Tarot Wisdom – the Major Cards
If you are drawn to the significance of archetypes and the value of symbolism in your spiritual quest, but have never before considered exploring the wisdom of the Tarot, then the attached article written by Silverspear may be of interest.
The 22 Trump cards, as opposed to the 56 pip cards of the Tarot, are often referred to collectively as the Major Arcana; the term “arcana” means that which is hidden and was applied to the Tarot by the occult fraternity. The 22 Major cards feature images of an archetypal nature. This means that each card contains a valuable lesson which can assist us on our quest towards spiritual and esoteric understanding. When you open a new Tarot pack, the first Trump card you will see is the Zero card: The Fool. The Fool is about to step off the edge of a cliff and seems blissfully unaware of the danger of doing so. The Fool is clearly on a quest, but his quest is not to gain the rewards of our temporal world; The Fool has a higher goal to attain, and therefore is not to be judged by the debased standards of humanity. The Fool, in fact, is the wisest of individuals because he questions and challenges the dubious values of our materialistic world and rejects them as folly of the greatest kind.
The Fool is in this world but he is not entirely of this world, which means he is betwixt and between; he is a liminal creature. We all experience liminal situations from time to time, but for The Fool liminality is a way of life. Because of his liminal nature, The Fool is able to step over the edge into the unknown, confident that his decision will lead to situations and opportunities which otherwise would remain unattainable. In the Lemniscate arrangement of laying out the 22 Major cards, The Fool card corresponds to the position of the Judgement card, because that is The Fool’s final destination. If his quest has been successful, then he will be able to face that final judgement with the utmost confidence.
The first archetype The Fool meets on his quest is The Magician, and The Fool must learn his magical skills; in fact, The Fool must become a magician himself. The Magician is able to control and manipulate the Elements and to bring order out of chaos, as represented by the various items spread out on his table. In all traditional Tarot images, the table only appears to have three legs – The Magician’s left leg seemingly acting as the missing support. This may seem rather makeshift and foolish, but it illustrates adaptability and the trickster skills of The Magician. In the Marseille- style decks the shape of The Magician’s hat resembles a lemniscate. Alternatively, many Rider/Colman/Waite-inspired decks depict the lemniscate hovering above the head of The Magician, illustrating that his power is potentially infinite.
The Magician card is numbered 1, which symbolises leadership and that which comes first. The card that corresponds to the Magician on the lemniscate is The Sun, which is a symbol of power and relates to active energies. The card number of the Sun is 19, which when reduced to a single digit is also number 1. It must be borne in mind, however, that number 1 also has a negative feature; it represents egocentricity and narcissism. Egocentric individuals, tragically, are so inward focussed that they are unable to see beyond their own narrow, selfish interests. To be a truly magical person, this is a major handicap, because the ego is ill-equipped to see the bigger picture. This restriction is reflected in the nature of number 1, which is a static number theoretically unable to move beyond itself: 1 divided by 1 = 1, and 1 x 1 = 1. Stalemate. But because The Fool is wise, he recognises that to achieve expansion he must also embrace 2. The next stage on his quest, therefore, is to encounter the Feminine Principle, expressed in the Tarot as card number 2: The Papess – or in modern Tarot terminology, The High Priestess.
The Papess is the female counterpart to The Magician. She sits with an open book on her lap. The book represents knowledge and wisdom, but the knowledge contained in the book is not logical or rational knowledge. The book represents knowledge of an esoteric and psychic nature, which cannot be conveyed as information; it can only be understood at an intuitive level. We know this because The Papess card on the lemniscate corresponds to The Moon card, symbolic of that which is mysterious, deceptive and inscrutable. The Moon card is numbered 18, which when reduced to a single digit is 9. The numeral 9 is a tertiary number comprised of number 3 three times and 3, even on its own, has an ancient tradition of being a magical number. Because 1 and 2 are no longer bound by their own limitations, their union can now produce 3, which is why 3 is referred to as the number of fertility and creativity. Apart from 3 being the creation of the first two numbers, 3 is necessary to create every other number: 3 + 1 = 4, or 3 + 2 = 5, and so on. 5 and 4 together make 9, which is the entire compass of all the primary numerals. This brings The Fool to card 3: The Empress.
