The Major Arcana of the Tarot follows what is often called either ‘the Fool’s Journey’ or ‘the Hero’s Journey’. In essence it is a cradle to grave depiction from birth though to actualised adulthood (Fool to World) showing the various stages of maturation and their interaction with typical external influences, powers and choices.
Understanding the narrative structure of the Major Arcana can give the new tarot reader a crash course/boost into tarot reading skill without the need for constant reference to the tarot guide book that accompanies the deck they use.
Most tarot practitioners will recommend new readers use the Rider-Waite Smith (RWS) system/cards and I concur. It best depicts (both structurally and in terms of imagery) the most established definitions of the cards and the narrative journeys in tarot which give the system its divinatory and psychological muscle.
Some tarot deck creators divert from this system to a relatively minor extent (the Thoth deck for instance which does so for significant esoteric reasons) or more due to the wish to expand upon the journey or give a different sense to the cards (ie lighten/make more positive the more negative card meanings). While these all have their place I’d suggest moving to these once you know the RWS system well so you can make informed choices of the type of readings (or querents) for which you’d use the modified systems.
At this point in your ‘speed tarot learning’ journey, the hack for the Major Arcana follows the RWS system and gives the established narrative. If you understand this narrative you will quickly become adept at the Major Arcana.
To help you understand the journey I have two versions in this post of the narrative. The first is a ‘Life in Review’ story with 5 chapters and an epilogue, grouping the Major Arcana story into relevant life stages. Beneath that story, if your preference is a card by card version there is Table 1 outlining each in more detail and providing some pop culture references for each card.
Table 2 then provides some additional meanings for the cards outside the cradle to grave narrative.
Life Review By Chapter
Chapter One: Early life/ Childhood
A young child (The Fool) is full of innocence, confidence and curiosity. The world is their oyster and they have little or no fear – which is more naivete than skill. They also feel they can be king of the world (or their favourite Marvel Comic hero) because as the Magician they have the sense of limitless skill, and as the High Priestess they are perhaps more connected to the other-world and the numinous than adults. But for all this they need nurturing and support and a stable loving base (The Empress) to rest their kingly or queenly heads at the end of each adventurous day.
Chapter 2: School and Higher Learning/ Early Career
School starts and gives the Fool their first taste of external discipline, structure and order and the need to play nice with others within regimented activities (The Emperor). This continues to the more complex levels of higher education- college or university and to understanding the broader cultural norms in society and in the workplace (The Hierophant). Now they also encounter love and relationships – all the mad rush of first crushes, first loves and choices about how to relate – bloom and blossom – (the Lovers) and with that the need to balance far more complex and compelling emotions, beliefs and responsibilities (the Chariot). This gives the Fool the first taste complex self mastery.
Chapter Three: Young to mid adult years.
By now the Fool has weathered the blessings and challenges of early relationships, early career and moving into adult life. A lot of big firsts occurred in Chapter 2, but more is to come in Chapter 3. The Fool feels well able to meet these challenges (Strength) but also has learnt the value of introspection and self-analysis (the Hermit). So they’re less likely to just rush in. They understand fate/fortune will sometimes be with them and sometimes won’t (The Wheel) and if not already, they now enter into a range of legal dimensions: contracts, home buying, marriage etc (Justice) and/or they have a true appreciation of the rules of the world.
Chapter 4: Full Adulthood
The Fool now has a real sense of who they are, and part of them also knows the choices they’ve made so far have made them in some ways, thereby narrowing future choices available. They also know they need to change old habits and preferences to move forward but may be reluctant to do so (Hanged Man) or to make any sacrifices to simplify or de-clutter their life to gain new perspectives or momentum. Still, they face key choices now whether they want to or not (Death) and some may be avoided for a time, but others cannot. To get this right they need balance (Temperance) and in many cases their choices now will impact others too (family, colleagues etc). They become very aware of how they’ve trapped themselves in beliefs/habits/addictions or how others have put boundaries around them that must be addressed. (Devil)
Chapter 5 – Mid Life Crisis to Middle Age
Now if the Fool has not learned the lessons of Chapter 4 and made the necessary choices and sacrifices/ liberations then the universe will do this for them by way of major changes and breakdowns of existing structures (work, family, love, health) through the Tower, making this card the classic mid life crisis portent. But after major change comes renewed hope though the Star, leavened to some extent by an understanding how new worlds and approaches come bring mysteries and hidden information (the Moon). But the Fool is confident in a mature and developed sense, no longer the callow child of Chapter 1, and proceeds to self-actualisation (the Sun).
