Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Tarot By The Numbers: The Nines

In number symbolism, nine, not ten, means completion. This can be rather confusing in tarot when the suits have a sequence of ten cards. But there are reasons for this and once understood it makes things a little easier. In a base 10 system, where all numbers are represented by ten distinct forms (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9), nine is the final number. It then represents a limit, the end, or an ultimate goal. The last among the seven Pythagorean numbers (three through nine), nine is the limit to which the generative principles of number reach. The ancient mathematical philosophers called nine the “finishing post” and “that which brings completion.”

The Greeks called nine "the horizon," beyond which the Ennead, or "the nothing" or void lay. We colloquially express this by saying things like "the nth degree" or that a cat has nine lives and "the whole nine yards" to mean the very limit of something. Also we say someone is "on cloud nine" or "dressed to the nines" when they are achieving something high. There are nine magnitudes on the Richter earthquake scale, though one has not yet been recorded to go that high and so is only theoretically possible at this time. As such, nine is the completion of a cycle, symbolic of change and reform. In tarot it represents the end prior to a new beginning. So what's the ten there for? I'll get to that in the next post in this series.

Nine is composed of three trinities (3 times 3 equals 9) and represents the principles of the sacred Triad taken to their utmost expression. In fact, the Chaldeans believed nine to be so sacred they kept it apart in their numerology from the other numbers. This practice relates back to the Major Arcana IX, The Hermit, who separates himself from others in the spiritual search of the sacred. The Norse God Odin, ruler of the nine Norse worlds, hung nine days on the world axis or Yggdrasil tree to win the secrets of wisdom for mankind and after the seige of Troy, which lasted for nine years, Odysseus wandered for nine years in trying to return home. The Hermit is often pictured standing on a mountaintop, a pinnacle of sorts, the limit of height.

The Nine Muses were the fruits of nine nights of Zeus' lovemaking. Thus, nine is associated with gestation and the fulfillment of creation. We say it takes nine months to make a baby, although it is actually ten lunar months. However, that last month is a transition time where the baby and the mother's body prepares for birth. In that same vein of procreativeness, in Scandinavia nine-day fertility feasts were held every nine years.

In fact nine features prominently in many ancient cultures. Aztec, Mayan, and Native American myths describe nine cosmic levels (four above, earth, and four below). There were nine Gods of the Sabines (an ancient tribe of Italy): Aeneas, Bacchus, Esculapius, Fides, Fortuna, Hercules, Romulus, Santa, and Vesta. As the most auspicious number of celestial power in ancient China, nine became the rule in nine great social laws, nine classes of officials, nine sacred rites, and 9-story pagodas. The festival of the “double yang” was held on the 9th hour of the 9th day of the 9th month. In fact, the Chinese words for “gift” and “nine” are identical. In Christian symbolism, there are nine orders of angelic choirs in nine circles of heaven and nine orders of devils within nine rings of hell. The gifts of the spirit are nine in number: the words of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles and prophecy; the discerning of spirits; tongues; and the interpretation of tongues.

Nine has been, and in some cases still is, considered thrice sacred and represents perfection, balance and order. In Kabbalah, the ninth Sphere (sephira) of divine emanation is Yesod. The word "Yesod" means foundation, and Yesod is the last of the immaterial sephirah. It is said this is the place where the Cherubim dwell, the angels that act as intermediaries between man and the spirit world. However, it is also the place of Gamaliel, or certain demons considered to be children of Lilith.

Nine represents society and completion as well as symbolizing mankind, philanthropy, charity, social issues and government. Nine is representative of universal love, giving and the brotherhood of man, as well as neighborhood, clubs, organizations, institutions and the common good. The positive characteristics of nine are selflessness, fulfillment, completion, universality, universal understanding, interrelatedness, compassion, idealism, tolerance, forgiveness, generosity, benevolence, humanitarianism, emotionalism, and justice. Nine is also associated with accomplished artists and thinkers who are inspired by universal truths.

Some of these concepts don't seem to fit well with the traditional Rider Waite imagery. All of the four nines in many tarot decks show a solitary figure, not someone interacting in the process of giving to others. However, the concept is often implied rather than shown outright. The solitary aspect is directly echoing The Hermit whose spiritual quest has taken him to a place apart and alone. His contributions to society may be made in the form of writing or mentoring, but they are significant. One's accomplishments are truly one's own. While others may support, teach, help and contribute to your success, when you have achieved something it is yours and yours alone. The ideal result is that by your achievement, you are then in a position to give back, to help others cross that threshold as well.

