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Major Arcana. Wisdom of the Tarot

Through its long history the Major Arcana has attracted a great many interpretations. Today, we tend to look upon the trumps as a psychological process, one that shows us passing through different stages of existence to reach a state of full development; we can describe this state, for the moment, as unity with the world around us, or perhaps liberation from weakness, confusion, and fear. The full Arcana describes this process in detail, but to get an understanding of it as a whole we need look at only four cards; four basic archetypes arranged in a graphic pattern of evolution and spiritual awareness.

If you have your own deck of Rider Pack Tarot cards remove the Fool, the Magician, the High Priestess, and the World, and place them in the diamond pattern shown overleaf. Look at them for a while. Notice that while both the Fool and the World show dancing, joyful figures, the Magician and the High Priestess are stationary and unmoving in their positions. If you glance through the rest of the Major Arcana you will notice that all the trumps but 0 and 21 are drawn as if staged for a still photograph, rather than say, a motion picture. They present themselves as fixed states of existence.

But there is a difference between the two dancers. The Fool rushes forward richly clothed; the figure in the World is naked. The Fool looks about to leap into the lower world from some high distant country; the World paradoxically appears outside the material universe, the Dancer suspended in a magical wreath of victory.

Note also the numbers of the four cards. 0 is not strictly a number at all, rather it represents the absence of any specific number, and therefore we can say that it contains all numbers within itself. It symbolizes infinite potentiality. All things remain possible because no definite form has been taken. 1 and 2 are the first genuine numbers, the first reality; again, a fixed state. They form the archetypes ‘odd’ and ‘even’, and therefore represent all opposites, male and female, light and dark, passive and active, etc. But 21 combines these two numbers in one figure.

Look at their postures. The Magician raises a magic wand to heaven. Besides the ideas of spirit and unity, the phallic wand symbolizes maleness. The High Priestess sits between two pillars, a vaginal symbol as well as a symbol of duality. These two pillars appear again and again in the Major Arcana, in such obvious places as the temple in the Hierophant, and in more subtle ways, like the two lovers on card 6, or the two sphinxes harnessed to the Chariot. But now look at the World. The dancer, a female figure (though some decks represent her as a hermaphrodite) carries two magic wands, one in each hand. The male and female are unified, and more, their separate qualities are subordinated to the higher freedom and joy shone in the light way the dancer holds these powerful symbols.

Clearly, then, while the horizontal line, the Magician and the High Priestess, shows a duality of opposites, the vertical line, 0 and 21, shows a unity, the Fool being some sort of perfect state before duality, and the World giving us a glimpse of the exhilarating sense of freedom possible if only we can reconcile the opposites buried in our psyches.