A Word or Two on my Card Meanings Series

One of the things that I’ve noticed about using cards in shadow work is that no one ever goes into the shadowier meanings of the pips. The majors or trumps always get all the glory; but they represent more archetypal energies, whereas the minors or pips contain the details of our daily lives. Our actions, our frustrations, the battles we have in our minds, our desires, and so on. Why does no one include them? And so I embarked on the task to find them.

Over time, I’ve come to see each card not in a binary sense of upright and reversed, but as a spectrum. In medicinal herbalism, we aim for balance or homeostasis in tissue states, and look at conditions in terms of deficiency and excess. In deficiency, tissues are weak; in excess, overexcited and perhaps bursting. As bodies, we rarely reach homeostasis, or it doesn’t last for long, as the body is always in a state of flux, of ebb & flow and adjustment in seeking it. And so it is with our lives. Our thoughts, our feelings, our actions are constantly in the process of seeking balance; and the tarot reflects all of these various states of our lives, in their aims and aches and glories and imperfections.

So, I see each card as representing both the positive balance as well as the challenges in its particular focus, as if on a spectrum of deficiency (e.g., fears, shame causing resistance) to excess (overcompensating?), with advice or directives for attaining or maintaining that central balanced state — or, bringing shadows into light.

If we envision the spectrum as a line or seesaw, we can start with deficiency at one end, balance in the middle, and excess at the other end. Once we start exploring the concept of each card (using number + suit meanings), the spectrum often presents itself. For example, if we look at the 6 of Wands, the advice (Lindsay Mack calls them invitations, and that feels right to me) is to take pride in our achievement or victory. In deficiency, we may resist due to self-doubt, perhaps a bit of imposter syndrome. Surely, I’m not worthy of attention or praise. At the opposite end, its excess may present as grandiosity, or taking all the credit rather than acknowledging those who helped. It was actually Paul Quinn’s book Tarot for Life that lit that spark, as he lists reversals and shadows for each card in a similar way. Eureka!

As with most tarot study, this is a work in process and will always be. Just like shadow work, there will always be more to learn, more to see, more to integrate. But I feel it necessary to give credit where it’s due and offer a sort of bibliography of my own journey in coming to this project of spectrums.

The general meanings of each card have come from a compendium of various sources over about 30 years (off and on – god, I’d be an expert if I’d been studying for 30 solid years!). From my first class with Pia at Regina Russell’s Tea Room (that sumptuous style of old-school fortune-telling) to deeper and more esoteric work with Christopher Penczak, to the more trauma-informed perspective of Lindsay Mack, I always held an interest in a more psychological perspective of the cards, and was drawn to books with a Jungian lens, such as Tarot as a Way of Life by Karen Hamaker-Zondag and Discovering Your Self Through the Tarot by Rose Gawain, and Choice-Centered Tarot by Gail Fairfield (now Everyday Tarot — and while not Jungian, per se, takes a therapeutic approach).

I think that we can often look back on papers we wrote in school with an amusing sense of foreshadowing, and after studying with Christopher Penczak through five levels of training, I did my final project on using tarot for shadow work. Even returning many years later for a course on the Major Arcana, he joked after class one night of my always being a little too interested in the shadowier side of things. (Hey, I’m a double-Scorpio with my moon in the 12th house.)

Anyhoo, back to the present, one of my closest and dearest friends is a therapist using IFS (Internal Family Systems), and when she briefly explained it to me, I was intrigued enough to dig into a few books on it, and quickly saw how this approach of meeting our parts (shadow work, really) integrated so well with tarot.

And now here I am, fitting the cards into spectrums and trying to identify questions that each may prompt. In the latter endeavor, Mary K Greer’s Tarot for Your Self and Andy Matzner’s Journaling the Tarot have been great jumping off points.

With that said, on to the fours! Please jump in with any comments or questions you may have, as I go. Discussion and debate help us all to grow.

