Grammar Lesson 1: The Major Arcana

The first basic system at play in the tarot deck is the distinction between the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana.

A typical tarot deck consists of 78 cards, of which there are generally 22 which make up the Major Arcana.* These are notable for being without suit. They generally feature a number and title only. The remaining 56 cards constitute the Minor Arcana, which consists of four suits closely resembling a traditional deck of playing cards (and, yes, tarot does share its origins with the same deck we use to play poker). We will get into the minors in more detail later on in the course, but for now I want to begin with the Major Arcana and what it represents.

Essentially, the Major cards represent just that: major events, forces, or moments in one’s life. If you think of every card in the deck as representing a scene in a story, the Majors are the big events that move the story forward, while the Minors are the more mundane scenes within the story arc. This is NOT to suggest that the Majors are somehow more important or meaningful than the Minors. Rather, that they speak to the bigger picture, whereas the Minors break down the details. If you imagine yourself driving on a super highway, a Major card might speak to which exit you could take, while a Minor would ask you which street to turn onto around the corner. Both determine the path you take to get to your destination, but one big decision leads to many more subtle decisions.

Already, this can tell us a lot when we look at a complete spread. For instance, if I see a spread with multiple Major Arcana cards in it, this tells me that the reading has to do with a major life event or a powerful inner shift which will have a lasting long-term effect on the course of the querent’s life. On the other hand, if a reading features no Majors, I would expect it to be dealing with the more subtle energies or details at play within the existing framework of someone’s life, as opposed to a complete system overhaul.

The Major Arcana is typically divided into three rows of seven, with the 0 card, The Fool, being separated as the starting point.

If we think of The Fool as the hero starting off on a journey, a completely blank slate, we can view these 21 cards as the steps that he must take on his journey to self-actualization and fulfillment (represented by the 21st Major Arcana card, The World). You can think of each row as representing three different layers of development that are necessary for the Fool to complete along his journey.

The first row deals with gathering aspects of the Self. These cards, which we will get to know in detail this week, are all figures which represent different archetypal aspects of the Self. Before the Fool can begin his interactions with the outside world, he must gather his team and integrate all of these aspects within himself.

Once the cast of characters is assembled, he is then ready to enter the world and interact with forces beyond the self, engaging with the cosmos and taking on every challenge and lesson that it throws at him. This is the second row.

Finally, having mastered these lessons and learned how to engage with the outer world, he is ready to turn inward and complete the final and most important evolution of his journey, to look beyond the material plane and understand his outer life as a reflection of his inner life. The third row then deals with the process of spiritual transcendence.

In this course, we will look at the Major Arcana as a complete journey of self-actualization and examine each card as a step along that path. When looked at in chronological order, you can see how they are meant to build off of each other, a continuous path of evolution and growth. Of course, in life, things don't happen in perfect order, and thus we shuffle the cards in tarot to see what particular steps are coming up at this particular moment. Take a moment to consider what the Fool's Journey might look like if you scrambled the order of the cards. You might even take out your deck and shuffle the Majors by themselves to see what new journey is created when the same scenes fall in a different order.

Looking at the cards now, which ones stand out to you? Which card is the most visually striking? The most emotionally evocative? Is there a card that you feel intuitively drawn to, or that evokes a strong association for you? Share your impressions in the comments.

*Occasionally a deck will have some variation, one example being the Ethereal Visions deck by Matt Hughes, which features two additional Majors: The Well and The Artist.

Complete and Continue