The Empress, like the Papess, is also feminine but unlike the Papess, The Empress is not mysterious in a lunar sort of way. The Empress represents creativity in all its forms and displays earthy, fertile qualities, which is why many Tarot decks depict The Empress as pregnant. The Empress card on the lemniscate corresponds to The Star card, widely recognised to symbolise the Morning Star and otherwise known as Venus. Venus, of course, being the goddess of love. The Star card is numbered 17, which when reduced to a single digit is 8, the number of balance and equilibrium. A naked woman is pouring water from two jugs into the river. This is the Water of Life. Water also represents the emotions and is a feminine symbol. This card represents the pouring of emotion into that which is considered worthy. In the Marseille Tarot, the star immediately above the woman’s head has eight blue points and eight red points, symbolising harmony and balance.
Having now encountered the aforementioned archetypes, The Fool on his quest now faces a more tempting challenge. The archetype he must deal with is of an extremely pragmatic and materialist nature; one that symbolises a huge potential towards aggression, ruthless ambition and imperialism. The Fool must meet The Emperor. In all traditional Tarot decks, The Emperor always looks to the left of the observer. He has no desire to face anyone as an equal human being; his focus is entirely on territorial expansion and defence of his existing empire. There is no limit to The Emperor’s lust for power; his ultimate goal is world domination. The Emperor card is 4, the number of the material domain.
A standard feature of The Emperor’s pose is that his legs form the shape of a cross, also a symbol of 4; a cross has four points and also relates to the four points of the compass and the four corners of the earth. Perhaps controlling all of the earth is The Emperor’s ultimate ambition. Some Tarot exponents suggest that The Emperor’s crossed legs represent an inverted Christian cross to indicate that he is a bogus Christian. It has also been suggested that The Emperor of the Tarot represents Emperor Constantine, a ruthless warrior who consolidated all the various Christian churches into the Church of Rome at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Because of The Emperor’s huge military, political and religious successes, The Fool might be tempted to look upon The Emperor with great admiration and respect. The Fool might also wish that he too could become The Emperor. The Emperor card, however, corresponds on the lemniscate to The Tower card, which is one of the most ominous cards in the Tarot. The Tower is a warning against hubris, which always results in nemesis and ruin. No matter how much of the world The Emperor gains, he will always be at the mercy of the gods. If the gods so choose, then they will destroy The Emperor’s towers and grand edifices and send his empire crashing down. This is precisely what is depicted in the Tarot card, The Tower. Some early Tarot designs described this card as “The Blasted Tower”. The number of The Tower card is 16, which reduces to 7, the Number of Mystery. The Fool has again chosen wisely and left The Emperor to his own devices.
The Fool’s next encounter is with a different leader; one who represents spiritual, rather than temporal, power and who controls the world by religious means. The Fool might again be tempted to look upon The Pope with the same admiration and respect that many showed towards The Emperor, but there is a danger in this archetypal figure as well. The number of The Pope card is 5, which is also a symbol of ambivalence and potential instability. The Pope card on the lemniscate corresponds to The Devil card, which might mean that The Devil is the opposite of the Pope – or it might mean that the Pope in fact is The Devil in disguise. It has to be kept in mind that the Tarot is a product of a Christian culture, having emerged in Renaissance Italy during the 15th century when many freethinking philosophers and scientists of the time were being persecuted by the Established Church, some of whom were burned at the stake for heresy. The lesson The Fool must learn here is to be discerning. The bible, after all, states that the Devil can transform himself into an angel of light to fool the faithful. With that lesson taken onboard, The Fool must now continue on his quest.
The next archetype The Fool meets is The Lovers. Many people think that this card relates to sexual temptation, but more often than not it relates to choosing wisely because making a wrong choice may result in disaster. Does The Fool have enough information to make a choice? As The Fool has already learned from his encounter with The Magician and The Papess, both the attributes of knowledge and intuition must go hand in hand and neither should be disregarded in favour of the other. The card to which The Lovers card corresponds on the lemniscate is Temperance. Again, a young woman is pouring water, but this time from one jug to another. Unlike the woman in The Star card, this woman is fully clothed and her wings indicate that she is an angel, so she is not of this world. The number of The Lovers card is 6, known as the Number of Perfection. The Temperance card, however, is 14, which reduces to 5 – the number that represents instability, as already mentioned. Nothing is guaranteed at this point. The final decision must rest entirely with The Fool himself.
