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Tarot Motifs

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"Whatcha doin'?" "Oh, just hanging around."
"The tarot will teach you how to create a soul."
The Alchemist, The Holy Mountain

The Tarot (pronounced "TA-row" — rhymes with "sparrow") is a very popular motif in the Urban Fantasy, Ontological Mystery, and Horror genres. It can be used by references or as an item in the setting itself. And, of course, it can be merchandised for fun and profit.

The Tarot is a deck of cards which evolved in parallel with the Card Games during the Renaissance (although expect its source to be much more ancient in any setting that likes Ancient Conspiracy and old mythological references). They're made of 22 Major Arcana and 4 suits of 14 Minor Arcana.

The cards are named after the games they were (and still are) used to play, e.g. "French Tarot" and "Tarocchini" among others, wherein the cards of the so called "Major Arcana" were used as trump cards of different ranks (until the 1700s they were just called trump cards). Any and all mysticism surrounding the cards seems to have originated in the English-speaking world during the 18th century, specifically the 1780s. This probably had to do with the publication of some very popular writings (pro and con) by Protestant clerics and Freemasons who had made extensive studies of the cards. A clergyman-Freemason scholar, Antoine de Gebelin, wrote about Tarot in 1781 in his book The Primitive World, a hugely influential study on supernatural belief. Eliphas Levi's 1850s textbooks on Ritual Magic first identified the cards as an esoteric key. The original games are mostly trick-taking games in the same vein as bridge and whist, and are still played in France, Italy, central Europe, and occasionally Canada. (Tarot decks used for divining, however, are seldom suitable for gaming purposes, being rather hard to read when fanned out in a hand rather than spread on the table.)

In pop culture, tarot decks are almost always exclusively built of Major Arcana, when they even bother with details like actually sticking to cards one can find in actual tarot decks. Viewers Are Morons, after all, and drawing Death is far more dramatic than stopping to explain what, exactly, the Ten of Swords actually means, which is far more symbolic of actual literal death than Death (who is more a symbol of abrupt end and sudden change, which doesn't have to be bad).

There's a variety of older decks with different forms, but the most anciently fixed Tarot is the Tarot de Marseille with the 4 suits and 22 major arcana. The Rider-Waite Tarot (1910) was the first to put pictures on the Minor Arcana and is also an influential model for all Anglo-Saxon Tarots. The most influential modern Tarot is probably Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot Deck (1943), which keeps the Waite format but tweaks the symbolism and changes several names; Justice (XI) becomes Adjustment (VIII), switching with Strength (VIII), which becomes Lust (XI), for example, while the familiar Waite court cards are replaced by Princes, Princesses, Knights, and Queens. note 

As any magician worth their salt will make up a personalized tarot out of whatever symbols they prefer, there's a lot of other tarots recently made that do not fit to those patterns (from slight alteration to wild differences; this is an online example of one such). The quote by Eliot above is an example of entirely made up Tarot cards mixed with actual ones. Diana Wynne Jones observed, in The Tough Guide To Fantasy Land, that High Fantasy Tarot decks have up to ten suits, plus wild cards and trumps, and appear to have only aces and court cards. This is not limited to High Fantasy.

The Tarot borrows a lot of symbolism from most of the Western hermeticism and mythology (decks prior to Rider-Waite were even typically based on Roman Catholic themes and symbolism), so expect crossover imagery.

See also Themed Tarot Deck for Real Life tarot decks modified, often with characters from fiction shoehorned into the different roles.

For more details on the traditional meanings see Tarot Cards.

For actual Tarot readings, accurate or not, see Tarot Troubles. See also/compare Astrologer.

Example subpages:

Other examples:

