In the image on the card, we see three dancing women dressed in elegant flowing robes.
As they raise their cups in celebration, they toast to each other in recognition of a shared accomplishment.
The rich autumn colors of their attire, combined with the abundant fruit of a recent harvest gathered around them, suggests a completion of a goal held in common.
3 of Cups Interpretation
When this card comes up in a reading, it tends to signal a sense of our being connected with and cared for by others. It can also often speak to the experience of enjoying yourself and having fun with friends.
When this card appears, it signifies a sense of well being and security that we get from spending time with people we care about. It signals being surrounded by supportive people who we know we can trust and rely on.
The three of cups represents the drive shared emotional intimacy, as well as the pleasures of enjoying the company as a card of the suit of cups, related to the water element this card depicts the deep satisfaction of intimacy and connection we can experience with our friends, our community, and the other groups of which we are apart.
For this reading, I had asked the following questions:
What should I be focusing on now? Is there anything I need to know about my purpose, especially as it relates to my personal healing and growth?
What follows are the notes I took that day on my interpretation of these cards:
The Core of the Issue & What Crosses It: Death crossed by 10 of Cups
Truly, the core of my question is in many ways about the process of death and rebirth I now find myself in.
I’m dying to many past elements of myself and my past so that I may be reborn again and become the woman I know I am meant to be now and in the future.
As I accept and lean into this dying, my natural joy seems to be returning. There is no longer such a driving pressure to push myself into “achieving” happiness.”
Instead, as I let all that does not serve me wither and fall away, my well-being seems to arise more spontaneously.
The Basis of your Question: 7 of Pentacles
The basis of my question is that I am looking to my past to observe what has come about as a result of it, in order to start making plans for my future. I’m seeing what I have sown and what I have reaped so that I can do differently in the future if I want to.
Recent Past: 3 of Wands
This is reinforced by the 3 of Wands in the position showing my recent past. This card is about surveying the landscape in front of you and using your previous experiences, current desires and even your past pain as you look out toward what could become your future. It means pausing and taking the time to ascend to higher ground to view the territory from a more objective perspective.
Higher Self: Queen of Pentacles
This position is meant to represent your Higher Self, and with the Queen of Pentacles here, it shows how I have been learning how to take on the role of being a mother to myself. I am finding ways to give myself all that I once wanted and needed as a child, but never was given or allowed to have by my actual mother. Above all, I am learning how to hold myself gently and with care, much as this Queen holds her Pentacle on her throne.
Near Future: 8 of Cups
This shows how, much like in the image on this card, I am preparing to leave behind one situation to go out in search of greater happiness and fulfillment. In this card we see a solar eclipse, symbolizing one kind of order or way of being in the world receding as a new one arises to take its place.
What I Bring to the Situation: 9 of Cups
I think that in some way I do feel like my wishes are being granted right now. I’ve read anything and everything out there, gone through so much therapy, and worked so hard in an effort to heal, and now I feel that this healing is happening for me.
What Others Contribute / How What You Bring is Perceived in Your Outer Environment: Page of Wands
This card can indicate a sense of honesty, innocence and eagerness to please. It can mean someone who has great ideas and intentions, and shows a lot of excitement at the beginning of a project, but is usually not so great with the follow through. It’s a reminder that I need to be more persistent and committed to acting on my goals (and not just the dreaming and planning parts).
Hopes & Fears / Advice: 9 of Pentacles
The woman in this card is known to be independent, self-assured, secure, and at ease in abundance. She has good boundaries and has taken the time to cultivate herself in order to achieve success. Truly, this is what I want most for myself right now.
Final Outcome: 7 of Cups
This card is all about imagination, fantasy, illusions and dreams. This reflects the danger I am in of falling into a familiar pattern or trap that I have of eternal dreaming about the possibilities and never getting anything real or substantial accomplished. So with that said, I know now that I need to be careful and watch out for this as I move forward.
I want to commit to taking direct, practical action on specific tasks that will actually move me forward towards my goals. I need to release my previous patterns of overthinking and endlessly theorizing while I neglect reality and my actual state of affairs. I’m ready to start making real changes now.
Want more clarity on what’s really going on? Need guidance on what your next steps should be?
In the image on the card, we see a group of young men engaged in what appears to be a lively and playful battle game. Each of the five youths, armed with a wand of his own, has joined the fray and is enthusiastically wielding his baton in a spirited sparring match against his opponents.
