Pairing the Major Arcana, Forward and Backward

There are plenty of ways to draw connections between the cards of the Major Arcana. You can do it through numerology, through astrology, through the septenaries or visual cues in their symbolism. One of the simplest ways to find the connections between the cards, though, is simply to fold the sequence of the Major Arcana in half.

There are 22 cards in the Majors, running from the Fool to the World. If you split this down the middle, you get two runs of 11:

  • The Fool, the Magician, the High Priestess, the Empress, the Emperor, the Hierophant, the Lovers, the Chariot, Strength, the Hermit, the Wheel of Fortune
  • Justice, the Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, the Devil, the Tower, the Star, the Moon, the Sun, Judgment, the World

I had always noticed that the Fool and the World go together. This is a classical pairing; they’re the bookends of the Major Arcana, the Alpha and the Omega. The Fool is the undifferentiated starting point of our journey, and the World is the apotheosis we achieve at journey’s end. To borrow language from Carl Jung’s Seven Sermons to the Dead,* the Fool is the all-and-nothing of the pleroma, while the World is the individuated fullness of Abraxas. These two cards go together as the beginning and the end, the seed and the fruit, etc.

This raised an interesting question for me: Can the rest of the Major Arcana be paired off in this way? If we take the two eleven-card sequences obtained by splitting the Majors down the middle, and we flip the second sequence so that it runs backwards, we get a set of pairs:

  • The Fool and the World
  • The Magician and Judgment
  • The High Priestess and the Sun
  • The Empress and the Moon
  • The Emperor and the Star
  • The Hierophant and the Tower
  • The Lovers and the Devil
  • The Chariot and Temperance
  • Strength and Death
  • The Hermit and the Hanged Man
  • The Wheel of Fortune and Justice

We’ve already discussed the Fool and the World. What of the others?

The Magician and Judgment

These cards bookend each other in a simple way: The Magician is the awakening of the ego, and Judgment is transcendence of the ego. The Magician is where we claim our personal autonomy and power, where we say “This is who I am and what I’m about.” Judgment, on the other hand, is a transformative experience where we let go of our personal, individualistic vision of ourself, surrendering the first-person point of view in favor of something larger.

The High Priestess and the Sun

The High Priestess is astrologically linked to the Moon, and the Sun is astrologically linked to, well, the Sun. The High Priestess is a card of mystery, intuition, and initiation, while the Sun gives us the truth in the cold light of day. The High Priestess hints, suggests, and allows us to discover things on our own; the Sun shines a light on them and reveals them to us, as plain as can be. (This is similar to a previous discussion I’ve had on the blog about the Moon, the Sun, and different kinds of truth.)

The Empress and the Moon

This is an interesting one. The Empress is constant, reliable, and nurturing; when we have a problem, we can always turn to her, and we know that she will be there to help us grow. The Moon, on the other hand, is subjective and inconstant. It waxes and wanes, it comes and goes. It can help us sometimes, but other times the light of the moon can deceive and weaken us. The Empress will never lie to us, but the Moon often does. On the other hand, the eternal growth of the Empress can sometimes be unsustainable, while the Moon understands that things have to go in phases, and sometimes we have to contract rather than expanding.

The Emperor and the Star

This connection makes me giggle, because there’s a controversy in Qabalistic Tarot over the correspondences of these two cards on the Tree of Life. The Star should be on the path between Netzach and Yesod, and the Emperor should be between Chokmah and Tiphereth, but Aleister Crowley swapped their placement because he received a channeled message in The Book of the Law that “Tzaddi [the Hebrew letter associated with the Netzach/Yesod path] is not the Star.” Setting the Qabalah aside and looking at their themes, the Emperor is an assertion of personal power, a desire to claim and control the world. The Star, on the other hand, is peaceful and yielding, a card of releasing past wounds and surrendering pain rather than trying to act it out in the world. The Emperor is a warrior; the Star is a retired veteran who has learned to put her weapons down.

