On the term “arcana” as applied to tarot

Have you ever wondered why some people call the trumps of the tarot "the major arcana," and why some people call the major arcana "the trumps?" And, of course, why the small cards are sometimes, but not always, called the "minor arcana?" Well, it’s from the 19th century — but perhaps not the source you expect!

Read more: On the term “arcana” as applied to tarot

First, what the hell does it mean, anyway? Well, you probably know that "arcane" sort of means magical, but it isn’t a simple synonym for the word. It means "hidden" and thus means magic in the same way that "occult" does. So, what that means is the tarot cards are being described as secrets, when the word "arcana" is used. "Arcana" is the plural, also; "arcanum" is the singular.

Now, before, I get really started, let me say that if you use these terms, it’s perfectly all right, both because no one can tell you what to do and I’m also not trying to convince you to stop. I know someone who studies tarot very carefully who refers to Death as "the nameless arcanum," because she’s based in a very particular modern tradition, and there’s meaning there, real heavy lifting symbolism shit happening. It’s useful. This post basically comes from my encounters with people who think the Golden Dawn invented the term. They did not, they just adopted it from the work of Paul Christian.

I’m going to link you to wikipedia here because quite frankly I don’t know Christian that well myself yet. Paul Huson refers to him a few times in Mystical Origins of the Tarot, and Christian’s book, The History of Magic, is on my long to-read list. But at this point anything I tell you will come from his wikipedia article anyway.

So, basically, he was a French occultist in the mid 19th century, post-Levi. That’s important to note, because in some sense the Golden Dawn can be imagined as a late 19th century English revision of Levi’s work. For example, the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, perhaps the second best-known contribution of the Golden Dawn to occult practice and history, [^1] [is in effect drawn from the work of Levi].(https://hermeticulture.org/2022/02/22/lbrp-theory-qa/)

Here’s the larger portion of the introduction of the "arcana" in Christian’s book:

The Science of Will, the principle of all wisdom and source of all power, is contained in twenty-two Arcana or symbolic hieroglyphs, each of whose attributes conceals a certain meaning and which, taken as a whole, compose an absolute doctrine memorised by its correspondence with the Letters of the sacred language and with the Numbers that are connected with these Letters. Each letter and each Number, contemplated by the eye or uttered by the mouth, expresses a reality of the divine world, the intellectual world, and the physical world… Each arcanum, made visible or tangible by one of these paintings, is the formula of a law of human activity in its relationship with spiritual and material forces whose combination produces the phenomena of life.

(Christian, Paul. The History and Practice of Magic. Ross Nichols, trans. NY: Citadel Press. 1969. ebook. https://archive.org/embed/historypracticeo01chri. pp. 94-5.)

What’s fascinating here is that Christian is performing a kind of magical semiotics (of course, all magic is semiotic in some sense). He’s saying that the tarot cards are images that lead the practitioner, via the divine, the intellect, and physical experience, to "relationship with spiritual and material forces whose combination produces the phenomena of life." They do that by expressing a reality, and note that the paintings "make visible" the arcana. The cards are both the arcana and signs pointing towards the arcana, which are more numinous and difficult to capture.

That’s why they’re secrets, in this formulation: they’re symbols of other things.

Now, there is a lot you can do with this model. Pathworking — which I intermittently lead a workshop on, watch this space — is a powerful meditative technique to explore cards, and it relies in part on this idea that the card is a channel to a realm of ideas, just like any book transports you to another place where you take in other ideas.

Now, we know that on a purely materialist level things are a little more complicated than that. We don’t read texts to pierce their secrets, but to create a collaborative meaning-space with the author. You’ll see a way for magic to intercede in this model as well, though, since animism posits a spirit for everything (well, some versions of animism, to be clear). The spirit behind tarot [^2] can be one of the teammates you have in the collaborative meaning-making space of a card reading.

But at its core, the idea of describing the tarot cards as "arcana" relies on the idea that we are using them to reach out to higher truths.

I said above that I’m not trying to convince anyone to change their terminology. That’s true, but I did think I should probably talk about why I don’t use this terminology anymore, after nearly two decades of using it regularly.

Despite some related meanings we might see in the word "trump," that’s what I use for the "major arcana." First, I don’t think any cards are major or minor in the way the modern tradition posits. Note, in fact, that Christian only talked about the "major arcana." He doesn’t describe the minors as being secrets at all. This goes way back, to Court de Gebelin, who only wrote about the trumps when he published the earliest overt essay on tarot we’ve got so far.

