One part of the Tarot Reading is the interplay between the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The Minor Arcana are the most familiar part of a Tarot deck for any novice as they are the origin of the standard 52 card playing deck. The Major Arcana are the archetypal part of the deck. The interplay between these two parts of the deck are where the art of the reading is found. The Minor Arcana is pretty much the same throughout the different decks, but each deck does have its own focus. For example I prefer to use the Herbal Tarot and each card has a specific herb assigned to it. The uses of that herb will be connected to the meaning of the card and it’s position in the reading adding a tertiary layer of interpretation. This differs from the Rider-Waite deck in that there are different symbols drawn into the cards images that express the opinion of its artist. Again- I’m a big fan of intuitive reading, so take all definitions and meanings as you will 😀
Here is a wonderful synopsis of the Major Arcana’s symbolism from http://www.schuelers.com/chaos/chaos7.htm. There is also a wonderful section about the history of Tarot and the interplay with Carl Jung’s theory of Analytical Psychology.
The primary symbolism within the major arcana is as follows:
1. The Fool. The Marseilles deck shows the fool as a court jester holding a baton and standing near a cliff. This symbolism suggests silliness, but perhaps a deliberate silliness. The popular Waite deck is more complex. It shows a young wanderer holding a rose and a walking stick, to which a bag is tied, walking off a cliff. A dog romps at his side. This suggests a happy and carefree attitude that could be dangerous. The Golden Dawn deck shows a naked child holding the reins of a wolf while plucking fruit from a tree. This symbolism suggests that the fool is innocence, and that pure innocence can check animal passions while surviving quite nicely on what nature provides. In the Deck of Thoth, the fool is shown in a green suit and gold shoes. A crystal is between his horns, and he is falling. He holds A Wand in his right hand (power) and a flaming pine cone in his left hand (purity). The card shows a tiger, a dove, a vulture, a butterfly, a rainbow, children, flowers, grapes, a crocodile, and ivy. This card portrays Jung’s archetype of the divine child such as the infant Christ. The imagery also suggests the archetypal eternal youth or Peter Pan. Nichols (1984) calls the symbolism of the fool, the archetypal wanderer.
2. The Juggler or Magus. This is the Magician, the divine Messenger, Mercury, Hermes, and Thoth. The Marseilles deck shows a parlor magician going through a magic act of some kind with various `tools of the trade’ on a table. This is the popular view of the magician — one who does sleight of hand, and who employs gimmickery. The Waite and Golden Dawn decks are more sophisticated. They both show a magician in robes, with his four traditional weapons: a sword, a wand, a cup, and a pentacle. The Thoth deck shows him with a naked golden body, smiling, with winged feet standing in front of a large caduceus. In his right hand he hold a style and in his left hand, a papyrus. The card shows a monkey, swords, cup, wand, and pentacle. This card represents the will. The imagery portrays the archetype of the magician as described by Moore and Gillette (1993). It also suggests the archetype of the trickster.
3. The High Priestess. This is usually the goddess Isis or Artemis, the huntress. The Marseilles deck shows the goddess Junon (Juno), wife of the god Jupiter and a peacock. The symbols here are lunar and suggest a lunar vision (for example, the intuition as opposed to common sense). In the Thoth deck, she is shown naked, clothed only in a white Veil of Light, and seated on a throne. Her bow rests in her lap. Also shown are arrows, four crystals, a net (symbolic of the Egyptian goddess, Neith), a camel, flowers, and fruit. This card represents the intuition and the imagery suggests the archetypes of the unconscious in a general sense and the anima in a specific sense. Nichols (1984) calls the symbolism in this card, the archetype of the virgin.
4. The Empress. Most all decks agree that this card is symbolized by a mature woman wearing a crown and seated on a throne. This suggests the feminine side of the psyche or any strong feminine authority. She is the ultimate feminine creator and provider. In the Thoth deck she is shown clothed in a pink blouse, a long green skirt, a Zodiac belt, and a gold crown. She sits on a lunar throne holding a lotus in her right hand. Beneath her is a tapestry with fleurs-de-lys and fishes. Also shown are birds, bees, a shield, showing a white eagle, a mother pelican with her young, and revolving moons. Behind her is a door. This card represents nature. The imagery suggests Jung’s archetype of the mother.
