An Introduction to Tarot

Start here if you are new to Tarot, or would like a concise refresher . . .

TAROT . . .

The “great philosophical machine.” The “key to the secrets of the ages.” The “infallible instrument which foretells the future.”

Is it any of these? All of them? What is the Tarot, anyway?

If a random sample were taken — say, stopping people on the streets and asking them, “What do you think the Tarot is?” — most people would probably say something like “It’s a set of pasteboard cards used for fortunetelling.”

And that is true.

But the truth must obviously be much deeper, for over the centuries there have been many popular approaches to “fortunetelling,” but none has inspired so much interest. Not only for practitioners of divination, but also among scholars, artists, poets, and students of consciousness.

To understand the complex appeal of Tarot, one must begin where the Tarot itself begins — in the realm of the imagination.

Imagination is the human faculty that allows us to experience the immaterial. Ordinary perception operates through the senses, and so is confined entirely to experience of the material world.

But imagination is not bound by the rules of space and time that govern materiality.

Through the mode of imagination, it is possible to travel instantaneously into the past or future, to other lands, beyond the earth, and even to realms that don’t exist in the material dimension. Imaginatively, people encounter things they’ve never seen — flying dinosaurs, the dark side of the moon — and things that never can be seen — the colors of feelings, for example, or a landscape of pure crystalline forms.

Precisely because the imagination is so vast and powerful, its domain so different from the solid, sensible world of the material . . . whatever reflects and invites imagination can be both seductive and frightening.

Maps and Voyages

Human beings have a great yearning to adventure in imaginary realms. But at the same time, they recognize the fact that explorers occasionally get lost there and can’t find their way back to “reality.”

So people look for ways to journey imaginatively without getting too far away from familiar landmarks.

They surrender themselves to horror movies, for example. but they one hand in the bag of popcorn, to serve as a comforting reminder of reality; they play at the Ouija board, but if it begins to seem too real, someone quickly turns on the lights.

When people journey into the imagination, they commonly keep themselves on a tether held by the conscious mind. And for some people, the tether is so short that they never venture far from the literal world of facts and matter.

But there are also those who travel on a tether that is daringly long, and they are the ones we depend on for what might be called “imaginary reconnaissance.” An important way of keeping safe in imaginative terrain, after all, is to civilize this wild place, and some brave souls must go first.

These explorers — poets, shamans, mystics, artists, and such — venture into the imagination, make notes and sketches, put up signs, lay out paths, and create maps that will guide the rest of us safely on our journeys.

Tarot is just such a map, made by unknown explorers. And not coincidentally, it is given to us in a form similar to that of medieval maps, where far-off lands are marked with pictures of the various marvels to be found there.

Simply put:

Tarot images are pictures of the things, people, events, ideas, and emotions that shape and populate the imagination.

These same things, people, events, ideas, and emotions are recorded in many other works of the creative mind — in fairy tales and dreams, in soap operas and sitcoms, in Greek tragedy, in the Bible, in history books, movies, and music videos — for they make up the stock characters and plots, the predictable crises, the inevitable conflicts, and the familiar emotions of human life.

From the “other woman” to the idea of God, from the rite of passage to the traveling flimflam man, all the constant figures and themes of experience are essentially just continuing variations on a group of basic forms — forms that come as standard equipment with every human imagination.

These devices of the imagination have been christened archetypes (from the Greek, meaning “first forms”), and they are found in all times and places and modes of expression, though their outward manifestations differ. One useful approach to understanding Tarot is to think of it as an illustrated map of the archetypal realm.

But that is only one perspective . . .

Another approach to understanding the nature of Tarot is to think of it as a language — a language composed of symbolic representations, like Egyptian hieroglyphics or Chinese pictographs.

Yet a third way is to conceive of the Tarot images as notes in a musical scale, each one having a different effect on the nervous system. And we may also envision the Tarot as chapters in an enormous book, where the parts can be read in any order, and each story will be complete and true.

There are many ways of approaching Tarot, and each person must decide which way (or combination of ways) makes the most sense, feels most comfortable, works most effectively. But for the purpose of common communication, we can expand the basic definition a little further:

Tarot is a set of seventy-eight images which, taken together, depict all the forces that affect human life, along with all the characters, events, emotions, and ideas that provide the material of which human life is composed.

The Tarot Deck

To really understand the nature of Tarot, it is important to separate the Tarot images from the Tarot cards. Tarot is first and foremost an imaginative system, totally apart from any tangible medium. The images exist in a nonspatial, nontemporal relationship to each other, and it is possible to memorize them and use them entirely mentally.

But Tarot images may also be put into material form, such as drawings or paintings — and, in this way, Tarot cards can be created. Once the images are placed on cards, it is possible cither to isolate one image from all the others, or to arrange the images in different sequences, whether purposefully or “randomly” (by shuffling).

Also, once actualized on cards, the images become capable of achieving spatial and temporal relationships, so that they can be part of material life; in this way, they can provide an interface between the realm of imagination and the material level of existence.

When the Tarot images are actualized on cards and organized in a group, we have a Tarot deck or pack. And the conventional deck consists of two parts.

The Major Arcana

First, there are twenty-two cards with full-sized pictures, each usually bearing both a name (The Chariot, The Hanged Man, and so forth) and a number, from zero to twenty-one.

This group is the major arcana (which means “greater secrets”), and its cards are called “trumps,” “keys,” or sometimes “atouts.”

