The Tarot cards are an important part of the Western Mysteries mainly due to their commonality. They are used for divination, or “foretelling the future”, as well as diet psychology by thousands of people the world over. In this article, I intend to create a simple reference for tarot imagery so that a person can know at a glance what it is that they are seeing. The information below is not perfect or absolutely complete, in fact, it is rather watered down. It is hoped, despite these inadequacies, that you find that it provides a good basis and broad understanding for work with the decks. People practicing divination as well as performing magickal workings should be able to use this guide.
Tarot cards are Kabalistic in nature. Their fundamental roots are in the Tree of Life. A reasonable understanding of the Tree can make a Miss Cleo out of anyone. A full recitation of the Tree of Life is beyond the scope of this work, though, so I will content myself with summing up. Please note that for this article I will be referring to the “standard” Rider-Waite deck.
The Cards are divided into five groups, four suits of Minor Arcana and the Major Arcana. Each suit of minor arcana contains ten (10) numbered cards and four (4) “court” cards, Page, Knight, Queen, and King. The minor arcana represent feelings and events that happen in life. The majors represent archetypical influences and the forces of destiny. A tarot reading with many major arcana can represent a situation where destiny is heavily involved and the subject of the reading may not be able to affect much in situation.
The four suits of minor arcana, Swords, Pentacles, Cups, and Wands, correspond to the elements Fire, Earth, Water, and Air, respectively. It is also a common interpretation to interchange the elements of Swords and Wands. I find this rather silly, however, as the imagery of the sword cards (treachery, wrath, triumph, sorrow, lust, etc.) is clearly better suited to the element of fire. Whichever elemental association you prefer is the one you should work with.
The element of fire is intended to deal the greater passions; Lust, rage, wrath, courage, vengeance, and justice, to name a few. These are the things that drive people to events and sustain them throughout. Where you see a sword or fire card, know that a passionate event or motive is involved.
The element of water deals with rest, contentment, peace, and agreement. These cards relate to the milder emotions and enjoyments of life. Events dealing with love (rather than lust), contentment, happiness, completion, cooperation, and compassion are represented in this suit.
Air is the element of thought. These cards deal with intelligence, scholarship, wisdom, learning, politics, law, and matters of the mind. An air card will often represent a matter of ideas or ideals.
Earth is the element of the every day. Money, employment, family (in the most mundane sense), industry, contract, and common sense are represented in these cards. A pentacle usually indicates something financial or mercantile in the reading.
The Aces or “1” cards are the roots of the element they represent. An ace represents something primal and strong in the element of the suit. An ace of wands might mean great happiness or peace, an ace of pentacles might mean great wealth or opportunity.
The Twos (2) of the deck often represent a motive force within the appropriate element. This could be a need or a desire, or even a necessity.
The Threes (3) are cards of birth and beginning, the start of something associated with the suit. They also can herald the beginning of the end of something.
Fours (4) are cards of law, order, or protocol. They represent rules, organization, and limitations, as well as refinement and proper order.
Fives (5) are cards change and growth as well as cards of fear and destruction. Which one they represent depends on the situation.
Sixes (6) represent beauty and balance. These are cards of harmony and perfection within their suit.
Sevens (7) are cards of emotion and passion. They are often needs or desires that are well formulated and specific.
The eights ( [8)] are the cards of ideas, planning, and forethought. Intelligence, wisdom, and experience are present in these cards.
Nines (9) of the deck are cards of prototype and ideals. Things that are “ready” to happen or the portents of emotions or events are displayed here.
Tens (10) represent things that have come to fruition or are complete and whole. An actualization within a suit will be displayed with a ten.
The pages commonly represent information that is coming or has arrived. They can also represent the beginning of something that the subject of the reading is involved in.
Knights represent conflict and questing. People doing something, active in a process, or struggling against something are often represented by knights. Knights are often used as significators, or representatives of the subject of the reading.
Queens are associated with the “feminine” traits of a suit. All things female that represent an element will appear in the queens. A Queen of pentacles might represent pregnancy or household events (I know it sounds sexist but it’s the idea that is being conveyed, not the intent that women do it). A queen of swords might stand for overwhelming love, jealousy, or treachery.
Kings stand for the “masculine” traits. A king of cups could stand for peace or sloth. A king of swords could represent impassioned justice or reckless abandon in pursuit of a goal.
