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Decoding the Symbols in the Tarot

A symbol is a mark, image, icon, or sign that represents a person, place, thing, concept, object or idea. These marks, images and icons are fluent in the Tarot and embalm it with power and meaning. These symbols impress themselves upon the tarot reader, providing a Rosetta stone of sorts to recognize and unlock the language inside the cards and reveal its hidden messages.

Tarot symbology is interwoven into the cards in two different ways. Individual symbols show up on specific cards indicating a specific message; or one symbol will represent an entire suit. For example, the Tarot is divided into two main groups. The first group is the major arcana which numbers 0 – 22 representing major life events, relationships, decisions, etc. The second group is the minor arcana, which are broken into four suits: Cups, Wands, Swords and Pentacles, with each suit numbering 1-10 and an additional set of four royal cards. Each suit is assigned a certain symbol and theme to demonstrate what that particular suit means. For instance:

Cups- The suit of cups represents the element of water. Water represents the ever-changing flow and fluidity of people’s emotional states. The cup itself represents the human soul, and hence the holder of the water. Therefore whenever one sees the symbol of the cup in the tarot, it should remind the reader that there is an emotional or relationship element involved in the spread.

Wands- The suit of wands represents the element of fire. Fire is the spark, drive, creativity, imagination, passion and spirit that drive us forward. The wand is symbolic of lightening passed down from the gods to man. One who uses a wand (such as a witch, shaman, pope, priest or other spiritual person) is seen as a spiritual authority figure with connection to the divine source. When the symbol of the wand is revealed in a spread, the reader should know that there is a strong creative, spiritual or divine spark indicated.

Swords- The suit of swords represents the element of air. Air represents the intellect with the ability to analyze, reason and assess. The symbol of the sword itself means power, authority, protection, strength and the power of the intellect. When the symbol of the sword shows up during a reading, then the reader should know that the situation calls for a great deal of thought or careful decision making, or it could indicate that the sitter is someone who spends a lot of time in his head.

Pentacles- The suit of pentacles represents the element of earth. Earth represents the physical body, the ability to build or buy a home, hold a job or mold a career, make money, create a business or conduct trade, etc. The coin itself reminds us of the power, value, flow and freedom that money provides. When the symbol of the coin or “pentacle”, (as it is called in the Tarot), appears then the reader must know that things of wealth, money, stability or security are at play in the reading.

These four suits also correlate with the suits in a regular deck of playing cards (Hearts are equivalent to the Tarot’s Cups suit, Diamonds are equivalent to the Tarot’s Pentacles suit, Clubs are equivalent to the Tarot’s suit of Wands and Spades are equivalent to the Tarot’s suit of Swords).

In addition to these broader symbols, there are other individual symbols that tend to come up many times throughout the tarot deck. Below are just a small handful of what these symbols are and what they represent in the tarot.

The lemniscate (also known as the infinity symbol) – The lemniscates looks like a number eight lying on its side. It represents energy’s endless nature, its constant ebb and flow and the “forever-ness” of its existence. When this symbol appears on a card it acts as a guidepost, flagging the reader to suggest taking careful consideration of one’s decisions and actions because they could have an infinite impact. The cards in which the lemniscate appears are The Magician, Strength and the Two of Pentacles.

The Caduceus symbol – The Caduceus represents balance, health and the union of opposites. It has two snakes wrapped around a short rod, topped with wings. This symbol can indicate a good partnership, whether in love or in business. It can also suggest two people coming together to facilitate healing.

The Caduceus symbol is represented on the Two of Cups.

Pillars- Pillars show up in many tarot cards, typically on either side of the main focus of the card. Pillars represent balance and keeping one directly on their path. The pillars can indicate strength in that the focus of the card is able to stay in balance, whether it be intuitive balance (the High Priestess) or balancing the scales of justice (Justice). Pillars can be found in the High Priestess, The Hierophant, Justice, The Moon and the Three of Pentacles.

The Ouroboros – The Ouroboros is a snake eating his own tail. This symbol is related to the lemniscate as a variation of the infinity symbol. The Ouroboros is a symbol of trajectory. It suggests that the present is feeding off the past in order to create the future. In other words, where you have been in the past has got you to where you are now, and is a pretty good predictor of what you’ll go – unless you take a conscious effort to change it. The Ouroboros is the Magician’s belt in the Magician card. Snakes not eating their tail also have a symbolic stake in the tarot. The snake suggests renewal and rebirth – like a snake that sheds its skin during its different growth cycles. The message indicates we must adapt to our surroundings, learn to let go of what no longer serves us and pay more nurturing attention to what we need. The snake shows his slithering features in The Lovers, Seven of Cups, and the Wheel of Fortune cards.

Castles – Castles can represent your home (your castle if you will) or the ability to find your place in this world. They can represent security and stability and the achievement of a dream. Castles are quite prevalent in the tarot and are significant in The Chariot, Ace of Wands, Four of Wands, King of Pentacles, Eight, Nine and Ten of Pentacles, Eight of Swords, Five of Cups and Seven of Cups.

Clouds – Representing the element of air, clouds typically suggest intellect, higher thought or sudden realizations. However, clouds can indicate that the intellect is “cloudy” and finding an answer, solution or epiphany is compromised. That being said, clouds do move away quickly, so this lack of clarity won’t last and a bright idea will most likely show up soon. Clouds are quite popular in the Tarot, showing up on the Lovers card, the Wheel of Fortune, The Tower, Judgment, The World, Ace of Swords, Three of Swords, Five of Swords, Page of Swords, King of Swords, Ace of Cups, Four of Cups, Seven of Cups, Ace of Wands and Ace of Pentacles.

Mountains – The symbolic meaning of mountains is the attainment of a goal, meeting a challenge, success and accomplishment. Mountains can also represent a higher state of consciousness, clear thinking and the sense of being closer to God. A very earthy symbol, mountains remind us of the challenges in life that lay before us but that can be overcome with perseverance, hard work and commitment. Mountain imagery can be found in the Emperor, the Lovers, Strength, Judgment, the Fool, the Page of Pentacles, the Queen of Pentacles, Eight of Swords, Ten of Swords, Eight of Cups, Knight of Cups, Ace, Two and Three of Wands, Seven of Wands, Page of Wands and the Knight of Wands.


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