use of reading it.


The suits are usually arranged with cards number 1-10 and 4 court cards.  Because the medieval Kabbalah is influenced by earlier Neoplatonic schools in the use of a tree of degrees to explore any concept, from origin to reality, many believe and teach that Kabbalah is the origin of the cards.  From my understanding, the present occultist idea of Kabbalah was developed well after the cards and applied later, because the ten points on the Tree of Life fits neatly over the system of emanation taught in Greece, Egypt and Rome as an academic staple more than two millennia.  While you can learn the Jewish mystic system over top of the Tarot, and many do, or write as though that is the one true way, Kabbalah is a separate system and there is no requirement, especially not to read the cards the way I recommend in this book.

swiss oldcards1

Maybe you are the type that has a rabid, fleet, borderline savant mind and you need three layers of culture to contemplate a top ten list.  I do not mean to exclude you, but have to consider after perusing popular decks in the U.S. – faeries, UFOs, cartoons, and erotic themes abound – tradition and history are quite beside the point.  Though my approach to reading is not the most popular by a long shot, it is more honest.  The mystery we’re after is an internal, personal one, the mystery of our lived interface, the territory between thought, sense and reality.