The Major Arcana, History and Biography


Nature creates everything in patterns, even the anomalies. Human beings have an innate tendency to want to see things in patterns, in habits, in comforting and predictable ways. Since history and pre-history thus far is written by humans, it is impossible to determine whether the perception of reality creates the reality or whether the reality of paradigm and pattern exists outside human perception.

In short, everything repeats in predictable ways. We don't know why.

That mythology and fiction and every way humans tell stories to one another creates patterns and archetypes, is not new. Jung, Campbell, and Freud are the most commonly cited authors of the idea. Robert Graves, James Frazer, and Frans Boas have also written somewhat on the subject. As time goes on and as the sphere of human influence grows, not to mention the range of human reception, the archetypes change and reshape to suit the changing culture. A hundred years ago, very few men and women experienced life outside their local environment. Now it is not unheard of to be able to discover a very different way of life simply by turning on a television, a computer, or sometimes walking down the street.

The Major Arcana are my own attempt to categorize the myths and stories into a form that is simplistic, easy to understand, and applicable to most fields. I have drawn both from my own experience and put the forms to the test in the field, under scrutiny of other observers. Thus far the forms stand at a count of twelve.


>> The Sorcerer
>> The Twins
>> The Child-Bride
>> The Blade
>> The Star
>> The Warrior
>> The Witch
>> The Priestess
>> The Augustine
>> The Tragedienne
>> The Madman
>> The Brute
>> The Innocent

The Sorcerer begins with great potential. He is shining, charismatic, and everyone believes that he will go on to do great things. He, himself, comes to believe it after a while, but only because people say so. In his heart he never outgrows the fear of disappointing, of failure, the fear that he is nothing as powerful or important or loved as he would like to be.

He grows into his power quickly, too quickly for his psyche or his mental and emotional development to support. At some point in his growth he is given a choice between that which he loves and which may yet be pure, and power. The power may be magical, political, psychic, intellectual, or artistic; rarely is it physical. The Sorcerer is, after all, a canon that relies on sheer power only as a last resort. Invariably he chooses power over all, believing that it will best help him to achieve his goals, and thus begins the Fall.

Over time the power begins to corrupt, as he sacrifices more and more of himself to become the arrogant, shining beacon that he pretends to be. The canon of the Sorcerer, however, is also self-knowledge. Even as he falls he is aware of his descent and the spiral of self-loathing, desire, and catharsis drives him further and further to the edge. This descent is easily marked in stages.

Sorcerers may begin in other canons. Most commonly, if they begin in another canon they begin as Priests or Stars. A Stage One Sorcerer will most closely resemble a normal human being. They will be calm, easy, smiling when they are happy, dead-faced or frowning or crying when they are upset. If they begin as another canon, it is at this time that the other traits will be most recognizeable. A Stage Two Sorcerer will speak more often in obscurities, layering his comments so that there are at least two meanings, and it is rare that he will admit to doing so. More often he will display false emotions, pseudo cheer or pseudo anger, to achieve a purpose. A Stage Three Sorcerer will continue the worsening trend of speaking in double meanings and will consider himself distanced from most of his relationships. Those who he does have, whom he trusts, he will cling to and try to alienate at the same time, the principle being that the further he falls the more his friends and loved ones must be protected from him. Yet he cannot stand to be alone with his self-hate.

A Stage Four Sorcerer will be more openly self-destructive, and yet will restrain himself to such forms as are socially acceptable. He will test the boundaries and the persistance of his attachments, regarding them (whether or not he admits this) almost exclusively in terms of close friends and pleasent acquaintances. He is more of extremes, may be diagnosable as bipolar or manic-depressive, and display a mercurial temperment. A Stage Five Sorcerer may also be regarded as terminal. No traces of the original canon remain, and his self-destruction has reached the point where it will be remarked on by others if it exists in a form that is understood by his cultural environment. He has the manic charisma of the doomed, attracting sycophants and followers like the proverbial moth to the equally proverbial flame. He is dangerous, difficult to handle, and yet a Stage Five Sorcerer may be the most skilled at handling others. All Sorcerers, it must be noted, are gifted at manipulation.

In the beginning, there is always one. One word, one gesture, one concept. Then, with the moment of the first choice, there is two. Light and dark, yes and no, left and right. The twins are representative of that duality that springs from oneness. They are so close to it that they can and often do move as a single unit. They are the cliches manifest, two sides of the same coin, opposites attracting, etc. The patterns that govern one often govern the other, and what affects one is always mirrored in some way in the other.

