“Hard” and “Soft” Suits

One concept from the Tarot de Marseille “school” of interpretation – which has a meager divinatory legacy unless one can read French – that is worth carrying forward into general use is that of “hard” and “soft” suits. The former are comprised of the Wands and Swords cards, while the latter encompass the Cups and Pentacles. The physical nature of each suit emblem largely defines its mode of expression: clubs and swords are linear and projective, while chalices and coins are circular and integrative. (Newtonian physics would view one as “centrifugal” and the other as “centripetal.”) There is nothing “soft” about a rap on the knuckles or a stab in the back, while compassionate inclusiveness and generous open-handedness are the antitheses of unyielding “hardness.” In reality, these are just code-words for the Greek elemental correspondences of Empedocles as applied to the tarot by later occultists: Fire and Air are purposeful – positive, active and masculine; Water and Earth are more contemplative – negative, passive and feminine. (Note that this has little to do with gender specificity despite modern attempts to discredit it, and is more about reciprocal wholeness in the underlying structure of the Universe.)

Let’s take a hypothetical case: a querent is facing a decision on how best to approach something that he or she wants to accomplish. The appearance of numerous Wands in the reading would suggest being forthright and assertive in going about it; many Swords would imply a more thoughtful and perhaps crafty (but still largely uncompromising) posture; a preponderance of Cups would show a benign willingness to “let the chips fall where they may;” and an abundance of Pentacles would impart a patient, plodding stance that trusts in the “mills of the gods” (see Sextus Empiricus) to slowly grind out the right conclusion. If there is no dominant elemental presence in the spread, a single powerful card of any suit in a particularly sensitive position would yield the same advice.

Taking an initial, high-level “mental snapshot” of the entire spread, looking for overarching features such as suit, number and/or rank prominence, can quickly reveal whether the reading has a decidedly “hard-nosed” feel to it, or a more uncritical “softness.” This in turn offers useful guidance in presenting the card-by-card analysis in its most constructive light. It can ideally help the querent avoid the analogous dilemma of trying to “push on a string” – applying force indiscriminately to a problem when even oblique or partial accommodation would be a more productive approach. It can come down to a choice between self-reliance at all costs and prudent compromise.

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