This lesson provides an introduction to the themes represented by the Major Arcana of the tarot. Unlike the minor arcana, which were most like derived from already existent packs of playing cards, the major arcana are unique, and constitute the heart and soul of tarot. Tarot cards were developed during the Italian renaissance, at a time when art, religion, mysticism, mythology, and science were much more intertwined than they are today. Even simple parlour games and nearly all art tended to have religious or mythological themes. It is not really known whether or not the major arcana were intended to be anything other than a series of trumps for the game of tarocchi, but it is relatively certain that they drew from and represent popular views of religious and mystical concepts which permeated renaissance art and philosophy at the time.

As such, they represent powerful archetypes that can be read on many different levels. Central to nearly every way of reading the Major Arcana is the concept of a journey, or cycle, beginning with the Fool, progressing through the trumps, ending with the World, and then starting over again. In this lesson we will explore this journey at five different levels – spiritual, psychological, mythological, astrological, and mundane. There are other approaches to the Major Arcana as well, involving religion, mysticism, alchemy, and magick – these are more esoteric levels which each student may involve themselves in as they choose, but should be taken up once a basic understanding of the Trumps and how to use them in tarot readings is gained.

Spiritual – the Fool’s Journey

A spiritual understanding of the trumps involves a journey of the soul – from the moment when it was first created and its struggle to return to its higher source and become re-assimilated into the Universe (or to become one with the God/dess). The endpoint of this journey may vary according to your religious or philosophical beliefs – it is a highly personal journey which is understood by each person differently. Along the way, the Fool is provided with various tools and teachers, learns lessons and undertakes tasks, and finally learns how to reach his/her goal.

Exercise #1

One way to explore the Fool’s Journey is to lay out the major arcana as follows: First, set the Fool aside. Place the rest of the major arcana in order into 3 rows of 7 cards each, then place the Fool above Key 4, the Emperor, above the center of the top row. Now arrange the minor arcana as follows: Place the Aces underneath the Magician, the Twos underneath the High Priestess, and so on. Once you have reached the Tens, continue placing the court cards under Keys 11-14. This arrangement is called the Golden Dawn Tableau.

Now look at the three rows. In the first 7 cards, the Fool is provided with teachers, guides, and learns the “rules and tools” of existence. These 7 cards represent the early growth and development of the soul, a period in which he/she needs assistance and guidance. This can be considered the childhood of the Fool, and the 7th card represents a “graduation” of sorts. In the next 7 cards, the Fool struggles with earthly existence. He/she is now actively experiencing life, and learning lessons the hard way by doing – this can be considered the adulthood or middle ages of the Fool. Notice that the minor arcana are associated with these first two rows. Each set of minor cards can be considered “lower vibrations” or mundane versions of the major arcana they are associated with. Once we reach the third row of cards, we leave the minor arcana behind altogether. The first two cards of the third row represent the final liberation of the soul from earthly concerns, and the remaining cards are purely a spiritual struggle for reintegration. This represents the wisdom and old age of the Fool.

There are various paths through the Tableau, all of which are read in threes. One may proceed in the “normal” manner, linearly across the rows from left to right. One may proceed downward from top to bottom, although this approach is more difficult. The “path of the adept” is diagonally, from upper left to lower right, and is more difficult still to achieve. Each of these paths has something to teach us about the spiritual journey and can be meditated on to gain insight into our own lives and journeys. Choose one card that seems to represent where you would like to go with your spiritual path. Now study the 3-card paths that lead to and through this card. While it may not be obvious right away what these paths mean and how they might work, keep them in mind as you read through the following material and at the end, see if you have gained some insight into your own spiritual path. This is one way that the Major Arcana are used – as personal spiritual guides.

