Tarot cards have been used for centuries, in many different forms and interpretations, for game playing and later for divination. The principles behind divination using a Tarot deck are simply that a random shuffle allows divining forces to ‘select’ for relevant cards, making a drawing for an individual person unique to that person.
There are many different decks, with different designs, available throughout the world. However, most modern decks are based on the Book of Thoth by A.E Waite (who designed the Rider Waite Tarot Deck), and the illustrations of Pamela Colman Smith. The result is that while some cards may have different names and illustrations, a common set of traits or meanings can be found across most decks.
Although originally only used for gaming purposes, Tarot cards became popular with mystics and diviners in the middle to late eighteenth century after famed mystic and occultist A.E Waite published his deck and the Book of Thoth, a volume which accompanied the cards and explained their significance.
When used for divination, Tarot cards are typically arranged in a ‘spread’. The position of each card relative to its neighbouring cards has special significance for its interpretation in that particular context. The Minor Arcana cards in particular can have a different (usually opposite) significance when they appear upside-down in a spread.
Constitution of a Typical Tarot Deck
A traditional Tarot deck is divided into two types of card – the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The Minor Arcana consists of four suits – Swords, Wands (sometimes Staves), Coins (sometimes Disks or Pentacles) and Cups. Each suit has ten ‘pip’ cards numbering Ace to ten, and four ‘Face’ cards (similar to a traditional deck of cards). Each suit is usually commonly associated with one of the four elements, with Wands relating to fire (or air), Cups with water, Swords with air (or fire) and Coins with Earth.
The Major Arcana contains 21 picture cards, which are known as ‘Trump’ cards, plus one card which is The Fool (numbered zero). Their uses vary from game to game, but for the purpose of divining these cards typically represent major revelations or events. These are the cards most commonly associated with Tarot, as they have unique pictures and numbers (usually expressed as Roman numerals).
The Cards of the Major Arcana
The Major Arcana Cards are typically described as the Journey of Life undertaken by the zero card – The Fool.
I : The Magician – More a stage magician than anyone possessed of real power, The Magician card symbolises action, objective practicality, consciousness, energy, creativity and precision. It typically represents the potential or resources of the querant.
II : The High Priestess – Typically associated with wisdom, knowledge, common sense and knowing, particularly in reference to some secret knowledge you may be keeping to yourself.
III : The Empress – Symbolises maternal fertility, mothering, physical attraction, comfort and desire. Typically it refers to dominance over life, usually in an emotional context.
IV : The Emperor – Fathering, stability, dominance, power and the status-quo. When applied to the querant, this card generally implies the desire to rule over one’s surroundings.
V : The Heirophant (or Pope) – Represents education, stability and knowledge, but also social convention and conservatism. Generally interpreted as traditional education or a man of high social standing.
VI : The Lovers – Represents love, relationships, desire, pleasures and choices. It generally indicates an impending decision about a current relationship, rather than a new relationship.
VII : The Chariot – Represents conquest, honour, willpower, inflexibility and impulsivity. It is generally interpreted as a battle that can be won if the querant has sufficient willpower.
VIII : Strength – Typically represents self-control, stability, inner strength or serenity. It usually symbolises a requirement for inner focus, and for reconciling the impulsive with the rational.
IX : The Hermit – Represents solitude and deep philosophical understanding. This card can either be interpreted as the need to withdraw from society to seek answers, or the need to return from isolation and reintegrate with the world.
X : The Wheel of Fortune – Typically represents a turning point or a crossroads. This card generally introduces a decision that needs to be made.
XI : Justice – Generally represents impartiality, rationalism, responsibility or clear vision. Unlike the High Priestess, this card generally implies knowledge or a decision that exists in the public domain.
XII : The Hanged Man – Usually represents conformism, acceptance or sacrifice (often in a divine context). This card generally points to divinity, with specific reference to Christ’s Passion (suffering).
