Mythic Storytelling: An Introduction to the Tarot

by Melanie Marttila
published in Writing

For my first Speculations of the new year (and decade) I’m starting a new short series. Periodically, I’ve tackled various mythic structures for storytelling: Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey, Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey, and Kim Hudson’s The Virgin’s Promise.

This time around, I’m exploring the tarot as a mythic storytelling tool. This will be a three-part series. In this first part, I’ll introduce you to the tarot. In part two, I’ll look at the various tarot books written with writers in mind. Finally, I’ll choose one method to explore the structure of a couple of well-known novels, one science fiction, and one fantasy.

Let’s get started.

The Origins of the Tarot

The basis of the tarot was a deck of playing cards, not dissimilar to the playing cards we know today. Instead of 52 cards (four suits, ace through ten, plus three face cards), however, the core of the deck was 56 cards. In this case, one, or ace through ten, plus four face cards, page, knight, queen, and king, per suit.

This deck of cards was brought to Italy, France, and Germany from the Islamic countries, some experts say Egypt, but it could easily have been Spain. In the other European countries, an additional 22 cards, called triumphs, or trumps, which had no suit, were added. The first tarot decks were recorded as being used in Italy around 1440. The game played with these cards was related to bridge and was variously called triumph, trionfi, tarocco, or tarock.

It would be three centuries before the tarot started to be used in cartomancy or reading the cards to tell the future. Again, Italy led the way with the first tarot cartomancy guidebook dating to 1750. The French would refine the process and deck through the remainder of the 18th century.

The Minor Arcana

The core deck I mentioned above is also called the minor arcana. Like our playing cards, it’s divided into four suits. These suits correspond not only to the suits you’re familiar with, but also elements and qualities.

Minor arcana suitsPlaying card suitsElementQualities
WandsClubsFireAction and creativity
CupsHeartsWaterEmotions and relationships
SwordsSpadesAirIntellect and logic
PentaclesDiamondsEarthWealth and practicality

The face or court cards are like character archetypes and though the queens may be the only identifiably female card, any of the court cards can represent either (or any) gender. Think of the court cards as representing a spectrum of experience and archetypal role.

The pages represent youthful or innocent characters, the knights are young adults entering the world and encountering its challenges, the queens are parental figures, and the kings are elders. Pair these with the elements and qualities identified with their respective suit, and you can identify archetypes like the young romantic (page of cups) or the crone (king of swords).

The Major Arcana

The 22 cards of the major arcana are numbered zero through 21. While each card has a specific meaning associated with it, people who read the cards for esoteric purposes, or for creative purposes, can simply look at the card and let their intuition lead them to its meaning.

0 – The Fool: Depicts a person walking, sometimes off a cliff, blithely unaware of what they’re getting into. Often accompanied by a small animal, occasionally harassed or held back by that animal. Represents inexperience, the beginning of a journey, or potential as yet untapped.

1 – The Magician: Shows a person with a wand and other tools of the magical trade. Somewhere in the picture is an infinity symbol, or lemniscate. The meaning is transformation, which is related to magic and alchemy. Also, the ability to change the world with knowledge. The magician could also be a charlatan.

2 – The High Priestess: Pictures a woman, sometimes seated. She could be wearing robes or a headdress. The original name of the card was the papess, or female pope. The card means hidden secrets, prophecy, revelations, or intuition.

3 – The Empress: A woman with a crown and sceptre. Representing creation and procreation, the empress is the mother of a nation. She protects and nurtures.

4 – The Emperor: Depicts a man with crown and sceptre, the defender of the realm. Could mean either the masculine virtues, or the masculine weaknesses.

5 – The Hierophant/Pope: Shows a pope, often blessing children. Means good advice or spiritual guidance.

6 – The Lovers: Two people accompanied by Cupid. Other than the obvious meaning, the card also conveys harmony, people working together toward a common goal, or opposites coming together for a greater purpose.

7 – The Chariot: The image is self-explanatory. Could mean travel or riding into battle.

8 – Strength: Usually depicts a woman holding open the jaws of a lion. The card means fortitude or calmness in the face of danger.

9 – The Hermit: Usually a male figure with a walking stick and lantern. Represents a mentor figure, the wisdom of age, or voluntary separation.

10 – The Wheel of Fortune: Depicts the wheel with animals or iconic figures at the four cardinal points. These will vary depending on the focus of the tarot deck. The wheel of fortune means the circle of life, changing circumstances (for better or worse), or evolution.

11 – Justice: Usually shows the scales, but sometimes the figure of justice or blind justice. It represents the law, fairness, and considered decision-making.

12 – The Hanged Man: The image is not what you’d expect, but shows a person hanging upside down from one foot. Generally does not actually mean punishment or hanging, but a change in perspective, self-sacrifice, or trials.

13 – Death: While the card depicts death or the grim reaper, its meaning isn’t literal. The death card means the end of something, loss, or stagnation.

14 – Temperance: This card can show a number of different images, but the meaning is balance, everything in moderation, waiting, or the deferral of a goal.

15 – The Devil: The images vary, but all depict a devil of some variety. Again, the meaning of this card is not literal. It means that a deal is made, or a bond is formed.

16 – The Tower: Shows a tower being struck by lightning and/or on fire. It means disaster or ruin. This is the big bad card of the deck (rather than death or the devil).

17 – The Star: Depicts either an actual star or a young woman. It represents hope or achieving one’s desires, but not in the expected way.

18 – The Moon: The images will show various representations of the moon. The card’s meaning is secrecy, deception, and the ability to see the truth.

19 – The Sun: Shows various depictions of the sun. The best card in the major arcana. It means happiness, peace, or the achievement of a goal.

20 – Judgment: Typically depicts some version of the Biblical judgement day. The meaning of the card is metaphorical, though. It means outcome or result.

21 – The World: While it may show an image of the world, it more often shows a person in harmony with the natural world. It means completion, success, or the proof of lasting change.

Next Time

If you’ve studied any of the mythic structures, you should be able to see similarities with some of the cards of the major arcana. The whole of the tarot is useful as a brainstorming or structuring tool. It can be used to help you through a block or difficulty in your story.

Next time, I’ll be looking at five books on using the tarot cards as a writer.

Until then, keep speculating and see where it leads you!


Melanie Marttila creates worlds from whole cloth. She’s a dreamsinger, an ink alchemist, and an unabashed learning mutt. Her speculative short fiction has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction Magazine, On Spec Magazine, and Sudbury Ink. She lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, where she spends her days working as a corporate trainer. She blogs at http://www.melaniemarttila.ca and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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