the major arcana

Traditional tarot decks contain 78 cards and are divided into two parts, or Arcana (from the Latin for “secret”): the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. 

 

The twenty-two Major Arcana cards represent life’s larger spiritual lessons, in the form of a structure called The Fool’s Journey. These lessons start with the 0 card, the card before the process begins: our own selves. In traditional tarot decks this card is called The Fool; he’s often pictured in the midst of a journey, with a cliff edge in front of him, but he’s looking around and doesn’t see he’s about to walk off the cliff. The remaining twenty-one cards in this Arcana represent our journey through our spiritual development, from “blank slate” to the full extent of human existence. Major Arcana cards are usually numbered with Roman numerals, to distinguish them from the Minor Arcana and to show their larger importance. 

 

Many tarot users divide up this journey into three stages of seven cards each. The first stage illustrates our process of learning how to be human beings – who we are and how we interact with others:

  • I = The Magician: discovering and navigating our personal power

  • II = The High Priestess: discovering and using our intuition

  • III = The Empress: discovering nature, physical sensations, nurturing

  • IV = The Emperor: discovering structure, authority and rules

  • V = The Hierophant: discovering belief systems, conforming to societal rules

  • VI = The Lovers: discovering relationship and connection

  • VII = The Chariot: discovering willpower and assertive movement

 

The middle stage of traditional tarot portrays our process of learning how to function and navigate in the world – how to face ethical dilemmas, how to decide what to believe:

  • VIII = Strength: developing courage and resolve

  • IX = The Hermit: developing curiosity, introspection and solitude

  • X = Wheel of Fortune: developing the idea of destiny and turning points

  • XI = Justice: developing the idea of cause and effect and personal responsibility

  • XII = The Hanged Man: developing the idea of surrender, impermanence and letting go

  • XIII = Death: developing the idea of endings, transitions and change

  • XIV = Temperance: developing the idea of balance and moderation

 

The last stage describes our process of connecting to the larger world and beyond – how we find purpose, how we make meaning:

  • XV = The Devil: acknowledging bondage and addiction

  • XVI = The Tower: acknowledging sudden change and shake-up

  • XVII = The Star: acknowledging radiant hope and inspiration

  • XVIII = The Moon: acknowledging illusions and fears

  • XIX = The Sun: acknowledging vitality and clarity

  • XX = Judgment: acknowledging absolution and vocation

  • XXI = The World: acknowledging fulfillment and wholeness

 

The images on all tarot cards symbolize and represent the cards’ meanings. Images can range from very simple to very complex, but they are all meant to evoke both the meaning of the card, and also to elicit a personal response from the user. When Major Arcana cards appear in a spread, they signify that larger life issues are in play and we might want to consider where we stand, and whether change is afoot.