The ‘language’ of Tarot

Each card represents a situation, archetype, or energy. Readings are about forming stories in connection with the subject’s life or question. Remember that no card is entirely good or bad. A happy card may also mean boredom. A miserable card usually means a chance to start again. Every card is complex and context dependent. The same card can mean different things to different people, depending on their own relationship to the topic that the card is exploring. 

There is a language to the tarot’s structure. The most rewarding way to learn tarot, in my opinion, is to learn this language. Sure, you could simply memorize each card, but you would be missing out on deeper levels of understanding and the beautiful way symbols and meanings intersect. So, consider the following chapter your personal Tarot cheat sheet.

 
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The Major Arcana

The Major Arcana consists of 21 numbered cards, and card 0, The Fool. The Major Arcana tells a story, a metaphor for the journey of life often referred to as ‘The Fool’s Journey.’ The Fool is fresh, new, and spontaneous: the card of beginnings. The cards of the Major Arcana depict various archetypes and universal themes that are encountered along the way. Some consider this journey a linear path, while others believe that any stage of the journey could happen at any time. In readings, Major Arcana cards deal with the most significant aspects of life. They are a big deal. When a Major Arcana card comes up, it is to be listened to.

 
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The Minor Arcana

The Minor Arcana deals with the shorter-term, day-to-day aspects of our lives. This does not mean Minor Arcana cards are not important. In my opinion, the Minor Arcana are highly underrated. The Minor Arcana simply carry less weight than the Major Arcana. While a Major Arcana card may speak to a long-term theme or pivotal point in your life, a Minor Arcana card is more likely to speak to you about what you are going through in the short term. 

The Minor Arcana is split into four suits: Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles. Each suit contains ten chronologically numbered cards (the pip cards) and four court cards. Each suit has a strong flavor to it, and the numbers of the cards are associated with specific meanings. Even if you don’t know exactly what a card is intended to mean, you can figure it out by combining the flavor of the suit, the number or court position, and what is happening in the illustration. 

For example, if you know that Aces are about new opportunities, and Wands are about passion and creativity, then the Ace of Wands is about a new opportunity that you feel passionate about, usually a creative project. In the illustration we can also see that the flowers on the wand are budding, which could be interpreted as many potential new beginnings.

Suit of Wands:

The Suit of Wands (here drawn as sticks, pencils, arrows, paint brushes, etc.) are associated with fire and deal with passion, desire, creativity, activism, and ideas. If wands were personified, they would be the muse: potential, ideas, and moments of epiphany that fire up creativity within. The Suit of Wands is also the suit of the spirit, primal energy, and our core selves. Wands are often trying to tell us about our personalities, our driving forces, and what is best for us at the center of our being. Wands are pure inspired energy, burning hot in your gut.

 
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Suit of Cups: 

The Suit of Cups is associated with water, and the meanings of the cards are associated with emotions, relationships, and connections. Cups are romantic and vibrant. They deal with the full range of emotions, the good and the bad, the intentional and the chaotic. Cups are about the heart, displays of feelings, and emotions in relation to people in your life. Cups focus on intuition over logic: they suggest that you are, or that you should be, making decisions with your heart over your head.

 
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Suit of Swords:

The Suit of Swords is associated with air. Swords are cards of the mind. They’ve got seriously cool, calculated, and harsh vibes. The Suit of Swords is driven by thought, and often tends to deal with decision-making, intellectual pursuits, planning, and analyzing. I often think of each sword in a card as a thought. Many of the sword cards are glyphs for overthinking, madness, or thoughts in conflict. The Suit of Swords stands in contrast to the Suit of Cups, and suggests that choices are being made with the head over the heart.

 
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Suit of Pentacles: 

The Suit of Pentacles (here drawn as coins) is associated with earth, and covers the material aspects of life. Pentacle cards tend to deal with career, money, and our material possessions. Pentacles are about our bodies, the solid world, and all the joy and hard work that comes with physicality. I think of the Suit of Pentacles as the results brought about by the actions of the other suits. In other words, emotion (cups), thought (swords), and spirit (wands) bring about the events and physical manifestations of reality (pentacles). Of course, pentacles are not solely an end result, as everything is part of a connected cycle, and our real life circumstances affect all other aspects of our lives as well.

 
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Numbered Cards:

‘Numbered cards’ are cards 1 (Ace) through 10 in the four suits of the Minor Arcana. The number on each card corresponds to a numerological meaning. The meaning of each numbered card relates to the intersection of the suit and the numerology of the card.

1 – (Aces) The beginning of a journey, potential, opportunity. The core energy of the suit.

2 – Duality and dichotomy. Twos show how things come together, and are generally urging us to find a balance between forces.

3 – Threes are about interaction and communication with others, and with communities at large.

4 – Fours indicate (or suggest) a period of rest, structure, and/or stability.

