Major Arcana

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Greater Arcana)
Jump to navigation Jump to search
A fan with 22 cards, an index and their box.
The Major Arcana cards redesigned by Roberto Viesi.

In occult practices, the Major Arcana are the trump cards of a tarot pack.[1] There are usually 22 such cards in a standard 78-card pack. They are typically numbered from 0 to 21.

Prior to the 17th century, the trumps were simply part of a special card deck used for gaming and gambling.[2] There may have been allegorical and cultural significance attached to them, but beyond that, the trumps originally had little mystical or magical import.[2] When decks are used 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.[3]

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.[4]

Michael Dummett writes that the Major Arcana originally had simple allegorical or esoteric meaning, mostly originating in elite ideology in the Italian courts of the 15th century when it was invented.[2] 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.[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; 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.[4] 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.[2] In 1980 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.

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. Every tarot deck is different and carries a different connotation with the art, however most symbolism remains the same. 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.[7] 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
0 The Fool
1 The Magician
2 The High Priestess
3 The Empress
4 The Emperor
5 The Hierophant
6 The Lovers
7 The Chariot
8 Justice † or Strength
9 The Hermit
10 Wheel of Fortune
11 Strength † or Justice
12 The Hanged Man
13 Death
14 Temperance
15 The Devil
16 The Tower
17 The Star
18 The Moon
19 The Sun
20 Judgement
21 The World
In Rider–Waite tarot deck


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.[2] 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.[4] A contemporary of his, the Comte de Mellet, added to Court de Gébelin's claims by suggesting (attacked as being erroneous[4]) that the tarot was associated with Romani people and was in fact the imprinted book of Hermes Trismegistus.[4] 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.[4] Éliphas Lévi revitalized the occult tarot by associating it with the mystical Kabbalah and making it a "prime ingredient in magical lore".[8] 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."[8]

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.[9]

Claims such as those initiated by early freemasons today find their way into academic discourse. Semetsky,[10] 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[11] uses the tarot to illustrate the deep wisdom of feminist theology. Santarcangeli[12] 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]

Now popularly associated with divination, fortune telling, or cartomancy, Tarot was not invented as a mystical or magical tool of divination.[2] The association of the tarot with cartomantic practice is coincident with its uptake by Freemasons as a fountain of eternal, divine wisdom.[citation needed] 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.[4][13] 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[14] 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."[15]

Following Ettielle, tarot cartomancy was moved forward by Marie-Anne Adelaid Lenormand (1768–1830) and others.[2] 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.[2] 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.[4] 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".[16] 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.[17]

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.[2] 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,[2] 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).[2] 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).[4] 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.[2] 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.[18] 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]

