The Numbers of the Pips

When embarking on the study of tarot, it’s not uncommon to feel intimidated or overwhelmed by the prospect of having to memorize all of those card meanings. The thing is, though, you can more easily recall the properties of each card of the minor arcana (or pips) by simply combining the suit meaning with the number meaning.

The suits are basically the four elements – Fire (Wands or Staves), Water (Cups), Air (Swords), and Earth (Pentacles or Coins) – each providing a different cycle, journey, or aspect of our being. So, Wands (fire) is about energy and the action we take in the world; the identities we adopt and put forth. Cups (water) encompasses the depths of the emotional realm, including (especially) the unconscious. Swords (air) rules the mental realm of the intellect; where the Cups deal with the unconscious, the Swords deal with the conscious, and the ways in which we communicate and use strategy and logic. Pentacles (earth) rules the physical realm and how we as spirits or souls navigate the material world. Now combine the suit with the number…

[There is no zero in the suits; but as long as we’re talking numbers, I’ll mention that with the zero, there is potential in the void; like conception, it’s both nothing and everything.]

  1. So, we start each suit with the one or ace: the beginning. Any conception or seed holds within it the fullest potential of its suit and the one comes in when we step up. In many traditional decks, we see an offering being held out to us as if from another realm. Will you take it?
  2. With two, the ace begins to find its expression as the addition of another creates tension – whether uniting or dividing. Here we see duality and polarity, the union of opposites, and choice – with balance as the desired outcome.
  3. In three, we see the response to the two, the reaction to the two, the result of the two, as it synthesizes further. As the three is in process of or striving for form, it‘s evolving.
  4. It becomes secure in the four, taking concrete form as in the foundation of a house or shelter. The four is stable and content as is. (I’ve also seen it postulated that four is our response to the abundance of three, which is worthy of reflection as we consider the fours in each suit.)
  5. The five loosens us out of that stability or status quo to confrontation. Here we are taking action in conflict, which may involve struggle or contraction.
  6. As one contracts, another expands, and in the six we see that natural ebb & flow or exchange of energy like the cogs in a machine or the flow of the tides, each prompting the next; perhaps completing a cycle with new info or clarity which prompts a new cycle.
  7. The seven finds us like the eye of the hurricane – not in motion but in the midst of it. Reaction may be swirling around us but we are waiting, evaluating, planning. There may be uncertainty, but this is time for internal work amidst the external noise or activity.
  8. The eight is the resolution of seven with a better perspective from which to launch. It’s a realignment, a readjustment, and we can now open the door with a new direction or movement.
  9. In nine, we near the end of the cycle and take a moment in solitude to reflect or steady ourselves with the gifts of the suit as we emerge to culmination.
  10. As we saw the fullest potential of the element in the ace, we see the full power of the suit in the ten. The cycle is complete and we integrate its lessons while transitioning to the next cycle.

You may have different meanings for the numbers – or are inspired to find your own – and when combined with the suit meanings, this provides clarity on each pip. This is the key to reading Tarot de Marseille, but may inform all tarot card meanings.

Some correlate the number meanings up to the trumps (e.g., Magician as 1 shows full potential of what you may create) and it’s easy enough to stretch our imagination to squeeze a numerical meaning into some aspect of a card, but I see the trumps as an entirely separate component of the deck which illustrates the stages of the archetypal Hero’s Journey.

What do you think?

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