hrough its long history the Major Arcana has attracted a great many interpretations. Today, we tend to look upon the trumps as a psychological process, one that shows us passing through different stages of existence to reach a state of full development; we can describe this state, for the moment, as unity with the world around us, or perhaps liberation from weakness, confusion, and fear. The full Arcana describes this process in detail, but to get an understanding of it as a whole we need look at only four cards; four basic archetypes arranged in a graphic pattern of evolution and spiritual awareness.
If you have your own deck of Rider Pack Tarot cards* remove the Fool, the Magician, the High Priestess, and the World, and place them in the diamond pattern shown overleaf. Look at them for a while. Notice that while both the Fool and the World show dancing, joyful figures, the Magician and the High Priestess are stationary and unmoving in their positions. If you glance through the rest of the Major Arcana you will notice that all the trumps but 0 and 21 are drawn as if staged for a still photograph, rather than say, a motion picture. They present themselves as fixed states of existence.
But there is a difference between the two dancers. The Fool rushes forward richly clothed; the figure in the World is naked. The Fool looks about to leap into the lower world from some high distant country; the World paradoxically appears outside the material universe, the Dancer suspended in a magical wreath of victory.
Note also the numbers of the four cards. 0 is not strictly a number
* In other decks, particularly those older than Waite's the Fool appears very different from the one shown here. The chapter on the symbolism of the Fool (page 24) will deal with this alternative tradition.
as an illusion created by our limited understanding. Christian tradition defines the 'soul' as the immortal 'true' self, existing before and after the body that contains it. And many religions and sects, such as the Gnostics and some Qabalists, have considered the body a prison, created by the sins or mistakes of our fallen ancestors.
At the source of all these dualities we feel we do not know ourselves. We sense that deep down our true nature is something stronger, freer, with great wisdom and power; or else a thing of violent passions and furious animal desire. Either way, we know that this true self hides, or perhaps lies buried deep inside our normal, socially restricted personalities. But how do we reach it? Assuming the essential self to be a thing of beauty and power, how do we liberate it?
The disciplines we call the 'occult sciences' begin with a strong awareness of all these splits and limitations. They then go on, however, to another idea, that there exists a key, or a plan, to bring everything together, to unify our lives with our hopes as we release our latent strength and wisdom. People often confuse the purposes of spiritual disciplines. Many think the Tarot is for fortune-telling, that alchemists want to become rich by changing lead to gold, that Qabalists work spells by saying secret words, and so on. In reality, these disciplines aim at a psychological unification. The 'base metal' that the alchemist wishes to change to gold is himself. Accepting the doctrine that we have fallen from a perfect state to a limited one the occultist does not believe we must simply wait passively for some future redemption by an outside agent. On the contrary, he or she believes it our responsibility to bring about that redemption by finding the key to unity.
The Tarot depicts a version of that 'key'. It is not the key, just as it is not really a secret doctrine. It represents a process, and one of the things it teaches us is that we make a mistake when we assume that unification comes through any simple key or formula. Rather, it comes through growth and increased awareness as we travel step by step through the twenty-one stages of the Major Arcana.
The Fool represents true innocence, a kind of perfect state of joy and freedom, a feeling of being one with the spirit of life at all times; in other words, the 'immortal' self we feel became entrapped in the confusions and compromises of the ordinary world. Perhaps such a radiant self never really existed. Somehow we experience our intuition of it as something lost. Virtually every culture has developed a myth of a Fall from a primeval paradise.
'Innocence' is a word often misunderstood. It does not mean without guilt' but rather a freedom and a total openness to life, a complete lack of fear that comes through a total faith in living and in some decks represent her as a hermaphrodite) carries two magic wands, one in each hand. The male and female are unified, and more, their separate qualities are subordinated to the higher freedom and joy shone in the light way the dancer holds these powerful symbols.
Clearly, then, while the horizontal line, the Magician and the High Priestess, shows a duality of opposites, the vertical line, 0 and 21, shows a unity, the Fool being some sort of perfect state before duality, and the World giving us a glimpse of the exhilarating sense of freedom possible if only we can reconcile the opposites buried in our psyches.
The Tarot, like many systems of thought, indeed like many mythologies, symbolizes duality as the separation of male and female. The Qabalists believed that Adam was originally hermaphroditic, and that Eve only became separate from him as a result of the Fall. In most cultures, to a greater or lesser degree, men and women see each other as very distinct, almost separate societies. Today, many people think of each person as having both masculine and feminine qualities, but previously such an idea was found only in esoteric doctrines of unification.
If we picture duality dramatically as male and female, or black and white, we also experience more subtle splits in our ordinary lives, especially between our hopes, what we imagine as possible, and the reality of what we achieve. Very often the actions we take turn out not to fulfil our hopes for them. The marriage gives less than the total happiness expected, the job or career brings more frustration than fulfilment. Many artists have said that the paintings on the canvases are never the paintings they envisioned; they never can express what they really wanted to say. Somehow the reality of life is always less than the potential. Acutely aware of this, many people agonize over every decision, no matter how small or great, because they cannot accept that once they take an action in one direction they have lost the chance to go in all the other directions previously open to them. They cannot accept the limitations of acting in the real world.
