There are a lot of basic occult-Tarot ideas that get glossed over or ignored in pop-Tarot books, or in online discussions, because these are allegedly motifs of Tarot’s dark side, and so, according to the self-appointed “light-side” advocates, they are best left veiled.
One of these little-discussed concepts is that Tarot is a weapon, or a set of weapons. Why should anyone wish to advocate such a dangerous-sounding thing as that? Isn’t Tarot just a pack of cards, intended to bring people to “good” and affirming ideas and feelings? So, ideas like weapons and war and death shouldn’t be in Tarot, right?
The truth is that occult Tarot is built upon a particular conceptual construct, gaming Tarot, and it naturally incorporates the symbolism and the language of conflict and conquest, as befits what the founder of occult Tarot, Antoine Court de Gébelin, called a wargame, not a peacegame.
Now, before the Tarot was invented, its main precursor pack, a medieval Egyptian pack known as Mamluk cards, symbolized various divisions and officers of the Mamluk government, which would be played against one another in the game. Ottoman societies and internal politics were highly competitive and treacherous, and these card games may have been intended to remind the players of these facts of life (and death).
As the game became Europeanized (in highly competitive and treacherous Italy), the suits were modified somewhat to fit European tastes and understandings. For example, the Mamluk polo-sticks, were converted into staffs, and the Mamluk scimitars were straightened into European longswords. The role of the suits in the game did not change however, as again they were pitted against each other, and in combination with the Tarot supersuit of 22 trumps were used to play little cardboard wars.
As the occultists began building their dogmas of Tarot, one of their earliest and most basic observations had to do with how the suits and the social forces or estates they were claimed to represent, were in conflict with each other. Wands, Cups, Swords, and Coins might have mutual interests at times, and be held and expected to cooperate in the hand of a particular player of the game, but they all had their respective powers and defects as weapons, in reality and in occult operations.
Antoine Court de Gébelin noted that the ancient Egyptians, who he wrongly believed had invented Tarot, "divined future things" by "weapons in general" and that "the four Signs" (i.e. the four suits of the Tarot pack) would be mixed or shuffled together to form "sentences which the Magi read or interpreted like Judgments of Destiny."
By the time the Golden Dawn synthesized occult Tarot dogma into a highly systematic framework, they viewed the Tarot suits as icons of the Elements, which they called "Elemental Weapons". Each Weapon and Element corresponded to a letter of Tetragrammaton, or the four-lettered Hebrew name of God:
There were numerous other correspondences to these weapons, which guided a magus in his choice of which to employ, depending upon his magickal aims.
Aleister Crowley of course, having been trained in the Golden Dawn system of Tarot, also adopted the idea of the Tarot suits as Elemental Weapons, and he writes a good deal about these and their correct applications in his works, devoting a whole chapter to them in his work Magick and discussing them in various places in The Book of Thoth.
For example, in his appendix for the card Magus (or Juggler):
"[Magus] bears a wand with a knob at each end, which was probably connected with the dual polarity of electricity; but it also the hollow wand of Prometheus that brings down fire from Heaven. On a table or altar, behind which he is standing, are the three other elemental weapons.
"With the Wand createth He.
With the Cup preserveth He.
With the Dagger destroyeth He.
With the Coin redeemeth He."
You may ask, how is it that something which preserves or redeems is a weapon? In fact, isn't it exactly the opposite of that which destroys? Indeed, however, these are opposite even of another idea, that of the power of creating, which is balanced against the power of destruction, precisely because Wands-Swords function together—every creation is a destruction after all, and every destruction a creation.
In the same way, if something is saved from this process, preserved in the Cup or redeemed by the Coin, it is condemned to an apparent, even unjust, bondage to some desired stability, of a certain quality that implies spiritual death. In fact, the Coin only redeems when its essential nature and tendency to density and unchangingness is ultimately defeated.
The proper understanding of the Universe, as occult Tarot teaches us, is that the Universe is at War. Perhaps it is a Holy War, in the sense of something essential and divine being expressed or worked out in the constant conflict; or perhaps it is a War in name or attitude only, as the great movement or Way of things naturally rips and tears apart temporary unities as it dispassionately unfolds Destiny.
In any case, it often seems incredibly unfriendly to us as we plot our little lives of desire and attainment. We can look at graveyards and obituaries and see the ultimately hopeless nature of any human cause founded upon a desire for a long life or significance.
So, what good or positive message is to be taken from this dark-side teaching?
Well, the good news I suppose is that we possess any weapons at all. We could have been cast into the maelstrom utterly defenseless, with no hope of making any progress whatsoever. For a very long time, that was the effective condition of humanity. But, very slowly, after the fashion of the Aeonic Elephant lumbering over the centuries, we have learned more and more about how to employ the Elements of our bondage and destruction to commit high acts of impiety to lengthen and in some ways better our lives.
We are still imperfect, even primitive employers of the Elemental Weapons, but we have at least some hope that we shall improve to the point of making some real progress.
Unfortunately, this world, and Tarot, being about realistic measures and odds, we have to view our hopeful attitude as a potentially dangerous impediment to survival, since it makes us stress the benefits of using the Weapons, without considering the incredible risks their use always represents.
By this I mean that one really cannot ever successfully escape the essential natures of the Weapons, and so for example, to Weapon which "preserves", say by cementing certain attitudes about identity and patriotism, can lead to horrific destruction when it comes time to show what you will do to defend what you hold too dear to lose.
We see many examples of that kind of problem in the world presently.
And certainly our Tarots and our readings should represent these dynamics.