Religion in HBO's Carnivàle

Tarot in the Opening



The use of tarot cards is prevalent in Carnivàle. From the opening sequence to Sophie the card reader, the cards show up in every episode and all with a purpose.


Tarot cards are used predominantly as a tool of fortune telling, with each card having a different meaning.


The credits begin with a number of tarot cards falling. It then enters into “The World” card. The design on the card is “Last Judgment” by Michelangelo, which depicts both heaven and earth. Upon entering the card, the scene changes to a number of images of 1930’s America. A breadline symbolizes the hell that was the Great Depression; a flying dirigible represents the beginning of the age of science which was considered the anti-religion.

Meaning: “Completion. Perfection. Eternal life.”


It then begins to pull back out except now it shows a new card, “Ace of Swords”. This time the image is of an angel fighting a dragon. This is a representation of Isaiah 27 in which God slays the Leviathan. This indicates his power over his enemies. This card is an excellent representation of the show’s theme of good vs. evil.

Meaning: “Ardent love. Ardent hate. A vanquisher is born.”


Like before, the shot enters into yet another card, “The Death” card. The scene is gruesome and grim, containing images such as a decapitated body and a blood red sky. The transition brings us to more scenes involving the United States during the 1930’s but also from the early 1900’s.  The images however are of the evil and corrupt ideas of the early twentieth century. A demonstration involving Fascist leader Benito Mussolini obviously represents the rise in fascism. The image of Joseph Stalin represents the rise of totalitarianism, while the rampant racism of the time is represented by the images of the KKK. The image changes once more to smiling children before it pulls out and one of the children’s faces turns into an angel on another tarot card.

Meaning: “Transition. Change. Death.”


This new card has the name “The King of Swords”. The image depicted on it is of an angel defeating a devil. Raphael’s “St. Michael Victorious” is the particular image used.

Meaning: “A powerful commander. A wise counselor. A judge.”


The next card is “Temperance”. Its design is of peasants dancing and is by artist Pieter Bruegel. Like the images following “The Death” card were of evil, the images that follow “Temperance” are of the complete opposite. Athletic “heroes” of the time such as Jesse Owens and Babe Ruth. The final scenes in this segment are of people dancing (as was depicted in “Temperance”) which morph out into two embracing angels.

Meaning: “Moderation. Balance. Harmony.”


At this point in the opening credits both the good and the bad of the time have been depicted, both heaven and hell. However, the image of the devil being tossed from heaven is seen in the card as it zooms out. According to common Christian beliefs, this is how and when the battle for men’s souls began.


But then something unexpected occurs. The card twists upside down which in tarot means a complete inversion of the cards meanings. This alludes to the show in that it is unsure who falls on the side of evil and who’s on the good side. This new card is “The Magician”.

Meaning: Originality. Confidence. Skill. (Inverted: Lack of will.)


“The Tower” card is the next in the series. Its image is of an immense battle, specifically between the Carthaginians and the Romans. The following images all give a sense of hurry and need associated with the Great Depression. The final image is of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Meaning: Sudden change. Disruption. Downfall.


This morphs out and becomes “The Judgment” card. This particular card image is of the archangel Michael.

Meaning: Renewal. Rebirth.


“Sitting on the shoulders” of “The Judgement” card so to speak are two final cards, “The Sun” and “The Moon”. The images on each card clearly show that “The Sun” is God and “The Moon” is the Devil.

Meaning: Deception. Disillusion. (“The Moon”) Success. Joy. (“The Sun”)


The final image after all the cards blow away is of the Carnivàle emblem which contains both a sun and a moon.


The opening credits for Carnivàle are extremely elaborate and well thought out. It is not your typical show opening. Each second of the into has a significant meaning in terms or the people and story of Carnivàle.


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