The images and ideas depicted on the tarot deck reflect timeless patterns of human thought and behavior that transcend cultures, religions, value systems and beliefs.
September 5, 2017 JOSEPHINE HARDMAN, MA, PHD
The subconscious mind communicates primarily through images. When we dream, we receive visual messages from deep within ourselves, from the places we can’t access when we are awake. But what if we could speak to our subconscious minds in return? What if we could transform this kind of communication into a two-way street?
With its primordial and universal imagery, the tarot deck can allow us to do just that: to intentionally and deliberately communicate with the subconscious parts of ourselves. This includes the parts that have been programmed by past events, memories, and experiences, which we often must rewire and reprogram with new ideas, beliefs, and affirmations in order to release old patterns and behaviors. Because the tarot expresses itself through mysterious and evocative images, our subconscious aspects resonate with the tarot’s imagery more powerfully and directly than our conscious minds.
Tarot master Alejandro Jodorowsky explains in The Way of Tarot that the true tarotist must eliminate the illusion of reading the future, thereby transforming the tarot into a psychological tool for self-knowledge. Using the cards for fortune-telling is a sort of parlor trick, and one that doesn’t do justice to tarot’s complexity and healing potential. The cards in any deck — the classic Rider Waite Smith, the Thoth, the Marseille, or a modern iteration such as the Wild Unknown Tarot or the Linestrider Tarot — can help us embark on a profound journey of self-discovery, personal and professional expansion, and healing in specific areas of our lives. The images and ideas depicted on the tarot deck reflect timeless patterns of human thought and behavior, passing down to us the great universal lessons that transcend individual cultures, religions, value systems, and beliefs.
The tarot’s Major Arcana — a set of 22 cards from The Fool (0) to The World (21) — presents us with an organized journey through archetypal figures imbued with unique energies. When we work with a deck and select a card intuitively, that card mirrors back to us where we currently stand and which strategy, choice, or idea would best serve us at any given moment. By absorbing, gazing at, meditating on, and working with a particular card, we can effectively send a message to our subconscious minds to activate, heal, increase, or decrease the primordial energy represented by that card.
Working with The Empress, for instance, opens us up to a nurturing female energy pregnant with creativity and receptivity. On the other hand, The Emperor can help us invoke the courage we need to stick with our convictions, to set healthy boundaries, and to better organize our lives. Through approaches including contemplation, intentional questioning, journaling, and visualization, each Major Arcana card can help us heal a different aspect of ourselves. Exploring all 22 cards as they relate to our own lives is therefore a productive and profound way to heal ourselves and return to wholeness.
Healing With The Major Arcana: A Brief Guide
All tarot cards are neutral. Some may ask us to work with our own shadow parts more directly than others, but the purpose is always to bring more light into our lives, to release what doesn’t serve us, and to become deliberate creators of our own realities.
As always when doing spiritual work, the first step is to set a clear intention for healing. We must use the tarot ethically and responsibly by only asking questions about ourselves, never attempting to control or pry into other people’s lives. Intentional questioning means asking focused questions, such as, “What do I need to know right now to return to my center?” or, “What kind of energy would be most helpful for me to release?” If we come from a place of honest self-exploration and alignment, the tarot deck will always respond accurately and provide us with the card that perfectly matches our vibration and answers our inquiry.
Below is a guide for working with the Major Arcana, outlining each card’s uses and healing purposes. You will add your own ideas and interpretations to each card as you work with them one-on-one. Tarot interpretation is fluid, flexible, and subjective, so this is simply a good place to start. I recommend working with the Rider Waite Smith deck if this is your first time, since its symbols are fairly accessible and it has been used as the basis for so many modern decks. As a caveat: there are no “positive” or “negative” cards. All tarot cards are neutral. Some may ask us to work with our own shadow parts more directly than others, but the purpose is always to bring more light into our lives, to release what doesn’t serve us, and to become deliberate creators of our own realities.
The following guide will walk you through the 22 Major Arcana cards in their upright positions. Individual readers must determine if they will incorporate reversed cards into their readings. In my personal and professional tarot work, I include upside-down cards because they add an extra layer of depth and insight to any spread. Generally, I read reversed cards as indicating an imbalance with the card’s upright energy.
