Tarot Symbols and Their Meanings

Karen Frazier
woman with tarot spread

Tarot cards are rich with symbolism and if you understand the symbols on the cards, you can offer a full tarot reading by interpreting them, even if you don't know the individual meanings of each card. Depending on the tarot decks you use, symbols come from numerology, archetypal energies and symbols, meanings of colors, astrology, and spiritual symbolism, among others. If you are ever feel stuck during a tarot reading, turn to the card's symbols to provide more information.

Tarot Symbols Depend on the Deck You Use

The symbols discussed below are found on traditional tarot decks based on the Latin Tarot, such as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Many modern decks exist with different images, organizations, themes, and symbols. However, you can interpret symbols on these cards using symbols from dream interpretation or psychic symbols, numerology, Jungian archetypes, and color meanings to bring the reading into focus.

Symbols of the Minor Arcana

The 56 cards that make up the Minor Arcana of the tarot card deck are divided into suits similar to regular decks of 52 playing cards. The suits of the minor arcana are pentacles, wands, cups and swords. The meanings of each suit are based on the four classical elements, earth, air, fire, and water.

Pentacles Symbolism

Pentacles represent the classical element of Earth. This is a grounded element, and it's rooted in the physical. Therefore, when a pentacles card appears in a tarot spread, it is imparting information about the querent's physical state, or it's discussing information about the physical (material) world the querent inhabits. Some topics a pentacles card may be addressing include the following.

Pentacles tarot cards
  • Finances
  • Health
  • Property
  • Business or trade
  • Career

Symbols Associated With Cups

Cups represent the element of water. An easy way to remember this is that cups hold water. Water is an emotional element, so when cups appears in your tarot spread, it's addressing issues primarily associated with the emotions. Some topics a cups card may represent include the following.

Cups tarot card
  • Feelings and emotions
  • Love and relationships
  • Connections with others
  • Personal interactions
  • Creative endeavors

Wands Symbolism

Wands represent the element of fire. An easy way to remember this is to picture sparks shooting from the end of a wand. Fire is an active and primal energy that is associated with spirituality and higher thought. It's also associated with passion and drive. When wands show up in a reading, they may be indicating some of the following.

wands tarot card
  • Ambitions and goals
  • Purpose
  • Motivation and meaning
  • Passion and drives
  • Change

Symbols Found in the Suit of Swords

Swords represent the element of air. An easy way to remember this is to picture a sword swishing through the air. Air is associated with your mental self and the realm of thought. Some things swords may represent when they show up in a tarot reading include the following.

Swords tarot card
  • Challenges
  • Confrontation
  • Courage
  • Conflicts and arguments
  • Decisions

Symbolism of Numbers in the Tarot

Like a regular deck of cards, each minor arcana tarot card is either a number card (ace through 10) or a court card (Page, Knight, Queen, King). Each of these has its own symbolic meaning.

The symbolism of numbers
Number Symbolism
1 (ace) New beginnings, unity
2 Relationships, duality, balance, partnership
3 Creativity
4 Stability, structure
5 Conflict, growth, change
6 Harmony
7 Life lessons, growing spiritually
8 Understanding and accomplishment
9 Success, coming to the end of a cycle
10 Completion, enlightenment

Minor Arcana Court Card Symbolism

The court cards are the face cards in each suit of the tarot. There are four in each suit, and they symbolize the following.

Tarot court cards
Card Symbolism
Page Youthful energy, service
Knight Taking action, mature energy, moving forward
Queen Empathy, compassion
King Leadership, attainment, success

How Colors Are Symbolic on Tarot Cards

Tarot cards are colorful, and the colors chosen in the images tend to have symbolic meanings based on the psychological effects of colors and the spiritual energy color association with chakras or auras. So when interpreting a tarot card, pay attention to the colors the artist or printer has chosen along with the images and numerology.

Colorful tarot cards
Color Symbolism
Black Protection, groundedness, darkness or missing elements, illness, negativity, root chakra
Red Groundedness, safety, security, passion, anger, root chakra

Pink

Love, femininity, compassion, forgiveness, heart chakra
Orange Joy, creative ideas, optimism, sacral chakra
Brown Stability, neutrality, comfort, earthiness, muddiness or lack of boundaries, sacral chakra
Yellow Opportunity, spontaneity, enthusiasm, solar plexus chakra
Gold Mastery, divinity, spiritual leadership, crown chakra or above
Green Healing, love, harmony, balance, envy, bitterness, heart chakra
Blue Communication, peace, self-expression, trust, sadness, judgment and criticism, throat chakra
Purple Intuition, psychic ability, spirituality, reason, critical thinking, third eye chakra
White Connection to the Divine, higher self, newness, inexperience, birth, crown chakra
Silver Emotion, sensitivity, empathy, crown chakra