5. The Emperor. Most all decks agree that this card is symbolized by a mature man wearing a crown and seated on a throne. This suggests the masculine side of the psyche or any strong masculine authority. He is the ultimate masculine creator and provider. In the Thoth deck, he sits on a throne with right leg crossed over left. His arms and head form an upright triangle, while his legs form a cross. He holds a scepter (power) in his left hand and an orb, with a Maltese cross, in his right hand. The main color is red. The card shows a ram, a shield with a two-headed eagle, a flag, a lamb, coins, and bees on his blouse. The imagery of this card suggests Jung’s archetype of the father as well as the hero.
6. The Hierophant. Like the Emperor, this card is usually shown as a mature man wearing a crown and seated on a throne. The Marseilles deck shows the god Jupiter. Some decks show this as the Pope or some other religious leader which clearly distinguishes the difference between the Hierophant and the Emperor; the former is religious while the latter is civil or social. In the Thoth deck, he is shown fully clothed sitting on a throne holding a wand with three circles. A priestess is shown standing before him together with a child dancing within a pentagram within a hexagram. Also shown is a five-petalled rose encircled by a snake, elephants, a bird, and the four fixed signs of the Zodiac. Nine nails are shown at the top. This card represents the conscience. The imagery suggests the archetype of the religious teacher or Christ. It also suggests the archetype of the king as described by Moore and Gillette (1990/1991). Nichols (1984) says that this card, as well as that of the Hermit, represent Jung’s archetype of the wise old man.
7. The Lovers, or Twins, or Brothers. The Marseilles deck shows Cupid about to shoot one of his famous arrows into a young couple. All decks show a man and woman together, and the general theme is love. This card suggests the union of opposites, especially masculinity and femininity, anima and animus. Cupid is the symbol of romance, but one that is usually governed more by emotions than by rational thought. The Thoth deck shows the union of male/Leo/fire with female/Scorpio/water represented by a king and queen as well as a white child and a black child. The Hermit is shown blessing the couples. Cupid is shown symbolizing blind love. Also shown is a cup, a sword, an Orphic egg with snake, an eagle, a lion, Eve, and Lilith. Bars are shown in the background. This card represents what Jung called the soul. The imagery suggests the archetype of the lover (Moore & Gillette, 1990/1991).
8. The Chariot. Most decks agree that the main symbol of this card is a chariot. Usually a charioteer is also shown. The theme is powerful deliberate motion toward a fixed goal and thus a victory over space. The card symbolism suggests the spiritual impulse which sooner or later will drive man to seek his true nature. In the Thoth deck the canopy of the Chariot is the blue of the feminine Sephirah, Binah. The pillars are the four pillars of the universe. The scarlet wheels are fiery creative energy. The Chariot is pulled by four sphinxes (the four Cherubs). The charioteer wears amber-colored armor and he holds a Holy Grail of amethyst. On his head is a crab, and on his armor are ten stars. This card represents Jung’s persona. The imagery suggests the archetype of the warrior (Moore & Gillette, 1990/1991).
9. Justice or Adjustment. The main symbol for this card is a balance or scale used for measuring weight. The scale is held by a goddess who holds an upright sword. The symbolism represents the law of cause and effect; those natural forces which seek a balance or moderation in all things. The figure shown in the Thoth deck is the feminine complement of the Fool, a young and slender woman. She is poised on her toes and crowned with the feathers of Maat, the goddess of justice. On her forehead is the Uraeus serpent. She is masked (Harlequin) and holds a magic Swords in both hands between her thighs. She is wrapped in a Cloak of Mystery. Before her is a large two-pan balance. This card represents the conscience. The imagery suggests the archetypes of justice, fairness, and balance.
10. The Hermit. Almost all decks agree that the symbolism of the Hermit is an older man in a robe holding a staff in one hand and a lamp in the other. The lamp is a symbol of the inner light of truth. The theme here is the wise old sage, the inner guiding light of conscience illumined by the intuition. In the Thoth deck he is shown in the shape of the Hebrew letter Yod. He wears a cloak the color of Binah. He holds a lamp whose center is the sun. Before him is an Orphic egg with coiled snake. The background is a field of wheat. Also shown is a spermatozoon in the form of a serpent wand, and Cerberus the three-headed dog. This card represents withdraw and meditation. The imagery of this card suggests Jung’s archetype of the wise old man (Nichols, 1984).
