The Major Arcana comprises 22 stand-alone cards that represent life lessons, turning points and changes. The cards signal Archetypal figures, situations or states of being. They indicate rites of passage that we go through in life.
The 22 Major Arcana cards, sometimes called Trump cards, are ordered from one to 21. The card of The Fool can either be read at either the beginning or end of the sequence.
In some decks, The Fool is unnumbered, in others, the card is the number 0. Numbered or not, The Fool can sit at either end of the sequence, either as number 0 or 22.
The origin of the imagery of the Major Arcana is shrouded in mystery. The graphics include hints of medieval figures, biblical references, various mythologies and deep, dreamy surrealist scenes. One thing that is most interesting about the Major Arcana is its connection to Jung’s archetypal theories.
Tarot, the Major Arcana and Carl Jung’s Archetypes
Carl Gustav Jung, an influential psychiatrist and psychologist of the 20th century, added some of his life’s work in the field of archetypal theory. Jung believed that there were significant archetypes that represent core human patterns and behaviours. Although there are many, he identified 12 fundamental archetypes that a human being can tap into at any time.
Jung also believed that the human psyche is divided into three parts; the conscious, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. Jung’s archetypes and his concept of the collective unconscious connect to the ancient notion of the anima mundi, or, the world soul.
The anima mundi resembles a metaphysical library of sorts. Here, all of the world’s experiences, memories, concepts, thoughts and mystical ideas reside. It is believed that humans can interact with the anima mundi and take inspiration and guidance from this collective consciousness for the betterment of their own.
Approaching the Tarot, and specifically the Major Arcana in the same way, the reader can draw on this for their readings. They can dip into a pool of collective shared experiences, lessons and teachings; and use the graphics and figures present on the cards as guidance.
The cards of the Major Arcana represent universal laws, teachings or principles such as:
- understanding governance of society and institutions (The Hierophant),
- fearlessness and unlimited potential (The Fool),
- approaching problems from different angles and breaking old patterns (The Hanged Man),
- the art of relating (The Lovers),
- destiny, fate, karma (The Wheel of Fortune),
- letting go and moving on (Death),
- and so on.
Like Jung’s archetypes, the Major Arcana are universal experiences that everyone goes through regardless of race, culture, location or religious belief.
While each card of the Major Arcana relates to a particular archetype, they are not exclusively Jungian. Instead, the cards are approached similarly as concepts of human behaviour, universal situations and life experiences of our collective unconscious.
The cards of the Major Arcana reflects the major turning points in our lives such as choices, decisions, tragedies and successes. As a result, they carry far more weight than those of the Minor Arcana, which represent smaller, everyday occurrences. Technically, a reading can be done with just the cards of the Major Arcana; however, the Minor Arcana adds depth and texture to the reading.
Astrology and the Major Arcana
Each Major Arcana card is associated with an aspect of astrology. Each card links to either a sign of the zodiac, a planet, the sun or the moon. This astrological connection adds another layer of richness to each card and can assist during a reading.
- The Fool. Planet of Uranus
- The Magician. Planet of Mercury
- The High Priestess. The Moon
- The Empress. Planet of Venus
- The Emperor. Sign of Aries
- The Hierophant. Sign of Taurus
- The Lovers. Sign of Gemini
- The Chariot. Sign of Cancer
- Strength. Sign of Leo
- The Hermit. Sign of Virgo
- The Wheel of Fortune. Planet of Jupiter
- Justice. Sign of Libra
- The Hanged Man. Planet of Neptune
- Death. Sign of Scorpio
- Temperance. Sign of Sagittarius
- The Devil. Sign of Capricorn
- The Tower. Planet of Mars
- The Star. Sign of Aquarius
- The Moon. Sign of Pisces
- The Sun. The Sun
- Judgement. Planet of Pluto
- The World. Planet of Saturn
In some decks such as the Thoth deck, the Strength (8) and Justice (11) cards are reversed.
Three Segments of the Major Arcana
The Major Arcana can be broken down further into three groups of seven cards each. Excluding The Fool, ranging from cards one to 21:
- The first group cards one to seven represent the Material World. These represent the physical, tangible realm, with very humanly concerns of material comforts, physicality, higher education, society, the law, and other material comforts and choices that can affect physical life.
- The second group cards eight to 14 represent the Intuitive Mind. Here, aspects of free will and its effect on our lives, love and its influence on our existence, faith and searching for meaning arise. Rather than thinking about the physical or material world and making decisions with only rational thinking, decisions are based more on how one feels. Faith, meaning and love and how it impacts our lives have an influence.
- The third group of cards from 15 to 21 signify the realm of Changing Issues. This last group of cards have considerable significance as they go beyond the individual and society. These cards transcend the physical and mental, and focus more on elements of the higher realms of consciousness. The laws of the universe, Source or a higher power, energy and the unseen come into play.
The Fool’s journey through the Major Arcana
The cards of the Major Arcana can read as stand-alone cards. However, if placed in chronological order, they tell a collective story as The Fool’s journey through the Major Arcana.
This sequential journey is a voyage of consciousness. Here, The Fool embarks on a quest through the stages of the material world, emotional world and spiritual states of being on the road to self-actualisation, acceptance and expressing of the true Self.
