Tarot Card Meanings Guide


ⓘ This guide applies to Tarot Card Meanings pages.

Making the Most of the Meanings

In This Section

  • What are traditional meanings?
  • Why bother with tradition when you have intuition?
  • Where do traditional meanings come from?
  • How should the meanings in this site be used?

About Traditional Meanings

Many tarot readers work intuitively: as they look at an illustration, they get an impression of what that card means to them at that point in time.

On one day, the Ace of Wands is a good omen. On the next, it could be a warning. Neither interpretation is right or wrong, because all meanings assigned to the cards are strictly a matter of context.

But tarot cards also have traditional meanings—meanings other people have assigned to the cards over time. Some of these meanings are derived from complicated astrological or numerological computations. Some are based on obscure texts. Others are based on the insights of experienced readers, who have learned to associate certain cards with certain situations.

Passionate intuitive readers may refer to traditional meanings as “canned meanings,” implying they are prefabricated, stale, or inferior. But traditional meanings have their place. In short, they can:

  • help beginners approach the cards with confidence
  • suggest new and valuable associations for each card
  • introduce readers to new ways of thinking about specific cards or groups of cards
  • serve as “jumping off points” for brainstorming sessions
  • offer a second opinion on what a given card might mean
  • lend weight to an intuitive reader’s first impressions, and
  • suggest insights a purely intuitive reader might overlook.

A single glance at a well-designed tarot card illustration may tell you all you need to know. But when you’re uncertain of your skills, too tired to be at your best, or worried that your personal agenda is coloring your interpretations, a guide to traditional meanings (like the one found in this site) can be a valuable resource.

Sources for Traditional Meanings

Over the years, hundreds of authors and thousands of readers have mapped millions of meanings to every card in the deck. This expands and refreshes the tarot’s vocabulary, but it is also the reason why no two sites on tarot completely agree on the meaning of any particular card.

Rather than fret about the lack of consistency, give an unfamiliar traditional meaning a chance. If it offers valuable insight, add it to the growing bank of information that feeds your intuition. If it doesn’t, set it aside. There are thousands more where that one came from!

In the end, the meanings suggested in most tarot sites (including this one) have been inspired by one or more of these sources:

  • The occultists

    Say what you will about those kooky French occultists, but the divinatory meanings (upright and reversed) Ettellia published for the cards back in 1785 are the fountainhead for many meanings still in use today.

  • The Golden Dawn

    This secret society forged associations between tarot and just about every conceivable mythological and mystical system.

  • Other divinatory systems

    In addition to other works on tarot, the meanings in this site are influenced by other systems of insight, including astrology, numerology, and the I Ching.

  • Amazing sites and decks

    A long list of great authors, sites, and decks have influenced tarot readers over the last three hundred years. In this site, you’ll see references to two very influential decks: the Rider–Waite–Smith (a deck conceived by Arthur Edward Waite, illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith, and published in 1904 by Rider Publishing) and the Marseilles (which is not just one deck, but a family of decks illustrated in the Marseilles tradition or style).

  • Practical experience

    I’ve been reading cards for other people for more than a decade. During that time, my experience as a reader, my spirituality, and my personal insights have given rise to a very personal range of meanings for each and every card. As you continue your work with the cards, you’ll also develop a set of associations all your own.

How to Apply These Entries

The divinatory meanings found in this guide are formatted to help you quickly and easily apply them to almost any kind of question. For every card, you’ll find:

  • Keywords

    Keywords boil down complex meanings into single words. You’ll find at least three for every card; you can pick the ones you like best. [This site uses “ideas” for keywords. Besides, personality traits and emotions that may be associated with each tarot card are also included.]

  • Range of meaning
    No card is all good or all bad. These phrases suggest a broad range of interpretations for each card, from light and happy to shadowy and brooding.

  • Advice

    Advisory passages explore how the energy of a card could be applied to matters of romance and relationships, work, spirituality, and personal growth. If you’re feeling “fatalistic,” there are fortune telling and timing applications, too.

  • Symbols and insights

    These notes share stories you can use to enhance your appreciation for tarot’s depth and beauty. They also suggest additional ways a card might apply to your situation.

  • Correspondences

    For the Major Arcana, you’ll see correspondences with universal archetypes, the Hebrew alphabet, numerology, astrology, the classical elements and planets, myths and spiritual traditions, and the elements of storytelling. For the Minor Arcana, you’ll find correspondences to numerology, astrology, daily affirmations, and storytelling.

  • Questions to ask

    These three questions can help you launch a personal exploration of what each card means to you.

To get the most out of this guide, skim the entire entry for a card, allowing intuition to be your guide. Take your time; look around. While your question may be about a relationship, a turn of phrase elsewhere in the entry may prompt exactly the insight you need.

Take what works. Use what helps you. Leave the rest for another time.

In a Nutshell

Traditional meanings—divinatory meanings assigned by others—help beginners approach the cards with confidence. They can also enhance the intuitive reading process by suggesting alternative applications of familiar cards.

Traditional meanings come from a variety of sources, including divinatory meanings published hundreds of years ago, the work of dozens of scholars and authors, and a reader’s personal experience. As a result, the traditional meaning assigned to any one card may differ from site to site.

Meanings suggested by this site have been designed to make it easier for beginners to apply them to a wide variety of questions and challenges. As always, take what works; ignore the rest.

The Major Arcana

In This Section

  • What are some traditional meanings that have been assigned to the Major Arcana cards?
  • What does a specific Major card have to say about your situation?
  • What stories and insights lie behind the symbols on the trump cards?
  • What questions could you ask in order to explore the personal message a specific trump card has for you?

