Any discussion of the Minor Arcana – or “pip” cards in traditional terms – must start with a discussion of numbers. Before there were tarot cards with illustrated scenes, the familiar “small” cards bore only suit emblems in the appropriate quantity, along with a few decorative details. These rather mute cards are still the bane of modern readers weaned on the story-telling verbosity of the Waite-Smith Tarot. One of the most useful ways to decode them, after consideration of suit meaning, is to apply number theory.
Before I continue, I should mention that I’m not talking about the “lucky number” type of popular numerology, although some people do bring it into their card interpretation; the heart of the method lies in esoteric number theory. There are two main inspirations for this technique: one is the philosophical writing of Pythagoras and Iamblichus, and the other is the ten-fold model of the Universe as depicted in the Qabalistic Tree of Life. The former has its roots in geometry, ascribing metaphysical significance to the Point, the Line, the Triangle, the Square and the other regular polygons up to the 10-sided decagon (although it does explore higher numbers); unfortunately it tends to lose most people after the Square and eventually wanders off into mystical and religious territory of little practical use. J.E. Cirlot, in the “Graphics” section of his Dictionary of Symbols made a valid stab at deciphering the abstract meaning of the lower numbers, as did Joseph Maxwell in his difficult work The Tarot.
The ten sephiroth, or “emanations” of the Tree of Life seem tailor-made for insertion of the “pip” cards. It includes four “worlds” of ten iterations each, and there are 40 Minor Arcana cards. It departs from Unity (One) at the spiritual end of manifestation and arrives at Ten as the most material expression of the forces driving the Universe. The decreasing subtlety of these worlds, from top to bottom of the schema, also aligns well with the elemental nature of the four tarot suits (in a slightly altered sequence): Wands as spiritual Fire, Swords as mental Air, Cups as emotional Water and Pentacles as sensate Earth. It is easy to see the Ace as the purest form of the untapped potential in a suit and the Ten as the exhaustion of that potency in physical inertia. The esoteric name for this phenomenon is “the descent of spirit into matter.” On the way down, the elemental spirit becomes increasingly constrained by its material envelope, but also more amenable to being directed toward mundane objectives.
For the purpose of this discussion I will offer the basic working model that I use in my own practice, followed by a more comprehensive list that I compiled over the years through my interaction with other esoteric thinkers on the tarot forums.
Ace: The urge to begin something.
Two: A period of give-and-take.
Three: A period of growth or progress.
Four: A period of consolidation.
Five: A period of challenge or upset.
Six: A period of harmony restored.
Seven: A new direction or test.
Eight: A period of adjustment or anxiety.
Nine: A period of re-centering or reconciliation.
Ten: A period of rest and relative inactivity foreshadowing a new beginning.
Aces: Beginnings, motivation, urge to act, untapped creative force, potential energy awaiting a purpose
Twos: Emergence of purpose, kinetic energy with both movement and direction, developmental force
Threes: Centering or centripetal force, convergence of influences, reconciliation of opposites
Fours: Solidification, stability, momentary fulfillment of purpose, brief rest before renewed effort
Fives: Overthrow of the status quo, new direction, disruptive force, furtherance of the initial purpose
Sixes: Harmony restored, balance, active integration of forces, perfected effort, practical attainment
Sevens: Erosion of harmony, departure from equilibrium, aimless and unbalanced force seeking focus, a step in a new direction that requires caution, a test
Eights: Reactionary corrective force, degeneration, decay and purification, slow recovery of purpose
Nines: Recapturing of balance, re-centering of effort, passive reintegration of conflicting forces
Tens: Endings, exhaustion of creative energy, realization of purpose or acceptance of the inevitable