Fooling with the Deck: Week Three to Six: The Four Aces (1)

This blog is part of a series on the historical and metaphysical tarot, Fooling with the Deck:  A DIY Journey through the Tarot.

Before reading about the four aces, you may want to read the introduction to the pip cards.

As discussed previously in the Magician card, the number 1 paradoxically represents the lowest and highest.  We also see this in the symbolism of the four aces.  The word derives from the Latin as (“one, a unit, a copper coin with a low value, like a penny”).  Ace itself comes from Middle English and Old French and meant “rolling a one on a die”, equivalent to our modern snake eyes.   Because it was the lowest roll possible, it signified bad luck.

As cards spread and new games developed, the role and meaning of the aces changed.  They were sometimes more valuable or even the highest card, like in poker.  In the game of tarot, aces are typically low and tens high.  However some of the older rules split the suits into two pairs with opposing rankings.  While the court cards remain the same, the highest and lowest pip cards was reversed in cups and coins.

Highest to Lowest Value:

Wands and Swords: King Queen Knight Page 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Cups and Coins:  King Queen Knight Page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Because they represent one, the four aces are also associated with providence, the origins of things.  Historically the artist’s or manufacturer’s name and the printing date were found on specific cards, typically an ace or a two, sometimes a four, often in the suit of coins.  The small number of pips and their even spacing allowed for the additional text.  Older decks sometimes have heraldic devices like a coat of arms on these cards instead, signifying their owners in luxury hand painted decks or local rulers in mass produced ones.   The court cards or certain trumps like the Emperor and Empress may represent actual royalty.

Over time authenticity became more closely connected with the aces alone. Playing cards were taxed as luxury goods until fairly recently. A seal on the outer packaging or a stamp on one of the cards showed this fee had been paid and also proved the deck was new. An ace often served as both the maker’s mark and duty card. The ace of spades was chosen in England and the United States, since it is the top card of an unused deck. A tradition of richly decorating it developed, further shifting the meaning of “ace” from the lowest to highest.

© 2014 Christopher Lee Matthews
Images: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fooling with the Deck: An Introduction to the Pip Cards

This blog is part of a series on the historical and metaphysical tarot, Fooling with the Deck:  A DIY Journey through the Tarot.

What are the pip cards?

The tarot consists of three distinct types of cards. The first two are similar to those in a standard playing deck in the United States:

1: 40 Pip Cards, 10 in Each Suit:  Four suits of numbered cards, ranging from 1-10. Historically the names and symbols representing the four suits have varied by country. Almost all versions of the tarot used spiritually today are derived from the original Italian model:

A: Wands (Also known as staves, batons, clubs, and scepters.)
B: Cups
C: Swords
D: Coins (Also known as discs, pentacles, and money.)

These cards are known as pip cards. The word may derive from the Old French pepin (seed) and refers to the dots or shapes on dice, dominoes, or playing cards that represent its value.

2: 16 Face Cards, 4 in Each Suit: While regular playing cards have three face cards per suit, a King, Queen, and Jack, the tarot has four: a King, Queen, Knight, and Page. These are also known as the court cards, since each group looks like a royal court in miniature. This name is a corruption of the original “coat cards”, in reference to their clothing. Their appearance signified their rank, role, and association with a particular suit, like a coat of arms.

3: 21 Trumps and a Wild Card or 22 Trumps:  As discussed previously in the Fool blog, the tarot deck was originally used to play a game similar to bridge. It has an additional fifth trump suit of twenty one cards and one wild card, the Fool. (Although all 22 are considered trumps in contemporary literature.) Each card depicts a symbolic figure like Justice, Death, or Temperance and are often numbered to represent their relative value in trick taking.

Where do the meanings of the pip cards come from?

Like the trump cards, both the meaning and appearance of today’s pip cards are greatly influenced by mid 18th to early 20th century thought.

A: Suits and Social Hierarchy: The French author Antoine Court de Gebelin (1725-1784) was one of the first to suggest an Egyptian origin for the tarot in his Le Monde Primitif (1775-1784). He believed the trump cards preserved a book of hidden wisdom and the four suits represented different divisions of Egyptian society:

Swords: Military and nobility
Cups: Priests
Batons: Agriculture
Coins: Commerce

Other period French authors suggested a similar origin for the suits of spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs but from a medieval context. These associations continue to influence the meaning of the four suits. For example, the suit of coins may represent literal money, the physical body, and practical solutions, all derived from its connection to the material world.

