Reductio Ad Arcanum: Numerology in the Majors

Western numerology likes to focus on the numbers between 1 and 10. Even though there are infinitely many numbers (nay, infinitely many integers), we in the Western occult tradition really only care about the first dizaine. There are a few notable exceptions (e.g. the number 13), but for the most part, once we get above 10, any numerological discussion we have is going to be some recombination of the meanings of smaller numbers. The numerological significance of the number 20, for example, is derived from the fact that 20 is actually a set of two tens; therefore, 20 symbolizes the completion of the number 10 compounded with the duality of the number 2.

There is a second way of interpreting large numbers numerologically, and it’s particularly useful in Tarot. This neat little trick involves reducing numbers by adding their digits together.

For example, let’s take the number 151. It’s a prime number, so we can’t do what we did with 20 and break it down into a numerological factoration. But we can add the digits together. 1+5+1=7, so numerologically, we assign the same meaning to the number 151 as to the number 7. (Now you have a bit more insight into last night’s dream where you had to catch 151 butterflies as a favor for the mayor, don’t you?) In this case, the number 20 becomes 2+0, which is just 2.

If a number is particularly large, it might reduce down to a multi-digit number, in which case we just reduce again (and again, as necessary) until we get something less than ten. For example, the number 9903 becomes 9+9+0+3=21, and 21 becomes 2+1=3. So numerologically, 9903 is just 3.

Why is this relevant in Tarot? Well, because the Major Arcana are numbered. And there are more than ten Majors. If we want to be able to apply numerology to Tarot, we need to have a method of reducing larger numbers to make them fit into our convenient Western symbology. The digit-reduction technique allows us to do exactly that. For anyone too lazy do do the math at home, the numerological equivalences we get are:

  1. The Magician (I), The Wheel of Fortune (X), The Sun (XIX)
  2. The High Priestess (II), Justice (XI), Judgment (XX)
  3. The Empress (III), The Hanged Man (XII), The World (XXI)
  4. The Emperor (IV), Death (XIII)
  5. The Hierophant (V), Temperance (XIV)*
  6. The Lovers (VI), The Devil (XV)
  7. The Chariot (VII), The Tower (XVI)
  8. Strength (VIII), The Star (XVII)
  9. The Hermit (IX), The Moon (XVIII)

This allows us to talk meaningfully about numerological interpretations of a spread that includes higher-numbered Major Arcana. If, for example, you pull a spread with the Six of Wands, the Lovers, and the Devil, there is a numerological thread that ties those three cards together and can add to the interpretation of the reading.

There’s a further way to apply this numerological reduction of the Major Arcana. Cards with the same numerological value can be understood as reflections of each other. Much the way that the septenaries divide the Major Arcana into three parallel arcs of seven cards, this method gives us nine groupings of thematically linked cards. Some of these linkages are obvious; the Lovers defines the self relative to the Other, while the Devil subjects the needs of the Other to those of the self. (In fact, I’ve already written about the relationships between Strength and the Star and between the Hermit and the Moon, although I was exploring an astrological link between them, not a numerological one.)

Other groupings, like the Empress/Hanged Man/World trio, are less intuitive. But exploring these groupings can give us a stronger understanding of each individual Major Arcanum and its place in the suit as a whole.

Tarot journaling prompt time! How is the Empress like the Hanged Man? What transformations does a querent have to undergo to transition from the Empress to the Hanged Man, and what remains the same during that transition? How does that energy carry over into yet another transition from the Hanged Man to the World? What do these three cards all have in common, and what separates them from each other?

Now, as you are a clever and astute reader (and susceptible to flattery, I hope), you may have mentally raised an objection to this numerological approach to Tarot. The objection is simple: reducing a number by adding its digits together only works if we’re using a decimal counting system. What if we count in binary? Or trinary? Or hexadecimal?

The most honest answer to this objection, if not the most satisfying, is a sort of flummoxed shrug. This numerological system is arbitrary. Its application to Tarot is arbitrary. After all, there are plenty of other Tarot decks (*coughcough* Etteilla *cough*) that use different numbering systems, and plenty of TdM decks have Strength numbered XI and Justice numbered VIII. So the connections that we draw with this system are by no means objective or inherent.

However, they can still be useful, and they can open up our understanding of the cards in a way that might otherwise have been unavailable to us. The general idea, or at least my general idea, is that Tarot evolved in northern Italy, in a culture that used (and continues to use) a decimal counting system. Decimal numerology also orders the suits of the Minor Arcana, which, after all, run from Ace through Ten. If we’re going to look for numerological meanings in Tarot, then, it makes sense to me to use a Western decimal numerology. It’s not totally absurd to think that the numbering of the Major Arcana in a base-ten system might have some valuable divinatory meaning–or at least, it’s no more absurd than thinking the same of a set of 78 pictures arranged in an arbitrary order.


*Anyone who has read my previous posts on working with Tarot patrons (here and here) may find it interesting to note that both of the patrons I’ve worked extensively with are linked to the number 5. I’m currently back in the Hierophant’s fold, although Temperance and I are still quite close.

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