Tarot basics for beginners. All you need to know to start reading the cards straight away, from tarot structure, simple spreads and question phrasing to how to connect with the cards on a deeper level.
The court cards in the Tarot represent personality types, and in a reading they can relate to people, energies or personality traits that need either to be applied to a certain situation or avoided.
If you use the Tarot to deepen your self-knowledge, you can explore your personality (and that of others) by identifying your persona card and its opposing shadow card.
First of all, find your persona card from the list below; this card relates to your sun sign:
Aries—Queen of Wands
Taurus—King of Pentacles
Gemini—Knight of Swords
Cancer—Queen of Cups
Leo—King of Wands
Virgo—Knight of Pentacles
Libra—Queen of Swords
Scorpio—King of Cups
Sagittarius—Knight of Wands
Capricorn—Queen of Pentacles
Aquarius—King of Swords
Pisces—Knight of Cups
The Pages are not included in this list, but if you feel more like a child-like Page rather than a Knight, Queen or King, then choose the Page of the suit that relates to your sun sign, e.g. if you are Gemini (Knight of Swords), you can choose the Page of Swords instead.
Next, identify your opposing card by taking the following two steps:
1. Select the opposite role of your persona card, e.g. if you are a King, select Page:
King – Page
Queen – Knight
Knight – Queen
Page – King
2. Select the opposite of your suit, e.g. if you are Cups, choose Wands:
So, for me this means that my persona card is the Knight of Cups (I’m Pisces), and my opposing shadow card is the Queen of Wands.
Your persona card relating to your sun sign reflects your outer personality and your strengths; personality traits you openly express and feel comfortable with.
Your shadow card on the other hand indicates hidden elements of your personality, weaknesses, and character traits and behaviours you prefer to keep hidden, are unconsciously suppressed, or may need to be developed.
In my case, the Knight of Cups reflects my introvert, dreamy and intuitive personality, and the Queen of Wands indicates a need to be more social, take action and feel more confident about my abilities.
Have you worked out your persona and shadow card? What do they teach you about yourself?
Try this exercise with family members, colleagues and friends. This way you can explore and identify people’s strengths and weaknesses and develop good judgement of character over time.
The prominent 19th century occultist and Golden Dawn Member S. L. MacGregor Mathers wrote about the significance of numbers in an ordinary card deck in his essay The Tarot, published in 1888:
“It has been long known that the ordinary 52 card pack was susceptible of some peculiar numerical significations, e.g.:
52 Cards in the pack, suggest 52 weeks in the year.
13 Cards in each suit, suggest 13 lunar months in the year, 13 weeks in the quarter.
4 suits in the pack, suggest 4 seasons in the year.
12 Picture Cards in the pack, suggest 12 months in the year, 12 signs of the Zodiac
Furthermore, if we add together:
The pips on the plain cards of the four suits = 220
The pips on the 12 Picture Cards = 12
Twelve Picture Cards reckoned as 10 each = 120
The number of cards in each suit = 13
We shall obtain the number of days in the year = 365
But concealed behind their apparently arbitrary and bizarre designs, the Tarot Cards contain a far more complicated system of recondite symbolism.
We find the number ten multiplied by the mystical number four, and combined with a primitive hieroglyphic alphabet of twenty-two letters.”
Before we look at the deeper meanings of numbers in Tarot, it is worthwhile noting that the esoteric science of numbers, arithmology, was first developed by the Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (c. 570 – 495 B.C.).
In the centuries that followed, his teachings were passed on over generations in Europe and the middle East, mainly within secret societies, which were formed due to political unrest and upheaval.
When occult groups such as the Freemasons, became interested in Tarot from the late 17th century onwards, it seems logical that arithmology would be gradually embedded into the Tarot.
Today, the meanings of numbers in the Tarot are still based on the teachings of Pythagoras.
However, you will find that changes have been made to the card sequences in various decks, which follow different traditions.
Here is an overview of the significance of numbers:
Numerology and Tarot
A mystical symbol, not a number. Mathematically and philosophically Zero represents nothing and everything, the two infinite ends of the finite, neither of which is physically attainable.
God force; the force before entering into manifestation.
In Tarot: The Fool. In some decks the Fool is numbered 22—see below.
