Introduction to Major Arcana

Since there seems to be no evidence that the Tarot was connected with Qabalah before Court de Gebelin (1781), my interpretations make no attempt to retain the well-known correspondence between the Triumphs and the Hebrew alphabet and Qabalistic Tree of Life. Instead I have tried to go back to the earliest extant decks, to understand the iconography, and to organize the cards on the basis of that understanding. In support of this I have also made use of the four elements of Greek philosophy and Pythagorean principles (which, apparently, are one of the sources of Qabalah). I begin, however, with another divination system that has some remarkable connections with the Tarot.

Dice and the Tarot

After playing cards were introduced into Europe in the 14th century, they almost completely replaced dice (Moakley 41), which had been in use since at least the First Dynasty of Egypt (David 2). This is reflected in terms such as "ace" and "deuce," which are now used for cards, but were originally used for dice. (This is the reason there are technical terms for 1 to 6 - viz., ace, deuce, trey, cater, sink and sice - but not beyond.)

Two kinds of dice were used in classical antiquity: dice proper (kuboi, tessarae), which are virtually identical to six-sided modern dice, and knucklebones (astragali, tali), which have four sides (Halliday 205-15, esp. 213-15; David 1-7; Ore 193). For divination, five astragali were rolled, and the resulting combination was looked up on a four-sided pillar, many examples of which survive in more or less fragmentary form (e.g., Sterrett "Epig.", "Wolfe"; Kaibel). It so happens that the number of possible five-astragali throws is 56, exactly the number of Minor Arcana, and that the throws were listed on the tablets in four "suits" (two of 15 throws, two of 13; see Halliday 213n3). When dice are thrown for divination, the number of possible throws of three dice is also 56 (Minor Arcana), and the number of throws of two dice is 21, the number of Major Arcana (excluding the Fool).

This correspondence would be remarkable if it were coincidental, and it therefore suggests that the Major Arcana derive from divination with pairs of dice, and the Minor Arcana from triples of dice (or quintuples of astragali). Additional evidence can be found in a system of meditation developed around 960 CE by Bishop Wibold of Cambray, in which 56 virtues were associated with the throws of three dice (Kendall 2-4). Also, in the fifteenth century, when the Tarot first appears, we find a number of poems setting out the meanings of the 56 throws (Kendall 11; see, e.g., Kraemer). In truly Cabalistic fashion, San Bernadino's sermon of 1243 draws an analogy between the 21 rolls of two dice and the 21 letters of the (medieval) Roman alphabet (Kendall 4) - that is, ours without J, V, W, Y, Z.

Unfortunately I cannot take credit for this important insight; Gertrude Moakley (p.42, n.9) attributes it to the statistician Maurice G. Kendall (1956). This is particularly annoying since I have been piecing together and translating astragalomancy tablets, and the significance of the number 56 should have been obvious to me! In mathematical terms 21 is the sixth Pythagorean triangular number, the Hexaktys, and 56 is the sixth Pythagorean pyramidal number (the base of which is the Hexaktys). The total number of Tarot cards, 78, is the twelfth triangular number. The Pythagorean Tetraktys is, of course, the fourth triangular number.

There is, so far as I know, any record of the correspondence between dice throws and Tarot cards. Nevertheless, I've listed a throw of two dice for each Major Arcanum. This is based on the observation that in ancient dice games numerically higher rolls (usually) beat numerically lower ones, and on the assumption that the higher numbered die corresponds to the row of the triangular number. There are two obvious way the 21 Major Arcana (Magician to World) correspond to the rolls, both of which reflect the structure of the Major Arcana (as will be explained later):

11 11 12 13 14 15 16 12 22 22 23 24 25 26 13 23 33 33 34 35 36 14 24 34 44 44 45 46 15 25 35 45 55 55 56 16 26 36 46 56 66 66 Due to their shape (when arranged symmetrically), I'll call the left the Fire Hexactys and the right the Water Hexactys. It is unclear at this time which is more useful. In any case, the dice attributions are conjectural and are provided only as an impetus to further exploration.

A correspondence between the Major Arcana and throws of three astragali is discussed later. There are also correspondences between the Minor Arcana and throws of three dice or five astragali. The charts are presented in an Appendix (Tarot Divination Without Tarot Cards), where practical techniques of dice divination are discussed.