B: The Four Suits and the Four Elements: The French author Alphonse Louis Constant (1810-1875), writing under the pen name Eliphas Levi, is best known for popularizing the theory that the twenty two trumps of the tarot and the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet were related. He also taught that the four suits represented the four classical elements:

Wands: Fire
Cups: Water
Swords: Air
Coins: Earth

Much of the meaning of the pip card comes from this relationship, with each suit taking on the qualities of its associated element. For example, the suit of cups may represent emotions, the unconscious, and intuition, all derived from the symbolism of water.

C: Major and Minor Arcana: The French author Jean-Baptiste Pitois (1811-1877), writing under the pen name Paul Christian, popularized the concept of the tarot as a hidden book of Egyptian wisdom in his Historie de la Magie (1870). He claimed to translate an ancient Greek text describing an Egyptian initiation inside the Sphinx and a pyramid using twenty two sacred images. He taught that the tarot trumps preserved this mystery.

In his earlier L’Homme rouge des Tuileries (1863), a Benedictine monk discusses a book of 78 arcana with Napoleon, modeled on the tarot cards. Arcana is the plural of arcanum (Latin, secret), wisdom available only to those initiated. His contemporary Eugene Jacob (1847-1942), writing under the pen name Ely Star, would separate these into the Major Arcana, the trumps, and Minor Arcana, the pip cards in his Les Mystéres de l’Horoscope (1888.)

This late 19th century division still plays an important role in divination today. While the trumps represent something transpersonal, meaningful, or long lasting, the pip cards suggest the personal, mundane, or temporary instead.

Copright 2015, Christopher Lee Matthews

Rock Life: Enter the Earth Downtown Store, Asheville

Enter the Earth Front DisplayThe “Mother Madagascar” table at the Enter the Earth gallery, showcasing all the amazing minerals, rocks, and fossils that come from the island.  We are suite #125 in the historic Grove Arcade, in downtown Asheville.

The most visible things in the photo are a gigantic pair of split ammonite fossils and a large labradorite free form.

To see a virtual tour of our store, click here!

Fooling with the Deck: Week Two: The Magician (1)

This blog is part of a series on the historical and metaphysical tarot, Fooling with the Deck:  A DIY Journey through the Tarot.

(18th century Magician card, from the Jean Dodal version of the Tarot de Marseille, after which most 19th century esoteric decks were based.)

The Magician depicts a colorfully dressed street performer, holding a stick, standing behind a table with props used either for sleight of hand or games of chance.  It was originally known in Italian as Il Bagatella, which may mean “a trifle”, something almost worthless. It has a low value when used as a trump.

In other versions of the game, the Fool (0), Magician (1), and World (21) are special cards known as bouts (French, “ends”) instead. They are found at the ends of the trumps, as the unnumbered, first, and last cards. If the Magician (1) is played during the last trick, it scores extra points. All three of the end cards are worth additional points later when scoring. Technically the Magician should be the lowest ranking card but is made valuable in certain situations by changing the rules. This reflects period beliefs about the transgressive character of magicians, similar to the Fool card.

Confusingly Il Bagatella is often translated into English as “The Juggler”. The meaning of the word has narrowed over time. Juggling originally referred to any activity like acrobatics, sleight of hand, or illusion that was a form of “magic” distinct from witchcraft.  Although popular as entertainers, the magician was an ambiguous figure because of their wandering lifestyle and association with gambling, deception, and idleness.

(The Magician card from the early 20th century Rider-Waite deck, after which most of our contemporary decks are designed.)

Authors during the 19th century radically transformed both the appearance and meaning of the Magician card. They believed the objects on his table represented the four suits (stick = wands, knife = swords, bowl = cups, ball/coin = coins) of the tarot.  Some versions also include a pair of dice.  While two dice can produce 36 different number combinations, only 21 are unique pairs. They may symbolize the 21 trumps other than the unnumbered Fool card.

During this period there was revival of interest in the esoteric spiritual traditions of the West and other cultures, including ceremonial magic.  Many thought the four suits represented the tools of Medieval and Renaissance magicians like the wand and staff (staff), cup, blade and knife (sword), and lamen (disk), a geometric talisman of wax, metal, or paper used when invoking spiritual beings.

Since each suit was associated with one of the four classical elements (wands = fire, cups = water, swords = air, coins = earth), a new set of Victorian magical tools developed, inherited by most contemporary magical traditions like Wicca. The Magician card morphed from a street performer to a ceremonial magician with an altar bearing elemental tools.  The large floppy hat of the medieval card became a lemniscate halo,  a horizontal figure eight, associated with infinity.

