They are some of the most recognizable images in all of esoterica. Even people who have never picked up a pack of Tarot cards in the whole of their lifetimes can instantly discern the provenance of “The Hanged Man” or “The Moon.” They have been subjected to literary analysis; laid down “on the couch” of psychotherapy; immortalized in poetry and in film; and the challenges and riddles their images pose to us today are as daunting as they were when they were designed centuries ago—perhaps they’re even more daunting in a post-industrial age.
The 22 cards of the so-called Major Arcana, or Trumps Major, speak in the language of ancient symbology, and when we examine them, it is wise to attempt to imagine how the cards were originally used. As mentioned in a previous post, they could have been employed as a teaching tool for the youth of the royal court, or they could have served as an oracle to consult when momentous decisions needed to be made: Whether to sign a treaty or enter into an alliance, to marry one’s family fortune with that of another’s, or to send one’s armies off to war. The decisions we face in our lives are generally not so weighty, and while this is not to say that the Trumps Major cannot “speak” to them, it bears keeping in mind that as archetypes, they don’t speak as immediately or acutely to our everyday concerns as do the cards of the so-called minor arcana, or Trumps Minor.
Still, the Trumps Major can convey the presence of some powerful spiritual forces at work in our lives, and they can help us understand some of the mysteries—and timeless truths—that lie hidden within our psyches. Most, but not all, of these forces are beyond our conscious control, but as with any form of spiritual path-work, the power of the archetypes can be experienced and, at times, channeled through years of study, prayer and meditation. We simply need the patience and the persistence to do so.
Think of the Trumps Major as a kind of spiritual Rosetta Stone—a system of thought that brings what was once inscrutable and obscure about our inner lives into a sharper focus using some of Western man’s most durable and powerful symbols. The Trumps Major aren’t terribly concerned about whether you should look for a new job or break off a relationship in this plane of consciousness; their task is to lead you beyond this plane of consciousness, down the “royal road” of spiritual self-discovery, that you would come to know the identity of your true Self: A worker of miracles and an immortal child of the Divine. This is where the journey begins.
Reading the 22 Paths
Each of the 22 paths that connect the Sephiroth on the Tree of Life corresponds to a letter in the Hebrew alphabet and to a card from the Trumps Major. Read in sequence, they tell a story of creation, separation, tribulation, and, eventually, salvation and reunion with God. Over the years, many different “systems” have been postulated for contextualizing the cards. One of the best known, both used by Paul Foster Case and Rachel Pollack—two of history’s most perceptive Tarot scholars—takes Trump 0, The Fool, and places him “above and apart” from the other Trumps. (In a many Tarot spreads, the Fool is used as a “significator”; that is, a card that “signifies” the querent—the person who seeks advice from the cards.) The rest of the Trumps are laid out, in numerical order, in three rows of seven cards each:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
The cards are read “vertically,” that is, in a row from top to bottom. The purpose of this is to show associations and correlations between various cards in the Trumps, and to provide greater clarity. The Trumps Major contain some of our oldest archetypal images, and while we are all familiar with them visually, many of their esoteric meanings as inscrutable to us now as they were in the time of the ancients.
As an example, we will consider Trump XIII, “Death.” Above this card is Trump VI, “The Lovers,” and beneath it, Trump XX, “Judgment”.
Read in sequence, we can interpret this as follows: God creates Adam and Eve, and commands them to be fruitful and multiply. But such a commandment is also a death sentence, for as we are all born into this world, so shall we all depart it one day. But for those of us who are faithful in the Divine presence, there is no true “death,” for all are risen at the final judgment, when man shall shed his suit of flesh and bone and be reunited with the Godhead. Granted, this is not the only way this sequence can be read, but it follows a coherent narrative, and this three-row system of interpreting the Trumps Major can be helpful for those who are just getting acquainted with these images. Personally, I think that reading the cards in a linear fashion—from Trump 0, “The Fool”, to Trump XXI, “The World,” as we will do on this site in the coming weeks—works equally as well, but that is the beauty of Tarot as with Kabbala; both “systems” are flexible and elastic, never static or bound by dogma or uncritical thinking. Quite the opposite: Tarot and Kabbala challenge us at every turn to question our assumptions about life, and to re-examine every one of our beliefs and perceptions. We might just find that things we “know” to be true are only superficial representations of deeper, more profound truths; that the spiritual forces that summoned the miracle of Creation are embedded deep within our psyches, merely waiting to be summoned by us to work miracles here on earth. That is, in fact, the goal of the work.