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I asked a group of tarot readers on Facebook to give their top advice for how to combine and integrate card meanings in a spread. It’s one of the things that beginners find most bewildering, but we can all learn more about. Forty-nine people responded (see list of contributors at the end). I combined, edited and grouped the advice to form sets of approaches, moving roughly from the most intuitive to the most analytical. Share this material freely but please include the list of contributors and a link back to this post.
There are no rules to interpretation.
- Be intuitive.
- Look at the cards from an internal perspective.
- TRUST in your intuitive awareness and reactions to the cards.
- Go with the flow!
Combine right brain/left brain work: analysis and imagination/story.
- Be guided by the HOLY Spirit (The Whole (holy) Picture). Both the universal and the personal or the Whole must be understood. Use both the Intellect and Intuition.
- Use analysis to “check” the intuition which can sometimes get clogged or confused.
Look at the big picture.
- Step back and look at the spread from a larger perspective, not simply focusing on individual cards and their individual meanings.
- Become unfocused and blurry eyed (take off your glasses) and feel the energy flows as an energy picture: wands are direct and immediate, swords reflexive, turning, twisting, cups are energy accuminlations and coins ground or build up energy, etc.
- Look at the whole picture of the layout and then tune into a “knowing” of the entire spread before anything else. See it as a snapshot of the unconscious mind made manifest. After the initial “feeling the meaning,” look at the individual cards and symbols.
- Sense the *vibration* of the *whole* spread.
- Pay attention to any movement you can actually feel or see.
- Quickly glance over all of the cards at once and jot down the immediate thoughts that come to mind – words, images, feelings, messages, etc. that jump out. How do the cards feel together? What kind of feeling do they invoke in you?
Notice overlaps among the cards’ meanings.
- For instance, several cards can mean “new” or “let go.” Such ‘blended’ meanings are very potent, sort of like the overlapping gray area between black and white.
Look at how the images and figures interrelate with each other.
- Determine the direction the figures on the cards are looking or moving; their body-language.
- Is the Knight of Wands galloping towards the Queen of Swords or galloping away? Is he riding towards a tomb entrance? Or a family gathering? Is the Emperor turning his back on the World, or facing it?
- Are they back to back, or facing each other?
- Look at the direction symbols are pointing.
- Does each card point to another card in a sequence?
- Are they actively engaging in something or inert?
- Does a card at the bottom seems to carry all the others? Or a card at the top, lead the way?
Find the story within the cards. “Every Picture tells a story.” –Rod Stewart
- The cards always tell a story.
- Let a story flow from your interpretation of the cards.
- Let that story flow from picture to picture. The cards will show you the weavings and patterns. The numbers, the titles are road maps or signs along the road.
- Read the cards in the order you laid them out in the spread and create the tale of what they are all doing, interacting with one another, and how that relates to you.
- Let the story, the narrative of the reading, jump out at you. “Make up” the story as you go along. If you can’t “see” it, check a few cards with the querent for verification.
- Sometimes the message is clear and will form a ‘seamless sentence’, but, at other times, only one card may stand out.
- Build off of what is obvious first.
- Start by talking through the stuff you do understand and it’ll come to you or not; usually it’ll come to you.
- Read the cards/positions that stand out to you; the rest of the cards in the spread are filler. If you can understand the noun and the verb of a sentence you can deduct the rest.
- Look for a card that you intuitively feel is driving the reading, i.e., the one that seems to be directing events a little more than others. Ask what the character in that card is saying to the characters in the others.
- Link cards by finding correlations among them (more later).
- Look for combinations. Find the patterns and connections among cards and positions, then mush it all into a composite idea (position + card is too limiting).
- Turn each card one at a time and watch how each builds on the last in terms of a pattern.
- Build the relationship between cards and positions as you move through the spread, one card at a time, until all is revealed.
- Turn the cards over one at a time, gaining a tiny ‘clue’ from each, so the story builds and changes, letting the cards talk to each other as the “new kid on the block” gets turned over.
- Reversed means one might not be perfectly comfortable with the combination, something needs to be adjusted.
- The story is the intuitive weaving of the nature of the cards. Alfred Woolard once said in his poem, “My life is but a weaving … when I reach the other side can I truly see the whole design” (paraphrased).
How the cards in a spread relate to one another is like the relationships that we have with others or how the characters relate in a story.
- Think of the reading as a conversation. Let the cards “talk” to you, and talk back to and through them. Imagining that the cards are “talking” to you opens your mind to “hear” the message. PAY ATTENTION to it.
- View the cards as a council circle: lay them in a circle and let them interact with each other and advise you in a sacred space-circle kind of way!
- Think of two cards interrelating from their respective positions, much like having a conversation or discussion, until there is greater understanding.
- Ask what each card (or figure in a card) thinks about the other(s)—what’s the attitude of each to the other and to what they’re thinking and doing?
- A reversed card can mean it is not ‘playing well’ with others.
Look at what’s there and what isn’t.
- Look indeed for what is not there as much as what is.
- Notice what’s NOT in the spread.
- Which cards didn’t come up can tell you as much as the cards that did. For instance, if The Lovers, 2 of Cups, King/Queen of Cups are absent from a love reading, that’s telling you there is no love relationship over the time period specified by the reading.
Look for prevalent themes, groupings, colors, or shapes.
- Notice things like Gate cards, or which suit is prevailing or dominant.
- Check for a progression among the numbers as a sequence of development.
Look for repetitions of numbers, images, suits/elements, colours, etc. (Correspondences).
- Use the correspondences as a base and go from there.
- Start with the foundations: suits, numbers, Majors, Minors, Courts.
- Look at the suits/elements to know what world you are dealing with: work, money, practical stuff, or something emotional or mental?
- With the elements, if there are two fire and one water, for instance, the fire cancels out that watery influence. [referred to as Elemental Dignities.]
- Look for a predominance of Major or Minor cards to get a feeling if the reading is depicting a key event/change/issue for the querent (majors) or a more minor everyday event (minors).
- Trumps [Major Arcana] can be an over arching theme or a life passage and the rest are everyday life stuff.
