As the result of an ongoing Facebook discussion, I’ve been solidifying my opinion of the tarot Eights as an expression of anxiety. This appears clearly in two of the RWS cards but is less obvious in the other two. Although I’m not well-versed in it, my understanding is that conventional numerology treats Eight as a “power” number, and in exoteric tarot it is read in the suit of Wands as showing an influx of positive energy. Conversely, in qabalistic terms it is considered unbalanced and of low stature on the Tree of Life. It is also associated with astrological Mercury and its reputation for mental multiplicity (and occasional duplicity as exemplified by the Magician). Combining its unstable state with the inconstancy of Mercury creates a hotbed for anxiety to flourish. The RWS 8 of Cups warns of dejection and the 8 of Swords conveys apprehension, both states of nervous malaise. The 8 of Wands and the 8 of Pentacles require a deeper analysis.
The 8 of Wands is typically interpreted as the prompt arrival of something; in the Thoth tarot it is even titled “Swiftness.” Although it is often deemed a fortunate card, I see it more as the rapid onset of a stimulating and perhaps revelatory challenge that requires a creative response without going too far out on a limb. Another common meaning is “rapid communication,” and in that sense I see it not so much as the delivery of “good news” but simply as “news.” Anxiety is caused in the 8 of Wands by a compulsive and enervating sense of urgency that works against a calm, rational assessment of the situation. It looks like a case of the “jitters” to me.
In the 8 of Cups, the distress of the retreating figure is palpable. He appears despondent, as if peering into the eight cups has left him mortified. Abandonment of hope would seem to be fertile ground for anxiety to take root.
The 8 of Swords is a welter of uneasiness; lacking sensory cues, it is impossible to decide which way to turn, or even which end is up. The figure on the card is in a state of partial sensory deprivation. She can’t see or touch anything, so she can only advance by feeling her way with her feet, which does not speak well for her ability to overcome her dilemma with any degree of confidence. Anxiety springs from not knowing how to proceed.
On the face of it, the 8 of Pentacles is a sober, orderly card. Nothing could be less stressful than quietly plugging away at one’s trade in a secluded workshop. In casting around for a hook on which to hang the notion of anxiety, I realized that the meticulous attention to detail that expert craftsmanship demands can overflow into anal perfectionism, constantly questioning the quality of one’s work and endlessly reworking. The fear of not being good enough can foster a bumper crop of nervous tension.
Another thought is that, being on the opposite pillar of the Tree of Life from the equally compromised Seven, the Eight represents a reaction (and perhaps an overreaction) to the instability of its counterpart. Like all of the binary (even) numbers, the Eight is compensatory in its operation, striving to bring symmetry to a lopsided equation by reining in wasted motion. I sometimes liken the interaction between the Seven and the Eight as the balancing act involved in learning to ride a bicycle. Until dynamic equilibrium is achieved through momentum, it can be a nerve-wracking experience, jerking first one way and then the other.