The images of the tarot fascinate.   They combine symbols both plain and mysterious- a mixture which both tantalizes the intellect and arouses the soul.  Their colors and forms vibrate with strange antiquity.

Yet there is no evidence that the cards precede the Renaissance.  And the most popular deck in the English-speaking world, the Rider-Waite-Smith, is barely a century old.  Though born only a hundred years ago, many of the images in this deck are, in fact, the inheritors of a symbolic, astrologic and magical tradition which stretches back to the Old Kingdom period of Egyptian history.

It may have been for this reason that Aleister Crowley and other esotericists claimed that the Tarot’s true origin was Egyptian, even though on a literal level the claim is largely unsupportable.

Strangely, it is not the bold images of the Major Arcana that can boast such an ancient pedigree, but the more numerous and oft-neglected pip cards of the deck- the lowly 2-through-10’s of each suit.

DecanWheelThe 36 pip cards of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck draw from a deep well of imagery- the decans, also called the “faces,” of astrology.  The decans, a division of each sign into 3 equal parts, and the zodiac into 36 sections, are first found scratched into coffin lids in the 22nd century BCE tombs.  From there, this division of the sky and the circle moved through the Greco-Roman world, east to India, throughout the Middle-East, onward to Medieval and Renaissance Europe and finally up to the present day.

Unlike the signs of the zodiac, whose meaning is stored in simple symbols, the decans communicated their meaning with a series of striking images, many of which can be seen on the pip cards of the Rider-Waite Tarot.  These images contained not only human figures, engaged in the drama of living, but also a wild menagerie of angels, demons, gods and daimones. Furthermore, the images of the decans were not originally strictly divinatory.  Texts abound which describe the power of these images to not only reflect reality, but to impress their pattern upon the world around them.

Yet the images of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck are not merely a repetition of an old set of symbols- the pip cards offer a unique interpretation of decanic symbolism, in some cases choosing to re-use older images, and in other instances radically diverging from them.

Thus while astrology comments on the pip cards, the pip cards of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck also comment on astrology.   By crossing this bridge between astrology and Tarot, we see both traditions enriched.



Austin will be speaking on “A Deck of Faces: The Hidden History of the Pip Cards” at TarotCon Denver 2015. Visit our Speakers page for the full line-up of presentations and workshops.


About the Author

Austin R. Coppock is a writer, tarot-reader and astrological consultant based in Los Angeles. He is the current president of the AYA (Association for Young Astrologers).

His work on the decans and their intersection with astrology, tarot and magic, 36 Faces, was published by Three Hands Press in 2014. Austin has written extensively on astrology, including hundreds of columns, dozens of articles, and Astrological Almanacs for 2011-2015. His work has appeared in the Mountain Astrologer multiple times, and has also been featured in the Clavis Journal of Occult Arts, Letters and Experience.

Austin’s work blends creativity and scholarship, and highlights the critical and often ignored overlap between astrology and magical traditions, such as Hermeticism. Learn more at

© 2015 by Austin Coppock. All rights reserved.

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