Tarot card meanings – Ultimate Guide
Tarot card meanings are important as they the basis for learning tarot. Just learning one or two keywords for each card will give you the confidence to grow your vocabulary and read for other people. In the book that accompanies every new tarot deck you will find usually after the description a small section on the tarot card meaning as it applies to the belief or system dedicated to that tarot deck.
How many keywords do you need for Tarot cards?
I have only ever known one or two words for each card. Some Tarot readers are better at remembering more keywords than others.
Here I will be covering how card meanings are structured, where they come from, and how you can add your own tarot meanings. Some Tarot decks do not display the names clearly or use titles that are not familiar.
Being comfortable with tarot card meanings
You should not struggle or strain to remember a meaning, particularly if you are in front of a client. The reason for this is that it may well be that the meanings you have memorised are not applicable to that person. Don’t Panic! Just run your eyes over the other cards, and you will find that something comes into your mind that may not seem relevant, but if you express it, you may well find that the client reacts in a positive way. It is as if the keywords come from the client – and all we have to do is be aware.
You may have memorised the meanings in a particular order or structure for a card, but over a period of time you may well find out that you remember in a different way. I often find that I remember a card differently – and that is how it should be.
History of Tarot card meanings
The history and background of tarot card meanings has always been obscured. The reason is that the authors were usually Heads of Secret Societies. Out of habit they never presented information clearly as they wanted the student to join their Secret society. One way to appear an Authority is to have as many keywords as possible
Keyword stuffing has always been a problem with the tarot), To do this, it is better to be as detailed and applicable as possible. So, rather than saying “builder” they would include craftsman, brick layer, carpenter, tiler, cement mixer, etc, etc. Nothing dates a list of keywords more than listing occupations. Many of the original keywords had French origins, and these French experts plundered earlier writers, competing to bring more ornate language in order to appear more expert.
Language changes and evolves, and so we have to evolve with our meanings and keywords. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn mainly used French sources as Etteilla and Papus as inspiration. For the Minor Arcana each card was entitled “Lord of Success”, for example. When A.E. Waite created his own deck it was mostly based upon the Golden Dawn Teachings, which were secret, so he dropped “Lord of…” from the title. When Aleister Crowley named cards, he too went back to the Golden Dawn “Lord of…” but dropped the Lord bit and in some cases shortened the name.
Tarot Masters simultaneously reveal and hide, just because they can. Tarot Masters also represent a particular tradition, usually Masonic which has a clear structure. Freemasonry uses astrology and numbers extensively as does the structure of the Tarot. However, most Tarot readers have no interest in or intention of becoming a Mason.
Keywords in the modern Age
Every day a new Tarot deck appears in all shapes and sizes, with cards more or less than the standard 78. Modern Tarot decks are more an exercise in free-form and artistic principles – anyone can create a deck in whatever style or to conform with any kind of spiritual, religious, or way of life. The visual aspects are invariably more important than anything else. Visual representation is always an interpretation.
Visual and Symbolism as a guide to Keywords
The problem with using visual or symbols is that while they seem to be easy, symbols hide as much as they conceal
Keywords using the Tree of Life
The Kabbalistic Tree of Life is a structure invented in the 17th century. The purpose is to unite the 22 Hebrew letters with the numbers 1 to 10 (the sephiroth). This structure purports to delineate aspects of Kabbalism, but it is a Western invention, and the primary beneficiaries are Secret Societies. Most tarot readers struggle with the Tree of Life and Tarot; it is worth studying so you know what other people are talking about.
Major Arcana Keywords
Tarot has always cloaked itself and the reasons are not hard to find. The 22 Major Arcana obviously relate to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, but discussion of anything Hebrew could land you in prison or death. The origins had to be disguised, usually in a Christian context.
If you knew the Hebrew alphabet, and grimoires, you probably knew that each letter was associated with astrology either as one of the seven planets, the 12 signs of the zodiac and the elements Air, Water and Fire. You would also know that order.
Creating a tarot deck is based upon knowing those astrological attributions. Each card is given a name that may or may not have an obvious link to the astrological attribute. The keywords that result will also bring clarity or confuse the student.
The problem arises when the original order of the Hebrew letters to astrology were distorted and the links became lost. This happens over a period of time, and it happens deliberately. A common tactic was to throw in Zero – was it first or last? Is the first card numbered 1 or Zero? There are endless ways to befuddle the masses, but if you knew the astrological key you could reconstruct the system.
Minor Arcana Keywords
Priority by Numbers
There are several ways to structure the 40 Minor arcana. Principally we have four sets of 10 – the numbers 1 to 10 are primary. Numbers have always had their symbology and meanings when can be added to the elements.
Priority by Elements
Four obviously relates to the four elements, Fire, Water, Air and Earth, so we can create keywords based on that for each card. Fire relates to heat and action. Water is cool, relaxing and emotional. Air is thinking and agitation. Earth is practical and sensible.
Priority by Astrology
The 36 decanates are a useful way of dividing the zodiac, particularly when inspired by Picatrix an Arabic grimoire. The divinatory meanings and names of many of the Minor Arcana derive from Picatrix, including Waite’s tarot deck.
As a Tarot designer or writer you are free to mix and match the numbers and decanates along with other influences to generate your keywords and designs.
Court Card keywords
Court cards have an obvious structure, that of the nuclear family, Man, Woman, Son and Daughter, combined with the four elements of Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Traditionally, each card has a generic title; King or Knight for the male, Queen for the female, Knight or Prince for the Son, and Page or Princess for the daughter.
On the face of it, the 16 Court cards have the simplest structure, but in reality tarot students (and teachers) struggle with them more than anything else. There are many ways of categorising the court cards, but none are really satisfactory. One of the problems is that in the real world each court does not have to be gender specific. A court card can also represent the client as well as someone in the client’s life. The card can be you, or someone else, or both, it depends.
Keywords are probably least useful when they concern the Court Cards.
Keywords for the Aces
Ace of Wands, Ace of Cups etc… they seem simple, but the Aces refer to Spirit, or the root of the element, and not the element itself. In reality the elements properly appear with the Two of Wands, Two of Cups etc. Seen this way, Aces are not part of the 40 Minor Arcana. We could put the Aces with the Court Cards, but Aces are not people.
The Aces are in their own group, and they represent elemental aspects of Spirit
How to find tarot card meanings
Tarot card meanings are easier to find, compare and analyse! This is a simple Guide for students.
If you know the name of the card, at the top of the page we have Search. You can also search for keywords such as love, work etc.
Below Search is the Navigation Bar: three sections for Rider-Waite (and other decks), Golden Dawn, and Book of Thoth.
There are six main sections for each deck that cover the Major Arcana, Minor Arcana and the Court Cards meanings:
- Major Arcana
- Minor Arcana
- Wands Minor
- Swords Minor
- Cups Minor
- Disks or Pentacles
- Court Cards
The Aces are found with the Court Cards.
The basis of card meanings are found at the bottom of each post. Quite simply, each tarot card is composed of an element (Fire, Water, Air or Earth), or astrological component (Zodiac sign or Planet), and a number. Click on one of the links to see cards with similar attributions.
Click on one the Tarot attributions to see how it works!
Primary attributions for each Tarot card
At the bottom of each post you will see links to the primary attributions. For example, in the Rider-Waite Two of Cups you will see the attributions of:
- 2 Chokmah
Finally, we have three related cards. These are generated automatically by the website, and are somewhat random!
If you have any questions you can chat directly to me.