Twinship often is polarized into light and dark simply for dramatic effect. It is more interesting if good and evil are displayed, rather than what Stoppard called the same side of two coins. The first type of twin reflects that: John Woo gave us Face/Off, for example, which featured artificially created twins in the experiment that gave one man another's life. Morally bankrupt versus heroically savage. Star Wars, with their latest installments, give us the reflection of Luke Skywalker in his father Anakin, and by now everyone knows how Anakin's story turns out. Visually, and so much of our input is visual, two people so much the same and yet different in ways we respond to on a visceral level makes for a powerful device.

A skilled storyteller can make several hours worth of banter and mischance out of a pair of twins that carry the same moral aspect, rather than pitting one against the other. Stoppard, as previously mentioned, gives us an example in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Two people carry on a conversation while searching for meaning in their lives; it is a story that might as well be served by one person carrying on a conversation with himself while searching for meaning in his life. The darker aspect of that reflects, however briefly, in the Merovingian's Twin enforcers in the second Matrix film and in their resultant popularity.

Twinship can also be found in a single person. In many psychological thrillers of stage, screen, and book, a person is played off of a character portrayed to be his opposite and yet possessing some kind of deep connection to the protagonist, not unlike that of a best friend. In the end, the opposite character is revealed to be a figment of the protagonist's imagination, a hallucination or a manifestation of mental disease. His opposite is merely another aspect of himself. The Ur-example of this, of course, is The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Modern examples include Fight Club, The Dark Half, and Nikki from Season 1 of Heroes.

The concept of a child-bride is a recent development as far as such things go. It was not, after all, until the last several hundred years that there was a middle stage between childhood and adolescence. No child, despite the somewhat pithy name of this archetype, could shoulder the responsibilities given to the Child-Bride, but she is notable for being significantly younger than those around her. As the story goes she is taken from her home when she is on the cusp of womanhood but has not yet reached it. By circumstance or by arrangement she is given into the care of an older person, someone who requires a partner to look after his home place and his affairs while he is at work or away. It should be noted that although the gender is given here as female to male, that is not necessarily fixed.

Child-Brides are children who are forced to grow up too quickly, and yet they do so with uncanny grace. Despite their youth they learn how to manage a household of any size from three or four to three or four thousand. They learn how to assume the mantle of secondary leadership, as well as how to deal with more practical matters such as feeding, clothing, and seeing to the health of their household. They are able to delegate responsibilities to those most capable of fulfilling them, and triage the members who are in need of help when there is an emergency.

They are not prodigies. This advanced knowledge, this leap in ability both mental and emotional comes with a cost. Alia, a creation of Frank Herbert's Dune world, strained under the pressure and eventually broke. And on her own, the Child-Bride founders and feels without purpose, adrift and without worth. She is also easily subject to abusive relationships; without a nurturing partner she may easily come to believe every bad thing that the abusive spouse or partner repeats to her. She will cleave even to a violent and sadistic partner rather than be on her own and do what she can to mitigate the damage, believing that if things have gone so vastly awry in their lives that it must be her fault. She is, after all, responsible for the health and well-being of the household. In the proper environment, though, and with a loving partner who is willing to keep and treat her as an equal, she can become a formidable power equal to any of the other Arcana. Other examples include , Guinevere of myth and legend is often portrayed as such, . See Mona from Anne Rice's Taltos series for a highly sexualised example.

Because of the atrocities and horrors which sentient being has committed upon sentient being for so long, it has given rise to an archetype to take the thoughts and nightmares of these people. The Blade is both victim and victimizer. Akin to the Twins in this respect, he is both sides of the coin, one of the most common phenomenon amongst the perpetrators of these atrocities being the cycle of abuse. Those who abuse others were themselves abused at some point; those who committed atrocities often once had atrocities perpetrated on them. This is by far and away not most commonly true in the real world, but archetypes deal with extremes found in stories, and it is as common as dirt in the stories.

The Blade takes on both persons as the story or situation requires it, encompassing the pain of both, the rage and helplessness and the hurt and in the victimizer's case, the inability to empathize or to rid himself of ego long enough to stop himself from assaulting the other person. Usually there is only one Blade per work of fiction, although in particularly long works the archetype may manifest more than once at separate intervals. In the Wild Cards anthology series the character of The Astronomer was replaced, in terms of archetype, by Mackie Messer. Mackie Messer was appropriately (for the archetype) also known as Mack the Knife. Quixotically, Mack the Knife was displayed (although not described within the play) as a womanizer more than a murderer, and so does not fall within this archetype.

