Do you sometimes get lost when reading the 78 tarot cards? When I teach tarot and a student can’t interpret a card, I ask if the card is major, minor, or court. If you can place the card in one of those three categories, then you can determine meaning by following the structure of tarot.
There are 22 major arcana cards, 40 minor arcana cards, and 16 court cards. (Arcana means secret, or arcane.) Each tarot card is either major, minor, or court.
The 22 cards of the major arcana tell the story of the Fool’s journey. They are a richly symbolic pattern of a very old mystery. They are The Fool, The Magician, The High Priestess, The Empress, The Emperor, The Hierophant, The Lovers, The Chariot, Strength, The Hermit, The Wheel of Fortune, Justice, The Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, The Devil, The Tower, The Star, The Moon, The Sun, Judgement, and The World.
The 40 cards of the minor arcana are numbered ace through 10. They represent the four elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. The structure is similar to playing cards, also four suits numbered ace through 10.
16 cards are court cards, or royal figures, which are divided into 4 court cards for each of the 4 elements Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. Court cards are depicted as a King, Queen, Knight, and Page in most tarot decks. The King and Queen represent mastery, power, and strength. A Knight denotes action, quest, and movement. The Page represents exploration, learning, and being of service.
Karmic cards of destiny are the 22 major arcana, the 4 aces, and the 16 court cards. Cards of choice are 2 through 10 of the minor arcana.
When you are doing a tarot reading, observe if a card is major, minor, or court. The major arcana cards are somewhere on the Fool’s journey. The court cards show mastery of the King and Queen, or development of the Knight and Page. The minor arcana cards are 1 through 10 and represent the suits Fire, Water, Air, or Earth.
The Four Elements
In tarot, the four elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth are symbolized by a wand, cup, sword, and pentacle. The four elements also correspond to four directions and colors: south red, west black, east yellow, and north white. The four colors also represent the races of humanity.
The four elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth are found in many magical and spiritual systems such as the Native American medicine wheel, the four corners of European pre-Christian ritual, the four elements of alchemical schools of medieval Europe, and the four elements of astrology. Alchemy is to change our bases selves into gold — radiant and rare. By combining the elements we can transform reality.
The exciting, masculine element Fire represents will, drive, destiny, creativity, and spirit in action. In tarot, the symbol for Fire is a wand, a blazing wand of power. The suit of clubs in a regular playing deck represents Fire. Fire is the phallus ejaculating the seeds of creativity. In Chinese medicine the element Fire is associated with the heart. Fire myths are Prometheus bound, Satan and his flames, and the Phoenix that rises from its own ashes. The Fire signs of astrology are Sagittarius, Aries, and Leo.
The element Water is the nurturing, feminine element that represents emotions, intuition, spiritual belief, faith, and love. In tarot, the symbol for Water is a cup, a round cup that holds water. The suit of hearts in a regular playing deck represents Water. Water is the essence of life, the sea of fertility, the amniotic fluid of the womb, and the womb of the Ocean Mother from whom all life emerged. According to the ancient Chinese, Water is the most powerful element for it can flow around any obstacle in its path without changing essence. Water myths in the Western tradition are the quest for the fountain of youth, Jonah in the belly of the whale, Noah and the ark, the waters of St. John the Baptist, and the waters of the holy grail. The Water signs of astrology are Pisces, Cancer, and Scorpio.
The masculine element Air represents the mind, mental activity, communication, intellect, thoughts, and ideas. In tarot, the symbol for Air is a sword that can cut through matter with clarity and swiftness. The suit of spades in a regular playing deck represents Air. The Tower of Babel, the wing-footed messenger god Mercury, the Excalibur sword, and the smoke of the peace pipe are air myths and symbols. The Air signs of astrology are Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius.
The stable, feminine element Earth represents the material world, health, wealth, tangible goods, and the concrete reality of Mother Earth upon whom we walk. In tarot, the symbol for Earth is a pentacle, disk, or coin. The suit of diamonds in a regular playing deck represents Earth. Earth myths and stories are the minotaur of ancient Crete, the golden calf, Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders, Persephone in the Underworld, and the goose that laid golden eggs. The Earth signs of astrology are Virgo, Capricorn, and Taurus.
Reading Tarot Cards
Many tarot cards you know at first glance, but others are not as easy to understand. If you feel like you’re getting lost, ask yourself major, minor, or court to figure out where the card fits into the larger structure of tarot.
If a card is one of the 22 major arcana, find out where it is on The Fool’s journey. Court cards rule their element so be aware that wands royals are active and exciting, cups royals are sensitive and intuitive, air royals are thinking and love learning, and earth royals are practical yet sensual.
People tend to get lost in the minor arcana. So figure out the suit! Sometimes people confuse wands with swords so look closely. And 6 swords is often confused with a cup card because water is depicted on the card.
Do not get discouraged! Keep reading your cards! When in doubt, discern major, minor, or court to have clarity. And the best part of tarot is that each card tells a story. For example, if you had no idea that 3 cups was a minor card of the element Water, just by looking at the picture you have an idea of the meaning. So blend the information from the picture with your knowledge of major, minor, or court. Good luck!