The twenty two Major Arcana represent the forces of destiny and fate. Here are some common interpretations (taken from another work I have been involved in):
0 The Fool-Folly, mania, extravagance, frenzy, bewrayment Following a path and paying no attention to dangers associated with it Carelessness, vanity, absence, apathy, nullity Following a path and paying no attention to dangers associated with it. Kether to Chockmah
1 The Magician-Skill, diplomacy, address, sickness, pain, loss, disaster, self confidence, will The significator has the power to crate his own destiny Physician, Magus, mental disease, disquiet In this field, the significator may be powerless to effect events. Kether to Binah
2 The High Priestess-Secrets, the future unrevealed, a woman who interests the significator or perhaps the significator herself Knowledge that comes from an understanding rather than rote or dogma Passion, moral or physical adore, conceit, surface knowledge Misunderstanding of facts, Failure to grasp Socratic wisdom. Kether to Tipareth
3 The Empress-Fruitfulness, action, initiative, the unknown, length of days, clandestine, difficulty, doubt, ignorance True power that is behind the scenes, a person without the ability to affect matters directly but may do so otherwise Light, truth, the unraveling of complicated matters, public rejoicing, vacillation Successful or unsuccessful manipulation as applies, causing the uncovering of truth. Chockmah to Binah
4 The Emperor-Stability, power, protection, a great person, aid, reason, conviction A person in the position of power on his own terms Benevolence, compassion, credit, confusion to enemies, obstruction, immaturity Decadent position where true power lies elsewhere. Netzach to Yesod
5 The Hierophant-Marriage, alliance, servitude, mercy, goodness, inspiration, the man to whom the significator owes something or must answer to Knowledge that comes from learning rather than understanding Society, good understanding, concord, over-kindness One who's good actions are not done for selfless goals. Chockmah to Chesed
6 The Lovers-Attraction, love, beauty, trials overcome A choice that must be made between the individual and partnership goals Failure, foolish designs Lust, wayward following of passion, self delusion. Binah to Tipareth
7 The Chariot-Succor, providence, war, triumph, presumption, vengeance, trouble A "journey" that will better the subject or situation Riot, quarrel, Dispute, litigation, defeat An undertaking for the wrong reasons. Binah to Geburah
8 Strength-Power, energy, courage, magnanimity Respect for potential and how to use it Despotism, abuse of power, weakness, discord Foolish, but not completely unwarranted pride. Chesed to Geburah
9 The Hermit-Prudence, Treason, dissimulation, roguery, corruption A loner or outcast, Judas Concealment, disguise, policy, fear, unreasoned caution, fear To be afraid of success or failure. Chesed to Tipareth
10 The Wheel of Fortune-Destiny, fortune, success, luck, happiness Favorable odds, or a good opportunity Increase, abundance, superfluity Chance, randomnicity. Chesed to Netzach
11 Justice-Equity, rightness, probity, executive A favorable decision by a higher authority Law in all departments, bigotry, bias, excessive severity Poetic Justice. Geburah to Tipareth
12 The Hanged Man-Wisdom, circumspection, discernment, trials, sacrifice, intuition, divination, prophecy Martyrdom Selfishness, the crowd, body politic The situation could be altered but no action is taken by choice. Geburah to Hod
13 Death-End, mortality, corruption, destruction Change, maybe for the better but most likely not. Inertial, sleep, lethargy, somnambulism Lack of change where it may be needed. Tipareth to Netzach
14 Temperance-Economy, moderation, frugality, management, accommodation A complacency or acceptance Things connected with religion, disunion, unfortunate combinations, disunion Bureaucracy. Tipareth to Yesod
15 The Devil-Ravage, violence, vehemence, extraordinary efforts, force, fatality That which is predestined but not evil because of it Evil, fatality, weakness, blindness, pettiness The worst sort of folly or failure. Tipareth to Hod
16 The Tower-Misery, distress, ruin, adversity, disgrace, deception A rapid and cataclysmic change Misery, distress, ruin, adversity, disgrace, deception A rapid and cataclysmic change. Netzach to Hod
17 The Star Loss, abandonment, privilege, privation Hope, Bright Prospects, a guide Arrogance, haughtiness, importance a false teacher. Chockmah to Tipareth
18 The Moon-Terror, deception, error, mystery, calumny, darkness, danger A hidden enemy Silence, inconstancy, instability Deception, mystery. Netzach to Malkuth
19 The Sun-Material happiness, contentment A figure or idea of great importance to the significator or reading Material happiness, contentment A figure or idea of great importance to the significator or reading. Hod to Yesod
20 Judgment-Change of position, renewal, outcome The end of a situation, drawing to a close Pusillanimity, deliberation, decision, sentence, simplicity A situation will be drawn into black and white, for better or worse. Hod to Malkuth
21 The World-Assured success, voyage, rout, emigration, flight, change of place Complexity, all things affect the position Inertia, fixity, stagnation, permanence Trapped in a cycle. Yesod to Malkuth
Inversion in the cards (when they appear upside down) is a contested event. It generally means one of four things.
1. The opposite of the meaning of the card
2. The same as the meaning of the card but to a lesser extent
3. The thing that the card represents is required but not present
4. The thing that the cards represents has been delayed somehow
I hope that this guide proves helpful. Please excuse its necessary incompleteness.