Colors and the Major Arcana

On big days, when I need to be confident and in control, I wear a red necktie as a reminder of the Emperor. On my Tarot altar, I have a large blue-green stone that marks the presence of Death. I sometimes use a violet reading cloth, to signify the cosmic forces of the Wheel of Fortune and the Star’s promise of renewal.

Colors are powerful. Not so much in the literal electric-current sense of power, I admit, but for the sighted among us, color is one of the strongest influences that shape our experience of the world. So as a Tarot reader, I suppose it’s only natural that I ended up looking for connections between the Major Arcana and color symbolism.

What must it have been like for Dorothy to experience color for the first time? (Also, if you own the copyright to this picture and would like it removed, let me know and I’ll take it down.)

Some people do this intuitively. Red, for instance, is a power color, all tangled up with aggression and confidence and so on, so it’s probably easy to understand how that would link up with the Emperor. But I’m sure a lot of people are left scratching their heads at the idea that Death is blue-green, or that the Wheel of Fortune is purple. I’ve heard readers talk about Death as black (or occasionally white), about the Wheel of Fortune as gold, and so on. People make intuitive associations based on the color symbolism they know and the way that they interpret Tarot cards. If the concept of (lowercase) death in Western culture is generally associated with people wearing black clothes, it makes sense that someone might think of the Death card in tandem with the color black.

And of course, some people don’t make these kinds of connections at all. I was talking to another reader about this concept at one point, and when I asked what color she thought Death was, she gave me a bit of a funny look and said, “I don’t. I mean, there are lots of colors on the card.”

I spy with my little eye something white, something black, something yellow, something blue, something vaguely purplish…

That’s absolutely true. For some people, the idea of a set of color correspondences in Tarot is probably rather silly and beside the point. After all, when two cards come up together in a reading, you would never say, “Well, this card is connected to the color red, and this one is connected to the color blue, so together they make purple!” Color correspondences don’t add anything to the practicality of Tarot reading, and if you’re only interested in Tarot for the answers it can provide to your questions,* then there are probably better things for you to spend your time on.

Still. I, personally, am a fan of correspondences of all kinds. I want to associate my Tarot cards with colors, with animals, with crystals and herbs and deities, even if none of that actually plays a role in the way I read. I do it simply because I find it interesting.

And, as those of you who are familiar with this blog already know, I am a creature of the suit of Swords. I’m fiercely, annoyingly intellectual, and I will try to systematize anything I can. ** So rather than just assigning colors to the Major Arcana intuitively, I set out in search of a formal color categorization.

My journey led me across scorching deserts, into sulfurous caves, to remote Caribbean islands and extravagant metropolitan soirées. Well, perhaps it was a mite less dramatic than that. As with all things Tarot, I decided to start with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (which–you guessed it!–has color correspondences for the Major Arcana). And in attempting to understandwhence come the Golden Dawn correspondences, I ended up working backwards until I found Rosicrucianism and the lamen of the Rosy Cross.

The color correspondences of the Major Arcana in Tarot are derived from the Rosy Cross, pictured above.

There’s a whole lot of messy nonsense going on in this particular piece of esoteric symbolism, but what really interests us right now is the central bit–the rose. If you count, you’ll see that it has twenty-two differently colored petals. And what else do we know has twenty-two of something? Hrm…

I’m going to skip over a lot of complicated Kabbalistic concepts here, mostly because there’s no way I can explain them and still make this post short enough that anyone would consider reading it. But here’s what you need to know:

-To each of the twenty-two petals of the rose is assigned one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet
-Each of the twenty-two Major Arcana in Tarot is also connected to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, starting with the Fool as א (the first letter of the alphabet) and ending with the World as ת (the last letter)
-Therefore, each petal of the rose is connected to one card of the Major Arcana
-For complicated philological reasons having to do with the pronunciation of different consonants in early Hebrew, mystics divide the alphabet into three broad categories: three Mother letters, seven Double letters, and twelve Single letters
-This is the reason that the rose has one central circle with three petals, a middle circle with seven petals, and an outer circle with twelve
-There’s also some crazy astrological symbolism that gets worked in here, having to do with elements and planets and the Zodiac; this symbolism translates directly to the astrological correspondences of the Major Arcana, if you’re into that sort of thing***

Now, colors are assigned to the petals of the rose, starting with the innermost ring and working outwards. The three inner petals are assigned to the three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue)–the exact decision of which color goes where has to do with the aforementioned crazy astrological symbolism. The seven middle petals are given to the seven colors of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet). And the twelve outer petals correspond to the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors (red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, yellow, yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, indigo, violet, and red-violet).

