Unlike the greater trumps of the Major Arcana, the four suits of the Minor Arcana do not take on any Vertigo characters. At the first meetings to plan the deck (held in a Manhattan hotel suite), the group decided that assigning a particular scene or character to each of the fifty-six cards would only restrict Dave McKean's concepts and imagination. So here, in these stylized images, we are seeing the pure vision of a remarkable artist. At the same time, the four suits still reflect the particular qualities of Vertigo. We see that dark fantasy, the sense of mystery and strangeness. Instead of neatly explaining the secrets of the universe, as some occult decks have tried to do, they open us to the fear and wonder of our lives. They are vertigo in the literal sense, disorienting us from our ordinary perceptions.
The cards begin with the traditional qualities of the Minor Arcana, the symbolism of each suit, and then they take it to a new place, one that we cannot easily define or explain. A lot of them are distorted in some way, submerged under water, or behind a wall of mud, or overwhelmed by light. Writing appears, as if to explain, bin the writing is unreadable, covered over by dots, or simply too small, too dense, to make out. People inhabit these cards, but they too become distant from us, made mysterious by distortion. Some have no heads, or no arms or legs. On others we see a face obscured by darkness eating into their features. With some we cannot tell if we are looking at a man or a woman. With others we confidently say oh, that's a man, only to see the exact same face a few cards later, but with different shading, so that we can say, with equal confidence, oh, that's a woman. We've come a long way from those early decks, with their Cups or Swords neatly spread across the card.
The classic Tarot suits are Staves, Cups, Swords, and Coins (or Disks). In Spain, these remain the suits, not only in Tarot decks, but in ordinary playing cards. In other countries, Staves became Clubs, Cups became Hearts, Swords became Spades, and Coins became Diamonds. Some historians say that playing cards descend from the Tarot, while others claim that the two kinds of decks evolved at around the same time, or else that the ordinary deck came first, and then someone added on the twenty-two trumps to make the special Tarot deck. If the Tarot deck is the older one, then conventional playing cards did not only drop the Major Arcana, they also abandoned the Knights, leaving only the Page (jack), Queen, and King.
Over time, the Staves acquired the name Wands. The pictures, however, continued to show a staff, or branch of wood, usually with a few leaves, or buds growing on them. In the Vertigo Tarot the Wands appear like torches, and sometimes paintbrushes.
When the Order of the Golden Dawn created their own Tarot deck, they changed the Coins suit to Pentacles, a name and emblem that has stayed popular ever since. They made this change partly because they wanted the suit to signify-something wider than money and commerce, the obvious associations of Coins. The Golden Dawn also changed the fourth suit to Pentacles for a more specific purpose. They wanted the four suits to represent the tools of the ritual magician. In their magical ceremonies, magicians focus the power of their will through a wand, a knife or sword, a sacred chalice, and finally, the sign of the pentacle, often drawn in the air with the point of the knife. In the Vertigo Tarot, as in many other decks, the card of the Magician shows the four objects laid out before him (actually, suspended in the air, except for the Wand, which he holds).
We can trace the suit emblems back to legends of the Holy Grail. When Percival, the Grail knight (a character very like the Fool); encounters the Grail for the first time, he does so in a mysterious castle in a desert, ruled by a wounded king. Percival is eating dinner when a strange procession enters the room, a group of women carrying a cup, a lance, and a sword on a round tray,or disk. Percival burns to ask what purpose these serve, but his mother had told him never to speak unless spoken to. He remains silent, and the women leave. A wise hermit then assails him. If Percival only had asked the essential question, "Whom does the Grail serve?" the magic ritual could have continued, and the Grail would have restored to life both the king and the land itself. Now Percival will have to go on a quest to find the very Grail that had offered itself to him. Many people have compared this story to the journey of the Fool through the Major Arcana.
Some historians have offered a more mundane explanation for the origin of the suit emblems. They may simply represent the different classes in medieval society. The peasants grow staves. The clergy use cups in the mass. The nobility fight with swords, and the merchants deal in coins.
As described above, almost all Tarot decks before the twentieth centurv did not show anv scenes on the Minor cards.
Even the Golden Dawn deck displayed the suit emblems in decorative patterns, though with a few symbolic touches. The great change came in 1910, with the publication of the Rider deck, named for its original British publisher. The painter of the deck, Pamela Colman Smith, revolutionized the Minor Arcana by showing people in action on every picture. For .example, the Eight of Cups shows a man walking up a hill in the moonlight, the Five of Pentacles shows two beggars passing a church, and so on. For the first time, the Minor Arcana became accessible to interpretation. Where previous decks forced us to rely on set formulas when doing readings—"You will meet a dark man who will give you a job," or "You will go on a sea journey," or "You will suffer a great loss"—Pamela Smith's Rider cards allow us to use our own imaginations as well as what we find in books.