3 of Pentacles

collaborate in shared goals

Three is expansion out from the two + Pentacles represent navigating the physical world.

from the Deck of the Bastard

In its centered or balanced position, the Three of Pentacles shows us in collaboration or cooperation with others in bringing something to form. We may each have our own calling, but working together with shared goals may create the best outcome for all. In the Smith-Waite depiction (shown in the Deck of the Bastard, left), an architect creates the vision, an artist is bringing it to form, and the monk represents integrity and ethics (the three symbolizing mind, body, and soul, respectively).

The Salvador Dali Tarot urges “Do not only ask what [task] you want. Ask what God and the world want from you.” This card is about our own personal calling, and working together with others enacting their personal calling to create.

In resistance, we operate independently or at cross-purposes, failing to see the benefit of shared goals and talents. If supervised, we resent it. Talent is wasted.

In excess, we may be feeling a bit burned out. Consider what makes you happy; what gives you a greater sense of purpose?

Questions to think about when this card comes up may include

  • What are you currently working on? Does it give you a sense of purpose?
  • Do your parts work well within their system? What gifts does each offer to the whole?
  • Do you see the talents that others have to offer as gifts or do you resent them as interference?
  • Are you able to weave your own body/mind/spirit into balance? Where is there lack? Where does one take over?

What else? There’s plenty more to consider in this card, isn’t there? You may have other insights on this card. How has it come up for you? Feel free to share in comments.

3 of Swords

consider your response

Threes are the response or reaction to the two + Swords relate to our thoughts and mental processing.

from the Herbcrafters Tarot

And so the center or balanced position of the Three of Swords shows realization and reminds us to consider our response. We may realize the truth about something (piercing an illusion?); but even if that truth is painful, we get to choose how we respond. Reality as we know it occurs in the space between stimulus and response. This is not a card of emotion, but of realization and truth informing us of how to proceed (remember, threes expand). Consider it, turn it over in your mind, integrate information, and you will then know how to proceed with clarity and grace.

In resistance, the truth may be difficult and we may try to protect ourselves by refusing to see it.

In excess, we’re triggered and we react. What may be a better response?

Questions to consider when this card comes up may include

  • Is there a situation which could benefit by putting things in perspective?
  • Is there a situation you see as a crisis which could instead be an opportunity? How can you step toward that?
  • Is there someone with whom you could clear the air?
  • Has a part been activated and could use some tending?

What else? There are so many more, depending on the spread and surrounding cards. How has this card come up for you? What insight have you gained from it?

3 of Cups

Seek out your community

Three is expansion from the two + Cups point to our emotional experiences and relating to others.

from the Art History Tarot of Past Lives

And so, in its centered or balanced position on the spectrum, the Three of Cups expands or evolves outward from the two in emotional generosity. This is the weaving together of a community in which we feel accepted and supported. We see that one person cannot be our sole mirror and that each relationship brings out other facets and builds webs. This card also carries a tone of celebration — it may be small, it may be temporary, but we’re invited to be present in community where we are valued.

As we consider the Cups as symbolizing emotions, we can also apply the expansive nature of three (the reaction or response to the two in synthesis or releasing the tension inherent in two) as an emotional breakthrough of some sort, supporting the healing of personal wounds.

Where water is deficient, we don’t feel included or supported, or we may choose to remain solitary.

In excess, we may be drowning our emotional wounds in excess socializing or partying, or we have an over dependence on group acceptance.

Questions we think about when this card comes up may include

  • To whom can you turn for support?
  • Do you care what others think? What part of you requires that?
  • Do you avoid the company of others? Is that a function of introversion, or is there a part that fears some sort of wounding?
  • Are you afraid of standing out, preferring Instead the safety of being surrounded by your tribe?

What else? There are other facets to this card and your insights may differ. Feel free to share!

3 of Wands

assimilate and expand

Three is the response to the two and its integration (expansion) + Wands relate to our energy and where we put it.

from the Spiral Tarot

In the upright or centered position on the card’s spectrum, the Three of Wands sees the return of the two’s exploration and we’re assimilating and considering what’s next in expanding our horizons. If the two was sending our ships out, three shows them coming in, and we are seeing the return on the groundwork we’ve laid; but things are still in process or evolving (three strives for form), so follow-through is key as we’re building, expanding, managing the next cycle of the journey and the opportunities that allow us to expand. How can we keep growing?

