I love staring at tarot cards. I can gaze at a card a million times and still find something new in it. Last night, I was looking at cards with friends. As I contemplated the Ten of Wands, I saw an oddity at his front foot. It looked like a piece of striped hard candy and he was about to kick it. Not trusting my eyes, I opened an online image so I could zoom in more. It was a plowed field, and the furrows looked like stripes to me. Of course. Nothing to write home about. But wasn’t it odd that it occupied the entire space between his foot and a wand in his bundle. That’s when inspiration hit. One principle of symbolism is to note how one thing connects to another. These connecting lines bridge unrelated things. As a result, we discover a fresh context for the image.
In this article, I’ll share three examples of how connecting lines draw out deeper symbolism in the cards. I invite you to start noticing these connections and pondering what new information they provide into tarot symbolism.
Ten of Wands: Connecting Lines from Field to City
The furrows of the field felt out of place. At last I realized why. There wasn’t grass on either side of the field. It filled up the gap between the character’s leg and the lower tip of the second wand from the left. In fact, that wand on the left seemed to point to the field, while its counterpart on the right pointed to the village. From field to village. This is a man who takes a crop from the field to the village.
This realization provided a new context for the card. I’ve written about the Ten of Wands for my Pips and Decans series and discussed its symbolism in my Quirky Questions class. And I have my spiel I say about the card in readings. But this nuance opened up the card considerably.
Most readers, myself included, tend to focus on the burden the man is carrying. The Pamela Colman Smith image is an odd one, with the wands held strangely. But most illustrations indicate a heavy or unwieldy load. The tens as a rule indicate the culmination or conclusion of the suit. But this final card was not a conclusion. Considering that a farmer’s livelihood depends on the sale of a product months in the making, this trip to market will make or break him.
One of my friends mentioned that Isabel Radow Kliegman in her book, “Tarot and the Tree of Life: Finding Everyday Wisdom in the Minor Arcana” suggests that the Wands are not being held up by the man, but held down, as if they are on the verge of flying away. While brilliantly explaining the odd composition of the image, a variation on this idea could support my new-found insight.
“Success Depends Entirely on This Task”
All the hard work of sowing, tending, and harvesting the crop could yet be lost if the sale is not concluded. He’s at the end of his journey, and yet success itself is entirely yet to be determined. Compare this to the final failure of the Ten of Swords or the final success of the Ten of Coins, for example. Following the symbolism of the connecting lines from field to village, we see that success rests entirely on being able to follow through with this final, onerous task.
Two of Cups: Reaching Out
Let’s look at a couple more examples. In the Two of Cups, we can see that the man’s hand bridges the gap between the two characters as he reaches across toward her hand or the cup she is holding. I talk about this symbolism from a qabalistic perspective in my article on Chokmah and the Tarot Twos. But even without that esoteric perspective, we can explore the symbolism simply by following the connecting lines.
Not only is his hand crossing the center line (I can almost hear her inner child screaming, “Mom!! He’s not staying on his side!”), his back foot is lifted as if he has taken a step forward. Meanwhile, her hands are symmetrical as she holds the cup. In addition, both her feet are planted, slightly turned out, but also symmetrical.
The resulting interpretation runs the risk of being sexist or gendered. If one were to jump too quickly to the idea that the man comes to the woman, or the woman creates the stability that draws in the man, you’d be losing the deeper sense of the card. In fact, I can’t help but note the caduceus above the man’s hand. Although it’s reasonable to assume that the man and woman are the two polarities that wind around the center staff, by following the connecting lines I arrive at a different conclusion. The character on the left, perfectly balanced and even, is the center staff. The character on the right, moving, reaching, going outside the lines, is the swirling energies that encircle like the two snakes.
In fact, if you compare this to the traditional maypole symbolism, which also depends on a center, sturdy, planted pole and the moving ribbons that wrap around it, we see a shift of the gender polarity. If memory serves, in Spiral Dance, Starhawk describes the maypole symbolism as the Goddess entwining her legs around the God in an act of cosmic lovemaking. In our Two of Cups, following the gender of the characters, we see the female strong and firm while the male spirals.