Epilogue/Chapter 6: Old Age
Old age brings the Fool a chance for a life review, to consider the impact of their choices and actions on their karma and their legacy. (Judgement). They have reached a point of culmination and clarity for their life and the World celebrates the life well lived before death and rebirth begins the journey anew.
Major Arcana Tarot Hack Table 1
|Number||Card||Hero Journey Narrative Phase||Pop Culture Ref|
|1||Magician||The child has sense of limitless power but not yet how to fully use||Superman as child|
|2||High Priestess||The child senses connection to spiritual realms and operates on intuition||Harry Potter (Hermione or Harry)|
|3||Empress||The child receives guidance and nurturing from mother||Mama Mia|
|4||Emperor||The child begins to understand power structures and hierarchies||The Godfather|
|5||Hierophant||School and university – the traditional learning phase||Good Will Hunting/ Social Network|
|6||Lovers||Relationships/puberty through to early adulthood||The Notebook/The Princess Bride|
|7||Chariot||Understands need to balance emotions, drives and attitudes – coming into first stage of self mastery||Batman Begins|
|8||Strength||The hero begins to identify and work with key gifts, powers and skills; establishing self in world with confidence||Norma Rae/ Erin Brockovich/Matrix|
|9||Hermit||The hero begins to understand ethics and spiritual responsibilities in using skills, knowledge and power. A period of internal introspection.||Superman/ Matrix|
|10||Wheel of Fortune||The hero experiences the impact of luck and fortune – for good or ill||Minority Report/ Adjustment Bureau|
|11||Justice||The hero finds balance between life experiences and philosophy/beliefs||Matrix Reloaded|
|12||Hanged Man||The hero understands the need for sacrifice and/or experiences some delays in progress||Matrix Revolutions/ Avengers Endgame|
|13||Death||The hero makes the choices re what really matters in life/situation and leaves some aspects behind||Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King|
|14||Temperance||The hero has established a deeper balance in life goals and journey||The Dark Knight; Eat Pray Love|
|15||Devil||The hero begins to appreciate how choices made in the past can bind them – they review how to be free of desires and wants that hold them back||V for Vendetta, the Shawshank Redemption, Wolf of Wall Street|
|16||Tower||The old and unneeded falls away – violently and suddenly if the hero isn’t ready or with some drama but balance if they are.||Independence Day, The Big Short|
|17||Star||Renewed hope and vision for the hero quest.||Matrix Revolutions|
|18||Moon||A second period of introspection to fully understand journey so far; spiritual knowledge/intuition has grown with practical application; facing the shadow with more skill||The Dark Knight, Matrix|
|19||Sun||The achievement of the goal is in sight; the work is done to prepare for closure and the next journey/state; mature optimism||The Pursuit of Happyness|
|20||Judgement||The hero chooses how to manifest the journey accomplishment; balanced and ethical achievement||Equaliser|
|21||World||The goal/life path journey is fully mature; closure and readiness for next journey/quest||Mr Smith Goes to Washington|
Table 2 – Other Meanings
|1||Magician||Magic, spiritual practice, highly skilled|
|2||High Priestess||Hidden secrets|
|6||Lovers||New love/ love choices|
|8||Strength||Physical or mental development|
|9||Hermit||Meditation, retreat, spiritual practice|
|10||Wheel of Fortune||Luck|
|11||Justice||Legal system or issues|
|12||Hanged Man||Slow progress|
|13||Death||Choice that can be delayed|
|15||Devil||Choice of light or shadow; dark magic|
|16||Tower||Accidents, redundancy, shocks|
|17||Star||Visionary, good luck|
|18||Moon||Dreams and portents; hidden knowledge; secrets|
|19||Sun||Blessing, children, creativity|
|20||Judgement||Legal system; being judged or judging others|
|21||World||Reaching the world; expanding|