Pips of the Tarot Pack

By M. K. Van Rensselaer.

The numbered or what are technically known as the pip cards of the Tarot pack are divided like those of more modern ones into four sets, called by English-speaking people “suits.” These are headed by four court, or “coate,” cards, namely, King, Queen, Cavalier, and Knave, making one more than usual to each suit, or fifty-six in all. Besides this royal family, there are the cards numbered from one to ten. In some of the games two or more of the pip cards are dropped, but this was the original pack. In Germany there are only three court cards, like the French ones, but there is no female in the set. The German suits are Herzen, Grünen, Eicheln, and Schellen; the Spanish, Bastos, Otos, Coppas, and Espadas; the Italian, Bastoni, Danari, Coppe, and Spade, and English, Rods, Money, Cups, and Swords. These pips are emblematically displayed through appropriate symbols, and, besides, each of them represents an idea and a number, all of which are valuable assistants when grouping the cards, in order to divine their hidden meanings that are almost lost to us, although quite decipherable by those who held the key to the ancient mysteries.

The reason for invariably having four suits would be incomprehensible were it not recognised that there were four emblems that were peculiar to and always represented Mercury, namely, his Caduceus, his Money, his Chalice, and his Harpé or Sword, which also typify the four grand divisions into which the classes of people were divided all over the known world of the day, particularly in Egypt, for they were Workmen, Merchants, Churchmen and Soldiers, who were easily recognised through the symbols. If any man of one of these castes wished to consult the oracle he selected the emblem of his class and in this way communicated to the god his status in the community.

Since four was not a favorite number among the mystics, there could have been no other reason for selecting that number for dividing the pack into suits, and none other has been suggested by students. As it stands, it shows that it was arranged scientifically and with a decidedly well-considered purpose that met all the requirements of the worshippers at the temple of Mercury.

That the pips have this interpretation seems natural, for if it had been intended to select lucky devices common at the time it is more probable that a swatzka, a circle for immortality, or a wheel or perhaps an ankh, that were favourites among the Egyptians would have been chosen, since all these devices are quite as old and significant as the ones adopted, being closely connected with mysticism, it seems to be sufficient proof that the ones selected were taken because they represented Mercury, so these pips must be considered valuable links in the chain connecting them with his worship, even if they stood alone and were not supported by every card in the Atout part of the Tarots.

That the religions, superstitions and deities of Asia, Africa and Europe have mingled from time to time there is no doubt. E. Levi, in his “Dogme et Ritual” (Vol. II, page 230), says: “Passing from India to Egypt with its occultism, and then to the Hebrews and their theosophy, the stick (or the wand) corresponds with the Phallus of the Egyptians and the Yod of the Hebrews that is used to point to the sentence read from the Scriptures. Thus the vase (or cup) of Mercury is the Cteis, and the primitive He, the Sword, is the conjunction of the Phallus and the Cteis represented in Hebrew anterior to the captivity by the Vau, while the Circle or Money that may be vulgarly considered the emblem of the world is the final He of the divine name. Thus we have Jod-He-Vau-He, or conventionally pronounced Jehovah.”

The wand or staff of the Tarots represents the cards as they were originally used for divination, when a bundle of arrows, of rods, of straws or of sticks were gathered together and cast down before the images in the temple, so that their direction might be noted and inferences drawn as to the wishes of the gods.

Divination arrows with many mystic significances were common among all primitive nations. The “golden rod” given to Mercury was evidently the magician’s wand used when the plagues of Egypt were overwhelming the land. The staff of Moses brought forth water, while that of Aaron curled into a serpent when it symbolised eternity. There are few of the rock pictures of Egypt that do not represent their Pharaohs, their gods, and their priests with a sceptre, a rod, or a staff as an emblem of authority. So it was typical in ancient days, requiring then no explanation. It may be noticed in the Atouts that the cards representing the divinities show each god carrying a staff or sceptre. This fact greatly aids in identifying them, for the old Italian artists understood enough to place the sceptre in the hand of the emperor, and give only a staff to the hermit or priest.

Divining arrows have been connected with worship from very early days and probably preceded the rods. The former are mentioned more than once in the Bible, and the first verses of Numbers xvii are particularly interesting as being a historical reference to the divine commands to consult the occult, as well as marking the period when rods were substitutes for arrows. “The Lord spake unto Moses, saying, ‘Speak unto the children of Israel and take every one of them a rod according to the house of their fathers ... twelve rods: write thou every man’s name upon his rod. And thou shalt write Aaron’s name upon the rod of Levi: for one rod shall be for the head of the house of their fathers. And thou shalt lay them up in the tabernacle of the congregation before the testimony, where I will meet with you.’” It was Aaron’s rod that put forth leaves and fruited, showing that he was the one selected by the Lord, who conveyed his commands in this way.

