Tarot and Emotions Research Project Report by Mary K. Greer © 2003, Revised 10/9/03


Permission is hereby granted to use this information in teaching as long as acknowledgement is made. Do not reprint on the web or elsewhere without permission from Mary K. Greer



            Fifty-three people responded to the Tarot and Emotion Research Project. They were asked to match the cards of the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck, as objectively as possible, with 78 out of 99 emotion words, based on the emotions depicted by the images. I want to thank everyone who participated, and especially the American Tarot Association who provided pages for the instructions and Mark McElroy who created the pages and the report form that made it so easy for everyone to respond. Without all of your efforts there wouldn’t be this report.



87% were women (47)

13% were men (7).


            This is consistent with average class and workshop attendance. While it is not unusual for there to be fewer men in classes, the percentage of men increases a little at professional gatherings and on the internet.


The average age was 43.5 with the men being slightly older.

Under 20     =     2%      (1)

20 to 29       =   11%      (6)

30 to 39       =   29%    (15)

40 to 49       =   29%    (15)

50 to 59       =   19%    (10)

Over 59       =   10%      (5)


Their familiarity with the RWS Tarot deck:

Not Familiar                 =     5%        (3)

Somewhat Familiar       =   11%        (6)

Familiar                        =   30%      (16)

Very Familiar                =   48%      (26)


Their Tarot knowledge:

None                            =     4%        (2)

Little                             =     9%        (5)

Intermediate                 =   34%      (18)

Significant Personal       =   30%      (16)

Professional Reader      =   23%      (12)


            Most people took three to six hours to do the project including cutting out the emotion words, matching words and cards, and recording their results. Some took much longer. Many participants said they learned a tremendous amount and that it was the most exciting Tarot work they had done in years.



            In collating the material the main thing I discovered was the great variety of responses to each card, averaging twenty-five different words per card (from a minimum of 9 to a maximum of 36). Some cards had tremendous congruity (similar emotions) while others had little agreement or similarities. For instance, nearly everyone saw the Four of Wands as festive, mirthful and happy, and the Three of Swords as heartbroken grief. On the other hand, the Wheel of Fortune could be accepting or surprised, daring or indecisive, and the King of Swords could be depressed or confident. Most cards showed clear conceptual trends rather than precise agreement.


            Conflicting emotions were not necessarily bad. The King of Swords could be depressed when weakened and confident when strengthened. Such a range is actually helpful in interpretation because one card can agree with a variety of other cards—pleasant or unpleasant.



            It was essential to use just one deck for this project to narrow the variables. I chose the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck since tarot readers often have one of the close variations. Additionally, it has pictures on all the cards, and emotions are depicted deliberately, in some cases, through face, color, body positions and/or environment. An unlooked for but enlightening result of the project are a list of emotions that are particular to this deck. In fact, we now have a description of the emotional attributes of the RWS deck, yielding the overall tone or tendency that we can expect, on average, from a reading.


            The two words used most often and for the greatest number of cards are: determined and expectant. After that come: hopeful, resolute, cautious, fulfilled, secure, and wondrous. The words that were used least are equally revealing: jealousy, guilt, hatred, spite, disgust, and envious. The latter group are least likely to be revealed through the cards of the RWS deck. Nevertheless, a querent may come to a reading with negative emotions at the forefront, and they can be depicted by the cards. Readings with the RWS deck will tend to an expectancy to determine a hopeful resolution, cautiously yet securely fulfilled in a wondrous manner. From a healing context, as scientific research has demonstrated over and over again, this is exactly the attitude that is most likely to help a person improve his or her sense of well-being and life circumstances. As Eden Gray so wisely advised in 1971 “Give those for whom you read encouragement to strive for their highest ideals” (Mastering the Tarot, p. 197).




            While it is my theory that Tarot cards are metaphors of emotion, not all cards in the deck are depicted emotionally. The cards that seem to be the least emotional or have the least clarity about what emotions are depicted are: the Magician, Wheel of Fortune, and Temperance, along with three of the Aces (excluding Pentacles), and eleven of the sixteen court cards. Other cards that stand out as emotionally ambiguous are: the Eight of Cups, Six of Swords, and the Three and Ten of Pentacles. Also, three-quarters of the Aces and more than two-thirds of the Court Cards are unclear about their specific emotional content, suggesting that the focus of these cards may be different. Aces are dealt with as their own segment of the deck.


