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One of the joys of tarot is that there are so many ways to look at, think about, and compare the cards. This is also one of the reasons so many people stay interested in tarot for so long. Every way of organizing and dividing the deck leads to deeper and broader understanding of the cards. This complex web also helps us build our own personal philosophy of life.
Separating the deck into suits is a common way of examining the deck. The Major Arcana are looked at as a linear spiritual journey, sometimes called the Fool’s Journey and loosely based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. The four suits are read as a starting, beginning with the Aces and ending with the Tens. The Wands tell the story of enterprise and focus. The Swords, of challenges, some overcome and some not. The Cups explore our emotional experiences. The Pentacles illustrate the ups and downs of the physical world we inhabit.
Because the cards are numbered, we often look at the connections between cards that share numerical values. For example, we can look at the Emperor and all the Fours. In the Emperor, we see four as stability, or taken to a negative extreme, stagnation. In the suits, we can see how the active and passive energies of the suits react to the energy of the four.
In the active suits, Wands and Swords, the fours show a quiet calmness, with the Swords being peaceful and the Wands being happy or celebratory but not wild (the Three of Cups has a more wild energy). In both cards there is a nice balance of active and passive, creating a pleasant experience. In the passive suits, the feeling of the cards is more stagnated. The Cups oozes ennui and boredom. The hoarding that takes place in the Pentacles card has a constipated feel. In these two cards, we are mixing too passive energies and the result is sluggish.
Another useful method is to compare cards that represent similar ideas or circumstances. This encourages us to understand the subtle nuances between the cards. For example, the Wheel of Fortune, the Tower, and Death are all about change. But they are not the same. How are the similar? What differentiates them? Answering these questions helps us understand each card better.
In each of these approaches, we learn more about the individual cards. We also learn about the relationships between the cards, the suits, and the numbers. All these aspects have various energy and characteristics. When we see how they work together, compete against, and interact with each other, we can better read the cards. In addition, we can learn better how the world works, for the tarot cards are really a microcosm of the world. When we shuffle and lay out the cards, we are looking at possible realities and futures.
As you may know, I write the tarot blog for Llewellyn. Readers share ideas and observations in the comments sections. Recently, in a discussion of the Eights, someone mentioned that they thought of the Eight of Wands as a mini version of the Tower card. While I don’t really agree with that combination, I love the idea of matching Major Arcana cards with Minor Arcana cards. Just as we can learn from comparing the cards via suits or numbers, we can explore meanings in this way as well.
Instead of the Eight of Wands reflecting the Tower, I’d go with the Five of Wands. The energy is more combative, destructive (potentially), and chaotic. The Eight of Wands is just too orderly for me to see as the Tower. With the Tower card, at the end of the day, whatever remains after the grand event has some sort of strength, some lasting power. We say things that withstand the Tower have experienced trial by fire and are what we need to bring forward in our lives as we rebuild. Whatever did not make it, no longer served and needed to be culled. In the Five of Wands, whether the combatants are training or actually fighting, whatever is strongest, whatever works, will be taken away from the field, while whatever did not work will be abandoned. In the Tower, we learn and receive from the Universe or unexpected circumstances. In the Five of Wands, the lesson is usually one that we seek out—we look for others to test ourselves against. We want opportunities to discover how our skills or beliefs play out in real life. By actively seeking out Five of Wands-type experiences, and constantly testing ourselves, perhaps we can avoid having to experience the Tower.
That may be a nice idea, but I don’t think it can hold true for the next set we’ll look at: Death, the Four of Swords, and the Ten of Swords. I cannot imagine any number of minor "death" experiences will stave off actual death. Nevertheless, let’s see what we can learn.
I usually read the Death card as an ending, of course. Unlike the endings (or changes) represented by the Tower or the Wheel, Death is a natural, organic, and often not surprising ending. In real life, death can be unexpected, but in tarot, I see the Tower as filling that role, or even the Wheel. Card XIII is, if we are honest, no surprise. Whether it indicates divorce or job loss, there will have been signs and an inevitable change was on the way. This predicted ending does bring with it the promise of change or of something new. But first comes the loss.
The Four of Swords can be seen as a Minor Reflection of Death, at least on the surface. The figure is in repose...on a tomb of all things, hands held as if in prayer. Definitely death-like. But is this an ending? Perhaps. If we read this card as a retreat from the world (in this aspect, this card is likely more like the Hermit) to reflect on a problem, then it represents the possible end of a problem.
More deathlike, in my opinion, is the Ten of Swords, for that has more of finality about it. And if also seems like this card and Death are more passive experiences, in that they are what happens to the querent. The Four of Swords is more active, despite appearances to the contrary. The querent is actively retreating and seeking a solution or guidance.
We may not have learned how to avoid Death, but we’ve discovered some interesting insight into the ideas of passivity and action. In the Death card, people often point out how all the figures are reacting to the appearance of Death. The implication is that death is something that happens and all we can control is our reaction. The Ten of Swords has this same sense. You’ve been defeated, finished. You cannot avoid that or pretend it hasn’t happened. How do you respond? In the Four of Swords, we see a glimpse of the power and action contained in what appears to be a passive act. A wise lesson there, if we care to reflect upon it.
There are other Minor Reflections that would be interesting to explore. What do you think of the following?
Barbara Moore (Saint Paul, MN) has studied and read tarot since the early 1990s. She wrote the bestselling Tarot for Beginners and more than a dozen other books, and she has contributed to many bestselling tarot kits, ...