The Tarot of today evolved from a historical past that includes the influence of playing card decks with four suits and no trumps. Historical evidence indicates that the suits of some early playing card decks were actually considered "good" and "bad" in their essential form. Other decks used a scheme of ascending or descending values across each suit, where the value of a card in the play of a game would ascend from Ace on up in two suits and descend from Ace on down in the other two, making the increase of value in the second two suits the inverse of their numerical quantity. The later invention of French suit signs also includes an implicatiton of two suits being one way and two others being of an opposite way. In the French suit signs Diamonds and Hearts are the opposite of Clubs and Spades, which of course are equal to the more familiar tarot suits of Coins and Cups vs. Staves and Swords.
The Rider/Waite/Smith deck seems to hint to a similar split between suits, with images in two of its suits that look somewhat questionable, or unfavorable, and leading to a dark, or strange end (Wands and Swords), and being opposed by two suits with images that look largely beneficial, or favorable, and leading to a light, or happy end (Pentacles and Cups). But, unfortunately, the way most authors of tarot describe the Rider/Waite/Smith deck, this split is not consistent all the way across each suit. This is, of course, mostly due to the fact that Waite and Smith were more than likely utilizing intended meanings for their cards, derived from Qabalistic and Astrological associations crafted by The Hermitic Order of the Golden Dawn. When we utilize the Qabalistic and Astrological associations of the Golden Dawn, we get a recipe for calulating influence that produces a result that seems a bit random to me: This Planet in this Sign... in this World... on this part of the Tree, equals Trouble in the 5 of Pentacles, followed immediately by Success in the 6 of Pentacles, and then... Failure in the very next card, ending thereafter with Gain and Wealth. In the suit of Cups, the same formula gives us a 5 of Disappointment, followed immediately by Pleasure... which is then followed by Debauch and Indolence... but ends with Happiness!? Life does have its ups and downs, but this kind of back and forth-ing seems a bit extreme. Life is random, yes... but, it would be the opinion of this study of tarot that a wisdom system - like a tarot deck - should be more... systematic... because... that's what makes it a wisdon SYSTEM.
Using the somewhat questionable approach given to us by those attempting to fuse together three different, historically unrelated systems into one, we get a shuffled mixture of ideas planted here, there and everywhere. To many, this is good enough. Ideas are there to find, so who cares if there is much sense in how they read or relate to each other across any given suit? Thus, the idea of a suit being consistenty "good" and another being consistently "bad" all the way across is a minor concern, and quickly abandoned if it means achieving the greater goal of fusing together three different systems of belief into one. It would be the unprovable theory of this study of tarot that this was more than likely the rationale of the day, back when the Golden Dawn occultists were hijacking the tarot for their own purposes. And for those who think that reverence and respect ought to be paid to those committing these unholy acts of syncretism, the resulting scatter of ideas here, there and anywhere throughout the deck is not a problem. To the study of tarot being presented here, it is. Forced syncretism, and the hodge-podge results of forced syncretism, does not have great appeal to me. The effects of moving sequentially through a suit that seems to be oriented one way, but then presents significant gaps and discrepancies in the flow of progress is jarring to the senses and seems less that satisfactory. To this study of tarot, the original genius of playing card suits being opposites... consistenty... all the way across... is much more appealing... as a system. Thus, this study of tarot gives reverence and respect to that original design (see the essay Back to Basics elsewhere on this site).