It would be interesting to know what were the distinctive symbols of each tribe, but the only trace of them is found in Genesis xlix, which indicates that Judah had a lion or a sceptre. The symbol of the uplifted hands still marks the Cohen or Aaron’s descendant, while the “Magen Dovid,” or the “shield of David,” the six-pointed star, has been so widely adopted by Freemasons as to have become almost identified with them. By some people it is called Solomon’s seal.

This record of “marking” or numbering the rods is most important, for through it we trace the origin of the marks which in the hands of the wily Egyptian priests were afterwards placed on material they deemed more convenient than the primitive arrows, such as papyrus, or parchment, thus converting the divining arrows of the past into pip cards as we now know them. Rods with notched ends, and also some on which figures of men are cut, have been lately found in the tombs at Abydos. The divining rods of the Alaskan Indians are given numbers by painting stripes of different colours on them, while the rods of the Haida Island Indians, off the coast of North America, are differentiated by tribal distinctions, such as the Bear, the Tortoise, and so forth. The names of the different families show how little the savage people have parted from ancient customs. The long, thin, arrowlike paper cards of Korea show the same tribal marks.

As in Biblical times the rods were called after the men who used them as representing the ruler of their families, so substituting their pictures was probably the next step. The cards then were numbered up to ten, while the father, mother, child, and servant were represented in what we name Court cards. This enabled a man to ask queries of the gods in a most particular way. Should he be a soldier he would select a Sword emblem to typify him and his family, and then, laying the cards of that suit before the testimony (which signifies the tables of stone or the commandments), he awaited the answer that was conveyed to him after the priest had consulted the cards with reference to the way they were dealt in connection with the pictures on the walls.

In Chinese fortune-telling the gamblers resort to a “shrine of the god of war,” says Mr. Culin, in “Korean Games” (page 23), “and throw numbered arrows or sticks to divine the wishes of the gods, while sometimes paper lots are employed.” The arrows are kept in a tube like a quiver, or dicebox, and shaken out at random. The shrine is finely decorated, containing mystic figures and devices, and it stands upright against a wall. A table on which to shake the arrows is placed before the shrine. On page 26 of “Korean Games,” Mr. Culin states: “In Japan fifty slender, rounded splints of bamboo, called Zeichiku, varying in length from two to fourteen inches, are used. The fortune-teller gathers them in his right hand, raising it reverently to his forehead, muttering incantations, then parts the sticks into bundles, prophesying good or evil according to the number in each, and it is said that eachsplint, having its value and meaning, covers all events of a man’s life as recorded in a book of ‘oracular responses’ that the diviner keeps beside him for reference.”

Mr. Culin also mentions the “Meisir game of the Arabs,” when seven arrows were shaken from a tube or quiver. This old game was played before the time of Christ, and Mahomet prohibited it, calling it “the work of devils.” Arrows made of nab-a tree were used. (This name was seemingly derived from Naib or prophet.) They were of a bright yellow colour, and when shaken in the box gave a peculiar ringing sound, so arrows made of any other wood were considered undesirable and were discarded. Each arrow had a name and was marked with a numeral.

The significant and historical Staff or Rod of the Tarots was replaced in the French pack by the design of a clover leaf, or, as it is called, Trèfle, which we name a Club, a cognomen that recalls the original intention, so would otherwise be meaningless. Nor does the Coin or the Denari take the place of the one that originally represented Mercury Agoneus, the protector of merchants and of commerce. This sign when consulting the oracle denotes fair people and also the element of water, and anything floating on it or living in it, besides all things connected with trade, mercantile transactions, or development.

The Coppas or Cup suit is appropriately typified by a Cup or Chalice or the Vase of Mercury Chthonius. This device is superseded by the Hearts of the French pack, which symbolise the passive principle of the universe. Corresponding as it does with the chalice of the clergy, it betokens not only men of religious life, but those of knowledge and power through learning, and also scientific men and those in the government and law. Love and instruction are typified by the symbolic Cup that denotes fair people, who are also represented by the suit of Denari when the cards are consulted about the affairs of life.

The Cup plays a prominent part in the symbolism of ancient days. In “Records of the Past,” by Professor Sayce (Vol. III, page 86), is a letter from Dusratta to Amenophis III, translated from a cuneiform tablet discovered at Tel-el-Amarun, in Upper Egypt:

“And to my father did thou send much gold,
An oblation dish of solid gold and a Cup of solid gold,”

showing that the Cup symbolised not only a connection with sacrifice, but was also a bond of friendship. Votive cups are found in the temple of Osiris, showing that they were used in his worship. Some are very small, as if intended for children to use.

