For well over a century now, Tarot sleuths have been discovering dozens of mysterious details hidden deep within the artwork of Tarot cards.
Some of the details hidden in the classic Rider-Waite Tarot artwork might even be clues. These clues hint at enigmatic possibilities, or even “sub-plots” within the Tarot story itself. For those who take the time to explore, there are dozens of these elusive signs — woven subtly into the illustrations. Some of these clues hint at even deeper mysteries, and may open the door to still deeper truths.
Next time you’re doing a tarot reading, keep a look out for these tantalizing puzzles. Here are 5 of those mysteries, and the theories behind them — which may or may not be true…
The Two of Swords is the High Priestess at a younger age
Most students of Tarot are immediately familiar with the High Priestess card. The High Priestess sits proudly — adorned with sacred symbols, between two giant pillars. It’s one of the most iconic cards in the Tarot deck.
What many people miss however, is just how strangely similar the High Priestess card is to the Minor Arcana 2 of Swords card.
Here are just some of the bizarre similarities between the 2 of Swords and the High Priestess cards:
- Both cards feature seated, similar-looking women.
- Both women wear white, priestly robes.
- Both women sit on a square stone bench.
- Both cards feature a thin, yellow, crescent moon.
- Both cards feature a deep blue, evening sky.
- Both women sit with their backs to the sea. (If you look closely, there’s a sea behind the tapestry on the High Priestess card)
- Both women have a cross of sorts over their hearts.
- Both cards are numbered with the roman numeral II.
That’s a whole lot of coincidences. Is there a deeper truth at work here?
One popular theory is that the acolyte shown on the 2 of Swords card is a younger version of the High Priestess, pictured during her training years. On the 2 of Swords card, the Priestess’ younger-self is shown being tested; forced to make difficult decisions, while honing her otherworldly skills. The High Priestess by contrast, is the same young acolyte all grown-up — in full command of her abilities, and confident in her position of authority.
The Nine of Pentacles is Transgender
This is one of those theories that sounds unlikely at first, but the clues do line up in a surprising way.
First, it’s important to note that during the conservative Victorian era when the creators of the Rider-Waite tarot deck were growing up, concepts like homosexuality or transexualism weren’t exactly “permitted” conversation around the dinner table. While these concepts have existed since humans walked the Earth, they couldn’t be discussed openly at the time.
Instead, these concepts were hinted at in subtle ways, which were obvious to anyone paying attention.
With that being said, let’s take a look at the hidden symbols at work within the mysterious 9 of Pentacles card.
First, the falconry:
It was well known in Europe at the time that many species of birds exhibit homosexual behavior. Birds in general, have long been associated with intricate and unusual courtship rituals. The fact that this particular bird is hooded and restrained is also interesting.
More importantly though, the depiction of falconry allowed the artist to draw the central figure with a bent wrist. While the term “limp wristed” has largely passed from popular speech today, it was very much in use at the time the cards were illustrated. Without having a bird perched on the woman’s hand, this posture would have undoubtedly been interpreted as “gay” in its period. The presence of the falcon may have allowed the artist to pass-off the position as “sport”.
Furthermore, trans-women in Victorian England would often wear long gloves to conceal their hands. The combination of a bent wrist, and a long glove would have been seen as a very telling combination, were it not for the bird perched on top.
In other words, the entire decision to include falconry on this card, may have been to provide license for drawing a bent wrist and a long glove. Otherwise — why falconry?
Second, the woman herself:
The woman is unusually tall by Tarot standards.
She is drawn with a strong neck, a big nose, and an unusually square jaw. These traditionally masculine features are somewhat out-of-place in the Rider-Waite Tarot illustrations, which usually adhere to very traditional depictions of gender.
Third, the mysterious snail:
For anyone who isn’t quite buying the theory yet, the snail is usually the clincher.
If you look closely there’s a mysterious little snail drawn on the lower-left of the Nine of Pentacles. The snail has no obvious business being on this card. It has little to do with the rest of the illustration, and seems almost scribbled in as an odd afterthought.
Snails, as it turns out, are among the only truly hermaphroditic creatures in the animal kingdom. They are capable of changing their genders from male to female, and back again.
Coincidence? You decide.
The Eight of Cups and The Hermit Are the Same Person
This theory is similar to the Two of Swords / High Priestess theory above. It might be a little more of a stretch, but it’s fun to think about.
Everyone knows The Hermit card of the Major Arcana. The Hermit is one of the most easy-to-remember images in the entire deck. He stands in solitude on a mountain peak, holding nothing but his cane and his mysterious lantern.
Somewhat less well-known is the Minor Arcana 8 of Cups card. While the two cards share a few visual similarities, they also share a strong conceptual connection.
First, on a purely visual level, the 8 of Cups features a hunched figure, holding a staff and walking away towards the mountains. That alone is somewhat notable.
But on a conceptual level, it’s important to remember that the 8 of Cups features a figure walking with a staff, “giving up” and turning their backs on society.
Is it possible that the 8 of Cups pictures the exact moment when the Hermit chose to walk away from it all?
The Ten of Pentacles Includes a Depiction of A.E. Waite Himself
The 10 of Pentacles is one of those cards which is bursting with symbolism. From the family crests, to the happy family, to the arrangement of the pentacles which form the Kabbalistic Tree of Life pattern, to the ominous banner depicting the tower from The Tower card — the 10 of Pentacles contains a smorgasbord of interpretation options.
With all the symbolic confusion, it would be easy to forgive casual readers from missing the stylized initials “A. W.” woven into the pattern on the old man’s back.
One popular theory is that the letters A and W, and the old man himself, represent A. E. Waite, the co-creator of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, and the founder of the legendary esoteric society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Adding a fascinating touch to this theory is the fact that the stylized first-initial “A” peaks out from the pentacle occupying position on the Tree of Life which represents “Free will” and “Majesty“. If Waite were to “sign” his deck of cards in some way, this seems like a fine spot for him to leave his mark.
The Baby on The Sun Card is The Fool, Resurrected
This theory is perhaps the most famous theory of all. It’s often referred to as the “Red Feather Theory“.
For those unfamiliar with it, it goes like this:
There’s a very specific red feather symbol which appears on 3 important cards of the Major Arcana: The Fool, Death and The Sun.
Given the importance of these three Major Arcana cards, it would seem this feather has some important meaning. For well over a century, tarot readers have debated what the connection is between these three cards, and why this subtle hint was used to tie these cards together.
One popular theory is that the feather traces the life, death and rebirth of a central character within the story of the Major Arcana:
The Fool begins his journey as a naive youth, unaware of the nature of the world around him.
Undergoing a series of trials and encountering a host of powerful Major Arcana characters throughout his life, he eventually dies as a king on the Death Card, with the grim figure of Death wearing the red feather.
The Sun card, which appears later in the Major Arcana sequence, shows us a shining infant (whose gender is unclear), who represents this central character now reborn and filled with new life — and also wearing the red feather.
Is the infant in the Sun card really the Fool reborn?
Needless to say, it’s not a question anyone should expect to see answered anytime soon.