Every now and then, I sit down with a notebook and a pen. I write out a numbered list going from 0 to 21 (or, more rarely, four side-by-side lists going from 1 to 14), and I start to take notes, trying to see if I can look at Tarot from a new angle. This is how I came across my method of calculating birth, year, and name cards in base 22, which I still think is the coolest thing ever. Today’s post starts from a simple, innocuous observation: That the number 21 is triangular. It can be expressed as the sum of the consecutive numbers from 1 through 6. (That is to say, 1+2+3+4+5+6=21.) I decided to map that mathematical series onto the Major Arcana and see if anything worthwhile came from it.
Setting aside the Fool (Key 0), we’re left with 21 cards in the Major Arcana. I wanted to see what would happen if we subdivided those 21 cards into 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. Being a simple creature, I started with Key 1, the Magician. Then I put Keys 2 and 3, the High Priestess and the Empress, together. And I worked my way through the rest of the Majors. The groups I produced were as follows:
- The Magician
- The High Priestess & the Empress
- The Emperor, the Hierophant, & the Lovers
- The Chariot, Strength, the Hermit, and the Wheel of Fortune
- Justice, the Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, and the Devil
- The Tower, the Star, the Moon, the Sun, Judgment, and the World
Okay, cool. I have a fancy division of the Major Arcana into groups? Now what? Is there any significance to be found in this, or is it just idle mental play?
Well, a little bit of both. Unlike the septenaries, which I feel reveal a great deal about the structure and meaning of the Tarot, these six groups are probably not reflective of anything deep and essential. I find it cool that 21 is a triangular number and that the Majors can be divided in this way, but I doubt this division is one of the great mysteries built into the Tarot deck. However, that said, this is Tarot—we are in the business of finding patterns, telling stories, and creating meaning. Just because something is not part of the deep mysticism of the Tarot deck doesn’t mean it can’t prove useful to our own study of Tarot.
With that in mind, I went through these groups and tried to identify what the cards in each group had in common. The Magician was the easiest one (obviously, because there was nothing else to compare it to). This is a card of selfhood, of individuation, ego-consciousness, and willful direction.
Moving to the next group, we find the High Priestess and the Empress. Color me Wiccan, but when I see these two cards together I tend to think of them as expressions of the divine feminine. For anyone familiar with Dion Fortune, Helena Blavatsky, or other Big Name Occultists who wrote on this topic I think of these cards as Isis Unveiled and Isis Veiled. The Veil of Isis is a really interesting mystical concept that I believe comes from Plutarch,* and I won’t be able to condense it into a paragraph, but the gist of it is this: Isis, herself, is taken to be the spirit that animates the divine universe. She is the mystery that lies behind the manifest world. She wears that world—the lush greenery of the earth, fruitfulness, abundance, and everything that we associate with the Mother Nature stereotype—as a sort of “veil”, a garment that cloaks her true and unknowable nature to make it fit for the eyes of mortals. Isis unveiled is the mystery beyond the world that we can see, touch, and know. To me, these figures perfectly map to the Empress and the High Priestess.
Looking at the third group, we find the Emperor, the Hierophant, and the Lovers. Initially, I was tempted to label this group as the divine masculine to complement group 2 and its divine feminine, but I don’t think that really works. The Lovers is not a masculine card. It’s not a gendered card at all. Upon further reflection, I decided that the common thread I find in these three cards is a theme of submission. The Emperor and the Hierophant are both powerful authority figures, though one finds his authority in charisma and the other in tradition. The Lovers is fundamentally about the pursuit of something greater than the individual self. Usually, it has an angel in the background representing divine providence. In all three cards, we get a notion of submission: Submission to power, submission to tradition, and submission to a higher purpose.
In group 4, we find the Chariot, Strength, the Hermit, and the Wheel of Fortune. Here, I find a theme of seeking. The Chariot is obvious. Strength, I think, is pretty clear as well (although one could easily make the argument that it fits better in the “submission” group). The figure on the Strength card seeks, well, strength. The Hermit seeks knowledge by withdrawing from the world, and the Wheel of Fortune teaches us that fate doesn’t always bring what we seek.
