We are observers. And sometimes we observe things that just fit together. Such as from this book that I’ve been reading, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature by Northrop Frye (Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovih, Publishers, 1983), in which a graphic in chapter seven suddenly rang some bells in my memory banks. The graphic, while not identical to the lesson sheet I was remembering, still has some relevance to the up-and-down system of numerology in the tarot that my class had discussed when I was a student at the Seattle Tarot School…
Every tarot enthusiast is familiar with the “progression” or ladder of attainment presented by the 22 cards of the Major Arcana of the tarot deck. That progression has its ups and downs, too. But what we were discussing in this particular class was the progression, the numerology of the pips (the minor arcana) numbering one-through-ten.
As you can see above on the right, it’s not the constant wave that Frye has depicted regarding the stories of the Old Testament, but there is still a progression of ups and downs and an ultimate redemption. As Frye details in his book, there is…
“…a series of stories and traditional tribal heroes…set within a repeating mythos of the apostasy and restoration of Israel. This gives us a narrative structure that is roughly U-shaped, the apostasy being followed by a descent into disaster and bondage, which in turn is followed by repentance, then by a rise through deliverance to a point more or less on the level from which the descent began. This U-shaped pattern, approximate as it is, recurs in literature as the standard shape of comedy, where a series of misfortunes and misunderstandings brings the action to a threateningly low point, after which some fortunate twist in the plot sends the conclusion up to a happy ending. The entire Bible, viewed as a “divine comedy,” is contained within a U-shaped story of this sort, one in which man, as explained, loses the tree and water of life at the beginning of Genesis and gets them back at the end of Revelation. In between, the story of Israel is told in a series of declines into power of heathen kingdoms, Egypt, Philistia, Babylon, Syria, Rome, each followed by a rise into a brief moment of relative independence. The same U-[shape] narrative is found outside the historical sections also, [such as] in the account of the disasters and restoration of Job and in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son…” (p. 169)
This up-and-down, circling back between apostasy and redemption in the eyes of God is familiar in another form that we are familiar with as well—the Wheel of Fortune. The Wheel was ubiquitously present everywhere in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Life itself was based on it. And while a further discussion of the philosophy of the Wheel of Fortune is a large enough topic for an entire other blog post (or book-length discussion), primarily the idea is that the Wheel is constantly spinning and a person is either at the apex riding the “highs” and good fortunes of life, or that same person is somewhere else along the course of the Wheel—either falling from grace on the far side of the apex, or fallen to the worst of circumstances at the bottom of the Wheel, or making one’s way to a return to the apex while elevating oneself from the bottom of the Wheel. Regardless, the Wheel is always spinning; there is always movement and change. So if you are at the bottom of the Wheel, you should take heart, because shortly the Wheel’s movement is going to be dragging you upwards to a better place. And if you are basking in the luxuries of the top of the Wheel, you should be wary, because those things aren’t likely to last…
The numerology corresponding to the pip cards of the tarot can be thought of as a kind of detail progression of the movement of the Wheel or of Fortune. In short, the progression goes (variably) something like this:
1-3: Inspiration, progression of ideas, manifestation of idea
4: A leveling out as doubt, dissatisfaction, or inertia ensues
5: Collapse of progression and regression due to foible/fortune
6: Reinvigoration through remedy
7: A slight drawback which needs to be addressed or broached in order to proceed further
8: Realignment and invigorated sense of purpose
9: Vision to achieve success/goal/purpose
10: Achievement (and readiness to move onto next level or lesson)
These are general descriptions of movement and not necessarily meant to be definitively applied to every draw. Tarot readers know that there needs to be “flow” and concession and interpretation and a host of other factors when interpreting cards. But as a full suit pip spread, we can apply these general descriptions as a progression of fortune.
Frankly this progression works for the clerical/religious and merchant-class pips (cups and pentacles/coins), and possibly the peasant-class pips (wands), but after contemplating about it, the noble-class pips (swords) seem rather to follow the far side of the “falling” wheel, and as such mirrors the order of the progression. (It seems arguable that possibly the peasant-class pips do so also.) In which case, from a base line where the Aces start, we might be able to diagram the pip progressions as in the diagram below… the graph line above representing the suits of cups, coins, (and possibly wands), and the graph line below representing swords (and possibly wands)…
If we think of each suit representing half of the turning Wheel of Fortune, we can see that there is a continuous rotation back to the base line. To see this we can place each graph line end-to-end…
Notice that the “wave” of ups and downs (diagramed in yellow) resembles the graph of apostasy and redemption found in Northrop Frye’s book.
Again, I reiterate that my pip progression descriptions are general, and if I thought through it further or wished to get more detailed, I might think further about how each suit perhaps represented a quarter of the movement around the Wheel of Fortune, rather than just a half wheel progression…and I don’t think that our “wave” graph would change; it would simply be a matter of adjusting the zoom or zoom-out lens of our viewfinder. …Perhaps an investigation for further study at a future point in time…
For now, the graph above provides us with enough material to recognize the pervasiveness of the idea of progress and regress, and high and low fortune, and apostasy and redemption that has lived in the minds of civilizations for eons.
