Major Arcana

A fan with 22 cards, an index and their box.
The Major Arcana cards redesigned by Roberto Viesi.

The Major Arcana are the named or numbered cards in a cartomantic tarot pack, the name being originally given by occultists to the trump cards of a normal tarot pack used for playing card games. There are usually 22 such cards in a standard 78-card pack, typically numbered from 0 to 21 (in card playing packs, there is no 0, the unnumbered card is the Fool). The name is not used by tarot card game players.

Prior to the 17th century, tarot cards were solely used for playing games and the Fool and 21 trumps were simply part of a standard card pack used for gaming and gambling. There may have been allegorical and cultural significance attached to them, but beyond that, the trumps originally had no mystical or magical import. With decks designed for card games (Tarot card games), these cards serve as permanent trumps and are distinguished from the remaining cards -- the suit cards -- which are known by occultists as the Minor Arcana.

The terms "Major" and "Minor Arcana" are used in the occult, and divinatory applications of the deck as in practising Esoteric Tarot and originate with Jean-Baptiste Pitois (1811–1877), writing under the name Paul Christian.

Sir Michael Dummett writes that the Fool and trump cards originally had simple allegorical or esoteric meaning, mostly originating in elite ideology in the Italian courts of the 15th century when it was invented. The occult significance began to emerge in the 18th century when Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Swiss clergyman and Freemason, published Le Monde Primitif. The construction of the occult and divinatory significance of the tarot, and the Major and Minor Arcana, continued on from there. For example, Court de Gébelin claimed an Egyptian, kabbalistic, and divine significance of the tarot trumps; Etteilla created a method of divination using tarot; Éliphas Lévi worked to break away from the Egyptian nature of the divinatory tarot, bringing it back to the tarot de Marseilles, creating a "tortuous" kabbalastic correspondence, and even suggested that the Major Arcana represent stages of life. The Marquis Stanislas de Guaita established the Major Arcana as an initiatory sequence to be used to establish a path of spiritual ascension and evolution. In 1980 Sallie Nichols, a Jungian psychologist, wrote of the tarot as having deep psychological and archetypal significance, even encoding the entire process of Jungian individuation into the tarot trumps.

These various interpretations of the Major Arcana developed in stages, all of which continue to exert significant influence on practitioners' explanations of the Major Arcana.

List of the Major Arcana

Like the early Italian-suited packs on which they were originally based, in a cartomantic pack each Major Arcanum depicts a scene, mostly featuring a person or several people, with many symbolic elements. In many decks, each has a number (usually in Roman numerals) and a name, though not all decks have both, and some have only a picture. Every tarot deck is different and carries a different connotation with the art, however most symbolism remains the same. The earliest, pre-cartomantic, decks bore unnamed and unnumbered pictures on their trionfi or trumps (probably because a great many of the people using them at the time were illiterate), and the order of cards was not standardized. Strength is traditionally the eleventh card and Justice the eighth, but the influential Rider–Waite Tarot switched the position of these two cards in order to make them a better fit with the astrological correspondences worked out by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, under which the eighth card is associated with Leo and the eleventh with Libra.[citation needed] Today many decks use this numbering, particularly in the English-speaking world. Both placements are considered valid.[by whom?]

Number Tarot de Marseilles Court de Gébelin Rider-Waite Etteilla Paul Christian Oswald Wirth Golden Dawn Book of Thoth


0 (occultic) or unnumbered The Fool The Fool The Fool Folly The Crocodile The Fool The Fool The Fool
I The Juggler The Magician ("The Thimblerig, or Bateleur") The Magician Illness The Magus The Magician The Magician The Magus
II The Popess The High Priestess The High Priestess Etteilla / Female questioner The Gate of the Sanctuary (of the occult Sanctuary) The Priestess The High Priestess The Priestess
III The Empress The Empress ("Queen") The Empress Night / Day Isis-Urania The Empress The Empress The Empress
IV The Emperor The Emperor ("King") The Emperor Support / Protection The Cubic Stone The Emperor The Emperor The Emperor
V The Pope The Hierophant ("High Priest") The Hierophant Marriage / Union The Master of the Mysteries (of the Arcana) The Pope The Hierophant The Hierophant
VI The Lovers Marriage The Lovers (none) The Two Roads The Lover The Lovers The Lovers
VII The Chariot Osiris Triumphant The Chariot Dissension The Chariot of Osiris The Chariot The Chariot The Chariot
VIII Justice Justice Strength Justice / Jurist Themis ("The Scales and Blade") Justice Justice Adjustment
IX The Hermit The Wise Man

("The Sage" or "The Seeker of Truth and Justice")

The Hermit Traitor The Veiled Lamp The Hermit The Hermit The Hermit
X The Wheel of Fortune Wheel of Fortune Wheel of Fortune Fortune / Increase The Sphinx The Wheel of Fortune The Wheel of Fortune The Wheel of Fortune
XI Strength Fortitude


