The Greater and Lesser Mysteries

The role and difference between the major and minor arcana in the tarot is something that has interested me for a while. That difference is something I have struggled with, contemplatively and practically. It wasn't until recently after a new technique tumbled out of this struggle that I found that I have been able to frame my take on this as a coherent idea in some way. Maybe this of value to my readers.

My tarot perspective has been far more influenced by Paul Huson's historical and mystical take on the tarot than by any of that tacked-on qabalah. This concern has to do with my own idiosyncratic mission to sharpen my tarot as a practical real-world divination tool and brutally divorce it from its more recent application as meditation/psychological/self-exploration device. While those applications are perfectly valid of course - for me - in many ways they have muddied the divinatory accuracy of the tarot system itself. Instead of gleaning useful information about real-world happenings, it seems, one is more likely to discover inner perspectives or subjective symbolic patterns that might be meaningful in spiritual or psychological sense but tend to be less clear cut with regards to real-world events. Your mileage may vary of course.

Back to the majors and minors for a moment - how does one usefully and distinctly interpret these two types of cards?

Clearly they are 'supposed' to be different - both in function and interpretation. Yet, practically, during an average tarot session they tend to be read in a very similar way. Sometimes the minors seem to repeat ideas from majors and one is inclined to interpret both a minor and major of a similar character almost identically. This duplication seems awkward. The functional difference between the two parts of the deck is rarely addressed cogently within any structured tarot system that I have seen and certainly not in in any tangible way that is directly applicable as a reading technique. Rarely are the differences described in anything other than broad philosophical terms. Often the word 'archetype' gets thrown at the problem. At best the the majors are said to emphasise a particular concern. Having disabused myself of semiotic hall of mirrors brought later to the cards with assignment of qabalistic values, I have continually attempted to construct, frame or decipher the value and meaning of the majors in contrast to the minors within the context of a robust if personal tarot divination system.

One evening I lay soaking in the tub after doing a particularly puzzling reading for myself and something struck me. What does it actually mean when we say some of the cards are trumps? Why are they called major and minor arcana? 

Trumps. Mysteries. I rolled these concepts around in my my head like two cool, round pebbles in a gurgling stream.

What if the cards are suggesting the emergence of a kind of mystery, or by association, some sort of riddle in our experience? What if we are looking at large and small riddles? And a riddle of course poses a certain conundrum; asks a certain kind of question. Macroscopic riddles vs microscopic riddles or mysteries.

I don't mean during a reading either. I mean in your life.

What if a major arcana card is announcing that you are about to grapple or are currently grappling with a particular unanswered cosmic question, a mystery, which is taking the form of a series of events - indicated by another order of cards in the pack: the minors?

From this perspective whenever a major arcana (appropriately then called a trump card) emerges in our story we are being asked to attempt to answer one of the twenty two big questions that we get asked endlessly throughout our life by that cheeky sphinx called Time. The major arcana card DEATH, for instance, would not necessarily be the arrival of an answer in a reading so much as it announcing the arrival of one of the great questions in our life. A living question that asks that we negotiate, over and over again with a great conundrum - the greater mystery of death, endings, termination, expirations, collapse, destruction and obliteration in this instance.

And when one of the twenty two great questions gets asked that question filters the entirety of an experience (whatever that experience displays as), through the mystery of that question. In the case of DEATH it might be asking us in a million different flavours, styles and guises: "human, what is dying, termination, expiration, collapse?" What does it mean in this scenario, or this one or this one?

Twenty two cosmic koans that simultaneously drive and define any possible human experience.

By contrast then the minors would be the fifty six configurations of our mundane experience. Fifty six sets or scenes - like the scenes on the pips of the Rider Waite. And in this way fifty six possible configurations in which the twenty two major questions might infinitely pose themselves in the manifest world - so doing displaying as the minor mysteries.

Twenty two raw forces that ask to be known over and again; each moment arranging events in a novel pattern that we might discover their faces anew.

Practical Application: a tarot technique 

I hear you thinking - what on earth is he going on about? First he complains that the difference between the majors and minors has only been described in vague philosophical terms and then like the Fool he leaps off a cliff into pure abstraction! And right you are, theory should be validated by practice.

To this end the idea above can be applied within the context of an actual reading in several ways. Firstly by forming two distinct orders of interlocking interpretation neatly divided by the majors and minors. More than that it suggests a very handy interpretative device that makes use of that distinction - allowing us to add greater subtlety nuance and depth to any card's meaning and resultantly the reading as a whole.