When the three’s Fire is deficient, we’re bored with it already or we lack vision. Fear of the unknown can stifle our desire for expansion.

In excess, we’re overreaching, seeking or seizing opportunities which are beyond our capabilities or rooted in attention-seeking. Are we afraid of missing out?

Questions to ask when this card comes up may include

  • what obstacles prevent you from realizing your vision?
  • Is follow-through a challenge for you?

What else? You may have other insights. How do you see this card? How has it come up for you? Feel free to share in comments.

2 of Pentacles

balance priorities which promote our soul’s growth

Twos aim to balance when an other is introduced + Pentacles represent navigating the material world.

from Darkness of Light (1st ed.)

And so, in its upright or balanced position on the spectrum, the Two of Pentacles invites us to look at what we’re trying to hold in balance. The metaphor of juggling is often used with this card, as the two acts in rhythm and balance, representing the natural flux of life in and flow such as cause & effect. Sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down (as the ship in the background of the Smith-Waite 2oP, or the tides as shown in this example from Darkness of Light). Sometimes we must borrow from Peter to pay Paul. Life is a series of cycles, and in this two, we must juggle demands, balance priorities, and weigh our options. If we’re working too hard, rest. If we’ve overspent, save money. If we’ve eaten poorly, adjust our diet, and so on.

As we move out of the seed of the Ace, are we prepared to step onto the path of our soul’s work? What are we choosing to juggle? Now may not be the time to try and multitask too much, but to choose to release those responsibilities not in keeping with our path.

In resistance, we don’t make the connection between cause & effect, perhaps oblivious to our causative role in matters. One thing to keep in mind is that if we choose not to step into our soul’s work, we fail to grow.

In excess, we try to keep everyone happy and, in misplacing our priorities, we struggle to keep all of the balls in the air.

Questions we may ask when the 2oP comes up include

  • Where do you feel out of balance in your life?
  • Are you feeling pulled in opposite directions? Which serves you better?
  • What are you struggling to juggle? Why do you continue to do so?
  • Is there an aspect of your life that you’ve been ignoring? Why do you do so?

What else? Of course, this is just a sampling of this card’s spectrum, and you may have other insights. How do you see this card? How has it come up for you? Feel free to share in comments.

2 of Swords

remain objective

Twos introduce an other in duality + airy Swords represent the mental realm of ideas.

from Touchstone Tarot by Kat Black

And so, in the upright or balanced position of the Two of Swords, we are balancing opposing views, striving to see both sides. Can they be reconciled? Must a choice be made, or can we hold the two in balance? In many modern decks, the figure is blindfolded, reminding us to trust our inner knowing for the truth and to remain objective; don’t allow emotion to cloud our judgement.

In resistance, we cannot remain impartial. Info or ideas inconsistent with our beliefs are dismissed or rationalized; cognitive dissonance.

In excess, we remain in indecision, stifled by self-doubt.

Questions we might ask when this card appears include

  • Are you feeling pulled in two different directions?
  • Is there another side of something that you’re refusing to see?
  • What factors or events from your past may be influencing your decision?

What else? Of course, this is just a sampling of this card’s spectrum, and you may have other insights. How do you see this card? How has it come up for you? Feel free to share in comments.

2 of Cups

look into the mirror of the other

Twos take us from the sole oneness of Ace to the introduction of an other + watery Cups represent feelings and relationships.

from Murder of Crows Tarot, by Corrado Roi

And so, in its upright or balanced position on the spectrum, the Two of Cups is a coming together in relationship — whether a partnership of some sort or as the integration of parts within the self. It invites us to look into the mirror of the other and see ourselves reflected back. Can you accept what you see? This card’s most fundamental message relates to the age-old advice that you will not find love in another if you can’t find it within yourself. It’s important to remember that this card isn’t necessarily about romantic love, but about relationships and love of all kinds, including self.

In resistance, we find incompatibility between the two, or we separate. We may be rejecting a part of ourselves. It may also hint at an independence which rejects others.