The “Cupbearer” to Royalties in Babylonia and Egypt was a most important post, for the person was chosen for faithfulness, since poison could be so easily conveyed in wine and drunk unsuspectingly by the king. The “Sakibearer” or Butler of Persia became one of the heroes or gods. He was also called “the Spiritual Instructor,” showing a connection with the priesthood, or “He who hands a Cup of Celestial Love,” which is typified by the wine as well as the Cup. “Jamshid, one of the greatest rulers of Iran” (Persia), says Major Sykes, in “The Glory of the Shia World” (page 139), “was able by means of his seven-ringed Cup not only to predict the future, but also survey the entire world.” This Jamshid had many of the qualities of Thoth Hermes attributed to him, for he introduced into his country the use of iron, the arts of weaving, wine-making, and healing, with many other arts and sciences, his memory is greatly revered. Omar Khayyam sings of him

“Iran, indeed, is gone with all his Rose
And Jamshid’s sev’n ring’d Cup,
Where? No one knows.”

The Cup placed in the sack of his brethren by Joseph was no mere accident, as it had for them a most important and symbolic meaning that is indicated but not enlarged upon in the Bible. Babylon is called “A golden Cup in the hand of the Lord.” (Jeremiah li:7.) That it was a symbol connected with power, priesthood, sacrifice, and friendship is indicated whenever it is mentioned in the Bible—for instance, Psalms lxxv:8, where it is said: “For in the hands of the Lord there is a Cup”; or the thirty-seven other times it is again spoken of in the Old Testament, and the thirty-two references to it in the New. The cups discovered in Babylonia and Egypt are of many different shapes that indicate the particular uses to which they were to be put. Those intended for holding the sticks when consulting the oracle of Thoth resemble a modern dicebox, as well as the box still used for sticks in China and Japan.

In Egypt immediately after death the soul was supposed to descend to the Lower World, and was then conducted to the Hall of Two Truths, where it was judged in the presence of Osiris and the forty-two Dæmones (the Lords of Truth) and Judges of the Dead. The Director of the Weights was Anubis, who placed in one of the scales of Justice (or Ma) a figure of Truth, and in the other a Cup containing the good actions of the deceased, while Thoth stood by, tablet in hand, to record the result. This shows the positive connection of Thoth with the emblems that afterwards became one of the devices of Mercury when he succeeded Thoth in both the upper and the lower worlds.

Late discoveries in Crete show frescoes representing handsome youths as cupbearers to King Minos.

The Espadas or Sword suit speaks for itself, and here, as well as in the name of the Club suit, the origin of the Spade is preserved, for Les Piques of the French pack (that represents the Halbert of mediæval times or the guardians of the person of the king), resembled garden spades to the English, who called them by that name, that when spoken recalled the pronunciation of the Spanish pip Espadas. A Harpé or Sword was presented by Jupiter to his son Mercury as a token of bravery and skill when he was the Messenger who killed Argos, or the herald of Mars. His title was then Mercury Argiphontes when he represented the best qualities of the warrior, such as courage, bravery, decision, and temperance. The suit typifies dark people and the element of air, and protects those who fly, whether birds or men. Altercation is also denoted by the Sword suit, as are troubles, sorrows, transformations, lawsuits, hatred, enemies, spies, or rivals. The word in Hebrew signifies lightning, brightness—as in Job xx:25, “the glittering sword cometh out,” which is particularly typical of the bright planet and the god of lightning. The Sword as “Messenger” is frequently referred to, as in Numbers xxii:31, “The angel of the Lord standing in the way and his sword drawn in his hand.”

The Cup and the Sword pips are recalled by a game played in Korea called Pitch-pot, one of the oldest games known to history. Arrows are thrown into a vase of water placed two and a half lengths from the player, who kneels on a mat to throw his weapon into it. After all the arrows have filled the cup the loser must drain it at one swallow.

The Money suit not only recalls the connection with merchants, with Mercury as their protector, but probably had an earlier origin in the mystic circle so beloved by occults. Isaiah xl:20 mentions the one “that sitteth upon the circle of the earth,” which quotation is fraught with symbolism. The royalties on the Egyptian tombs always wear a broad collar or necklace, the narrow cord being the emblem of the slave; but the King wears it as denoting his submission to the gods, while claiming to be supreme among men. The circle placed on their heads was a sign of unceasing power, and the zone or belt worn by female goddesses or princesses signified maidenhood or supremacy and had other mystic meanings. The coin placed on the cards signified many things besides merchants and their occupations, but it was generally connected with the material things of life. The Chinese coin still retains the hole in the centre, making it a hollow round. It is supposed by some that the coin was originally the mystic serpent with tail in mouth, thus completing the circle. Zwvoi meant the Serpent which girdles the globe and represents the Zodiac or Ecliptic line denoting the path of the sun.