Below is a rough breakdown of The Fool’s journey through the Major Arcana:
During this journey, The Fool encounters a series of beings or situations as cards along the way. At each stage of meeting a new card, The Fool learns a pivotal lesson that allows him to progress to another state of consciousness. By the end of the journey, The Fool comes full circle sits at the end of a cycle, ready to begin another.
0. The Fool. A young man begins his journey. Innocent, excited and full of potential, he walks with his head looking skyward, unaware that he may step off the edge of a cliff. The Fool’s free-spiritedness is borderline reckless, but in an almost childlike way, unaware of danger, and almost endearing.
Read more about The Fool here.
1. The Magician. When meeting the Magician, The Fool learns the principle of alchemy and the possibility of manifestation. The Fool learns about logic, rational thinking, conscious awareness, and the various tools that are at one’s disposal that can aid him manifesting his desires.
Read more about The Magician here.
2. The High Priestess. After learning about rational thought, objectivity and the material world, The Fool then expands his frame of reference by engaging with the unconscious. With more awareness, The Fool learns of spirituality, the hidden realms and his intuition.
3. The Empress. The first of two parental archetypes, The Fool first encounters the Empress, the maternal Earth Mother. Here he learns of nurturing, tending to, unconditional love and abundance.
4. The Emperor. Next, he encounters the paternal figure of the Tarot, the Emperor. The complement of The Empress, The Emperor shows the Fool order, dominion, authority, structure, action and reason.
5. The Hierophant. Once he has learned the careful instruction of the parental archetypes, The Fool then meets The Hierophant. Here he learns where morals, ethics, the laws of society and values are concerned.
6. The Lovers. After learning the orders of society, The Fool encounters The Lovers, who introduce him to concepts of duality, union, friendship and the art of relating.
7. The Chariot. Next, The Fool comes across The Chariot. Having learnt duality, light and dark, and yin and yang from The Lovers, The Fool is then taught how to balance and control often opposing forces to complete a course or task. With The Chariot, The Fool learns that in life, there are challenges that require compromise, that nothing exists without duality.
8. Strength. After discovering that the world has conflict, resolution, duality and shadow elements, The Fool meets Strength and develops self-confidence. Here The Fool practices growing his inner strength and also learns to trust himself.
9. The Hermit. At this point, The Fool decides that it is time to retreat and go inward. He moves away from the distractions of the material world and gives himself the space he needs to develop his inner guidance system.
10. The Wheel of Fortune. Next, The Fool learns that life is not a random series of events, although it is unpredictable. Here, he learns about concepts of faith, luck, karma and of other forces beyond his control at work.
11. Justice. Now, The Fool discovers that, despite the unpredictability of the world, there is justice is at play. He learns that actions have consequences and that there are systems in place that both reinforce this justice and enforce accountability.
12. The Hanged Man. The Fool meets The Hanged Man who shows him the importance of letting go. Here The Fool learns about shifting perspectives, releasing obsessions with the material world and taking a break to contemplate spiritual enlightenment.
13. Death. After learning about letting go from The Hanged Man, The Fool encounters Death to refine this lesson. Here, Death teaches him the significance of endings and the importance of rebirth for new cycles to begin.
14. Temperance. Once he has understood the process of death and rebirth, The Fool emerges with a new sense of perspective. At this point, he learns the values of Temperance and can understand concepts of balance, moderation and harmony.
15. The Devil. A challenging lesson, with The Devil, The Fool must learn to confront his inner demons. Here he learns about his vices, addictions and obsessions, and how he keeps himself bound. To be able to continue on the road of development, The Fool must break these ties that bind.
16. The Tower. With The Tower, The Fool sees how drastic changes can cause disruptions in the cycles of life. He also learns the value of creating with a solid foundation, and that in some cases, disruption is sometimes necessary for breaking complex patterns.
17. The Star. After learning the tough lessons that The Devil and The Tower have set aside, The Fool meets The Star and sees a ray of hope. Now he is ready for more enlightenment and practices of development.
18. The Moon. Now the Fool encounters The Moon and learns of the qualities of the dark, the hidden and the unconscious. He learns to connect with the deeper unseen realms inside him and how to deal with obscurities, hidden forces, basic instincts and his unconscious.
19. The Sun. Full of warmth, life and a zest for life, The Fool basks in the light of The Sun and is full of optimism. Here he connects with his inner child and puts all he has learned into play to express his true Self.
20. Judgement. As his journey starts coming to an end, The Fool encounters Judgement. Now that he has learned to live in his light, The Fool yields to the healing of his psyche and the final emergence and expression of his true Self.
21. The World. The cycle is now complete. The Fool has developed in all aspects of spiritual development. He has learned self-actualisation and expresses his True Self.
As The Fool completes the journey through the Major Arcana, meeting The World, he has reached the epitome of self-awareness. The journey is never finished; instead, it begins again. It is here the card of The Fool can rest in the final place, as number 22.
Now that you’ve met the main stars of the Tarot, the Major Arcana, it is time to learn about the Minor Arcana or Lesser Secrets.
Which are your favourite cards in the Major Arcana? Do you place The Fool at the beginning or end of the Major Arcana? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below!
Featured image available from Viva Luna Studios.