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    Films — Animated 
  • In The Princess and the Frog, when Dr. Facilier reads Naveen and Lawrence's futures, no cards are named, but we clearly see The Fool, Three of Pentacles, and the Tower in Naveen's hand, while Lawrence is almost a replica of Ten of Wands - mirroring their situations in life perfectly. And it gets better. Naveen's hand also shows a card of himself between two lovely ladies, which resembles The Lovers. However, the number itself on the card is XV - the number of the Devil, symbolizing temptation and a need for self-control. Next the card flips into something with a IX on it, probably the Nine of Pentacles (physical independence from marrying a wealthy woman). The final card shows a man on a lily pad surrounded by small green rectangles, and its number is 0 (The Fool). It all works, and it's not a little delightful.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Choose Love: Cami visits a psychic who tells her that she will have three suitors corresponding to The Magician, The Fool, and the Knight of Swords. Cami later associates these cards with Paul, Rex and Jack respectively.
  • One modern deck, often marketed as the Tarot of the Witches, was actually designed for the James Bond film Live and Let Die. Early versions even had the 007 logo on the back, like in the film.
  • The Star Wars movies feature tarot imagery. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is constantly in Hanged Man poses - hanging in the cave, floating in the bacta tank, upside down on Dagobah, swinging from the vane beneath Cloud City. The motif is appropriate to Luke's spiritual transition from brash kid to wise Jedi and the sacrifice, of both his hand and his innocence, that accompanies that transition.
    • Not to mention that Vader and Yoda are pretty clearly Death and Hermit archetypes. Yoda even waves one of Luke's penlights around in lieu of a lantern.
    • Leia as card VII, The Chariot; 'Get that walking carpet out of my face!'
    • What about sabacc in the EU? The names have been changed, such as "Moderation" instead of Temperance and "the Evil One" instead of the Devil. The Lando books even have him using his deck in this way.
  • The opening credits for the Disney film The Haunted Mansion (2003) feature three tarot cards representing the tale of Master Gracey and his lost love: The Lovers, Death, and the Three of Swords (which represents loss and sorrow).
  • The Ninth Gate includes extensive Tarot imagery, both for actual characters and situations. For example, a minor character is killed and his body is found looking exactly like the Hanged Man, (also reflecting one of the illustrations in the book) while Balkan's death occurs in a Tower ravaged by flame after he becomes too proud, and numerous characters are analogs of various cards, including: Boris Balkan as the Magician, Baroness Kessler as the High Priestess, Mrs. Telfer as, depending on your interpretation, either the Empress or a new, younger High Priestess, Vargas as Death, (his entire family, estate, everything around him is physically dead, and it's when the main character examines his copy of the book that he starts going from just doing a job to being interested in what's really happening) and perhaps also the Hermit, while Corso is the story's Fool with Hidden Depths... really hidden depths in some interpretations. (Like the one that says that Corso is actually Satan and has undergone a Gambit Roulette and Memory Gambit to return to heaven. The book is supposed to "raise the devil" and so it does, by showing him the way back home). (For a bonus, the knapsack Corso which one character remarks on and notes that he seems to take it everywhere even mirrors the one the Fool traditionally carries).
  • The Holy Mountain: The Tarot is a major theme throughout the entire film.
  • Now You See Me: The Eye first contacts the horsemen by giving them tarot cards — The Lovers (Daniel), The High Priestess (Henley), The Hermit (Merritt), and Death (Jack). This extends to Dylan, the "fifth horseman", who Thaddeus repeatedly calls "The Fool" — particularly right before the big reveal. His actual card is the King of Swords. This represents him being a man with an idea, and not being afraid to hurt his victims.
  • In Moulin Rouge!, each of the gorgeous prostitue-dancers employed by the titular nightclub has a different theme to their costume. One of them, Tarot, is appropriately wearing a dress covered in Tarot symbols.

  • The music video for the Church's "Almost With You."
  • The figure with the lantern on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV is The Hermit.
  • The Nativity in Black Black Sabbath tribute albums featured tarot cards based on the songs in the liner notes.
  • Every song on Steve Hackett's debut solo album, Voyage of the Acolyte, is named in reference to different Tarot cards. "Ace of Wands", the opening track, is the only one to reference the Minor Arcana, though; all the other song titles reference the Major Arcana.
  • Spanish Heavy Metal band Dark Moor has an album named Tarot, most of whose songs are named after Major Arcana -from example, "The Star", "Death", or "The Moon"-
  • The Replacements mention tarot cards in their song ‘Alex Chilton’
  • In The Mechanisms' Rock Opera High Noon Over Camelot, each of the spoken word tracks is titled after one of the Major Arcana thematic to its events. "The Hierophant" (representing religious or spiritual matters) is about Galahad getting a vision of the grail, "The Lovers" is about Lancelot, Arthur, and Guinevere setting out on the grail quest, etc.
  • The album cover for Tenacious D's Self-Titled Album is designed after the Devil, signifying how the band is not afraid to tackle violent and sexual themes.

    Stand-Up Comedy 
  • "I stayed up all night playing poker with tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died." - Steven Wright

  • Cirque du Soleil's ZED was built around these motifs, starting with the titular protagonist representing The Fool.
  • Charles Ludlam's experimental play The Grand Tarot is not only is peopled by characters from the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck (the High Priestess and the Magician are the main romantic couple, with the Beta Couple of the Emperor and Empress), but the play has a number of scenes that correspond to the cards in the deck, which in the first incarnations of the play would be shuffled to determine the order of the scenes.

