Discover your Tarot birth card in the Major Arcana
Posted by Michelle Gruben on
If you have a birthday, then you have a birth card in the Tarot. (Actually, you have three—but this article focuses on the birth cards in the Major Arcana.) Learning your birth card(s) can provide insights about your personality and life's path and enhance any readings you perform for yourself.
The twelve birth cards (the zodiacal Trumps), are distributed throughout the Major Arcana (interspersed with the planetary and elemental Trumps). They appear in the same order as the zodiac signs, beginning with Aries. These correspondences were inherited from the 19th century Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. But zodiacal images in early European decks suggest that they are probably much older—perhaps as old as the Tarot itself.
Finding your birth card among the Major Arcana is easy—just use your sun sign and our handy guide (below):
If your sign is Aries (March 21-April 19), your birth card is The Emperor.
Bold and ambitious Aries finds its Tarot match in the Emperor. “Bah”-ssy Aries is happiest when he gets to be in charge of everything—just like the Emperor, who's an absolute peach until the peasants start grumbling.
Those born under the sign of the Ram won’t hesitate to butt heads to protect what’s his. His aggressive side comes from his ruling planet Mars, and his Fiery nature. Notice how the Emperor, even in a state of repose, is wearing his armor? His robe is red and his breastplate is iron—Mars’ color and metal, respectively.
The Emperor is usually authoritative, responsible, and beneficent. But poke his weak spots and he turns into a nasty tyrant.
Waite was winking at the Aries connection when he decorated the Emperor’s throne with rams’ heads. He also placed the Emperor’s throne high on craggy cliffs, the kind of landscape on which bighorn sheep love to strut.
If your sign is Taurus (April 20-May 20), your birth card is the Hierophant.
Taurus follows Aries in the zodiac, the cocky energy of the Ram giving way to the docile strength of the Bull. Tarotists associate the Hierophant with tradition. In Renaissance decks he’s called The Pope. Arthur Edward Waite chose to rename this card the Hierophant, an obscure term that he stumbled across in his studies of Ancient Greece. A hierophant was the chief priest of the Eleusinian Mysteries—a high initiate who preserved the sacred tradition and passed it on to aspirants.
Powerful and dignified, the Hierophant is loyal to the powers above him and expects loyalty from those below. In esoteric Tarot, the Hierophant forms a bridge between the physical world and the divine. Though he represents profound spiritual forces, he’s fully rooted in the mundane. Think of the bovine, a big stinky animal that is sacred in several religious traditions.
The Hierophant may represent a mentor or teacher. But like everything else associated with Taurus, the proliferation of the Hierophant’s wisdom is slow. (Cows usually only have one calf at a time, and spend a long time carrying and nursing their young.) He can represent initiation, but this is not the kind of initiation brought upon by a cataclysm or epiphany.
Taurus, an Earth sign, is quirkily ruled by Venus—and there is a hint of Venusian luxury in the Hierophant’s rich garments and sumptuous interior of his palace. Taureans are creatures of habit and take comfort in the familiar. The Hierophant can signal that someone is (or should be) following an expected method or routine. At best, he’s steadfast, dutiful, and of a serene and generous nature. On the downside, he's rigid, authoritarian, and just plain stubborn.
If your sign is Gemini (May 21-June 20), your birth card is The Lovers.
If Taurus is the stolid elder proclaiming, “This is the way it is,” then Gemini is the youthful upstart asking, “But why?” Indeed, the Rider-Waite version of this card depicts the prototypical rebels, Adam and Eve, just moments before their curiosity introduces them to the point of a flaming sword.
We don’t usually think of Adam and Eve as twins (because then we’re all inbred—ew) but of course they are. They have the same parents (God and God), and thanks to that rib, they share the same DNA. Twins symbolize duality—unity divided into a pair of opposites. The zygote is split into two separate beings. Hence, mythical twins illuminate contrasts: Adam and Eve (male and female), Apollo and Artemis (sun and moon), Castor and Pollux (immortal and mortal).
