The traditional structure of the Rider Waite Tarot has 78 cards that break things down into 5 Suits. (MA, Cups, Swords, Pentacles and Wands.) The Major Arcana tell us about big picture archetypal experiences we all pass through in life. Click any of the cards above to find out more about the descriptions and interpretations of any of the cards.
Whether you're just starting on your tarot card journey or you've long been fascinated by tarot cards but you never bothered to learn the meanings behind each card, this guide is for you. In recent years, tarot cards have experienced something of a renaissance -- some treat it like a fun game while others may see tarot cards as a powerful tool that should only be used or practiced by experts.
Our stance is that as long as you get something valuable out of it, tarot cards can be a great way to make connections and understand more about yourself and the people in your life.
That's more in line with the invention of tarot cards as a parlor game in the mid-15th century, and it wasn't until the 18th century that divine and occult interpretations started to creep into tarot card meanings and lore.
In fact, tarot card readings weren't popularized until Antoine Court and Jean-Baptise Alliette started doing readings in Paris in the 1780s, but that's not to say that tarot cards have to be either magical or a joke -- the beauty of tarot card meanings is that you can take what you'd like from it and use it to inform your path, whether you're interested in some fun or something more.
Reading Tarot Cards Starts With a Deck
Before you can start reading tarot cards, you'll need a tarot deck. The most popular tarot deck was originally published in 1909 and is known as the Rider-Waite tarot deck. Also known as the Waite-Smith, Rider-Waite-Smith or simply as the Rider tarot deck, the cards were illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith under the instruction of the mystic A. E. Waite and published by the Rider Company, hence the Rider-Waite name.
Many people like the Rider-Waite deck for beginners because the tarot card meanings are intuitive and the imagery is simple with a restricted color scheme of yellow, light blue and gray. Even so, most tarot decks -- the Rider-Waite included -- come with a cheat sheet with common interpretations for each card.
That said, the Rider-Waite isn't the only tarot deck in town. There's The Wild Unknown deck, the Morgan Greer deck and other modernized decks that serve just about any artistic or color palette need. Ideally, you should pick the deck that interests you, both with imagery and symbolism that resonates with who you are. In this way you can think of a tarot deck as an extension of your personality.
What Are the Tarot Card Meanings?
While each tarot card deck may look completely different in imagery and even card size and design, all tarot cards decks have a few things in common.
First, each deck includes 78 cards in two groups, or the major and minor arcana. The major arcana is a set of 22 trump cards that refer to major influences and revelations when they're pulled during a reading. Major arcana cards aren't suited and instead stand alone.
On the other hand, the minor arcana are responsible for telling the story of everyday matters and influences.
Numbering 56 cards, the minor arcana are divided into four suits just like a deck of playing cards: wands, swords, pentacles and cups.
Some decks may choose to use different naming conventions, such as "coins" for "pentacles," but the four categories are always the same.
In a reading, each suit represents some aspect of life, such as creativity and passion for wands, intellect for swords, career and money for pentacles, and emotion and feelings for cups.
Furthermore, each suit corresponds to a group of astrological signs, such as fire for wands, air for swords, earth for pentacles and water for cups, which means that you can also bring in zodiac interpretations during a reading.
Preparing the Deck
While much of a tarot reading is open to interpretation and individual preference, there are common threads across most tarot readings.
Doing a reading for someone else is usually prefaced with a question, which is used for "clearing" the deck while shuffling.
After shuffling, it's common to ask the querent or the person you're reading for to cut the deck while they think of their question, though some readers prefer to cut the deck themselves.
Following the cut, you'll then pull as many cards needed for the spread, arranging them between you and the querent.
How To Read the Cards
The most popular way to read tarot cards and derive meaning is to pick a spread and arrange the cards accordingly.
Common spreads include the three-card spread, five-card spread, five-card relationship cross, five-card love cross, Celtic cross spread, seven-day spread, six-month spread and twelve-month spread. However, there's a spread for just about any situation, and you can always develop your own spread once you've practiced a bit.
As the name suggests, a three-card spread is accomplished by pulling the top three cards after shuffling and cutting, displaying them face-side up and next to each other between you and the querent.
The first card pulled represents the past, the second card the present and the third card the future. The tarot card meanings are up to interpretation based on the question being asked and what card was pulled.
Another type of tarot card reading is the daily reading, which means pulling only one card after shuffling and cutting. The card pulled would speak to the day ahead, meaning that daily readings should occur earlier in the day.
What Are the Tarot Card Meanings?
When pulling a tarot card during a reading, both the individual meaning of the tarot card and the question being asked should be considered.
But don't forget the spread.
Any apparent symbolism or other meaning in the spread can alter the meaning of a given card, and it may also depend on what the symbolism itself means to the querent. You're not a mind-reader, and by brainstorming the meaning with your querent, you can come to a greater realization and meaning than you could accomplish otherwise.
Sometimes the cards won't cooperate and won't match up in a straightforward way.
Other times it's hard to derive anything but what the cards are telling you. It's important to be open to what the cards are saying and to switch gears if they're suggesting love life when the querent asked about money.
Keep in mind that reading tarot cards and understanding their pictures, meanings and how the spread plays into it can be complicated.
After all, there are 78 different cards and an innumerable number of combinations and spreads, so it can take time to get up to speed. As long as you keep practicing, you're sure to develop your style and insight in no time.
For more on tarot card meanings, get started here.
600+ years of History is a long time to build up meanings, but there's still room for interpretation