This post will cover the major arcana meanings for the Fool through to the Emperor. Throughout this blog I have stated that learning to read the tarot intuitively is more important than learning the card meanings. But card meanings do have a place and add richness to the process of conceptual blending (the process that explains how tarot actually works.) I go into tarot and conceptual blending in depth here.
So this post is the first in a series where I detail the card meanings I have learned and discovered over the years. These meanings include those provided by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (the basis for the RWS and Thoth tarot decks) as well as meanings I use with historical and pip decks.
- Major Arcana Meanings Part 2: Hierophant to Strength is here.
The major arcana card meanings here work for me but do not treat them as ‘gospel.’ Many readers develop their own meanings and you should not be afraid to do the same if that works for you. I include esoteric elementary, planetary, and zodiac attributions but do not cover them in detail. They are included so you can explore them in depth if you want. I occasionally use the esoteric attributions (especially the elemental attributions) in reading but they are not necessary. In all honesty, consider them optional extras – the icing on the cake – but not needed to read tarot well.
Take what resonates for you and leave the rest.
I illustrate the cards using various editions of the RWS tarot along with the same card in the Tarot de Marseille (TdM). This helps show the origin of the RWS card and how I sometimes use different meanings with the TdM and other historical decks.
I do not discuss reversed meanings. I cover a method of reading reversed meanings here which you can apply to any card. I also do not cover the symbology in depth as different decks use different symbology. But they all work. I explore the relative unimportance of symbology in the conceptual blending post linked to above.
The Three Sections of the Major Arcana
Major arcana cards represent the path through life and each card represents major forces and influences we must deal with on our journey. It helps to think of the major arcana in three sections. The first seven cards, Fool to Chariot, represent the challenges we face in the physical, material realm. The next seven, Strength (or Justice) to Temperance, relate to the mental hurdles on life’s journey. The final seven, The Devil to The World, are the spiritual lessons we need to learn.
This post covers the major arcana meanings for the first five cards in the physical realm.
Major Arcana Meanings: The Fool
Golden Dawn Title: The Spirit of Ether
Elemental Attribution: Air
Planetary Attribution: Pluto
Keywords: Beginning, Naivety, Recklessness, Optimism
The Fool is a strange card. It is both the beginning of the journey through life and the end which is why it can be both numbered 0 and 22. The Fool represents the beginning of all endeavours and our passage through life. After card 21 The World, which represents ultimate completion and culmination of the present cycle, we start again at the beginning of a new cycle which is why the Fool can follow the World.
He or she is the hopeless, naive, but enthusiastic optimist who doesn’t know what they are letting themselves in for. This is represented in the RWS tarot by the Fool with his mind in the clouds happily walking along about to step off a cliff. The dog can represent commonsense which the Fool completely ignores.
The TdM version of the Fool is a court jester who blindly continues on his way ignoring risk. This Fool is more obviously an idiot who ignores danger even when it is blatantly harming them.
The major arcana meanings of this card are that you are setting off on a new journey (literal, metaphorical, spiritual) and that the way ahead is completely unknown. When you draw this card you should be alert to possible pitfalls and dangers ahead.
A typical Fool situation would be starting a brand new career, something many people are getting used to in the current pandemic. Retraining and starting a completely new role to what you did before is a Fool situation. In fact, the attitude of several countries entering the pandemic in 2020 is another example of a Fool attitude (reckless, ignorant).
The Fool is one of only three cards in the major arcana with an elemental attribution. I cover how to use elemental correspondences in a reading here.
Major Arcana Meanings: The Magician
Golden Dawn Title: The Magus of Power
Planetary Attribution: Mercury
Keywords: Awareness, Self-confidence, Skill, Communication, Mastery, Trickery,
The Magician represents conscious awareness of their abilities, knowledge and skill. He/She has the confidence, skill, and the tools to manifest their ideas and thoughts into reality. The RWS Magician has one arm raised to the cosmos and the other pointing to the earth representing the axiom ‘As above, so below.’ This refers to the idea that what applies in one dimension can apply to another. Your thoughts and ideas exist in one realm, the Magician can manifest them in the physical realm.
If you are starting a new project or need to get something done well then this is the card you hope to see in a reading. Working as a therapist, I often feel I must embody the qualities of the Magician in my role. When you have an idea of how something is supposed to go and consciously work to make that happen, overcoming all the resulting obstacles, you are being the Magician
The TdM Basteleur is more of a street performer than a magick wielding magician. The TdM version embodies the qualities of being a great communicator, having amazing social skills and the knowledge to apply them well. He/She is also a bit of a trickster so if the Magician appears in a reading and you interpret the card as representing someone else, beware of mischief and misdirection as a possible negative issue. Or, perhaps you need to apply a little trickery yourself!
