Have you ever wondered why some people call the trumps of the tarot "the major arcana," and why some people call the major arcana "the trumps?" And, of course, why the small cards are sometimes, but not always, called the "minor arcana?" Well, it’s from the 19th century — but perhaps not the source you expect!
First, what the hell does it mean, anyway? Well, you probably know that "arcane" sort of means magical, but it isn’t a simple synonym for the word. It means "hidden" and thus means magic in the same way that "occult" does. So, what that means is the tarot cards are being described as secrets, when the word "arcana" is used. "Arcana" is the plural, also; "arcanum" is the singular.
Now, before, I get really started, let me say that if you use these terms, it’s perfectly all right, both because no one can tell you what to do and I’m also not trying to convince you to stop. I know someone who studies tarot very carefully who refers to Death as "the nameless arcanum," because she’s based in a very particular modern tradition, and there’s meaning there, real heavy lifting symbolism shit happening. It’s useful. This post basically comes from my encounters with people who think the Golden Dawn invented the term. They did not, they just adopted it from the work of Paul Christian.
I’m going to link you to wikipedia here because quite frankly I don’t know Christian that well myself yet. Paul Huson refers to him a few times in Mystical Origins of the Tarot, and Christian’s book, The History of Magic, is on my long to-read list. But at this point anything I tell you will come from his wikipedia article anyway.
So, basically, he was a French occultist in the mid 19th century, post-Levi. That’s important to note, because in some sense the Golden Dawn can be imagined as a late 19th century English revision of Levi’s work. For example, the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, perhaps the second best-known contribution of the Golden Dawn to occult practice and history, [^1] [is in effect drawn from the work of Levi].(https://hermeticulture.org/2022/02/22/lbrp-theory-qa/)
Here’s the larger portion of the introduction of the "arcana" in Christian’s book:
The Science of Will, the principle of all wisdom and source of all power, is contained in twenty-two Arcana or symbolic hieroglyphs, each of whose attributes conceals a certain meaning and which, taken as a whole, compose an absolute doctrine memorised by its correspondence with the Letters of the sacred language and with the Numbers that are connected with these Letters. Each letter and each Number, contemplated by the eye or uttered by the mouth, expresses a reality of the divine world, the intellectual world, and the physical world… Each arcanum, made visible or tangible by one of these paintings, is the formula of a law of human activity in its relationship with spiritual and material forces whose combination produces the phenomena of life.
(Christian, Paul. The History and Practice of Magic. Ross Nichols, trans. NY: Citadel Press. 1969. ebook. https://archive.org/embed/historypracticeo01chri. pp. 94-5.)
What’s fascinating here is that Christian is performing a kind of magical semiotics (of course, all magic is semiotic in some sense). He’s saying that the tarot cards are images that lead the practitioner, via the divine, the intellect, and physical experience, to "relationship with spiritual and material forces whose combination produces the phenomena of life." They do that by expressing a reality, and note that the paintings "make visible" the arcana. The cards are both the arcana and signs pointing towards the arcana, which are more numinous and difficult to capture.
That’s why they’re secrets, in this formulation: they’re symbols of other things.
Now, there is a lot you can do with this model. Pathworking — which I intermittently lead a workshop on, watch this space — is a powerful meditative technique to explore cards, and it relies in part on this idea that the card is a channel to a realm of ideas, just like any book transports you to another place where you take in other ideas.
Now, we know that on a purely materialist level things are a little more complicated than that. We don’t read texts to pierce their secrets, but to create a collaborative meaning-space with the author. You’ll see a way for magic to intercede in this model as well, though, since animism posits a spirit for everything (well, some versions of animism, to be clear). The spirit behind tarot [^2] can be one of the teammates you have in the collaborative meaning-making space of a card reading.
But at its core, the idea of describing the tarot cards as "arcana" relies on the idea that we are using them to reach out to higher truths.
I said above that I’m not trying to convince anyone to change their terminology. That’s true, but I did think I should probably talk about why I don’t use this terminology anymore, after nearly two decades of using it regularly.
Despite some related meanings we might see in the word "trump," that’s what I use for the "major arcana." First, I don’t think any cards are major or minor in the way the modern tradition posits. Note, in fact, that Christian only talked about the "major arcana." He doesn’t describe the minors as being secrets at all. This goes way back, to Court de Gebelin, who only wrote about the trumps when he published the earliest overt essay on tarot we’ve got so far.
Why trump? well, it reminds us tarot is a game. The trumps were simply iconographically familiar allegorical, religious, artistic, and pop culture images added as a kind of "fifth suit" to a normal deck of playing cards. Now, I want to be clear that I am magically operant, and I certainly am performing magic when I deal cards. But look to the Bateleur, the Magician — he’s a trickster, directing your eye to the right of the frame with his wand while his left hand secrets away the ball that he’ll soon use to fleece you out of your money with the cups and balls. Magic is not all trickery, but there’s always an element of it. A chaos magician would say you’re tricking your internal censor, but they’re very Freudian, after all.
I’ll still sometimes call the minors "the minors," though not the "minor arcana." I call them the pips sometimes, too, though that’s inaccurate for decks other than those printed in the French and Italian traditions with cards that aren’t scenic. [^3] I’m trying to get into the habit of calling them "the small cards," though I can’t remember where I got that phrase from.
The reason for this isn’t just historical pedantry, though I’m too honest to deny that I’m not interested in that. The reason is because I don’t think tarot is keeping a secret from us. In the same way language can be used to hide something, but is actually meant to convey information, I think tarot is not hiding anything, but working to help us construct, define, discover, and meditate on information.
In the end, that’s it. Millions of people call the tarot cards "major and minor arcana," and that’s not going to change. It doesn’t really need to change, even. But I thought it might be interesting to discuss the historical background of the term in the work of 19th century French occultism and the polyvalent way that the term implies an occlusion that I don’t personally believe is there.
[^1]: the best known is of course the Waite-Smith tarot. [^2]: the Golden Dawn called this spirit the angel HRU, in fact. [^3]: you might notice I’m at pains to avoid calling these cards "the Marseille tarot" or a variation of that. It’s because most of the cards we label as that aren’t from Marseille, and like "gnostic," "Marseille" was a weird, accidental title for a tradition of printing. This entire essay is about how my word usage has changed as my understanding of tarot has changed, so I figured it was worth mentioning this as well. As with everything else in the essay, I have no desire to change anyone else’s use of the term, and recognize it’s just the word for that tradition, really. I use it in casual conversation frequently. It’s also important to me to differentiate simply because there’s also the "tarot de Marseille," a contemporary methodology of reading tarot cards that’s not the same thing as the historical practice. It pioneered the "open reading," a powerful technique everyone should study.
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