All human interactions are really variations on the twin myth, an exploration of sameness and difference between souls. There’s a point in any friendship or relationship when you realize that you and the other person are similar enough in language, in background, and in temperament that you can understand one another—and also different enough that there’s something new to be learned from the exchange. That’s the definition of communication, the ruling function of Gemini. Gemini is an Air sign ruled by Mercury, and we get a few hints in this Trump: The airy clouds and peaks, the angel (which is presumed to be Raphael), and the coiled serpent which recalls the caduceus of Mercury.
In addition to communication, the ever-versatile Lovers card relates to decisions (from Latin, “de-” and “cis-,” to separate and cut) and love relationships. When well-aspected, it speaks of harmony, adaptability, and magnetic attraction.
If your sign is Cancer (June 21-July 22), your birth card is The Chariot.
At first glance, there's not much in this image that relates to Cancer. The Chariot is one of the most complicated cards in the entire deck. Its symbolism is complex and arcane—a lot like Cancer, which always plays its cards close to its chest.
Speaking of the chest, in traditional astrology Cancer rules the area of the chest. Our charioteer wears a sturdy breastplate, protecting the tender heart within. He has spiky shoulder armor and fin-like gauntlets. He’s encased in a car that he takes with him wherever he goes. A moat or river is behind him, a reference to Cancer’s watery home.
Like the crab that skitters nimbly from earth to water, the Charioteer bears the livery of both a priest and a warrior. He’s crowned with an elaborate headdress and canopied by the night sky. Magickal symbols adorn his apron. Cancer is ruled by the moon, and two yellow crescents adorn his shoulders. The black and white sphinxes yoked to the Chariot recall the black and white pillars in that other lunar Trump, the High Priestess.
Divinatory meanings for the Chariot vary widely, but he can often signal success, self-reliance, and internal drive. When he’s feeling crabby, The Chariot may be withdrawn, inert, directionless, or just too damn deep for his own good.
If your sign is Leo (July 23-August 22), your birth card is Strength.
Oh, Leo! The sign of Leo encompasses the strength and willpower of the lion, combined with the beauty and charm of the maiden. No wonder Leo gets stuck on its own reflection.
The noble lion, king of the beasts, purrs beneath the gentle caress of a golden-tressed lady. Summer flowers encircle her. A lemniscate crowns her head (as it does the Magician’s) suggesting her command of natural forces. Leo is ruled by the Sun, so it’s fitting to find these two basking in a sunny meadow. Distinct from the pure solar energy of the Sun card, Strength is really about self-possession—directing your passions and life force toward constructive ends.
Strength, and its zodiacal counterpart Leo, shine with enormous grace, charisma and strength of heart. If all that goes to its head, Strength is vain and willful enough to be downright obnoxious.
If your sign is Virgo (August 23-September 22), your birth card is The Hermit.
The sign of Virgo is supposed to be represented by a beautiful young woman, and instead, in the Tarot, we get this old dude. Huh? Did he retire to the mountaintop after 80 years of failing to get laid?
The word “virgin” connotes purity—sexual purity, to be sure, but also insularity. When the alchemists talked about a virgin substance, they meant that it had not been contaminated or corrupted by contact with other materials or forces. The Hermit is a paragon of moral integrity. He’s seen the ways of the world, but they have not swayed him from his purpose and quest. Nor has he “married” himself to any institution, person, or ideology. Like the proud maiden Virgo, the Hermit doesn't need nuthin' or nobody in order to understand himself and the ground on which he stands.
The lamp of the Hermit symbolizes his penetrating powers of observation. Reason and experience are his guiding light. Like his ruling planet Mercury, the Hermit is a wanderer. Like the ever-skeptical Virgo, if the truth is out there, the Hermit will find it.
The Hermit at his best is independent, practical, and uncommonly wise. If his slippers happen to be chafing him, he can be impatient, grumpy, short-sighted, and prudish.
If your sign is Libra (September 23-October 22), your birth card is Justice.
