Numerologically, we connect the Major Arcana to each other by their numerical values. You take the number associated with a particular card (e.g. Justice is 11), add together its digits and reduce to a value between 1 and 9 (in this case, 1+1=2). Although I, personally, have a pet theory that we should be using a different sort of numerology altogether for the Major Arcana, this is the most common way to approach the cards and find numerological connections between them. The idea is that there is a thematic thread connecting all the cards that reduce to a particular numerical value.
Today, I want to talk about three cards that are connected in this way: The High Priestess (2), Justice (11), and Judgment (20). I think there’s something fruitful to be found in exploring the ties between these cards—and in particular, I think it reveals something about the nature of Justice.
The thematic commonality between the High Priestess and Judgment is obvious. Both of these are cards of transformative experience: An awakening where the old world falls away and you see things in a completely new way. The High Priestess is an initiator, who reveals secrets and hidden mysteries to us. Judgment is a card of personal awakening, where we experience a revelation of our own and our lives are transformed because of it. In both cases, these cards mark a tipping point, a threshold we cross with the understanding that from this point on, there is no going back. Once we learn what the High Priestess has to teach us, or undergo an awakening like Judgment, things will never be the way they were before.
But there’s a puzzle here, if we’re trying to identify “initiation and transformation” as the numerological link between these cards. Justice, which also has a numerological value of 2, is not typically portrayed as an initiatory experience. Instead, this card is about, well, justice—not the sort of personalized justice of the Six of Pentacles or the Seven of Swords,* but justice on a grander scale. Justice the Tarot card is about the balance of the cosmic scales, the immutable laws that govern us all and apportion our lots in life, whether we (from our subjective point of view) think they’re fair or not. That doesn’t seem to gel thematically with the other two cards in our triad.
My question for today, then, is this: What happens if we reimagine Justice as an initiatory experience?
We’ve all had the experience, as children, of feeling cheated, denigrated, or slighted in some way by an adult in a position of power. Sometimes that feeling is justified, and the adults really are being dicks, or sometimes that feeling just comes from the fact that children are appetitive creatures and don’t have enough perspective to understand that their every whim does not need to be satisfied. Either way, upon issuing the plaintive screech of “But that’s not fair!” we have all had an adult reply, “Life’s not fair.”
And look, that’s maybe not the best way to reason with a kid and help them understand that their definition of “not fair” lacks perspective and that it’s not actually a violation of the Geneva convention for them to have to finish their Brussels sprouts before they can eat dessert. I’m not necessarily saying we should all go around saying “Life’s not fair” any time anyone has a complaint. Nonetheless, it’s an experience we’ve all had, and there’s a seed of something big, interesting, and revelatory there.
That moment—the first time someone tells you that life isn’t fair (and maybe isn’t even supposed to be) and you stand, slack-jawed, as shocked as if someone had told you the sky is orange—is a revelation of sorts. It’s an experience that we all have at one point or another in our lives, when we first begin to realize that the way the world is can diverge from the way it ought to be. That fact, though obvious to us as adults, is something we’re not born knowing. It’s something we all have to be taught (at however young or old an age).
A second wave of this revelation hits the first time you experience real, deep disappointment. When you’re not just told that life isn’t fair, but you experience it firsthand. You dot every i, cross every t, work tenaciously toward a goal and do everything right, but it still blows up in your face. The first time that happens, there’s a cold, sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, as the reality of the world hits you. You realize, in a way that perhaps you had known intellectually before but had still never internalized, that the universe does not always give us what we deserve.
Some of this is starting to wander into the territory of the Wheel of Fortune, which precedes Justice in the deck. It’s a question of how fate and chance can sway our lives, and how the things that happen to us are often not within our control or even a result of our own actions. But there’s also a question of Justice here, in the sense that we are intimately concerned with fairness and we come to the realization that the universe at large does not necessarily share our interest in the matter.
Now, that can sound incredibly nihilistic, and in a certain way it is, but it also prompts us to action. When we realize that the universe itself is not inherently just, we then have to make a choice about how we’re going to behave in that universe. Are we going to abandon ourself to an uncaring universe, and give up on all hope of justice in our lives and the lives of others? Or (hint: This is the correct answer) are we going to choose to work toward creating justice ourselves, since the universe won’t do it for us? The realization that life isn’t fair can be harrowing, heartbreaking even, as it forces us to confront our place in a world that is so often so terribly different from the way it ought to be. But that realization can also transform us. It takes us from complacent, passive, inert beings assuming a divine providence and instead transforms us into active, engaged participants in the world who are striving to make it more like what it should be. That transformative experience can be something quite beautiful, if we let it shape us in the right way.
And lo and behold, there’s our phrase for the day: Transformative experience. There’s an initiation of sorts hidden in the Justice card, an awakening into the cruel realities of the world and a choice to be transformed by that revelation so that we can make the world around us better. Seen through this light, Justice fits in beautifully with the High Priestess and Judgment. The High Priestess is a transformative experience given to us at the hand of another person (an initiator). Judgment is a transformative experience given to us by personal awakening. And Justice is a transformative experience given to us by the often harsh reality of life in the real world.
*Note to self: Write a blog post about this.