The major arcana images are individual archetypal units, all of them well-known in art, in literature, in mythology. Each image is complete in itself, and each has its own richness and resonance.

The Empress, for example, is the archetypal mother — fertile, nurturing, enveloping, and (on the darker side) perhaps smothering. Look for her in such diverse representations as:

  • Demeter, the mothering Greek goddess who wouldn’t let go of her daughter Persephone

  • The Biblical character Esther, who took Ruth to her bosom

  • Snow White, with her irrepressible nurturing of the Seven Dwarfs.

The High Priestess, on the other hand, is the mysterious, the cool, the hidden side of femininity (the Mona Lisa); she is the eternal virgin, who seduces and yet remains untouchable (Marilyn Monroe); she is the woman of intuitive knowledge and power (the Sibylline Oracle).

The Empress and The High Priestess capture essential but different aspects of the feminine —while The Emperor and The Hierophant serve the same purpose for the masculine. The union of masculine and feminine is represented directly by the Lovers, and indirectly by complementary structures that run throughout the deck.

The Minor Arcana

The second part of the Tarot is called the minor arcana (“lesser secrets”), and its purpose is to represent the day-to-day events and concerns of human life.

The minor arcana has fifty-six cards, which are divided into four suits: Cups, Wands (or Batons), Swords, and Pentacles (or Discs/Coins). Each suit in the minor arcana contains fourteen cards: four court cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Page) and ten pips, or number cards, which run Ace through Ten.

The various figures in the court cards have distinct qualities that allow them to designate sex, general age, temperament, and position in life, so almost any person can be effectively represented by one of the court cards.

The four suits, like the traditional four elements, arc related to the great categories of human experience: Pentacles refer to the material aspect of life (earth), Wands to the creative and energetic (fire). Cups to the emotional and relational (water), and Swords to the mental, abstract aspect of life (air).

The special nature of each suit is captured in the ace, which represents the initiation of that suit’s distinctive energy.


The twenty-two major arcana cards are generally considered to be more powerful and more universal than the other cards in the Tarot deck, but they are not necessarily more important.

Here’s an illustration of the relationship between major and minor arcanas:

  • The major arcana card called The Star represents the principle of hope. It symbolizes the power of hopefulness, and also that part of a person’s nature which looks beyond the present and seeks greater things.

  • The minor arcana card Nine of Cups also deals with hopefulness — but in another way, representing the fulfillment of actual, specific wishes a person may have. A second minor arcana card, the Seven of Cups, is concerned with hopefulness too — but, this time, in the form of imagined possibilities, desires, ideas.

All three of those cards deal with the same quality, but the major arcana card does so on the level of character and destiny, while the minor arcana cards operate on the level of circumstance and behavior.

Since our lives are shaped by the interaction of these two levels — the level of impersonal forces and the level of personal choices — one of the greatest strengths of the Tarot deck is the fact that it can not only represent both levels but also illustrate their interaction.

Of course, this two-part scheme still doesn’t provide a complete operational picture of human life. There remains a third shaping element: the influence of other people as they act out their own combinations of character and circumstance.

Here again, the two parts of the deck work together. Tarot uses the court cards to portray other people in their mundane or everyday aspects, while there are trump cards (The Magician, The Hermit, or The Hanged Man, for example) to represent the archetypal energies that other people bring into a situation.

To Summarize . . .

The Tarot provides a storehouse of images from which can be assembled a symbolic representation of almost any human story — from BeowulfHamlet or Cinderella, right through to one’s own life.

These images are organized by two primary structures — the major and minor ananas; one of these structures, the minor arcana, has four “superstructures” (the suits) and three “substructures” — the court, the pips, and the aces. The major arcana cards express aspects of fate and character, while the minor arcana cards depict matters of circumstance and behavior.

People are symbolized by the court cards, mundane events by the pip cards, and spheres of influence by the aces.

If you actually wanted to use the Tarot to symbolize Hamlet, for example, the structures outlined above would help you find what you need quickly, much as you might use the index in a reference book . . .

  • First you would analyze the major forces at work in the story — violence, love, loyalty, indecision — and select cards from the major arcana to represent them.

  • Then you could look among the court cards for representations of the characters, and among the pip cards for the events (Ophelia’s death, the stabbing of Polonius, the visit to the graveyard, and so on).

  • And soon, presto! Hamlet in pictures. [1]

Which is all well and good when you already know the story. But of course, the purpose of Tarot isn’t to create shorthand versions of famous plays.

What, then, is the “purpose” — the significance — of Tarot?

The answer to that question is as complex as the Tarot itself, for the Tarot takes many forms, and lends itself to many uses. The cards may very well record secret knowledge; they may provide a process for attaining higher consciousness; they may hold magical powers. They may do all these things … and more.

I’ve sketched out that landscape in Ten Doors to Tarot, so I hope you’ll visit there next. Or start with Structures of the Tarot, which offers a concise summary of the Major and Minor Arcanas, and a little about how they fit together.

These are just the first parts of what I hope will become a comprehensive exploration of the Tarot, adapted from my books and incorporating new ideas and insights.

[1] Personally, I would choose The Tower, Death, The Hanged Man, The Empress, The Emperor, Judgment, and The Moon for major arcana cards; the King of Pentaclcs for Claudius, the Queen of Swords for Gertrude, the Knight of Wands for Hamlet, the Knight of Cups for Horatio, the Page of Cups for Ophelia; and the Ace of Swords to mark the governing aspect of conflict.