The four Court cards dominate and control the pips of their own suits and play an important part wherever placed. The suits of Money and Cups denote the home and family life and are considered benign, while Money represents friends, partners, or strangers, and Swords may mean any one of them as desired by players; but the last two suits are usually deemed material or malignant, being the opposite to the benign suits. In general, Rods represent enterprise and glory; Coins denote investments or transactions; Cups typify love and happiness; while Swords seem to call for hatred and misfortune.

Then the number of each of the cards betokens something, for, dealt in four packets with three cards in each one of the heaps, a singleton is left for the fourth packet. The first pile should contain an Ace, Deuce, and Tray, which portend commencement. That is to say, if Rods are the suit these three cards tell of the beginning of an enterprise. If the suit is Cups they mean the beginning of a love affair, and in the same way hatred or a quarrel is denoted as beginning if the Sword suit is used, while Ace, Deuce, and Tray of Money announce the inception of a business transaction.

Early Italian Tarots
Pip and Court Cards of the Rod Suit


The second packet includes the Four, Five, and Six, which denote inertia, stoppage, opposition, concentration.

The Sevens, Eights, and Nines represent balance, poise, or result, and the Tenth card means uncertainty.

Each number has the same value or meaning. That is to say, an Ace of Rods means the beginning of an enterprise, the Deuce that the enterprise is arrested, while the Tray signifies that the enterprise having been established, can be continued.

The Ace of Money is the commencement of fortune, the following two cards mean opposition and good fortune. The Ace of Cups the dawn of a love affair, the Deuce opposition to it, and the Tray consent. The Ace of Swords means enmity, the Deuce that the enmity is arrested, and the Trey declares open rupture or war.

Therefore the packets of three with the singleton may be classified as, first, commencement; second, opposition; third, balance. The first three indicate dawn, the second three noon, while evening is represented by the Seven, Eight, and Nine, and the Ten card shows bewilderment or night.

The court cards in the Tarots have four to each suit that are named King, Queen, Cavalier, and Knave, and they represent man, woman, child, and servant. The male figure denotes enterprise, the female characterises affection or love, the youth typifies conflict, strength, struggle, rivalry, or hatred, while the Knave means transition. The court cards also express pointedly the meanings of the suit that they represent. They betoken family life, with the King as father, the Queen as mother, the Cavalier as son, and the Knave as daughter, child, or servant.

The King of Rods or Staves is a dark, kind friend; his Queen represents an amiable, good, charitable, or friendly person. The Cavalier is dark and good; the Knave is a dark messenger or child.

The court cards of Money typify fair people who are friendly, kindly disposed, or indifferent; the King representing the male, the Queen the female. The Cavalier portends strangers, and the Knave messages or news. These figures of the Rods and Cups bear inverse value to the Swords and Money, for the latter do not belong to the family, but indicate outsiders, strangers, or the world in general.

The King of Cups is a fair man and frequently means a lawyer, a councillor or a clergyman. The Queen is a blonde friend, perhaps the best beloved, and the Cavalier is sometimes a fair-haired lover, while the Knave is an infant, a messenger, or a birth.

The Suit of Swords always is unlucky, and its King betokens a dark, bad man, an enemy or some one to be mistrusted. The Queen represents a brunette who is wicked and to be feared, a gossip, a treacherous character. The Cavalier is an enemy or a spy, and is dark; while the Knave is bad news, delay, or malice. The whole group indicates opposition raised outside of the home.

It will be seen that if each one of the seventy-eight cards belonging to the Tarots be given the meaning assigned to it in the foregoing rules, nearly every emotion, every incident, every characteristic of man is typified, and the combinations are as endless as are the chances of life. As the cards are dealt and fall together, one balances or controls the other, so that when their meaning is deciphered as a whole there is a most interesting picture of ordinary life.

The game is played by two persons, one who deals and one who reads the cards, or rather interprets with superior knowledge the meaning of the great Book of Thoth Hermes Trismegistus. It can readily be seen how the game could be taken advantage of by the unscrupulous, who induced credulous persons to believe that the leaves of the book revealed the future. This faith, indeed, was inherited through generations, who received it from Moses and many of the Hebrew prophets, as well as from the priests of the temple of Thoth and those of Mercury; so it is small wonder that the mysterious leaves were regarded with awe, and that their revelations are received with implicit obedience, since the orders of the gods could be transmitted through the rods of Moses and Aaron that became the pip leaves, and the message was exemplified through the emblematic figures on the walls. The pips translated the meaning of the Atouts, without which neither part or volume of the book could be fully understood. Therefore all fortune-telling with packs of Hearts, Diamonds, Spades and Clubs is nonsense, since these cards were invented for games or gambling and have nothing occult or prophetic about them.


This is taken from Prophetical, Educational and Playing Cards.





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