For instance, if the High Priestess represents a strong sense of intuition and inner knowing in its upright position, a reversed High Priestess can suggest a resistance to developing one’s intuition or an excessive reliance on external knowing (i.e. other people’s opinions or ideas) in making decisions. Reversed cards usually indicate (1) resistance to the card’s upright energy, (2) a stagnation of that energy, or (3) an unhealthy excess of that energy. There are, of course, additional ways of reading upside-down cards. The reader’s intuition and skill must determine which of these categories apply to a particular card. Case Study #3 below demonstrates how to perform a reading of a reversed card.
The personal work I suggest with the following one-card readings is focused on the Major Arcana and its universal and archetypal themes. The cards in the Minor Arcana are more suitable for exploring day-to-day situations, and for assisting us as we navigate our daily experiences in the third dimension. When we work exclusively with the Major Arcana, we are able to access and heal the primordial core of the governing patterns and conflicts in our lives.
The purpose behind working with individual cards rather than multi-card layouts is to invoke the primary and unique energy of each Major Arcanum to heal a particular aspect of ourselves. Because the tarot is universal, we all contain the essential energies depicted in the 22 Major cards. Conflict, resistance, confusion, and suffering arise when those essential energies within us are in a state of imbalance (deficient, suppressed, excessive, and so on).
It’s important to work with the cards individually to heal as many parts of ourselves as we possibly can. When we add a second or third card to a spread, the cards’ individual energies begin to meld as they both amplify and dilute each other. In a multi-card spread, the High Priestess is no longer simply the High Priestess in her individual essence; she becomes the High Priestess + The Lovers, or the High Priestess + The Lovers + The Moon reversed. In other words, additional cards read in conjunction with the High Priestess transform its individual meaning into a collective one. The purpose of the exercise outlined throughout this article is to access and correct (wherever necessary) the undiluted, unique, primary energy of each Major Arcanum as it manifests in our own lives.
Individual Card Descriptions
0 THE FOOL helps us take a leap of faith, begin a new project or endeavor, and release any shame, guilt, or feeling of not being good enough.
1 THE MAGICIAN heals us of inadequacy and helps us release any fears that we can’t manifest what we most desire. Assists us in focusing our intentions so we can materialize our dreams.
2 THE HIGH PRIESTESS helps men and women connect to divine feminine energy. Stimulates and develops intuition, wisdom, and internal knowing.
3 THE EMPRESS helps us release resistance and become receptive to abundance. It blesses creative and artistic endeavors and helps us flow with the natural cycles of life.
4 THE EMPEROR helps men and women connect to masculine, active energy. It brings order out of chaos, awakens our inner strength and determination, and bolsters us so we may become the CEOs of our own lives.
5 THE HIEROPHANT helps us develop our capacity to hear divine guidance more clearly. It heals any remnants of negative patterns inherited through organized religion, culture, family, or formal education.
6 THE LOVERS teaches us how to fall in love with ourselves, and heals us of subconscious patterns of poor decision-making. It can repair and strengthen romantic relationships, inspiring greater transparency and clear communication between partners.
7 THE CHARIOT invokes courage and helps us put our higher self in charge of our physical bodies and experiences. It heals addictions and karmic issues.
8 STRENGTH helps us confront our inner shadows and purifies the subconscious mind. Strength assists us when we are afraid of making the right choice or taking the next step in any endeavor.
9 THE HERMIT shows us how to use our own light and wisdom to help others, and guides us on the path towards enlightenment.
10 THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE helps us with life transitions (i.e. switching careers, the physical death of a loved one, moving into a new phase of life). It provides focus and strength to finish what we start.
11 JUSTICE heals any sense of personal or global injustice. It helps us to accept and release past trauma and to let go of any tendency to play the victim.
12 THE HANGED MAN teaches us to let go and surrender, particularly when we’ve already done everything we can possibly do. It helps us achieve inner peace in the midst of difficulty.
13 DEATH helps us release fears of major changes and transformations, and assists us in moving along with the flow of life without resistance.
