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10 Frightening and Misunderstood Tarot Symbols

Jana loves researching and sharing facts about the natural world, science, and history.


Tarot cards look like the pages of a fairytale book. There are sweeping landscapes, maidens, flowers, and graceful horses. But to the uninitiated, some images appear too graphic or blasphemous. Meet the worst symbols of the Tarot and their true meaning.

1. Pentagrams

Thanks to horror movie culture, the star-shaped symbol is viewed by many as a satanic mark and nothing else. But in the Tarot, they are called pentacles, not pentagrams. A pentacle is a pentagram enclosed in a circle.

A Tarot deck consists of four suits. One of them is entirely dedicated to pentacles. The suit was originally one of coins or disks, but during the nineteenth century, when the Tarot became associated with the Kabbalah, the suit adopted the five-pointed star instead.

Far from being the wanton emblem of evil, the sign shares an ancient history with Christianity as a protective amulet. At one time, it represented the Crucifixion wounds and the most important of the Seven Seals. In earlier religions, the pentacle was connected with two different goddesses.

In the Tarot, the pentacle is an earthy adviser. It predicts prosperity, offers advice about finances and careers, or warns against greed and the mismanagement of assets. This is hardly a symbol that snatches souls. Only later, in the twentieth century, did the inverted pentacle enter Satanic symbology, and the smudge has remained with the sign ever since.


2. Swords

Today, swords do not dredge up immediate fear; these outdated weapons are more likely to garner interest as collector’s items than making you run for the hills.

That being said, most people are taken aback by the Tarot's sword imagery. They appear on sombre and downright gruesome cards. It doesn’t get much worse than the murder scene on the Ten of Swords: a man lies in a pool of his own blood with ten swords in his back. He looks like the pincushion from Hell.

Thankfully, Tarot swords always deal with the intellect and not with violence. Similar to the double-bladed weapon (which can be used for good or evil), the human mind is a powerful tool used in battles, struggles and training—and it needs responsible handling. The guy with the ten swords in his spine means (at best) that a person's troubles are ending and things are on the upswing. The card’s darkest prediction is a personal betrayal or a failure in one’s life. But no mugger with ten swords is going for anyone’s back.


3. Hostages

Several figures in the Tarot resemble ill-kept captives. Ragged or naked people endure bonds of rope and chain, even blindfolds.

Two of these seemingly unlucky ladies appear on the Two and Eight of Swords. One woman is imprisoned by a circle of swords. The second, hampered by a blindfold, has her path blocked by a pair of crossed blades. Remember, the weapon stands for the intellectual side of life. There is mental and not physical bondage at work here; they are imprisoned by their own negative beliefs and inability to see a way out of their problems.

On the Devil card in the Rider Waite deck, a couple is chained by their necks like animals. A closer look reveals the truth about their situation. They can slip the large collar-like chains over their heads whenever they feel like walking away. But they don’t want to. These individuals are not ready to let go of their earthly pleasures, addictions, or obsessions. Nobody is holding them against their will.


4. Tombs

On the Four of Swords, a knight is entombed in a church-type setting. At first glance, it seems like the man is sleeping the wrong, eternal kind of snooze. Also, he is alone, as if nobody cared enough about him to attend his funeral.

Historically, knights were greatly respected. Their last sendoff would have been a packed event. So why did nobody show up? Because this is not his funeral.

In some decks, he rests beneath an exquisite stained-glass window. There’s nothing depressing about the knight’s surroundings. Instead, there is a pervading sense of peace. The tomb isn’t a grisly reminder of mortality but a call to rest. Similar to death, it signals that the break you take must be isolated, quiet, and deep.

At first, the tomb symbol appears to be graveyard material. But the card’s true meaning is very wise. Life is hard. But anyone can fight the toughest battle, like a knight, when they are fully rested.


5. Lightning

There are dramatic thunderbolts in the Tarot. On the Tower card, amid darkness and fire, lightning hits and destroys a high building. As a result, several people fall helplessly to their deaths.

