Structures of the Tarot

A concise summary . . .

The Major Arcana

The 22 major arcana cards are also referred to as “trumps.” They are multi-leveled in their meanings — so a great deal has been written about the divinatory implications and the archetypal powers of each card.

I’ve chosen five keywords or phrases which represent the most frequently encountered associations for each image. These varied meanings may sometimes seem disconnected or even contradictory, but there is usually an underlying theme that can illuminate the nature of the card.

And after each title, I’ve given the card’s traditional “core image.”

0. The Fool. A walking man.

  • The spirit. A quest or journey. Innocence. Chaos. Heedlessness.

I. The Magician. A man and a table with objects on it.

  • The will. The Hermetic arts. The Trickster. Manipulation. Changefulness.

II. The High Priestess or Papess.A seated woman in religious attire.

  • The intuition. Isis Veiled. The unconscious. Hidden knowledge. Mystery.

III. The Empress. Aseated woman in regal attire.

  • Creativity. Isis Unveiled. Nature, or the material world. The mother. Sensuality.

IV. The Emperor.A man in regal attire.

  • Reason. Society. The father. Virility. Authority.

V. The Hierophant or Pope.A man in religious attire.

  • Wisdom. Religion. Orthodoxy. Morality. The teacher.

VI. The Lovers. A man and a woman.

  • The soul. Attraction. Choice. Sexuality. A relationship.

VII. The ChariotA man in a wheeled vehicle.

  • Mastery. War. Triumph. The persona. Progress.

VIII. Justice.A woman holding a pair of scales.

  • Balance. Law. Equilibrium. Fairness. The conscience.

IX. The Hermit.A man with a lantern or staff.

  • Inwardness. Philosophy. Withdrawal. The seeker. Meditation.

X. The Wheel of Fortune.A wheel ridden by human or animal figures.

  • Chance. Fate. Irony. Instability. Evolution.

XI. StrengthA woman with a lion.

  • Courage. Force. The serpent power. Endurance. Goodness.

XII. The Hanged Man. A man hanging upside down by one foot.

  • Ambivalence. Transition. Suspension. Sacrifice. Initiation.

XIII. Death.A skeleton.

  • Transformation. Profound change. Destruction and renewal. Mortality. Ending.

XIV. Temperance.A woman pouring liquid from one pitcher into another.

  • Moderation. Caution. Prudence. Combination. Reflection.

XV. The Devil.A homed demon.

  • Materiality. Lust. Obsession. Bondage. Temptation.

XVI. The Tower.A building struck by lightning.

  • Catastrophe. The unexpected. Divine intervention. Punishment. Reversal.

XVII. The Star.A woman kneeling by water.

  • Hope. Aspiration. Healing. Beauty. Promise.

XVIII. The Moon.Animals baying at the moon.

  • Instinct. Secrecy. Psychic powers. The irrational. Dreams.

XIX. The Sun.A stylized version of the sun.

  • Growth. Success. Reason. Splendor. Abundance.

XX. JudgmentFigures arising from coffins.

  • Rebirth. Completion. Evaluation. Revelation. Reward.

XXI. The WorldAn androgynous dancing figure.

  • Synthesis. Wholeness. Perfection. Eternity. Cosmic consciousness.

The Minor Arcana

Although the minor arcana cards — the aces, the court cards, and the pips — are often thought of as the “mundane” portion of the Tarot, they actually have more esoteric associations than the trumps.

Accordingly, the minor arcana of the Tarot is best understood through several structures of correspondence. These not only reveal the symbolic significance of the minor cards, but also shape the use of those cards in divination.

In many modern Tarot decks, the minor arcana cards have illustrations that combine story-like scenes with various kinds of visual symbolism. Historically, however, the minor cards showed only the suit sign and a number.

The Suits

The four suits express the same qualities as the four elements — once believed to be the fundamental building blocks of the material world.

Through this correspondence with the elements, the suits are also linked to two traditional systems for understanding human beings: the four humors (bodily fluids) and their associated temperaments, and the four elemental divisions of the zodiac.

Jungian interpreters also find correspondences with the four personality types defined by Jung:

  • Pentacles/Earth/Sensation

  • Swords/Air/Thinking

  • Wands/Fire/Intuition

  • Cups/Water/Feeling

The Aces

The aces, having the indivisible value of one, represent the purest form of each suit.

So on the one hand, all the numbers (2–9) of the pip cards are contained in the ace and unfold from it — when the ace is viewed as the first card in the sequence. In this way, it represents beginning and possibility.

On the other hand, all the numbers of the pip cards are resolved in the ace when it is viewed as the final card in the sequence. In this way, the ace can represent fullness and achievement.

The Court Cards

The court cards represent human diversity. They can depict almost any person, through a combination of several variables:

  • The suit of the court card suggests the general temperament/orientation of the person, according to the correspondences described above.

  • The gender of the card suggests the person’s sex. (Pages can be either male or female.)

  • The rank of the card suggests the person’s age and/or station in life, ascending from the Page (childhood) to the King (maturity).

The court cards can also represent the archetypal family — father, son, mother, and daughter.

The Pips

Certain qualities have traditionally been associated with each of the natural counting numbers (2–9), and the same associations apply to the Tarot pips. Each number also has an astrological ruler, which enriches the whole complex of minor arcana associations.

The qualities of the suit, in combination with the quality of the number, provide a basis for understanding the nature of each pip card.

The major and minor arcana cards are connected by complex structures that will be developed in other texts.