[Editor’s Note: The PDF of this material has been significantly revised (at least twice!), but it may not have been completely revised in the article, below (Download PDF). More recently, however, it taken on another form: Neoplatonic Symbolism in the Tarot Suits. Originally– and below –this approach to the Tarot suits was said to be generally consistent with the work of our anonymous author. And while that is probably a fair characterization, there are also differences between the two approaches that have since become more apparent to me and which can be summarized as follows: Our anonymous author offers a Kabbalistic interpretation of the Tarot suits and does not refer to the Aces, per se. In contrast, the approach presented here is best characterized as Neoplatonic and treats the Tarot Aces as archetypes in their own right, the importance of which are roughly equivalent to that of the 22 Major Arcana. This should not be construed as a criticism of our anonymous author–indeed, if anything, it is a reflection of my own limitations (my Neoplatonic comfort zone, on the one hand, together with my lingering ignorance of many aspects of Kabbalah and Kabbalistic Tarot, on the other). Please take what you can use and leave the rest.]
A Metaphysical Reading of the Tarot Suits
Please note that, while the Anonymous Author of Meditations on the Tarot cannot necessarily be appealed to as the authority for (or even the primary inspiration behind) this approach to the tarot suits, it is nonetheless generally consistent with his work— see, for example, the beginning of Letter II, “The High Priestess”, pages 29-31 —and also this brief discussion in Letter XXII:
“Concerning the four “suits”—pentacles, swords, cups and wands —they correspond exactly to the structure of the sacred name YHVH and, consequently, to the four elements. Wands represent the emanating principle, the YOD of the divine name; cups represent the conceiving principle, the first HE of the divine name; swords represent the formative principle,the VAU of the divine name; and pentacles symbolise the principle of form, the second HE of the divine name” (Letter XXII, “The World”, page 654; cf. “Figure 1 below).
It is also worth noting that this is a work in progress which has been kept intentionally brief (and very dense) for ease of printing in these few, short pages. Additional clarification and elaboration is definitely in order. In the meantime, suffice it to say that the activity of Spirit cannot be grasped conceptually and cannot be used as a means to some merely personal/egoic end. It is nevertheless the case that the realization of Spirit does indeed constitute the true meaning and purpose of our lives and that such realization does have a practical impact on the apparent world. Moreover, we become more attuned to Spirit, 1) as we learn to distinguish between “awareness”, as such, and the incessant “mental chatter” which tends to accompany most of our perceptions (i.e. the habitual, usually unconscious “self-talk” which continuously expresses and reinforces our personal fears, desires, judgments); 2) as we begin to practice breath awareness and inner-body awareness as an aid to meditation; and 3) as we begin to anchor lives in “aware presence” or “alert stillness” — the pristine, lucid Way of Truth and Life which leaves unnecessary mental commentary and distracted, ineffective action beneath itself. Honest and sustained self-observation is essential to this work—discursive thought or dialectic is merely preparatory (see the discussion of “concentration without effort” in Letter I of Meditations on the Tarot, page 8).
A Metaphysical Reading of the Tarot Suits
(Tarot images from cbdtarot.com ~ CBD Tarot de Marseille by Dr. Yoav Ben-Dov)
Wands/Batons Element = Fire Symbolizes: Spirit (Creative Mind)
- * Spirit (pneuma) ≈ Divine Intelligence (cf. Nous, Logos, or Intellectus) / Transcendental Awareness / God’s Will / Divine Presence / Authentic Life / Pure Activity / Our Real Will / True Nature.
- * Spirit is our Transcendent Aspect / Our Eternal Life / The Source of Meaning and Purpose; Authentic Inspiration; and True Vocation / The Dynamic Ground of Creative Manifestation.
- * Spirit is reflected in and through the medium of the material world (including our apparent bodies and our material circumstances and resources)
Cups/Chalices Element = Water Symbolizes: Heart
- Heart ≈ Openness / Receptivity / Attunement / Intuition / Contemplation.
- The Heart is our Transcending Aspect—the “organ” through which we become attuned to Spirit, contemplate our authentic/eternal life, and receive the gift of joyous, creative wisdom.
- As our hearts open (in contemplation) we naturally turn away from a life of self-indulgent inclination and toward our true vocation (whether that appears to be the life of a hermit or a healer; that of a poet, artist, or craftsman; or even that of a scientist, a priest, or a politician).
Swords/Blades Element = Air Symbolizes: (Discursive) Mind
- * Psyche (soul/mind) ≈ Ego / The Egoic Mind / Instrumental Reasoning / Analysis / Calculation / Ratio / Conceptual Frameworks (“ideas”, “beliefs” and “worldviews” that constitute us as “separate selves”).
- * The Egoic Mind can be a hindrance or a help— an adversary or an ally —in our Spiritual life.
- On the one hand, “Ego” is that aspect of ourselves that must be Transcended — that is, we must transcend the mind-made sense of self (aka the “arbitrary personality” or “separate individual”) which tends to obstruct the intuition of our unity with or connection to God, Nature, and Humanity as a whole.
- On the other hand, the practical operations of our lower mind begins to function better than ever once we realize that we are not what we think—i.e. when the egoic mind surrenders to the life of Spirit . . . (the egoic/analytic mind makes “a wonderful servant, but a terrible master”, as is sometimes said).
- Transcending the ego does not mean fleeing our material existence—rather, from this point forward, we begin to relate properly to the material world for the very first time.
Coins/Pentacles Element = Earth Symbolizes: The Material World
- The Material World includes: Matter / Material Bodies, Forms, and Resources / Material Circumstances / The World of Sensation / The Medium of Manifestation, Creation, and Incarnation.
- For the “separate self” (e.g. the power-hungry individualist or self-indulgent consumer), the material world is understood primarily in terms of fear and desire—a tempting, tormenting battleground of appetites and inclinations especially designed for those who insist on playing the wheel of fortune (see the illustration on page 4).
- But for Spirit (and for the person/mind/psyche that is surrendered to Spirit), matter is a magical medium of artistic, poetic, religious, and political expression – ideal for those who fully and freely participate in “the respiration of eternity”—aka the One life, Divine (see the description of The Hanged Man and The Sun on page 5).
–> Christianity, Platonism, and the Tarot of Marseille
The Tarot images on the outside margins of this graphic are from the CBD Tarot de Marseille by Dr. Yoav Ben-Dov. The images on the inside are from the “Pocket Edition” of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck by US Games Systems, Inc.