Meanings Of Colours In Tarot Card Images
In the list below, I make use of examples from decks in which the colors were chosen for specific reasons, such as Universal Waite (UW) and Robin Wood (RW), along with a few others.
White traditionally stands for innocence and purity, and is most often seen in the form of white clothing (UW Strength) or white flowers (UW Six of Cups). The central figures in the High Priestess, Strength, and Temperance cards (not shown) all wear white robes, representing their purity and virginity. White represents the source of all things and unity, since white light contains all colors. In the qabalistic Tree of Life, white is the color of the uppermost sephiroth, from which all creation emanates.
In the Robin Wood deck, white crystals at the tips of Wands are often used to symbolize clarity of thought and purpose (RW Seven of Wands). A white or silver color also represents the light of the Moon, and the feminine principal associated with the Moon (yellow or gold being the sunny, masculine counterpart). White is also the symbol of cleansing and rebirth, and this is particularly emphasized in the Death card (UW Death). Death rides in on a white horse, symbolizing the purity of heart needed for this transition, and carries a flag of a white rose on a black background, symbolizing rebirth after a passage through darkness and the unknown. White has additional meanings when paired with red or black, discussed below.
The combination of white and black has particular meaning in Western mysticism, the school of thought that greatly influenced the design of the Rider-Waite decks. Twin black and white pillars, such as can be found in the UW High Priestess, symbolize the feminine or receptive principle (black) and masculine or active principle (white) pillars of the Tree of Life. In this form, they represent absolutes, which do not exist in the real world unmingled, but only as archetypes. The High Priestess sits in the position of the middle pillar, which represents the blended energies and the central, balanced path through the Tree of Life.
The white/black pairing can also be seen in the RW Chariot. Here the black/white passive/active pairing is emphasized by the yin/yang symbol above the unicorns (in Rider-Waite decks these are usually black and white sphinxes). She has chosen to emphasize the feminine and masculine principals here by giving the unicorns silver and gold jewelry and horns, representing the light of the Moon and Sun, respectively. Notice that the horses are going in opposite directions, but are harnessed together. Part of the meaning of the Chariot has to do with integrating these two energies and getting them to work for you.
The combination of white and red, particularly in flowers and clothing, is one often seen in the Rider-Waite decks, as well as many other decks (UW Magician). This combination of white and red can be viewed at a couple of different levels. First, white represents the passive principal and purity or innocence, while red represents the active principal and passions or lusts. This can be a bit confusing, because in the black/white pairing above, white represents the masculine, while in the white/red pairing, white is normally associated with the feminine principal. The white/black appears on only a few cards – white/red is everywhere you look and is often used in cards where duality is part of the theme (UW Two of Wands). The Magician shows his ability to use both of these opposite energies by wearing red robes over a white robe, and is surrounded by red roses and white lilies.
At a more esoteric level, red and white are key colors in alchemy, and this is one of the reasons for their use in the post-RW versions of the tarot, as well as some earlier versions. We will discuss alchemy a bit more in the second half of the course, but in alchemy, red is again associated with the masculine elements and white with the feminine. In the course of the Great Work (transforming lead to gold), the masculine and feminine elements are first separated and purified from baser materials and then “married” together in the final step – the red (mercury) with the white (silver) to make gold. Red also represents blood and white represents mother’s milk, and in some versions of the Temperance card, you can see the two streams of blood and milk intermingling (Wheel of Change Temperance). There are strong undercurrents of sexuality that run through the alchemical symbols, although this is largely subdued in the Rider-Waite deck.
When not paired with white, black means simply mystery, the unknown, the dark. In the traditional decks, very few cards have prominent black, except Death and the Devil. In other decks, a black starry sky may indicate the greater cosmos, the universe, and the movement of the planets in relation to how they affect us here on earth (see Wheel of Change Wheel of Fortune).
Grey is also a little-used color in tarot, but where used normally signifies gloom, stormy weather, and unhappiness (UW Ten of Swords). Robin Wood uses it to particularly good effect to indicate an unhealthy outlook on life (RW Seven of Swords and Four of Pentacles). Notice particularly in the Four of Pentacles how the covetous man’s world is grey and colorless, while outside his protective walls the city is gay and lively.
