Tarot 101, My Way – The Major Arcana and Esoteric Symbolism

There are a couple of different ways to approach sequencing of the Major Arcana, or “trump” cards. Modern thinking is that the series begins with the Fool, numbered zero, and ends with the World, designated XXI in Roman numerals. But it wasn’t always that way. Some early decks had the Fool as an unnumbered card and various writers have concluded that it can appear anywhere in the procession as a kind of “wild card,” perhaps an allusion to the Joker in a playing-card deck. Nineteenth Century French occultist Eliphas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant, 1810 – 1875) situated it after the World, while Arthur Edward Waite, writing in the early 20th Century, placed it as the 21st card, between Judgement and the World, while keeping its “0” numeration. Expert opinion has suggested that these variations may represent a “blind” or intentionally misleading distortion of the truth designed to throw off the uninitiated. Since the Fool is usually  interpreted as the inception of something and less often as outright folly when it appears in a reading, we will follow the convention that it is the first card in the set.

The Structure of the Tarot: The Major Arcana

The 22 cards of the Major Arcana are sometimes characterized as describing a metaphorical “Fool’s Journey” through life, upon which the Fool shown in the first card embarks as a callow neophyte and from which he returns as a wise and seasoned adept. The Fool as Trump “0” is a figurative cipher or “tabula rasa” that is both completely innocent and completely carefree. The 21 cards that follow depict progressive stages in his development that can be equated to phases in the evolution of the human psyche.

Trump 0 – The Fool (unnumbered in older decks)

Trump 1 – The Magician

Trump 2 – The High Priestess (previously the Popesse or female Pope)

Trump 3 – The Empress

Trump 4 – The Emperor

Trump 5 – The Hierophant (previously The Pope)

Trump 6 – The Lovers (originally the Lover)

Trump 7 – The Chariot

Trump 8 – Strength (in some decks, Justice is Trump 8)

Trump 9 – The Hermit

Trump 10 – The Wheel of Fortune (simply Fortune in older decks)

Trump 11 – Justice (in some decks, Strength is Trump 11)

Trump 12 – The Hanged Man

Trump 13 – Death (untitled in older decks)

Trump 14 – Temperance

Trump 15 – The Devil

Trump 16 – The Tower

Trump 17 – The Star

Trump 18 – The Moon

Trump 19 – The Sun

Trump 20 – Judgement

Trump 21 – The World (titled The Universe in some decks)

This series of cards forms the backbone of the various systems of esoteric interpretation that have grown up around the tarot. They represent a “higher order” of awareness regarding the operation of universal principles in the mundane world. Psychologist Carl Jung considered them to represent primordial archetypes rooted in the collective unconscious of human-kind.

Esoteric Symbolism in the Major Arcana

One thing that should be dealt with right at the beginning is the fact that the Major Arcana are awash in esoteric concepts and symbols. Many of these relate to the metaphysical and psychological archetypes embodied in the cards, while others can only be described as “occult” (that, is “hidden”). This information is primarily useful in studying the tarot for the purpose of enlightenment, rather than for practical reading of the cards. Some recent versions of popular deck styles have downplayed the visual symbolism with no serious detriment to readability. In the long run, an understanding of the symbols will help enrich the narrative flow of a reading, often spelling the difference between puzzlement and insight, but they can be confusing for a beginner. Consequently, we will only touch lightly on this subject.

Suffice it to say that most of the interpretations we encounter today – both the esoteric and the mundane – originated in the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at the end of the 19th Century. Before that, the deck created by Etteilla encompassed a very different set of meanings that has little in common with modern usage, and the earliest decks in the French and Italian traditions mainly employed political, social and religious icons (Juggler, Popesse, Empress, Emperor, Pope, etc.) that carried little occult significance.

There are three sources in the tarot literature that deliver the conceptual foundation of the Golden Dawn system. The first is “Liber T,” so-called because of its position in the hierarchical arrangement of the Golden Dawn curriculum; this document is available (in an expanded, Thoth-based form called “Liber Theta”) free on-line from the College of Thelema; a version approaching the MacGregor Mathers/Harriet Felkin original can be downloaded on Benebell Wen’s website, https://benebellwen.com/tarot-readings/public-domain-tarot-books/. The second is the Pictorial Key to the Tarot by Arthur Edward Waite, the mastermind behind the RWS deck, and the third is Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth. The first of these is the most straightforward and coherent, the second is buried in Victorian verbosity and purposeful obfuscation, and the third is largely unintelligible to the casual reader, except for its coverage of the court cards – some of the best in existence – and its treatment of the Minor Arcana. These books are not essential for the beginner but are worthy of inclusion in one’s library.

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