The Nine of Swords may not seem to be much of an achievement, but if you look closer it can represent that final battle with one's self, one's mind, that must be confronted and conquered. It is a dark night of the soul, a time when one's thoughts threaten to sabotage everything. The swords of thought, communication and action turn into weapons against oneself rather than tools of progress. This is the night before the big exam, the time when you totally freak out because everything you spent weeks, nay months, studying just leaks out of your brain and you can't remember a single thing. You start to think you're going to fail, you are going to end up homeless and destitute, you're a lame loser with no future. Eeeeek! This whole mindfuck we tend to do to ourselves just prior to a Big Event is typical and might even be necessary. It's like your mind runs through all the worst case scenarios so you can be prepared, mentally, for any course of events. Or maybe it's just nervous mental energy that needs to be expended before we can relax enough to actually do our best. This place in the swords suit is really where the mind goes the furthest it can go, and ultimately it can go no farther. You exhaust all the possibilities and usually end up with heartburn and nightmares because of it, but at least you've thought it all through.

The Nine of Cups is traditionally called The Wish Card in tarot. There are spreads that say that if the Nine of Cups appears in a certain position, you will definitely get what you desire. Feh. Whatever. Never worked for me. (Or did it? Be careful of what you wish for!) This is a really happy card, the guy on it usually looks so very self-satisfied. To relate it to the symbolism of the nines the scene depicted in most Rider Waite based decks shows a man before a banquet table with nine cups on the table. He is the host and is quite pleased to be able to share what he has with his honored guests. This is where the philanthropic part of the nines as well as the emotionalism comes to the fore. This guy is just so moved emotionally that he's "going to the nth degree," pulling out all the stops, "the whole nine yards," for those he either wants to impress or be generous to out of a higher motivation, one never can be sure. He's "on cloud nine" in this act of emotional giving. This card also represents the "channel" aspect of Yesod, in that this man's feelings are being translated into something tangible and material by way of his sharing his wealth with others in a way that blesses them. This card shows only he, not his guests, because the focus of the nine is on his achievement and the benefits of which he will share in just a moment. I see this card, too, as just feeling good about yourself, feeling happy in the moment, being full of good feelings and appreciating what you have. He has found the cup he set out to look for in the Eight of Cups and now he, at least for the moment, "has it all."

The Nine of Wands, like the swords nine, shows a tougher aspect of the nine. This one is the grit and determination it takes to succeed. This card represents that last breather before you finally finish what you started. Being wands, the active fire element of tarot, this card refers mainly to the energy needed to bring something to fruition. Having birthed four children, I can't help but liken this card to labor. The figure on the card is showing the weariness of of his trials, battered and bandaged, he has been through much. There comes a point in labor when things get quiet and it's usually right before they get really hairy towards the end. That's the overall theme of this card, the end is at hand and this is a regathering of energy for that final push to completion.


The Nine of Pentacles, like the Nine of Cups, shows someone enjoying the fruit of their labors and with the ability to share it with others. Although the card shows a woman alone in her wealth, it is implied that she has the ability and means to be a benefactress. The trained falcon can represent her communication with others, the way she sends parts of herself out into the world which then return to her. Here is someone who has reached a certain pinnacle in life, materially speaking, and this comfortable financial state allows her to focus on other pursuits that reach more heavenward than earthbound. Unlike the Nine of Cups, this woman isn't on "cloud nine" emotionally, her feet are planted firmly on the earth. She has a stability and an independence that frees her. There is a certain contentedness to feeling complete in oneself, and the Nine of Pentacles revels in that completeness.

So are we done at nine or almost done? Well...as tarot has one more card in each suit, I would say done symbolically, but there is one more step to go between the nines and back again to the aces. Here is a place where tarot ambiguity creeps in. Tarot doesn't actually fit that neatly into any one system. The best fit is with Qabbalah, but even that had to be tweaked. It doesn't fit neatly into astrology nor into any system of numerology. These other systems can help add dimensions of understanding to tarot, but cannot be neatly overlayed. Tarot is unto itself and though the symbolism of nine says we're done there, tarot says no, we're not quite finished, and adds a ten.

The Hudes Tarot Deck by Susan Hudes US Games. Printed in Belgium.
DruidCraft Tarot By Stephanie Carr-Gomm & Philip Carr-Gomm & Will Worthington Published by Connections 2004Tarot of the New Vision by Pietro Alligo, artwork by Raul & Gianluca Cestaro Published by Lo Scarabeo
The Sharman-Caselli Tarot by Juliet Sharman-Burke. Illustrated by Giovanni Caselli © 2002 St. Martin's Griffin Press
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