Tarot Basics (January 2009)

The standard tarot deck consists of seventy-eight cards. The cards are divided into two groups called the major arcana (greater mysteries) and the minor arcana (lesser mysteries). The twenty-two trump cards constitute the major arcana. The remaining fifty-six cards belong to the minor arcana, which are divided into four suits: wands, cups, pentacles, and swords. Each suit contains four picture or court cards, and ten pip or numbered cards.

The artwork on the seventy-eight cards of the tarot deck is rich with archetypal symbols. These symbols are universal in scope and help to activate the inner senses, allowing the reader to tap into a nonintellectual form of knowledge. You read the cards by relating a scenario based on the information that you receive from both your conscious and unconscious minds. Sometimes you’ll examine the cards in a spread, and all at once you’ll know their meanings in relation to the question. At other times you will analyze the layout, and then relate what you’ve learned about the cards to events and conflicts in the life of the questioner.

The Major Arcana: Greater Mysteries

The twenty-two trump cards of the major arcana correlate to principal events in life, and to the social and cultural forces that mold character and destiny. They depict the same archetypal images that exist everywhere in mythology, folklore, legends, and dreams. Taken together, as a group, they form a story of human growth and evolution. In her book, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, Tarot Grand Master Rachel Pollack refers to the majors as, “A psychological process, one that shows us passing through different stages of existence to reach a state of full development.”

On a practical level the archetypes of the major arcana correspond to the attributes of universal personality types, and represent aspects of ourselves. Each card relates to emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual qualities. Everyone is a composite of the primal energies, personalities, and subtypes symbolized by these cards.

The Minor Arcana: Other Mysteries

The fifty-six cards that comprise the minor arcana in the tarot are known as the lesser mysteries, but that’s misleading. It would be better to think of them as “other mysteries,” because they are the building blocks of the tarot, its DNA. We need the minors to direct us toward the path that is best for us, to tell us about the people we might meet along the way, and to illuminate the situations we may experience.

Whereas the trumps of the major arcana reflect larger matters and important turning points, the court and pip cards of the minor arcana generally refer to the different aspects and events of everyday life.

The Four Suits: Basic Elements of Life

The four suits of the standard tarot deck are: wands, cups, pentacles, and swords. They correspond to the four basic elements: fire, water, earth, and air, and to the four seasons of the year: spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

Wands: creativity, ideas, conception, beginnings.
Cups: feelings, love, romance, desire, inner experience.
Pentacles: physicality, manifestation, practicality, finance.
Swords: action, the intellect, communication, struggle.

The Court Cards: People in Your Life

There are sixteen court cards in a typical tarot deck–four of each suit. Most often they are called kings, queens, knights, and pages. In some nontraditional decks they go by different names–daughter, son, priestess, shaman, child, man, woman, sage, speaker. No matter what they are called, the court cards usually represent people. However, they may also symbolize qualities that we possess, or actual events and activities that take place in our lives.

Kings: mature men, fatherhood, the yang, the ego, closure, completion.
Queens: women, motherhood, the yin, the receptive qualities of the inner self.
Knights: young men or women, energy, drive, change.
Pages: adolescents or children, youthful innocence, messages, communications, new beginnings.

The Pip Cards: Day to Day Images

Because they relate to the major issues in our lives, the trump cards are generally thought of as the most powerful in the deck. However, that does not mean that they are more important than the other cards. On a daily basis the court and pip cards are at least as important, precisely because they pertain to the people and events of everyday life.

With the exception of the court cards, every card in tarot is linked to a number. The pip cards are numbered ace through ten.

Ace: beginnings, new ideas, potential, promise.
Two: partnership, relationship, polarities, balancing.
Three: synthesis, growth, creativity, unity.
Four: foundations, discipline, work, stability.
Five: change, shifts, adjustments, challenge.
Six: balance, health, harmony, equilibrium.
Seven: spirituality, wisdom, insight, complex choices.
Eight: reevaluation, regeneration, setting priorities.
Nine: integration, fulfillment, attainment, conclusion.
Ten: wholeness, completion, transition to a new cycle.

There is no right or wrong way to read tarot; no teacher, book, or specific system has a lock on the perfect method for interpreting the cards. The most any book or teacher can do is pass along some tips. Ultimately the only way to learn the tarot is through trial and error, and the best procedure for reading the cards is the one that works best for you.

About the Author

Phyllis Vega is a professional astrologer and tarot reader. She is the author of two popular tarot books, Romancing the Tarot and Power Tarot (with Trish MacGregor), with a third book, TarotCraft: How to Use the Cards for Divination, Creative Visualization, and Meditation currently in the works. Contact Phyllis via email at pvega@bellsouth.net or through her website at http://www.geocities.com/phyllisvega. Tarot Tarot columns and other works by Phyllis are archived at http://tarottalk.ecauldron.net/.

Copyright © 2009 by Phyllis Vega. All rights reserved.

About Phyllis Vega

Phyllis Vega is a professional tarot reader and astrologer. She has been a New Age counselor and teacher for more than three decades. Phyllis is the author of 10 books, including Romancing the Tarot, Power Tarot (with Trish MacGregor), What Your Birthday Reveals About You, Your Magickal Name (with Debra Vega), and Celtic Astrology. Her new book, Erotic Astrology, will be in the stores on July 17, 2009.

Phyllis also does tarot readings and teaches workshops on a variety of topics including, SpellCraft, Crystal Power, Candle Magic, and Past Life Regressions at Five Sisters on South Dixie Highway in Pinecrest, Florida. Phyllis works out of her office in Miami, Florida where she is currently writing a new tarot book and giving private tarot and astrology readings in person and over the telephone. She can be contacted through her website.

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