GLOSSARY OF SYMBOLS
This page presents a glossary and some discussion of a wide variety of different types of symbols used on tarot cards, to serve as a convenient reference for tarot readers and students. Click on a topic below to go directly to that section.
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 Colors
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).
II. The Elements and Nature
There are four symbols commonly used to represent the four elements, derived from alchemy:
Earth – upside-down triangle with a bar
Water – upside-down triangle
Air – right-side-up triangle with a bar
Fire – right-side-up triangle
You can see all four symbols in the Spiral Chariot card, as emblems on the four pillars holding up the canopy of his chariot. This shows that in order to make this Chariot go, the driver has to not only be able to integrate and control his yin/yang energies (the Sphinxes), but also have command of the four elements. There is a larger downward-pointing triangle to the right, which indicates that the overall card is considered a Water card, since it has the ruling sign of Cancer. This deck is one in which most of the symbols have been drawn right on the cards, particularly the trumps and court cards, and is useful as a reference deck for that reason. See for example the Spiral Empress – over her head from the left and going in a clockwise direction, we see the symbols for Earth, the Hebrew letter corresponding to this card, the number of the card (III), the astrological symbol for Venus, and a miniature Tree of Life with the path corresponding to the Empress highlighted. The court cards also have these attributions – for example, on the King of Swords you can see the symbol for Air, and a small symbol for Aquarius in the belt buckle.
Although these basic elemental symbols are used in many decks, Waite chose not to incorporate them into the Rider-Waite deck, perhaps preferring more arcane symbology. The only exception I have found is the Temperance card, which has rather obvious fire and sun symbols in it. The RW Charioteer wears a tunic covered with alchemical symbols for various elements, rather than the more straight-forward symbols described above. Similarly, on the Wheel of Fortune card we can see evidence of Waite’s interest in alchemy by the four symbols on the middle ring of the Wheel. Starting in the east or 3:00 position and moving counter-clockwise around the wheel we have:
Sulfur – expansion
Mercury – integration
Salt – contraction
Water – dissolution
The first three elements listed above represent three basic principals in alchemy from which all life is considered to be derived – these could be listed as the process of birth, life, and death and can be considered to correspond to other 3-part systems like Maiden/Mother/Crone. However, there is a tension here between the number three and four. Like the Goddess cycle being of three parts but represented by a four-phase moon cycle, Waite felt it was appropriate to add a fourth principal – partly because it made his Wheel more aesthetically balanced, but also as a counter-principal to Mercury’s integration. Dissolution could be considered as that phase that takes place between death and rebirth, when the personality of the physical lifetime dissolves away and only the higher self remains.
Moving from the esoteric to the more direct, some decks have represented the elements more directly on the cards, such as Robin Wood. For example, her World has visual representations of the four elements in the four corners of the card, in the form of mountains, clouds, flames, and waves. Her use of the elements in the four Knights cards is also wonderful – each of the Knights has a steed that is moving through the element in question, and is particularly adapted to that element – in the Knight of Cups, the Knight and his horse are riding into the sea, and his horse is really a mer-horse, with a mane of seafoam.
As an environmental scientist and one who is tuned into nature, I noticed right away that the natural world does not play a strong role in traditional tarot decks – it is more of a backdrop for people and their activities. This fits with the prevailing religious and cultural attitudes of the times, in which the natural world was largely considered to be present in order for man to exploit. These days there are several decks that have stronger nature elements, such as Greenwood, Wheel of Change, and various pagan/Celtic decks. Robin Wood, for example, uses fairly traditional RW symbology, but somehow her cards are much more firmly rooted in nature and the outdoors, especially the Pentacles. Arthurian Legends is another deck in which the characters seem to live in the natural world, and where some of the court cards are replaced by animals. If you feel a strong pull toward the natural world, and miss it in the traditional decks, then you may want to explore some newer or alternative decks.
Sky – Try as I might, I have been unable to find a clear link between the color of the sky in UW and any specific meaning, except that yellow often appears on beneficial cards or those closely linked to the sun, and a very dark blue indicating cards that are dominated by night/moon energy. However, the weather is an indicator of what is going on – stormy weather typically seen in cards like the 5 of Swords and the Knight of Swords where destructive and precipitous activity is occurring, gloomy clouds in cards like the Ten of Swords and Three of Swords indicating pain and suffering, and snow in the Five of Pentacles to emphasize the misery in this card. Perhaps the reason so much “weather” appears in the Swords cards is that the Sky is part of Air, which is the element associated with Swords. Therefore, the state of the sky represents in part the mental state of the querent.
Fluffy clouds, such as those that the hands emerge from the Aces cards, generally seem to indicate mysterious or heavenly origins, and also appear in the Four of Cups (the fourth Cup being offered), the Seven of Cups (surrounding all the Cups) and the various flying creatures in the corner of the World card.
Water – Many cards have some form of water in them, and this is one important clue to what is going on in the card. Water generally represents the subconscious mind or the emotional state of the querent. If the water is calm, the emotions are calm. If they are turbulent, the emotional state may be distressed – sometimes only at a subconscious level. Decks may vary in the portrayal of the water – Two of Cups and Two of Swords are cards in which the water is calm in some decks and stormy in others. This should be read however it appears in your deck, and is one of the examples of how decks can vary in their nuances of meaning by the portrayal of minor details.
