Learning Tarot: Guide to the Major Arcana

Tarot’s seventy-eight cards, read upside down and right side up, can be hard to learn. If you learn the cards in sections – the Major Arcana and then the Minor Arcana – it’s much easier.

The Major Arcana are the 22 numbered, named, unsuited cards. They make up over a quarter of the deck. From 0, the Fool, to 21, the World, each one has an individual meaning, and a changed one if it falls upside down in your reading. And all the cards read in order are often called the Fool’s Journey, a coherent outline of the path from unenlightened to completely enlightened. While examining the Major Arcana from the point of view of the Fool’s Journey, it is helpful to see yourself as the Fool, and each card as a station on his journey, rather than someone that the Fool transforms into. In an actual reading, however, any card can represent the querent (person the reading is for).

The following description of reading the Major Arcana is based on the Rider-Waite version; however, most other decks follow approximately the same pattern. If you prefer the Deck of the Cats or the Witches’ Deck, most of the following information will work for them as well.

The First Eleven Major Arcana

The Major Arcana can be divided into two groups of eleven cards each; if you have a deck, lay them out in two rows, 0-10 on the top and 11-21 lined up in order underneath. Many of the card pairs are related, and if you understand the first eleven, you can more easily understand the following eleven. Numbers on the Arcana are often referred to as Keys.

The Fool, Key 0, is a youth, usually seen as male; I prefer to see the Fool as either sex. He is not watching where he is going; his foot is upraised in a walk and he is heading off a cliff. Meanwhile, a little dog is trying to warn him of his danger. The Fool represents a journey into the unknown, not foolishness. He is innocent, filled with potential, and carefree. Reversed, he may indicate foolish risks and a lack of forethought, or a fear of setting off into the unknown; but if one does not journey, remember, one never arrives anywhere. In the Fool’s Journey, he is the initial card, and this is the beginning of the journey, in innocence and ignorance both. One must ask – if the Fool knew what was ahead, would he set out? The zero indicates that this is before the journey begins; at this point, the Fool is completely empty, but a void that seeks to be filled.

Key 1 is the Magician, master of special skills and knowledge, and the beginning of creativity and potential. He is also known as the Trickster, a cunning man who is not to be fully trusted. He will manipulate and use those who come to him to his own ends.

Key 2 is the High Priestess. While the Magician is the master of physical power, the High Priestess is the mistress of metaphysical power. She is the representative of spiritual enlightenment, wisdom, and the power of the subconscious. Unlike the Magician, she uses her power to teach querents, not to manipulate them. If you need to listen to your inner voice, you can expect to see the High Priestess in a spread. She and the Magician are the first paired cards in the Major Arcana.

In the Fool’s Journey, these two characters are the balancing forces of the material and the metaphysical world, the conscious and the unconscious mind. In any journey, the thing we must first become aware of is ourselves – our own minds.

Key 3 is the Empress, the world of nature, sensation, warmth, and fertility. She is a strong creative force, an archetypical Mother, and can bring Keys 1 and 2 into harmony in you so that both can work together toward a common goal. She also indicates motherhood, either that of the querent or a mother figure in his or her life. She may also indicate Mother Earth or nature in general.

Key 4, the Emperor, is the Father archetype, and the pair match to Empress. He is masculine power, control, authority; just as the Empress is the mother, the Emperor desires to leave a legacy and is driven to achieve and succeed. In the Fool’s journey, while the Empress protects him, the Emperor shows him that he can control his world, that there are patterns and ways to predict what is happening. And with patterns come rules.

So the Journey has gone through the Self and the Parents; now it must go outside the family into the world.

The Hierophant or High Priest is Key 5. He represents religious authority and tradition, the outer form rather than the inner self. The Fool who stops at the Hierophant in his journey chooses to allow others to make his decisions for him; this is typically the meaning of the reversed reading. The Fool who pushes on through takes the unorthodox approach, rejecting tradition and conventional wisdom to create his own path. Moving past the Hierophant is the first challenge the Fool faces. Interestingly, in some people it is difficult to determine whether the Hierophant has been faced and defeated, or surrendered to.

Remember that the Hierophant is not religious per se; instead, he represents the conformity to society that each of us is expected to do. Many people read too much religion into him, which is a mistake.

