Two weeks ago at the Historical Novel Society conference, I participated in a brief lecture from my dear friend Kris Waldherr on how writers can use the tarot to help plan their books. It not only re-invigorated me in my study of tarot and inspired me to create my own deck, it reminded me I wrote a series of two articles about it a while back for Novelists’ Inc. that I have never shared here.
This first article covers the basics of what tarot is (and is not), what the cards mean and how they are used so that readers who have no familiarity with the tarot can catch up. The next article, which I will publish tomorrow simultaneously here and over at my second home on Spellbound Scribes, will go into detail on how to use it in your writing.
We’ve all heard of tarot cards and seen then used by witches and fortune tellers in the movies and on TV. Unfortunately, the persistent use of them by Hollywood to evoke fear and evil has led to many people thinking the tarot is something it is not. Before we begin, I want to address some common tarot misconceptions:
- The tarot is not evil. It is just a set of cards with pictures on them. That’s it. A tarot deck is no more or less powerful than a regular deck of playing cards.
- It will not summon the devil or any evil spirits. The tarot actually has nothing to do with any religion. You can choose for it to be part of your spiritual practice, but it doesn’t have to be. The cards are neither positive nor negative; it is your intent that makes them one way or the other. You’d have to be very intentional and work really hard to summon anything evil with them. And I don’t recommend trying.
- If you are Christian and you use it, you will not go to hell. Well, you might, but not for that! In fact, there is even a book on how Christians can use the tarot called Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. I highly recommend it. There are also several Christian tarot decks.
- You don’t have to be religious to use it. Even though divination using playing cards pre-dates modern psychology, tarot really is all about your subconscious mind, so you can be an atheist and it will work just the same as if you are religious.
If you’re not comfortable with tarot or think it is wrong, by all means don’t use it. I would never want you to do something that goes against your beliefs or makes you feel like you’re doing something wrong. But if you’re curious, read on.
What the Tarot Is
So, if all of that is true, how exactly does the tarot work? The easiest explanation is that it is a way to tap into your subconscious mind, which holds a lot of information and answers we don’t normally access with our conscious brains. As we know from dreams, our subconscious works in symbols, which is why there is standard symbolism on each tarot card, regardless of the specific artwork.
The tarot’s symbolism is heavily based in archetypes because these are pretty much eternal and unchanging. The most common archetypes include:
- The Hero who is undertaking the quest.
- The Mentor who guides them.
- The Ally who accompanies them.
- The Herald who says “hey, hero, it’s time for a change in your life” and kicks off the quest.
- The Trickster, who is the comic relief and mischief maker.
- The Shapeshifter, who is kind of like a frenemy and could be friend or foe or both.
- The Wizard/Guardian who tests the hero
- The Shadow, who is the villain.
If these roles sound familiar, that’s because they are also the building blocks of storytelling. Each of these, and more, are reflected in the card’s symbolism. More on that in a minute.
The System of Tarot
Every tarot deck is comprised of 78 cards divided into the major arcana (22 cards) and minor arcana (56 cards). The major arcana are like the face cards of a regular deck of playing cards. Major arcana cards are more significant and helpful in understanding your characters and plot because these cards represent powerful forces and events which can shape them. Major arcana cards can identifying the major plot points of your book and the basics of your outline.
There are countless ways of interpreting these cards (here’s a good online resource), so we’ll take a brief look at each and how they might be used to indicate a character or plot point. (Click on the image to see it larger.)
The Major Arcana
- The Fool – This is the hero of our story, the unwitting innocent setting out the journey of your book. He symbolizes being open to new possibilities and sometimes being foolish in your ignorance. If your hero is otherwise represented, he or she could be an ally to the main character. This person is usually well-intentioned, but can also be bungling.
- The Magician – The magician symbolizes intelligence, talent, intuition, freedom and confidence, but he can also be a tricky showman. His message is that you already have everything you need to accomplish your goals. Depending on the story, he could be the mentor for your hero, the herald who kicks off the quest, a trickster or possibly the wizard who tests your hero. Study the surrounding cards for clues.
- The High Priestess – She is a woman of great power and strength and symbolizes the inner voice or intuition. She also represents spiritual forces like wisdom and insight and is a wise counselor who may live at a remove from the rest of the world. She could also be the mentor of your main character or even the herald if used with prophecy or magic.
- The Empress – She is the ultimate feminine figure and powerful ruler. She is a strong role model and peacemaker, a guide, and example of dignity. She is often associated with fertility and Mother Earth. Another mentor possibility, but she could also take her power too far and become a dark figure.