Although it is clearly every man for himself here, their engagement with each other seems clearly to be more for the thrill of the fight. There seems to be little intent for physical harm. Above all, it is a fight that seeks instead to playfully show their skill in battle, to win out on top against their reasonably friendly opponents, and to develop their expertise and talent in battle.
Five of Wands Interpretation
When the 5 of Wands comes up, it can indicate challenges and some level of difficulty or interpersonal conflict.
In some cases, the conflict may very well be light-hearted and playful. In a similar vein, this card can indicate engaging in a lively and spirited discussion. We may be involved in a debate, a battle of ideas, a testing of arguments that is enlivening and intellectually invigorating.
On the other hand, this card can also signal a situation characterized by unhealthy competition. It may involve petty disagreements, lack of cooperation, and small but significantly irritating frustrations.
The Five of Wands can symbolize feeling at odds with your environment, with days filled with minor setbacks that are not so harmful in the whole scheme of things, but which do serve as sources of profound annoyance and irritation.
While many might find themselves frustrated by the challenges represented by the 5 of Wands, there are some possessing a more competitive nature who might find the extra competition to be just the motivation they needed.
Competition and rivalry are not always unhealthy. The powerful energies it unleashes can be the spark which lights a fire within us, one which burns intensely with a desire to succeed and win.
When we see the 5 of Wands in a reading, we may wish to allow the powerful energy of this card to drive us to be our very best. It may not be easy, but we will often find that it has been worth it.
It is a warm, early summer afternoon, one of those days where the sun seems to be smiling directly upon you, and you feel blessed to be alive. The sun, the season, the fruits, vegetables, and everything else under the glorious solar rays seem to be at full volume, completely ripe and ready to burst with life. A palpable sense of vitality permeates everything–all is graced by the golden touch of the sun.
In front of us stands a flowery canopy: four wands stand connected by a lush green garland of vines and leaves, decorated with the best of the season’s fruits and flowers, the crown gems of summer’s harvest on display.
Underneath this canopy, two women appear, raising lush bouquets of flowers towards the sky in a triumphant gesture of celebration. We can see other guests mingling behind them, all dressed in bright hues that express in vibrant tones their cheerful mood. The thrill of partaking in genuine and joyful communion with one another is palpable in the air.
Four of Wands Interpretation
When the 4 of Wands appears in a reading, it often signals a time of celebration, a time where we are free to rejoice and express our gratitude. We may have experienced difficulties in the past, but when this card appears, we can trust that the worst is over, and our freedom and liberation from restrictions is now assured.
At times, this card can quite literally signify a celebration: we may go to a dinner party, a festival, wedding or other social event. In simple terms, this card refers to having fun, to getting out and enjoying yourself fully and without reservations.
On a more general level, this card refers to celebration as an attitude of mind, an inner state of being characterized by a sense of optimism, happiness and joy. On that note, the appearance of the Four of Wands in a reading can more simply signify an attitude of enthusiasm, of faith in what the future holds for us.
It can also represent a spontaneous, open and free response to our current lived experiences, one where we feel free of restrictions, and unbound from any limitations. When the 4 of Wands appears, it signals that we are now free to go with the flow. We can feel grounded in the present moment, trusting in our capacity to react spontaneously, responding to whatever arises for us with a light touch and an open heart.
It is late afternoon, and a warm and vibrantly energizing yellow sunlight permeates the air, illuminating the landscape we see all around us. On our left, we can see the high peak of a distant gray mountaintop in shadow, the very same mountain which we first saw earlier in the Lovers card.
There is a certain peace and serenity which permeates the atmosphere. There is still much energy left of the day, but we are now at a point when the power of the Sun is under control. We are no longer burned by its heat, but gently warmed by the life energy calmly exuded by this center of solar energy.
Directly in front of us stands a woman in white, wearing a crown of flowers on her head. She also wears a garland of roses, one which ties her, in an elegant figure 8, to the lion at her feet.
Gently, tenderly, with an attitude of the utmost care, she holds the open jaws of this king of the animal kingdom, the lion. In return, he looks up at her with an attitude of loving submission. For the woman has learned how to tame the wildest and most powerful of beasts: with attention and respect, with care and with love.