One interesting example is in the Six of Swords – in some versions of this card, the water is more turbulent on one side of the boat than the other – indicating a passage from a stormy past to calmer waters. Note also that this apparent physical journey over water also stands for an emotional journey to a better state of mind. Also notice whether the water is still or flowing in your card – this can indicate whether this is a card of stability or whether there is motion. Flowing water is often associated with a link to memory and the past, passing through the present into the future.
Mountains, Cliffs – Mountains generally indicate challenges or obstacles. The prevalence of steep mountains in the background of the Emperor card shows his mastery at overcoming obstacles. There are mountains shown in the background of the Fool card, although the Fool himself stands on a more temperate place at the moment. In the Hermit we see that he has surmounted the obstacles and reached the top of the snowy peaks. Cliffs can indicate danger, as in the Fool card, or dangers and challenges successfully faced, such as in the Seven of Wands. Rolling hills and smaller cliffs may appear in cards where there is an element of challenge, but not as severe, such as the landscape in front of the Knight of Cups (note also the flowing stream). One thing to specially look out for is twin hills or peaks, particularly with paths leading up to them. These appear in notably in the Temperance card, but also many other cards in a variety of decks. These twin hills are simply another form of the twin towers or gateways that we will discuss next week, and usually represent a far-off goal that can be reached by working through the lessons of the Trump.
Greenery – In the traditional Rider-Waite decks, greenery is used relatively sparingly, as a symbol rather than an integral part of the landscape. As in the Empress card, it stands for fertility, abundance, and growth. The wooden Wands in the suit of Wand are usually portrayed with buds, showing that they are not dead instruments, but sources of new growth, ideas, and change. This is also true of the tree from which with Hanged Man hangs, showing that his suspension is not stagnant, it results in inner growth. Another related symbol is plowed fields, appearing for example in the Death card and the Knight of Pentacles. This represents a dormant state with the potential for new growth in the future – sowing the seeds of future change and in the case of the Knight, material rewards and abundance.
Seasons – As mentioned in the suit correspondences, various suits are associated with the seasons in some decks. This is possibly best illustrated in the Ancestral Path deck – four examples of which have been uploaded to the files. In this deck, each suit is associated with a season and with one of the world’s major cultures in the east, west, north, and south. Note that the directional and seasonal correspondences in this deck differ from the Golden Dawn attributions.
Numbers in the tarot are represented and used in many different ways. This discussion will focus mainly on the major arcana, because in the minor arcana the use of numbers is fairly obvious. Each number is usually represented by that number of the suit symbols somewhere in the card (there are occasional additions to this, such as the infinity symbol in the Two of Pentacles card). In contrast, numbers are used in the major arcana to symbolize various esoteric concepts, and are usually worked into the drawing more subtly. This discussion refers to the Universal Waite version of the deck. Please note, many of these are religious and metaphysical symbols, and this discussion describes these symbols without endorsing or ascribing to these specific faiths or beliefs.
Zero. Only the Fool is numbered zero, and it is important to realize that in early tarot decks, trumps were not numbered at all. These 22 cards were usually referred to as 21 Trumps plus the Fool, which stood outside the series of trumps, neither at the bottom or the top, or anywhere in between. It had its own special scoring rules in the game of Triumphs as well. In fact there is still disagreement about whether the Fool belongs at the beginning or the end, and perhaps the correct answer is both. As a Zero, the Fool represents a direct incarnation of the Universal nothingness – true consciousness does not arise until the 1, or the Magician. The circular aspect of zero can be found in two other cards – 10 The Wheel of Fortune, and 21 The World. These three cards represent the beginning, middle, and end of the series of Trumps and the Fool’s journey, and as such encompass more of the Whole than the other Trumps. They form a never-ending cycle, circle, or spiral within which the dance of incarnation takes place. The circular nature of these cards suggests that one should not view the trumps as a linear progression, but rather a repeating cycle.
One. After that metaphysical discussion, there truly is not much to say about One. Except perhaps mirroring the Fool, Wheel, World cycle, we find that all the cards whose numbers reduce to one are the Magician, Wheel, and Sun. The Wheel, as mentioned before, is the pivot or turning point of the major arcana. The Magician and the Sun are the two cards that represent the conscious mind most directly – the Magician is the first spark of consciousness, and the Sun represents the final integration of consciousness with the other aspects of Self. Here we have a sense of the first half and the second half of the major arcana being like mirrors of one another – the conscious self and the spiritual or shadow self that must become integrated into one.
Two. When discussing colors and landscape elements, we have commented before on the ways in which the concepts of duality manifest in the major arcana – there are numerous pairings of masculine/feminine, yin/yang, positive/negative, passive/active, sun/moon, conscious/subconscious and other concepts of duality represented by red/white and black/white pairings, twin towers or mountains, yin/yang symbols, and roses and lilies. In addition, there are cards like the Lovers and the Devil, where a pair of people are prominent in the meaning of the card – in one case watched over by an angel, and in the other case by the devil. Then there are cards such as Temperance and the Star, where water is being poured back and forth between vessels and the central figure has one foot on land and one in the water. Twin keys in the Hierophant card represent the keys to heaven and earth, as above, so below.
