What on earth is a septenary? The term is taken from the Tarot of the Bohemians, which is one of those important historical texts that were integral to the formation of modern Tarot but that are rarely of interest to twenty-first century Tarot readers. I’ve also, on occasion, seen the terms Tarot septad or Tarot heptad* to refer to the concept.
The septenaries are one of many useful ways to understand the Major Arcana of the Tarot. (Part of me wants to write Major Arcana in italics, because my child-brain doesn’t understand technology and thinks that SEO is basically just about italicizing important words. But my adult-brain thinks things are probably more complicated than that.) The basic idea is that you break up the twenty-two Major cards into three thematic sequences.
Here’s how you do it: Take the Fool and set him aside. Because he is unnumbered, he exists outside the progression of the Major Arcana. That leaves you with twenty-one cards, and, as you may recall from third-grade math, twenty-one divides evenly into three. You now have three equal progressions:**
The First Septenary:
Magician – High Priestess – Empress – Emperor – Hierophant – Lovers – Chariot
The Second Septenary:
Strength – Hermit – Wheel of Fortune – Justice – Hanged Man – Death – Temperance
The Third Septenary:
Devil – Tower – Star – Moon – Sun – Judgment – World
The three septenaries of the Major Arcana break down the Fool’s journey into three equal parts, three mini-journeys that reflect each other. First, he progresses from the Magician to the Chariot. Then, from Strength to Temperance. And finally, from the Devil to the World. Each septenary is meant to be a microcosm of the overall development of the Fool’s journey in the larger scheme of the Majors.
According to the Tarot of the Bohemians, “The first septenary corresponds to the Divine World, to God. The second to Man. The third to Nature.” In other words, the Fool’s journey is composed of three smaller journeys wherein the Fool learns about divinity, humanity, and the natural world.
Another, slightly modernized version of the septenaries (and the one I use in my personal practice) is to think of them as progressively expanding spheres of understanding. The first septenary, starting with the ego-energy of the Magician, is about individual understanding and the personal psyche. The second septenary, full of virtues like Strength, Justice, and Temperance, is about social and moral understanding. And finally, the third septenary, with cosmic forces like the Sun, Moon, Star, and World, is about transcendence and religious/spiritual/mystical understanding.
In a reading, if you get a whole bunch of cards from the second septenary, that might tell you that your querent is subject to extraordinary social pressures. If you get a bunch of cards from the first septenary, that might tell you your querent is strong-willed and individualistic. And so on. These are not necessarily things to look for in a reading, but if they crop up and you happen to notice them, they could provide insight.
You may also want to look at the way that cards intersect across the septenaries. For example, the Magician, Strength, and the Devil are all linked. Each occupies the first position in its respective septenary. They share a sort of cardinal, kickstarter energy, a sense of getting things moving and initiating change in the personal, social, or cosmic spheres.
Likewise, the High Priestess, the Hermit, and the Tower are joined by a common theme of seeking understanding. The High Priestess is the initiator who draws back the veil and exposes us to higher mysteries within ourselves. The Hermit is the recluse who hides himself away from society in order to find truth. The Tower is a sudden, drastic change that seems inexplicable and that leaves us questioning everything we thought we knew.
And so on, and so forth. You can find a common theme in each set of three cards marked out by the septenaries. Some are harder to find than others, and there’s no real authoritative way to say what’s what. (Doing this is, incidentally, a great exercise for Tarot journalling.)
Working with the septenaries of the Major Arcana can be an interesting way to delve more deeply into the connections between Major cards. I, personally, also like it because I think it reflects on the cyclical nature of Tarot–the progression of the Majors contains smaller versions of itself, each septenary cycling into the next to form a much larger cycle overall.
*Although this last one is more often associated with a Kabbalistic concept.
**Note: Papus, in The Tarot of the Bohemians, offers a more complicated system of with septenaries of six cards each, and then four cards that he calls “the ternary of transition”. This is interesting stuff, but the version presented here is easier. I think I got the simplified septenaries from reading Rachel Pollack, although I’m not 100% sure of that. If you want to read the original Papus, you can find it for free here.