Why trump? well, it reminds us tarot is a game. The trumps were simply iconographically familiar allegorical, religious, artistic, and pop culture images added as a kind of "fifth suit" to a normal deck of playing cards. Now, I want to be clear that I am magically operant, and I certainly am performing magic when I deal cards. But look to the Bateleur, the Magician — he’s a trickster, directing your eye to the right of the frame with his wand while his left hand secrets away the ball that he’ll soon use to fleece you out of your money with the cups and balls. Magic is not all trickery, but there’s always an element of it. A chaos magician would say you’re tricking your internal censor, but they’re very Freudian, after all.

I’ll still sometimes call the minors "the minors," though not the "minor arcana." I call them the pips sometimes, too, though that’s inaccurate for decks other than those printed in the French and Italian traditions with cards that aren’t scenic. [^3] I’m trying to get into the habit of calling them "the small cards," though I can’t remember where I got that phrase from.

The reason for this isn’t just historical pedantry, though I’m too honest to deny that I’m not interested in that. The reason is because I don’t think tarot is keeping a secret from us. In the same way language can be used to hide something, but is actually meant to convey information, I think tarot is not hiding anything, but working to help us construct, define, discover, and meditate on information.

In the end, that’s it. Millions of people call the tarot cards "major and minor arcana," and that’s not going to change. It doesn’t really need to change, even. But I thought it might be interesting to discuss the historical background of the term in the work of 19th century French occultism and the polyvalent way that the term implies an occlusion that I don’t personally believe is there.

[^1]: the best known is of course the Waite-Smith tarot. [^2]: the Golden Dawn called this spirit the angel HRU, in fact. [^3]: you might notice I’m at pains to avoid calling these cards "the Marseille tarot" or a variation of that. It’s because most of the cards we label as that aren’t from Marseille, and like "gnostic," "Marseille" was a weird, accidental title for a tradition of printing. This entire essay is about how my word usage has changed as my understanding of tarot has changed, so I figured it was worth mentioning this as well. As with everything else in the essay, I have no desire to change anyone else’s use of the term, and recognize it’s just the word for that tradition, really. I use it in casual conversation frequently. It’s also important to me to differentiate simply because there’s also the "tarot de Marseille," a contemporary methodology of reading tarot cards that’s not the same thing as the historical practice. It pioneered the "open reading," a powerful technique everyone should study.

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Asklepios and the 2 of Disks

I’ve been thinking about this post for so long that it’s no longer current. this year, 2022-3, the Sun passed into Capricorn on the 21st of December, the solstice. That’s of course also the time it passed into the first decan of Capricorn. And this piece is about how that decan, the spirit who rules it, and the tarot card are all intertwined. And, well, the Sun is in the last decan of Capricorn now, but here it is anyway, as a sort of case study.

Read more: Asklepios and the 2 of Disks

Decans?

I’ve written about these before, so feel free to skip this section if you don’t need to know. But just in case:

Decans are ten degree arcs in the zodiac. Each sign, being thirty degrees, has three. They were a relatively obscure division of the zodiac until the 19th century (the terms were more important to astrologers before that). But what happened is that a bunch of 19th century occultists realized that tarot cards map to the decans fairly well.

That’s because there are 36 of them, and if you remove the aces from the pips, there are 36. Additionally, each decan is ruled by a planet, and the sign is ruled by a different planet (though sometimes they’re the same). Andrew Watt is fond of saying that the decan planet is the "administrator" who fulfills the orders of the sign ruler in their own way. So you and Eugene will do your work differently in the office, but you’re doing the same thing. In that way, a Mars-ruled decan will be different from a Sun-ruled decan, in, say, Pisces, but since that whole sign is ruled by Jupiter they have to do Jupiter-ish things.

Which is how the 10 of Cups ends up being such a positive card: it’s a Mars card, the final decan of Pisces. But Pisces is ruled by Jupiter. The situation ends up being one where the lord of war is tasked with fulfilling Jupiter’s action plan for emotional completion and therefore you get, as in the Waite Smith tarot, a rainbow: fierce light refracted by water vapor.

Gods

There’s also a historical system that assigns gods to the decans. This isn’t too weird: the decans were, such as in some Hermetic texts, conceived of as separate from the zodiac, like how if you look at a fence you also see what’s behind it. You can check out Andrew’s site above for a lot of information about the decans and the gods who rule them, but in this case the only one you need to know is Asklepios, who rules the first decan of Capricorn: from the solstice to 10 days afterwards (roughly solstice to New Year’s, in fact).

