The Major Arcana of the Tarot tells a story. And it is not just any kind of story. It is the story of humanity and our quest through life.
It is the story of a hero who isn’t a hero yet, a man who is still a fool, and a fool who is about to embark on the greatest journey of his lifetime…
The story begins, as all stories begin, on a bright sunny day.
The sky is clear with no clouds in sight, the roads stand clear, and our naïve hero, clothed in bright colors to bring him luck, and balancing a humble knapsack over his shoulder, skips along the unpaved path with his faithful companion in tow.
Yet all is not as pleasant as it seems. For the wind is not gentle, though it doesn’t rage strong either. And it sings a warning song for those who have a keen ear.
Alas! Our hero, or rather the Fool — for that is who he is at the moment — skips onward, whistling a merry tune. Neither does he have ears to perceive this warning nor the sight to see the cliff edge he is tottering close to.
Perhaps the Fool is blessed from above because he doesn’t fall to his death (or maybe he does, and somehow survives it). Nevertheless, before long he comes across a magnificent Magician.
The air around this wizard seems to crackle with intangible power. And so does the objects lying before him: a longsword, a crystal chalice, a coin of pure gold, and a mighty wand.
The Magician notices the Fool staring at him with awe in his eyes and beckons him to come closer.
“Appearances can be deceptive, boy! For it is not the objects that have the power, but the Alchemist!”
Having learnt a valuable lesson, and now brimming with a sense of power over his life, the Fool moves on.
Before long he finds himself on the threshold of a temple that shimmers like an illusion. Still buzzing with imagined power, the Fool strides in, curious to learn what lies within.
Within the vast chamber, between two pillars, one made of onyx and the other of marble, sits a fae priestess in all her ethereal glory. She is guarding something he cannot see. The Fool is transfixed.
The High Priestess is both wonderful and terrible at the same time, and he can’t seem to take his eyes off of hers.
As if drawn by some invisible force, the Fool walks up to the High Priestess and asks her, “What is it that you guard?”
With a voice that is an amalgamation of a thousand voices, which makes the very air heavy with the promise of something the Fool cannot comprehend, the High Priestess speaks, “The greatest mystery lies not without, but within. Solve it and you shall know what lies beyond me.”
Humbled by her presence, yet discomforted by the mystery, the Fool continues on.
After a while he comes upon a beautiful corn field with a sparkling river flowing through it. Tired and thirsty, he rushes to the water to have his fill. That’s when he sees her.
Sitting atop her beautiful throne, surrounded by opulence and nature’s bounty, is the Empress. And she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.
The Empress smiles at the Fool and welcomes him with her warmth. The Fool feels as if his heart is sated.
He stays for a while with the Empress, basking in her warmth and presence. And before he leaves, she gifts him some bread and water for his journey, sending him off with the words, “Poor are those who do not have warmth, kindness, and generosity.”
The Fool thanks her and walks on, saddened because he has to leave the Empress behind. But no sooner does he leave her land he comes upon a castle. Perpetually curious, the Fool walks in and finds himself in the audience of the Emperor.
The Emperor sits on his stone throne, dressed in battle armor, and fixes the Fool with his sharp gaze. The Fool feels his throat dry up at the power within those eyes, and sighs in relief when the Emperor looks away.
“To master the world, one must first master his own self!” The Emperor thunders. “And when one has mastered himself, let him be disciplined enough to know that victories can easily become defeat.”
The Fool squeaks out a question at that, “How do I master myself, great Emperor?”
The Emperor returns his stern gaze on the hapless boy and tells him, “Seek the Hierophant!”
The Fool bows and makes a quick exit. He now knows what he wants to be like. But to get there he must first find the Hierophant, who turns out to be quite easy to find. But it is only when the Fool is in his presence that he understands that the difficult part was about to begin.
The Hierophant trains the boy in the rules of society and spirituality. And when after many years he is finally ready to continue onward, he takes with him the words of his teacher, “Without order, there is only chaos.”
The Fool is no longer a fool. He feels different as he walks on his path. But he is no hero yet, which troubles him. He mulls over all that has transpired on this journey and doesn’t notice until he crashes into a beautiful maiden.
When their eyes meet, it is as if the world stops to take a breath. The Fool who is no longer a fool, feels his heart beat faster, and an animal urge to possess the maiden comes over him. The maiden looks equally awestruck.
That’s when the Hero realizes that he doesn’t want to travel on this path alone any longer. The Lovers join their lives and the journey continues.
The Hero becomes the Charioteer, steering his life towards a goal. He learns to control his emotions and conflicting natures, and shoots straight as an arrow. He achieves greatness. Yet something within him feels unsettled. A part of him is unsatisfied with his victory.
