The meaning of numbers on tarot cards
Numbers in the tarot are represented and used in many different ways. This discussion will focus mainly on the major arcana, because in the minor arcana the use of numbers is fairly obvious. Each number is usually represented by that number of the suit symbols somewhere in the card (there are occasional additions to this, such as the infinity symbol in the Two of Pentacles card). In contrast, numbers are used in the major arcana to symbolize various esoteric concepts, and are usually worked into the drawing more subtly. This discussion refers to the Universal Waite version of the deck. Please note, many of these are religious and metaphysical symbols, and this discussion describes these symbols without endorsing or ascribing to these specific faiths or beliefs.
Only the Fool is numbered zero, and it is important to realize that in early tarot decks, trumps were not numbered at all. These 22 cards were usually referred to as 21 Trumps plus the Fool, which stood outside the series of trumps, neither at the bottom or the top, or anywhere in between. It had its own special scoring rules in the game of Triumphs as well. In fact there is still disagreement about whether the Fool belongs at the beginning or the end, and perhaps the correct answer is both. As a Zero, the Fool represents a direct incarnation of the Universal nothingness – true consciousness does not arise until the 1, or the Magician. The circular aspect of zero can be found in two other cards – 10 The Wheel of Fortune, and 21 The World. These three cards represent the beginning, middle, and end of the series of Trumps and the Fool's journey, and as such encompass more of the Whole than the other Trumps. They form a never-ending cycle, circle, or spiral within which the dance of incarnation takes place. The circular nature of these cards suggests that one should not view the trumps as a linear progression, but rather a repeating cycle.
After that metaphysical discussion, there truly is not much to say about One. Except perhaps mirroring the Fool, Wheel, World cycle, we find that all the cards whose numbers reduce to one are the Magician, Wheel, and Sun. The Wheel, as mentioned before, is the pivot or turning point of the major arcana. The Magician and the Sun are the two cards that represent the conscious mind most directly – the Magician is the first spark of consciousness, and the Sun represents the final integration of consciousness with the other aspects of Self. Here we have a sense of the first half and the second half of the major arcana being like mirrors of one another – the conscious self and the spiritual or shadow self that must become integrated into one.
When discussing colors and landscape elements, we have commented before on the ways in which the concepts of duality manifest in the major arcana – there are numerous pairings of masculine/feminine, yin/yang, positive/negative, passive/active, sun/moon, conscious/subconscious and other concepts of duality represented by red/white and black/white pairings, twin towers or mountains, yin/yang symbols, and roses and lilies. In addition, there are cards like the Lovers and the Devil, where a pair of people are prominent in the meaning of the card – in one case watched over by an angel, and in the other case by the devil. Then there are cards such as Temperance and the Star, where water is being poured back and forth between vessels and the central figure has one foot on land and one in the water. Twin keys in the Hierophant card represent the keys to heaven and earth, as above, so below.
Three is a central concept in Western mysticism, and is used to represent a variety of similar but varying concepts, such as: mind/body/spirit, father/son/holy ghost, the alchemical principals of expansion/integration/contraction, birth/life/death (also similar to Maiden/Mother/Crone). In the Tree of Life, there are three realms above the material, through which one must climb to reach the Source. These are represented by the three primary elements, air, fire, and water, and the three primary colors, yellow, red, and blue. These also correspond to the three "mother" letters in Hebrew. These three higher realms or spheres are represented in the Hierophant card by the three crossbars on his wand of office and the three points on the highest level of his crown, not to mention the three tiers on the crown. Some authors believe the trumps were originally set up in groups of three, with one of the seven virtues in every third place (the game itself was set up for three players – if you remove the Fool there are 21 trumps, divisible by three). Lastly, in the Judgment card, the families are being raised in groups of three – mother, father, child.
Four is another central concept – there are four elements, four suits, four directions, four winds, four types of astrological signs, four letters in the mystical word of "taro" or "rota". All of these can be seen in the Wheel and World cards, especially the Wheel. Waite made this a central concept of his tarot deck, and doubled the four to make an eight-spoked Wheel. The name of God in Hebrew has three letters, one of which is repeated to make four, and these letters are seen along the wheel, interspersed with the mystical letters TARO. The four winged figures around the Wheel represent the four fixed astrological signs – Taurus the Bull, Leo the Lion, Scorpio the Eagle, and Aquarius the Man. Each is depicted with wings and reading a book, to show that knowledge is the way to the divine. These symbols are present in a slightly different form in the corners of the World, tying together these two cards. The four pillars holding up the roof of the Charioteer's chariot are also a reference to the integration of the four elements, to supplement the yin/yang and other "integration of duality" symbols in this card.
