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Symbolism in Tarot: How to Interpret the Symbols in the Cards

By April 20, 2017 May 17th, 2023
Symbolism in Tarot Cards

Each Tarot card is packed with symbols that contain layers of information and insight.

And from physical objects to numerology, astrology, and religious symbols, it can be overwhelming to remember them all!

While memorizing these symbols was frustrating for me as a Tarot beginner, I eventually found a few simple ways to translate the symbols in the Tarot cards. Here are my six favorite no-stress ways to understand Tarot symbolism.

1.    Start with What You Know

When you’re first learning Tarot symbolism, it’s helpful to start with symbols you’re already familiar with.

For example, if you have general knowledge of Christian symbolism, think about what you already know about those symbols. How are they portrayed in the Tarot cards? Do you see any patterns involving those particular symbols?

Doing this with familiar symbols will help give you the confidence you need to start interpreting more obscure ones.

2.    Find Common Recurring Symbols

If you look through the Tarot deck, you’ll notice that there are several common images or symbols that repeat themselves. (For example, there are a lot of castles, clouds, and landscapes in the Tarot, just to name a few!)

It can be helpful to identify these groups of recurring symbols and then research their traditional meanings to get a baseline of what those symbols mean on their own.

3.    Compare the Symbols Across Tarot Cards

Now that you have an idea of what general Tarot symbols mean, it’s time to see how those meanings change in different contexts across the cards.

For example, let’s look at castles, which typically signify safety and stability.

Pull out all the Tarot cards that have castles on them. Examine each card carefully and reflect on how the meaning of the castle changes as you look at it across different cards.

For example, you might ask yourself:

  • Is the person in the card standing inside or outside of the castle walls?
  • Does the person feel included or excluded?
  • Does the person feel safe or unsafe?
  • What’s happening around the castle? (For example, in the Four of Wands, there is a celebration happening outside the castle. But in The Tower, the castle is tumbling down.)
  • Are castles really as safe and sturdy as they appear?

When you do this exercise, you’ll start to see that symbols can take on different meanings depending on how they’re presented in each card. 

4.    Explore Your Personal Connection with the Symbols

Now comes the fun part! Once you have a grasp on the traditional symbol meanings, you can start integrating your own intuitive hits into the mix.

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Again, let’s use castles as an example. In the Tarot, a castle typically represents a safe place since the walls around it are big and sturdy.

But because of past personal experiences in your own life, you might look at those castle walls and feel confined and constrained by them. So in your case, the castle symbol might actually have negative connotations.

Once you know the traditional meanings for each symbol, examine them all and explore how your personal interpretation differs from the collective meaning.

NOTE: Don’t worry if your personal interpretation is way off from the traditional meaning! Eventually, you’ll use both types of meanings to build a language that’s unique to you as a reader.

5.    Explore Further

Once you have the traditional and intuitive meanings down for the basic Tarot symbols, you might feel called to go deeper.

Tarot’s symbols are derived from a variety of ancient stories, myths, and traditions – from mythology to psychology to the Kabbalah and beyond.

So if you want to develop an extra layer of understanding, it would be helpful to read supplemental texts to give you further context for the rich symbolism underlying the Tarot. You might be amazed by what connections you make to the cards by reading books on mythology, religion, spirituality, and psychology.

6.    Create a Library of Symbols

As you’re exploring Tarot symbology, keep a notebook of the symbols you discover. Write down what they mean for you given both the traditional meanings and your intuitive interpretations. You might find that the meanings shift or change over time depending on how your understanding develops as a reader.

The beauty of this exercise is that you’re not relying on what someone else tells you; you’re growing your personal experience around these symbols as an evolving practice.

Remember – at the end of the day, it’s you as the Tarot reader who gets to decide what each symbol means for you, using what you learn about traditional meanings while also tapping into your intuition. There are no right or wrong answers – go with what feels right!

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