Recently a fascinating discussion on the social media platform Tumblr inspired some thoughts on the suits of Wands and Disks:
Now…I’m a fiber artist and knitter. And truth be told, I don’t know too many fellow fiber artists who don’t find the artistry of fiber—in its many forms—to be anything less than magical. Neither, it turns out, did our ancient ancestors. The daughter of Necessity—better known at the Fates—were the relativistic incarnation of the cycle of birth, life, and death in the minds of the ancient Greco-Roman storytellers. One sister spun the thread from wool (birth); one measured it (life); and one cut it in lengths (death).
Spinners, not unlike many other work-related tasks, naturally inspired the singing of songs to wile away the time and keep in step with the job. If you were in a group, it was easy to tell stories, tales, or what’s more: gossip. Words have weight and mystery. And historically, it’s is a short step to semantically interpret gossip as having the witchy powers of spell work. (Henrietta was speaking ill of Marybeth in the spinning circle…and simultaneously Marybeth had a sudden slip on the stepladder in her kitchen resulting in a broken hip…which never healed right…which led to her early demise.) So it is no wonder that womenfolk who were spinners—just like many other professions in which women participated—became associated with magickal prowess in the eyes of some Puritan or superstitious communities. (Lots of professions garner reputations in various cultures—not always because they are associated with women, but it turns out to be an easy way to suppress women. In India, for example, butchers or people who work with meat are often associated with the low or untouchable class, because of religious taboos.)
In the tarot, the two lower classes represented by the card suits are Coins or Disks (representing the merchant class) and Wands (representing the peasantry or feudal class). These classes were also much more prone to superstition, in part because they did not have access to [higher] education or scientific study or an academic class that could show them otherwise. These are the classes of people that would have participated in industrious work like thread and cloth making. A stick is the most basic instrument needed for spinning yarn or thread from wool. Literally: a stick…a wand. It is appropriate that wands therefore represent the most populous, elemental, and industrious class of citizens. If a person wants to make their stick more efficient in the making of yarn or thread, one puts a weighted disk on the end of the stick so as to make it easier to spin the stick and more quickly draw out fiber from the fleece. Learning how to turn a profit—by increasing efficiency—is the realm of the merchant. So it seems equally fitting that Disks represent the merchant class of citizens.
Whorl disks, from an archeological point of view, seem to be one of those things that are pervasive throughout known history and found in every corner of the world where humans have inhabited. You know how it’s kind of quirky that pyramids can be found in virtually every continent and all over the planet (historically from approximately the same time period)? Spindle whorl disks are like that, too. A stick is a stick; they grow on trees. Chimpanzees have been known to use them as tools in order to mine for ants in anthills. Why wouldn’t the earliest human have also used sticks to pull out thread from a bunch of sheep hair? Likewise, whorl disks are known to pre-date the invention of the wheel (for real). And ancient whorls have been discovered virtually on every continent—sometimes even in graves as precious (and magickal) commodity.
So if you wonder why “Wands” and “Disks” feature in the tarot…we have just presented one explanation. Sure, the Mamluk cards of Arabic origin also featured these icons. In those cards they are described as “polo sticks” and “coins,” respectively. The Mamluk cards were the game cards of royalty, and so those suits were the things with which royalty could associate. Fast forward to the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance… playing cards are still used by the rich and by royalty. The physical examples that we have in museums are from the decks of high society members who could afford to have artisans make fancy decks with gold-leaf and paint. But, playing cards and gambling decks were also extensively used by the lower classes as a main source of entertainment and leisure. They were made out of extremely cheap paper that did not withstand the elements and time, so we have very few historical physical examples of these cheaper possessions. So…while the suit images may have been borrowed from the royal classes of Ottoman civilization, they were representative icons to which the Renaissance commoner could relate—spindle wands and spindle whorls…wands and disks…two of the most basic, common, and pervasive tools used by commoners and peasants everywhere in the known western world.
There is also the tarot theory that among the suits, Swords and Cups are complimentary with one another, as are Disks and Wands.* In the case of Disks and Wands, this is quite literal, since Spindles and Spindle Whorls are indeed meant to interlock with one another and complimentarily create a useful device for spinning.
*Conversely, in tarot theory, Cups and Swords are “conflict” suits when paired with Disks and Wands.
“A History and Evolution of Spinning: by Lady Siobhan nic Dhuinnshleibhe, Known Whorl Spinners of Atlantia” ©2000 Heather McCloy. Company of the Silver Spindle (website) http://kws.atlantia.sca.org/spinning.html (last accessed 11/4/2017)
“Spin the Wheel and Seal Your Fate—Spinning and Weaving in Magical Practice” May 18, 2015. Cailleach’s Herbareum: Exploring Lost Scottish Folk Traditions (website) http://www.cailleachs-herbarium.com/2015/05/spin-the-wheel-and-seal-your-fate-spinning-and-weaving-in-magical-practice/ (last accessed 11/4/2017)
“The Spindle of Necessity” March 27, 2015. Knot Magick (website) https://knotmagick101.wordpress.com/2015/03/27/the-spindle-of-necessity/ (last accessed 11/4/2017)