The Aces: Symbols of Initiation

The Aces: Symbols of Initiation

This is one of a series of articles that I wrote over my five years as the tarot columnist at Planet Waves (if you're interested in astrology, politics, sexuality, and the place where these intersect, I encourage you to visit). I will be re-releasing these, one at a time, over the coming weeks and months.

From September 29, 2010

I have been drawing a lot of Aces in my readings recently — both for myself and for my clients — and there seems to be an atmosphere around right now that supports the idea of new beginnings, which is what I believe that Aces are associated with. So I thought that today we would focus on the Aces in a tarot deck, and the ideas that they bring to a reading.

Each Ace has a different quality, but they all share the same idea: that of initiation, as in 'the beginning of everything'. Each represents the purest potential that its suit offers to us; each is a blueprint. Each heralds the arrival of a thought, a feeling, a creative spark, a new method. They reside in the realm of the archetypal, which underlies and precedes form — whether that form be energetic, emotional, intellectual, or material. It is what we draw upon from that potential and manifest in our (inner and outer) world.

As the Major Arcana describes the journey that our soul (or psyche) takes as we move through life, so each suit of the Minor Arcana describes an evolution in a particular area of our lives. The Ace is the starting point of that evolution, from which we then forge our own experience as we move along the path, Two through Ten, Page through King.

The path is not strictly linear, in that we may find ourselves seemingly going over the same experience again; and we may jump around the cards from time to time. But even if it feels like we’re traveling in circles, or going backwards, we are constantly moving forward: we revisit old ground in order to seek out something new in it, and we use what we find — no matter in what form it comes — to continue on our path. We also make different journeys along the same cards depending on what it is that we have chosen to focus on. We end one journey, and start another. We travel several paths at the same time. But at the beginning of each one, there is the moment of ignition in the form of the Ace.

Let’s look at the Aces individually and collectively, and see what we find. I am using the aces from the Rider-Waite Smith deck because there is a symmetry to their design that helps illustrate certain key ideas, and there is a clarity to what they describe that is very much to the point.

First of all, the cards make it clear that what they bring does not have its roots in the everyday world: as the archetypal values of their suits, they encompass the qualities of their suit, but with no specific form. Each card depicts a disembodied hand, radiating light, appearing from the clouds with its offering. Each shows the hand as visually discrete from the ground or water beneath it. There are no other clouds in the sky but for the ones surrounding each hand. There is no room for confusion here. The objects are not being forced on us, but they are being presented to us in a way that suggests that the energy behind them is resolute: “This is what is here for you right now. It is yours for the taking.”

What is more, there is a symmetry to them: in the Aces of Wands and Cups, the hand comes in from the right-hand side of the card; in the Aces of Swords and Pentacles, from the left. Why is this, I wonder? Is it to emphasize that no matter what the outward manifestation, that everything in heaven is in balance, in order — and therefore everything here is as well, though we might not see it from our limited viewpoints? As above, so below, perhaps? Maybe the tension of opposites?

Ace of Wands from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

The Ace of Wands

Wands represent fire, creativity… mojo; and the Ace of Wands is the blueprint of that fiery energy.

In the image, we see the hand as if it has just moved into the picture from the right, holding the staff that we first encounter on the table in front of The Magician along with a sword, a cup and a pentacle. (As an aside, there is an argument, which I hold to with some decks, that the wand makes its first appearance in The Fool, who carries a staff across his shoulder; but in this deck the objects look and feel dissimilar. Or perhaps it is because The Fool is as yet ignorant of the power of creativity, and fails to recognise it to the extent that the only use that he has for it is as a knapsack.)

This wand is vital. Far from being fashioned from wood that has been separated from the tree, and consequently has no life, this wand embodies life: young, green leaves burst from the main bough, unable to be contained by it. Below, the land is green too; vibrant. There is an outline of a building on the left, perhaps a castle, that seems to rise above the mountains behind it. Does this symbolise the potential, as yet unfulfilled, of what creativity can achieve when we build something in service to the divine? Or is what we create is simply an empty shell if it does not sit in balance with the rest of nature? What is it that you can see in this card?