Asklepios

If you don’t know who that is, in short, he’s the human physician who was so good at healing that he could bring the dead back to life.The bereaved family of someone who died because the gods killed him went to Asklepios and asked him to heal the dead person. He did so, and so the gods sent him to the realm of the dead.

I think that’s an important distinction. In some versions of the story, like Elijah, Asklepios didn’t so much die as get forcibly removed to the province of death.

Asklepios is also the father of medicine. Famously, when Socrates drinks the cup of hemlock in "Phaedo," he tells his followers to sacrifice a cock at the temple of Asklepios. It’s a clever way to end the dialogue, which is about the immortality of the soul and how philosophers should welcome death — Socrates is effectively saying the poison is medicine, and the god should be thanked accordingly.

Synthesis

How does all this go together directly? Because certainly if you’re in the norther hemisphere and you’re approaching Christmas and everyone is sick, you should practice medicine — at least insofar as you can yourself. I don’t know if you’re a physician, so don’t go practicing it on other people if you’re not licensed I guess.

But this post is, believe it or not, about tarot.

The tarot card that corresponds with this decan is the 2 of Disks. The Waite Smith image shows a figure balancing on one foot, holding, and perhaps juggling, two coins or disks. It’s a positive card most of the time, though it always depends on exactly what you’re asking. It’s ruled by Jupiter, though, which is the reason I can say that. It connotes material changes, and the classic logic of a professional tarot reader is that if a client is coming to you, they probably don’t like something about their material circumstances — so a change is probably going to be good.

Probably.

At any rate, the idea here is that Asklepios practiced humoral medicine, which is all about keeping the body in balance. And while we may not necessarily think it a good idea to let out some blood when we’ve got too much of it, we can certainly agree that too much or too little of things in our life and our diet will affect our health. Too much meat? Not enough vegetables? Not great!

So the thing is, since the card is associated with the first decan of Capricorn, and Capricorn is pragmatic, and the first decan of Capricorn is associated with Asklepios, and he’s all about balancing one’s health, the cluster of ideas builds up around the card, right?

You can read the post I wrote for Arnemancy about using word clouds for tarot over here.

Wrap Up

The decan the sun’s in as I write this, by the way, is Tolma, and they seem to be about decisiveness in the face of uncertainty. And the tarot card is the 4 of Disks, which in WS depicts a figure crouched over their treasures, holding them in place, something Andrew goes into more detail about in that post.

This is an odd one, as it feels to some degree as though it’s just repeating things I’ve learned from Andrew, and from writers such as Susan Chang. But I haven’t written anything about tarot in quite a while, so consider this my apology to those people if this post is as derivative as it seems.

So have you seen cohost.org?

It’s not exactly like I stopped writing here in order to write on cohost. But I have been writing there recently, at this page. You might be particularly interested in the series I’ve done on gothic literature. This post you’ve just read is also getting cross-posted there, as a bit of an experiment. You can keep reading me here for magic and tarot related stuff, certainly! I’m not going to stop using a site that I have more control over. But if you’re interested in the stuff you find on my page over there, you might consider following me on cohost as well!

Support this work

If you like this piece and the work that I’m doing here, you can support it through Ko-Fi, Paypal, or Patreon.

You might also consider signing up for my courses! Or book a reading! I perform traditional readings as well as tutorial sessions. You could even grab a copy of my new tarot reading zine!

Your support makes the this work possible and I am thankful for your consideration!

Dear Prudence

As you might expect, tarot, given its figurative and symbolic trumps, ends up encapsulating a lot of the culture in early Renaissance Europe. And one of the things that tarot almost has is the Four Cardinal Virtues. These are four virtues that all others rest on, popularized originally by Plato and incorporated into the writings of many Christian scholars afterwards.

These virtues are Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. And, as you can see, three of those are found in nearly every tarot deck. So what happened to Prudence? And if you want your tarot deck to include it now, what can you do?

The Virtues

So, four virtues, one missing — what are they, anyway? The basic idea is that if these four personality traits are cultivated, everything else that’s good and virtuous will follow. So, for example, Plato makes the point that bravery without prudence is just foolhardiness — and that what bravery really is, is just fortitude allowing one to act in times of hardship. Justice is, I think, clear-sightedness, fortitude is strength and endurance, and temperance is self-control. However, prudence is also both self-control and clear-sightedness. This isn’t a problem with the scheme, just in the way I relate to it. But — and this is a big speculative but — I sort of wonder if that’s why Prudence didn’t make it in. I can’t be the only person who thinks Prudence is sort of a catch-all covering most of the others. But I’m not a Renaissance scholar, so I can’t tell you with any degree of certainty if that was a thing in the popular culture of the time.

