It's easy to get overwhelmed when you come upon the tarot for the first time and try to learn the esoteric meanings for all the cards and the card combinations. The tarot lies at the very heart of modern Western magic, and to understand it requires at least a partial knowledge of various esoteric subjects, the most important of which are the elements, astrology, numerology, and the Kabbalah.
One way to learn the basic meanings of the cards is to memorize them by rote, but there is another way, a much more organic and holistic way that I used when I was a beginner, and I will describe it for you here.
Beginners should use the Rider-Waite Tarot, or a deck derived from it, because it has meaningful pictures on all the cards. Older decks, such as the Marseilles Tarot, have only multiples of suit symbols on the number cards. I will assume here that you are using the Rider-Waite Tarot, as I did when I began my study.
Take your deck of tarot cards and count them to make sure you have 78 cards. You should always do this whenever you buy a new deck or pick up an old deck you haven't had in your possession. Cards tend to get lost, and if a single card is lost from the desk, it is useless for divination. Often there will be an extra card in a new deck, to replace a lost card. Just be sure that all 78 cards that are supposed to be there are present.
Lay the cards face up in their three groups: the trumps or picture cards, the number cards, and the court cards. The trumps are often called the Major Arcana in magic. The number cards and court cards are together called the Minor Arcana, even though these two groups are very distinct and different. The Minor Arcana is very similar to a deck of regular playing cards, except that there are 56 cards in it instead of 52.
There are 22 trumps, which are distinguished by unique, full-length pictures that represent symbolic figures and scenes with esoteric meanings. No two trumps are similar. The 40 number cards are divided into four suits numbered from Ace to Ten. The suits are called the Wands, the Cups, the Swords, and the Pentacles. The remaining 16 court cards also fall into these four suits. Each suit contains four court cards—a King, Queen, Knight, and Page.
Don't be confused by other names that are sometimes given to the court cards in other tarot decks. Kings and Queens are shown seated on thrones, the Knights ride horses, and the Pages are standing.
Set aside the trumps and court cards and lay out the 40 number cards in four rows, one row for each suit. Examine the four cards of each number, beginning with the Aces, and compare them with each other. Notice how they are the same, and how they differ from each other.
The number cards are just this—numbers from one to ten. But the suit to which a number card belongs gives the number card an elemental association. For example, the Two of Wands is the number two expressed with the energy of elemental Fire. The Two of Pentacles is the number two expressed with the energy of elemental Earth.
The four lower or earthly elements of the ancient Greek philosophers correspond with the four suits of the Tarot like this:
Wands – Fire
Cups – Water
Swords – Air
Pentacles – Earth
You will come across other associations between the four suits and the four elements, but the association I have given above is the most commonly accepted in modern magic, and it makes a lot of good sense from a symbolic point of view. A wand is made of wood and burns; a cup holds water; a sword cuts through the air; a disk is round like the Earth itself.
Pay special attention to the Aces. They represent the number one, which is unlike the other numbers because it begins all things from nothingness. Before the number one there is zero, or nothing, and after the number one proceed all things, as represented in the set of numbers from two to ten.
Notice that the suit symbols on the Aces are male and female. The Wand and Sword symbols represent thrusting, piercing masculine energies and resemble the penis; the Cup and Pentacle represent the feminine energies of reception and containment—the pregnant womb is round like the disk of the Pentacle, the vagina is receptive like the Cup.
As you study each set of four cards for each number, notice the images on the cards. These pictures were designed by the artist Pamela Colman Smith, who created the deck under the instruction of Arthur E. Waite, to suggest the divinatory meanings of the number cards.
These images can be very helpful to beginners in learning and remembering the meanings of the number cards, but always bear in mind that the number cards are numbers, they are not pictures. The images on the Rider-Waite number cards merely suggest the meanings of the numbers themselves in the suits. This is a very important understanding to achieve in your study of the tarot.
The cards of the tarot have meaning, not only individually, but also when combined in various groups.
Lay out the ten number cards of each suit in turn from left to right, and consider the progression of symbolism from the Ace to the Ten. Each suit will tell a story. These stories derive from the meanings of the numbers themselves, as modified by the element of the suit. The sequence of pictures on the number cards of the suit of Wands will be different from the sequence of the number cards in the suit of Cups, for example, because elemental Fire is different from elemental Water. For one thing, Fire is masculine and Water is feminine.
For each suit in turn, lay out your number cards in pairs—1 + 2, 3 + 4, 5 + 6, and so on. Consider the symbolism in the images on each pair of cards together. Each pair will speak to you as you meditate on it; pay attention to what it is saying.
Next, set the Aces aside and lay out the remaining number cards of each suit in groups of three—2 + 3 + 4, 5 + 6 + 7, and 8 + 9 + 10. Consider each group of three cards for its collective symbolic meaning.
Now divide the number cards of each suit into two sets of five cards each—1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 and 6 + 7 + 8 + 9 + 10. Consider the story the cards of each set tell you.
Finally, take the cards in pairs once again, but this time pair them 1 + 10, 2 + 9, 3 + 8, and so on, and consider the meaning of each pair.
You do this by forming in your mind the meaning of the first card, and then forming the meaning of the second card, and combining the two meanings one after the other as a cause and an effect. Card one of a pair results in the situation on card two. Similarly, with groups of three or more cards, consider them in sequence as a set of events for their compound meaning.