- See if Minor Arcana cards repeat a Major Arcana card in the spread by number or other similarity.
Compare and contrast, looking for both how cards are alike and how they are different.
- Are there similar scenes in two or more cards? What are the interactions among these factors.
- Place cards next to each other (not necessarily in a straight line) to see how they relate.
- For instance, see how, in the example to the right, the churning waters of the Moon become a cloak that is almost too heavy to wear. [Trimmed decks work best.] The deck is the Revelations Tarot by Zach Wong.
Find two to three keywords for each card and put them into a sentence. First reactions are best; you don’t have to go to the core of the cards existence.
- Read them as a sentence. For example: First card—Hermit and the flicker of his lamp catches my attention, so I think, “ah, a new idea.” Next card—Chariot, and the black horse going the other way catches my attention. Linking the two cards to form a sentence, it becomes “ah, a new direction going against the norm.”
- The position is the “noun” and the card is the “verb”. Tense (past present future) is supplied by the positions relative to the Querent (now).
- View the positions in a spread as the framework of a sentence. Insert keywords or phrases for each card into the basic sentence format and then embellish it based on symbols and correspondences. “While I am conscious of ____, I unconsciously need ____, in order to achieve ____ and meet the challenges of ____.”
Figure out where cards are on the tree of life and what paths or sephiroth are involved.
- For instance, the Ace, 6, and 9 of Cups are on the middle pillar and not yet grounded in Malkuth, but they are an indication that energy is flowing.
Look for astrological relationships.
- For instance, the Empress and Hierophant are Venus and Taurus and Venus rules Taurus. Or, the 5 of Swords and The Fool are both Air.
- If you are doing a horoscope spread you can combine the meanings of the cards that fall in the opposite houses.
- Determine the speed of the cards to determine how much light they shed on your reading of the images. This way, even a shadowy situation can emerge as crystal clear.
- Switch decks periodically as a conduit to “open” your attention.
- A few cards in key positions can determine how you read the rest of the spread. If they don’t tell the story right away, then use all the other techniques.
CONTRIBUTORS: Hildegerd Haugen, Sophie Nusslé Falco, Maureen Aisling Duffy-Boose, Jon Kaneko-James, Fiona Dilston, Stephen Russell, Jean Foster, Jeanne Fiorini, Lisa Bruno, Kevin Quigley, Nadia K. Potter, Mary Mueller, Paul Nagy, Tero Hynynen, Virginia L Beach, Gwydion LosAngeles, Paula Gaubert, Gloria Scotti, Berthe van Soest, Lynda England Bustilloz, Bertrand Saint-Guillain, Greg LeFever, Carola Meijers, Steph Myriel Es-Tragon, Kustiana Murtjono, Terri Bivona, Jera-Babylon Rootweaver, Diane Brandt Wilkes, Rosie Grace, Nancy Antenucci, Sue Clynes, Sandra M. Russel, Camelia Elias, Christine Payne-Towler, Lorrie Kazan, Stacy LaRosa, Toni Gilbert, Vyvien Starbuck, Sherri Glebus, Flash Silvermoon, Judy Nathan, Helene Martz, Stephanie Arwen Lynch, Monika Sanders, Katrina Wynne, Rana Fakhouri George, Robert Moyer, Dancing Bear, Mary K. Greer.
One of the geniuses of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is the story-telling qualities of the Minor Arcana. Each card can tell a story, but a sometimes overlooked factor is that the suits tell stories as you move from card to card. In classes I encourage students to write a tale based on each suit so that they can get a personalized feel for how one image changes into the next. Pamela Colman Smith was a trained book illustrator and story-teller, so she may have told her own stories, although I believe Waite gave her specific tales to illustrate (see here and here).
Whatever the original stories, this “tarot flow” perspective can be used in your own readings. Rather than looking at the Minor Arcana cards as static scenes, try seeing them as a moment that is only one step in a progression. Something happened just before this moment and it’s about to change into something else. It’s like individual tai chi gestures that should really only be part of a living, flowing, connected movement.
Many modern spreads, rather than focusing on a sequential development, favor single cards interpreted according to an individualized position: What helps you? What blocks you? How does your partner feel about you? I can guarantee that your partner doesn’t have only one feeling regarding you! If you see the cards in terms of a sequence, then you get more of the sense that on the way from one feeling to the next one, your partner, in regards to your question, is only temporarily dominated by the feeling shown by the card.
Let’s say you got the 5 of Pentacles. Your partner may be feeling emotionally cold and thinking that sticking with you, right now, is a hardship to be endured. That can be pretty depressing. But if you consider both the 4 and 6 of Pentacles, then you could consider whether your partner might have made a firm commitment to holding on to the relationship (4 of Pentacles) and is aware of a possible pay-off later (6 of Pentacles). It’s just that right now he or she is feeling hurt or going through a cold spell that might be only temporary. Do you see other possibilities for this sequence?
This kind of approach works very well with one of the reversed card techniques. This optional way to read a reversal says that an upside down card is an energy that is attempting to manifest, but there is still something to deal with in regards to the preceding card. That is, you need to revisit the prior card in the suit before you can fully take on or manifest the present one. In this example, if the 5 of Pentacles was reversed, then you might want to consider what needs to be held on to in times of scarcity, by reminding yourself what you both found so valuable (4 of Pentacles). Consider what your partner has always clung to. Is there some way you can be supportive of or honor that in order to be a true companion in difficult times?
In The Complete Book of Tarot Reversals, I opened most Minor Arcana card interpretations with a possible scenario of how the figures depicted on one card might have arrived there from the preceding one, seeking to link all the cards in a chain of actions and consequences. It’s worth taking a second to consider this perspective when doing a reading.
If you would like, in the Comments, also tell us your “tarot flow” story for the cards pictured below. How does the 8 of Cups card follow from the 7 and lead to the 9 of Cups? If the 8 of Cups is reversed, then how might you be better able to handle it by first revisiting the 7 of Cups?
These cards are from what’s been called the “Edith Waite” deck, that illustrates and accompanies El Tarot Universal de Waite.
Few things are more exciting to me than stumbling across a text or image that perfectly reflects a tarot card, especially when it makes me reconsider my ideas about that card.