11. The Wheel of Fortune. The main symbol of this card is a wheel. The wheel is a symbol for cycles, and the card represents the law of cyclic manifestation. The original symbols of this card were probably meant to portray the doctrine of reincarnation, as well as other cyclic processes. In the Thoth deck stars line the top of the card through which lightning strikes into a mass of blue and violet plumes. In the center is a wheel with 10 spokes. On the wheel are a sworded sphinx (sulphur), Hermanubis (mercury), and Typhon (salt). The wheel is the Eye of Shiva. This card represents evolution and the imagery suggests the archetypes of fate and destiny.
12. Strength or Lust. Most decks use the symbol of the lion in this card. The lion, as the “king of beasts,” is a traditional symbol for strength. Some cards also show a man, while others show a woman, who is controlling the lion in some way. The theme here is controlled strength, or inner resolve that is directed toward a goal. The Thoth deck shows a naked young woman riding on the back of a seven-headed lion. She is overcome with ecstasy. She hoLds the reins in her left hand and the Holy Grail in her right hand. In the background are the bloodless images of all of the saints. Along the top are shown ten serpents. This card represents courage and inner strength. The imagery suggests the archetypes of goodness and endurance.
13. The Hanged Man. The Hanged Man is just that, a man hanging upside down from a wooden scaffold of some kind, usually in the form of a cross. Most cards show the man with his left leg bent to form a cross with his legs. The cross is the traditional symbol for sacrifice. The theme here is the deliberate undergoing of a selfless sacrifice, usually for the purpose of helping others. The Thoth deck shows a naked man hanging upside down with his right leg crossed over his left to form a cross. His arms are outstretched to form an equilateral triangle. A green Disk is at each of his five extremities. He is suspended from an Egyptian ankh (symbol of life) and a serpent is wrapped around his left foot. The background is green air over green water shot with white rays from Kether. Beneath the man sleeps a coils snake. The imagery of this card portrays the archetypes of sacrifice and initiation. It also suggests the archetype of the dying gods such as Christ.
14. Death. This card symbolizes death by a human skeleton. Sometimes the skeleton is shown holding a sickle to suggest that death levels all living beings. The theme is the process of death, which is an ending or completion of something that we have known. Death also implies change of some kind, a transformation. The Thoth deck shows death as a dancing skeleton bearing a scythe. He wears the Crown of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead and is shown in the waters of Amenti, an Egyptian after-death state. The sweep of his scythe creates bubbles which contain the seeds of new life. Shown is a snake, a fish, a scorpion, a lily, and an onion. This card represents death and sudden change. The imagery suggests Jung’s archetype of rebirth.
15. Temperance or Art. This card is usually depicted by an angel who is pouring water from one vase into another. The water is the “water of life” and its being poured suggests that a necessary change of some kind is taking place. The imagery of this card not only imply the skill or ability that is required to ‘get through’ unwanted experiences, but those needed to turn such experiences to your advantage in some way. The Thoth deck shows Diana the Huntress, the Great Mother of Fertility, and the Many-Breasted. She wears a golden crown with a silver band and is shown split into two halves. Her left hand pours white gluten from a cup while her right hand holds a lance/torch dripping blood. The alchemical symbols of blood and gluten mix in a cauldron. At her feet are a white lion and a red eagle. This card portrays the archetype of the union of opposites as defined in Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis (1963/1989).
16. The Devil. The main symbol here is a devil. The Marseilles deck shows a stereotyped, middle-age Christian concept of Satan complete with horns and a forked tail. The Waite deck is much more refined, showing the stereotyped version of a devilish black magician. Most cards also show a naked man and woman chained to a block. The theme is Black Magic and the card represents slavery or confinement. The imagery of this card suggests the wrongness of an overinflated ego. The Thoth deck shows a goat with large spiral horns and a third eye in his forehead who is the god Pan Pangenetor, the All-Begetter. Behind him is the trunk of a tree. Before him is a staff topped with a winged Horus. Below him are two globes each containing dancing human figures. The globes and tree together form a large phallus. This imagery here also represents bondage, and suggests the archetype of the libido or psychic energy, including sexual energy in the Freudian sense.
17. The Lightening Struck Tower. Almost all decks agree on the basic theme of this card. A stone tower is shown being struck by a bolt of lightening with two people falling from the destruction. The card suggests bad luck of all kinds, but especially destruction and ruination. In at least one sense, the card represents the Fall of Man, because the lightening bolt is a symbol of an “act of God” that forces man to fall from his protective tower, itself a symbol of a spiritual environment, into mortality. The Thoth deck shows the destruction of a tower by fire. Broken figures fall from the tower. At the bottom of the card is the destruction of the old by lightning and fire. In the bottom right corner are the jaws of a fire-breathing dragon. At the top is the Eye of Horus/Shiva. Also shown are a dove with olive branch, and the lion-headed Gnostic god, Abrasax. This card represents catastrophe. The imagery of this card suggests the archetype of chaos.