Symbols Associated With Tarot Art and Images

Most tarot decks have detailed artwork on each card. The elements within the scene can help the reader interpret the insights gathered during the reading. Many of these elements are not what they appear to be, but they are symbolic and may have a meaning that varies slightly from the obvious picture.

art on tarot cards
Image Symbolism
Angels
  • Inspiration
  • Listen to inner voice
  • Pay attention to details
Blindfold
  • Querent not seeing clearly
  • Someone is refusing to acknowledge the truth
  • Someone is hiding the truth
Cat
  • Unseen energy
  • Psychic ability
  • Be aware of all circumstances before acting
Dog
  • Loyalty
  • Honesty
  • Truth
  • Heading in the right direction
Flag
  • Pay attention
  • Major change coming
Grapes
  • Fertility
  • Abundance
Hammer
  • Completing a task
  • Vocation
  • Use force to bring a chore to an end
Ice
  • Separation
  • Isolation
  • Growth through a season of completion
Keys
  • Knowledge
  • Discovery
  • Opportunity
Lizard
  • Vision
  • Conscious effort yields big results
Moon
  • Passage of time
  • Femininity
  • Reflection
  • Change
Ocean
  • Possibility
  • Relax and allow the power of the universe to work in your life
  • Emotion/states of emotion
  • Movement
Pillar
  • Balance
  • Seek a balanced solution
  • Support
Rain
  • Sadness
  • Cleansing
  • Growth opportunities
Ship
  • Personal journey
  • Transformation
  • Staying afloat
Tree
  • Shelter
  • Regeneration
  • Strength
Wreath
  • Victory
  • Triumph

Major Arcana Tarot Symbolism

There are 22 major arcana cards in the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot. Each of the major arcana cards have symbolism based on numerology and archetypes. The major arcana cards are numbered from 0 to XXI (21) and depict the soul's journey from newness and innocence to enlightenment. LoveToKnow has articles offering in-depth analysis of each of the major arcana cards, and their symbolism and meaning.

Major arcana tarot cards
Major Arcana Card Symbolism
0 The Fool Innocence, the beginning of a journey
I The Magician Creation, alchemy
II The High Priestess Subconscious, intuition
III The Empress Feminity, compassion, wise woman
IV The Emperor Power, authority
V The Hierophant Spiritual guidance
VI The Lovers Relationships, partnerships
VII The Chariot Goals, ambitions, and motivation
VIII Strength Courage, perseverence, and standing up to life's challenges
IX The Hermit Going within to find wisdom
X Wheel of Fortune Impermanence, change
XI Justice Fairness, balance
XII The Hanged Man Patience, perspective
XIII Death Change, new beginnings, endings
XIV Temperance Moderation
XV The Devil Temptation, control or lack thereof
XVI The Tower Cataclysmic change
XVII The Star Healing, hope, encouragement
XVIII The Moon Subconsciousness, deep fears or emotions, reflection
XIX The Sun Happiness, joy, excitement, awakening
XX Judgement Recognizing how your past actions affect others, taking stock, righting past misdeeds
XXI The World Fulfillment, the end of a cycle or quest

Different Frameworks for Interpreting Symbols on Tarot Cards

There are also different ways to interpret tarot card symbols. The most universal way to interpret them is universally. For example, Jungian archetypes are believed to be universal symbols. That is, they are symbols that everyone, regardless of race, religion, culture, or family background, recognize because they come from the collective conciousness of humanity as a whole. Examples of universal symbolism includes pregnancy and birth as meaning creativity, or a heart as a symbol of love. Other frameworks through which you can interpret symbols include the following.

Symbols Arising From Personal Experiences and Beliefs

These tend to be personal and individualized. For example, if you had a pet cat when you were a child, a cat may symbolize joy, love, or happiness to you.

Symbols Associated With Family or Tribe of Origin

Families and tribes have their own symbols within the tribal unit, and these vary from tribe to tribe. For example, family coats of arms, family crests, or Scottish family plaids have symbolism pertinent to a tribe or family that may not be universally recognized.

Local and Regional Symbols

The area you live also affects how you view certain symbols. For example, if a local high school has a dolphin as a mascot, the dolphin may represent learning or sports prowess regionally.

Symbols Based on Religion, Culture, Race, Nation, or Heritage

Each of these societal units has their own symbolism that is important and recognizable to that group. For example, in the US the eagle symbolizes freedom and in the Christian religion, the cross represents the crucifixion of Christ. As another example, almost universally among Western countries, the swastika represents the Nazi party and the atrocities of World War II, but in the Hindu religion, it represents the sun, prosperity, and good luck.

Interpreting the Symbols of Tarot

All of the above go into interpreting tarot cards based on their symbolism. Therefore, careful consideration of each is helpful when you are performing a tarot reading. Since you often don't know what a querent's personal, tribal, or cultural symbolism is, if you are reading their tarot cards, you can ask them what they notice in the images of the cards and what those things represent to them before moving on to a more generalized reading.

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Tarot Symbols and Their Meanings