Tarot Basics- A Picture Tells A Thousand Words

One of the best things about reading tarot is the art work on each deck. If you’ve got the keywords down pat, or you don’t want to go with keywords at all, all you need to do is look at the picture on each card. They are wonderfully individual, beautifully symbolic, rich with layers of meaning. It is not unheard of to collect tarot decks for their art alone. In short, a picture tells a thousand words. Each deck speaks with a different voice, and while they may all have similar messages, they do tell those messages very individually.

Let’s look at the Fool of three of my favourite decks. The Rider-Waite, the Fey and the Whimsical. All very different decks with completely different ‘voices’. Each shows a single figure, each is numbered 0. But that’s pretty much it for surface similarities.

The Rider-Waite and the Whimsical (the left and right card respectively) both show a figure about to take a step into the void. The Fool in the Whimsical is chasing a butterfly but the Fool of the Rider-Waite seems to be busy rhapsodising to himself, so wrapped up in whatever is going on in his head he doesn’t see the danger he is in. This suggests that the Rider-Waite’s Fool is a little more self involved then the Fool in the Whimsical. At least the Fool in the Whimsical is chasing something- it may be an ephemeral something, a dream or a hope represented by the butterfly, but it is something.

Both figures have loyal dogs. The Rider-Waite’s is white and the Whimsical’s is black. It isn’t clear if the dogs are barking to warn their Fool’s of the imminent danger- certainly, the Rider-Waite’s dog seems more enthusiastic. But that enthusiasm could be encouragement to take that step as much as caution about the danger. The Whimsical’s little black dog seems more cautious- he can see the flames that the Strawman Fool is about to leap into but he seems uncertain about doing anything about it. In both cases the dog could represent a friend or an aspect of the enquirer’s own self.      

The Fey’s Fool (the centre card) is altogether different. He seems a little like Shakespeare’s Hamlet (“alas poor pumpkin, I knew you well”) but interestingly, he is covered with keys. His crown has a keyhole but we don’t know whether one of his key’s fits the hole or if he just has a thing for keys and keyholes. Perhaps he’s asking the pumpkin for answers. The Fey’s Fool is still rather self involved. Is he expecting the pumpkin to answer back? Does he see himself in the carved pumpkin face? He is resting his hand on his chest in a rather ubiquitous sign of referring to himself. Maybe he’s just explaining something about who he is, maybe he’s telling that pumpkin why he’s got all those key’s- what ever he’s doing he is certainly talking about himself.

So each of our Fool’s is in one way or another wrapped up in their own heads. They are all at the beginning of the Fool’s journey. The Fey’s Fool by looking inward, trying to explain himself to himself, the Rider-Waite’s Fool by looking outward at what a glorious and wonderful world it is out there and what his place in it is. The Whimsical’s Fool is wrapped up in chasing his dreams, focused, to the exclusion of all else, on catching that impossible dream.

You can see from just these three different decks that there are many layers to each card meaning, and many meanings for each different deck. Take the time to explore the art on your cards and you’ll find many more layers then you ever thought possible. 16 years after I first picked up a deck and I still find new layers of meaning in the art of my different decks.


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