The Major Arcana or trumps are a suit of twenty-two cards in the 78-card Tarot deck. They serve as a permanent trump and suits in games played with the Tarot deck, and are distinguished from the four standard suits collectively known as the Minor Arcana. The terms "Major" and "Minor Arcana" are used in the occult and divinatory applications of the deck, and originate with Jean-Baptiste Pitois, writing under the name Paul Christian.
Dummett writes that originally the Major Arcana had simple allegorical or exoteric meaning, mostly originating in elite ideology in the Italian courts of the 15th century when it was invented. The occult significance only began to emerge in the 18th century when Antoine Court de Gébelin (a Swiss clergyman and Freemason) published Le Monde Primitif. The construction of the occult and divinatory significance of the Tarot, and the Major and Minor Arcana, continued on from there. For example, Antoine Court de Gébelin argued for the Egyptian, kabbalastic, and divine significance of the Tarot trumps: Etteilla created a method of divination using Tarot: Eliphas Lévi worked hard to break away from the Egyptian nature of the divinatory Tarot, bringing it back to the Tarot de Marsailles, creating a "tortuous" kabbalastic correspondence, and even suggested that the Major Arcana represent stages of life. The Marquis Stanislas de Guaita established the Major Arcana as an initiatory sequence to be used by initiates to establish their path of spiritual ascension and evolution. Finally Salie Nichols, a Jungian psychologist, wrote up the tarot as having deep psychological and archetypal significance, even going so far as to encode the entire process of Jungian individuation into the Tarot trumps. These various interpretations of the Major Arcana developed in stages, all of which continue to exert significant influence on our understanding of the Major Arcana even to this day.
Each Major Arcanum depicts a scene, mostly featuring a person or several people, with many symbolic elements. In many decks, each has a number (usually in Roman numerals) and a name, though not all decks have both, and some have only a picture. The earliest decks bore unnamed and unnumbered pictures on the Majors (probably because a great many of the people using them at the time were illiterate), and the order of cards was not standardized. Nevertheless, one of the most common sets of names and numbers is as follows:
|None (0 or 22)||The Fool|
|2||The High Priestess|
|10||Wheel of Fortune|
|12||The Hanged Man|
Strength is traditionally the eleventh card and Justice the eighth, but the influential Rider-Waite-Smith deck switched the position of these two cards in order to make them a better fit with the astrological correspondences worked out by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, under which the eighth card is associated with Leo and the eleventh with Libra. Today many decks use this numbering, particularly in the English-speaking world. Both placements are considered valid.
Prior to the 17th century, the trumps were simply part of a special card deck used for gaming and gambling. There may have been allegorical and cultural significance attached to them, but beyond that the trumps originally had little mystical or magical import.
In the hands of Freemasons, Protestant clerics, and the nobility of the day the Tarot became nothing less than "bible of bibles", an esoteric repository of all the significant truths of creation. The trend was initiated by prominent Freemason and Protestant cleric Antoine Court de Gébelin who suggested that the Tarot had an ancient Egyptian origin, and mystic divine and kabbalastic significance. A contemporary of Court de Gebelin, Monsieur le Comte de Mellet, added to Court de Gebelin's claims by suggesting ( attacked as being erroneous) that the Tarot was associated with Gypsies and was in fact the imprinted book of Hermes Trismegistus. These claims were continued by Etteilla. Etteilla is primarily recognized as the founder and propagator of the divinatory Tarot, but he also participated in the propagation of the occult Tarot by claiming the Tarot to have an ancient Egyptian origin, to be an account of the creation of the world, and a book of eternal medicine. Éliphas Lévi revitalized the occult Tarot by associating it with the mystical Kabbalah and making it a "prime ingredient in magical lore.". As Decker, Depaulis, and Dummett note, "it is to him (Lévi) that we owe its (the Tarot's) widespread acceptance as a means of discovering hidden truths and as a document of the occult... Lévi's writings formed the channel through which the Western tradition of magic flowed down to modern times."