The Fool’s next encounter is with The Chariot, which is card number 7. The lesson that must be learned here is one of control and to acknowledge one’s limitations. The Chariot card may have been inspired by Phaeton from Greek mythology. Against the better judgement of Apollo, the Sun god, Phaeton insisted in taking control of the sun chariot and attempted to steer it through the heavens. Unfortunately, Phaeton’s skill was sadly lacking and he failed to keep an even and steady course. The result was that Phaeton steered the chariot too close to the earth and everything upon it was scorched. To avert further disaster, Jupiter finally intervened by hurling a thunderbolt at the chariot and Phaeton fell to his death, which is why The Chariot card on the lemniscate equates to the Death card.
The Death card is numbered 13, which reduces to 4, and 4, as referred to earlier, is the number of the material world and the domain of The Emperor who is but a mortal leader. It is interesting to point out that the only two Tarot cards named after man-made creations, The Tower and The Chariot, relate to death and destruction. Both cards vibrate to number 7, the number traditionally identified with mystery, the occult and unseen forces.
Throughout his quest The Fool has learned many lessons. His experience has shown him that every action must be accounted for, which is why The Fool must now address Justice. In pre-Rider/Colman/Waite decks (before 1910) The Justice card is always number 8, which symbolises balance. In the Justice card we see the Sword of Truth and also the Scales, which must remain in perfect balance. The Scales are suspended, as too is The Hanged Man, card number 12, to which the Justice card corresponds on the lemniscate. From his facial expression of ease, The Hanged Man clearly has adopted his inverted pose intentionally and deliberately chosen to view the world upside down because his values are an inversion of the debased values of the world universally promoted and accepted as the norm. With one leg placed behind the other in a cross shape, The Hanged Man is mimicking The Emperor. However, unlike The Emperor, whose legs are close to the ground and therefore rooted in the material domain, The Hanged Man’s crossed legs are in the direction of the heavens. Symbolically, The Hanged Man, similar to The Fool, is occupying a liminal space between this world and the Otherworld. The number of The Hanged Man card is 12, which reduces to 3, the number representing creativity.
The Fool has now reached the end of his journey and must withdraw from the world to reflect on all the lessons he has learned along the way. The Fool finally meets The Hermit who is holding up a lantern symbolic of the Light of Truth. The Fool was wise from the outset, but now he can see even more clearly. The number of The Hermit card is 9, which is the last of the primary numerals and represents finality.
The Hermit card on the lemniscate corresponds to The Strength card, which is numbered 11 in pre-Rider/Colman/Waite decks. Number 11 also represents both number 1 and number 2 united: two 1s together, which unite both The Magician and The Papess who The Fool encountered at the beginning of his quest. The Strength card features a woman exercising control over the jaws of a lion, but highlighting strength of a gentler quality than that typically associated with male dominance. Again, we see the lemniscate shape in the woman’s hat brim – or above her head – similar to that featured in The Magician card. That is because the woman is a magician also.
Finally, a brief comment on the lemniscate may be useful. The lemniscate symbolises infinity. On the intersection of the lemniscate Tarot layout two cards cross each other; these are The Wheel of Fortune and The World. The imagery in both is circular in shape. The Wheel remains in constant motion, illustrating that what goes up must come down, and that which is sowed must also be reaped. The Wheel of Fortune corresponds to The World where the Fates that govern our lives spin our destinies. The number of The World card is 21, which reduces to 3, again highlighting the power of creativity. But number 4 also governs The World card, and this is reflected in the Tetramorph, which consists of four images: The Man, the Eagle, the Bull, and the Lion; four symbols mentioned in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel and which also feature in astrology. In the magical life of The Wise Fool, each of these elemental qualities of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water must be in balance to interact effectively. That is the lesson we all must learn if, like The wise and magical Fool, we are to succeed on our personal quest.