XIII : Death – Usually represents the end of a cycle, being caught in a transition, or a farewell. It typically implies an end, although usually this applies to a relationship or situation.
XIV : Temperance – Represents moderation, humility and balance. This card generally implies a need for patience or temperance, though the exact position of the card in the spread will determine what this will apply to.
XV : The Devil – Represents lust, hedonism, temptation, physical attraction, pessimism and doubt. It usually implies that the querant is holding on to an idea or ideology that limits self-growth.
XVI : The Tower (or Donjon) – Represents chaos, sudden change, disillusionment, a downfall or ruin. This card may imply that the querant is holding onto a false illusion, but it is also linked to the transition while meditating from an alpha state (mind-centred) to a theta state (mind-stage centred).
XVII : The Star – Represents calm, hope, tranquillity and optimism. This card generally implies renewed hope or optimism.
XVIII : The Moon – Often represents lack of clarity, illusion or deception. It usually implies a need to calm the animal nature of the mind, but it can also symbolise nightmares.
XIX : The Sun – Represents optimism, splendour, happiness and positive energy. It usually reflects happiness or a positive outcome, and is considered one of the most well-favoured cards in the Tarot deck.
XX : Judgement – Typically depicting the Christian idea of Judgement Day, this card represents forgiveness, a decision, a new beginning, or absolution. It can sometimes herald the return of individuals from the querant’s past.
XXI : The World – Often represents fulfilment, prosperity, completion, wholeness or contentment. This card represents the ending of the cycle of life, or the pause before the next great cycle of life which begins with The Fool (in the Rider-Waite deck).
0: The Fool – In the Rider-Waite Deck the Trump Cards represent the journey of life undertaken by The Fool. It typically represents being unencumbered, but one common interpretation of The Fool appearing in a spread of trump cards is that it is an instruction to strip down the interpretation of the neighbouring cards to bare essentials, and attempt to shed all obfuscating emotions or thoughts about the divination attempt.
The Cards of the Minor Arcana
The Minor Arcana cards typically represent one of the four elements, being Earth, Fire, Air and Water. They each have their own individual meanings for the purpose of divination, but are usually subordinate to the Major Arcana. They are arranged in four suits. The suits have different names depending on whether you are using a Latin, French or Spanish deck. The Latin (Rider-Waite) suits have been described below.
Suit of Wands (or Staves)
Ace of Wands – Symbolises beginnings, birth or the starting point of enterprises.
Two of Wands – Most often means courage or daring, or starting out on a new path.
Three of Wands – Represents creation or looking forward to something with a sense of optimism.
Four of Wands – Reflects harmony and positive feelings, or hard work with good results.
Five of Wands – Often connotes a sham fight, or taking part in another’s battles.
Six of Wands – Often reflects success or triumph
Seven of Wands – Usually means fighting for one’s position, or for something that one believes in.
Eight of Wands – Represents immediate action, or swiftly-travelling news.
Nine of Wands – Represents order, or an unassailable or morally-superior position.
Ten of Wands – Often signifies a large burden, or of spiritual or intellectual overload. The figure is depicted as working hard, but not able to see past his burden.
Page of Wands – Often signifies a new beginning, or the chance to make a success of a new venture.
Knight of Wands – Depicted as a questing knight, this card usually signifies a purpose, or an adventure.
Queen of Wands – Often symbolises directness, basic instinct, spontaneity and independence.
King of Wands – Usually indicates decisiveness, but also quiet deliberation. The King’s throne has no top, indicating the absence of limits.
Suit of Coins (or Disks/Pentacles)
Ace of Coins – Symbolises new beginnings or great potential, typically in material matters.
Two of Coins – Can mean to balance responsibilities, but it can also symbolise excessive juggling of too many obligations.
Three of Coins – Generally indicates the mastery of a skill or trade
Four of Coins – Refers to a lover of material wealth, who hoards treasures with no intention of sharing.
Five of Coins – Often suggests a grim or dire situation, and one which the querant may not be soon clear of.
