Intro to Tarot: The Anatomy of a Deck

***Note to tarot students: If you are attending my classes this summer, please read this. This information is exactly what I won’t be covering in person. This essay covers the concrete and knowable aspects of tarot. In the classes, we will be playing much more with tarot’s intuitive and magical side. Photo credits are listed at the end.***

You bring your first deck of tarot cards home and are at the start of what may be a life-changing relationship. I suggest you prepare for the adventure by learning the basic anatomy of your tarot deck.

Tarot and poker cards are close cousins — like city and country mice. The two decks differ in size (78 vs. 52 cards / 5 suits vs. 4), but are the same in many ways. For a quick visual comparison, download my Anatomy of a Tarot Deck illustration, and read on.

The Pips

The first forty cards to check out are called the “pips,” and are structured the same as the numbered cards in your standard poker deck. They range from Ace to Ten and come in four suits. Here are some well-known pips from the Rider-Waite Deck:

The four suits are most often named in the Italian tradition: Cups, Coins, Swords and Wands. In that order, they correspond to four basic elements: Water, Earth, Air and Fire. In modern decks, the suit symbols may differ, but their elemental dignity is the same. For instance, you might have a suit of Feathers instead of Swords, but they both represent the element Air. Compared to the standard American poker deck, the suits correspond in order to: Hearts, Diamonds, Spades and Clubs.

If the pips in your deck are designed like poker cards – that is, with pictures of each symbol corresponding to the card’s numerical value — then you either have an old deck (made prior to 1900), and/or your deck is a derivative of the Tarot de Marseille. If the Pips in your deck are decorated with narrative scenes, your deck was most likely made after 1900 and follows the Rider-Waite tradition.

This row shows the 6 of Swords/Spades in the historical or Marseille tradition:

And this row shows the equivalent card in the Rider-Waite tradition:

The Court Cards

Following the pips in each suit come the court cards, which are made up of the royalty figures. Tarot has sixteen court cards — four per suit — as opposed to just twelve in the poker deck. The Jack card you know from poker is replaced by a Page and a Knight in tarot. The King and Queen are the same, though these titles are often altered by the deck’s creator. Depending on your deck, your court cards might include a Prince, Princess, Visionary, and/or Shaman, to name a few. Here is a nice array of court cards:

The pips and court cards make up the bulk of the tarot deck and are referred to together as the Minor Arcana, or small secrets, in the tarot.

Minor Arcana Intrigue

At this point, the two decks diverge. An interesting aside before leaving the poker deck… Over time, the poker deck was frequently outlawed and referred to as “The Devil’s Playbook,” while tarot skated through history with relative ease. Some say that the poker deck was the actual divination tool, while tarot was simply an innocent game. They point to the numerical synchronicity: poker’s 52 cards and 4 suits match the 52 weeks and 4 seasons of the year, among other uncanny parallels. For a fun dramatization of this argument, check out this video by respected cartomancer, Ana Cortez).

The Trumps

The big difference between the two decks is the suit of trumps, which diverges in structure and content from the pip and court cards. Also referred to as the Major Arcana, these 22 cards represent the larger forces in life — themes that we all encounter at some point by virtue of being human.

The Trumps are usually numbered from zero (the Fool) to twenty-one (the World). In the first decks, however, these cards were not labeled or sequenced, and there are many theories about how people may have given the cards cultural rank and order. The modern numerical order is based on a linear story referred to as “the Fool’s Journey” from birth to death. Other systems often applied to the Major Arcana include Astrology, Kabbalah, and Jungian Archetypes, to name just a few. As tarot developed in the early 20th century, there was controversy over the order of two trump cards in particular, according to a big tarot personality named Aleister Crowley. If in your deck, the Strength card is number 8 and Justice number 11, then your deck is in the traditional order. If those cards are switched (Strength to 11 and Justice to 8), then your deck has been influenced by the teachings of Crowley.

Finally, a notable card in both decks is trump number zero, the Fool, which deserves a special call-out. I often refer to this card as the Spirit of the Tarot. It represents curiosity, adventure, faith and mischief, wrapped up in the form of a penniless wanderer just about to step off a cliff. Many say that the Fool worked its way into the poker deck in the form of the Joker, and that the spirit of mystery and magic lives in both decks of cards.


This overview of tarot anatomy was put together by Yetta Snow of Present Day Tarot. Here are the image credits, reading left to right from each row of illustrations:

First row: The Ace of Cups, 2 of Pentacles (aka Coins), 3 of Swords, and 8 of Wands from the Rider-Waite tarot deck illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith. This and most of the other decks are distributed by US Games Systems, Inc.
Second row: These are all the 6 of Swords (aka Spades). From left to right you see the Visconti Sforza deck (c. 1450), Tarot de Marseille (c. 1499), and the Bee playing cards (c. 2013).
Third row: These are all the 6 of Swords. From left to right you see the Rider-Waite image (c. 1906), the Ghetto Tarot (2016), and the Fountain Tarot (2014).
Fourth row: Page of Swords from the Golden Tarot, Knight of Cups from the Dreaming Way Tarot, Queen of Wands from Black Fantasy Tarot, and King of Pentacles from Light and Shadow Tarot.
Fifth row: The Star from Visconti Sforza, The Lovers from the Commemorative issue of the Rider-Waite, the Death card from the Thoth Tarot, and the World from the Tarot del Fuego.
Last row: the Fool as drawn by Pamela Colman Smith, and the Joker from the Bee Playing Cards.

 

 

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