    Visual Novels 
  • The Arcana obviously involves the Tarot cards. The love interests all are associated with a Major Arcana, like the Magician, Hermit, or Devil.
  • Majikoi! Love Me Seriously! has a brief scene where most of the extended cast is assigned a specific tarot card. For example, Capt is assigned the Fool in relation to his free spirited protagonist like attitude. Kokoro is the Moon, emphasizing illusions and trickery. Everyone dreads getting the Death card, but the two characters who do draw it are largely unconcerned and the intended meaning for the pair is not elaborated on.
  • Heart of the Woods has Major Arcana assigned to each of the four main characters in their profiles. Madison is The Moon, Abigail is The Sun, Tara is The Fool, and Morgan is The Hanged Man.

    Web Animation 
  • An entire act of Broken Saints is centered around a tarot card reading of Raimi by the albino Fortune Teller, Cielle. Sure enough, everything she reads comes true. Surprise.
  • hololive: In the music video for Calliope's song "Red," she assigned each of the other four members of Holomyth an Arcana based on how she views them, and later explained her motivation for each of the choices. She also said that these are just her own personal opinions, and people are free to make their own theories and interpretations.
    • Kiara as The Sun, symbolizing joy, success, celebration, and positivity.
    • Gura as The Fool, symbolizing innocence, new beginnings, and a free spirit.
    • Ina as The Wheel of Fortune, symbolizing changes, cycles, and inevitable fates. Calli also pointed out that Ina's card being Reversed in the music video was a genuine mistake during editing rather than being intentional for the sake of having some symbolic meaning, but also admitted that it could still work, as Reversed Wheel of Fortune can symbolize bad luck, and considering Ina's gacha addiction...
    • Ame as The High Priestess, symbolizing intuition, sacred knowledge, divine femininity, the conscious mind, and intelligence. Calli also mentioned that she initially had Ina's and Ame's Arcanas the other way around (Ina as The High Priestess and Ame as The Wheel of Fortune), but the artist whom she commissioned to draw the cards convinced her to swap them.
    • While Calli didn't assign any one specific Arcana to herself, she did bring up a few that others had suggested or that she found interesting, such as Death, symbolizing the end of cycles, beginnings, change, metamorphosis, transformation, and transition, The Empress, symbolizing motherhood, beauty, nature, and abundancenote , Reversed Empress, symbolizing creative block and dependence on others, The Tower, symbolizing sudden change, upheaval, chaos, revelation, and awakening, and Reversed Tower, symbolizing personal transformation, fear of change, and averting disasters.
  • Parodied in the Homestar Runner cartoon "Jibblies 2", in a scene with Strong Sad and Pom Pom. Strong Sad does a tarot reading with bizarre fake cards, and interprets them as signs that Pom Pom should try and hook Strong Sad up with one of his side-chicks. He eventually draws "The Rocoulm", a card featuring the goblin from the Horrible Painting, teleporting the Painting to the bar where it gives both of them the Jibblies.
    Strong Sad: Oh, the Clutch of Glaives. That means you should start sending some hot chicks over to your dumpier friends. Ooh, and the Cult of Ray. That means you should seriously stop hogging all the hot chicks!