Key 6 is The Lovers, but it doesn’t necessarily mean love. Instead, it represents a critical life decision in which you must choose between two paths. In the course of our Fool’s Journey, we all make decisions between paths as we become adults. The Lovers comes at the time when we decide who we want to spend our lives with, what path we wish to take, and how we want to live. This is also the time when the Fool ceases being self-centered and starts looking for relationships. The Lovers, right side up, indicates the possibilities of such a decision, and of that decision’s healthiness. Inverted indicates a sick relationship or the reluctance to enter into one.

Key 7 is The Chariot, a representation of self-discipline and willpower. This is the first indication of the Fool becoming a mature adult, but with an egotism that only comes with the self-confidence of youth. In a spread, it often means a triumph over obstacles (or inverted, a failure). Inverted, it means a life lacks direction, or is under great pressure, or imbalanced. The Chariot is all about self-control.

Strength is Key 8, and is often paired with The Chariot. It represents inner strength, moral force, self-control (but inward, not outward as with the Chariot), and wisdom. This is the sort of strength that enables you to overcome life’s obstacles and your own inner beast – you can accomplish the impossible. Inverted, it indicates that you don’t have enough inner strength for some reason: illness, self-doubt, fear, dependency. You should remember that inner strength is affected by physical wellness.

While the previous three cards describe the young adult’s dealing with the external world, the Hermit, Key 9, represents the withdrawal from society to search for truth inside oneself. Isolation – time alone – can be very healthy, and a great way of gaining enlightenment. But when taken to extremes and literally becoming a hermit, it can be unhealthy, a block to the further journey of the Fool. Feelings of loneliness or rejection are not a reason to seek out the Hermit; an inverted reading may mean this is what is happening.

Key 10, Wheel of Fortune, is the first card that indicates blind chance and situations over which you have no control. Some things just happen. If you get this card, don’t expect to win the lottery; it doesn’t work that way. It’s more like being in step with a difficult tune – things happen the way they are supposed to. The universe has an inherent harmony, and the Wheel of Fortune taps into this harmony. Inverted, expect the opposite.

The Second Eleven Major Arcana

Once the Wheel of Fortune has been passed, start watching for cards that resonate with keys 1-10. It is not a perfect matchup, but there are strong parallels that will help you remember what each card means.

Key 11, Justice, indicates divine justice rather than man’s justice: a truly fair, impartial, balanced judge who tempers his justice with mercy. This card indicates you should weigh decisions you are making carefully. It is also similar to several other cards in that it indicates harmony and equilibrium. In many ways, Justice is the diametric opposite of the Magician, key 1. Inverted, it of course indicates a lack of perfect justice. In the Fool’s journey, this card is the time to look back over where he has been, take responsibility for past actions and decisions, and use this to steer his course to the future.

The Hanged Man, Key 12, is one of the most fascinating figures in the Tarot. It is the figure of the Martyr, one who suffers either for others or to attain enlightenment. The Fool often reaches this point when he finds an experience too difficult to endure – either a goal set high, a life challenge, or a terrible loss. At this point, the Fool for the first time must decide to simply let go.

This is not a defeat, though it feels like a defeat and a sacrifice. Instead, it is the first touching of the Godhead within, the first time the soul becomes harmonious with God. When the Fool surrenders to the challenge, he finds a new strength in a newly-discovered part of himself, and suddenly everything falls together. Though the Fool appears to be martyred, he has actually found serenity and peace, suspended for a moment in life. You can pair this card with Key 2, the Priestess, because in many ways this card is the deeper equivalent of Key 2.

With this card in your reading, question the meaning of your life and the direction in which you are taking it. Do you need to sacrifice? Or re-evaluate your life, goals, priorities, even those you have in your life? Inverted, he indicates a useless sacrifice and an emptiness because you are falsely enacting the part of the martyr, probably because it’s easier sometimes to give up than to go on.

Death is Key 13, and every time it shows up in a movie or television show it means something really bad is about to happen. Don’t believe it. Death is a transformation, and it is no accident that it follows the Hanged Man. Something you cannot avoid will happen, and it will change your life forever, for good or for bad; the past must be left behind. This card can show up in spreads as disparate as those revealing a marriage, a new baby, moving, or, yes, death. Typically, it is there when you are resisting the change, though it is not avoidable.

