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The Minor Arcana of the Tarot

Marseilles Minor Arcana Whereas the Major Arcana of the Tarot deals with archetypal and universal ideas, the Minor Arcana ("Lesser Secrets") embodies more everyday situations, problems and people. While the Major Arcana cards have always been illustrated with arresting, meaningful images, the Minor Arcana has often been depicted in a rather more mechanical and literal way. For example, the Six of Pentacles in the Marseilles deck (shown below) consists merely of six coins or pentacles. The Rider-Waite deck depicts this card as a merchant giving coins to the needy, mirroring its meaning of generosity, wise use of money and success. Many modern decks follow this trend of illustrating the Minor Arcana cards individually according to meaning.

Six of Pentacles There are 56 Minor cards divided into four suits of 14 cards each. The four suits correspond to the four elements, the four Worlds of the Kabbalah and any other four-fold attribution, such as the four directions, winds, Evangelists, Humors or Jungian personality functions. The suits are called Wands (or Staves, Batons or Rods), Cups, Swords and Pentacles (or Coins, Disks or Deniers). There are, however, other variations, most notably certain medieval German decks that used suits of Hearts, Bells, Acorns and Leaves. Modern decks based on other spiritual paths or mythologies demonstrate considerable latitude.

Each of the suits is comprised of ten numbered cards and four court cards: King, Queen, Knight and Page. Again, there is some variation, with the Knight sometimes called a Cavalier and the Page a Jack, Knave or Valet. In his Thoth deck, Aleister Crowley employs Knight, Queen, Prince and Princess in place of King, Queen, Knight and Page respectively.

It can be seen that modern playing cards are closely linked with the Minor Arcana, the only real difference being the omission of the Knight from the court cards of each suit. Each Tarot suit is analogous to a playing card suit: Wands corresponds to clubs, Cups to hearts, Swords to spades and Pentacles to diamonds. The Fool from the Major Arcana even makes an appearance as the Joker.

The Ace of each suit is shown below: click on any of them to see the whole suit as illustrated in the Marseilles Tarot.


Correspondences with the Suits

Each suit represents one of the four elements, and this is what determines the sphere of influence and meaning of all the cards in the suit.

Wands Fire Energy, creativity and activity
Cups Water Emotions, love, relationships and intuition
Swords Air Thought, intellect, communication and conflict
Pentacles Earth Material matters, work, physical health, money and practicality

A few commentators dispute the elemental attributions, particularly those of Wands to Fire and Swords to Air, which they like to transpose. By far the most widely-used attributions, however, are those given above.

The numbered cards in each suit go through a fixed sequence of meaning, from creation and initiation of new ideas with the aces, through to completion and manifestation with the tens; and this is often viewed in terms of Tarot-Kabbalah symbiosis. This means that, simplistically speaking, the Ace of Wands concerns new pursuits and ventures in a hands-on sense, and the Ace of Cups concerns new phases in relationships or intuitive inspiration. Actual meanings are more complicated, amalgamating historical associations, card context, considerations of the deck used and the reader's own experience with the card.

Court Cards and Subelements

The concept of the four elements is a cornerstone of esoteric study. Each element may be further refined into one of sixteen subelements by considering each element to be itself composed of aspects of all four elements:

Element Fire Water Air Earth
Subelements Fire of Fire Fire of Water Fire of Air Fire of Earth
Water of Fire Water of Water Water of Air Water of Earth
Air of Fire Air of Water Air of Air Air of Earth
Earth of Fire Earth of Water Earth of Air Earth of Earth

Where the subelement duplicates the element, it represents the pure, quintessential form of the element; so Fire of Fire displays only the distinguishing qualities of fire. The other subelements represent different aspects of the main element. For example, Earth of Fire represents those aspects of the element of Fire with characteristics of the element of Earth. To take a simple, natural example using the element of Water:

Water of Water is the purest form of the element, which might be represented by a still, deep pond or lake. Fire of Water is the fiery, active aspect of water, which might be considered as a fast-flowing river or a storm at sea. Air of Water, the airy aspect of water, might be thought of as clouds, steam or even, in the communicative nature of air, a canal. Finally, Earth of Water might be represented by an iceberg or settled snow.

But how does this relate to the Tarot? Well, each type of court card is also associated with an element: Kings with Fire, Queens with Water, Knights with Air and Pages with Earth. Hence each of the court cards represents a subelement of the element or suit to which it belongs. So the King of Wands represents Fire of Fire; the Queen, Water of Fire; and so on. This helps a great deal when interpreting and studying the court cards.