The Four Suits of the Tarot Deck – A Brief Exposition
A plethora of works exist on the subject of the Tarot; some well informed, some less so. At the outset of the formulation of this essay, permit me to state that there are two key maxims derived from the teachings of the Golden Dawn and of Aleister Crowley to which I adhere as well as I am able:
- As above, so below
- The goals of religion, the methods of science
This philosophical framework compels and requires that observations and analysis concerning the Tarot should be harbored within the contexts of broader occult and scientific philosophy, without which its symbols would have little or no meaning. For the Tarot is most assuredly not in any sense an entity with absolute properties and values as its dominant trait, but rather comprises a complex set of mirrors and microscopes through which an attuned mind may view the universe that lies beyond the confines of four-dimensional space and time. Thus, if we wish to examine the properties of complex molecules with a view to discovering more of their intrinsic physical properties, we may use an electron microscope as our tool, whereas exploration of the universe’s more subjective and spiritual phenomena and properties is aided by the instrument of the Tarot.
But before we can use any instrument, we must first understand and become intimately familiar with that instrument. In the case of the electron microscope, this requires a fairly deep understanding of physics, of the the dual wave/particle nature of electrons and their interaction with other particles of various classes. To achieve this understanding we rely on a prerequisite understanding of mathematics, and of course of engineering which is the discipline through which our scientific mastery is both expressed and expanded.
Although the Tarot is predicated on an understanding of metaphysics rather than the physics of Einstein and Penrose, et al. And yet, there are overlaps that provide tantalizing glimpses of how we might yet arrive at a “Theory of Everything,” or TOE, by eventually combining the teachings of both schools. Such an achievement lies many decades into the future though, as the criteria of measurement adopted by each of these schools are divided by differing views on the nature of consciousness and its role in perception. Let us proceed then to the framework within which the Tarot exists, and the natural world which it both reflects and focuses within the mind of the practitioner. We will not be discussing the history of the Tarot here, as we are concerned with its properties rather than its provenance, much as a physicist is generally concerned with the nature of matter rather than the history of science. The suits are those of Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck: Wands, Swords, Cups and Disks.
Whilst the introduction to this essay may be regarded as generally true for all students and practitioners of the occult sciences in general, this section is focused on three specific areas of practice and study of particular importance to this author:
The Tarot deck we shall be considering is the Thoth deck designed by Aleister Crowley and painted by Lady Frieda Harris. You may then deduce that our essay has a somewhat Thelemic bias. However, given the universal scope of the Qabalah, I venture to say that its chief metaphysical construct, the Tree of Life, encompasses all belief systems whatsoever and that by using its remarkable properties we are able to continue the Great Work of synthesis to which so many adepts from all schools have contributed for millennia. In other words, if you are a Pagan, a Witch, a Christian, A Buddhist, a Thelemite, or any other type of spiritual or occult practitioner, there’s room for you and your beliefs on the Tree. However, some may find the context in which their belief systems are set somewhat difficult to accept. Let us then make our first definitive statements on The Tarot:
- The Tarot is an active Mirror of the Universe comprised of agents and forces through which an adept may view the trajectory of events and forces that underpin events in the real world, and thereby achieve knowledge of “real world” events.
- The Tarot reflects four levels of existence, as do the Qabalah and Alchemy.
- The Tarot incorporates the forces of astrology.
We will illustrate the validity of these statements as we examine each of the four suits in turn. We begin with the Suit of Wands.
The Suit of Wands
Image ©2009 by Hettie Rowley
As is well known, alchemy claims four elements as the foundation of the universe: Fire, Air, Earth and Water. We will not here attempt a separate exegesis on this matter, but rather weave the essential nature of each element to its attributed suit.
The Suit of Wands represents the alchemical element Fire, which we consider to be a limitless force of passion that finds expression in great outbursts of energy. As much as we find the passion of Fire concealed within the nature of combustible materials, so do we also in the hearts of men. Not for nothing are the Celts known as a fiery, warlike people.
We see then that the Suit of Wands is associated with Archetypal Ideas, a concept that we will shortly reinforce. We should consider Alchemical Fire as a metaphor for its mundane namesake, and thus readily intuit the passionate yet short-lived nature of the phenomenon by which its nature is expressed: the fury of the raging bull, the battle lust of the inflamed warrior. But equally, we see the inspiration of the thinker and prophet, the sudden thought underlying the inspirational speech of the orator, and the potential for combustion lying within the atomic structure of potassium and the molecular structure of petroleum.
