How to Read Non-Illustrated Minor Arcana Cards

Have you ever tried reading Tarot with a deck – like the Tarot of Marseille or the Thoth Tarot – whose minor arcana cards don’t have pictures on them?

Did you feel blank and empty and wonder what am I supposed to make of this?

Long before the fully illustrated Rider-Waite Tarot deck burst onto the scene in 1910, all Tarot decks had non-illustrated minor arcana cards, much like a deck of playing cards. These decks are often referred to as “pip decks”.

Mystic Meg Tarot

Back in the day, people had to chop wood, walk several miles to school, barefoot in the snow, use sheep intestines for condoms….and read Tarot using decks with NO F**KING PICTURES ON THEM!!!!

It was rough. And now Tarot readers everywhere have become soft. We expect lavish pictures on all the cards. We expect our intuitive insights to just be handed to us on a silver platter. Jeez!

The Rider-Waite deck was unique in that the artist Pamela Coleman Smith depicted scenes and characters on it’s minors, making them easier to learn and read. Lazy Tarot readers loved it and it remains one of the most popular decks today.

But that doesn’t mean you should just disregard non-illustrated pip decks. Like learning to drive a standard, there are certain advantages to reading with these types of decks despite the extra trickiness. And people will be impressed.

Why it’s so tricky

Symbols are the language of the soul and so gazing at a card that shows a symbol-rich scene can stimulate intuition and creativity.

But when you see a minor arcana card that’s just two boring wands or four pentacles with no other frills in sight, it doesn’t give you much to work with. So I’m going to teach you a couple tricks to make reading these non-illustrated minors a breeze…

But first a confession

I prefer reading with fully illustrated Rider-Waite style decks because….it’s easier and more visually stimulating.

While the Thoth Tarot was one of my first decks, I didn’t truly learn to read non-illustrated minors until I got the Mystic Meg Tarot a few years ago. And there’s stuff I love about reading these kinds of cards – but it’s not my favorite.

Let’s draw a card…

From the Mystic Meg Tarot, I drew the Eight of Water (8 of Cups).

Step #1 – Identify the Suit and the suit qualities

This card is of the suit of water (cups), which is about feelings, emotions and relationships. Therefore, we know this card is telling us something about our feelings and perhaps a relationship (to a person, to ourselves or to a thing).

This is where it helps to know your suit qualities. Let’s do a quick refresh:

Pentacles – money, health, physical aspects, material realm

Cups – feelings, emotions, love, relationships

Swords – thought, mind, intellect, communication

Wands – energy, inspiration, passion, spirit

If you’re still not 100% confident in your understanding of the suits, try this with a Rider-Waite style deck (not a pip deck): group all the minors by suit so you have four groups of cards. Then, spend some time looking at each suit and really getting a feel for the energy of that suit. Compare and contrast the different suits until you have a clear sense of what each suit represents.

Step #2 – Notice the card number

Each suit expresses the numbers differently and it can be a really interesting exercise to group your minor arcana cards by number and then study them, which I’ll do in a sec.

We have an eight here. You don’t need to know anything about numerology (I don’t) although it probably helps. We know eight is an even number and even numbers can signify stability/harmony or stagnancy/boredom.

We also know that eight is one of the bigger numbers. If we’re progressing from Ace to ten, eight is almost at the end. We’ve reached a certain point of achievement.

Just for fun, let’s look at all the eights in the Universal Waite Tarot

In my opinion, the wands and swords seem to mirror each other in that they show what happens when there’s an abundance of their suit quality. With wands we have lots of energy, which propels movement, speed and things unfolding quickly. While with the swords we have an abundance of thought and mind activity which can tie us up and make us feel imprisoned.

With the 8 of pentacles, we see an abundance of work and how this can lead to being busy. But the 8 of cups is very different from all the rest in that it shows someone retreating away, in search of the missing cup. It’s like his feelings have become so strong now that he can no longer ignore them – he must abandon his stacked cups and address the root of his unease.

See what I mean? You can learn a ton about your cards when you group them this way and look at them!

Put it together…

Okay, let’s get back to our original eight of cups. Based on what we know about this card we might say that it’s message is about feeling emotionally stable, yet longing to break away from the stagnancy of daily life. Or we could say that we’ve made lot’s of headway in the realm of emotion and relationships but something is still missing (we still have a way to go before we reach #10).

Essentially, when you read a “pip card” you are drawing on your understanding of it’s suit and it’s number. I also cheat a little and imagine the Rider-Waite equivalent.

What I love about reading with Pip decks

When I’m giving a Tarot reading to someone, I know they’re looking at the cards and possibly drawing their own conclusions (if they know Tarot) or making judgements about the cards. For example, the ten of swords or the five of pentacles often get a negative reaction from people.

But if the person I’m reading for has no idea what my cards could possibly mean, that makes me feel more in control of the reading. I don’t need to do damage control and say “don’t worry, the ten of swords doesn’t mean you’ll be murdered” – I can just go with my own intuitive reading flow.

Better yet, the absence of symbols can sometimes be a blessing. At times I find it easier to get intuitive ideas when there’s less visual noise. It’s almost like it creates space around the reading and gives me a little more creative license.

