The tarot is organized into two main groups: the major arcana and the minor arcana. The majors represent 22 main archetypes. The minors represent how those energies play out in everyday life. The minor arcana are further divided into 4 suits like a typical deck of playing cards. These include cups (hearts), wands or rods (clubs), swords (spades), and pentacles or disks (diamonds). Each of these represent a different aspect of human experience – emotions, inspiration, mentality and the material respectively.
The arena governed by each suit is associated with an element. Understanding these elemental energies is essential to understanding the card itself. Traditionally each suit consists of an ace through ten plus four court cards. Combining where in this sequence a card falls together with the elemental meaning of the suit will provide you with a full understanding of the card in question.
Cups:The cups deal with the emotional arena. When cups show up in a reading it is an indication that the aspect of life that is being addressed is of an emotional or relational nature. It speaks to how what we feel about a situation governs our interpretation and response to that situation, particularly our interpersonal relationships and connections. There are many different ways we emotionally respond to life. The cups represent both the experience and how that emotional quality affects our actions. They indicate whether we are full, releasing, stuck or overwhelmed by emotional content and the extent to which it is playing a role in our current situation.
The element associated with the cups is water. Investigating the properties of water points to how emotions express in and through us. It is flowing. Water can be cleansing, soothing and comforting or it can overwhelm and drown us. It is powerful and dynamic. Water is difficult to pin down as it can take so many different forms, but always it has the capacity to shift and move. Similarly emotions move.
When reading a cup card, noticing whether the cups are full or empty is often an indication of the meaning that is being conveyed. For example, the 5 of cups often portrays three spilt cups and two full cups. This refers to the loss/gain ebb and flow of emotions. Sometimes we are sorrowful regarding what is lost but often there is something wonderful that is gained in releasing what no longer feeds us. Feeling the sorrow of loss is a universal human experience that must be recognized and processed in order to be released. Noticing if the cups are full, empty, spilt are all indications of the emotional content of the situation and how it is experienced and expressed.
Wands speak to the spiritual, intuitive and creative aspects of life. They are represented by the element of fire. It is the spark of inspiration that spurs us into action. When we are excited about a project or idea we have the necessary energy to do the work to bring it into reality. It is a fast moving energy with a sense of urgency, purpose and focus. It is the passion to create something new and to express. It is the initial insight that comes out of nowhere as well as something we can return to in order to keep going. Like fire, however, it is difficult to control and can cause destruction if not contained. It can burn us out.
Spiritual connection is also in the realm of wands. It gives us a sense of purpose and value. Each of us is unique in all the world. No one can shine their light in the exact same way we can shine ours. Each light is special and important. Spiritual practice connects us to this loving sense of self and self worth. It's what is referred to in the yoga sutra as the “feeling of personality”. It offers the necessary drive to express that uniqueness and persevere through challenge. Who we are essentially as well as how we honor the divine spark within us is revealed through the suit of wands.
Passion for our endeavors spur us into action. It is the passion associated with the wands that moves from a inspiration to action. With such a powerful energy it is sometimes possible to neglect or simply not notice anything else around us or how our actions affect others. We can get too caught up in the object of our passion. This is the flow state of the artist so dedicated to the creation they don't eat or sleep or relate.
In this way the wands have the potential to cause destruction and burnout. The energy of the wands is powerful enough to break through inertia, but that power is front loaded. It comes out of the gate with such power and force anything around it can get neglected or sacrificed. It also dies down quickly. Its purpose is to get us going. We can harken back to the initial impulse for sustenance but it is never quite as strong as the first burst of insight.
Swords represent the mental realm. It includes thinking and ideas as well as our beliefs. Anything that involves problem solving or calculation falls within this domain. It is represented by the element of air. Like air, it is quick moving, changeable and sometimes difficult to get a handle on. This can be both a blessing and a curse. We can change our minds if our thoughts and beliefs aren't serving us or prove to be incompatible with reality. On the other hand we can be overwhelmed, caught up in trying to figure things out or just downright confused. This double edged quality of mentality is very much part of the elemental quality of the swords.
Not only does the mental realm cut both ways in terms of our state of mind, but in regards to how our thoughts and perception of truth effects us emotionally. Seeing the truth of a matter is not the same as liking that truth. While it is important for clarity and precision of action, it can be cold and unfeeling. The suit of swords can be a difficult one in this regard and the imagery speaks clearly to this aspect.
It is how we conceptualize our reality. The story we tell and the meaning we make of our lives effects how we feel and respond to it. It is important to recognize that there are often multiple ways of interpreting reality. We can choose which interpretation is most fitting for us. This, again, shows the double edged quality of the swords in that what we think doesn't always match what everyone else believes. The swords asks us to see clearly the reality of a situation but it also gives us the freedom to interpret that reality in any number of ways. What it doesn't allow for is denial and escapism. To the extent that we engage in these strategies to avoid looking at hard truths we will be met with the persistence of reality to make itself known. Eventually a coherent cognitive structure is required.
Pentacles represent the material aspect of existence. It refers to money, things, our bodies and our work. It is how we relate to the physical plane in all its forms. It speaks to the fact that we must exist in a physical world and navigate the very real needs of basic survival such as food and shelter as well as desires for luxury. It is represented by the element of earth. It is solid and slow moving.
Physical reality is the densest form of energy compared to thoughts, feelings and passions. It is perhaps the realm in which we feel the least amount of agency. Yet it is something we must contend with on a daily basis. We must learn how to navigate the actual world, sustain ourselves and even flourish (or perish) within it. It is an eminently practical suit addressing our very survival.
Were it not for the physical aspect of reality none of the other suits could be realized. It is the realm in which our creative inspirations can be made manifest. It is the realm in which we can relate to others. It is the testing ground for the soundness of our ideas. It is the foundation that makes the rest possible. What it offers by way of stability, however, it sacrifices in changeability. It takes time and effort to affect physical reality. Stamina and patience are required but the results of our efforts have the potential to be grand and enduring. It is only because we exist as sensate beings that we have the capacity to relish sensual pleasures and beauty at all.
The four suits of the tarot represent four main areas of human existence. Each suit tells a story of the progression through those areas and the various experiences, struggles and joys we can have within them. Understanding the elemental quality of each suit combined with an understanding of the basic numerology provides all the necessary tools to interpret any minor arcana card. While there are infinite layers of nuance that continued study and practice can provide, a good grounding in just these two principles are sufficient to render a sophisticated and useful reading.