That’s when, like a distant dream, he remembers his days as the Fool. He remembers meeting the Magician and the otherworldly High Priestess. He remembers their wise words that he did not have the capacity to understand at that time –
Appearances are deceptive. And the greatest mystery lies within, not without.
He remembers the Empress, remembers the way he felt around her – just the way he feels around his beloved – and he remembers her words –
Poor are those who do not have warmth, kindness, and generosity.
And he remembers the stern Emperor –
To master the world, one must first master his own self.
The Hero realizes that what he had presumed to be mere words in his naïve days as the Fool were in fact the greatest gifts in disguise. He looks within and sees the animal he had denied for so long. And he chooses to show it love, kindness, and acceptance. After all, it is as much a part of him as his regal self as the Charioteer. He finds Strength.
But acceptance is not enough. And he realizes that it is time for him to leave his beloved behind and take the solitary path of the Hermit.
He walks alone on his journey, lighting his own way and becoming a beacon of wisdom for other travelers who seek his light. And he travels for a long time, all the while deeply entrenched in introspection. Then one day he finally understands something that fills his heart with awe.
The Hermit realizes that he isn’t a Hero. He is still a Fool. He realizes that the world is a Wheel of Fortune, governed by Fate and Destiny. Sometimes the Wheel goes up, and other times it goes down. And though what is destined can never be changed, we can always choose the path to it.
The Fool remembers his teacher then. He remembers the Hierophant’s words –
Without order, there is only chaos.
He realizes there is an order to the world, however chaotic it may seem.
That night, in his dream, he sees an emotionless lady standing between two pillars. She holds a sword in one hand and a pair of scales in the other. She reminds him dimly of the High Priestess, though the two are as different as they come.
“I am Justice. And sooner or later, my scales will be balanced!”
The Fool wakes up. A profound feeling envelopes him. That is the order in the world, he realizes. What goes around, comes around. And the Wheel of Fortune is tied to the scales of Justice.
The Fool smiles. He knows what he must do.
He climbs up a tall tree and hangs himself upside down by his foot. He becomes the Hanged Man.
Passerbys look at him oddly. Some ask him if he needs help. Others ask him if he has gone crazy. The Hanged Man simply says, “Surrender. For the world is Order and it is Chaos.”
The Fool is no longer afraid of Death. He embraces it. For nothing is more chaotic than Death, and nothing more ordered. Everything that begins must one day come to an end. And the end gives way for the birth of something new.
The Fool finally understands that opposites paradoxically need each other to survive. And it is the very melding of opposites that gives rise to balance: order and chaos, light and dark, death and life. That is the essence of Temperance.
The Fool feels at peace.
Suddenly he remembers the epiphany he had as the Hermit –
Foolish is the one who says, “I know.”
A tide of pain comes over him then, for he realizes that all this while the greatest barrier to wisdom was his own self. Like the Devil promising the forbidden fruit, his ego had taken him for a ride. And as long as he holds on to this ego he will always be chained.
The Fool feels his world come crashing down like a Tower struck by lightning. All that he had built was built on false foundations. And it failed as soon as the lightning bolt of wisdom illuminated it.
When the pain of destruction passes, and the ego is truly destroyed, the Fool looks upon the night sky like a naked baby. He feels reborn. He feels tempered and in sync with the world. He feels blessed by the Stars.
But in his euphoria he also feels ungrounded. Everything appears a little distorted. His emotions are heightened. He feels his blood rush as if answering the call of a howling wolf.
The Fool looks up at the Moon. Its silver light envelops him in an otherworldly glow. And his eyes widen in amazement as he feels the presence of the High Priestess all around him, although he can’t see her. He remembers what she had said –
The greatest mystery lies not without, but within. Solve it and you shall know what lies beyond me.
The Fool feels humbled as he looks around him. The vastness outside mirrors the vastness he feels within. That’s when the Sun comes out.
The light cuts through all distortions. The Fool can see clearly again. And he feels as joyful and amazed as a new-born baby. He realizes why he was born. Judgement Day has finally come.
He feels as if all his life he had been living in a dream, believing he knew where he was going, when in reality he truly had not. And now, like the resurrected dead, he knows what his true purpose in life is.
He feels complete. He is part of the World as much the World is part of him. He is the pawn yet he is the entire picture. He is the Hero. But he will always be a Fool.
Because the journey never truly ends. And now it was time to begin another…
The story of the Hero’s journey through the Tarot is not just limited to the cards. It resonates with our lives because the archetypes are universal.
Where do you stand in your unique life’s journey? Do you have a different take on the Fool’s journey through the Tarot Major Arcana? Share your thoughts below.
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Until next time.