There are several reasons why we start with Major Arcana when embarking on the study of tarot. First of all, it's been shrouded in mystery since its inception. Over the years, it's been extensively researched and written about - most famously by psychologist Carl Gustav Jung.
Since it's only 22 cards (0-21), the Major Arcana is often considered simpler to memorize. The 22 cards symbolize overarching themes of the human experience, depicted in the form of a pictorial storyline. Finally, it serves as a correlative reference to the Minor Arcana.
A Little History:
The Major Arcana hails back to the early 15th century. It was originally used as a recreational game in the royal Italian courts. The deck's occult affiliations came during the 18th century, when Freemasons paired it with the cards now known as the Minor Arcana.
This new, combined deck continued to make its way through the hands of various other occultists - who each added to it in their own way. The cards were influenced by elements from traditions like Egyptian medicine, Romani mysticism, and Kabbalah. In 1909, all these influences culminated in the creation of the most popular tarot deck in history: The Rider-Waite.
Swiss psychologist and occultist Carl Jung had a deep fascination and familiarity with tarot cards. It's theorized by some that parts of his work may have been influenced by what he knew of these cards. His own work on human archetypes would also go on to heavily inform the way the Major Arcana is interpreted today.
Journey of the Fool
The best way to understand the Major Arcana is to see it in the form of a story. This narrative, telling the journey of The Fool, follows the elements of a classic hero's tale. It has a call to action, a departure into the unknown, trials of initiation, and a triumphant return after metamorphosis.
Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the cards (in my opinion anyway) is that the story they tell isn't mere abstraction - it's about you and me. It's about all of us.
Take a breath. Now, imagine yourself as the hero of the story you're about to read...
There once was a youth in an ancient land - carefree, naive, and innocent. This innocence earned the youth the title of The Fool, named so not for foolishness, but for their lack of understanding. Youthful vigor, however, always matures into a quest for purpose.
The Fool knows a change is coming - a necessary one - but doesn't know where to begin. Seeking answers, The Fool meditates on the road ahead, during which they're visited by The Magician and The High Priestess.
The Magician astounds the youth with a display of mastery over the elements. He tells the youth: "In the face of trials, harness the energy of the masculine. Alchemize all that you learn into the skills required to triumph."
The High Priestess sits tall and proud. She is the picture of regal beauty and mystery, sitting between two pillars of duality. Stoically, she proclaims: "As you move through the world, remember that all the answers are already within you. Breathe and connect in solitude to the energy of the feminine, and your answers shall be revealed."
Feeling inspired by this simple but powerful message from their inner masculine and feminine, The Fool is ready to set forth. Before leaving, they visit their parents, The Emperor and The Empress to seek their blessing.
As they embrace The Emperor, The Fool considers how the emperor toils for his people. His discipline and wisdom help provide for the many.
The Empress comforts her child, providing emotional warmth and a mother's unconditional love.
But the comfort of their mothers' embrace, safe behind the walls of their father's palace can't last forever. It's time to go - time to become a hero.
The Fool's first stop in the real world? A tavern. After all, what better initiation into adulthood?
The Fool steps in to find three men and a young maiden at the bar. Before long, (and with drinks flowing) they all befriend one another. Laughs are shared, as are many flirtatious glances with the girl at the end of the bar.
Everything is great... until The Fool gets caught in a barroom brawl while defending the maiden's honor from one of the men. In the scuffle, the man is mortally wounded, and The Fool is arrested and jailed. This is where they are visited by The Heirophant - the embodiment and interpreter of divine law.
The Heirophant tells The Fool the charge against them is murder. He further explains that the maiden at the bar is his daughter Agapi (whose name means "Divine Love," a.k.a The Lovers). Taken by The Fool's chivalry, Agapi begs her father to save them.
In accordance with the divine laws of the land, The Heirophant proposes one of two consequences: stay in jail or marry his daughter.
Though tempted by the maiden's beauty, The Fool feels compelled by an inner voice to take responsibility and atone. They choose the hard road and stay in jail. The Heirophant, who knows The Fool's trials are far from over, approves.
That evening, the fool is picked up by The Chariot. Confused, they ask what was happening. The charioteer explains: "You passed the first test. I am taking you to your celebration."
The Fool enters the courtyard of a castle, replete with tables of food and drink, juggling jesters, and people making merry. Though slightly hesitant, they decide to go with the flow and enjoy the night - albeit in moderation. Once bitten, twice shy, after all.
Those thoughts of moderation went quickly out the window. There she was, Agapi, beckoning The Fool to her private quarters. The celebration suddenly didn't matter anymore. There was only her.
The young lovers entered a room with the symbol of a horse on the door and the word Strength over top. Agapi poured every ounce of her wiles into seducing and beguiling The Fool, and it worked... for a time.
