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

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