Why Are There 78 Cards in the Standard Tarot Deck?

The standard Tarot deck contains 78 cards which are divided into two sections. The Major Arcana is made up of 22 cards that represent a progression or a journey. The remaining cards, the Minor Arcana, is made up of four suits, each containing 14 cards. Why those numbers? No one knows for certain, but over the years, there have been a number of theories to explain the structure of the Tarot and the numbers behind it.

The Major Arcana

The heart of the Tarot, and the thing that sets it apart from a deck of playing cards, is the Major Arcana, the set of 22 cards that each represent a major secret or mystery. Taken together, the cards tell the story of The Fool’s journey towards knowledge and enlightenment. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a number of Tarot scholars noted that the Tarot has the same number of cards as there are letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and developed theories of interpretation that assigned each of the major cards to one of the letters. There is, however, no historical evidence that the 22 cards were originally meant to align with those letters.

Another theory notes that when the Fool is removed from the remainder of the Major Arcana, it consists of 21 cards. The number 21 carries a mystical significance in many different traditions. It is the product of two mystical numbers, 7 and 3, and the sum of the digits is also 3. Rachel Pollack, who wrote “Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom,” one of the modern primers for Tarot interpretation, divides the Major Arcana into three sets of seven cards. In Pollack’s view, the three sets define the journey to enlightenment through mastering the conscious, the subconscious and the superconscious. Her interpretation is similar to others who also divide the deck into three sets of seven cards, and seems a reasonable explanation for the 22 cards, as well as a way to make learning and interpreting the cards easier to the Tarot layman.

The Minor Arcana

The 56 cards of the Minor Arcana correspond almost exactly to the modern deck of playing cards. It consists of four suits, commonly called wands, cups, swords and pentacles (or coins). The four suits appear to have originally depicted the four classes of medieval life: royalty, military, peasant and merchant. Over the years, they have come to be associated with the four elements, earth, air, fire and water, as well as with the four seasons. Modern Tarot scholars often assign them to the different spheres of life – cups for relationships, swords for intellect and law, wands for business or work, and coins for wealth and family tradition.

Each suit has 10 pip cards, numbered ace through 10. Unlike playing cards, though, Tarot cards have four face cards – commonly called court cards – the page, knight, queen and king. The page, once standard in decks of playing cards, was dropped over the years, leaving only the jack (knight), queen and king. Tarot decks, however, retained the court of four. Some decks refer to them as princess, prince, queen and king.

While it’s not necessary – or even important – to know the history behind the Tarot deck, understanding its structure can make it much easier to read the cards.