In an earlier post I mentioned how A.E. Waite of Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck fame created a second deck: the Waite-Trinick deck. However, while I mentioned his interest in Celtic/Irish mythology, I left it as an aside.
However, it formed the basis of his new understanding of the Minor Arcana, whose suits, as many of you will know, are:
- Pentacles/Coins for Earth;
- Cups for Water;
- Swords for Air;
- and Wands/Staffs/Lances for Fire.
So how did his study of the mythology of early Irish literature altar his perception of the Four Suits?
To answer that, we need to look at the four magical items of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Tribe of the Gods who preceded the arrival of the Irish people.
There was a time before the Tuatha Dé Danann themselves came to Ireland. They came from four island cities at the Edge of the World, namely Falias, Murias, Findias and Gorias; from each of these mythic cities, they brought a separate magical item.
Let’s look at these magical weapons:
- From Falias came the Stone of Fál (Lia Fáil)
- From Murias came the Cauldron (coire) of the Dagda;
- From Findias came the Sword (claideb/claiomh solais) which belonged to Núada;
- From Gorias came the Spear (sleg) of Lugh;
A Stone, which could represent the Earth (Pentacles/Coins);
A Cauldron, which could represent Water (Cups);
A Sword, which is self explanatory;
And finally a Spear, which parallels Wands/Staffs/Lances.
At least that’s where Waite was going with it…
Now, the similarities get a little stretched from there; still let’s look at the Magical Jewels (as they were sometimes also referred to):
Stone of Fál (Lia Fáil):
Like the Sword in the Stone from the Arthurian cycle, the Stone of Fál served to determine the sovereignty of anyone who claimed to be king. The apparent king would stand on the Stone, and if it roared with joy, that man was deemed the rightful king. It also had the ability to rejuvenate the king in times of injury, sickness or old age.
Cauldron (coire) of the Dagda:
The Dagda was a powerful God, who bore many weapons. The Cauldron, however, wasn’t a weapon per-se; instead, it was a bottomless vat, so large that it took two people to carry it.
Likewise, it has some correlates with the Grail legend: the Chalice that heals the Wasteland (for an Alchemical take, see Plate 3 of the Splendor Solis).
Sword of Light (claideb/claiomh solais)
This Sword, when unsheathed, destroyed all foes.
Shining in some accounts, covered in Runes in other accounts, it was by all means a weapon of great power.
The Sword appears many times in Irish and Scottish folklore, often having to be taken – through some act of cunning – from a Giant or other preternatural being who posses it. The hero who succeeds often gets the hand of his beloved as his reward.
Sometimes it’s also called the Sword of Nuada. Nuada was king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, until he lost an arm in combat.
As might be imagined, parallels have been drawn with Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, which ties it to the Stone and the Cauldron.
Spear (sleg) of Lugh:
This magical weapon was owned by Lugh, one of the more prominent of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Not only was it invincible, but it was also alive; to send it out into battle required an incantation; to bring it back, Lugh used a separate magical phrase. While it rested, it was kept from its blood-thirst by being sheathed in crushed poppies.
How close these Four jewels correlate with the Suits of the Minor Arcana is open to interpretation. However, these myths are old enough to predate the origins of the Tarot, given most modern dating theories, so there is certainly a possibility that through cultural exchange, these ideas made there way Italy and France in time to be incorporated into the Four Suits.***
Also, the Arthurian legends and Grail romances would already have been established before the advent of the modern Tarot, which provides another potential link, one that Waite was certainly aware of.
Even if none of this is true, it still makes for an intriguing Jungian amplification, and that’s as good a take away as any.
*** [there is a different Minor Arcana origin theory tying them to what are called Mamluk playing cards, which would trace their beginnings to the Arabic World, but that’s a different story altogether]
One source for further exploration Irish and Gaelic myths is The Mythology of the British Islands, 1905, republished as Celtic Myth and Legend, online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cml/.
For a general reference to the history of the Tarot, I suggest A Wicked Pack of Cards: Origins of the Occult Tarot by by