(Twice a month, Present Day Tarot hosts a Tarot Salon for tarot readers, students and enthusiasts. This essay was written in preparation for a Tarot Salon on the subject of the Major Arcana suit. If you are in or near Seattle and want to attend the Salon, you can sign up here.)
The Major Arcana (AKA “Trump”) Cards
The Major Arcana suit consists of 22 cards. Nowadays, they are typically numbered from Zero (the Fool) to 21 (the World). But in the early decks the Majors were given no numbers or established order. As the deck developed over time, the Majors fluctuated in name and number value.
The numbers on these cards may or may not matter in your tarot readings, depending on your approach. However, as you learn the cards, knowing and playing with the order can be very helpful.
The most common explanation for the order of the Trump suit today is to see it as a linear story called the Fool’s Journey. It shows the Fool, an innocent soul, falling to earth and encountering each card one-by-one. For me, this story has no narrative pizzazz – which seems a waste for a subject that is so rich in story-telling potential. But getting to know it is like learning the basics of grammar. I combed through some YouTube options dramatizing the Fool’s Journey, and chose these videos (with thanks to the people who took the time to make them), because they are the shortest. You can see the story straight-up, with a British accent, and wouldn’t you know, as a rap. And that’s enough time on that.
An Added Dimension
Author Rachel Pollack is credited with a simple and popular restructuring of the story that adds a helpful layer of meaning. Holding the Fool card aside, she maintains the standard order but splits the remaining 21 cards into 3 rows of 7. Each row indicates a different level of mastery for the Fool as he/she travels from innocence to awareness. The Fool first masters the physical world (Majors 1-7), then his unconscious world (Majors 8-14), and then finally, the spiritual world (Majors 15-21). Here is an image of the Rider-Waite-Smith cards placed in Pollack’s order:
The Best, (and most difficult to describe), for Last
The most helpful way I have ever seen the Majors ordered is by the prolific tarot scholar, Gareth Knight. In his 1991 book, The Magical World of the Tarot: Fourfold Mirror of the Universe, he pictures the whole deck as a giant, floating building with four halls. The halls are energized by the work of the Magician, guarded by four dominant Trump cards, and peopled by their closest cousins in the Major Arcana. The four halls correspond to the elements, and are gateways to the suits of the Minor Arcana. This is my favorite and most often misplaced tarot book, and Knight spends a good portion of it building a layered vision of the cards. I will condense his vision (as I remember it) into a quick overview graphic, below. I look forward to discussing it more with you at the Tarot Salon!
The tarot cards not cited above are two early versions of the Fool: Le Mat from the Tarot de Marseilles and La Folie from the Book of Thoth, also known as the Etteilla Tarot.