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Tarot Language - Reading the Cards



Reproduction of the Tarot Vieville, Jaques Vieville c.1650 Paris
Small Tableau Tarot Spread

If you are learning to read Tarot cards or you are an experienced Tarot card reader, you may have learned about the Tarot language. Often we hear from teachers of Tarot that to be able to read Tarot effectively, we need to understand that Tarot has a language. Well, what does that mean? Don't we just have to memorize that little booklet that comes with the deck? Those keywords that are in that little booklet need to be memorized to know how to read Tarot....right? Not really. That booklet is included in your Tarot deck to let you know where the deck was made, when, who the publisher is of the deck etc. The keywords by each card listed in the booklet are just reminders for you.


Tarot Language - what do we mean?


If I look up the word language on the internet:


Language: a system of conventional spoken, manual (signed), or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves. from Britannica https://www.britannica.com/


A teacher and her students- Image from WIX
Learning Letters

In my words, language is a system of symbols and words to use in communication with others.

So, when we are reading tarot cards, we are using words to communicate what we see in the cards. Those symbols and images invoke words and meanings to the questions we are asking.


What is that system in Tarot?

Image from WIX
Learning a language

When we look at the cards in the deck, we see that every card is different. Each card is unique. However, when you lay out the cards you see there are things that the cards have in common. What do the cards have in common?

  • what colours are used

  • The direction of human figures or animals. Are the figures facing left or right

  • The shape of the symbols is laid out on the cards. For example: in the 3 of Coins card, the coins are laid out in the shape of a triangle

  • Numbers have an energetic meaning, i.e. can describe a phase of a journey

  • Other commonly used symbols, for example, animals, stars, jewelry, fruit

When we put these common things together i.e. colours, directions, numbers, etc., we come up with messages, and meanings and create conversations. We find we become more reflective and intuitive. We become more present in our current situations. When we use what is in each tarot card, we let go of memorizing the keywords that are in the little booklet. Learning how to read tarot cards is difficult if we just resort to memorizing each card's meaning. When you learn the tarot language, the tarot cards become tools or visual aids to help engage your intuition and your insight regarding your situation.

So when you lay your tarot cards out, keep in mind:

  • Look at the direction of the cards. Are human and animal figures going in one direction or opposite directions?

  • What colours are the most prominent?

  • What numbers are you seeing? See if there is a pattern, e.g. many even numbers.

  • In what direction are the human figures gazing?

  • What hand is holding a sword, wand, cup, or coin?

  • What do you notice in the human figure's posture? How are their hands and feet positioned?

  • How are the human figures dressed and are they wearing anything on their head such as a crown or hat?

  • Is the image of the card one of order or chaos?


For decks such as the Rider Waite which came out in the early twentieth century, the creators wrote about the symbolic language. When it comes to the much older decks such as the Marseilles tarot, there was nothing written by the creators of these decks and therefore we need to figure out the symbolic language. Using traditions, and spiritual and cultural customs of the times when these decks were made, scholars have come up with their interpretations of the tarot language.

Here are some clues about the symbolic language of Tarot:


Colour

The colours that are used in a tarot deck have a great impact on the emotions and energy of the reading. For instance: if a tarot spread has many cards where red is the predominant colour, you can interpret the situation as one of a lot of action and movement.


Colour: Meaning:







Numerology


Numerology is associating numbers with meaning. Understanding how to use numerology in your tarot readings will help you become a more effective tarot reader. See https://www.margostarot.com/post/numerology-in-tarot-the-basics-and-meanings-to-numbers Using numerology can give your readings more dimension especially if you see repeating numbers, number patterns, or:

  • more odd numbers

  • more even numbers

  • numbers are increasing

  • numbers are decreasing


The Marseilles Tarot Professional Edition By Nicolas Conver, Mattia Ottolini and Anna Maria Morsucci
Top: The Magician, Strength, The Aces in each suit from the Marseille Tarot Professional Edition

Number One: the root of all numbers. This is the beginning of the potential. This is the point where the process begins. In geometry, the number one is represented by a point.

keywords: individual, beginning, whole, union, power, focus and concentration


The Marseilles Tarot Professional Edition By Nicolas Conver, Mattia Ottolini and Anna Maria Morsucci
The High Priestess and the Hanged Man, The Twos from the Marseilles Tarot

