Anatomy of the suits

Previously, I talked about the anatomy of the deck and explored the different aspects of the situation that the cards tap into. I want to take some time focusing on some of the specifics and alternative ways to look at each of those parts. Starting with the suits gives us a good context of how the pips relate to our life. Below are the interpretations I use for the suits. These are by no means hard and fast interpretations, just what I use. As you explore the meanings and images of the cards, begin to develop your own interpretations for each suit.

Coins – The suit of the earth and all things material, physical. They ground you, giving you security and position, and show you a mastery over matter. Historically, they related to the merchant class and commerce. When they are the focus business, finances, and family are center stage. Earth’s message is to keep silent. In this we learn to conserve and reserve our energy; as we gather our energy to ourselves, we create the environment necessary for the active state of growth and manifestation.

Wands – The suit of air and all things intellectual and communication. They give power to your ideas and creativity, the desire for growth and to lead the way. Historically, they were related to the peasants and labor. When they are the focus ideas, knowledge, and partnerships are center stage. Air’s lesson is to know. The mind’s ability to acquire knowledge, to know facts is built on our ability to discern through the mess and to do that, we must perceive. As we gain knowledge of the world around us, we are better able to communicate with it.

Swords – The suit of fire and all things related to our actions and decisions. These are the doers of the deck, the movers and shakers. Their role is to be the energy behind your actions. They dissect ideas, cut through anything not focused on the issue or malignant, they see things with detachment. They were, historically, related to the warriors, nobility, and battle. When swords are in abundance, it is a time of action and change, things may not be easy but when the time is over things will be better. Fire teaches us to will (the Latin root means “to wish/desire”), the decisive act built on action and intention. Having the power to will is to have determination and perseverance, both of which are required to get through troubled times (nothing that is worth anything comes easily).

Cups – The suit of cups and all things emotional. The reality of this suit depends on inner stability and well-being of the emotions. They take the form of what flows into them; they future and provide a connection to other people. They are the spiritual, the connection to a higher source, an eternal love. In historical times they were related to the church and love. When they take center stage our emotions are at the heart of the matter; they can also speak about our relationships. Water teaches us to to dare, to dare to have the courage that comes from our heart. It is the lesson we need to take that step, to push through resistance, and to face the unknown depths of our feelings.

In the tarot community, there is a debate between air/fire & swords/wands. In many decks (primarily, RWS & Thoth), the elemental attributes are reversed from what’s above (swords as air and wands as fire). The rational is that swords slice through things like our intellect cuts through the information debris and that we describe the intellect as sharp; wands, on the other hand, are blunt instruments that burn in the fire. Personally, I don’t think this rational makes sense. Swords, while decisive and slicing, are more active than wands, just as fire is more active than air. Looking at the themes that come through the suit of swords, a prevailing one is sorrow (eg, 3 and 9 of swords). Swords cause injury far more readily than wands. The sorrow of swords clears the debris of life to create a fertile ground for new growth; just as a forest fire clears the debris leaving fertile ground for new growth.

Whichever set of interpretations you use, look at how those attributes contribute to your understanding of the pips and courts. When you switch between decks, especially those that have an alternative combination, your understanding of the suits will grow (you will be expanding your tarot vocabulary).


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