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  • Writer's pictureAbby Brenker

The Lunatics Guide to The Major Arcana

Over the last 22 weeks, I’ve researched and created a video on the history and meaning of each Major Arcana card from the Tarot. In Tarot, the Major Arcana act as trump cards. Though I’ve spent most of my life with Tarot, it is still a struggle for me to memorize and read without using a guide book or the internet (which I think is totally fine!) But I’ve also realized that I am more called to the Major Arcana cards and meanings than the Minor Arcana.

I wanted to memorialize and collect the videos I’ve made and the research for each card here. This can act as a quick reference, a history lesson or just a reminder that there is no one way to read Tarot.

Even if you don't believe in a higher power or divine message through Tarot (something I struggle with), I love using these cards as a new lens to look at a problem or my life through. Or as discussion points when you are meeting with friends and getting deep.

Remember, you can take the Major Arcana cards out of any Tarot deck and use those for readings. There are no rules!

0 - The Fool - Despite its name, the Fool card is one of the most positive cards in the deck. It represents the start of something new. The fact that The Fool is card 0 is very purposeful. Literally everything is ahead of you, there is only potential and growth. This card is about heading into the unknown, eyes and heart open.

1 - The Magician - Major Arcana cards started out as trump cards when these decks were used as a card game. Today we discuss the Magician, the second trump card but it’s labeled as 1. Since The Fool is 0. Traditional decks depict the Magician pointing both up to the sky and down to the ground, As Above, So Below. In a similar vein to The Fool, The Magician is about starting something new. This card is giving you a not-so-gentle push forward. It’s a symbol of your potential. What are you waiting for? There is no time like the present to get started on the thing you’ve been thinking about for a while. Whether that's a new project, job, lifestyle change.

2 - The High Priestess - The High Priestess card was originally the Popess card; you can still see the remnants of her Papal Tiara in some iterations. Many believe this was in tribute to Pope Joan, though information is somewhat hazy from this time, Pope Joan reigned as Pope during the Middle Ages for a period of time.The B+J on the pillars represent pillars from the Temple of Solomon, and she holds a scroll labeled with Tora, representing divine law. The card was changed to the High Priestess card with the creation of the Rider Waite deck. In modern tarot readings, this card is associated with sacred, divine and unconscious wisdom. A prompt to access the inner knowledge you carry with you and make time for spiritual connection. Whatever that means to you. A call to trust your instincts while practicing empathy and compassion. Some also associate this card with patience and stillness. Taking the time and space you need.

3 - The Empress - Early versions of the Empress card show the figure seated on a throne, usually with a scepter and shield. Some historic versions depict her throne as winged. During the 18th century several cards were replaced in some decks, because the symbology was seen as sacreligious. During this time, some decks replaced The Empress with Juno from Roman Mythology. AE Waite added venus symbology, a star-laiden crown and placed the throne in the great outdoors. In a reading, The Empress has a strong connection with fertility, abundance, productivity, mother nature and a nurturing energy. This can translate to the growth of self, family or creativity.

4 - The Emperor - There is less to talk about when it comes to the history of this card. It hasn’t evolved too much over the years. The rams on his throne are a symbol of mars, the roman god of war. Though perhaps outdated, this card typically represents stability, a commanding energy, the breadwinner or provider. It’s a reminder to bring order to chaos w

5 - The Hierophant - This card evolved from The Pope card in playing card decks. An important reminder that tarot started as a playing card game in Italy, in the 1400s. At the time, the pope and religion would have been huge factors of life. This card held high importance. In traditional depictions, the character on the card usually has a hand raise with fingers pointed up. Similar to the Magician card, this represents the connection between Earth and heaven. Sometimes this card is called The High Priest, meant to accompany The High Priestess. This card became the hierophant in an effort to remove christian ideology from tarot. Hierophant was a priest from an ancient Greek ritual. In a reading, this card represents wisdom and learning. It can call upon the idea of mentorship or teachers as well.

6 - The Lovers - The Lovers is the 6th trump card in a tarot deck. And a card that went through a very dramatic shift. Prior to occultist involvement in tarot, this card typically depicted a couple receiving a blessing from a holy person. Directly related to the hierophant card that precedes it. However, with AE Waite, the symbology changed to show Adam and Eve in the garden of eden. In modern readings, this card usually represents connection, honest communication, vulnerability, and calling on its origins, determining the values you want to move through life with.

7 - The Chariot - The art is a reference to the tradition of military, religious and royal parades. The coat of arms you see on the chariot in the Rider Waite deck is a masonic symbol that symbolizes self control. The Chariot tells the story of an internal struggle or battle that results in discipline and victory. If you can stay focused, you will succeed. In a reading, this card typically calls to mind willpower and self control. You will notice the creatures are not attached to the chariot by ropes, they walk freely, meaning you have conquered your willpower and determination. It’s a card about action, not reflection. Move forward in control, be brave.

8 - Strength - Previously known as Fortitude, Strength goes hand in hand with two other Major Arcana cards, Justice and Temperance. Together they are known as the cardinal virtues. The imagery has changed over the years. Some earlier decks show a person breaking a pillar, others show a person taming a lion. Some cards show both. Traditionally Justice was the 8th card, but the Rider Waite deck switched their position. You will see the different numbering on the collection of cards I have here, pending the order each deck creator honors. In a reading, the meaning is similar to The Chariot, but strength is more about endurance and stamina. Knowing that you can handle whatever life throws your way.

