NUMBERS IN TAROT: THE MAGIC ADDITION
Numbers in Tarot. Sounds like a heavy subject. Especially when we almost always choose a deck of cards because of the imagery. We get drawn to the cards because they are a promise of a universe that is far away from cold rationalism…and numbers. When one starts learning Tarot, they might like the Rider Waite Smith style better. Others will prefer Celtic atmospheres or the classic Marseille geometry.
It doesn’t matter here because one thing that all decks have in common despite the different styles, colour codes and sometimes naming of the minor suits and certain major cards, is the numbers. Each card has a number and each number carries a meaning.
Tarot and Numbers work perfectly together. Especially for beginners. It might seem complicated to use them, to add, subtract or learn their symbolism. But there are simple ways to get started and use numbers as allies to memorize what a card is about, especially when you’re reading with minimalist minor suits (hello Marseille, Old English Tarot deck and their friends).
Numbers have been used since the dawn of times to predict the future and interpret the will of Gods and Goddesses. Greeks, but also Hebrews and Chaldeans alike used to believe in Arithmomancy, which later led to numerology. Pythagoras (6th Century BCE) was one of the first – to our current knowledge – to give very specific attributes to each number. For example, following his dogma, all even numbers are female and all odd numbers are male.
The meaning of a number depends on your cultural background. What is true for a number in the West, may not be true in Asia or Africa. What is true for a Muslim may not be the same for a Christian or Buddhist and so on and so forth.
In this post, I’ll focus on one tradition only: Tarot. With its own history, background and cultural connections, Tarot also developed its own number symbolism. One born from a mix of Paganism, Western beliefs and Christian influences.
Let’s start with the minor cards. That’s the easiest bit to dive in.
As you know, there are 4 minor suits: Wands, Cups, Coins (Pentacles) and Swords. Each of them mainly linked to certain aspects of life, one element and one season. Also see my infographics on the minor suits.
Each minor suit is made of 10 cards (Ace to 10) plus the Royals. So 14 cards per suit. So far, so good. Let’s ignore the Royals and focus on card 1 to 10. The symbolism of number 1, 2, 3…10 will be the same for all four suits:
1 : New beginnings – Sparks – Decisions
Aces are especially strong, they are the “essence” of a suit and their presence in a spread brings out all the power of a suit. For example the Ace of Wands might be the most masculine card of all, it speaks of action, career moves, great decisions and fights well fought.
2 : Partnership – Collaboration – Opposition – Duplicity
2’s carry an inner contradiction and must be read only while taking other cards around them in consideration. There are always 2 faces to one reality. Which one is at play here? Only the bigger picture of your spread can determine if your 2 is mostly positive or negative.
3 : Growth – Dynamism – Decisions – Change
For better or for worse, 3 always speaks of a specific action, which will lead to growth. Whether this action is pleasant or heartbreaking is not the subject. It’s inevitable.
4 : Stability – Structure – Standstill
A number that covers breaks, stability and even boredom. Rather influenced by the reading it is surrounded by, more than influencing it. The number itself is mostly positive and minor 4s go from great (4 of Wands) to still pretty okay (4 of Swords).
5 : Conflict – Damages – The Unknown – Struggles
Tricky 5. A very human number ( in the Christian tradition – a big influence on Tarot, ironically – 5 is the number of mankind, 6 is the Devil, 7 is God). 5 is everything imperfect. Unfinished. Difficult but not all bad. 5 speaks of struggles and obstacles.
6 : Routine – Precariousness – Blockages
The number of the Devil. Also the number of blockages and situations that cannot last. This number is often more positive when drawn reversed. It speaks of a routine, which is not necessarily for the best. Often a balance, which is only precarious and without solid foundations. Careful for what is coming around the bend.
7: Completion – Knowledge – Understanding – Solutions
After the Devil, God. 7 is considered in many cultures and traditions a perfect number. One of completion, of wholeness. It is not an ending (like 10) but a goal reached, a victory (or defeat, when reversed).