  • In the 1985–1994 French-language Belle Époque period horror game Maléfices, a special 20-card Major Arcana tarot deck is used in character generation and to modify certain dice rolls.
  • In 1993 video game Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen, the Major Arcana tarot cards are acquired when you liberate towns and temples as you work move your army across the map. Those cards can then be used during battle to create various magical effects. For example, The Magician summons fire to damage your enemies, while The Emperor gives all your units an extra attack.
  • The 1995 video game Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together uses the Major Arcana as potential loot from fallen enemies, again to be used as magical effect in combat.
  • The Major Arcana tarot cards, as well as their positions and meanings, are an important part of the naming process of Stands within the world of the popular manga series JoJo's Bizarre Adventure by Hirohiko Araki. For example, the protagonist character Jotaro Kujo's Stand "Star Platinum," named after the Star Arcana. Although this criterion extends only to the third part, Stardust Crusaders, several of the Stands from Stardust Crusaders do also appear in later parts.
  • The Major Arcana tarot cards are used as names for the monstrous bio-engineered life-forms that serve as stage bosses from the light gun rail shooter franchise The House of the Dead, in every entry outside of The House of the Dead: Overkill.
  • In the Akashic Records of Bastard Magic Instructor light novel series, the 22 members of the Imperial Mage Court Corps are each given a codename named after the Major Arcana.
  • In the 2005 J.K. Rowling novel Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, the Lightning-Struck Tower card of the Major Arcana Tarot Deck is used by divination teacher Sybill Trelawney to predict the death of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore at the top of the tallest tower on the Hogwarts campus later that same night.
  • In the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise, the series of monsters known as the 'Arcana Force' are based, both in naming and symbolism, on the Major Arcana Tarot deck. The 'Prophecy' cards are also based on the Major Arcana.
  • In the Persona series of video games, the Arcana are used to represent the protagonists' "Social Links" or "Confidants," and every "Persona" recruitable is assigned to one of the Arcana.
  • The mobile app game "Granblue Fantasy" uses the Arcana as "Primal Beasts" and "Evokers" in the game mode known as "Arcarum", the player can also obtain these Primal Beasts as Summons and Evokers as Characters to put in your party.
  • All Major Arcana appear throughout the game Sayonara Wild Hearts by Swedish game developer Simogo, where the character the player controls is called the Fool, who battles against the arcana Dancing Devils, Howling Moons, Stereo Lovers, Hermit 64 and Little Death. Other Major Arcana cards appear as vehicles, weaponry, and elements of the game's plot.[19]
  • Each of the parts of the acts of Dave Malloy's Octet corresponds to one of the Major Arcana.
  • The Major Arcana are referenced in the Nix Hydra game, The Arcana: A Mystic Romance. The characters in the game each represent all the major arcana (i.e. Asra as The Magician, Nadia as The High Priestess, Julian as The Hanged Man, Portia as The Star, Muriel as The Hermit, Lucio as The Devil, etc).
  • In the sixteenth entry of the Fire Emblem series, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the Major Arcana show many similarities with the Crests, which are items that grant special powers and abilities to its bearers. (i.e. the Crest of Ernest as The Fool, the Crest of Macuil as The Magician, until the Crest of Flames as The World). It can also be seen in-game by the order of placements the Dragon Signs are in when purchasing them.
  • In The Legend of Heroes series of video games, the Enforcers of the organization Ouroboros are assigned numbers, which correlates to the Major Arcana in a tarot deck.
  • The figure on the cover art for Blue Öyster Cult's 1976 album Agents of Fortune is holding the Major Arcana cards Death, The Empress, The Emperor, and The Sun
  • In the dungeon-crawler game Hand of Fate 2 the different adventures that the player must complete are named after the 22 tarots of the major arcana, just like the previous entry of the series which revolved around 13 adventures named after the King, Queen, and Knight of each suit and the Jolly Joker.
  • In Adventure Time, during the Season 7 miniseries Stakes, several of the vampire antagonists are named after Major Arcana cards (The Fool, The Empress, The Hierophant, The Moon, and the Vampire King, who is thought to represent the Wheel of Fortune).
  • Major Arcana cards appear as collectibles in the video game Cyberpunk 2077.
  • In The Binding of Isaac and its remake, the Major Arcana cards are consumables, each with a different effect.
  • In Toaru Majutsu no Index, Tarot cards are used as the basis for certain forms of Magic, in particular that of Golden-style Magic.
  • In Azur Lane a certain type of Sirens, known as Arbiters, are named after Tarot Major Arcana cards.
  • The Symphogear franchise references the Major Arcana in some fairly obscure ways. The character of Elfnein from the third season of the anime, Symphogear G, is named in reference to the idea of the character Carol throwing away her sense of justice; "elf" translating to "eleven" in reference to that being the number of the Justice Arcana. Additionally the subtitle for fifth and final season of the anime, Symphogear XV, serves as a reference to The Devil Arcana, reflecting the main antagonist for that season.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dummett, Michael, Ronald Decker and Thierry Depaulis. A Wicked Pack of Cards, Bloomsbury (1996), p. 38
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Michael Dummett. The Game of Tarot. London: Duckworth, 1980. ISBN 0715631225
  3. ^ Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett, History of the Occult Tarot, London: Duckworth, 2002 ISBN 978-0715631225
  4. ^ 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
  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. ^ hamiltonparker (2012-06-15). "Getting Started with Reading the Tarot Cards for Yourself". Craig & Jane. Retrieved 2019-04-10.
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ P. D. Ouspensky. The Symbolism of the Tarot: Philosophy of occultism in pictures and numbers. Dover Publications. 1976, pp. 12–14
  10. ^ Inna Semetsky. Re-symbolization of the Self: Human Development and Tarot Hermeneutic. (2011) Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. ISBN 9460914195
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Santarcangeli, Paolo (1979). The Jester and the Madman, Heralds of Liberty and Truth. Diogenes 27: 28-40.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ A scanned version of the original text is available
  15. ^ Michael Dummett. The Game of Tarot. London: Duckworth, 1980. pp. 110 ISBN 0715631225
  16. ^ Michael Dummett. The Game of Tarot. London: Duckworth, 1980. ISBN 0715631225
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Michael Dummett. The Game of Tarot. London: Duckworth, 1980. pp. 127 ISBN 0715631225
  19. ^ Angie. "Sayonara Wild Hearts Analysis – Use of Tarot in Game Design and Narrative". Backlog Crusader. Retrieved 2020-03-07.

External links[edit]

Media related to Major Arcana at Wikimedia Commons