Updated: Jun 9, 2018
Welcome to the introduction of our tarot series, where we will take a closer look at the cards in the Rider-Waite style of tarot. Each post features a different card with tips for readings and advice for incorporating the lessons of the cards into our lives.
Why the Rider-Waite Style Tarot?
Although there are many different types of tarot decks and oracle cards, the Rider-Waite style is the most ubiquitous of western divination tools, as well as the most iconic. Featured heavily in popular culture (and often maligned in the process), the symbolism and imagery of the Rider-Waite have become a cultural touchstone for many, even if they don’t fully realize it. This makes the style the perfect deck for those first coming to tarot and divination, as there’s usually at least some passing familiarity with the deck’s symbolism.
Of course, I’m a big fan of the Rider-Waite not simply because it’s the most popular or recognizable, but also because the stories and iconography behind the deck illuminate the Hero’s Journey — an important monomyth that every person can identify with as they walk the path of personal transformation.
The Hero’s Journey
“Adventure is not outside man; it is within.”
Identified in the late 19th century and later popularized by Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey recognizes the unifying archetypes and character transformations contained in many (if not all) of the stories humans have told each other since the early cradle of civilization. At its core, the Hero’s Journey is a story of adventure that leads to inner change — one in which the hero encounters friends, foes, and their own shadow nature on the path to becoming their truest self.
This monomyth is one we can recognize in foundational cultural pillars around the world, including the New Testament or the story of the Buddha, as well as in modern pop cultural texts such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, and The Lion King, as well as decidedly less “epic” tales like Clueless and Legally Blonde.
Every Transformation Is a Journey
“The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.”
While not all of us are faced with defeating He Who Shall Not Be Named or stopping a Sith empire from taking over the galaxy, the archetypes of the Hero’s Journey can also be found in each of our own personal paths. Whether we’re embarking on a new business venture, looking for deeper relationships, or drumming up the courage to start a new creative project, each stage of the journey — from the call to adventure, to catharsis, to renewal and transformation — can be found in the Major Arcana (or “trump cards”) of the Rider-Waite tarot. This is why the first weeks of our tarot series will focus on these deep archetypal cards.
0. The Fool
1. The Magician (Other Names: The Juggler, The Mage)
2. The High Priestess (Other Names: Priestess, Popess)
3. The Empress
4. The Emperor
5. The Hierophant (Other Name: The Pope)
6. The Lovers (Other Name: The Lover)
7. The Chariot
9. The Hermit
10. The Wheel of Fortune
12. The Hanged Man
13. Death (Other Names: Rebirth, Transformation)
15. The Devil
16. The Tower (Other Name: The House of God)
17. The Star
18. The Moon
19. The Sun
20. Judgment (Other Name: The Final Judgement)
21. The World
Minor Arcana and the Path to Mastery
In addition to the Major Arcana of the Rider-Waite, there are also the Minor Arcana — or “suit cards." Each suit of the tarot relates to different spheres and elements of our lives, and the progression from Ace to King is its own miniaturized Hero’s Journey towards mastery of that suit. This makes tarot a versatile tool not only for illuminating the major signposts of our lives through the Major Arcana but also for pointing the way and benchmarking our progress as we develop different skills and interests.
Wands: Creativity & Inspiration
Cups: Emotion/Intuition & Relationships
Swords: Logic & Strategy
Pentacles: Money & Material Wealth
Is It Better to Use Major or Minor Arcana?
Both! When layered together in a reading, the Major and Minor Arcana cards work in concert to highlight specific influences or choices present in a situation. Because of the deeply archetypal nature of the Major Arcana, these cards will represent people, events, or influences in our lives that affect us profoundly. Conversely, the Minor Arcana reflect the surface-level or day-to-day minutiae.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the messages or meanings behind Minor Arcana cards are any less important. Much like the proverbial butterfly wings that create a hurricane, sometimes it is the enlightenment found within ordinary interactions that sparks tectonic shifts in a personal journey.
This is one of the greatest learnings of the tarot: no matter how great or small — major or minor — every experience in our lives has a role to play in our transformations.
Rider-Waite vs. Rider Waite Style
The term “Rider-Waite” can be used to describe one of two things: either the specific artwork of the Rider-Waite (or Rider Waite Smith) deck published in 1910, or the subsequent style of tarot decks created by authors and artists that uses the symbolism and imagery established by the Rider-Waite deck as the basis for their creative interpretations. In our weekly series, we’ll be addressing themes and tips that will apply both to the original Rider Waite deck as well as contemporary interpretations.
Many of the themes will also apply to other systems of tarot, such as the Marseilles or the Thoth, as the archetypes used are very similar — however, the number and ordering of the Major Arcana may vary if it is not a Rider-Waite style deck.
