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 easilyaccessible 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 →
My first set of cards to contrast are The Lovers and the 2 of cups.
Each of these cards portrays a happy pairing, and is generally considered a fortuitous card to show up in most readings.
After seeing how long this discussion can get, I’ve decided to start with a comparison between images of each individual card before I move on to the contrasts between two or more cards. (While this will make for a long series, I think it will make the most useful reference in the long-run.)
The Lovers, like most cards in a tarot deck, has a range of interpretations.
It can mean love, union, intense attraction, finding value, making connections (interestingly, not always lasting connections).
It represents truth, value, opposites meeting (Consider, below, the gold crown and the flower crown, both removed from the lovers’ heads in the Shadowscapes image. Or the metal lamps-post opposite the flowering tree in the Steampunk image).
It can represent hope.
It can also be interpreted as a choice-card. In older decks the third figure was sometimes a second woman, presenting the implied duality of life-choices (often with racist undertones) that the man had to choose between.
Even with current imagery you can see the choice if you look at the pairings as a meeting – sometimes with attachment, but not necessarily a commitment – one of the differences I see between this card and the 2 of cups. In this context a choice – whether to stay or leave – is still on the table.
In most decks you have a very obvious couple, usually male-female, and often there is a third (or more) someone looking on. Perhaps witnessing or blessing the union.
As more relationship structures and the spectrum of gender identities are acknowledged, artists have responded in different ways. For example, slightly obscuring, or allowing a question of one party’s gender. There are also the animal depictions which leave more up to the readers’ interpretations.
Sometimes the picture of the Lovers offer a twist on the traditional imagery: An interracial couple, or an active (if formal/scripted) partnership, rather than a static portrait.
Then there are the broader interpretations of artists who emphasize the first-love, core essence of the Lovers card, as seeing/accepting the self (Mermaid Tarot) and/or making room for multiple and different combinations of partners (Numinous Tarot).
All these create visual commentary as they invite us to consider – or expand – our vision of what we consider love, or value in a relationship.
Next time I’ll lay out the images for 2 of cups and we’ll start to see the overlap in art and interpretation.