This material is aimed at preparing the novice Tarot reader for working with the Tarot cards, but hopefully everyone, from beginner to adept, will find some insights here.
The Tarot card discussion that follows covers ways of discovering your own personal meanings for each of the Tarot cards, including suggested methods for dealing with the difficult topics of court cards and reversed cards. There is a section on how to phrase a question for a reading most effectively, and one that presents an overview of three-card spreads, which are the basis of all but one of the readings in this book. One section shows how to pull all of this information together to create a meaningful Tarot reading, and the final section covers ethical considerations of doing Tarot readings.
Numerological and Elemental Associations
A most basic feature of the Tarot cards is that each is defined by its number and suit. For example, the Ten of Cups is both a Ten and a Cups card. In addition, each suit can be associated with one of the basic elements: earth, air, water, and fire, while the major arcana cards are related to the quintessential fifth element, spirit. Thus, an examination of a card’s numerological and elemental associations is a powerful way to explore its meaning more deeply. In support of such a quest for understanding, this section will discuss various meanings for numbers and elements, and it will show how to apply such interpretations to an understanding of the seventy-eight Tarot cards. Let us begin by considering numerological meanings.
One is the number we start with when we count, and so it represents beginnings, the start of something new, and a seed taking root. It also indicates unity, as in the phrase, “All for one, and one for all.” But one is the proverbial loneliest number, so it also stands for the self and the ego. Two represents duality, such as hot and cold, in and out, above and below, pro and con. As a result of such dualities, we have a choice, so the number two is about decisions as well. Two teams or armies can come into conflict, which lends another meaning to this number. But as we can see when we visualize a scale, two can represent balance as well. Thus, it may signify the resolution of conflict.
When two things are joined together, their union creates something new, a third entity. For example, two people may come together to form a relationship or a partnership, or even a child if the union is sexual. Similarly, when we mix two colors we get a new color. Consequently, three represents creation, integration, and reproduction. If we integrate our intention with action, we make progress, which implies that this number also can be about growth and expansion.
When we think about what we have four of, the following examples come to mind: directions on a map, seasons, walls of a typical room, and legs on a table or chair. This implies that four is the number of structure, stability, and boundaries. Since these qualities also allow us to rest and to consolidate the growth indicated by the number three, four can relate to rest, recuperation, and consolidation as well.
An inherent risk in the structure and stability symbolized by the number four is getting hidebound, stodgy, or stuck in a rut. Thus, five represents the change and conflict that can disrupt that complacency or that is necessary in order to grow beyond it. Five is about crisis, strife, and struggle, especially when we consider that it is also the number that represents humanity: we have five-fingered hands, five senses, and five extremities (one head, two arms, and two legs). Indeed, our lives are defined by the challenges we face and by how we meet and overcome them, or succumb to them, whichever the case may be. The number five, therefore, represents difficult experiences and the learning opportunities they bring us. Ironically, since the fifth element is that of spirit, five is also the number associated with our soul. Consequently, this number represents the soulful work that is possible through our physical manifestation.
After the disruption represented by the number five, a new balance is needed. Thus, six indicates the choices we make as we search for such a readjustment. These choices are not of the simple “this or that” type indicated by the number two, however. Rather, they are the difficult ones necessary to resolve the strife of the number five. The readjustments we make are often the result of establishing reciprocal relationships with our environment or with the people around us. We also gain a sense of appreciation, peace, and harmony when that new equilibrium has been struck.
However, the number six is still far from the completion of the numerical sequence. The eternal ebb and flow of life shows up next in the tests that challenge us to prove what we have learned through the chaos represented by the number five and the effort to resolve and rebalance that chaos, as seen in the number six. While the challenges of the number five may be called the homework assignments of life, the number seven represents life’s midterm and final exams. They are the tests wherein we either prove our level of mastery, and thereby attain victory, or we are forced to reassess how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.
Eight follows the tests and challenges of the number seven, and so it is concerned with regeneration, progress, and moving on with our lives. Another path to understanding this number begins by considering how the pace of a movie generally accelerates dramatically as the climax nears. Eight, which is the second to last single-digit number, represents the acceleration that leads up to a finale. Hence, this number is about movement, strength, and power-or the need for those things.
Nine, the final single-digit number, represents the end of a cycle, the completion of a task or project (for better or for worse). It is the climax and the finale. The frenetic activity of the number eight has led to the accomplishment and consequences symbolized by nine.
