The booklet that comes with a new tarot deck will let you know there is a difference between the major and minor arcana, but it might not tell you the importance of that difference. The minor arcana, represented by the suits, represent everyday life. Work, family, health, etc.
The major arcana talk about the theme of our lives, the perspective we might be viewing events from, the lessons we learn one way or another. This is done by mapping out the development of the average person, trials and lessons we tend to learn, and translating it into story form. In short, the Fool’s Journey looks a lot like the hero’s journey, with multiple small lessons ending with absolute truth.
Not every deck uses the same order or interpretation. The usual story is based on the major arcana of the Rider-Waite deck, which is by far the most influential tarot deck, and is what most card readers consider as traditional. Don’t worry if your deck doesn’t fit this story line, every artist wants to add their own twist and reinterpretation, you know how that happens.
The first card, The Fool, represents birth. Pure innocence, at the start of a very long journey, blind to the perils ahead. Walking off a cliff without looking, inadequately prepared with his little handkerchief of belongings and a tiny dog for protection.
His first encounter on his journey introduces him to The Magician and The High Priestess, the masculine and feminine (or active and receptive) principles of life. The “let there be” light and its resulting created shadow, the rays of the sun reflected upon the surface of the silvery moon, the God and Goddess, the pair that is the duality and balance within us all. In short, he is born, then meets the world and the divinity within it.
Right after that, he meets his mother (as this is a story of birth). If The Empress is Mom, naturally The Emperor is Dad, and the pair of them guide us through learning about how to relate to the world around us, shown in the tarot by a card that represents training by the church, the Hierophant. Modern interpretation would be elementary school.
We tend to go along with those teachings, until puberty raises its head. The Lovers does not simply represent the start of sexual desire, when we look for our mate we must also seek who we are. The Lovers represent our young hero seeking more than love; also a connection to his purpose.
Once he finds love and a purpose, he naturally dashes straight ahead with the impulse of youth, shown in the passion and determination of The Chariot. Eventually, our hero learns he must temper his passion, with focus, skill, and compassion. Strength usually shows imagery that demonstrates patience, compassion, and self-control. Once the lessons of youth start to settle in some, our hero needs to piece together aspects of what he’s learned to look for meaning, and The Hermit reflects that introspective quest.
The Wheel of Fortune looks at first to be a card of chance, but considering that tarot cards are a progression, each card containing the lessons of the cards that came before it, this card becomes more of a harvest of our lessons, leading to a turning point where we seize chance to harvest of our efforts, or the inevitable seizes us.
Now he has gone within and found new purpose, he needs to review his world view and adapt. Justice helps us look over our past to see when our actions might have worked against us, and when they were for the better good.
It is not yet time to move forward to our new vision of ourselves, we have learned, we have seen the error of our ways, and now we must take the time to seek out how to correct and refine ourselves, what sacrifices must be made. The Hanged Man is upside down because he is looking within, seeking the parts of himself he needs to refine.
Death gets a bad rap. It’s not the scariest card in the deck, I assure you. It’s nothing more than change, a transformation borne of our introspection. The end of one phase leads to the beginning of another. Our hero is refined, somewhat, and tries again to meet his goals.
Temperance represents our ability to walk this new path, using moderation to avoid the lessons of our youth. It’s a quiet card of a peaceful time, allowing the changes of the Death card to take hold. Unfortunately, sometimes this leads to complacency, becoming set in our ways, and we might forget the passionate quest to refine ourselves that we had in our youth.
Which means The Devil is a bad sign, but it’s another card that has a more frightening reputation than it deserves. It is the chains that bind us, the things like ignorance and materialism that keep us from seeing truth as we are stuck in a rut from all our cautious, temperate living. Our hero stopped trying to grow and became a couch potato.
That’s why The Tower is the most frightening card in the deck. It is the sudden change that must happen to force us to open our eyes. It’s that first plot point, the point of no return, and all the previous cards are how the lie was built. It’s also the climax, the blast of revelation where nothing will ever be the same again. Earth shattering revelations, epiphanies, and crisis are the spirit of this card.
Such destruction is traumatic, but at the end of crisis, we find hope and healing. The Star shows us where to go, in which path truth lies. We can’t simply walk that path though, we must pass through the shadowy whispers of The Moon, the voice of our imagination and deep seated fears. The long night does not last, as we get closer to the The Star, we see it is really The Sun, the golden light of truth, and success of a quest well won.
Reborn, The Fool looks back on his life in the way we all do, choosing which lessons to value and which to discard, the lesson of Judgment. Thus purified, he is ready to fulfill his dreams. The World can be seen as self-actualization, being one with your truth, all that growing stuff behind you as you live in the light.
The Fool’s Journey represents the lesson we are learning, how our world view is colored at that moment. The theme of our lives is important, but the minor arcana help us navigate the more immediate details.
Tarot For Writers And Skeptics * Why Tarot Speaks To Us* Grab A Deck * The Fool’s Journey * Elements And Alchemy * Numerology And The Tarot * Court Cards* Seeds For Stories * Tarot Story List