The most popular Tarot deck in the world, the Rider cards also have influenced several generations of Tarot designers. Some decks follow her Minor Arcana so closely that Tarotists (people who study or use the Tarot) refer
to them as "Pamela clones." Dave McKean's Vertigo cards are strikingly original, hut they do show the influence of the Rider images on a number of the cards. Where it seems appropriate we will compare the Vertigo pictures to their Rider counterparts. For example, Smith's Three of Cups depicted three women raising their cups high in a toast. The Vertigo version shows three disembodied hands raising their cups against a dark background. We also will cite two other traditional decks, the Golden Dawn and the "Book of Thoth" Tarot, created by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris. Both of these gave names to each of the Minor cards; occasionally we will compare those names to the Vertigo pictures.
The Major Arcana gives us a blueprint for spiritual development, from innocence to mystic enlightenment. The Minor Arcana is both more and less ambitious. While it does not lay out such a grand design, it does show us the variety of daily life. Each of the four suits carries its own special qualities, and within each of the suits the ten numbered cards and the four Court cards show how those qualities emerge in different situations. When we start to combine the cards in readings—for instance, when we turn up the Five of Swords next to the Three of Pentacles, or the Queen of Wands alongside the Two of Cups—we find ourselves with a kind of encyclopedia of human experience. For the moment, we will concentrate on the numbered cards, Ace-Ten, leaving the four Court cards for their own section. This is because the Court cards are organized in a slightly different way than the numbers. At the same time, many of the things we say about the suits as a whole will apply to the Court cards as well. We have seen how the symbol, or emblem, for each suit gives it a particular character. We also can categorize the suit's qualities in terms of the four "elements" which people in the Renaissance and earlier saw as the basis for existence. Around the world, people have always sought ways to categorize experience and the different manifestations of the physical world. For example both the Celts and many Native Americans broke things down in terms of directions and primary colors. European culture from the time of ancient Greece has decribed all existence as combinations of four fundamental elements, Fire, Water, Air, and Earth.
Since the Renaissance we have learned that these four are far from basic. Water, air, and earth all contain many molecules, while fire is a chemical reaction. Nevertheless, the qualities associated with the "elements" remain useful. The elements also provide a link to astrology; since the twelve signs of the zodiac break down into three signs in each of the four elements.
The number four is as clear an organizing principle as three and seven. There are four solar points in the year, the solstices and the equinoxes. There are four natural directions: the two ends of the Earth's axis provide north and south, while the sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes create east and west. Our bodies also create four horizontal directions: in front, behind, and left hand, right hand (if we add above, below, and center we get the other natural number, seven).
In Tarot, the elements match the suits as follows: Fire-Wands, Water-Cups, Air-Swords, Earth-Pentacles (some people argue for a different arrangement, but this one remains standard). Here are some of their attributes. Fire represents the experience of energy, action, optimism, creative impulse, adventure, sexuality, movement, beginnings. Water belongs to love, fantasy, imagination, passivity, the unconscious, relationships, friendship. Air symbolizes mind, mental activity, analysis, conflict, pain, quarrels, heroism, sadness, abstraction. Earth signifies work, nature, money, physical reality, home, stable relationships, routine activities.
None of these things exist in isolation. In fact, all the elements will contribute in any significant human activity or project. When asked about his concepts for his Minor Arcana, Dave McKean said that the four suits represented aspects of creativity. So we will look at creativity as an example. Fire gives us the spark and the drive to work on, say, a painting. Water allows our imagination to come in, providing both the fantasy and the feeling necessary for any work of art. Air provides the intellectual structure that gives the work a wider meaning than the artist's personal experience. And Earth gives us the determination to work at it until we produce a finished object which we can introduce to the world.
As well as the elements, the suits organize themselves around their numbers. Each number contains its own meanings. For instance, the Aces signify- beginnings, and the Tens fulfillment. In the Vertigo Tarot the Tens all show a face, the same face in different shadings. The face has a certain dreamlike quality about it, suggesting that this figure is dreaming all the other cards.
The best way to understand the connections between the different cards of the same number is to lay them out. Take all the Twos and set them together, all the Threes, etc. Examine their similarities and their differences. How does the element affect the number, and vice versa? In other words, how does a Fiery Three differ from a Watery Three? And how do the special qualities of Three affect each element?
The Minor cards in this deck appear more abstract than some of the Majors. This is partly because we cannot link them to specific Vertigo characters. They may take a little time to explore. As we do so, as we find ourselves going more deeply into their strangeness and excitement, their stories, collective and individual, will begin to emerge.
