What About Those Sixes?

In keeping with my previous post about perceived weaknesses in the Waite-Smith deck, I want to talk about a telling example that fully demonstrates the questionable wisdom of Waite’s and Smith’s departure from their Golden Dawn roots: the Sixes of the Minor Arcana. In the Qabalistic system of the Golden Dawn (later adapted by Aleister Crowley), the Sixes are bracketed by difficult cards. The Fives before them sow discord and the Sevens coming after reap it. Crowley’s titles tell the tale: Strife, Disappointment, Defeat and Worry on one side; Valour (often driven by desperation), Debauch, Futility and Failure on the other. The Sixes represent a momentary respite that can’t last as the elemental energy of each suit presses onward toward its mundane fulfillment and eventual exhaustion. Their Thoth titles present a rather benign face to the enemy: Victory, Pleasure, Science and Success; in other words harmony, well-deserved but ultimately fleeting as an unsympathetic Universe gets back to “business as usual.”

All of the RWS Sixes, however, march to the beat of a different drum. They have an aspect of gratuitous “giving” about them, whether it’s charity or service. The 6 of Wands presents a hero who has given his all to the cause and is now savoring public acclaim; the 6 of Cups shows one child apparently giving a gift of flowers to another; the 6 of Swords depicts a boatman tendering ferry service to a pair of travelers; and the 6 of Pentacles displays an apparently wealthy man giving coins to beggars. There is nothing in the Golden Dawn canon that suggests charitable or sacrificial intentions for the Sixes; their meanings are about the rewards of well-adjusted “being,” not those of “doing” anything in particular to express it.

I’m OK with the 6 of Wands since the image is a fair depiction of victory, or at least its aftermath: a triumphal procession. The 6 of Cups is a head-scratcher, though. Crowley saw sexual enjoyment in it because of its Venus in Scorpio correspondence, but nothing of the sort is suggested in Waite’s version (unless the man walking away in the background has dubious intentions toward those children; I can almost hear Curly Howard going “Nyuck, nyuck!” at that one). The idea of “nostalgia” is similarly puzzling; either Waite pulled that one out of his capacious occult backside or he didn’t have a clue what Smith was up to. I just stick with Crowley’s observation that it is a “fertile card” representing “well-being, harmony of natural forces without effort or strain, ease, satisfaction,” and that it is “one of the best in the pack,” and leave it at that.

The only allusion to the Golden Dawn’s idea of the “Lord of Earned Success” in the RWS 6 of Swords is that the two morose-looking people on the boat must have somehow earned their passage (after all, they could be swimming to Avalon). Perhaps they are traveling to a place where such success awaits them, but they don’t seem to be doing much of anything to deserve it (except maybe not falling overboard before they get there). More likely, Smith came up with a completely original pictorial theme for this card. Crowley’s title of “Science” appears to be based entirely on its astrological correspondence to intellectual Mercury in experimental Aquarius, one of the three “scientific” signs of traditional astrology (along with Virgo and Scorpio). Merging the two trains of thought, I’ve decided to interpret this card as showing a somewhat abstract “mental voyage of discovery,” but nothing more personally uplifting.

The 6 of Pentacles turns the Golden Dawn assumption of “Material Success” on its head by showing a man who has obviously attained it giving his wealth away. The concept of “charity” or “gift-giving” is entirely foreign to that of the achievement of material satisfaction which lies at the heart of the original idea. Crowley’s shortening of it to “Success” is good enough for me; what we do with such success is beyond the scope of this card, and I don’t draw any conclusions along those lines from the image when it shows up in a reading. Besides, who wants to be told they should part with their hard-earned cash? (Or more temptingly, that they should expect to receive someone else’s.) I’m more apt to point my sitters at the old Smith-Barney slogan by telling them they could be well-positioned to make their money the old-fashioned way, by “earning it.”

There are a number of other cards among the RWS Minor Arcana that can lead the unwary astray; I’ve tried to sort them all out in my Tarot 101 series of posts. But the Sixes hold a special spot in my “Gallery of Infamy” since they fall so wide of the original mark. My rule of thumb is to read the RWS primarily with Golden Dawn and Thoth meanings, using Smith’s images only to suggest metaphors and analogies via free-association, and always within the context of the broader narrative landscape, not as self-evident anecdotes.

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