Hard and Soft, Red and Black

During my intermittent involvement with the Tarot de Marseille (I’m still waiting for that “one book to rule them all”), I’ve come across the opinion that Batons and Swords are the “hard” suits, while Cups and Coins are “soft.” There is some logic to this: both wooden batons (also called staves) and edged metal blades are weapons when wielded with the intent to do harm, and the target is almost invariably “squishy.” On the other hand, a chalice is accepting of and gives form to its liquid contents, and a coin as a medium of exchange is often the movable centerpiece of a negotiated bargaining  agreement that belies its unbending metallic firmness. Batons and Swords are straight (or at least linear), stiff and assertive, while Cups and Coins are rounded and agreeably unassuming in the hand. It’s not a perfect correlation (one could still clobber the foe with a goblet or a roll of quarters while walking with a cane that was whittled with a jack-knife) but at least it offers a workable premise.

Although I struggle to keep esoteric content such as elemental and astrological correspondences out of my TdM worldview, any discussion of the tarot suits as natural phenomena inevitably falls back on such analogies. Batons have been linked to elemental Fire, Cups to Water, Swords to Air and Coins to Earth, although dissenting opinions about this arrangement, while not numerous, are occasionally encountered. In nature, the thunderstorm partakes of both the “hard” qualities of Fire and Air (lightning and powerful winds) and the marginally softer expressions of Water (soaking rain and occasional hail), while the landscape of Earth is its docile counterpart. Fire and Air are swift and sure in their operation, while Water and Earth (at least in their more “plastic” form and when not unduly agitated or frozen into immobility) are more circuitous and conformable. A placid pond on a sunny July afternoon is inviting, although a river in flood or the implacable advance of a glacier is anything but. A dormant field patiently awaits the quickening of the seed while an earthquake or volcano (a blending of Earth and Fire) takes matters into its own hands.

In human terms, there is also a merging of “hard” and “soft” qualities. The fiery character of Batons is usually frank and direct while the airy nature of Swords is brisk and eminently rational, both obviously at the “hard” end of the spectrum.  Regarding the putative “softness” of the earthy Coins, anyone who has dealt with the often flinty demeanor of a strong Capricorn type will attest to its implacability, while stolid Taurus can be the soul of stubbornness; only Virgo, in its eagerness to see the other person’s viewpoint, is typically more accommodating. The watery personality is generally non-confrontational, although it can be uncommonly hard-headed (Cancer), passive-aggressive (Pisces) and occasionally devious (Scorpio).

None of this is of much help when trying to sort out which of the four tarot suits relates to each of the red and black suits of playing-card cartomancy, where red cards are traditionally considered positive and black cards are viewed as negative. But there is once again some sense to the approach: the black Clubs suggest wooden weapons that easily adapt to the combative stance of Batons (although they represent a blunt force that is less akin  to the urgency of Fire); the shape of the black Spades makes them an obvious choice for Swords (however,  some see them as farming implements and thus connected to Earth); red Hearts and Cups have a natural affinity for one another;  and red Diamonds have to go somewhere, which leaves Coins as the last option – both are items of monetary value – even though an argument has been made that the positive connotation of Diamonds is more attuned to the quickness of Batons, while the negative Clubs are dull and, like Coins, more “of the Earth.”

I find this to be more an interesting intellectual exercise than a valuable adjunct to divination since the cartomantic keywords for the suit cards are often at odds with  typical tarot card meanings. It’s probably best not to attempt forcibly combining the two simply for the purpose of syncretism; that opportunity can be taken up with the Lenormand cards, where playing-card insets are already part of the system. I find, however, that a similar interpretive dissonance exists to a lesser degree. Overall, the “40,000-foot” perspective is advisable in both cases, without putting too fine a point on the cartomantic attributions that are in truth only of secondary significance in a reading.

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