The Major Arcana comes to us in a numbered sequence, and over time that sequence has become a vital part of the cards' interpretation. Most tarot commentators do not look to the Magician only for its individual qualities but as card I, the beginning of the journey. For Qabalists, the order of the cards determines what pathway each one occupies on the Tree of Life. And yet, part of the glory of the tarot lies in the fact that these are cards and not a bound book. Instead of a fixed sequence, they actually form an entirely new order every time we shuffle and lay them out.
Let us imagine, for the moment, that the tarot indeed comes from spirit guides (the Radiant Ones, or the Shining Tribe, as I like to call them). If they had wanted to give their original disciples a fixed sequence of symbols they would have handed them a single table, or a sewn book. Instead, they gave them cards (the cards of the oldest deck we know, the
The standard sequence is often called "the Fool's Journey," because the prime card, the Fool, shows a carefree traveler. In this new way of thinking, however, the Fool's Journey is simply one variation of the Major Arcana. If we mixed the cards, and the first card, the theme card, was the High Priestess, we might call the Major Arcana as a whole "the High Priestess's Meditation," and see it as a vast meditative vision.
To aid our interpretations we can follow any of the structural patterns first discovered in the traditional order. There are many such patterns, and any of them will give us a way to understand the cards. During the years I have worked with tarot I have found it valuable to set the Fool aside, as the focus card, and lay out the rest in three rows of seven. (For the reasons behind this system, see my book 78 Degrees of Wisdom.) Here is the pattern:
The initial card is the theme card. Each of the three lines below it contains the same structure. The first two cards lay out the basic issues for that line. For example, in the standard sequence, the Magician and the High Priestess symbolize the basic opposites of life—active and still, light and dark, speech and silence, conscious and unconscious. The middle three cards show the "work" of that line: the issues we must face if we want to grasp the message of the cards, and in fact live them out. The Empress, the Emperor, and the Hierophant symbolize such matters as nature, society, and tradition, or mother, father, and education. In each line, the card right in the center forms a test, or crisis. For many people the Emperor is a difficult card. It confronts us with society, with rules and restrictions. If we wish to acknowledge the Emperor in ourselves we have to set boundaries and organize structures. If we want to journey through the various stages of life we must come to terms with the Emperor and his structures.
The final two cards represent the achievements of the line. Card VI shows a direct experience that we get after we accomplish the work, while VII indicates what we can become. Thus, by going through the the life work of Empress, Emperor, and Hierophant, the Fool gets to experience the passion of the Lovers and take on the successful persona of the Chariot. The other two lines repeat the same pattern, going to deeper levels of knowledge and wisdom.
With this (or any other structural system) in mind we can mix the Major Arcana and see what we get. There are two ways to do this. You can shuffle all twenty-two and set out your initial card as your theme. If the first card you turn over is Justice you will have a Justice Major Arcana, in which you will learn about the issues, challenges, and life experiences that arise from this subject. If the card is Strength you will learn what tests and rewards come as we learn how to be spiritually strong. What if the first card we turn over happens to be the Fool? Well, then we will have a new Fool's Journey.
The second method allows us to examine a chosen theme. Suppose you feel challenged by questions of love and relationship. You could set out the Lovers card, mix the remaining twenty-one Major Arcana cards, and lay them out in rows of seven below the Lovers. The pattern would illustrate the question of love in your life.
Here is an example of the first method, shuffling all twenty-two. The deck used was Shining Woman Tarot, designed and drawn by myself.
The theme card is the Chariot, so the issues deal with the ways we handle being forceful in the world. The first line shows the basic issues involved. It begins with the Emperor and Justice. To ride your Chariot in life you need to be strong and set boundaries. You also need to act justly and honestly so that you do not become a tyrant. The three work cards are the Spiral (Wheel, in traditional decks) of Fortune, the High Priestess, and Strength. A forceful Charioteer needs to know how to adjust for turns of Fortune. He or she needs inner Strength to give real depth to that outwardly directed will. The crucial test, however, is the High Priestess, symbol of inner mysteries, for the Chariot tends to direct all its attention outward. Having done this work, we now experience the Magician—that is, the magical creativity of a directed will—and receive the World (in this deck called Shining Woman), symbol of spiritual success to balance the Chariot's outward power.
The second line works on a more internal level. Temperance and Death are both challenges for the Chariot. The first demands calm and balance, while the second confronts us with loss. Both involve surrender of control. In the work sequence, both the Lovers and the Fool call on the Charioteer to further give up control, while the Hermit, as the central test, requires the Chariot driver to enter that state first described in he card above it, the High Priestess. Having followed this theme of surrender, the Charioteer finds a return to consciousness in the Star, supported by the truths of Tradition (Hierophant in traditional decks).
The final line goes still further in exploring these themes. The Tower and the Sun are opposites. The first symbolizes moments when everything seems to fall apart, the second times of simplicity and pleasure. Both are very intense, filled with power. The work cards continue the intensity. At this deepest level the Charioteer must confront his dark Devil and find the greater values of the World Tree in the Hanged Woman (or Man). In between, he or she must drive the Chariot through the half-light of the Moon, the card of deep instinct. Students of tarot symbolism will notice the connection between the three middle cards, the High Priestess, the Hermit, and the Moon.
The final two cards allow the Charioteer, originally focused on success, to enjoy the wonders of the Empress's pure passion followed by a spiritual Awakening, bringing him out of material concerns.
This layout follows one particular pattern. You could set alternative Major Arcanas in any system. If you wished, you could lay the cards on the Tree of Life and discover what it might mean, for example, that the Chariot now appears on the path between Kether and Chokmah, the Emperor between Kether and Binah, and so on. What matters is the freedom the alternatives give us to look at the cards in fresh ways.
This particular example of an alternative Major Arcana came up entirely through a random shuffle. It demonstrates the tarot's wisdom and its ability to challenge us with new ideas. All we have to do is shuffle and lay out the cards.
From Llewellyn's 2001 Tarot Calendar. For more Llewellyn tarot decks and books, click here.