Corruption vs. Restoration
The questionable act of fusing unrelated systems into one has given tarot of today a random appearence. But... being derived from playing cards, the original system of "good" and "bad" suits was one of the many that were fused. Because of this, I believe it is possible at times to perceive faint remnants of that influence in decks like the Rider/Waite/Smith. Given a superficial examination of the Rider/Waite/Smith deck, most people agree that Swords look pretty ominous. And most agree that Cups and Coins look pretty fortunate, while many remain somewhat mixed about Staves. As just mentioned, some people don't see any gaps in consistency at all. While others, indeed, don't even view the suits as needing to be consistent in the first place. They just accept each card of the Minors individually... as is, and don't see them as fitting into any kind of procession of ideas that are devoted to one consistent statment or underlying structure. This study of tarot does not agree with this approach at all. It would be my unprovable speculation that the original design of
tarot incorporated contrast, balance and symmetry - being as it was, originally
a logical a game of numbers... derived from even older playing card decks that also came with some logical structurre in mind - and that the structure(s) imposes upon tarot by the occult have either ignored or completely lost sight of (or deliberately
hidden, and then lost site of) this original contrast, balance and symmetry... preferring instead to
make each suit to represent something unique (whether that be Qabalistic Worlds or Alchemistic Elements), with less regard for logical associations of contrast,
balance and symmetry... thus preventing many from seeing the residual evidence of the
Thus, the question of this essay is... what would happen to our perception of a deck like RWS, if we
were to restore this earlier "two suits good, two suits bad" design (or, if we prefer to avoid all
mention of good and bad - this "two suits positive, two suits negative" design)? As just mentioned, many
people suggest that Pentacles are equivalent to Diamonds, Cups to Hearts, Wands to Clubs
and Swords to Spades. Diamonds and Hearts are usually red, or something not black, and
Clubs and Spades are usually black. If we take black to be negative, the the suit of Wands
and Swords would both represent a negative path, while Pentacles and Cups would be
partners in a positive path. Yes?? I do not have any specific sources of historical proof to point to as
confirmation of any particular way of looking at the suits of non-tarot playing cards or
pre-occult tarot cards. But, it is a fact that games in general are often designed around
the idea of pitting one side against another, or one team against another. There are a lot
of games we can play with a deck of cards that are not so much about sides facing off. But,
even still, it seems to me to be more likely that such a functionality might have been
considered, along with the more general notion of dualities in nature standing as
diametrical opposites to each other. Thus, my inclination has always been to view the suits
of playing cards in this Coin/Diamond - Cup/Heart = Positive vs. Stave/Club - Sword/Spade = Negative way. So...?
What would happen if we were to look at the RWS deck with this "two suits positive, two
suits negative" mindset in place - UN-learning whatever associations we currently prefer,
like the Four Worlds of the Qabalah, or the Four Elements of Alchemy? In
other words, instead of trying to reconcile or assimilate former associations to this
positive/negative scheme, what if we just looked at the suits as positive and negative? I
can tell you what happens, many many correlations can be found. Unfortunately, because the RWS deck was probably created to illustrate the Qabalistic/Astrological associations dictated by The Golden Dawn, we would
also encounter a few areas where things don't fit so perfectly to tradition. In this way, my unprovable
theory would continue, by suggesting that what doesn't fit is a corruption or corrosion of the original
balanced design (perhaps even an occult blind), made to suit a more occult bias, and that by "repairing" just a
few of these holes, a more balanced, symmetrical, contrasting and consistent design could
be re-discovered that would lead to a fuller range of meanings - i.e. a more complete vocabulary of human experience. By restoring tarot to a more balanced, contrasting design we allow for equal potential for examination of "the dark side" of life experience. By examining the dark side of life, we come to know our Shadow Self. By better knowing our Shadow Self, we come closer to the goal of Jungian Individuation.
The design I'm proposing works toward this goal beautifully (see Dreams and Dreaming elsewhere on this site).
Currently I see a tremendous bias in the worrld of tarot toward putting a good or positive spin on as many cards as possible (see Fluffy Bunny vs. Blind Oracle elsewhere on this site). With some cards this is more of a challenge than others. Thus, in spite of what is dictated by the Golden Dawn system or an original playing card system... many have come to view the deck as having "three suits positive and one that is... well... a bit more difficult to deal with" rather than "two suits positive, two suits negative." To me, the fact that so many
only see negativity in the suit of swords, and see mostly good or positive things in the
other three suits, is prima facie evidence of an extreme and unhealthy bias (see Stuck in the Mudaphor elsewhere on this site). If we were to explore this "two suits positive, two suits negative" idea, it
would certainly balance that out a bit more. The question is whether that kind of balance
would be a good thing to have in a deck design or not. For those reading this essay it is perhaps an interesting idea to explore. But in putting this idea to the tarot public, it has usually been met with great hostility, because of A) how
it threatens to increase the number of negative cards- suggesting as it does that Wands and Swords represent a path toward
something negative, like death, and B) how it threatens to lead to the creation of a deck that looks different than that of RWS, and everything everyone has
ever learned about tarot, relative to the indelible mental imprint of that "sacred" form. Also, C) by how non-occult it is in not using Qabalah, Astrology, Alchemy or any number of other traditional approaches to defining meaning for cards. Thus, to explore this idea any further, one would have to be of an
EXTREMELY open mind.