9 - The Hermit - The lantern on this card represents trusting your own guiding light. The cloak represents blocking the outside world. In a reading, The Hermit card represents taking time to withdraw and reflect internally. Look inside yourself for the answers you seek. Sometimes The Hermit represents a cross-roads or new life direction. A reminder to check in with yourself before taking a leap.

10 - Wheel of Fortune - Originally modeled after the Goddess Fortuna’s wheel. She's the Roman goddess of fortune and luck. Throughout history, versions of this card generally show a wheel accompanied by figures. Sometimes sphinxes, sometimes other symbolic creatures. The letters sometimes shown make up the latin word for wheel. In the Rider Waite version, the egyptian god Anubis was added as well as winged creatures in the corner of the card representing the four evangelists. If you reveal this card in a tarot reading, it typically is a reminder of the constant change that surrounds us. A reminder that things will be good, but they will also inevitably be bad. Celebrate the highs and accept the lows.

11 - Justice - Like Strength and Temperance, Justice is one of the cardinal virtues. The Rider Waite deck swapped the placement of the Strength and Justice cards to better align with the zodiac signs. The scale in this card represents fairness, while the sword or weapon represents the outcome of your actions. In a reading, this card is about owning up to your actions. It’s about taking accountability and expecting a fair response from the universe. Always consider the ramifications of your actions and decisions.

12 - The Hanged Man - Though ominous visually, this card reminds us that we must release the old in order to evolve to the new. The majority of decks show the figure hanging upside down by one ankle. This was actually a common punishment in Italy during the 1500s for traitors. That being said, the card depicts self-sacrifice, not punishment. It’s about being suspended in time. There is a story from Norse Mythology about the god Odin being suspended from a tree in order to gain wisdom and knowledge, that is a great way to look at this card. Pausing in order to see more clearly. The halo around the figure’s head signifies wisdom or enlightenment.

13 - Death - The Death Card goes hand in hand with its predecessor, The Hanged Man. Implying that after a period of reflection and increased wisdom, something that is no longer serving you is ending. Despite its depiction of the Grim Reaper, this card represents changes in one’s life and an increased understanding of what you want or need. It’s one of the more positive cards in a traditional tarot deck actually.

14 - Temperance - Very often this card’s imagery shows a figure pouring liquid from one container into another. Which symbolizes diluting wine with water. This card stands for moderation, frugality, and patience. All things I struggle with. Sometimes the figure is pictured as an angel, representing a higher understanding or enlightenment.

15 - The Devil - This card represents being caught up in bad behavior or habits. Giving in to our darker side. When you get this card in a reading, it’s time to try to take a step back and look at yourself more clearly. And take more control of your life. Time to reframe your thinking.

16 - The Tower - One of my all time favorite cards. Though the imagery and meaning is intense, it’s a message we often need to hear. The early imagery we see in historic decks for the tower differs quite a bit. Sometimes we see people fleeing from a burning building, sometimes it shows a tree being struck by lightning.Some decks show the tower being struck by lightning. Overall this card typically means major change. Often destructive in nature. But this change will result in personal growth or positive change, but you need to get through it to get to the other side.

17 - The Star - Following the intensity of the tower, The Star has a more gentle message. After going through the trials and tribulations of the previous card, you are now able to focus on your inner being. It's calm after the storm. It’s about new hope.

18 - The Moon - The Moon is the 18th card in a traditional deck. In a reading The Moon typically suggests illusion. Things are perhaps not as they appear. Some readers also interpret this card as a reminder to face the hard things that we’ve endured, in order to prevent those traumas from impacting our future. It plays on illusion and deception and calls to question the root of our fears. In historic decks, the imagery typically shows a dog and wolf barking towards the moon, with rays and droplets dripping from it.

19 - The Sun - Unlike The Moon card, The Sun tarot card is overwhelmingly positive. You can see from the bright imagery why this card invokes feelings of good fortune and optimism. Just as the sun provides us with energy and life, this card represents abundance and success. Though the pairing of The Moon and The Sun reminds me that we must take the good with the bad. Life is cyclical and on any given day we can experience the full range of human emotions, ups and downs.

20 - Judgment - The second to last card in the Tarot’s major arcana is the Judgement card. You can very clearly see the ties here to Christianity. The Rider-Waite deck depicts a resurrection. The dead emerging from their watery graves. Often, in a reading this card calls to mind an awakening or re-birth. Applying your learning and life experience to unlock a higher level of spirituality or wisdom. Some readers often mention a sense of community here too. Use those around you to help support you as you take on the next journey.

21 - The World - We have come to the last card in the major arcana. The World represents a wholeness. It stands for achievement and completion. The figure is often meant to show both feminine and masculine energies. In some historic decks the figure is depicted as either Christ or Hermes. It’s a moment of triumph before the cycle restarts again with the wide-eyed wonder of The Fool card. Now is the time to reflect on where you are in life, all you have achieved and what is next.

This project has felt very transformative for me and helped me get in touch with my form of spirituality. I hope you find this post to be useful to you in some way.

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