This is done by taking the idea that a major is either of kind of macroscopic lens through which the minors are read, or conversely, that it is a force that expresses through a minor. How does this look practically?

Stay tuned for the next instalment of this post in which I will give the core technique that I have been playing with as well some spreads and other launching points for working with the ideas presented above.


  1. Can't wait to read more about this approach! I've also been working to find more ways to make the tarot much more applicable to day-to-day life, as opposed to the larger-picture psychological and developmental model that is how most of us learn nowadays.

    I've just been using two oracles, one aimed at the more day-to-day concerns and juxtaposing the tarot readings against that. It's been working very well, but I'd love to learn more down-to-earth tarot.

    It was actually all the Qabalah and depth psychology aspects of tarot that kept me so blocked for so long. Once I kind of let that go and just focused on the here-and-now with them they made more sense to me. So much for all those long months in the Lodge racking my brain trying to fit all the complex layers of meaning together. LOL!

  2. Hi

    I believe that the problem is that you are coming from an exclusively US experience. In USA, you use both the major and minor arcana basically as equals.

    In other countries, we use the "european method". To each position we draw two cards... one major and one from the minor arcana. Then we will use the combination to correctly interpret the position.

    for instance, if in the position "what is", we see "devil + 5 swords" in a love question, we will see deception and lies caused by lust, jealously and a person who shouldn´t be trusted.

  3. Not sure what you are talking about me coming from a an "exclusively US experience" Yuzuru. Check out my profile. I live in the Netherlands, born in South Africa

    As for a 'european method' I have been to quite a few readers here in Europe and I have yet to see a single method being touted... the only major difference I have noticed in fact is that many European readers like to read with majors alone.

    The card combination technique does form part of what I am talking about and that has been drawn from my work with the Lenormand, but I will elaborate more on that in my next post.

  4. I know exactly what you mean Devi. I have found using the Lenormand along with the tarot works well too. Taking into account your growing emthusiasm for geomancy our divination journey seems to be very similar!

    Ideally some of the more mystical aspects (rather than the psychological mumbo jumbo) of the tarot should remain available whilst at the same time being able to draw pragmatic nitty gritty information from a reading too.

    I like to think of it as something similar to so screen resolution. You need to be able to zoom in and out for as much of the big or little picture as you need.

    I know that is what I have been gunning for!

  5. Wonderful post as usual, Balthazar! Great topic and even greater theory.

    Now, to play devil's advocate, if you don't mind, isn't what you are proposing not too different from the Kabblah of the Tarot? While "kabbalists" (and I use this term loosely) apply the minor arcana to the sephirah while the major to the paths, you are reversing the roles. Sure, it doesn't make the squeaky clean fit that kabbalists enjoyed, but its the same concept. You view the major arcana as the great questions, those macrocospic experiences of life--the sephiroth for example, and the minor arcana as the path by which that expresses itself--the paths of the tree.

    See here's the thing, the kabbalistic perspectives can't really be divorced from the tarot. The reason for this is that the tarot are a living system of meaning and so they evolve. When we started seeing them used for divination in the 1700's one of the first thing people like Eteilla did was toss in hermetic associations from the Corpus Hermetica, claiming the Tarot to be the Book of Thoth.

    Then as the occultists of the 19th Century "rediscovered" the Tarot they added their own "kabbalistic" definitions.

    Finally in the 20th C we started to see more Jungian and Freudian links.

    Heck, there are even "information age" flavors. I know a reader who specifically reads the 8 of Wands as the "text message or email card."

    The point being that the tarot continue to evolve, the issue comes when one perspective is viewed to the exclusion of all others. The Tarot should be viewed as layered with the ability to refer to a great varity of both mystical and practical things--as it was intended--and it can be used in this way so long as the history and evolution of the tarot is kept in mind while reading it.

    This is how I work with the tarot. For me the Trump cards are just that Trump. They are derived from "trumps" or "floats" from parades, they are derived from mystery plays, morality plays and so forth. So their appearance in the spread reveals an interruption to normal life by a massive event--like a trump appearing in your parade. They in turn instruct, asking questions and giving responses--just like the answer response plays of the medieval mystery plays.

    What you get is suit cards the reveal things from the flow of daily life and trump cards that reveal paradigm-shifting events.

