When looking at the minor arcana, it’s helpful to take a somewhat different approach than to the majors. The minors have more of a group identity than the triumphs, so to speak. While the triumphs certainly do work in concert, they also stand strongly on their own, each with a specific energy and message. The cards of the four suits, on the other hand, represent tendencies and influences, and depend heavily on the context of their suit and surrounding cards in a reading.
Now, this does not by any means suggest that the minor arcana is less important than the triumphs. The four suits offer an infinite tableau of the human condition, without which the Tarot would be stagnant, locked into mental and spiritual boxes without any of the variables that make each person’s life unique. Tarot is an incredibly moveable oracle, able to navigate and advise on the turns of daily life as they take place. None of that would be possible without the four suits.
Four is the number of stability, measurement, and order. Four expresses energy that secures us in the world. The cards numbered four in the minor arcana all refer either to the celebration of an accomplishment, or a period of reevaluation. The Emperor, the fourth triumph, symbolizes the power of the personality. All of the cards numbered 4 have to do in some way with our well-being in the material world. Cards numbered 1, 2, and 3, whether in the suits or the triumphs, have to do with inception, conception, and formation. Cards bearing the number four move away from the idea of developing a foundation, and focus instead on a stage of interaction with the world. It’s not random that there are four suits, instead of three or five, for example. Four is a number of power, and the four suits are the agents of the triumphs, elaborating on the ideals set forth in the “big” cards, offering practical advice on how to incorporate these qualities every day.
Each suit has its own intrinsic nature. Wands bear the character of Fire, and all of the implications associated with fire. Let your mind run with this for a moment. What does fire suggest to you? Whatever it is you feel as you close your eyes and conjure up the image of flames is the essence of the suit of Wands. Wands represent the Spirit and the realm of ideas, as well as passion, desire and motivation. Fire has a life of its own, an energetic connection with the environment, and this principle is very much alive throughout the suit. In a reading, Wands will always refer to activity.
Polarity is found in the juxtaposition of Wands and Cups, representing the elements of Fire and Water, creating steam. When cards are next to each other in a reading they interact and form patterns. The compatible Wands and Swords presenting next to each other might indicate a smooth progression, for example, while a Wand and a Cup together might suggest some kind of tension, like sexual tension. It’s important to recognize that the tension of polarity between the suits isn’t confrontational, It’s simply a matter of an energetic exchange. Wands and Swords are yang suits, while Cups and Earth are ying.
It’s interesting to note that there are variations on the suit of wands in different decks. Some decks use Rods, and others Staves. Some even employ Branches. What’s the difference? Why is this important? All of these bring certain shared ideas to the suit, such as motivation and desire, but consider the different uses for each of these objects. A Wand is a tool of The Magician, and implies heightened spiritual awareness and deliberate intention. A Stave, by contrast, is designed to be a weapon. The Rod carries implications of ceremony, power, authority, and even punishment, while the Branch is a simple construct of nature. This is something to consider in your choice of deck. Which of these realms speaks most clearly to you?
Cups bear the qualities of Water, and represent the subconscious mind. This is a receptive, reflective suit, but it should never be confused with passive. Far from it. Cups and Wands work together just as The Magician and The High Priestess do, a balance of conscious self-awareness and subconscious knowledge that sets the stage for a healthy personality. You might even say they represent the two different hemispheres of the human brain. The receptivity of Cups is that of the subconscious, which takes in everything without a filter. Cups carry all of the meanings of the High Priestess herself; intuition, hidden knowledge, duality, reflection, receptivity, and the source of emotion. Cups are especially compatible with Pentacles.
Another designation seen is some decks for Cups is the Chalice. As with Wands, this adds a layer of meaning to the suit. A Chalice is a ceremonial tool, while a Cup is a vessel, a difference that directly impacts the emotional content of the cards. This is why some people read multiple decks, selecting different packs for different occasions. Decks speak differently, even though they use a common language.
Swords are the suit of Air, and represent mental and psychological processes. Sharp-edged and pointed, the Sword is a versatile instrument that may be used either as a tool or a weapon. Swords refer to the cutting edge of decision-making, and to the skills of communication. They also discuss fear, anxiety and neurosis. Of all the suits, Swords carry the most troubled images; blindfolded eyes, bindings, sorrow and conflict. In a reading, however, Swords can be extraordinarily versatile, and ought not to be relegated to a box of problems. Consider the pervasive nature of Air. The processes symbolized by Swords shape and direct everything we do, every action that we take. As human beings, we each face the propensity for negative, fear-based thinking, and this is reflected in the suit of Swords. Correspondingly, we also carry the potential to rise above that primitive reaction to the world, and to become empowered. The Aces represent the best qualities of each of the suits, and the Ace of Swords is the card of a champion. There’s a bold promise contained in the suit of Swords, an assertion that we can weather the difficulties that life throws at us and still remain mentally and psychologically strong.
Pentacles, sometimes called Discs or Coins, represent the element of Earth and have to do with our well-being in the material world. The image of the Pentagram is a symbol of the five senses, and the Pentacle is one of the four tools seen on the table in front of the Magician. This is the suit of practical matters. The story that’s told in the suit of Pentacles is one where the traveler navigates the path of life to a happy ending. Again, Tarot shows potential.
Tarot is really a map of sorts, offering guideposts along the road of life, consistently pointing in the direction of meaning. Meaning is, after all, the point of this whole business, is it not? Long after the money’s been counted and forgotten, the value of a person’s life is measured by the way they touched the world and the people around her, or him. Tarot will speak to you of meaning, or if you prefer, the cards will stick to practical matters and everyday concerns. In any case, Tarot is a tool to help with the consideration of the best course for going forward.
The four suits and the triumphs work together as a dynamic, energetic entity. The suits live on our level, share the common concerns of humanity, and tell the story of a life filled with simple pleasures and everyday victories. The combination of forces represented in the four suits is a composite of both the vagaries and the rewards of the human experience. Consider other powerful fours in your world, such as the four seasons, and four square walls. Think of the four suits not as an addendum to the major arcana, but rather, as the messenger that speaks to the needs our our daily lives.