- The Emperor – This is the card of hard-won leadership and power, an authority figure who knows his stuff. He represents masculine energy that is stable, reasonable and ethical. He is another possible mentor figure, but he could also be seeking to hold your hero down, just like some rulers seek to oppress their people.
- The Hierophant/Priest – This figure represents tradition, authority and adherence to established rules and customs. He is also a powerful spiritual force and you would do well to listen to his wisdom. It’s possible this card could represent the mentor, but depending on the circumstances, he could also be the shapeshifter or even the shadow. He would be a fun villain to write and would pose a formidable challenge for your hero, who is usually seeking to overthrow all he represents.
- The Lovers – The lovers are all about relationships, and not necessarily just sexual ones, friendships too. They also guide values and decisions and symbolize intense emotions such as the blindness and irrationality of love. They often appear in reading when a decision is needed and can indicate a positive past choice. This card could be the ally who helps the heroine in her journey or could represent a love interest or romantic aspect to the plot.
- The Chariot – Represents triumph, victory and success and is connected to natural drive and determination. But the Chariot warns you can’t just depend on your dreams; you must take action to make them happen. As such, this is a card of agency for a character and movement/momentum in the plot.
- Strength – This card is all about inner strength—fortitude of heart and mind that enables you to overcome any obstacle. It also symbolizes perseverance and facing your fears head on. A character with this card would be strong, but could also be stubborn, which could lead to difficulties with other characters or obstacles in the plot that the hero will have to fight to overcome.
- The Hermit – As his name implies, the Hermit represents solitude and listening to the voice within. He could be the guide to your hero, or he could be the trickster, falsely be urging them to withdrawn when action is required, depending on the surrounding cards. If he comes out of isolation set up the quest, he can also function as the herald. He represents a place in the plot where introspection is needed before the hero can make a decision/move on.
- Wheel of Fortune – This the wheel of fate, representing the ups and downs of life. The card reminds us that the only permanence in life is change and that we must be open to learning the lessons of the present moment. Usually it is interpreted as a card of good luck, but depending on the surrounding cards, it could also indicate a reversal of fortune. It is a good card for plotting points of major change or evaluating how your character handles it.
- Justice – As the name implies, this card is about karma and getting what you deserve. If that is a main theme in your book, play close attention to this card. It can also be about acting as a judge and weighing choices in order to make a decision or needing to be impartial. This card could indicate a character who is judgmental (or who teaches others not to judge) or it could represent a moment your main character is called to account for their actions, either within their own mind or by someone else.
- The Hanged Man – The hanged man is all about being stuck or being in the in between. He usually represents needing to make a decision or being at a crossroads in life. Usually a sacrifice is required to be able to move on. This card can also mean punishment for a crime. This card can represent where your character is before he/she takes up the call for change at the beginning of a book or any point where they feel unable to move forward. In the latter case, look at surrounding cards to see who or what might able to help propel them forward.
- Death – This card does not usually mean literal death! It can, in rare cases, but usually instead represents transformation, the dying of the old so the new can be reborn. It can indicate the end of a cycle or the end of relationship and can symbolize your fears or even the end of suffering. As such it is versatile in revealing a character’s weakness and vulnerabilities, but an also be used to point points of change in a story.
- Temperance – As the name indicates, this is a card of moderation. Patience is her virtue and she can represent grace under pressure, good manners, the ability to adapt or be creative. She is symbol of balance and harmony. She can represent an advocate or ally or your character or a warning not to get out of control.
- The Devil – This card is not evil, no matter what Hollywood says. When you are using tarot for writing, this card will usually indicate your shadow or villain character or forces working against your main character. It represents our baser instincts and can symbolize obsession, abuse and addictions. It can also symbolize a positive character embracing their wild or vengeful side or feeling trapped.
- The Tower – This card is not a fun one to see in a reading because it represents destruction and major change. But that isn’t always bad; it can mean the breaking down of the old to begin anew, as in a desired divorce. Usually the best solution is to give in and then pick up the pieces and start over. This often appears to represent the “black moment” in a plot – the point where all seems lost for the hero.
- The Star – The star represents hope, peace and freedom, inspiration and enlightenment. It can mean relying on yourself and taking steps to improve yourself or your situation. It also symbolizes healing and following your destiny or the will of the gods. For characters, it can mean agency or following a force greater than themselves.
- The Moon – Just as the moon rules the tides and can affect human sanity, this card represents powerful emotions and vivid dreams. It can mean a time of disorientation, anxiety or repressing things into your subconscious. Because it can indicate a shadowy person or situation, insanity or obsession with the macabre, it can represent your villain or something involving deception that will happen to your hero. Or it can mean something underhanded he or she is doing, willingly or not.