In the midst of a sweaty stupor induced by the pleasures of the flesh, The Fool has a brief moment of clarity. They remember why they embarked on this journey in the first place. Though it takes every ounce of will to detach from this beautiful illusion, The Fool apologizes and leaves in haste.
Seeking a moment to refocus, The Fool runs into a library built by The Hermit. This refuge, however, is not quite what it seems as the door automatically locks behind them.
This brings The Fool into a deep panic. They bang on the door, shouting and crying for many hours to no avail. Feeling defeated, The Fool sits dejectedly in the corner of this dark, dreary library. A feeling of dread hangs heavy as they reflect on the journey so far.
"Why did I leave home?" they cried to the heavens. "What's the point? Should I just have gotten married to become an adult? Did I die in jail? Is all this but a cruel dream?"
After hours of frenzied self-negotiating, The Fool reaches a breaking point. They cackle maniacally, rising in madness with each peal of laughter. It's dawned on them: it's all nonsense. Life will never make sense. It's a series of seemingly nonsensical events that may lead to moments of clarity and growth. All you can do is laugh and play along.
The dawning of this realization is accompanied by the rising glow of a spinning wheel that appears in the middle of the room. Within the turning of The Wheel, there is a pattern. There are moments of abundance and moments of misfortune; rising, falling, always spinning. The Wheel is fortune, it is destiny, it is choice and fate. It is never-ending, and it calls upon The Fool to step through it and break the cycle.
The Fool steps through the wheel feeling confident and well-armed with the lessons they had learned so far. Unbeknownst to them, this confidence would soon resemble hubris. This was a whole new world.
Almost immediately, The Fool is confronted by Justice. Where The Heirophant is the interpreter of divine law, Justice is the law itself. He questions the youth on what they've learnt so far.
Flippant with newfound confidence, The Fool responds with a snide remark about the meaninglessness of it all. Justice bemusedly shakes his head and tells the youth, "You need a new perspective."
Lo and behold! They're suddenly suspended upside-down from the tree of knowledge. The Fool has quite literally transformed into The Hanged Man.
They dangled there, with no choice but to see things from a new perspective. Slowly, they realized the illusions they had blindly accepted: justice, religion, society.
The Hanged Man's heart broke as they saw their parents as no more than flawed peers. The priests and the judges were each but a single, myopic eye - yet collectively they gazed down upon the masses.
Over the horizon, came Death. Even here, there was truth - Death isn't merely an end, it can also clear the way for new beginnings. Death releases The Hanged Man from the trappings of mortal understanding and clears the way for Temperance.
The angel Temperance walks up to the tree. As Death sweeps the path before her, she separates the rubble and clears the middle path. She unties The Hanged Man, and directs him to the path ahead.
As they walk this middle path, The Hanged Man - now the Changed Man - feels more in control than ever before. That is, until The Devil appears before him!
Attempting to manipulate the Changed Man in a final test of faith, The Devil conjures a colossal, spiring Tower around them. Each brick represents the Changed Man's desires, attachments, and addictions. Confronted by their own imperfections, the Changed Man chooses to embrace them fully. Their flaws and strengths aren't good or bad - they're simply the colors of their tapestry.
By surrendering to this higher truth, The Devil's conjuring is rendered powerless. A bolt of lightning pierces the sky and strikes The Tower down.
The Changed Man has attained a level of transcendence blessed by the heavens. As a constant reminder of that growth, they are graced by The Star appearing overhead - a guiding light for the way ahead.
Along with the ever-present company of The Star, The Changed Man also sees The Sun and The Moon in a new light. At night, The Moon reminds them of the trials faced at the Tree of Knowledge. It ushers in the wisdom and intuition needed to stay in balance. Then, as each new day dawns, The Sun provides an opportunity for rebirth.
As the Changed Man comes back home and approaches the castle gates, Judgment sits waiting. There must be an evaluation before they can rejoin their community. The weight of their wisdom must be measured, and its worth must not be found wanting.
Judgment asks, "What have you learned?"
Without a single tremor, the Changed Man answers. "I have learned of love, and of life. I have seen through the Grand Illusion. I have killed, and I have died, and now, I am reborn."
As they pass through the gates, they notice another spinning wheel in front of them. This is The World. Unlike the previous wheel, however, this one represents a celebration. The Hero's journey is complete.
The Last Lesson
Now let's bring it back to the real world again. If you recall, the Major Arcana tells a story that feels somehow familiar to all of us. Were you able to associate your experiences with what The Fool went through at each stage? Did you conjure up memories that allowed you to really relate to this story? Who was "The Lover" in your story? Who judged you? What trials and tribulations have you faced that helped shape who you are today?
These questions not only help us process the story, they allow us to attach our own feelings to each card in the Major Arcana. I find that creating personal associations to the cards in this way can often be more helpful in connecting to them than simply memorizing their definitions. In this way, you begin to develop your own unique relationship with your deck and actually start to commune with the tarot.