The Rider-Waite tarot, also called Rider-Waite-Smith, is probably the most popular tarot deck around the world for readings and divination. It is clearly dominant in most English-speaking countries, including the US and the UK. Even though its name is sometimes shortened as Rider or Rider-Waite, the proper name is the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot: Rider was the editor, Alexander Edward Waite was the author, and Pamela Coleman Smith was the illustrator. The aim of this article is to provide an overview of the 22 major arcana and their meaning in a reading. You might even want to try to perform your own reading after this!
Structure and history
The RWS tarot includes 78 cards (also called arcana): 22 major arcana and 56 minor arcana divided into 4 suits. While most tarot decks published before the Rider-Waite-Smith only had illustrations for the 22 major arcana (like the Marseille Tarot), this was one of the first fully illustrated tarot decks, minor arcana included.
This tarot was first published in London in 1909 by William Rider & son editions. It was designed by an occultist born in the US, Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942). The version US Games System Inc edited in 2009 is a commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the first publication of the deck. In this “centennial” version of the Rider-Waite-Smith, the cards were printed using the original color code for the deck. The author of the Rider-Waite-Smith, occultist A.E. Waite, wanted to break away from the Marseille tradition by replacing the heavily Christian-inspired illustration with more universal and pagan references.
0 – The Fool
Drawing this arcanum means that you should not follow pre-written rules in order to succeed and lead the kind of life that you want. It does not mean that you should break any law, but within the confines of the law you should set up your own principles in order to live your life in your own terms, according to your passions. This might make you a little quirky or eccentric (in that you will steer away from the beaten path) but you will not abuse others or harm them, just respect their own beliefs as you ask them to respect your own. The Fool does not care about earthly limitations, and constantly strives to overcome them. His eyes are looking up toward the divine and he urges you to do the same to lead an authentic life that matches your own principles. Have faith in yourself and act with spontaneous innocence. This is a card of new beginnings.
I – THE MAGICIAN
With one hand pointed at the sky and the other pointed at the ground, the Magician stands as an intermediary between the spiritual celestial plane and the human material plane. As such, he shares the secrets of the powers of the Higher Realms with Humankind. If you draw this arcanum, you will not only be filled with Divine Grace, but will also have a chance to make your dreams come true in concrete terms. The Magician symbolizes the required alliance within you between material and spiritual values if you want to lead a harmonious life. This is a rather positive major arcanum, an auspicious sign of favorable events. It also represents creativity, potential, and conscious awareness.
II – THE HIGH PRIESTESS
Drawing the High Priestess means that you should acquire more spiritual or occult knowledge in order to see beyond appearances in the outside world, so that you might understand the meaning of what is happening to you, and the psychology motivating people you are interacting with. The High Priestess is the keeper of the Temple of True Knowledge. It is a positive arcanum that symbolizes the importance of reflection when you are preparing a new project. It advises you to use your intuition and creativity in order to find a new path and lead your own life without caring about what others might think. The High Priestess is also a signal that any romantic relationship you are currently involved in is bound to last.
III – THE EMPRESS
Drawing the Empress is quite a favorable sign in any area where you need help and improvement: romance, finance, health, personal assets, luck… The Empress is also an indication that you should use your own skills more in order to further your project without being dragged down by your own fears. No matter what you might think, stop waiting for a 100% perfect plan before you act. It is pretty much impossible to find a solution to every variable and unexpected problem that might arise, so start acting now and stop delaying the inevitable. You will eventually overcome your obstacles as you go thanks to your personal resources, most notably your boldness and creativity. If you act this way then your projects will eventually come true. This is also a positive card for anything related to nature or motherhood.
IV – THE EMPEROR
The Emperor represents earthly power and the way you can use your own abilities in order to be successful in the world without turning your back to your spiritual aspect. If you sacrifice your values on the altar of earthly pleasures and possession, you will never find true happiness. To succeed, the Emperor tells you that you should rely on your strength of character, your willpower, and steadfastness in seeing your projects through. In order to achieve a high level of spirituality, the Emperor recommends you should further your knowledge and learn how to master your emotions. They keep you grounded on the earthly realm if you cannot get a hold of them and put them at your service. The Emperor is also a symbol of conviction you should use for your own projects. It is also a father figure and a representation of authority.
V – THE HIEROPHANT
The Hierophant is the symbol of the material power that lets you control the world around you and acquire material goods, but not only on a material goal, there is also a spiritual aspect. So, in order to take control of your own life, the Hierophant recommends that you should seek temporal power on earth but for altruistic purposes, for higher and non-egotistic goals, meant to do good for yourself, for your loved ones, or for humanity as a whole. The Hierophant advises you not to break any established rules in order to meet your goals. Likewise, you should not abandon your deepest convictions for spiritual or material goods you have been promised in return for your abandoned principles.