Ace of Cups from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

The Ace of Cups

Unlike the Two of Cups, which tends to describe love between two individuals, the Ace of Cups in the context of this deck is the love that flows from creator to creation. This is “agape love” — love for life itself, given without condition.

In Tarot: Mirror of the Soul, Gerd Ziegler writes of the Ace of Cups: “The Ace of Cups is the feminine counterpart to the Ace of Wands; open, receptive, surrendering; bearing the transformatory power of giving love.” The image is richly symbolic, from the five streams of water — possibly referring to the five senses — and the dove, symbol of peace, carrying the host; to the vessel itself, which carries on it the letter “M” or “W.” As far as I can tell, there is no definitive interpretation of the letter, though theories abound, including its referring to the Hebrew letter for ‘water’, or a nod to the deck’s co-creator, Arthur Edward Waite.

Whatever the exact meaning of the symbols, the picture evokes for me a pervasive feeling of abundance — but abundance in a non-material rather than material sense. Agape love is offered freely, and knows no limits because it springs from a source that is itself unlimited: the hand rests above the earth, its origin unknown; and yet what it offers is earth-bound. We are free to accept it, to draw from it, to misunderstand it, to lose sight of it: all of these actions, and more, are described in the ensuing nine numbered cards in the Cups suit. The Ace, as a blueprint, remains unaffected, a reminder of our potential.

Ace of Swords from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

The Ace of Swords

Swords as a suit represent the mind/thoughts/intellect, and while some — such as the Five or Eight of Swords — evoke situations where we lose our mental footing, the Ace of Swords signifies clarity and truth.

It is, in essence, insight, unfettered and free from the various obstacles that we, as humans, put between us and what it is that we are looking at.

Emerging from storm clouds, a sword is held aloft, the golden crown encircling its tip and the green foliage a contrast to the barrenness of the mountains beneath it. The leaves on the left look like they come from the yew: a tree that is often solitary, reaches a great age, and yet has the power to kill a man.

The fronds on the right seem to be seaweed: life that comes from the ocean — parts of which still remain inaccessible to our explorations. There is wisdom here; there is the intimation that truth is reached alone, and that it can often rise up from those parts of us that are not altogether knowable.

It can be harsh medicine that asks to be treated with the utmost respect (yew), or it can heal (kelp, for instance). Either way, when wielded in service to a higher authority (the crown), its inspiration is empowering and liberating.

Ace of Pentacles from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

The Ace of Pentacles

A hand makes a simple offering of a pentacle, while below the earth is in full bloom, with flowers in the fields and fruit on the boughs.

Pentacles represent the material world in which we live: our physicality, our possessions, what we earn, the work that we put into something and the value that we hold for what we have to offer.

It can be the recognition that we need to acquire a new skill (the Three of Pentacles); it can be hard slog in the pursuit of mastery (the Eight); it can be the inability to recognise the gifts that we do have (the Five) — but I feel that the message from the Ace is that the abundance that we seek is most meaningful when it is seen as connected to our soul, not separate from it.

The Queen and the King understand this: their worth is seated in who they are as well as what they have. The landscape of the Ace is echoed in their surroundings as what is offered as potential in the first card is manifested in the final two.

Whether we are aware of it or not, our actions here on earth are performed in concert with a force that (literally in the four Aces) has a hand in what we do. Which means that the origins of our thoughts, words, actions, creativity — our own origins — are inseparable from it. When we start to understand this, we have started to walk the later pathways of the Major Arcana as we follow a calling that transcends our physical surroundings and causes us to separate from the patterns and clamour of things that no longer serve our journey.

The Aces are what underlie that process. Paradoxically, I believe they are also the goal. Through the cards, we travel full circle.