So, where exactly can we find support of there being such ideas in an historical context?
In explaining how the concept of Satan was born and developed in ancient Hebrew communities, Dai Léon has this to say in his voluminous treatise, Origins of the Tarot: Cosmic Evolution and the Principles of Immortality (Frog Books Publications [distributed by North Atlantic Books], 2009):
“Throughout history, Devil as Satan has tended to represent the Old Way, a challenge to deeply disruptive and transformative change that often proves inevitable regardless of the challenge.
“In the era following Alexander the Great, Judaic politics favored anti-Greek attitudes. Hellenistic Jews became and internal be my to families of the “old way” looking to take back control of Israel. By the time of Jesus, Pharisees (a sect succeeding the Hasidism or Pious, and now identified with Rabbinic Judaism) were at the forefront of the movement attempting to renew the austere practices of traditional Judaic law. Essenes and other radical groups of Jews, evidently including the community surrounding Jesus’ blood family, felt that the high priest who controlled the Temple of Jerusalem had become their worst of enemies. He and his compatriots had betrayed the law of the faithful. These enemies had “walked the way of the nations”; they no longer were true to Israel and its God…” (p. 378)
This is an important observation, and not one to which Léon was alone. The great scriptural theologian, Father Bruce Vawter, GM, wrote an entire book on it entitled The Conscience of Israel: Pre-Exilic Prophets and Prophecy (Sheed and Ward, Inc., 1961). While Léon observed the phenomenon of “prophesy” amongst the Essenes in response to the the Pharisees and the Scribes who had become so enraptured with law and rules that they had forgotten the core values and grace of God… Vawter focuses on the prophets of the Old Testament, claiming that they basically were doing the exact same thing—trying to bring people back to the core values and graces of God’s covenants, in contradiction against cities and lands of people who had forgotten those values…
“When the prophets condemned anything, they did it in the round Semitic fashion that is impatient of distinctions and that is existential rather than essential. They were not concerned with the principle of sacrifice [an old practice contentious even in Biblical times], but with an evil situation. Men were going through the motions of formally honoring God while their every daily action proved that they had none of the love of God that alone gives sacrifice a meaning. It was hypocrisy [itself] that the prophets condemned, not [the act of] sacrifice. Formalism is the calculated risk of every organized religion. Those who most bitterly attack a religions formalism, however, are not its enemies.” (p. 15)
“Formalism,” as Vawter identifies it, could be defined as that practice of the Curia of the Catholic Church whom Pope Françis has berated for focusing too intently on rules and doctrine rather than observing, pastorally accommodating, and communicating with individuals “from where individuals are coming.” It is the main focus of his latest Papal Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.
Let me try to circle back to the beginning of this post by pointing out that the cyclical nature of apostasy and redemption that Northrup Frye noticed and graphed in his book are intimately connected to the stories of fall and redemption noticed by Léon (concerning “satanic” disrupters within the Jewish community) and by Vawter (concerning habituation that dishonored true worship of God), because it was the prophets—the ones who wrangled the Jewish people to remember the core values and covenants of God—that brought the Jewish people back from their fallen, overly doctrine-focused, corrupt ways, and back to a level or height of grace in God’s eyes (and peace and stability and greatness within the Jewish kingdom).
Who were the prophets? The prophets were people who reminded the public of the virtues that would bring them back to grace and good standing and right relationship.
Today, contemporary esoteric practitioners have a fairly different definition of what a “prophet” is supposed to be. A prophet in the minds of most people means someone who can see into the future. But that definition is simply too shallow when applied to the historical prophets. The prophets of Biblical tradition were certainly able to look forward to the future and were able to see calamitous catastrophes and ruin as a potential outcome. But they were also able to look behind into the past and know what the answer was to help pave the path forward to victory in the eyes of God.
…And what do we call someone who is able to look both forward and backwards in order to ascertain the best path to follow in the present? That would be someone who has prudence. This is why Prudence is the highest virtue of them all, and it is why you, dear tarot enthusiasts, may be called prophetic in the practice of your readings.
BIBLIOGRAPHY & FURTHER READING:
Frye, Northrup. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. (San Diego: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1981).
Léon, Dai. Origins of the Tarot: Cosmic Evolution and the Principles of Immortality. (Berkeley: Frog Books Publications/North Atlantic Books, 2009).
Vawter, Bruce, GM. The Conscience of Israel: Pre-Exilic Prophets and Prophecy. (New York: Sheed and Ward, Inc., 1961).
Von Rad, Gerhard. The Message of the Prophets. (New York: Harper San Francisco/Harper Collins Publishers, 1962). (English translation of the German Die Botschaft der Propheten. [Siebenstern-Taschenbuch], translation by D.M.G. Stalker)
Visotzky, Burton L. The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads Us to Moral Development. (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1996).