The Magician card is traditionally associated with the number 1.  1 is paradoxically the greatest and the smallest of the numbers.  For example, the Magician card is sometimes known in French Tarot as Le Petit (“The Little One”) because it has the lowest value as a trump.  However in many numerological traditions 1 represents potential, unity, and the Divine as the source of all things.  Rather than an actual number, one was considered the well spring of all numbers.

The Magician is not only the first numbered trump, it also depicts the aces on the card, the first of each suit.  Because the numbers 1, 10, and 4 are related symbolically, some believe that the structure of the tarot was inspired by number mysticism, with its four suits of ten pip cards.  Because we use a decimal number system, grouping numbers in tens, 1 and 10 represent the beginning and end of a cycle.  10 and 4 are traditionally related because 10 can be understood as the sum of 4 + 3 + 2 + 1.  Both numbers represent a unity of parts to a whole.

Copyright 2015, Christopher Lee Matthews

Rock Life: Ocean Jasper

ocean jasper slabs

We have a very close relationship to Ocean Jasper, an amazing orbicular chalcedony found in only one location on earth, the northwest corner of Madagascar!  Amy and Nader Kawar own Enter the Earth.  Nader’s mentor is Paul Obeniche, the gentlemen who rediscovered Ocean Jasper in 1999.  Our company now manages the operation of the mine.

To see Ocean Jasper at, please click here.

Fooling with the Deck: Week One: The Fool (0)

(A 15th century Fool card, from the Jean Dodal version of the Tarot de Marseille, after which most 19th century decks were based.)

Much of the Fool’s symbolism originates in its name and imagery, directly related to its original function in the game of tarot. The tarot began as a deck for a trick taking card game similar to bridge. In bridge one of the four suits (spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs) is named the trump suit and has a higher value during the game.

The tarot has four suits (wands, cups, swords, and coins) plus an additional suit of 21 permanent trumps and one wild card, the Fool. Because it excuses a player from following suit, allowing them to protect a more valuable card, it is also known as the Excuse. However the Fool cannot win the trick and using it allows the next player to change suit.

The Fool’s association with spontaneity, changing direction, and calculated risk are all derived from its original wild card status.  Likewise disruption, reversal, and chance.  These are also qualities of the trickster archetype, who uses delay, repetition, or inversion to bring awareness to an unaddressed crisis, often through absurdity, humor, or breaking the rules.

However those outside the hierarchy of society are not always welcome.  The 15th century Fool card at the top of the page depicts someone in poverty, wandering on the edges of society, being harassed by a guard dog.   The disheveled Fool from the 15th century “Charles IV” tarot above is being driven out of town by stone throwing children.  He wears donkey ears to represent his foolishness.  The card represented lunacy, madness, and folly to 18th century cartomancers.

By the 19th century, both its meaning and representation had shifted dramatically.   The Fool came to represent the hero of the tarot and the dog his faithful companion, warning him about his obliviousness to the danger ahead.  The card came to symbolize a leap of faith, wisdom rather than worldly knowledge, and the beginning of our spiritual journey, represented by the remaining 21 tarot trumps.

(The Fool card from the early 20th century Rider-Waite deck, after which most of our contemporary decks are designed.)

None of the trumps in the earliest tarot decks were numbered.  Later card makers gave them numbers to show their relative rank as trumps.  As the wild card though, the Fool remained unnumbered and was later attributed to 0.  In the original game of tarot, the Fool was “worthless”, unable to win a trick, but incredibly potent because it changed the flow of the game.  Because of its association with 0, and therefore the start of the trumps, it came to mean new beginnings, potency, and nothingness as a metaphor for the spiritual realm behind the material world.

Copyright 2015, Christopher Lee Matthews

Fooling with the Deck: The Sequence of the Cards for Study


(The Fool in the Minchiate deck. A cousin to the Tarot with additional trump cards.)

The following article gives instructions on the sequence of cards covered for this free, self-study tarot series, “Fooling with the Deck”, by Christopher Lee Matthews of Enter the Earth.

Where does the symbolism of the Tarot cards come from?

Most of the meanings attributed to the tarot today are derived from:

1:  The symbolism of individual cards.

2:  Numerology.

3:  Historical correspondences, especially those used by 19th century authors. During this period, specific cards were connected to different elements, numbers, and planets.

One way to study the tarot is to organize the cards by these traditional associations, especially number.  Rather than advocating for a particular model, this reveals the inherited structure that lies just beneath our modern understanding.

Why group together the numerically related trump cards?

Cards have taken on the symbolism of the particular numbers attributed to them. For example, the High Priestess is typically represented today as a robed woman, seated before a veiled temple door, with the crescent moon at her feet.  This name and imagery associates it with feminine wisdom, spiritual mysteries, and things just beneath the surface like intuition, instincts, and the subconscious.

