Tarot Tales: The Major and Minor Arcana

The Cups. The Swords. The Pentacles. The Wands.

The Empress. The Fool. Strength. Justice. 

What actually are the Major and Minor Arcana, and why have they captivated us for centuries?

Tarot has long been a portal into divination. These fascinating cards – made up of the characters, virtues and decisions you might meet along your journey – unveil hidden truths, provide context to situations, and can even act as your spiritual guides or icons.

Let’s meet the Arcanas!

A traditional tarot deck is made up of 78 cards split into two groups, or ‘arcana’ – the Minor and Major Arcana. The word ‘arcana’ is derived from the Latin arcanum, meaning ‘secret’ or ‘mystery.’ 

The Minor Arcana has 56 cards, and the Major Arcana has 22.

The two arcana play distinct roles and in a tarot reading, they hold very different meanings based on the spread, the surrounding cards, or even the direction the card is pulled (i.e. ‘upright’, when the card is pulled facing the right way, or ‘reversed’, which is when it’s facing upside down).

The Major Arcana represents life events and spiritual growth, while the Minor Arcana focuses on the everyday (‘mundane’) experiences, and challenges we face. When combined, both arcanas provide guidance and insight into a life’s journey.

The Major Arcana

The Major Arcana cards follow a story, known as the Fool’s Journey. They’re numbered 0 – 21, with the Fool as Card 0.

The Fool embarks on a journey, showing us new beginnings and a willingness to take risks. They’re blissfully unaware of any challenges ahead, and represent the innocence we all have when starting something new.

And so, the Fool’s story begins. They step out into the world, meeting the other cards of the Major Arcana along the way. These cards represent milestones, challenges, or transformations you encounter throughout your spiritual journey. 

From birth (The Magician) to transformation (Death) and self-exploration (The Moon), each card is a step on the path to self-discovery and divine understanding.

The Minor Arcana

While the Major Arcana tells a story of individuation and spiritual enlightenment, the Minor Arcana are more about the everyday stuff – things like relationships, how we communicate and feel, our resources, and our health. 

The Minor Arcana is divided into four suits: Cups (or Chalices), Wands, Swords, and Pentacles (sometimes called Coins or Disks). Each suit has 14 cards from Ace to 10, plus four Court Cards – the Page, Knight, Queen, and King. It’s really not that different to a regular deck of playing cards!

These suits represent different aspects of our earthly lives, and can provide more detailed guidance, in specific areas.

The Cups represent emotions, love, and relationships. 

The Wands symbolise creativity, inspiration, and passion. 

The Swords signify intellect, thoughts, and conflicts.

The Pentacles represent material possessions, finances, and practical matters.

At the end of the day, the tarot urges us to pause, reflect, and be open to insight. 

Both the Major and Minor Arcana shine a light on our path. From the Fool’s wide-eyed beginnings to the World’s completion, from the deep wells of the Cups’ emotions to the sharp clarity of the Swords, each tarot card bridges the gap between our conscious and unconscious, imparting wisdom and offering guidance along the way.

Polly is a practicing witch who primarily works with Persephone, Brigid and the Cailleach. She's the High Priestess expert on seasonal Australian practice and archetypal symbolism, and is a teacher at Witch School.