Root of all numbers, unity, principle of all things, indivisible
Gender: male and female (containing the odd and even)
Time: The present now
Positive Attributes: Essence; beyond all knowledge
Each of the 78 scenic images of the RWS (Rider Waite Smith) Tarot deck contain a number of symbols. When familiar with their meanings and possible interpretations, it is easier to “read” and interpret the cards.
Major Arcana Symbols:
0 – The Fool
White rose in hand – the soul, the heart, love. White = purity, innocence
Bundle on stick – provisions, potential, possessions (not much = flexible, light, independent). Stick = wand
Sun/Sky – blue, sunny, warm; the right time to travel, make a move
Mountains – obstacles, problems, difficulties in the far distance
Cliff – pitfall
Dog – instinct, spirit guide, warning from the intellect or playfulness
Tarot, just like your zodiac sign, can help you gain personal insight into your annual lessons, tests and experiences you will go through by establishing your tarot year card.
Add the month and day of your birth to the current year, e.g.:
18th July in 2006 = 18 + 7 + 2006 = 2031 = 6 (The Lovers)
Only the Major Arcana cards are used, so you need to keep the final number under 23 (22 = The Fool).
There are two options regarding the time period for the year card to be valid:
from birthday to birthday (in this case from 18th July 2006 until 17th July 2007)
Calendar year (1st Jan—31 Dec)
You can use either or combine both. When combining them, The Lovers and The Hierophant (from 18th July 2005 onwards) would be both valid from 1st January 2006 until 17th July 2006 and in that period would interact with each other.
If you are a Tarot student, an interesting exercise would be to calculate your year cards from your birth year onwards and note all key experiences you had in each year (as far as your memory allows).
The result may surprise you, especially when you find out about your personal rhythm.
For example, you may notice that some cards do not appear in your chart at all even though your age might be well above 22. Other cards will appear on a regular basis.
It is up to you to determine the relevance of the absent cards and those that turn up in regular intervals with regards to your life lessons.
Suggestions for the year lessons of each card:
1. The Magician
Focus on options and opportunities
Pursue a new direction with willpower and ambition
Clarity of mind; all mental activity
Make things happen
2. The High Priestess
Develop your intuition
Trust your instincts
Be patient; situations will be resolved at the right time
3. The Empress
Motherhood or maternal instincts
Make use of and develop your creativity
Love of nature and beauty
Settling down, security and stability
4. The Emperor
Important decisions need to be made, perhaps not easy
Leading the way
Finish projects that you’ve started
5. The Hierophant
Teaching or studying
Social interaction on a professional or ethical level
In Tarot, plants are powerful symbols carrying meaning and purpose. They evoke ideas, images and visions.
The following list of plants suggests symbolic meanings, and it is up to the reader how to interpret these meanings in individual readings.
Acorn, see Oak
Sacred fruit of Aphrodite/Venus symbolising sexual desire and fertility. When sliced horizontally, its seeds resemble a pentacle.
In Celtic mythology, the apple tree is a symbol of plenty, for choice and a door into greater mysteries. It is one of the three legendary magical fruits (hazel, apple, oak).
Symbol of love, faith, generosity and gratitude. It can be found on the RWS Lovers card behind the nude female.
The snake in the apple tree links the card with the story of Adam and Eve, suggesting paradise and its forthcoming demise.
Symbol of beauty and ancient wisdom, prosperity and divination. The beech tree is a symbol for the written word; it was once used to make writing tablets.
In Celtic mythology, the beech tree is associated with all gods of wisdom and learning and the human intellect.
The wood and leaves were carried as a talisman to increase creative powers.
Symbol of new beginnings, birth, springtime, young love; renewal and cleansing; new directions and goals. A birch forest appears on the Death card of the Robin Wood deck.
Cornfields symbolise the potential for cultivation, the need for labour, attention and care in order to achieve material success.
A person standing in a cornfield suggests a down-to-earth mentality and a connection with the Earth element or its energy.
The cypress comprises the forest in the background of the Empress in the RWS deck. It is sacred to Venus and Artemis and suggests fertility.
Also sacred to the gods of the underworld, Hades and Pluto, it can represent anything developing in darkness, e.g. the unconscious.
