Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

Gérard Van Rijnberk: The Minor Arcana

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Translator’s Introduction

As readers of this blog will have noticed, very little of the vast Tarological literature in French has been made available to an English-reading audience, and nowhere is this lacuna more visible than in considering some of the pioneering reference works on the subject. Of these, the book Le Tarot – Histoire, Iconographie, Ésotérisme [The Tarot: History, Iconography, Esotericism] (Derain, 1947, repub. Trédaniel, 1981, Dervy, 2019) by the Dutch author Gérard Van Rijnberk stands out. Published in 1947, it contains not only one of the most comprehensive historical overviews published up until then, but it also contains one of the most thorough iconographic analyses ever undertaken on the topic, one which has not been surpassed in any language to the best of our knowledge. While some new historical data has inevitably come to light in the intervening 70-odd years since its initial publication, the timely reprint of this volume is most welcome, as is the digital facsimile, if only for the wealth of classical allusions and examinations of symbolism it contains as well as the thought-provoking questions it raises. The numerous plates also contain many illustrations of great interest. The “esoteric” section proper will be of interest to those who wish to discover a Martinist interpretation of the Tarot. Gérard van Rijnberk (1875-1953), a doctor by profession, was effectively a Martinist, and his other book on Martinès de Pasqually reflects his interest in and knowledge of that current.

We inaugurate a series on the Minor Arcana by first presenting the following text, which has been pieced together from the different entries in Van Rijnberk’s book. (A corresponding English section has been added to the table of terms in different languages.) The reason for this is the comparative neglect with which the subject has been dealt. It is one of those truisms that, in the Tarological literature, the Minor Arcana are almost always either overlooked, or if they are dealt with at all, it is only in the most perfunctory manner, for the sake of completion. Typically, the French literature elides over the matter, to the extent that, in the current cartomantic methodologies, many if not most readers use solely the trumps.

Eudes Picard was one of the first authors to give the Minor Arcana any serious consideration, but, in this regard, it is worth bearing in mind that he redrew the deck to suit his own ideas, which therefore may not be as immediately applicable to the cards of the ‘classic’ Marseilles type. Following his lead, a number of other authors devoted some thought to the matter, for instance, P. S. Darc, Joseph Maxwell, Jean Chaboseau, and Paul Marteau, to name but a few.

In his work, Van Rijnberk mentions the connection certain authors have drawn between the four suits and the four elements, the four estates of medieval society, or the four humours of classical medicine. The priest Ménestrier (in 1704) was the first to propose the idea that the four suits represented the four estates, but his logic is tenuous and unconvincing, and he correlates the clergy to hearts, the military to the spades, the bourgeoisie to the diamonds, and the peasants to the clubs. Nonetheless, the idea persists, in various forms and with varying attributions. The same can be said of the attributions of the four elements.

Note: It is necessary to understand that the word couleur in French, in the context of card games, means ‘suit’ in English, hence Van Rijnberk’s exhaustive analysis of the actual colours used in the pigmentation of the cards, the comparative table of which has not been reproduced in the following excerpt. We have also omitted the table of correspondences between the Minor Arcana and the suits of ordinary playing cards.


Van Rijnberk 2019 edition

The Minor Arcana

Gérard van Rijnberk

The Minor Arcana include four series of fourteen cards, of which ten are numbered from One (Ace) to Ten, called pips, and four courtly figures or minor trumps: valet, queen, horseman and king. The four series are characterised and distinguished between each other by a sign. In all the known Tarot decks, these four signs are the same and are called:




French (and Belgian)





coupes or calices

cups or chalices




deniers or pentagrams

coins or pentacles









bâtons or sceptres

wands, staffs or sceptres

On the numbered cards, or rather, those which each have a particular numeral value, the distinctive sign is repeated as many times as necessary to form their ordinal number, or rather, to indicate their value. For the coins and the cups, this is easily achieved: on each card we find two, three, and so on, up to ten times the single sign. For the staffs and swords, narrow, coloured, and interlocking bands have been used: those corresponding to the staffs are straight, those that represent the swords are curved. Some thought to have found obvious reminders of the Orient in these two signs: the Oriental scimitar is curved, and the staff is a domestic utensil in much greater use there than in the West.

