Tarot - Robert von Heeren

The Major Arcana of the Rider-Waite Tarot

The hero's journey and symbol of the initiation process


At the center as the "main pillar" of the Rider-Waite Tarot are the 21 Major Arcana plus the card Zero - The Fool. Their order in the Rider-Waite Tarot:

I The Magician XII The Hanged Man X. Wheel of Fortune des Rider-Waite-Tarot
Illustrations from the Giant Rider-Waite Tarot Deck
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II The High Priestess XIII Death  
III The Empress XIV Temperance  
IV The Emperor XV The Devil  
V The Hierophant XVI Tower  
VI The Lovers XVII The Star  
VII The Chariot XVIII The Moon  
VIII Strength XIX The Sun  
IX The Hermit XX Judgement  
X Wheel of Fortune XXI The World  
XI Justice 0 The Fool  

Arcana stems from arcanum, the secret. This alludes to the deeper meaning of the 22 "main trumps" of the Rider Tarot. For Waite, this mystery lay primarily in the fact that the 22 court cards symbolize the spiritual path of initiation. Beginning as an inexperienced "Fool", man (I The Magician) treads the path to perfection (XXI The World). He passes through archetypal stations of development, experiences the alternation of willful self-determination, connection, fate, powerlessness, error, death and ultimately - if all goes well - rebirth on a new level. What tests and learning processes he must pass in the process, the 21 great arcana describe in a complex way in the sense of a cycle of experience and initiation.

The order of the major arcana is not clear, despite the apparent numbering. Thus, there is speculation above all about the position of the fool. This is due to the fact that in the Roman numeration of the cards there is no place for the Arabic zero. Waite placed it indeed according to the tradition between XX Justice and XXI The World. However, he felt that the Fool could just as easily be at the beginning of the series and actually be a numberless card. Others see the Fool as a link between the last card XXI The World and I The Magician. If you lay out the cards in a circle, he is then the link between the beginning and the end. In a sense, the Fool encapsulates the potential for all the other 21 major arcana. For Waite, it was the most important card.

The major arcana describe a life cycle consisting of archetypal stations of development and stages of maturity in human life. Waite made a puzzling change in the order compared to other Tarot decks and lore: the cards XI Justice and VIII Strength were swapped. He did not reveal the reason for this. However, it becomes comprehensible with a detailed study of the Kabbalistic references of these two cards.

In its overall conception, this Tarot deck is not only visually appealing in design, but groundbreakingly profound and amazingly well thought out. With the great arcana Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942) Waite and the painter Pamela Colman-Smith (1878-1951) have put a lot of effort. All the essential symbols and contents of the entire Tarot concept appear here: The magical four elements ("Paraphernalia" on the table of I The Magician) as building blocks and tools of life, letters of the Hebrew alphabet (e.g. in X Wheel of Fortune), symbols of astrology (Venus in III The Empress, Moon in XVIII The Moon, Sun in XIX The Sun), Christian mysticism (e.g. Archangels in VI The Lovers (Raphael) or XX The Judgment, for example), Alchemy (VII The Chariot), and Kabbalah (Torah and Tree of Life in II The High Priestess, numerology in each card). The wands germinate in Waite (XII The Hanged Man), are alive, a symbol of the indomitable fiery power of life and procreation. The chalices/cups look like grail chalices: Symbol of the element of water, the sacred receptivity of the emotions and the unconscious. The (mind you) double-edged weapon-like swords are symbolic of the ambivalent mind that must make hard choices and deal with their consequences. And the pentacles or coins symbolize the element of Earth, the earthly-material and, of course, money. Waite introduced the pentacle (pentagram) into the symbolism of the coins and wanted to make it clear that the pentacles are about more than just material goods: in the seemingly lifeless matter lies hidden the reflection of the spiritual-divine.

If we divide the major arcana into two rows from the I to X and from the XI to XX, we get coherent (twofold) interpretations of Waite's Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The two remaining cards, 0 and XXI, symbolize the perfect beginning and end states, Alpha and Omega, respectively. Waite did not think much of the usual assignment of the 22 arcana to the 22 Hebrew letters and the 22 channels (connecting paths) of the Tree of Life. In his view, there was no real coherent relationship between them. In his book "The Pictorial Key to the Tarot" he clearly pointed out these inconsistencies (see chapter 3). Elsewhere, however, he mentioned other kabbalistic connections. They are clearly visible, for example, in II The High Priestess: the Tree of Life as a curtain into the fertile (female) world of the 9th Sephiroth Jesod. Not only that the Moon is assigned to the 9th Sephiroth (it lies at the feet of the High Priestess), - Jesod is considered in Kabbalah as the foundation of life and the Tree of Life. The two pillars "Boaz" and "Jachin" represent respectively the left and right pillar of the Tree of Life. Jesod is on the middle pillar in between, as is the II High Priestess. And the curtain alludes to the Kabbalistic "veil" Paroketh, which veils the esoteric world beyond the material (10 Malkuth). For Waite, II The High Priestess was the most profound and important major arcana, along with 0 The Fool.

While the 22 major arcana focus on the subjective, inner unfolding and cognitive worlds of man, the 40 minor arcana show the objective creative forces of nature.

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