Today I read the following in the mystery novel A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, says to a family at their annual reunion:
“We believe Madame Martin was murdered.”
There was a stunned silence. He’d seen that transition almost every day of his working life. He often felt like a ferryman, taking men and women from one shore to another. From the rugged, though familiar, terrain of grief and shock into a netherworld visited by a blessed few. To a shore where men killed each other on purpose.
They’d all seen it from a safe distance, on television, in the papers. They’d all known it existed, this other world. Now they were in it. . . .
No place was safe.
Ah, a perfect rendition of the Six of Swords! I was first struck by it being from the viewpoint of the ferryman, not the passengers. A ferryman who is compassionately aware of the deep emotional shifts of those he is transporting—but not partaking directly in those shifts. For a moment I thought, ‘But, of course, the Six of Swords is about the ferryman, not necessarily the passengers! A ferryman who again and again observes this shift taking place in those he ferries. A ferryman who is both separate and yet momentarily involved.’
There is no indication that the author, Louise Penny, had the tarot card in mind. Rather this is a common classical metaphor linking Charon and the river Styx to the family of a murdered person being ferried out of the world-as-they-had-known-it to a shore previously viewed only as a distant abstraction.
I often ask a querent, “Where are you in the card?” With the Six of Swords, the querent is always one of the figures, but it could equally be the ferryman or the hunched-over adult or the child. By contrast, with other cards, the querent occasionally sees him or herself standing just beyond the borders, behind a column, or, in the case of the Tower, still inside the structure—divorced from the action.
With the Six of Swords there is usually an eventual recognition that the querent is all three persons in the boat. As ferryman, the querent tends to feel he or she is in charge or at least doing something active that will lead to a better end. As passengers, anxiety or grief tends to trump hope, yet there is still a belief that the destination will be better than the “familiar terrain of grief and shock” that they’ve just left.
Interestingly, in the novel, the seven main suspects had, just the day before, gone out together in the lake on a boat—a passage fraught with animosity and repressed danger. The Chief Inspector/ferryman recognizes that the new world they are now facing will be more terrifying than the passengers ever could have imagined. Furthermore, they aren’t just visitors—blessed because they can leave—they will soon be inhabitants. There’s no going back. Grief and shock may exist in the land of the innocent. But, in the land of the experienced, as William Blake well knew, wrath and fear dominate, and the ferryman can’t stop it from happening.
How different the card looks to me now. It is full of foreboding, and yet there is calm in knowing that this is an inevitable journey from the false safety of innocence into the land of Blake’s experience where realities will finally be faced. As in all murder mysteries the truth will be revealed. But, in an actual reading, is the client always ready to hear such truths?
Doesn’t the admonition, “to know thyself,” mean that we have to come to know and take responsibility for the part within ourselves who “kills another”? Both the querent and the reader want the other shore to be better than the one from which they’ve come, but there are times when we have to go through much worse. What is the reader to tell the client? And, here there are no easy answers.
I hope this makes me stop and think before I blurt out cheerfully, “Oh, you are going through a transition from the rough waters of the past to smooth waters ahead.” Sometimes I, the reader, am the ferryman/chief inspector, who must recognize with compassion that real detection can strip the soul bare and set one in the dread grasp of Blake’s tyger and not in the rejoicing vales of the lamb (see poems here). The rest of the Sword suit (7–10) warns what may come from a detection of the wrongs, or what comes to light when one really wants to “know thyself.” Does the querent really want to go there, or is the querent trusting the reader to ferry them to a safe harbor?
Still, I think it helps the reader—the ferryman who steers the way through the cards in a spread from one’s familiar anxieties to a different shore—to consider what may be truly implied from such a scene in the suit of Swords. This new perspective reminds me that in a reading I am attempting to steer the course when I don’t always know what is lying in wait for my passenger on the other side or how prepared my passenger might be to meet that. It is a grave responsibility.
“If you’re interested in deepening your understanding of the Tarot, forming a personal bond with your deck, or enhancing your abilities as a reader, 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card is an excellent experiential guide for connecting with the cards.” —Janet Boyer
Are you looking for a way to enliven your tarot practice and expand your skills? Then I urge you to try Mary K. Greer’s 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card. This is a shameless plug for my latest book. I wrote it, in part, to help you discover what reading style you most resonate with but also to push the boundaries of what you thought was possible in a tarot reading. It’s all about how to discover meaning for yourself. It’s also where I reveal all my tarot reading “secrets.”
I first read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning a very long time ago. As an army brat who had lived in post-War Japan and Germany I was interested in Frankl’s concentration camp story and how he not only survived but transformed his experience into gold. What stuck with me was his belief that “Everything can be taken . . . [except for] the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Read the rest of this entry »
Warning: the following is a political, social commentary by Keith Olbermann prompted by the passage of Prop.8 in California, which rescinded the right of same sex couples to marry. I found it a beautiful and impassioned plea for humanity’s honoring of the deepest meaning of the Lovers card. The title above is a line from the poet Omar Khayyam quoted by Olbermann.
As an update to my earlier post on Carl Jung and Tarot, I just received a paper from the Jung Institute library in New York. It contains brief notes Hanni Binder took of Jung’s descriptions, in German, when he spoke to her about the Tarot cards. A friend of hers made a literal translation into English, typing it onto large file cards. What follows is Jung’s verbal description of the Major Arcana. They are based on cards from the Grimaud Tarot de Marseille, which he felt most closely contained properties he recognized from his reading of alchemical texts. I have corrected obvious errors in language, but kept these changes to a minimum. My own comments are in brackets [ ].
If you are familiar with Jung’s core concepts you’ll find several of them referred to directly or indirectly: Self, Shadow, extraversion, intraversion, conscious, unconscious, fate, center, inflation, compensation, sacrifice, etc. Notice also his interest in what’s held in the right and left hands as indications of masculine/active or feminine/passive (I prefer ‘receptive’) energies. These notes are simplistic but were obviously only meant to be a starting place for further exploration.