VI – THE LOVERS
This arcanum is a symbol of earthly love between two people, but that can only be achieved through genuine intellectual and spiritual harmony between them in addition to mere sexual attraction. If that is the only element, love will not last and trigger a lot of disappointment, maybe even a breakup. This arcanum with two characters is also a symbol of conflicting urges within a single human being, torn between good and evil, vices and virtues. Each must manage to avoid the first ones and practice the second ones because the actions we perform trigger consequences that have the same nature. If you have negative intentions, the consequences will be negative too. Conversely, if you act in a positive way, you will reap consequences of the same nature. This arcanum is not necessarily favorable. The Lovers might represent the passivity of people and urge them to be more active.
VII – THE CHARIOT
Drawing the Chariot indicates that you should be able to solve any problem that might rise, of a material or spiritual nature. Consequently, you should have a sharp and enlightened mind if you want to express your own abilities. This is how you will find solutions within yourself, even for questions you have been asking yourself or problems that have been unsolved for a very long time. If you want to do it, the Chariot recommends opening your mind to new solutions and celestial energies that will inevitably inspire you if you ask them for help with sincerity and conviction and promise to put these solutions into practice as soon as you can.
VIII – STRENGTH
Drawing Strength indicates you will not only need your physical strength to meet your goals and achieve your projects, but that your moral strength will also play an important part in achieving your goals. This is why you should dedicate all your physical and moral strength to the fulfillment of a single project. If you spread yourself think over several projects or try to fulfill too many desires at the same time, you will be less likely to achieve them. Focus on a single project like a laser beam. You will succeed even faster if you apply the great positive universal principles: kindness, empathy, strength, courage, boldness, confidence… Likewise, you will succeed in overcoming your own passions and will be in full control of your life.
IX – THE HERMIT
Drawing the Hermit indicates that you are close to the kind of life that you want, at the dawn of great spiritual enlightenment if you fully commit to it, doing every effort you can with the utmost conviction. The Hermit also indicates that you will soon make one of your dearest wishes come true, or be successful in a project that is important for you. The Hermit also tells you that in order to be successful, you should draw lessons from your past failures through thorough analysis. Do not put the blame for your own failings at other people’s feet and accept your share of responsibility. You will learn from it and avoid making the same mistakes again.
X – THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE
The Wheel of Fortune has nothing to do with Fortune as the accumulation of wealth, but rather with the “Fate” understanding of the word. The Wheel of Fate spins and reminds you that life is in constant motion and that nothing is ever fully set in stone. This is why you will sometimes need to question some principles that used to rule over your own actions if they failed to yield the results you expected from them. The Wheel of Fortune also asks you to keep an open mind and steer clear of the beaten path if you want to genuinely be happy in your own terms. Indeed, everyone is unique, and some principles that were useful for others might not be as effective for you. They should at the very least be adapted to your personality.
XI – JUSTICE
The name of this arcanum is an obvious hint that whenever you are drawing the Justice card, you should avoid injustice and be fair toward others at all times. Even when you are not responsible for a problem, do not react on the spot or root for vengeance or conflict. Like the scales of Justice, you should be impartial and righteous. Do not react violently to a verbal or physical assault, because you will throw fuel on the fire and only make things worse, triggering an even more violent response. This is how you can get stuck within a vicious circle of violence. If you do not want to be the victim of unfair treatment too, you should make sure you are fair yourself when you deal with others. Practice the virtues of honesty and equity instead.
XII – THE HANGED MAN
Contrary to what the representation of a man hanged in reverse might suggest, this arcanum happens to be a rather positive sign. From a second look, you notice how serene the man seems, and then you see the saintly halo around his head. This card aims to remind you that life can be fragile and that you should not live as if you were immortal! This means you should keep the value of human life in mind each and every day, stop wasting your time with the futile, and dedicate yourself to what truly matters to you. You can entertain yourself as long as you don’t waste too much time in useless occupations. They will not offer anything constructive on the path of life that you want to lead. You should see each day as a new opportunity to improve yourself.
XIII – DEATH
Just like the Hanged Man, the Death arcanum should not be seen as a sinister or grim symbol heralding an upcoming death in a literal meaning. It is a symbol of change, the “death” (abandon) of a former life leading to the birth of a brand new existence for you. Drawing the Death arcanum indicates that the time has come for you to make some essential changes in your life in order to turn your back on your currently unsatisfying life, taking a path that is better suited to you. However, you can only succeed in this transition if you agree to let go some of your current ideas and adopt new principles of life that are a better match for your personality and for the goals you are striving to achieve. Death also indicates that the times has come for you to let go purely materialistic values and look for something more spiritual.
XIV – TEMPERANCE
The figure on the arcanum of Temperance is represented with one foot in the water and one foot on the ground. It symbolizes how important it is to lead a harmonious life balancing reason and intuition. Drawing the Temperance card reminds you that you need to follow reason in order to harmonize your material life and make the right decisions there, while also using your intuition to walk forward on your spiritual path. According to the arcanum of Temperance, you can only reach higher spiritual enlightenment when you let go any overly materialistic principle and replace them with more spiritual values. The presence of the Temperance card in a drawing indicates that the time is right for such a shift in your values.
