The Lovers | Tarot Card Meaning & Interpretation

The Lovers

Keywords for the Lovers

LOVEDESIRE
RELATIONSHIPATTRACTION
INTIMACYMAKING A CHOICE
CONNECTIONCOMMITMENT
SEXUALITYUNION

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. 

Interpretation of the Lovers

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.

The Hierophant | Tarot Card Meaning & Interpretation

The Hierophant

Keywords for the Hierophant

SOCIETYLEARNING
CULTURETEACHING
RELIGIONEDUCATION
MORALITYCONFORMITY
GROUP AFFILIATIONSOBEDIENCE

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.

Interpretation of the Hierophant 

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.

The Emperor | Tarot Card Meaning & Interpretation

The Emperor

Keywords for the Emperor

ORDERAUTHORITY
REASONSTRUCTURE
RULESLOGIC
LAWSLIMITATIONS
THE FATHERRESTRICTIONS

We see the Emperor seated at his throne out in the most dry, arid desert. His throne, which is made entirely of a gray stone, bears the symbol of the Ram’s head, representing the astrological sign of Aries, on each of its four corners. This correspondence is strengthened further by the appearance of the astrological glyph for this first sign of the zodiac atop the Emperor’s crown. 

The Emperor’s right hand holds a scepter shaped like an ankh, the Egyptian symbol said to represent life. It is interesting to note that the vertical portion of the ankh represented here is unusually long, taking up much more space than the small golden circle resting at the top. This rounded portion of the ankh is typically thought to represent the spiritual dimension of life, leaving the remainder to stand for material manifestation.

In addition, we see that the Emperor wears a heavy suit of armor, indicating his status as a warrior. This armor stands as a testament not only to his power and strength, but also his  potential for rigidity, intolerance and lack of receptivity.

Interpretation of the Emperor

When the Emperor appears in a tarot reading, it often represents a person who acts as an authority figure, setting rules and limits, establishing laws, and making sure that these boundaries for appropriate action are honored and respected by those under his dominion. As a result, this card represents the archetypal Father figure of the Major Arcana.

The Emperor also represents the more abstract concepts of reason and order. In contrast to the Empress, this card represents the power of limitation and restriction. The Empress says “yes” to all, nurturing all in an act of unconditional love, the Emperor embodies the force of the word “NO.” 

When compared to the unrelenting mercy of the Empress, his severity may seem harsh, but we find that this limiting power is essential in the process of creation and differentiation into form. Without the order of the Emperor, we would face an unyielding chaos whose anarchy would likely make life as we know it impossible.

However, there are times when an excess of the Emperor’s energy can prohibit the very life it is meant to protect. If the force of the Emperor’s discipline exceeds its bounds, his rule can turn harsh and authoritarian, leading to an unnecessary rigidity that inhibits the natural flow of life and prevents new growth.

The Empress | Tarot Card Meaning & Interpretation

The Empress

Keywords for the Empress

THE DIVINE MOTHERSENSUALITY
CREATIONATTRACTION
LOVEBEAUTY
NURTURINGPASSION
GROWTHCREATIVE IMAGINATION

In the image on the card, we see a beautiful woman seated on her throne, a stone bench covered in lush cushions and beautiful fabrics. The Empress wears a white dress covered in red pomegranates, indicating her association with the great goddesses of the ancient world, such as Isis, Astarte, Demeter and her daughter Persephone. 

In her right hand, she holds a short scepter, which appears very similar to a sistrum, the sacred instrument of Isis, Hathor, and other goddesses of Ancient Egypt. On her head, she wears a crown of twelve stars, each representing one of the twelve signs of the zodiac.

At the bottom of her stone bench, we see the shield of the Empress. This shield bears the shape of a heart, a reference to our emotional nature. On this heart is engraved the glyph for Venus, goddess of love, romance, beauty and passion. 

A river flows from behind the Empress down underneath the ground at her feet. This water of this river has its source in the flowing robes of the High Priestess, which tells us that the root matter of subconsciousness is the life energy animating all life, including the physical manifestation of the Empress. 

