Major Arcana

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The Major Arcana by R. Viesi is a deck of 22 cards inspired by the Tarot of Marseilles, but with the author's graphic style.

The Major Arcana is the name given by occultists to the picture cards of a 78-card tarot deck.[1] These cards which, in those decks also used for Tarot card games serve as a permanent trumps, are distinguished from the remaining cards, which are known by occultists as the Minor Arcana.[2] The terms "Major" and "Minor Arcana" are used in the occult and divinatory applications of the deck (not by card players) and originate with Jean-Baptiste Pitois, writing under the name Paul Christian.[3]

Michael Dummett writes that the Major Arcana originally had simple allegorical or exoteric meaning, mostly originating in elite ideology in the Italian courts of the 15th century when it was invented.[4] The occult significance only 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.[5] For example, Court de Gébelin argued for the Egyptian, kabbalistic, and divine significance of the tarot trumps: Etteilla created a method of divination using tarot: Eliphas Lévi worked hard to break away from the Egyptian nature of the divinatory tarot, bringing it back to the tarot de Marsailles, creating a "tortuous" kabbalastic correspondence, and even suggested that the Major Arcana represent stages of life.[3] 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.[4] Finally Sallie Nichols, a Jungian psychologist, wrote up the tarot as having deep psychological and archetypal significance, even encoding the entire process of Jungian individuation into the tarot trumps.[6] 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 to this day.

List of the Major Arcana[edit]

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. The earliest decks bore unnamed and unnumbered pictures on the Majors (probably because a great many of the people using them at the time were illiterate), and the order of cards was not standardized.[citation needed] Strength is traditionally the eleventh card and Justice the eighth, but the influential Rider-Waite-Smith deck 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.

Number Card, traditionally Card in Rider-Waite-Smith deck
None (0 or 22) The Fool The Fool
1 The Magician The Magician
2 The High Priestess The High Priestess
3 The Empress The Empress
4 The Emperor The Emperor
5 The Hierophant The Hierophant
6 The Lovers The Lovers
7 The Chariot The Chariot
8 Justice Strength
9 The Hermit The Hermit
10 Wheel of Fortune Wheel of Fortune
11 Strength Justice
12 The Hanged Man The Hanged Man
13 Death Death
14 Temperance Temperance
15 The Devil The Devil
16 The Tower The Tower
17 The Star The Star
18 The Moon The Moon
19 The Sun The Sun
20 Judgement Judgement
21 The World The World

Prior to the 17th century, the trumps were simply part of a special card deck used for gaming and gambling.[4] There may have been allegorical and cultural significance attached to them, but beyond that, the trumps originally had little mystical or magical import.[4]


By the 19th century, the tarot came to be regarded as a "bible of bibles", an esoteric repository of all the significant truths of creation.[4] 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 kabbalastic significance.[3] A contemporary of his, the Comte de Mellet, added to Court de Gébelin's claims by suggesting (attacked as being erroneous[3]) that the tarot was associated with Gypsies and was in fact the imprinted book of Hermes Trismegistus.[3] 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.[3] Éliphas Lévi revitalized the occult tarot by associating it with the mystical Kabbalah and making it a "prime ingredient in magical lore".[7] 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."[7]

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.[8]

Claims such as those initiated by early freemasons today find their way into academic discourse. Semetsky,[9] 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[10] uses the tarot to illustrate the deep wisdom of feminist theology. Santarcangeli[11] informs us of the wisdom of the fool and Nichols[6] speaks about the archetypal power of individuation boiling beneath the powerful surface of the tarot archetypes.

Fortune telling[edit]

In the popular mind, tarot is indelibly associated with divination, fortune telling, or cartomancy. Tarot was not invented as a mystical or magical tool of divination.[4] The association of the tarot with cartomantic practice is coincident with its uptake by Freemasons as a fountain of eternal, divine wisdom.[citation needed] Indeed, it was the very same people publishing esoteric commentary of the magical, mystery tarot (e.g. Antoine Court de Gébelin and the Comte de Mellet) that also published commentary on the divinatory tarot. Be that as it may, there is a distinct 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.[3][12] 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 français (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 Maniere de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées tarots[13] and the creation of a society for tarot cartomancy, the Société littéraire des associés libres des interprètes du liver de Thot. The society subsequently went on to publish Dictionnaire synonimique du Livere de Thot, a book that "systematically tabulated all the possible meanings which each card could bear, when upright and reversed."[14]

Following Ettielle, tarot cartomancy was moved forward by Marie-Anne Adelaid Lenormand (1768-1830) and others.[4] Lenormand was the most famous and was the first 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.[4] 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.[3] In 1870 Jean-Baptiste Pitois (better known as Paul Christian) wrote a book entitled Historie de la magie, du monde surnaturel et de la fatalité à travers les temps et le peuples. In that book, Christian identifies the tarot trumps as representing the "principle scenes"[dubious ] of ancient Egyptian initiatory "tests".[15] 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.[16]

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.[4] 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,[4] 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).[4] 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).[3] 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.[4] 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.[17] 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.

References in popular media[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dummett, Michael, Ronald Decker and Thierry Depaulis. A Wicked Pack of Cards, Bloomsbury (1996), p. 38
  2. ^ Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett, History of the Occult Tarot, London: Duckworth, 2002 ISBN 978-0715631225
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett. A Wicked Pack of Cards. The Origins of the Occult Tarot. New York. St. Martin's Press, 1996
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Michael Dummett. The Game of Tarot. London: Duckworth, 1980. ISBN 0715631225
  5. ^ See Divinatory, esoteric and occult tarot for a detailed history of the construction of the occult tarot.
  6. ^ a b Sallie Nichols. Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey. San Francisco: Weiser Books, 1980. ISBN 9780877285151.
  7. ^ a b Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett. A Wicked Pack of Cards. The Origins of the Occult Tarot. New York. St. Martin's Press, 1996. pp. 174
  8. ^ P. D. Ouspensky. The Symbolism of the Tarot: Philosophy of occultism in pictures and numbers. Dover Publications. 1976, pp. 12-14
  9. ^ Inna Semetsky. Re-symbolization of the Self: Human Development and Tarot Hermeneutic. (2011) Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. ISBN 9460914195
  10. ^ Christina Nicholson. How to Believe Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: Irigaray, Alicer, and Neo-Pagan Negotiation of the Otherworld. Feminist Theology, 2003. 11: 362-74.
  11. ^ Santarcangeli, Paolo (1979). The Jester and the Madman, Heralds of Liberty and Truth. Diogenes 27: 28-40.
  12. ^ There is a recent suggestion that the tarot may have been associated with divination perhaps as early at the 15th century in Bologna, but the evidence is not conclusive. See Franco Pratesi. Tarot in Bologna: Documents from the University Library. The Playing-Card, Vol. XVII, No. 4. pp. 136–146.
  13. ^ A scanned version of the original text is available
  14. ^ Michael Dummett. The Game of Tarot. London: Duckworth, 1980. pp. 110 ISBN 0715631225
  15. ^ Michael Dummett. The Game of Tarot. London: Duckworth, 1980. ISBN 0715631225
  16. ^ Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett. A Wicked Pack of Cards. The Origins of the Occult Tarot. New York. St. Martin's Press, 1996, pp. 206.
  17. ^ Michael Dummett. The Game of Tarot. London: Duckworth, 1980. pp. 127 ISBN 0715631225

External links[edit]

Media related to Major Arcana at Wikimedia Commons