Symbolises continuous giving and support, nurture and stability. See also cypress, ivy, palm, pine.
Symbolises the cycle of life, harvest and new seed. Fertility, nourishment, creative abundance, spiritual maturity.
Found on the Empress card of the RWS deck and in the suit of Pentacles.
Grapes represent inspiration and truth (as a result from drinking wine, when inhibitions are released).
Also symbolising abundance, fruitfulness and achievement. The vine’s symbolic meaning in the Old Testament is as an emblem of God’s blessing on his chosen people.
Grapes appear on Crowley’s Fool suggesting ‘sweetness of life, intoxication’ (Banzhaf/Theler).
The flower represents the goddess Iris, who was the Greek messenger of the gods. She is also associated with the rainbow, which represents the pathway by which she travelled.
Both the flower and the rainbow symbolise her qualities as a divine messenger. The flower can be found on the RWS Temperance card.
Entwining ivy is a symbol of romantic desolation; it was associated with death in the 18th century Gothic revival and a symbol of melancholy.
Ivy was an essential complement to any ruined building. Its entwining habit represents the movement of the stars and planets and the understanding of their influence on the affairs of humankind.
Ivy symbolises the Spirit, search for enlightenment, a warning (Ivy ale was a highly intoxicating medieval drink), binding and restricting, freeing and uniting. It is closely connected with the vine.
A laurel wreath was used as a crown of victory or accomplishment for athletes, poets and musicians in ancient Greece.
It was associated with the Greek god Apollo. The Fool in the RWS deck wears a laurel wreath, which symbolises his victorious spirit.
The charioteer on the Chariot card of the RWS wears a laurel wreath and so does the victorious rider on the Six of Wands.
The white lily symbolises purity, chastity, innocence and also higher spirit. The three-sided fleur-de-lis (triple lily) is a heraldic symbol of illumination.
Water lilies are the Golden dawn’s elemental symbol for water. They float on the water of the RWS Ace of Cups.
Golden lilies appear on the Emperor card of Crowley’s Thoth deck as an attribute of power.
The lotus blossom represents the four elements: the earth from which the plant grows, the water supporting its stalk, air into which its perfume escapes and the fire of the sun, which provides energy for it to grow.
The lotus represents the soul or psyche rising from the unconscious (the bottom of its watery source) into the clarity of consciousness and enlightenment.
Lotuses feature on all the Cup cards of Crowley’s Thoth Tarot (except the Seven and the Knight) as well as the Empress (the Lotus sceptre, representing feminine creativity and life force) and the Devil (wearing a lotus garland as a sign that the bearer is ‘a child of good’ – Banzhaf/Theler).
Good fortunes, longevity, immortality; also rapid growth and destruction (mushroom cloud). Can also represent restlessness and change (Robin Wood Moon card).
The RWS Empress wears a myrtle wreath, which is associated with female fertility, the forces of nature and also immortality. Myrtle is sacred to Venus. It was a Greek emblem of happiness, often used in marriage and childbirth rituals.
Celtic symbol for protection and strength; sacred tree of Heracles/Hercules and Jupiter/Zeus; sacred tree of Norse god Thor; acorns are symbols of fertility and spiritual growth.
The oak represents courage, endurance and the protective power of faith. In some Tarot decks the Hanged Man hangs from an oak tree.
The qualities of the suit of Pentacles is symbolised by oak leaves.
A sacred tree for many cultures, it is associated with light and enlightenment as the oil was used as a lamp fuel in ancient times.
In Islamic tradition, the olive tree represents the world tree or world axis.
In Judeo-Christian tradition, a dove brought an olive branch to Noah as a message that the flood was over.
The olive tree symbolises peace, fruitfulness, purification and wisdom. A branch appears on the RWS Ace of Swords.
The palm tree, with its solar-like spread of the strong leaves, was associated with victory in Roman times.
Victorious gladiators would be awarded with palm fronds due to the size and evergreen habit, which suggests longevity.
The palm tree and its leaves signify masculinity and assertiveness. A palm branch hangs from the RWS Ace of Swords.
In Greek mythology the pine tree was sacred to Artemis, the moon goddess who presided over childbirth; also associated with gods of wine like Dionysus and Bacchus.