Some of these traits are also reflected in the number two, attributed to the High Priestess.  It symbolizes cycles of change, decision making, and balancing duality.  Similar themes are seen in the number 2 pip cards of each suit and other trumps related to 2 numerologically.

Numerology focuses primarily on numbers between 1-9 or 1-10. Anything higher may be broken down into something smaller.  For example, many believe the High Priestess has a relationship with Justice, connected to 11, and Judgement, connected to 20, because these numbers can be further reduced to 2 numerologically:

11 = 1 + 1 = 2
20 = 2 + 0 = 2

Because number symbolism is so key to understanding both contemporary and historic models of the tarot, I have grouped the cards together by their numbers.  For example:



NUMERICALLY RELATED TRUMP: TWO: Justice (11 = 1 + 1 = 2)
NUMERICALLY RELATED TRUMP: TWO: Judgement (20 = 2 + 0 = 2)

Why group together the numerically related pip cards?

19th century authors linked each suit with one of the four classical elements. The most popular model was:

Wands = Fire
Cups = Water
Swords = Air
Coins = Earth

They also linked the numbers 3-9 with one of the seven classical planets:

3 = Saturn
4 = Jupiter
5 = Mars
6 = Sun
7 = Venus
8 = Mercury
9 = Moon

The pip cards were understood as a union of these two sets of symbols.  Cards were given meanings based on their status as a harmonious or dissonant combination of the element and planet.  For example, the 6 of Cups = Sun (6) + Water (Cups). It signifies things like childhood, memories, and generosity. It was considered a harmonious blend of the Sun (consciousness, vitality, and the “masculine”) + water (emotions, the unconscious, and intuition).

All the 6’s are stereotypically positive cards because of their association with the Sun.

On the other hand, the 5 of Cups = Mars (5) + Water (Cups) signifies things like emotional loss, agitated feelings, and focusing on lack rather than available resources. It was considered a dissonant blend of Mars (movement, aggression, and the “masculine”) + water (emotions, the unconscious, and intuition).

All the 5’s are considered more challenging cards because of their association with Mars.

Although the foundation of these 19th century theories is rejected my mainstream scholarship, the tarot having an Egyptian origin, being preserved by Jewish Kabbalah, and hidden in plain sight as a card game, it continues to shape our divinatory understanding of the cards today.

How are the cards being organized?

Week 1: ZERO: Fool

Week 2: ONE: Magician
Week 3: ONE: Ace of Wands
Week 4: ONE: Ace of Cups
Week 5: ONE: Ace of Swords
Week 6: ONE: Ace of Coins

Week 7: TWO: High Priestess
Week 8: TWO: Two of Wands
Week 9: TWO: Two of Cups
Week 10: TWO: Two of Swords
Week 11: TWO: Two of Coins
Week 12: TWO: Justice (11 = 1 + 1 = 2)
Week 13: TWO: Judgement (20 = 2 + 0 = 2)

Week 14: THREE: Empress
Week 15: THREE: Three of Wands
Week 16: THREE: Three of Cups
Week 17: THREE: Three of Swords
Week 18: THREE: Three of Coins
Week 19: THREE: Hanged Man (12 = 1+2 = 3)
Week 20: THREE: World (21 = 2 + 1= 3)

Week 21: FOUR: Emperor
Week 22: FOUR: Four of Wands
Week 23: FOUR: Four of Cups
Week 24: FOUR: Four of Swords
Week 25: FOUR: Four of Coins
Week 26: FOUR: Death (13= 1 + 3 = 4)

Week 27: FIVE: Hierophant
Week 28: FIVE: Five of Wands
Week 29: FIVE: Five of Cups
Week 30: FIVE: Five of Swords
Week 31: FIVE: Five of Coins
Week 32: FIVE: Temperance (14 = 1 + 4 = 5)

Week 33: SIX: Lovers
Week 34: SIX: Six of Wands
Week 35: SIX: Six of Cups
Week 36: SIX: Six of Swords
Week 37: SIX: Six of Coins
Week 38: SIX: Devil (15 = 1 + 5 = 6)

Week 39: SEVEN: Chariot
Week 40: SEVEN: Seven of Wands
Week 41: SEVEN: Seven of Cups
Week 42: SEVEN: Seven of Swords
Week 43: SEVEN: Seven of Coins
Week 44: SEVEN: Tower (16 = 1 + 6 = 7)

