Learn the Three Types of Tarot Cards and Never Buy a Useless Deck Again
We all love to collect decks for their beautiful artwork. But many of us also need workhorse decks. How many decks have you purchased that sit in a drawer, never to be used? Sometimes we’re fooled by pretty artwork. Other times we feel limited to decks that strictly follow only one tarot lineage, so that we can rely on a universal set of common meanings. What if you had a way to know in advance if you will find a deck easy to read? The secret is to understand the underlying function of each type of card. Learn the three types of tarot cards and never buy a useless deck again!
The Three Types of Tarot Cards: Action, Portrait, Archetype
The three types of tarot cards are related to, but not the same as, the three tarot lineages. Any deck will contain one or more of three distinct types of cards. The three types of cards are action cards, portrait cards, and archetype cards.
- Action cards show a character doing something. A rule of thumb is that these type of cards make up the typical Minor Arcana. Overall, action cards tell stories.
- Portrait cards feature a character in an emotive pose. Court Cards in most decks fulfill this purpose. Portrait cards express character.
- Archetype cards express abstract but universal concepts. An example would be the tarot’s Major Arcana. Archetype cards use symbols to convey ideas.
Knowing these three types of tarot cards and the best way to read each one will help you understand the cards better. Additionally, this knowledge can be useful in deciding if a new deck is a good match for you. Some decks emphasize one type of card over the others. When you find a deck that emphasizes the style of image you find easiest to read, you’ll know you have a great deck for you!
An action card illustrates a person or animal doing something. A man is carrying a heavy load. A worker is hammering out products. Women dance and toast in celebration. You’ll recognize these characters and their actions from the tarot’s Minor Arcana. Action cards feature the five ingredients that I believe combine to produce meaning: a character, doing something, in an environment, surrounded by props or symbols, evoking a mood or atmosphere. Instead of scratching your head over whether any given card expresses common symbolism, instead describe the image in front of you.
How to Read the Tarot’s Action Cards
- Who is in the card?
- What are they doing?
- Where are they?
- What decorations or important items surround them?
- What is the emotional feel of the card?
Answering these questions will show you the meaning in the unique imagery of the card in front of you, regardless of how closely the card sticks (or doesn’t stick) to a particular tradition. Of the above interpretive questions, the most important is to establish the action: what is the character doing? Then apply that action as an answer to your question, keeping the spread position in mind.
For instance, if you ask, What will happen if I leave my job? Consider the difference between getting a card showing a person walking off into darkness, a card in which women crowned in flowers run toward the viewer and wave, or the image of a person immobile because they are tied up and caged.
Examples of Action Cards
In the following examples, I tried to select images that could be categorized as one of the three types of tarot cards, but that didn’t necessarily follow standard tarot meanings. I also selected a variety of cards from the Majors, Courts, and Pips to show that the three types of tarot cards can cross over between deck’s primary echelons.
Action cards tell stories. In the Tarot de la Nuit cards above, we see evidence of well known stories such as Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella, as well as descriptive scenes from stories I don’t recognize. In the Five of Swords, a woman shatters glass with a pick. My impression is that she is escaping, or has dispelled an illusion. The bride in the Ten of Wands is not taking an action, but considering that her dress is on fire there’s still a story — why does she not react to this? Themes of sacrifice or transformation suggest themselves.
In the Tarot of the Cat People, a woman spends her downtime playing with her cats. Another reads while cats curl up comfortably around her. The man in the Six of Swords is heading out on an adventure. The woman in Rejuvenation seems to be reborn or released; the interesting depiction of cat souls in bubbles extends the metaphor.
What stories can you tell from the scenes in these examples of action cards?
Basic portraiture simply captures the image of an individual, while more sophisticated depictions include many clues as to the personality. Think of your high school year book. Your senior photo was likely posed, hopefully showing off your best look and recording your style. As you flip through your year book, you’ll also come across action shots: you singing in the choir, or playing tennis, or performing a science experiment, or goofing off at homecoming. These shots tell a lot more about you than your senior photo. But when reading a tarot portrait card, you’re limited to whatever information you can draw from a smiling, posed image.
How to Read the Tarot’s Portrait Cards
When looking at portrait cards, keep the following in mind:
- What is the facial expression?
- What is their body language?
- How are they dressed? Do they have a distinctive style?
- What is the emotional feel of the card?
- What props or symbols are present?
- Where are they?
The tarot court cards are the first place to look for portrait cards, although they can show up anywhere in the deck. The Kings, Queens, Knights, and Pages often have very little information for you to draw from. Oracle decks and oracle-like tarot decks frequently favor portraiture in their imagery. Some tarot artists are able to express keen emotions in a simple facial look, which helps determine the card qualities. Conversely, some readers find that empty expressions are a blank canvas that takes the tint of the surrounding cards. Either way, portrait cards give you considerably less information than an action card.
An improvement to the portrait type of tarot card is to include an important prop: for instance, maybe for your senior photo you were holding your tennis racket. Even better are the decks that turn the court cards into action cards: they show the character doing something that reflects their personality, like smashing the ball on the court.
On the other hand, some decks bring portraiture to many if not all the cards. Look through your deck and sort out a pile of cards that show a posed image of a character and those that show a person or animal doing something. Which do you get more information from?
