Magenta takes us on a journey delving deep into the roots and history of the Major Arcana, delivering a comprehensive and informative approach to unlocking the secrets of the majors.
The Majors are very strong, powerful cards and in a reading denote major happenings and events. With frightening names like the Devil, Hanged Man and Death, these cards are in some way responsible for the superstitions and mystery surrounding the Tarot.
Until 1911 when the Rider Waite deck was published, the main deck in use was the Tarot de Marseilles. This was based on the earlier Visconti deck which had Major cards as pictures and Minor cards as symbols and had remained unchanged since it first appeared in the late 15th century.
Dr Waite’s deck was revolutionary as it showed all 78 cards in pictorial form. He changed the sequence of the Majors slightly, placing The Fool now numbered zero before card 1. It had been previously placed between cards 20 and 21.
Dr Waite and the Order of the Golden Dawn did much research into the Tarot’s correspondences with other divinatory systems like Astrology and the Qabala. He swapped Strength Card 11 and corresponding to Leo and Justice Card 8 corresponding to Libra. Most modern decks now use this placement of Strength now Card 8 and Justice now Card 11.
Aleister Crowley’s own deck, named the Thoth deck after the Egyptian God of writing and magic was designed using symbols from Egyptian, Greek, Hebrew, Medieval and Christian traditions. He also changed some of the names of the Majors too, for instance Card 14 Temperance is known as Art and Card 8 Strength is known as Lust.
The Major Arcana is the heart of the Tarot. A whole range of human life and experience is represented by the cards and they are symbolic of physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual aspects of mankind. Carl Jung said that in life there were various archetypes that a personality encounters during his or her life, either in others or as aspects of their own personality. A list of 22 archetypes of Jungs ties up very nicely with the 22 cards of the Major Arcana. For example and obvious archetypal figure of a warm nurturing mother relates to the Empress.
Rachel Pollack, American author and Tarot expert, wrote two very good books called the 78 Degrees of Wisdom, Part 1 and 2. On the cover of the Part 1, Majors book, published in 1980 it states “The Tarot is a perennially fascinating set of strange and beautiful pictures. But beyond this is a world of potent symbols, a path to self-knowledge, personal growth and freedom.” So many students I teach often say they have been drawn to the Tarot by the pictures and images on the cards. The theme of Rachel’s book is a psychological approach to the Tarot, examining all aspects of the cards – their origins, symbolism and their historical, mythological and esoteric background.
The influence of numbers in the Tarot and in relation to the Majors in particular, yields some interesting information.
Looking briefly at the Jewish Qabalah which dwells very deeply on the symbolism of the Hebrew alphabet, which in turn is connected to the Tree of Life, contains 22 letters. God’s unpronounceable name, YHVH has 4 letters and the Qabalah also looks deeply into these four letters. There are four worlds of creation, the four basic elements, four stages of existence and also in the Tarot we have four suits and four court cards. The Qabalah also works with the number ten – the ten commandments, ten sephiroth on the Tree of Life and of course in the Tarot there are ten Minors or Pip cards in each suit.
It is little wonder then that so many in the past have made connections between the Qabalah and the Tarot, yet in all the thousands of pages of Qabalistic literature, there is no mention of the Tarot!
Looking further into the numbers of the Majors, if you assume that 0 The Fool is not a number, this gives you 21 cards which can be divided into 3 rows of 7.
The number 7 also has many associations – 7 planets of classical astrology, seven pillars of wisdom, seven openings in the human head, seven main chakras and of course 7 days of the week. The Greek letter “pi” stands for the ration that exists in all circles between the circumference and the diameter.
No matter how large or small the circle, the two will always work out to the same fraction, 22/7 – 21 cards divided by 3, plus 0 The Fool. There are other mathematical anomalies within the Tarot, but I am not much of a mathematician to explain them!
A little bit of practical work:
Lay out the 21 Majors in 3 rows of 7, starting with The Magician Card 1 top left. The division of three shows the Majors as dealing with three distinct areas of life experience. The first line concentrates on love, social authority, education and the main concerns of society; the consciousness or the outer concerns of life in society.
The second line concentrates on an inward journey into self awareness, followed by a symbolic death and rebirth of discovery when the illusions of ego and rigid habits of the past are allowed to die away; the subconscious or inward search to find who we are.
The third line concentrates on the confrontation and finally a unity, with the great forces of life itself; super- conscious or the development of spiritual awareness and development.
Looking at the three lines, you will notice many similarities between vertical lines of cards. As a point of interest, as decks pre Rider Waite had Card 8 Strength and Card 11 Justice the other way round, change these two over for a moment. You will immediately see that The Magican, Justice and The Devil all have the same arm positions.
