A traditional tarot deck is divided into the Major and Minor Arcana. The latter are divided into four suits, usually called the suit of Cups, Swords, Wands, and Coins (or Pentacles). Each suit includes cards numbered from 1 to 10 and four court cards. The actual names of the court cards can change from one deck to the other, but the most common ones are the page, knight, queen, and king, in that order.
The history of the Minor Arcana in a tarot card reading
Initially, most tarot decks – even those designed for divination – only kept a repeated symbol pattern on the minor arcana, like the most playing cards deck. Seers and psychics mainly focused on the major arcana, leaving the minor ones out of their spreads. When tarot reading studies and research came back to the forefront of academic occult circles in the nineteenth century, the advent of Arthur Edward Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot and Rider Waite Smith tarot deck started a trend of the deck including fully illustrated minor arcana.
Now fully illustrated decks have become a new standard, and only a few tarot reading schools and practitioners still focus mainly on the major arcana (usually using the Marseille tarot deck or a derivative). The overall impact of one of the minor arcana in a tarot spread should be considered less impactful than the major arcana, but still conveys a lot of meaning and clarity. Many of the minor arcana can be seen as covering part of the message of one of the major ones, but with more nuance and details.
The Minor Arcana court cards and the Querent card
A person asking for a tarot reading is called a Querent (even when using the tarot online). Several tarot spreads used for tarot reading use a single card taken out of the deck to represent that person within the tarot spread, with the cards drawn for the reading placed around or over that card as they are drawn.
Usually (though it is not mandatory) the tarot reader will pick one of the figure cards from the minor arcana suits to represent the Querent, depending on their gender and overall personality. This is why most tarot readers usually ask their consultants a few questions about them before they start drawing cards. This is part of the tarot reading process and should not be neglected as it provides a great focus for both Querent and reader throughout the actual tarot reading session.
The structure of the Minor Arcana
The Major Arcana bring a lot of meaning to a tarot reading, through clear archetypes and strong messages. The Fool’s Journey through the major arcana cards is kind of an initiatory path leading to greater enlightenment. But the minor arcana offers something different to the tarot reader, something that cannot be found in the majors: structure and pattern. Indeed, all four suits in the minor arcana are based on the same pattern, which makes it possible to draw parallels between one and the other and to clearly associate each one with other esoteric principles or meanings, to offer further depth and meaning when they appear in a tarot spread.
The Minor Arcana and the Four Elements
The concept of the four classical elements comes from ancient Greece. Earth, water, air, and fire were used to explain the world around them, each tied to several characteristics, and scholars of the time believed that everything (from people to plants to animals to minerals…) was composed of a combination of these four elements. It is very easy to draw a parallel between these four classical elements and the four minor suits in a tarot deck. The early influence of this pattern can easily be seen in the Pictorial Key to the Tarot, and this influence has spread to most minor arcana tarot reading techniques ever since.
It is interesting to note that some of the most esoteric texts dealing with the classical elements from ancient Greece sometimes mention a fifth element, usually called aether or quintessence, of a more spiritual or divine nature. Far from invalidating the clear association between the minor arcana and the concept of the elements, the quintessence should simply be seen as the equivalent of the major arcana in the deck, something harder to define but more impactful and ineffable. The divine, spiritual aspect of quintessence is a good fit for the spiritual journey of enlightenment provided by the 22 major arcana.
The Minor Arcana and numerology
Another easy parallel that can be derived from the structured pattern of the minor arcana combines the art of tarot reading with the science of numerology. The first ten cards in a minor suit are simply numbered from 1 to 10, and the various lessons taught by these numbers when studying numerology can be seen as an echo within each related minor arcana card.
When someone knows enough to be comfortable with the science of numerology and the meaning of numbers, they can easily put it into practice for their tarot reading. This is also one of the easiest ways for tarot readers using variations on the Marseille deck to still use and read the minor arcana in their spread, even without the archetypal and evocative help of a full illustration on the card. You don’t have to learn the full list of minor arcana “by heart” for a Marseille deck if you can derive meaning from the suit itself and the actual number drawn in the suit.
The court cards in the Minor Arcana
A few modern tarot decks now try to design their own “roles” for the four court cards found in each minor arcana suit. Most of the time, they nonetheless keep the original balance found in the traditional page, knight, queen, king roles found in the vast majority of tarot decks.
A sort of gender parity effort can also be noted in most of the more recent decks, with each suit having an additional female character on top of the queen, often the page, but sometimes the knight.