The Number Two: an even number associated with feminine energy. It's receptive and accepting or rejecting. In geometry, two is represented by a line that joins two points.

keywords: duality, opposites, compliments, collusion, confrontation, repels, rejects, crossroad




The Marseilles Tarot Professional Edition By Nicolas Conver, Mattia Ottolini and Anna Maria Morsucci
Empress and Death and Three of Cupd, Three of Wands and Three of Swords

The Number Three: an odd number with masculine energy. In geometry it is represented by a triangle: Two elements coming together to create something new. A child from a relationship, a project developed by people and ideas. The energy is dynamic and moves.

keywords: growth, building, project, birth, marriage, contract


The Number Four: an even number that represents stability, structure, order, and institutions.

The Marseilles Tarot Professional Edition By Nicolas Conver, Mattia Ottolini and Anna Maria Morsucci
The Emperor and Temperance and the Fours from the Marseille Professional Edition

It represents matter: the 4 elements of earth, fire, air, and water. In geometry, the number four is represented by a square: four points that come together to represent a simple solid shape. Four Directions: east, west, south, and north.

keywords: solid, balance, achievement, stability, harmony, security, conservative, counterbalance, conformity.



The Marseilles Tarot Professional Edition By Nicolas Conver, Mattia Ottolini and Anna Maria Morsucci
The Pope and the Devil and The Fives From the Marseille Tarot Professional Edition

The Number Five: an odd number with unstable energy. It's an extra element or overabundance that has thrown something or someone off balance. There is no equilibrium and the extra element has a destructive effect. In geometry, is represented by the number five is represented by the pentagon or a five-pointed star inside a circle called a pentagram.

keywords: transformation, revolution, shakeup, churning, anxiety, stirring, agitation



The Marseilles Tarot Professional Edition By Nicolas Conver, Mattia Ottolini and Anna Maria Morsucci
The Lover, the Tower and The threes from the Marseille Tarot Professional edition

The Number Six: this number represents union, and perfection when two elements/units/bodies/parts come together. It's cooperation. In geometry, it is represented by a hexagon which is the perfect shape where all sides are equal. A honeycomb structure is an example of a hexagon shape as well as a snowflake. This structure is known to be strong because all weight is evenly distributed. It's nature's perfect shape because hexagons fit well together leaving no wasted space.

Hexagons fitting together

keywords: analysis, comparing, choices, options, trust, unison, union, decision/indecision


The Marseilles Tarot Professional Edition By Nicolas Conver, Mattia Ottolini and Anna Maria Morsucci
The Chariot , The Star and the Sevens from the Marseille Tarot Professional Edition

The Number Seven: this number represents the mystical and beyond the limitations. Seven represents the seven known heavenly bodies from the Sun to Saturn, seven main chakras from the root chakra to the crown, seven days of creation (world's time), and seven metals of alchemy (gold, silver, mercury, copper, lead, iron & tin). Beyond Saturn was heaven and the divine. We are elevated to a higher knowing of ourselves and the world. In geometry, seven is represented by the heptagram. Heptagram has long been a symbol of the realm between worlds. Seven is often linked to the spiritual meaning of alchemy: healing and achieving inner transformation where we are free of our fears and anxieties.

keywords: effort, growth, maturing, expansion, phenomenon


The Number Eight: This number represents fulfillment after a period of adjustments and

The Marseilles Tarot Professional Edition By Nicolas Conver, Mattia Ottolini and Anna Maria Morsucci
Judgement, The Moon and the eights from the Marseille Tarot professional edition

corrections. The number eight on its side is the infinity symbol. It's a number that represents balance and order. In geometry, 8 can be represented as the octagon. We see this shape in churches; baptismal fonts. The octagon's 8 sides represent the day after the seven days of

the week of the world's creation. The eighth day is symbolic of the eternal life.

keywords: evolution, stable structure, details, patience, continuity, order of

cycles


Three Rows of Three
The Energy of Nine

The Number Nine: nine is a multiple of three's, 3 times 3 making it an energetically strong number. It's close to ten which represents wholeness, but it can also mean not being able to reach a goal or desire.

