Following on from our first Tarot 101 post: Introduction to tarot, in this post we will be going over some of the most common symbolism of the tarot.
The Tarot has many layers of symbolism and is rather complex. To understand how to read the tarot you must pay attention to the images shown, derive meaning by using your intuition and knowledge, and weave together a story.
Some Tarot decks make this very easy for you with very literal images on the cards. Other decks can be more abstract which can make deriving the meanings hard for beginners.
Symbols have their own special meanings and can appear repeatedly throughout the cards. To enhance your Tarot readings, it's recommended to learn these symbols and also develop your own ideas of what these symbols could mean.
Tarot is a language, and it is a language of imagery. It is important to learn to recognise and translate these symbols in any deck of Tarot cards. When you come across these symbols in your readings, pay attention to the imagery, scene, and setting on the card as well as the symbols.
Learn to see the bigger picture and read between the lines. Look beyond the obvious to discover hidden meanings. If there is water in the card, how is it flowing? If there's an animal in the picture, what meaning does it hold? If there is an object, who is holding it?
Common Symbols In The Tarot Cards
Angels in Tarot are symbolic of divine messages. They are messengers of important information. In a reading, their appearance indicates a message may be coming to the querent in the form of inspiration, divine intervention, or subtlety. Angels also symbolise higher thought and ideals.
The symbolic meanings of armor deal with protection, preparation, and strength. Most Tarot decks depict all the knights in full armor, and knights typically represent action and strength. The armor indicates a need to protect ourselves when engaging in activities referenced in a reading.
Benches are symbolic of taking a moment to examine the details. In a reading, benches indicate the querent needs to sit back, relax, and take some time to examine or savor the situations expressed in the card layout.
The symbol meanings of the birds deal with higher thoughts and matters of the spirit. They are creatures of the air, so they symbolise higher ideals. They also represent freedom and ascension. When the bird symbol pops out at us during a reading it is a message that we are rising to a higher level, that we need to free ourselves from bondage and that we must make our hearts light.
Blindfolds deal with our inability to see things clearly. They represent an unwillingness to face the truth, an inability to accept the facts, or a sign that something is being hidden from us. In a reading, blindfolds are a sign we need to be honest with ourselves, do more research, and get a different perspective.
Boats are a sign there are some pressing thoughts rumbling within the subconscious. These thoughts will have a tendency to put us in motion, and this is another symbolic trait of the boat. Boats deal with deeper thoughts and the motion these thoughts produce. In a reading, boats may also indicate travel, or movement in a different direction.
A universal symbol for transformation. Butterflies are shown on the Queen and King of sword cards, and typically indicate a change in the thoughts of the querent, or someone close in the querents life. Butterflies go through several changes and transformations before they develop into their final state of beauty. They are a symbol we as humans do the same thing to reach our end goal and to obtain a better way of thought and living.
Castles deal with goals. Castles are physical representations of our need to build upon a strong foundation in order to obtain our goals. Castles may also deal with sheltering ourselves or limiting ourselves from reaching our goals. They are also a symbol of obtaining our desires.
Cats deal with watchfulness, awareness, and perception. Shown on the Queen of wands card, the cat is a message that there are energies at work that we may not be aware of, but we can certainly tap into. Cats are also a symbol of psychic ability. In a reading, the Queen and her cat will make a point that the querent must keep his or her poise and be aware of all sides to the story in the situation relating to the card reading.
Chains are featured in The Devil card, and can represent restriction, bondage, conflict, and slavery. Chains are a message that we could be a slave to our thoughts or to others. It can indicate a restriction or addiction in regards to the situation.
Children represent promise, hope, fresh starts, new beginnings, new ideas, and a fresh way of looking at the world. Children are full of promise for the future and as such, they are a symbol of this promise. When they show up on the cards in a reading it could mean the beginning of a new venture, the promise of a new beginning, or it could literally mean children are on their way such as new births or adoptions.
Circles represent perfection, completion, and infinity.
Cities or towns represent centers or gatherings of people, thoughts, energy, and ideas. They are a symbol of the culmination of a group that meets for a common goal. They also symbolise protection, harmony, and teamwork. When you notice the cities and towns in a reading it indicates a group effort is required, or the querent must tap into some energy centres or thought centres to accomplish what he or she must.