A Survey of Initial Reactions
To continue along this path of looking for remnants of balance, symmetry, contrast and consistency across the suits of tarot, let's step away from the assumed structure, and focus only on the illustrated results given to us by Waite and Smith. We can certainly speculate that there was more than just the Golden Dawn influence being illustrated. Perhaps, an attempt was also made to maintain the remnants of playing card symmetry that I believe are there. With a minimal amount of consensus regarding the idea of Coins and Cups (or Diamonds and Hearts) as appearing - at least superficially - mostly light or favorable and Staves and Swords (or Clubs and Spades) as mostly dark or unfavorable, I decided to conduct a survey and ask some people to tell me which cards of the Rider/Waite/Smith deck they would change to make the suits of Coins and Cups look consistently "good" or light or favorable, all the way across. And which cards they would change to make the suits of Staves and Swords look consistently "bad" or dark or unfavorable, all the way across. Some of the people I asked were tarot enthusiasts, some were not. Instructions included a request that they judge each card based on an initial reaction to the image, and NOT on a reasoned response thought through over time, or a learned response based on experience or the study of any underlying structure, or a conditioned response that might include a bias to mitigate darkness, severity or "bad" from every card.
Some didn't like the idea of imposing moral judgments like "good" and "bad" onto the cards. Instructions were clarified to allow for any form of discrimination that suited their own sensibilities, but would allow them to achieve the stated goal of making cards of each suit look more consistent all the way across. Light and Dark were suggested substitutes for "good" and "bad" as were Smile and Frown. Given that a request had been made to use initial reactions, Smile and Frown seemed the most appropriate tool for such unbiased discrimination. Thus the instructions were summed up as: Which cards, initially, make you smile? Which cards, initially, make you frown? Admittedly, it was difficult for some of the experienced tarot card users to not let their reasoned responses and learned responses influence them, and to instead recall an initial reaction felt years ago, but some were able. The highlighted cards in the diagram below, represent the most common result of which cards people would change to make the suits of Coins and Cups all Smile, and Staves and Swords all Frown.
In the early days of tarot, the sequence of the trumps changed several times between various card makers. Sometimes the Popess was the 4th card, next to the Pope. Sometimes the virtues traded places with other cards. With this in mind, we could theorize that: regardless of what story someone might have set out to tell with these images, the two most popular sequences that have come down to us today represent a kind of "settling of consciousness" into the expression of a universal, archetypal pattern. What is that pattern? And just how close do the two most popular sequences of tarot come in illustrating that pattern? And... what role do the Minor Pips play in illustrating that pattern?
As you can see, not all that many cards of the RWS deck would need to be changed, if a consistently light vs. dark, or smile vs. frown arrangement was desired. But that, of course is a huge "IF." A binary approach, like the one being suggested here, has been a very popular approach for many a wisdom system... for many centuries. But because of the syncretic assimilation of dispirate systems of divination demanded by the occultists, it has not been so respected within the design of most modern tarot decks. In my opinion, the RWS deck stands as evidence of that fact. I see the RWS deck as a documentation of binary thinking... corroded and corrupted by syncretic assimilation. And as tarot moves further and further away from any game-like structure of opposing suits, and more and more toward decks with little or no acknowledgement to the design of underlying structure, and cards that are not viewed in any dualistic, polar, binary, opposite way one to another, binary thinking has become an evil to be banished. This, in my opinion, is a shame (see The Way elsewhere on this site).