ADDED: Japanese tarotist, Kenji, discovered that Jung’s descriptive text comes almost directly from Papus’ Tarot of the Bohemians (thank you, Kenji). However, Jung seems to have added several keywords from his own psychological lexicon as I noted above. Comparing these two texts will clarify what ideas Jung added.
1 The Magician
The Magician has, in the right hand, a golden ball, in the left a stick [wand]. The hat makes an eight [infinity sign]. The bearing of the hand shows right activity, left passivity. Sign of force, stability, self. He has all the symbols before him.
2 The High Priestess
Sitting Priestess. She wears a veil. On her knees is a book. This book is open. She stands in connection with the moon. Occult wisdom. Passive, eternal woman.
3 The Empress
Empress with wings. In the right hand she has an eagle, in the left a scepter. She has a crown with 12 stones. Eagle as a symbol of soul and life. Feminine activity. Fruitfulness, goddess.
4 The Emperor
Emperor sitting in profile. In the right hand he is holding the scepter. He wears a helmet with 12 stones. The legs are crossed. Will, force, reality, duty, brightness.
5 The Hierophant
The Hierophant leans on a three fax[sic – triple?] cross. The two columns are standing on the right as law, on the left liberty. Two men are kneeling before him: one is red, the other black. Will, religion, fate [faith?], Self, center.
6 The Lovers
The young man stands in a corner where two streets come together. The woman on the right has a golden garland on her head. The woman on the left is wreathed with a vine. Beauty, cross-road, way inward or outward.
7 The Chariot
Conqueror with coronet. He has three angle [right angles on his cuirass]. In his hand is a scepter. Arrow and weapon arm [right hand?]. Actively going toward his fate. He has a goal, achieving victory. Activity, extraversion. Inflation.
Sitting woman with a coronet. In the right hand she has a sword, in the left, a balance [scales]. Compensation between nature and the force of a man. Justice, compensation. Conflict with the law.
9 The Hermit
An old man walks with a stick [staff]. Wisdom as symbolized by the lamp. Protection with the overcoat. Cleverness, love, introversion. Wisdom.
10 Wheel of Fortune
Sphinx holding a sword. Wheel symbolizing endlessness. Finger as a sign of command. Human being as ball [circumference?] of the wheel of fortune. Luck/misfortune.
A young girl opens the mouth of a lion. The girl has the sign of vitality on her hat. Liberty, strength.
12 The Hanged Man
The hands of this man on in back. The eyes are open. The right leg is crossed. On the right and left a trunk of a tree. Turning back [enantiodromia?], powerless, sacrifice, test, proof. Face against the sky.
A skeleton in a field with heads and fingers. Death and regeneration. The Ego should not take [the] place, the Self has to take [the] place. New standpoint, liberation, end.
Young girl pours water from one jug in the other. The sun gives the liquid of life from a golden in[to] a silver jug. Movement, consciousness, natural growth.
15 The Devil
The right hand of the Devil is raised to the sky, the left points to the earth. Two persons are under him. He holds the torch as a sign of black magic. Fate, Shadow, emotion.
16 The Tower
Burning tower. Hospital, prison, struck by lightning. Sacrifice.
17 The Star
A naked woman spills water from two jugs. Around the girl are seven stars. The Self shines, stars of fate, night, dreams. Hope. The Self is born in the stars. Union with the eternal.
18 The Moon
In the middle of a field is a dog and a wolf. A crayfish comes out of the water. It is night. The door to the unconscious is open. The crayfish likes to go the shore. The light is indirect.
19 The Sun
Two naked girls. The sun shines on the children. Drops of gold fall on the earth. The Self is ruling the situation. Consciousness. Enlightenment.
An angel with fiery wings, an open grave in the earth. Birth of the Self. Inspiration, liberation.
21 The World
Naked woman, her legs are crossed. In the four corners we have the angel, the lion, the bull and the eagle. Completion, finishing. In the world but not from the world.
0 The Fool
A man who doesn’t take care on his way. Beginning and end. The fool has no home in this world; the home is in heaven. Dreamer, mystic side.
Wands = Libido [sexual drive]
Swords = Spiritual force
Pentacles = Material
Cups = Feeling
Added note on the Four Suits: Jung obviously failed to link the four suits to his four psychological types or functions, based on the quaternity of elements and humors. However, with the “Feminine” suits he came close, calling Cups Feeling, while Pentacles as Material is close to Sensation. Most people link Intuition with Wands and Thinking with Swords. Jung’s most succinct explanation of his psychological types can be found in Man and His Symbols (highly recommended reading for anyone interested in a Jungian approach to tarot):
- Sensation tells you that something exists (through the senses).
- Thinking tells you what it is (its definition).
- Feeling tells you whether it is agreeable or not (its value).
- Intuition tells you whence it comes and where it is going (its possibilities).
Jodorowsky is, perhaps, best known as director of the cult film El Topo. He has been a life-long student of the Tarot and worked with Phillipe Camoin to restore lost details to the Marseille deck, as described here. Jodorowsky wrote a major work, La Via del Tarot, which is only available in Spanish and French. You can also see him on many You-Tube videos, but not in English. This video lecture, with interesting graphics, has English subtitles which makes it great for the rest of us who want to learn from this tarot master.
Tree of Life on the Tarot in the Four Worlds
I am delighted to provide this previously unpublished text, which is from a hand-copied manuscript of Sub Spe [John Brodie Innes] I apologize to those who will find many of the references difficult, but the information can help greatly in understanding the Golden Dawn approach to the Minor Arcana and also the Rider-Waite-Smith and Crowley’s Thoth decks. A glossary of Golden Dawn terms is available at The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn website (click on H.O.G.D. Dictionary in the directory).
The Breath of God passes down through the Four Worlds of the Qabalah from the purely Spiritual to the absolutely material. In each world there is a Tree of Life and the Breath passes down from Sephira to Sephira from Kether to Malkuth and thence to the Kether of the new lower World.
Atziluth, Yetzirah, Briah, Assiah (Wands, Swords, Cups, Pentacles).
