The Major Arcana

Most tarot decks in use today, including the Rider-Waite, contain a standard number of 78 cards, which is then split into two sections: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. 

The word “arcana” itself means “a deep or profound secret.” It is thought that each of these cards contains symbolic imagery revealing a powerful hidden meaning. These cards are meant to convey, through a pictorial language, the secret mysteries of the universe and our place within it. 

The Major Arcana contains 22 cards, numbered from 0 to 21, all of which go beyond the more common, quotidian concerns represented in the 56 cards of the Minor to touch on the archetypal dimensions of our spiritual development. 

Furthermore, we can look to the Major Arcana not simply as a set of 22 isolated archetypal ideas, but rather, as a mythic or heroic journey, one that each of us may choose to undertake as a route to greater self-knowledge and realization.

We can start by turning our attention to the first of these cards, The Fool. It is interesting to note that although this is the first of the series, it does not carry the numeral 1, but 0. 

As we will see in greater detail in our next post dedicated to this card, the Fool likely carries the number 0 because it is representative of pure potential. As a symbol of the unmanifest, the Fool contains all possibilities within himself.

In some sense, the Fool exists outside of the trajectory represented by cards 1 through 21 of the Major Arcana. We can even think of the Fool as being the hero of the Major Arcana’s series of transformations. For it is the Fool which takes a leap of faith, from a place of unrealized potential into a life of action and consequence. 

In fact, there are many commentators who have even called this series of 22 cards “The Fool’s Journey.” It is wise to keep in mind, however, that this is not merely a story about the Tarot’s naive protagonist. It is not the tale of a character in a land far from us; it is in fact our story, describing a journey each of us must go on as individuals on our way to greater awareness and self-actualization.

We all start out like the Fool, inexperienced and filled with boundless optimism, dazzled by the seemingly infinite options which glitter like stars on the horizons of our futures. 

Each of us, like the Fool, takes a similar leap of faith into what is to come. As we move forward in time, each of us makes choices, acting on decisions that lead us through certain doors, decisions which simultaneously will close certain others.

Some sources, such as modern mystery school Builders of the Adytum and noted author Rachel Pollack, divide the Major Arcana into three distinct series containing seven cards each. Each series of seven represents three distinct stages or levels of experience and development: the conscious, the subconscious, and the superconscious.

Cards 1 through 7 describe our journey through the first stage of our conscious development. This first set of seven depicts the archetypal influences and developmental milestones we must master and achieve in order to be effective in the outer world of material achievement.

In the next set, cards 8 through 14 represent a turning inwards, where we must come face to face with elements of our subconscious minds and integrate them into our being to achieve further wholeness. We come into contact with what has as of yet remained latent beneath the surface of our daily experience. 

“True, whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with himself….

The meeting with oneself is, at first, the meeting with one’s own shadow. The shadow is a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well. For what comes after the door is, surprisingly enough, a boundless expanse full of unprecedented uncertainty….

It is the world of water, where all life floats in suspension; where the realm of the sympathetic system, the soul of everything living, begins….

All those who have had an experience like that mentioned in the dream know that the treasure lies in the depths of the water and will try to salvage it.” — from C.G. Jung CW 9

Here, we must face the primal, chaotic life energies that constitute our subconsciousness. This experience can be deeply shocking and even terrifying, especially for a culture as unprepared to deal with these deep and powerful currents of psychic energy as the hyper-rational, patriarchal capitalist culture of today.

Finally, the last set of cards numbered 15 through 21 show the development of what both B.O.T.A. and Pollack describe as “superconsciousness”, or what some might call the transpersonal level of psyche. This level transcends the purely personal experience to encompass a union with the spiritual, universal and archetypal level of existence. In this stage, we move beyond our personal, individual life stories and connect with the mystery of the infinite, that which is greater than ourselves.

“We know that the mask of the unconscious is not rigid–it reflects the face we turn towards it. Hostility lends it a threatening aspect, friendliness softens its features.”