Sometimes, rather than ask people to indicate which cards they would change for greater consistency across each suit of the Minor Pips, I try asking which cards of the Rider/Waite/Smith deck they see as mostly negative or "bad" or "frown." The answer that comes back usually includes The Devil, The Tower, maybe Death, and maybe The Moon, within the Major Trumps. And among the Minor Pips, usually all the 5s, most of the Swords, except maybe the Ace and 2, then maybe the 4 of Cups, and the 8 of Cups... and possibly the 9 and 10 of Wands. A reply to which I find myself compelled to wonder... how such a drastic imbalance between "good" and "bad" cards came to be? As I've pointed out earler in this essay, I know about the alleged influence of the Qabalistic/Astrological structure dictated by the occult society The Hermitc Order of the Golden Dawn. But how people have allowed such an association to corrupt the pure and simple design given to them by the inventors of playing cards remains perplexing to me. People claim that the tarot speaks to all of humanity. How does it do this, with such an incredible imbalance of forces like those seen in the suit associations given to us by the occult? Is humanity 3/4 "good" and only 1/4 "bad?" I think the average person on the street would probably estimate it to be the exact opposite! In constructing a design for expessing as much of humanity as possible, The Numerical Tarot attempts to split the difference between the wishful thinking of many tarot enthusiasts and their "three suits positive and one that is... well... a bit more difficult to deal with" and the perceptions of everyday people who would probably view life as 180 degrees opposite in proportion. The Numerical Tarot attempts to present a balanced pespective, thereby duplicating the binary design of playing card origins, as well as giving an unbiased view of life itself.
History suggests that tarot evolved from regular playing cards, and not the other way around. In other words... the Trumps of tarot were added to a pack of playing cards, to act as trumps in the playing of cards games. Some think that, in addition to being trumps in a game, these cards were meant to tell a story containing ancient wisdom. In the early days of tarot, the sequence of the trumps changed several times between various card makers. Sometimes the Popess was the 4th card, next to the Pope. Sometimes the virtues traded places with other cards. With this in mind, I have often toyed with the theory that: regardless of what story someone might have set out to tell with these Trump images, the two most popular sequences that have come down to us today represent a kind of "settling of consciousness" into the expression of a universal, archetypal pattern that is in fact inevitable. What is that pattern? And just how close do the two most popular sequences of tarot trumps come in illustrating that pattern? And... what role do the Minor Pips play in illustrating that pattern?
The Advantage of Consistency
Most people tend to accept the idea presented earlier in this essay, that certain Astrological associations were assigned to certain cards, years ago, by knowledgeable occult scholars studying ancient mysteries. And out of reverence for these occult magi, many people never ask why each of those associations came to be. S.L. McGregor Mathers of The Hermitic Order of The Golden Dawn was one such occultist, who devised the scheme already mentioned for associating Kabbalah/Qabalah and Astrology with Tarot. Although systematic, his approach seems to me to be more of a kluge! And when I look at the end result of imposing those Astrological and Kabbalistic/Qabalistic associations on the four suits of ancient playing cards (whose suits used to be seen as balanced opposites in the logical structure of a game of numbers) I see a monstrosity of confusion, and an offensive corrosion of binary ideals... binary ideals that are rooted in an approach to wisdom that has been embraced by a whole lot of people for a whole lot of years.
As mentioned, I think that the syncretic fusion of differing systems is less than satisfactory, and I suggest that we look for the remnants of playing card structure within the superficial illustrations left to us in decks like The Rider/Waite/Smith Tarot. The theory being, that the binary thinking of the past wasn't completely obliterated from the Rider/Waite/Smith deck... just corroded. If we look, we can see that; even if we are to completely reject the notion of "good" and "bad", there is still a discernible degree of contrast to be found between suits... like Cups and Swords for example. Most of the images found within the suit of Swords require a certain amount of "spin" to be seen as favorable or non-threatening. Most of the Cups don't. But this is not consistent, some of the Cups do need some "spin" to be seen as favorable. What is the advantage of a deck that presents an inconsistent design across each suit?
Although workable and usable, I see many inconsistencies in the Golden Dawn approach that make it less than perfectly elegant. Because of this, The Numerical Tarot does not use Astrological or Kabbalistic/Qabalistic association to determine the intended meaning of cards from the Minor Suits or the Major Trumps. The Numerical Tarot prefers to return to the original design of suits that stand as logical opposites to each other, as they did in their original game structure. The Numerical Tarot embraces balance, symmetry, contrast and consistency. The Numerical Tarot embraces binary thinking and does not see binary thinking, as an evil to be banished from the world of tarot. What is the advantage to a deck that presents a consistent look to its design? (see Divine Mechanics elsewhere on this site).