The basic concepts of the Major Arcana are discussed in every tarot book, and there is no real substitute for reading about them and studying them. Although insights into the minor arcana can be gained solely through intuition and a basic understanding of numerological and elemental concepts, the major arcana are more difficult and should be studied in-depth. Here are some basic concepts and keywords to get you started:

0 The Fool: Creation from nothingness, incarnation, being
1 The Magician: Self-awareness, consciousness, will, male/yang life force
2 High Priestess: Subconscious, memory, intuition, female/yin life force
3 Empress: Creativity, growth, fertility, nature, the earthly mother
4 Emperor: Order, logic, rules, boundaries, civilization, earthly father
5 Hierophant: Spiritual link to god/dess, mentor, morality, institutions, church
6 Lovers: Choices, discrimination between good and evil, leaving the Garden
7 Chariot: Will, initiation, breakthrough to adulthood, direction, movement
8 Strength: Inner strength, overcoming animal nature, productive use of passions
9 Hermit: Self-knowledge, seeking wisdom and maturity, teaching
10 Wheel: Understanding of cycles, living with change, going with the flow
11 Justice: Karma, just-ness, balance, fairness, clear sight
12 Hanged Man: Reversal of thinking, inner work, suspension to allow inner growth
13 Death: Transformation, major changes as a result of inner work, rebirth
14 Temperance: Balance of mind and body, temperance, middle path
15 The Devil: Struggles with and liberation from material world, self-imposed bondage
16 The Tower: Bolt of inspiration, tearing down artificial constructs, revelations
17 The Star: Inspiration, hope, blessings of the universe flow, rejuvenation
18 The Moon: Facing yourself and inner demons, integrating your subconscious
19 The Sun: Becoming whole, ascending to the light, knowing and being yourself
20 Judgment: Ready to move on, self-judgment, transition to higher state
21 The World: Rejoin the all, become one with the universe, dance a cosmic dance

In order to illustrate the cyclical nature of this journey, we can conceptualize the Fool’s Journey in the context of a single lifetime, although the cycle may require many incarnations to actually complete and the process may not be entirely linear:

(0 – The Fool) The soul incarnates into a physical body and is born. The baby experiences his new world in a rush, without conscious thought. (1 – The Magician) The baby becomes aware of himself and others. The baby begins to form his first thoughts and mental impressions.
(2 – High Priestess) The baby begins to remember what he has experienced and draw mental connections between objects. He begins to make associations and experience feelings.
(3 – Empress) The baby begins to realize that he can make things happen by behaving in certain ways. He begins to explore his environment, draw scribbles on the wall, turn over his food bowl, and bang on things just to see what happens. He develops an imagination and experiences new sensations. He becomes aware of nature and living things.
(4 – Emperor) The toddler learns that there are rules and certain things are not allowed, although he doesn’t always understand why. He begins to ask questions, and question the authority of his parents. He tests his limits by saying “no” and running away when called. He explores the boundaries of his world. (5 – Hierophant) The child begins to learn about right and wrong, and his parents try to instill a sense of morals and values. The child learns what is expected of him in society, and goes to school. The child first encounters the concept of religion, and goes to church. He begins to encounter authority figures and teachers other than his parents. He begins to form a value system, and for the first time realizes that there may be something more than the material world.
(6 – The Lovers) The teenager begins to have a mind of his own, and starts the process of separating from his parents. He faces tests of right and wrong, good and evil, and makes his own choices. He becomes interested in dating, love, and sex. He believes he can stand on his own, and rejects the philosophy and beliefs of his parent on the surface (while not realizing they are firmly instilled underneath).

(7 – The Chariot) The teenager leaves home, goes to college or gets an apartment of his own. He believes he is invincible, and can do or be anything he wants. He travels and gains experience in the world, and tests the limits of his strengths and abilities.

(8 – Strength) The young adult faces many temptations and may give in to some of them for a time. Eventually, he learns how to control his impulses without external guidance, and puts his passions and drives into productive use.

(9 – Hermit) The young adult struggles to define himself and his chosen path in life. He finishes graduate school, chooses a career, joins the Peace Corps, or otherwise decides the path he wants his life to take.

(10 – Wheel of Fortune) He discovers that life does not always go as planned, and he is not invincible after all. He develops coping tools and ways of dealing with disappointment, learns flexibility, and continues undaunted on his way.

(11 – Justice) He begins to realize that life is not random – things happen for a reason, and each person gets what they deserve. He begins to take responsibility for his own life and his own actions, and sets out to right some past wrongs he has done others. He has a clearer sense of his own failings, as well as his strengths and skills. He deals honestly and fairly with others.

(12 – Hanged Man) As a middle-aged man, he faces a time of internal crisis. His career no longer seems meaningful and his marriage is facing difficulty. He wants to take some time out for internal processing, and decides to take a sabbatical. He spends quite a while soul-searching and evaluating his life so far, and where he wants to go next.

