Tarot Guide: Breaking down the System of the Cards

“The true Tarot is symbolism; it speaks no other language and offers no other signs. Given the inward meaning of its emblems, they do become a kind of alphabet which is capable of indefinite combinations and makes true sense in all.” A. E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot

Many people read and study Tarot purely based on intuition. While Tarot does require a certain amount of intuition, it is also based on a system of objective symbolism. The system of Tarot we know today goes back to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; which is why I will refer to it as the “Golden Dawn system” in this post. This system includes the Hebrew alphabet and astrology(including the decans of each zodiac!). Both Major Arcana and the suits of the Minor Arcana can be attributed to the kabbalistic Tree of Life.

Studying the symbolism which makes up an objective meaning for each card is almost essential in order to became a good Tarot reader.

If you are reading from a particular deck, I also advise to read the corresponding book to it; since many authors of Tarot decks also wrote a book that goes along with it. Certain books that come to mind are “The Pictorial Key to the Tarot” by A. E. Waite for the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck and “The Book of Thoth” by Aleister Crowley for the Thoth Tarot deck. Keep in mind that most Tarot decks today are based on the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck, therefore “The Pictorial Key to the Tarot” is almost an essential read.

In order to study the system of Tarot however I highly recommend “The Hermetic Tarot” by Godfrey Dowson since it lays out the Golden Dawn system(which the RWS Tarot is also based on!!) out perfectly. This goes for both advanced and beginner readers.

The Major Arcana

The Major Arcana are 22 cards. These cards are all numbered and start with “0-The Fool”, ending with “XXI-The World”; this goes into something called “The Fool’s Journey”. “The Fool” starts off and makes a journey through each card in the Major Arcana, ending with “The World”. This “journey” becomes apparent when you study the symbolism of Kabbalah and astrology, which makes up the whole system of Tarot.

“The Magician” in different decks following the Golden Dawn system; “Rider-Waite-Smith”, “The Hermetic Tarot”, “Golden Dawn Magical Tarot”, “Thoth Tarot”

Each of these cards corresponds to a letter in the Hebrew alphabet; which in turn has their own meaning within Kabbalah and therefore give each Major Arcana card part of its divinatory meaning. This goes further into astrology and the elements. Each Major Arcana either corresponds to one of the traditonal planets(read into traditional astrology for this!), an element or a zodiac. Note that only three of the four elements are attributed to the Major Arcana. This means: 12 cards for each zodiac + 3 cards for an element + 7 cards for each planet = 22 cards each with their own divinatory meaning.

So this means the Hebrew letters, the astrology and elements make up the meaning of each Major Arcana card. Knowing astrology and at least a little bit of Kabbalah certainly helps if you want to understand the objective meaning of each card!

The Minor Arcana

The Minor Arcana are made up of Swords, Wands, Pentacles and Cups. Each of these has cards ranging from an “Ace”(one) to the number 10; as well as a “Princess”(Rider-Waite-Smith deck calles them “Pages”), “Knight”, “King” and “Queen”.

First let’s examine the suits from 1-10. Each suit starts of with an “Ace” symbolizing the pure element of each suit: Air(Swords), Fire(Wands), Earth(Pentacles), Water(Cups). The “Ace” is meant to be the element in its pure and unchanged form; which then transforms and materializes through the 10s. After the “Ace” the element/suit goes through its astrological triplicity, starting with the cardinal signs, going into the fixed signs and ending with the mutable signs!

For example, let’s take Swords(Air):

2-4 of Swords – Libra; 5-7 of Swords – Aquarius; 8-10 of Swords – Gemini. Now, as you have noticed, each sign has three cards. This goes into the (chaldean)decans of the zodiac; meaning 10 degrees of each zodiac correspond with one card!

“Ace of Swords”, “Four of Swords and “Ten of Swords” in The Hermetic Tarot

Let’s take the Sword from 2-10 in order to demonstrate this. If you read from the Hermetic Tarot, the “Ace of Swords” already tells us that this suit corresponds with the element of air, meaning we go by the air signs of the zodiac:

  • 2 of Swords – The first 10 degrees of Libra -> Decan of Moon
  • 3 of Swords – The next 10 degrees of Libra -> Decan of Saturn(this is why the 3 of Swords is associated with heartbreak and sadness!)
  • 4 of Swords – The last 10 degrees of Libra -> Decan of Jupiter
  • 5 of Swords – The first 10 degrees of Aquarius -> Decan of Venus
  • 6 of Swords – The next 10 degrees of Aquarius -> Decan of Mercury
  • 7 of Swords – The last 10 degrees of Aquarius -> Decan of Moon
  • 8 of Swords – The first 10 degrees of Gemini -> Decan of Jupiter
  • 9 of Swords – The next 10 degrees of Gemini -> Decan of Mars
  • 10 of Swords – The last 10 degrees of Gemini -> Decan of Sun

This goes for each suit! Air signs for Swords, fire signs for Wands, water signs for Cups and earth signs for Pentacles.

The Court Cards

The court cards do go by elements, astrology as well as Kabbalah similar to any other card in the Tarot. As many of you probably know, the court cards go by the element of their respective suit. Additional to this the Golden Dawn system attributes a secondary element to the court cards:

Court cards of the Swords in “The Hermetic Tarot”

As you can see on the upper right corner of the cards, each court card of the Swords corresponds with air – which is the element of its respective suit! On the upper left corner you will see another element. Each court card, no matter what suit it belongs to will have the following additional elements. The court cards also represent the Tetragrammaton as well, which in turn is kabbalisitc. Yod and Wav are associated to the male cards of the Knights and Kings, while the two Hehs are associated with the female cards of Queens and Princesses.

So the kabbalistic and elemental associations of the court cards regardless of suit are the following:

  • Knights: Yod – Fire
  • Queens: Heh – Water
  • Kings: Wav – Air
  • Princesses: Heh – Earth

As you can see, “The Hermetic Tarot” also has zodiac signs on each court card except the princesses. Knights, Queens and Kings all rule three decans, so the zodiac you see on the card indicates what decans the card rules. For instance the Queen of Swords rules the last decan of Virgo and the first two decans of Libra. This also gives you clues to the divinatory meaning of each court card.


Studying the Tarot takes a lot of time and effort as it combines elements of astrology and Kabbalah into one single system. I recommend “The Hermetic Tarot” by Godfrey Dowson in order to study this system to its entirety. You have all correspondences on each card and a decent booklet that comes with the deck.

I would like to note that this post only covers the basics of Tarot and is supposed to introduce you to the study of this beautiful system. I will list several recommendations for this study as well as several Tarot decks below.

Specific literature:

  1. “The Pictorial Key to the Tarot” by A. E. Waite.
  2. “The Book of Thoth” by Aleister Crowley.

For the study of astrology and the magical system in general:

  1. “Christian Astrology” by William Lilly.
  2. “De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres” or “Three Books of Occult Philosophy” by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa.
  3. “Timaeus” by Plato.
  4. “The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic” by Israel Regardie.
  5. renaissanceastrology.com by Christopher Warnock.

Recommended Tarot decks for study:

  1. “The Hermetic Tarot” by Godfrey Dowson.
  2. “Thoth Tarot” by Aleister Crowley. Please note that Crowley incorporated a lot of thelemic philosophy into this deck!
  3. “Golden Dawn Magical Tarot” by the Ciceros.

Heavily illustrated decks; less ideal for study:

  1. “Intiatory Tarot to the Golden Dawn” by Giordano Bert and Patrizio Evangelisti.
  2. “Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot” by A. E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith.

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