Well, we’re nearly at the Decad (10). Nine has always seemed like a magical number to me – a powerful magical number, though some old writers – particularly Christian – identify it with sorrow and pain, as Christ died at the 9th hour (3pm), and the 9th Psalm apparently contains a prediction of the Antichrist. However, other classical writers consider 9 almost perfect, needing just one more digit to form a complete whole – 10.

In many traditions, nine is seen as connected to the highest (ninth) heaven, which is beyond the planets and fixed stars, while the Cosmic Tree is seen as having nine branches. Dante talks of nine orders of Angels, and the alchemists also considered that the harmony of the cosmos rested within nine spheres and nine muses. In Islam there are nine states of existence, and in China nine-storey pagodas are popular – pagodas tend to have odd numbered storeys and each number will have significance. Also in China, as well as Mexico, we find nine rivers of the underworld (in the former these are manifested as a nine-headed dragon). There are many more ramifications of nine in Chinese mythology, including nine openings of the human body. The Mongols and Turks also cite nine as important – for instance, the Great Mongol Khan had nine standards before which people had to prostrate themselves (nine times).

Nearer home, old Celtic and Germanic law referenced nine: our current leasing system – based on 99 or 999 years – may reflect an ancient legal time-limit (ownership of real estate ends in the 9th generation). We still say ‘a stitch in time saves nine, and ‘togged up to the nines’). There may be some connection with witchcraft, as on Walpurgisnacht (Beltane, 1st May), witches are thought to travel to their meetings in the mountains of Germany in chariots drawn by 99 cats.

In healing, a charm or ritual act was often repeated nine times, blessings were given over nine different herbs to counter demons and poison; and the number occurs in many fairy tales and myths; for example, the River Styx in Greek mythology has nine curves, and major feasts were held to honour Apollo every nine years. Roger Bacon, a renowned philosopher in Elizabethan times, considered that the ninth astrological house was about wisdom and good fortune; which may explain why nine has often been connected with good luck.

More pertinent to the Tarot, in Norse myth Odin was said to hang on his tree for 9 days and nights, to gain wisdom. He also had to learn nine songs. (The myth of the Hanged Man is seen as emerging from this story of Odin – though that card is number XII.) In fact, in Tarot terms, IX is the Hermit.

The ambivalence of the symbolism of Nine is reflected in The Hermit, the first of the Major Arcana to turn inward, into solitude and contemplation. Jung considered that this inner journey would be taken only by people over 40 – anyone younger might not have sufficient maturity. However, age is relative and some youngsters – the lucky ones, perhaps – find that dark path in their late teens, trying to come to terms with their lives.

The message of the Hermit is that life is at a tipping point – the Nine propels us into a new state, but to get there we have to go down into silent questing. In the west the widespread practice of withdrawing from society in order to pray and contemplate has largely died out, but the need to connect with our inner selves is still felt. Often our unconscious prompts us to follow a more solitary path: experienced as a small, insistent voice; a deep, apparently irrational, urge; dreams; or synchronous messages from the universe. We ignore these promptings at our peril!

In the Minors, the ambivalence is continued. The Nines are a very mixed bag.

The Nine of Cups and Discs (Pentacles) are about happiness and abundance, the Nine of Rods is about strength but also vulnerability; while the Nine of Swords depicts the dark night of the soul – a time of soul-searching, lack of faith, and depression.

Perhaps, instead of seeing these cards as ambivalent, we should perhaps consider them to be paradox – in that we cannot experience happiness deeply, without also being able to experience sorrow and loss of faith. Without the dark night of the soul, we can never really understand the wonders of life. We tend to think of children as bubbling over with joy and happiness, untouched by doubts and depression, but this is a slightly sentimental view. The fears and dark feelings that young babies and children experience are very real and immediate. They have not learned to block such feelings; to protect themselves with emotional and body armour. But once we have been through the dark night and returned, we are then far more able to dance with the rhythm of the universe, and enjoy the sensual pleasures of the earth – not just money, but our bodies and the wonders of the senses (the 9 of Discs). As adults, we protect ourselves against the world (the Nine of Rods), trying not to be seen as vulnerable – but that self-protective stance can get tiring and will eventually turn to physical and mental blockages.