The traditional tarot deck has seventy-eight cards. Twenty-two cards are trumps, or major arcana. The four suits are ten number cards and four court cards each, for fifty-six cards referred to as pips or minor arcana. So we have 78 possible meanings, in general; and if one uses reversals where the meanings are different, that is doubled to give 156 meanings. In addition, modern tarot card readers tend to be fairly fluid with their meanings, so each card is likely to have a lot of possible meanings; so that 156 can grow quite a bit depending on how many associations a reader has for each card.

Exploring the Numbers

Does this large number of meanings give us increased flexibility, or muddled readings that are inconsistent? I’d like to refer to decks I’m familiar with that have fewer than the 78 cards of the tarot.

Smaller Decks – 52 playing cards

The reason I ponder this is because I have been focusing on using non-tarot cards for divination for a few months, and they all have fewer than 78 cards. I started with a standard deck of 52 playing cards — and learning two or three core meanings per card provided quite a respectable framework for my readings. I’ve seen readings from people using this deck that are as useful and as nuanced as many tarot readers have produced, from just these 52 cards.

Smaller Decks – Petit Lenormand

Then I moved onto Lenormand, a deck with 36 cards. When it comes to meanings these are akin to the modern style of reading tarot in that each card is a single symbol that carries a variety of associations. Unlike modern tarot, the meanings come into play by the combinations of cards that appear in a reading. This is a symbolic vocabulary, if you will, and it can produce clear answers to any question for a reader who knows their deck. There are standard meanings for the cards, but they aren’t really fixed, and so each card can mean a large number of things all related back to the core symbol. This provides a large vocabulary for only those 36 cards, and I believe they can be used to produce as much information as a typical tarot reading, in the hands of a competent person.

Smaller Decks – 32 playing cards

It was only natural that I then explore the reduced playing card deck, which discards the two through six of each suit, giving a deck of 32 cards. This is sometimes called the Romany deck, and I’m sure people who’ve looked for modern books on playing cards have seen this described as such. In that case the meanings are attributed to Gypsies, and in my opinion tend to be overly slanted towards love and marriage. However, there are a great variety of meaning sets for the 32 card deck, and my two favorites are from Sepharial and Cicely Kent.

Is 32 cards enough to give the reader a sufficient vocabularly? I believe so. Those 32 cards can be doubled by using upright and reversed cards, and card duplicates — such as three Kings or two sixes — are relied upon to give further nuance to the interpretations. Kent in particular shows how to provide a great amount of detail out of this reduced deck. It’s been very inspiring to me, and contributed to my impetus to write this post.

Isolated Cards in Positional Spreads

Most tarot readers know the Celtic Cross or a three-card Past-Present-Future spread, which are examples of positional spreads — where each card is read as an isolated entity whose influence is confined to itself, and any meaning for that card is given context by the position. The Sun in the “past” might be the successful conclusion of some event that occured several months ago, The Sun in the “future” might be the successful phase of some project can be expected to occur in a few months, and The Sun as the “obstacle” might mean the client is fearful of, or obsessed with, success

In this style of reading, it can be helpful to have a greater range of meanings for a card, since each card must be meaningful on its own. Many modern methods of tarot reading, such as Mary Greer’s 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card, are concerned with exploring each card and eking out as much information from a single card as possible.

Combined Cards in Non-Positional Spreads

Both Lenormand and playing cards, particularly the reduced deck of 32, rely heavily on combinations. That is, cards are usually read as an interplay of forces that affect each other, rather than being isolated. In a Lenormand meaning, the Ring card — which speaks of partnership and contracts, and identifies all sorts of relationships — is not usually meant to be read on its own. Rather, Ring is meant to be read based on the card adjacent to it, and that card with its neighbor and so on. So Ring followed by Heart provides all the context necessary to indicate a happy relationship, whereas Ring followed by Whip could indicate trouble in a relationship

In the case of Ring + Heart, that happy relationship might turn out to not be as happy as a first glance shows, if the next card was Crossroads or Scythe, both of which could be indicating a decision. In a full deck spread, the cards on all sides of Ring would also need to be considered, so a Coffin above the Ring might indicate that a relationship is ending or undergoing a transformation; and further surrounding cards have to be examined to determine the nature of this transformation and whether it can be deflected, or what factors are in play.

Non-Exclusive Style

The examples above for tarot and Lenormand are meant to show that, in general terms, the decks tend to be read differently; and this factors into card meanings, and in turn to the number of cards required to have a satisfactory card vocabulary. I realize these reading styles aren’t ecxlusive to the deck. For example, the Opening of the Key is a way of reading tarot that also relies heavily on card interaction through the use of elemental dignities (a card’s meaning is affected by the elements of the cards on either side of it). Some readers of playing cards and Lenormand have used those cards for a Celtic Cross or a Past-Present-Future spread. Generally, though, the styles described above are at the core of the commonly used reading techniques for each deck.

Counting the Deck

This brings me back to my original question: Does the tarot have too many cards? Do we need 78 cards to get a clear reading? If not, then how many do we really need? (I’ll ignore the question of whether we need more cards. Any Minchiate readers are welcome to sound off on the advantages of more cards though!) There are many tarot readers out there who get accurate or useful readings and have probably never even thought about this question, so obviously 78 cards works.

The modern methods of tarot reading, where cards are read in isolation and have a great range of meanings on their own, likely supports the use of 78 cards well. This seems to provide a good vocabulary, as each card is capable of providing its own “conversation” for each position in a spread.

I think that if tarot cards are read in interaction with each other, as I described for playing cards and Lenormand, less are needed since the interaction between them would make up the difference for having fewer cards available. Obviously the non-tarot card readers are getting great readings with the fewer cards, or they wouldn’t be using them.

Shortening the Deck

Some authors such as Doug over at Tarot Eon have suggested that newcomers to tarot only learn a couple of keywords for each card, and allow intuition to produce anything else during a reading. This gives fluidity with structure, in my opinion, while preventing the reader to wander aimlessly through a jungle of meanings. Their are still 78 cards, but fewer meanings to worry about, which keeps things manageable, particularly if a reader is using something like Opening of the Key.

There are also readers using only the major arcana, which limits them at 22 cards (or an effective 44 if reversals are used). This seems like a nice in-between number to me. I’ve not done a lot with majors-only reading, but I am testing the waters currently. I believe there are many European readers who still favor major arcana readings, whereas it’s a minority in the United States. Those readers who use the trumps only are still getting useful readings, or again, they’d have added more cards to get the kinds of readings they want

I’ve also heard of tarot readers who use 42 cards: they ditch the two through ten of each suit. Cicely Kent and Sallie Nichols are two authors who have described this. (And 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything! 🙂 )

Conclusion (or Not!)

I don’t have an answer to the question of whether tarot has too many cards. Instinctively I want to say yes, but I also realize that 78 cards works well; as myself and countless others have found over the years. I used to be in the unthinking, die-hard tarot camp where I wouldn’t have even asked this question. “Of course tarot needs 78 cards! 22 majors and (10 + 4) minors x 4 suits! Otherwise it’s not tarot!” But what makes this combination so sacred that it must never be altered? Various people who’ve pondered tarot longer than me have gotten me thinking about modern deck and the future of the tarot. Like most things, it must evolve or die. Ways of reading the tarot have certainly evolved over the decades, but the tarot deck itself has largely stayed constant, thus tarot readers are still typically reading with 78 cards.

I hope this post has encouraged at least one person to consider this; to think about the number of cards needed for the tarot; and in turn, the future possibilities for the tarot deck. Maybe that one person will be the one to bring the next evolution of this fascinating tool!