Twelve: The Sacred Gates

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Twelve: 4×3; 6×2; 7+5, 10+2. We should now be able to intuit why the number is so potent when we look at the combinations of these numbers. Twelve is a culmination of the first part of the journey through the Major Arcana: a gateway between the physical world and the unknown. The Hanged Man is a crucial card in the journey through the Majors. It depicts a man hanging feet uppermost from a tree, or, in The Intuitive Tarot, suspended within the web of space. A number of ancient myths describe gods hanging upside down to gain wisdom (for example Odin). In medieval times thieves and vagabonds were sometimes punished that way, so the original imagery may have depicted a thief (which may explain why the Hanged Man is shown in old packs holding money bags, or with money falling from his pockets). However, today we prefer to see the Hanged Man as surrendering to fate.

In the card we see a man, his arms outstretched, face serene. Hanging there, he realises that everything he has been taught, every idea he has had, needs to be questioned and – if necessary – jettisoned. Most people find that it is preferable to ignore the fundamental questions. The Hanged Man will always ask them.

The interpretation is in keeping with the number twelve, which has a long and august tradition of deep knowledge dating back to Babylon or before, often relating to the astrological signs of the zodiac. The ancient astrologers considered that the moon and sun both moved through twelve stations; they divided the year into 12 months; and saw twelve northern and twelve southern stars. Even in China the 12-sign zodiac and a 12-month year were used (though there were no similarity between western and eastern signs). As in Babylon,  the Chinese combined a decimal cycle with the duodecimal cycle.

The twelve signs of the zodiac have influenced civilization ever since – even our secular, over-sophisticated western culture still retains a basic belief in astrology. Until quite recently our own counting system and money utilised a duodecadic system, and the entire world still uses twelve and twenty-four as a basis for time, a throw-back to the time when many ancient cultures were duodecadic. We still talk of a dozen and 144 (12×12) is a sacred number in mathematical traditions (the twelfth Fibonacci number). Twelve was important in early Mediterranean cultures and the ancient Near East – the Old Testament of the Hebrew Bible gives numerous examples of the number (the twelve fountains of water in Elim (Num. 33:9); the measurement, in cubits, of the wall of New Jerusalem shown by the seventh angel (Revelations 21:17); there were twelve tribes of Israel, and of course Christ had twelve apostles.

Islam considers twelve important in that the descendants of Muhammad are traced to the twelfth generation (the group Twelver Shia has ruled Iran since 1501); while the Bektashi dervishes wear headdresses with twelve wedges and have a duodecagonal agate on their belts. Finally, in ancient Egypt there were twelve gates to heaven and to the underworld where Re, the Sun God, spends the night. It is a coincidence that St John’s Revelations also describes twelve gates to the heavenly Jerusalem?

Returning to the Tarot, we find the Knights on their quest at number 12 of the Minor Arcana.

The Knight of Cups is the most emotional Knight – a dreamer, sometimes a bit lost, he is Parsifal on his Grail quest. He is the Knight who relates most to the Grail (with its 144 facets), and has a quiet inner strength and harmony. He is often shy and withdrawn and, reversed, can be incapable of finding his true self, continually searching for perfection and peace of mind.

The Knight of Rods (Wands), meanwhile, is the most creative, intuitive of the Knights. Like all the Knights, he is a searcher; like the Knight of Cups he is also an idealist but unlike the former, he often finds ways to express his ideas. He is a poet, a troubadour, a healer. If reversed he can become quite cynical, angry and driven.

The Knight of Discs (Pentacles) is practical, down-to-earth, realistic and sensual. He takes life as it comes and doesn’t enjoy thinking in philosophic or psychological terms. He is pragmatic, can be extremely attractive and entertaining, and reliable. Reversed, he can also can be pig-headed in the extreme, confused and insensitive.

And lastly, we arrive at the Knight of Swords. This Knight is a bit of an enigma. He’s often seen as the archetypal warrior: young, active, impetuous. Unfortunately this often means he ends up in difficult predicaments. He keeps a brave face on things, and usually appears strong, confident, and brave. This is his persona, a mask; the real man is often wracked with guilt, fear and anger. If he can look inside, he will find real substance there, but if he stays with the persona he will often end up empty, a husk.

ELEVEN: Master or Mute?