This lethal weather phenomenon kills many animals and people each year. However, it does not bring the same danger to the cards. In the Tarot, lightning is symbolic of instant flashes of a higher power—like when a person suddenly experiences enlightenment or when divine intervention occurs, for example.

They also represent warnings about trouble in the wings, especially disasters that are avoidable through prevention. Instead of being a thunderous bolt of doom, the symbol is one of learning, assistance, and a heads-up about destructive forces around the corner.


6. Snakes

Snakes in the Tarot have nothing to do with the real reptile. The slithery creatures represent the emotional and spiritual aspects that make up the human experience. This includes the senses, learning, and renewal (since a snake sheds its old “self” by sloughing its skin). The sign also stands for female wisdom and psychic talents.

In some decks, a snake is pinned to the Magician’s belt. Instead of posing any danger, it gives depth to the card by twisting its body into the symbol for infinity. On the Lovers, a snake in the tree is reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s fall and stands for the temptations of the world. However, since the event also brought knowledge and change to humanity, a Tarot snake can suggest that one must adapt to new situations in order to survive.

7. The Hanged Man

The image is torturous. A man hangs from a tree, but upside down. In a twisted version of the traditional noose-around-the-neck, the rope grips his ankle instead. The man appears to have been sacrificed, murdered, or punished for some crime.

A closer look reveals the victim’s peaceful expression. He accepts his situation. He wasn’t lynched or tortured. Whether by his own doing or by fate, he ended up in an uncomfortable position. Instead of seeing himself as a victim, he willfully goes through the experience to gain wisdom.

This card is all about learning from difficult situations. In a reading, The Hanged Man signals that resistance worsens the situation (whatever it may be), just like fighting the rope only tightens the noose. Instead of fighting and suffering, the card suggests an alternative - go with the flow and learn about yourself or the problem to better deal with things in the future.


8. Coffins

These boxes of death drift on a card called Judgment. A man, woman, and child each stand in their own coffin, reaching skyward towards an angel. The scene echoes a grim double whammy: First, they died, and now they are about to be judged. Luckily, this card isn’t so straightforward.

Coffins are chilling, but Tarot symbols are just that—symbolic—and never literal.

When sealed, caskets represent worldly limitations, confinement, or being stuck in a rut. Darkness fills the world of the person trapped within because he lacks the knowledge that could help him to escape. When they are open or lacking a lid altogether, like the ones on the Judgment card, it’s akin to a butterfly being reborn. A person is resurrected by self-growth and understanding, both of which lead to a better life.

9. Lucifer

Most people are taught that the Devil is the ultimate representation of evil, and so when the horned Beast is drawn in a reading, newcomers to the Tarot feel uncomfortable. In the 1JJ Swiss deck, he stands over a defeated woman who weeps into her hands. In the Rider Waite deck, humans are chained to his throne.

It might appear that Lucifer is bent on making humans suffer. After all, it appears on a card called The Devil. In reality, though, the being is a god. This card shows either Pan (the goat god) or Bacchus (the god of wine). They are the gods of pleasure and know no boundaries when it comes to the temptations of the flesh, food, and material wealth. They party hard.

Lives spinning out of control, addictions, obsessions, and not seeing the truth are all the dark themes of this card. The “devil” symbol is an extreme one, but there is a positive side. At best, it’s an invitation to let things hang loose once in a while and that too much restraint can be as detrimental, just as too little can be.


10. The Reaper

As if seeing the Reaper isn’t frightening enough, it lurks on a card called Death with the “unlucky” number 13. However, this spectre of the afterlife is not pointing its bony finger at anybody's physical doom. That bleached fingertip points at the death of a situation or era, mostly due to the changes that accompany every step of life.

But why show change as Death? Because change is as inevitable as death. In any area of life, the old must “die” in order for the new to grow. At its core, the Reaper is the clean break between phases, a force of completion, as well as one of perpetual rebirth.

When this card shows up in a reading, it never signals mortal death. A pair of positive symbols fortify the Reaper’s true meaning. A white rose grows on the skeleton's banner, and in the distance, the Sun burns brightly. The Sun is a powerful representation of life and growth, while the rose promises new beginnings.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2021 Jana Louise Smit