Tarot 101, My Way – Minor Arcana: The Tens

Plato considered Ten to be a perfect number when viewed from a philosophical rather than a mathematical perspective (in the second case, the term has an entirely different derivation attributed to Euclid). In the qabalistic model of the Universe, Ten delivers the “last gasp” of an elemental energy in its increasingly encumbered progress down the Tree of Life. The original, largely spiritual, force of the Ace is spent and there is a cessation of effort as the lower terminus of the Tree is reached. This ultimate emergence into physical form is symbolized by the Kingdom of Earth, which represents an amalgam of the three primal elements (Fire, Water and Air); thus, it is not portrayed by a single, pure hue in esoteric color theory, but instead by the quaternary of russet, citrine, olive and black. Aleister Crowley treated Ten as a “post-perfect” number, having gone past its prime into senescence and exhaustion. I like to think of it as a “postscript” to the fulfillment of the promise of the Ace that arrived with the Nine, a kind of cosmic afterthought tagged onto the culmination of the series; visually it looks like an appendage dangling from the thrice-repeated trigons of the Tree. It seems most useful as a reminder that the Universe is a revolving treadmill and there is no final resting place on the wheel of life. No sooner has the Ten settled into its groove than it’s time for a reboot of the system (which is reflected in numerological shorthand as “10 = 1+0 = 1,” a return to Unity). From this point there is nowhere to go but back to the beginning (or more properly, onward to the Ace of the following suit). In general terms, the Tens show endings, exhaustion of creative energy, ultimate realization of purpose or, conversely, acceptance of the inevitable.

Even when taken in their most positive light, the Tens of the tarot suggest “overload;” when a thing succumbs to its own weight, it is vulnerable to decay and eventual disintegration. Both the Thoth and RWS decks capture this stultifying sense of inertia in three of their four Ten cards, just not in the same ones. The Thoth 10 of Wands, Cups and Swords carry the titles of “Oppression, Satiety and Ruin”, respectively; the 10 of Disks, titled “Wealth,” seems to escape this drab demographic, but Crowley does say ominously in The Book of Thoth that “the force is completely expended and results in death,” and that “the image indicates the futility of material gain.” In the RWS deck, the burdensome impact of declining stamina is expressed in the 10 of Wands and Swords, and to a lesser extent in the 10 of Pentacles as a kind of ornate and oppressive excess of materialism; the 10 of Cups alone seems entirely innocent of decelerating enthusiasm (unless, of course, one prefers to remain “footloose and fancy-free,” in which case it could show an unwanted entanglement).

The Minor Arcana: Ten of Wands

Titles:

The Lord of Oppression

Astrological Correspondence:

Saturn in Sagittarius, 20°—30°

Commentary:

Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):

“Cruel and overbearing force and energy, but applied only to selfish and material ends. Sometimes shows failure in a matter, and the opposition too strong to be controlled arising from the person’s too great selfishness at the beginning. Ill-will, levity, lying, malice, slander, envy, obstinacy, swiftness in evil, if ill-dignified. Also generosity, self-sacrifice, and disinterestedness when well-dignified.”

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):

“A card of many significances, and some of the readings cannot be harmonized. I set aside that which connects it with honour and good faith. The chief meaning is oppression simply, but it is also fortune, gain, any kind of success, and then it is the oppression of these things. It is also a card of false-seeming, disguise, perfidy. The place which the figure is approaching may suffer from the rods that he carries. Success is stultified if the Nine of Swords follows, and if it is a question of a lawsuit, there will be certain loss. Reversed: Contrarieties, difficulties, intrigues, and their analogies.”

The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley)

(General) “Here is the end of all energy; it is away from the “formative world” altogether, where things are elastic. By the mere fact of having devised four elements, the current has derogated from the original perfection. The Tens are a warning; see whither it leads – to take the first wrong step!”