The Blade is never stable, never has been, no matter how sane or rational or lucid he may seem. He can think for himself, often he can function at a basic level within the society, arousing no suspicion from those around him. He keeps to himself because his social skills are not up to a lengthy conversation with anyone whom he would have to relate with on a scale, in a field he is not used to. Too, he must maintain control of himself and his surroundings, creating an almost pathological need to dominate any situation he is in.

Despite this, the Blade can be controlled by one more intelligent or more socially adept than he, or more aware of his strengths and weaknesses. In cases where there is more than one serial killer there has always been a documented stronger, more influential party. Blades are called such both because they are fond of personal and intimate weapons, such as knives, and because they themselves are often used as weapons. It takes a strong will to wield such a personality, to direct them to a series of chosen targets, but it can be done and often is in works of fiction where the Blade figure is the lesser of an array of evils. Consider the example of the titular character Bill in the Kill Bill movies, and the character of Elle Driver.

The Star is one of the most unequivocally bright spots in the pantheon of the Arcane. She is a show-off, but without the characteristic arrogance of the Sorcerer, performing half in order to get a pleasurable reaction from the audience, half simply because she enjoys the performance. The purpose of any showboating the Star does is to get a laugh or a smile out of her friends, those around her. She is at her best when amongst a crowd of people, familiar with at least most of them, engaging their attention in some way.

Stars are most often connected with the performance arts, utilizing these gifts to entertain their friends and keep a certain amount of levity in their lives. A Star may be a musician, an actor, a comedian, or a dancer; if she does not use these skills in her professional life she may well practice them in her private life. Sometimes a Star is involved in a social profession that, while it involves no actual performance as such, offers her an opportunity to mingle with and meet a number of people from a variety of walks of life. She may act as counselor or devil's advocate to her friends in need, offering a pragmatic or down-to-earth view so gracefully that it does not abrade the emotions unnecessarily. Usually following a talking-to, she turns around and offers comfort and cheer.

Stars are generally low-maintenance and require only a little time to vent or rest or otherwise dispose of the stress they have built up over a period of caring for their friends. However, a Star who gets too little of this may fall into a deep depression or, worse, an almost psychotic malaise. Fallen Stars often become Sorcerers simply out of taking too little time for themselves, the stress of bad situation after bad situation clouding their judgment until they start midway down a Sorcerer's path. Already possessing the charisma and social skills, it isn't that far from manipulating emotions towards happiness and ease from manipulating them any way the Star chooses.

Contrary to the indication of the the name the Warrior is not always a soldier or other operative trained for combat. Rather, the Warrior canon describes a willingness to be brutally practical, a ruthless efficiency, and an ability to put aside personal issues in order to accomplish the goal or task at hand and do it quickly. The consummate Warrior is organized, methodical, and efficient. A perfect example is methodically laid out in the trilogy The Deed of Paksenarrion, following the story of the titular character.

Warriors are more often born than made, although they are usually raised in caring and neat households. Solidified and bolstered by a strong, comforting home circumstance, they work to put that same organization in the world around them where it is called for. They do not interfere where they are not asked, knowing the value of discretion, but when called they respond swiftly and take charge if there is no visible and strong leader. A Warrior is equally comfortable in a leadership position or as a follower, as long as the leader is competent. An incompetent leader will be 'rewarded' by the Warrior organizing their forces in spite of him, rather than for him.

Warriors tend to be morally neutral, goal-oriented rather than conforming to a particular morality. They are ethical, but take on the morals of their society failing the existence of a moral set superimposed by a leader. Though perhaps not as chameleon-like as a Sorcerer they are adaptable, especially when they have taken on aspects of the environment in which they are leading.

The Witch is a common figure in folk tale and mythology, with many shared traits throughout a myriad of different legends, cultures, and backgrounds. The most prevalent trait is the knowledge to work within nature, within the long-established order of things. Even the evil witches employ natural means to carry out their malicious plans: eye of newt, poison apple, mirror palaces. The witch works within the balance to either maintain or corrupt it; this is the common thread in witches throughout fable and fairy tale.

Generally she is a sedentary person, living in the same place for most of her life or, if she moves after her childhood, she will live where she settles for the rest of her life. In her youth there may be a period of wanderlust, and it will mostly be within the lower economic bracket. Hitching rides, old vans, wagon caravans. She fills her life either with color or with scent and sound, things that are pleasing to be around, but subtle. She wears flowing clothing, utilitarian and simple as well, but light. For a good visual, see the woman Liriel in the film The Craft. She is also competent at physical daily labor, and some not so daily when she has to be. These things may all seem very basic and simple, but one of the most common lessons of the witch is that it is the basic and simple which may also be most overlooked in terms of its importance. The powers of the witches described in Monica Furlong's books Wise Child and Juniper are described as the power that comes with knowing how things are.

