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Understanding the Major Arcana

The tarot is sub divided into two main categories: the major arcana and the minor arcana. This article looks at the role of the major arcana, the patterns and structure that help give it context, as well as how to navigate the complex meanings of these cards. There are plenty of key word lists available and the little white book (LWB) that came with your given deck. While they are all imminently useful, this article is not intended to be another list to memorize. Rather, the intention is to give a generalized framework in which to navigate the major arcana without the overwhelming task of memorizing cheatsheets.


The first thing to remember when you encounter a major arcana card is that they refer to overarching archetypes that can manifest in the world in a variety of ways. This is distinguished from the minors which tend to portray specific experiences in life or the court cards which represent personality types. They are the broader energies we encounter, embody and work with over time. When a major arcana card presents in a reading, it is an indication that something more than the day to day life of the individual. It indicates that this is part of their overall life journey and soul evolution. In a reading for example, a single major may be surrounded by minors which would indicate that a specific area is important while the remaining cards are showing how that development will play out. If many majors are present then it is a sign that some very significant transformation is happening that will effect them at a very deep and evolutionary level. Recognizing that the majors represent overall personal development verses daily life is a key aspect to accurate interpretation.


Another useful overall framework to keep in mind regarding the majors is the concept of the hero's journey. There are 22 cards in the major arcana. Usually they are numbered 0-21 with the first card, The Fool, taking the number zero. This is an important clue to understanding the majors. The major arcana is often thought to represent the hero's journey, sometimes referred to as the fool's journey. In other words it is meant to map our overall journey through life and all the energies and experiences we encounter as human beings. Separating the Fool from the real numbers indicates it's unique role. The Fool is seen as the individual who travels through, experiencing and embodying the various archetypes portrayed in the the rest of the sequence. They do not exist on their own, but need to be experienced through a being and that being is represented as The Fool.


The remaining 21 majors are further split into three distinct categories with seven cards in each. The first seven represent how an individual might exist in the world and the personality traits they might embody or encounter. The second seven refer to the internal experience and processes of an individual in the world. The third set of seven represent our experience of something greater than ourselves operating through and with us. It speaks to our sense of spiritual connection and partnership. Being cognizant of which of these three groups a card is located helps direct the interpretation of the reading as a whole. Knowing whether the card refers to a way of being in the world, an internal process or a spiritual process can be incredibly useful in interpreting its over all influence.


And finally, of course, it is true that in order to do a reading you will need to have some idea of what the cards mean. While studying various interpretations of these archetypes in depth provides much nuance, they are quite accessible by intuition. They represent states of being all humans will inevitably encounter and so will be able to have a sense of them immediately and viscerally. Simply calling to mind what you associate with an emperor, for example, will get you to an accurate interpretation of that card and how that energy might influence the rest of the reading. No need to look up what they mean, simply mine your own knowledge of what is referred to in the card. In fact I would suggest not even looking at the images at this point. Begin with a list of the 22 and call to mind how you would describe those energies. Over time you can look up meanings to add facets you hadn't considered, but beginning with your own initial impression will give you a much more solid and internalized foundation of the archetype on which to build and add nuance over time. And rest assured it will be enough to give you an accurate reading.


Having said that there are always cards we resonate with immediately and those we need a little hint to understand. If you are at a complete loss feel free to look up a specific card. However, starting with what you already know and intuit will provide a much more stable base.


Finally, the majors are complex archetypal references. When reading a major card, understanding that an archetype refers to a collection of qualities rather than one specific quality is important. Think of the difference between the quality of bravery verses the archetype of the warrior. There is much more nuance available in the latter. Not all facets of this complex image will necessarily be present. This is one of the more challenging as well as freeing and creative aspects of reading tarot. Once you have a handle on the various qualities associated with an archetype, the process of determining which of those are pertinent is where the art of tarot reading comes in. This is done through gut instinct, first impressions, hints from the art of your specific deck, and finally from paying attention to the influence of the surrounding cards and spread position. The goal is to create an overall story that makes sense and provides perspective and meaning for the querent. You will find your own ways of narrowing down which of the many qualities of a card are relevant, but first having a handle on the whole picture of the archetype is necessary. The good news is that that picture is available to you right now with what you already know.


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