The advantage to a deck that presents a consistent look to its design, is clarity of thought... and being straightforward and obvious in the communication of ideas... and, in being so clear and obvious, the banishment of occult obfuscation. In my opinion, too many people accept the notion that tarot is based on the obfuscating mysteries of the occult, and in being based on mysteries intended to obfuscate, tend to accept arbitrary, inconsistent, chaotic and convoluted designs as part and parcel of the inherent mystery. In fact, historically, such convoluted designs have been entirely intentional, and have been employed as occult devices of obfuscation, to prevent casual, uninitiated and unworthy observers from obtaining knowledge that has been deemed fit only for devoted members of a cult. Sometimes these convoluted designs even go so far as to include deliberate misinformation to throw the curious off track, and preserve the correct knowledge only for the devotees who hold the keys to the mysteries.
The Numerical Tarot is not about mysteries. The Numerical Tarot is all about observing the obvious, and through observing the obvious, revealing, or shedding light upon the darkness of obfuscating mysteries. The Numerical Tarot is a wisdom system for anyone and everyone, not just those willing to suffer through initiation rites of passage, and the memorization of arbitrary, asymmetrical, convoluted, chaotic and mysterious designs full of blinds and obfuscations. In trying to reach anyone and everyone, The Numerical Tarot uses balance, symmetry, contrast and consistency as "tools of the obvious," to get a message across in as straightforward and simple a way as possible (see the essay Stuck in the Mudaphor elsewhere on this site).
In attempting to be clear, rather than obscure and inscrutable, The Numerical Tarot does not attempt to forcefully assimilate other belief systems into its structure. The Numerical Tarot is based on a simple model of existence that is built in our mind's eye using plainly obvious, common sense reasoning, combined with creatively imaginative speculations about the ramifications of abstract, conceptual patterns upon humans. The deck itself stands as a visual documentation of important, primordial, archetypal patterns that are uncovered using BOTH logical analysis and creative speculation (see the essay Stuck in the Mudaphor elsewhere on this site). The binary result of balance, symmetry, contrast and consistency enables cards in the deck to work together as sets of ideas that span spectrums of possibilities from one extreme to another, good, bad and everything in between (see A Spectrum of Possibilities elsewhere on this site). By presenting spectrums of possibilities that span the extremes and in betweens of two suits positive and two suits negative, The Numerical Tarot becomes a wisdom system with as complete a vocabulary of human experience as possible. If one does not care about things like balance and consistency in the design of a wisdom system, then any tarot deck will do. If, however, one does put some value on these things, they might find some advantage to the design of The Numerical Tarot.
On the surface, abandoning tradition might seem scary (see The Handrail of History elsewhere on this site). But, if examined at length, it will be found that an amazing number of cards in The Numerical Tarot remain essentially unchanged from that of RWS and occult tradition. This, I think, is amazing, considering the fact that The Numerical Tarot does not use any of the traditional devices used by other decks to determine intended meanings for the cards. The only difference that will be found in comparing The Numerical Tarot to a deck like Rider/Waite/Smith, is consistency across each suit. In other words, it will be found that the highlighted cards from the survey above have been changed to make each suit consistently light or dark. For those who are adaptable enough to accept those few changes, and are the sort to embrace things like balance, symmetry, contrast and consistency The Numerical Tarot might be the deck to use!
Every side has an other side. Embrace both sides, and everything in between. That is the underlying philosophy of The Numerical Tarot and the All Things Are Numbers approach.
Don't Ever Change
By departing from tradition, The Numerical Tarot enjoys very little in the way of popularity. In fact it is mostly met with hostility, as people cling to things they already know, and things that are popular (see The Handrail of History elsewhere on this site). Thus, to use The Numerical Tarot is to step outside the norm and be different. That can be a lonely existence. In designing a tarot deck, I could have succumbed to the peer presure to conform to existing imagery, but... if I had, I would not have been able to develop the system of logical analysis seen everywhere on this site. Without such a logical system of binary opposites, things like The Binary Influence Calculator and The Dream Analysis Calculator and the Shake the Trees game would not be possible at all.
People resist change, especially where deep, historical traditions are in place. For example: I remember seeing something years ago about someone who had invented a
new typewriter keyboard arrangement (for the English alphabet). Rather
than the 'standard' or 'traditional' "qwertyuiop" arrangement of
letters, they claimed that their arrangement was more ergonomic and
more user friendly. They tested it with people who type for a living.
