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Ultimate Guide to Tarot Cards: History, Meanings, Spreads, and Popular Decks

I got into mysticism early and have had enough eerie encounters with tarot decks to say with some certainty that they work, in a spooky way… even if it’s just using the cards to get clarity and self-reflection: your reactions to your reading will betray your inner turmoil and can help make hard decisions.

But I’ve also made *huge* potentially life-altering decisions based on Tarot Deck “Guidance” – convincing myself that all my desires were good and worthwhile because the cards confirmed what I wanted and gave me permission to make poor choices – to be cautious. Still, they’re fun and can even be a powerful tool, whether or not you believe they are powered by subconscious yearnings, active deities or universal wisdom. Plus, they’re super pretty and a great way to get to know people (reading cards, like drawing portraits, requires intimacy). So here’s a detailed guide and a handy meaning and interpretation cheatsheet you can refer to at any time, or even print and download!


Tarot cards, with their rich imagery and intricate symbolism, have captivated the human imagination for centuries. A tool for divination, introspection, and even therapy, tarot’s relevance transcends generations. Let’s delve into this mystical world and understand its nuances.

History of Tarot Cards

Originally conceived in the 15th century as playing cards in Europe, tarot cards gradually evolved into a tool for divination. Their imagery, rich in symbolism, drew upon the knowledge of alchemy, astrology, and Kabbalah, making them more than just cards – they became a spiritual journey.

Anatomy of a Tarot Deck

A standard tarot deck consists of 78 cards divided into the Major and Minor Arcana.

  • Major Arcana: These 22 cards represent life’s karmic and spiritual lessons. They chart a path, known as The Fool’s Journey, which is the narrative of one’s journey from naivety to enlightenment.
  • Minor Arcana: The remaining 56 cards reflect trials and tribulations faced daily. These are further divided into four suits: Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles. Each suit has ten numbered cards and four court cards: Page, Knight, Queen, and King.

Tarot Card Meanings

Every tarot card is imbued with symbolism and potential meanings which can be interpreted in various ways based on the context.

  • Major Arcana Interpretations: For instance, The Fool symbolizes new beginnings and adventures, innocence, and spontaneity. Conversely, The Death card, often misunderstood, denotes transformation and change rather than physical death.
  • Minor Arcana Interpretations: The suits represent different facets of life. Wands are about inspiration, Cups concern emotions, Swords signify challenges, and Pentacles pertain to material aspects.

Reading Tarot Cards

A tarot reading isn’t about predicting the future but interpreting possible outcomes based on current energy patterns. It requires grounding, intuition, and an understanding of the cards’ symbolism.

Simple Tarot Spreads for Beginners

  • Three-Card Spread: Draw three cards from left to right. They represent the past, present, and future, providing insight into the evolution of a situation.
  • The Celtic Cross: This ten-card spread offers an in-depth understanding of a situation, delving into underlying challenges, past influences, and potential outcomes.
  • One-Card Daily Draw: A card drawn daily for personal reflection, offering guidance for the day ahead.

Most Popular Tarot Card Decks

  • Rider-Waite Tarot Deck: Conceived by A.E. Waite and illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith, this deck’s imagery is direct, making it perfect for beginners.
  • Thoth Tarot: Designed by Aleister Crowley and painted by Lady Frieda Harris, this deck dives deep into Egyptian symbolism and Kabbalistic and astrological associations.
  • The Wild Unknown: A contemporary deck known for its stunning artwork and raw, natural imagery.

Caring for Your Tarot Deck

Respect your tarot deck. Store it in a silk or velvet pouch. Cleanse it periodically by placing it under moonlight or using sage smoke. This keeps the energy of the cards pure and untainted.

Tarot vs. Oracle Cards

While both are divination tools, tarot has a structured system, whereas oracle cards do not conform to any set structure. Oracle decks can vary widely in the number of cards and their meanings.

Common Myths & Misconceptions

  • Myth: Tarot cards predict the future. Truth: They interpret energies and suggest possible outcomes.
  • Myth: You should never buy your own tarot deck. Truth: It’s perfectly fine to purchase your own deck; what matters is the connection you feel with it.

Tarot cards are mirrors to the soul. They reflect our innermost thoughts, fears, desires, and more. When used with respect and understanding, they can be powerful tools for introspection and guidance. However, remember that tarot card meanings can vary slightly based on the deck and the reader’s intuition.

Tarot FAQs

  • Q: Is it bad to have a reversed card? A: No, reversed cards simply offer a different perspective or highlight internal energies.
  • Q: Can anyone read tarot cards? A: Yes, with study, practice, and intuition, anyone can learn to read tarot.