Three. Three is a central concept in Western mysticism, and is used to represent a variety of similar but varying concepts, such as: mind/body/spirit, father/son/holy ghost, the alchemical principals of expansion/integration/contraction, birth/life/death (also similar to Maiden/Mother/Crone). In the Tree of Life, there are three realms above the material, through which one must climb to reach the Source. These are represented by the three primary elements, air, fire, and water, and the three primary colors, yellow, red, and blue. These also correspond to the three “mother” letters in Hebrew. These three higher realms or spheres are represented in the Hierophant card by the three crossbars on his wand of office and the three points on the highest level of his crown, not to mention the three tiers on the crown. Some authors believe the trumps were originally set up in groups of three, with one of the seven virtues in every third place (the game itself was set up for three players – if you remove the Fool there are 21 trumps, divisible by three). Lastly, in the Judgment card, the families are being raised in groups of three – mother, father, child.
Four. Four is another central concept – there are four elements, four suits, four directions, four winds, four types of astrological signs, four letters in the mystical word of “taro” or “rota”. All of these can be seen in the Wheel and World cards, especially the Wheel. Waite made this a central concept of his tarot deck, and doubled the four to make an eight-spoked Wheel. The name of God in Hebrew has three letters, one of which is repeated to make four, and these letters are seen along the wheel, interspersed with the mystical letters TARO. The four winged figures around the Wheel represent the four fixed astrological signs – Taurus the Bull, Leo the Lion, Scorpio the Eagle, and Aquarius the Man. Each is depicted with wings and reading a book, to show that knowledge is the way to the divine. These symbols are present in a slightly different form in the corners of the World, tying together these two cards. The four pillars holding up the roof of the Charioteer’s chariot are also a reference to the integration of the four elements, to supplement the yin/yang and other “integration of duality” symbols in this card.
Five. Five is the number of the pentacle, and the number of spirit, representing the fifth element. The tarot deck can be thought of as having five suits, the four suits representing the four elements, plus the Trumps as a fifth suit of Spirit. The only trump to show an obvious pentacle is the Devil, and his points downward, to represent the opposite of spiritual integration. The upright five-petaled white rose in the Death card is an alchemical symbol of the Rosicrucean Order, and is similar to the upright pentacle in that it represents the triumph of spirit over the baser elements, the purification of man in his longing and striving for God. One of the three tiers of the Hierophant’s crown has five points, showing that he holds the key to these teachings.
Six. Six does not show up that often in the major arcana, and can be seen most clearly in the six-pointed Star of David which resides within the Hermit’s lamp and gives light. The six-pointed star is an ancient symbol of balance between inward and outward flow of energy, male/female, fire/water, and other polar opposites. The Hermit achieves enlightenment through perfect balance of these energies – note the similarities to our keywords for Sixes – this is an active, flowing balance rather than a static balance. This symbol is used to represent the heart Chakra, and the sixth sephiroth Tephireth on the Tree of Life (which is the highest sephiroth we can reach in an incarnated form) whose paths to other sephirah form a six-pointed star and which is the only sephiroth we can reach that has a direct path to the Origin. All worthy of the Hermit as he seeks true enlightenment, and he is the last card in the first half of the Trumps, before the Wheel turns and the rest of the cycle continues. Six-pointed stars also appear on the Empress’s crown. Some wonderful essays on the six-pointed star in many cultures and mystical traditions can be found here: http://www.gaiamind.com/star.html
Seven. The third tier of the Hierophant’s crown contains seven points, and this is a reference to the Seven Seals in the Book of Revelations. There are seven seals on the Book of God, which Jesus was given and began to open the seals. As each seal is broken, more about God is revealed (hence, Revelations). Once the seventh seal is broken, Judgment will be upon us. Seven also has other meanings – 3 and 4 being the most holy numbers, 7 is 3 + 4 and so is considered a mystical or magical number. There were in the time the tarot was invented, seven planets (counting the Sun and the Moon). Seven days of the week (named after the seven principal Roman deities), seven wonders of the world, seven virtues and seven deadly sins, God made the world in seven days, King Solomon built his temple in seven days, seven liberal arts and sciences, and consequently many, many uses of the number seven in Masonry. Interesting then that it does not appear more often in the tarot, since Waite was active in Freemasonry.
Eight. The number eight, as mentioned before, is derived by the doubling of the fours on the Wheel of Fortune, and is an important recurring symbol in Waite’s tarot deck. The eight-spoked wheel has been repeated in many RW clones, and Waite even wore a pendant which was an eight-spoked wheel as a reference to his tarot deck and the concepts embodied in this Wheel. We can see this appearing in other cards, most often in the form of eight-pointed stars (rather than the 5-, 6-, or 7-pointed stars which were more prevalent symbols then and now) in the Star and in the Chariot. In fact there are eight 8-pointed stars in the Star card.
