Tarot 101: Major and Minor Arcana


The Epic Journey

Have you ever been watching a movie and wanted to instructions at the screen? “No, don’t do that! It’s a trap!” Or how about, “Are you crazy? That’s the person of your dreams; don’t walk away!”

It’s easy to know what a character in a fictional film should do. From childhood, we are exposed to the narrative framework. There are only so many plots, twists, and turns a story can take. Our distance from the action as well as our experience with basic plot structure usually allows us to see the ramifications of certain actions long before the character realizes what he or she has done!

Our lives, when looked at closely, are not all that different from a fictional pot. We (the main character) begin the journey with a certain set of physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual gifts and obstacles. We start our journey by choosing a direction, and along the way we encounter people, places, and things that affect our growth and determine our successes and failures. At any point along the way, we are free to turn in a new direction or choose a different path. Often, we will journey far only to find ourselves at the start of another journey, with a new set of paths to choose from, and a new adventure ahead of us!

Understanding these patterns and familiarizing yourself with the archetypal people, places and things you may encounter on the way can give you amazing insight into how to make the best choices. The tarot provides guidance not only to help you determine where you are on the path, but what direction will provide you with the best outcome.

Major Arcana

When you open your new deck of tarot cards, one of the first things you notice is that the deck is split into two sections: The Major and the Minor Arcanas. The Minor Arcana cards are designed like playing cards, with four suits, numbered cards from one to ten, and four “face” cards.

The other cards will look different. The Major Arcana has 22 cards, and goes from Zero (The Fool) to 21 (The World). The cards follow the travels of The Fool through the Hero’s Journey, and along the way we meet such characters as The High Priestess (2), The Lovers (6), The Devil (15) and encounter cards like The Chariot (7), The Tower (16), and Death (13) himself. At every point along the way, there are new lessons to learn and new insights to be gained.

When a Major Arcana card appears in your spread, it indicates a life lesson is being presented to you. For instance, the Ten of Swords may indicate that you are bottoming out, that you are at “darkest before the dawn” in reference to the question you’re asking. However, should The Tower appear, you are about to undergo a major change in your life. Just as with the Ten of Swords, The Tower can indicate difficulties and a need to accept change and let go of the past, but the stakes are much higher.

In this lesson, I want to focus on two Major Arcana cards, The Fool (0) and The Magician (1).

Going back to that movie analogy, let’s use Star Wars: A New Hope as an example. At the beginning of the film, Luke Skywalker is The Fool. He is at a crossroads in his life, no longer a child and not yet an adult. He sees several paths ahead of him – does he become a father like his uncle, does he become a pilot like his friends, or does he follow the two beat up droids in search of the mysterious princess and Obiwan Kenobi?

When The Fool appears in a reading, it signals a time of choice and opportunity. Please note that the number for The Fool is not one, but zero. The Fool indicates a time between times, before the first step of the journey, when all things are possible. It’s simultaneously scary and invigorating and freeing. The message is clear—lighten up, have fun, explore the possibilities offered to you.

The Magician appears when the path has been chosen, when the first step is taken, when the course has been set. The act of commitment to a path is a very powerful one, and the Mage knows that this is often the hardest step of all. The appearance of The Magician in a reading is usually a good omen, as it means the querent has made a commitment to the path they’ve chosen. The Magician is committed to the acquisition and wise use of knowledge and power and is a useful ally on the journey of life.

These are just two of the fascinating cards of the Major Arcana. I would encourage you to take some time to familiarize yourself with the Major Arcana cards. Your guide book will offer descriptions and guidelines, or you can check out Tarot.com for more detailed descriptions.


Minor Arcana

Just as the Major Arcana cards tell a story, so do the Minor Arcana. The Minor Arcana cards, however, deal with the more day-to-day aspects of life, rather than Major Life Events™. The Minor Arcana consists of 40 numbered cards separated into four suits, which will be discussed in depth in a future lesson.

Each suit can be separated into two parts, the numbered cards and the face or court cards. While the numbered cards represent a progression, the court represents various forms of mastery of the suit.

Numbered Cards

Imagine you’re playing a game of hopscotch. On each odd square, you must land on a single foot, while on each even number, you are to land on both feet simultaneously. The basic movement of the game would be that odd numbers pushed you forward, while the even numbers gave you balance and a moment of stability. The Minor Arcana number cards are no different.

The number one (or ace) is like stepping on to the path. There is an initial force that moves you forward, whether it is financial, creative, emotional or intellectually. The ace is going to get you going, break you out of the inertia the past towards a new destination.

The number two is that moment of balance when you realize you’ve committed to the relationship, you’ve established a partnership for the business, or you’ve started to look at the deeper issues facing your creative endeavor. Either way, the two card represents a pause in forward momentum to balance and assess before taking another step.

And so it, goes, from the creativity of the threes into the manifestation and structure of the fours, from the conflict of the fives to the harmony of the sixes. When you look at the number cards in your deck carefully, you can see this pattern begin to emerge. And the more you work with your individual cards, the more the rhythm of the cards begin to emerge and your confidence begins to grow.

Court Cards

There is a lot of confusion about the court cards. Do they represent actual people? Do they represent traits? Or is it a mixture of both.

Understanding the Royals in the Minor Arcana can take a bit of work. Yes, the appearance of a royal card can refer to a specific person or to the querent themselves. But often, they can represent a stage of mastery in the suit.

Note: The deck I use primarily, The Enchanted Tarot, refers to the Princess and Prince of each suit. Your deck may refer to the m as the Page and the Knight. These names are interchangeable. I will use Princess and Prince as those are the terms I feel most comfortable using.

Over the past almost 30 years of reading, I’ve noticed a couple of tendencies about the court cards. First, the females (Princess and Queen) tend to be more receptive while the males (Prince and King) are more expressive. For example, the Princess gathers information, while the Prince is out exploring. The Queen is the nurture, while the King metes out authority. Second, while these characteristics may reflect old-fashioned gender biases (sorry about that!), the appearance of a gendered card in the Minor Arcana does not necessarily have to relate to a person of that same gender. The Prince of Hearts can be a heart-breaking lothario, seeking emotional stimulation in a somewhat reckless way—but nobody said the prince had to be a man. The Queen of Pentacles (Coins) is the nurturer, but not all nurturers have to be mothers (or even women.)

The easiest way to remember the court cards are this—the Princess and Prince reflect youth and relative inexperienced, where the Queen and King are more mature and established. Each expresses his or her own area of expertise and dominion, with his or her own flaws and strengths. Once you understand where each character in this court is, you can then apply that to his or her suit.

Take out your cards and pull out the court cards. Look at the pictures closely on the cards before reading the descriptions in your book. Is the Princess kind, or petulant? Is the Prince daring, or arrogant? Can you see both tendencies hidden in their features? The more familiar you become with these Minor Arcana characters, the more they will help you understand their position and value in a reading.

In our next lesson, we will delve deeper into the Suits.

Until then, if you liked this post and would like to follow us on social media, please visit our Facebook page. We are also available to readings in person, over the phone, or online. As always, comments and shares are greatly appreciated.

Peace and Love,


P.S. If you like the image on this post, please check out The Enchanted Tarot by Amy Zerner and Monte Warner.  To access the entire Tarot 101 series, click here.

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