(Specific) “The Ten of Wands is called Oppression. This is what happens when one uses force, force, and nothing else but force all the time. Here looms the dull and heavy planet Saturn weighing down the fiery, ethereal side of Sagittarius; it brings out all the worst in Sagittarius. It shows the Force detached from its spiritual sources. It is become a blind Force; so, the most violent form of that particular energy, without any modifying influences. It is Fire in its most destructive aspect. The card also refers to the influence of Saturn in Sagittarius. Here is the greatest antipathy. Sagittarius is spiritual, swift, light, elusive, and luminous; Saturn is material, slow, heavy, obstinate, and obscure. The whole picture suggests oppression and repression. It is a stupid and obstinate cruelty from which there is no escape. It is a Will which has not understood anything beyond its du]l purpose, its “lust of result,” and will devour itself in the conflagrations it has evoked.”

Discussion:

Although markedly different in narrative thrust, the 10 of Wands cards of both the Thoth and the RWS decks convey the idea of “oppression” quite effectively. The Thoth card shows two heavy, leaden spears barring the way of eight lesser staves; there is no doubt that Saturn has shut the door on any kind of spiritual advancement. The image suggests being staked to the ground naked under a blazing desert sun.  In the RWS card, the staff-bearer is clearly overburdened by his load and can barely stagger toward his apparent destination; his gait is awkward and flatfooted. Although it appears that he will seek to lay his burden down in the nearby village, he can’t see the way ahead and may pass it by in his blind, head-down doggedness. In the words of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, he seems to be “hanging on in quiet desperation,” too stubborn to give up but also too weary to make a good show of it. He is facing a “no-win” situation: if he intentionally dumps his load before he delivers it, he fails; if he collapses prematurely under its weight, he fails. In practical terms, misplaced pride and an inability to compromise could lead to one’s undoing.

“Metaphorical euphemisms” for this card are “The ‘slouching toward salvation’ card (aka the ‘lookin’ for a place to hide’ card”), and a few additional keywords include self-doubt, inertia, implacable opposition, ill-will.

The Minor Arcana: Ten of Cups

Titles:

The Lord of Perfected Success (Mathers); Satiety (Crowley)

Astrological Correspondence:

Mars in Pisces, 20°—30°

Commentary:

Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):

“Permanent and lasting success, happiness because inspired from above. Not sensual as Nine of Cups, “The Lord of Material Happiness,” yet almost more truly happy. Pleasure, dissipation, debauchery. Pity, quietness, peacemaking. Kindness, generosity, wantonness, waste, etc., according to dignity.”

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):

“Contentment, repose of the entire heart; the perfection of that state; also perfection of human love and friendship; if with several picture-cards, a person who is taking charge of the Querent’s interests; also the town, village or country inhabited by the Querent. Reversed: Repose of the false heart, indignation, violence.”

The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley)

“The Ten of Cups is called Satiety. its attribution is Mars in Pisces. The watery sign has sunk into a stagnant dream, but in it broods and breeds the violent quality of Mars, to putrefy it. The pursuit of pleasure has been crowned with perfect success; and constantly it is discovered that, having got everything that one wanted, one did not want it after all; now one must pay.  This card represents a conflicting element. On the one hand, it receives the influence of the Ten. The arrangement of the cups is that of the Tree of Life. But, on the other hand, they are themselves unstable. They are tilted; they spill the water from the great Lotus which overhangs the whole system from one into the other. The work proper to water is complete: and disturbance is due. This comes from the influence of Mars in Pisces. Mars is the gross, violent and disruptive force which inevitably attacks every supposed perfection. His energy displays the greatest possible contrast with that of Pisces, which is both peaceful and spiritualized.”

