Drew WibergComment

The Zahir

Drew WibergComment
The Zahir

Are you familiar with the story of the Zahir by Jorge Luis Borges? It is a short story about a man wandering around the bars and streets of Buenos Ares. In one of the taverns he is given a coin, a Zahir, with distinctive gouges on the back of it. I'm wildly simplifying what is a beautifully complex and layered pastry of a piece of fiction, but the premise is that this coin begins to plague the man, always showing up in his change or on the street. He becomes obsessed with it and the coin becomes a talisman for his obsession.

When I was thinking about my post for this week, this story, like's its antagonist, kept coming back to my mind. I wanted to touch on the evolution / sea change of the Tarot suit most commonly known as 'Pentacles' from its original suit, 'Coins'. Full disclaimer, I much prefer that Suit of Coins over that of Pentacles. The Rider-Waite-Smith deck was the first, or at least the first widely known, tarot deck to use Pentacles as a suit over Coins, a change that is as recent as the early twentieth century. The term Pentacle, however, dates back to the late 16th c., which means in general anything with five points. The French meaning of the word, from the same period, refers to a five armed candlestick used in necromantic rituals. It is related to, but distinct from the 14th c. French term 'pentacol', which means 'to hang around the neck' and referred to an amulet. The pentacle as amulet is the modern (and technically wrong) understanding of the word. Thank you very much etymonline.com!

The popularity, neigh, ubiquitousness, of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck has taken its toll on the Suit of Coins. Legions of tarot decks created in the 20th and 21st c. Have followed suit (<-- see what I did there) and have used Pentacles in their designs rather than the traditional Coins. I have an affinity for older Tarot decks, trying to get back to the early state of using them as a tool for divination. I really like The Golden Tarot, which is, as far as I can tell, as far as you can go back with the experience using modern decks. My first love is the Etteilla deck, which also (correctly) uses the Suit of Coins.

So what is my argument for using Coins as the proper archetype, as opposed to Pentacles? I think that Pentacles fundamentally changed our perception of the suit, from one that awakened our perceptions of the material world and how we lived inside it through the use of the Coin, to a more magical and spiritual archetype with the Pentacle as its representation. 

The meanings of the cards have mostly endured, I will admit. Let's look at a sample of definitions from Jana Riley's 'Tarot Dictionary and Compendium'. For the Four of Coins (which she refers to as 'Discs' in her work, an even more generic perversion of the archetype) and ten of the fourteen different tarot resources that she cross-references:

Cowie: Holding tightly to material possessions

Crowley: Generation of power in its full material sense

Fairfield: Taking concrete steps towards security in the physical world

Greer: Drawing on resources where they are needed

Noble: A house used as a sanctuary

Pollack: Dependence on material comfort

Sherman-Burke: Taking financial risks

Stewart: Increasing wealth

Waite: A gift or inheritance

Walker: Avarice or greed, devotion to material rewards

This theme, the theme of the material or the physical, holds true throughout the deck.

If you'd like to delve into a complete analysis of the Suit of Coins, check out the most excellent (truly, one of the best resources available imho) Root Lock Radio podcast, Weston is super friendly and knowledgable too, so reach out if you have the time!

There are other definitions to each card that don't align with the material or the physical, those that are rooted in a more magical reality or spiritual place, but these are from modern decks and I feel they are weak in their associations with the other suits. Changing the suit to Pentacles not only has lead to perversions in the original divinatory meanings of the archetypes but it does something different to us when we are using the tarot, especially when we are using it as a tool for personal growth. We 'see' a pentacle with our archetypal eyes differently then we see a coin.

Returning to the Zahir, in Borges story the coin was both a coin used for material wealth and a symbol or something more ominous, something difficult to escape. Money, since its inception, has been enough of a symbol for the human race, it has enough weight, enough back story, and has fundamentally programmed our brains in a host of ways that we aren't aware of. The Pentacle is obscure, even a dedicated occultist would have a hard time nailing down exactly what a Pentacle means, referring to early grimoires and Solomonic texts. The Pentacle is not an archetype, an archetype is a symbol that has a universality to it, it is a symbol that can easily be considered to mean the same thing to a huge percentage of the world's population. The coin does this. We cannot escape the coin, even if we move on to a digital currency, the archetype of the coin will never be extinguished (see: BitCoin). It is a fundamental unit of material exchange and with that role is also a universally recognized symbol for the material world - just as it is (or should be) in the Tarot.

Next time you are using a deck that is designed to use the Suit of Pentacles, ask yourself what the Pentacle means to you? What does it mean to your neighbor or the person across the table from you that you are reading for? How do you define the cards in the suit in a reading? What do they tie back to? 

That is my argument, like the protagonist in the Zahir wandering those endless Latin American streets, I seek to throw away the Pentacle, to remove from my life the dark misleading symbol and exchange it for the more familiar and better understood archetype of the Coin.