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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

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