But what I can tell you from the writings of tarot scholars is that Prudence could be in the deck in a number of places, misnamed or disguised or something. And whether or not it’s really true that the designer of the early tarot trumps intended one of these cards to "really be Prudence," if you want the tarot to be a book with images for everything in the world, you’ll need to find a place to put Prudence. And one of these might work!

Chariot

I’m leading with what I consider the strangest example, but it makes a great deal of sense within the Platonic/Aristotlean model. Plato also writes about the need for the mind and soul to govern two diametrically opposed forces: one that wishes to pursue virtue, and one that wishes to ignore it or to pursue vice. While of course one would want to go after virtue and ignore the other, one can’t. You have to control both, which means that ultimately we chart a middle course between the two, hopefully getting as close to virtue as possible, but understanding that there’s simply stuff our body needs and that our soul enjoys that we aren’t going to successfully do without.

And Plato uses the image of a charioteer to drive this point home. So it’s possible to read the Chariot as Prudence if you consider the two horses — or other creatures, depending on the deck — as the two impulses of the soul. This argument comes from the work of Jean-Michel David.

#The Hanged Man This is probably the one that makes the least sense, but it’s not totally off the wall. Court de Gebelin argued that the Hanged Man was originally meant to be portrayed right side up, and not be "hanged" at all, but simply standing with one foot raised, carefully considering their next step — and, therefore, was Prudence, the missing virtue.

You can kind of squint and see it, if you read the Hanged Man as the need for patience, which many of us do, right? The argument that the card was supposed to be inverted doesn’t make sense, but after Court de Gebelin, and in some cases before, many artists took this into account, either depicting the man as less troubled by his plight on purpose or, in some cases, inverting the card. THe Vieville tarot was made around 1650, long before Gebein’s essay, and does depict the Hanged Man card upside down — however, quite famously, a number of the Vieville’s trumps are flipped horizontally too, and most scholars tend to believe there was just an error in carving the blocks for the deck. You’d never know if most of the pips were flipped or inverted, right? But also, most of the cards are flipped horizontally, not vertically.

If you use the elemental schema or the mother letter assignments, the Hanged Man is the card of elemental water — so that could also allow the card to be thoughtful, reflective Prudence. Though, in the end, this is the least convincing, as I said above, partly because it’s so different from everything we know about The Traitor and also because Prudence requires not only careful thought but action. The prudent person not only thinks about when to act, they also act immediately when the time is right. The Hanged Man doesn’t look like that’s happening anytime soon.

This argument is in Court de Gebelin’s essay, which is available in translation in a few places, including David Vine’s Vintage Tarot Texts v1 and Donald Tyson’s Essential Tarot Writings. I recommend the former wholeheartedly, but I think it’s only available via import from Europe.

The Hermit

This is the first possibility I ran across myself, and I wonder if that’s why I tend to think this is probably the best bet, at least for pragmatic use — with one possibility to follow. I should say I tend to feel personally this is the best option in the trumps.

It also sort of makes sense, right? It’s a depiction of a wise old man, carrying a lantern, sometimes even though it’s clearly daylight. It seems to be about deliberative vision, and some decks titled this card the "Capuchin," tying it directly to monks, and we’d probably like to think they’re prudent enough.

This card is also associated with Virgo, and that’s the "reason" I have for preferring it over the other two (as opposed to an accident of when I encountered each idea, I mean).

8 of Disks

This is an odd one for sure, but in the line of tradition started by Crowley, the 8 of Disks is called "Prudence." If you consider the card as the careful practice necessary to master a skill, you can kind of see it, but as with the Hanged Man above, a prudent person also acts when the time is right. The 8 of Disks seems to say you have plenty of time for practice. In a sense it’s the lead up time to the prudent moment, I suppose — but then, all the minors are slices of time, we could say, as opposed to the metaphysical themes and building blocks of the world that the trumps represent.

Prudently Covering My Ass

I don’t actually have a "right answer" here. Prudence simply is not in a tarot deck. She appears in the Minchiate, and even in Etteilla’s version of the tarot, but not in any traditional tarot sets we have. Individual contemporary artists might make a card into Prudence, but if we don’t have that option we’re left with a few others. Either we designate a card to be Prudence like the attempts I’ve summed up here or we decide that it’s not in the deck at all. And why not?

Think of de Gebelin’s idea of Prudence as a person carefully weighing options, one foot in the air. Couldn’t we say that the image of Prudence is a person sitting at a table, looking at a series of cards that represents the options available? The act of reading itself is prudent. Perhaps we should be saying a prayer to Prudence as we begin to read, and expect them to take a seat at the table, rather than appear on the table itself.