Thus in Atziluth the Archetypal World it passes from Eheieh the Creative Breath to Adonai Malekh. This gives its impulse to Kether of Briah the Archangelic World, and in this plane it passes from Metatron the Male Kerub to Sandalphon the Female Kerub. This in turn gives its impulse to Kether of Assiah the Astral Plane where it is received by Chaioth ha Qadesh. The Holy Living Creatures, i.e. the Zodiac which is a wheel or Vortex and goes down to Ashim the Souls of Fire. The work of this Plane being to disintegrate the Astral Form that it may pass through the veils of Negative Existence and be reborn on the Material in Kether of Assiah. Here it is received by Rashith ha Gilgalim the Primum Mobile or Lord Kelvin’s “Vortex ring” and passes down to Cholem Yesodoth. Material Wealth. Malkuth of Assiah.
Thus we have four Trees one above the other containing 40 Sephiroth; i.e., the 4 Aces & 36 small cards of the Tarot arranged in 4 suits corresponding to the Worlds, each attributed to a Planet in a Decanate, and ruled by 2 Angels of the Shemhamaphoresch. This allocation of symbols gives the meaning ascribed to each card.
[The results and names of the cards are arrived at by combining the meanings of the numbers, with the meanings of the suits and interpreting by the Kabbalah. I have added clarifying material from other sources in brackets[ ]. Tarot card illustrations are from the Golden Dawn Whare Ra deck. —mkg]
Meaning of Numbers:
2. unites the Forces of the Positive and Negative, the King and Queen of the suit. Hence it signifies a beginning or Initiation.
[Unites forces of King and Queen, Fire & Water, Postive & Negative = reflection, love, pleasure, harmony. Chokmah is exalted above every head. Sphere of Wheel of Change and the Zodiac.]
3. produces the Prince. The Resultant of that union. A spiritual card.
[Produces the Prince (resultant (perfect manifestation) of union of King and Queen). Saturn = steadiness and restraint.]
4. produces the Princess. The Realization making the matter fixed or settled. Often taken as a new beginning. A material card.
[The Princess. Realization (4) of Power (Jupiter). Makes the matter fixed and settled. Chesed = the receptacle of all the Holy Powers and from it emanates all the Virtues).]
5. compounded of the first odd and the first even numbers denotes Opposition.
[Sphere of Mars. 5 = opposition, strife. Geburah = severity. Unites Wisdom and Knowledge.]
6. called by Nichomachus the form of form and by the Pythagoreans the Perfection of Parts, is taken to imply Accomplishment.
[Sphere of Sun = power, rank, rule. 6 = Accomplishment. Tiphereth = Mediating Intelligence for it causes that influence to flow into all the Reservoirs of Blessings.]
7. in Hebrew called ShBV Shibo or abundance unites the spiritual 3 to the material 4 and signifies a Supernal Force, also a possible result to be obtained by skill and courage.
[Sphere of Venus = external (outer) splendour. Netzach = the Refulgent Splendour of all Intellectual Virtues. Force transcending the material plane.]
8. The first cube of energy and the only evenly even number in the decade. Signifies material success, but sterile – not heading further. Solitary successes.
[Sphere of Mercury = Genius. Hod = Solitary Successes. 8 = Feeble Force, lacks initiative. Martial force without restraint.]
9. The triple Three, the first square of the odd number, of the Spiritual three. No further elementary number is possible hence it is like the horizon. All other numbers are bounded by it. Hence it implies Fundamental Force.
[Sphere of the Moon which governs the Waters of earth, the feminine & negative. 9 = a strong fundamental force. Yesod – the Path of Pure Intelligence.]
10. The beginning again of the decimal scale. Completed Force.
[Sphere of the Elements/Earth. Fixed and completed force. Power exercised in material things only.]
The 4 Aces are always the Roots of the Powers of their element. For other meanings see “Extracts from Book T., given in Ritual N.”
YOD-HE-VAU-HE is the Supreme God of the Plane of Earthly life governing material, mental and psychic forces by immutable laws. The “God” of the Old Testament.
ELOHIM = the Guiding Spirits who under YHVH sway the material forces. Always used collectively and usually translated Lord.
The ELOHIM contact humanity. YHVH does not – directly.
ADONI = the Planetary God of Earth. To a certain extent answers to Christ when looked at from his Human aspect, but recognising His Divinity. YHShVH is His Divine Aspect.
Ace of Wands: (Kether of Atziluth, Root of the Powers of Fire) Eheieh is the Creative Sigh, the Divine outbreathing – the Eastern Hamsa. The Greek _?_. The Spirit of God in Genesis. By this Divine Life first enters the Kether of the highest of the Four Worlds and penetrates to Malkuth of the Lowest. In the Tarot this influence comes from the Keys to the Ace of Wands.
Two of Wands: (Chokmah of Atziluth, Lord of Dominion, Mars in Aries) Unites forces of King & Queen. The Union of Fire & Water. The Spirit of Yod [Jehovah]on the face of the Water. Chokmah is exalted above every head. Mars in Aries representing the decanate is absolutely powerful. Hence influence over others. Good or bad according to dignity.
Three of Wands: (Binah of Atziluth, Established Strength, Sun in Aries) Produces the Prince. Resultant of union of King and Queen. Here the union of the Earth God Yod-He-Vau-He with the Lords of Creation Binah Elohim is the basis of Primordial Wisdom. The forms of Faith and its Roots. Amen. Sun the center of Power to the Earth in the fiery Aries give realization of hopes of energy = Established Strength.
Four of Wands: (Chesed of Atziluth, Perfected Work, Venus in Aries) Produces the Princess making the matter fixed and settled. EL is the definite article. The absolute. Chesed is the receptacle of all the Holy Powers and from it emanates all the Virtues. Venus in the fiery Aries has her full fruition. Hence have we perfected work.
Five of Wands: (Geburah of Atziluth, Strife, Saturn in Leo) Opposition. Elohim Gebor is the Lord of Severity [and battles]. He intensifies opposition. Geburah is itself severity. It unites Wisdom and Knowledge. Here gloomy Saturn dulls the light of Leo hence we get Strife. Ultimate success or failure is otherwise [elsewhere] shown.