Week 45: EIGHT: Strength
Week 46: EIGHT: Eight of Wands
Week 47: EIGHT: Eight of Cups
Week 48: EIGHT: Eight of Swords
Week 49: EIGHT: Eight of Coins
Week 50: EIGHT: Star (17 = 1 + 7 = 8)

Week 51: NINE: Hermit
Week 52: NINE: Nine of Wands
Week 53: NINE: Nine of Cups
Week 54: NINE: Nine of Swords
Week 55: NINE: Nine of Coins
Week 56: NINE: Moon (18 = 1 + 8 = 9)

Week 57: TEN: Wheel of Fortune
Week 58: TEN: Ten of Wands
Week 59: TEN: Ten of Cups
Week 60: TEN: Ten of Swords
Week 61: TEN: Ten of Coins
Week 62: TEN: Sun (19 = 1 + 9 = 10)

Week 63: WANDS: Page of Wands
Week 64: WANDS: Knight of Wands
Week 65: WANDS: Queen of Wands
Week 66: WANDS: King of Wands

Week 67: CUPS: Page of Cups
Week 68: CUPS: Knight of Cups
Week 69: CUPS: Queen of Cups
Week 70: CUPS: King of Cups

Week 71: SWORDS: Page of Swords
Week 72: SWORDS: Knight of Swords
Week 73: SWORDS: Queen of Swords
Week 74: SWORDS: King of Swords

Week 75: COINS: Page of Coins
Week 76: COINS: Knight of Coins
Week 77: COINS: Queen of Coins
Week 78: COINS: King of Coins

Copyright 2015, Christopher Lee Matthews

Fooling with the Deck: A DIY Journey Through the Tarot


(The Fool card on a split ammonite fossil.  Both are symbols of the spiritual journey.)

Join us each week as we attune to a different Tarot card, exploring both its traditional meanings and insights from your own guidance.  The cards will be grouped by their number, helping us understand the 19th century models of Tarot interpretation that lay just beneath our modern versions.

The cycle will begin Sunday, July 13th.  But you can join anytime, following the program at your own pace.  Information about the cards will be posted here on our blog.  You can discuss your experiences with others in our Facebook group, the Metaphysical Corner, the comments section in our Meetup group, WNC Crystal Toting Tree Huggers, or the comments section here on our blog.

Information about the traditional and contemporary meanings will be posted monthly in batches of numerically related cards.  The schedule of cards is posted here on our blog.  We will spend a week with each card, looking for insight in both our inner and outer lives.

There are many tools available to do this:

1:  Attunement:  Ask the Divine, or your spiritual helpers, to attune you to the energies of the individual tarot card during meditation, prayer, or ceremony by holding it to your third eye or heart chakra and asking.  An appropriate intention statement might be:

“I ask to attune to the wisdom of the Fool card in a way that supports my Highest Good, now please.”

2:  Intention Sets:  Write out a series of intentions for the process and offer it up to the Divine, to correct for imperfections.

3:  Research Its Symbolism:  Read more about the history of an individual card or its modern variations.

Ask for a deeper understanding by scaning the card with your eyes or energetically with your hands until a single element pops out.  For example, the dog, sun, or pack of the Fool card.  Researching this symbol may give you further insight about the card itself.

4:  Meditation, Visualization, and Shamanic Journeying:  Many meditation techniques can be adapted to use the tarot.

Use the image of the card as your meditative focus, bringing your awareness back to it.  You can use this to attune energetically to the card or bring awareness to the thoughts, emotions, and feelings in the physical and subtle bodies it activates.

Use the card as the inspiration for a visualization or shamanic journey.  Enter the card, explore the landscape, and interact with the elements inside.  Alternatively you can imagine yourself as the main figure or figures.

5:  Dream Messages:  Connect to the card before bed and ask for understanding to come in your dreams.

6:  Have Awareness of Synchronisitc Events:  Most spiritual processes are thought to create synchronistic events in the inner and outer life.

Inner Life:  Meaningful, repeated, or seemingly related thoughts, feelings, and memories.

Outer Life:  Meaningful, repeated, or seemingly related situations, symbols, or objects.

Awareness of these can give insight both about the tarot card and yourself.  For example, the Fool has historical associations with feathers, as a symbol of folly, and air but it does not have much association with birds today.  However when I am working with it I am surrounded by birds, see my friends who own them, and randomly encounter them in books, television, and the objects around me, including finding actual feathers.  This has greatly influenced my personal understanding of the Fool card.

I highly suggest journaling during this process to record your research, personal insights, and other experiences.  Using a dedicated deck is also recommended because the work is believed to deeply charge your cards.

Copyright 2015, Christopher Lee Matthews