Major Arcana – the fifth suit

The Fool from Tarot of the Magical Forest

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. Read more

The Four Suits – The Four Elements

From Way of the Panda Tarot

Here’s a bit of context for some of the terms you’ll see in a lot of discussions about individual cards: Minor Arcana, suits, and elements.

From Way of the Panda Tarot

The Minor Arcana make up 56 of the 78 cards in a tarot deck.

In the tarot, once you get past the first 22 cards (these are called the Major Arcana and numbered 0 -21), you find a pattern of Ace – 10, + page, knight, queen, king, that repeats through four suits: wands, cups, swords, and pentacles.

If you know your standard poker deck you can see the family resemblance:

  • Wands correspond to clubs
  • Cups correspond to hearts
  • Swords correspond to spades
  • Pentacles correspond to diamonds

Together these four sets are called the Minor Arcana.

The cards of the Minor Arcana bring a tight focus down to a specific area (element) of life, and provide a context or mirror in that moment.

Each of the tarot suits also aligns with one of the four “original” elements, taking on and portraying variations on its characteristics.

  • Wands aligns with Fire: energy, identity, creativity, charisma, will-power, flashy power, impulsivity, passion
  • Cups aligns with Water: intuition, the unconscious, relationships, emotion, adaptability, healing, cleansing
  • Swords aligns with Air: communication, clarity, logic, knowledge, change, force, quiet power, speed, coldness
  • Pentacles aligns with Earth: the body, the home, material wealth, steadiness, depth, slowness, property, warmth

If you can remember that cups correspond to hearts, and the pentacles to diamonds, that might be a helpful reminder of what their suits are tied to.

Traditionally, the minors are different from the Major Arcana because the minors refer to elements of our life that are more or less under our control.

From Way of the Panda Tarot
  • Are you going to go to that party tonight? (3 of cups)
  • How am I going to occupy myself while my investment does its thing out in the world? (3 of wands)
  • What am I willing to invest in my learning? (3 of pentacles)
  • Will I recognize this heartbreak? (3 of swords)
From Way of the Panda Tarot

These can be significant parts of our lives, affecting our futures, but they are the times of choices or actions we more or less understand the shape of.

The Major Arcana, in contrast, feels like much larger forces at work. They represent settings, unexamined tendencies, and things we didn’t see coming – or couldn’t do much about if we did.

  • Life-challenges: What is our capacity to accept (XII The Hanged One) or live in the in-between, always adjusting (XIV Temperance)
  • Personality: how we handle alonenness or responsibility (IX The Hermit, IV The Emperor)
  • Does anyone know exactly what makes us fall in love? (VI The Lovers)

Not everyone reads such big differences between the two sets, but this is the most common teaching.

Smaller or equal to the Majors, the core thing to keep in mind when it comes to understanding the minors is their specific focus, strongly informed by the element of their suit.

Using Music as a Tarot Study Tool – A New Series. (Suggestions for a cool name accepted.)

One of the ways I explain tarot to the curious (or nervous) is to describe it as a picture book for grown-ups.

That the whole of the human condition is covered in this deck of cards. Which is why I say it’s not any more wicked than the average person you meet on the street.

From The Lightseer’s Tarot

The response to this, of course, depends rather entirely on one’s view of humanity, but at least it offers a shift in focus from a particular fear of the cards themselves.

Between 2006 and 2017 I worked on 5-8 novels (self-published one). When my mind was in Story-Mode, everything connected to what I was working on: plot, description, emotional journey – some part lined up with whatever songs I was listening to. This led to my compiling multiple playlists on YouTube – sometimes by novel, sometimes by character.

Recently I began toying again with those loose threads of story, and the songs still resonated – both as part of my history, and in the ways they’d connected to each novel or character situation.

I started to test my own claim: if all of life is covered by the cards (and songs are one of the most potent expressions of experience), I should be able to line up these resonant songs with individual cards.

This led to one of the richest study sessions (seasons?) I’ve had since I first learned the cards almost five years ago. Some topics proved too big to wrestle down to a single card (which totally makes sense), but a remarkable number could line up with various elements in a card, and I ended up making a deck’s worth of connections.

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Since I most-recently did a post giving examples of the visual differences between decks’ interpretations of the 2 of wands, that’s the card I wanted to use as my opening example.

That said, every card has shades of meaning, and every reader latches onto the core personality of the card as it resonates to them, so if you disagree, and have a different (or additional) song that jumps to mind for the 2 of wands, I hope you say so! I’d love to hear your angle in the comments and hope you include a link to the song that connects for you.

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As I said in the last post, “All the figures – human or otherwise – invite the viewer to identify with their place in the scene, and that identification is part of the method of interpretation.” This is true of the songs as well, though in some cases (I’ll make it clear as we go) the words might be aimed at the main figure. That is, a sort of reacting to them rather than representing them directly.

But we’ll get there a different day.

The first song that made me think of the 2 of wands is this one. [I Can Go the Distance, sung by Roger Bart.]

This example has the bonus of already being part of a narrative, so if you know the story you might make your own connections.

In this song (and story beat) you have insecurity and the unknown alongside optimism and hope or expectation. This is a terrific angle on the 2 of wands.

In fact one way to frame or interpret the 2 of wands (especially since it’s right at the beginning of the wands suit, which tells its own tiny story within the deck), is as the time when someone decides what they want. The world is wide open, and they can DO it. Whatever it is. Read more