XV – THE DEVIL
Drawing the arcanum of the Devil indicates that you are bound to materialistic life and that it is high time to try and cultivate more spiritual values that would allow you to lead a more balanced and fulfilling life. You need to get rid of your material chains – which you can see in the picture – and stop making financial safety your only priority, for it is not enough to lead a balanced life. Anyone drawing this arcanum should detach themselves from their animal nature, and try to keep their emotions and urges in check. Barring that, they will be a slave to their materialistic life. Looking for wealth and the accumulation of material goods should always be done in parallel with a more spiritual process. This drawing indicates that you should not be content with earthly power if the price is your spiritual salvation. The Devil in a reading also indicates the need to avoid temptation and excess.
XVI – THE TOWER
Drawing the Tower indicates that you will lose something in the material world if your only driving force is based on materialistic principles. You might be up for a rough awakening if you forget the spiritual dimension that must also be kept in mind if you want to live a harmonious life. Granted, materialistic principles can be extremely useful in life, but they should not be held as immutable truths: their apparent universalism is an illusion meant to confuse you and let you believe that it is enough in and of itself to be happy. The presence of the Tower in a reading means that you are about to fall for that trap and that it is high time for you to get a hold on yourself. Barring that, you will be stuck in a world of illusions and earthly temptations without ever expressing your spiritual dimension.
XVII – THE STAR
Drawing this arcanum means that you should drink from the source of spiritual knowledge instead of focusing on materialistic values. You must flood yourself with positive values in order to be cleansed from negative tendencies and dispel what is clouding your mind. You will go beyond the world of appearances around you in order to make the right decisions when you need to. Always look for the light of Truth by harnessing noble values, don’t stay in the darkness of mistaken preconceived notions. Let go those that are wrong for you if they keep you away from the existence that you crave. There are signs that will be sent to you if you have a hard time deciding what is right for you or knowing which way to go toward the Light of Truth.
XVIII – THE MOON
The arcanum of the Moon indicates that you should summon the resources of your imagination in order to change what you do not like in your existence. You should not, however, be passive or spend your time daydreaming when you use your reflection and creativity, if you take too long to make your decisions. Change can only happen through action that must follow your reflection. If you only stay in a theoretical level without any action, you will waste your time and energy for nothing. Think about your own past. The time has come for you to analyze it serenely, and any past mistake or failure is irrelevant as long as you can analyze them and avoid making the same mistakes again.
XIX – THE SUN
This arcanum tells you that you need to set yourself free from the yoke of the material world and look at the world around you just as it is, and not as you perceive it through the filter of your conditioned mind. To that end, you need to restore a pure and innocent mind by relearning how to appreciate the simple things in life, and life itself. Start by loving yourself first, because if you don’t love yourself you won’t be able to truly love anyone else, or make the most of the beauty and wonder that can be found in the world. Drawing the arcanum of the Sun is a positive sign in any context, and a suggestion that you should start a new project or try and move forward with an existing one. The Sun in a tarot reading can positively influence any aspect of your life: romance, job, health, or money.
XX – JUDGEMENT
The horn of Judgement does not necessarily herald the end of the world, but it sounds as a warning call for you recommending that you should go beyond your limitations, transform your flaws, and improve your existence. Do not let your own limitations block you. They should not be seen as an end, in and of itself, but as an obstacle to overcome in order to improve your living conditions. You should not see them as barriers but as challenges to achieve. The horn of Judgement heralds the arrival of events that will teach you how to go beyond your own limitations. You can decide to tackle this challenge head on, or… pass. But if you do, the same kind of problems will eventually resurface, and they will be even harder to solve. You should deal with it as soon as you can.
XXI – THE WORLD
This arcanum represents a pure young lady and urges you to find back a kind of purity, letting go of your earthly illusions in order to live in better harmony with your inner self and the world. To do so, you should use your own qualities in order to do good all around you on earth. The presence of the World in a reading indicates the arrival of an extremely favorable and auspicious period for you. This means that you need to be bold in order to make your dreams come true. You should experience several happy events in your favor, but you will still need to act in order to make the most of it and reap material and spiritual goods and advantages from it. Trust yourself, take the initiative if you have to. You should have a lot of inspiration that should facilitate the success of your projects.
Do tarot cards tell the truth?
Yes, Tarot cards will unveil your inner truth. You will find it when you use the arcana of the Tarot to discover your hidden abilities and learn what you should do in order to change your life. Even if this article only provides a broad overview of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, you can give it a try. Think about a question that matters to you. Let yourself be drawn to one of the arcana described above using your intuition, and try to see how it applies to your current situation.