Support this work

If you like this piece and the work that I’m doing here, you can support it through Ko-Fi, Paypal, or Patreon.

You might also consider signing up for my courses! Or book a reading! I perform traditional readings as well as tutorial sessions. You could even grab a copy of my new tarot reading zine!

Your support makes the this work possible and I am thankful for your consideration!

Announcement: New Tarot Spread for Sale

I’m really excited to finally get to announce this. I’ve spent the past couple of months working on a tarot spread and you can buy it now! It’s a booklet, which I’m calling a kind of “zine,” with everything you’ll need to know to perform a reading for yourself or others. It’s an agile, malleable, insightful spread that can be used with tarot or with any sort of oracle card.

It’s called The Trick, and it’s available in two places. You can get it on my Itch page or at my Patreon on the $5 tier. At the moment, on Itch, the game is on sale for Halloween and its release celebration. If the sale link stops working (which will only happen if a ton of people purchase it and the sale tickets run out), you can find it for full price here. At this time “full price” is still only $6.50 so that’s a pretty good deal!

I welcome any feedback on it, and would be delighted to hear what results you get and how it works for you!

My first customer commented that it feels like the spread should be played “on green velvet casino tables,” and I’m glad the feeling of real card playing carries into the spread itself. The zine includes a bunch of variations too, you so can experiment and find exactly the right way to deal your cards for yourself!

“What’s on the card?”

I was recently chatting with some folks about tarot, as you do, and someone said, in a fairly condescending way, that ascribing astrological information to tarot is fine, but they prefer to "look at what’s on the card" (given my audience, this was not in the HHoL).

No. That’s not how that works. That’s not how any of this works.

This is basically a post about semiotics, I’ll be honest with you up front. Simply, that’s the study of signs, symbols, and how those are used. Every tarot card is a sign. It is made up of smaller signs, or symbols, or signifiers, that add up to a whole. But the symbols on their own mean nothing. They just can’t mean anything in a vacuum. Think of those marks on the asphalt you see sometimes, that indicate to workers where pipes are and what they’re going to do next week. If you know what those mean, they’re meaningful, but if you’re like me, you stare at them like they’re alien script. I have no idea what they might mean, and of course naturally they fascinate me a bit.

Continue reading ““What’s on the card?””

October? I Hardly Know Them

Now that I’ve not only made an awful joke, but messed it up on purpose because it’s so awful, welcome to October! October is a hell of a month for me. Probably like most of you, I like Halloween season. I also like autumn. I got married on Halloween, so that means my anniversary is coming up.

Also, though, my dad died in October. And it’s usually midterms. And while I like the weather, it’s bad for this circulation problem I have in my feet, so I begin the long journey of wearing lined slippers until May basically.

But I’ve got a window open and I can hear wind in the bushes and trees, and also traffic which is less good but ok. This post is, like my recent work, more in the way of personal reflection. I like to use October as a chance to think through the year, in some ways. I’ll try to make sure there’s something useful in here as well though.

Continue reading “October? I Hardly Know Them”

Hanging around in the Turn of the Seasons

Or, the Equinox as a Necessary Breathing Space

As of my writing this, on Sept. 25, the Equinox has come and gone, though for many of us, stuck between tropical storms and perhaps even hurricanes, we still feel balanced between two winds pushing us in opposing directions. I, like many folk, observe the equinoxes, but perhaps in vaguer, and less powerful, ways than it deserves. So I thought I’d write about what I think it is and what it can mean to us. It’s the pause between things, after all — and I wonder if our cultural assumption that we have to be "always on" affects our enjoyment and use of what turns out to be a cosmic day of rest.

Continue reading “Hanging around in the Turn of the Seasons”

Development, Tree Branches, and Justness

Let me tell you about the trees in my backyard. And then, I’ll tell you something about how to think of life, and why all these horticultural and biological metaphors I use matter.

I’ve written a lot — like a lot a lot — in the past year about a few things. Tarot is one. But another is the "ecosystem model" of magic and spirituality. I’m not sure yet if I’ve really said what I think the point is. I’ve talked about why using a gardening metaphor can helpfully complicate Hermeticism. I’ve written on how a strictly linear model of the universe ignores the world we actually live in. And so on, so forth.

But it’s worth asking, right? If I’m not insisting that this model is somehow more fundamentally correct than others, what’s the point? And I’m not insisting on that.

Continue reading “Development, Tree Branches, and Justness”