In excess, we become dependent on another to compensate for a perceived lack in ourselves which we see reflected. Co-dependency.

Questions we may ask when this card comes up include

  • What part is preventing you from reaching out due to pride or fear?
  • What attracts you to another person in friendship, collaboration, love, etc.?
  • What irks you in another person in friendship, collaboration, love, etc.?
  • What painful event from the past do you need to make peace with in order to heal and move on?
  • How do you balance solitude and connection with others?

What else? Of course, this is just a sampling of this card’s spectrum, and you may have other insights. How do you see this card? How has it come up for you? Feel free to share in comments.

2 of Wands

Take the initiative to explore outside of yourself.

Twos take us from the sole oneness of Ace to something outside of ourselves + Wands represent energy and identity; the life force that drives our actions.

from The Relative Tarot

And so, in its upright or balanced position on the spectrum, the 2 of Wands is standing at the threshold, considering the initiative to go beyond what we’ve been comfortable with and allowing ourselves to explore new territory; to reach out; to set goals; sending out our ships, sharing something of ourselves with the outside world. We may be confronted with a choice between inner emptiness and outer fulfillment; between action and inaction. Will we forge a new path or choose to risk nothing?

When this desire is blocked, we may have some hesitancy or indecision around this outward venture, or we’re stuck in a pattern of complacency. For some, negotiating the outside world can be challenging. What holds us back?

In excess, we’re never content with what we have, always searching elsewhere for gratification, or for something bigger & better.

Questions we may ask when this card comes up include

  • Is there a part of you or an identity that’s ready to be brought forward?
  • How are you holding back? Why might you be doing so?
  • Are there competing desires you’re trying to integrate?
  • Is there something about success that frightens you? What might that be?

What else? Of course, this is just a sampling of this card’s spectrum, and you may have other insights. How do you see this card? How has it come up for you? Feel free to share in comments.

Ace of Pentacles

take the first step in manifesting your idea

Aces are offerings or opportunities of the highest potential of the suit.

Pentacles deal with the physical domain of earth, and how we as spiritual beings navigate the material world. This has customarily focused on money and resources, but this suit has so much more breadth than being limited to materialism. The realm of earth includes our physical bodies and health, but is a grounding force, rooted and slow. It is practical in the ways that we manifest and pursue our soul’s work and spiritual ideals in the physical world. We can see hints of this in the church imagery that Pamela Coleman-Smith included in her pips (3 of Pentacles, 5 of Pentacles).

Historically, the four suits were associated with the four classes of society, and Pentacles or diamonds represented the merchant class. In modern classist or Marxist tarot, this translates to the bourgeoisie – industry leaders, real estate, and other financial and physical structures of society.

If we consider the four humours of the body and temperament as in Galen’s time, Earth correlated with black bile and therefore melancholic — thoughtful and considerate (but may struggle with perfectionism and be easily depressed). As Jung’s cognitive functions go, the suit of Pentacles corresponds to Sensation, which is how we observe the physical and manipulate it.

from Darkness of Light (1st ed.)

And so the Ace of Pentacles, Disks, or Coins is the potential or foundation for manifesting in the earthly realm. It asks us to get out of our head and implement that thought, desire, idea; take the first step to give it concrete expression. (This is the Ace that brings the others to tangible form.). This journey will likely take time and require tending, like the seed we plant in the soil of our garden and nurture.

In resistance, we’re stuck. We just can’t move beyond our thoughts and dreams. What holds us back from taking the first step toward manifesting? Perhaps we doubt our ability to manifest.

In excess, is there an overemphasis on the material or physical, of security, or some other aspect of earth?

Questions that we may be prompted to ask when this card comes up include:

  • What seeds are you planting?
  • What prevents you from pursuing your soul’s work?
  • Do you feel secure? Is there a part of you that does not?
  • How is your health? Do you get the physical exercise and nutrition that your body needs? How is your relationship with food?
  • Do you have a need for more time connecting with nature?

But of course that’s just a beginning. How do you see this card? How has it come up for you? What is your favorite depiction of the Ace of Pentacles, and how are its shadow aspects portrayed?