Six of Coins – Represents satisfaction, and the guarding of material wealth. Can also mean envy if reversed.
Seven of Coins – Represents the reward of working hard as its own end, but reversed it can mean giving too much time or energy to a fruitless task.
Eight of Coins – Means hard work which will have good payoffs, but can also mean the perversion of skill if reversed.
Nine of Coins – Can mean financial independence, or excess spending when reversed.
Ten of Coins – Often associated with family wealth or affluence.
Page of Coins – Primarily means changing your line of work, or a new career. It is usually associated with students.
Knight of Coins – Represents a young man of dark complexion, usually one who is stubborn or set in his ways.
Queen of Coins – Represents a woman of knowledge or wisdom, but can also signify the neglect of responsibilities if reversed.
King of Coins – Often symbolises a man of great earthly power, often political. Often signifies a man who can help the querant with a question in their life.
Suit of Cups
Ace of Cups – Generally implies joy or peace, originating from close family.
Two of Cups – A complex card, this card can mean the power that is created when two come together. It can signify a strong relationship between lovers, with a hint of danger and adventure.
Three of Cups – Symbolises simple joy and frivolity, often in conjunction with birth, and especially if combined with The Empress Major Arcana card.
Four of Cups – Can symbolise introspection or quiet deliberation, but also an obsession with minor tasks.
Five of Cups – often connotes disappointment, emotional dejection or sorrow at how recent events have turned out.
Six of Cups – Stands for innocence or nostalgia, and looking back fondly on better times.
Seven of Cups – This card contains seven complex symbols, which have disputed individual meanings. Together, however, they symbolise ungrounded, impractical over-imagination.
Eight of Cups – Usually represents a change in affections or affiliations, or a break with old links to the past. Can also signify moving on from an ended, painful relationship.
Nine of Cups – Often represents having your wish fulfilled, or enjoying sensual pleasure.
Ten of Cups – Often reflects a fortunate marriage, or contentment with a romantic relationship.
Page of Cups – Represents a child who is dreamy and imaginative, and who loves home and family, but might have difficulties socially or at school.
Knight of Cups – Represents change and excitement, typically of a romantic nature.
Queen of Cups – Can represent a woman who is loving and pure of heart, but inverted this could warn of a deceitful lover or friend (usually a woman).
King of Cups – Often predicts an encounter with a fair-haired, emotionally-complex man who is associated with Law or the Arts.
Suit of Swords
Ace of Swords – Indicates decisive ability, or cutting through confusion to get to the root of a problem.
Two of Swords – Represents a woman in control, even though she may not know the outcome of current events. She holds powerful weapons, but not in an aggressive way.
Three of Swords – Represents powerful sorrow of the mind, which must be felt in full in order to allow for closure.
Four of Swords – May represent peaceful withdrawal, or quiet introspection in order to come to peace with recent events.
Five of Swords – Often suggests impending victory, preparedness and confidence before a battle.
Six of Swords – This card can mean gradual change, or slow but persistent progress in moving away or past an obstacle.
Seven of Swords – Often implies hasty action or decisions, and can also mean hidden dishonour.
Eight of Swords – Usually summed up as “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, this card represents a difficult situation, and one from which you are prevented from escaping both by external obstacles and your own fears.
Nine of Swords – Can mean doubts and pain, but the connotation of just having woken up implies that these may be imagined.
Ten of Swords – Represents absolute destruction, or being pinned down and unable to move by your worries or responsibilities. When reversed it can be a warning to not be troubled in a seemingly-impossible situation.
Page of Swords – Symbolises a person possessed of a decisive nature, who doesn’t hesitate or fret over important decisions.
Knight of Swords – Often symbolises a young man who fights bravely, but foolishly or without giving proper thought to his actions.
Queen of Swords – Depicts a woman of intellect, who is familiar with pain and sorrow but understands their necessity in life.
King of Swords – Usually represents a man who is strong-hearted, intellectual and decisive.