The Marseilles Tarot Professional Edition By Nicolas Conver, Mattia Ottolini and Anna Maria Morsucci
The Hermit, The Sun and the Nines from the Marseille Tarot Professional edition

Then number nine energy in geometry is represented by three lines of three points making a square. The energy goes in many directions Energy of Nine may invoke a quest for self-discovery.

keywords: threshold, mysticism, dynamic, wisdom, portal, threshold


The number 10 is also a symbol of power, completeness, and knowledge and in Pythagoreanism, 10 is symbolised by the Tetractys or tetrad
Prythagorean Tretctys

The Number Ten: Ten is a number that indicates completion. It can also indicate the start of a new cycle.

Pythagorean Tretractys.

The number 10 is also a symbol of power, completeness, and knowledge and in Pythagoreanism, 10 is symbolised by the Tetractys or tetrad which represents the four

The number 10 is also a symbol of power, completeness, and knowledge and in Pythagoreanism, 10 is symbolised by the Tetractys or tetrad
Judgement and the Wheel, Tens from the Marseille Tarot Professional Edition

elements of water, air, fire, and earth. It also serves to describe space:

  • the first row represents zero dimension by a single point

  • the second row represents one dimension by a point meeting another point to form a line

  • the third row represents two dimensions where a triangle is formed

  • the fourth row represents three dimensions to form a tetrahedron

keywords: end of a cycle, completeness, begin again, start of a new cycle, outcome


Zero or Unnumbered


The number 10 is also a symbol of power, completeness, and knowledge and in Pythagoreanism, 10 is symbolised by the Tetractys or tetrad
The Fool from the Marseille Tarot Professional Edition

The card with no number value represents a moment that is very brief and between the ending of one journey (or a life's lesson) and the beginning of a new journey.

The Fool is a very energetic card but has no number value. The Fool card is like a wild card because there are so many possibilities and when the Fool appears in the spread the limits and potentials are boundless. This is a new journey, a new beginning. It is often said that the Fool is "nowhere and is everywhere"



The Four Suits:

The suit of cups has indications of the water element (emotions, intuition, feelings, relationships, love)

The suit of Swords has indications of the air element (communication, education, institutions,

Designed by Pamela Colman Smith under the direction of Arthur E.Waite
Page of Swords - Rider Waite Tarot

learning, conflicts, intellect, and legal issues

The suit of wands has indications of the fire elements (ambition, career, creativity, sexuality, competition, rivalry)

The suit of coins/pentacles has indications of the earth element (grounding, skills, resources, home, physical health, mental health, healing, finances, family, social status


Parts of the Human Body:

Legs:

  • grounding

  • health

  • root (earth element)

Pelvis:

  • creativity

  • passion and desire

  • sacral and solar plexus (fire element)

Upper Body (chest/heart, arms and hands)

  • emotions

  • expressions

  • Heart (water element)

Head and Neck

  • thoughts

  • intellect

  • communication

  • Throat, Third eye, and crown chakra (air element)


Other human figures found in the court cards have their meanings: See post: Tarot Court Cards - An Overview of Reading the Court Cards in Tarot


Symbols

Symbols found in each card contribute to the messages. Here are some examples:

Head coverings:

  • Crown-controlled thoughts, connection to the divine

  • Feather - air element and communication, flight and spiritualness

  • Hat shaped like an Infinity sign or an infinity sign: endless energy, possibilities, continual motion, and a reminder that the spirit lasts forever

Angels:

  • divine messages

  • inspiration

  • divine intervention

  • higher thoughts

Arch:

  • an opening or passageway

  • initiation

  • a new direction

Ankh/Sceptor with cross:

  • Balance

  • the rule is supreme balanced reason and force

Armor:

  • protection

  • preparation

  • strength

  • plans put into action

Birds:

  • spiritual matters

  • thoughts

  • ascension

  • the need for freedom

Bench:

  • the need for reflection

  • rest for a bit to take in what is going on

  • take time to enjoy the moment

Brick Wall:

  • protection against negativity

  • you or something else is holding you back

Bridge:

  • help/aid

  • there are different ways to succeed

Butterflies:

  • transformation

  • development

  • symbol of striving to do better

Boats:

  • deep thoughts

  • travel

  • movement in different directions

Cats:

  • psychic abilities

  • there are energies at work that we are not aware of

  • be observant

Child(ren):

  • hope

  • promises

  • new beginnings

  • innocence

Circle, Wheel:

  • perfection

  • cycle

  • completion

Chains:

  • slave to habits or negative vices

  • obsessiveness with negative thoughts and conflict

  • obsession

  • restrictions/bonds

  • addictions

Cross:

  • spiritual

  • representation of church

  • protection

  • represents the four directions - North,East, South and West

Eagle:

  • air element

  • mind and intellect

  • power

Flag:

  • announcement

  • a shift

  • awareness

  • change

  • illumination

Horse:

  • strength

  • movement and action

Horn:

  • announcement

  • joy

  • warning

  • something had to happen

Keys:

  • knowledge

  • keeper of secrets

  • keeper of wisdom

Leaves/foliage

  • growth and vitality

Crayfish:

  • regeneration and cycles

Lizards:

  • renewal and visions

  • perspective

Lion:

  • royalty

  • strength and courage

  • desires

  • a paradox - bravery and savage

Mountains:

  • challenge

  • triumph

  • endurance

Moon:

  • cycles

  • intuition

  • dreams

Wreath:

  • victory

  • peace

Yod:

  • tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet that represents the divine is present

Wolf:

  • primal urges

  • loyalty

  • examine what you want

Wing:

  • intuition

  • flight

  • spirit

  • divine

Veil:

  • hidden things

  • illusion

  • virginity

  • mystery

Waterfall:

  • emotions

  • movement

  • deep seeded thoughts

Water:

  • feminine

  • cleansing

  • intuition

Star

  • direction and guidance

  • illumination

Triangle:

  • trinity

  • father, son, and holy ghost

  • mother, father, and child

  • product of hard work or love

Sun:

  • expansion and growth

  • energy and vitality

  • paradox life-giving yet burns

Tomb:

  • we have to deal with the things and people that no longer serve us

  • a rest is required

Throne:

  • status and authority


Directions

In reading Tarot, many readers pay attention to the direction of the cards. The direction of the cards can give important clues. We look in directions: left to right, right to left, up and down, and diagonally in some spreads.


Left and Right:


Looking at the cards in a spread that appears on a horizontal axis. The example below shows the Magician I and the Strength IX:


Reproduction of Tarot Vieville , Jaques Vieville Paris 1650
The Magician I and Strength IX from the Tarot Vieville


Look at the direction in the human figures' gazes. The Magician is looking to the right and the strength is looking left. They appear to be looking at each other.

Another clue regarding the direction is the Numbers: Magician is the Number One arcanum and Strength is Number Nine.

What about the feet? The Magician's feet are pointing in opposite directions and we see only one of the feet in the Strength care which is pointing left. Are the hands of the human figures pointing in any direction?

  • Left Direction: indicates the past, hesitate to reflect, withdraw, decreasing

  • Right Direction: forward, future, active, expanding, improvement, ascension

  • Up: the top part of the card which refers to the higher self, emotion, and reason

  • Bottom part: desire

  • Movement down: difficulty

  • Movement Up: optimism

Sample Reading:

In reading the cards above for the questioner regarding changing careers:

The Magician suggests that the questioner has many ideas and basic tools/skills. Many possibilities are running in his mind. If we look at the shape of the hat, we see that it is in the shape of an infinite sign. He must organize his thoughts about the future. Make sure that he is in a good place before making any changes. The table is on three legs which tells us that he has to make sure he is steady on his feet before he makes his move. The ground is yellow indicating growth, but it is not all yellow. Some parts of the ground are grey, so that indicates some unknowns. Perhaps he must review his plans. He points his wand up suggesting he knows he can advance, but the hand on his lower belly (sacral chakra) suggests he may be acting on his desires. The gaze of the Strength card is there on the Magician's lower belly. He knows there is a risk that desire may be the driving force for the change. These passions must be controlled and reason must be used. Like the Magician, The Strength card has a hat in the shape of an infinite sign indicating endless possibilities.


Sources: 

For notes on geometry representation: Reading and Understanding the Marseille Tarot by Anna Maria Morsucci & Antonella Aloi, Lo Scarabeo

The Marseille Tarot Revealed by Yoav Ben-Dov, Llewellyn Publications

The Way of Tarot, The Spiritual Teacher in the Cards by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Marianne Costa, Destiny Books

Tarot By Numbers by Liz Dean, Fair winds Press


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