Order of the Major Arcana

With one exception I have followed the order of the Major Arcana given in the anonymous "Sermones de ludo cum aliis" (c. 1500), the earliest numbered listing of the Triumphs, which is essentially the same as the listing given in two other 15th century manuscripts (Kaplan 2-3, 28; Moakley 62). This enumeration differs in several respects from the currently popular order, but works better in a number of respects. I will call it the "Ferrara order" since it was characteristic of Tarot decks from that city, where it is quite likely the Tarot was first assembled (Dummett 6-7).

This is perhaps an appropriate time to show the relationship between the Ferrara order, Pythagorean number theory, and the Water Hexactys. Write the third triangular number:

1 2 3 4 5 6 According to Pythagorean number theory (vid., e.g., Iamblichus), the Monad 1 is neither odd (male) nor even (female) and is the impulse from which all else emanates. The Dyad 2 and the Triad 3 are the primary duality, Female and Male, in potential form, from which all the other odd and even numbers derive. The Tetrad 4 and the Pentad 5 are the actualized female and male, that is to say, the Mother and the Father. The Hexad represents the resulting Union of the male and female (6 = 2 X 3). The third triangular number, as represented on the faces of a die, shows the structure of the first row (the Triumph of Love, discussed later) in the Water Hexactys: Dice Meaning Trump ---- ------- ----------------- 1, 1 Impulse 1. Magician 1, 2 Female 2. Empress 1, 3 Male 3. Emperor 1, 4 Mother 4. High Priestess 1, 5 Father 5. High Priest 1, 6 Union 6. Love The order 2. HPs, 3. HPr, 4. Eps, 5. Epr seems to be better, especially since traditionally the HPs and HPr (i.e., Popess and Pope) are virgins. However I'm reluctant to deviate that much from the historical order without further investigation. (Also, Priests and Priestesses need not be virgins!) Perhaps this is the reason that the common contemporary order, 2. HPs, 3. Eps, 4. Epr, 5. HPr, seems to be a confounding of the two more consistent arrangements.

The remaining rows of the Water Hexactys show the structure of the remaining Triumphs (see next section):

2 3 4 5 6 2 7.Temp 8.Char. 9.Fort. 10.Wheel 11.Old Man 3 12.Hang. 13.Death 14.Devil 15.Tower 4 16.Star 17.Moon 18.Sun 5 19.Judge. 20.Justice 6 21.World Trumps 7, 8, 9, 12, 14, 15, 16, 19, 20, and 21 have the correct sexes. Trumps 10 and 11 might be reversed, as might 17 and 18, but I've preferred again to preserve the historical (Ferrara) arrangement in the absence of further investigation.


The Major Arcana are known as Trumps or Triumphs, an idea that derives from the Renaissance fascination with Trionfi, parades which were patterned after the Roman Triumphi, processions of victory, which apparently originated among the Etruscans (Moakley 43). Moakley shows that much of the Major Arcana can be understood in terms of a typical Renaissance sequence of triumphs in a pre-Lenten Carnival procession. Although I think she gets carried away with her thesis, the basic idea has much merit and illuminates the structure of the Major Arcana. The Carnival, of course, is a survival of the Saturnalia, which was a public year-end purification rite. It thus provides a very appropriate model for the Major Arcana. Since I use the Ferrara order, as does Moakley, which differs from the usual, it will be worthwhile to set out the Triumphs: King of Misrule: 1.Magician. Tr. of Love: 2.Empress, 3.Emperor, 4.Priestess, 5.Priest, 6.Love. Tr. of Virtue: 7.Temp., 8.Chariot, 9.Fortitude, 10.Wheel. Tr. of Time: 11.Old Man, 12.Hanged Man, 13.Death, 14.Devil, 15.Tower. Tr. of Eternity: 16.Star, 17.Moon, 18.Sun, 19.Judgem., 20.Justice, 21.World. There is some ambiguity in the membership of each Triumph, since each supersedes the preceding one, and so the Victor of one Triumph becomes a Captive of the next.

