10 Frightening and Misunderstood Tarot Symbols

Updated on September 26, 2017
Jana Louise Smit profile image

Jana is an amateur everything when it comes to space, nature and science. She loves exploring the land and sky, especially the unusual bits.

The Tarot attracts many students but its secretive nature also draws many critics.
The Tarot attracts many students but its secretive nature also draws many critics. | Source

The Tarot Is a Hidden Story

Every image on a tarot card means something. These beautifully illustrated portraits are rich with hidden meanings. Graceful horses, flowers, maidens, and sweeping landscapes give it a storybook feel. Indeed, every card tells a complex tale. However, the arcane nature of the tarot invited persecution in ancient times. Even during modern times, superstition and fear brings down condemnation on some of the tarot's most frightening images. The good news is that there is not a single symbol or image that deserves the tarot's bad rap.

10. Pentagrams

Right way up and inverted, pentagrams are plentiful in most decks. Thanks to the horror movie culture, many consider the star-shaped symbol a satanic mark and nothing else. Here is an interesting snippet—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 owns an ancient history with Christianity as a protective amulet, a representation for the Crucifixion wounds and the most important of the Seven Seals. In earlier religions, the pentacle is 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 remained with the sign ever since.

9. Swords

A picture of a sword might not dredge up immediate fear. The outdated weapon is more likely to garner interest today as a collector’s item than a tangible danger. But few can look at the tarot's sword imagery and not shudder. They appear on somber 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 thrust into 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 one of battles, struggles, training and 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. At its darkest, the card predicts a deeply personal betrayal or a failure in one’s life. But no mugger with ten swords is going for anyone’s back.

The willing captives.
The willing captives. | Source

8. Hostages

Several figures on the cards resemble ill-kept captives. Ragged or naked figures show bonds of rope and chain, even blindfolds. Two of these seemingly unlucky ladies appear respectively on the Two and Eight of Swords. A prison of swords almost completely surrounds one woman. The second, hampered by a blindfold, has her path blocked by a pair of crossed blades. Remember, the weapon stands for the intellectual; there is a mental and not physical bondage at work with them. They are imprisoned by their own negative beliefs. They are stuck because they cannot see a way out of their problems.

On the Devil card in the Rider Waite deck, a couple is chained by the neck 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.

7. Tombs

On the Four of Swords, a knight is entombed in a church-type setting. At first glance, it seems the man is sleeping the wrong, eternal kind of snooze. Also, he is alone, as if nobody cared to attend the funeral. Historically, knights were greatly respected. Their last sendoff would have been a packed event. Nobody showed up because this is not his funeral.

In some decks, he rests beneath an exquisitely detailed stained-glass window. There is 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 must be isolated, quiet and deep. The symbol might at first appear to be graveyard material. In truth, it means that one can victoriously battle -like a knight- the difficult challenges of the world when fully rested.

6. Lightning

Some dramatic thunderbolts appear in the tarot. On the Tower card, amid darkness and fire, lightning hit and destroy a high building. As a result, several people fall helplessly to their deaths.

The lethal weather phenomenon kills many animals and people each year but bring no dangerous traits to the cards. Tarot lightning is symbolic of the instant flashes of a higher power. For example, when a person suddenly experiences enlightenment or divine intervention occurs. They also represent warnings about trouble in the wings; an avoidable disaster if early attention is given to its prevention. Instead of being a thunderous bolt of doom, the symbol is one of learning, assistance, and a friendly heads-up about destructive forces around the corner.

The snake of knowledge.
The snake of knowledge. | Source

5. Snakes

The snake symbol in the tarot has precious little to do with the real reptile. The slithery creature represents 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”). The sign is also one of female wisdom and psychic talents.

In some decks, a snake is pinned to the Magician’s belt and forms the symbol for infinity by swallowing its own tail. 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 it brought knowledge and change to the shielded couple, a tarot snake hints that one must adapt to new situations in order to survive.

4. 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. 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. 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 learn something worthwhile at the end of the day. This card is all about learning from difficult situations. Lynching is not remotely connected to this image which is all about going with the flow and gaining wisdom while you’re at it.

In a reading, his appearance might show that a person is worsening a problem in their life by resisting the situation. Struggling against one's current discomfort or despair will only tighten the noose.

3. Coffins

These boxes of death drift around on a card called Judgment. A man, woman and child each stand in their own coffin, reaching skyward towards an angel. They look like the next batch to be judged after dying, a grim double whammy.

Nobody with a healthy mindset wants to visit a tarot reader and see an image hinting at their funeral. Take heart in the fact that 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 escape. When they are open or lacking a lid altogether, like the ones on Judgment, its akin to a butterfly being reborn. A person is resurrected by self-growth and understanding, both of which is needed for a better life.

2. Lucifer

One thing hammered into most people since birth is that the Devil is the ultimate representation of evil. So much so that when the horned Beast gets drawn in a tarot reading, few will feel comfortable. In the 1JJ Swiss deck, it stands over a defeated woman weeping into her hands. In the Rider Waite deck, humans are chained to his throne.

It’s understandable why many mistakenly believe the creature is Lucifer. After all, it appears on a card called The Devil. In reality, the being is a god. The goat god Pan or Bacchus, god of wine, is represented by this card. 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. Spinning out of control, addictions, obsessions and not seeing the truth is the dark theme in their background. The symbol is one of extremes but does have a positive edge. At best, the symbol invites one to let things hang loose once in a while and that too much restraint can be as detrimental as too little.

The necessary end.
The necessary end. | Source

1. The Reaper

As if seeing the Reaper isn’t frightening enough, it lurks on a card called Death with the number 13. However, this specter of the afterlife is not pointing its bony finger at anybody's physical doom but the ‘death’ of a situation or era. This is the calling card of unavoidable forces, such the changes that accompanies every step of life.

Change is as inevitable as death. The old self 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. In the tarot, a pair of positive symbols fortify the Reaper’s true meaning. A beautiful 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.

© 2017 Jana Louise Smit


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    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 6 months ago from Norfolk, England

      I remember I had my tarot cards read once. Thankfully I didn't get any bad news.