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There is a significant difference of opinion in numerological circles as to the significance of the number 11. Many consider eleven to be an angelic or master number, a number for delving into the mysteries. Others see it as negative, forever caught between ten and twelve. The association of eleven with negativity may have emerged with Babylonian myth, which tells of the struggle between Tiamat and the ordering gods. Here Tiamat (chaos) is supported by eleven monstrous beings. However, we might also wish to consider that this may simply be a myth from the early patriarchy, where Tiamat is seen as female, and the ordering gods as male.

Later on we find the Dionysiads, eleven women of ancient Sparta whose group formed to counteract the worst excesses of the Dionysian revels. In medieval times, St Ursula was supposed to have travelled to Cologne in a fleet of eleven boats, each of which carrying 1000 virgins (i.e. 11,000 altogether). Unfortunately it was a dangerous time and they were all martyred. Would this have something to do with the fact that the carnival season in the Rhineland begins at 11.11 on the 11th November each year?

It is probably not significant that soccer teams have eleven players – ten plus the goal keeper… But, we should consider the ‘eleventh hour’ – an hour of significance, and the last time changes can be made to avert disaster.


In the Tarot Majors, eleven is either Justice, or Strength, depending upon your deck. Arthur Waite transposed the two images for reasons he did not elaborate (although pictorially, Justice’s scales might be better illustrated as an 8, albeit on its side). (In the earliest decks Justice may well have been numbered 20, just before The World, so it’s an auspicious, well-travelled card.) If Justice is 11, it’s well-balanced by the two equal 11s on either side, and (at least in our day and age) we might think of it as mute. However, it is more usual to see Strength as 11, and here both aspects of the number are seen, with the angelic or master aspect holding a lion in check. This is fortitude, the inner strength that allows us to control the raging beast within. (The darker aspects of the number might be seen as the Id (the unconscious, powerful instinctive urges and instincts) being held in check by the super-ego or higher self). Thus eleven is about a dialogue with the unconscious, being able to release and resolve our unconscious energies.


In the Minors, the ‘mute’ aspect of the number is seen in the Pages, who symbolise young, tentative energy. The Page of Cups, for example, looks with concern at a large goblet being offered to her. She is not at all sure she will take the cup, even though it is an offering of love – and she is right to be concerned, as her youth may well preclude her ability to deal with the challenges of intimacy.


The Page of Discs (Pentacles) looks fixedly into a large coin. Again, she seems to need help but also may have shut herself away in order to concentrate on the issue. This Page, however, is grounded and sensible, and will probably make her decisions wisely – as long as she does not become too isolated.


The Page of Rods, in contrast, is creative and intuitive, but can become defensive and unhappy if she cannot find a way to express herself. She’s a poet or an artist, and because of that needs – more than any of the other Pages – to delve into her own unconscious. Like the Page of Cups, she’s caught between childhood and adulthood, but what calls to her is not growing up, it’s her soul. She can be quite angry, caught between her idealism and the way she sees the world outside.

Similarly, the Page of Swords is a truth-seeker, driven by the need to stay true. Like Joan of Arc, she will, if need be, go to war to ensure she stands fast by her own integrity. If the card is reversed, she is probably contemplating some action that would compromise that integrity.

The Pages, despite their youth, all feel under pressure to discover something about themselves – without realising that the eleventh hour will come and go many times in their lives, and each time it will leave them wiser and more true to themselves than before.

Eight: the auspicious number

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Eight has been considered an auspicious number from antiquity. It was thought that beyond the seven planets, there was an eighth sphere – that of the stars. As early as Babylonian times, the number was seen as connected to the gods (the god was said to reside on the 8th floor of the ziggurats). In addition the eight-pointed star represented the goddess Ishtar (the Great Goddess) – this figure and the octagon were appropriated by the Jews and later the Christians. The Jews still consider the eighth day one of purification and circumcision; thereafter the Christians took the idea of purification into regeneration, Christ resurrecting on the eight day of the Passion. This is the reason many baptistries are octagonal.

Mithraic rites talk of a mysterious eighth gate beyond the 7 main gates; which appears to promise a fast-track to paradise. The Muslims believe there are 7 hells and 8 paradises, with 8 angels who carry God’s throne, while both Chinese and Buddhists see the number as highly fortuitous: the eight symbols of Buddhism, and Confucious’ eight precious items.

The sign for infinity, infty, is an eight rotated 90 degrees. Its name – the lemniscate – comes from the Latin lemniscus, meaning “ribbon”. This can be seen as an indicator of spiritual power in, for example, the Rider Waite cards The Magician and Strength.

