The Suit Symbols



In this section we will deal with the origin of the suit symbols , and how they are related one to the other. When dealing with the individual suit symbold we will deepen this knowledge a little bit further. It is generally agreed upon that the Suit symbols in the Tarot find their origins in the Mamlûk cards, with just a slight modification for the polo sticks, not known in Western Europe. So let us start our exploration of the suit cards with its closest ancestors outside Europe, let us have a look at some of the Mamlûk cards.

We have here the Five of Coins, the Ace of Cups, the Ace of Swords and the Five of Polosticks. The Islamic Art is in priciple purely figurative, it was not allowed to represent living creatures. But on these Mamlûk cards we can clearly distiguish leaves and flowers, and on the fourth card we even even see that the fifth polo stick is portrayed as a snake-like animal with the head of a dragon. The Coins and  Cups can easily be recognized, but the strangly curved sword and the polo sticks are with the dragon snake are less familiar. To state that the Italian card decks simply copied the Mamlûk symbols goes a little bit too far. They were inspired by these cards, but why? The reason why these symbols were conserved might be that most of them were already part of our own cultural heritage. They could be easily associated with many well known objects or concepts.

  • Coins are a symbol of power and wealth. Every strong leader taking care about his image had golden coins created full of references to himself. Even today we still encounter on many coins the image of the head of state.The 18th Century occultists using the Tarot for their own purposes prefered to use a magic related symbol, the pentagram.
  • Cups. The quest for the Holy Grail was a very popular theme in medieval times. The Holy Grail is often represented as a chalice (although it is very unlikely that Jesus would have used a Chalice during the Last Supper). In the Holy Mass, the priest uses a Chalice, just like the cups on the Tarot cards, to remember the last Supper and the act of Jesus transforming water in wine.
  • Swords. The curved swords of the Mamlûk deck are a little bit strange, but on the other hand, the sword was the main wapon of a knight and as such it symbolized justice. There were many legendary swords like the Joyeuse of Charlemagne and Excalibur in the Arthur legends to which people attributed enormous powers. So the symbol was easily adopted. The Italian standards cards adopted a curved sword and the Spanish decks had a straight sword.
  • Polo sticks. They are not part of our cultural heritage, so they were transformed to some form closer to us. Arrows, a lance (with reference to the legendary Spear of Destiny), the scepter of a King, wooden clubs, a sorcerers wand, a living branch of a tree, many variations have been used on the theme. What seems to be central in most interpretations, is that in contrary to the other suit symbols, who are all metal objects, and in agreement with the symbol on the Mamluk cards, batons are made of living wood. Wood as such not being an object used in occult practises, the ancient occultists prefered representing a sorcerer wand. So 'Want' became the modern designation of this suit symbol.  I will mainly use Batons on this site, in agreement with the Marseille Tarot.

So, the four suit symbols of the standard Italian card decks became Coins, Cups, Swords and Batons. As an example I will show four numbered cards belonging to the Visconti Sforza deck, created probably for Bianca Maria Visconti somewhere between 1451 and 1453. 

In the figure above we see the Ten of Coins, the Nine of Cups, the Ten of Swords and the Nine of Batons of the Visconti Sforza deck. These four symbols fitted very well the Northern Italian society in the 15th Century and some people think that this is the reason why these symbols were so easily adopted. Comparing the suit symbols with Northern Italian Society at the end of the Middle Ages, we can make some very obvious correspondences. In Northern Italy emerged around the 12th century some big cities that struggled against the dominating power of the Holy Roman Empire. These cities were very big, in the 13th Century Venice, Florence and Milan had each over one hundred thousand inhabitants. Other cities like Bologna, Verona and Genoa were not that big, but even they had largely over fifty thousand inhabatants and were difficult to control by centralized Feodal power. Independence of these cities was also advantaged  (except for those situated in the Po valley) by the mountaineous aspect of Italian landscape. So many City States emerged, centered around one of these cities :

