Why do you suppose there are four suits instead of three or five? Is that random, or is there something special about “four”? You bet there is. Four is an ancient number of power, conveying the idea of a strong foundation. This is apparent in many ways; consider the importance of the four directions, for example. Even those who don’t attach metaphysical meaning to East, South, West and North still orient their lives according to the directions. For people who do relate to them spiritually, the four directions are the bedrock of their practice. “Four square walls” is a commonly used phrase that suggests the security of a well-built residence. Astrology contains four elements, the qualities of which are expressed in the personality types of the zodiac, and those qualities are associated with the four suits of Tarot, as well. All of these things are separate, and yet connected.
In the language of Tarot the four suits are the cards that speak most directly to matters of everyday life, in contrast to the major arcana which address important turning points and critical states of mind. It’s really the four suits that give Tarot its ability to get down and dirty in your personal life, so to speak, and to offer advice on navigating through the sticky circumstances of the day to day. Major arcana are the spiritual heavy hitters. The minor arcana (the four suits) is about the dirty laundry.
Each suit tells a story which over time becomes your own as you personalize the meanings of the cards through experience. A good way to learn the four suits is to lay out each one, Ace through 10, and make up a story to go along with the sequence of images. It’s helpful to give a name to the character in your stories; it might even be your own. End each story on a positive note, and be aware that will be a lot easier to do with Cups and Pentacles than with Swords, at least in the beginning. This is a technique you can start using immediately, even before any further Tarot study. Story telling is an intuitive approach to interpretation, a right-brain inspired creative response to symbolism used in the cards, and a way to personalize what the cards have to say in a reading.
At the same time, it’s essential to just plain memorize some of the fundamentals, including the basic meaning of numbers and the energetic qualities of the four elements. This is a good habit to form as you develop your interpretive talents, this blending of conscious and subconscious activity in relation to the cards. The conscious and subconscious minds working together in cooperation and harmony is, in fact, one of the most important underlying themes of Tarot.
Another approach that can be helpful in learning the minor arcana is to leave out the symbolism altogether at first, and just consider the combination of the meanings of the number and the suit. All four of the cards with the number 2 share certain characteristics, and at the same time, each is different from the others by virtue of its suit. In fact, early Tarot decks did not use pictorial illustrations in the minor arcana at all, they simply included the symbol for the suit and the number of the card. It was the Rider Waite deck, originally published in the early 1900’s that first incorporated the use of symbolic pictures in the four suits. Now, of course, most decks use pictures in the minor arcana, and packs with “pip” cards are somewhat of a rarity.
Try defining the meaning of a card solely through the intersection of its number and the suit, without even looking at the card. For example, you can conclude that the 2 of Cups has to do with balancing the emotions, because 2 is the number of equilibrium and the suit of Cups is about feelings and intuition. Next, take a look at all four of the cards numbered 2. How are they alike? How are they different from each other?
The information contained in the meanings of the numbers and the elemental assignments is consistent in all Tarot decks. The illustrations found in the cards and the symbolism used, on the other hand, is far from predictable and is subjective to the designer of the deck. The most important thing when choosing a deck is to find one with images that spark creative ideas and feelings when you look at the cards.
It’s okay to use a “cheat sheet” at first, everybody does. Over time your knowledge of the fundamentals will become as intuitive as your reaction to a drawing. The process of incorporating these ideas into your own understanding is important and not to be rushed. Contemplation is at once a necessity and one of the greatest rewards to be found in the study of Tarot.
QUALITIES OF THE FOUR SUITS:
WANDS: The suit of Fire and the South. Wands represent the world of the Spirit and the realm of pure ideas. Wands have everything to do with motivation, inspiration and passion. Spiritually Wands signify a desire for connection, either with higher power or with another person.
PENTACLES: The suit of Earth and the North. Pentacles have to do with all matters of health and well-being in the material world. Career, place of residence, and a connection to the natural world are demonstrated in this suit. When a Pentacle presents in a reading you can be sure that the subject under discussion is not about an abstract matter, but rather something that’s taking place in the physical world.
SWORDS: The suit of Air and the East. Mental and psychological activity is shown in Swords, including communication issues and conflict resolution. The decision-making process is emphasized. Anxiety and the release of anxiety are closely examined in this suit.
CUPS: The suit of Water and the West. Cups dwell in the realm of creativity and emotional depth. The subconscious mind and hidden wisdom are represented here. Cups hold all of the meanings of the High Priestess herself. In readings Cups often refer to the emotions.
THE MEANINGS OF NUMBERS 1-10
0. Infinity, superconsciousness, unlimited potential.
1. Conscious self-awareness, inception, initiation, focus, concentration.
2. Duality, reflection, alternation, balance.
3. Growth, development, expression, networking.
4. Calculating intelligence, order, measurement, classification, benevolence, stability.
5. Adaptation, versatility, mediation. Midpoint between beginning and completion.
6. Harmony of opposites, reciprocity, equilibrium, love. Six is harmonious with all other numbers.
7. Synthesis of preceding numbers. In Tarot specifically, 7 represents the unfinished Great Work.
8. Double circles indicate alternating circles and the idea that opposites are actually the effect of the same cause. Momentum and infinity.
9. Completion, attainment, fulfillment. The end of a cycle.
10. A balance of self-awareness and universal consciousness.