This is the first of four articles on the four aces in The Alchemical Tarot and The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and their elemental associations. In this article, we will discuss the ace of coins.
The minor suits in The Alchemical Tarot and The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery are assigned to the four elements: coins to earth, vessels to water, swords to air, and staffs to fire. In historic decks, we can find some variations in these associations. For example, in The Grand Etteilla, Etteilla clearly equates the four minor suits to the elements by depicting a landscape dominated by an element as the background for each deuce. He equates coins to fire, vessels to water, swords to air, and staffs to earth. Therefore, his two of coins depicts two coins floating in a fire. Also, there is the glyph for Mercury on each coin, and the god is pictured below. But, his list is out of the ordinary. The most popular list of associations, the one endorsed by Eliphas Levi and Pamela Colman Smith, is the one listed above and used in The Alchemical Tarot and The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery. This also seems to be the elemental associations that we find in the earliest Tarot and playing card decks. Although in these decks the associations are not as explicit, and we need to look for clues to determine them.
In the earliest decks, the presence of the elements was suggested by authors who equated the suits with a mandala-like cosmology in which the suits are linked to four kingdoms, four classes of society, or four activities. Traditionally, with this association with kingdoms, classes, or activities, there is also an association with four temperaments embodied by each. These lists of four temperaments have been related to the elements since ancient times through the theory of the four humors. This symbolic structure was mentioned by name for the first time in the 16th century anonymous Discorso, in which coins are equated with riches, cups with pleasure, swords with martial arts, and staffs with literature. The author claims that these pursuits each steam from one of the humors and their personality type: melancholic linked to earth, phlegmatic to water, sanguine to air, and choleric to fire.
Another clue is that in early decks the round earthy suit symbols of coins and cups are considered feminine, and the phallic looking symbols of swords and staffs are considered masculine. We find the same division between feminine and masculine in the alchemical theory of the elements. The more physical elements, earth and water, are feminine, and the less material elements, air and fire, are considered masculine. Therefore, coins are feminine and related to earth.
In Alchemy the elements are arranged in a progression from the most physical to the least. I have followed this progression when arranging the suits in both The Alchemical Tarot and The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery. Therefore, we start with the Ace of Coins.
In The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, the ace of coins in modeled on the ace in The Tarot of Marseilles. In the traditional Tarot of Marseilles, the ace of coins depicts the suit symbol with a four petaled flower in the center, and surrounded by flowering vines, a common way of representing the earth. However, the vines that surround the central coin in the Sevenfold are more elaborate and influenced, as is the rest of the deck, by the Pre-Raphaelite designs of the 19th century English artists William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Petals and leaves also appear on the body of the coin, surrounding a five-pointed star, called a pentacle. This is a detail borrowed from Pamela Colman Smith’s deck. Smith’s ace depicts the coin or pentacle above a flowering landscape. But hers is held by a hand coming out of a cloud, a detail that she borrowed from the Marseilles aces of swords and staffs. The pentacle is one of the tools of a magician. It is a five-pointed star made with a continuous line and engraved on or cast into a metal disk. It is used in rituals to represent earth.
The Alchemical ace of coins contains more allegory. Each ace in The Alchemical Tarot depicts the suit symbol immersed in its element and accompanied by an animal that represents the beginning essence of the element. Also each Tarot suit symbol is linked to one of the modern French suit signs that are used on common playing cards and this symbol is worked into the Tarot symbol as well, sometimes providing a surprisingly meaningful addition.
On the ace of coins a rabbit sits in front of a large coin nestled into a fertile bower of the earth. In the center of the coin, the related playing card symbol, the diamond, forms a hole, like the hole in the center of a Chinese coin. From the corners of the diamond four arrows extend to indicate the four cardinal directions. Alchemically the number four is linked to the physical world of time and space, which is described in fourfold divisions, such as the four elements, the four seasons, the four directions. The most important element, however, is the non-material essence, known as the Quinta Essentia, the essential fifth element. To depict the Quinta Essentia, alchemists placed it in the center of a mandala with the four divisions placed at the corners or sides. This coin has become an alchemical mandala. It illustrates that all of physical reality emerges from the immaterial—the hole in the center. In the same way everything that we have manifested in our lives, such as our physical surroundings, started with an idea that, in turn, emerged from the unknowable depths of our unconscious mind. The magician’s pentacle is similar in symbolism in that its five points represent the fifth element dominating the other four.
In cultures from around the world a white rabbit is associated with the moon and because the moon progresses through phases each month the rabbit is also associated with transformation. In many cultures it is considered a shamanistic guide and at times a trickster hero, like Br’er Rabbit or Bugs Bunny. The alchemists use the rabbit as a symbol of Mercurius, the alchemical essence and the god of alchemy. The rabbit on the ace of coins, although facing in the opposite direction, is the same rabbit that appears on the Fool, where he is guiding the novice alchemist into the interior of the earth to begin the initial dark stage of the Magnum Opus, the great work. It is fitting that he is also here at the beginning of the earth suit where he will be transformed into the lion that is the king of this suit. The rabbit’s body is carrying it to the left, as if it is reluctant to enter into this process but its head is turned to the right. As we learned from the coin with its central hole the material process and the body will be guided by the immaterial idea and the head.
On the Alchemical king of coins we see that the rabbit has become a crowned lion, a common alchemical symbol for the mastery of earth. His coin now has a picture of him on it, because he is the master of his physical world. He is able to provide for himself in his own way.
On the Sevenfold king of coins, a lion maned human king clutches his coin to his chest. He sits in front of a partition with his banner on it, and his banner symbol is the alchemical lion. In the center of the loin’s chest is the diamond, demonstrating that the lion’s courage stems from a connection to the immaterial fifth element.