In her left hand, Lady Justice holds the scales, the symbol for the sign of Libra. The sword she raises with her right hand represents her ruling elemental of Air (and there’s that yellow backdrop again). Everything about the image suggests symmetry and balance, from the sturdy stone pillars to the woman’s perfect pageboy haircut.
This card governs both words and actions, and the places where they meet: Legal systems, contracts and oaths, truth and consequences. Just like her astrological counterpart, hyper-competent Libra, Justice knows how to be judge, jury, and executioner. She’s wise and articulate, to be sure, but she won’t hesitate to wield that sword when the time comes.
Tarot hacker Aleister Crowley called this trump Adjustment and nicknamed it “The Woman Satisfied.” As an Air sign ruled by Venus, Libra is kinky for justice—she takes pleasure in fairness, pleasure in duty. Her satisfaction comes from the keenness of her observation of the laws of the universe. Martin Luther King, Jr. said,“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Justice can afford to be patient, because she can see the entire arc and calculate its curve.
Like Libra, the energy of the Justice card is precise, impartial, perceptive, and canny. But come down on her bad side and she can be cold, pedantic, and just a little bit ruthless.
If your sign is Scorpio (October 23-November 21), your birth card is Death.
The goddess Gaia once ordered a scorpion to go and attack the enormous giant Orion, and it did. That’s Scorpio for you: Reckless, prone to violence, and surprisingly easy to manipulate. (Just kidding, Scorpio. Love you forever, okay?)
The predatory scorpion aligns with Death in its stealth and appetite (scorpions can eat a year’s worth of food at a single meal). In Renaissance decks, the curve of Grimmy’s scythe echoes the curve of the scorpion’s tail. In Rider-Waite, we see a skeletal horseman whose segmented armor resembles the creature’s exoskeleton, and whose sabaton (metal boot) tapers to a barb-like point.
Scorpio is the most turbulent and intense of the Water sign. Traditional astrology holds that Scorpio is ruled by Mars, while modern astrologers fob it off on Pluto. Appropriately enough, the Death card signals flux and termination—and all the emotional upheaval that goes along with that. Scorpio is prone to sorrowful wallowing and ruinous rampages. Scorpio loves drama, and what could be more dramatic than the final curtain?
The energy represented by the Death card is powerful, decisive, and tinted with a darksome allure. On the flipside, it can be morbid, destructive and extravagant.
If your sign is Sagittarius (November 22-December 21), your birth card is Temperance.
This one seems like a bit of a stretch. Sagittarius is the Archer, and a Fire sign—and here we have a watery image with no arrows in sight. But wait! Is that a Fire triangle emblazoned on the angel's gown? Could this be Michael, the Archangel of Fire? Must be—but today he's put his flaming sword aside and taken up the cups.
The Fire of Sagittarius is mutable—that is, it’s the most capable of being mixed with or brought into harmony with other elements. The word “temperance” itself suggests the controlled use of Fire. One definition of temperance is using alcohol in moderation. Water mixed with wine lessens the burn of alcohol and dampens the destructive power of drunkenness. In culinary language, to temper a sauce is to heat it slowly so that the heat doesn't destroy delicate flavors and textures.
Another meaning of temperance is the harmonious union of opposites. Thus we see an angel engaged in the nearly impossible task of blending Fire and Water into a perfect elixir. Crowley renamed this card Art—art being, of course, the fusion of skill with imagination. This, too relates to Sagittarius. The Archer is often represented as a centaur, half man and half horse. The Archer's arrow and bow—each useless on their own—come together to make a formidable weapon.
Waite, always the sneaky one, worked in one more obscure reference to this Trump's zodiacal ruler. At the angel's feet are two irises. The iris is named for the Roman goddess of rainbows, and the rainbow, in Hermetic Qabalah, is a symbol related to the sign of Sagittarius.
Like most Sagittarians, Temperance is all about balance, transformation, artistic endeavors, positive growth, and dynamic equilibrium. He's usually gentle and composed, but if he screws up his measurements, Temperance is imbalanced and impatient.
