In the tarot world when we talk about the historical relevance of the pip suits, we often reference the difference segments or classes of society. Swords represented the high nobility and aristocracy; Cups represented the religious or clerical class; Coins appropriately represented the new emerging merchant class; and Wands represented the feudal, peasant, or working class of society.
In reading tarot as an oracle, there are other associations that can be made with the pip suits. Swords, for instance, additionally also represents the compass direction of the East; it also represents the element of air it can represent the mind, and thus ideas; it can represent speech (because: breath : air) and thus eloquence or wit; and because speech and eloquence can be translated to the language of writing, the written word can also be associated with the suit of swords.
The other suits are equally diverse in the associations they cover… Cups can represent, emotions or emotional states; the directional West; the element of water or liquid states; and receptiveness because of its concavity-like structure; and because it deals with emotions and internal reflection, it is often associated with the heart.
Coins (or Pentacles) represent the directional North; but also the element of earth and groundedness; it can represent its obvious association with monetary matters or work or workplace (as it relates to economic trade for services), but its earthy connection also provides an association with the body and health.
Wands, are represented by the directional South; and with the element of fire; it is associated with creativity or creative endeavors; and also represents the soul or spirit. Wands, as the suit of the working peasantry—or what we might classify as the blue-collar trades—can represent work and industry (although more on the labor spectrum of meaning rather than the economic, as with the suit of coins).
In a recent article entitled “How Civilization Started” (The New Yorker, Sept. 18, 2017), the author, John Lanchester, inspired by James C. Scott’s book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, conjectures on several crossroads of technology that drove humans to create civilization out of their nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle. I noticed while reading the article that, surprisingly, each stage of technical advancement could be reflected by one of the four suits of the tarot…
Is this a strange circumstance of serendipity? Am I so immersed in the world of tarot theory that I simply find relevant associations everywhere that other, less tarot-infatuated readers would never make? Or is the tarot truly so universal that it juxtaposes even with the very infancy of civilization as we understand it? These questions, themselves, blow my mind, but you should read the article yourself to see if you are struck by the same recognition of the suits in our early human history…
James C. Scott, the author of the book mentioned above and a professor of political science at Yale, conjectures that the single most relevant technology to the birth of civilization…is fire. Fire—the element of the suit of Wands—allowed us to become hunters instead of the hunted; it provided a kind of protection from beasts, and a convenient way to change the flavor and digestibility of meat, allowing us to enrich ourselves with more calories, thus increasing our brain size. It also set in motion the practice of slash-and-burn agriculture, which transformed us from wandering, migratory hunters…to more stable, earth-tilling farmers. Fire was that “spark” that changed humans from hunter-gatherers –to– people of agrarian communities.
Of all the types of foods that humans could grow, there was really only one special kind of food that was less apt to spoil, could be harvested at a predictable time, was more easily “divisible, storable, and transportable”: grains. But also because of these characteristics, it was a product that was taxable by ruling regimes in the community. As Lanchester in his article puts it:
“It was the ability to tax and to extract a surplus from the produce of agriculture that, in Scott’s account, led to the birth of the state, and also to the creation of complex societies with hierarchies, divisions of labor, specialist jobs…and an élite presiding over them.”
Is it inevitable that humans are going to find a way to monetize things? It’s hard to argue not after hearing the argument of hierarchies imposing taxation upon the lower classes. But there you have it, money and debt—a characteristic of the suit of Coins—inserting itself as a major schism in the advancement of human civilization.
Taxation, itself gave rise to the next major advancement—writing and record-keeping as a way to keep track of all those tax payments and dues anticipated from new agrarian city-state farmers. Writing, it is conjectured, developed out of a need for bookkeeping. …And so the association of the suit of Swords makes itself known along the timeline of civilization’s advancement.
Getting close to a four-of-a-kind-winning poker hand here! “So how in the world can the suit of Cups possibly enter into this human civilization scenario?” you ask. Here’s how…
Those ledger and bookkeeping records started to take on mystical powers—the writing they contained “had the power to give or withhold pay, issue rations, and determine an individual’s right to stay [within the community].” If we think about “mysteries” and how they developed into occult knowledge…such hidden mysteries usually became the provenance of a religious class of shaman or priests who could explain, interpret, or communicate with the mysteries. What we call this class of people today is the religious or clerical class—represented by the suit of Cups.
And there you have it—the beginnings of civilization as interpreted by the four suits of the minor arcana of the tarot!