Five is the number of the pentacle, and the number of spirit, representing the fifth element. The tarot deck can be thought of as having five suits, the four suits representing the four elements, plus the Trumps as a fifth suit of Spirit. The only trump to show an obvious pentacle is the Devil, and his points downward, to represent the opposite of spiritual integration. The upright five-petaled white rose in the Death card is an alchemical symbol of the Rosicrucean Order, and is similar to the upright pentacle in that it represents the triumph of spirit over the baser elements, the purification of man in his longing and striving for God. One of the three tiers of the Hierophant's crown has five points, showing that he holds the key to these teachings.
Six does not show up that often in the major arcana, and can be seen most clearly in the six-pointed Star of David which resides within the Hermit's lamp and gives light. The six-pointed star is an ancient symbol of balance between inward and outward flow of energy, male/female, fire/water, and other polar opposites. The Hermit achieves enlightenment through perfect balance of these energies – note the similarities to our keywords for Sixes – this is an active, flowing balance rather than a static balance. This symbol is used to represent the heart Chakra, and the sixth sephiroth Tephireth on the Tree of Life (which is the highest sephiroth we can reach in an incarnated form) whose paths to other sephirah form a six-pointed star and which is the only sephiroth we can reach that has a direct path to the Origin. All worthy of the Hermit as he seeks true enlightenment, and he is the last card in the first half of the Trumps, before the Wheel turns and the rest of the cycle continues. Six-pointed stars also appear on the Empress's crown. Some wonderful essays on the six-pointed star in many cultures and mystical traditions can be found here: http://www.gaiamind.com/star.html.
The third tier of the Hierophant's crown contains seven points, and this is a reference to the Seven Seals in the Book of Revelations. There are seven seals on the Book of God, which Jesus was given and began to open the seals. As each seal is broken, more about God is revealed (hence, Revelations). Once the seventh seal is broken, Judgment will be upon us. Seven also has other meanings – 3 and 4 being the most holy numbers, 7 is 3 + 4 and so is considered a mystical or magical number. There were in the time the tarot was invented, seven planets (counting the Sun and the Moon). Seven days of the week (named after the seven principal Roman deities), seven wonders of the world, seven virtues and seven deadly sins, God made the world in seven days, King Solomon built his temple in seven days, seven liberal arts and sciences, and consequently many, many uses of the number seven in Masonry. Interesting then that it does not appear more often in the tarot, since Waite was active in Freemasonry.
The number eight, as mentioned before, is derived by the doubling of the fours on the Wheel of Fortune, and is an important recurring symbol in Waite's tarot deck. The eight-spoked wheel has been repeated in many RW clones, and Waite even wore a pendant which was an eight-spoked wheel as a reference to his tarot deck and the concepts embodied in this Wheel. We can see this appearing in other cards, most often in the form of eight-pointed stars (rather than the 5-, 6-, or 7-pointed stars which were more prevalent symbols then and now) in the Star and in the Chariot. In fact there are eight 8-pointed stars in the Star card.
Here we will skip some numbers that do not appear symbolically in the tarot.
The number twelve often appears in the tarot, and is nearly always a reference to the 12 astrological signs. Waite uses Twelve less than do many other deck authors, which often have a 12-spoked Wheel of Fortune, for example. However, if you look closely at the Charioteer's belt, for example, you can see that it is made up of astrological symbols, and one presumes that it goes all the way around and there would be 12 segments (yet another example of how the Chariot represents mastery of every possible sphere). There are twelve flames on the Tree of Life behind the man in the Lovers. In Waite's tarot, you can 12 stars on the Empress's crown, which represent her mastery over the 12 months of the year and the seasons, in her role as Mother Nature.
There are 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each of which is also a number. Much has been made of this mystical system and the fact that there are also 22 trumps in the tarot and 22 paths between the sephirah on the Tree of Life. However, no-one truly knows whether the trumps were designed to correspond to this mystical number or not. Some argue that in fact there were only 21 trumps, plus the Fool. However, the Golden Dawn firmly believed there was a correspondence, and it remains a topic of spirited discussion among tarot scholars. Some tarot decks (such as Spiral) print the Hebrew letter considered to correspond to each trump on the cards, while others use a numbering system corresponding to the Hebrew numbers, which may be different from the typical numbers assigned to the trumps. The number 22 is also considered a "master number" in numerology, along with 11 and 33. This number has among its meanings, alchemy and universal transformation, two concepts that have been closely linked with the progression of the Trumps.
The sideways symbol eight appears on a few cards, and stands for infinity and endless repeating cycles. This symbol appears above the Magician, the woman in the Strength card, and in the Two of Pentacles. I do not know why these particular two trumps were singled out to receive the infinity symbol, as an argument could be made that it would be appropriate for many of the trumps. Interestingly, there were in some of the early Italian deck designs, figures that wore a floppy hat with a wide brim, one end of which was turned up so that the rim followed a sideways figure eight or infinity symbol. No-one actually knows whether the hat was designed after the symbol, or the symbol was added because of the hats, or whether there was any correlation between the two.