Tarot 101: A Basic Introduction to the Language of Tarot

There are almost endless ways to approach tarot, but my personal favorite is through the lens of language. Tarot is a language your intuition can use to communicate with your conscious mind, and in this post, I want to talk about some elementary building blocks of this language -- the vocabulary, if you will. Things get way more complicated (and exciting) when you need to put the vocabulary together and understand the message, but just getting familiar with some essential vocabulary is a great place to start.

A tarot deck is a pack of cards illustrated with various images. The images are meant to represent certain energies, archetypes, life events, or personality traits. There's a huge body of accepted knowledge on what each card stands for, but there's also diversity in how different people interpret the cards. Tarot is incredibly subjective and personal, and every reading will be unique not only because of the cards that show up, but also because of the life experiences brought to the table by the querent (the person the reading is done for) and by the reader (the person interpreting the cards)

The Sun card from The Fountain Tarot

The Sun card from The Fountain Tarot

Traditional tarot decks contain 78 cards, though some will include an extra card or two that the deck creator felt was important to their vision. Here's what makes up a typical deck:

Major Arcana

The Major Arcana consists of 22 cards, numbered from 0-21. These are the more recognizable cards of the tarot, and in my experience, they stand for dominant themes or significant turning points in a person's life. The specific cards are:

0: The Fool
1: The Magician
2: The High Priestess
3: The Empress
4: The Emperor
5: The Hierophant
6: The Lovers
7: The Chariot
8: Strength*
9: The Hermit
10: The Wheel of Fortune
11: Justice*
12: The Hanged Man
13: Death
14: Temperance
15: The Devil
16: The Tower
17: The Star
18: The Moon
19: The Sun
20: Judgement
21: The World

*in some decks, Strength and Justice are swapped, making Justice card #8 and Strength card #11.

Minor Arcana

While the Major Arcana are considered more dominant, most of the deck -- 2/3, in fact -- is made up of the Minor Arcana. The Minor Arcana is structured a lot like a typical deck of playing cards, with four suits and a bunch of cards in those suits. Where a regular deck has hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs, a tarot deck has cups, swords, wands, and pentacles (sometimes called coins).

The Suits

Each suit is primarily associated with a different part of life. 

  • Cups are connected with the emotional realm and relationships. Its elemental association is water. This suit covers the "I feel" parts of life.

  • Swords are connected with the intellectual realm and the logical mind. Its elemental association is air. This suit covers the "I think" parts of life.

  • Wands are connected with the spiritual or energetic realm and our passions and dreams. Its elemental association is fire. This suit covers the "I want" parts of life.

  • Pentacles are connected with the physical realm and practical matters like finances, health, and shelter. Its elemental association is earth. This suit covers the "I have" parts of life.

Pip Cards

As I mentioned before, the Minor Arcana is set up very similarly to regular playing cards. In each suit, you'll have ten numbered cards (Ace through Ten). Some decks will illustrate these cards very simply and literally, meaning that the Five of Cups card just has five cups on it and the Six of Pentacles just has six pentacles (coins) on it. Other decks will show a scene that incorporates those basic images in a setting that's meant to convey the card's deeper meaning. In the influential Rider-Waite-Smith deck, for instance, the Five of Cups shows a man looking sadly at three cups that have been tipped over, his back turned to two cups that are still full and upright, and the Six of Pentacles shows a man giving money to a beggar while another beggar waits nearby. Other decks will interpret the scenes in their own ways to still communicate a basic idea.

The Six of Pentacles from The Linestrider Tarot

The Six of Pentacles from The Linestrider Tarot

The pip cards are generally meant to address the day-to-day kinds of events and dilemmas we all deal with, like being indecisive, having an argument with friends, being stressed about money, or working hard on a big project. This part of the deck doesn't have all the pomp and circumstance of the Majors, but it makes up the majority of our life's concerns, so understanding these cards is imperative.

Court Cards

After the ace through ten in each suit come the court cards, traditionally called Page, Knight, Queen, and King. There are sixteen court cards in all, four in each of the four suits, and while some readers interpret them as representing actual people in the querent's life, I'm more drawn to seeing the court cards as energetic personas the querent has within them.

Ten of Wands, Page of Coins, King of Coins, and Knight of Swords from The Fountain Tarot

Ten of Wands, Page of Coins, King of Coins, and Knight of Swords from The Fountain Tarot

Spreads

A spread is the specific way cards are laid out.  Spreads can incorporate any number of cards laid in any kind of pattern, and while each card position can signify a particular thing, it's not necessary to assign meanings based on position. For example, a basic three-card spread would incorporate three cards laid left to right, and meanings can be assigned to each position (past/present/future, mind/body/spirit, option 1/option 2/option 3, etc.), or the cards can just speak for themselves without predetermined meanings.

While spreads can be very structured or pre-planned, some spreads develop in the moment, based on intuition, and end up looking incredibly messy, with cards piled on top of each other and arranged haphazardly. It all depends on how the tarot reader likes to work and what the querent needs from the reading.

Reversals

When you work with tarot, you'll sometimes run into a card that appears upside-down. This might happen only occasionally or very frequently, depending on how a deck is shuffled. Cards that appear upside-down are called reversed cards or reversals. Some tarot readers don't work with reversals and will simply flip those cards around in a reading. Other readers see special significance in reversals and will interpret them differently than they would if the same card had appeared upright. 

The Fool card reversed from The Linestrider Tarot

The Fool card reversed from The Linestrider Tarot

Deck Diversity

There are so many different tarot decks in the world. So. Many. Definitely hundreds, maybe thousands, all with a unique spin on the tradition. Most decks I've seen and worked with are based on one particularly influential tarot deck called the Smith-Rider-Waite (also known as the Rider-Waite, the Smith-Rider, the Rider, etc. -- people call it lots of different things, but the three names in whatever combination refer to the deck's illustrator, publisher, and creator). The Smith-Rider-Waite system is what I know best, but there are decks that follow other systems with their own special rules; these include the Thoth, the Marseilles, and the Lenormand. 

Even among decks of the same system, you'll find a ridiculous amount of variety. Different artists will bring their own special style and subject matter to the tarot, of course, but there will also be differences in the names of the cards. One popular modern deck, The Wild Unknown, reimagines the court cards as members of a family, so instead of Pages, Knights, Queens, and Kings, it has Daughters, Sons, Mothers, and Fathers. Other decks intentionally subvert the gender binary, meaning that cards like The Empress, The Emperor, and The Hanged Man are renamed. The Slow Holler Tarot is a beautiful deck with its own originality in naming. Honestly, the possibilities are endless.

(Though different artists and creators can obviously interpret tarot in their own ways, tarot at its core still carries a lot of rigidity and heritage. That kind of thing isn't right for everyone. If you like the idea of working with cards but are turned off by tarot specifically, you might want to look into oracle decks. Oracle decks basically have no rules; each one is its own totally unique thing, and the interpretations for oracle decks tend to be a lot more straightforward and flexible.)

***

If all this info is overwhelming and confusing and just way too much ... don't worry, there's more! But on another day. For now, I hope this basic intro at least gave you a sense of what tarot looks like, how a deck is structured, and what a few tarot terms mean.

Until whenever, happy taroting.

-Sara

To book a reading or contact me for any other reason, please click here.