The Priestess concerns herself most of all with the mental, emotional, and spiritual ills of her people, that which is more difficult to see and harder to diagnose. Unlike the Witch, she is not always kind and certainly not always gentle. Like the Sorcerer, she is highly intelligent and has the ability to see into people; she must have, or she wouldn't be able to find and assist to fix the problem. Assist to fix, because whenever possible she leads a person to wisdom rather than confer wisdom that may yet be forgotten. She combines, in either aspect or behavior, many of the properties of many of the Arcana. This is one of her chiefest attributes, the ability to be or be viewed as what a person needs at any given time. This changeability does not reflect her inner nature.

The Priestess may come from any background, but at some point in her life she goes through unusally harsh trials and reaches an understanding of herself. It is this, more than any training in psychology or mentalism, that enables her to help others. She is willing to ask herself the hard questions and force herself to answer them truly and thoroughly before she asks them of any others. The asking and the acceptance helps her ask the hard questions of others and accept the answers, which in turn helps her help others. It gives her strength, openness and honesty without the hypocrisy of refusing to do what she asks of others, and a blatant willingness to try and accept that which others find abhorrent in themselves. The question put to the petitioners in the movie Willow was the power to control the universe lies in which finger. The correct answer, displaying what might seem to be arrogance but what is indicated as confidence, is the petitioner's own finger.

The Priestess as she is in this state is rarely found in fiction by herself. The journey stage is a popular theme in fiction, as many people would like to be well balanced and strong enough to handle or help anyone who comes their way. However, she also crops up often in teams where one or more of the team is a misfit, an anarchist or other source of chaos so strong that it takes a well-balanced figure to handle him. These Priestesses are more realistic, and they are more subtle than their journeying counterparts. The Priestess is also often given as the flip side to the Sorcerer, as she is one of the only Arcane types capable of keeping up with his mercurial shifts and hyper-intelligent manipulations.

The Augustine is harder to recognize as an archetype because the stereotype of the Arcane (and, indeed, of most archetypal figures since Jung's time) is that of the mystic or the religious, or at the very least the spiritual. The mundane and economic is often overlooked when considering just who has the prominence in story and the force of personality to be a manifestation of archetype. The Augustine belongs to the economic and political field, a leader in the most material sense, inspiring trust and loyalty as much as the podium as in closed conference with his councilors. Named for Octavian, called Augustus Caesar, the Augustine is the empire-builder who has no major or path-changing flaws.

The Augustine is the sort of person who becomes class president or manager of the school funds as a young man. He takes a leadership role in every project of which he is a part, and he rises through the ranks of the company he works for at meteoric speed. He would make a good politician not because of his ability to wheel and deal, to trade in favors, but because of his ability to win trust and get things done. Sexual or fiduciary scandal is rarely a part of his life and career, either because he is too scrupulous or (more likely) because he knows that such activities would not only be damaging to his career but also to the trust and productivity of the nation. Unlike the Sorcerer, he isn't willing to sacrifice for his passions. Jim Butcher describes one of his villains Johnny "Gentleman" Marcone as being the sort of man who prefers efficiency to personal satisfaction; the mark of the consummate Augustinian character.

The one publicity advantage that the Augustine has over most of the rest of the Arcana is that he is often noted down in history as a benevolent leader who brought many improvements to his company or nation, whether or not that is actually true. The Augustine stands out in the press of his time and in the history books. He is a pillar of industry, an innovator, a strong leader in war-time and a proponant of many wonderful advancments in peace. It is rarely stated what any but the most dramatic advancements or changes are, and the downside is almost never shown.

The Tragedienne is a popular archetype in noir, political commentary, and romance fiction. In any genre where a happy ending is not only not guaranteed, but almost forbidden, one is likely to find a Tragedienne. She carries within her a great drama that will be written out in the course of her life. Most often she is not careful and the grief that comes to her is of her own foolishness or her own indirect making, although that is largely due to the contrivances of the plot and the purpose with which the story is written. Tragic characters most often are so because there is a lesson to be learned. In real life, one has the ability to learn the lessons before it is too late, and the point of no return rarely exists in so certain a form.

