In This Chapter
While almost everyone will claim to know what tarot is, very few people know anything of substance about the deck. What makes a tarot deck distinctive? How does it differ from a standard deck of cards? And wouldn’t a copy of The Lightning Bug Oracle generate just as many bright ideas as a tarot deck?
Reading this chapter will acquaint you with the structure and contents of today’s tarot … and help you understand the features of the deck that make it unique among other decks and oracles.
If you’re reading this chapter, you’re probably interested in tarot as a tool for:
You’re in good company because more people than ever before are learning to read and work with the cards.
Mastering tarot could take a lifetime—maybe several lifetimes! But you don’t have to be a tarot master to tap into the deck’s potential to enhance your creativity and personal growth. With the investment of just a little time and effort, the deck can become a trusted advisor.
Your journey begins with one small step: learning the absolute essentials. You can jump right into reading tarot, but knowing the basics first will help you approach the deck with absolute confidence.
Throughout this guide, you’ll see tables and charts outlining the order, names, meanings, and symbolic associations for every tarot card. Over the years, various groups—such as the occult organization known as the Golden Dawn—have assigned meanings based on their own metaphysical perspectives. Remember, though, that no single set of associations can be considered the most authentic set.
The information in this guide is a starting point for your study. It should never be considered the last word on the subject of tarot. Ultimately, the attributions you adopt should be the ones that work for you.
Generally, today’s tarot decks include 78 cards. Of these, 21 are special cards called trumps. The trumps plus an additional card called the Fool make up a set of 22 cards called the Major Arcana (a term meaning “great secrets” or “big mysteries”). Although the Fool is technically not a trump, the entire Major Arcana can also be referred to more simply as the trumps.
The other 56 cards (the Minor Arcana) are divided into four suits—usually some variation of Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles. Each suit contains a series of cards, usually numbered from Ace to 10. In addition, each suit possesses four court cards, often called pages, knights, queens, and kings.
Today, many, but by no means all, tarot decks place the Major Arcana in this order:
Note: Some tarot decks, called Majors-only decks, contain only the 22 Major Arcana cards. It’s not uncommon for publishers to release a Majors-only version of a deck, followed by a later release of the full 78 card version. If working with all 78 cards is important to you, be sure to look for decks with a full complement of the cards.
In readings, the cards of the Major Arcana (echoing their role as trumps in the game of tarot) often receive special treatment:
A reading containing a majority of Major Arcana cards might suggest the matter is, to some degree, outside the realm of human influence.
Over time, each Major Arcana card has also become associated with a broad range of concepts: astrological signs, alchemical formulas, legends, myths, number symbolism, stories from Scripture, points along the human lifespan, elements of story structure, specific times of day and days of the year, personality types, problem-solving approaches … the list goes on and on. When the cards are used as a divination tool, readers draw on these associations (and their own intuition) to establish the divinatory meaning of each card ? the answer the card represents.
Some traditional divinatory meanings for the Major Arcana are covered in detail in Chapter 7, “The Major Arcana.” By way of introduction, here is a short list of archetypes (or mythic qualities) and some simple divinatory meanings that have been associated with each card:
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.
As mentioned earlier, 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 placing 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:
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: on the Six of Cups, for example, you’ll find six cups arranged in a simple geometric pattern:
In most early tarot decks, while the trump cards may feature elaborate illustrations, the pip card illustrations 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. The Six of Cups from the Rider–Waite–Smith tarot shows two people helping each other, surrounded by six cups:
Many deck reviews and tarot catalogs refer to decks with illustrated pips and non-illustrated pips. Generally speaking, decks with non-illustrated pips feature suit markers only, and decks with illustrated pips feature scenic illustrations on every card.
Despite being technically inaccurate (pips featuring an arrangement of suit markers are, after all, illustrated!) this terminology has become standard throughout the tarot community.
There are a number of systems for assigning divinatory meanings to the pip cards; many of these have roots in Qabalah (an ancient magical system) or numerology.
One quick and easy method for establishing the meaning of a pip card involves combining the symbolic meaning of a card’s number with the symbolic meaning of its suit.