Six of Wands: (Tiphareth in Atziluth, Victory, Jupiter in Leo) Accomplishment. The dual influences of the Earth God and the Directing Lords of Creation Elohim [Jehovah Aloah va Daath] directed to NETZACH or Knowledge give absolute success to skill and courage. Jupiter power in the shining light of Leo completes the idea. Tiphereth is the Mediating Intelligence for it causes that influence to flow into all the Reservoirs of Blessings. Hence is Victory after Strife.
Seven of Wands: (Netzach in Atziluth, Valour, Mars in Leo) A possible result. A force transcending the Material Plane. Mars in Leo gives this a martial direction. Jehovah Tzabaoth the Earth God of Hosts shows terrific force but restrained. Netzach is the Refulgent Splendour of all Intellectual Virtues. The sum of all these gives Valour.
Eight of Wands: (Hod in Atziluth, Swiftness, Mercury in Sagittarius) Solitary Successes. The Name is the Lord of Armies Elohim Tzabaoth. Martial Force without restraint. Mercury in the fire of the Sagittarius Centaur also gives the idea of too much force suddenly applied. Swiftness of the horse but running nowhere. Success but leading to nothing.
Nine of Wands: (Yesod of Atziluth, Great Strength, Moon in Sagittarius) Strong fundamental force Shaddai el Chai = the Vast & Mighty One. Both are of the same character but less fierce than the 10. The gentle Moon somewhat restrains the fire of the Centaur Sagittarius – it giving great strength but benignly used. The Sephiroth is the Path of Pure Intelligence.
Ten of Wands: (Malkuth of Atziluth, Oppression, Saturn in Sagittarius) Fixed and completed force. Adonai Malekh = The Power of Earth as a King. The two give to the Fire of Wands an overpowering Force which = Cruelty. Gloomy Saturn rides but does not control the fire of the Centaur Sagittarius which is the Airy Fire. Such fierce blast of Fire whirls to the Male Kerub, Metatron, in Kether of Briah. [The Divine Impulse … by growing materially powerful becomes sheer cruelty and oppression.]
CUPS – The Tree of Life in Briah
Ace of Cups: (Kether of Briah, Root of the Powers of Water) The Right Hand Male Kerub [Metatron] receives the influences from Adoni Malekh. See Key Table for further information.
Two of Cups: (Chokmah of Briah, Love, Venus in Cancer) Unites the King and Queen. Positive and Negative forces of Love and Pleasure. Ratziel the Archangel of the forces of a Vortex or wheel gives Power. Venus in Cancer is especially Venusian. All the Ideas tend in the same way to the unmodified and uncombined ideas of Cups – Love.
Three of Cups: (Binah of Briah, Abundance, Mercury in Cancer) Produces the Prince. = Abundance resulting from Love. Tzaphkiel has to do with forces of Saturn giving the steadying quality to Mercury, the versatility which qualify the overstrong cup-action making it fruitful.
Four of Cups: (Chesed of Briah, Blended Pleasure, Moon in Cancer) Produces the Princess. Realisation. Tzadkiel is the power of Jupiter so far good, but Moon in Cancer gives change and instability. Happiness approaching an end. Too passive to be perfectly complete.
Five of Cups: (Geburah of Briah, Loss in Pleasure, Mars in Scorpio) Opposition neutralises the force of Cups. Khamael is the Archangel of the Mars forces. Quarrels and fighting – the antithesis of Love. Mars in Scorpio = the stirring up of stagnant water. All intensify the idea. End of Pleasure. Sadness. Deceit. Treachery in Love.
Six of Cups: (Tiphareth in Briah, Pleasure, Sun in Scorpio) Accomplishment. Raphael is the Archangel of the Sun. United influence brings to pass what is wished – e.g. on the material plane. Sensual Pleasure. The influence of Sun in Scorpio is enervating breeding corruption. If Sun is strong – vanity, etc.
Seven of Cups: (Netzach in Briah, Illusionary Success, Venus in Scorpio) A possible success. The Supernal Forces Haniel is the Archangel connected with the Venus forces. Success is only outward. Supernal forces bring it to nothing. Nogah the sphere of Venus represents external splendour. Venus in Scorpio the gleam on stagnant water. All repeat the idea.
Eight of Cups: (Hod in Briah, Abandoned Success, Saturn in Pisces) Solitary Success. Michael the Archangel of Fire is too strong for the feeble force of the 8. Saturn in the airy Pisces gives indolence and dispondency. The whole shows temporary success abandoned as soon as gained.
Nine of Cups: (Yesod of Briah, Material Happiness, Jupiter in Pisces) Strong fundamental force. Gabriel is the Archangel of Water on the material plane. He presides over birth and generation. Hence he was announcer of the birth of Christ and of John the Baptist. More material than Sandalphon as 9 is less complete than 10. Jupiter is not such a perfect combination with Pisces as Mars, so this card is almost perfect happiness.
Ten of Cups: (Malkuth of Briah, Perfected Success, Mars in Pisces) A fixed and Completed Force. Sandalphon, the Female Kerub, an Archangel yet Chief of the Angels. Showering influence of Chaioth ha Qadesh [Kether] – being the Female Kerub receiving its influence from above and transmuting it to the Zodiac, the Wheel of material creation. Mars gives the balance of Fire; Pisces that of Water. Hence this is an extremely good and fortunate card.
SWORDS – The Tree of Life in Yetzirah
Ace of Swords: (Kether in Yetzirah, Root of the Powers of Air) The Holy Living Creatures [Chaioth ha Qadesh], represent the Zodiac itself as Chokmah of Assiah represents its sphere. Hence a vortex receiving the influence through the veils of the negative from Malkuth of Briah which is Perfected Happiness.
Two of Swords: (Chokmah of Yetzirah, Peace Restored, Moon in Libra) Unites King and Queen thus producing Harmony. Auphanim is the Wheel of Change. Thus the Angels of the Revolving Symbolism restore peace. The gentle influence of Moon on Libra fiery air, restores and pacifies.
Three of Swords: (Binah of Yetzirah, Sorrow, Saturn in Libra) Produces the Prince. = The beginning and ending. Giver of Death. Aralim called Thrones more properly. Heroes intensifies the Prince. Hence Sorrow. Gloomy Saturn in fiery Air repeats the idea.
