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The four Tarot suits and our four most basic needs

December 6, 2011

It’s interesting how often I can find Tarot meanings and insights in the most unlikely places. Today, while reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, I came across a passage that listed the four most basic needs that people have:

• To live
• To love and be loved
• To learn
• To leave a legacy

(The alliterative nature of this list is Covey’s mnemonic device.)

Whenever I see a list of four archetypal or primal traits, qualities, concepts, etc., I think of the four Tarot suits and try to find ways to associate them. It’s not always a good fit, but in this case, the association seems made to order!

“To live” calls to mind the fiery suit of Wands with its indication of our passion for life and our libido (the drive to create more life), while “To love” and “To learn” are obviously associated with the suits of Cups (love and relationships) and Swords (thought, ideas, and communication). That leaves the fourth need, “to leave a legacy,” for the suit of Pentacles, the suit of physical manifestation, and this is an association that deserves a bit of exploration.

Pentacle from RWS 2.0 AceAn obvious connection comes from seeing this phrase as meaning a need to create something of lasting value. However, this book goes on to say that it also refers to our need to find meaning in the things we do and to create meaning in our physical, material lives. Through this interpretation, we see the beauty of using a pentacle—a star (divinity) within a circle (as in “the circle of life”)—as the icon for this suit in the RWS Tarot. This says that this suit is not just about physical manifestation; it’s also about using our journey through this physical plane to find meaning. This way of looking at the cards in this suit provides a subtle meaning that can bring new life and an uplifting spirit to our Tarot readings whenever a Pentacle card arises.






  1. I like the parallels that you drew — very interesting — gave me a lot to think about.

  2. Very nice, James, those are very good fits!

    The pentacle interpretation is interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever given this point any thought before. A similar way of looking at this reverses the symbols….. The pentacle is often cited as a reference to Man, with the five points of the star being our head and four limbs. In Carl Jung’s short book “Psychology and Religion” he points out that the circle is frequently the unconscious symbol of the Divine. (And as many of your readers will no doubt know, the square is associated with earth, and the human realm of construction on all levels, although that is a sidebar to this post.)

    Jung was also discussing the repeated use of both the circle and the square in mandalas, frequently employed to bring us back into the center of the mandala, which is the Key to its meaning. In this context Man could be seen as the center, the focal point, underscoring the importance that we recognize we are here to do the work to evolve ourselves toward becoming more spirit-centered…. Which would be reversing that mandala, and orientating it as you describe above.

    In this same section of his book Jung pointed out that “God” was more commonly found in the center of the mandala in the distant past than in recent times. He seemed to describe this as an evolution of how Man apprepends God. At first as Nature, then as the Olympians, then as God incarnated as Man, which is where he left it. My thought is the next logical step in this progression is recognizing the spark of the Divine within each of us…. God-within. Then the next step may be to attempt our reunion with the Divine (Theosis). And, of course, many of us feel this is the nature of the Work or Journey described throughout the tarot.

    …I wonder…. In numerology the 5 is generally associated with dynamic systems. It follows the solid and sometimes too rigid 4, bringing change and new growth. SO what I’m pondering is whether we might see the element of earth/physical plane as the Dynamic Realm, which we travel through in order to work out (change, new growth, dynamics) our needed spiritual growth.

    One would think there is a reason a five-pointed star is specifically used. The RWS tarot uses many other stars… for example, the eight-pointed is sometimes observed as describing the movement from the 5-pointed realm of Man, approaching the (circular) spiritual realm.

    Interesting how so much can be wrapped up in such a simple looking symbol!

    • Erik,
      Thank you for your thoughts on this.

      Yes, symbols are fluid and ambiguous. A symbol can have one meaning in one context and for one culture, and another in another context or culture. A pentacle can represent the Divine (stars are in the heavens) within material life (besides the “circle of life”, a circle is about the most common simple shape in the manifest world, from a red blood cell to a planet or star). Or it can represent man (the five pointed star being a man, as you mentioned) within the divine order (in renaissance thought, the circle represented divine order).
      What’s most important, though, is what does a given symbol mean to YOU when you see it as you do a reading?

      Re: Your points about Jung, God, and mandalas are interesting… thanks. By the way, the World card is a reflection of medieval mandalas, but in that card, what may be seen as a soul (the dancing woman) is placed where Jesus was in those old mandalas. Again, we are seeing a representation of the divine within the material (“God-within”) in that the soul is dancing inside a mandorla (the ovoid shape which is symbolic of the birth canal) which is bordered on the four corners by representations of the four classical elements.
      As for your mention of “the next step may be to attempt our reunion with the Divine” … this is a big focus of my ‘Tarot’s Daily Spiritual Message’ blog posts. See them here:

      Finally, as for why Waite and Smith used the 5-pointed star, perhaps it was because that kind of star has been traditionally used in pentacles. However, now that you mention it, I would like to think that they liked the ambiguity of this star being both a representation of the Divine (as a star) AND of humankind (being 5-pointed).

      Yep! So much can be wrapped up in such a simple looking symbol!

      Bright Blessings,

  3. jenniferswampwitch permalink

    Profound! Thank you James, this is beautiful.

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