The Major Arcana of the tarot is often called ‘The Journey of the Fool’ and is said to describe the life experience from innocence to wisdom. Few decks and books give equal weight to the Minor Arcana, but I believe that the realms of the minors are an essential part of the Fool’s journey. Together, they give a rounded picture of human life, of who and what we are and the forces that shape us. The Minor Arcana describes the outward journey of life and its lessons, while the Major Arcana describes the inward focus of the path of spiritual quest and initiation.

The Fool is usually placed at the beginning of the Major Arcana (though Crowley placed him at the end) but the number of this card is zero, which tells us that the Fool stands outside the deck.  The whole tarot is his journey and ours as he represents each one of us as we travel through the events and mysteries of life, mundane and sacred. For this reason I have placed him right at the beginning so that he can undertake each life stage in turn and travel from youth to maturity, middle age, old age and finally into spiritual initiation.

THE MINOR ARCANA – The Journey of Life

The four suits of the Minor Arcana relate to the four tools used in magical practice and the spiritual truths that underlie them. They represent the material world, human nature, aspiration and circumstances. The tools of the four suits appear on the Magician’s altar and signify control over these forces within and harmony with nature without. The fifty six cards of the Minor Arcana are lessons that help us to balance the four elements in order to achieve this.

In modern Pagan magic we work with the elements of earth, air, fire and water. These are not elements as defined by the periodic table but four principles of energy. This idea comes not from Judeo-Christian magick, as many assume, but from ancient Pagan philosophy. The four elements as the basic building blocks of creation were first defined by Empedocles, a fifth century BCE philosopher from Sicily who was an initiate of several mystery traditions. His Tetrasomia or ‘Doctrine of the Four Elements’ influenced Western philosophy and magic in the succeeding millennia. He didn’t actually call these four principles ‘elements’ (stoikheia), but ‘roots’ (rhizai). For him, the elements were not just physical forms but manifested spiritual essences or even god energies since they were the fourfold roots of everything which had existed in fixed quantities since the beginning of the universe, not as isolated things, but part of the whole.

Swords: Intent

The youthful Fool begins his journey in the Realm of Swords. For most modern Pagans this corresponds to the direction of the east, the point of sunrise at the vernal equinox, and is associated with spring, youth, new beginnings, growth and the element of air.

The word ‘spirit’ is derived from the Latin spiro, meaning ‘I breathe’.  Wind, breath and spirit were believed by many peoples to be identical.  In several creation myths, it is the movement of air/spirit across the grosser elements of earth and water that brings about creation. In Greek myth, when humans were created from mud (water and earth) they were animated by Prometheus’ gift of fire, but not completed until Athene breathed spirit into them.

Air is what separates individual things but it unites them through breath. The air you breathe is the air I breathe, and through it we are joined. The Pythagoreans thought that the universe itself breathed, and this breathing created time and number, limiting the unlimited. The breathing of the universe unites our individual breaths and binds our individual spirits into one. The secret of breath is part of the magic of air. We take air into us which contains vital energy that some call prana, which means both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’.

Inhaled air is the sustaining breath of life, while exhaled air carries the words, poetry and song that convey human ideas and knowledge. The powers of air are concerned with the intellect, the abilities of the mind, knowledge (as opposed to wisdom), logic, inspiration, information, teaching, memory, thought and communication. Like the other elements, its power can be constructive or destructive. The gentle breeze cools and brings the life giving rain, but it can become the destructive hurricane. It is for this reason that the magical symbol of air is a two-edged sword.

 The suit of swords is the most challenging in the Minor Arcana: a sword card always means a trial of some kind. In a reading they can indicate difficulties, battles, enemies, hatred, insensitivity and the abuse of power. However, they can also signify courage, intelligence, action and change. After all, the sword is a weapon that can be used for good or evil purposes, to defend or to attack. Some of the cards of this suit show what happens when the power of the sword is misused.

 Sword cards in a reading most often reflect your state of mind. A tarot spread that is predominantly sword cards describes arguments, mental struggles and hard decisions to be made. Though painful, this may ultimately be a positive and necessary experience; the sword of truth can cut through ignorance, self-deceit, unhealthy thought patterns and false beliefs, showing you the underlying motives behind appearances, including your own. It reminds you that your mind governs your reality, and you should not allow unhealthy thoughts to overwhelm you and mire you with confusion, but work with positive intent.

 Wands: Will

The now adult Fool continues his journey into the Realm of Wands. The Sun stands highest in the south, so the south is the point of the circle associated with the summer solstice, midday, with things beginning to ripen, maturity, with will and illumination.

Wands and the south are usually connected with fire, the most mysterious of all the elements. It seems almost supernatural in comparison to earth, air or water which are states of matter while fire is energy. Fire is concerned with creativity, life energy and zeal. Fire gives us vitality, igniting action, animation and movement; it sparks courage and acts of bravery, it heats passion and enthusiasm. It is the power of inner sight and creative vision, directing it and controlling it to make it manifest in the world. Fire generates illumination within and is the light of the spirit.

Fire is an agent of transformation – the food in the cauldron is changed as it cooks as raw ores and metals are altered into useful objects on the blacksmith’s forge. Fire can be the glow of the candle flame, the warmth of the hearth, the blazing heat of the desert or the incandescence of the Sun. However, fire can consume; it can be wild, untameable and dangerous, indiscriminately burning and destroying all that lies within its path.

