Interpretation of tarot cards has changed radically over the years. Even forty years ago, when I first started learning, books giving interpretations were at the same time convoluted and simplistic. For instance – the Page of Wands is given as:
‘Dark young man, faithful, a lover… A dangerous rival, if followed by the Page of Cups. Has the chief qualities of his suit. He may signify family intelligence. Reversed: Anecdotes, announcements, evil news. Also indecision and the instability which accompanies it.’
This huge raft of interpretations might offer some accurate offerings, especially if you can refer to the book as you read the cards. However, it’s useless if you want to read for clients.
I’ve found over the years that learning the meanings by rote is not helpful. It’s good to get a general feel for the interpretations others give, but you’ll get inspiration while sitting with a card and a client – and that is what the tarot is all about. It is an intuitive tool, and if you can’t use it that way, you probably shouldn’t be trying to use it at all (unless you only want to read for yourself, of course – though bear in mind that you never have the objectivity you need to read accurately for yourself).
I’ve also found that using physical characteristics is not particularly useful. Yes, the client may be able to identify someone if I say of the Page of Swords, for example:
‘It’s a dark girl around the age of 20’,
but I personally found that identifying someone by personality type is preferable –
‘This is a warrior girl or young person, focused, even driven, and at the same time slightly nervous of what she’s getting into’.
The qualities of the suit mentioned in the first paragraph, however, are much more useful. There are four suits – Swords, Cups, Wands or Staffs, and Pentacles (or Coins). Each is linked with a different element – Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. Early in their history, the elemental correspondences were quite fluid, and even now they are not completely fixed – although the Rider Waite deck has set a benchmark for most decks since they were published. Waite linked Fire with Wands and creativity, Water with Cups and emotions, Air with Swords and the intellect, and Earth with Pentacles, and sensation and the body.
So all Cup cards would correspond with the emotions, feelings and water. The face cards would be focused predominantly on how they feel – for instance, the Queen of Cups is a very emotional woman whose openness can be quite challenging. She would be a good mother, friend, and lover, but if the card is reversed, she can be desperate for love, someone for whom love has turned sour, or a woman who is very needy.
All Coin or Pentacle cards would refer to pragmatism, money, earthy and physical energy. The Ace would show the essence of Coins – abundance, making things happen, wealth, and issues of that sort. So reversed it could indicate a lack of wealth, struggles with money or with getting the life you’d love. The face cards would all hinge around pragmatic abilities – skills in business, possible lack of imagination, stubbornness, and making things happen.
Unusually, I’ve linked Swords with Fire and Staffs with Air – to me, it makes more sense that way. So the Sword suit deals with people who use their heads a lot; they’re intellectual and try to be logical about everything. They keep their passions well down, slaves to their minds, but the best Sword cards marry passion with intellect. The Seven of Swords for instance shows a naval battle. On one ship the warriors are armoured, but losing badly to the ship in the foreground where the warriors are dressed much more casually, but have a fearsome weapon – Greek fire. The card is about using cunning and strategy. The noble in the foreground relies not only on his brain, but also his passion for his people.
Finally, Staffs link to air and creativity, intuition, and dreams. Creativity is a mysterious ability, as is the aether – the air, the very breath of life. The suit often shows the figures reaching out for inspiration, and offers us the possibility of moving from our humdrum lives into a different world.
The Majors are less easy to pigeonhole, but if you see them as archetypes of the human soul on its way through life, they can become a spiritual initiation. Reading with them, seeing into the imagery, reflects that journey.
0 - The Fool
0 - The Fool is the innocent child, but also the ability to take risks. It can be that the client is about to take a really foolish move, or that he wants to do something that others would consider foolhardy, but is the wisest thing he could do.
I - The Magician
The Magician is interpreted as will to manifest an idea or a dream; skills with words, self-confidence. Reversed is about manipulation or mis-use of talents.
II - The High Priestess
II - The High Priestess – Someone who needs to use their intuition and wisdom, empathy and understanding. Reversed: Creative blocks, anger, frustration. Lack of empathy and foresight.
III - The Empress
III - The Empress – Abundance, womanhood. Sensuality, fecundity, receptivity; the welcome harvest of love and joy. Motherhood. Reversed: Maternal tyranny, self-indulgence, martyrdom.