So let’s give it another try! Here’s the four of fire (Wands) from the Mystic Meg Tarot

Remember – use your knowledge of the suit, number and your imagination! Feel free to share your interpretation in the comments below…

12 thoughts on “How to Read Non-Illustrated Minor Arcana Cards”

  1. Great discussion of non-illustrated cards! I have never thought about how to approach these and have avoided them as I build up my comfort with doing tarot readings.
    For the four of wands here is what I think of:
    -stability and structure, like a table with 4 legs
    -family unity and coming together, because I think of “typical” family’s having 4 members
    -and just because 4 is one of my favorite numbers I think of very positive experiences and feelings surrounding this card
    -lastly, because it is wands and fire element I would assign some kind of creative vibe like things are just starting to take off and finally get some ground under them on your path to creating something bigger and better

    1. Love your ideas about the four of wands here, Caitlin! Thanks for sharing and I’m so glad you dove in and gave it a go 🙂 You could easily be reading with a non-illustrated deck tomorrow!

  2. I was waiting for this post! I can’t wait to read it 🙂 I don’t have time right now, but I was so excited, I wanted to pop in and tell you.

  3. Hi, Kate!
    Thanks for this reminder of alternative packs to the pictorial Rider-Waite version. That one was my first pack and I’ve stuck with it ever since.
    However you do make some very good points about the way the R-W images immediately trigger the same abstract ideas and feelings each time you read them, – and especially, provoke (sometimes adverse and distracting) reactions from the person you maybe are reading for.
    The Mystic Meg pack you use in your tutorial video looks like it would give you a sort of ‘blank-screen’ for your intuition to weave its own suggestions onto and so, encourage the flow of more inspired readings, do you think?
    Another thing I’ve been pondering recently with the Rider-Waite pack, is the way the Cups, Swords, Pentacles are all inanimate, immutable, material, artifacts, – of human origin.
    While the Wands are a conspicuous exception, – organic, living, evolving and a miraculous gift from Mother Nature, herself!
    I’d be interested to know if you have spotted this yourself, – and if so, if you maybe have any kind of take on, or explanation for, this oddity?
    The R-W pack seems to imply to me that Wands in a reading are perhaps indicating some kind of extra significance by their presence there, – similar to the enhanced significance of the appearance of Major Arcana cards in a spread.
    This bias, of course, would be entirely absent from the M-M pack and ought maybe to dodge any kind of inequality of this kind in readings, do you think?
    Doh! I really ought to get out more!
    Many thanks anyhow, for this and for all your other thought-provoking video Tarot tutorials!
    Luv and Happy New Year Hugs to you, – that would be my own interpretation of the Four Of Fire card!

    1. thanks Zoe for your insightful comment! You are indeed right about the Wands suit being different from the other three. I hadn’t noticed that wands are the only naturally occurring symbol, but now that you’ve mentioned it I won’t forget! The four suits are in a certain order: pentacles first, then swords, then cups, then wands and this is because pentacles are earthy/physical and wands are the other extreme – energy. There is a progression from that of the physical to thought, to emotion, to pure energy/spirit. I think it’s interesting if you think of these suits in the opposite order though – especially when you think about manifesting something. Energy must first be there, then that energy can elicit a feeling/emotion which then becomes a thought or idea and then if acted upon may be translated into something physical (like a creation of something). But to answer your original question, Wands are the more spiritual, etherial suit (which is ironic that it’s represented by a twig/stick) or I guess you could think of it as a magic wand.
      Hope that makes sense! Food for thought 🙂

      1. What a fascinating and smart set of comments from you by way of feedback on my random thoughts on these issues, – thanks so much, Kate!
        You’ve clarified my thinking for me on this one.
        Especially for pointing out the hierarchical nature of the four Suits in the due order of the creative process.
        It all makes good sense now, when I review my ideas in the light of what you said.
        I’ve since had a suggestion from an irreverent influence that it might be amusing to devise an imaginary, contemporary Waite pack, – completely consistent in choosing symbols to replace the Wands Suit, made up of metallic, but elongated, manufactured items, perhaps!?
        You could have the Six Of Meat-Skewers, maybe, – or the Seven of Scaffolding-Poles, for example!
        Or, how about the Page of Parking-Meters?!!!
        Oh dear, – I think I had too much to think, last night!
        Thanks again for taking the time and trouble to respond so fully to my previous post.
        All good wishes to you and Merlina, anyhow, for a great week ahead!

          1. Hi, again, Kate!
            I can’t claim any originality for the “too much to think” phrase I’m afraid!
            It’s a line from one of those song lyrics that often crops up in my mind’s ear.
            Such as while writing my previous post (as well as when trying to read Tarot spreads, too!).
            Must google the phrase, to see which song it’s from, later this evening.
            All credit and respect to you, for my renewed interest in Tarot, in fact.
            Having ready access to an approachable and knowledgeable online TarotGirlGuru at long last, has made all the difference!
            There was no Internet when I bought my first Tarot pack and genuine, proficient, accessible Tarot Readers were to be found mainly only in seaside-pier kiosks!
            And, at a price!
            So I quickly lost my initial enthusiasm for the subject, sadly.
            Thanks so much for turning this lapse of mine around, more recently for me.
            I originally had been educated in a ultra-rational tradition.
            So it was always troubling to me to discover the uncanny way that picking cards, seemingly at random, could have a real and inexplicable connection with the things that were going on in my outer (and inner!) life.
            In recent days I’ve been listening to your online phone-in Q & A session last week.
            I’m so impressed with the confident and successful way you deal spontaneously with the concerns of each of your callers, – and always come up with credible readings of the cards, too, in each case.
            I’m learning such a lot from that podcast, especially about the uninhibited and imaginative way you so quickly access your intuition’s words of wisdom.
            Something for me to try and emulate!
            Please do keep on doing what you’re doing, anyhow!
            Peace and Luv and Hugs and stuff!

  4. Im really new at this but, I think for me with new things coming up quickly, i.e, school, some self help, I see myself embracing it all with caution so that I don’t overamp and quit or just lose interest all together.

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Finally someone that addresses non-illustrated minors. Very informative!


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