Tarot refers to a pack of cards divided into two main categories: Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. Arcana, plural of the word “arcanum,” could mean mysteries or secrets. A standard deck contains 22 major arcana cards and 56 minor arcana. The heart of tarot lies in the major arcana or trump cards; they have greater symbolic significance than those in the minor arcana. The Major Arcana cards contain images that represents big life changes, dramatic events that will have great impact on our lives. These cards are also numbered from 0 (The Fool) to 21 (The World). Note that in some decks, the fool card may be assigned to other numbers other than zero. The Minor Arcana has four suits, each containing cards numbered from Ace to 10 and four court cards: King, Queen, Night and Page. To understand the structure of the minor arcana, you can imagine a deck of regular playing cards, but instead of having diamonds, spades, hearts and clubs as suits, the minor arcana has wands, cups, swords and pentacles. In contrast to the major arcana cards, minor arcana reveals events relating to our day to day life situations. These events could be of existing circumstances or problems that have less effect on our lives. The table below provides brief interpretations of the 22 trump cards. You can find detailed discussion for each card here.
|Major Arcana Cards||
|0. The Fool||Freedom
|I. The Magician||Cleverness
|II. The High Priestess||Muse
|III. The Empress||Fertility
|IV. The Emperor||Beneficence
|V. The Hierophant||Higher Self
|VI. The Lovers||Beauty
|VII. The Chariot||War
|IX. The Hermit||Prudence
|X. Wheel of Fortune||Destiny
|XII. The Hanged Man||Self-sacrifice
|XV. The Devil||Unavoidable event – favorable|
|XVI. The Tower||Catastrophic overthrow – favorable|
|XVII. The Star||Hope
|XVIII. The Moon||Fluctuation
|XIX. The Sun||Joy
|XXI. The World||Ultimate success
Traditional Meanings of the Suits in the Minor Arcana
Wands – The suit of wands is linked to the element of Fire, and governs intuition. It represents things that spark creativity. Wands are divine initiators that activate us into action. Some decks use images of clubs, rods and staves to depict wands.
Cups – The suit of cups is linked to the element of Water, and governs feelings. This suit talks about love, pleasure, and fertility. Cups deal with inner feelings, psyche and deep emotions that may be unstable or irrational. Other symbolic interpretations of Cups are obsession, temptation and elusiveness.
Swords – The suit of swords is linked to the element of Air, and governs thinking. It represents the mind, ego, perception and authority. Because the mind is a powerful tool, swords may symbolize creation of beautiful concepts and all-consuming destruction. This suit teaches us to use our minds the right way.
Pentacles – The suit of pentacles is linked to the element of Earth, and governs sensation. This suit represents material things and other physical embodiments, which may include money, health and properties. Suit of Pentacles also symbolizes charity, appreciation and determination.
Essential Tarot Decks
Currently, there are thousands of existing tarot decks worldwide, and more are being added each year. Because there is no official tarot deck, it is not unusual for other artists or tarot practitioners to want to create their own deck. Tarot is about symbolism, and tarot readers feel it is necessary to have symbolic picture cards that resonate with them. Most tarot decks are created based on the reader/artist’s interests, beliefs or religious preference. Because there are so many diverse cards available for purchase (or free download) these days, you are most likely to find a deck that speaks with you; from Vikings to voodoo; there’s even a hello kitty and manga decks for you. Let’s discuss some of the most important tarot decks created; these tarot decks were chosen based on their historical significance, aesthetic values and popularity, but we seek not to assert that this list contains all essential tarot decks – it’s just a bunch among many.
1. The Grand Etteilla Tarot
This deck was of French origin, and was created in the 18th century by former wigmaker turned seer Jean-Baptiste Alliette (Etteilla). He was the first to revise the traditional Marseille tarot deck for esoteric purposes. Titles of each card are printed in English and French.
2. Cagliostro Tarot
This Italian tarot deck was first published in 1912 by one of the leading card makers in Trieste, Italy – Modiano S.P.A. It was designed by Bruno Sigon based on the book Le Tarot Divinatoire (1910) by Papus. Top and bottom panels depict brief interpretations. Suits used are Clubs, Hearts, Spades and Diamonds.