Justice Strength / Sovereign The Muzzled Lion ("The Tamed Lion") The Strength Strength Lust
XII The Hanged Man Prudence The Hanged Man Prudence / The People The Sacrifice The Hanged Man The Hanged Man The Hanged Man
XIII (Death) - unnamed Death Death Mortality / Nothingness The Skeleton Reaper ("The Reaper", "The Scythe") Death Death Death
XIV Temperance Temperance Temperance Temperance / Priest The Two Urns ("The Genius of the Sun") Temperance Temperance Art
XV The Devil Typhon The Devil Great Force Typhon The Devil The Devil The Devil
XVI The House of God The Castle of Plutus ("God-House") The Tower Misery / Prison The Beheaded Tower ("The Lightning-Struck Tower") The Tower The Blasted Tower The Tower
XVII The Star Osiris, The Dog Star ("Sirius") The Star Desolation / Air The Star of the Magi The Star The Star The Star
XVIII The Moon The Moon The Moon Comments / Water The Twilight The Moon The Moon The Moon
XIX The Sun The Sun The Sun Enlightenment / Fire The Blazing Light The Sun The Sun The Sun
XX Judgement Creation

("The Last Judgment")

Judgement Judgment The Awakening of the Dead (the Genius of the Dead) Judgment Judgement The Aeon
XXI The World The World


The World Voyage / Earth The Crown of the Magi The World The Universe The Universe


By the 19th century, the Tarot was being claimed as a "Bible of Bibles", an esoteric repository of all the significant truths of creation. The trend was started by prominent freemason and Protestant cleric Antoine Court de Gébelin who suggested that the tarot had an ancient Egyptian origin, and mystic divine and kabbalistic significance. A contemporary of his, the Comte de Mellet, added to Court de Gébelin's claims by suggesting (attacked as being erroneous) that the tarot was associated with Romani people and was in fact the imprinted book of Hermes Trismegistus. These claims were continued by Etteilla. Etteilla is primarily recognized as the founder and propagator of the divinatory tarot, but he also participated in the propagation of the occult tarot by claiming the tarot had an ancient Egyptian origin and was an account of the creation of the world and a book of eternal medicine. Éliphas Lévi revitalized the occult tarot by associating it with the mystical Kabbalah and making it a "prime ingredient in magical lore". As Decker, Depaulis, and Dummett note, "it is to him (Lévi) that we owe its (the Tarot's) widespread acceptance as a means of discovering hidden truths and as a document of the occult... Lévi's writings formed the channel through which the Western tradition of magic flowed down to modern times."

As the following quote by P. D. Ouspensky shows, the association of the tarot with Hermetic, kabbalastic, magical mysteries continued at least to the early 20th century.

The fact that we question the Tarot as to whether it be a method or a doctrine shows the limitation of our 'three dimensional mind', which is unable to rise above the world of form and contra-positions or to free itself from thesis and antithesis! Yes, the Tarot contains and expresses any doctrine to be found in our consciousness, and in this sense it has definiteness. It represents Nature in all the richness of its infinite possibilities, and there is in it as in Nature, not one but all potential meanings. And these meanings are fluent and ever-changing, so the Tarot cannot be specifically this or that, for it ever moves and yet is ever the same.

Claims such as those initiated by early freemasons today find their way into academic discourse. Semetsky, for example, explains that tarot makes it possible to mediate between humanity and the godhead, or between god/spirit/consciousness and profane human existence. Nicholson uses the tarot to illustrate the deep wisdom of feminist theology. Santarcangeli informs us of the wisdom of the fool and Nichols speaks about the archetypal power of individuation boiling beneath the powerful surface of the tarot archetypes.

Fortune telling

Now popularly associated with divination, fortune telling, or cartomancy, Tarot was not invented as a mystical or magical tool of divination. The people who published esoteric commentary of the magical, mystery tarot (e.g. Antoine Court de Gébelin and the Comte de Mellet) also published commentary on divinatory tarot. There is a line of development of the cartomantic tarot that occurs in parallel with the imposition of hermetic mysteries on the formerly mundane pack of cards, but that can usefully be distinguished. It was the Comte de Mellet who initiated this development by suggesting that ancient Egyptians had used the tarot for fortune telling and provides a method purportedly used in ancient Egypt. Following MCM, Etteilla brought the cartomantic tarot dramatically forward by inventing a method of cartomancy, assigning a divinatory meaning to each of the cards (both upright and reversed), publishing La Cartonomancie française (a book detailing the method), and creating the first tarot decks exclusively intended for cartomantic practice. Etteilla's original method was designed to work with a common pack of cards known as the piquet pack. It was not until 1783, two years after Antoine Court de Gébelin published Le Monde Primitif that he turned his cartomantic expertise to the development of a cartomantic method using the standard (i.e. Marseilles) tarot deck. His expertise was formalized with the publication of the book Manière de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées tarots and the creation of a society for tarot cartomancy, the Société littéraire des associés libres des interprètes du livre de Thot. The society subsequently went on to publish Dictionnaire synonimique du livre de Thot, a book that "systematically tabulated all the possible meanings which each card could bear, when upright and reversed."