Group 5 is another one that I initially had a hard time pinning down. It contains the Hanged Man, Death, and the Devil, so my go-to reaction was to label it as suffering, but that’s not quite right. Neither Justice nor Temperance is a card of suffering. Rather, the cards in this group talk about transformation, and often the transformation that can come out of suffering. This is clearest with the Hanged Man, Death, and Temperance. The Devil is a card of confrontation between ego and id; Justice is a confrontation between the self and society. Both cards inevitably result in transformation.
Finally, we come to group 6, where we see the forces of nature: The World, the Sun, the Moon, and the Star, along with the Tower (disasters, both natural and metaphorical) and Judgment. Unsurprisingly, this group bears a close resemblance to the third septenary, since it contains six of the seven cards therefrom.
This is rather an eclectic set of themes. It doesn’t look anything like a complete taxonomy of the Major Arcana, and I don’t think it works as such. However, after sitting with it some more, I realized that it does work as a Tarot spread. Try a six-card “quest” spread based on the themes I pulled out of these groupings:
- Self: The querent.
- Divine: A message from the divine. For non-theistic readers and querents, this can be read as unconscious desires or emotions.
- Submission: A task given to the querent by an external person or circumstance.
- Seeking: How the querent can fulfill that task.
- Transformation: How the pursuit of the quest will change the querent.
- World: What will manifest upon completion of the quest.
This spread could be useful for querents who are looking for direction, who have recently undergone major life changes or rites of passage, or who are trying to find a way to enrich some aspect of their lives. Personally, I’d be most inclined to use this spread to talk about religious or spiritual questions, and if I did use it for something else,** I’d probably rename the “divine” spread position to something a little more mundane.
I tested this spread out for myself, as I do with every spread I invent, and I used Ana Tourian’s breathtaking Hidden Waters Tarot. Here’s what I pulled:
- Self — The Wise Crone: This is one of the four oracle cards Tourian added to her deck (see my review for more information).
- Divine — King of Wands reversed: The first thing I notice is that this is a strong masculine card, but the reversal makes it ill-dignified. In this position, I’m inclined to interpret KWrx as having to do with releasing old notions of masculinity, power, and control. The King of Wands in particular likes to be in charge, so the reversal here really strikes me as having to do with letting go of some of his stronger impulses.
- Submission — King of Cups reversed: Interesting to have two rx Kings pop up back to back like that. I see KCrx as a reinforcement and softer reflection of the message from KWrx above. The King of Cups is more compassionate and other-focused than the (admittedly rather self-important) King of Wands, but he is still very much a figure who works to conform to a specific vision of masculinity, authority, and control. The task here is to release all this Kinglike energy I seem to have swirling around.
- Seeking — The Hierophant reversed: Yet another card that represents a male figure of authority, showing up in reverse. Jeez Louise, I get the message.
- Transformation — the Tower: Well, that one’s pretty self-explanatory. Break ’em down and build ’em back up.
- World — The God: This is another of the oracle cards Tourian added to this deck, representative of the divine masculine. Interesting to see a male card upright after that run up above. The message here seems quite clear: Through submission, and through letting go of previously held notions of myself and my own role in patriarchal society, I can rebuild my identity in the image of a healthier form of masculinity and a healthier set of expectations of myself.
There are a couple of other things I notice in this spread, but they’re a bit more on the private and personal side, so I’ll leave those off this post. Regardless, I hope you get a good sense for how this spread works in practice, and whether it’s something you’d be interested in doing.
As a division of the Major Arcana, the 1-2-3-4-5-6 thing doesn’t seem to work all that well. It doesn’t provide any great insight (to my eye, at least) that wasn’t already available elsewhere. But I do quite like the spread I got out of it, and I think I’ll keep this one on hand for future readings. As is always the case when I post a spread, I would love to hear from anyone who ends up using it. Do you like it? Did it work for you? Please do let me know.
*See section 9 of his Isis and Osiris. Plutarch is the fucking best. Everyone needs to read more Plutarch.
**For example, I think this would also be a great “I’m in a rut and I don’t know how to get out” spread.