Doubling numbers is seen as doubling their power, thus doubling 4 (the number of the well-ordered material world) we find eight winds, eight pillars of heaven, and – i China – the eight ages of man. This may explain the 8 x 8 = 64 structure of the I Ching. In Norse mythology we find Odin’s horse Sleipnir with eight legs – perhaps doubling its speed.

In tarot terms, the number eight is usually auspicious. In the Rider Waite deck, Strength is numbered 8, which might explain why the woman depicting Strength has the lemniscate above her head. Waite said that there were good magical reasons why he reversed the numbers between Justice (RWS 11, usually 8) and Strength (RWS 8, usually 11) – although he didn’t explain them. We will take the traditional numbering and look at Justice – which, as an integral sense of balance, clarity of vision, and the ability to act with integrity and a sense of rightness, is a good fit with the poised balance of the numeral 8. Given that Justice is about divine justice as well as human justice, the Hermetic principle of ‘as above, so below’ is also relevant.

In the Minors, eight is mostly auspicious: for example the suit of Discs is about carving out a career in something you love dearly. Here the sculptor lovingly carves his eighth wheel which will adorn the ziggurat behind him. It’s about dedication and focus, manifested in the world. The Eight of Rods is seen as optimistic striving – lots of ideas, speed, moving towards a goal, the start of a journey, the end of delays. The Eight of Swords suggests letting go of the old tapes we play continually in our heads – we limit ourselves and you would think that if we could see the detrimental effect it has on our lives, we would drop the rope that binds us immediately! Finally, in the Eight of Cups, we see a figure moving slowly away from the eight cups that have supported him emotionally – a relationship or career which has outgrown its usefulness perhaps, or just the inner knowledge that it’s time to move on. Whatever the tree represents, it’s now pretty much dead – and the moon and star beckon you on into a more connected life. The idea of change and even resurgence is an underlying message here.


Learning Tarot 3 Comments »

If you are trying to learn the Tarot, it’s easy to get flummoxed at the beginning by the sheer volume of cards. Seventy-eight of them – and then there are the reversals and combinations as well. I remember when I was thinking about growing vegetables: I bought a book on how to do so, and found their information on the number of bugs and diseases so off-putting I never planted any!

But the Tarot is has a major advantage over vegetables. The images speak to us without any need for book-learning: we can often understand them clearly just by quieting the left brain down, and allowing ourselves to go into a little reverie. We then are opening up our intuition, and it will respond. Often the messages are quite off-the-wall: the more unexpected, the better!

As I’ve said before, the Tarot images are archetypal – they are the language of human unconscious, and as such we ‘get’ them without trying. Indeed, if we do try, we often lose the sense of them – it’s our left brain that’s trying, and the right brain gets overwhelmed by the left’s voice. The right brain sees in patterns, in wholeness, in feelings and shapes. It’s subjective and wordless (or mostly wordless – it can apparently swear). It’s probably the part of the brain that dreams, creates, and heals. The left brain is the cortex – some say it’s more evolved than the right brain, but that’s highly debatable. Firstly because both hemispheres must have evolved in tandem, but more importantly, our society’s emphasis on reason and logic has left us spiritually poverty-stricken. What we have gained in lucidity and logic, we have lost in connection and wisdom. Anyway, the left brain thinks mathematically, logically, sequentially. It categorises, rationalises, reduces.

So to learn the Tarot, begin by turning down the volume of the left brain. It can learn the traditional meanings and the Spreads if it wants to, and categorise the suits. That’s fine. The right brain, however, is the one you’ll really need to work the tarot.

Some info for the left brain:there are twenty-two Major Arcana, usually numbered in Roman numerals, though the Fool is either unnumbered or 0. So the Magician is number I, and the World, the highest card of the deck, is XXI. There are also four suits, which are similar to traditional playing cards: Cups, which are linked to feelings and water (Hearts); Staves / Wands / Rods (Clubs), linked to creativity and intuition, and are either associated with air (or fire in the Rider Waite); Pentacles / Discs / Coins (Diamonds), linked to money, physical energy, and earth; and finally Swords (Spades), linked to the intellect and fire (air in the Rider Waite).

Then there are four face or court cards in each suit – Pages, Knights, Queens and Kings. Pages are usually young people and are often depicted as feminine; Knights are male and youthful or immature; Queens are feminine though they can often be the feminine side of a person; and Kings are masculine – though again, they may be referring to the masculine side of a person. The character of each face card relates to its suit – thus the Queen of Cups will be emotional, generous, usually flexible and open-minded. The Page of Swords will be clever, passionate although she keeps that passion under tight control, usually focusing it on her passion for truth and justice.