14 TEMPERANCE helps us to balance opposite or contradictory aspects of ourselves. It brings sanity, grounding, and new possibilities.
15 THE DEVIL helps us confront and dispel fear, and become aware of the areas in our lives where we are giving away our power. It heals us of the temptation to identify with ego illusions or blame others.
16 THE TOWER helps us to overthrow existing conditions in any unfulfilling or stuck area of our lives. It brings revolution and helps us build something new.
17 THE STAR is the best card to release stress and purify our physical and energetic systems. The Star helps us get back into alignment.
18 THE MOON helps us explore our subconscious aspects and achieve a deeper level of self-discovery and self-understanding. It brings self-limiting patterns to light so we may address them.
19 THE SUN brings total regeneration and returns us to a state of childlike simplicity and contentment. It dispels any sense of restlessness or dissatisfaction with life.
20 JUDGMENT teaches us that only we can judge or condemn ourselves; no one else holds that power. Judgment functions as a spiritual wake-up call, compelling us to practice forgiveness of self and others.
21 THE WORLD brings dynamic balance and helps us complete unfinished projects, recognizing our own achievements and celebrating who we are and where we are on our journey, without comparing ourselves to others. Brings closure to unresolved situations.
Case Study #1 — Career
In this scenario, the querent or seeker (whoever is asking the tarot for guidance) is a 40-year-old woman considering a career change after many years with the same company. She feels hopeful and excited to leave a job that no longer challenges her, but she’s also nervous about the transition and wondering if she will be successful. To become receptive to the tarot’s messages for her, the querent finds a quiet place where she will not be interrupted, sits comfortably, and takes 10-20 deep breaths, focusing on exhaling any potential resistance within her. She visualizes her heart chakra opening at the center of her chest, preparing to receive the wisdom and guidance the cards will offer. These preliminary steps are crucially important, since our ego mind will often try to interfere with the process of receiving intuitive messages. This is especially true if the messages we receive are necessary for us but not exactly what we wish to hear (for instance, that it’s time to leave a long-term relationship or job). After centering herself and becoming as open as possible, the querent asks the Major Arcana: “How can I heal my feelings of anxiety about the unknown and move confidently through this transition?” She shuffles her deck of Major Arcana and pulls The Chariot.
This card sends a clear message to the querent about self-esteem, confidence, and willpower. The Chariot is a card of movement and action, of taking the reins of our own destinies with determination. The querent is being advised to work through her self-esteem issues and to become an active participant in her own life. Perhaps she entered her previous career due to family pressures or financial obligations, but this time she is being called to make a choice from her heart: what does she truly want for herself? How can she integrate her true passion with profitable work that will pay the bills? This card — with its imposing charioteer standing beneath a canopy of stars — reminds the querent of the importance of putting her higher self in charge of her experiences on the earthly plane. The querent must work towards a dynamic balance between actively driving forth movement and progress in her life and surrendering to her higher, spiritual self to ensure that her action steps are aligned with her soul’s mission. Since The Chariot also helps us resolve issues of addiction and past karma, the querent is being called to heal any compulsive tendencies to control and/or worry about past, present, and future situations. She must learn to trust that the universe will provide her with whatever she needs whenever she needs it.
Case Study #2 — Family
THE HANGED MAN
The querent is a 60-year-old man trying to support his adult daughter through a number of health issues. His daughter is contemplating her options, including switching medical providers and undergoing a fairly invasive surgery. The querent is naturally worried and trying to counsel his daughter as best he can. To become receptive and release resistance before working with the cards he meditates for a few minutes, sitting quietly with eyes closed to consciously pull his energy away from the world and back into himself. 10-15 minutes is ideal, but 5 minutes will do in a pinch. Like the querent, we all have energy cords (I often imagine them as tentacles) attached to people, things, and situations in the external world. By releasing those attachments at least for a few moments, we can become more fully present and focused. After a 10-minute meditation, the querent asks the tarot cards: “What can I do to help my daughter make the right decisions?” He shuffles the Major Arcana and draws The Hanged Man.
