Take out any Tarot deck, and the first 22 cards that you see are the Major Arcana cards – also called the (ahem) Trump cards. (For political reasons, I’m just gonna call ’em the Major Arcana. You know why.) These cards are the foundation of your Tarot deck, and they represent some of the most important life lessons that we have come here to learn. Some decks have them numbered, some decks have them unnumbered, some decks start with The Fool at the beginning of the Major Arcana, and some have The Fool at the end. But no matter what kind of Tarot deck you have, you will have some version of these cards in that deck.
There are lots of astrological and historical meanings and associations behind the Major Arcana, and I’m no expert on those, but if you really want to learn more, you can check out Wikipedia and find some (very detailed) basics.
The Hero’s Journey
Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about what he called The Hero’s Journey, the formula for every great work of literature and mythology dating back to ancient times. The formula was simple: the main character, living a normal life, suddenly finds him/herself in extraordinary circumstances. These challenges require the hero to go on a journey of sorts, where s/he finds allies to help in the quest. At the height of the story, the hero finds him/herself facing a dark night of the soul, and very often is required to undergo a symbolic death and transformation. Following this transformation, the hero travels back home with these new experiences and knowledge to share with the rest of the tribe, until a new journey presents itself.
It’s the basic formula for every great story, book, and movie that you can think of: The Hobbit, The Lord Of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars… You get the idea. Think about any wildly popular fantasy story or movie, and you’ll be able to break it down into the basic components of the Hero’s Journey.
So What Does the Hero’s Journey Have to Do With the Major Arcana?
In a word: everything.
When you lay out the Major Arcana in order (using The Fool as the first card), you can start to see a story unfold. The Fool is the starting point, the Hero of the story. The Fool is in that place where everything and anything is possible. Looking at the symbols and imagery that appear in most of the cards that depict The Fool, we see things that indicate we’re about to start something new. The white rose in some images symbolizes innocence and purity of heart as we set forth on our path.
As we travel with The Fool, we start to meet a cast of characters: the Magician, the Empress, the High Priestess, the Hierophant, the Emperor…. All of these characters represent archetypes that we meet both in ourselves and in our external world. It’s how we perceive these characters and the lessons we learn from them that teach us the things we need to know about how to navigate through this physical world.
Moving deeper into the Major Arcana, we start to grapple with abstract concepts like justice, balance, and judgement. We’re asked to confront our demons through addressing our addictions and illusions, to shake up the foundations on which we’ve built our beliefs, and find new perspectives on our lives.
And what happens when we get to the end of the journey? We find The World, the completion of this journey and the beginning of the next. It’s the cycle of The Hero’s Journey, where we take the things that we’ve learned in this particular phase of our lives and use them as we move forward in our spiritual growth and awakening.
When the Major Arcana cards turn up in a reading, pay attention to what lesson is being presented. Are we learning how to live in the world, as shown by The Hierophant? Do we need to confront our addictions when The Devil pops up? Maybe it’s time for us to take a step back and reflect when The Hermit appears in a reading.
I’ll be writing and reflecting more on the Major Arcana in the coming weeks. These important cards carry a lot of energy, including associations with astrological signs, numerology, the chakras, the Hebrew Tree of Life, and the elements.
How to Use the Major Arcana in Tarot Readings
There are lots of ways to use the Major Arcana in your tarot readings. You can remove the Major Arcana from your deck and use each card as a significator card to examine the effects this energy has in your life. (I’ll be writing up some great Tarot spreads for each Major Arcana in the coming weeks!) If you find a reading to be mostly Major Arcana cards, there are some major shifts happening or coming in the near future. (And we’ll talk about timing and the Tarot soon, too, I promise!) You can do readings with just the Major Arcana, using them in each position in the spread to see what life lessons are having an impact on your current situation. There are so many ways to use the Major Arcana and get creative!
One of my favorite ways to use the Major Arcana in Tarot is just to pick one card at random for the day and meditate on it. Sometimes, I’ll pull one card from a mini deck and tuck it into my pocket or my planner for the day (or the week) and see what synchronicities I notice that relate to the lessons of that particular card. There are also loads of great meditations you can find on YouTube that will help you understand the deeper meanings of the cards in the Major Arcana.
However you use them, the Major Arcana and The Hero’s Journey are the heart and soul of any Tarot deck!