I frequently speak of French tarot writer Joseph Maxwell in admiring terms, mainly for his numerological exploration of the “pip” cards of the Tarot de Marseille (despite the fact that my forum friends in France assure me that Ivor Powell’s translation of Maxwell’s book, The Tarot, is an inadequate one and the book is a difficult read even in its original French). Maxwell makes extensive use of isomorphs — different sets of two single-digit numbers that add or multiply to the same number — to explain his understanding of the cards; for example 2+3 and 4+1 both equal 5. The idea is that the fundamental qualities of the constituent numbers subtly alter the meaning of a card at the subordinal level, and therefore when variously combined lend a slightly different “spin” to its interpretation in a reading. Although often abstruse, this approach is a thought-provoking and entirely worthy extension of the geometric number theory of Pythagoras, and one I find both compelling and enduring in my own practice.
Usually I just point my readers at the book and walk away. But recently I realized that I might further an appreciation of Maxwell’s work by quoting a few key sections of the text. Note that Maxwell adopted the classical assumption that the “unity” (the number 1 and any isomorph that partakes of it) embodies a male, active and positive principle, while the “binary” (the number 2 and all of its permutations) is female, passive and negative in nature; modern thinking tends to dismiss this viewpoint out-of-hand as archaic and benighted gender stereotyping, without bothering to examine its roots in Greek philosophy. Maxwell also believed that the odd numbers are active and dynamic, striving to return to a balanced condition, while the even numbers are passive and inert, seeking to maintain their inherent state of equilibrium.
Anyway, here goes:
Symbolism of Number in the Tarot
- The unity, creative principle, male, positive force.
- The binary, the principle that gives stability to the volatile, female, receptive, opposing, negative.
- The product of 1 and 2, the child, the creative act moving toward realization, evolution.
- The secondary passive state, the first number to consist of isomorphs, i.e. combinations of elements productive of the same result, i.e. 4 = 2+2, 2x2, and 3+1. The two first isomorphs are passive, negative and inert, having a binary nature. The third however is a quaternary, an active ingredient of evolution, its two principles being both active. The number 4 is the first squared number.
- Two isomorphs: 2+3, 4+1. The first is fully binary, indicating opposition of a passive nature, and inertia presenting an obstacle to evolution. The second isomorph is a quaternary ready to act as an energising vehicle for a new unity (e.g. 5x4+1 is the equation of matter fully manifested and ready for fecundation and to receive consciousness).
- Four isomorphs: 1+5, 2+4, 3+3, 2x3. The first, third and fourth are senaries of unstable equilibrium, where the active quality of the odd number dominates; these senaries may be described as prepared ground for the reception of unity in new forms; in 2+4 the ground is barren: passivity and opposition set up obstacles to the generating force of the new unity.
- Three isomorphs: 1+6, 2+5, 3+4. The first and third are indicative of progress, but with a new factor: 1+6 is an equilibrium receptive of the movement of unity; 3+4 is the attack made by the force of evolution on unprepared ground (matter) with a resulting regressive influence: 2+5 is worse still, representing consciousness dominated by the sensory areas and therefore entirely regressive.
- This number is extremely important from the occult and mystical viewpoint. It incorporates five isomorphs: 1+7, 2+6, 3+5, 4+4, 2 cubed (2x2x2). The first stands for the progressive 8. The balance resulting here is open to those rapid changes consistent with life in its material forms. This particular equilibrium, derived from active forces, constitutes perfected octenary in which true progress gestates, the womb wherein is formed the new unity, the foetus of the new man, the twice-born. 2+6 reflects balance through material concord; 3+5 is somewhat unstable, in which awareness (5) evolves (3) in a wrong direction, that is, sense-dominated: 4+4 is stagnation, the opposition between two equivalent passive states. Of all numerical combinations, this most certainly indicates indecision and inaction. 2 cubed is a balance, but one that trembles in impatience because the desired object cannot be attained through inability to act.
- A passive odd number, but only passive in that its activity is of an interior nature; an inner development is taking place. 8 is the receptacle of regeneration, 9 is the whole process of gestation. The 9 contains 5 isomorphs: 1+8, 2+7, 3+6, 4+5 and 3 squared (3x3). The only fecund isomorph here is 1+8: the renewed unity provides the necessary conditions of growth for the seed from implantation until birth. 2+7 is knowledge and intelligence applied to the domain of matter. 3+6 has almost the same sense but with an aesthetic bias (this does not mean a spiritual bias — that is the function of the 1). Finally, 4+5 shows stagnation in the lowest areas of consciousness, while 3 cubed is a reversed evolution — progress in error as a result of non-fecundation. The true 9 (1+8) is the only number to herald the coming of the new man, whose numerological potency is summed up in the 10, and through it returns to a new unity.
It may be worth noting that the interior activity signalled by the 9 as seen in 1+8 may be emphasised by re-dividing the unity between the two fours so that a result of 4–1/2 + 4–1/2 is obtained, when the incomplete halves absorb, as it were, half of the unity comprising the number 10. Thus the rhythm of alternating odd and even numbers is broken by the 9, which, an odd, positive number in relation to the 8, is even and negative in relation to the number 10.
- The number 10 is itself an odd and positive number (1+0 = 1). The 9 plays the role of the half tones in the musical scale.
There is more detail later in the book (and even some clarification) but the above strikes me as enough of a “mental gobstopper” to keep even the most insatiably curious occupied for a long time to come. Don’t give up on Maxwell’s ideas; he is well worth the effort . . . eventually.
Far and away the greatest scholarly influence on my own approach to understanding the TdM pip cards has been the contribution of Maxwell to the numerological tarot, augmented by the geometrical definitions of J.E. Cirlot in the “Graphics” section of his A Dictionary of Symbols, translated from the Spanish in 1962. If you’ve exhausted the conventional wisdom and aren’t averse to a little “deep delving,” this is a good place to pursue it. If you can read French and can get your hands on the original, so much the better.