The querent’s desperation and desire to help are natural and understandable, but the card strongly suggests that he must let go and surrender to higher power in this situation. The Hanged Man is a clear indication that he’s already done everything that is in his power to do; it is now advisable for him to allow his daughter to make her own choices. He must retreat, in a sense, and become a stable and grounding force not only for his daughter but also for himself. If he is tempted to lecture or convince his daughter to have the surgery (or not), he must practice the art of sitting on his hands and supporting her through her own decision-making process.
The Hanged Man suggests to the querent that he must become a sounding board for his daughter and keep his strong opinions to himself, at least until after he has listened to her own reasoning. The querent could tell her he trusts her judgment and will support her choices. The lesson here is about letting go of resistance, control, and any tendency to play savior in other people’s lives. The querent must acknowledge his limitations: even though he feels he must save and heal his daughter, he must begin to accept the limits of his power. In addition, the querent is being called to cultivate inner peace and stillness even in the midst of difficulty and pain. He owes that to himself, and he will set a great example for everyone else in his life.
Case Study #3 — Relationship
THE STAR (REVERSED)
The querent is a 19-year-old woman who is currently dating a fellow college student (a 20-year-old man). She is attracted to this young man and feels they could have a solid relationship, but the man doesn’t want to commit. The woman decides to journal about the issue, writing about how she feels, what she’s currently getting out of this relationship, and what she wants to get out of a fulfilling relationship. The writing process helps her explore her confusing thoughts and feelings, and also leads to her formulating an insightful question for the tarot deck: “Is this the best relationship for me at this time?” (Note that asking “What can I do to get so-and-so to commit?” or “How does so-and-so feel about me?” would veer into unethical territory, since we can’t use the tarot to read other people’s minds or control their behavior.) The querent shuffles the Major Arcana and pulls The Star, reversed.
Immediately, the card’s upside down position indicates to the querent that her current relationship is not in clear alignment with who she really is and what she needs in this moment. The Star in its upright position is a card of total self-realization and connection to Source. The woman’s unabashed nakedness on the card represents her freedom and self-confidence; she doesn’t feel the need to hide any aspect of herself. Since The Star is reversed, the card suggests to the querent that she is not being her true self in this relationship. She feels she must hide in order to be liked or accepted. Moreover, this is a significant source of stress and will likely take an emotional and/or physical toll on her. In order to get the card’s energy back to its upright position, the querent must meditate honestly on her needs and desires and make the healthiest choice. The clear water on the card indicates to the querent that she must be transparent with herself and her boyfriend, and that her life will begin flowing more effortlessly if she takes the necessary steps to release anything that doesn’t serve her.
Reading the cards for ourselves is an insightful and fairly accessible way to begin healing patterns, habits, and beliefs that no longer serve us. However, if we’re dealing with major issues or a high degree of resistance, scheduling a multi-card reading with a seasoned reader is highly recommended. An experienced tarotist is not only an interpreter of cards; he or she can take on the role of spiritual advisor, therapist, wise counselor, and sounding board. Receiving input and guidance from a professional frequently makes the difference when we fail to make headway on our own illumination.
For the self-taught tarotist who wishes to continue exploring the tarot, I recommend the following books:
Kim Huggens, Tarot 101: Mastering the Art of Reading the Cards, Llewellyn Publications, 2010
Rachel Pollack, 78 Degrees of Wisdom, Thorsons, 1997
Paul Fenton-Smith, Tarot Masterclass, Allen Unwin, 2008
Barbara Moore, Your Tarot Your Way: Learn to Read with Any Deck, Llewellyn Publications, 2016
Benebell Wen, Holistic Tarot: An Integrative Approach to Using Tarot for Personal Growth, North Atlantic Books, 2015 (for intermediate to advanced tarotists)
Josephine Hardman holds a PhD in English Literature and certifications in Reiki, Angel therapy, and Akashic Records. She is an intuitive tarot reader and the proprietess of Purefield Massachusetts, a heart-centered spiritual business in Shelburne Falls, MA, dedicated to helping people wake up to their true power, develop clarity and wisdom, and unleash greater abundance in all areas of their lives. Visit www.purefieldwebmass.com.