As the following quote by P. D. Ouspensky indicates, the association of the Tarot with Hermetic, kabbalastic, magical mysteries continues to this day.
The fact that we question the Tarot as to whether it be a method or a doctrine shows the limitation of our 'three dimensional mind', which is unable to rise above the world of form and contra-positions or to free itself from thesis and antithesis! Yes, the Tarot contains and expresses any doctrine to be found in our consciousness, and in this sense it has definiteness. It represents Nature in all the richness of its infinite possibilities, and there is in it as in Nature, not one but all potential meanings. And these meanings are fluent and ever-changing, so the Tarot cannot be specifically this or that, for it ever moves and yet is ever the same.
Claims such as those initiated by early Freemasons today find their way into academic discourse. Semetsky, for example, explains that Tarot makes it possible to mediate between humanity and the Godhead, or between god/spirit/consciousness and profane human existence. Nicholson uses the Tarot to illustrate the deep wisdom of feminist theology. Santarcangeli informs us of the wisdom of the fool and Nichols speaks about the archetypal power of individuation boiling beneath the powerful surface of the Tarot archetypes.
In the popular mind tarot is indelibly associated with divination, fortune telling, or cartomancy. Tarot was not invented as a mystical or magical tool of divination. The association of the tarot with cartomantic practice is coincident with its uptake by Freemasons as a fountain of eternal, divine wisdom. Indeed it was the very same people publishing esoteric commentary of the magical, mystery Tarot (e.g. Antoine Court de Gébelin and Monsieur le Comte de Mellet) that also published commentary on the divinatory tarot. Be that as it may, there is a distinct line of development of the cartomantic tarot that occurs in parallel with the imposition of hermetic mysteries on the formally mundane pack of cards, but that can usefully be distinguished. It was Monsieur le Comte de Mellet who initiated this development by suggesting that ancient Egyptians had used the tarot for fortune telling and provides a method purportedly used in ancient Egypt. Following MCM, Etteilla brought the cartomantic tarot dramatically forward by inventing a method of cartomancy, assigning a divinatory meaning to each of the cards (both upright and reversed), publishing La Cartonomancie français (a book detailing the method), and creating the first tarot decks exclusively intended for cartomantic practice. Etteilla's original method was designed to work with a common pack of cards known as the piquet pack. It was not until 1783, two years after Antoine Court de Gébelin published Le Monde Primitif that he turned his cartomantic expertise to the development of a cartomantic method using the standard (i.e. Marseilles) tarot deck. His expertise was formalized with the publication of the book Maniere de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées tarots and the creation of a society for Tarot cartomancy, the Société littéraire des associés libres des interprètes du liver de Thot. The society subsequently went on to publish Dictionnaire synonimique du Livere de Thot, a book that "systematically tabulated all the possible meanings which each card could bear, when upright and reversed.".
Following Ettielle, tarot cartomancy was moved forward by Marie-Anne Adelaid Lenormand (1768-1830) and others. Lenormand was the most famous and was the first cartomancer to the stars, claiming to be the confidante of Empress Josephine and other local luminaries. She was so popular, and cartomancy with tarot became so well established in France following her work, that a special deck entitled the Grand Jeu de Mlle Lenormand was released in her name two years after her death. This was followed by many other specially designed cartomantic tarot decks, mostly based on Ettielle's Egyptian symbolism, but some providing other (for example biblical or medieval) flavors as well. Tarot as a cartomantic and divinatory tool is well established and new books (with more or less sophistication) expounding the mystical utility of the cartomantic tarot are published all the time.