Here we will skip some numbers that do not appear symbolically in the tarot.
Twelve. The number twelve often appears in the tarot, and is nearly always a reference to the 12 astrological signs. Waite uses Twelve less than do many other deck authors, which often have a 12-spoked Wheel of Fortune, for example. However, if you look closely at the Charioteer’s belt, for example, you can see that it is made up of astrological symbols, and one presumes that it goes all the way around and there would be 12 segments (yet another example of how the Chariot represents mastery of every possible sphere). There are twelve flames on the Tree of Life behind the man in the Lovers. In Waite’s tarot, you can 12 stars on the Empress’s crown, which represent her mastery over the 12 months of the year and the seasons, in her role as Mother Nature.
Twenty-Two. There are 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each of which is also a number. Much has been made of this mystical system and the fact that there are also 22 trumps in the tarot and 22 paths between the sephirah on the Tree of Life. However, no-one truly knows whether the trumps were designed to correspond to this mystical number or not. Some argue that in fact there were only 21 trumps, plus the Fool. However, the Golden Dawn firmly believed there was a correspondence, and it remains a topic of spirited discussion among tarot scholars. Some tarot decks (such as Spiral) print the Hebrew letter considered to correspond to each trump on the cards, while others use a numbering system corresponding to the Hebrew numbers, which may be different from the typical numbers assigned to the trumps. The number 22 is also considered a “master number” in numerology, along with 11 and 33. This number has among its meanings, alchemy and universal transformation, two concepts that have been closely linked with the progression of the Trumps.
Infinity. The sideways symbol eight appears on a few cards, and stands for infinity and endless repeating cycles. This symbol appears above the Magician, the woman in the Strength card, and in the Two of Pentacles. I do not know why these particular two trumps were singled out to receive the infinity symbol, as an argument could be made that it would be appropriate for many of the trumps. Interestingly, there were in some of the early Italian deck designs, figures that wore a floppy hat with a wide brim, one end of which was turned up so that the rim followed a sideways figure eight or infinity symbol. No-one actually knows whether the hat was designed after the symbol, or the symbol was added because of the hats, or whether there was any correlation between the two.
IV. Clothing and Body Language
There are two main things to look for with clothing – the first is whether they are wearing any and if so what kind, and the second is what colors are in their clothing. It is very interesting to look at the issue of clothing in the Rider-Waite deck, although this is one of the areas that varies greatly from deck to deck. In RW, all the people in the minor cards are wearing clothing. Also, all the people in the trumps are wearing clothing, until we reach the Devil – with the one exception to this rule being the Lovers in the Garden of Eden, presumably before the fall and their knowledge of good and evil. Even the Fool, who is the closest to being spiritually pure, has taken on some clothing – a reference to incarnation in the physical body and a willingness to live on earth. After we pass through the Tower, there are no trumps in which people are wearing clothing – everyone is naked. So there is a kind of transition point with the Devil/Tower cards. If we go back to our psychological or spiritual journey associated with the trumps, we can see that there might be a reason for this. In the Devil card, our ego is dissolved and laid bare. From this point on, we have completely left the mundane world and are working on transforming ourselves to our higher selves. Once we pass through the Tower, there is no longer a place for false modesty, hiding anything from ourselves or other people, or any protection from the forces and processes we encounter – we must face each step honestly and openly, in order to complete the process of integration and transformation. Therefore – no clothing :-).
The other thing to look at is what colors are in the clothing. In most RW and RW clones, the colors are highly significant, at least in the major arcana. For example, place the Magician and High Priestess side by side. Here you will see that they are both wearing under-robes of white, symbolizing their purity of intent and innocence of heart. The Magician, however, wears an outer robe of red, symbolizing his more active, masculine nature, and the High Priestess wears an outer robe of blue, symbolizing her passive, feminine, intuitive nature. The Empress has pomegranates on her dress, symbolizing fertility. The Emperor’s clothing is a very deep red, with almost no other colors showing through. He has a bit of blue under-garment showing through, which along with the thin stream in the background, shows he has not completely lost his connection to the feminine Empress and his own intuition.
In the minor cards, we see less direct evidence of color in clothing being significant, but it is still worth looking through the cards with this in mind to see what we can find. For example, in the Five of Wands, the five fighting figures are all wearing tunics of different colors, symbolizing that they have five different points of view and conflicting agendas. However, several of them have undergarments of yellow, suggesting the possibility of at least some compromise if any of them were willing to stop fighting long enough to listen. The man in the Five of Cups wears a cloak of deep black, symbolizing his depression and the gloomy void he has cast himself into. However, it is only a cloak, and if he cast it off he could move on with his life. In the Five of Swords, the central grinning figure has undergarments of red, symbolizing anger, war, and aggression, but his overtunic is green. This could be a reference to the opportunity for growth that inevitably follows destruction (especially in nature), and provides a possible positive note to the card. Many of the court cards are wearing symbols of their energy, for example, the Knight of Cups has fishes on his tunic, and the Knight of Wands has salamanders. In other cards, such as the Six of Pentacles and the Eight of Pentacles, the clothing seems more designed to give the impression of a certain profession or standing in society, a wealthy merchant or a tradesman.
