Symbolism is a vast well from which to draw card meanings, but there can be
some problems in this area. Attributions to other occult disciplines are
fairly consistent between different decks. (Admittedly, there will be a few
differences, such as assigning Swords to Fire rather than the traditional Air
element, but these can often be overlooked if you wish to do so.) Symbolism,
on the other hand, varies from deck to deck. Even the dozens of variants of
the Rider-Waite-Smith deck have some different symbolism.
The problem that arises from this is that your interpretations, when based
on symbolism, really apply to only one or two decks at a time, unless only
the most basic symbols are used. The Two of Wands in the Rider-Waite and its
variants can easily be seen both as Bunning saw it (achievement and personal
power) and as Waite did (desire for greater power despite having plenty).
The Thoth version of the Two of Wands does not show these, in my opinion;
it really does not show any concrete concept because the picture shows only
the two Wands.
When you get into "themed" decks where all the cards relate to some central
symbol or concept, this problem generally worsens. Trying to relate all the
Tarot cards to a myth (Mythic Tarot, Arthurian Tarot), to an animal that
appears in every card (Dragon Tarot, Unicorn Tarot) or to anything else that
could be considered a theme (Tarot of Baseball, Herbal Tarot) generally does
a good job of totally replacing the symbolism with something appropriate to
the motif. And though this can create interesting and beautiful decks, it
often interferes with the reader's ability to associate with symbolism.
If your decks are all extremely similar in symbolism, or if you use only one
or two decks, the symbolism method may prove useful. For those who would
like to try it, I will list some examples shortly. But for serious students
with a number of different styles of decks, the effort needed to define the
meanings for every symbol in every card would be enormous. If you wish to
find meaning in symbolism anyway, you are by all means free to do so, since
that is your choice. But I personally find it simpler to read with meanings
that cover most, if not all, of the different decks I use.
That said, here are some of the most basic ways to interpret meaning through
the use of symbolism.
This is not by any means a comprehensive list, but it should prove a good
starting point for those interested in studying symbols in the Tarot cards.
General symbols (angels, animals, flowers) are far too plentiful and complex
to discuss in any detail, but a book on symbolism will have a comprehensive
list of these. A psychological study on symbolism, such as those performed
by Carl Jung, would be recommended reading for those genuinely interested in
symbological analysis. Feel free to make your own personal list of symbols
and expand upon that list as much as you see fit.
Copyright 2000 James Rioux
- When a certain color is more prominent in the card than any other, there
is usually a reason for it. Also, when an object is colored in such a way
as to stand out from the surrounding scene, there is probably significance
to be found in its colors. Each color has a wide range of attributions,
but here are the most common ones:
Red: life-force, lust, passion, desire, courage and willpower.
Orange: pride, ambition, egoism, health and vitality.
Yellow: glory, wisdom, illumination, fruitfulness, generosity.
Green: fruitfulness, prosperity, ferility, energy, victory.
Blue: spirituality, inspiration, devotion, contemplation, faith.
Silver: psychic qualities, the feminine principle.
Gold: vital solar energy, the masculine principle.
White: purity, innocence, freedom from desire, joy.
- Numerological analysis really doesn't fall under symbols but I'll list it
here because, when doing symbol analysis, numbers play an important role.
The number of the card can be important, as can the number of any symbolic
objects in the scene (animals, stars, leaves, flowers, etc.) A book on
numerology will have more detail, but here are some general meanings:
Remember when working with Major Arcana that you can reduce the number
by adding its digits (so 11 becomes 2, 12 becomes 3, and so forth.)
- Creation, unity, beginnings, the first manifestation.
- Duality, opposites, balance, conjunction of opposites.
- Creative power, movement, the trinities.
- Foundations, solidity, stability, the elements.
- The microcosm, the five senses, also change and disruption.
- Harmony, balance, equilibrium, perfection.
- Intelligence, enlightenment, the highest point of wisdom.
- Regeneration, evolution, growth, strong founations.
- Attainment, fulfillment, perfection - a triple triad.
- Perfection, divine support, the return to Unity.
- The suit objects themselves can provide a lot of meaning, and each suit
has its own basic principles of interpretation.
- In Wands cards, how are the Wands being used? As supports, as scepters,
or as weapons? Are they being held or standing alone?
- In Cups cards, how are the Cups arranged? Are they lined up or stacked
neatly, or scattered around the scene? What is in them, if anything?
- In Swords cards, are the Swords attacking or defending? Are they held
firmly, or lying on the ground? Have they actually pierced anything or
is there no real danger from them?
- In Pentacles cards, observe how the pentacles interact with the people in
the scene. Are they actually being manipulated, or are they floating in
the air such that nobody sees them?
- In Major Arcana, which of the four suit symbols are present? (The Cups
in Temperance and the Star, for example.) What purpose do they serve in
- What the characters in the scene (if any) are doing can provide a lot of
insights into meaning. Are they looking at each other, away from each
other, or are they both looking at the same thing? Do they seem friendly
or hostile? If you can see their faces, what can you tell from their
expressions? Does what they are saying with their face disagree with
what they are doing with their body? It's hard to tell the personalities
of people in static scenes, but often the color and style of the clothes
they are wearing will give information on what they are feeling.
- Anything that looks out of the ordinary in a card is generally useful in
a symbological analysis. Take for example the snail on the Rider-Waite
Nine of Pentacles. In such a florid and well-tended garden one would not
expect a snail to be crawling around underfoot. So why is it there?
Another example in the Rider-Waite deck is the wind-buffeted trees in the
middle of a desert landscape on the Knight of Swords. A hint: cypress
trees are associated with Venus and therefore with emotions.
- What I call "recurring motifs" are symbols that appear on many cards of a
suit and link them all together symbologically. The three main recurring
motifs in the Major Arcana of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, for example,
are the red-on-white color scheme, the river or pool, and the mountains.
Cards that share a symbol like this often have a common meaning, and a
card that probably should have such a symbol, but doesn't, is significant
too. Why are the pyramids on the rest of the Rider-Waite deck's Wands
court cards missing on the King of Wands?