For example: consider this list of symbolic meanings of the numbers one through ten:
Note: Symbolic meanings assigned to numbers can come from any number of sources, and the meanings assigned to specific numbers vary from source to source. As with divinatory meanings, no one set of numerological meanings (including the ones in this guide) should ever be considered more authoritative than others.
The Six of Cups, then, combines the emotional, spiritual, watery energy of the suit of Cups with the collaborative, interactive energy of the number 6. As a result, in many decks, the Six of Cups is associated with compassionate cooperation, acts of mutual support, or sharing.
Especially when using decks with illustrated scenes on every card, you may occasionally notice that the illustrations on certain cards don’t seem to reflect the divinatory or numerological meanings you prefer.
Don’t fret! The illustration is just one person’s effort to capture one possible interpretation of a card’s meaning. As the reader, you’re empowered to read the card in any way that makes sense to you. When reading a card, you can determine the meaning of a card by studying the illustration, applying suit and number symbolism, using your own intuition, or employing any system that works for you.
In addition to the ten numbered pip cards, each suit also incorporates court cards (also called people cards).
Observant readers will have noticed earlier in the chapter 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:
For years, the third option, based on physical features, was extremely popular. One version of this system assigns these meanings:
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:
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.
Note: To read about divinatory meanings others have associated with the Minor Arcana, see Chapters 8-11. Each chapter explores the cards of one suit in great detail.
So far, we’ve established that a tarot deck usually contains 78 cards, grouped in two divisions: the Major and Minor Arcana. The Majors usually consist of 21 trumps, plus a Fool. The Minors are usually divided into four suits containing 14 cards each. The pip cards are usually numbered Ace through 10, and the court cards are usually called page, knight, queen, and king.
Notice how that word “usually” keeps cropping up?
In the earliest tarot decks, trumps are unnumbered. Later, the order of the trumps would vary from deck to deck, along with the names of the trumps and the trump illustrations. Suit names vary, as do the number, order, gender, and titles of the court cards.
In other words, part of tarot’s legacy is a lively tradition of variation and revision. For better or worse, deck designers will do the following:
Common variations include:
A number of deck designers take issue with the organization of the trumps, preferring earlier arrangements or, for various reasons, making up their own. In their book, The Complete New Tarot, Onno and Rob Docters van Leeuwen, creators of a modified Rider–Waite–Smith deck called The Tarot in the Restored Order, swap the Empress with the Lovers, Justice with the Hermit, and Temperance with Death. They justify these changes on the basis of mystical revelations and numerology.
There is a long tradition of changing the names of the cards of the Major Arcana. In the late 1700s, Antoine Court de Gébelin changed the familiar Papess and Pope to the less-Catholic Priestess and Hierophant. Aleister Crowley, operating from his own world view, changed Strength to Lust and expanded the World into the Universe.
Renaming suits is a practice with a long history of its own. The Islamic decks that inspired European card makers contained a suit of polo sticks. Because polo was virtually unknown in fifteenth-century Europe, deck designers gave the suit a name that made more sense to them: Batons. Later, occultists would change the name again, this time to Wands.
In a deck called Songs for the Journey Home, the designers chose suit names designed to reflect the overall theme of the deck, while retaining classical elemental assignments: Flame Songs, Water Songs, Wind Songs, and Earth Songs. My own Bright Idea Deck takes a more minimalist approach, preserving themes but substituting border colors—Red, Blue, Yellow, and Green—for suit markers.
In an effort to avoid gender stereotypes, broaden the applicability of the courts, and help more people see themselves reflected in the cards, many deck designers have recast the courts.
Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Court consists of a princess, a prince, a queen, and a knight. In the Quest Tarot, we find sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers. In Songs for the Journey Home, processes and qualities replace the court card names, yielding Innocence, Awakening, Creating, and Resolving.
To make their decks unique, to emphasize some element of their personal philosophy, or to incorporate themes they don’t see in conventional 78 card decks, many deck designers add cards.
Shirley Gotthold’s Transformational Tarot appends groovy new trumps to the Major Arcana, including Galactic Force, Mystical Life, and Transcendent Mind, and expands the court, adding Teachers and Students, Reformers, Oracles, and Sages. The Osho Zen Tarot, to emphasize the supposed enlightenment of the spiritual leader whose work inspired the deck, made his portrait into Trump XXII: The Master. In Joseph Earnest Martin’s Quest Tarot, Trump XXI (The Universe, the Quest’s equivalent of The World) is trumped by a new trump, the Multiverse.
