The Archetypes of the Major Arcana

The twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana depict the “Greater Secrets” — the big mysteries of life. You’ll probably recognize many of the images in the Major Arcana. The Death card makes perennial appearances in horror movies and murder mysteries, but you’re probably also familiar with the image of Justice, holding her scales, and the perpetually spinning Wheel of Fortune.

That’s because all of the Major Arcana cards reflect the archetypes that serve as a framework for our understanding of the world our understanding of the world.

Carl Jung, a psychotherapist and a colleague of Sigmund Freud, was the first person to theorize that we are all born with an ability to understand archetypes. In fact, he said, that ability is built into our psychological makeup; it comes as standard equipment on most models. We are pre-programmed to look for archetypes in our everyday lives, and when we find them, we can make sense of complicated relationships.

Carl Jung’s descriptions of commonly recognized archetypes include the hero, the maiden, and the wise old man. Other archetypes include the anima, the feminine aspect of a man’s personality; the animus, the masculine aspect of a woman’s personality; the mother, which typifies a nurturing, emotional parent; the father, a physical, protective parent; the trickster, or rebel; and the shadow, the hidden, antisocial dark side of human nature.

Throughout history, artists and writers have used archetypes to explain how people fit into the universe. In classic myths and legends, archetypal heroes like Odysseus encountered archetypal villains like the one-eyed Cyclops. Even today, archetypal characters — like Frankenstein’s monster or Star War’s Luke Skywalker — are the mainstay of popular books, movies, and television shows.

Technically speaking, an archetype is a model that serves as a pattern for other, similar things. An archetype is an example that represent the essence of any idea, and archetypes are frequently expressed as symbols and images.

You might think of an archetype as a cosmic stereotype. Archetypes instantly communicate a whole set of shared understandings and beliefs. Archetypes transcend language barriers, as well as the limitations of time and place. Throughout history, all around the world, people from a wide range of cultures and civilizations have shared similar archetypal concepts — like the wandering fool, the powerful magician, and the mysterious, wise woman. It’s no coincidence that those are the first three figures pictured on the first three cards of the Major Arcana.

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