So what comes after the completion of something? Ten represents the result of that completion-that is, an epilog to it. Ten also reduces to the number one when we add its digits (1 + 0 = 1), so it indicates the beginning of a new cycle, a rebirth. Also, being a transcendent version of the number one, which represents the individual self, ten represents community, the collective self. On the other hand, coming after the completion indicated by the number nine, ten can indicate going too far. In that case, it indicates overkill or the last straw.
Any number higher than ten can be interpreted using the preceding numerological discussion in one of two ways: reduction or transcendence. Reduction is the process of adding the digits of a number to arrive at a new number of fewer digits. Thus, for example, 19 reduces to 10 (1 + 9 = 10), which can be reduced further to 1 (1 + 0 = 1). Transcendence, on the other hand, is the interpretation of a two-digit number as a higher order-or transcendent value-of its final (i.e., rightmost) digit.
As an example, 15 may be considered a higher order of the number 5, consequently representing harder problems than those indicated by the number 5, or signifying a crisis on a higher (i.e., less mundane) level. We now have covered every number with the exception of the number zero. I have saved this number for last because only one card in the Tarot deck bears it: the Fool. We never count with this number, and indeed some ancient cultures do not use it at all, lacking even the concept of zero. Similarly, centuries ago the Fool was considered to be in a class by itself, not really one of the trump (major arcana) cards at all. Zero signifies null, nothing, a void. It is emptiness, and thus a longing for manifestation. Just as many creation myths begin with a great cosmic void, zero represents the unlimited potential of a vast creative energy. The symbol for this number, 0, is the eternal circle, which is without beginning and without end. Consequently, some people consider the Fool card, which is assigned the number zero, to represent our divine potential.
The preceding discussion of numerological meanings can shed light on the numbered Tarot cards, but what about the court cards, which have no numbers explicitly assigned to them? We can consider these cards to be numbered implicitly instead, and in one of several possible ways. If we consider them to be an extension of the sequence running from the Ace through the Ten, then the Page can be assigned the number 11, the Knight would then be 12, the Queen 13, and the King 14. These two-digit numbers then can be interpreted using either reduction or transcendence. We also can think of the court cards as being in a class of their own, in which case they may be numbered one through four, either beginning with the Page or with the King, depending upon your preference. Since these cards are not explicitly numbered, their numerical associations are left up to us, and I have seen each of the preceding methods used reasonably and to good effect.
The numerological meanings presented here are, of course, suggestions, not edicts. Use them as you will, taking whatever makes sense to you and ignoring the rest-at least for the time being. If you care to explore these numerological meanings further in order to come to your own understanding of them, especially as to how they may work best with your particular deck, try the following exercise.
Start by laying out all the Aces of your deck side by side in order to see what concepts relevant to the number one may be common to them. What keywords for this number are suggested by contemplation of these cards? Repeat this process for the Twos, and continue on up to the Tens. If you want to add even more depth to this process, you can include the relevant court cards (however it is that you assign numbers to them) and major arcana cards as well. Thus, for example, you might include the Pages and the Magician along with the Aces in your consideration of the number one.
Based on the preceding discussion of numerological meanings, the following is a summarized list of suggested keywords for the numbers zero through ten.
Zero. Void, emptiness, unrestricted potential, creative energy.
One. Beginnings, seeds, unity, self, ego.
Two. Duality, choices, decision, relationships, balance, resolution.
Three. Creativity, integration, reproduction, progress, growth, expansion.
Four. Structure, stability, boundaries, rest, consolidation.
Five. Change, conflict, strife, crisis, struggle, learning opportunities, soul.
Six. Readjustment, difficult choices, reciprocal relationships, appreciation, peace, harmony.
Seven. Tests, mastery, success, victory, reassessment.
Eight. Acceleration, movement, strength, power, regeneration, progress.
Nine. Endings, completion, climax, accomplishment.
Ten. Results, epilog, rebirth, a new cycle, community, overkill, the last straw.
Let us now turn our attention to the Tarot suits’ elemental associations.
