Cards of “Quiet Anticipation”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: It could be said with ample justification that Aleister Crowley had a rather uncharitable view of many of the Minor Arcana, often giving them ominous or sullen titles. But my focus here will be on the Waite-Smith (aka “RWS”) deck, which is more approachable from a nonpartisan perspective. I labored long and hard over this essay in trying to finally come to grips with why I find so many of the RWS “small” cards inconsequential when compared to the Crowley-Harris Thoth deck and its evocative, semi-scenic “glorified pips.” I might even propose that the trifling RWS minors comprise the “outer tarot” while their Thoth counterparts convey the inner dimensions; it took me years to “liberate” the Thoth’s Hermetic abstractions to the point that I could use them with confidence in a “garden-variety” reading, which makes the RWS seem just a bit facile.
The premise of this essay is that some characteristically low-key cards “fly under the radar” rather than making a compelling case for their temperate contribution to a reading (in contrast, suggestions of anxiety or lurking misfortune are more readily apparent, especially in all of the Fives, most of the Sevens, half of the Eights and Nines, one of the Twos and one each of the Threes and Tens). Because these cards don’t “jump right out at us,” we may make assumptions about their interpretation solely from a suit-and/or-number standpoint that doesn’t square all that well with the images. Consider, for example, the 2 of Wands; it is a meditative card in which it is difficult to detect any of the fiery enthusiasm that might be expected of the straight-shooting Two in the most passionate element. (It’s trying to get from “Point A to Point B” in the most expeditious manner.)
In the Qabalistic “Tree of Life” system of esoteric number theory used by Crowley, the unencumbered Aces form the wellspring or root” of the elemental power of each suit, while the enervated Tens represent a cessation of effort; the energy has run its course as it leaves all mobility and “lightness of being” behind in its descent of the Tree. The intervening cards take their qualities largely from the “pillar” of the Tree they occupy. The RWS system, on the other hand, seems to be more of the “Pythagorean” sort, in which the Aces show the incipient “idea” of the suit and the Tens represent its completion and, in most cases, its fulfillment (while still being the least energetic cards in the deck); the rest of the cards are developmental, displaying increasing levels of complexity and maturity. In the number system of French writer Joseph Maxwell, polarity plays a key role: the “binary” even numbers 2, 4, 6 and 8 are considered balanced and harmonious, while the odd numbers derived from the “unitary” (3, 5 and 7) are unbalanced and therefore more driven; the Nines partake of both; the Tens are a “thing apart,” as are the Ones. Maxwell’s vision of reciprocity doesn’t hold true across either of the other two numerical models.
Among the suits, the Pentacles are the least dynamic and thus the least demonstrative; as Monty Python might have said, they “wouldn’t ‘vroom’ if you put 40,000 volts to them.” At the other end of the scale, the Wands possess the most potential for “fireworks” but the alignment of suit and number doesn’t always permit its unrestricted release. The quiescent Cups, by their ingratiating nature, are somewhat difficult to provoke into ill-considered action; they are more inclined to “muddle through.” The Swords are the most prickly of the bunch but they do harbor oases of calm amid the “high-tension” theatrics.
Returning to my original premise, the 10 of Cups suggests unstinting familial enjoyment; the 10 of Pentacles, settled domestic comfort (think “landed gentry”); the 10 of Wands, tenacity and exercise of willpower; and the 10 of Swords (the least outwardly pleasant of the group), salvaging the fragments of shattered plans as the inspiration for a fresh start, picking up the pieces and soldiering on rather than simply collapsing in a quivering heap. (Some will argue that the last one doesn’t belong in this sub-set, but Ten is undeniably a “quiet” number and we must look beneath the muted surface for motivational insights of any kind.)
While upbeat cards like the 2, 3, and 10 of Cups and the 4 and 6 of Wands make a minor celebratory “splash,” the three more contemplative Tens and the other relatively “quiet” cards, including the 2 and 3 of Wands; the 4,* 6 and 9 of Cups; the 2,* 4,* 6 and 9 of Swords; and the 3,* 4, 6, 8 and 9 of Pentacles, all suggest keeping — in the words of Thomas Gray — “the noiseless tenor of their way.” Most of them (if not entirely neutral as marked with an “*”) are still mildly to moderately impassive when examined closely (by which I mean indifferently disposed toward our circumstances), but when they appear in a reading the diviner must often dig deep for something constructive and confirmatory to say about them, particularly the unsettling suit of Swords. It’s not that they’re categorically feeble in their expression, they just “whisper more than shout” their intentions.
To complete this tableau: I find the 8 of Wands, the 7 of Cups and the 2 of Pentacles to be a little too “nervous” to be considered passive, while the unstructured Aces exhibit no impulse toward either extreme. The hostile 3 of Swords is in a class by itself, while there are no benign Fives and among the Sevens only the 7 of Pentacles can lay claim to weary tranquility; the 8 of Cups is dyspeptic while the 8 of Swords looks like it could use a “mental enema;” the 9 of Wands is alertly and truculently awaiting the next onslaught.
Among the court cards, the Pages would be the “underachievers,” the Knights the “overachievers,” the Queens the “patient, behind-the-scenes manipulators,” and the Kings the unflappable, “above-it-all” non-participants (aka “It’s good to be the King!”). The Major Arcana can’t be plugged comfortably into this paradigm because as universal archetypes they are too singularly expressive of their fundamental nature to be considered “unheralded.”
My goal is not to ignite heated debate over what does or doesn’t belong in each “bin,” but merely to capture my thoughts in an organized way. As a Thoth guy I’m frequently perplexed when trying to comprehend the less-demonstrative RWS cards in a reading since they often seem either ambiguous or ambivalent in narrative terms, leading me to “make stuff up.” (Crowley was almost entirely transparent about his opinions, which is why I overlay his ideas on the RWS cards when I read with that deck.) I know all the standard “folkloric” RWS meanings but I’m not enthusiastic about many of them, although I think we can all agree on which are the “noisiest,” most melodramatic minor cards (talking about you, 3 of Swords!). It will be useful to lay out the designated cards in ranks from the most dynamic to the most inert as a visual cue to my purpose here. I was going to do it for you, but U.S. Games copyright-infringement constraints prevent me from posting more than a couple of cards at a time.
Originally published at http://parsifalswheeldivination.wordpress.com on September 5, 2022.