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How is colour used to convey meaning in Tarot?

Colour speaks to us though history…it’s in the life blood of civilisation

By Rebecca Bell

Around the world colour has held a great significance to human civilisation: it has been used to symbolise various meanings, suggest emotion, represent groups, and work as a universal language. Colour is in our ancestral lifeblood, and the subconscious messages it holds for us are ages old. It would be difficult not to tune into the power of colour in our day-to-day, so you can see why it’s become an important part of the construction of tarot to help us tap into that subconscious intuition… Time to delve deeper into the power and history of colour choice and its use in tarot!

Ancient Colour Theory

First, let’s take a look at the psychology of colour, and one of its earliest recorded uses. Way back some time around the 3rd century, in Turkey the academic Galen created a personality theory based on the four humours and their associated colours:

  • Blood Sanguine  (red) Air Element – Courageous, hopeful, amorous, hot and moist.
  • Yellow Bile -choleric (yellow) Fire element – Short tempered, Ambitious, hot and dry.
  • Black Bile – Melancholy (black) Earth element – introspective, sentimental, cold and dry
  • Phlegm- Phlegmatic (blue) Water Element -Calm, Unemotional, cold and moist

Though this theory was rejected as medicine advanced, as it was seen as a subjective view of how personalities can be represented by colours, this is still considered as the starting point of the modern-day colour psychology. And it’s easy to see the connections that still exist today in colour symbolism.

But how does this affect us in the modern day?

Colour psychology is surprisingly influential — it can sway people’s choices in a variety of ways, from deciding on clothing is appropriate for certain situations, to what brands you are more likely to choose in the supermarket. Designers and marketing buffs alike will think carefully about the colours they use to have the maximum impact on the audience. For instance, food brands will avoid blue as it doesn’t make you think “food”. But blue does reassure you, and has been proven to have a calming effect — which is why you’ll see it on the things you rely on, such as medicine, cars, and computers.


What has this got to do with tarot?

So, let us see how this applies to tarot: the mix of colour psychology, symbolism, and of course tarot’s affiliation with the divine forces.

Major Arcana

Now this one is a bit trickier to pin a single colour to, we all know each card has its own unique personality and colour set. So, it’s worth looking into what each colour means in the following paragraph and using your intuition to bring those meanings into the Major Arcana. For instance, if a card has a primary colour (eg: it features more yellow), then that colour has a bigger impact on the reading of that card.

Of course, different artists develop their palettes specifically, and their use of colour reflects their preferred meaning for the card. Therefore, colours can mean different things in different decks. Eg: the Modern Witch Tarot features very little purple, saving it for objects of regality and divinity. By contrast, the Cosmic Slumber Tarot uses violet tones throughout, to thread together a dreamlike landscape with vivid colours that we don’t often find in the waking world.

However, there is one distinction that can be found in the Major Arcana across different decks, and that is the use of black, grey, and white. Black forms the line work for all the cards however, large areas of black are used in the depiction of The Hermit and of course Death… Surly black is the absence of colour, right? Wrong! Black has its own meanings and symbolism. We can see in Galen’s theory that black represented introspection and sentiment… Sounding familiar? It should do, as The Hermit’s meaning is about introspection and taking time alone to think.

Meanwhile, white is associated with purity and light and innocence. It is the colour of the Magician’s tunic, under his bright red robe, representing the start of pure energy and a source of light. Then we have grey, which in the Majors tends to represent wisdom, faraway goals (the mountains are grey!), structures, and even non-duality — after all, grey is what you get when you combine black and white.

Wands

Wands are governed by fire and what does fire mean? Red, and lots of it! No matter the deck, if you take out this suit and look at the cards together you will see the distinct use of red. Red has long been the symbol of fire, passion, energy, and excitement. However, on the flip side it is the colour of aggression and war, because passion can lead to blood — the common phrase ‘seeing red’ comes to mind. The suit of Wands is a call to action, invoking the primal energy inside the querent, who is invited to ponder the unpredictability of their own firelike energy. The Wands challenge you to ask yourself: where should you move next, to gain success and avoid conflict?

Cups

Cups are the vessels of water, and no surprises that this suit is full of watery blues. Blue has long been associated with calmness and conservative natures. Galen ascribed the blues a lack of emotion, which in modern day translates to depression and the phrase ‘feeling blue’. But isn’t this still an emotional state? The suit of Cups, speaks of coming into an emotional phase, and the connections between the querent and others. There is a focus on the ability to be emotional, but also at peace with the ebb and flow of emotions. By cultivating calm, even in the raging river of emotion, you will not be carried away in its anguish.  

Swords

The suit of Swords is a little harder to distinguish, as the colours tend to sit around light greys, pale blues, or muted tones. Understandably, depicting the element of air is a little tricky, what with its colourless nature, lest colour from leaves or sands be carried on it. Focusing on the grey overtones of this suit, grey symbolises reliability, intelligence, and practicality. The suit of Swords speaks of intelligence, the mind, action, and duality. The grey fits with this clearly and the muted shades lend themselves to change and duality as well, as they sit between darkness and vividness, ready to shift at any moment.  

Pentacles

Pentacles are lush with Earth’s greenery, which practically grows out of the cards in some decks! Green is synonymous with nature, growth, good luck, wealth, and not to forget jealousy… ’the green-eyed monster’. The suit of Pentacles fits with these ideas, in its narrative of wealth, health, work, and self-image. Greenery and a fertile land are seen as good wealth, and also lead to good health with all those tasty veggies! On the flip side, vanity and wanting of wealth can lead to covetousness and jealousy, traits of having ‘green eyes’. So, finding balance in this suit is important. Acknowledge and appreciate what you have, and do not be distracted by envy of others’ achievements. Use that energy for self-growth to reach your own goals.


Now, this is merely scratching the surface: it would be easy to get lost for days in the history and psychology of colour alone. From there we could also spend days on the way colour weaves itself into the fabric of tarot. Truly it is a fascinating topic, and hopefully this works as a starting point to get you thinking more about the use of colour in your tarot decks, or even in your next trip to the supermarket… ’Why is that brand of tea so inviting?’.


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