            Cards with the greatest emotional clarity and consistency include: the Lovers, Strength, Tower, and Sun, the Knight of Swords, and sixteen Minor Arcana number cards (44%). The Minor Arcana numbered two through ten have, in general, the clearest emotional content in the RWS deck.




            I began this project out of a concern that emotions are usually associated only with the suit of Cups and, with the exception of a few cards like the painful Tower or the happy Sun and World, other cards are not often acknowledged as having emotional content. My own experience with Tarot readings and Tarot readers, however, is that any card can trigger emotional responses that are, to some extent, predictable. Also, the best Tarot readers are usually gifted empaths, who use their emotional “genius,” consciously or unconsciously, as a major component of their intuitive and communicative skills. Add this to the fact that people usually seek advice from a Tarot deck or Tarot readers for emotional reasons (as mentioned above). Emotions seem to me to be a hugely unacknowledged aspect of Tarot—the size of an elephant in the living room. If we are to improve our skills as readers and understand the how the cards operate at a functional, psychological level, then it becomes imperative to understand how emotions are expressed through the deck, how card images trigger emotions in both querent and reader, and how emotions function in helping a person resolve issues and understand themselves and their life circumstances.




            The field of emotion research has mushroomed in only the last fifteen years and continues to grow rapidly. Neurophysiologist, Antonio Damasio defines emotions as “complicated collections of chemical and neural responses, forming a pattern: all emotions have some kind of regulatory role to play, leading in one way or another to the creation of circumstances advantageous to the organism. . . .  Their role is to assist the organism in maintaining life” (Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens, p. 51). In spite of the infinite variations to be found across cultures we can predict with some success that certain stimuli will produce certain emotions—and, like it or not, Tarot readers are in the business of prediction. Emotions motivate us to move, take action and make plans. Emotions also have a special ability to bridge across the unexpected and unknown and thus serve as a guide to reason and a setter of priorities. In a reading we have the opportunity to evaluate past, present and future actions and plans by evoking the physiological mechanism that was engineered to regulate these. People go to a Tarot reading to alleviate anxiety, achieve desires, and find meaning (through perceiving patterns). The process results, unless blocked, in increased awareness or consciousness. Emotion, it turns out, is an essential component all of these, and is thus central to the very act of reading the cards and interacting with the querent.




            In the following summary reports I’ve included only emotion-word choices that were corroborated by at least two people. Respondents were asked to indicate emotions that were depicted on the card and not their own reactions to the images (i.e., personal projections), but, as to be expected, some responses were far more subjective and idiosyncratic than objective. For instance, one person felt that the main emotion in the Hierophant was self-doubt. A case could certainly be made that the two acolytes at the feet of the Pope need reassurance in the face of their own self-doubts. From an objective standpoint, however, there is nothing in the picture that indicates an assumption. Single emotions are still helpful in rounding out the emotional description of and adding depth to a card; they strengthen trends and show otherwise unacknowledged dimensions.


            I eliminated all the write-in words since they were uncorroborated, but especially since more than three-quarters of them were not emotions at all. This substantiates a realization I had early in the project that most people do not really understand what emotions are. We are a society of emotional semi-literates. All the more reason for this project.




            Since my starting place was the emotional content of the suits, I’ll begin with a summary of results for the Minor Arcana suit cards numbered two through ten. (Aces and Court Cards function most significantly in their own groups.) I sorted the ninety-nine emotions (all appeared in the suits) into five categories (see chart) for the sake of easy comparison. (See the appendix at the end of the report for which emotions I’ve put into each category.) The numbers in parentheses are the result of a point count weighing their importance by repetition per card and number of cards in which the word appeared. The words were not evenly balanced among the categories (i.e., there were about twice as many joy words as any other, with the joy plus desire categories equalling the other three to give a fairly even balance of positive and negative words).