  • Very Specific for Italy, was the occurence of independent Republics ruled by the citizens themselves. Thanks to trade and commerce these cities became very rich and powerfull. Best examples are Venice and Genoa that thanks to the marine trade became very wealthy. But also Florence became an independent City. It was ruled by the might di Medici family who were bankers from origin. Thanks to the banking business Florence became extremely rich. Many modern account practices found their origin in Florence. These wealthy merchants and bankers were easily symbolized by the suit of Coins.
  • Not all Cities could rise to independence. In the Center of Italy, the Roman Catholic Church had conquered a vast territory that we call the Papal States. And even if big cities like Bologna and Ferrara were ruled by migthy families, acting almost as feodal lords, these families stayed dependent of the Pope. As an example, it was the Pope who changed the title of Borso d'Este from Lord of Ferrara to Duke of Ferrara. This was important, because the title of Duke was heriditary and the title of Lord wasn't. With the quest for the Holy Grail associated to the Cups, this suit symbol was a evident symbol for the clergy ruling the Papal States. 
  • In the Northern part of Italy, many City States stayed, at least in name, dependant of the Holy Roman Empire. The best example is Milan. In Milan was kept the Iron Crown of Lombardy, and before becoming Emperor, the King of the Germans, pretendent of the throne had to be crowned King of Italy in Milan. Only the so crowned King of Italy could obtain the title of Emperor by benediction of the Pope in Rome. In 1431 Sigusmund passed in Milan, to be crowned King of Italy before being crowned Emperor in 1433 in Rome. Although well aware of the power of the futur emperor, Filippo Maria Visconti refused to meet Sigismund during his visit. The father of Sigismund was the Emperor Charles IV, emperor from 1346 to 1378. His older brother Wencelas never got the title of Emperor, although he was the main pretender. Wencelas was often drunk and spoiled a lot of money. The father of Filippo Maria, Gian Galeazzo Visconti took advantage of this and bought in 1395 the title of Duke from the almost bankrupt King of the Germans. The Dukes had a mighty army and the Swords could easily be associated with the mighty nobility ruling over vaste territories.
  • The three metal objects Coins, Cups and Swords associated in this way with the different types of ruling classes, one wooden object, the Batons was left. This symbol was not associated with a ruling class, instead it could symbolize the Working Class, the majority of the inhabitants of a state, poor people who did not have their own land or property and who had to work for the rich classes.

For us the association between the suit symbols and the different classes in Northern Italian society is only interesting from a historical point of view. Many more associations can be made and what is interesting for us is how they act as a model for the Universe, where the  trump cards represent the spiritual world and the human life cycle, and the four other suits the physical world and human society.

Through the ages, the Physical World has been symbolized by the four elements; Earth, Water, Air and Fire. This division in a physical world and a spiritual world is  visualized in the figure here at right, pictured as a pentagram where we find the four elements representing the physical world with on top of them the Human Soul, representing the spiritual world. The four elements are represented by the suit cards and the fifth element, the Human Soul, is represented by the trump cards. So, the next question is,  how are the suit cards associated with the individual elements? 

Before answering this question,  let us first dive a little bit deeper in the elements, and try to understand what they are really representing.

In Medieval times, when we were talking about the elements, we were talking about the building blocks of nature. This nature could be dead material or a living creature. Everything in nature was made up of one or more of the elements, nothing else was necessary to explain the composition of an object. Earth represents solid objects like a stone, water represents liquid objects like the sea, air represents gaseous objects like our atmosphere and fire represents concepts that were more difficult to get hold on, like fire and lightning. An object could consist of a single element, like a piece of rock, or it could consist of several elements, like mud, that is a mixture of solid and liquid materials. Living creatures combined all elements within their body. The skeletal parts of a body are solid, blood is liquid and all living creatures are in one way or another respiring. The element fire represents the Spirit of Life itself. Only humans posses the fifth element, the Human Soul. There is a clear hierarchy in the elements. When a living creature dies, the element fire, representing life itself, disappears first. When the element fire disappears, the creature stops respiring, so the element air disappears from the body. The body will slowly rot away or dry out, the element water disappears and only the element earth will stay behind. In the Bible this is written in the following way :

all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again (Ecclesiastes 3:20)

Today we know that the four elements are in fact different energy states of the same basic material. Take for example water. In its lowest energy state, at the coldest temperatures, water is solid and we call it ice. If we heat ice, it will melt and become water. When we are heating water it will evaporate and become vapour. We can see vapour for example as clouds in the sky. These changes are reversible; clouds can condense and form rain drops. Water can freeze and become ice. So in all the three energy states the internal structure does not change. But if we heat up a gas until extremely high temperatures, the element disintegrates liberating pure energy. It will never be the same element again. This disintegration process is visible in nature as fire. Ash can never be turned back again in wood. And the other way around, when life disappears out of a living creature, it will never become a living creature again. The passage between the third and the fourth element is an irreversible process.  The process of dying is a unstoppable process of energy fading away, from the highest energy level (Life) via intermediate levels (Air and Water) back again to the lowest level (Earth).