Body language is fun to look at in the tarot, and if you are very visually oriented, can become an important part of your tarot readings. RW people tend to be a bit stiff, compared to many other decks, so sometimes you really have to look to find the body language, but it is there. Also, body language is something that varies a lot from deck to deck, so it is important not to become overly attached to meanings associated with certain postures, but rather interpret body language as it appears to you in each reading.
One thing to look for is where the people in the card are looking. If you place the Empress and the Emperor side by side, you will notice that the Empress is sitting facing the Emperor and the Emperor is looking toward the Empress, even though he is facing forward. This is an indication that on the earthly plane, these two work hand in hand, and one cannot rule without the other. In contrast, the Magician and High Priestess, which represent the more heavenly archetypal forces of masculine and feminine, look straight out from their cards and don’t seem to acknowledge the other. Most of the trumps look right out of the card at you, making their point in a very direct way. However, a few are looking downward, such as Strength, the Hermit, and the Star. These are cards where the energy is directed more inward in a passive, meditative way. Much has been made of the fact that in the Lovers card, the man is usually looking to the woman, while the woman is looking up at the heavens – I will leave that meaning to your interpretation!
In the minor arcana, it is interesting to see what the people in the cards are looking at. The Pages, for example, are typically looking at the symbols of their suit, as if studying them or trying to understand them. Knights usually hold the symbol of their suit, but are looking off into the distance at a particular goal. The Kings and Queens of Wands and Swords tend to be looking directly out at something, as if surveying their realm, while the Queens of the more passive suits are still studying their Cups and Pentacles. In any reading of more than a few cards, it is very helpful to look at what is going on between cards – who is looking at whom and why. For example, if you had the Seven of Swords in the Robin Wood deck (a thief stealing over the wall with his swords) and a Queen of Swords or King of Wands looking directly at them, you could interpret that someone was engaged in dishonest activity but was about to be caught or exposed by someone in authority. If on the other hand, the person in authority was looking the other direction, or gazing into their cup, then the thief is more likely to get away with it.
Other forms of body language are interesting too. If you take out all the Knights, it is easy to place them in order of how fast their horses are moving – the Knight of Swords is galloping, the Knight of Wands is cantering, the Knight of Cups is trotting or walking, and the Knight of Pentacles is standing still. This clearly shows which suits have the most energy, and was one of the ways I decided which suit was the “fastest” or “slowest” for my timing approach. The Hanged Man has an interesting posture, with his legs crossed in an upside-down or reversed 4. To me, this means that part of what he is reversing or undoing is the rigid thinking of the Fours and the aggressive, more outward and active lifestyle of the Emperor. Other things to notice are the open and upward-facing posture of the Fool, showing that he is still connected to the Universe and the superconscious, and the similar posture of the little child in the Sun, who has reached reintegration. Contrast this with the bent back of the Ten of Wands or the Seven of Pentacles, and you can see where their attention is focused. All in all, it is always very helpful to place yourself in the card and see what the body language is telling you – and it may vary greatly from deck to deck, even in the same card. This is part of what gives us deck-specific nuances, so allow yourself to go with the flow and the suggestions of the specific visual image on the card.
Exercise: Design a three-card reading to answer the question “How can I get along better with my co-workers?”. Pay attention to the clothing, eye contact, and body language of all the figures in the cards and work these observations into your reading.
V. Plants and Flowers
Apples/Pears – Apples alone generally represent knowledge, as the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was an apple tree. The knowledge is of a mystical nature, since if you slice open an apple, the seeds form a pentagram. Pears and apples are also shown together in several RW cards (Queen of Pentacles) and in this context generally symbolize fruitful abundance and nourishment.
Grapes – Seen in cards such as the Nine of Pentacles and the King of Pentacles, grapes symbolize abundance, prosperity, and celebration of the good life.
Holly – A symbol of the masculine, used in pagan and Celtic cultures, and later incorporated into Christianity. Not seen in RW, but used in many other decks.
Iris – Seen mainly in the Temperance card, growing by the side of the water, the iris symbolizes a message from the gods, or the inner guides. Iris was also the goddess of the rainbow, suggesting a spectrum of possibilities for the future, and the harmonious blending of all colors.
Ivy – A symbol of the feminine, used in pagan and Celtic cultures, and later incorporated into Christianity.
Laurel – Generally seen in the form of a wreath – victory and accomplishments.
Lily – White – As discussed in the lesson on colors, white lilies are often used in tarot to symbolize purity of thought or action, innocence, chastity, clarity of thought, and the feminine/yin principle. Often paired with red roses.
Lotus – The lotus is traditionally shown on the Ace of Cups, and may also be found in other cups cards in some decks, such as the Page of Cups (RW) and the Three of Cups (Wheel of Change). The lotus symbolizes peace and purity, a flowering of the psychic self and opening upward toward higher consciousness.
Oak Leaves – Strength, wisdom, age, kingly attributes, gateway into the otherworld (pagan/Celtic).
