Thrown Under the Bus: The Major Arcana and Fate
Although the title of this article is only half-serious, it points to a common perception (and as we shall see, popular misconception) about the appearance of several Major Arcana (aka “trump”) cards in a reading. Eden Gray summarized it neatly in her 1960 book, The Tarot Revealed: “If the majority of cards in the layout come from the Major Arcana, there is a strong indication that there are powerful outside forces at work on the subject’s affairs.” In Liber T, Golden Dawn Chief Adept Macgregor Mathers described it as “A Majority of Keys — Strong forces beyond the Querent’s control.” In my own practice, depending on the context of the question, the size of the spread and the position of the card in the sequence, I may even accord a single trump card this degree of potency.
Modern thinking of the blithely affirmative “it’s all good” variety assumes that any challenging situation can be turned to one’s advantage, but the escalation of significant developments often accompanying the presence of trump cards can feel like being “blindsided by destiny.” If the cards are positive, there is more than a hint of being blessed by circumstances independent of (and sometimes in spite of) one’s own actions, while more stressful cards suggest being knocked down and stomped on by an inimical cosmic power. Turning the heat up a notch — “for good or ill” — may be the best way to look at it, and “over-the-top” is a common observation, with impact ranging from “too much of a good thing” to “be careful what you wish for,” then on to “in the wrong place at the wrong time” and culminating in a despondent “Why me?”
My personal understanding of the Major Arcana (at least in the realm of situational and developmental phenomena rather than psychological nuances) is that they represent important external energies or forces entering the matter that — especially if negative — can be neither avoided nor fully deflected, so the only reasonable way to deal with them is to adapt or adjust to their influence. These intrusive powers come in a variety of flavors: epochal, generational, cultural, social and familial are a few. Obviously, encountering a majority of trumps implies that “big things are afoot,” but even a single potent card in a sensitive position can sway the situation to its own agenda, dragging the rest of the reading along with it. When scanning a spread for its overall “tone” before moving on to a card-by-card analysis, I always look first to see if there are any dominant trump cards present, and often take a hierarchical approach to the interpretation that focuses first on these “prime movers” and the extent to which their emphasis is either reinforced or diminished by the rest of the cards.
With the difficult cards that are most vexing to querents, this modulation can produce anything from a true show-stopper to an elusive “ghost in the machine.” In all cases, adopting a patient coping mentality is usually advisable. For example, Trump XIII in the middle of a “hearts-and-flowers” scenario full of sunny vistas may simply imply a cloud passing momentarily across the face of the Sun (maybe something won’t go quite as planned and will have to be scrapped or fudged), while in a moodier setting it could deliver an emphatic “wet blanket” (Death) to the doorstep of the party (brilliantly portrayed in the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life).
If your approach to the Major Arcana is more archetypal and psychological than situational, the perspective shifts substantially. Like the court cards “on steroids,” a trump card can reflect a characteristic, behavior or attitude that the querent should either cultivate or shun in grappling with the influx of irresistible energies. “Matching speeds” with the velocity of incoming forces is a useful analogy. The phrase “paradigm shift” also comes to mind. If a trump is taken to indicate the involvement of another person, it can show a “larger than life” personality and sometimes a fated encounter. (Think of the Emperor in a love reading, who could be “a dream come true,” “your worst nightmare,” or the father in a “shotgun wedding;” then consider the slippery Magician or the dangerously charismatic Devil in the same light.) In an archetypal sense, I tend to see trump cards as stage-setters for life-changing developments, channeling extra-personal forces in ways that can alter the landscape and redraw the map. All that’s required to successfully navigate such uncharted waters (replete with their hypothetical dragons) and make the most of the voyage is the gumption to “ride the lightning” and not get “bulldozed” by fate.
However, the foregoing may in truth be more academic than empirical; in day-to-day affairs the appearance of trump cards in a reading all too often amounts to “much ado about nothing,” reminding me of another Monty Python TV sketch, A Minute Passed, which was a sly study in frustrated expectations. Most people tend to live their lives “one day a at time” with little fanfare while — at least in theory — trumps occupy a broader chunk of situational real estate, so their operation may be out-of-sync with mundane events to the point that they become only auspicious or ominous “background noise” for the day’s activities. In fact, some European cartomancers of my acquaintance don’t accord the trumps any greater importance in a narrative than the court and pip cards. Although I’ve been working up to it for a while, I recently decided to take a more measured stance regarding the significance of trump cards in my personal readings (but not in those for other people since I won’t presume to tinker with their destiny; that’s for them to decide upon seeing the cards). I’ve found over several decades of practice that, although they are often purported to show “big-deal” occurrences or influences entering our lives, those seldom manifest exactly as predicted (if at all) in my daily, weekly and monthly outcomes.
Over a year ago I removed the trump cards from my deck when doing daily readings since the minor and court cards are more attuned to what could realistically happen in practical terms over any 24-hour span. I’ve done the same thing for my monthly “New Moon” readings, since the transiting Moon in astrology is more about cyclical or habitual activities than major long-term developments. I still occasionally use the quintessence calculation with my readings because a single trump card derived from the rest of the cards in a spread can offer a broad view of the backdrop against which the action will take place, not as an active “player” but as an environmental factor setting the “tone” for the period. While it doesn’t make sense to expect a sizable impact every time a trump card shows up in a spread (they are, after all, more than a quarter of the population), regarding them as imparting an inferential bias has some validity.
What I’ve concluded is that trump cards are more likely to show something “coming to a head” for good or ill in our personal intersection with universal energies (think of it as “the stars aligning”), such that we should pay closer attention to our affairs in the areas signified by the cards but remain poised and not overreact in either direction until the evidence becomes clearer. They don’t necessarily show that we will encounter certain momentous events or circumstances, just that there is an increased likelihood that we might and should be prepared for them. Think of it as an “eye-opener” but not necessarily a goad to action or an inevitable instance of substantial benefit or detriment. We can either acknowledge the potential and better position ourselves to “go with the flow” of a fortunate indication or dig our heels in and try to resist a less fortunate one.
As mentioned above, trump cards can show the emergence of critical situations that we can neither avoid nor fully deflect, so we have to adapt or adjust to their implications, at least in a preparatory way. I’m now softening that assumption to recognize that, while there is always a chance for unforeseen difficulties to occur in the best of cases (or for a “silver lining” to appear in what seem to be dire straits), it’s never a certainty unless we “play our cards” to that end, intentionally or not. Even when they are benign, the intrusion of trumps can pave the way for an automatic response (or “knee-jerk reaction”) that can overtake us before we know what’s happening. For example, seeing the Sun in a reading, we might say “Wow, that’s great!” but without examining all of its implications we could miss the fact that there’s no place to hide if it brings any unpleasantness to light under its pitiless gaze. For example, if anything is going on in your life that can’t stand the light of day, the glare of the Sun could drive it out of the shadows. It can be a case of “Be careful what you wish for!”
In my opinion, the value of the trump cards in a more substantial reading is that they interrupt the relatively uneventful flow of more prosaic cards, kind of like tossing a big rock into a placid pond. They make waves and create cross-currents that can alter the trajectory of a narrative, but they must always be kept in perspective. The Devil may say “Watch your back!” but not mean that you’re definitely going to be manipulated unless you set yourself up for it. It could be said that there is almost always self-induced complicity in the twists-and-turns of our personal fortunes, whether conscious or otherwise, that can create a propensity for — or vulnerability to — certain consequences. Sometimes it’s rooted in a kind of transfixing “moth-to-a-flame” compulsion, but at other times it’s more that we’re just looking the other way when it arises and get “blind-sided.”