Centuries ago, the world was considered to be composed of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire.(There was also thought to be a fifth element, spirit, from which the others were created and with which they were invested.) Today, we categorize the components of the physical world by atomic structure, classifying them into a multitude of elements such as oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen. Nevertheless, the ancient concept is still useful in a philosophical and metaphysical sense, and characteristics that have been assigned to each of the four elements can, by extension, be associated with the four Tarot suits as well. Although some Tarot decks use different methods, the most common way to associate these elements with the Tarot suits is as follows:
This scheme is quite widespread. It is the one used with the almost ubiquitous Waite Smith (WS) deck and with the many decks based on that deck. Thus, this system is the one that will be discussed in this chapter.
Let us now explore the characteristics of each suit using its elemental association to aid our understanding of it. Some of the meanings attributed to the suits will be intuitively obvious based on the suit’s emblem and on its elemental association, while others that may seem less obvious can be attributed to tradition and common convention. In either case, what follows are suggestions for your consideration. Take from them what you will.
Wands are made of wood, and their suit is associated with fire. Thus, this suit is characterized by growth and energy. As an aspect of our being, this suit corresponds to the flame of life that burns within us. Consequently, it also is associated with our will, passion, and libido. As an aspect of a project or endeavor, the suit of Wands relates to the spark of desire and inspiration that initiated it and to the burning enthusiasm that drives it.
Cups are receptacles, and their suit is associated with water, which flows, nourishes, and refreshes. Also, water’s surface can be reflective like a mirror. On the other hand, an ocean’s depths are profound and virtually fathomless. This suit, then, is associated with the deep, unknowable subconscious mind, and with the ever-flowing feelings that both arise from and return to those depths. As an aspect of our being, it corresponds to our emotions and our relationships, as well as to our imagination. As an aspect of a project or endeavor, the suit of Cups relates to an emotional response to the original idea or impetus for the venture, and it relates to our vision for the endeavor. Note that it is our vision that begins to give form to a project, just as a cup gives form to the fluid poured into it.
Swords, with their sharp edges, can be either weapons or useful tools, and the element of their suit is air. A mind can be sharp as well, and it, too, can be either a weapon or a tool, depending on how it is used. This suit typically is associated with mental activity such as logic, reason, and communication. Considering some of the ways in which a sword can be used, this suit also is associated with action, conflict, and cruelty. The airy aspect of the suit of Swords calls to mind volatility and stormy situations on the one hand, and clarity of thought on the other. Thus, as an aspect of our being, this suit corresponds to our thoughts, prejudices, and concepts. As an aspect of a project or endeavor, it relates to the analysis, decision-making, planning, and call to action from which the undertaking is forged.
Pentacles, as generally depicted in Tarot decks, are the coins of wealth and commerce, and this suit is associated with the element of earth. Thus, this suit is related to earthiness and being grounded, to the body and material resources, and to money and prosperity. It also relates to security, value, and a sense of worth, as well as to generosity and charity. As an aspect of our being, it corresponds to the strength, health, and sensations of our physical body. As an aspect of a project or endeavor, the suit of Pentacles relates to the physical labor that executes the plan, as well as to the tangible manifestation of it.
In addition, there is a deeply spiritual aspect to the suit of Pentacles. The act of simple labor can be intensely contemplative, even religiously so, and it is through our acts of charity and generosity toward other people that we draw near to our spirituality. Thus, the wheel has turned full circle. Myths, such as that of Prometheus, tell us that fire was a gift from the gods. The flame of life and the spark of inspiration that are both associated with the suit of Wands come from a spiritual source, and we return to that aspect of spirituality with the suit of Pentacles when it manifests in its most noble form.
Finally, the major arcana cards, which can be thought of as a fifth suit in the deck, are associated with the quintessential element of the soul. This suit is concerned with morality, spirituality, and the themes and philosophical undertones of our lives. It deals with our karma and with the major milestones and archetypes of our lives as well. As with the numerological discussion earlier, keep in mind that the interpretations given here for the Tarot suits are suggestions only. If you would like to delve further into the meanings of the suits, and thus arrive at a more personalized understanding of them, you may want to try an exercise similar to the one suggested for numerological associations. First, lay out all of the cards in the suit of Wands: Ace through Ten, plus the court cards if you want to include them too. Think about any phrases that use this suit’s element (fire), and consider how they might comment on characteristics apparent in many of the cards in this suit. For example, what do the phrases “all fired up” or “carrying a torch” suggest about the cards in this suit? Consider also what implications this suit’s emblem, a wand, may have on its meaning. Then contemplate the cards you have laid out before you, paying attention to the gut reactions they elicit in you. What patterns do you see as being predominant in this suit, and what concepts or themes seem to run through it? Is there a general, underlying feeling that you get from most of the cards in this suit? What keywords for the suit of Wands do all of these thoughts and feelings recommend? Next, repeat this process for the other three suits: Cups, Swords, and Pentacles. You may, of course, want to do this exercise with the major arcana cards as well.
The following is a summarized list of suggested keywords and phrases for the Tarot suits:
Wands. Growth, energy, will, passion, libido, desire, inspiration, initiation, enthusiasm.
Cups. Receptivity, reflection, subconscious, imagination, vision, feelings, emotions, relationships.
Swords. Mental activity, thought, intellect, logic, reason, analysis, decision, communication, action, conflict, volatility.
Pentacles. Earthiness, groundedness, strength, resources, money, wealth, commerce, labor, prosperity, security, value, generosity, charity, body, material possessions.
Major arcana. Spirituality, soul, morality, ethics, religion, philosophy, karma, archetypes, milestones.
How, then, can you use these numerological and elemental associations to help you understand Tarot cards? First, figure out what, from the preceding discussions, works for you. Remember, of course, that you can (and probably will) change your mind about any of the numerological and elemental meanings as time goes on and as you accumulate more experience using them. For now, however, a good start is to decide on a few keywords or phrases for each suit and for the numbers one through ten. Once you have these meanings in mind, you can use them to question, validate, or expand upon your understanding of any Tarot card.
First, consider a particular card. Think about what it means to you. Its meaning may be the result of what you have learned from a book, from someone else, from your prior experience in working with Tarot cards, from the feelings and ideas that the images and symbols on the card evoke, or from any combination of these. Then think about the meanings you associate with the card’s number and suit. How do these numerological and elemental meanings relate to your understanding of this card? Are they in accord or do they clash? If there are conflicts, all the better, for it is in the resolution of such discord that we often gain the most profound insights.
As an example, let us work with the Three of Swords, which depicts a heart pierced by three swords. Typically, this card is seen as being indicative of sorrow and heartbreak, but such meanings have emotional connotations, which are more typically in the realm of the suit of Cups. We can use the fact that this card’s suit, Swords, is about thoughts and communication (among other things) in order to expand upon its meaning. Thus, the Three of Swords may express a need to understand your sorrow, or it can indicate an opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation of the emotional pain of others, perhaps as a result of your own experience with heartbreak.
The association of the suit of Swords with communication can lead to some interesting reinterpretations of this card as well. In light of that, and in consideration of the rain depicted in the background, this card may indicate a need to express your sorrow, perhaps through the cathartic cleansing of a good crying jag. Alternatively, this card can indicate pain that is caused by caustic and hurtful words. This card is also a Three, so there are elements of growth and integration in it as well. For example, an emotionally wrenching experience also may be a learning experience that can impel you to mature and grow, helping you to become a better person.
There is an important point that needs to be made at this time. Just as there are no completely good or bad cards, numerological and elemental associations have a spectrum of meanings, ranging from positive, encouraging messages to the more negative aspect of warnings and admonishments. For example, besides indicating reason and logic, the suit of Swords also can suggest a cold-hearted separation from our emotions and soul work. The love and compassion of the Cups can degenerate into sentimentality and moodiness. A dark side of the self-reliance of the Ones is self-centered egotism, and the structure of the Fours can sometimes be stifling.
To illustrate some negative aspects of numbers and suits, let us consider the Ten of Cups. This card, which depicts a family rejoicing under a rainbow overlaid with ten cups, generally is seen in a positive light. It is commonly interpreted as being an indication of a happy family or as the realization of your hopes and dreams. However, besides relating to love and relationships, the suit of Cups also can deal with our subconscious and our imagination, while the Tens can mean overkill. Thus, this card may be saying that what seems like a happy home is actually an illusion wrought from wishful thinking. Perhaps you require that your relationships be perfect, so you ignore the problems and see everything as being all sweetness and light. Also, if we combine the Ten’s meaning of “too much” with the Cups’ “emotions,” then this card may be saying that you are too emotionally involved.
Authors Details: From the book “Tarot Tells the Tale: Explore Three Card Readings Through Familiar Stories” by: James Ricklef