- The Sun – This card is the opposite of the Moon. It indicates things done out in the light of day, triumph and victory, glory, safety and well-being. It can also represent the innocence and joy of childhood. It is an uplifting card that indicates all is well in the world. In characterization, it is associated with genuinely good, innocent people, like Forrest Gump, for example.
- Judgement – Like the Last Judgement (which is often depicted on the card) it represents resurrection and rebirth, a reawakening and new opportunities. It can also symbolize a rite of passage, a positive change, or a new way of thinking. In plotting a book, this card would naturally fall between or at the beginning or end of an act or section because that is where major changes occur.
- The World – This card represents seeing beyond oneself into the interconnectedness of all things. It represents mystical insight and faith and being in control of one’s fate. You are exactly where you are meant to be. In character development, this would be a very confident character who understand their destiny and is actively seeking it. In plotting, it could represent a happy ending or being ready to move on to something new.
The Minor Arcana
The minor arcana are like the numbered suit cards in a deck of playing cards. They are even divided into four suits, with ten regular cards and four face cards: the prince/page, knight, queen, king. While the major arcana represent the “big” things in life, the minor arcana fill in the humdrum, daily details and can be especially helpful in fleshing out the outline that major arcana cards give you.
The suits all have different symbolism:
- Wands/Staves/Staffs – are associated with the element of air and the ideas of movement and growth. Wands represent ideas, creativity, hopes and dreams. My experience with readings heavy on this suit are usually positive, but variable. Like the wind they represent, they are changeable and sometimes fickle.
- Cups – are associated with the element of water and your mental and spiritual state, as well as your relationships. Cups are highly emotional and can be either positive or negative, depending on the surrounding cards.
- Swords – are associated with the element of fire and with conflict. Like a blade, they can be sharp and deliver messages we don’t really want to hear, especially about our health and relationships. They can be harbingers of ill tidings, but they can also make us face realities we want to deny, leading to wisdom and healing. I cringe when I see a reading heavy on swords because they are generally negative cards, unless you work really hard to find the silver lining.
- Pentacles/Coins/Disks – are associated with the element of earth and the material world, primarily dealing with matters of money, career and all forms of prosperity: emotional, physical and spiritual. I have found that if your reading contains a lot of this suit, it will be generally positive.
Some people also read “reverse” cards, meaning a card laid upside down when dealt. Generally, that reverses the usual meaning of the card. Most books will provide you with both regular and reverse meanings for each card. I don’t personally read reverse cards because I think the tarot is complex enough without it.
Almost every tarot desk comes with a book, so if you don’t want to invest in additional materials when you’re first starting out, you don’t have to. Those books are enough to teach you the basics and help you to interpret the cards.
I suggest searching online or visiting your local New Age store and seeing what decks speak to you. It’s usually wise to look at a deck in person and get a literal feel for it, but when that is not possible, this a good place to start.
The classic tarot deck is the Rider-Waite Tarot. (I don’t personally like that deck; it freaks me out for some reason.) There a deck for literally every personality from Victorian to Goth to faeries and unicorns, as well as every culture and sexual orientation. There are even decks to tie in with movies like Lord of the Rings, TV shows like Game of Thrones and books like Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea.
If you decide to purchase a deck, take some time to get to know the cards. Study each one and note what it says to you and it makes you feel. That’s the first step to learning how to read them. Then, if the deck comes with a book, read it and study each card while reading its definition. Over time, you’ll learn what to associate with each card.
One last note: If you aren’t comfortable with tarot cards, you might want to consider oracle cards. These are similar to tarot, but they don’t have the formalize structure around them that tarot does so they can be used in any way you want. I like them for single card readings. Many Christians also find these less daunting because they don’t come with the evil stigma that tarot does. Here’s an article on the differences and a Christian-based list.
In case you’re wondering what I use:
Tarot: I started with a basic set for beginners and then moved on to Legend: The Arthurian Tarot. After a while, some of the cards became so associated in my mind with certain people who were no longer in my life that I couldn’t read with that deck anymore. I bought the Llewellyn Tarot and have been using that for years now, but I just realized yesterday that I have lost a few cards so I have to order a new deck. Not sure what I want yet. I also own the Mysteries of Mary tarot.
Oracle Decks: I personally own several oracle decks, though I don’t use them as much as my tarot cards: The Mists of Avalon Oracle, Queen of the Moon Oracle, Notes from the Universe on Abundance Cards, The Wisdom of Avalon Oracle, Archetype Cards and the Goddess Guidance Cards.