Moving on to Qabalistic schema, we find that this suit represents the most ethereal of the four levels of creation, Atziluth, which is the domain of archetypes, of the potential of all things in the most tenuous sense. Although we may regard the world of Atziluth as eternal, it is important to be aware that in its realization in our material existence, it takes the form of fleeting inspiration, of sudden realization and compulsion to action. We need also to understand that the element of Fire is but the vehicle that conveys the one aspect of the impulse of a higher source and state of being. So when we find a card from this suit in our spread, we immediately note these elementary aspects.
But of course, Fire is modified by its environment. For instance, in the Two of Wands we find the astrological attribution of Mars in Aries, wherein the fury of the rage of war is ascendant and a great release of energy must ensue. In a Thelemic sense, this may represent “Pure Will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result… (Liber Al I:44).” And so we see the neat interlocking of the astrological and alchemical schema with those of the Qabalah and Thelema, thus affirming our conviction that the Tarot is indeed a map of the universe.
The Suit of Swords
Image ©2009 by Hettie Rowley
The Suit of Swords is assigned to Air. Alchemical Air is considered to be the issue of Fire and Water. As such, it is a more complex idea than those underpinning other elements. The first and foremost power we attribute to Air is that of intellect, of cold, dispassionate analysis. The act of analysis, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is to break something into its constituent parts. And so it seems that nature itself has an inbuilt capacity for introspection.
In humans, this capacity, this expression of Air, is usually tempered with the illusions of Water, the reality of Earth and the passion of Fire. When this is not the case, we observe a sad and sorry creature, a human mind denuded of an appreciation for beauty, incapable of feeling; a calculating machine that knows logic alone.
In the Qabalistic scheme, Air corresponds to the domain of Beriah, the realm wherein the inspiration and passion of Atziluth is reduced to working schema and plans. This is the realm of the engineer as much as it is of the artist. So when viewing cards of this suit we should always be aware of the detachment implicit in the agency of Air. I have written elsewhere that we should always consider Air as the seed of the potential for division. This links most appositely with Thelemic scripture, wherein it is stated that, “For I am divided for Love’s sake, for the chance of union. . . (Liber Al 1:29).”
For as the redoubtable Mr. Crowley once told us, there are only two operations in all of nature: division and synthesis. To illustrate the astrological influences on this suit, we will use the example of the Two of Swords, which is assigned to the Moon in Libra. The Moon we regard as indicative of illusion, of distortion through the lens of Water and Libra, an Air sign as balanced force. Combining these things, we deduce that this card indicates a strongly driven intellectual force that is balanced and yet potentially misleading and illusory.
The Suit of Cups
Image ©2009 by Hettie Rowley
This suit is allocated to Alchemical Water. Immediately, a range of relationships and attributions spring to mind here: the Moon, Scorpio, illusion, the Sephira Binah, Cancer, Pisces and much else. An analogy with the mundane element is instructive when we consider the long term erosive effect of water; its power to confuse through reflection and distortion of reality exists together with the correlative power to most perfectly reflect an image of reality without ever being reality in itself.
Water is the fluidity of all things, nature’s capacity to dissolve the universe. Equally, Water is the element of rebirth after death, the incubator of time and life, the source of love. Which aspect is represented on any card depends as always on its position on the Tree, whether as a court card or a numbered card from one through to ten, each number representing a specific aspect of reality as existence unfolds from the nothingness of eternity into the fourfold realm of the Qabalah. Let us examine the Three of Cups as an example whereby we may illustrate the synthesis of meanings.
The Three of Cups is assigned to Mercury in Cancer. This means that the torrent of Water, or unrestrained love, symbolized by Cancer is quickened by the Word of the Logos, which provides us with the archetype of fertility, of an act of impregnation giving rise to the birth of the realization of an idea, of a concept. One of the children of water is of course Air, as described for the Suit of Swords, above. The problem for the reader and the querent is that Water is always the dominant influence in this suit, and so discerning reality from illusion may be difficult.
Further reinforcing this viewpoint is the attribution of the Suit of Cups to the Qabalistic domain Yetzirah, which is the realm of formation, of the fluidity of merged and swirling concepts that are about to differentiate and solidify in the “lowest” of the worlds, Assiyah. We readily observe that the properties of Yetzirah are fully consonant with the alchemical and astrological symbols we have so far attributed to this suit.
Further insight to The Suit of Cups is provided by the above image of Our Lady, the Holy Whore, Babalon. Here we see the Cup of the Blood of the Saints contained in Babalon’s Grail. On her forehead is the alchemical symbol of water, complemented by the Hebrew letter Mem lower down, symbol of the Great Sea of Binah, the Great Mother from whom all life and consciousness arise. Babalon accepts all, but first, every drop of blood must be surrendered to her Cup. Notice also the Moon representing the reflective powers of Water, its mystery and periodic brilliance.
