From classic horror tales to unexpected appearances in movies such as Tombstone, the popular image of the Tarot is often either a spooky witch’s trick to get under the hero’s skin, or a carnival trick played for laughs. Rarely is tarot ever depicted in a way that is true to the actual nature of the cards, which is why it’s not uncommon to be unaware of what tarot cards truly are, or how they are used.
A Quick History of Tarot
The exact date of invention is unknown, but most historians agree that the tarot deck we see today originated in 14th century Turkey, later adopted by the Italians into a game called “tarocchi approporiati” during the 15th century. In this game, players used the thematic images on each card to write poems about their fellow players, for the entertainment of the players as well as the crowd. Later the cards were used in a strategic game similar to today’s Bridge.
In our modern use of tarot decks, the thematic imagery on the cards is used to help understand a situation or problem, or to discover an answer or a path that one could follow going forward. The reader interprets the symbolism on a drawn card to gain a greater understanding of a specific issue, based on the question posed by the person requesting the reading.
Tarot decks are divided into a Minor Arcana, the suited cards, and the Major Arcana, a smaller deck of cards representing more powerful symbols. Every card has a unique message based on the symbolism found in the art, the suit, the number, and so on. While the classic Raider-Waite deck is one of the most popular tarot decks, there are thousands of decks with artwork ranging from detailed and symbolic, to modern and minimal.
Meanings of the Suits
Many decks have different suits or court members, based on their own theme. For example, while the Raider-Waite deck contains the wands, cups, swords, and pentacles, the Wildwood Tarot deck uses Arrows, Bows, Stones, and Vessels. For this article, the Raider-Waite suits are used.
- Wands: Connected to the element of Fire, the Wands suit represents a person’s creativity and willpower.
- Pentacles: Connected to the element of Earth, the Pentacles represent the material and the physical.
- Cups: Connected to the element of Water, the Cups represent the realm of emotion.
- Swords: Connected with the element of Air, the Swords suit represents reason and higher thinking.
Each numbered card shows a different aspect of the major focus of the suit. The court cards also each carry their own meaning, displayed through the symbolism on the card.
Meanings of the Major Arcana
There are 22 cards in the Raider-Waite Major Arcana, and each carries a wealth of meaning. Briefly:
- The Fool, 0: Represents folly, carelessness, and vanity.
- The Magician, 1: Represents skill and self-confidence, but also pain and loss.
- The High Priestess, 2: Mystery and wisdom, but also passion and conceit.
- The Empress, 3: Taking action, overcoming doubt and ignorance.
- The Emperor, 4: Power, protection, and authority.
- The Hierophant, 5: Mercy and weakness.
- The Lovers, 6: Love, beauty, and attraction.
- The Chariot, 7: Could represent either victory or defeat.
- Strength, 8: Power and energy.
- The Hermit, 9: Represents deliberation, caution, or fear.
- Wheel of Fortune, 10: Luck and success.
- Justice, 11: Represents balance and rightness.
- The Hanged Man, 12: Represents sacrifice and devotion.
- Death, 13: Represents change, transformation, or mortality.
- Temperance, 14: Frugality, moderation, and combination.
- The Devil, 15: Violence, fatality.
- The Tower, 16: Ruin, loss, or misery.
- The Star, 17: Hopefulness, but also arrogance.
- The Moon, 18: Deception, danger, or instability.
- The Sun, 19: Contentment, wealth.
- Judgment, 20: Represents a coming of results.
- The World, 21: The nature of the world; a voyage or change.
Using Tarot Cards
By using the symbolism on a tarot card, a reader can understand a problem better, or perhaps even find an answer that may not have been considered before. For example: if a person asks a reader to help them find a way to save their marriage, and the reader draws the Page of Wands, this could help the questioner realize that they need to dedicate some energy to discovering new, creative ways to show their love.
As you learn more about tarot cards, you can then move on to learning how to use specific spreads to gain an even deeper understanding. The important thing to realize about tarot card usage is that the answers and understanding divined from the cards are simply a result of using the thematic symbolism on the cards to open your mind to a new idea or direction.