The Major Arcana
The standard tarot deck consists of 78 cards divided into two sections, the major and minor arcanas. The word arcana is the plural of arcanumwhich means “profound secret.” To the alchemists of the Middle Ages, the arcanum was the secret of nature. The tarot cards are therefore a collection of the “secrets” that underlie and explain our universe.
The 22 cards of the major arcana are the heart of the deck. Each of these cards symbolizes some universal aspect of human experience. They represent the archetypes – consistent, directing patterns of influence that are an inherent part of human nature.
Each card in the major arcana has a name and number. Some names convey a card’s meaning directly, such as Strength, Justice and Temperance. Other cards are individuals who personify a particular approach to life, such as the Magician or the Hermit. There are also cards with astronomical names, such as the Star, Sun and Moon. They represent the elusive forces associated with these heavenly bodies.
The major arcana cards are special because they draw out deep and complex reactions. The images on the Rider-Waite deck are evocative because they combine esoteric symbolism with recognizable figures and situations. The symbolism is subtle, but effective.
A major arcana card is always given extra weight in a reading. When one of these cards appears, you know the issues at stake are not mundane or temporary. They represent your most basic concerns – your majorfeelings and motivations. In later lessons, I show in more detail how you can recognize and interpret the themes of the major arcana in a reading.
The major arcana is often considered as a unit. Different schemes have been developed to show how the cards form patterns that cast light on the human condition. Numerology, astrology and other esoteric sciences often play a role in these schemes.
Many interpreters view the major arcana as showing the different stages on an individual’s journey of inner growth – what some call the Fool’s Journey. In these systems, each card stands for some quality or experience that we must incorporate before we can realize our wholeness.
We all travel this road to self-actualization, though our trips more often involve detours, backups and restarts than smooth progression! Our specific paths are unique, but our milestones are universal. The 22 major arcana cards are markers on the path of inner development leading from earliest awareness (card 0) to integration and fulfillment.
The Fool’s journey seems to move smoothly from one order of experience to the next, but our learning adventures are usually not so tidy. We make mistakes, skip lessons and fail to realize our potential. Sometimes we lack the courage and insight to discover our deepest levels. Some never feel the call of the Hermit to look inward or never experience the crisis of the Tower that might free them from their ego defenses.
Many times we try to overcome our difficulties, but fail repeatedly. The lesson of the Hanged Man- to let go and surrender to experience – is one that is particularly hard and may need to be faced over and over before it is fully incorporated.
Often we experience lessons out of order. A person may absorb the qualities of Strength early in life due to a difficult childhood, but only later develop the Chariot’s mastery and control. Someone may overcome the attraction of the Devil’s materialism through a life of seclusion, but then need to learn about relationships and sexuality – a lesson of the Lovers- at a later time.
The major arcana contains many levels and models of experience. These cards hold all the patterns of growth, whether they occur within one segment of a life or a whole life span. We could even say that an entire lifetime is really just one growth episode within the larger saga of our soul’s development.
No matter what our pattern of self-discovery, the major arcana shows us that wholeness and fulfillment are our destiny. If we keep this promise as our polestar, we will eventually realize our true nature and gain the World.