Pomegranate – The pomegranate is seen on both the High Priestess and the Empress cards, and symbolizes female fertility and sexuality, and the Goddess. Secret knowledge and rebirth.
Rose – Five-Petaled – The five-petaled rose is the symbol of the Rosicruceans, and symbolizes the four elements plus the fifth element of spirit, with the fifth point or petal pointing upward toward Heaven, similar to an upright pentacle.
Rose – Red – The red rose is the rose of passion, courage, action, masculinity/yang, and blood. It is often paired with white lilies.
Rose – White – The white rose is the rose of transformation, and is usually a five-petaled rose. Its most prominent use is on the black flag carried by death, as a symbol of what awaits once you pass through darkness and the dissolution of self.
Squash, Garden Vegetables – These are very simply symbols of the harvest. In the Three of Cups they symbolize the abundance of the harvest and the celebration that comes with it, and in the Seven of Pentacles they symbolize a harvest yet to come, through one’s own patient hard work.
Sunflower – The sunflower has long been used as a symbol of the Sun, and appears in cards related to the Sun, such as the Sun card itself, the Ace of Wands (Robin Wood), the Queen of Wands, and other fiery court cards. It symbolizes joy, vitality, and glowing energy.
Tree of Knowledge – The Tree of Knowledge appears in the Lovers card, usually on Eve’s side. It symbolizes the conscious choice of knowledge and the transformations and separations that inevitably follow.
Tree of Life – The Tree of Life can also be seen in the Lovers card, usually on Adam’s side (with the flaming branches). It sometimes appears in the window of the church on the Five of Pentacles as well. This is a reference to the Kabalah in modern decks.
Wheat – Wheat appears in the Empress card as a symbol of fertility and her connection to the earth and nature. It symbolizes wholesomeness, life, nourishment, and death/rebirth of the seasons and all living things.
Bat – Seen only in the bat’s wings given to the Devil, a symbol of the subterranean dwelling of the Devil and the underworld, hidden and repressed desires, and our shadow selves.
Bird – Birds represent freedom, inspiration, sometimes messengers related to the God/dess.
Bull – The symbol of Taurus, often seen on the King of Pentacles’ throne, as well as one of the four astrological signs seen in the Wheel of Fortune and World cards. The bull stands for stability, strength, and power (and stubbornness).
Butterfly – Transformation, freedom, lightness of being.
Cat – In most decks, the cat only appears in the Queen of Wands card, and symbolizes sensuality, playfulness, passion, and grace (with perhaps a bit of hedonism and haughtiness mixed in). The cat shares many of the qualities of the lion, but is tamer and domesticated.
Crayfish – In the Moon card, the crayfish rises up out of the depths of our minds, symbolized by the pool of water. The crayfish represents an unknown part of ourselves, part of our animal nature, primordial and a bit scary-looking, with a horny carapace. This unknown creature rises from the depths and triggers the journey through the Moon card.
Dog – As seen in the Fool card, there are varying interpretations of the little white dog – some say he is a faithful companion, blindly following the Fool out of love, willing to go where ever the Fool goes – others that he is a messenger, trying to warn the Fool about the impending cliff. In the Moon card, the Dog symbolizes the forces of civilization and restraint, as opposed to the Wolf or Jackal (see below). These are the two extremes between which one must find the middle path.
Dove – The dove appears in the Ace of Cups, and is also possibly the bird in the Star. It is a messenger of peace and of eternal love.
Dragon – The Dragon is an ancient symbol of royalty and wisdom, and is often found on the Kings and Emperor cards.
Falcon – The Falcon can be seen in the Nine of Pentacles, and represents intellect and clear sight, swiftness and freedom. It is sometimes hooded and restrained in this card, to show that the woman in the card has chosen physical pleasures and abundance rather than independence and freedom.
Fish – The fish is a symbol of the element of water, and is also a symbol of Christianity and God’s love.
Goat – The Goat is the symbol of Capricorn, and the Devil wears goats horns partly to symbolize the association of this card with Capricorn. The Goat is also associated with Pan, playfulness and trickster-like attributes, as well as perversity and black magic.
Horse – Horses are conveyances for the self, forces of nature or civilization that are harnessed, reined in and brought under control. The Knights all ride horses to show that they have harnessed the elements of their suit and are putting these energies to work in order to get somewhere.
Lion – The passionate, primal side of ourselves, our animal natures, as in the Strength card. In the context of court cards, a sign of nobility, pride, and courage. Also the symbol of Leo, seen in the Wheel of Fortune and World cards.
Rabbit – A symbol of fertility, usually seen in the Queen of Pentacles card.
Ram – The symbol for Aries, hence found on the Emperor’s throne. A symbol of virility, tenacity, and warlike nature (association with Mars).
Salamander – A creature mythically associated with fire, and often seen decorating the clothing of Wands court cards.
Snake – A symbol of female wisdom and psychic abilities. The bringer of knowledge, as in the Garden of Eden. The snake swallowing its tale is a symbol of infinity and eternity – sometimes seen as the Magician’s belt.