The Hierophant and the Tower

The Hierophant likes structure. He’s rigid, unforgiving, and fiercely traditional, believing that the old ways are best. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “A conservative is someone who believes there should never be a first time for anything.” The Tower, however, foils the Hierophant by showing that structure can be unstable. Sometimes the structures we cling to are shoddy and poorly built, and they have faulty foundations. Sometimes, even if we want to hold on to the way things have always been, the only thing to do is to let everything come crashing down so that we can build anew. The Tower is a revolutionary, in contrast with the fierce conservatism of the Hierophant.

The Lovers and the Devil

This is another classic pairing. The Lovers as number VI in the Major Arcana are numerologically linked to the Devil as number XV. The Lovers are all about the relationship of self and other, a sense of perfectly balanced complementary opposites. The Devil, on the other hand, is all about personal appetites with no consideration for others. The Devil doesn’t see beyond himself; he only knows his own wants, without any awareness of how he exists as one agent among many in a world where other people matter just as much as he does.

The Chariot and Temperance

I’m fascinated by this pairing, because it’s one I would never have thought of on its own, but in hindsight it makes so much sense. With the Chariot, we often talk about Plato’s allegory of the soul as a chariot drawn by two horses, which want to go in different directions; the charioteer’s responsibility is to master the horses and have them take him where he wants to go. The Chariot is about the battle to overcome and direct our different drives so that they serve our purpose productively. In Temperance, we see the successful result of that battle, as the opposites are integrated and alchemical transformation is achieved: Heaven is united with earth, fire with water, and so on.

Strength and Death

This is probably the weakest pairing of the eleven presented here, and I confess it’s not easy for me to see a connection. One thing I notice, though, is that both of these cards tell us things don’t have to be so hard all the time. In Strength, we’re at war with ourselves (a holdover from the Chariot), but the card tells us that we don’t have to be. We can be friends with our inner beast, instead of fearing it and trying to put it in a cage. With Death, we’re at war with the inevitable end of things, fighting against eventuality—but the card tells us that it’s time to let go, and allow one thing to end so that another can begin. In both cases, we see that the fight we’re trying to have (though natural and understandable) is actually getting in our way.

The Hermit and the Hanged Man

These are both cards of solitude, contemplation, and shifting perspectives. The difference, however, is that one is voluntary. The Hermit chooses to remove himself to the top of the mountain, so that he can meditate and reflect on his life and values. He has the option to come back down to society at any time. The Hanged Man, on the other hand, is a criminal. He’s been forcibly removed, against his own will, and he’s not allowed to come back. His period of solitude and reflection is externally imposed, a matter of suffering that he has to try to learn from, whereas the Hermit’s asceticism is a voluntary quest for enlightenment. This is an important reminder: Sometimes, we seek out the higher work we do, but other times, we have it thrust upon us.

The Wheel of Fortune and Justice

Finally, we come to the Wheel of Fortune, which is fickle and chancy, and Justice, which is impassive and impartial. Here, we have the fundamental rub between things that happen just because they do and things that happen because they are deserved, or are somehow the consequences of our own actions. These two cards present us with the question: Is there a providential order to the universe? Does everything happen for a reason? And the answer is, uh, ambivalent. Some things do happen for a reason. Some things are born from a sense of cosmic justice. But other times, the universe is random, and chancy, unbelievably kind of unbelievably cruel for no reason at all. We often make the mistake of seeing the Wheel of Fortune when it’s really Justice at work, or vice versa.

*Now, there’s a blast from the past. Haven’t written about that in a while.

Card images in this post are from the Linestrider Tarot.

3 thoughts on “Pairing the Major Arcana, Forward and Backward

  1. I love this deck! When I saw the photos I had to scroll down and see what it was called. *adds to wish list*

    This post also inspired me to do the same with my Thoth deck. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, yes a really interesting look on how the majors can be read. I am thinking how searching into the majors is a bit like gold prospecting, you know out there in the dusty hills digging, turning over stones, and then finding that bright flash of gold that inspires you to keep on looking. Thanks again, foe sharing. Clive..

      Liked by 1 person

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