The tarot is an oracle, a tool designed to enhance perspective, provide insight, and dispense advice. In ancient times, wise leaders traveled to Delphi to consult its famous oracle. Today, there’s no need to travel to Delphi. Bookstore shelves are packed with oracle decks designed to appeal to virtually every consumer taste.
The cards in these decks generally feature inspirational sayings, plus an illustration reflecting the oracle’s distinctive theme. Some oracles claim to put users in contact with angels, archangels, goddesses, spirit guides, or even their own personal vibes. Others draw their wisdom on ancient books, including the Bible and the Chinese Book of Changes. Still others deliver insights based on the properties of inanimate objects (crystals, gemstones, or herbs, for example) or the imagined perspectives of non-human creatures (including dolphins, mermaids, and unicorns).
Some of these oracles even dub themselves tarot decks or use the word tarot in the title. The Infinite Tarot, for example, with its 76 cards, odd trumps, and retooled court cards, is not what most tarot enthusiasts would call tarot.
If you find an oracle deck that works for you, by all means, adopt it. That said, before adopting another oracle, you might consider a few of the advantages a tarot deck has to offer:
Tarot is well-established. People have been achieving insight, practicing divination, and telling fortunes with tarot for hundreds of years. There are hundreds of tarot books on the market and dozens of systems for working with and interpreting tarot. In short, tarot divination has passed the test of time.
Tarot incorporates wisdom from many traditions. Faced with an extremely challenging situation, the wisdom of the mer-people might not prove as comforting or as valuable as you’d like. A tarot consultation draws on widsom from many sources, yielding deeper and more reliable insights.
Tarot has a community. If you adopt tarot, you’ll join a vast community of people who live and work with the cards. There are hundreds of websites and newsgroups for tarot enthusiasts, scholars, and readers at every possible level of expertise. Even in the smallest American cities I visit, there are always a few people who know and use tarot. Odds are, this won’t be the case with The Sugarplum Fairy Oracle.
Other oracles have their uses and can, at certain times and for certain purposes, be superior to tarot. Be aware, though, that not all oracles (and not all decks with tarot in the title!) are necessarily tarot decks.
While this chapter has focused on the basic structure of the tarot deck, many people in the tarot community feel tarot is much more than a deck of cards. Although the concept has not been very clearly or formally defined, many tarot enthusiasts note that, over time, working with the cards generates a gradual change in consciousness. In fact, for many of us who work with the cards on a regular basis, tarot has become an integral part of our world view.
Some attribute this to the deck’s magical properties. Many of us, though, see this as a natural result of our exposure to the stories, structure, and symbolism that are the heart and soul of today’s tarot.
The language of tarot is the language of myth. As tarot readers become reacquainted with this forgotten legacy, they become increasingly aware of just how relevant those old stories can be. As we become better attuned to what has happened before, we become better able to define our own role in the moment—and to sense, with great accuracy, what is most likely to happen next.
This application of tarot transcends divination or reflection. Understood in this way, tarot becomes a philosophy, a set of observations for anticipating the future and interpreting the world. tarot’s universality allows this philosophy to complement the tenets of our faith, whatever they may be.
Ultimately, our work with the cards encourages us to see events (and our own roles within them) as smaller fragments of a larger and more meaningful whole.
On a practical level, the tarot can be seen as a bank of particularly evocative random images, capable of suggesting actions, alternatives, approaches, attitudes, and ideas. Pair this random input with the human mind, and an internal free-association factory starts churning out associations between a question and the cards. Building those connections can radically alter perspective, forcing us to see a situation from a different angle. The result? A moment of inspiration so sudden and surprising that it feels like magic.
On a mystical level, people have proposed a number of theories:
Shuffling the cards enters the moment, producing a local model of a universal state of affairs. Reading the cards taps into the flow and direction of the energies that swirl around us, enabling us to understand where we are and where we’re headed.
The cards that appear are controlled by angels, entities, spirits, or divinities with a perspective that encompasses more than the human mind can conceive. These entities see answers we cannot, and they communicate answers to us by subtly manipulating which cards appear in a reading.