While swords represent acquired knowledge, logical thought and mental ability, wands represent a spiritual level of consciousness. Wands are concerned with your life’s purpose, your sense of meaning and direction – your will. Whenever a wand card appears it is indicative of action, movement and change.  The positive associations of wands are action, energy, inspiration, growth, passion, movement and creativity. However, wands can also indicate anger, disruption, mischief and unruliness. When a wand appears reversed in a reading it can be a sign of stagnation, lack of movement and delusion.

Cups: Love

On the third stage of his journey, the Fool enters the Realm of Cups, which corresponds to the season of autumn, harvest, sunset, the west and middle age.

Cups correspond to water, which has often been considered to be a living thing, or certainly to have the power of sustaining and bestowing life, as well as being capable of taking it. Every ancient society honoured springs, wells and water sources as sacred.

Water is liquid, like the blood that flows through our veins. Water can manifest in a drop of dew, the gentle rain, the raging flood or the power of the sea to give bounty or destroy with its tempests. A trickle of water will eventually wear away a mountain. Water is ruled by the Moon which pulls the ebb and flow of the tides. Water relates to the ebb and flow of events, the natural tides of life.

In a reading, cups represent the emotions and the subconscious mind. All of the suits have emotional aspects (wands relate to passion, swords to worries and pentacles to a practical approach) but cups are about love, bliss, relationships to others, compassion, idealism and the power of experience. Such emotions can lead us to seek beauty and use our imaginations to create wonderful poetry and works of art. This feeling can also spur us to search for Divine love, to open ourselves to psychic visions and clairvoyance.

However, the negative powers of cups include selfishness, avarice, ruthlessness and indecisiveness. Reversed cups can indicate self-centredness, overindulgence in drink, drugs or sex, vacillation, fantasy, weakness and nostalgia.

Pentacles: Manifestation

Pentacles relate to the north, the cardinal point of the circle never touched by the Sun and therefore associated with darkness, midnight, winter, mystery and the unknown. It is also the point of the winter solstice and rebirth through death.

In most forms of modern Paganism, the north is associated with the element of earth. Earth is the densest of all the elements, solid like the bones that structure our bodies. Earth is generally fixed, unlike the other elements which are mobile. From the stuff of earth grows all living things and its immense nurturing power can sustain the greatest oak tree and the tiniest flower. It is associated with the material and the practical, the physical world and crystallised energy.

We are rooted in the physical realm; it links us to who we are, to the past, to our ancestors, to the land. The physical world is not something to be despised but the manifestation of the Divine creative force, sacred in itself, which supports and feeds us. Pentacles are magic and creation manifested in which the other elements must be balanced and made real.

In a reading, Pentacles concern all that is solid and rooted, all that we consider to be of this world: shaping and making, business, work, health, the body, self-image, practicality and home, as well as the natural world and ecology, social responsibility and interaction.

However, we can become too involved with the purely material; Pentacles in their negative aspect can indicate greed, possessiveness, over indulgence in luxuries, laziness, bigotry, gluttony, pedantry, snobbery, clumsiness, stubbornness and inflexibility.

 THE MAJOR ARCANA – The Journey of Initiation

From the everyday concerns of the Minor Arcana, the Fool turns inwards and enters the Major Arcana, the path of initiation. True initiation is not a moment or a ceremony, but an ongoing process of expanding consciousness.

Paganism is a mystery religion. The word ‘mystery’ comes from the Greek musterion meaning a secret rite or doctrine. A follower of the mysteries in ancient Greece was a mystes  or ‘initiate’, a term originating in the word myein meaning ‘to close’ or ‘to shut’. In the ancient world, the mysteries were not open to everyone, but only to those who were properly trained and prepared, those who were mature and responsible enough to approach them with due reverence and ready for the profound inner changes they would create.

Initiations are a death and rebirth process, the candidate undergoing the same journey as their god or goddess resulting in the aspirant becoming one of the ‘twice-born’, not symbolically, but in a very real sense: the flawed old self must die so that the purified new self can emerge. The old self can never be reclaimed, and a new self emerges from the old shell. The process is traumatic: true initiation is a harrowing process, and one which may lead equally to enlightenment or madness.

Plutarch commented that the soul at the point of death undergoes the same experience as those who have been initiated into the great mysteries:

“…at first wandering to and fro, and journeys with suspicion through the dark as one uninitiated, and then come all the terrors before the final initiation, shuddering, trembling, sweating, amazement: then one is struck with a marvellous light and is received into pure regions…and bearing his crown joins in the divine communion… and the initiate beholds the uninitiated …huddled together in mud and fog, abiding in their miseries through fear of death and mistrust of the blessings there.[1]

Not every aspirant will gain true initiation in this lifetime. There are plenty of people out there claiming higher degrees who don’t even realise they have never had a true initiation.  If a person encounters many difficulties on the path of initiation the Gods may be telling them that they are not ready, or it may be that they are being tested to see whether they are committed enough to overcome any obstacles. The Gods often interfere in someone’s life to point them in the right direction or deter them from following the wrong path for them.

Initiation is an ongoing journey of the spirit which is a continuing succession of trials, revelations, back-sliding and progress, and these stages are reflected in the Major Arcana.

© Anna Franklin, Pagan Ways Tarot, Schiffer, 2015




[1] Quoted in Mircea Eliade From Primitives to Zen, Collins, London, 1967, p 302


Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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