Dispelling Popular Myths About the Tarot
If I were in a classroom or leading a workshop, this is the point that I would ask for a show of hands: Who can remember seeing the Death card or the Lovers card used as a foreboding omen or contrived plot device in films, books, or on TV?
While these representations are (perhaps) useful for writers looking to invoke certain imagery or further a plot, they are almost always reductive and inaccurate and have actively contributed to the stigma surrounding the tarot and divination.
As previously mentioned, the tarot works in archetypes rather than the definite and concrete. This means that when the Death card appears in a reading, 99% of the time it is describing a metaphorical death, not a physical one.
(Technically, the Death card can represent literal death, but in my nearly 15 years of reading cards I have rarely observed this, and only ever in the context of past events. I have never given a reading that predicted literal death.)
Rather than indicating physical death, when we receive the Death card in a reading, it usually indicates a point of transformation and change — a metaphorical death in which the things that no longer serve us (e.g. relationships, living circumstances, attitudes, or patterns of behavior) need to die so that new growth can begin in our lives. In fact, many newer versions of the Rider-Waite tarot have changed the name of this card to Rebirth or Transformation.
We’ll revisit all of this in more detail when we feature the Death card in our weekly series, but it’s important to remember that the Death card appears only part way through the Major Arcana, which means that the Hero’s Journey still has more adventures ahead — and in the words of one of my favorite modern authors: “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
(If you’re wondering, the quote is from the modern magical high priestess herself, J.K. Rowling.)
On Reversals & Inversions
A highly debated topic among tarot scholars and readers, “reversals” and “inversions” occur when a card appears upside down in a reading. For beginners, it’s not recommended to start reading with inversions until they are first comfortable with the upright meanings of the cards. There are also many experienced readers who will choose not to read reversals either based on personal preference (theirs or their client’s) or because of the characteristics and personality of a specific deck.
When reading for reversals, card meanings are often both literally and metaphorically inverted. For example, when upright, the Queen of Cups signifies an emotionally warm, caring, and balanced person who is in command of their intuitive gifts and showers their light on those around them. Inverted, the Queen of Cups could represent someone who is emotionally volatile and manipulative, who wounds others with their “hot and cold” mood swings, and who is likely suppressing or disconnected from their intuitive gifts.
However, it’s important to note that an inverted Queen of Cups doesn’t always represent this, as the reversal can also indicate that the card’s upright, positive traits are “below the surface” (i.e. operating at a subconscious level) or blocked in some way. This is why inversions can be difficult to master for novice readers, as it’s important to listen to your intuition and to the context clues of the reading to understand how to interpret the reversal.
For some, the sight of inverted cards can cause a sense of dread based on the assumption that any reversed card must be a harbinger of bad news. This is yet another prevalent misconception about the tarot. Because the Rider-Waite encompasses every facet of the Hero’s Journey — both the highs and the lows — there are upright cards with negative messages, and inverted cards with positive messages. It’s important for readers to be sanguine when giving readings of reversals, and to approach the cards holistically — more often than not, inversions give us needed advice or reveal unconscious fears rather than predict woe or suffering.
Starting a Daily Practice
As with many things in life, the best way to learn the tarot is simply to start doing it — a daily practice of pulling a card for yourself and journaling on its meanings can improve your knowledge of the cards, strengthen your intuitive abilities, and help you meditate and reflect on the themes of your daily life.
Most decks that you can buy (or are gifted) will come with a short booklet of meanings and descriptions. While this is a great jumping off point for learning the traditional meanings, make sure you don’t discount your personal connection to the symbolism and imagery present, and pay careful attention to the emotions or reactions a card may evoke. Remember that different decks can have different personalities based on the artist/writer and how you came into possession of the cards.
You can also follow along with our tarot series for a more in-depth discussion of each of the 78 cards in the Rider-Waite tarot. We’ll provide tips for readings and advice for incorporating the lessons of the cards into our lives.
If you’re interested in furthering your understanding of the tarot and live in Maryland, Washington D.C., or Northern Virginia, join us in person for one of our Tarot Workshops. We offer an Introduction to the Tarot as well as specialized classes for each suit in the Rider-Waite. In addition to learning about the cards in-depth, Moonhaven’s classes will give you the chance to learn new spreads for readings, practice reading for yourself and others, participate in group discussions, and ask questions with experienced divination teachers.
Make sure to take a look at our event calendar for upcoming classes!
Catie Peiper is co-founder of Moonhaven School of Magic and an experienced reader and teacher of the tarot. When she’s not teaching workshops or helping to organize the school’s community events, she writes about divination, magical theory, and personal transformation. She also offers private readings and consultations by appointment in Baltimore, MD, and the Washington D.C. metro area. You can contact Catie to book your personal reading.