Discussion:

Leave it to Aleister Crowley to transform an encouraging scenario into a dispirited one. Having to pay for something one didn’t order and didn’t really want in the first place is a disheartening experience. The card itself suggests abundance, but it is really showing the wages of intemperate self-indulgence, with the overfull cups vomiting their contents into each successively lower tier until the surplus spills over into the void. There is a wanton immoderation to it, suggesting one more swallow than can be comfortably accommodated and thereby inviting a purge. (Who can forget “Mr. Creosote” from the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life?) While Crowley ascribes “morning after” mortification to another card, it might be applied with even greater justification here. The RWS 10 of Cups is an entirely different matter; it shows an almost saccharine. “Hallmark-card” tableau of unalloyed bliss that seems suspiciously overstated. I call it the “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” card after the Beatles’ famous line: “in a couple of years they have found their home-sweet-home/ With a couple of kids running in the yard of Desmond and Molly Jones.” One might ask “What more could you want?” but Crowley’s admonition that the Tens bear the seeds of their own destruction is evident nowhere more than here. “Stability equals change,” indeed.

“Metaphorical euphemism” for this card are “The ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ card (aka the ‘Mr. Creosote’ card”); several additional keywords are fondness for excess, sensuousness, risk of boredom or dissipation.

The Minor Arcana: Ten of Swords

Titles:

Lord of Ruin

Astrological Correspondence:

Sun in Gemini, 20°—30°

Commentary:

Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):

“(Almost a worse symbol than Nine of Swords.) Undisciplined warring force, complete disruption and failure. Ruin of all plans and projects. Disdain, insolence and impertinence, yet mirth and jolly therewith. A Marplot, loving to overthrow the happiness of others, a repeater of things, given to much unprofitable speech, and of many words, yet clever, acute, and eloquent, etc., depending on dignity.”

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):

“Whatsoever is intimated by the design; also pain, affliction, tears, sadness, desolation. It is not especially a card of violent death. Reversed: Advantage, profit, success, favor, but none of these are permanent; also power and authority.”

The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley)

“The Ten of Swords is called Ruin. It teaches the lesson which statesmen should have learned, and have not; that if one goes on fighting long enough, all ends in destruction. Yet this card is not entirely without hope. The Solar influence rules; ruin can never be complete, because disaster is a sthenic disease. As soon as things are bad enough, one begins to build up again. When all the Governments have smashed each other, there still remains the peasant. At the end of Candide’s misadventures, he could still cultivate his garden. The number Ten, as always, represents the culmination of the unmitigated energy of the idea. It shows reason run mad, ramshackle riot of soulless mechanism; it represents the logic of lunatics and (for the most part) of philosophers. It is reason divorced from reality. The card is also ruled by the Sun in Gemini, but the mercurial airy quality of the Sign serves to disperse his rays; this card shows the disruption and disorder of harmonious and stable energy.”

Discussion:

Crowley said it all in eight words: “disruption and disorder of harmonious and stable energy.” The 10 of Swords depicts utter perversion of the pleasure that welled up in the 10 of Cups, only to be thoroughly degraded here. The hostility of the Thoth card and the hopelessness of its RWS counterpart speak volumes about the failure of the intellect and the bankruptcy of ideas. I call the RWS version the “scorched earth” card; there is nothing worth salvaging so it’s time to pick up the pieces of one’s ill-fated plans and soldier on, not looking back. The word that the Thoth card evokes is “excruciating,” although it’s not as personal as the agony shown in Smith’s image. Both cards express an arid bleakness that offers only the slimmest ray of hope, which comes in the form of an imminent “reboot.” The 10 of Swords is bereft of any chance for constructive remediation, so it is time to depart for greener pastures. My long-held personal view, also championed by surrealist-filmmaker-turned-tarot-guru Alejandro Jodorowsky in 2004’s The Way of Tarot, has always been that, rather than returning to the Ace of the same suit with the risk of simply repeating the original errors, the impoverished energy of the Ten resurfaces in the Ace of the subsequent suit, hopefully with more than a “fresh coat of paint.” Here, I find that the sterile soil of the “scorched earth” is unfit for growing anything worthwhile, so it’s best to seek virgin fields to plant in the Ace of Pentacles.

“Metaphorical euphemisms” for this card are “The ‘scorched earth’ card (aka the ‘feelin’ ’bout half-past dead’ card”); here is a list of additional keywords: weakness, disorder, disintegration, impracticality, destruction.