Red/Yellow/Blue (& Green)
Red, yellow, and blue are the three primary colors, and as such have an esoteric significance. These colors represent the first emanations from the white light or the origin of the universe, and are assigned to the three “spiritual” elements of Fire (red), Air (yellow) and Water (blue). You may notice if you look through the RW deck that these three colors predominate. The fourth and “mundane” element of Earth is assigned to a secondary color, green. In general, the cool colors of green and blue represent the earth and water energies, which are attributed to passive, feminine, receptive qualities, while red and yellow are associated with the masculine, active qualities of fire and air (RW Two of Cups). These color clues in an overall reading can give the reader a sense of which energies predominate in a situation.
These four colors may often be found in cards that combine the four elements in a ritual or magickal sense (see Wheel of Change Five of Wands). Notice the white candle in the center of the ritual circle, binding and uniting the four elements. The four quarters of the earth (and hence the circle) are represented by guardian angels, each associated with a specific elemental energy, which are called when forming the protective circle.
As noted, red is the color of fire, and represents action, passion, inspiration, energy, blood as a warm life-giving substance, Mercury, Mars, the suit of Wands (usually, although sometimes it may be Swords), and astrological fire signs. Red represents a passion for life, and also anger, lust, and other animal urges, which is one reason why the lion in the Strength card is sometimes colored red. The UW Empress sits on red drapes and pillows, a reference to menstruation and fertility. The UW Emperor is also a very red card, representing his strong will and masculinity, and his association with the astrological sign of Aries.
The Emperor is also one of the few cards with a lot of orange in it, in the steep mountains and sky behind his throne. This is general taken as a reference to difficult challenges, to be overcome by a force of will. In other decks, orange is simply one of the colors used to indicate fire and the suit of Wands (RW Knight of Wands). The Knight of Wands is a mixture of Air (yellow) and Fire (red), so comes out a golden-orange.
As previously noted, yellow is associated with the element of Air, and also with the masculine and sun energy. There is quite often a yellow rather than blue sky in the Rider-Waite deck, and the sun appears prominently (UW Fool). Yellow can be associated with the superconscious or highest level of consciousness, and the most direct connection to the higher spheres (hence its presence in the Fool). By comparison, red is the expression of the conscious mind and will, and blue the subconscious mind.
Green is the color of the element Earth, and represents life, nature, abundance, and all growth. The Robin Wood deck does a particularly nice job of connecting the suit of Pentacles (earth) with green, living things (RW Queen of Pentacles).
Blue is the color of the element Water, and the subconscious mind. Many cards with a deep blue sky or predominance of blue are associated with working through subconscious processes, including the High Priestess, The Hermit, The Star, The Moon, Eight of Cups, and Two of Swords (not shown). Anyone wearing blue clothing is likely to have an introspective frame of mind, or is making use of their subconscious (UW King of Cups).
Purple is infrequently used in Rider-Waite, and is general used to denote luxury or opulence (UW King of Pentacles) or royalty (RW Emperor). One of my favorite little connections between cards is the little purple tail of grapes that appears on the woman in the UW Devil card. These are the same grapes that appear in the King of Pentacles’ robes, representing the chains of materialism that can bind you to the Devil if you let them (the man has a tail of fire, symbolizing his passions that get him in trouble).
Purple also has a strong association with psychic energy and mysteries, such as the purple veil draped behind Justice (UW Justice) and in the Robin Wood deck, is often associated with court cards in the suit of Cups (RW Queen of Cups). Thus, purple is more widely used in some modern decks, such as Spiral and Daughters of the Moon.
This is another color that is very seldom used in RW decks, with one notable exception (UW Page of Cups and RW Page of Cups). Pink usually shades into purple, and is most often seen with the suit of Cups, suggesting a psychic connection but also a lighter shade of pleasant enjoyment (RW Three of Cups). Pink sometimes reflects opulence or sensual pleasure, as in a lotus blossom (RW Ace of Cups).
In most decks, brown is also infrequently used, but invariably shows a connection to the earth or someone engaged in going about practical, everyday tasks. As such, it is most strongly represented in the suit of Pentacles (RW Eight of Pentacles).
Rainbows of Color
Rainbows and multicolored spectra are widely used in the Robin Wood deck, in a wide variety of manifestations – as crystals on the tips of Wands, rainbow cups (RW 8 of Cups), or multicolored Sword hilts, but also appear in other decks (UW Ten of Cups). Actual rainbows normally represent abundance, wishes come true, and happiness, such as in the Nine or Ten of Cups. In other contexts, they may represent a wide variety of resources to draw upon or be protected (RW Nine of Wands), a variety of different problems with associated possible solutions (RW Eight of Swords), a depiction of the different conditions of life (RW Wheel of Fortune), or a celebration of diversity and an integration of the whole (Wheel of Change The Sun).
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