The Stairway from Heaven

Much has been said about the lack of a coherent traditional system for interpreting the minor – or “pip” – cards of historical tarot decks (which, after all, were never intended for divination). The scenic minor cards of the Waite-Smith deck are basically an imaginative  “work-around” designed to squeeze meaning out of these inscrutable icons (the phrase “blood from a stone” comes to mind). While their success in doing so is at best uneven, at least the RWS minors offer a convenient hand-hold for getting a grip on practical interpretation. However, I find them more of an engaging side-trip than a mainline tool for penetrating to the heart of the question, and in some cases I disregard their “canned” narrative vignettes entirely.

Unless one decides to throw in the towel and simply ascribe RWS meanings to decks with non-scenic pip cards, about the only consistently reliable approach to understanding them is through application of esoteric number theory and suit (or elemental) associations. The Thoth deck lands somewhere in the middle, with what I term its “glorified” pip cards. While it adopts much of the Golden Dawn symbolism as re-envisioned by Crowley and captured in Harris’s evocative paintings, its core lies in the series of ten “emanations” on the qabalistic Tree of Life. Crowley made much of the observation that the energy of a suit emerges at the top of the Tree in a pristine spiritual form (the “root of the power” of that suit), as yet unencumbered by the constraints of manifest existence. This is expressed in the Aces as potential energy, or the idea underlying an action rather than the actual first step, which arrives with the Twos, or the dynamic Pythagorean “line” departing from the static “point.”

At the bottom of the Tree, the Tens – firmly fixed in matter with little elasticity – represent the exhaustion of the original impulse; growth is at an end and all that remains is a concentrated residue of the vitalizing principle of the suit; as Dr. Pangloss said to Candide at the end of Voltaire’s satirical novel, there is a “concatenation” of everything that went before. To which Candide dismissively replied “let us cultivate our garden,” suggesting that reflection rather than endless ramification is the paradigm motivating the Tens. Crowley considered evolution (or in this case, devolution) of the elemental energy into the higher numbers to be a form of debasement, in which “multiplication of a symbol of Energy always tends to degrade its essential meaning, as well as to complicate it.” If I may put words in his mouth, he seems to be saying that elaboration of the energy results in dilution of its singularity of purpose and confusion of its mission. Only in the suit of Disks does this translate into real fulfillment of the initial promise of the Ace; the other Thoth suits end in varying degrees of distress that range from benignly overindulgent (Cups) to burdensome (Wands) to frightful (Swords).

Everything between the two extremes has been described as the “descent of Spirit into Matter;” the elusive primal force of the Ace becomes progressively more grounded in the material world and thus less abstract or subtle in its influence. The Spirit is gradually clothed, so to speak in the impediments of manifestation, increasingly weighed down until it becomes more coarsely mundane than exalted. It can readily be seen that the cards beyond the Sixes are markedly less volatile and, as a group – with a few exceptions denoted by the planetary vibration of their spheres (for example, Moon in the suit of Cups) – generally less favorable. Harris ably conveyed these nuances through the use of mood and color, effectively translating Crowley’s thoughts into images, while Smith – in my opinion less successfully – tried to employ common story-telling elements to illuminate  Waite’s less convoluted esoteric script. In truly non-scenic pip cards, despite concerted efforts to build a case around their ornamental features, there is little in the way of help from the pictures other than the geometrical patterns of interlacing triangles and squares that support Joseph Maxwell’s elaborate numerological dissection of the cards. I wholeheartedly recommend looking into his work as an alternative to the qabalistic angle.

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