Clouds hold the meaning of revelation. Consider out of the mists of our deepest thoughts suddenly an epiphany comes, a bright idea comes out of nowhere - this is the basic cloud symbol meaning. Depending on the card, clouds can also symbolise confusion or clouded judgment. Primarily, clouds represent higher thought and messages from the divine.
The crown represents a relationship with the divine, and the intersection of consciousness and spiritual communion.
The cup is a receptive vessel associated with the feminine and the element water. The meaning of the cup in a particular card will depend on whether it is upright or overturned, and what is in it.
A desert symbolises the element fire. It can indicate a harsh, unfeeling personality.
Dogs deal with fidelity, honesty, loyalty, and truth. When the dog symbol pops out at us, we might ask ourselves one of the following questions: where are our loyalties? In what are we putting our faith? Are we being true to ourselves? The dog in our cards is also a good indication that we're on the right track as they are symbolic of stability and righteousness.
Feathers represent the element air, communication, connection to the spirit realm, and flight.
Fire is a symbol of both creative and destructive power. Among its many cultural symbol meanings are energy, transformation, passion, ambition, inspiration, and power. In many faiths, fire is a symbol representing a test of faith or the measure of one's purity. This very well may be the case in the Devil and Tower cards fire is featured in.
It is no coincidence that the fish is featured on all of the cups court cards because the fish symbol deals with emotion, intuition, and creativity. When considering the fish symbol meaning, we must first recognise the nature of the water in which it lives: in motion, unpredictable, and representative of the subconscious, The fish is a symbol of prolific abundance if we have the wherewithal to harness our own passion responsibly,
When we consider the cards on which the flag is featured we get a good concept of its symbolism meanings. The flag is an announcement to change - something has shifted and a flag makes the world aware of this shift. It is a bright, bold, obvious sign that a new day is dawning. This is not about subtle shifts - the flag is about in-your-face transformation; an event to announce to all who will hear.
When you see gateways, doors, and arches, it could suggest a passing through or transition, perhaps from one part of your life to the next. There is a sense of something on the other side, and a choice about whether to go there. Gateways and arches speak to a new opening and beginning, relinquishing the old and starting anew. It may suggest a new direction or opportunity. In many cards, you can see what lies beyond the gateway, for example, a mountain or flower garden which adds further depth to the symbolism.
Power, domination, protection are primary symbol meanings relating to the hand. Hands are historically seen as points of transmission, meaning we give and receive from hands. It's no accident that the powerful Ace cards are all depicted with a hand holding the suit symbol. This is a clear message of force and power relating to the indicated suit. It is also a reminder that we are able to both give and receive those attributes pertaining to the referring suit.
Horns symbolise a joyous, boisterous, victorious, triumphant announcement. They signal to all within earshot that something has happened or is about to happen soon. Horns announce both victory and oncoming attack - keep this in mind when the horn comes to your attention.
Featured on all of the knight cards of the Tarot, the horse symbol meanings deal with strength, motion, action, and vitality. Linked in many ancient traditions with the four elements the horse is also a strong spiritual symbol and an emblem of incorporating all the elements to maintain an equal, powerful balance with all things in the universe. This is evident in the "either/or" nature of the knights. In a more mundane sense, the horse is predispositioned to have a charging nature. In a reading, this gives us pause to consider where we are charging to and why.
In houses we live, die, play, cry, grow, hide, dream, the list goes on, As such, they are symbols of our deepest secrets and the tenderest parts of our hearts. Houses also deal with protection and the value that we feel we must guard against theft. When houses jump up to our vision in a reading it may be a sign that our security is threatened, or it may convey the opposite, and we should not be concerned with safety and we are already protected.
The infinity symbol is a geometrical representation of the endless and eternal nature of energy. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it simply continues on forever in motion. This symbol serves to remind us of the infinite nature of our spirit, as well as our thoughts. When this symbol comes to our attention it may be a message that we should consider the consequences of our thoughts and deeds - the effects of which can be infinite.
Keys unlock things, and as such, they represent knowledge, intellect, and uncovering things that are hidden from us. The keys of the Hierophant card symbolise the keys to spiritual knowledge and wisdom. When keys catch our attention we may need to ask if we are locking up our potential, or if we feel something is being locked away from us.
