The tarot is comprised of two parts: the 56 cards of the Minor Arcana, and the 22 cards of the Major Arcana.
The Minor Arcana – which we will explore later – is concerned with the smaller, day-to-day elements of our lives – relationships, experiences, the details that make up the bigger picture.
The Major Arcana, however, is about that ‘big’ picture.
These cards show us universal experiences, archetypes of the powers that influence all of our lives, such as love, hope, manifestation of great ideas, revolution, fear, loneliness, desire, tradition, society, nature…and more. (Such themes are present in the Minor Arcana too, but are shown in a more down-to-earth, everyday way.)
The 22 cards of the Major Arcana are numbered 0-21. We begin with card zero, the Fool: a blank canvas. We end with card 21, The World: completion. In between, all kinds of strange, wonderful and terrible things take place.
The Fool’s journey
‘The Fool’s Journey’ is a term often used to describe the way the Major Arcana tells a story. We meet the Fool first of all, at zero, nothing. We then follow this character on an intriguing journey much like the sort heroes follow in myths and legends. There is learning, there is falling. There are choices, there are mistakes. There is spirituality, and materialism. There are great moments of clarity…and periods of destruction and loss. And ultimately, we reach the end – the World – and the journey is complete.
As you work through the Major cards, hold this in mind. Understanding the Fool’s Journey is not essential to understanding tarot, but it is helpful to think about the cards in sequence, as a progression.
What is an ‘archetype’?
When we talk about ‘archetypes’ in the Major Arcana, we are referring to recognisable motifs, a representation of a ‘type’ that we recognise and understand. They offer us a way of understanding complex concepts via a familiar form.
The Major Arcana is made up of such archetypes, some more familiar than others. The Hermit is a good example: A hooded figure, bearded, leaning on his staff, living alone atop a mountain or at the edge of the forest. Death is another: The grim reaper, skeletal, cloaked in black, coming for us all with her scythe, reminding us of our own mortality and and that all things end (or rather, change). Or what about the High Priestess: a mysterious, silent figure who understands the ancient ways and holds the key to the collective unconscious? How about the Moon (the madman), the Emperor (the strict ruler) or the Empress (‘mother nature’)?
These archetypes are often found in books or films, drawn from mythologies. Our exposure to popular culture (along with the fact that we carry the stories of our ancestors within us) means we recognise most of them, though we may not always know from where. They are representations of a thing, rather than the thing itself. They are whatever they represent to you. This is why one person may say “Oh I love the Tower card, it shakes things up!”, whereas another may say “I fear that card. Last time I saw it, scary things happened.”
As Courtney Weber writes in Tarot for One:
The twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana depict the great myths that we personally lead. [… These cards may represent] pivotal persons who have influenced us, as well as situations, lessons, conflicts, choices, and blessings that have shaped the course of our lives. Through their role in the Tarot, the Major Arcana offers us the opportunity to reflect on these points and embrace them as the great mythic stories that they are.
But enough of my waffling! The best way to learn about what the Major Arcana actually is and what the cards really ‘mean’ is to work with them yourself.
For each card in this section, I first introduce the card as an archetype. What does it represent, what are its themes and symbols? What is this card all about?
I then go on to discuss ‘advice’ from that card. This is to offer a more practical interpretation of the card’s meaning – beyond what it represents as an archetype, what might it actually mean in a tarot reading? What might it be telling you, encouraging, or advising?
After this, I have listed a few key ideas to summarise the card and help you commit it to memory, and lastly, some common symbols often found on this card.
Let’s begin! Card 0. The Fool