A lesser person would have responded to the ferocious strength and power of the lion with fear, with fury, with a violence meant to destroy. But the woman, who bears much in common with the Empress, knows better—she knows that strength and power is nothing to be feared. Treated with respect and love, the raw, primal energies of this red lion are instead a force to be tamed, to be controlled with disciplined attention and careful responsiveness.
To try to suppress or kill this energy would be a tragedy; to misunderstand the lion as a threat is a grave error, for he represents a force which is ours to be harnessed. It is one which, with the right attitude, can ultimately show us greater power than we could have ever imagined possible.
The key lies in the garland of roses which tie the woman and the lion together. Roses represent our desire nature, the forces of love and attraction which propel us forward into the future, which draw our destiny towards us. The lion represents the raw power of our uncultivated emotions, our primal, animal level of the subconscious. When we can direct the raw energy of these emotions and direct our own difficult feelings with compassion and care, we often find that we have access to a kind of power previously impossible to imagine.
When Strength comes up in a tarot reading, we are often being asked to act in a way that demonstrates true inner strength and courage.
The quality of strength as demonstrated in this card has little to do with the common cultural conceptions many of us hold around this idea. Strength here is in fact the opposite of the show of force that our cultures so values. True strength is the antithesis of the violent expression of personal will that we mistakenly often take to be true power.
Instead of dominance and coercion, we see a strength whose expression is truly much more powerful. This kind of strength relies on inner resources, and is dependent upon our cultivation of discipline and genuine self-control.
On a more esoteric level, the lion is a representation of our primal (some would say “lower”) animal nature. It symbolizes the raw energy of kundalini that comes from our deepest inner sources.
It is the “libido” that Carl Jung speaks of, which, in contrast to Freud, is not simply a shameful sexual impulse, but rather the vital life force energy that animates all which moves and breathes and has its being in the world.
Our desires, our feelings, our emotions are nothing to be feared. They must not be repressed or denied through oppressive tactics.
They are instead a force to be respected, a force to be honored, a force to be gently and lovingly guided in the direction of our highest vision and most elevated ideals.
In the image on the card, we see a decorated hero triumphantly returning home from battle. He has ventured out into the world, and proven himself victorious in what he has set out to achieve.
We see our hero standing proud inside his chariot that is seemingly made of a stone cube. Just as we saw in previous cards like the High Priestess and the Emperor, this symbolizes the material world of physical manifestation.
On an esoteric level, this can refer to our identification with our physical bodies as our vehicles for expression in the world. It also potentially speaks to our identification with our ego (our structured sense of self) or our persona (the mask which we present to others, which like the ego, is another constructed sense of self).
Interestingly, this chariot is pulled not by horses, but instead by two sphinxes of opposite colors. One black and one white, these sphinxes represent the two sides of our nature, the rational and the emotional.
The rider of the chariot, or Higher Self, is the mediating force which controls both elements and gets them to work together for the shared purpose of moving the individual forward toward his goals. This reconciliation of disparate elements within the self is accomplished through the use of our will-power.
The Chariot Interpretation
When the Chariot comes up in a tarot reading, it can mean success or victory in what we intend to accomplish.
The Chariot can also represent competence and self-mastery. It often signals the development of discipline and control over our instincts and drives. We may also see the resulting competency extended to include dominion over our outer circumstances and physical environment.
In a reading, the Chariot can also indicate a strong sense of confidence, independence, and self-assurance. It speaks to our capacity to know who we are, what we want, and how we intend to get there.
Consequently, this card can also indicate self-interest and self-advocacy. This attitude can be expressed in both healthy and unhealthy ways. When done in ways that are in alignment with our integrity, it often means having strong boundaries and being able to stand up for ourselves when necessary.
Finally, the card represents the element of our psyche which we call the ego. The ego is not our true selves, but is instead what we think we are. It involves the stories that we have created about ourselves based on a combination of our experiences and our ideals.
The word ego itself means “I am” in Latin. We can see that it is simply an expression through language (either in thought or as spoken words) of a constructed self-concept.
Contrary to many schools of spiritual thought, the ego is not the enemy. The ego is not something to be transcended or eradicated. Rather, it is a useful tool that we use as we move through the world—it is the vehicle used by the Self as it sets out to accomplish its objective.
The problem arises when we become too identified with this constructed ego self. The solution is not to eliminate the ego, but simply to be flexible in our ability to mediate and revise our self-concept as our circumstances require of us.
