"But thou hast arranged all things by measure and number and weight." Wisdom, XI, 20.
The Art of Ramon Lull provides a convenient entry into the alphanumeric and image magic of the late Middle Ages. Blessed Ramon's devotion to letter combinations and strange diagrams seems very foreign to us and our culture. To judge whether such strange ideas might have influenced the Tarot designers, we must understand how the 15th century would have understood those concepts. We will begin with the association of numbers and letters.
The use of numbers by human society is very old indeed. The Egyptians were recording the numbers of captured prisoners in 3500 BC (Bell 1946). The Babylonians had a decimal system as well as a 60 base system, such as we still use for time and degrees of the compass (Bell 1946). They also held a relationship between numbers and stars (Hopper 1938). As far as we know, the Babylonians did not have an associated number mysticism (Dudley 1997).
The Babylonians are likely the inventors of the concept of zero between 2000 and 1200 BC (Bell 1946). India may have learned about zero from the Babylonians. But the concept of zero seems intuitive or archetypic. The Mayans, and before them the Olmecs, had a symbol for zero (i.e., an empty oyster) (Schimmel 1993).
The theology and mysticism of numbers was most extensively developed by the Greeks, particularly Pythagoras and Plato. From the time of Thales (~624-546 BC) and Pythagoras (~569 - ~500 BC) numbers became fundamental to cosmology, culture, and even magic (Bell 1946). The focal point was Alexandria which had a school of mathematics from Euclid (~300 BC) until Boethius (~500AD) (Smith 1923).
Pythagoras held that 'number' exists prior to any object (Butler 1970). All numbers and therefore all creation is contained in the monad (1) = duad (2) (Hopper 1938). The monad and duad are not true numbers, rather they are the principles which generate the numbers starting at 3 (Dudley 1997). Fideler (1987) provides an excellent commentary on Pythagoras and provides translated material.
The details of Pythagorean theology are not important for this essay. What is important is the realization the Pythagoras was the foundation of late Medieval and Renaissance cosmology, poetry, and music theory (Heninger 1974). The fundamental concept of the 'harmony of the spheres' became an integral part of Neoplatonism: reality was built on a schema of numbers and ratios of whole numbers. The four mathematical sciences became arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Music was just the manipulation of ratios of numbers. Geometry dealt with the mathematics of immobile 2- and 3-dimensional shapes. Astronomy was the mathematics of mobile 3-dimensional shapes (Heninger 1974). Indeed, most early writers on mathematics had strong ties to Pythagoreanism and Neoplatonism (Mansfield 1998). Numbers belonged to a preternatural sphere that determined the symmetric structure of the universe and underlay its beauty.
The Greek view of the universe may seem foreign to us. Yet, Jungian psychologists deal with number as primordial or archetypic and sound very much like Pythagoreans and Neoplatonists in their descriptions (e.g., von Franz 1974). Something of this same philosophical viewpoint can be seen in the occultists and Theosophists (deLubicz 1986). Here number symbolism is seen as secret wisdom but, in fact, it was quite public when the Tarot originated.
Numbers in the Judeo-Christian tradition:
Pythagorean concepts had a strong influence on the late Middle Ages. The theological significance of numbers was reinforced by the importance of numbers in the Old Testament where the sacred numbers (e.g., 4, 7, 12) are deeply embedded (Hopper 1938). Numerology also played a prominent role in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature (Collins 1998).
The Neoplatonic theologians, such as Augustine and Hugh of St. Victor, used number symbolism extensively in their scriptural exegesis (Butler 1970). Most of Medieval number symbolism comes from principles established by Augustine (Hopper 1938) who held that number was of divine origin. Perhaps it is significant that Augustine's 'City of God' is organized into 22 sections (Schimmel 1993).
Pythagorean concepts also became an integral part of QBLH. "Through the Hebrew letters the whole finite world has come into existence. Those letters are dynamic powers. Since those letters are numbers, everything that has sprung from them is number. Number is the essence of things..." (Singer 1907).
