Short chapters accompany every image in The American Renaissance Tarot. I’d like to share my chapter on the Ten of Coins with you because, for most people, the image will require some contextualizing. But before you start reading about Frederick Douglass and the tour of Egypt he undertook late in his life, I’ll provide some background on the symbolic layering that went into the card art.
We've depicted Douglass as a Moses figure not simply because he was a leading voice in liberating his people from slavery. In the tradition of African-American Hoodoo, Moses is “the great medicine man and conjurer of the ancient past – a savior from the African continent who used his divine powers to free and protect his flock” (Mitch Horowitz, Occult America, 124). Frederick Douglass may not have been a magician; however – the suit of Coins is particularly concerned with the material plane. We can easily change our minds or alter our moods, but transforming a situation on the material plane is the work of a true magician. I don’t know about you, but I think there is something deeply magical about a man who was born a slave and rose to become a wealthy and respected leader of his people.
Minor Arcana Tarot images ultimately originate from the decans. Rather than launch into an explanation of what these are, I’ll refer you to Austin Coppock’s book, 36 Faces. He rather tantalizingly comments that the decan of Virgo III (the decan associated with the Ten of Coins) has great value as an initiatory and magical formulae. So you see, the Ten of Coins is dripping with magical significance, though the sober patriarch we see on the Rider-Waite-Smith version of the Ten of Coins might not put us in mind of a skilled wizard. Cornelius Agrippa in Three Books of Occult Philosophy describes the decan of Virgo III as an “old man leaning on a stick." Thus our seemingly unconventional choice to depict an elderly Douglass on top of a pyramid actually has deep roots in the history of magic.
You’ll read below how the Ten of Coins can often represent the accumulation of assets, though for magicians the money isn’t necessary the point. Rather, the goal is mastery: situations handled, objectives met, levels ascended. That’s why it made sense, in this image, to conceive of each step toward the apex as another “coin” in the magician’s coffer.
If you’re interested in the magical tradition surrounding the figure of Moses, Moses the Egyptian by Jan Assmann is a fascinating read. To discover more about the specifically African-American tradition of Moses as magician, I recommend poking around the Lucky Mojo shop and site, which is run by a very smart and helpful folklorist. To purchase a print of the Ten of Coins at our Indiegogo campaign, please click here. You can read the chapter from The American Renaissance Tarot© below.
TEN OF COINS
On the Ten of Coins we see Frederick Douglass standing on top of the Great Pyramid of Giza. This is no symbolic fancy, but a feat that Douglass actually undertook as an aged man when traveling through Egypt in the 1880s. As the endpoint of material manifestation, the Ten of Coins can refer to a prosperous old age, the fruit of a long life well-lived. Indeed, Douglass had fathered five children with his first wife, Anna, and so was rich in descendants, and he was also a wealthy landowner with several properties around Washington D.C. (see the King of Coins). But though this card typically denotes comfort and respectability, the Ten of Coins may appear any time you have worked steadfastly at something and have finally arrived at your goal. Moreover, the Ten of Coins revels in worldly forms, and signifies that you have created something of use and value to others, a structure or legacy that will outlast your own brief time upon this earth. For Douglass, this legacy was his several autobiographies, a record of his trials and tribulations under slavery as well as his struggle against a society that practiced race prejudice. A self-made man on the order of Benjamin Franklin, Douglass was born into slavery and worked to become the undisputed leader of his people, and he bequeathed his story to later generations of Americans who continue to take inspiration from it. From Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (the Ace, Three, and Six of Coins), published in 1845, to My Bondage and My Freedom (the Seven of Coins), published in 1855, and finally to Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), Douglass transmuted his personal gifts into a form which benefits others.
Douglass gives an account of his Egypt trip in his 1892 revisions to Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. The Ten of Coins lets you know that the structures you’ve built are strong enough to stand on their own, and encourages you to take a break from work and just enjoy your creation. After toiling ceaselessly on behalf of the African-American cause for forty years, Douglass embarked on a European tour with his second wife, Helen Pitts, a white woman twenty years his junior. By all accounts, theirs was a passionate relationship, and while abroad Douglass was able to indulge in some well-deserved leisure. Their tour culminated in Africa, the ancestral land from which the slaves had been stolen. As you read his words below, reflect upon what it must have meant for Douglass, a former slave, to ascend to the top of the Great Pyramid, a pinnacle of human engineering that has stood for thousands of years as well as the ultimate symbol of black accomplishment.
One of the first exploits a tourist is tempted to perform here is to ascend to the top of the highest Pyramid … I went, with seventy years on my head, to the top of the highest Pyramid, but nothing in the world would tempt me to try the experiment again. I had two Arabs before me pulling, and two at my back pushing, but the main work I had to do myself. I did not recover from the terrible strain in less than two weeks. I paid dearly for the venture. Still, it was worth something to stand for once on such a height and above the work and the world below. Taking the view altogether – the character of the surroundings, the great unexplained and inexplicable Sphinx, the Pyramids and other wonders of Sakkara, the winding river of the valley of the Nile, the silent, solemn and measureless desert, the seats of ancient Memphis and Heliopolis, the distant mosques, minarets, and stately palaces, the ages and events that have swept over the scene and the millions on millions that lived, wrought, and died there – there are stirred in the one who beholds it for the first time thoughts and feelings never thought and felt before. While nothing could tempt me to climb the rugged, jagged, steep, and perilous sides of the Great Pyramid again, yet I am very glad to have had the experience once, and once is enough for a lifetime.
For literally thousands of years, people of various cultural backgrounds have ascribed deep meaning to Egypt’s Great Pyramid, claiming that it encodes everything from historical prophecies, sacred geometry, and the precession of the equinoxes, to proof of the existence of gods or extra-terrestrials. Both the setting and the sentiment described by Douglass resonate with the teachings of ancient mystery schools and initiatory orders; potent insights may appear to those who read the above passage carefully. One possible etymology for the word pyramid is “revelation by measure,” and the Ten of Coins suggests that this step-like approach to scaling the mountain of material life will yield riches both material and spiritual.
IN A READING
- Milk and Honey
- The Fat of the Land
- Putting Something into Form
- Permanent Structure
- Traveling for Pleasure
- Self-Made Man
- Ancestral Homeland
- Material Miracle