8: Action – Movement – Transformation – Justice
A number highly affected by the cards around it. It does not lead the dance but gives you important information about it nevertheless.
9: Profusion – Climax – Accomplishment
Not the highest number and yet, one that speaks of the climax of a situation. The worst or the very best. A total isolation or the profusion of love. This is a very strong card that emphasizes the symbolism of the suit to which it belongs while keeping an open door to change (a chance if you’re looking at the 9 of Swords for instance).
10: Endings – Closure – Exit
Like the Ace, the 10 is an extremely powerful number, it increases the power of the suit in presence and speaks of the end of a cycle. It resonates with the Judgement. Here are the consequences of your journey. They will be good or bad, but they will close a chapter.
This is rather approachable even for a beginner. But it will be so helpful to keep in mind for big, complex readings. Knowing these numbers and keeping in mind if they carry a darker or lighter symbolism will add precision and details to your readings. The knowledge of numbers is something to hold on to no matter which new deck you are testing or learning.
Ok. So, this was easy. And to be honest, a little simplified, but if you master this to start, plus the meanings of the minor suits and major cards, you can start reading Tarot rather seriously.
Some people like to use numerology as well and go deeper using this technique. This is something you can do. But Tarot tradition is not linked to numerology in the first place and I personally don’t do it. You may want to test and see if you get results. But we won’t get into this here.
Now, we saw how 1-10 work with the Minor Suits. Let’s look at the Major Arcana.
Obviously, what I just told you about the minor suits is also true for the 22 major cards. Hurray! But there are some subtleties to keep in mind. After all, Tarot is full of details and exceptions to its own rules. That’s the fun of it. Let’s have a look.
#1 The Magician: New beginnings. The start. Youth
The Magician is obviously more than new beginnings, but it is that. The Magician never speaks of an end or of a routine. Speaking of new beginnings: the Magician is also the card of Spring. The “real” start of the year in many non-monotheistic traditions. The earth awakens, everything is possible.
#2 The High Priestess:
2 Faces of one reality, remember? This is also true for the High Priestess. She knows everything there is to know. In the known and unknown world. Above and below the surface. She speaks of duality and everything hidden. She is the keeper of the Truth. A thing both beautiful and often difficult to obtain, comprehend and accept.
#3 The Empress
The Empress is, among other things, practical. She thinks with her head while listening to her heart. She is able to make harsh decisions when necessary, but never for the fun of it.
#4 The Emperor
Stability, solid foundations. Boredom? The Emperor rules over his world. He is as comforting as sometimes frustrating. The stability found in number 4 and in the figure of the Emperor can feel reassuring and safe. But it can turn into a prison, a routine that leaves one feeling stuck and belittled.
#5 The Hierophant
The authority of the Hierophant, like the Emperor, is a two edged sword. You may find yourself looking up to the Hierophant, you may also find him looking down at you. Letting you realize what you are not, what you can not and what you know not. The Hierophant is more neutral than positive in the Marseille tradition (mine) and the meaning of his presence – just like any 5 in the Minor Suit – will be revealed by the neighbouring cards.
#6 The Lovers
Choosing between virtue and vice. Between a devil and an angel. This is, simply put, what the original “Lover” (yes, no s) card is all about. The shadow of the Devil is cast over card number 6. Passion or reason? Body or mind?
#7 The Chariot
Victory, Destiny and Success. 7 is, indeed, a glorious number in Tarot. And the Chariot is a glorious card. It speaks of the intellectual and material triumph. It is whole, mighty and complete. It is divine.
#8 Justice (in RWS, 11)*
Decisions! Justice speaks of legal matters but mostly, of their outcome. Like the 8s of the minor suit, you will know if the news are good or bad based on the surrounding cards.
#9 The Hermit
The Hermit is very much related to the 9 of Swords. A card of isolation, traditionally linked to convents and monasteries. In this case, 9 for the ultimate wisdom, the one that is so crucial, that it cannot simply be put out there. We’re approaching the end of a first cycle with this mysterious card. Something is about to be revealed.