Those people said that it didn't take much to re-learn where the
letters were, and that they actually liked the new arrangement! This was just
before the personal computer revolution, when typing was a skill that
people used to made a living. If this new arrangement had caught on,
we might all be using it today. But it didn't. The qwertyuiop
'standard' is what we all use. And now that computer keyboards are
everywhere, and everyone and their grandma types on them, can we
imagine changing to anything else? That alternative keyboard might
very well be more ergonomic and user friendly, but we will probably
never know, because, we will probably never change.
People might think "so what... qwertyuiop is good enough" and be
perfectly correct, qwertyuiop is "good enough." But... to some people,
good enough just isn't good enough. When people learn a system like
the qwertyuiop keyboard, they memorize and practice; they learn all
the quirks and foibles of the system and adapt to accommodate them, so
that they can accomplish a task set before them. And when someone
comes along with something that is thought to be more ergonomic and user
friendly, many will ask "why bother, what we have is good enough." Once learned, we tend to forget all the quirks and foibles of a system
that we've had to adapt to, and we just accept what we have as good
enough, simply because we don't want to be bothered with learning the
quirks and foibles of another system - even one that claims to have
fewer quirks and foibles, and a promise of more efficient use.
Learning the quirks and foibles of the existing system thus becomes a
right of passage that all must suffer through to obtain the prized
skill being offered. And as the end result of pursuing either path
results in the same output of words on a page, the keyboard that is
used by the majority becomes the one to dominate - no matter how much
better the other might be.
Indeed, an argument that might be put forth by those who think the
qwertyuiop keyboard to be good enough, would be to point out how there
has been no loss of creativity while using the existing system. Many
people have written great works of literature using the qwertyuiop
keyboard. So, if the end result is the same, why change? The answer, I believe; to change the learning process from a right of passage through
difficulties, to that of an ergonomic, user friendly experience of
ease. We can all be selfish and say "I had to learn the hard way, so
must you - it's tradition!" Or, we can look back on that path of
difficulty and try to make it easier for the next person. The Numerical Tarot is an attempt to make things easier for the next person.
As mentioned above, in the old days of Tarot, rights of passage were also considered
rituals of devotion, and made extra complex on purpose, so as to keep
the unworthy out. In many ways, we abide by these complexities, and
they linger on, in much the same way as we find ourselves stuck,
forever it seems, with the qwertyuiop keyboard. Except, unlike the
qwertyuiop keyboard, we voluntarily stick with the complexities of
tarot's old ways, because of a perception that wisdom of long ago and far away is
better than anything anyone might throw out for consideration today.
Our need to justify everything relative to some historical reference
or occult tradition keeps us with the old ways, and those difficult rights of passage...
forever (see The Handrail of History elsewhere on this site).
There are a few books on tarot with "easy" in the title, as they try
to impart our existing qwertyuiop-like approach to tarot into the
minds of those learning. But while their methods of teaching might be easier, the
subject matter remains a complex right of passage for many. But... what
if the path itself was easier? Think of how many times you've used
something that is good enough, only to be forced into using something
else, whereupon you discover, to your amazement, that the thing you
had resisted using all this time is "so much better" than the old way.
The end result of whatever task it accomplishes might be unchanged,
but the process of getting there can often be much improved over that
of good enough.
That other keyboard might be better, or someone might invent another
option that is even better than that. Will we change? Or will we stick to our old ways, out
of respect for the history of typewriters of yore? Will the design of tarot ever change? Will the indelible mental imprint of the Rider/Waite/Smith deck EVER be replaced by anything else? Or are we stuck with this layout for EVER, out of respect for tarot of yore? What if we didn't do that?
The people of ancient times, who invented a logical structure of numbers, with suits designed to be seen as binary opposites knew what they were doing! I believe that the Tarot of today is an abomination of that simple genius. The Numerical Tarot is an attempt to restore that simple genius and show what it can do. Thus, I encourage anyone and everyone to explore the devices mentioned above, and ask if such things could ever come about using the popular tarot decks of today - like the Rider/Waite/Smith deck.
For more on this subject of meanings given to the pip cards of tarot, and how this study presents an alternative view, continue on to the essay Back to Basics.