Put the number cards away and lay out the 16 court cards in four rows one above the other, so that the cards form a square. Lay the court cards of each suit out from left to right beginning with the Kings, then the Queens, the Knights and the Pages.
Each number card is modified or energized by one of the four elements, but with the court cards this elemental influence on the cards is doubled. Each court card is modified by two elemental energies. It takes its background elemental energy from its suit, and its active elemental energy from its court figure.
For example, the Queen of Wands takes its background element of Fire from the suit of Wands, but it takes its active element of Water from the female figure of the queen. The energy of the suit and is more passive or receptive than the energy of the figure, because the figure acts on the suit the way an actor performs on a stage.
The double elemental energies of the court cards is given in the following list:
King of Wands – Fire of Fire
Queen of Wands – Water of Fire
Knight of Wands – Air of Fire
Page of Wands – Earth of Fire
King of Cups – Fire of Water
Queen of Cups – Water of Water
Knight of Cups – Air of Water
Page of Cups – Earth of Water
King of Pentacles – Fire of Earth
Queen of Pentacles – Water of Earth
Knight of Pentacles – Air of Earth
Page of Pentacles – Earth of Earth
Each combination of elements has its own energetic meaning, which applies to its court card. For example, Air of Fire is expansive, because air expands and feeds flame, but Earth of Fire is more steady and enduring, because wood is fixed to the ground and feeds fire in a slower and more controlled way than air.
When an element intensifies itself, its basic meaning is magnified. Fire of Fire is the most fiery and forceful of the combinations with Fire, for example. Whereas Air of Fire is expansive, Fire of Fire is explosive.
Water is antagonistic to Fire, and for this reason when these two elements come together on a court card, there is inherent conflict in the meaning of the card. For example, the King of Cups finds his own fiery impulses frustrated and cooled by the Water of the suit of Cups—he tends to fight against himself, or doubt himself, and is somewhat ineffectual, or at least mild, in his expression.
Look over the square of the 16 court cards with these elemental combinations in mind, and consider how the artist has presented them in the figures on the cards, and the symbolism surrounding the figures.
Lay out the four court cards of each suit in a row—King, Queen, Knight and Page. Consider them as a royal family. The King is the Father, the Queen is the mother, the Knight is the son, and the Page is the daughter. In some tarot decks the Knight and Page are called the Prince and Princess for this reason.
The King and Queen are seated. This represents their authority. They rule, but they rule from the throne, which is fixed in one location. Every earthly monarch has his seat of power, as it is called. The King is the masculine expression of the throne, the Queen the feminine expression.
Now consider the Knight. He is mounted on horseback because he is the active agent of the King and Queen. As the son and eldest child, he is sent forth to administer and enforce the laws his father and mother proclaim.
Finally, turn your attention to the Page. This is shown as a young boy, but it is also a young girl because at a young age the sexes have not fully distinguished themselves from each other. The Page follows the Knight and serves him, supplying the needs of the Knight. As the King commands the Queen, and the Queen commands the Knight, so the Knight commands the Page. The practical Page has his or her feet firmly on the ground.
Notice the directions in which the figures on the court cards face. Some face left, some face right, and one—the King of Swords—faces directly forward. The left symbolically represents the past, the center the present, and the right the future. Some figures are looking backward, some are looking forward, and the King of Swords is very much in the present moment.
Pay attention to whether two court figures face in the same direction, face each other, or face away from each other. This carries meaning. When they face away from each other they are cold to each other or unfriendly; when they look at each other they are friendly, or perhaps even lovers; and when they face in the same direction they have a common purpose.
Play around with the court cards, laying them out in sets of three or four, and notice how the figures interact with each other. Notice which are friendly, which unfriendly and which united in purpose.
Set the court cards aside and lay out the trumps in a row from left to right. There are 22 picture cards and they are all numbered. The Fool is numbered 0 and the other cards are numbered with Roman numerals from I to XXI. Make sure you understand the meaning of the Roman numerals so you can order the trumps correctly.
Although the trumps are numbered, it is very important that you understand that the numbers are not the trumps—the pictures on the cards are the trumps, and the numbers only indicate their sequence when they are at rest.
The resting sequence of the trumps tells its own story, which you can read by considering each trump in turn, one after the other. You do not need words to read the story of the trumps; the symbolism of the images will speak to you in its own language.
As you might suspect from its zero number, the Fool is a special trump. It has no fixed position of its own, but can be placed at the beginning of the trumps, at the end of the trumps, or anywhere in the sequence.
Break up the trumps into groups and consider each group of cards for the story it tells you. First, examine each pair of trumps, then consider groups of three, four, five, and so on. As you do so, move the Fool around, placing him at the beginning of each group, at the end, and in the midst, and see what difference moving him makes in the meaning of the group.
You don't need to know the accepted meanings for the trumps to do this; just let the cards themselves give their meanings to you. At a later time you can study books on the tarot, and learn what others have said about the meanings of the cards, but always remember, the meaning is in the images on the trumps. What others say about them is only their interpretation of these images.
This is how I learned the tarot when I first began to study it. At that time, I knew less about the tarot than I have given you here, but the cards themselves spoke to me as I arranged them in pairs and groups, and I came to understand them on a deep level that has served me well over the years. If you follow the ten steps I have given, it will serve you well also.