The archetypal symbols on the cards resonate deeply in our consciousness, activating dormant intuitive and psychic abilities. Because these symbols transcend time and culture, the cards allow us to draw on the reservoir of knowledge contained in the collective subconscious mind, giving us a broader, deeper point of view.
The cards are keys or doors to higher consciousness, connecting us with a higher self that remembers why we’re here. Working with the cards helps us see beyond the distractions of the illusory world and reconnect with universal truths.
In the end, why tarot works might be less important than realizing that, for whatever reason, with practice, the cards can and will work for you.
The word occult sounds spooky, but it simply means hidden. Once upon a time, it was very important to occultists to hide certain facts; these days, though, because almost everything has been widely published (or even indexed by Google), there’s not much occulting going on.
Tarot became linked with the occult during the 1700s when French occultists—who often pretended to have more occult knowledge than they possessed—began positioning the deck as the repository of the lost wisdom of the ancient Egyptians.
So, was tarot once the tool of a group of people we can describe as occultists? Yes. Does it have to be associated with the occult, as the term is often used today? Not at all.
This question usually comes up when someone notices the Devil trump, which is often illustrated with a plump, horned, hairy fellow.
Not everything with a devil in it is demonic (take the Bible, for example). To Renaissance Christians, the devil was an important character. He frequently appeared, horns on head and pitchfork in hand, in festivals and parades. The devil played a vital role in Christian cosmology; without him, it was impossible to understand the scope of heaven’s triumph.
The tarot deck rests on a foundation built by Renaissance Christians, who delighted in the symbols, myths, and themes of many cultures. The deck does, indeed, include a devil, but claims that tarot is demonic are rooted in nothing but ignorance and fear.
Actually, stories of tarot’s repression have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, even when playing cards were banned by the Church, the tarot was often specifically exempted. This might have been because Church officials believed the trumps tell the story of heaven’s triumph. It may also be that the deck, as a plaything of the upper classes, was subject to less scrutiny.
The history of tarot cards is well-documented. While the deck may incorporate references to popular Renaissance themes (including everything from astrology to the social pecking order), all evidence indicates the deck was created for recreational purposes.
Many people today believe the ideas behind tarot existed long before the deck, and that these secret teachings are part of an underground stream of lost wisdom. Until supporting evidence is found for these claims, they remain nothing more than assertions. For now, any belief in the so-called secret teachings of tarot is rooted in faith or fantasy … but not fact.
Tarot’s power isn’t dependent on a mysterious origin. The rich library of symbolic and mythic information mapped to every card allows tarot to work as an idea engine, generating new perspectives, different approaches, and instant insights.
Over the last three centuries, what started as a card game has become a catalog of mythic wisdom and a powerful, visual tool for generating ideas and insights. Isn’t that reason enough to consider giving the cards a try?
Some tarot readers are very good at predicting and foreseeing future events. Others, perhaps more apt to read their own hopes and fears into the cards, are not. Still others choose to avoid predictive questions entirely, preferring to use the deck exclusively as a tool for illumination and insight.
Your own success at predicting the future will depend greatly on your skill, insight, focus, knowledge of the cards, and personal objectivity.
The original tarot deck (if, in fact, one single such deck ever existed) has been lost. No tarot deck, then, should be considered “the” tarot. It makes more sense to look for a tarot deck with images and themes you find attractive—in other words, the tarot that’s best for you. For detailed tips on how to find that perfect deck, see Chapter 4, “Your Personal Tarot Deck.”
Although psychic ability can enhance your card reading, many very effective tarot readers do not possess psychic ability of any kind. Many readers feel openness, dedication, sensitivity, and creativity play far greater roles.
Some people assert tarot readers should only read for others, but most such assertions are based on purely mystical assumptions. If you share this particular mystical world view, you might want to avoid reading your own cards.
The vast majority of tarot readers can and do read their own cards. In fact, while doing so requires a degree of objectivity, reading your own cards is one of the most effective ways to learn tarot.
The majority of collectors, enthusiasts, readers, and teachers have purchased their decks. The idea that a tarot deck must be stolen or received as a gift is an old wives’ tale; you should ignore it completely. Determine what you want to do with tarot, find a deck that can support your goals, and buy it with absolute confidence.