#10 The Wheel of Fortune
Someone said End of a cycle? Here it is. The Wheel is a card that calls for major changes but because it is (almost) half way through the journey of the major arcana, it does not only end something. It calls for a new situation too. Your position on the Wheel is changing. It is inevitable.
From 11 on, one usually adds up the numbers and continue to use the 1-10 symbolism. But I find that to be too reductive and not always correct. I actually do it completely differently: I divide even numbers by two and consider each number on their own for odd numbers.
So for example the Hanger Man is like two 6s. Precariousness, a lack of balance, a change to come but a current blockage. The Devil is 1 and 5. Literally bad decisions, a lack of vision.
#11 Strength (in RWS, 8)*
11, following the big release of 10, calls for all your strength, literally, to put things back together. Pieces have been broken, things have been abandoned, people have been left behind. Rebirth requires enormous efforts.
#12 The Hanged Man
Changes. Yes. It doesn’t look like it, right? But the Hanged Man is a card of slow, inner changes. Sometimes the result of a long period of blockage. But one that is proving to be fruitful. A rather weak card on its own, even if adored and feared by some, the Hanged Man highly depends on its neighbouring cards. Just like any 3 in the deck.
For this card, I would not apply the addition that would lead us to 4. This is not at all a card of routine and blockages. This is the card of radical change. And one deeply linked to this very special number that is 13. Good and bad luck all at once. The card of Death can only be read by being put in the context of a spread.
14. or twice 7. A lucky number. Temperance speaks of the beauty found in spirituality, the one that feeds your soul, no matter what it is called. The one that can heal and protect. Faith in all its forms and with all its virtues: patience, moderation, respect, honesty.
#15 The Devil
The Devil…is it 1+5 or is it 1×5? You have to ask yourself that question in your reading. Never black or white, never clear and always tricky. The Devil speaks of the evil…that usually comes from our very human flaws.
#16 The Tower
Is it God or the Devil behind this sudden collapse? Behind this terrible news or god-saving warning? Just like the previous card: You decide, in the light of the surrounding cards, if one should count 1+6 (a righteous warning or punishment) or 1×6.
Also 8+8 = radical, sudden changes. In my personal view, a possible addition of the Eight of Wands and the Eight of Swords.
#17 The Star
Beautiful Star. Heavenly and protective. Is all about number 7.
#18 The Moon
A cup that is full. 18 speaks of infinity. Of constant small changes (a tamed 8), of the origins (1). The ultimate feminine card.
#19 The Sun
The essence of number 9. Joy, fulfilment, rewards. Happiness well deserved as one could find in both number 10 (1+9) and 9 (1×9). But not a card that speaks much on its own and with no lasting effect if not supported by another card holding this message.
Reading it as a 2: Good actions rewarded, bad ones punished. Time to face all the consequences of all your actions. Also 2×10: not only has a cycle come to an end, you will now face the righteous consequences.
#21 The World
Absolute completion. 10+10 and 1. There have been enough changes to reach a state more permanent, but one that gives birth to a whole new state (1). This is a little more complex but very accurate way to approach this number.
#0 The Fool
0. The most complex and perfect of all numbers. Beginning or end? The Fool actually has no number. It is both the beginning and the end of the journey (as Tarot never leaves a door simply closed and all endings call for new beginnings). 0 is infinite and speaks of infinite possibilities, just like the Fool, it is pure Faith made number.
** Justice & Strength are swapped in the RWS and Marseille system. Marseille has Justice at number 8 and Strength at 11. There’s a little debate around this but RWS is the winner of all recent Tarot trends, that’s a fact. You may read that the RWS, putting Justice (balance) in the exact middle of the major arcana, is more logical. I could argue that mid-way is where you have already given a lot and still have a long way to go and therefore need all your strength. At the end of the day, use the numbers according to the deck you are reading or re-organize your deck as you want it. The crucial thing is to be consistent with yourself and know what a number and card mean before you start a spread.