In her definitive book, Seventy-eight Degrees of Wisdom, a Book of Tarot, Rachel Pollack begins the first chapter with this spread:
These are the four most basic tarot archetypes arranged in a perfect pattern of spiritual evolution. I call this the “everything you really need to know about the major arcana” layout.
The vertical axis is The Fool and The World. The beginning and the end. The Aleph and the Tav. The Alpha and the Omega. Most authors describe these figures as androgynous and both figures are dancing. In fact, they are the only dancers in the major arcana. Death dances in some of the decks, but Death will always dance, and who are we to say it can’t. All of the other figures are pictured in static positions, like they’re posing for a photographer—they each represent a distinct, fixed state of existence.
The Fool is dancing along a precipice high above the rest of the world and looks to be about to leap down into it. But there is no fear or holding back. S/he radiates innocence and total confidence.
The World, however, dances suspended in a magical wreath of victory and radiates not only a feeling of completion and wholeness, but also a feeling of endless possibility, which in turn suggests new beginnings. Together they represent the eternal dance of the universe from beginning to end to new beginning—the cosmic spiral. Like an electromagnetic current spiraling between the anode and cathode ends of a battery, the vertical axis spins around the static horizontal axis formed by The Magician and High Priestess.
The Magician’s planet is Mercury, which represents the psychological functions of logic and communication. He holds aloft a wand in his right hand and points down toward the earth with his left. And so the Magician clearly represents manifestation through logical, linear thought and action—functions of the conscious mind, the left brain. Occultists and many psychotherapists assign these traits to the positive, masculine principal.
The High Priestess sits calmly between a black pillar and a white pillar. A veil hangs between them, the thin veil of conscious awareness, which is all that separates us from our inner selves. The Moon, the planet of imagination, illusions and the unseen, is assigned to her. And so the HPS is the keeper of the infinite and powerful, yet static wisdom of the not-conscious, the right brain. These traits are assigned to the negative, feminine principal. Water is a symbol of the not-conscious and tarot readers are fond of saying that the piece of the High Priestess’s blue robe that trails off the card becomes all the rivers and pools and oceans that appear in the rest of the tarot.
The numbers of these cards are also significant.
- The Fool’s number is 0, which isn’t a real number, in fact, it’s a not-number. It’s egg shaped, and like an egg, it represents infinite yet unmanifested possibility.
- The Magician’s number is 1. The first real number. One means wholeness, ego.
- The HPS’s number is 2. With the number 2 we have a duality: odd/even, positive/negative, black/white, yin/yang, masculine/feminine.
- The World’s number is 21. It contains both 1 and 2, The Magician and the HPS. In other words, The World represents the reunion of The Magician and The High Priestess, the yin and the yang. 2+1=3, the magic number, the number of creativity, the child of the union of 1 and 2. In fact, the digits of both the horizontal and vertical axes add up to 3. The High Priestess key even foretells the resulting three. She is the third figure between the two pillars of Boaz and Joachim, mercy and severity, the pillars of the Temple of Solomon. Waite has even labeled one B and one J to be sure you don’t miss the symbolism.
This is the guide to inner wisdom that Cabalists call The Tree of Life. It’s made up of the ten Sephiroth or Sephirot connected by twenty two paths. Each path is assigned a major arcana card. The sephroth on the right form the pillar of mercy and the ones on the left form the pillar of severity. The High Priestess forms the third or middle pillar of the Tree. In fact, the path on the middle pillar from Kether to Tifareth is the path of the High Priestess, whose Hebrew letter is Gimel. The other two paths that make up this pillar are Temperance (Samech) and The World (Tav). So if we read downward from Kether, the first Sephirah, we get the following advice. “To reach Malkuth, The World, we must first establish communication with the not conscious (HPS, Gimel) then we must establish communication between the conscious and not conscious (Temperance, Samech). Once this communication has been established, direct communication with the divine becomes a state of being (The World) and we reach our goal, Malkuth. Of course one can get there by taking either the right or left pillar, but most cabalists consider the middle pillar to be the preferred path to Malkuth.
With this information, the meaning of the spread becomes obvious. In order to learn the lessons necessary to become a more complete, enlightened being The Fool must separate into masculine and feminine. The one must become two.
We see this in so many creation myths. God formed Eve from Adam’s rib so he would have a partner, someone different from himself to exchange ideas with. In many pagan mythologies, the goddess was the first and only being. She gave birth to a son who became her consort/partner—again someone opposite, someone with a different point of view. The journey of the major arcana cards is about how these two, which are really the conscious and unconscious minds of the seeker, become aware of each other and establish an intimate and fluent dialogue. When this is accomplished, the seeker has attained Nirvana, or Heaven on Earth, or the fulfillment of all desires. In other words, he has attained The World.