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An Overview of the Tarot’s Anatomy for Writers

Updated: Nov 13, 2022

On last week's post, The Tarot Closet, I briefly introduced writers to the anatomy of a traditional tarot deck, with regard to the “hanging a work of art” analogy. Today’s Magic Monday post examines the physical and symbolic aspects of the cards in greater detail.

If you are a writer who has little to no understanding of tarot cards, this post is designed to educate you. On the other hand, if you are a writer who has a seasoned grasp of the tarot, this post is designed as a refresher; perhaps you might even discover a new way of thinking about the cards.

Physical Anatomy

As mentioned last week, the tarot is a set of 78 paper cards that, when arranged together, form a book. This book contains two sections: the major arcana and the minor arcana. Although illustrations will vary from deck to deck, in today’s post I am focusing heavily on traditional imagery designed by Pamela Colman Smith, “Pixie,” whom I will write more about on February 7, so please stay tuned for that story.

Each tarot card displays illustrations, which were/are typically designed with common, religious, numerological, and astrological symbolism. The Smith-Waite Tarot, for example, was illustrated by Pixie in 1909, according to ideas written by Arthur Edward Waite. For a comprehensive history of the tarot, including how the cards were derived from a French card game known as “tarrochi,” I recommend reading Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, A Tarot Journey to Self-Awareness, by Rachel Pollack, among other books. You can find a short, recommended reading list at the end of this post.

As for the deck’s structure, let’s take a look at the sections and what they symbolize.

Major Arcana Etymology

The origin of the word arcana dates back to the mid-sixteenth century and combines the Latin word arcanus with the English word arcane to produce arcana. Meaning “secrets or mysteries,” the first 22 cards of the tarot deck represent familiar archetypes and big picture themes. Beginning with the number zero—where all things are possible—this is the Fool’s Journey. Sounds familiar, right? The Hero’s Journey... more to come on the comparison in future posts!

To highlight a few figures along the Fool’s Journey, the following list consists of the first five cards of the major arcana. The list includes archetypes and interpretations that come to mind when I consider these cards. Please note, while many individuals assign traditional, fixed male and female genders to tarot figures, I choose to regard them as gender-fluid, allowing infinite possibilities for interpretation, no matter how the cards appear on my writing desk.

0. The Fool is an adventurer, a person who is brave and takes risks. They are at the start of a great journey.

1. The Magician is, well, a magician. This person uses the tools laid before them to make magical things happen.

2. The High Priestess is a mystical seer. This person represents intuition, the conscious mind versus the unconscious mind, hidden ideas to discover.

3. The Empress is a creator like you and me. They are poised and confident, applying what they have learned and manifesting beauty and abundance.

4. The Emperor is a ruler or leader. They are grounded in their resolve, unwavering and unthreatened by other individuals or circumstances.

Minor Arcana Etymology

Meaning “lesser secrets,” the minor arcana includes 56 cards that illustrate day-to-day considerations, such as home, work, emotions, relationships, enterprise, desire, change, thought, and conflict. Also referred to as “the pips,” the minor arcana cards are organized by suit: cups, pentacles (or coins), swords, and wands. Additionally, the suits each represent an element: cups = water, pentacles = earth, swords = air, and wands = fire, with you being the fifth element, spirit.

Within each suit, you will find 10 pips and four court cards, or “courts,” such as the Page, Knight, Queen, and King. As an example, the following diagram shows the cups suit.

Like literature, the tarot is full of archetypes and themes that mimic real and/or imagined life. What’s more, not only do traditional tarot cards (like the Smith-Waite) align with the elements, but they correspond with numerology and they evoke a plethora of keywords. As you might expect, discussing these specifics would mean this blog post becomes a thesis. If you would like to dive deeper into the tarot, see my recommended reading list. Otherwise, for the sake of staying “out of the weeds,” I will conclude today’s post with recommended decks I believe are best for writers when using the tarot to drive creativity and sharpen intuition.

While there are likely thousands of tarot decks that include modern imagery, as a writer my favorite “starter decks” include Pamela Colman Smith’s traditional illustrations. It is my opinion that once you have become familiar with Pixie’s imagery, you can feel increased confidence in learning how to work with more modern images. After all, many contemporary tarot deck creators use the traditional structure as the foundation for their designs.

Considering these details, my three favorite tarot decks for writers are:

1. You guessed it, the borderless Smith-Waite Tarot—the colors are cool and smooth, easily found in real life as well as in fantasy.

2. Modern Witch Tarot—a GORGEOUS deck rich with gender non-binary imagery (and the backs are haint blue).

3. Tarot Vintage—a deck with muted colors that aren’t as harsh as more common decks like the Rider-Waite or Rider Waite Smith tarot decks.

A Note on My Preference and Why

Although the names sound like the Smith-Waite deck I've mentioned several times to this point, I do not recommend the Rider-Waite and/or Rider Waite Smith tarot decks. Sure, these widely popular and accessible decks are all based on Pixie’s illustrations, however, I do not recommend them (for writers or otherwise) for many reasons.

First, to me, the colors are stark and garish, and sometimes the decks reek of printer ink. Now, I love color! But sometimes too much is just too much... insert a certain Michael Scott joke here.

Secondly, the artist is not represented in these decks (Rider-Waite) or she is listed last (Rider Waite Smith), and in my opinion, this is a disrespectful oversight, if not intentional. Quite frankly, because Pamela Colman Smith was a woman of color, and women of color are grossly underrepresented in the arts, I choose to celebrate Pixie by purchasing traditional decks that include her name at the forefront where it belongs, rather than similarly issued decks with only her male counterparts' names.

Writers, no matter which deck you choose, the most important aspect of the selection process is to go with what feels right to YOU. Which images resonate most with you? What themes strike your interest and best align with your unique writing style? After all, you have to connect with your deck in order to be inspired by its art.

On Writer Wednesday, I will identify best practices for introducing the cards to your writing practice. This will include clearing your space (physical and mental), shuffling, storytelling with the cards, and what in the world it means when a card turns upside down.

Recommended Reading: A Deep Dive into the Tarot

  • Tarot: No Questions Asked, by Theresa Reed

  • Modern Tarot, by Michelle Tea

  • Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, by Rachel Pollack

  • Holistic Tarot, Benebell Wen

In her more than thirty years as a storyteller and visual designer, Amanda “Mandy” Hughes has written and designed over a dozen works of upmarket, literary, and women’s fiction under pen names A. Lee Hughes and Mandy Lee.

Mandy is the founder of Haint Blue Creative, a space for readers and storytellers to explore, learn, and create. Although she earned a Bachelor and Master of Science in Psychology, she has yet to figure out her family, much less herself.

When she’s not writing, Mandy loves going to the movies, theater, traveling, nature walks, birdwatching, margarita-making, and binge-watching The Office. She is a tarot enthusiast who uses the cards to promote wellness and enhance creativity. She lives in Georgia with her husband and four boys, two of whom are furrier than the others (but not by much). Visit her website at and follow her on Instagram @haintbluecreative.

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