To summarize then, in The Suit of Cups, we have the expression of alchemical Water, representing the womb of those things that will rise from death. And yet, Water also represents the decay of death, the final phases of corruption. We end this brief and inadequate section by repeating our assertion that Water is both truth and illusion, and remains so even under the influence of Mars or Jupiter, but most assuredly when refracting the light of Venus or the Moon.
The Suit of Disks
Image ©2009 by Hettie Rowley
We arrive now at the Suit of Disks, corresponding to the Qabalistic domain of Assiyah, the material world (in some respects, at least). Here we expect outcomes in measurable and identifiable morphology and dimension. Disks are assigned to the alchemical element Earth and, as such, represent the properties of the universe as we commonly perceive it. Whilst the origin of time for instance is with Binah, third of the emanations (Sephiroth) on the Tree of Life, in the domain of Earth, we are familiar with the fruits of time as aging, decay, sorrow and renewal.
There is solidity to this suit that dampens the lighter expressions of the planetary influences. There is an implied sluggishness, a lack of fluidity and fire. All of these things are well known, commonplace truths. But! The alchemists who devised these attributions were creatures of their own time, and worked to the boundaries of the knowledge available in their age. We now live in a radically different time, a transformed age within which our knowledge of the universe has grown immeasurably. Consider the following concerning the known composition of our physical universe:
- Stars and Galaxies: 0.4%
- Intergalactic Gas: 3.6%
- Dark Matter: 22.0%
- Dark Energy: 74.0%
The dark matter and energy are postulated by scientists as necessary factors to explain the expansion rate of the universe. However, they are termed dark because science as yet has no clue as to the true nature of either of these things. That last statement is most assuredly not a criticism of science, but given the gulf that still exists between the scientific and occult understanding of the universe, it seems possible that here lies at least a portion of the answer to the hiatus in our understanding.
Always we look to the gaps in our understanding for enlightenment, for the potential of synthesizing disparate facts into a greater and more cohesive whole. For this reason, I have dubbed Earth The Treasure-House of Limitless Secrets. For far from being the most understood of the elements, Earth may actually be the least, and our current understanding informs us that we must always look deeper than the surface in all earthly affairs if we are to have any chance of reaching the truth.
When we examine the Three of Disks as an example of this suit, we find the assignment of Mars in Capricorn, which denotes the fiery energy of Mars elevated in the domain of earthy Capricorn. This reminds us of the tale of Prometheus, bringer of Fire to humankind, exalted in the eyes of humanity yet brought low indeed in the eyes of the other gods.
The Qabalistic attribution of this card, assigned to Binah on the Tree of life, further damps the energy of fire with the dullness of time, and yet promises the birth of a new entity from the womb of the great mother. And so do we see the element of Earth, modified by its condition on each branch of the Tree of Life, as the dominant trait of the Suit of Disks.
The artwork of the figure just above illustrates the Sun and Moon forming the phallus of To Mega Therion, which is the counterpart of Babalon in her aspect as the fertile Earth and represented here by her seven pointed star. Their act of creation animates creation, penetrating and permeating the universe. Through the exchange of energies between these entities is the power of the Aeon of Horus unleashed. But this is no empty, unconscious outpouring of power, for the power of Horus permeates all even as he gazes over time’s latest landscape, ordering all in accordance with the precepts of Liber Al.
As Crowley states in The Book of Thoth, the newborn emerald green of Isis permeates the world, indicating the rebirth of Osiris as Horus. Again taking our cue from Crowley, the whirling spheres of nature indicate the vitality and power of Earth, of the final creation of Assiyah, and six wings support the composite globe of creation. Scattered in the darkness are the symbols of time and Earth: Saturn, the bringer of sorrow; the Earth signs of Taurus, Capricorn, and Virgo. And yet around the peripheries lies darkness, reflecting the current state of humanity’s ignorance. Surmounting the image is the Hebrew attribution to Malkhut, lowest of the Sephiroth, emphasizing the material level of the Suit of Disks. Finally, the number of the Master Therion, Aleister Crowley, Prophet of Aiwass and deliverer of The Book of the Law, is placed at the heart of the scheme.
We believe that this brief essay illustrates that the Tarot is a map of the universe synthesized from the knowledge of many mystical schools, but chiefly from Qabalah, Astrology and Alchemy. We have not attempted a complete exegesis here, but merely a brief distillation of a broader work in progress at this time.
Sincere thanks to Sheta Kaey, Editor in chief of Rending the Veil, for the opportunity to submit this article to such a wonderful, high quality publication. Hettie and I are deeply honored and grateful.
The artwork embedded in this piece is by Hettie Rowley of the Thelema Trust. The written work is by Keith Rowley, who co-owns the Thelema Trust with Hettie. This piece is derived from an ongoing analysis of the Thoth Tarot that is being developed on the Thelema web site. A blog with RSS feeds and subscription capabilities is available for contributions and comments.