These are the archetypal and original storytelling cards of the tarot.
The oldest majors have people (or humanoid) forms, even if the rest of the deck – the minors – look like the playing cards they correlate to (a repetition of the number of items listed on the card).
These 22 cards, numbered 0-21, are among the most iconic images of the tarot, including the Fool, the Magician, the Devil, the Tower and the Moon.
The Major Arcana (majors) are to the Minor Arcana (minors) as a lion is to a lynx. They both hold power, but the former are bigger and have more (cultural, story-based) associations. particularly in the Western world (starting in Europe) where they were developed.
Side note (credit to The Queer Witch Podcast where this math was first pointed out for me): Our “modern” deck did not devolve from the tarot – losing a face card and the majors along the way. A couple easily accessible sources point out where playing cards entered the historical record, and it was long before the tarot.
It’s one useful reason to call the majors the 5th suit, because its a reminder of the order.
Also, considering the early tarot examples are all European, and cards were imported before that could happen… It was an example of my own short-sightedness that I rolled with the first stories I heard about tarot coming first.
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The majors, like the minors, are usually taught in a specific order: 0-21.
For the minors it’s often Ace-King, in the order Wands, Cups, Swords, then Pentacles. For the majors… I’ll just list them here because I can.
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. Strength (in some decks this swaps with #11, but we’ll talk about that on another day.)
9. The Hermit
10. Wheel of Fortune
12. The Hanged One
15. The Devil
16. The Tower
17. The Star
18. The Moon
19. The Sun
21. The World
The cards 1-21 are sometimes taught as a journey the Fool (card 0) takes “through the arcana” (so if that idea appeals to you it should be easy to find). Basically you tell yourself a story of all the characters or events the Fool encounters, and it can be a sort of memory tool some learners find useful.
For me, that mnemonic always gets tedious or awkward when I try to read (or write) it, and I finally figured out why: it’s too linear. It assumes only one thing is happening at a time, and while I can understand the learning advantages of that approach (in theory), the artificial simplicity of it has made it hard to apply.
Some people “read tarot” with only these 22 cards, and since most spreads consist of more than one card, it made more sense to me to think intersectionally than linearly.
A concept that grew from the conversations about intersectionality (a word coined in 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw) which reminds debating people that more than one form of oppression can exist at a time, and these intersect creating unique combinations and experiences that cannot be known by those outside the intersection.
Examples include gender, race, sexuality, disability and poverty. The point is that different combinations of these experiences create very different lives and needs. When we forget about intersections of oppression, we can miss how very different existing needs can be.
When different Major Arcana cards are combined, the messages are increasingly complex. Perhaps the Fool, making their way down the road, will learn something new with each stop. Or maybe they will be so caught up in their own moment and discovery (one meaning of the Fool) that they will be impervious to the wisdom that surrounds them on their way.
Or perhaps the Fool will be faced by the High Priestess on one side and the Chariot on the other. Both are “good” cards, in conventional wisdom, but they’re not teaching the same message. I believe it’s in reconciling those differences that their (combined) wisdom is conveyed.
Now, I chose these cards at random – but as soon as they’re in front of me like this, I can see a story emerging. This particular fool is “looking” at the HP, and the impression I get is of an individual who is choosing the undefined and the unknown over the unruly reality of of wheels-on-the-road action.
This is not necessarily an indictment, but it would be something to consider in a situation while you think about what you want your priorities to be.
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For now, you know enough to move on if you understand the majors are their own category. They can be grouped in different ways (numerologically, developmentally, and more way that we might get into in the future), but that is a separate level from where we are at now.
Like every card in the tarot, each of the majors can have multiple meanings and associations, but at the most basic level, it’s enough to know that they are their own category within the tarot.