Lightning is a major message from a higher source, a message for the observer to wake up and pay attention to their surroundings. Linked with both fire and water, lightning is also viewed as both creator and destroyer in many cultures. When the lightning bolt flashes at you, perhaps it is a message to pay attention to what creative or destructive forces are at work in your life.
Lions symbolise strength, courage, royalty, and protection. When the lion roars at us in the cards we are encouraged to consider the level of our courage. Are we seated in faith or flesh? Are we protecting others or ourselves? Are we being strong or just stubborn?
Lizards symbolise renewal, vision, enlightenment, and rebirth, the lizard makes its appearance on the male court cards in the suit of wands. The lizard suns itself on these cards to signify the importance of vision in the midst of action. A symbol of demure perspective in the face of monumental physical force - the lizard is a tiny reminder that big results come from small, conscious efforts.
The Moon symbolises cycles, time, psychic power, reflection, and emerging from one phase into another. Consider the power of the Moon - able to influence oceans and effect the realm of nature in strong subtle ways. Also a symbol of feminity, the Moon is a sign of the softer, intuitive side of all of us. When the Moon lights up on our readings, it is a prompting to consider our level of awareness. The Moon asks us if we are listening to our intuition and what are we allowing to influence our direction in life.
Mountains symbolise triumph, challenge, attainment, and realisation. Mountains also represent timelessness and an endurance that is infinite. When those mountains are brought to our attention in a reading, we may consider the vastness of our universe, and contemplate our place within it. We may also want to consider the heights to which we are climbing, and what the realisation of our goals may mean for us and those around us.
Nudity is a symbol of being open and receptive to messages from the spirit realm. It can also represent, in some cases, sexuality.
Paths symbolise direction as well as the path we choose to travel in any phase of our life. Paths remind us that the journeys of a lifetime begin with one small step. Paths in our reading are indicative of beginnings, endings, and the steps we take in between that create the life we are living. When we find paths in our readings, we must consider these things, and question the intention and sincerity of the steps we are taking upon each of our paths. We must also re-evaluate the commitments we've made to our life path.
Pentacles represent the element Earth. They symbolise money, the material world, security, and nature.
Pillars symbolise balance. When pillars appear in our readings, it is time to consider matters of diplomacy, balance, tact, and strategy. It is a sign that going between may be more advantageous than taking the high road or low road. Rather than seeing things as left or right, black or white, perhaps we can consider a middle road - a third option with a new and different perspective.
Rainbows symbolise the feminine essence, divine blessings, and times of happiness and peace. Rainbows can also represent enlightenment and, as an archway, represents spiritual initiation.
A symbol of purity, promise, and beauty. The rose symbolises the promise of new beginnings and hope. We must also take the thorns into consideration - with the promise of new hope, we may have to endure a few stinging thorns along the way. Overall, the rose is a poignant symbol of the beauty that is ready to unfold within each of our hearts and a reminder that we must take the opportunity to savor the beauty around us.
Scales symbolise equality and balance. It is a perfect visual measure when something is "out of whack". The scale shows us which part of our life is out of balance - when the scale is tipped more to one side we know we need to take some corrective action.
As long as we have been able to look up at the stars, we have been looking to them for illumination, direction, and guidance. Thus the star symbol meanings deal with shedding light on our lives, offering us navigation when we need it, and providing consistency when our lives seem to be topsy-turvy. When the stars in the cards featured below wink at us in a reading you know it is time to look to a higher source for direction, and realise the starry light within our hearts can also illuminate our way.
The Sun is a symbol of expansion, growth, energy, and creativity. When the Sun shines upon your consciousness in a reading, pay attention to its position in the sky as its position is also symbolic. A rising sun is a symbol of new beginnings, a setting Sun indicates an ending or transition, and a mid-day Sun indicates going full force in creative endeavors.
Swords symbolise the element air and activities of the mind. Honour, virtue, communication, rationality, and elimination are represented by the sword.
Thrones represent mastery and authority. The person sitting in the throne is supported in their pursuits.
Wands are a symbol of the element fire. Wands represent inspiration, life force, motivation, power, and desire. They represent the connection between the spiritual and material.
Bodies of water represent our inner state and can illustrate how we are coping emotionally. Water represents movement and our intuition.