Family in the Tens of the Minor Arcana

With Pride month coming up, I’ve been thinking a lot about family in all its forms: Chosen family, biological family, spiritual family, and so on. Pride is, historically, an interesting time for me; my High Priestess had to drag me kicking and screaming to my first Pride, because I was still processing a great deal of internalized homophobia at the time and I felt like being gay was something for me to bemoan or, at best, to put up with because I couldn’t change it. That first Pride was a transformative experience for me, and I’m so, so glad I went. It was a massive and necessary step for me not only in learning to love and accept myself, but also in cultivating empathy for others and fostering connections to people who are like—and unlike—me. Without that experience, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

And one of the chief lessons of that first Pride was, well, the idea of found family (which is a popular notion in queer communities). The idea here, for anyone unfamiliar, is that “family” doesn’t just mean people to whom you’re related by blood, especially because so many queer people are rejected by their biological families. Rather, “family” is the network of people you love, support, and trust. It’s about who’s there for you when the chips are down, who you can rely on (and who, in turn, can rely on you).*

In Tarot, the card of found family is, of course, the Ten of Cups. This card is about harmony and love—not the love you find with a romantic partner, but the love of community. In the classical RWS image of the card, we see a nuclear family with two parents and two children, and a rainbow stretching above them. The Ten of Cups is explicitly not about biological family, however; it is (by nature of the suit) about the emotional connection we find to the people we love and who love us. That can be our biological family, but it can also be our lovers, friends, mentors, and so on. Some decks, such as the Urban Tarot and the Numinous Tarot, explicitly draw a connection between the Ten of Cups and the notion of found (rather than biological) family, depicting joyous queer families on the card. Many, many years ago, Beth Maiden of Little Red Tarot did a thinkpiece about the meaning of “family” in this card, and how it extends to queer identities.

But I think, importantly, that the Ten of Cups is not the only card of family in the Tarot deck. In fact, I think that all four Tens in the Minor Arcana reflect on the concept of family—sometimes in pleasant ways, sometimes in unpleasant ones.** So let’s flesh out our picture of family in Tarot, by looking at the remaining Tens.

The Ten of Swords

Might as well get it out of the way first. “Jack,” I hear you say, “You mean to tell me that you associate the single worst card in the deck with family? What’s wrong with you?” (To answer this question, I refer you to footnote 1 on this post.)

But yeah, truth be told, I think the Ten of Swords does tell us something about families. It tells us that the people we love can sometimes be cruel, and that they can hurt us in unspeakable ways—whether intentionally or unintentionally. The fact of the matter is, no one knows how to hurt you better than the people who are closest to you. And most of the time, the people close to us don’t hurt us, because they love us and care about us. But sometimes, through malice or ignorance or sheer bad luck, they do hurt us, and when they do, hoo boy, it’s devastating. There are people who come out of abusive homes, who are disowned by their families, who lose family members in tragic ways. Family can be a wonderful thing, but it can also bring suffering, and if we pretend it doesn’t, we deny the very real experiences of people whose family lives aren’t all roses and lavender.

The Ten of Pentacles

This one is, unlike the Ten of Swords, more classically associated with family. Specifically, you’ll often see the Ten of Pentacles contrasted with the Ten of Cups: This is the card of blood family, of genetics and circumstance and inheritance, rather than the chosen family in the Ten of Cups. The Ten of Pentacles is about inheritance in all senses of the word. It’s the legacy that’s passed on to you by the people who came before, and that includes your genes, your family medical history, and so on. It also includes any literal, monetary inheritance that’s bequeathed to you. But going deeper than that, thinking about “inheritance” in a more abstract sense, the Ten of Pentacles is about how you relate to the people who went before you. How have your ideas, your values, your goals been shaped by your “ancestors”—either your literal blood ancestors, or ancestors in a broader sense? The Ten of Pentacles can also connect us to spiritual predecessors, teachers, and role models. It’s about lineage, and what’s passed down to us.

The Ten of Wands

This, like the Ten of Swords, is a card that some people may find off-putting as a description of family. But here’s the thing: Family is a commitment. It’s work. It means that if someone really needs you in the middle of the night, you drag your ass out of bed and go to them. The Ten of Wands is about the obligations and duties we carry with us, and sometimes those duties can be burdensome, but we carry them anyway. Being a part of a family isn’t just about what other people do for you; it’s also about what you do for them. The Ten of Wands reinforces this idea that you need to be there for the people you love, and that you have to show up and do the work of supporting them and helping them when they need you. It’s the practical, nitty-gritty, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-your-hands-dirty part of family. And frankly, I think it’s the most important part.

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*I have complicated feelings about the notion of family. The idea of Family with a capital F has never really resonated with me the way that it does with some people, and that’s true of found family as much as it is of biological family, but hey, those are thoughts for my therapist and not for the strangers reading my blog.

**That’s not to say the Tens are the only cards in the deck that deal with themes of family. Plenty of others do, such as the Six of Cups, the Empress, and the Emperor. But these are the cards I’m choosing to focus on for this post.

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