The Tragedienne is usually an innocent or an admirable character. There is very little of malice or mischief about her, although she has the bad luck to fall in with a bad crowd. Perhaps she falls in love with someone she should not (a Sorcerer or a Blade) or she is the victim of someone close to her in her youth. Or perhaps she is caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whichever the cause, over the course of her life she continues to make her decisions as reactions, rather than actions. She is caught along in the wave of the drama surrounding her and carried to an unhappy ending. The most famous example of this is most likely the titular heroine of Romeo and Juliet, although Romeo himself does not escape this. She reacts out of love, to her parents' plans for her and to the consequences of Romeo's duel. It might have been better, or at least more cleanly cut, if he had adopted the sense and restraint of Benvolio, or if she had simply run away instead of concocting a ridiculous plan of false death.

More often than not, even the tragic ending is directly of her own making. Tragediennes who endure the most prominently throughout history and fiction tend to be suicides, either when her life has gone on beyond bearing or in the course of martyring herself for a cause or a person. In the rare cases that her story doesn't end with her untimely and tragic death, she often runs mad from isolation, from grief, or from some overwhelming, pyrrhic gift.

Wisdom often comes from strange places in folklore and fairy tales, and the Madman is one of the strangest of them all. Exposed to truths more encompassing or intimate or powerful than the mind can withstand, his relationship to the reality that others live in cracks and falls away. In its place, however, comes a different way of seeing the world, perhaps a more knowledgeable way. In some cases this journey is spelled out over the course of the work, in others it is only hinted at in the beginning. Shakespeare's Fools, at the extreme end of this, are never explained. They simply are, existing as a device to provide the truth to those that are characteristically incapable of hearing it.

The most difficult part of understanding the Madman is translating his perspective to one that can be readily understood without losing the message in the translation. The Madman isn't always so obscured from the generally accepted reality as to be unintelligible, but at best he is viewed as quirky and eccentric. At worst, what comes from his mouth or his pen will not be viewed as the predominant language, but something different and incomprehensible. Only with time, patience, and effort can one begin to decipher his ramblings. However, when the attempt is made, it is often worthwhile.

The Madman's skewed view of reality gives him a unique perspective and enables him to see truths that would otherwise be closed off from a person using the normal thought paradigm. Most often in the retelling of the Madman's stories, it's the unpleasant truths that are revealed, or that are described as having been told; the Madman speaks only warnings of dire things to come, nothing of goodness or beauty. Cassandra could be described as a sort of Madman figure, doomed to speak the foretold truth to anyone who would listen and hear but never believe her. However, the gift is never so one-sided. A Madman is capable of describing great love and compassion as well as great horror, if a person pays close enough attention.

Simple people enjoy simple protagonists with whom they can empathize. Highly intelligent people enjoy simple protagonists whom they can view as a sort of pet without offending the fictional character. The Brute is a favorite hero for these and many other reasons. Uncouth and unashamedly blunt, he gives us the kind of scatalogical and basic function humor that we enjoy without reservation or in spite of ourselves. Vin Diesel has often played these sorts of protagonists in the past, although he seems to be branching out. See Riddick for the most complex end of the scale (and please see him in the original Pitch Black rather than the sub-par sequel), a protagonist built primarily on needs and drives and whims.

The Brute also makes an ideal villain because he is such a simple creature. When he is bad, there is nothing redeemable or admirable about him. As an archetype he contains enough personality to avoid the two-dimensional trap of the irredeemable villain, but because of his minimalistic nature he is unsympathetic. His motives are greed, or lust, or power, simple motives that are easy to ascribe without probing further into backgrounds. He is easy to insert into the most basic of storylines and as easy to defeat for even the most bumbling of heroes.

The Brute is little more than a collection of basic human needs and the more simple human wants. Bound together in a form often male and usually large and strong, he represents the force and muscle in most team formations. Alone, he is the sort of protagonist who blunders through situations and saves the day at least half on luck. Although he can be appallingly uncouth, there are no ambiguous questions of morality or awkward contradictions within him. If he is a good guy, we know that he is a good guy, and likewise if he's the bad guy. His motivations are pure, if they are not necessarily admirable, and we can read him as easy as a child's book.

There is very little that can be said about the Innocent, primarily because it is a figure rarely portrayed in fiction. The Innocent must be kept apart from the world in order to maintain its innocence, and this doesn't make for very good or engaging fiction. As a proto-Arcana, the Innocent may be turned into just about anything. As a protagonist in and of itself, however, the Innocent is a very limited prospect. When it is portrayed in fiction, it is most often displayed as a wistful memory of what we imagine once was, or a contrast to corruption and that which current popular belief holds as evil.

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The Arcana and all related material are © 2004, 2008 R M Holsen