Four of Swords: (Chesed of Yetzirah, Rest from Strife, Jupiter in Libra) Realization. Chasmalim = a brillant metal, perhaps gold or silver. The Angels characterised by brightness [Shining Ones]. The realization of Brilliance. Thus = Rest after Strife. Jupiter Power in Libra fiery Air. Holds its heat restrained. This repeats the idea.
Five of Swords: (Geburah of Yetzirah, Defeat, Venus in Aquarius) Opposition. Strife. Seraphim = Angelic Beings whose character is burning or Fire [fiery serpents]. There is nothing to modify the fiery heat of strife which must bring defeat. Venus in the soft nature of Watery air succumbs to any Force.
Six of Swords: (Tiphareth in Yetzirah, Earned Success, Mercury in Aquarius) Accomplishment. Malachim – King Forces & those who obtain success by commanding it. Hence success not by luck but by effort. Mercury = Genius. Versatility acting on the plastic material of watery Air strives for and obtains success.
Seven of Swords: (Netzach in Yetzirah, Unstable Effort, Moon in Aquarius) Forces transcending the material Plane. Elohim = the idea of strength; hence effort but Supernal Forces overcome & render it unstable. Aquarius – Watery Air acted on by the inconstant Moon increases this result.
Eight of Swords: (Hod in Yetzirah, Shortened Force, Jupiter in Gemini) Solitary Successes. Beni Elohim = Sons of God. A lower and inferior order of Angels. Not able to prevail against the restrictions of the number 8. Jupiter = Power, but having only the Airy Air of Gemini as a basis, cannot exert Power to the full.
Nine of Swords: (Yesod of Yetzirah, Despair and Cruelty, Mars in Gemini) 9 = A strong fundamental force. Cherubim = Sphinxes compounded of the Elements. The supporters of Diety who fly with a swooping or circling motion, the beginning of a whirl, outcasting answering to Rashith ha Gilgalim [Kether’s First Swirlings]. The strong force tending to break up, appears like cruelty & despair. Mars has his full unmodified sway in the Airy Air of Gemini.
Ten of Swords: (Malkuth of Yetzirah, Ruin, Sun in Gemini) 10 = a fixed & completed force. Ashim = the Souls of Fire. These complete their work, which is to break up, disintegrate and ruin the Astral form that it may pass through the negative veils to be reborn in Kether of Assiah. Sun = very fiery energy, destructive unless it acts on very solid material & is modified. Acting on Gemini the tenuous or most Airy Air it is destructive. Compare the deadly arrows of Apollo. [Here the ideas take form, but the Astral Shells are broken up in Ruin by the Souls of Fire that the forms may be reborn in the Material.]
PENTACLES – The Tree of Life in Assiah
Ace of Pentacles: (Kether in Assiah, Root of the Powers of Earth) All Aces are the roots of the Powers of their Element. The Primum Mobile [Rashith ha Gilgalim] Beginning of Whirlings = Primary Vortex Ring. This is the Germ of all Matter (vide Lord Kelvin).
Two of Pentacles: (Chokmah of Assiah, Harmonious Change, Jupiter in Capricorn) Unites King and Queen. The Sphere of the Zodiac counter charges all. All forces acting on Earth. Jupiter = Calm Power on Capricorn = Barren Earth. Gives Harmonious Change but no product.
Three of Pentacles: (Binah of Assiah, Material Works, Mars in Capricorn) Produces the Prince = The perfect manifestation of the forces of Earth. The Sphere of Saturn [Shabathai= rest] restrains his influence. Mars shining on Capricorn the barren earth brings about material works and no more.
Four of Pentacles: (Chesed of Assiah, Earthly Power, Sun in Capricorn) 4 = Realization. Sphere of Jupiter = Power [Tzadekh = righteousness]. Thus the realization of Power. Sun = Power and force on Capricorn = a barren and desert land. Dominates, but leads to nothing beyond.
Five of Pentacles (Geburah of Assiah, Material Trouble, Mercury in Taurus) 5 = Opposition & Strife. Sphere of Mars [Madim = vehement strength] accentuates this. Mercury = Genius but etherial and erratic. Quite unable to deal with the dull heavy earth of Taurus.
Six of Pentacles: (Tiphareth in Assiah, Material Success, Moon in Taurus) 6 = Accomplishment. Sphere of Sun = Power, Rank, Rule [Shemesh = Solar Light]. These give abundant success. Luna in her exaltation of Taurus. The Mistress of the Floods. Breaking up the dull heavy earth under the influence of Sun = Great fertility.
Seven of Pentacles: (Netzach in Assiah, Success Unfulfilled, Saturn in Taurus) Force transcending the material Plane. Nogah = Sphere of Venus = External Splendour. The outside fair, but Supernal Force destroys the promise. The gloom of Saturn on the heavy dull earth of Taurus gives no success in farming.
Eight of Pentacles: (Hod in Assiah, Prudence, Sun in Virgo) Solitary Successes. Sphere of Mercury = Genius [Kokab = The Stellar Light]. This when only ocasionally successful is over careful. Sun = prudence and punctuality in Virgo the fertile earth gives success in farming. Mercury unrestrained by the forces of 8 lacks initiative energy.
Nine of Pentacles: (Yesod of Assiah, Material Gain, Venus in Virgo) 9 = A strong fundamental force. Levanah = Sphere of the Moon which governs the Waters of earth. A force which governs the feminine & negative is usually termed luck. This = gain. Venus the generative power in Virgo the fertile earth = material increase.
Ten of Pentacles: (Malkuth of Assiah, Wealth, Mercury in Virgo) 10 = Fixed and completed force. Sphere of the Elements [Cholem Yesodoth] = Power exercised in material things only . Mercury extremely versatile genius employed in Virgo = the fertility of the earth. Therefore successful completion of material gain = Material Wealth. Malkuth of Assiah. There is nothing human below this. [The acme of worldly prosperity and progress.] (Hereafter it must take an upward curve or pass out to The Qlippoth.).
[Note: the following zodiacal attributes relate to the elemental qualities of the decanates and the cards associated with those decanates. mkg]
Aries: Ascending Flames. A Great and Ruling Force.