–from C.G. Jung CW 12

It is here where we come into contact with what we might call cosmic consciousness. This is a level of development reserved to those who are brave and willing enough to take a leap of faith into the vast unknown.


It is interesting to note that the great majority of the human figures represented in these 22 cards are displayed in static, unmoving positions, almost as if they were posing for a portrait.

Only two cards portray figures in movement: Key 0, the Fool, and Key 21, the World.

This is likely meant to suggest a certain similarity between what is represented by the Fool and the World. Indeed, we find that the symbolic imagery represented in the World portrays our experience when we find that we have successfully traversed the various tests, challenges, and opportunities for growth shown in each of the previous cards of the Major Arcana.

Having integrated all of these lessons, we arrive at the World, liberated from our previous patterns, our illusions, and our limitations. We have freed ourselves from any inner restrictions and defense mechanisms, much of which had arisen as attempts to protect our ego from the incursions of a seemingly dangerous outer world. 

When this happens, we find ourselves once again in a state of pure openness to the world, where we can experience a true receptivity and responsiveness to our experience as it arises moment-by-moment. 

This is a state very similar to that of the Fool. Once again, we find that we are open to the fullness and totality of the world around us, at one with our environment and all that is. We have come full circle to once again embody pure potential and limitless possibility. 

However, this state is in many ways much more powerful. Arriving at the World, we have gained the capacity to combine the wisdom of experience with a child-like sense of wonder, awe and joy. We are able to move beyond dualistic concepts and achieve union with what is beyond ourselves. 

The purpose of this transcendent spiritual union with the Divine is not to escape our material and embodied physical existence, but to transform it. We are meant to use our higher spiritual consciousness in service of the mundane.

In true alchemical fashion, the purpose of this spiritual ascension is to bring what is gained above back down to perfect the world below. 

“It rises from the Earth to Heaven, and descends again to Earth,

Thereby combining within it the powers of both the Above and the Below.”

–The Emerald Table

As we have seen, Major Arcana of the Tarot provides a profound symbolic representation of the soul’s journey from innocence to awareness. Although the Tarot is indeed a dynamic and powerful tool for divination, it is far more than that. The Tarot contains a profound message of transformation and redemption for those who have eyes to see it. We can use it as a tool for study, for quiet reflection, or for meditation on the archetypal principles underlying each of these 22 cards. If we can bring an attitude of intention, openness and receptivity to our work with these cards, the Tarot can be one of our best guides on the often labyrinthine journey of return to our highest selves.

Image from Carl Jung’s “Red Book

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

–Rumi

Prima Materia

The Prima Materia, or First Matter, is a difficult concept to define. It has been said that the First Matter is both everything and nothing.

According to D. W. Hauck , “It is the primal One Thing that existed before time, as well as the primordial chaos that contains all possibilities.” It is said that the First Matter carries the germ or seeds of all things that every existed or ever could exist in the future.

In the Emerald Tablet, the “One Thing” refers to the Prima Materia. This was then acted upon by the thoughts or word of the One Mind to create the material reality we can observe with our senses.

The Egyptian hieroglyph for the sound “kh” also symbolized the concept of the First Matter. It was the first letter used in the word khem , which means “black matter which is alive.” [It also the root of the word alchemy.] Other possible translations of this word are “placenta,” “fertile dirt,” or “living black soil.”

It can be thought of as the unmanifest, the part of God or spirit that is all potential, that contains all possibilities.

It the substance that we start with, the raw material that is perfected through the entire alchemical process known as the “Great Work.”

The Archetypal in Astrology

According to Richard Tarnas, the archetypal is the spiritual and energetic. It was originally experienced by human people as “Gods” and “Goddesses,” and described in terms of mythologies.

The archetypal is about the essences and qualities that transcend the human.

These ideas were later expounded upon in Ancient Greece, with the philosophies of Plato and Plotinus, among others. They were forgotten for many years until their recovery by the likes of Nietzsche, Freud, and Carl Jung.