If your sign is Capricorn (December 22-January 19), your birth card is The Devil.
After all the effortless moderation of Temperance comes the Devil, a card of overindulgence. Alas for Capricorn, the Devil is usually read as a pretty negative card. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Like Lucifer himself, Capricorn chafes under authority and yearns to be self-governing. With their Earthy combination of shrewdness and patience, those born under the sign of Capricorn can achieve almost anything they set their minds to.
Capricorn is the sign of the Goat, and the Devil has the hairy thighs, goatee, and curved horns of a billy goat. Waite modeled his Devil on Eliphas Levi's famous image of Baphomet, but its roots are much older. The association of goats with the infernal goes back to the Middle Ages, when the pagan images of Pan and the satyrs were subsumed into Christian iconography.
The goats, with its lustful behavior and voracious appetite, has long symbolized vice. The Devil bears an inverted pentacle on his brow, which can represent the subjugation of Spirit in favor of the material world. On his raised right hand is the glyph for Saturn, the planetary ruler of Capricorn.
The Devil represents an extreme version of Capricorn's natural ambition and practicality. Usually it speaks of ignorance, bondage, materialism, and excess. In a better light, it can signify freedom, willfulness, and the integration of human and animal natures.
If your sign is Aquarius (January 20-February 18), your birth card is The Star.
Aquarius is the sign of the water-bearer, and the star maiden in this trump is certainly a tall drink of water. It's one of the most beautiful cards in almost any deck. The water-bearer of the Star is nude, reflecting Aquarian innocence and integrity. Among the classical planets, Aquarius is attributed to calm and cautious Saturn, while modern astrologers grope for Uranus.
Aquarius is an Air sign with a watery inclination, our damsel kneels among the stars with just her toes dipped into the stream below. The libations she carries quench the thirst and nurture the spirit. One jug empties into the ground, and the other returns the water to its source.
The Star embodies the Aquarian virtues of hope, compassion, communality and abundance. Ill-aspected, it's still a fairly positive card, but can suggest shallowness or resistance to joy. Aquarians are natural people-pleasers, and the Star card can be a reminder to take care of your own emotional needs, too.
If your sign is Pisces (February 19-March 20), your birth card is The Moon.
The twin fish of Pisces would certainly feel at home in this puddly landscape. Akin to the dreamy, mutable sign of Water, the Tarot Moon hovers over the unconscious and the unknown. In traditional astrology, Pisces is ruled by lucky, hedonistic Jupiter—but modern astrology assigns it to the chilly outlying planet Neptune.
Every creature in this card is high on instinct and drunk on moon-dew. Swimming through a humid, hypnotic atmosphere, they throb and sway to the moon's tidal pull. It speaks of issues and desires that can’t be logically resolved, or even fully expressed.
When it’s well-aspected, the Moon dispenses the Piscean blessings of subtlety, intuition, imagination, and adaptability. If a bad Moon is rising, it’s unreliable, distant, and treacherous. The words “fishy” and “flaky” were invented to describe what happens when Pisces energy goes awry.
Using Your Birth Cards
Much like your astrological chart or name or other personal details, your Tarot birth card can point to hidden truths about your spiritual path and life’s work. If you’re open to its messages, studying your birth card will give you additional insights as you work with the Tarot.
When your birth card appears in a reading, you may take that as an additional sign that the reading is speaking directly to you. If your birth card particularly resonates with you, you may even choose to use it as a significator in readings or adopt it as a personal symbol.
Other divinatory functions of the birth cards: Stay alert for moments when one or more of the twelve birth cards represent other people in your life. For example, an Aries/Libra relationship could be expressed by the appearance of the Emperor and Justice cards. You can also use the zodiacal correspondence to get a clue on the timing of future events. Drawing the Strength card, for instance, suggests that the event will happen during the month of Leo.
Here's a concise chart of the Tarot birth cards and dates:
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