As a result, this means that in a reading the Chariot can also suggest the negative consequences of a rigid, inflexible ego. When this card appears, we may want to ask ourselves if we are holding too tightly to false narratives around who we are and what our value is to others.
Finally, on an esoteric level, this card is associated with the power of speech, which includes thought as well as the written word. We can clearly see how this is likely rooted in the fact that language is an important tool for the successful achievement of our objectives, and essential to the elaboration of our egoic sense of self, which are the two core meanings of the Chariot tarot card in a reading.
In The Lovers card of the Major Arcana, we come upon a scene that appears to be the Garden of Eden.
To our right stands man, symbol of the conscious mind, in front of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree holds twelve leaves of fire (one for each astrological sign of the zodiac). The flaming leaves have charred the rest of the tree, likely indicating how reason and logic, when taken to their extreme, can burn us if we are not careful. This shows how the powers of the rational mind must be handled with discernment, lest they destroy what they are meant to protect.
To our left stands woman, symbol of the unconscious mind, in front of the Tree of Life. Four fruits are visible here, although in other decks the full five are visible, each one representing one of our five bodily senses through which we experience the physical world.
Above our pair of Lovers a brilliant sun shines, and from a cloud beneath our sun we see Archangel Raphael, angel of love and healing, who here also represents the divine, or Superconsciousness.
“Amor est magis cognitivus quam cognitio.” –Thomas Aquinas (We know things better through love than through knowledge.)
Notice how man looks to the woman, while it is she who looks up, hand raised, to Archangel Raphael. Despite what we may have been culturally conditioned to believe, the experience of God is one which we are drawn to through our intuition, rather than through any conscious deliberation. We are often drawn to a higher awareness through what we consider our lower selves; we are tempted by the serpent, drawn by the hand of Eros toward a greater destiny we would hardly have the capacity to conceive through the rational mind.
This card tells us that following our hearts is the only way to truly meet our destiny. Following our inner calling is the only way to break free of the rigidity of the conscious, egoic mind, which has little imagination, little capacity to channel the dream that desires to be born through us.
The Lovers Interpretation
When this card comes in a tarot reading, it clearly speaks to the possibility for love and romance. When the Lovers appears, it indicates the real potential for genuine intimacy and emotional connection.
It refers to the transformative power of our desires to generate new life, whether that be in the form of a child conceived or a project planned. It speaks to the power of our erotic intelligence, also known as the libido or life force energy, which is the driving force connecting us with our destiny. This erotic energy is not limited to sexual expression; when channelled appropriately, it can lead us toward a higher spiritual experience and connection with the divine.
The Lovers in a reading can also refer to our capacity to make choices for ourselves as individuals, based on our own particular needs and wants, in contrast to what is asked of us by society or the culture at large. In this sense, it can refer to turning away from the expectations of our family or society (as represented by the Hierophant[link here]). The Lovers in a reading can speak to a need to trust ourselves enough to honor our deepest desire, and follow our hearts when making important decisions for ourselves.
On a more esoteric level, the Lovers represent all three facets of our selves: the Conscious, or mind (the masculine), the Unconscious, or body (the feminine), and the Superconscious, or God/the universe/the cosmic archetypal (archangel Raphael).
This card shows the relationship that should rightly exist between the three. Man and woman are meant to exist in harmony, in loving relationship. The same is true for our Conscious and Unconscious selves. It was never meant to be “mind over matter,” where mind rules and dominates against the desires of the body. It is meant to be mind with matter, where mind is a guide, a gentle steward that directs and protects the interests of the unconscious or “lower” self.
I also wanted to note that when I speak of the masculine and the feminine, it should not be taken to mean “man” and “woman.” As whole human beings, the masculine and feminine represented here should be taken as facets of our whole personality, both of which we have access to if we are in a condition of health. I want to make it clear that these figures represent elements of the psyche, and both men and women have access to them in equal measure.
In the image on this card, we see the Hierophant seated on his throne in the center of two pillars. He wears long, red flowing robes and an ornate gold crown. Like the Emperor, he sits on a stone throne, although the Hierophant’s is much more elaborately decorated and embellished.
In some decks, this card is known as the Pope, a reference to the head of the Catholic Church. The Rider-Waite name of the Hierophant is a reference to the high priest of the Eleusinian Mysteries of the Ancient Greek world.
