Tarot Deck Basic Structure

The basic structure of a tarot deck.

There are 78 total cards in a standard tarot deck. These cards are divided in the following way:

4 sets (called ‘suits’) of 14 cards each = 56 cards (the ‘minor arcana’). The names of these suits have varied from pack to pack over time but generally suits adhere to some form of the following designations—

Wands (or Rods),



Pentacles (or Disks).

Each suit has ten numbered cards, Ace through Ten, plus four ‘court cards’ [note: the term ‘court card’ possibly comes from a corruption of ‘coat card’, ‘coat’ having once been used to refer to something, such as one’s apparel, which would distinguish one’s class or profession].

The court cards go by various naming conventions but:


is a fairly standard description. One notices that this
sequence is identical to that encountered in the 52-card pack of normal playing cards (the ‘Page’ being the ‘Jack’), with the addition of the ‘Knight’ in tarot.

Another common scheme, one popularized by the Aleister Crowley ‘Book of Thoth’ deck is;


The difference between these approaches points to one of the myriad ideological disputes about names and ‘meanings’ that characterize so much of modern tarot.

In addition to these 56 ‘small’ cards there are;

22 cards of the ‘major arcana’, often referred to simply as ‘majors’, or ‘trumps’. These cards depict various ideas and persons, the names of the cards are mostly rooted in Medieval or Renaissance religion and culture (particularly that of North Italy). The cards are numbered from 0-Fool, to 21-World (or Universe) as follows;

0. Fool [the Fool will sometimes be found stuck between 20 & 21]

I. Magus (or Magician)

II. High Priestess

III. Empress

IV. Emperor

V. Hierophant

VI. Lovers

VII. Chariot

VIII. ??????????

And right there our peaceful little perusal of the trumps rolls
right off the tracks. We should get used to this, it’s going to happen a lot. The problem with ‘VIII’ is that no one can decide, with ultimate authority, what it’s supposed to be. Some people say ‘VIII’ should be ‘Strength’ while others say ‘Justice’ (and thus these two cards are locked in a struggle over the number placements ‘VIII’ and ‘XI’).

At the same time, and to muddy things more, there is the whole problem introduced by Aleister Crowley, in his influential ‘Thoth’ deck, who exchanged the attributions (the correspondences between tarot trumps and paths on the kabbalistic Tree of Life) of IV-Emperor (yes, we skipped that problem) and XVII-Star. Most people, who are not strict adherents to Crowley’s Thelemic system, have not followed nor concerned themselves much with the latter change, but many still fight over the VIII-XIcontroversy.

Based on purely astrological considerations the better choice seems to be Strength in ‘VIII’ and Justice in ‘XI’. But there’s more to it than that—there almost always is in tarot. So, let’s continue;

VIII. Strength (or Justice)—[note: also, in Thoth-influenced decks these cards will be titled ‘Lust’ or ‘Adjustment’ respectively.]

IX. Hermit

X. Wheel of Fortune

XI. Justice (or Strength) [again, in Thoth ‘Justice’ is called ‘Adjustment’.]

XII. Hanged Man

XIII. Death

XIV. Temperance[In Thoth this is called ‘Art’, as in ‘alchemical’ arts]

XV. Devil

XVI. Tower

XVII. Star


XIX. Sun

XX. Judgment [As in the ‘Last Judgment’, in Thoth it is called ‘Aeon’]

XXI. World/or Universe

After establishing these few structural facts, we begin to encounter some more problems, which will explode in all kinds of confusing ways, in our attempt to confidently and conclusively answer the question ‘what is tarot?’. We will discover that the answer does not entirely reduce to ‘anything you want it to be’ but it often gets very close to that.

BTW, the name, ‘tarot’, is supposedly the French derivation of the original Italian, ‘tarocchi’, referring to the deck and the ‘trick-taking’ games played in Italy and elsewhere using these cards. [One theory suggests that since there is a river in N. Italy called the ‘Taro’, and since a famous battle was fought there in the late-15th century between French and Italian troops, it’s possible that this engagement, and its aftermath, exposed the French to tarocchi-playing Italians, and the French, being confused about the terms ‘tarocchi’ and ‘taro’, adopted the name of the river for the cards.]

Authors Details: ‘Tarot Deck Basics’ – Jess Karlin from Tarot FAQ

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