However, some caution must be used in assigning Hebrew letters to the Tarot symbols. The Tarot numbering system does not correspond to the alphanumeric theology of the Sefer Yetzirah where the Hebrew letters are associated with the numbers from 11 to 32. The Hebrew numbering system, shown in the table below, uses letters to represent numbers from 1 to 400, not 0 to 21. The earliest use of the 'natural-order' alphabet (i.e., lamed =11 instead of 20) is Michael Stifel in 1532 (Dudley 1997).
It should also be understood that zero, or cephirum as it was most likely known in the 15th century, is not a number. None of the ancient or medieval alphanumeric systems assigned a letter to zero. Although words exist for zero meaning 'nothing', zero is not a number but a symbol needed to write a large number in 'positional' format (Menninger 1969).
The identity of letters and numbers seems strange to us today, but prior to the 12th century, western culture used letters to represent numbers. The earliest introduction of Arabic numbers occurred ~1143 when Robert of Chester translated a work by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (~800 AD) into Latin (Schimmel 1993).
Thus, it was not just Hebrew that represented numbers with letters, it was also true in Greek and Latin. The Greeks used 27 letters (including 3 obsolete ones not used in writing) to designate numbers (Dudley 1997). The Romans used an old 23 letter alphabet to represent numbers; the so-called "Roman Numerals" was mostly used for inscriptions. The correspondences are given in the following table:
|Old Latin||Hebrew||Old Greek|
These are the correspondences that were most likely used at the time the Tarot appeared. However, it must be pointed out that individual authors invented a different system of correspondences for their own purposes, particularly for Greek and Latin. Therefore, it should not be assumed these were the only possible correspondences.
The importance of the correspondences to our discussion is that any word in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew also represented a number. Only the context could make it clear whether a word or number was intended. The possible confusion probably prompted the Jews to use Greek letters to represent numerals in the Second Temple (520-515bc) according to the Talmudic tract Shekalim (Tatlow 1991). And because 'number' is prior to any object, the deep significance of a word, particularly a name, lay in the number it represented.
The earliest example of a realization of alphanumeric identity is probably ~700 BC when Sargon II built a wall 16283 cubits long to correspond with the numerical value of his name (Tatlow 1991). We also know that the ancient Gnostics used Greek alphanumeric correspondences to interpret the divine names (Tatlow 1991). The method was simple - one found another word with the same numeric value as the divine name. Thus, some of the divine names could be associated with "Power" or "Justice" or "Beauty". If the alphanumeric correspondences were identical then the words were identical in the spirit world of numbers.
Numerology in 15th Century Italy
Number symbolism is not important in today's culture, but it certainly was at the time the Tarot was invented (Schimmel 1993). No great mathematical developments occurred in 15th century Italy, teaching was mostly limited to mercantile mathematics and the classic Greek methods (Smith 1923). But number symbolism was everywhere. Dante's Divine Comedy had been organized around 3 and 7. Number symbolism had also been taken from Joachim of Fiore and popularized by the Spiritual Franciscans (Hopper 1938). Numerical encrypting devices built on mystic symbolism were popular (Lefaivre 1997).
Number symbolism had been absorbed into magic. Thadeus of Parma (~1318) wrote on the licit and illicit use of mathematics (Thorndike 1934). Peter of Albano (early 14th century) used Pythagorean symbolism in his magical writings (Thorndike 1923). Nicholas Oresme (3rd quarter of 14th century) wrote that magic performed with Pythagorean music could achieve superlative results (Thorndike 1934).
The basis for this numerical magic is simple. Number belongs to the world of the spirit and all of material reality is derived from and modeled on that spirit world. Number was the essence of things. Works of art incorporating mystical numbers (e.g., 3 and 7) had an intrinsic beauty because they corresponded to the perfect world of the spirit. Music based on Pythagorean ratios was attuned to the powers of the spirit and could perform magic. If one performed operations on a number, then the operations magically affected material things whose name corresponded to that number (Schimmel 1993). The identity of things, such as names, in number demonstrated their identity in essence (Singer 1907).