Directly in front of the Empress grows a field of wheat, which is yet another reference to the fertility goddesses of the ancient world (especially the Greek Demeter). Along with the pomegranates embroidered on her gown, the cypress trees behind the Empress speak to the element of Death that is by its very nature contained within Life. 

Interpretation of the Empress 

When the Empress comes up in a reading, she carries with her many of the meanings associated with the Divine Mother. She is thought to be loving, caring, nurturing and gentle. 

In addition to the archetype of the Mother, the Empress also signifies the archetypal “lover” or “mistress.” Associated with the goddesses Venus and Aphrodite, she also represents love, romance, and beauty, as well as sexuality and passion. 

In a reading, she stands for an approach to life that is rooted more in Eros than in the Logos or wisdom we saw previously with the High Priestess. She represents full embodiment, being in touch with our feelings, and the appreciation of sensuality and the pleasure to be found in the physical world. 

She is a woman who appreciates and creates beauty, abundance and pleasure for herself and those around her. The Empress is a potent reminder that pleasure and love are among the highest motivating forces in the universe. 

This card is highly associated with the idea of creation, of using our imagination in conjunction with our desires to create new life, whether that be through the birth of a child or a new project, plan or idea. 

When we allow our hearts to guide us, we often find it is easier to create and produce something of value in a way that is truly generative and sustainable.

Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.

Rumi

The High Priestess | Tarot Card Meaning & Interpretation

The High Priestess

Keywords for the High Priestess

INTUITIONSUBCONSCIOUSNESS
RECEPTIVITYMEMORY
POTENTIALPSYCHIC EXPERIENCE
INNER TRUTHMYSTERY
STILLNESSTHE UNKNOWN

In the image on the card, we see the High Priestess seated on her throne, dressed in long, silvery blue robes that shimmer in the moonlight. Her throne is simply made, a cube of stone similar to others we see throughout the tarot, which always refers to the same thing: physical, material manifestation in three-dimensional space. 

This, combined with the wave-like nature of her dress, which flows into and becomes almost indistinguishable from water as it flows over the moon, shows us that despite all appearances, it is actually subconsciousness which creates and constitutes the nature of the universe.

The High Priestess wears a triple crown, which alludes not only to her typical association with the moon and lunar cycles, but is also a reference to the Mysteries of the Egyptian Goddess Isis. The veil behind her is decorated with red pomegranates, another allusion to ancient mysteries, only this time pointing us to the Eleusinian Mysteries and the cult of life-death-rebirth of Demeter and Persephone. 

Although not all pomegranates on this veil are visible, we know that they stand in the same formation as the Sephiroth in the Tree of Life of the Kabbalah. 

Further reference to this Hebrew tradition can be seen in the scroll held by the High Priestess, which here reads “TORA,” a reference to the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses (typically transcribed in English as “Torah”). 

Behind the priestess, her veil hangs from between two pillars, one white and the other black. The letters B and J refer to “Boaz” and “Jakin”, the names of the two main pillars which once stood in the Temple of Solomon. Their black and white color is a reference to the apparently opposite dualities through which we experience our existence. 

Similar to the yin and yang symbol, each letter is written in a color opposite to the pillar, indicating that each extreme contains the seed of its opposite. The polarities we too often take for granted are truly only opposing ends of the same spectrum of our one existence. 

Interpretation for the High Priestess

Above all, the High Priestess stands for our subconsciousness, and all the mystery that lies beneath the reach of our normal, conscious awareness. It also speaks more generally to a sense of the mystery of life, of the vast wonder and terror that normally eludes us, but remains lurking beneath the surface, ready to rise to our awareness if the right conditions present themselves. 

The High Priestess represents one side of the archetypal feminine: that of the mysterious, nonrational, and intuitive elements of women’s being. She shows a part of the divine feminine which has historically been feared: dark, filled with mystery, unknowable through logic or language, connected to a deep wisdom beyond words. 

Due to its connection to the unconscious, this card also refers not only to our intuitive capacities, but even to psychic phenomena such as clairvoyance and other types of nonrational knowing. 

The High Priestess is also thought to refer to the passive quality inherent in the archetypal feminine (in contrast to the active principle represented by the previous card, the Magician). 

