The Major Arcana: Spiritual Origins of Tarot




Human beings have been seeking ways to discover the future events that will affect their destiny since we emerged from caves. Looking into the future was and is a Shamanic technique important to the survival of the tribe. Whether one was connecting to the dream-time, consulting bones or entrails, gazing into still pools (scrying), or ingesting an hallucinogen, no matter what the tool, we were all seeking a connection to the bigger picture.


Tarot is simply one more tool useful in accessing a Higher Wisdom and a tool to give voice to the directives of The Universe. It is a useful guide which can connect us to our innate Soul Map, the clues as to what we are doing here and how we can use our innate abilities more effectively on this planet for the best and highest good of all concerned. Tarot is one of the oldest metaphysical tools with origins which stretch back to the 4th century. It is from that time that Tarot historians have discovered the remains of a “card system” in ancient China.


This card system is composed of 78 cards, comprised of two decks; The Minor Arcana (Lesser Wisdom) and The Major Arcana (Greater Wisdom). The Minor Arcana, with its four suits representing the four elements; Earth, Air, Fire and Water, holds the key to understanding the connection and flow of issues in our everyday life. The 22 cards of the Major Arcana hold the key to the ancient Spiritual origins of the Tarot and speak to our sublime Spiritual connection to the Universal flow, our life lessons and directives towards any particular issue from the Universe.


Ayurvedic scholar, and good friend, Swami Shivananda (known locally as “Swami Bob”), first offered this insight on the Spiritual origins of tarot to me several years ago. His research showed that during the opening of the Spice Trade routes from the Orient to Europe, initiated by Marco Polo and other explorers, traders from China and slaves from India carried the teachings of their Spiritual Beliefs with them to the West in the form of folios, a loose gathering of picture images drawn on paper or papyrus which illustrated the tenets of their beliefs and wisdoms.


This folio was a tool for a non-literate population who, with the aid of a visual system, could be instructed on the tenants of their beliefs. The “cards” could be rearranged to tell a story and served the same purpose as stained glass windows in a Christian cathedral did for the non-literate populace of medieval towns.


So, what does this ancient folio reveal about the Spiritual tenets and beliefs of its place of origin? Let’s do a little exercise. Remove the Major Arcana from your Tarot deck and lay it out in front of you in this way; cards 1 through 10 side by side and below that, cards 11-21. The card designated “The Fool” is kept separate and denotes Ourselves, The Innocent, The Seeker of Wisdom. In essence it is “The Wild Card”. if you look closely at the depiction of The Fool in your deck, “he/she” most likely is carrying or holding what looks like a hobo’s bag. In reality, this Shamanic “sampo” is a magic bag holds all the tools or keys necessary for traveling one’s life’s path. The Fool doesn’t know it yet, but they are in charge (Free Will) of their destiny and may use any of the hidden tools to navigate their life’s journey. The bag holds a Sword which represents pain and the ability to conquer pain, a Staff or Rod which can help them creatively deal with their journey, a Grail Cup which represents the Spiritual and emotional aspects of one’s life, and the coin which is representative of wealth and security. Coincidentally, these are all the tools a pilgrim would take with them on their Spiritual pilgrimage to find God Source in Hindu culture. Back to our “spread”…one of the things you will notice is that the cards reflect a balance between male and female, an important tenant in Eastern thinking which honors the balance of Yin and Yang and the Shakti and Shiva. The Masculine energy of The Magician is balanced by the Feminine energy of The High Priestess. It also represents at the next step, taking the magic tools out of the Fool’s pack and being able to utilize them in the world. The energy of The Emperor is balanced by the Divine Mother, The Empress. The Earth bound rulings of The Hierophant is balance again by the Intuitive Feminine of The High Priestess. The Lovers represents the merging of the sacred two into One.


Balance is seen everywhere. The two beasts in The Chariot. The scales of Justice. The flow of Sacred waters between two vessels in Temperance. The Sun and the Moon reflected in the heavens. And, ultimately, the Hermaphroditic God/Goddess, All That Is. And I am sure , if you gaze long enough you will see there compliments and balances. But ultimately, it is this honoring of duality that sits at the heart of tarot’s Spiritual origins. Reminding us to honor the appropriate use of the active/masculine and the receptive/feminine which lies within all of us.


This is only one small aspect reflecting the Spiritual origins of Tarot and how you can apply it to your life’s journey. There’s more to come! Check in with our blog for more Tarot insights and for information on classes.



Cris McCullough has been reading and teaching Tarot for 50 years. She is the author of “Holistic Tarot; Soul Map for a New Paradigm”, available on Amazon and at Northern Lights Holistic. She offers integrative, intuitive guidance by phone and in person in Newport and Portsmouth( Northern Lights Holistic, 204b Clock Tower Plaza, Portsmouth, RI. Call 401-293-5655). Call 401-662-6642 for Newport hours or to set up a phone reading.



Cris McCullough

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