And, by waving a magic wand and transplanting these correspondences over from the Rosy Cross and onto Tarot, we come up with a formal system of color correspondences for the Major Arcana. The final list, in case you’re interested, is as follows (with the corresponding Hebrew letters in parentheses so that you can match everything up to the image above):

-The Fool: Yellow (א)
-The Magician: Yellow (ב)
-The High Priestess: Blue (ג)
-The Empress: Green (ד)
-The Emperor: Red (ה)
-The Hierophant: Red-orange (ו)
-The Lovers: Orange (ז)
-The Chariot: Yellow-orange (ח)
-Strength: Yellow (ט)
-The Hermit: Yellow-green (י)
-The Wheel of Fortune: Violet (כ)
-Justice: Green (ל)
-The Hanged Man: Blue (מ)
-Death: Blue-Green (נ)
-Temperance: Blue (ם)
-The Devil: Indigo (ע)
-The Tower: Red (פ)
-The Star: Violet (צ)
-The Moon: Red-violet (ק)
-The Sun: Orange (ר)
-Judgment: Red (ש)
-The World: Indigo (ת)

As with any system, this is an imperfect and subjective one. Some people may have objections to it. (For example, the Lovers might not seem like much of an orangey card.) I like it, in large part because I like being able to trace back its origin like this, and I use the color symbolism from the Rosy Cross to help bring some Tarot symbolism into my everyday life. On days when I’m feeling particularly Hermity (like, for example, today), I’ll wear yellow-green and mix myself a large cup of hot chocolate. If I want a bit of luck, I’ll wear purple. And doing so works for me.

But that’s just me. Take or leave the system as you will.

If you do link up the Tarot with colors, using this or any other system, I’d be interested to hear about it. Why do you use the colors you do? When do you use color symbolism in your work with Tarot? And do you feel like it adds anything to your Tarot practice?

*I, personally, tend not to think of Tarot as providing answers so much as allowing us to introspect and refine our questions, although my view on that is certainly not divine truth. For more on this subject, feel free to consult the “How I Use Tarot” tag.

**I spent an abortive several hours this week scratching away at a pen and paper to see if the 22 Major Arcana could be categorized according to the five polarities represented by the ten Sephiroth of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. (i.e. card A has the energies of Kether, Chokmah, Chesed, Netzach, and Tiphereth, while card B has the energies of Malkuth, Binah, Gevurah, Hod, and Yesod.) The operative word here is abortive; this particular attempt at systematization was an utter and irredeemable failure. Some systems just don’t work, and there comes a time where even the coolest idea needs to be laid to rest.

***At some point, I may actually get around to posting on this. I tried once, but it got messy, and fast, and frankly I felt like anyone who read my attempt at an explanation would walk away feeling more confused than enlightened.


7 thoughts on “Colors and the Major Arcana

  1. This is incredibly fascinating. In general, I don’t really wear colors because of any Tarot associations, but when I do a reading, I always notice the colors (or absence of color) on the card first. And colors are interesting because they are an integral part of our perceptions and thus what I perceive in the card’s symbolism. For example, today I pulled XIII from my Zen Tarot deck (called “Transformation”, but it represents the Death card) and immediately noticed the cool, calming colors it had. Purples, blues, pinks, and a touch of green. Absence of light in the transcendent figure and white outlines to perhaps represent spirituality or change or fluidity of the soul. I understood the “feeling” of the card by the colors immediately. When I pulled the Three of Swords the other day, I immediately noticed the absence of color relative to its other cards. The absence of color… Like the loss of color and vibrancy and life one feels/perceives when suffering a great loss or feeling some other sorrow. It’s not always so clear, but for seeing-folk, I think colors are fairly important to interpreting a reading.


  2. I’ve been reading on the Tree of Life so this is very much appropriate, although I don’t really associate the cards with colors, particularly because when I feel like reading the Tarot from a “Kabalistic” standpoint, the deck I use is black and white and therefore I don’t read color associations. Although with each of the sephiroths I do use the corresponding colors, and I also associate the corresponding cards with the sephiroths. Extracting from that interpretations and associations of meaning which I add to my reading. So, I guess in a roundabout way the cards do have color associations but it is mostly basic and pertaining to the sephiroths themselves. I did not know about this cross nor the color correspondences and this is interesting when added to interpretations of cards and what-not, something I would do.


  3. Wow. Very interesting research. This is an aspect of the Tarot I have not considered before. Color is a very powerful thing for me so I definitely need to give this some thought. Bright blessings!


  4. Being an artsy sort, I am hugely interested in colour. As a Swords person, I too like to categorize and analyze and rationalize everything, but too much irritates me, it’s overload for me to break Tarot down into Kabbalistic stuff. Interesting but irritating all at the same time. The same goes for numerology. Interesting, but I know I could switch the numbers arbitrarily and make the definitions change yet still work, so it never made sense to me as a system. All systems are subjective, so I find it hard to take them seriously. Even archetypes are arbitrary, which makes it nonetheless fun to know and use them.

    I was thinking though that colour correspondences would be interesting if drawing and painting the Major cards yourself. Can you imagine doing this, the subtle nuance of colours and shades? Mmmm……I have a deck called The Secret Language of Color Cards–again rather arbitrary but still interesting to use. So much possibility. Yeah, I find this very intriguing when applied to creating art for the Majors.

    Now, if only I could afford all those Pantone colour strips. Wouldn’t that be great? You could spread out all the strips and gather myriad yellows for drawing up The Magician. That’s a very Magus thing: you would have to analyze and pick just the right colours. Laws, I’m nearly drooling!


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