The Minor Arcana: Ten of Pentacles

Titles:

Lord of Wealth

Astrological Correspondence:

Mercury in Virgo, 20°—30°.

Commentary:

Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):

“Completion of material gain and fortune, but nothing beyond. As it were, at the very pinnacle of success. Old age, slothfulness, great wealth, yet sometimes loss in part, and later heaviness, dullness of mind, yet clever and prosperous in money transactions.”

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):

“Gain, riches; family matters, archives, extraction, the abode of a family. Reversed: Chance, fatality, loss, robbery, games of hazard; sometimes gift, dowry, pension.”

The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley)

“The Ten of Disks is called Wealth. Here again is written this constantly recurring doctrine, that as soon as one gets to the bottom one finds oneself at the top; and Wealth is given to Mercury in Virgo. When wealth accumulates beyond a certain point, it must either become completely inert and cease to be wealth, or call in the aid of intelligence to use it rightly. This must necessarily happen in spheres which have nothing whatever to do with material possessions, as such. In this way, Carnegie establishes a Library, Rockefeller endows Research, simply because there is nothing else to do. But all this doctrine lies behind the card; it is the inner meaning of the card. There is another view to consider, that this is the last of all the cards, and therefore represents the sum total of all the work that has been done from the beginning. Therefore, in it is drawn the very figure of the Tree of Life itself. This card, to the other thirty-five small cards, is what the twenty-first Trump, The Universe, is to the rest of the Trumps. The number Ten, as always, represents the final issue of the Energy. Here is great and final solidification. The force is completely expended and results in death. Mercury rules this card in Virgo; and this may imply that the acquired wealth, being inert, will be dissipated unless put to further use by devoting its power to objects other than mere accumulation. This indicates the only possibility of issue from the impasse produced by the exhaustion of all the elemental forces. At the end of matter must be complete stagnation, were it not that in it is always inherent the Will of the Father, the Great Architect, the Great Arithmetician, the Great Geometer. This card is in fact a hieroglyph of the cycle of regeneration.”

Discussion:

The 10 of Pentacles is one card that I want to appreciate for its uncomplicated expression of material comfort, but I can never quite get there. The fact that it represents the end of all striving seems anticlimactic; it comes across as too inert to deliver on its promise and will only produce paralysis in the long run unless used as a springboard for further growth. To those who are familiar with the Game of Thrones series, there is a relevant analogy in the “grayscale” disorder, which eventually turns its sufferers into living statues, unable to move. And anyone who has ever relocated a household knows the perils of “too much stuff.” Although they seem completely oblivious to this encroaching threat, the people in the RWS version of this card are enmeshed in a web of material excess; their sanctuary somewhat resembles a mausoleum, and they seem pinned to the scene like desiccated butterflies to a display panel. Although this is often interpreted as a positive card, it begs the question “Is this all there is?” A stultifying sameness can set in that robs its recipients of even the most casual satisfaction; it desperately needs the invigorating spark of the Ace of Wands. There is a “you made your bed, now you have to lie in it” kind of antipathy to it that doesn’t bode well for long-term prosperity, or at least for having any durable enjoyment of it. The Thoth card depicts the same stifling situation in a different way: the coins fill the frame like a “selfie” photo taken at too close a range, all “face” and no context. Pursuing wealth for its own sake is ultimately futile.

“Metaphorical euphemisms” for this card are “The ‘Pangloss proposition’ card (aka the ‘all is for the best’ card”), and a few additional keywords are prosperity and the burden of managing it, empty success.

 

Postscript to the Series:

This post represents the end of my exploration of the cards of the tarot from a more-or-less esoteric perspective. In practice, I use these principles as background to a more pragmatic reading style, bringing them to bear as needed to fill any gaps in the mundane interpretation of the cards and generally keeping them to myself. The chief value in this entire exercise may lie in having brought together the commentary of the three main historical proponents of esoteric theory (Mathers, Waite and Crowley) in one place, making it easy to compare their opinions. My own commentary should be considered incidental, although it hopefully invoked a laugh or two and ideally provided some unique insights.

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