Thrown Under the Bus: The Major Arcana and Fate


Although the title of this article is only half-serious, it points to a common perception about the appearance of several Major Arcana (aka “trump”) cards in a reading. Eden Gray summarized it neatly in her 1960 book, The Tarot Revealed: “If the majority of cards in the layout come from the Major Arcana, there is a strong indication that there are powerful outside forces at work on the subject’s affairs.” In Liber T, Golden Dawn Chief Adept Macgregor Mathers described it as “A Majority of Keys – Strong forces beyond the Querent’s control.” In my own practice, depending on the context of the question, the size of the spread and the position of the card in the sequence, I may even accord a single trump card this degree of potency.

Modern thinking of the blithely affirmative “it’s all good” variety assumes that any challenging situation can be turned to one’s advantage, but the escalation of significant developments often accompanying the presence of trump cards can feel like being “blindsided by destiny.” If the cards are positive, there is more than a hint of being blessed by circumstances independent of (and sometimes in spite of) one’s own actions, while more stressful cards suggest being knocked down and stomped on by an inimical cosmic power. Turning the heat up a notch – “for good or ill” – may be the best way to look at it, and “over-the-top” is a common observation, with impact ranging from “too much of a good thing” to “be careful what you wish for,” then on to “in the wrong place at the wrong time” and culminating in a despondent “Why me?”

My personal understanding of the Major Arcana (at least in the realm of situational and developmental phenomena rather than psychological nuances) is that they represent important external energies or forces entering the matter that – especially if negative – can be neither avoided nor fully deflected, so the only reasonable way to deal with them is to adapt or adjust to their influence. These intrusive powers come in a variety of flavors: epochal, generational, cultural, social and familial are a few. Obviously, encountering a majority of trumps implies that “big things are afoot,” but even a single potent card in a sensitive position can sway the situation to its own agenda, dragging the rest of the reading along with it. When scanning a spread for its overall “tone” before moving on to a card-by-card analysis, I always look first to see if there are any dominant trump cards present, and often take a hierarchical approach to the interpretation that focuses first on these “prime movers” and the extent to which their emphasis is either reinforced or diminished by the rest of the cards.

With the difficult cards that are most vexing to querents, this modulation can produce anything from a true show-stopper to an elusive “ghost in the machine.” In all cases, adopting a patient coping mentality is usually advisable. For example, Trump XIII in the middle of a “hearts-and-flowers” scenario full of sunny vistas may simply imply a cloud passing momentarily across the face of the Sun (maybe something won’t go quite as planned and will have to be scrapped or fudged), while in a moodier setting it could deliver an emphatic “wet blanket” (Death) to the doorstep of the party (brilliantly portrayed in the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life).

If your approach to the Major Arcana is more archetypal and psychological than situational, the perspective shifts substantially. Like the court cards “on steroids,” a trump card can reflect a characteristic, behavior or attitude that the querent should either cultivate or shun in grappling with the influx of irresistible energies. “Matching speeds” with the velocity of incoming forces is a useful analogy. The phrase “paradigm shift” also comes to mind. If a trump is taken to indicate the involvement of another person, it can show a “larger than life” personality and sometimes a fated encounter. (Think of the Emperor in a love reading, which could be either “a dream come true” or “your worst nightmare,” then consider the slippery Magician or the dangerously charismatic Devil in the same light.) In an archetypal sense, I tend to see trump cards as stage-setters for life-changing developments, channeling extra-personal forces in ways that can alter the landscape and redraw the map. All that’s required to successfully navigate such uncharted waters (replete with their hypothetical dragons) and make the most of the voyage is the gumption to “ride the lightning” and not get “bulldozed” by fate.

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