The split between potentiality and reality is sometimes seen as the separation between mind and body. We sense that our thoughts and emotions are something distinct from our physical presence in the world. The mind is unlimited, able to go anywhere in the universe, backwards or forwards in time. The body is weak, subject to hunger, tiredness, sickness. Attempting to resolve this separation people have gone to philosophical extremes. Behaviourists have claimed that 'mind' does not exist; only the body and the habits it develops are real. At the other end, many mystics have experienced the body
The Fool teaches us that life is simply a continuous dance of experience. But most of us cannot maintain even brief moments of such spontaneity and freedom. Due to fears, conditioning, and simply the very real problems of daily life, we necessarily allow our egos to isolate us from experience. Yet within us we can sense, dimly, the possibility of freedom, and therefore we call this vague feeling of a loss, a 'fall' from innocence. Once we lose that innocence, however, we cannot simply climb back to the level of the Fool. Instead, we must struggle and learn, through maturity, self-discovery, and spiritual awareness, until we reach the greater freedom of the World.
The Magician represents action, the High Priestess passivity, the Magician maleness, the High Priestess femaleness, the Magician consciousness, the High Priestess unconsciousness.
By 'consciousness' we do not mean the high awareness of the World, but rather the powerful yet limited consciousness of ego as it creates an outer universe of boundaries and forms. This description does not mean to denigrate or belittle the Magician's creative force. What greater creativity is there than giving shape to the chaos of experience? It is the Magician who gives life its meaning and purpose. Healers, artists, and occultists have all focused on the Magician as their patron card. Nevertheless, his power represents an isolation from the freedom of the Fool or the understanding of the World.
In the same way, the High Priestess indicates, in her unconsciousness, a very deep state of intuitive awareness. And yet, her inner knowledge does not belong to that radiant centre of nothingness that enables the Fool to act so freely.
The High Priestess represents the archetype of inner truth, but because this truth is unconscious, inexpressible, she can maintain it only through total passivity. This situation shows itself in life in numerous ways. We all carry within us a dim sense of who we are, of a genuine self never seen by other people and impossible to explain. But the women and men who throw themselves into competition, careers, responsibilities, without working at the same time to increase self-knowledge, often discover at some point that they have lost the sense of who they are, and what they once wanted in life. Now, directly opposite to these people, the Buddhist monk or nun withdraws from the world because the slightest involvement will distract them from the centre of their meditations.
Both the Magician and the High Priestess bear an archetypal purity. In a way, they have not lost the Fool's radiance, they have simply split it up into light and darkness. In the traditional split of your own instinctive self. Innocence does not mean 'asexual' as some people think. It is sexuality expressed without fear, without guilt, without connivance and dishonesty. It is sexuality expressed spontaneously and freely, as the expression of love and the ecstasy of life.
The Fool bears the number 0 because all things are possible to the person who is always ready to go in any direction. He does not belong in any specific place; he is not fixed like the other cards. His innocence makes him a person with no past, and therefore an infinite future. Every moment is a new starting point. In Arabic numerals the number 0 bears the shape of an egg, to indicate that all things emerge from it. Originally the zero was written as a dot; in Hermetic and Qabalistic tradition the universe emerged from a single point of light. And God in the Qabalah is often described as 'nothingness' because to describe God as any thing would be to limit Him to some finite fixed state. Those Tarot commentators who argue whether the Fool belongs before, after, or somewhere between the other cards seem to be missing the point. The Fool is movement, change, the constant leap through life.
For the Fool no difference exists between possibility and reality. 0 means a total emptiness of hopes and fears, and the Fool expects nothing, plans nothing. He responds instantly to the immediate situation.
Other people will receive his complete spontaneity. Nothing calculated, nothing held back. He does not do this deliberately, like someone consciously deciding to be wholly honest with a friend or a lover. The Fool gives his honesty and love naturally, to everyone, without ever thinking about it.
We speak of the Fool as 'he' and the World Dancer as 'she' because of their appearance in the pictures, but both can be a woman or a man with really no change. Just as the Fool does not experience a separateness from the physical world so he or she does not experience any isolation from the 'opposite sex'. The Fool and the Dancer are psychic hermaphrodites, expressing their complete humanity at all times, by their very natures.
Now look again at the four card pattern. See how the Fool splits into the Magician and the High Priestess, who must be brought back together again to form the World. The two cards represent the splitting up of the Fool's innocence into the illusion of opposites. The World shows us a restored unity, but a higher and deeper unity achieved through the growth outlined in the other eighteen cards. The fool is innocence, but the World is wisdom.
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