A common method for teaching the Major Arcana is to frame it in the context of The Fool's journey
, from The Magician all the way through The World, each card (theoretically) a logical consequence from the previous. But how long has this particular narrative been ascribed to the Major Arcana?
Many of the websites I visited and books I read when I first started to teach myself Tarot used this paradigm in elucidating the meanings of the Major Arcana. While I learned the card meanings
easily enough, the nature of the relationship between
the cards and the logical nature of the procession from the one to the next eluded me. No one really explained why
the Major Arcana were ordered as they were, or why, for example, The Chariot necessarily
follows The Lovers. Maybe my lack of understanding there means I don't truly comprehend the cards' true meaning; that's possible. Either way, the Fool's journey and the progression of the Majors has been a sticking point of mine, so I decided to do a little scratching.
As Robert O'Neill points out, mystical journeys are perhaps the most universal of tropes
and they predate the Tarot by nearly immeasurable years. In Middle Ages Europe, those visions and journeys with pious Christian messages tended to be the ones saved and copied by churches and monasteries, and were also often referenced in sermons or artwork in the church. Given the ubiquity of these images, it's hardly surprising that some of them became the Trump cards of tarocchi decks of the time. Other images were derived from common secular visual tropes of the day, such as The Hanged Man
. Art is always a reflection, and a product, of its era.
Prior to the advent of the printing press in Europe (1450), decks were individually created and inspired hand-painted works of art commissioned by wealthy patrons, bound together only by the rules of tarocchi. It's unlikely that they (or at least, that all of them) were used to teach any sort of lesson about piety or Godliness. While nearly all of the personages in the Major Arcana can be traced to popular literature (most notably Italian), there is no one definitive work with all
of the Trumps in a particular order to tell a particular story; no one religious or occult order got together and dictated that the Trumps should be ordered just so
for whatever purpose. Franco Patesi
has suggested a few works in particular that may have served as inspiration and, while not rejecting the idea that a definitive source exists and hasn't been found (or existed but was destroyed), admits as more probable the "multiple streams of influence" hypothesis.
In other words, while the images in the Major Arcana probably came from a multitude of tales and illustrations of spiritual progression, the final version we have today is not
(so far as we can tell) based on any extant occult source's recommendation. The Waite-Smith deck, perhaps the most popular and recognizable Tarot deck in the world, was likely based in large part on the Sola-Busca Tarot
, which A. E. Waite and Pamela Coleman Smith both probably saw in display in the British Museum. The Sola-Busca is the only extant and complete full-color tarocchi deck with full-color illustrations of the Trumps and
the pips, though that is not to suggest the Waite-Smith deck is a mere clone. Smith and Waite adjusted some of the card meanings and images so that there are major differences between the two, even though there also many similarities. Here are some more sample images of the Sola-Busca deck
so you can check for yourself. Giordani Berti
suggests that the Sola-Busca deck, which has been attributed to Nicola di maestro Antonio, is an occult deck (not only a mere gaming deck) with ties to alchemy
, but it's my unlearned opinion that those similarities were not meant to be any kind of lesson or secret code, but are just more contemporary images and ideas Nicola di maestro Antonio used for the sake of art. In any case, those ties are through the use of images in cards throughout the deck, more or less at random; Berti is not referring to any secret "recipe" (literal or metaphorical) contained with the ordered numbers of the Trumps.
This is not to say that it is impossible or inappropriate to read other traditions—like alchemy, astrology, or the Kabbalah—on to the cards. If you happen to know a lot about them, that certainly enriches your understanding of the cards and adds new layers of meaning to draw on. I'm not questioning the legitimacy of such a practice; this reading-on is the exact reason Tarot as a divination tool exists today. I only mean that my goal in this investigation was the strictly-defined Fool's journey in the Majors: was this a narrative that artists had in mind when creating the early decks? Is there a long-standing historical tradition of the Major Arcana as a story or some kind ? If so, where did it come from? If not, when did people start applying that idea?
Since I think it's safe to say that the Fool's journey was not
the intended framework of the Majors in the earliest decks, when did it start getting read on to the Major Arcana?
Such a narrative is not really the focus either in Waite's Pictorial Key to the Tarot
(1911) or in Tarot of the Bohemians
(1896). Nor was I able to detect one in Eliphas Levi's Transcendental Magic: Its Dogma and Its Rituals
(1854–1856). S. L. MacGregor Mathers
, in his summation of the meanings of the Major Arcana in The Tarot
in 1888, provides a little fable almost as a mnemonic aside:
*Here Mathers is using the Major Arcana model with 8 as Justice (or Adjustment) and 11 as Strength, instead of the reverse we see in Waite's model. Note that both of them do not number the Fool before 1, but in between Judgment and The World, though it retains its value of 0. P. D. Ouspensky
The Human Will (1) enlightened by Science (2) and manifested by Action (3) should find its Realisation (4) in deeds of Mercy and Beneficence (5). The Wise Disposition (6) of this will give him Victory (7) through Equilibrium (8)* and Prudence (9), over the fluctuations of Fortune (10). Fortitude (11), sanctified by Sacrifice of Self (12), will triumph over Death itself (13), and thus a Wise Combination (14) will enable him to defy Fate (15). In each Misfortune (16) he will see the Star of Hope (17) shine through the twilight of Deception (18); and ultimate Happiness (19) will be the Result (20). Folly (0), on the other hand, will bring about an evil Reward (21).
, famed proponent of the Fourth Dimension, also took some time out to write on the Tarot: a tract titled The Symbolism of the Tarot
(1913). He talks only about the Major Arcana, and the bulk of the writing is a first-person narrative through every card in the Majors. While each stage of the journey (each card) is connected to each other, the order Ouspensky chooses for his story isn't to simply follow the traditional numbering. Starting with the Magician at one end of the Majors and The Fool at the other, Ouspensky works from either side in to the middle. He starts with the Magician, then to the Fool, then to the High Priestess, then to the World, and so on, ending with The Hanged Man as the ultimate end of the tale. According to Ouspensky, in each pair of opposite cards, "one card complet[es] the sense of another and two mak[e] one." That is the the only thing approaching The Fool's journey I could find, though as you can see there are strong differences between Ouspensky's narrative and the story suggested by the numerical order of the Major Arcana.
Finally, Crowley opens The Book of Thoth
Be this thy task, to see how each card springs necessarily from each other card, even in due order from The Fool unto The Ten of Coins.
which implies that there is a logical sequence behind not just the Major Arcana but the entire deck. The imposition of the Qabalah on the Tarot does create something of a natural progression, though there are multiple paths on the Tree of Life and there is nothing to suggest that the Tarot was originally
designed with the Qabalah in mind. Moreover, this logical progression is not limited to the trumps and is not described by Crowley as "the Fool's journey."
On and on my research could go, and hopefully it will, but it requires more time and more than just cursory readings and searching for terms. There are numerous 19th and 18th century texts in French I haven't been able to find online and in English (my French skills are not up to the task of 200-year-old treatises on occult topics); they may shed some more light on the topic, or at least contribute to a clear and unequivocal "no." I largely suspect that the popularity of Joseph Campbell's work in comparative mythology and the 1949 publication of The Hero With a Thousand Faces
is the leading contributor to the idea of The Fool's journey.