This month, we will talk about the last card of the deck: The World, known in some decks as The Universe. First, we should quickly define and describe some terms.
There are 22 Major Arcana cards in a Tarot deck, with numbers from 0 to 21; the Majors usually deal with broader and more far-reaching life experience issues, archetypes that are easy for us to identify with and connect with at some point in our lives. An archetype (pronounced “ark eh type”) is a generic, idealized model of a person, an object, or a concept which can be copied, patterned, or imitated. The term archetype often refers to one of two concepts: a “stereotype,” a personality type observed multiple times, especially an oversimplification of a personality type; stereotypes can be positive or negative, or an “epitome,” which is the embodiment of a particular personality type, especially as the “greatest” or “best” example of the particular personality type; epitomes can also be positive or negative.
So archetypes present personality traits that are common enough to be known by us all, through images (rather than words) that contain symbolism that connects with our subconscious in a universal manner. Each of us can understand the symbolism of archetypes and connect with that symbolism because each of us has (or will) personally experienced these archetypes.
Each Major Arcana card corresponds to an archetype, an image, a number, an element, an astrological sign or planet, a Hebrew letter, and a Path on the Tree of Life joining two Sephiroth. Let’s start breaking this one down; we’ve got a lot of work to do!
Many Major Arcana cards represent archetypes of people in our lives. The Empress is The Mother, The Emperor is The Father, The Hierophant is The Teacher; we easily understand these archetypes because most of us have them in our lives. Other Tarot Majors represent ideas or feelings or concepts or stories, rather than people. The World is one of these cards; it is the archetype of satisfaction, harmony and wholeness. It is the last card of the cycle of life and living that is described by the cards of the Major Arcana, and thus it tells us that we have experienced all there is to experience in this cycle.
The traditional image on The World shows a naked woman dancing or floating in the middle of a wreath, an ouroborous biting its own tail, or a vesica pisces, surrounded by an eagle (representing Water and emotions), a lion (representing Fire and passion), a bull (representing Earth and substance) and a man (representing Air and the intellect). Some cards show an image of our Earth (the World we know best), or a planet or a symbol for a planet.
The World is numbered 21 (and yes, it is the last card of 22 Majors; remember The Fool is numbered 0). This number has some significance, as we are considered adults when we reach age 21. and we have mostly reached the height to which we will grow once we reach age 21. It is assumed that we have experienced and learned about enough of the world and of the process of living to allow us to make competent decisions. Our physical body usually reaches its maximum height by age 21, another significant achievement. A military honor is a 21-gun salute; it is said that this number was chosen as it is a multiple of 3, considered to be a mystical number. Indeed, the number 21 can be reduced to the number 3 (2 + 1 = 3). The number 21 is seen to represent creation/beginning – destruction/ending – recreation/new beginning.
The World corresponds with the element of Earth, cold and binding energies that dry and shape the world. Earth energies are stable, material, practical energies that are slow to change; Earth is about the actual physical outcome or material manifestation of our efforts. This element represents everything from the physical world including Nature and fertility, and wealth, resources, and physical pleasure and well-being. It can represent diligence and an interest in quality rather than quantity just as easily as it can represent greed and avarice and cruelty. The energies of Earth can be true to personal convictions or they can stubbornly resist compromise; they can encourage us to be detail-oriented, or they can encourage us to be inflexible and compulsive. And of course, the element of Earth is about our physical bodies and our senses, and all the pleasures we can get from them.
In astrology, The World corresponds with Saturn. In Roman mythology, Saturn is the god of agriculture, the leader of the titans, and the founder of civilizations, social order, and conformity. The planet Saturn takes 29.5 years to orbit the Sun, spending about 2.46 years in each sign of the zodiac. In astrology, Saturn is associated with focus, ethics, lofty goals, purpose, career, great achievements, dedication, productiveness, valuable hard lessons learned, balance, and karma (reaping what you have sowed or divine cosmic justice). Saturn can also represent limitations, restrictions, resistance, boundaries, and a dose of reality; it is easy to understand this association when we look at the planet and its famous rings. Saturn also represents time, and thus, long-term planning and foresight. The Return of Saturn in the astrological chart is said to mark significant events in a person’s life.
In the Hebrew alphabet, each letter is connected to the creative forces in the universe. They express themselves on three levels: one level is archetypical and runs from the first to the ninth letter; the second level is one of manifestation and runs from the tenth to the eighteenth letter, and the third is a cosmic level and runs from the nineteenth to the twenty-second letter. The World corresponds with the Hebrew letter Tau, the twenty-second letter in the Hebrew alphabet and a member of the cosmic group; this letter corresponds with the cross mark. The equal sided cross is an ancient symbol that represents the four directions of the universe, encompassing the universe in its entirety. Tau is also a symbol of the perfection of creation, the summary of everything in everything, and the furthest development possible in the physical world.
On the Tree of Life, The World represents Path 32, running between Yesod (the place where patterns and images emerge that may manifest in the physical world) and Malkuth (the physical world of action and physical, outer reality), representing Administrative Intelligence. Yesod and Malkuth can be seen as the trunk of the Tree of Life, the place where our personalities form and our Self abides, and the place where we first experience the non-physical. This Path is about both the physical world and the life force (the animating essence of the physical world), and it is about meditation and initiation. And remember, initiation only happens after the completion of a cycle of learning and evolution. Once we are able to comprehend these two Sephiroth, we just might glimpse the Machinery of the Universe!
Each World or Universe card brings us more nuanced information. The Shadowscapes World card tells us of that moment when skills honed by much practice and discipline allow us to reach that temporary yet glorious moment of balance and ecstasy. The final Major Arcana card of the Hermetic Tarot is called The Universe, and it tells of powerful synergy, the harvest of the fruits of our labors, and the recognition of perfection. The Thoth Tarot also calls this one The Universe, it symbolizes the completion of the Great Work begun by The Fool. Crowley describes these cards as follows: “The Fool is the negative issuing into manifestation; The Universe is that manifestation, its purpose accomplished, ready to return.” The Llewellyn Welsh Tarot calls this card The Universe as well, and it offers a non-traditional image: Cadair Idris, the chair from which we can see the world. This Universe card is about ascension, enlightenment, and attaining a broader view of life.
The World does allow us to perceive our place in the universe, but this perception usually only comes to us through much effort. Remember, Saturn is the ruler of this card, and that means we are shaped by restriction as well as evolution. Indeed, The World brings us a balance between flow and restriction. In “More Simplified Magic: Pathworking and The Tree of Life,” Ted Andrews describes this balance as being between the Cauldron and the Girdle, with the Cauldron representing the cornucopia of new life and the Girdle representing the process of binding ourselves to a higher purpose.
The World brings to us integration and involvement and understanding, a crystallization of the entire issue at hand or process being completed. Like the Seven of Pentacles of the Minor Arcana, this card tells of a slowing down of movement and effect, but with The World, this slow-down is happening because the manifestation is complete. This can be a good thing, but it can also represent a bit of opposition or obstinacy (all that Earth energy has to have some effect). The manifestation represented here is a “done deal,” set in stone. Yes, this card becomes the catalyst that begins the new cycle, filled with possibility, but the current cycle cannot be changed.
The World is a part of an orderly universe, a perfect cosmos, and it hints at the knowledge of the secret within that World and the experience of rapture as that secret is understood. The Aha! Moment that comes with the glimpse of the Machinery of the Universe awakens the Spirit, and encourages us to begin the process again, spiraling toward new heights.