5 – Fives are about adversity, change, and conflict. Fives are obstacles.

6 – Sixes are about growth, sometimes painful and sometimes joyful. They are often about cycles.

7 – Sevens are about reflecting on your situation. They often involve conflict, both internal and external.

8 – Eights are about getting where you need to go, and taking a realistic look at your perspective to determine if it is serving you.

9 – Nines are about fruition. Things are coming together. You are maturing, though the result may or may not be what you want.

10 – Tens are the completion of a cycle: the outcome, rewards, consequences, and an opportunity to start again.

Court Cards:

Court cards depict individuals, each containing the energy of their suit from a slightly different aspect or at a different stage of development. Sometimes these archetypes are meant to be applied to yourself. They represent traits to emulate, or to be wary of. Many readers see court cards as either signifiers for the subject or other people in the subject’s life, like characters in the story of the reading. For example, the Queen of Cups reminds me of my mother, so when the Queen of Cups pops up in readings for myself, it’s usually because she is involved or I should be thinking about her in some way.

Pages:

Pages represent youth, students, and the beginnings of things. Pages are at the start of their journey through the suit, and they are very enthusiastic about it. Though they are not masters in what their suit has to teach them, they are committed to figuring it out. A Page is an optimistic and encouraging beginning.

Knights:

Knights are about action! They are implementing the energy of their suit towards a specific goal. Knights are more experienced than Pages, but they don’t have a lifetime of experience under their belt like the Kings and Queens. They tend to be a bit extreme or impulsive. Always consider both the positive and negative of a Knight’s approach. When is excess helpful and when could you use a little moderation instead?

Queens:

Queens express the ideals of their suit internally. They are the human form of the best the suit has to offer. In the highly gendered language of tarot, the feminine is introspective, gentle, and caring. These gendered archetypes can feel annoying and archaic, but remember, all of us have access to every archetype in tarot. Queens have all the life experience of the suit, and use it to better themselves.

Kings:

Kings express the ideals of their suit externally. Kings are stable, solid people who draw upon the various aspects of their suit to build things, lead, and improve upon the world around them. Some believe that the Kings represent the most mature, perfected, manifestation of the suit. This rings a bit too patriarchal and sexist to me, even though some of the Kings in my deck are not men. I choose to read Kings and Queens as equally matured and self-actualized, simply choosing to manifest this energy in different ways, Queens internally, and Kings outwardly.

On Gender and Tarot

Tarot tradition is saturated in gender. It’s inescapable. As a person who strives to make work that people of all genders can connect with, I found this difficult to reckon with. Traditional tarot decks have a definite idea of what traits are feminine and what traits are masculine. The Empress represents the softer side of the feminine archetype. She is gentle, motherly, and tied to nature. She has a sensual sexuality. She is pure emotion. The High Priestess represents the darker aspects of the feminine archetype. She is hidden and patient. She is intuitive and otherworldly. She is a mystery. Together the traits of the Empress and the High Priestess represent tarot’s idea of the feminine -- a collection of women’s qualities assigned by men and male ideas.

The Emperor, the father archetype, is ruled by logic. He is not afraid of conflict or taking a leadership role. He is hard, unemotional, rational. He represents society in contrast to nature. The Magician, also a male archetype, channels what is abstract into the material world. He is a card of action, cultivating ‘magic’ in a direct path, much in contrast to the High Priestess’s quiet magic of wisdom.

Over and over in tarot, we see the repetition of this laundry list of feminine and masculine traits. Queens are feminine and therefore represent the internal idealization of the suit. Kings are masculine and therefore external, pushing the ideals of the suit outward onto others. The feminine ideal is patient wisdom; the masculine ideal is implementation and action.

So what do we, especially those of us who are queer, do with this? Well, it turns out the answer has been in tarot the whole damn time. I was just interpreting things too literally to see it. The goal of most tarot practitioners and designers is balance: the balance of work, of spirituality, of emotions, of material things. Tarot wants us all to be in balance, and gender is one of the symbolic ways it talks about that. You are right to identify with gendered traits in tarot that are not in alignment with your personal gender identity. You are right to seek balance in these traits, and/or in gender itself, if that feels right to you. It’s all genderfluid when you read through the cards through that lens.

So, when reading this book and using this deck, please, keep the following in mind.

  • When I say ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ I mean a set of traits that have been assigned as masculine or feminine in the tradition of tarot.

  • When I say ‘man’ or ‘woman’ I am referring to the gender of the character in the card. I am not referring their biological sex as determined by genitalia. Do not assume that, because a character has a clearly defined gender, they are cis.

  • In this deck, gender is fluid. If gender matters symbolically to the meaning of the card, I have retained the gender expressed in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. If gender doesn’t matter to the symbolic meaning of the card, I may have changed it or remove any gender cues.