“Spiritual Growth Via Rootedness”
As interesting as the juxtaposition is, it’s not necessary to put it in terms of gender. When we follow the connecting lines to explore the tarot symbolism, we see that which is moving, undergoing change, developing, is drawn to that which is stable, centered, grounded. Like a vine on a tree, the one that is growing more or faster ascends via the other’s rootedness. Together they lift each other up to the open wings of spiritual attainment above.
The High Priestess: Connecting on the Tree of Life
As our last example, let’s consider the Major Arcana card, The High Priestess. It’s interesting to note that the two horns of her lunar helmet connect two of the pomegranates on the tapestry behind her. In this case, it’s necessary to explore esoteric symbolism, which is foundational to this card’s meaning.
The pomegranate shapes on the tapestry are arranged in the pattern of the sephiroth on the Tree of Life. So the two arcs of her headdress connect the sephiroth of 2-Chokmah and 3-Binah. According the Hermetic philosophy, the path that links these two spheres is the path of Daleth, the door. Daleth is assigned to the tarot’s Empress. The High Priestess herself correlates to the path of Gimel, the camel. Her path is the longest one, linking 6-Tiphareth, the center of the tree, to 1-Kether, the first emanation from Divine Source.
Centered as she is in the card, the High Priestess’ torso indeed follows the middle pillar path of gimel on the Tree. By the way, did you notice in the Two of Cups that the woman’s tabard is the same color as the High Priestess’ gown? Some tarot readers develop meanings for the Minors by equating them to the Major with the same number, such as matching the Two of Cups to II The High Priestess. It seems that the symbolism discussed above indeed relates to this card.
The odd-shaped crown that the High Priestess wears is associated with the Egyptian Goddesses Hathor and Isis. It represents the solar disc flanked by cow horns. But it can also symbolize the phases of the moon, waxing crescent on the left, full moon in the center, and waning crescent on the right. So the waxing crescent reaches towards 3-Binah, while the waning crescent points to 2-Chokmah. The moon phases remind us of the eternal cycle of coming into being and fading out of existence. The center disc does double duty as New and Full Moon, the dark start of the cycle and the bright achievement of fullness.
Just as the Majors group with the Minors of the same number, so both the Majors and Minors line up in order with the sephiroth. Accordingly, II The High Priestess correlates to 2-Chokmah, the father. Meanwhile, III The Empress is also 3-Binah, the mother. In fact, Binah’s titles include AMA, the dark sterile mother, and AIMA, the bright fertile mother. (Perhaps depending on whose legs are wrapping around whom!) We can extend this symbolism to the contrasting qualities of the High Priestess and the Empress. The HP is the new moon, the Empress is the full moon. Alternately, the HP is the waning moon, the Empress is the waxing. Likewise, the HP is the dark, sterile mother, the Empress is the bright, fertile mother. In this sense, the High Priestess adds 3-Binah to her repertoire.
“Creation that Precedes Fertility”
By exploring the connecting lines of the High Priestess’ crown, we see how she and the Empress are two sides of a coin. Following the caduceus analogy from above, both High Priestess and Empress as polarities swirl around the heights of the tree like the revolving snakes. But also, the High Priestess, acting as the strong, planted Middle Pillar, supports the growing and receding Empress, trellis to rose.
You could say that she is creation that precedes fertility. The latter is in the Empress’ wheelhouse. But 2-Chokmah arises from reflection. That’s under the jurisdiction of the lunar High Priestess. So even before the most basic tenet of biology, we see the High Priestess at work turning one into two and other sorcerous acts.
I’m reminded of the Tao te Ching:
The Tao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced All things.Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu. J. Legge, Translator
What Connecting Lines Can You Find?
Pull a few cards and take a look. What connecting lines can you find? And how do they help you explore the symbolism of this tarot card? Let it take you on a journey and see where you end up!
Want more inspiration? Check out other articles on Tarot Symbolism.