Major Arcana Meanings: The High Priestess
Golden Dawn Title: The Priestess of the Silver Star
Planetary Attribution: The Moon
Keywords: Subconscious, Hidden Knowledge, Psychic, Wisdom, Intuition
The High Priestess is the partner and opposite to the Magician. She represents the subconscious wisdom hidden from conscious awareness. When you rely on intuition and gut instinct in a situation, you are embodying the qualities of the High Priestess. Intuition is a combination of knowledge and experience; something we are not always consciously aware of but it is there, hidden away but accessible.
The B and J on the pillars behind the High Priestess represent Boaz and Jachin, the copper or bronze pillars that stood at the main entrance to the Temple of Solomon. They support the veil that hides away the knowledge from view. Thus, you have to reach into the subconscious to access that knowledge. The Moon represents psychic ability as well, another way of representing those intuitive flashes we sometimes get.
The High Priestess is sometimes thought of as representing spiritual wisdom. However, as one of the seven cards in the physical realm I usually consider her to represent intuition and wisdom in the everyday world we live in.
The TdM Papesse represents the mythical female pope and can represent a mature woman full of wisdom. A grandmother telling her grandchildren stories from her past would be a perfect example.
When you draw the High Priestess it can be an indicator to either follow your intuition, draw on acquired wisdom in a situation or seek out wisdom and knowledge from someone else. Essentially, if you don’t know what to do in a situation and your experience doesn’t help, go get help from someone else. A mentor is a good example of someone who is represented by the High Priestess.
Major Arcana Meanings: The Empress
Golden Dawn Title: Daughter of the Mighty Ones
Planetary Attribution: Venus
Keywords: Abundance, Nurture, Creation, Protection
Just as the Magician and High Priestess form a partnership, so does the Empress and the Emperor. The Empress is the archetypal Earth Mother. She is fertility, nurture, abundance and creation. And, of course, love. The Empress also represents the natural world with all the wildness and chaos that implies.
When you draw the Empress you know that what is required are those nurturing, supportive, loving qualities needed to make anything grow. Whether that is an actual child, your academic progress, a relationship with a partner, or even a business or career. All of which require love and devotion as well as ambition and drive (that’s where the Emperor comes in).
As an actual person, the RWS Empress can represent a mother or other maternal relative. And of course, the Empress is very much the pregnancy card.
The TdM Empress suggests different qualities. Here she is a woman with authority and power but she uses this power to protect and defend the Emperor (holding the shield). The positioning of the sceptre is suggestive of fertility. So, the TdM Empress can represent the need to be authoritative yet also protective, nurturing, and encouraging of growth – the ideal boss actually! As a person, the TdM Empress also suggests a mother, perhaps even the matriarch of a family.
Major Arcana Meanings: The Emperor
Golden Dawn Title: Son of the Morning
Zodiac Attribution: Ares
Keywords: Builder, Authority, Conqueror, Control
The Emperor forms the Yang to the Yin of the Empress. Embodying authority, the Emperor establishes order from chaos, builds foundations, and squashes opposition. Where the Empress represents nurture and nature, the Emperor represents conquering and civilisation. This is really clear in the RWS Emperor who has imposed his huge sculpted stone throne on the natural landscape.
The Emperor is an interesting card. Many people view the Emperor in a negative light as representing patriarchy. While this is certainly true, we wouldn’t have civilisation and our modern society without being able to conquer strife and adversity. We need the energy of the Emperor to build institutions, society and have effective government. The Empress keeps the power of the Emperor in check and the Emperor prevents The Empress’ wild natural tendencies from running out of control.
In an everyday sense, you can feel the energy of the Emperor every time you need to deal with government institutions. Or dealing with senior management in a large organisation. An entrepreneur starting a business has to employ the energy of the Emperor, as well as the Empress, to overcome obstacles and create the foundation of the new business. Do you have problems you need to get on top of? Time to call on the qualities of the Emperor (impose order, tackle problems methodically in order of priority, deal with obstacles as they appear rather than let them fester.)
The TdM Emperor demonstrates power even more clearly, wielding his sceptre in an aggressive manner. He looks like he’s about to hit someone!
As a person, the Emperor represents anyone in a position of authority. He also clearly can represent a father or father figure with an aura of authority.
In part 2 I will look at the major arcana meanings for The Hierophant through to The Hermit, moving from the physical realm of life’s journey to the mental realm.