At the Hierophant’s feet, we see two initiates seated on the floor, bowing to their leader’s higher authority. The initiate on the left wears a blue robe covered in white lilies, a reference to the qualities of reason, logic, and conscious mind, as we saw earlier in the garden of the Magician. On the left, the second adherent wears a white robe covered in red roses, which once again, refers to our desires, will, and subconsciousness.
Both followers here wear a yellow yoke, symbolizing their adherence and submission to the higher authority of the Hierophant. In esoteric terms, the Hierophant represents our Higher Self, God, or the spirit of the Universe. The attire of the initiates indicates that we must submit our personal desires and attachment to what we consider to be true.
The Hierophant Interpretation
When the Hierophant comes up in a tarot reading, it often means submission to some kind of authority. This is often a higher authority than we see in the Emperor. Instead, the authority we are being asked to adhere to in the Hierophant is on a larger, societal level, often in the context of religion or higher education.
This relates to a second, related meaning of the Hierophant: it indicates receiving an education in a certain code of ethics, morality, or even theoretical practices and doctrines. It involves the development of the self within the context of larger societal norms and expectations.
This has the purpose of giving us a context within which to situate our lived experience, and allows us to integrate the diverse contents of our day to day happenings within a larger framework of understanding.
As a result, when this card comes up, it can also refer to the qualities of conformity and obedience which may be present here. The Hierophant is not only an education in a particular worldview, but it also represents our adherence to its creed, and submission to the dictates of such a comprehensive perspective.
Consequently, the Hierophant often speaks to the sacrifice of our own desires or needs in the service of the culture at large. This can clearly serve a positive purpose for both ourselves and the larger community of which we are a part.
However, the Hierophant can at times also indicate the danger inherent in handing over our powers of critical thought to something outside of ourselves. At times, this card asks us to question how we have outsourced our own inner authority and knowing, and allowed forces outside of ourselves to dominate or control us.
Sometimes, especially when reversed, the Hierophant asks us to look at our codes of ethics, to examine our system of moral reasoning, in order to make wiser decisions about how to proceed in our lives.
Most tarot decks in use today, including the Rider-Waite, contain a standard number of 78 cards, which is then split into two sections: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana.
The word “arcana” itself means “a deep or profound secret.” It is thought that each of these cards contains symbolic imagery revealing a powerful hidden meaning. These cards are meant to convey, through a pictorial language, the secret mysteries of the universe and our place within it.
The Major Arcana contains 22 cards, numbered from 0 to 21, all of which go beyond the more common, quotidian concerns represented in the 56 cards of the Minor to touch on the archetypal dimensions of our spiritual development.
Furthermore, we can look to the Major Arcana not simply as a set of 22 isolated archetypal ideas, but rather, as a mythic or heroic journey, one that each of us may choose to undertake as a route to greater self-knowledge and realization.
We can start by turning our attention to the first of these cards, The Fool. It is interesting to note that although this is the first of the series, it does not carry the numeral 1, but 0.
As we will see in greater detail in our next post dedicated to this card, the Fool likely carries the number 0 because it is representative of pure potential. As a symbol of the unmanifest, the Fool contains all possibilities within himself.
In some sense, the Fool exists outside of the trajectory represented by cards 1 through 21 of the Major Arcana. We can even think of the Fool as being the hero of the Major Arcana’s series of transformations. For it is the Fool which takes a leap of faith, from a place of unrealized potential into a life of action and consequence.
In fact, there are many commentators who have even called this series of 22 cards “The Fool’s Journey.” It is wise to keep in mind, however, that this is not merely a story about the Tarot’s naive protagonist. It is not the tale of a character in a land far from us; it is in fact our story, describing a journey each of us must go on as individuals on our way to greater awareness and self-actualization.
We all start out like the Fool, inexperienced and filled with boundless optimism, dazzled by the seemingly infinite options which glitter like stars on the horizons of our futures.
Each of us, like the Fool, takes a similar leap of faith into what is to come. As we move forward in time, each of us makes choices, acting on decisions that lead us through certain doors, decisions which simultaneously will close certain others.
Some sources, such as modern mystery school Builders of the Adytum and noted author Rachel Pollack, divide the Major Arcana into three distinct series containing seven cards each. Each series of seven represents three distinct stages or levels of experience and development: the conscious, the subconscious, and the superconscious.