In the traditional Rider-Waite-Smith(RWS) tarot imagery, all suits follow the same pattern. The page is a young person holding the symbol of the suit, an echo of the Fool from the major arcana, a youth discovering the concept of the suit and about to embark on a journey to discover its meaning.
The knights in the RWS all ride horses, usually in motion (except in the suit of pentacles, for reasons that should become obvious once you learn the actual meaning of the suit), representing the active principle of that suit.
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Both kings and queens stand on thrones in every suit, surrounded with trappings and symbolism connected to the overall meaning of the suit, and representing the various mental and physical aspects of that suit once their meaning has been absorbed. They represent the male and female pinnacle of what can be achieved with the aspect covered by their suit.
How to read tarot cards with the minor arcana
While every card in the minor arcana has a specific meaning (and another meaning when reversed, when the principles of card reversal are used in a reading), you can further guide your tarot prediction by looking at the various minor arcana drawn in the reading as a whole. Is there a clear majority of cards belonging to one suit over the other three? Is there any of the four suits that is completely missing from the spread?
The presence and absence of minor arcana in a drawing is clearly valuable information for a precise reading. For instance, someone with an overabundance of cards from the suit of Cups and not a single card from the suit of Swords is probably a sign that the Querent is currently in a deeply emotional state, ruled by their feelings and emotions, and letting them drive their decisions without taking the time to clearly think about them.
Once you are comfortable with the overall aspects covered by each suit, you can use that knowledge to put a greater contextual reading in any tarot spread, which will make the tarot predictions and warnings much more useful and relevant.
The Suit of Wands from the Minor Arcana
The usual imagery found in the Wands suit is a variation of large wooden sticks, Wands, or rods. In a traditional playing card deck, this suit would be associated with the suit of clubs. In the classical elements, the suit of Wands represents the element of fire.
The traditional meaning and theme of the suit deals with anything connected with primal energy, creativity, and dynamic action. Like fire, Wands offer something ever-changing, in motion, which can be a wonderful tool when properly mastered, but which can also be dangerous and harmful if left unchecked. The suit of Wands is usually considered to radiate masculine energy.
The Suit of Cups from the Minor Arcana
The usual imagery found in the Cups suit is a variation of Cups and chalices in every shape in form. In a traditional playing card deck, this suit would be associated with the suit of hearts. In the classical elements, the suit of Wands represents the element of water.
The traditional meaning and theme of the suit puts a strong emphasis on emotions and feelings. Social relationships from love to family and friendship are also a very important element to be found in that suit. Like water, the suit of Cups is fluid and flexible, able to adapt to many situations but can also be strong like a tidal wave if not handled responsibly. The suit of wants is usually considered to radiate feminine energy.
The Suit of Swords from the Minor Arcana
The usual imagery found in the Swords suit is a variation of swords and blades, sharp and well-honed. In a traditional playing card deck, this suit would be associated with the suit of spades. In the classical elements, the suit of Wands represents the element of air.
The traditional meaning and theme of the suit deals with anything connected with the intellect, the mind, and the brain. This is a suit of reflection and thought. Like air, Swords deals with concepts that are largely unseen but are the driving force of reason and will behind every action and reaction. The suit of Swords usually acts as a balancing force between the wild action of the suit of Wands and the emotional waves of the suit of Cups. The suit of Sword is usually considered to radiate masculine energy
The Suit of Pentacles from the Minor Arcana
The usual imagery found in the Pentacles (or Coins) suit is a variation of large round Coins or pentacles (often using a golden hue unless the tarot is drawn in black and white). In a traditional playing card deck, this suit would be associated with the suit of diamonds. In the classical elements, the suit of Wands represents the element of earth.
The traditional meaning and theme of the suit deals with stability and growth. This is why these minor arcana often come up in matters related to jobs and finances, or to anything meant to grow fruitful and multiply. Like earth, pentacles want to offer strong and reliable foundations to any structure and offer a reliable place where it will nurture and support anything that needs to grow. The suit of Pentacles is usually considered to radiate feminine energy
Tarot reading using major and minor arcana
Learning to understand and use the minor arcana in a tarot reading usually takes more time than simply learning about the major arcana. Minor arcana meanings are subtle and numerous, but once a tarot reader has learned how to properly use them, they will provide accurate and detailed readings that go above and beyond what can be done with just 22 cards out of the full 78 card deck.