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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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!

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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!

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!

Eruption at the End of Things: the Tower Sequence in the Tarot

I was thinking about how the Lovers card is an expression of Gemini and brushing my teeth when this sequence dropped into my head, almost fully formed.

These three cards — The Devil, The Tower, and The Star — are in order, and what’s more remarkable about them is that they are two Saturn cards bookended around a Mars card. And with that, an entire sequence, a narrative, forms around the three cards that is worth investigating to increase our facility with reading with and meditating on these cards.

Continue reading “Eruption at the End of Things: the Tower Sequence in the Tarot”

Stage and Ground: Scenic Tarot and the “Open Reading”

Open reading is a concept that, as best as I know, comes from the Marseille tradition. There’s much more to it than this, but you can think of it this way: looking at the way the cards are oriented on the table, do they look forward or backwards? Where are the obstructions? Taking in general patterns visually is how I might try to define it.

Now, the thing is, a lot of figures in Waite Smith decks are in scenes, which is to say, their facing can’t be taken on its own. They face certain directions to convey certain information already, and so while you could call attention to many figures facing backwards, some of them may or may not fit in with the overall "open reading." This essay is an attempt to test out certain possibilities for using the Waite Smith’s famous scenic composition to recreate a kind of "open" reading through distance.

Continue reading “Stage and Ground: Scenic Tarot and the “Open Reading””

Golden Dawn Influence on the Waite Smith Tarot

I’ve been talking about tarot a lot lately, in the past few months I mean, on the Hermetic House of Life server. It’s always nice to have other people to discuss stuff like this with. One of the themes that tends to come up is this perceived gulf between people who use stuff like astrological symbolism in tarot reading and those who don’t. And generally, I feel like the gulf isn’t really there. The Astro information is just information, like anything else, and if you don’t know it, you don’t use it, and that’s fine. And if you know enough to say that the 2 of Wands might mean the time around the Spring equinox and that’s it, great!

What I’m here to write about today, though, is the Waite-Smith tarot and astrology. It’s not necessary to know astrology to use the Waite-Smith deck, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that astrology was instrumental in the design of the deck. And that’s my thesis for today: to fully understand the WS deck you do need to know how it uses astrology, even if you don’t really end up using it for readings. However, let me be clear now: you can absolutely use the deck without knowing any of this stuff. But it’s in there.

Continue reading “Golden Dawn Influence on the Waite Smith Tarot”

Teacher Archetypes in the Tarot Majors

I’m a teacher for my day job, so obviously the idea of what a teacher is, or what one does as a teacher, is often in my mind. And since tarot is also often on my mind, it stands to reason that I think sometimes of which cards represent teachers and teaching. In this post I intend to talk about the two majors that I see as the teachers, as well as the card I suspect people put in that grouping but which shouldn’t be.

Continue reading “Teacher Archetypes in the Tarot Majors”