Note that in the Fire Hexaktys, the King of Misrule is row 1, Tr. Love is rows 2 and 3, Tr. Virtue is row 4, Tr. Time is row 5 and Tr. Eternity is row 6. Thus, when a pair of dice are rolled, if the numerically greater die is an ace, it's the King of Misrule; if it's deuce or trey, it's the Tr. Love; if a cater (4), it's the Tr. Time, etc. Conversely, in the Water Hexactys, with some adjustments, row 1 is Tr. Love, row 2 is Tr. Virtue, row 3 is Tr. Time, rows 4 and 5 are Tr. Eternity, and row 6 is the World. In this case, the numerically smaller die indicates the triumph (ace = Love, deuce = Virtue, etc.). In both cases, 1.Magician, 10.Wheel, 11.Old Man and 21.World are somewhat independent of the Triumphs, since they are the Tetrad of Transformation, the Lords and Ladies of Chance and Necessity (discussed in the next section).

There is a similar correspondence between the Triumphs and the 20 throws of three astragali. (Here we set aside 21.World for reasons that will be apparent in the next section.) In antiquity the four sides of an astragalus were assigned the values 1, 3, 4 and 6 (ace, trey, cater and sice). We will see that if a throw contains an ace but not a sice it's in the Tr. Love; if it contains both an ace and a sice it's the Tr. Virtue. In the remaining cases there are no aces: if it contains at least two treys or a trey and a cater, it's Tr. Eternity; otherwise it contains two caters or at least two sices and it's Tr. Death. Here are the first two triumphs, Love and Virtue, arranged in the Fire Hexactys:

111 \ 131, 133 | Tr. Love 141, 143, 144 / 161, 163, 164, 166 Tr. Virtue The remaining two triumphs, Death and Eternity, correspond to these throws: 444, 446, 466, 666, 366 Tr. Death 333, 334, 336, 344, 346 Tr. Eternity They are all in a natural order except Tr. Death. As noted previously, these correspondences are conjectural, but they work rather well.

Reduced Isopsephia Values

The Pythagorean Tarot analyzes the Major Arcana into two Augmented Decads or Hendecads (groups of 11) corresponding to the Personal and Universal Triumphs, respectively. Thus the significance of trumps 0-10 derives from the Pythagorean meaning of the numbers 1-11, and the significance of trumps 11-21 repeat on a higher plane the meaning of the numbers 1-11. A trump's position in its Hendecad corresponds to the "reduced isopsephos" of its corresponding deities. That is, each trump has one or more corresponding Greek deities, and according to the ancient rules of isopsephia (Greek gematria), the Greek letters of the name have corresponding numerical values. For example, Hades (XIII.Death) has the value AIDHS = 1+10+4+8+200 = 223.

The position of a trump in the Hendecad is obtained by reducing the isopsephos value to the range 1-11. This reduced isopsephos value is computed as follows: Start from the rightmost digit, and alternately subtract and add the preceding digits; add 11 if the sum is negative or zero; subtract 11 if it's more than 11. (Alternately, the reduced value is the remainder after dividing the isopsephos value by 11.) The procedure is actually easier than it sounds:

For example, trump 6 is "Eros ho Theos" (the God Eros), so: Isopsephos: ERWS O QEOS = 70 + 9+5+70+200 + 5+100+800+200 = 1459 Reduced Isopsephos: 9 - 5 + 4 - 1 = 7 = the remainder of 1459/11 Thus "the God Eros" corresponds to the Heptad (7), which is also the Pythagorean value of trump 6 (Love). Another example, trump 20 is "Athene," so: Isopsephos: AQHNH = 1+9+8+50+8 = 76 Reduced Isopsephos: 11 + 6 - 7 = 10 = the remainder of 76/11 Thus Athene corresponds to the Decad (10), which gives its meaning of trump 20 (Justice) in the second Hendecad.