18. The Star. The main symbol here is a star. One or more stars is shown over the head of a goddess who is pouring water from two vases into a pool. The goddess is usually shown naked, although the Marseilles deck shows her partially clothed. She is Isis, the goddess of nature, and the waters are the Waters of Life. She is shown returning individual water into a collective pool, thus indicating that nothing in life is ever lost. The theme here is one of hope. The Thoth deck shows the naked Egyptian goddess Nut. Her right hand is held high, and she pours water from a gold cup onto her head. Her left hand is held low, and she pours the immortal liquor of life from a silver cup onto the junction of land and water. Behind her is a celestial globe on which is a seven-pointed Star of Venus. In the left-hand corner is a seven-pointed Star of Babalon. This card represents hope and promise. The imagery suggests Jung’s archetype of the star. According to von Franz (Boa, 1992) Jung taught that the star symbolizes that part of the personality that survives death; the spiritual part of the psyche.
19. The Moon. The main symbol here is the moon, and the cards of all decks amplify the lunar theme with various symbols usually associated with the moon. Most cards show two towers with a stream running between them to illustrate the idea of relationships. A scorpion, lobster, crayfish, or scarab, is often included to represent the forces of regeneration. One or two dogs or jackals are often shown to suggest the idea of the subconscious and the underworld. The theme here is the astral world of the Kabbalists, the realm of illusions and dreams. The Thoth deck shows a Gateway of Resurrection. The bottom of the card shows the beetle-headed Khepera pushing the sun upward through the waters. Above stands dual Anubis-gods who guard the path that is a stream of serum tinged with blood. They stand before black towers at the threshold of life and death. At the path’s end are nine drops of impure blood each in the shape of the Hebrew letter Yod. This card represents the instincts. The imagery suggests the archetypes of dreams and the irrational as well as Jung’s archetype of the moon. According to von Franz, the moon is an archetypal symbol for the anima (Boa, 1992).
20. The Sun. The main symbol of this card is the sun which is almost always shown with extending rays, and sometimes with a face to suggest solar intelligence. The Marseilles deck shows a young couple together under a sun. The Waite deck shows a naked child riding a horse under a sun. The Golden Dawn deck shows two naked children holding hands under a sun. The sun, as the generator of light and heat, is the symbol for life and the forces of conscious creativity. The Thoth deck shows a green mound beneath a flaming 12-rayed yellow sun. Two winged children dance together on the mound, but a wall prevents them from the summit. At the feet of each child is a rose and cross. Around the card are the signs of the Zodiac. The imagery of this card suggests the archetypes of growth, success, and abundance as well as Jung’s archetype of the sun.
21. Judgement. Most decks represent Judgement with an angel blowing a horn above a group of people. The heralding of a trumpet call, as an act of divine judgement, is suggested here. The Waite deck shows people standing in coffin-like boxes which suggest that an after-death judgement is implied. The Golden Dawn card shows people chest-deep in water implying a renewal or regeneration. In the Thoth deck, around the top of the card is the body of the goddess Nut, the star goddess. The child-god Harpocrates stands beneath her in outline, and Horus is shown sitting on a throne. A winged globe is shown below him. At the bottom of the card is the Hebrew letter Shin containing three human figures. The imagery of this card suggests the archetypes of evaluation, reward, and completion.
22. The Universe. The last card of the major arcana includes the symbolism of the four animals of the Apocalypse and of the vision of Ezekiel. These are the bull, the lion, the eagle, and man. A naked woman stands within a circular wreath. In the Marseilles deck, this woman is the fourth animal, but in most decks she stands apart as a central figure. Her symbolism as the mother of the universe is clearly suggested in the Golden Dawn deck where the wreath is a ring of twelve globes which are obviously the twelve constellations of the Zodiac. In the Thoth deck, the universe is symbolized by a naked dancing maiden at the center of the card. Her hands manipulate a spiral active/passive force. In each corner is one of the four Kerubim. About the maiden is an ellipse of 72 circles. In the lower center is the House of Matter. Her right foot stands on the head of a snake. The card suggests a wheel of light within a yoni (a Hindu feminine symbol). The imagery of this card suggests the archetypes of wholeness, synthesis, and perfection. “