Pine cones were used in fertility rites and the pollen was used in money spells. Pine resin was burned to clear negative energies, which could also be done by scattering pine needles around.
Its height (taller than most other trees) symbolises foresight, objectivity and overview. Also suggests nature, fertility and life force.
Symbolises fertility, new possibilities, ‘new birth’ symbol; creative, receptive and feminine energy. Seen on the veil behind the RWS High Priestess.
Roses symbolise beauty and perfection; they are often associated with the pentagram because of its five-petal structure.
Roses that are clearly depicted with five petals relate to the five senses and the inner five-pointed star of the apple; in horticulture, the rose is linked with the apple, which is also a member of the rose family.
Roses in Tarot decks are mainly red or white. Red signifies passion and desire (not necessarily sexually); white roses can indicate spirit, soul and abstract thought.
A five-pointed white rose can be found on Death’s banner in the RWS deck, signifying the Mystic Rose of life.
Red roses appear on the RWS Nine of Swords as a symbol of the heart and strong emotions. The red roses on Crowley’s Star symbolise love and fertility.
Sunflowers are symbols of devotion and steadfastness, as their flower heads follow the sun during the day. They appear on the RWS Sun and the Queen of Wands.
In the Seven of Cups of Crowley’s Thoth deck, the lotus blossoms, which appear on all other Cup cards of the deck, have turned into tiger lilies, dropping their poisonous nectar into the chalices symbolising ‘deceptive, sinister seduction’ (Banzhaf/Theler).
Wheat represents the entire cycle of nature: death, rebirth, resurrection. It suggests nurturing, abundance and fertility.
Psychologically, wheat tied together symbolises the integration of inner opposites, the conscious and the unconscious.
When I researched colour symbolism in Tarot, I came across information about how colour is perceived in different cultures. I realised that my perception of colours are based on the Western culture I have grown up in, whereas people from different backgrounds will link colours with different meanings. For example, in western culture the colour ‘white’ is associated with weddings, purity and innocence, but in Eastern cultures such as India and Japan it is linked with funerals and death.
Therefore, in the following table I have included not only my personal ‘western’ perception (including the correspondences of the Golden Dawn), but also the meanings of colours in different cultures.
However, when interpreting the cards, you need to establish your own view on colours, which thoughts and feelings they evoke in you, so you may disagree with some of the meanings suggested below. But that’s fine, because remember that there is no right or wrong; it’s all about your intuition.
When you look at a card in more detail and study its colours, you may find that some colours stand out at different times. That’s when you can pay attention to your understanding of the colour’s meaning and perhaps hidden message.
Watch out for shades and hues; lighter colours may be associated with the conscious mind, darker colours with the unconscious. Opposite colours indicate contrast. Complimentary colours in juxtaposition may suggest balance.
the unknown, mystery, hidden things, darkness, fear, death, funerals, emptiness, lack of insight
China: Colour for young boys
Spirituality, healing, depression, sadness, cold; colour of the fifth (throat) chakra; water; sky.Ruling planet: Moon. The suit of Cups.
Iran: Colour of heaven and spirituality
Intuition, creative insight, clairvoyance, psychic sensitivity, mystery, dream work; colour of the sixth (brow) chakra. Ruling Planet: Saturn
Masculine energy, luxury, success, material value, the sun, illumination
Growth, vitality, nature, harmony, healing, Spring; colour of the fourth (heart) chakra, which can also be pink. Ruling Planet: Venus. The suit of Pentacles.
China: Green hats indicate a man’s wife is cheating on him; exorcism
Ireland: Symbol of the entire country
Sadness, dreariness, cold, gloom; neutrality, integration, balance of opposites (a mix of black & white)
Energy, zest, vitality, fire, warmth, confidence, creativity; colour of the second (sacral) chakra. Planet: Sun.
Ireland: Religious (Protestants)
Love, friendship, femininity; colour of the fourth (heart) chakra, which can also be green
Wisdom, spirituality, power, healing, Royalty; colour of the seventh (crown) chakra.Ruling planet: Jupiter
Thailand: Colour of mourning (widows)
Passion, courage, life, excitement, danger, blood; willpower; colour of the root chakraRuling planet: Mars. The suit of Wands.