Due to the patriarchal culture of which we are a part, the term “passive” typically carries many negative connotations of inferiority, weakness, and is seen to lack value, purpose, or meaning. 

However, there is much power in the passive: it is not simply lack of action or existence. This yin quality is perhaps better thought of as being receptive in nature. It can be compared to the receptivity of the womb, which receives the seed of masculine, and generates within itself something new from what has been planted within. 

The darkness, receptivity, and inferiority of the High Priestess is the necessary precondition for all creation (as we will come to understand more of in the next card, the Empress). 

As such, this card refers also to the vast potential of the High Priestess. When she appears in a reading, the High Priestess may be asking us to pause, withdraw from the busyness and action of the outer world, and go within. She asks us to pay attention to the seeds of our future selves which have lain dormant within us, seeds which need tending to, in order that we may give birth to our highest selves.

The Magician | Tarot Card Meaning & Interpretation

Keywords for the Magician

CONSCIOUSNESSPOWER
ATTENTIONINTENTION
FOCUSED ENERGYMASTERY
ACTIONCONTROL
CREATIONMANIFESTATION

It’s late afternoon, and we see an intense, mysterious looking man standing alone in a secret garden. Dressed in long, flowing robes of red and white, his ritual attire mirrors the flowers blooming here on this sacred ground. 

The red rose we see represents our heart’s desires, the power of our subconsciousness, as well as the body.  It is our primal will, our emotions, feelings, instincts and drives.

The white lily, on the other hand, symbolizes our capacity to discern the truth, the power of our consciousness, as well as our mind. Where they bloom, so do reason, logic, truth, honesty and integrity.

Turning back towards the Magician, we see that he stands before a wooden table, upon which are inscribed various symbols and astrological glyphs. Upon this altar are set the tools of his craft:

A wooden wand, for the spiritual element of fire: that which is active, inspired, fast-moving, adventurous and expansive.

A golden cup, for the emotional element of water: that which is receptive, imaginative, peaceful, gentle and quiet.

A sword of steel, for the intellectual element of air: that which is logical, rational, discerning, and concerned with truth.

A brass pentacle, for the physical element of earth: that which is mundane, grounded, patient, stable and secure.

The magician now casts his circle, calling in the powers of the four directions, asking they be here with him now. 

He thanks the elemental forces for their power and their presence. Then with deliberate intention, the Magician holds a white wand up toward the heavens in his right hand, as he points down to the ground with his left. 

Fully grounded in his power, he connects the Above with the Below. With single-pointed attention, he repeats two words alone to himself as he works his magic. 

Solve: It is the death, decay, and destruction of the current form of being. Every death, every disintegration releases a powerful surge of energy. As the old form collapses, power is made available to be used for creation of something new. 

Coagula: The energy freed in death is transformed. Freed from its imprisonment in matter, it is now available to take on a new shape, to be reborn into new ways of being. 

The task of the Magician is to channel this powerful energy into what he desires to create. In this moment, he is between worlds. He is both passive and active at once. 

He passively receives inspiration and creative power from above. He actively directs what is received through his attention into the desired object or outcome. 

Like Thoth, the God of words, language, and magic, he exists at the crossroads. Similar to Hermes, the Magician acts as a mediator and messenger, communicating the will of spirit in the world of matter. 

The Magician Interpretation

When this card comes up, it often speaks to our capacity to make decisions and manifest change in our material world. It often indicates mastery, a certain level of skill and command of both our inner and outer resources.

This card is a symbol of mastery and controlled action, utilizing the force of one’s focused intent to cause a change in conformity with will.

The Magician also means acting as a channel for divine inspiration to flow through us into material reality. 

This card asks us to turn our attention to channeling our potential (in the form of ideas and inspirations) into something tangible, concrete and manifested in the physical world. 

It is a reminder that, with proper focus and intent, we can truly create magic in the world. 

The Major Arcana

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.

Image from Carl Jung’s “Red Book

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

–Rumi

History & Origins of the Tarot

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.

The Sun, the Hermit & Judgement from the Visconti tarot

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.

Key 14: Art — Thoth tarot (known as Temperance in other decks)

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.