Following Ettielle, tarot cartomancy was moved forward by Marie-Anne Adelaid Lenormand (1768–1830) and others. Lenormand was the first and most famous cartomancer to the stars, claiming to be the confidante of Empress Josephine and other local luminaries. She was so popular, and cartomancy with tarot became so well established in France following her work, that a special deck entitled the Grand Jeu de Mlle Lenormand was released in her name two years after her death. This was followed by many other specially designed cartomantic tarot decks, mostly based on Ettielle's Egyptian symbolism, but some providing other (for example biblical or medieval) flavors as well. Tarot as a cartomantic and divinatory tool is well established and new books expounding the mystical utility of the cartomantic tarot are published all the time.


By the early 18th century Masonic writers and Protestant clerics had established the tarot trumps as authoritative sources of ancient hermetic wisdom and Christian gnosis, and as revelatory tools of divine cartomantic inspiration, but they did not stop there. In 1870 Jean-Baptiste Pitois (better known as Paul Christian) wrote a book entitled Histoire de la magie, du monde surnaturel et de la fatalité à travers les temps et les peuples. In that book, Christian identifies the tarot trumps as representing the "principle scenes"[dubious ] of ancient Egyptian initiatory "tests". Christian provides an extended analysis of ancient Egyptian initiation rites that involves Pyramids, 78 steps, and the initiatory revelation of secrets. Decker, Depaulis, and Dummett write:

At one stage in the initiation procedure, Christian tells us...the postulant climbs down an iron ladder, with seventy-eight rungs, and enters a hall on either side of which are twelve statues, and, between each pair of statues, a painting. These twenty-two paintings, he is told, are Arcana or symbolic hieroglyphs; the Science of Will, the principle of all wisdom and source of all power, is contained in them. Each corresponds to a "letter of the sacred language" and to a number, and each expresses a reality of the divine world, a reality of the intellectual world and a reality of the physical world. The secret meanings of these twenty-two Arcana are then expounded to him.

Christian's attempts to give authority to his analysis by falsely attributing an account of ancient Egyptian initiation rites to Iamblichus, but it is clear that if there is any initiatory relevance to the tarot trumps it is Christian who is the source of that information. Nevertheless, Christian's fabricated history of tarot initiation are quickly reinforced with the formation of an occult journal in 1889 entitled L'Initiation, the publication of an essay by Oswald Wirth in Papus's book Le Tarot des Bohémiens that states that the tarot is nothing less than the sacred book of occult initiation, the publication of book by François-Charles Barlet entitled, not surprisingly, L'Initiation, and the publication of Le Tarot des Bohémians by Dr. Papus (a.k.a. Dr. Gérard Encausse). Subsequent to this activity the initiatory relevance of the tarot was firmly established in the minds of occult practitioners.

The emergence of the tarot as an initiatory masterpiece was coincident with, and fit perfectly into, the flowering of initiatory esoteric orders and secret brotherhoods during the middle of the 19th century. For example, Marquis Stanislas de Guaita (1861–1897) founded the Cabalistic Order of the Rosy Cross in 1888 along with several key commentators on the initiatory tarot (e.g. Dr Papus, François-Charles Barlet, and Joséphin Péladin). These orders placed great emphasis on secrets, advancing through the grades, and initiatory tests and so it is not surprising that, already having the tarot to hand, they read into the tarot initiatory significance. Doing so not only lent an air of divine, mystical, and ancient authority to their practices but allowed them to continue to expound on the magical, mystical, significance of the presumably ancient and hermetic tarot. Be that as it may the activity established the tarot's significance as a device and book of initiation not only in the minds of occult practitioners, but also (as we will see below) in the minds of new age practitioners, Jungian psychologists, and general academics.

See also


  1. ^ Christian, following Lévi, placed his "Crocodile" between Arcanum XX and Arcanum XXI.
  2. ^ Wirth typically placed his unnumbered "Fool" last, but depicted the penultimate Hebrew letter shin (ש) on the card, following Lévi's arrangement of Arcanum 0 between Arcanum XX and Arcanum XXI.
  3. ^ Some versions of Crowley's tarot include two additional variants of this arcanum with different artwork.
  4. ^ But note that Revak identifies a single card labeled "1. Etteilla/Male querent" that does not correspond to any in the Tarot de Marseille.

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