THE STRUCTURE OF TAROT
A striking feature of the tarot deck is its perfect structure. The 78 cards of tarot each contain a symbolic image, and they are arranged in a profoundly meaningful way. The order of the cards is not arbitrary, but rather, they adhere to a system that was established as the earliest tarot decks emerged hundreds of years ago.
The tarot structure is very similar to that of the playing card deck. So even if you’re brand new to tarot, it’s very likely you’re already familiar with how it is laid out. Like a playing card deck, tarot has four suits; numbered cards Ace through ten in each of those suits; Face cards (generally called “Court Cards” in tarot); and trump cards (like the Joker).
It is with the trump cards that tarot diverges most from a playing card deck, and we’ll begin our preview of the tarot deck structure there.
Within the tarot deck there are 22 special cards called the major arcana, also called “trump” cards. Major arcana means “greater secrets” and this set of cards reveal the primary themes of the experience of life, which are often hidden to those without a tool like tarot to see them.
The “majors” are universal symbols of life, innately known and experienced by everyone during the journey of life. These cards can be understood as the deck’s archetypes, as Carl Jung described the universal symbols that are hardwired into everyone from the beginning of life.
These are the 40 cards numbered Ace – 10 in the tarot’s four suits. They are the “lesser secrets” of the deck, meaning that they reveal the underlying dimension of day-to-day life. Just because they are lesser, however, doesn’t mean we can’t gain great intuitive insight and wisdom from them.
Each of the four suits represents a primordial element of nature. These elements are the basic building blocks found within the human psyche and throughout the world around us. The tarot’s suit of Wands corresponds to the element Fire; the suit of Cups represents Water; Swords represent Air; and finally the suit of Pentacles (also called Disks or Coins) symbolize the element Earth.
These are the 16 cards with pictures of royalty in the tarot’s four suits. Like the playing card deck, they include Kings and Queens. But the tarot includes Pages instead of the Jacks, and adds a fourth courtly character, the Knights.
Court Cards are traditionally considered to be part of the minor arcana, but are interpreted differently than the numbered cards. The Court Cards represent different personality types, those of the people throughout our lives and that exist universally inside all of us.
TAROT CARD MEANINGS
Please follow the links below for the meanings of tarot’s 78 cards. The interpretations I provide are an integration of the many source materials that have taught me, along with my personal experience using the cards daily since 2013. Feel free to use these meanings to help guide you while you learn.
As you gain experience, you’re encouraged to develop personal meanings of your own for each of the cards. They’ll probably remain in the general spirit of those provided here or from other source materials, yet the subtle differences will come from your personal experience. That’s where much of the magic is found.
All images are of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck, which was originally published in 1909 and remains the most influential deck in tarot today.