Leo: Rushing Flames. A Force Wise.
Sagittarius: Darting Flames. A Force Great and Potent.
Taurus: Fertile land in a valley. A Force Exalted.
Virgo: Undulating land and low hill. A Force Just.
Capricorn: Precipitous, rocky and barren land. A Force Strong and Mighty.
Gemini: Cirrhous and flecked cloud. A Powerful Force.
Libra: Cumulo-stratous clouds. A Force Illustrious.
Aquarius: Rain descending from clouds. A Force Manifesting and Manifested.
Cancer: Eddies of swirling water. A Force that renders Powerful.
Scorpio: Undulating surface of water. A Wisely Dispensing Force.
Pisces: Breaking waves of the sea. A Force Avenging.
We were discussing the Ten of Swords on AeclecticTarot’s forum so I thought I’d summarize my thoughts here. A person lies on land by a body of water with hills blue in the distance. I usually think of the water as a lake because there’s no movement indicated—the water looks placid or even lifeless. The sky is black overhead but, above the mountains, the darkness breaks to reveal a slit of yellow sky.
Contrary to their attributed qualities of Air and Mind, Swords both depict and evoke in the viewer very strong, mostly disturbing, emotions. I once did a Tarot and Emotions Research Project in response to this fact.
Here are the emotion words for the Ten of Swords (times the number of respondents who picked the word):
Waite says very little about this card in his Pictorial Key to the Tarot (PKT):
“A prostrate figure, pierced by all the swords belonging to the card. Divinatory Meanings: Whatsoever is intimated by the design; also pain, affliction, tears, sadness, desolation. It is not especially a card of violent death.”
His additional meanings include imprisonment and treason on the part of friends—which I interpret as ‘stabbed in the back.’
Waite was always very precise with his vocabulary. The key word in his description above is “prostrate,” which means “to cast (oneself) face down on the ground in humility, submission, or adoration; to overthrow, overcome, or reduce to helplessness.” For me, it emphasizes submission to something overwhelming either by choice (humility) or by being overcome. Victimization is a possibility.
He also uses “pierce,” meaning to penetrate or cut through, “by all the swords,” which correspond with mind and intellect. This suggests a kind of ultimate penetration, reaching the end of thought or an idea. This can also indicate pinning ideas down.
Waite’s main emotions are sadness and desolation. Of the latter, the Random House Dictionary says: “The desolate person is deprived of human consolation, relationships, or presence.” Is that why three people gave pity as their emotion in my research project? Has hatred of him by others rendered him desolate?
I have a copy of PKT that once belonged to a priest, whose notes are often enlightening. He points to Rev. 19:15: “And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.” The poor guy looks like he could be both the grapes that were pressed and the nation that was smited.
This priest also refers to Waite’s book The Holy Kabbalah, where we find: “The Flaming Sword which turned every way signifies angels set over the chastisement of man in this world.” This is in a section on the Fall of Man and the Legend of the Deluge [Flood] in which Waite talks about both Eve and Noah having pressed grapes into wine. “The fact that Noah pressed the grapes—as Eve is said also to have done—partook of the juice and so became drunken, is affirmed to contain a mystery of wisdom. . . . [Noah], having set himself to fathom that sin which had caused the fall of the first man, . . . raised a corner of the veil concerning that breach of the world which ought always to remain secret.” Waite then refers to the dangers of some kinds of knowledge. Could this be chastisement for knowing too much? To “chastise” comes from roots meaning “to make pure.” Are limiting thoughts being pressed from him so that what’s left are pure “spirits”?
In the Grail and Masonic Mysteries that Waite used when devising the Minor Arcana (see my article in Llewellyn’s Tarot Reader 2006), this card refers specifically to the death of the Masonic ‘Master Builder’ (murdered treasonously by his brethern), as well as the death of the many knights who perished on the Grail Quest. In the Welsh Perceval, it is the “Sword which broke and was rejoined, [and] in the stress of the last trial, was shattered beyond recovery.”
Waite specifically tells us in PKT that the Knight of Swords is Galahad (who was girded with the Sword of David). He explains how the Quest of Galahad tells how “the Warden of the Mysteries together with the Holy Things [the four suits/Grail Hallows], was removed once and for all . . . [because] the world was not worthy.” And, “The death pictured in the Mysteries is therefore in no sense physical, but is mystical, like the resurrection which follows it” (Waite, The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail). Remember that in PKT, he said: “It is not especially a card of violent death.”
This is the suit of Swords taken to an extreme—”to the nth degree.” Yet in reaching its ultimate conclusion, nothing further can be done in that direction through either thought or aspiration. Now there’s room for a new possibility to emerge [the rising of the black clouds revealing yellow light]—though it has to come from a new and different place. It is an ending that clears the way for new opportunity, but it is only when the ending is fully accepted that the opportunity can emerge. This card is about being pinned down and stuck and finding the blessing in that (note that his hand makes the Hierophant’s sign of benediction). Otherwise the new potential, the Ace (which is the sum of 1+0) cannot be perceived, much less appreciated.
Nevertheless, each of the cards is so rich that a single meaning can’t be the sum total of any card, including this one. I always go with how the querent sees the card at the moment of the reading. Some never see the hand of benediction, while others focus on it right away. Some are very frightened by the card. They think it means the absolute end of something they don’t want to let go of. Or they think it will hurt. Or that they’ll be stuck here forever. Alternatively, they ignore everything except the yellow light.
If I ask a querent to lay down on the floor in the exact position of the figure on the RWS card, something else always happens. Often there’s a feeling of relief and surrender. Some people find it’s like the “deadman’s pose” at the end of a strenuous yoga session, a position from which few want to move because it feels so-o-o good. It’s nice not to have to fight things any more. Others find that the sensation is like acupuncture that awakens the meridians or like the paralysis of spinal injury that numbs.
Essentially, I believe in understanding as deeply as possible the state and sensations depicted on the card as it is, before one rushes on to the yellow light that breaks through the dark clouds. As hard as it is, it is only by knowing the true state and feelings of the person on this card that we having any chance of knowing its blessings.