Hard and Soft, Red and Black, Active and Passive: Tarot Suits As Gender

During my intermittent forays into the Tarot de Marseille (I’m still waiting for that “one book to rule them all”), I’ve come across the opinion that Batons and Swords are the “hard” suits, while Cups and Coins are “soft.” There is some logic to this: both wooden batons (also called staves) and edged metal blades are weapons when wielded with the intent to do harm. On the other hand, a chalice is accepting of and gives form to its liquid contents, and a coin as a medium of exchange is often the fungible centerpiece of a negotiated bargaining agreement that belies its unbending metallic firmness. Batons and Swords are straight (or at least linear), stiff and assertive, while Cups and Coins are rounded and agreeably unassuming in the hand. It’s not a perfect correlation (one could still clobber the foe with a stone goblet or a roll of quarters) but at least it offers a workable premise.

Although I struggle to keep esoteric content such as elemental and astrological correspondences out of my TdM worldview, any discussion of the tarot suits as natural phenomena inevitably falls back on such analogies. Batons have been linked to elemental Fire, Cups to Water, Swords to Air and Coins to Earth, although dissenting opinions about this arrangement, while not numerous, are occasionally encountered. In nature, the thunderstorm partakes of both the “hard” qualities of Fire and Air (lightning and powerful winds) and the marginally softer expression of Water (soaking rain), while the landscape of Earth is its docile counterpart. Fire and Air are swift and sure in their operation, while Water and Earth (at least in their more “plastic” form and when not unduly agitated or frozen into immobility) are more circuitous and conformable. A placid pond on a sunny July afternoon is inviting, although a river in flood or the implacable advance of a glacier is anything but. A dormant field patiently awaits the quickening of the seed while an earthquake or volcano (a blending of Earth and Fire) takes matters into its own hands.

In human terms, there is also a merging of “hard” and “soft” qualities. The fiery character of Batons is usually frank and direct while the airy nature of Swords is brisk and eminently rational, both obviously at the “hard” end of the spectrum. Regarding the putative “softness” of the earthy Coins, anyone who has dealt with the often flinty demeanor of a strong Capricorn type will attest to its implacability, while stolid Taurus can be the soul of stubbornness; only Virgo, in its eagerness to see the other person’s viewpoint, is typically more accommodating. The watery personality is generally non-confrontational, although it can be uncommonly hard-headed (Cancer), passive-aggressive (Pisces) and occasionally devious (Scorpio).

None of this is of much help when trying to sort out which of the four tarot suits relates to each of the red and black suits of playing-card cartomancy, where red cards are traditionally considered positive and black cards are viewed as negative. But there is once again some sense to the approach: the black Clubs suggest wooden weapons that easily adapt to the combative stance of Batons (although they represent a blunt force that is less akin to the urgency of Fire); the shape of the black Spades makes them an obvious choice for Swords (however, some see them as farming implements and thus connected to Earth); red Hearts and Cups have a natural affinity for one another; and red Diamonds have to go somewhere, which leaves Coins as the last option — both are items of monetary value — even though an argument has been made that the positive connotation of Diamonds is more attuned to the quickness of Batons, while the negative Clubs are dull and, like Coins, more “of the Earth.”

I find this to be more an interesting intellectual exercise than a valuable adjunct to tarot divination since the cartomantic keywords for the suit cards are often at odds with typical tarot card meanings. It’s probably best not to attempt forcibly combining the two simply for the purpose of syncretism; that opportunity can be taken up with the Lenormand cards, where playing-card insets are already part of the system. I find, however, that a similar interpretive dissonance exists to a lesser degree there. Overall, the “40,000-foot” perspective is advisable in both cases, without putting too fine a point on the cartomantic attributions that are in truth only of secondary significance in a reading.

Despite my reservations about the interpretive significance of the “red” and “black” suits to the tarot “pip” cards, I do make use of their “hard/active” and “soft/passive” qualities when assuming the biological gender and age of individuals represented by the court cards. The methods by which these human characteristics have been assigned to the 16 “royals” never resembled an exact science. The old ways of using physical traits as the basis for qualitative “thumbnails” are almost entirely unsatisfactory: Wands people are assumed to be fair-haired, light-skinned and blue-eyed, those at the other end of the spectrum in Pentacles are dark of hair, skin, and eyes, and Cups and Swords present an increasingly lackluster facade (Arthur Edward Waite used the word “dull”) between the two extremes. Kings and Knights are invariably male while Queens and Pages are (at least in Waite’s opinion) female. This may have been workable in Northern Europe in the 19th Century but the world is now a much different place. Waite does acknowledge that what we know about a person’s temperament can affect our decision in this regard, but for a random walk-in client this may be too much to expect. In such cases it may be best to hand the seeker the four court cards of the appropriate age group and biological gender and say “Pick one!” (However, in these times of unabashed diversity that approach can present a sociopolitical minefield; I might offer them all sixteen cards to be safe.)

Ascribing age to the figures in the the court cards is similarly imprecise. Waite threw a curve-ball by saying that Knights are men over forty, Queens are women over forty, Kings are men under that age and Pages are similarly youthful females. My assumptions about this obvious misrepresentation are that Waite was applying the Golden Dawn rule that Knights are at the top of the heap and are mounted warrior-kings, although he and Smith failed to follow through in depicting the “top dogs” as mounted Knights the way the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley did, instead opting for the stereotypical medieval hierarchy. Also, since it sprang from an era when average life expectancy was around 50 years, Waite’s cut-off point of 40 for elder maturity seems arbitrarily low by today’s standards.

Waite’s assertion that the Pages are always female is another untenable position when used in general practice. Because they are aimed at choosing a significator to stand in for the seeker in a reading (today we might call it an “avatar”), Waite’s categories aren’t really diverse enough to apply to other people who may have a role in the querent’s situation. I prefer a three-tiered approach that recognizes both of the above considerations. I see the Kings (GD Knights) as males over 45, Queens as females over 45, Knights (GD Princes) as either men or women between 25 and 45 (a distinction can be made between suits as to which are which) and the Pages (GD Princesses) are either male or female under 25, similarly distinguishable by suit.

Regarding suit applicability, there is some divergence of opinion; the “red” playing cards have been associated with Cups (Hearts) and Pentacles (Diamonds) — the two suits that are considered passive, receptive and feminine — and the “black” ones correspond to Wands and Swords, both active, assertive and masculine. Other writers attribute Wands to diamonds because red is a dynamic color befitting Fire, and Pentacles to clubs since black is seen as more stolid and “earthy.” For this particular purpose I like the forthright suits of Wands and Swords as biological male and the more temperate suits of Cups and Pentacles as biological female, regardless of their playing-card attribution. Thus, the following table forms the basis for my usual practice; these assumptions will obviously be somewhat flexible depending on the known characteristics of the individual being portrayed. The notion of an 80-year-old man showing up in a spread as the Page of Swords doesn’t pass the “giggle test” unless he is: a) extremely young at heart; or b) having a “Eureka!” moment. My categories are provisional and may not stand up to scrutiny regarding relative age in every case, but they offer a place to start. I will, however, always go with the querent’s choice of significator if they make one since the significator card is merely a personal place-holder in a spread and doesn’t materially affect the thrust of a reading.

All Kings: Older male over 45, differentiated by suit
All Queens: Older female over 45, differentiated by suit
Knight of Wands and Knight of Swords: Adult male between 25 and 45
Knight of Cups and Knight of Pentacles: Adult female between 25 and 45
Page of Wands and Page of Swords: Young male under 25
Page of Cups and Page of Pentacles: Young female under 25

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at www.parsifalswheeldivination.com.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store