Fear  (147)

Desire  (126)

Joy  (103)

Sorrow  (86)

Anger/Hate  (80)


Fear  (195)

Sorrow  (195)

Anger/Hate  (147)

Joy  (95)

Desire (23)


Joy  (310)

Sorrow  (179)

Fear  (60)

Desire  (58)

Anger/Hate  (52)


Joy  (240)

Sorrow  (104)

Fear  (97)

Desire  (60)

Anger/Hate  (34)


            From the chart we can see that both Wands and Swords (the Yang suits) lead with fear-based emotions, while Cups and Pentacles (the Yin suits) lead with joyful emotions. Then the characteristics of Wands and Swords change dramatically, with Wands featuring desire, joy, sorrow, and anger (in a close match), while Swords feature sorrow that is equal to fear, followed by anger and joy, and only a little desire. Cups and Pentacles take a big jump from joy to sorrow and then to fear and end with desire and anger. Respondents were much more in agreement about Cups’s expressions of joy than about any other group of cards and their emotions. The entire list of words appearing for each suit and card is too massive to present in this report.


           In an interesting corroboration of the general tenor of each suit, the following words were used exclusively in a single suit:


Wands: hopeful, impatient, inflamed, irritated, resolute, angry, triumphant, proud.

Cups: joy, shy, bliss, happy, lust, awed.

Swords: mischievous, shame, spite, bitter, fear, guilty, arrogant, hatred.

Pentacles: secure, interested, benevolent, envious, pity, confident, serene.


            All four suits share only two corroborated words (at least two responses): melancholy and worried.




            Aces seem to have more in common with each other than with other cards in their suit although suit characteristics are apparent—especially with Pentacles.


            All four Aces are awe(ful), wondrous, and inspired, while three out of four are aroused, desirous, fulfilled, grateful, hopeful.


            The Ace of Wands primarily is aroused and inspired, and, to a lesser extent, daring, decisive, enthused, respect(ful), arrogant, desirous, inflamed, surprised, triumphant and wondrous.


            The Ace of Cups primarily is bliss(ful) and compassionate, and, to a lesser extent, awed, desirous, fulfilled, loving, wondrous, aroused, caring, enthused, grateful, happy, hopeful and joyous.


            The Ace of Swords primarily is decisive, triumphant, daring and determined, and, to a lesser extent, aroused, arrogant, belligerent, inflamed, irritated, respect and secure.


            The Ace of Pentacles primarily is grateful, secure, welcoming and benevolent, and, to a lesser extent, accepting, awed, calm, desirous, expectant, fulfilled, hopeful, inspired, peaceful, satisfied and wondrous.




            The Court Cards are among the cards for which there is the least agreement. The most clearly delineated are the King of Wands, Page of Cups, Page of Pentacles and, especially, the Knight of Swords.


            The most frequent words for expressing Court Card emotions are: proud, arrogant, resolute, interested, expectant, confident, amused, kind, caring, hopeful, respect(ful), daring, impatient, wary, yearning.


Wands Court Cards feel arrogant and interested.

Cups Court Cards feel yearning.

Swords Court Cards  feel arrogant and irritated.

Pentacles Court Cards feel reverent.

Pages feel curious, interested, hopeful and wondrous.

Knights feel impatient.

Queens feel caring, compassionate and benevolent.

Kings feel proud and stubborn.

(A few of these emotions appear in only 3 out of 4 of their group.)




            When looking over the Major Arcana characteristics it is notable that some cards share a number of emotions in common. For instance, the Emperor and Hierophant share six out ten of the same emotions—which should not be surprising since both are patriarchal authority figures and rulers. Both demonstrate respect, arrogance, pride, resoluteness, decisiveness, and wariness. Other emotions differentiate them from each other. The Emperor is stubborn, determined, angry and suspicious, as compared to the Hierophant who is reverent, secure, benevolent and patient. Words that appeared only once further differentiate the two. The Emperor is confident, daring and triumphant, as compared with the Hierophant who is calm, caring, and welcoming (sharing these sentiments with the Empress). On the more negative side, the Emperor is defensive and irritated, while the Hierophant is contemptuous, smug and scornful.