    The end result is a deck that is both deeply mystical--focusing on metaphysical inquiriy and examination, while also functioning practically by fortune-telling actual events.

    In the end, I think we are the same page, just with slighly different flavors, if you will.

    I look forward to reading more about this! I may post my thoughts on my blog, perhaps with some spreads I use.

  6. I was taught that the Major trumps are stronger than the minor, they represent bigger events and happenings in life. They also have more information in them than the minor arcana. My teacher compared the majors as doors into the future that would let you to walk in, while the minors where windows that allowed you to peep.

    In my own experience this hasn't proven to be true. I have seen big events such as deaths with just the minor trumps. The again i have always gotten along better with the minor arcana than the major.

  7. Well Ali, if the Devil has an opening or an advocate I will put in a good word for you - you surely are qualified! ;-)

    While I recognise that there is a certain cosmetic similarity between the theory I propose and the 19th century ordering of the cards on the tree of life - there is a major difference in the application and approach.

    As far as I can tell, the GD ordering sees no practical application in any reading technique or even as a useful interpretive tool for the art of divination. Really, it seems to try and squeeze the tarot into that system of ritual magic and it's symbolism. This emphasises the tarot primarily as a ritual tool rather than an accurate divination method. Were any of the GD professional fortune tellers?

    I doubt it.

    We can clearly see this inclination mirrored with the GD treatment of the geomancy - where we see splendid instructions for creating elaborate over-the-top geomantic ritual objects (elementally coded sandbox with wand etc), but piss-poor crude instruction on actual, you know, geomancy. I think this is because the GD was more interested in the theatre of ritual than accurate divination.

    I certainly agree that tarot is a living system. If I didn't I would not have written up this post. Do I believe the qabalistic stuff can be divorced from it? Absolutely!

    I believe it can be divorced as quickly as the tedious made-up ritual hooplah they tacked on to geomancy can be. In fact I think it is the majority of contemporary western magicians' reliance on the ill-informed assumptions drawn by a small group of victorian magicians that is holding western magic back from becoming a serious endeavor, with authentic roots.

    From this perspective I find the true origins of the imagery on the majors, (which as you rightly pointed out come from medieval mystery plays) far, far richer and interesting than the qabalistic GD attributions.

  8. Too true, too true!

    What makes this such a problem is that the "qabalah" that becomes associated with the Tarot is so divorced from its own origins that it makes it a completed different beast.

    Its this very same problem that makes the magic that is influenced by high ceremonialism of the GD nearly impractical. Things are taken out of their traditional and original spots and transmuted into something that fits the borrower's paradigm. While this isn't too uncommon in other traditions, the problem we see in the Tarot is that it becomes so muddled up that it looses all practical value--not unlike the magic that is taught as well.

    I look forward to reading more!

  9. Regarding your idiosyncratic mission: Applause, applause! That is the reason I started my own blog. I ended up focusing heavily on Lenormand for a while, because it was so much easier to get results about specific things going on in real life. With the tarot, while I can address the real world, it often seems that I end up focusing on situations: what is happening with people and why. Which has value in its own way, but there is a difference in addressing what's the undercurrent at work; versus what will happen if I buy a certain house. Does that make sense?

    When I read you write "real-world divination," I am thinking "prediction." This is the bugaboo of modern tarot. Yet I do think there is a growing trend back to using tarot for prediction or -- *gasp* -- fortune-telling. A term which I mean in a very positive sense, and use when I want to tweak the nose of people who say things like, "Oh, I stopped reading tarot for other people because all they ever want to know about is their job or love life -- the real word. I only want to read about spiritual stuff!"

    But I've seen more posts and podcasts appearing that explore prediction with tarot, and that it's a perfectly valid thing to do. There are two new books out early this year about divination involving prediction with tarot, which I consider a good thing. So your mission is not so idiosyncratic, I am pleased to say. :)

    I've wrestled with different ways to approach major versus minor and use them in readings myself, so I am interested to see what you ended up with here. I've considered reading with only relevant suits a la Paul Huson but never felt quite right using a partial deck, and intuitively I do think that all suits come into play. Papus would lay out the majors separately from the minors and I've considered this as well but I confess separating majors from the minors for some readings always seems inelegant to me. I have gotten excellent results from majors-only readings though.

    Your majors as a lens is an interesting concept. I've explored the idea of the majors ruling nearby minors in a spread, and thus influencing them, which sounds related to but different than your idea. I look forward to reading more about it.