Elemental Analysis of Major Arcana

Kaplan (I.4) assigns the Major Arcana to the suits on the basis, apparently, of their iconography. When these assignments are combined with the Ferrara sequence, a very organized structure results: 2, 3 12, 13 1 11 4, 5 14, 15 0 21 6, 7 17, 18 10 16 8, 9 19, 20 First, 0.Fool and 21.World are the natural brackets, and indeed in some late 15th century decks from Ferrara they were the only unnumbered Major Arcana (Dummett 7); also these two cards are accorded special status in scoring tarocchi games, as is 1.Magician (Parlett 240-1). The Fool and the World represent the beginning and the end: 0. Fool (East): "In a private world." -- Chaos 21. World (West): "I am the one world." -- Cosmos (The "mottos" will be explained in due course.) Next are the four agents of transformation; I have invented fanciful titles for their functions so that it will be easier to recall their places in the structure when the Major Arcana are discussed in order. Here is the Tetrad of Transformation: 1. Magician (SE) Lord of Chance Wand 10. Fortune (NE) Lady of Chance Pentacle (i.e. Disk) 11. Old Man (SW) Lord of Necessity Sword (i.e. Scythe) 16. Star (NW) Lady of Necessity Cup Notice also that each transformative agent has an associated suit (which is in turn associated with an element). (The directions have been chosen so that Dry = East, Hot = South, Wet = West and Cold = North.)

Finally there are two Ogdoads, each comprising four pairs of cards, one pair for each suit. The first Ogdoad, which is ruled by the Lord and Lady of Chance, contains the Personal Triumphs. Each pair comprises a male and a female, which I call the Master and Mistress (of the Wand, Pentacle, etc.). Here it is:

2. Empress 3. Emperor Wand Fire SE 4. Priestess 5. Priest Pentacle Earth NE 6. Love 7. Temperance Cup Water NW 8. Chariot 9. Fortitude Sword Air SW Notice that adjacent rows in the Ogdoad share a quality: Air and Water share Wetness, Water and Earth share Coldness, etc. It will also turn out that each card in this Ogdoad corresponds to an I Ching trigram; in each pair the trigrams are complements of each other; between adjacent rows they differ by exactly one line. The Empress and Emperor are the Mother and Father, the three Daughters are the Priestess, Temperance and Fortitude; the three Sons are the Priest, Love and the Chariot. The Tao of the Fool divides into the Yang and Yin of the Lord and Lady of Chance, who together create the Ogdoad of Chance (cf. Crowley 29-30, 270).

The second Ogdoad, which is ruled by the Lord and Lady of Necessity, contains the Universal Triumphs, and each pair comprises a Second and a First (in that order) - think of them as junior and senior. The First (senior) usually ranks over the Second (junior) and follows it in time, though sometimes they are equal and alternate in time (e.g. Sun, Moon):

----Second---- ----First--- 12. Hanged Man 13. Death Wand Fire 14. Devil 15. Tower Pentacle Earth 17. Moon 18. Sun Cup Water 19. Judgement 20. Justice Sword Air This Ogdoad is the foundation for the Lord and Lady of Necessity, the Yang and Yin that unite in the Tao of the World. This structure may seem a little far-fetched at this point, but I hope it will be more convincing when the Major Arcana are discussed in detail.
One Soul, yet two, sets out and knows no bound;
Two Lords, two Ladies turn the Cosmos round;
Eight Couples march in Triumph to the Goal;
These all together make the Arcane Whole.
By two and twenty Signs the Truth is found.

The meaning of the trumps can be illuminated by placing them on the 21 lines that connect 7 poles, as indicated in the accompanying diagram. The two lower diagrams show the relation of the seven poles to the planets in the order used by the Chaldeans and Greeks, and the order of planets assigned to the days of the week.

(click for larger image)

Prefatory Notes

The Roman numeral is the Triumph's position is my "rectified" order (to use Waite's term). The first number in parentheses is the position of the Triumph in the Ferrara order, which is the basis for my enumeration. The second number in parentheses is the number of the Triumph given by Waite; where it differs, the position given by Levi, Papus and Wirth is shown after a solidus. Only one number is shown when the position is the same in all these enumerations. Each card is given a title in Latin, Greek and English. Trigrams are written from bottom to top (Earth to Heaven) using ":" for Yin and "I" for Yang. In place of the usual attribution of a Hebrew letter, I've provided an archaic Greek letter.
Return to Pythagorean Tarot homepage

Send comments about this page
Last updated: Sun Aug 26 14:12:28 EDT 2001