Cards 1 through 7 describe our journey through the first stage of our conscious development. This first set of seven depicts the archetypal influences and developmental milestones we must master and achieve in order to be effective in the outer world of material achievement.
In the next set, cards 8 through 14 represent a turning inwards, where we must come face to face with elements of our subconscious minds and integrate them into our being to achieve further wholeness. We come into contact with what has as of yet remained latent beneath the surface of our daily experience.
“True, whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with himself….
The meeting with oneself is, at first, the meeting with one’s own shadow. The shadow is a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well. For what comes after the door is, surprisingly enough, a boundless expanse full of unprecedented uncertainty….
It is the world of water, where all life floats in suspension; where the realm of the sympathetic system, the soul of everything living, begins….
All those who have had an experience like that mentioned in the dream know that the treasure lies in the depths of the water and will try to salvage it.” — from C.G. Jung CW 9
Here, we must face the primal, chaotic life energies that constitute our subconsciousness. This experience can be deeply shocking and even terrifying, especially for a culture as unprepared to deal with these deep and powerful currents of psychic energy as the hyper-rational, patriarchal capitalist culture of today.
Finally, the last set of cards numbered 15 through 21 show the development of what both B.O.T.A. and Pollack describe as “superconsciousness”, or what some might call the transpersonal level of psyche. This level transcends the purely personal experience to encompass a union with the spiritual, universal and archetypal level of existence. In this stage, we move beyond our personal, individual life stories and connect with the mystery of the infinite, that which is greater than ourselves.
“We know that the mask of the unconscious is not rigid–it reflects the face we turn towards it. Hostility lends it a threatening aspect, friendliness softens its features.”
–from C.G. Jung CW 12
It is here where we come into contact with what we might call cosmic consciousness. This is a level of development reserved to those who are brave and willing enough to take a leap of faith into the vast unknown.
It is interesting to note that the great majority of the human figures represented in these 22 cards are displayed in static, unmoving positions, almost as if they were posing for a portrait.
Only two cards portray figures in movement: Key 0, the Fool, and Key 21, the World.
This is likely meant to suggest a certain similarity between what is represented by the Fool and the World. Indeed, we find that the symbolic imagery represented in the World portrays our experience when we find that we have successfully traversed the various tests, challenges, and opportunities for growth shown in each of the previous cards of the Major Arcana.
Having integrated all of these lessons, we arrive at the World, liberated from our previous patterns, our illusions, and our limitations. We have freed ourselves from any inner restrictions and defense mechanisms, much of which had arisen as attempts to protect our ego from the incursions of a seemingly dangerous outer world.
When this happens, we find ourselves once again in a state of pure openness to the world, where we can experience a true receptivity and responsiveness to our experience as it arises moment-by-moment.
This is a state very similar to that of the Fool. Once again, we find that we are open to the fullness and totality of the world around us, at one with our environment and all that is. We have come full circle to once again embody pure potential and limitless possibility.
However, this state is in many ways much more powerful. Arriving at the World, we have gained the capacity to combine the wisdom of experience with a child-like sense of wonder, awe and joy. We are able to move beyond dualistic concepts and achieve union with what is beyond ourselves.
The purpose of this transcendent spiritual union with the Divine is not to escape our material and embodied physical existence, but to transform it. We are meant to use our higher spiritual consciousness in service of the mundane.
In true alchemical fashion, the purpose of this spiritual ascension is to bring what is gained above back down to perfect the world below.
“It rises from the Earth to Heaven, and descends again to Earth,
Thereby combining within it the powers of both the Above and the Below.”
–The Emerald Table
As we have seen, Major Arcana of the Tarot provides a profound symbolic representation of the soul’s journey from innocence to awareness. Although the Tarot is indeed a dynamic and powerful tool for divination, it is far more than that. The Tarot contains a profound message of transformation and redemption for those who have eyes to see it. We can use it as a tool for study, for quiet reflection, or for meditation on the archetypal principles underlying each of these 22 cards. If we can bring an attitude of intention, openness and receptivity to our work with these cards, the Tarot can be one of our best guides on the often labyrinthine journey of return to our highest selves.
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
There have been countless tales told about the origins of the tarot, but undoubtedly the most popular of these was that it originated as a simple card game in late medieval Europe. Known as Les Tarots in Frances, or Tarocchi in Italy, this accounting of the roots from which the cards sprang states that it was nothing more than a parlor game that later acquired a much more unusual divinatory use.