By the early 18th century Masonic writers and Protestant clerics had established the tarot trumps as authoritative sources of ancient hermetic wisdom and Christian gnosis, and as revelatory tools of divine cartomantic inspiration, but they did not stop there. In 1870 Jean-Baptiste Pitois (better known as Paul Christian) wrote a book entitled Historie de la magie, du monde surnaturel et de la fatalité à travers les temps et le peuples. In that book Christian identifies the tarot trumps as representing the "principle scenes" of ancient Egyptian initiatory "tests". Christian provides an extended analysis of ancient Egyptian initiation rites that involves Pyramids, 78 steps, and the initiatory revelation of secrets. Decker, Depaulis, and Dummett write:
"At one stage in the initiation procedure, Christian tells us...the postulant climbs down an iron ladder, with seventy-eight rungs, and enters a hall on either side of which are twelve statues, and, between each pair of statues, a painting. These twenty-two paintings, he is told, are Arcana or symbolic hieroglyphs; the Science of Will, the principle of all wisdom and source of all power, is contained in them. Each corresponds to a 'letter of the sacred language' and to a number, and each expresses a reality of the divine world, a reality of the intellectual world and a reality of the physical world. The secret meanings of these twenty-two Arcana are then expounded to him."
Christian attempts to give authority to his analysis by falsely attributing an account of ancient Egyptian initiation rites to Iamblichus, but it is clear that if there is any initiatory relevance to the tarot trumps it is Christian who is the source of that information. Nevertheless, Christian's fabricated history of tarot initiation are quickly reinforced with the formation of an occult journal in 1989 entitled L'Initiation, the publication of an essay by Oswald Wirth in Papus's book Le Tarot des Bohémiens that states that the Tarot is nothing less than the sacred book of occult initiation, the publication of book by François-Charles Barlet entitled, not surprisingly, L'Initiation, and the publication of Le Tarot des Bohémians by Dr. Papus (a.k.a. Dr. Gérard Encausse). Subsequent to this activity the initiatory relevance of the tarot was firmly established in the minds of occult practitioners.
The emergence of the tarot as an initiatory masterpeice was coincident with, and fit perfectly into, the flowering of initiatory esoteric orders and secret brotherhoods during the middle of the 19th century. For example, Marquis Stanislas de Guaita (1861-1897) founded the Cabalistic Order of the Rosy Cross in 1888 along with several key commentators on the initiatory tarot (e.g. Dr Papus, François-Charles Barlet, and Joséphin Péladin). These orders placed great emphasis on secrets, advancing through the grades, and initiatory tests and so it is not surprising that, already having the tarot to hand, they read into the tarot initiatory significance. Doing so not only lent an air of divine, mystical, and ancient authority to their practices, but allowed them to continue to expound on the magical, mystical, significance of the presumably ancient and hermetic tarot. Be that as it may the activity established the tarot's significance as a device and book of initiation not only in the minds of occult practitioners, but also (as we will see below) in the minds of new age practitioners, Jungian psychologists, and general academics.
The history of the tarot and the tarot arcana is the history of Western esotericists and Freemasons writing hermetic, cartomantic, cabbalistic, and gnostic significance onto a thing that was originally nothing but a game of cards. It is tempting thus to dismiss the whole thing as one big, self-delusional failure, as Michael Dummett does. However the problem with this position is that while no historical evidence may be invoked to justify any of the esotericists' claims made for Tarot during the course of its 200 year evolution, nevertheless the notion that the tarot has occult, mystical, cartomantic, and magical significance has persisted to the present day, where it enjoys a certain degree of popularity and acceptance in non-academic circles. Here the tarot is variously a tool for therapy, something that can facilitate the process of "individuation", an instrument capable of "heal[ing the] human psyche and lift[ing the] human spirit", even offering transcendence, transformation, and self-awareness. Such understandings may have been prompted by Jung's equivocal statement about tarot: "If one wants to form a picture of the symbolic process, the series of pictures found in alchemy are good examples.... It also seems as if the set of pictures in the Tarot cards were distantly descended from the archetypes of transformation." With that statement Jung makes a tentative link to ancient archetypes, a statement that subsequent commentators run with to the point that even in academic discourse the Tarot becomes an ancient book with powers capable of archetypal, semiotic, and even psychological magic. The discourse is more respectable, with rhetorical weight given by citation rather than false ascription, but the claims of magical and mystical significance are remarkably similar.
Media related to Major Arcana at Wikimedia Commons