Examples of Portrait Cards
Portrait cards establish characters and their personality. In the Tarot de la Nuit, the handsome emperor is thoughtful and brave. But I would have trouble distinguishing him from a Knight of Pentacles, who might also be shown with a shield as a primary symbol, and who is the most slow and thoughtful of the Knights. Likewise, the fashion model in the 9 of Pentacles is gorgeous, but not only are there no symbols or actions to pull any information from, but there’s not even any facial expression other than the haughty disregard of a professional model. The Queen of Wands seems formidable and domineering, common enough keywords for the card. But both the Ten of Cups and Four of Wands seem irrelevantly wistful.
The Tarot of the Cat People is equally guilty of a high concentration of portrait cards. The court cards are interchangeable with many of the other cards, except for the most basic symbolism, such as the wands, pentacles, cups, etc. I think the Three of Cups looks more like the Empress than the Empress does. Not only is she seated on a throne, but the large cat mural above her seems to show a mother cat and kittens. Maternal qualities are often associated with the Empress.
Many oracle decks consist primarily of portrait cards. One I came across recently is the Duality Deck. The Etsy listing for this deck shows over 3,000 sales and over 1300 reviews averaging 5 stars. People love the artwork on these decks. This particular deck includes simple symbols with each portrait as well as a keyword (typical of oracle decks) to help express the meaning.
Simplicity and straightforward emotional expression are an easy entry into portrait cards. But those same qualities fail to give them the lift they need to take off the way the other types of cards can.
The third of the three types of tarot cards is the archetype card. These cards utilize abstract, allegorical, or esoteric imagery to produce meaning. Most commonly we see this type of tarot card represented in the Major Arcana. Because of their reliance on symbolism over story or character, archetype cards can show up in both Major and Minor Arcana cards in decks that rely on religious, mythological, esoteric, or philosophical ideas.
How to Read the Tarot’s Archetype Cards
All of the techniques for reading action cards and portrait cards can be applied to archetype cards. Additionally, you can understand archetype cards by considering:
- What is the everyday meaning of this symbol?
- How do experts analyze this symbol?
- What is the history of this symbol?
- What is my personal experience with this symbol?
- How do these symbols work as a sequence or in relationship to each other?
The archetype of Justice, in the tarot or more generally in Western culture, is a woman holding scales and a sword. Common symbols of fate and fortune include emblems of luck or change, including spindles or wheels. Death is represented by a skeleton. On the other hand, the day I wrote this I came across an internet reference stating that Death holds a sword and scales.
The key here is that imagery in archetype cards will be consistent within a particular tradition. Archetype cards depend on our familiarity with the symbolism of that tradition or culture to work. As a result, we need to spend more time studying these cards, and the history and philosophy that produced them, to get the most out of them. Ultimately, archetypes, as argued by philosopher, anthropologist, and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, are universal to all cultures. The tarot images don’t always achieve this ubiquity. But many artists have worked to rectify this!
Examples of Archetype Cards
Archetype cards express meaning through symbols. I tried to select both recognizable symbols as well as unusual ones.
I like the Judgment card in the Tarot de la Nuit. It reminds me of the Lord of the Rings. In that story the Elves sail to the West, departing Middle Earth forever. Likewise, the clever Wheel card references the three fates who spin, measure, and cut the thread of each person’s life. The Queen of Pentacles as an earth card values safety and security. Accordingly, she holds the key to the protective gate. The Seven of Pentacles illustrates the ballet Swan Lake. In the story, the black swan Odile, who transforms between swan and human, lures the prince away from his love. The Four of Pentacles uses very simple geometric symbolism. The square frames behind and to the side of the character suggest the number four in their shape. They ask us to question how we frame our sense of reality — is it firm or fluid?
The Tarot of the Cat People uses several well known archetypes. Examples include the scythe and skeleton for Death, the sword and scales for Justice, and the ascetic in a cave for the Hermit. I like the Tower, which might be a meteor hitting the cat-shaped tower, or might be something within exploding outward. The Seven of Pentacles character has wings. None of the other cat people do. I don’t know why. But it’s a symbol with a meaning.
Continue the Conversation About the Three Types of Tarot Cards
Loving a deck is not the same as being able to read with a deck. Many people choose decks because they love the artwork. But it takes more to actually read the cards. And plastering standard meanings onto the cards because the image gives you nothing to work with is a disappointing way to work. Love your decks! But when you’re ready to do a reading, use the tips in this article to understand the three types of tarot cards, the function they serve, and the best way to find the meaning in them.
Ultimately, I have found that the decks that include all three types of tarot cards, or that give preference to the action cards, are the easiest to read. Have you noticed these three types of tarot cards in your decks? Which type do you think is easiest to read? What tips do you have for us for reading these different types of cards?
Joy Vernon is widely recognized by tarot professionals as an expert tarot teacher and respected community leader. With over twenty years’ experience teaching energetic and esoteric modalities, Joy brings expertise and practiced familiarity to her specialty of esoteric tarot, which layers astrological and qabalistic symbolism onto the traditional tarot structure. Under her leadership, the Denver Tarot Meetup has grown into one of the largest and most active tarot-specific meetups in the world. Joy works as a tarot reader, astrologer, and teacher at Isis Books. To learn more, please visit JoyVernon.com.