Sphinx – A mythical creature made up of the symbols of the four primary astrological signs – the lion, man, eagle, and bull. A gatekeeper and guardian of hidden mysteries.
Wolf/Jackal – In the moon card, paired with the dog on either side of the central path. Represents our wild untamed nature, excesses of passion and uncontrolled emotion and desires. Violence and rapaciousness.
VII. Celestial Bodies
We have already discussed the idea that the Sun typically represents masculine or yang energy, while the Moon represents feminine or yin energy (except in a few cultures, where it is reversed!). Using this concept, the Sun and the Moon are equal – two sides of a coin, two complimentary types of energy. This is one way of looking at the Sun and the Moon.
However, in the trump sequence, the Moon appears first and is typically considered a more problematic and difficult part of the journey than the Sun, in which, psychologically speaking, we have emerged from the underworld and our work with the shadow-self, and are ready to make the transition to full integration. In this construct, the Sun is a later stage of the integration process than the Moon, which represents our long return through the underworld of the subconscious to the light.
This concept and associated Moon/Sun symbolism has its basis and origin in alchemy. There are three primary colors associated with alchemical processes – black, white, and yellow/red. The black represents the early stages of the alchemical transformation, in which the male and female elements are separated and recombined in various ways, reduced to ash, and undergo various other transformations which blacken the starting materials. These processes are represented by the Devil and the Tower. In the next stage, the black material is successively purified and whitened, which is represented by the Star and the Moon, and a white or silver color. Finally, this female material or silver/white stone, is united with the golden seed or masculine principal to create the integrated self, represented by gold, or the philosopher’s stone. This process is started in the Sun and culminates with the World.
One small comment on the way the sun is represented in many decks – with alternating straight and wavy rays. This is an ancient way of representing the sun known as the philosopher’s sun, and illustrates the Sun as the source of light (straight rays) and heat (wavy rays) – illumination and warmth, the life-giving energies.
In Rider-Waite, it can be seen that the Moon has a somewhat golden color, not the color we would expect to be associated with the Moon. This illustrates the concept that the Moon reflects the light of the Sun, and the only light that shines on the underworld or subconscious is merely a reflection, which gives rise to distortions and illusions.
The falling drops from the Moon may be yet another alchemical reference to dew that was gathered by alchemists in the light of the full moon, and used to wash and purify the blackened material to silver. The dew is called May Dew, is collected at night from the air, and is milky in color, believed to be related to the milk and blood of alchemy, so represents the feminine purifying and life-giving principal.
In some cards, the Moon is depicted as a larger circle with a smaller circle inside it, offset to one side. Robin Wood explains this as a symbolic representation of the “full moon in the arms of the new”, an allusion to the ever-changing phases of the moon and its changeable, yet predictable and cyclical, nature.
In the Star card, the seven stars are references to the seven planets of ancient astronomy/astrology, and the seven alchemical operations and metals that they represent. The central eight-pointed star is a reference to the eight-spoked Wheel which was one of Waite’s central concepts for the tarot deck (see the numbers/symbols lesson). However, the 8-pointed star goes back well beyond Waite to the Tarot de Marseilles, and may represent an older mystical tradition. Here is what the Alchemical Tarot says about it: “At the top is the 8 pointed star which symbolizes the eighth sphere of the fixed constellations. They are unaffected by the four elements because they are composed of a fifth element, ether. This ethereal realm is the “horos” (boundary) to the “pleroma” (fullness) of heaven.”
VIII. Built Structures
Houses/Castles – Castles appear on many RW cards, and they are symbols of civilization, security, self-determination (appearing on the Ace of Wands, for instance), and stability. It is interesting how few actual houses appear, mostly on those cards that have a slightly more humble status, such as the Six of Cups and the Ten of Wands. Perhaps this is because these cards were drawn in England, where castles abound and more of the houses look like castles. A ruined castle appears in the background of the Eight of Wands, suggesting that change comes to all things and the passing of time.
Towns – Larger towns appear in a few cards, such as the King of Pentacles and 4 of Pentacles. These are the cards most directly associated with commerce and money. There is also an entrance to a town in the Eight of Pentacles, suggesting an opportunity for trade and sale of one’s work.
Inside Spaces – Only a very few cards depict interior scenes – again these are all Pentacles, such as the Three and the Eight. There are the cards most associated with productive work.
Walls – Walls are another symbol of safety and security, appearing in the Sun, Six of Pentacles, King of Pentacles, and 2 of Wands. In some of these cases, the walls are protective and I have often thought that in the Six of Pentacles they may hide something in the past that is walled off so that the past is seen in rose-colored nostalgia. In the 2 of Wands, the person is standing behind their protective wall, safe and secure with what they already have. Their big decision is whether to leave these protective walls and adventure out into the world, not knowing what they will find there – the choice between safety and risk. In other decks, the man in the Four of Pentacles is walled in (Robin Wood) or even in a prison (Spiral deck).