3. Visconti – Sforza Tarot
This 15th century deck has significantly influenced how the preceding cards were designed and interpreted. It was one of the oldest surviving tarot deck, created originally for gaming. There are no existing complete deck – cards were rather compiled from 15 sets of decks found in three different locations: Pierpont Morgan Library in New York (35 cards), Academia Carrara in Italy (26 cards), and Casa Colleoni in Bergamo, Italy (13 cards). Four cards were missing from the set, and was just added during reproductions: The Tower, The Devil, Knight of Coins and Three of Swords.
4. Sola-Busca Tarot
A historically significant tarot deck from Northern Italy, the Sola-Busca was the oldest surviving full deck, and was said to be the first alchemical tarot. It was also the first deck to contain illustrations on all 56 minor arcana cards (pip cards). Before this deck, suit cards only contain symbols such as in Tarot de Marseille deck. The name of the deck was derived from its previous owners, Marquise Busca and Count Sola. The first scholar who attributed the creation of the Sola-Busca tarot to 1491 was Count Leopoldo Cicognara. The deck was formerly owned by Busca-Serbelloni family and in 2009, the Ministry of Heritage and Culture purchased the deck and assigned it to Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. The design of the cards were linked to an artist in Ferrara, but further analysis led to the identification of the creator, Nicola di Maestro Antonio of Ancona. The deck displayed in Pinacoteca di Brera was the basis of Il Meneghello and Wolfgang Mayer’s publication.
This iconography of Sola-Busca deck is different from most tarot decks not just because of its alchemical and magical allegories but because each card shows different classical figures from Greek and Roman history to biblical characters. The Sola-Busca deck has greatly influenced the popular Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck in 1909. There are striking similarities that can be found from many cards between the two decks.
5. Rider-Waite Tarot
Also known as the Rider-Waite-Smith to give importance to the original illustrator Pamela Colman Smith, this tarot deck is the most popular and well-recognized deck in the Western world. First published in 1910 by a London publisher, William Rider & Son, the Rider deck was realized by the British mystic Arthur Edward Waite. Waite’s interpretations of each card was published in his book The Key to the Tarot and The Pictorial Key to the Tarot which bore the images and meanings. Three other versions of the original deck was created (miniature, pocket and giant) and are available in Spanish, French, German, Braille and in five-language. The creation of Rider-Waite deck was heavily influenced by many historic decks such as the Sola-Busca, Tarot de Marseilles, Etteilla’s and Eliphas Levi’s.
6. Thoth Tarot
First published in the Book of Thoth in 1944, this deck depicts Aleister Crowley’s support of the Hermetic-Kabbalistic view of the tarot. His wife, Lady Frieda Harris painted all 80 cards with his guidance. Crowley changed the traditional names of the major arcana cards and court cards and the numbering of suit cards to coincide with its astrological and Hebrew influences.
7. Minchiate Etruria
This deck of Italian origin is worth mentioning because it is often regarded as a tarot deck, but is more of a complex tarrochi deck. It was created in Florence in 1775 by Pietro Alligo. Trump cards were unnamed but numbered in roman numerals. It has a total of 97 cards with added 12 zodiacal signs; 4 virtues: faith, charity, hope and prudence; and four elements: fire, water, air and earth. Although this card was originally created for gaming, some occultists who appreciate its allegorical content prefer using it for esoteric purposes.
8. Tarot de Marseille
Tarot de Marseille doesn’t refer to a particular deck but to a standard design or pattern where many decks are derived. Marseille deck was known to be of French origin, but Michael Dummett claimed it was probably published in 15th century in Northern Italy. Based on a recent acquired document “Les mystères du Tarot de Marseille”, the Italian scholar and priest Marcillio Ficino have inspired the images of Marseilles deck.
9. Ancient Tarots of Lombardy
Lombardy tarot deck, also known as Tarocchi Neoclassico, has been around since 1810. Lombardy-type decks borrowed its style from Tarot de Marseille. Images where originally printed using fine metal engraving, and was colored by hand. It was published by the Italian card maker, Fernando Gumppendberg of Milan
10. The Classic Tarot
11. Hermetic Tarot
The creator of this deck, Godfrey Dowson, was influenced by the symbolism of the secret order of the Golden Dawn in Great Britain, and ancient readings of the Kabbalah. Although less popular compared to its counterparts in tarot readings, the Hermetic Tarot deck has an interesting black and white design of alchemical allegories. This deck doesn’t support reversal readings, but it was said to be suited for ceremonial reading, rituals, and meditations.