The Aces all represent the primary; or root, energy of their suit, the source, or beginning, from which all the other cards grow and develop. The Wands' element of Fire is also about beginnings. Fire energy initiates, or sparks, creative activity. Thus, the Ace of Wands carries a special quality for the start of things-projects and ideas, action and movement, even emotions, especially love. The Ace signifies the first impulse of creativity.
We see the Wand rising up through dark dense matter, with its flame burning brightly. In many traditions, the flame of spiritual truth is said to shine from within the heaviness of the material world. In general, cards in this suit show a fire burning against a dark background, which may be seen as rocky, or woodlike. Here, however, the rough matter takes on the shape of golden wings rising from the top half of the Wand. The Wand itself resembles a paintbrush he combined images-the wings and the paintbrush torch-speak of the power of art.
The Wand passes through a fiat line drawing of a hand marked with symbols, like a talisman. Hands, which appear in many of the Wands cards, have symbolized humanity creatively and spiritually for tens of thousands of vears. Hands are used as charms in popular religion from Judaism and Islam to Santeria, usually marked like the one shown in the Ace. Handprints on cave walls form the earliest known form of human art. Thousands of years
later, Michelangelo depicted the creation of human life as the finger of God touching the finger of Adam. The hand, like the Ace of Wands itself, svnibolizes creative human
Divinatory meanings-Beginnings, new activity, creative impulse. A time of action, of great energy.
Reversed-the energy can become chaotic, difficult to hold onto. Still very forceful but needs more focus.
TWO OF WANDS Here we see two hands clasped together, with the Wands passing through the fingers. There is a symmetry in the way the hands meet. They almost merge together, and the two Wands seem like one long stick. But the picture is far from symmetrical. The hand reaching up from below points its Wand up against that dense matter we saw previously in the Ace. The flame burns brightly against the rough background.
Divinatory meanings—Control, dominion, power, focused will. The ability to act in the world.
Reversed: Openness to change, to giving up power.
The hand from above points its Wand down to a dark pool, so that the flame changes to rings of golden light.
Balance is more important than symmetry, more alive, more real. We see a balance here between darkness and light, above and below, mystery and power. The pointed flame above symbolizes action, and the idea of the directed will-that is, being able to focus our energy and our power to achieve a goal. The Golden Dawn name for this card is "dominion."
The dissolved flame at the bottom does not imply a weakening of the will, or a loss of focus. Instead, it balances the aggressive Wands' energy. It connects us to the unconscious sources of creativity, and of life itself. Without that connection, the will just burns itself out. We see that same balance between the Magician and the and the unconscious, fire and as the Wand emblem links all Wands cards to the Magician, the number Two for this card links it to the High Priestess, card Two of the Major Arcana.
THREE OF WANDS Instead of a hand, we see what looks like a tree, with three branches, each one bearing a Wand. Since the three branches are the same height, we also get a sense of a candelabrum. Unlike the Two, the card is far from balanced. The Wands are separated into two and one, giving us an idea of opposition, or of a single person being isolated from a group. There are many ways people can find themselves alone and facing a closed group of other people. We can think of cliques in high school, or of~ to a new neighborhood. But the flame by itself facing the other two also can suggest independence, or non-conformity. In fact, the "tree" does resemble a hand, but with the fourth finger cut off. A stream of gold flakes pours out from where that fourth branch might have appeared, increasing the feeling of something removed, or amputated. (Notice also the thumblike branch going off in a different direction towards the lower right.) The flames burn brightly, giving us a feeling of intense energy forcing its way into existence to thallenge the world. The Fire approach to life sometimes just burns its way through t the world. Other aspects can become lost, or sacrificed along the way.
Divinatory Meanings--Power, independence, divisions between people. Explorations, heroic action, possibly involving sacrifice.
Reversed-Cooperation, people working together.
FOUR OF WANDS Numerologically the number Four signifies structure. If we think of a square or a rectangle, we get a sense of formal structure and stability. It takes four sides to make the simplest solid structure, the tetrahedron (see the Four of Pentacles). At the same time, the Fire energy of Wands moves against the idea of structure, and certainly of containment. Fire needs to be free, to move. If we confine a fire in a closed structure it simply dies-unless it breaks free by burning down the structure itself.
The tension between the symbolism of the number and the natural quality of the suit produces a dynamic energy. The "structure" here is the simplest possible, four Wands tipped together. The fourth is not actually shown, but implied. In fact, the structure is the actual one used to make a campfire. As a result, the flames burn together harmoniously. In contrast to the Three, we see combined energy; different people (or forces) working together for a unified purpose.
We see what looks like a cluster of grapes within the Wands pyramid. Grapes are a traditional svmbol of abundance as
well as nature. Here thev overflow the
loose structure of the Wands.
Divinatory meanings-Loosely structured situations. People working together for a unified purpose. Joy, openness, sharing. Reversed-structures falling apart, tension, people having trouble working together.
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