However, this is not very interesting for us, we want to know how the suit symbols can be associated with the elements. This is not as evident as we might think, and many different card makers associated the suit symbols and the elements in a different way:

  • Cups. This is the only suit as far as I know, every cardmaker agrees upon. Cups are a recipient for liquids, and as such they are associated with Water.
  • Batons. Most card makers associate them with Fire for several reasons. When Fire is seen as a destructive type of energy, Batons represent firewood. Also when we see Fire as a constructive forve, the energy of Life, wooden Batons, that are considered being a living material, are easily associated with this element. Other cardmakers associate the Batons with the vegetation covering the Earth, so for them the right association is with the element Earth. And still other cardmakers represent the Batons as Arrows flying through the Air. For them the correct association you have to make is between Batons and Air.
  • Swords. There are two mainstream interpretations, those who consider the Swords as a symbol for the Sword of Justice, and those who consider the Swords as a symbol for the Sword of War. Symbolizing the Sword of Justice, the Swords are associated with the intellect and with Air. However when considered as the Sword of War, the Swords are associated with Fire and destruction.
  • Coins. Most of the time Coins are associated with Earth, if you have enough money you can move mountains. Others state that money is forged in fire and responsible for the death of many people, so you have to associate it with the element Fire.

Now we know the elements a little bit better, we can start making associations. In the figure here at left, we can see the elements, associated with colours and with the inner planets. Earth is naturally associated with the planet Earth and its colour is green, like the vegetation that is covering it. Fire, equivalent of energy and the driving force behind life, is associated with the planet Mars. Its colour is red like the flames of Fire or like blood that is circulating in our body. Water is associated to the planet Venus, and its colour is blue, the colour of the water covering the major part of our planet. Air is associated with the planet Mercury, and its colour is yellow, the colour of intellect. We have two masculine dynamic Gods, Mars and Mercury, their triangles are pointing upwards and their colours are aggressive, red and yellow. Below them we have two Goddesses, Venus and Gaia (Mother Earth). They are receptive and their triangle is open to the top, their colours are the peaceful colours of our planet, blue and green.

As an example we present in the figure above the Ace and the Knave of Bastons of the Tarot of Marseille made by Jean Noblet. From these illustrations it is clear that in the Tarot of Marseille, the batons have nothing to do with fire wood, there are leaves and buds on the Batons, it is living wood. Here the element Fire must be considered as the energy of Life.

Whatever deck you are using, try to make the associations as intended by the card maker. On the Tarot of Marseille and on the Trionfi decks of the Estensi family, Coins were associated to Earth, Cups to Water, Swords to Air and Batons to Fire. Filippo Maria Visconti reversed the associations of Swords and Batons. Paul Huson, in his Dame Fortune's Wheel Tarot, switches Coins and Batons. Personally I prefer the  constructive associations expressed in the Estensi decks and in the Tarot of Marseille.

Using these associations in comparison with modern suit cards, red suits are representing the receptive suits and black suits the dynamic ones. So hearts corresponds to cups, diamonds to coins, clover leaves to batons and spades to swords.  Also here, opinions differ from one author to another. The best solution is to follow your own intuition and to choose  decks with apparently those associations that seems most naturally to you.

To summarize, the suits, when related to the elements, are, when ordered  from the lowest energy level to the highest, Coins (Earth - Gaia, the Goddess Earth, solid materials), Cups (Water - Venus, the goddess of Love, liquid materials), Swords (Air - Mercury, the messenger God, gaseous materials) and Batons (Fire -  Mars, the God of War, pure energy). The trumps are related to the fifth element and represent the Human Soul. Coins and Cups are receptive female symbols and Swords and Batons are dynamic male symbols.  But these are not the only associations, we can make other ones, more usefull for meditation and card reading. We come back to the other associations when we reach the pages dealing with the individual suit symbols. 

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