Symbols, Symbols Everywhere!
Tarot is loaded with multiple layers of symbolism. There are so many clues in the images themselves that speak to the meaning of the cards. This is why many experts recommend the classic Rider-Waite Tarot as a good starter deck for those just beginning their Tarot journey. It will allow them to become familiar with the classic images of the cards and make the meanings more decipherable if they move onto other decks in the future.
The Major Arcana relies heavily on
mythological archetypes, familiar images, and stories. The Minor Arcana is divided up into four suits, each of which has its own symbolic meaning. Additionally, the numbered cards also have connections to one another across the suits.
There are, quite literally, hundreds of
symbols and thousands of interpretations for them contained within the 78 cards
of Tarot. Let’s take a look at some of the symbolism and how we can use it to
connect to and remember the meaning of the cards.
Symbolism in the Major Arcana
The Major Arcana directly correlates to Ancient Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. Both famous psychologist, Carl Jung, and master of literary theory, Joseph Campbell, wrote in-depth about how these mythologies have been kept alive through symbolism and can be seen in all forms of storytelling. Iconography, colors, and imagery also play large roles in the symbolism of Tarot. There are countless things to look for in each card. Here are a few examples:
A figure on a throne holds both an upright sword and a set of scales. Scales have long been a symbol of justice because of their obvious connection to literal equality. In Egyptian mythology, it is the God Anubis who weighs your heart against a feather to see if you’re worthy of reaching heaven. The sword is a symbol of righteousness and carrying the literal meaning of being a tool of destruction. Justice, the judge, has the option of bestowing equality and righteousness, as well as cutting verdicts, and since they are not divine, inequality at times.
Death rides in on a pale horse. A skeleton, an obvious symbol of death and decay, the horse a callback to biblical passages of the apocalypse. He holds up a flag with a flower, symbolizing rebirth, growth, and a new season. While Death is often seen as a scary card, within the mythological cycle of Tarot there is no true death, only transformation. That is what all the symbolism in this card points to; the body’s transformation after death into a skeleton and the new growth that comes from decay. In the background, we see the sun beginning to rise anew.
The card shows a figure reaching into a lion’s mouth. The old fable goes that a lion has been terrorizing a village, and when the strongest warrior sets off to kill the lion, he finds that the lion has been roaring and raging because he is in pain. Instead of killing the lion, the hero removes the rotten tooth and saves the day with kindness rather than muscle. This story and the symbolism of the imagery reinforce the idea of strength as more than just physical prowess.
A figure holds in their hands a candle burning
at two ends, while the elements of all the suits lay before them, showing that they
have mastered all of the elements of the cycle of the Minor Arcana.
Symbolism in the Minor Arcana
The Minor Arcana are divided into four suits, which are connected to the four elements. The Coins connect to Earth, as they deal with the home and work. The Cups are connected to Water, as they are all about emotions, love, and family. The Swords are connected to Air since they rule intellect, words, and decision-making. And lastly, the Wands are connected to Fire, the suit of creativity, passion, sex, and violence. When we look across the suits at the numbered cards, we can see similarities between cards of the same number.
All of the Twos are largely about two-person connections. The Two of Coins indicates a working partnership, the Two of Cups is about a soulmate connection with another person, while the Two of Swords is about finding balance in a relationship. The Two of Wands is a bit more internal, however, and usually refers to a fork in the road, a decision you have to make to move forward.
The Fives are midpoints for the suit cycles,
and always represent a dramatic, negative shift. The Five of Wands is about
conflict and arguing, the Five of Coins indicates financial desperation, the
Five of Swords is a card of disagreement and endings, walking away from
something you have struggled to let go of, and the Five of Cups indicates
The Tens, by contrast, are the ending of the cycle and represent fulfillment in their various suits. Only the Ten of Wands holds any negative connotations, as it sometimes indicates getting even more than you bargained for.
Colors are also an indication of the meaning of the cards. The dichotomy of light vs. dark is never more apparent than it is in the Chariot card. A cart is being pulled by two beasts, one black, one white. To successfully move forward, you need the balance of light and dark to guide you. However, each color is imbued with its own significance that offers a deeper layer of meaning, especially when figures are seen wearing a combination of colors. Sometimes the colors may align to your chakras too.
- White- Birth, inexperience, higher self, Crown Chakra
- Pink- Compassion, love, forgiveness, Heart Chakra
- Red- Grounding, security, anger, passion, Root Chakra
- Orange- Joy, optimism, creativity, Sacral Chakra
- Yellow- Opportunity, enthusiasm, Solar Plexus Chakra
- Gold- Divinity, spirituality, Crown Chakra
- Green- Balance, harmony, healing, love, Heart Chakra
- Blue- Self-expression, communication, trust, Throat Chakra
- Purple- Intuition, psychic ability, critical thinking, Third Eye Chakra
- Brown- Stability, comfort, Sacral Chakra
- Silver- Sensitivity, empathy, Crown Chakra
- Black- Grounding, emptiness, darkness, protection, Root Chakra
Iconography like the sun, the moon, and running water appear over and over. We can surmise that a card speaks of hope, rebirth, and new dawn where the sun appears. the Moon and the Star, by contrast, indicate the internal. Both the Star and the Hermit, whose lantern shines just like a star, speak to the internal struggle and finding the power within yourself. Water, which we see in cards like the Moon, Temperance, and throughout the Cups suit, indicates healing, purification, and psychic prowess.
A Tapestry of Meaning
Depending on what your interest is, be it mythology,
art, religion, or philosophy, the symbolism in Tarot offers a rich tapestry of
visual information to sift through. The more you learn about the world outside
of Tarot, the more connections you can make to the cards themselves.
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