IV - The Emperor
IV - The Emperor – Authority, integrity, focus, will power, benevolence, vigorousness, potency. The ability to command wisely. Reversed: Tyranny, ignorance masquerading as authority. Abuse of authority.
V - The Hierophant
V - The Hierophant – An impartial adviser, elder, priest or minister. Firm traditions on which to build. Morality, integrity, compassion, Reversed: Self-righteousness, moral superiority, pedagogy.
VI - The Lovers
VI - The Lovers – Choice – between symbiosis and autonomy, old and new. Necessary separation from the past. The dawn of sexual awareness. Reversed: Inability to separate from one’s parents. Immaturity. Vacillation.
VII - The Chariot
VII - The Chariot –Ability and ambition in tandem, focused will. Determination, healthy assertiveness.
Reversed: Egotism. Riding roughshod over others or, alternatively, the use of a charming persona hiding a steely determination to get your own way.
VIII – Justice
VIII – Justice – Clarity of vision, ability to act with integrity and sense of justice. Balance. Possibility of legal issues. Reversed: Injustice, surrender to expediency, twisting truth to influence others.
IX – The Hermit
IX – The Hermit – The voice of the soul urging you on to fulfil your destiny. The path of the unknown. Necessary withdrawal in order to grow. Reversed: Withdrawal from life due to unfaced fears, sorrow, or anger. Escapism, phobias, superficiality. Alienation.
X – The Wheel
X – The Wheel – A new cycle of life. Change. The workings of fate or karma. Good fortune. Reversed: Battling against the current. Fate, seen as malevolent. The inability to learn from mistakes. Irreversible events, apparent hardship and adversity.
XI – Strength
XI – Strength – Inner conflict but the suggestion is that these are being resolved. Courage, hope. Calm assertion. Reversed: Suppression of unconscious drives and passions leading to tension, fear, pessimism. Rigidity. Or alternatively, the id (childlike part) is driving our actions.
XII – The Hanged Man
XII – The Hanged Man –Voluntary sacrifice of conventional wisdom to gain self-knowledge. Rebirth and freedom. Cutting ties. Reversed: Failure to respond to new challenges. Inner conflict, holding onto the past.
XIII – Death
XIII – Death –The birth of a new self. Death of an old life or values. Reversed: Thanatos, preoccupation with death. Enforced removal of old, outdated ways.
XIV – Temperance
XIV – Temperance – Balancing energies in yourself and your life. Openings; a new sense of connection. Patience, silence, temperance. Reversed: Refusal to see opportunities. Fear of being hurt, resisting life.
XV – The Devil
XV – The Devil – Expediency, lack of integrity, greed, perversion, malevolence, envy, deceit. Anger, fear, or sexuality. Enslavement to the material. Reversed: Breaking free of old habits of shadow issues and negativity by allowing in different perceptions.
XVI – The Tower
XVI – The Tower –A world-shattering event. Destruction of outdated situations or paradigms. Cataclysmic events. A new world emerging from the ruins of the old. Purification. Reversed: Failure of vision leading to undoing. Illusions destroyed. Falling apart. Disaster that could have been averted.
XVII – The Star
XVII – The Star – The Higher Self. Hope, insight, inspiration. New life, new possibilities. Miracles. Reversed: Inability to see hope in the current situation. Unresolved pain disguised as arrogance, pessimism, apathy, or hopelessness.
XVIII – The Moon
XVIII – The Moon – Deceit, fear, the dark night. Enchantment and the realms of the fantastic. Reversed: Psychic invasion. Delusion, deception. Failure of nerve, leaving you vulnerable and unstable.
XIX – The Sun
XIX – The Sun – Illumination, transformation, renewal. Joyful liberation. Love, clarity, light. Reversed: Inability to feel the affection, warmth, and joy around you.
XX – Judgement
XX – Judgement – Rebirth; a new life. A call - to make some fundamental change in your life, to let go all constraining considerations and reach for the heights. Attainment of some deep, long-held ambition. Reversed: Inability or refusal to heed the call. A fundamentally important opportunity missed through fear, pride, obstinacy, or other constraining attitude.
XXI – The World
XXI – The World – Spiritual fulfilment and awareness. Love and connection permeating your life. An end and a new beginning. Reversed: Seeing all possibilities, the ability to fall into unity. Ecstasy almost too great to be borne.