In my experience, the numbered suit cards of the tarot provide the “meat” of any reading aimed at examining the eventualities of day-to-day existence. The Waite-Smith deck and its ilk even have prosaic scenes on their Minor Arcana that suggest – for better or worse, as we shall see – ready-made narrative vignettes. One of the best ways to explore the unfolding story-line from the Ace of a suit to the Ten is to treat it as an energy progression, emerging spring-like from the pure source (Ace) and ultimately “earthing” itself in the concrete dimensions of the Ten; the idea is that the energy becomes more available in a utilitarian sense, but also more constrained by being harnessed to practical ends. There is something to be said for Pythagorean number theory in this regard (Ace as Point, Two as Line, Three as Triangle, Four as Square, etc.) but this model begins to falter in the higher numbers because most people are unfamiliar with many-sided polygons and their metaphysical implications, which tend to trail off into spiritual abstractions. It can be a worthwhile learning experience to perform readings with nothing but the 40 minor cards.
The Structure of the Tarot: The Minor Arcana
The ten numbered or “small” cards (called “pips” in the earliest decks because – like playing cards – they lacked scenic illustrations) begin with the emergence of the “root” power of the element and end with its exhaustion, respectively, in the Aces and Tens of each suit. Following is an “energy flow” model of the sequential release of these elemental forces in ten stages.
The Aces represent “potential” energy, showing the impulse or urge to take a specific action rather than the actual first step in doing so. They inspire movement but don’t initiate it.
The Twos display the first dynamic expression of the elemental force; because their movement is linear, they suggest duality, polarity and the reciprocal motion of a pendulum. They are the fundamental one-on-one “encounter” or “relationship” cards. They suggest come-and-go, give-and-take, back-and-forth and similarly polarized actions and reactions. Their range of motion is limited and they can exhibit “tunnel vision.”
The Threes embody progress and development. They show a broadening of the experiential scope as a way to transcend the rigid monotony of the Twos. Some tarot readers see them as showing “three people” involved in a situation, often implying a “love triangle” or similar outside connection as the mode of escape from the tedium.
The Fours convey stability and completion, but also the risk of stagnation. The original impulse of the Aces has gone as far as it can and has reached a comfortable but potentially uninspiring state of rest that can degenerate into complacency.
The Fives are disruptive in that they relentlessly overthrow the static equilibrium of the Fours, opening the way for further growth, but not without some discomfort. All of the Fives have a stressful connotation, but are more properly viewed as an opportunity to distance oneself from the declining satisfaction inherent in the stalled Fours. As the saying goes, “You can’t make omelets without breaking eggs.”
The Sixes reflect a return to balance as the restructuring brought on by the Fives becomes established as the new “normal.” A momentary end to struggle is implied, but also another limiting boundary that must be breached in order to evolve along the path to ultimate self-realization.
As odd-numbered “action” cards, the Sevens provide the corrective counterpoint to the laid-back inertia implied by the Sixes. They are less dynamically stressful than the Fives but still describe a quandary or dilemma that must be surmounted to avoid losing one’s way. They reflect varying degrees of resolve in meeting this objective.
The Eights are challenged to avoid the same fate that was visited upon the Twos, Fours and Sixes. The even-numbered or “binary” cards are prone to a sense of self-sufficiency that insulates them from external stimulation. They tend to be inward-looking rather than outwardly focused on real-world consequences. As such, they can be blind-sided by events.
The Nines recapture the fullness that was latent in the Sixes but temporarily side-tracked in the unbalanced Sevens and Eights. The energy has reached full flower, manifesting the promise inherent in the Aces but not yet exhausted of its elemental vitality. While not uniformly “happy” cards, they are all emblematic of the original elemental Idea in its penultimate extension.
The Tens convey the “last gasp” of elemental power that is ready to expire and make way for the next cycle of becoming. As such, the cards are indifferently positive and negative according to their element, but ultimately rather lackluster in expression. They reflect both an “end” and a “beginning;” in esoteric number theory (analogous to numerology), the number Ten reduces to One (1+0=1), implying the “seed” (Ace) of the new cycle within the ruins of the old one. An ideal progression would be to avoid repeating the experiences of the present suit, but instead begin anew at the start of the next (i.e. Wands giving way to Cups, Cups to Swords, Swords to Pentacles, Pentacles to Wands).
The reader’s challenge is to turn these “energy signatures” into narrative fodder according to the nature of the suit, the quality of the number and the context of the question. Falling back on the convenient crutch of the “canned stories” portrayed in the scenic versions of these cards can be a crippling handicap because what is shown may have little or nothing to do with the querent’s actual circumstances, so the reader is saddled with an initial disadvantage that must be overcome through other interpretive means before the tale can be told to its fullest. These scenes can, of course, spark the imagination to the point that story-telling “tropes” like metaphor and analogy can intervene through the agency of free-association from the images, but they can seldom be taken at face value to any significant degree.
It is this dilemma that drives some readers to espouse the virtues of “intuition” as their sole means of deciphering the often ill-fitting implications of the “picture-book” scenarios; this strikes me as a seat-of-the-pants work-around for what amounts to finding oneself on the wrong page of the script; that it eventually becomes entrenched may be more a consequence of habit than evidence of good practice. It’s more productive (not to mention safer) in most situations to stick with the idea of energy flow and skip the prefabricated story-line. Keep the latter in mind but don’t think of it as gospel. Bringing the other three creative “I-words” – imagination, inspiration and ingenuity – to bear on your work will not only dramatically enhance your reading skills, it will sharpen your instincts for well-tuned detail.