            It is through the similarities that we are able to find connections and establish patterns in a reading, while the differences help us see where a particular energy is moving. The Emperor in the past, becoming the Hierophant in the future could suggest, for instance, a change in masculine decisiveness from determined but suspicious to being more reverent and patient.


            Some emotion words only appeared for one Major Arcana card. These were often the most negative or disturbing emotions. For instance, the Devil was given the following emotions that were not share by any other Major Arcana card: apathetic, disgusted, scorn, shame, spite. And only one other card shared with the Devil the following: belligerent (Tower), defiant (Chariot), and desirous (Lovers).

            The High Priestess was the only shy Trump card. Several emotions were shared by a maximum of seven cards. For instance, serene was chosen for the High Priestess, Empress, Star, Temperance, Hanged Man, Strength, and World (given in the order of most frequently chosen – thirteen times for the High Priestess to twice for the World). By contrast, the number one word for each of these cards was: High Priestess (serene), Empress (benevolent), Star (hopeful), Temperance (calm), Hanged Man (accepting), Strength (caring), and World (bliss). We can see that these cards are part of a group that share a lot of emotional characteristics; with the exception of the Hanged Man, we like getting these cards. The High Priestess, Hanged Man and Temperance share another word—cautious. By contrast, the angry Majors are the Tower, Emperor, Moon and Devil. The “determined” cards are Emperor, Magician, and Chariot.


            Whereas all 99 words were used by at least two people per card for the Minor Twos through Tens (36 cards), only 79 words were used for the Majors. The unused and uncorroborated words were bitter, contemptuous, defensive, depressed, envious, exhausted, guilty, hatred, heartbroken, hopeless, inflamed, irritated, jealous, pity, regret, sad, satisfied, self-doubt, smug, worried. What makes the Minor Arcana cards that feature these emotions different than the Trumps?




            Psychologist Daniel Goleman has popularized something called Emotional Intelligence. He says that some people are much more adept at perceiving emotions in themselves and others, at dealing with these emotions, and at communicating about them, yielding a high EQ versus an IQ. Although some people are naturally talented, these abilities can be developed. Doing Tarot readings for others improves these skills.


            To test my own ability to “read” emotions, I counted how often my choices in this project were corroborated by others. Only seven word/card choices that I made were uncorroborated, which means I had a 91% corroboration rate. At least five people agreed with 54% of my choices (two to four was typical). I randomly picked two other people who identified themselves as Very Familiar/Professional Readers and calculated their corroboration rates which were considerably less. I theorize that my “success” arises from over thirty years reading and teaching Tarot using an interactive style during which I ask people to describe the feelings and attitudes of the figures on the cards and the mood and atmosphere of the environment. I’ve listened to thousands of people describe the emotions they perceive in the cards (most often the RWS deck), and I’ve asked them to follow those emotions back to life experiences which we then related back to the card, the spread and the question. I see their emotion as a bridge to an unknown (or unacknowledged) but very relevant piece of the pattern described in the spread. These experiences have refined my knowledge of the pictorial inducers of specific emotions, of how they relate to life events, and of how to use Tarot images as emotion-inducers to help resolve issues.


            Tarot readers can increase their EQ and learn to become more conscious of the patterns, priorities and actions empowered by emotions as they are indicated by the cards in a reading and by the querent’s responses to the cards.


            Watch for further articles describing emotions in more depth along with their function in a Tarot reading.


            Again, I want to thank everyone who participated in this project, and I urge others to do the project for themselves.



Emotions Chart

I endeavored to have an equal number of positive emotions (joy and desire) and negative emotions (sorrow, fear, anger/hate). Many emotions could go equally in other categories, like jealousy (fear, anger, sorrow and desire), guilt (fear and anger), depression (a variable complex). I determined their context by referring to people who have written deeply about emotions and by looking at the cards with which they were matched. The division is not perfect, but I feel it is now consistent in relationship to the RWS deck.













































































































































































Permission is hereby granted to use this information in teaching as long as acknowledgement is made. Do not reprint on the web or elsewhere without permission from Mary K. Greer


Article © 2003 Mary K. Greer
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes