Most Tarot decks have 78 cards, divided into two groups called the Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. Although decks occasionally vary, the Major Arcana usually has 22 cards, and the Minor Arcana four suits of 14 cards each.
The four suits of the Minor Arcana are Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles, which correspond to the playing card suits clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds, respectively. In fact, regular playing cards can be read as Tarot cards. Playing cards lack the Major Arcana (Magician, High Priestess, Wheel of Fortune, Tower, etc.), but the Minor Arcana (and therefore a deck of regular playing cards) contains cards with very similar meanings to each of the Major Arcana cards.
New Tarot card decks are usually accompanied by a booklet on card meanings for that particular deck, written by the author of the deck, and many other books are available on Tarot card meanings in general. I've found that both the general meanings for a card and its specific Tarot deck meaning have something relevant to offer a reader.
Card Meanings vs. Intuition
Some Tarot instructors encourage students to develop psychic intuition rather than learn traditional Tarot card meanings. From personal experience, my belief is that intuition and card meanings both contribute to a good reading. Intuition can guide a reader to particular imagery on a card or somewhere in the surrounding environment, and provide insight about its meaning for a particular reading or psychic question, but often it helps to just know that an Empress card often means a pregnancy, that a Tower card usually means a divorce, job loss, or other disaster, that the Five of Pentacles typically means poverty or financial hardship whereas the Six of Pentacles points to charity or generosity. It may be possible to derive those concepts from straight psychic intuition without using card meanings, but knowing card meanings gives the reader more options. Why even bother including Tarot cards in a psychic reading if you're not going to use everything that they can offer? Card meanings, the particular deck's own card meanings, and psychic intuition can all be used in the same reading to understand concepts quickly and make the reading more enjoyable for the recipient.
I've received many readings over the years, from many different psychics. (In general, readers find it difficult to read for themselves objectively, and so it's considered ideal to have your own readings performed by someone else.) For the record, I've never had a "bad" reading -- all were varying degrees of "good." However, I did notice that some readers who relied exclusively on intuition sometimes missed important points by ignoring general card meanings. The very best readers I've had were able to do everything -- they knew traditional Tarot card meanings and had developed good psychic intuition as another layer, even communicated with the spiritual realm.
It's understandably difficult to remember all card meanings at once, there are just so many cards to learn! Even so, it is possible to give a good reading every time without knowing every meaning, by relying on visual imagery, psychic intuition, and spiritual guidance. Supplementing psychic intuition with card meanings that you already know is a good way to practice reading until more card meanings can be learned. Traditional card meanings are often not the real meaning of every, or even any, of the cards in a given reading. Rather they can be a quick guide to a card's meaning if your intuition tells you that the traditional card meaning is true in that particular reading.
Negative Card Meanings
Often beginners have trouble dealing with "scary cards." They don't like seeing the Tower, Death, the Devil, the Hanged Man, or even the Ace of Swords because those cards can mean something negative. There are even books on Tarot that completely dance around the negative aspects of cards, turning certain card meanings into nothing but positive actions to counteract negative circumstances. However, "scary cards" come up frequently because they're a part of normal life. The Tower card is especially common in readings for people who have been divorced, even if the focus of the reading is a person's financial situation and the divorce was part of a distant past, long forgotten. But there it is, in a position representing the past -- the Tower card. Some spirit guides just have to let the reader know that a person is divorced, for whatever reason.
Also, the Death card can often be positive because it's a card of transformation. It isn't uncommon when people are coming out of a stagnant period, reinventing themselves, even starting a new career that's a better match. The Devil card turns up quite a lot for people who are materialistic or have an addiction -- I've even had the Devil card come up as the significator in a reading given to me. Of course, the reader had little apparent psychic ability (I'd consider it to be the worst reading I've received... and still it wasn't a bad reading), and she assumed that it meant a drug problem. But in fact, at the time I was spending a lot of time decorating my new apartment. I took the Devil card to be a message from the spiritual realm that I was spending too much time and money on material pursuits, although anyone who's seen my web sites knows that creating a beautiful and artistic environment is important to me. Right after that "Devil" reading, I went down the street and bought another couple of cute items for my apartment...
For some readers, the difficulty with "scary" cards is in how to convey negative card meanings to the recipient of the reading. Different readers have different strategies -- some refuse to deliver bad news, others try to give the seeker an idea of how long the ordeal will last. Personally, I try to explore questions like why -- often life's difficulties are designed to be an education, a lesson learned spiritually or practically, possibly coming from a karmic cycle or a path to practical knowledge needed later in life.
Avoiding negative cards will be a difficult task for any reader who wants to be considered an accurate reader. A Tarot reader is a lot like a spiritual advisor or priest. People can pray, but for feedback from the spiritual realm, the psychic is the person to ask. Often people seek out a reader during the most difficult times of their lives -- they'll show up specifically because they've lost a job, because their kids are getting into trouble, because a spouse is threatening divorce. "Scary" cards turn up, because that's when people feel that they need a reader the most. Giving a good reading is a lot like being a good therapist -- exploring what's happening to a person, providing a listening ear, offering insights largely from psychic intuition or communication with spirit guides, even offering a prayer or other energy work to help the person feel better. Of course, sometimes those negative cards suggest problems that really are more than a reader can or should handle, and the only ethical thing to do is to suggest that the seeker consider professional services.
One Deck vs. Multiple Decks
Readers have different ideas on whether to use just one deck or many decks. Some point out, with pride, that a good reader just needs the one. The most expensive psychic I've met uses a really old basic Rider Waite deck. A few readers like to amaze everybody by only reading playing cards, as if to remind us that you don't even need a real Tarot deck. Reading playing cards can be quite a scholarly pursuit, as there aren't any pictures on the cards to help the reader remember meanings or visualize additional concepts. Aside from pride in being a minimalist, there's also a belief by some that that by using the same cards, the cards retain energy from past readings and draw better guidance.
Personally, while I can appreciate both opinions, I prefer the other option -- multiple decks. In fact, I consider selecting the deck(s) for a reading to be an important part of the intuition process, just as important as using intuition to select individual cards. A few other psychics ask seekers to select the deck from among several at the start of their readings. Selecting the "right" deck or decks for a particular reading should give the reader the best images to convey what the reader and seeker both need to know. I also prefer prettier decks -- if you're going to have a person stare at a table for a half hour or longer, do you really want a bunch of ugly cards laying there?
The rarest practice of all happens to be the technique that I like the most -- mixing decks. I will mix decks for some readings, but at most 3 or 4 in a single reading, and then I'll separate the decks back into their respective boxes. I select multiple decks by intuition -- for example if I feel that more than one deck is needed for a reading, or if I lay out a spread and then feel that to gather more detail I should pull more cards from a different deck. Because Tarot readings often deal with life's problems, I also like to end readings by pulling a few cards that point the reading toward positive action -- the oracle, angel, animal totem, manifestation, and similar self-help decks.
I only know of one psychic so far -- one of the best in Milwaukee -- who practices a technique where many decks are mixed permanently. Aside from providing the richest possible imagery to draw upon in one reading, the practice gives her the opportunity to come up with multiple instances of the same card in one reading, for example 2 or 3 Tower cards. That may seem pointless to some, until it's explained that some people are going through a job loss and a divorce and losing a house all at the same time. Multiple cards confirm and emphasize an important theme in the life of the person in front of them. In the case of multiple Tower cards, the person is probably having a rough time all around.
I have tried to provide the most common and general card meanings below. Many books on Tarot, especially those published recently, diverge from common meanings for many of the cards. Everyone seems to feel the need to do something different in order to be published, or to be noticed. I could try to compile a long, long list of various meanings for each card from many books, but at some point a card has to mean something. When you turn it over, you can't think of a hundred different definitions -- you simply need to know a handful of the most accepted meanings for that card, usually with a common theme to them. Otherwise, knowing the meanings wouldn't narrow things down at all.
Therefore I had to decide which meanings to use here. I wanted the most standard meaning for each, the one that most psychics would agree is the accepted meaning of a particular card when it turns up in their readings. I also weighted things somewhat toward the Rider Waite deck, as it's the most common and accepted deck among readers in the U.S. (Note: This site is still unfinished due to the amount of work involved, and so not all card meanings are available yet.)
Card Meanings Meanings below are derived from several books on general Tarot card meanings.
Click on links below for each card's page.