Our modern tarot deck appears to have its origins in a playing card deck used by the Mameluk Egyptians and brought into Europe after the Muslim forces invaded and conquered the Iberian peninsula. Muslim soldiers used these cards to play a game called Nã’ib, or the game of lieutenants, and the Spanish language still refers to playing cards as naipes.
The Mameluk deck had court cards consisting of a malik (king), naib malik (viceroy) and a thaim naib (deputy), which became the King, Knight and Page of European decks. The French then added the Queen to the group of court cards, producing a hierarchy in order of King at the top, followed by the Queen and the Knight, with Page at the lowest rung.
The four modern suits were patterned after the suits of the Mameluk deck: Chalices, Scimitars, Polo sticks and Dinars (coins). Europeans apparent associated the four suits with four levels or classes of society: Chalices or Cups with the clergy, Scimitars or Swords with the nobility, Dinars or Coins with the merchants, and Polo-stick or Rods/Wands with the laborers, peasants or working classes. These associations created the following hierarchy:
- Chalices or Cups as the highest rank because the clergy were closest to God. Occultists later associated Cups with the element of water.
- Swords or Scimitars as the second highest because they symbolized the nobility and perhaps later the intellectuals, academics or professional members of society. Occultists later associated Swords with the element of air.
- Dinars, Coins or today’s “Pentacles” as the third from the top because they represented the merchants who traded in goods essential to society. Occultists later associated Coins with the element of earth.
- Rods, Wands or Polo-sticks at the bottom of the ladder because they stood for peasants and laborers whose work was essential but who were disdained by the upper three classes of society. Occultists later associated Wands with the element of fire.
Interestingly, the above hierarchy follows the scheme outlined in the Thema Mundi of Hellenistic astrology, the so-called birth chart of the universe in which the Moon, starting at the Ascendant in Cancer, would transit the Angles of the chart in the order: Cancer (water), Libra (air), Capricorn (earth) and finally Aries (fire).
At times it may be useful in tarot readings to be aware of the hierarchical structure within the deck. Of the court cards, the Pages and Knights might signify individuals who are younger, less experienced and less mature than the Queen or King, for example, or that the relationship with the individual signified by the court card is in an earlier or later stage of development.
Similarly, cards of different suits could suggests differences in social class or mores, which could be significant within a reading. Different suits could also signify the hierarchical ordering and level of personal or societal preference for different goals or ambitions, which might create a conflict within the querent. For example, if the querent prefers a goal symbolized by Wands (the lowest level in the eyes of society is this old scheme of social classes) but the family is encouraging a goal symbolized by Cups (the highest level), there is likely to be a conflict between what the person really wants and what those around the querent feel is a better choice.
All original material in this post is copyright Anthony Louis 2021