Jung’s depth psychology explored the idea of the archetypal pleroma, the pantheon of archetypal energy, both within and without. It was Jung who recognized that we are in psyche. It informs not only us but all of nature. This is what is meant by the Anima Mundi, or world soul.

It was through myths that man tried to understand and convey its experience of this world soul. Myth, as well as dreams, are the narrative form of archetypal energy. According to Tarnas, this is how the cosmos pours its consciousness through us humans. The archetypes are thus the mediators of the cosmos, the way the Anima Mundi often speaks to us directly of its secrets.

Plotinus says that astrology is like a script that the soul of the sky is writing. Meaning is something that extends and permeates through all levels of reality and existence. We are living in a pan-psychic universe, and if we wish to, we can be active participants with this consciousness or sentience.

The cosmos gives us guidance on how we can participate constructively. The archetypes don’t “cause” human affairs or outer events to occur in some mechanistic way. Instead, it is open to our human participation.

It is as if the universe or nature is providing us with symbols or guideposts regarding the qualitative meaning of our unfolding. We can choose to participate actively in our own evolution by noticing and following the signs provided for us by the macrocosm.

The Dance of Sulfur

After the Bellows Breath, you may want to follow up with another practice called the Dance of Sulfur.

Sulfur is a yellow powder which the alchemists believed symbolized the active masculine principle of fire. It was often used in laboratory alchemy in the form of sulfuric acid (also known to them as vitriol).

The Dance of Sulfur is an exercise to increase energy and circulate it in the body. Not only that, it is ideal for taking the emotions which arise in Roasting Cinnabar and the energy raised in Bellows Breath and expressing them in a healthy way. We can use the Dance of Sulfur to let go of pent up rage, aggression and other emotions that have been suppressed or held in our bodies for too long.

HOW TO PRACTICE

  1. To begin, you can put on some music (some say angry or aggressive rock music works best) and start to dance. You can try any other type of aerobic movement that will increase your heart rate, like jogging in place or jumping rope, but I prefer to dance, as it really allows you to get into the music and feel the powerful feelings which have been brought up by other alchemical practices. Aim for at least 20 minutes of movement in this practice.
  2. Try to leave thought and the conscious, rational mind behind. As much as you can, drop your awareness into your body, feel all the emotions coming up as the energy grows stronger and rises within you.
  3. Once you feel you are in the moment and present in your body, start to imagine intense, fiery energy rising up in waves from below. You can then direct that fire energy to any areas of tension or pain in your body (either physical or emotional). Let the flames wash over you, consuming the stagnant ego structures of your past, and burning up and releasing any ideas, emotions or behavior you want to let go of.

This practice, along with the previous two, may be used alone or in conjunction. If you have the time, I recommend creating a ritual that combines Roasting Cinnabar, Bellows Breath, and the Dance of Sulfur (in that order).

When I have done this set of practices together in the past, I like to say a prayer or set an intention (whatever works for you), and I light a red candle to honor the rage and pain of the past, and to symbolize what will be consumed and released during the ritual. You may also want to conclude this set of practices with a ritual bath (salt baths are great for this). Visualize the salt water cleansing you of any remnants of anger or stuck energy, then picture all of these troubles leaving you for good as they are washed down the drain at the very end.

Bellows Breath

Bellows Breath is an active meditation that can be used to increase conscious awareness and raise energy in the body. Practitioners of Kundalini Yoga may recognize this as what they call the “Breath of Fire.” It can be used to release stuck energy in the body, oxygenating the blood, and expanding lung capacity.

HOW TO PRACTICE

  1. Begin by sitting with your legs crossed. Then focus on the energy in your body around your navel.
  2. Keeping your mouth closed, begin by inhaling and exhaling rapidly through your nose. The in and out breaths should be equal in length, but as short as possible. As you exhale, push the air out of your lungs quickly, similar to a bellows used to start a fire. Try for between 2-3 breaths per second.
  3. After a few minutes, you may start to experience a warm energy rising from your navel up to your head. Try to experience this rising energy without any judgements or assumptions about you are feeling. Just feel the energy spreading in your body.
  4. You may choose to imagine that as the energy rises, it is clearing away physical or emotional blocks in your body. You can visualize this fire energy moving through your body and burning away any toxins, negativity, stuck emotions, or past behaviors, leaving only a healthy body and mind behind.