In the centuries following the Renaissance, there was a transformation from the traditional view of cosmology, space, time, to a new view on based on visualization, mathematics and measurement (Crosby 1997). Numbers became units instead of symbols. Only the occult tradition and QBLH maintained a tradition that saw number as something more important than counting.
Numerology in the Tarot:
In the absence of written descriptions, we cannot say with any certainty how much of numerology or alphanumeric magic was incorporated into the design of the early Tarot. But this much we can say with reasonable certainty: the designers and early card-players were well aware of the significance of numbers. Number symbolism was an integral part of their culture.
One sometimes hears the objection that numerology is irrelevant to the Tarot since the early trump cards did not have numbers printed or drawn on them. The objection carries little weight since all of the symbolic cards, except the Fool, always had numbers associated with them. The association was necessary in order to play the game. Higher valued trumps won a 'trick' from lower valued trumps. So the card-players had the numbers memorized, even if they were not printed on the cards.
It is certainly true that there are variations in the numbering of the early decks. As the game moved from city to city, the numbering changed. Dummett (1980) argues that his order B has the best documentary evidence for being the oldest known. I have argued in the Iconology book that the order B seems the most consistent with the symbolism of 15th century Italy. But the fact of the matter is that the Tarot evolved over the period from ~1420 to ~1500 and beyond. When the deck moved from city to city, the numbering changed. We cannot say with any certainty what the original (or best, or true, or ancient) numbering system was.
In spite of this difficulty, it seems apparent the some attention was paid to number symbolism in the early decks. For example, in all of the decks, Death was always assigned the unlucky number 13. Pythagoras called 6 the marriage number, being the product of the first female (2) and first male (3) number (Hopper 1938). Albertus Magnus called 8 the Day of Justice (Hopper 1938). The number 22 was a significant number, being the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the number of chapters in Revelations, and the number of sections in Augustine's City of God.
On a more speculative level, there appear to be a number of things about the 21 numbered cards that suggest a consciousness of Pythagorean symbolism, particularly in the 'Order B' arrangement used in these studies. First, 21 was a number of perfection, being the product of 3 and 7 (Schimmel 1993). A Pythagorean theme also seems implied in the fact that the symbols contain the three Pythagorean virtues instead of the four Christian virtues.
Becoming more speculative (and personal as well), I find further Pythagorean symbolism in the 'Order B' decks. Pythagoras found it important that some numbers could represent geometric figures. In particular, 21 is a triangular number, that is, can be represented by a triangle of dots with a base of 6. I find the following arrangement meaningful and I share it in the hope that others will also.
The base, representing external life and society:
Bagatto, Empress, Emperor, Papess, Pope, Temperance
The second row represents the moral life:
Lovers, Chariot, Fortitude, Wheel, Hermit
The third row represents the mystical life:
Hangedman, Death, Devil, Tower
Next comes the spiritual spheres:
Star, Moon, Sun
Then the apocalyptic:
Finally, the goal of Pythagorean mysticism, the monad:
If you draw the diagram with the World on top and center the Fool under the base, you will find a tree. Surely, that symbolism would have pleased Blessed Ramon.
Read more excerpts from Iconology of the Early Tarot section of Dr. Robert V. O'Neill Tarot Library:
Introduction to Tarot Card Iconology | Fool Cards | Bagatto Cards | Empress Cards | Emperor Cards | Papess Cards | Pope Cards | Virtue Cards | Temperance Cards | Lovers Cards | Chariot Cards | Fortitude Cards | Wheel Cards | Hermit Cards | Hanged Man Cards | Death Cards | Devil Cards | Tower Cards | Heavens Cards | Star Cards | Moon Cards | Sun Cards | Angel Cards | Justice Cards | World Cards | Tarot Card Iconology Conclusion | Tarot Card Iconology References | About Robert V. O'Neill