Some have also wished to see in the four series of the same sign four little armies, each led by a King seated on a throne and holding in his hand the distinctive sign of his side (this sign is often placed by itself, near the King’s head). He is accompanied by the Queen, by his Marshal and by his Valet, who each have the same sign as their lord and king. His 54 soldiers, grouped by two, three, four, etc., form his entourage. The standard-bearer is not lacking either: it is represented by the distinctive sign of the little army, reproduced to a greater size on the last, or if you wish, on the first card of the series: the Ace.

The series having the same sign are also called couleurs [i.e. suits], but in reality, as we have already said, the four series are not characterised by a colour proper, nor even by a principal colour either. In the coins and the cups, the colour yellow predominates; in the swords and staffs, it is black. Nothing more.

If we now compare the Minor Arcana of the Italian Tarot with those of the Tarot of Marseilles, the differences are not many. The colours are capriciously distributed. The ace of cups is a gigantic real cup, whereas the Tarot of Marseilles bears a large golden chalice. The Knight of the four series is called Horseman, and the Queen, Dame. The numbers of the numeral cards are in Arabic numerals!

This last detail may have a certain importance, because, if we accept that the Tarot was brought into Europe by the Arabs, one would expect to find Arabic numerals. From there to find them on the Italian Tarot, in fact, the opinion that the Tarot was originally imported into Italy in the beginning, and from there was transmitted to France, where it acquired French captions and Roman numerals, is strengthened. But all this is but castles in the sky.

* * *

A lot of fantasy has been deployed on the subject of the possible exoteric symbolism of the four series of playing cards. Some wish to see an allusion to the four estates of medieval society: Clergy (cups), Military (swords), Nobility (coins), the People (staffs). This distinction would have its origins in the four estates of ancient Hindu society, Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Some have also wished to see in the Cups, Faith; in the Coins, Charity; in the Swords, Justice; and in the Clubs (staffs), Strength.

Gallotti, in his Doctrina Promiscua*, written in 1488, supposes that the denarii (coins) were originally rural-style round loaves of bread, and that the cups were an allusion to wine; these two series would then recall the mystery of Transubstantiation!

The humorous moralist of the Carte Parlanti†, published in Venice in 1545, maintains that “the swords evoke the death of those given to gambling; that the staff indicates the chastisement deserved by those who cheat; the coins depict money, fuel of the game; and finally, the cups recall the drink with which all the players’ quarrels are appeased.”

It has also been noted that one form of the game of chess was played with four players, and that the game itself was called Chaturanj in India, that is, the Four Kings. Moreover, the figures of chess also evoke the game of cards in another way: in the game of chess, there is a King, a Queen, a Horseman (or more precisely the Vizir), the Valet (the Fool, according to French terminology), and the mere soldiers or pawns. The only figure of the game of chess that is missing from the four series of the game of cards, the Tower, is to be found among the Greater Trumps, under the name of n° XVI (la Maison Dieu or the Tower Struck by Lightning).

Another analogy: in the game of chess, there really are two different predominant colours, just as in the game of cards, there are only two in reality, and not four.

* * *

I wish to place here some observations on the esotericism of the Minor Arcana, a subject to which I shall not return in the course of this study. Here too, a multitude of remarks arise. Why the choice of four suits or series? They call to mind the four Elements and appear to have a well-determined significance: the Staffs make one think of the Coagula and the Earth Element; the Swords of the Fire Element and the Solve of the Alchemists; the Juggler does he not raise one arm towards Heaven, and point the other towards the Earth? And the Coins, those circular golden discs: they make one think of the radiant, fertilising, Sun, masculine and active principle of the Air; whereas the Cups, those feminine wombs, evidently represent the negative, attracting, and dissolving, passive principle of Water. All this is very possible, probable even, but it seems difficult to do as many occultists do, to attribute to each of the 56 ordinary cards a profound esoteric significance. This in no way means that the Minor Arcana cannot serve in an eminent role as an auxiliary divinatory instrument.


* A treatise dealing with medical astrology, astronomy, herbs, and medicines, by Galeottus Martius, also known as Galeotto Marzio. – Translator

† An allusion to Le carte parlanti by Pietro Aretino, first published in 1543. – Translator

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