Roasting Cinnabar

A good Calcination ritual to start with is known as Roasting Cinnabar.

This meditative process is related to the work done by alchemists in the laboratory, working with real chemicals.

In this process, alchemists would would roast the mineral known as “Dragon’s Blood,” or Cinnabar, which is a red-colored sulfide of mercury. When roasted over an open flame,  drops of pure liquid mercury are released from the cinnabar and fall down into the ashes.

The purpose of this meditative process is to get us in touch with our mostly unconscious judgements and reactionary behaviors that serve to protect and enhance our egos. We must become aware of these forces within our psyches before we are able to release them to make room for our true or higher Self.

HOW TO PRACTICE

  1. Start by entering a state of relaxation, one in which you feel detached from your worries and daily concerns or problems. You can do this by focusing on your breath, by noting the “in” or the “out” breath or by counting each breath as it passes. You may also use a mantra of your choice to bring your attention inward. When you find you are relaxed, move on to the next step.
  2. Slowly count backwards from 10 down to 1. While counting down, continue to relax each part of your body, starting at the crown of your head and moving down to your toes. Take care to make each breath slower and deeper than the last.
  3. Visualize brilliant red cinnabar roasting over an open flame. As you do so, let your mind travel back to any moment of your life where you felt humiliated or enraged by someone else. Try to notice the true cause of your intense feelings—they are typically tied up in a sense of losing control, of not having any power over yourself, and of your ego or sense of self being diminished.
  4. Observe your thoughts as they stream through your mind. Notice the ways in which you reacted to being hurt. This can include such things as promising yourself you will never be vulnerable and risk getting hurt again, or lashing out at someone else to soothe the ego’s pain. Re-evaluate how you responded to these painful circumstances. Ask yourself, is this the best way to respond? How would my higher or wiser self choose to respond instead?
  5. Most importantly, allow yourself to experience all of your difficult feelings. Avoid suppressing and repressing your pain. It never truly goes away, and there is much wisdom to be found in the depths of your own darkness.
  6. Notice all of the insights and wisdom that come up as you do this. Picture this to be the mercury being released from the cinnabar. Imagine yourself gathering up all of this precious mercury into a glass bottle as it is released from the rocks of cinnabar.

This mercury, this purified thought, is now yours to use as you wish.

Calcination

There are seven operations in the process of alchemy, the first of which is calcination.

This is the process of burning through the dross of the ego we have built up over the course of our lives, so that our true self may be released and expressed.

This is not an easy experience to go through, which is why so many of us avoid it. It often seems safer to cling to our egos, no matter how much suffering they may cause us, than to face the delusions we have accepted and the lies we have built into our personalities.

This process requires us to go through the fires of hell in order to emerge renewed. We must experience all of our pent up anger, frustration and rage before we can move past this stage.

We are forced to come to terms with some of our most difficult emotions in a process which has been referred to as “the death of the profane.” The false self must die in order that the true Self may live.

For there is no room in the psyche for two rulers. The false ego drains our energy, asking us to focus on superficial qualities or objects. We may focus on our physical appearance or have an obsession with material possessions and financial success. All of which obscures our essence, our higher self which is in touch with something greater than ourselves, and out of which meaning and purpose are born.

Some alchemical practices for working with our egos and moving the calcination process forward are Roasting Cinnabar, Bellows Breath and the Dance of Sulfur. It is important to recognize that alchemy is not an abstract, theoretical mental discipline. It involves all the dimensions of our being, and as such is something that much be practiced.

You can choose to do one alchemical practice at once, or as I have done, combine several into a longer calcination ritual. I will describe the practicalities of these processes more in depth in coming posts here.