  • DICE: The Cube That Changes Everything:
    • At one point Mooyoung brings up the unstable tower of Dice everyone is "building" when describing the war between Dicers. At the same time Mio gets a tarot reading with the Tower card and brings up the Tower of Babel legend.
    • Season 3 arcs follow the card Theme Naming: Lovers, Chariot, Strength, Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, Hanged Man, Death, Devil, Fool.
  • Not Quite Daily Comic repeatedly employs Tarot imagery, and has one reading.
  • Parodied in Sluggy Freelance, where Alternate Universe Gwynn uses "Tarot for Dummies." When she lays down three cards they say, in order, "Death" "Is Close" "Oh No!"
    • Recently the Sunday bonuses started showing the characters as cards. Though The Hanged "Man" is given the standard interpretation of death.
  • One of the muses in Girl Genius has this as her main means of communication. She is very accurate but under-appreciated.
    • Later on, as Tarvek is retelling his run-ins with Gil in Paris, we're shown Tarvek hanging from the ankle a la The Hanged Man.
  • In Housepets! there's a psychic dog named Tarot. In one comic she clarifies the meaning of the death card.
  • A Homestuck-themed tarot deck was one of the prizes in the Kickstarter project. Catalogued here.
  • Kill Six Billion Demons: Tarot Motifs begins to gradually show up during Seeker of Thrones onwards, some subtler than others.
    • The Demiurge Mammon is heavily associated with The Tower, his Magus Key bearing the Word TOWER of the 777,777 names of God. True to form, the foray into his dragon lair in Seeker of Thrones leads to ruin and the Tower's fall.
    • The Demiurge Incubus makes his throne on a mountain of inverted and spilled goblets, associating him with the minor arcana King of Cups, especially in its inverted form as a vindictive, manipulative, and self-focused being that will burn Creation to the ground to get his way.
    • The Demiurge Solomon David takes centre stage during the book called King of Swords (which is also one of Incubus' titles, making it ambiguous at first which one of the two it refers to). The King of Swords is a minor arcana that represents The Philosopher King archetype, and Solomon fulfils that role far better than Incubus. It is eventually revealed that the title refers to Zoss, not Solomon, who is a far better example.
    • During the speech that reveals Zoss is the actual King of Swords, Zoss is seen standing astride the Wheel itself, associating him with the Wheel of Fortune (change, cycles and fate) and later impaled by ten swords (the Ten of Swords, another minor arcana symbolizing painful ends, wounds and crisis). Metatron 1 is also visible above Zoss as he stands on top of the Wheel, in a posture resembling The Hanged Man (sacrifice, waiting and perspective).
  • The current page image is from Sleepless Domain, where Tessa makes the posture of The Hanged Man. Having sacrificed her own power to save the life of a former team-mate, Tessa is currently Locked Out of the Loop to the life of said team-mate and of the Magical Girls who protect the city in general. She also turns out to be in waiting for a major revelation that will drastically shift her perspective on that the Magical Girls actually fight for, further connecting her with the motif.

    Web Original 
  • In The Gamer's Alliance, the necromancer Razravkar encounters the witch Befana who reads his fortune from her tarot cards.
  • The webseries Broken Saints engages in a creepily effective round of foreshadowing when the main characters avail themselves of a free tarot reading given by a creepy albino shopkeeper.
  • The short-lived webseries The Hanged Man featured a cult called the Dead Hand and its titular villain, who used a tarot motif to commit serial killings in the city of San Angeles.
  • Some of the chapter titles in Entirely Presenting You make references to the different cards.
  • The When Posting Goes Wrong episode about the Msscribe scandals titles all of its chapters after cards in the Major Arcana.

    Western Animation 
  • Arcane: Tarot symbolism is used throughout the show, but it's most prominent with Viktor. Viktor represents The Magician, his work on Hextech has helped revolutionize the world, and his future tenure as the Machine Herald will finally have him recognize his potential for changing humanity. It's especially prominent when Viktor's illness worsens and the Hexcore begins to change by absorbing his blood; the show cuts to Sevika playing a card game with her dropping the Death and Magician cards. Death foreshadows his transformation while the Magician itself resembles the future Machine Herald as he grasps the Hexcore in his three hands.
  • In the credits sequence of The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy's earlier seasons, although not named as such, we see the three main characters as what are clearly Tarot cards. Billy is The Fool (fittingly enough), Mandy is The Hierophant, and Grim is... well, figure that one out yourself.
  • In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Magic Duel", Twilight Sparkle levitates a number of Fluttershy's creatures above herself in the infinity shape, matching up to the Magician card, which certainly fits the spellcasting prodigy she is to a T, but also subtly references the cunning and trickery that she used to defeat Trixie in the titular duel.
  • The Simpsons:
    • Shows up in "Lisa's Wedding", one of the episodes about the future. The Simpsons go to a Renaissance fair, and Lisa gets a tarot reading. They even play with the Death card, listed above, and introduces a certain new card (that an alarming number of real-world Tarot decks have begun including an optional card).
      Lisa: [gulp] The Death card?
      Fortune Teller: No, that's good: it means "transition, change".
      Lisa: [relieved] Oh. [the fortune teller draws "The Happy Squirrel" card] Oh, that's cute!
      Fortune Teller: [gasps] THE HAPPY SQUIRREL!
    • The Couch Gag from "Boy Meets Curl" shows Tarot card versions of Homer (King of Cups), Marge (Queen of Cups), Bart (The Fool), Lisa (The High Priestess) and Maggie (Death).
  • The Vamps in the "Stakes" arc on Season Seven of Adventure Time are named after cards in the Major Arcana - The Fool, Empress, Hierophant and the Moon. The exception is the Vampire King, whose name is analogous to The Emperor, yet whose design and desire to escape the chains of fate and the endless cycle of fighting, death and rebirth that comes with being a vampire evokes The Devil as well.


Video Example(s):


Carnivale Opening

The opening credits juxtapose historical events relevant to the 1930s setting with tarot cards.

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