(13 – Death) As a result of this process, he realizes that he wants to make some major changes in his life. Not all of what has been in his life so far can be carried through this transition – he may lose his job, leave his marriage, change his residence, or any number of other significant changes.

(14 – Temperance) He attempts to live a more balanced life, integrating work, family, personal interests, and spirituality into a whole life. He begins to have a sense of his mortality, and tries to exercise and watch his weight.

(15 – The Devil) In spite of his efforts, he becomes increasingly tied to material things – he has a big mortgage, he has to take out college loans for his kids, he buys a fancy car so he won’t feel middle-aged, and starts daydreaming about his neighbor’s teenage daughter.

(16 – The Tower) His company gets bought out and he is forced to take early retirement. Two months later, his daughter announces that she’s leaving university to become an actress. His whole world seems to be falling apart – then he has a heart attack.

(17 – The Star) His brush with death seems to pull the whole family together. He and his wife go on a second honeymoon and renew their wedding vows. He decides to go to his daughter’s plays and support her as best he can, even though he no longer has much of an income. He realizes that he was put on this earth for a reason, and for the first time, begins to seriously think about what that might be. He takes a renewed interest in spirituality and philosophy.

(18 – The Moon) Having lots of time to reflect, he begins to think back over his life and look at his actions in a new light. He starts to have frightening dreams, and thoughts begin to surface that have been buried for a long time. He faces these aspects of his life and self honestly and begins a long process of coming to terms with himself and forgiving others.

(19 – The Sun) After long contemplation, he finds peace with himself and begins to actively enjoy his retirement. He now has grandkids to play with, gardening to keep him busy, and enjoys a pleasant and loving relationship with his wife. He is content. Many years later, he dies in his sleep.

(20 – Judgment) With the help of his spiritual guides, he reviews his earthly life and assesses what he has learned, and whether the soul has achieved its purpose for this life. The soul selects its next set of tasks and lessons.

(21 – The World) The soul returns to the universal energy for rejuvenation and reintegration. For a brief period between lives, it exists in perfect harmony and light. Eventually, it will be reincarnated and the cycle will begin again.

Exercise #3. Reread your favorite fairy tale, myth, or children’s story, and identify as many of the archetypes and characters described above as you can. Not every fairy tale will have all of these aspects of the mythological journey, and they will not always appear in the same order.

Astrological Correspondences

Many authors have drawn astrological correspondences with the tarot cards, and this set of archetypes will round out our initial study of the Major Arcana. While there are many methods of assigning the signs and planets to the trumps, we will focus on two main systems which appear to have the most historical validity and meaning – a system based on symbolism and art prevalent during the Italian renaissance and the Golden Dawn system. Which one you choose to use will depend largely on the type of deck you are using, and which system feels right to you. Since most modern decks derive from the Rider-Waite deck, we will start with the Golden Dawn system. However, if you are using a pre-Golden Dawn deck, your deck will almost certainly work better with the renaissance version. And if you are using a pagan deck or one that is based on a completely different set of cultural images (such as Chinese, Native American, or African) these systems may not work at all for you, and you will want to learn about the gods and goddesses portrayed in your deck instead.

The Golden Dawn system draws its correspondences from the 12 astrological signs and the 10 planets (in astrology, the word “planets” includes the sun and the moon) – perfectly corresponding to the 22 trumps. The planets and signs were assigned to the Trumps according to a modern view of their astrological attributes, and which trumps most closely reflected those attributes, a system which, on the whole, works quite well. However, the GD insisted that the astrological signs should go in order through the trumps. This is almost certainly one of the reasons that Waite switched Justice and Strength, because Leo comes before Libra in the order. This resulted in one or two attributions that feel forced, such as the assignment of the Chariot to Cancer. In addition, it should be recognized that even in Waite’s time, three of the planets had not yet been discovered. These three trumps were originally assigned to the three primary elements of Air, Water, and Fire, and were subsequently reassigned to Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. I have also added Earth, because many modern authors feel that all four elements should be included.