Tarot Card Meaning & Interpretation

Major Arcana

  1. The Fool: New beginnings, spontaneity, taking a leap of faith.
  2. The Magician: Manifestation, resourcefulness, power.
  3. The High Priestess: Intuition, unconscious knowledge, mystery.
  4. The Empress: Femininity, nurturing, abundance.
  5. The Emperor: Authority, structure, control.
  6. The Hierophant: Tradition, spiritual guidance, conformity.
  7. The Lovers: Love, harmony, partnership, choices.
  8. The Chariot: Determination, control, overcoming obstacles.
  9. Strength: Courage, influence, inner strength.
  10. The Hermit: Introspection, seeking inner truth, solitude.
  11. Wheel of Fortune: Cycles, unexpected changes, destiny.
  12. Justice: Fairness, truth, law.
  13. The Hanged Man: Pausing, surrender, new perspectives.
  14. Death: Endings, transformation, change.
  15. Temperance: Balance, moderation, patience.
  16. The Devil: Temptation, bondage, addiction.
  17. The Tower: Sudden upheaval, chaos, revelation.
  18. The Star: Hope, inspiration, serenity.
  19. The Moon: Illusion, intuition, unconscious.
  20. The Sun: Joy, success, celebration.
  21. Judgment: Reflection, reckoning, inner calling.
  22. The World: Completion, celebration, accomplishment.

Minor Arcana


  • Ace to Ten: Inspiration, spiritual pursuits, determination, and growth.
  • Page: Eager to start, fresh inspiration.
  • Knight: Adventurous, taking action.
  • Queen: Warm, vivacious, attractive.
  • King: Natural leader, vision.


  • Ace to Ten: Emotions, love, intuition, and relationships.
  • Page: Emotional exploration, intuition.
  • Knight: Romance, charm, “knight in shining armor”.
  • Queen: Compassion, calm, comfort.
  • King: Emotional balance, generosity.


  • Ace to Ten: Intellect, thoughts, words, and conflicts.
  • Page: Curiosity, new ideas, learning.
  • Knight: Action, change, impulsiveness.
  • Queen: Complexity, clarity, independence.
  • King: Intellectual power, truth-seeker.


  • Ace to Ten: Material aspects, career, and home.
  • Page: Exploration, new opportunities.
  • Knight: Routine, responsibility.
  • Queen: Practical, motherly, down-to-earth.
  • King: Wealth, business, leadership.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the Ace through Ten for each suit in the Minor Arcana:


  • Ace of Wands: New beginnings in your passion, creativity, or spirituality. It symbolizes a spark or initial inspiration.
  • Two of Wands: Planning for the future, discovery, and deciding the next steps.
  • Three of Wands: Expansion, foresight, and waiting for results. Looking beyond the horizon.
  • Four of Wands: Celebration, joy, and stability. Often indicates a milestone or personal achievement.
  • Five of Wands: Conflict, tension, and competition. Can indicate minor arguments or clashing of egos.
  • Six of Wands: Victory, success, and public recognition. Overcoming challenges.
  • Seven of Wands: Perseverance, standing up for beliefs, and challenge from a position of advantage.
  • Eight of Wands: Swift movement, rapid progress, and a flurry of activity. Things falling into place.
  • Nine of Wands: Resilience, courage, persistence, and the final push. Nearly there but feeling guarded.
  • Ten of Wands: Burden, carrying heavy responsibilities, feeling overwhelmed.


  • Ace of Cups: New emotional beginning, love, compassion, and creativity.
  • Two of Cups: Mutual attraction, partnership, and union. It often indicates a strong bond.
  • Three of Cups: Celebration, friendship, collaboration. Expressing joy with others.
  • Four of Cups: Reflection, introspection, and feeling unfulfilled. Not noticing potential opportunities.
  • Five of Cups: Disappointment, focusing on the negative, and feeling regret.
  • Six of Cups: Nostalgia, revisiting the past, childhood memories.
  • Seven of Cups: Choices, illusions, dreaming of what could be.
  • Eight of Cups: Leaving behind, searching for meaning, walking away.
  • Nine of Cups: Satisfaction, contentment, getting your wish.
  • Ten of Cups: Joy, happiness, family, and emotional fulfillment.


  • Ace of Swords: Breakthrough, clarity, sharp mind.
  • Two of Swords: Indecision, choices, and stalemate. Needing to make a decision.
  • Three of Swords: Heartbreak, sorrow, betrayal.
  • Four of Swords: Rest, relaxation, contemplation. Taking a break.
  • Five of Swords: Conflict, tension, winning at a cost.
  • Six of Swords: Transition, change, moving on.
  • Seven of Swords: Deception, strategy, stealth. Needing to be stealthy or feeling like something is hidden.
  • Eight of Swords: Restriction, confusion, powerlessness.
  • Nine of Swords: Anxiety, worry, despair. Nightmares or mental torment.
  • Ten of Swords: Betrayal, end of a cycle, feeling defeated.


  • Ace of Pentacles: New financial opportunity, prosperity, and new ventures.
  • Two of Pentacles: Balance, adaptability, juggling multiple responsibilities.
  • Three of Pentacles: Collaboration, teamwork, learning.
  • Four of Pentacles: Holding onto resources, control, stability. Can indicate being miserly.
  • Five of Pentacles: Financial loss, poverty, feeling left out in the cold.
  • Six of Pentacles: Generosity, charity, giving or receiving help.
  • Seven of Pentacles: Patience, waiting for fruits of labor, reevaluation.
  • Eight of Pentacles: Mastery, skill development, dedication. Honing a craft or skill.
  • Nine of Pentacles: Abundance, luxury, self-sufficiency.
  • Ten of Pentacles: Legacy, culmination, financial security.

Each card’s meaning can be broadened or refined based on its position in a spread, its relation to other cards, and whether it appears upright or reversed. The tarot is rich in symbolism and nuance, and while these interpretations offer a solid foundation, there’s always more to learn and explore!