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The Major Arcana as Archetypes

Updated: Dec 18, 2022

In the past few weeks, I’ve written a handful of blog posts that examine the tarot’s major arcana, the first 22 cards in the deck that represent “big picture” ideas. On Monday, that exploration included aligning the popular storytelling model, the hero’s journey, to the Fool’s journey. I shared my interpretation of the story told by the major arcana when mapping the cards along the hero’s route. Today, I’d like to compare these big picture themes with another concept with which storytellers are familiar: archetypes.

The term “archetype” was first coined by the Greeks, meaning “original pattern.” These patterns are images or models of a person or a role. They include the mother, father, teacher, clown, helper, and more, and they can represent similar meanings across various cultures and societies.

According to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who originally defined the construct of the collective unconscious, there are a dozen overarching archetypes that represent four main personality markers: the persona, the shadow, the anima or animus, and the self. These 12 archetypes are listed below, followed by a diagram of each with its prime motivator:

  1. Ruler

  2. Creator/Artist

  3. Sage

  4. Innocent

  5. Explorer

  6. Rebel

  7. Hero

  8. Wizard

  9. Jester

  10. Everyman

  11. Lover

  12. Caregiver

In the tarot, archetypes can be found throughout both the major and minor arcana. These are the individuals the Fool meets along their journey, recognizable figures fortunetellers and storytellers alike have been working with since the appearance of the earliest cards in the fifteenth century. The most famous tarot was designed by Arthur Edward Waite and illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith in 1909, and its design continues to serve as the foundation for deck designs.

Interestingly, Carl Jung knew about the tarot. In fact, on March 1, 1933, the psychiatrist spoke about the cards in a seminar he was giving on active imagination. During that lecture, he described how the figures within the cards exemplified his archetypal theory. The following is a sampling transcript of that lecture:

The original cards of the Tarot consist of the ordinary cards, the king, the queen, the knight, the ace, etc.—only the figures are somewhat different—and besides, there are twenty-one cards upon which are symbols, or pictures of symbolical situations. For example, the symbol of the sun, or the symbol of the man hung up by the feet, or the tower struck by lightning, or the wheel of fortune, and so on. Those are sort of archetypal ideas, of a differentiated nature, which mingle with the ordinary constituents of the flow of the unconscious, and therefore it is applicable for an intuitive method that has the purpose of understanding the flow of life, possibly even predicting future events, at all events lending itself to the reading of the conditions of the present moment.

When considering the tarot, it’s not difficult to sort each of the major arcana cards into Carl Jung’s 12 archetypal constructs; however, my interpretation of the archetypes may differ from yours. As such, I recommend that you study both the tarot and the 12 archetypes and decide for yourself how they overlap. Also note that several cards can be associated with the same archetype. As an example, I have identified possibilities for where I believe the cards could fall:

  1. Ruler—The Emperor, Justice

  2. Creator/Artist—The Fool, Temperance, The Star, The World

  3. Sage—The High Priestess, The Hierophant, The Hermit

  4. Innocent—The Fool, The Lovers, The Star, The Sun, Judgement

  5. Explorer—The Fool

  6. Rebel—The Fool, Wheel of Fortune, Death, The Devil, The Tower, The Moon

  7. Hero—The Fool, The Emperor, The Chariot, Strength, Death

  8. Wizard—The Magician, Temperance, The Devil, The Star, The Moon, The World

  9. Jester—The Fool, The Magician, Wheel of Fortune, The Devil

  10. Everyman—The Fool, Death, The Hanged Man, The Sun

  11. Lover—The Empress, The Lovers, The Devil

  12. Caregiver—The Empress, Strength, The Star

The Archetypes We Choose

Not unlike the tarot, literature is cast with a character lineup that includes these 12 models and roles. In fact, I can think of every single character I have written, spanning all of my work, and clearly identify the archetypes represented by each. If you have read my duology, The Scars We Choose, then you will immediately recognize Scarlett and Julian both as innocents and lovers, Ms. Pinkie as a sage, Zeke as a hero, and Ms. Blossom and Genevieve as caregivers. You might also say that Faye Waverly is a ruler, and if you’ve finished the series and read the bonus backstory, you might easily understand her father, Fred Frye, as being a rebel.

As an additional example of how archetypes show up in literature, I’ll take a stab at identifying the characters in a more commonly known story.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

  1. Ruler—Mr. Bennet, Lady Catherine de Bourgh

  2. Creator/Artist—Mary Bennet, Miss Georgiana Darcy

  3. Sage—Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth Bennet

  4. Innocent—Jane Bennet, Mary Bennet, Kitty Bennet, Miss Charlotte Lucas, Miss Georgiana Darcy

  5. Explorer—Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Wickham

  6. Rebel—Elizabeth Bennet, Lydia Bennet, Mr. Wickham

  7. Hero—Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy

  8. Wizard—Mr. Bennet

  9. Jester—Rev. Collins (at your service)

  10. Everyman—Mr. Bingley, Sir William Lucas

  11. Lover—Jane and Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy

  12. Caregiver—Mrs. Bennet (and her poor nerves)

Mark Your Calendars

Lastly, because there is so much one can write about the Fool’s journey, starting next Wednesday, February 9, I will share a story around each major arcana card through a series called Tarot Stories.

Recommended Reading

Next Magic Monday, I’m starting a series called Celebrating Black Creatives.

In her more than thirty years as a storyteller and visual designer, Amanda “Mandy” Hughes has written and designed over a dozen works of upmarket, literary, and women’s fiction under pen names A. Lee Hughes and Mandy Lee.

Mandy is the founder of Haint Blue Creative, a space for readers and storytellers to explore, learn, and create. Although she earned a Bachelor and Master of Science in Psychology, she has yet to figure out her family, much less herself.

When she’s not writing, Mandy loves going to the movies, theater, traveling, nature walks, birdwatching, margarita-making, and binge-watching The Office. She is a tarot enthusiast who uses the cards to promote wellness and enhance creativity. She lives in Georgia with her husband and four boys, two of whom are furrier than the others (but not by much). Visit her website at and follow her on Instagram @haintbluecreative.

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