0 The Fool – Air/Uranus
1 The Magician – Mercury
2 The High Priestess – Moon
3 The Empress – Venus
4 The Emperor – Aries
5 The Hierophant – Taurus
6 The Lovers – Gemini
7 The Chariot – Cancer
8 Strength – Leo
9 The Hermit – Virgo
10 Wheel of Fortune – Jupiter
11 Justice – Libra
12 The Hanged Man – Water/Neptune
13 Death – Scorpio
14 Temperance – Sagittarius
15 The Devil – Capricorn
16 The Tower – Mars
17 The Star – Aquarius
18 The Moon – Pisces
19 The Sun – Sun
20 Judgment – Fire/Pluto
21 The World – Earth/Saturn

An older system of correspondences is based on renaissance art and mythology, and more closely follows the mythological portrayals of the gods and goddesses, beasts and other symbols that are associated with these signs and planets. At that time, only seven planets were known, so not every card has a correspondence. No attention is paid to signs being in order or having one per card, since this was almost assuredly not an issue in the original development and ordering of the cards.

0 Fool – None
1 Magician – Hermes, or Mercury
2 High Priestess – Taurus – interesting since this card was originally called the Popess and was the counterpart to the Hierophant, or Pope, who is assigned to Taurus in the Golden Dawn system
3 Empress – Cancer
4 Emperor – Jupiter, the ruler of the Gods
5 Hierophant or Pope – Sagittarius
6 Lovers – Venus – the card was originally called Love or The Lover and featured Cupid
7 Chariot – Mars and Aries
8 Justice – Libra
9 Hermit – Saturn – this card was also known as Chronos or Time
10 Wheel of Fortune – Gemini
11 Strength – Leo
12 Hanged Man – Capricorn
13 Death – none
14 Temperance – Aquarius
15 The Devil – Scorpio
16 The Tower – none
17 The Star – Virgo
18 The Moon – Moon
19 The Sun – Sun
20 Judgment – Pisces
21 The World – Gaea

Exercise #4: Decide which system of correspondences works best with your deck, and feel free to modify it until it works for you. Once you have a system you like, try the following exercise working with your astrological chart. First, take a look at your chart if you have one, and if you don’t have one but are interested in doing this, go to one of the many on-line sites that make up instant charts (you must know your birthdate, exact time of birth, time zone, and location) – Astrodienst is a great one. Write down the planet and astrological sign corresponding to your sun sign, moon sign, and rising sign (the first planet that appears on your chart, starting in the first house and moving counter-clockwise). Now draw the trump cards that correspond to these three signs. For example, if you have your sun sign in Aries, take the Sun and the Emperor and put them together. Do this for all three signs. Now study these cards, based on what you have learned in this lesson, and see if this gives you any insights into your basic personality. If you think of your sun sign as your main self, and your moon sign as your shadow self, what do these cards tell you about the interaction between the two? How does the rising sign modify the picture? If you are really interested in astrology, you can do this for every planet in your chart, modified by the house that each planet/sign combination is in.

Mundane Manifestations of the Trumps

Finally we come to real-life manifestations of the trumps, after exploring their spiritual, psychological, mythological, and astrological attributes. The trumps also appear as real events in our lives, and there are many things we need to know about this. First of all, we do not always experience the trumps in linear sequence. Sometimes we get them out of order, skip over some, come back to others. Sometimes we repeat a mini-cycle many times over before getting beyond it. We may be in different trumps in different parts of our lives. We may spend one area of our entire life in a single trump, while in other areas we may pass through several cards in rapid succession. It is useful to reflect on the appearance of these archetypes in our lives, so we can better understand them when they occur and can help our clients recognize how they relate to their own lives. Although there are many deep concepts associated with each trump, as Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes the Chariot is just the family car. So be prepared for the trumps to manifest not only when you are having a deep spiritual crisis, but when their imagery and concepts apply perfectly well to everyday aspects of your life.

Exercise #5: Think about your life and divide it into different areas – such as work, relationships, kids, tarot reading, spirituality, other significant activities, whatever is important to you. Look over the trumps and see if you can identify which trump seems to reflect where you are at in each part of your life. What kind of energy do you see there? How long do you think you might stay in this trump? Might there be a transition coming anytime soon, and if so, where might you be going next?

Exercise #6: Think about some of the “ruts” that we all get into in our lives, where we seem to repeat the same cycles over and over. Pick one, and try to identify what series of trumps seems to reflect this repeating cycle (you don’t have to put them in the same order that they appear in the deck). Based on what you have learned about these trumps and which trumps come next on the journey, what would be one possible way for a person to break out of this cycle?

Would you like a free instant answer tarot reading from our new artificial intelligence tarot reader?

Click here to try it now for free

Scroll to Top