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.  Like a dog on a scent, I’m now pursuing a much deeper understanding of and experience with it.

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.

Ace of Wands

reach out and take hold of that energy

One of the things I’ve noticed in books and other writings on shadow work is that they only talk about the trumps, as though the pips are insignificant in these matters. On the contrary; I think the cards that represent our daily interactions and feelings and responses are those we should explore first when trying to better understand the parts of our psyche. So, in this new series on the cards to include shadow meanings, we’ll start with the pips and then go into courts, finishing up with the trumps.

Aces are often considered some of the most amorphous of the cards. As the beginning of the suit, Aces represent the possibilities of their element — and that can seem wide open. If we consider the imagery used in the Smith-Waite decks, the Aces show an article of the suit (wand, cup, sword, or pentacle) held by a hand emerging from a cloud, indicating that there is an offering here. Will we accept it? Are we ready to step up and take it? That’s really the directive of the Aces, isn’t it? Are we going to reach out and take hold of it? What are we going to do with it? What we’re asked to confront in the shadows of this card is what is holding us back?

from Soprafino, by il Meneghello

And so, in fiery Wands, the Ace is raring to go. It’s the spark of desire, the motivation to reach up and grab that energy or desire so that we may actualize it in our lives.

In the spectrum of this card, that positive initiative is in the balanced center. On one end of the spectrum, where there is resistance, we hold back, reluctant to take what is offered. Are we not ready yet? Do we feel incapable? We may miss the opportunity out of fear, complacency, or a lack of focus. Our task here is to identify what may be holding us back.

On the other end, where there is excess, it may be counterproductive by generating hasty, impetuous, or bold behavior. By placing too much importance on it, we may jump the gun and miss the opportunity.

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

  • Is there some fear or doubt holding you back?
  • Is there a desire you’re reluctant to allow out?
  • Are you procrastinating about something? What part of you is that serving?

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 Wands?

The Numbers of the Pips

When embarking on the study of tarot, it’s not uncommon to feel intimidated or overwhelmed by the prospect of having to memorize all of those card meanings. The thing is, though, you can more easily recall the properties of each card of the minor arcana (or pips) by simply combining the suit meaning with the number meaning.

The suits are basically the four elements – Fire (Wands or Staves), Water (Cups), Air (Swords), and Earth (Pentacles or Coins) – each providing a different cycle, journey, or aspect of our being. So, Wands (fire) is about energy and the action we take in the world; the identities we adopt and put forth. Cups (water) encompasses the depths of the emotional realm, including (especially) the unconscious. Swords (air) rules the mental realm of the intellect; where the Cups deal with the unconscious, the Swords deal with the conscious, and the ways in which we communicate and use strategy and logic. Pentacles (earth) rules the physical realm and how we as spirits or souls navigate the material world. Now combine the suit with the number…

[There is no zero in the suits; but as long as we’re talking numbers, I’ll mention that with the zero, there is potential in the void; like conception, it’s both nothing and everything.]

  1. So, we start each suit with the one or ace: the beginning. Any conception or seed holds within it the fullest potential of its suit and the one comes in when we step up. In many traditional decks, we see an offering being held out to us as if from another realm. Will you take it?
  2. With two, the ace begins to find its expression as the addition of another creates tension – whether uniting or dividing. Here we see duality and polarity, the union of opposites, and choice – with balance as the desired outcome.
  3. In three, we see the response to the two, the reaction to the two, the result of the two, as it synthesizes further. As the three is in process of or striving for form, it‘s evolving.
  4. It becomes secure in the four, taking concrete form as in the foundation of a house or shelter. The four is stable and content as is. (I’ve also seen it postulated that four is our response to the abundance of three, which is worthy of reflection as we consider the fours in each suit.)
  5. The five loosens us out of that stability or status quo to confrontation. Here we are taking action in conflict, which may involve struggle or contraction.
  6. As one contracts, another expands, and in the six we see that natural ebb & flow or exchange of energy like the cogs in a machine or the flow of the tides, each prompting the next; perhaps completing a cycle with new info or clarity which prompts a new cycle.
  7. The seven finds us like the eye of the hurricane – not in motion but in the midst of it. Reaction may be swirling around us but we are waiting, evaluating, planning. There may be uncertainty, but this is time for internal work amidst the external noise or activity.
  8. The eight is the resolution of seven with a better perspective from which to launch. It’s a realignment, a readjustment, and we can now open the door with a new direction or movement.
  9. In nine, we near the end of the cycle and take a moment in solitude to reflect or steady ourselves with the gifts of the suit as we emerge to culmination.
  10. As we saw the fullest potential of the element in the ace, we see the full power of the suit in the ten. The cycle is complete and we integrate its lessons while transitioning to the next cycle.

You may have different meanings for the numbers – or are inspired to find your own – and when combined with the suit meanings, this provides clarity on each pip. This is the key to reading Tarot de Marseille, but may inform all tarot card meanings.

Some correlate the number meanings up to the trumps (e.g., Magician as 1 shows full potential of what you may create) and it’s easy enough to stretch our imagination to squeeze a numerical meaning into some aspect of a card, but I see the trumps as an entirely separate component of the deck which illustrates the stages of the archetypal Hero’s Journey.

What do you think?