The middle line is the balance between the two lines and contain either in visual form or essence, something from each card above and below it.
Now we have rather neglected the Fool so far in this article, so let’s now turn to this card. As stated before, 0 is not classed as a number. It is the start and finish of number sequences, think of a count-down at NASA for example.
In the Rider Waite deck, the Fool is usually placed at the beginning of the Majors, but in other decks, he appears at the end or in between Judgement and the World. Now if you compare the Fool and The World, you will see that both figures appear to be moving and actually have similar poses. All other cards show static figures. The Fool tends to be beginnings, where as the World tends to be endings, but as we all know life is a continual round of endings and beginnings. The Fool has been given 0 as he does not belong in any specific place; he is not fixed like the other cards. Anything is possible if you are ready to take the plunge and every moment is a new starting point. Interestingly, in Arabic numerals, zero is in the shape of an egg, meaning that all things emerge from it. The Fool/World relationship could be described as a ‘chicken and egg’ situation, which came first?
Looking briefly at the World, the other card with a dancing figure, the four animals in each corner are traditionally associated with the four signs of the zodiac, Aquarius, Leo, Taurus and Scorpio. They are also associated with the four elements of Air, Fire, Earth and Water. Some writers on the Tarot also have associated the animals with the four Evangelists of Matthew, Mark, John and Luke and many early religious icons of these Saints show four winged animals. It also brings to mind the 1967 hymn written by Sidney Carter, ‘Lord of the Dance’.
One theory of the origins of the Major Arcana is that itwas a pictorial image of Venetian society during the Middle ages. Like most countries at the time, society was split into 3 groups, the clergy, the nobility and the peasants and we have the Hierophant (Pope), the Emperor and the Hermit. There are also 3 out of the 4 Virtues; Strength, Temperance and Judgement. Death would have been well known at this time as the Black Death around 1350 affected Italy very badly. Interest in astronomy and science was also growing – think of Leonardo da Vinci, so we have the Star, the Moon and the Sun. There are also moral lessons too – the Lovers, the Devil and the Tower (originally called the Lightening Struck Tower or the Tower of God), Temperance and Strength (originally called Fortitude.) and of religious scenes such as Judgement, (originally called The Last Judgement).
Around the middle of the 15 th century an artist called Bonifacio Bembo painted a set of 22 cards for the Visconti family of Milan. Called Triumphs these cards show images that can be interpreted as a catalogue of these medieval social types and common morals. There is also a theory that they were pictures of the Duke of Milan’s ancestors – La Papess or female Pope for instance as the Visconti family did have a female pope in their ancestry. It was also possible that the paintings were a wedding present from the Duke to his daughter Bianca.
However, one card that does not fit in with this theory is the Hanged Man. Certainly in medieval Milan there would have been hangings, but this card does not appear to have any of the gore that a hanging would have had. The card shows a young man hanging upside down by his left leg from a simple wooden frame, hands held casually behind his back. His right leg is bent behind to form a cross and his face seems quite relaxed. Early cards show coins falling from his pockets perhaps suggesting a lack of interest in material things. Christian tradition says that St Peter was crucified upside down so that he could not be said to have been copying his Lord, so this would come under the description of a religious card.
One theory which does seem to fit better is the story of the Norse God Odin who hung for nine days and nights, upside down from the World Tree. This was not a punishment, but was done to receive enlightenment. The signs of the Runes apparently came to him whilst he was hanging. In many other nature based cultures, particularly in North America and Africa, many shamans and medicine men and women initiates often spent much time suspended to receive visions and enlightenment.
Deprivation, such as starvation, pain or cold will often induce radiant visions. Native American Plains tribes had a ceremony called the Sun Dance where initiates were suspended from buffalo hide thongs attached to sharp bones inserted into the chest muscles. Suspended for many hours, the initiates went into a trance caused by the pain and during this trance they would meet their totem (or guide) animal. Also, think of the image that Yoga originally had when it first came to the West, that of the image of the Yogi standing on his head, obtaining enlightenment.
So did Bembo know of the myth of Odin? I’m not sure that 15th century Milan would not have known an awful lot about 6th century Norse mythology. What we do know is that Bembo painted these images, whether consciously or from some deep instinct.
Not having any detailed explanations for the original ideas and designs the images themselves, changed and elaborated over the years by different artists, continue to fascinate us. They draw us into their mysterious world which can never be explained, only experienced. I am sure that that debate about the Tarot’s origins and purpose will continue for many years to come.