The cards of the Major Arcana, also loosely referred to as “the trumps,” address your life’s most important issues and larger themes. Often, they represent universal forces that lie outside the sphere of your direct control. They may also reveal the life lessons a situation is designed to teach or help you see your situation in a larger context.

This section provides an overview of meanings others have assigned to each card of the Major Arcana. The information, applications, and questions listed here will help you launch a personal exploration of each card’s meaning. With time and practice, you should expect to expand these meanings with insights of your very own.

The Minor Arcana

In general, the cards of the Minor Arcana are said to reflect day-to-day concerns and ordinary events. When the Minor Arcana dominates a reading, many readers conclude that the issue under consideration can be greatly influenced by the actions of everyday people.

The Suit Cards

The cards of the Minor Arcana are divided into four suits. For divinatory purposes, each suit is usually associated with one of four specific dimensions of life (Spirit, Emotion, Mind, and Body). Each suit has also been associated with seasons of the year, the four classical elements (Fire, Water, Air, and Earth), the four compass directions—in short, with almost any system or philosophy that organizes its elements into four distinct categories.

Here is a list of the suits of the Minor Arcana, along with alternative names the suits may be called in other books or decks and some common associations made with each:

  • Wands
    • Also called: Arrows, Batons, Clubs, Flame, Rods, Scepters, Staves, Sticks, Fire.
    • Dimension of life: Spirit. Themes include intentions, goals, action, direction, masculine energy, arousal, activity, creativity, movement, inspiration.
    • Other associations: Spring, the color red, the south, the element of Fire.
  • Cups
    • Also called: Cauldrons, Chalices, Blue, Hearts, Vessels, Water.
    • Dimension of life: Emotion. Themes include impressions, intuition, ideas, instincts, reflections, feelings, receptivity, spirituality and religion, the subconscious, fantasies.
    • Other associations: Summer, the color blue, the east, the element of Water.
  • Swords
    • Also called: Blades, Daggers, Spades, Air.
    • Dimension of life: Mind. Themes include logic, reasoning, thoughts, deliberation, debate, communication, mathematics, numbers, the intellect, analysis, planning.
    • Other associations: Fall, the color yellow, the west, the element of Air.
  • Pentacles
    • Also called: Diamonds, Discs, Coins, Spheres, Earth.
    • Dimension of life: Body. Themes include physicality, practicality, the material world, the environment, money, finances, structure, sensuality, the senses.
    • Other associations: Winter, the color green or brown, the north, the element of Earth.

The Pip Cards

Generally, each suit in a tarot deck also contains a series of cards numbered from Ace to 10. These numbered cards are often referred to as the pips, taking their name from the suit marker, or pip, found on each card.

In a standard poker deck, the Six of Hearts bears six heart-shaped pips. Many tarot decks follow this convention, too. The Six of Cups from the tarot de Marseilles, for example, is decorated with six cup-shaped pips arranged in a simple geometric pattern.

While the trump cards in many early tarot decks feature elaborate illustrations, the pip card illustrations in those decks often incorporate little more than suit markers and a few decorative elements (such as vines or flowers).

By contrast, especially after the publication of the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot in 1909, many modern decks feature intricate scenes on every single card. These pictures often incorporate the suit signs in clever ways, and are usually designed to suggest the divinatory meanings assigned with the card.

For example, the Six of Cups from The Rider-Waite-Smith tarot shows two people helping each other, surrounded by six cups an illustration that suggests the meanings assigned to the card.

The Court Cards

In addition to the ten numbered pip cards, each suit also incorporates court cards (also called people cards).

Observant readers will notice that the tarot court, unlike the more familiar three-card court in poker decks, contains four members: page, knight, queen, and king. Many deck designers rename these cards to suit their own purposes—substituting daughter, son, mother, and father, for example.

Generally, tarot readers associate the court cards with one of the following:

  • Specific problem-solving methods
  • Specific people who employ those methods
  • Specific people whose physical features resemble the portrait found on the court card

For years, the third option, based on physical features, was extremely popular. One version of this system assigns these meanings:

  • Court card (gender and age)
    • Page: Male or female, younger
    • Knight: Male, younger
    • Queen: Female, older
    • King: Male, older
  • Suit (appearance)
    • Wands: Red hair, fair skin
    • Cups: Blonde hair, fair skin
    • Swords: Black hair, fair skin
    • Pentacles: Dark hair, dark skin

Using this system, the Page of Wands would represent a young man or woman with red hair and fair skin, while the King of Pentacles would represent an older man with dark hair and dark skin.

The primary disadvantage of this method is immediately obvious: It severely restricts the tarot’s ability to represent both women and people of color!

Today, a more popular system for reading courts involves reading the rank of the card as an approach or point of view and the suit of the card as a theme or area of emphasis:

  • Court card (problem-solving approach)
    • Page: Learning: Enthusiastic, but unskilled or uncertain
    • Knight: Doing: Active, but tends towards extremes
    • Queen: Feeling: Emphasizes collaboration or consensus
    • King: Controlling: Seeks authority or organization
  • Suit (theme or emphasis)
    • Wands: Goals, intentions, movement, arousal
    • Cups: Impressions, intuitions, feelings, emotions
    • Swords: Logic, reasoning, communication, intellect
    • Pentacles: Physicality, practicality, senses, finances

Using this system, the Page of Pentacles might represent a person (of any gender, regardless of the apparent gender of the figure on the card) who is just leaning to manage his or her own finances. Alternatively, it might represent an enthusiastic, but as yet unskilled, student athlete.

Other systems for interpreting court cards exist, including any number of methods for associating the courts with specific seasons, months, and astrological signs.