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Tarot Archetypes of the Major Arcana

This article was written by Corrine Kenner
posted under Tarot

Technically speaking, an archetype is a primal pattern of thought—inborn, instinctive, and imprinted on every human’s subconscious mind. Carl Jung, a psychotherapist and a colleague of Sigmund Freud, was the first person to popularize the theory of archetypes. He studied dreams, myths, and legends, and concluded that we’re all born with an innate ability to understand archetypes. In fact, he said, we’re all pre-programmed to look for archetypes in our everyday lives, because they serve as a framework for our understanding of the world. Jung’s descriptions of commonly recognized archetypes include the hero, the maiden, and the wise old man. Other archetypes include the anima, the feminine aspect of a man’s personality; the animus, the masculine aspect of a woman’s personality; the mother, which typifies a nurturing, emotional parent; the father, a physical, protective parent; the trickster, or rebel; and the shadow, the hidden, antisocial dark side of human nature.

Every card in the Major Arcana embodies an archetypal figure:

 0.  The Fool is the happy wanderer who sees the world through the eyes of a child. Most tarot experts agree that the Fool represents each of us—naive travelers through life, off on a grand adventure, out to learn whatever experience the tarot can teach us.


 1.  The Magician is the skilled and cunning master of all he surveys. He represents an individual in control of life’s tools and techniques, like those on the table in front of him. Typically, they include a cup, sword, pentacle, and wand—the four symbols of the Minor Arcana.

 2.  The High Priestess is the enigmatic keeper of spiritual secrets. Secretive and guarded, she knows the secrets life holds—but she shares them only with the wise.

 3.  The Empress is the archetypal mother who nurtures and protects all of her creation, including humankind.

 4.  The Emperor is the authoritative protector and provider who rules the known world. A father figure, he brings order out of chaos so that civilization can prosper.

 5.  The Hierophant is a symbol of traditional authority and influence. He’s the head of a hierarchy, determined to maintain his religious and cultural traditions.

 6.  The Lovers embody the twin principles of opposition and attraction. While an appearance by this couple could encourage any hopeless romantic, the card also signifies a choice to be made between two equally strong desires.

 7.  The Chariot is a vehicle for forward motion and change. The young charioteer is in command of his physical and emotional drives, even when they seem to oppose each other.

 8.  Strength is the lovely lady with the heart of a lion. She gently holds the jaws of a powerful wild cat, patiently controlling a force that could otherwise eat her alive.

 9.  The Hermit is a recluse, far removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. He reflects on spiritual concerns, and carries the light of wisdom as a beacon for others to follow.

10.  The Wheel of Fortune is the spinning wheel of destiny and fate. Because nothing is certain but change itself, the Wheel of Fortune reminds us all that what goes up must also come down.

11.  Justice is both the giver and enforcer of laws. As the ultimate arbiter, she holds a two-edged sword—a reminder that fairness cuts both ways.

12.  The Hanged Man sacrifices his comfort and passions for a time, knowing that better things will occur as a result. He is the visionary who sacrifices one life to be rewarded with another.

13.  Death is the card of transition. Like the Grim Reaper, who clears away all that cannot survive, the card depicts the turning of a page, the completion of one chapter of life, and the exciting start of a new story.

14.  Temperance is the archangel of balance. With dexterity and grace, Temperance demonstrates that moderation can serve as a bridge to wholeness.

15.  The Devil is the dark and shadowy side of our existence. With tongue firmly in cheek, he demonstrates how a selfish devotion to material possessions and ill-conceived passions can tie us down and keep us from true happiness.

16.  The Tower is a forceful clearing of pent-up energy that strikes like lightning. It’s a bolt from the blue, and it can shake any overbuilt structure to its foundation.

17.  The Star is a shining light in the darkness. Like the goddess of the night, she’s the blithe spirit who offers hope, inspiration, and guidance.

18.  The Moon is the ever-changing mirror of the sun, and a symbol of the unconscious mind. From its perch in the night sky, the moon represents secrets and mysteries that may not be understood—or even recognized.

19.  The Sun is a symbol of consciousness and action. It’s the center of the universe, and the source of heat, illumination, and life on earth. 

20.  Judgment reveals all, heralds the dawn of a new world, and stands as a reminder of the power of forgiveness.

21.  The World depicts the never-ending, spiral dance of life. It’s a card of completion and success—as well as the chance to start another round.  

From Tarot for Writers, by Corrine Kenner

Corrine KennerCorrine Kenner
Corrine Kenner specializes in bringing metaphysical subjects down to earth. Her work on the tarot is widely published, and her classes and workshops are perennial favorites among students in the Midwest. Corrine is a certified tarot master, and she holds...  Read more

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