Tarot is a system. This is one of the key things that sets it apart from other forms of cartomancy (card-based divination), such as oracle decks.
Firstly, there are the two ‘arcana’ – the major and the minor, with the major cards representing universal themes and archetypes, and the minors speaking of our more mundane, everyday experiences.
Then there are the four suits, just as in playing cards, where each suit represents a different area of our lives. Within those four suits, again like playing cards, there are the court cards – the Pages, Knights, Kings and Queens – and the numbers one (Ace) through to ten (these cards are sometimes called the ‘pips’.)
Today, we’re going to look at the symbolism of those ten numbers, and how, by combining the number with the suit, we can uncover layers of meaning within our cards.
I’ve created the following mini guide by pulling together suggestions made in/on various tarot books and websites, alongside my own ideas, developed through using my cards. This is not intended to be a hard and fast guide, but another lens through which you can interpret each suit and learn more about your tarot cards.
As with all posts in the Fool’s Journey series, you do you! If my suggestions don’t jam for you or you have ideas to add, I’d love it so much if you’d share your own thoughts in the comments.
Note: If you’re new to tarot and the four suits, you might want to cross-reference the guide below with this article, which explains the elemental correspondences of the four tarot suits. In a nutshell, pentacles represent our physical lives, swords represent our intellectual selves, cups are our emotions and spirituality, and wands correspond to our ideals, ideas and projects.
One/Ace – opportunity, initiation, a new start, and the purest expression of the suit
The Ace of Pentacles could be a new job, a house move, or the chance to try out something new sexually. The Ace of Swords could represent a new perspective on your situation, or an opportunity to take a course of study. The Ace of Wands is like a flash of inspiration that grabs you and gets you all fired up. And the Ace of Cups might be a new crush, or maybe the beginning of a new chapter for you spiritually.
Two – unification, a first step
What happens when you grasp hold of the opportunity provided by the Ace? What’s your next step? The Two of Cups could be you telling your crush how you feel, whilst the Two of Wands is where you get to sit with your brilliant idea and figure it our properly.
Three – externalising the suit, how it looks in action
What does an ‘expression of the suit’ actually look like? The Three of Cups shows us that cups are about generosity and love. The Three of Wands is brave, and the Three of Swords is sad…because hey, we’re human, and our minds torment us.
Four – a structured expression of the suit
Numerologically, four is the number of stability…but also entrapment – think of the four walls of a room. This works nicely for the Four of Swords, where healthy mental boundaries are drawn to give us space to think, whereas in the Four of Cups, it feels like emotional restraint, leading to listlessness and boredom.
Five – loss, difficulties, struggle to access the ‘good’
With the fives, I often feel like I’m failing at handling the suit. For example, in the Five of Swords, a battle has been fought, and maybe I’ve won…but there are no real winners. With the Five of Pentacles, I’m uncomfortable in my body, and somehow unable to find or accept the solution. On the other hand, the Five of Cups shows a different side of loss – one where it’s perfectly okay to be sad for a while.
Six – a mid-point, a change, communication
These cards are like mini achievements, turning points on your journey through a suit. So the Six of Wands is a moment when you really feel like you’re making progress and your big idea is starting to work out – you feel victorious. The Six of Swords is where you’re processing a tough lesson, making a conscious decision to move away from hurt and towards a positive new mindset.
Seven – personal attainment, practical advice
What do you want from your situation? The Seven feels to me as though it shows a way to get it – though it may not be easy. The Seven of Pentacles, for example, shows the fruit of hard work. The Seven of Wands feels to me like an ideological battle, where you have to stand up and fight for your idea (I often see this as an activist’s card.) And the Seven of Cups suggests making a difficult choice.
Eight – achievement, commitment and acknowledgement of cycles.
This follows on directly from the suggestion made by the Seven. So with the Eight of Pentacles, now you’re actually doing that hard work, committing to getting better at something. With the Eight of Wands you’re communicating your idea loud and proud. And with the Eight of Cups you’re putting that difficult choice into action, leaving your other options behind.
