The Spirit of the Tarot
The Search for God's Picturebook

Signs and Symbols

With the introduction of magic and occult interpretations of the Tarot in 18th century France, additional signs and symbols were added to the cards to help a student or reader.
In the decks by Etellia, names were added to the card, whether upright or reversed, to assist with an interpretation. Hebrew letters were added for each of the Major Arcana, 22 letters for each letter in the alphabet and each card. The letters in  turn corresponded to the paths or channel of the Tree of Life or Sephorah, a key teaching of the Jewish Kaballah. The letters and the paths were a way of signifying the paths of understanding leading to the highest mystical level.

In England, manuscripts written by Kenneth MacKenzie, based on his studies in France with Eliphas Levi, became the basis for the founding of the New Order of the Golden Dawn.  The secret society, having around 100 members at one point, adapted the understanding of magic to their interpretation. Ultimately, these intense studies led to the creation of a number of influential Tarot decks, the Smith-Waite and the Aleister
Crowley-Frieda Harris Thoth deck. From these two decks, with contributions from the Marseille tradition, a flow of incredible Tarot decks began to emerge to meet the interest in the New Age and beyond.

Along with numbers and Hebrew letters, astrological, alchemical signs, and set colors were assigned to the cards. Some designers added other features, such as musical chords and the I Ching. 

Manly P. Hall, focused on meditation with the cards, added a unique symbol to each card in the deck created by him and the artist J. Augustus Knapp.  The meaning of these
symbols are not obvious. Apparently, they were in part supplied by the work of F. Homer Curtis and his wife Sarah (Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett, A History of the Occult Tarot, 2002, p 244).  They require both informed study and thought.

Stepping back, the figurative images based on the Marseille and other European traditions, are continually modified, usually following traditional meanings but sometimes adding new elements.  Sometimes they are biographical, as with the Women of Science Tarot, the Bay Area Tarot, and may just include a single replacement, as with Paul Case as the Hierophant in the B.O.T.A. deck. Various divinities are also used.

David Barrett  explains that “many of the major arcana show an archetype—a figure who represents the entire essence of a type of person. Archetypes include the warm, nurturing mother figure; the strong firm authority figure; the traditional, formal religious leader; or the mystical, mysterious, magical person. An archetype might represent a real person, a part of yourself, or an abstract symbol in your life. “(Tarot, The Predictions Library, 1995, p 22.)

Ithell Colquhoun dispensed with figurative imagery in the design of her cards, using the method of autonomism to “unconsciously” paint all  78 cards with enamel. She followed the color system developed by the Golden Dawn.

Occasionally, an extra two or four cards will be added that seem to fill a need. Examples include “Mentors” with the Parrot Tarot; the grace cards in the  The Sacred India Tarot, Blessings of Ganesha and Blessing  of Babaji; and the four with the Awakening Aeon TarotThe Great Work, The White Whole, The Work of Greater Understanding, and The Oracle Within.

Finally, the suits in the minor arcana may be renamed. They usually are wands, cups, swords, and pentacles. Eden Gray observes “the symbolism of the numeral cards by
applying the Pythagorean decad to four realms: enterprise (Wands), emotions (Cups), force (Swords), and material gain (Pentacles).” 

However, different systems apply other interpretations to these suits or change the suits, sometimes completely new arrangements, as with The Brady Tarot: feathers for wands/fire; horns, cups/water; arrows, swords/air; roots, coins/earth.

“The Tarot should be approached as a sacred book, primarily intended to illumine the mind through the instrument of a mathematically ordered symbolism.”

Manley P. Hall, Introduction, The Revised New Art Tarot: Mysticim and Qubalah in the Knapp-Hall Tarot, 1985.

In the Knapp-Hall Tarot first published in 1929, Hall had different symbols for meditation included on the cards. On the Major Arcana, the symbols are inserted in shields. In the Minor arcana the symbols are placed within different forms: swords, no borders; cups, vesica piscus; coins, within squares; batons, triangles; and astrological signs.

In X La Roue de Fortune (below), a shield with a pyramid of dots, the tetractys, Pythagoras symbol of the world. “This world consisted of one spirit, or life, which manifested through duality and created the three worlds, which in turn are revealed physically through the four elements. In the tetractys,  is contained the entire wisdom of mankind, so the wheel sets forth to the informed the entire enigma of life.”  (Hall, p 95)


“Still, in spite of the occult clutter that I found surrounding the Tarot, the twenty-two great trumps continued to haunt me. The Fool, the Magus, the Hanged Man, the Tower…there clings to such images the popular attraction of all great symbol systems. Astronomy, alchemy, the I Ching, the iconography of the major religions—all have acquired over the generations a compelling glamor, a vast rhapsodic resonance, along with a tantalizing elusiveness…Over the years the images grow with us, changing as we change, often mysteriously seeming to anticipate what life brings us.”

Theodore Roszak, Fool’s Cycle/Full Cycle: Reflections on the Great Trumps of the Tarot, Robert Briggs Associates, 1988, p 2.

Know Thyself, Card in the B.O.T.A deck, Builders of the Adytum, 1929. Used with permission of Builders of the Adytum, Ltd.
8 of Micro, Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (1921 – 2011), Women of Science Tarot, Illustrated by Matteo Farinella for Massive Science, MIT Press, 2018-2023. Used with permission.
The High Priestess The Priestess of the Silver Star, Ithell Colquhoun, Taro as Colour, Fulgur Press, 2022. Used with permission.
4-The Emperor-Parrot Tarot
V Emperor, Parrott Tarot Deck, Margaret Parrott (artist) with Thom Parrott, S.S. Adams Co., no date. Exhibiting for educational purposes.
7 Chariot-Alchemical Tarot Renewed
VII Le Chariot, Alchemical Tarot of Marseille, Robert M. Place, Hermes Publications, 2021. Copyright Robert M. Place. Used with permission.
X The Wheel-Knapp-Hall Tarot
X La Roue De Fortune, The Knapp-Hall Tarot Deck, Philosophical Research Society, 2001. Exhibiting for educational purpioses.