Temperance is Key 14, indicating harmonious balance and a middle course. It follows the upheaval of Death with the peace of equilibrium regained. Unfortunately, it also sometimes indicates a period of limbo, when you either must wait for a change or don’t know what the change will be. Inverted, it indicates frustration and impatience, and sometimes a lack of harmony. Whenever Temperance shows up, you should be patient and know that all things do come to pass, eventually.

The Devil, Key 15, is a perfect match for The Lovers, Key 6. While the Lovers indicated a relatively innocent decision, the Devil is a decision made as an adult, with all the chains of materialism and responsibility that status entails. It may indicate the chains themselves.

But the chains are an illusion. While you may feel trapped in a situation, no one is ever really trapped, and you always have a choice. Look for the choices you do not currently see. Face your fears and your inhibitions, and look beyond them for ways to grow. Self-indulgence may be your chain: drugs, alcohol, food, sex, loving the wrong person, even your television. Reversed, the Devil indicates that you have already released those chains, and now you must regain your equilibrium as your life changes.

Key 16 is the Tower, and this, not Death or the Devil, is a true disaster, crisis, shock, or life disruption, coming out of the blue. You cannot avoid this change. Like Key 10, this is another situation in which life is out of your control. When this card turns up, you must prepare for it, learn from the coming disaster, and make it teach you how to make your life better. Don’t let it paralyze you; use it to rebuild your life on the rubble. If the Tower is inverted, you are already in the middle of its chaos. Calm down, reassess, and know that you can only rebuild when everything has settled at the bottom. With courage, you can start over.

In Key 17, the storm from the Tower has settled, and the Star has come out, with a promise of renewal. The Star indicates a fresh beginning, and that you can expect renewed hope, faith, illumination, and harmony. Accept the help offered to you, and listen to your inner voice. The Star is associated with the Hermit, key 9; indeed, the lantern that the Hermit holds up can be seen as a representation of the star. But here, the light is freed from a cage, and you can use it to rebuild your life. If the Star is inverted, you may be resisting the Star’s promise, or turning down help offered that you should in fact accept.

The Moon is the pair to the Star in Key 18. In many ways, it is the flip side of the Star; instead of bringing knowledge and illumination, the Moon brings confusion welling up from within. If you are having peculiar dreams, or sense there is a secret, that is very likely what the Moon is trying to tell you. Secrets and deceit, whether from within yourself or from others around you. You should listen to your intuition. Inverted, it warns of deception and lies that you may not know about; these will become clear to you soon.

Key 19, the Sun, stands alone in many ways. It is brilliant hope and optimism, promising all things good and vital: pregnancy, prosperity, hope, blessings, happiness, and fulfillment. Optimism is appropriate here. All good things come your way. Reversed it indicates delay in these things, but if you just outwait your depression, negativity, and feelings of loneliness and loss, the sun will come out; in effect, a reversed reading puts the sun behind a cloud, rather than obliterating it.

In Key 20, the Fool reaches the end of his journey in Judgement. This card indicates a milestone in your life: the end of a phase in your life and an opportunity to assess how you’ve done. Are you transitioning? Moving on? Or has a legal decision been made in your favor? Your decisions at this time are critical, for they will determine the course of your life in the future. Inverted, Judgment indicates a fear of change; you must move forward in order to go on, however.

At last, Key 21 is reached. The World is a more mature version of the Wheel of Fortune; these are the only cards that focus on a nonhuman central figure. Instead of focusing on the individual, they focus on the entire journey of the Fool thus far. The World is the culmination of that journey, and at this point you may feel whole, completed, and fulfilled. This is the best time to start a new phase in your life; the old one is completed, and you are ready to move to the next step. Inverted, it refers to stagnation and a state of incompleteness, perhaps a task that you cannot complete.

With Key 21, the Fool, who has descended into the world of Tarot in a long journey, is ready to re-enter the world. He is now complete, and is ready to share his gifts with the world. No longer is he the Fool, but rather the hero. Once again, he is ready to embark on a new journey.

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