Church – There are churches in a few cards – notably the Five of Pentacles, Four of Swords, and a church is implied in the Hierophant. These are all cards about spiritual renewal – in the case of the Five of Pentacles it is the way out of the physical deprivation being endured. Interestingly, the Three of Pentacles also appears to show a man working in a church – perhaps a message that spirituality can be found even in mundane, everyday tasks.
Tents – The tents in the Seven of Swords are the only ones in the deck, and to me they have always suggested a temporary habitation, probably related to a battlefield. This provides the moral ambiguity of the card – is the person stealing, or simply legitimately making life difficult for his enemies/oppressors – or perhaps he is only making off with the spoils of war, belonging to nobody.
Towers – Many towers appear in the deck. Most notable are the twin towers depicted in Death and the Moon. These are both gateways – and these twin towers have the same symbolism as the twin mountains on other cards. In Death, the towers are far in the background, but as you look through them, the sun is rising and it appears to actually be a different world. When you step through these towers, you will never be the same and there is no returning whence you came. Also, a stream flows to the towers and fills the space between them – the only path to these towers is to lose your ego in the subconscious and follow the collective stream where it takes you. The Towers of the Moon are somewhat different – there are not so far off and there is a path that leads to them, however, the path is very long and winding, and leads into a dark land that is more shadowed than the foreground. There are tiny windows in the tower – and you wonder if someone may be watching. These are almost like the eyes of the conscious mind, walled off – and we are walking in the subconscious, well below the towers and the thoughts going on above. Lastly, of course, there is the single tower depicted in the Tower card. This tower represents our ego, our material and intellectual constructs, our protective devices, and our arrogance – note its similarity to the Tower of Babel. It has a large golden crown on top, which is the first to be blasted away, symbolizing the loss of our pride and the humility that comes with this card.
Pillars – Closely related are the symbolism of the pillars that appear in three major arcana cards – the High Priestess, the Hierophant, and Justice. Of these, two appear to be concrete (Hierophant and Justice) representing that these entities act in the physical or material world. The High Priestess has more esoteric black and white pillars with lotus blossoms, linking her to the qabalah, Freemasonry, and an existence on a more spiritual plane. The High Priestess and Justice both have veils between their pillars, symbolizing their guardianship of hidden knowledge – the veil of the High Priestess contains references to the Empress (pomegranates), showing that even though she may be a virgin priestess, she contains the potential of all fertility and womanhood within her. Behind this veil is a vast sea, a reference to her realm of the subconscious and memory. The veil of Justice is purple, for her psychic ability to see with the third eye and her guardianship of universal karmic forces, which are not always apparent to our senses and knowledge. This is one reason the Justice of the Universe may be mysterious to us, since we cannot see all that is known to her. The pillars of the Hierophant appear to be walled in with concrete, suggesting that either there is nothing behind them or what is there is not accessible to mere mortals (at least one author has a rather cynical take on this). The Hierophant holds the keys to heaven and earth, and perhaps there is a hidden keyhole behind his throne that we cannot see.
Thrones – The Kings and Queens, Emperor and Empress all have thrones, which is one reason I associate the Kings and Queens with these two trump cards. Of course in these cases the thrones represent maturity and dominion over their chosen realm. There are often interesting details to be noted on the thrones, such as references to the elemental and astrological symbols of the cards, and other things, such as the King of Cups’ throne being out in the middle of the water, yet floating easily, showing that he is perfectly at home in the element of water and emotions, and can create his own dry land at will.
Chariot – In this card, the charioteer has his own kind of throne, which is also made of concrete but moves through an act of will. Without this will and a perfect understanding of his tools, the chariot would go nowhere. The four pillars of the chariot represent the four elements. The symbol on the front is quite amusing – a round peg in a round hole – everything in its proper place. Notice that the charioteer is actually encased within the concrete – he is part and parcel of this chariot and it is not separable from him.
Ships – Several cards have ships sailing – the Three of Wands, 2 of Pentacles, 6 of Swords, sometimes, though not in this deck, the Page of Cups. In the 2 of Pentacles and Page of Cups, the ships are tossed on a stormy sea, suggesting that in the background of what is being decided, there are changes ahead and emotional turbulence. In the Six of Swords, a more orderly and positive journey is being made away from the troubles of the past, on a sea of calmer emotions. In the Three of Wands we see a perfectly calm and glowing sea, with ships traveling in apparent prosperity and adventure. Yet we know that the travels that have led up to this positive juncture have not always been trouble-free, and that this is the reward for long hard work.
Bridges – Only one card has an obvious bridge – the Five of Cups. In this card, the man is cut off from his home and is brooding on his spilled cups. One imagines he has journeyed way out here just for the purpose of brooding – possibly he does not want others to see him doing this. The river represents the emotions of the past, which are hard to cross. Yet there is a bridge, which implies that there is a path, even if it is not visible in the card. This person could choose to leave these spilled cups here, pick up the other two golden cups, find the path and cross the bridge, and return home.
Tombs – And last but not least, two cards depict tombs – the Four of Swords and Judgment. While these cards do not have that much to do with each other, they are both cards of spirituality – one depicts a temporary but peaceful rest and opportunity for renewal, while the other represents a more permanent and joyful rebirth of the soul.
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