Nine – the feeling of being ‘almost there’ (and how that feels), encouragement or a warning
It’s helpful to look at the final card in the suit, the Ten, here, as the Nine is obviously the penultimate card. Where are things going? The Nine of Cups is often described as the ‘wish card’, I think because it has that feeling of ‘almost’ being emotionally fulfilled, if only… what? On the other hand the Nine of Pentacles is about being proud and satisfied with what you have already. There’s ambition, acknowledge of the possibility of further progress, but not wishing or longing.
Then think about the Nine of Swords, one step before you’re metaphorically dead on the floor with ten swords in your back – here you are worrying all night, not getting any sleep, gradually becoming overwhelmed by your fears.
Ten – Fulfilment, pushing the suit to its limit
We started with the Aces – the opportunity do begin something exciting within each suit. Here, with the Tens, we’ve taken those opportunities to an extreme – with varying results!
In the suit of Cups, which is concerned with love, we see emotional fulfilment, however that may look to you. It’s generally a beautiful and inspiring card. On the other hand, the Ten of Swords looks kinda hellish – like a person drowning under the weight of their fears or intellectualised sorrows. The Ten of Wands, too, depicts overwhelm – perhaps you’ve had one too many ideas or said yes to one too many projects? And the Ten of Pentacles depicts comfort and sustainability – a great conclusion to a suit filled with hard work and commitment.
As I said, these are just a few ideas based on my own experiences with these cards, but now it’s over to you! Add your own ideas in the comments below!
Wow, Thea’s Tarot is GORGEOUS. Reminds me of Nikki McClure’s work (now there is an artist who should do a tarot deck….)
@pocketlibrarian Oh my goodness, wouldn’t that be beautiful. Yeah – Thea’s Tarot was created using papercuts too. I love the stark style so much.
This post is so incredibly helpful and clear, thank you Beth! I’d sort of gotten a general, vague sense of the themes across some of the numbers (5, 4, 9, 10), but I’m glad to have a compact resource that covers all the numbers and helps to weave the tarot system together more coherently. This is getting a bookmark in my ‘tarot’ folder :)
@ratscantknit Oh great – my pleasure eli! You know what, until I sat down to write this I’d never actually articulated my own ideas about the numbers, and was always kinda dismissive of how they’re summed up in the tarot books I’d read – they never quite seemed to ‘fit’ for me. I was surprised what came out as I was writing it!
this is so helpful! thank you beth!
Oh my gosh this is a great resource, Beth, thank you! I feel like I understand why the numbers matter now, because I never really understood that before. Definitely bookmarking this article! Also I think in that last paragraph you meant to be talking about the Tens, but you switched to calling them Aces haha. :)
EEP, thanks @barefoot I’ve corrected that :)
This is really awesome! I have a hard time with some of the number cards. (Also, is it weird that to me the aces feel just as big as the major arcana in a reading?)
@ashurredly Great! And no, it’s not weird! I think different cards stand out for different people – I’m really into ‘new starts’ and ‘beginnings’ so Aces always feel *very important* because of that. Maybe it’s the same for you? Or maybe it’s because they’re the ‘heads’ of their suits? Or maybe it’s just because they’re called ACES :D
This is fantastic! I’m keeping this in my Instapaper for reference.
This is extremely helpful! Like in the extreme! When I have the time and space I’m going to sit down and, well first finish my epic journal entry interpreting a euphorically encouraging reading I did for myself a fortnight ago which I’m pouring over in exhaustive detail because I am a novice (and in the interview I did with it my RWS pack told me I needed to be Page of Swords in order to collaborate with it which I’m interpreting as Don’t Fuck Around And Study Hard) – – when I’ve done with that my next project is going to be writing my own stories of each of the suits based on the information brimmed with by this excessively superlatively useful post.
Wow @squareflowers, glad to be able to help! Your suit-story project sounds *amazing*!
Love that Page of Swords, too. No fucking around now!! :D