Although nonetheless still shrouded in mystery, historians generally agree that the first Tarot deck as we know it today was in fact painted during the late 15th by an artist named Bonifacio Bembo in Milan. It is said that the deck he created had been commissioned to celebrate the wedding of two noble Italian families, and this deck, known as the Visconti-Sforza, still carries the names of his wealthy patrons.
Like those that would come after, this deck draws on some of the most common archetypal figures of the late medieval period, such as the Emperor, the Wheel of Fortune, and the Devil. These characters were represented often in allegorical morality plays which were commonly staged during that time. These dramas often featured human protagonists intermingling on stage with personifications of more abstract concepts like Temperance or Death. The objective was to impart a moral lesson to viewers, with the hope that they would be inspired to live a more virtuous life.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century that Antoine Court de Gébelin proposed a radically new theory for the time in his book, Le Monde Primitif regarding the true origin and purpose of these cards. He asserted that rather than being a simple card game, the Tarot was in fact a pictorial representation of the ancient philosophies of the Egyptian god Thoth (known later to the Greeks and Romans as Hermes or Mercury). According to him, the Tarot contained within them an ancient, hidden wisdom which could be discerned by those who knew how to interpret the various symbols depicted in the cards.
By the time Le Monde Primitif was published, the most common Tarot deck available or in use at the time was what is known as the Marseilles deck. This was in many ways simpler and more stylized than its predecessor, the Visconti-Sforza. The hand drawn images contained more of the abstract, symbolic imagery that became the precursor for what we see in tarot decks today.
For example, in this deck we see The Magician standing at a table with his ritual implements, wearing a hat bearing the figure 8, or infinity symbol, an innovation which would reappear later in the great majority of tarot decks in use today.
The most well-known and popular of these decks, the Rider-Waite, was created in 1909 by members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In particular, occultist & scholar Arthur Edward Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith were responsible for the creation of this Tarot deck, and it remains one of the most popular decks in use even today. It has remained so popular due to its easily accessible symbolic imagery containing within them many of the principles and ideas held by the Golden Dawn. It was radically innovative for its time, as it was the first deck to ever feature pictorial, representational images printed on each of the 78 cards. In the past, what are known as the “pip” cards (or 1-10 of each suit) consisted only of an arrangement of a corresponding number of wands, cups, swords or pentacles (much like today’s common playing cards).
This addition of representative scenes from daily life made using the deck much easier, both for study and for divination. Waite and Smith had designed each card in such a way that each object, gesture, and even quantity carried some symbolic meaning that could lead to deeper insight and understanding.
However, some have argued that the real value of this deck lies in Smith’s evocative artwork, which itself requires little interpretation, and speaks directly to the unconscious mind itself. Each card of this new Tarot deck had the power to evoke a strong, clear impression or feeling in the observer that could give meaning on its own. This development was crucial in sparking a new era of popularity of the tarot and introducing many to this art of divination.
The Rider-Waite-Smith is still the most common deck in use today, not only by individuals and professional readers, but also among teachers, and in books and other reference resources. Among the many new decks which have emerged afterwards, more than a few are what is known as Rider-Waite derivative, meaning that they are simply artistic re-imaginings of the same basic set of images contained in the original.
The RWS deck is what I will primarily be using here as a reference for my posts on each of the cards and their meanings. It is the deck I first learned with, and it is also the deck I most often use in readings (both personally, for myself, and professionally with clients), although I have since acquired many others.
With that said, I did want to also mention another important and highly influential deck in use today. This deck, the Thoth tarot, is one which also has its roots in the Order of the Golden Dawn. It was developed quite a bit later than the Rider-Waite, in conjunction with the artist Frieda Harris during World War II, only to be published sometime in the late 1960s.
There are some, indeed, who take the Thoth deck to be the only “true” tarot, believing it more faithfully represents the secret teachings of the Order of the Golden Dawn. The artwork by Harris is stunning, and I have found the inclusion of the Hebrew letters and astrological associations very useful. From my personal experience, I have found it less useful in my professional readings, as these typically deal with common, everyday issues in my client’s daily lives. While I find the Thoth deck fascinating and intriguing, the more abstract nature of it makes it less easily applicable to the more common mundane situations encountered in a typical tarot reading.