Perfection or Overreaction? — The Tarot Eights

In his book The Way of Tarot, Alejandro Jodorowsky makes much of the “perfection” of the number Eight. His assumptions appear to be based on the fact that 8 represents the completion or fullness of the even-numbered binary series that began with 2. Jodo states “If 2 is accumulation, 4 stabilization, and 6 union in beauty, then 8 is the preeminent symbol of perfection in matter and mind.” This is all very well within his closed system of interpretation (which has similarities to that of French tarot writer Joseph Maxwell), but he deliberately rejects any other ways of looking at it. He considers 9 and 10 to be of a different order. In his numerological approach, Nine embodies elements of both the odd-numbered unitary series and the binary progression because — unlike the first four “prime” numbers — it is divisible by a number other than itself, while Ten, because it displays the monad in the first decimal position, has one foot in the land of the next Ace (it’s basically “One” in extension, eyeing its rebirth in the following suit).

My understanding of esoteric numerology is that Nine, not Eight, represents the developmental “perfection” of a tarot suit and Ten is a superfluous postscript, a redundancy that has overstayed its welcome, symbolizing as it does the utter exhaustion of the energy associated with the element. In qabalistic terms, 9 represents the return of the elemental force to equilibrium on the Middle Pillar of the Tree of Life after the deviation of the Seven and Eight, which Aleister Crowley described as a “double excursion into misfortune.” Crowley quoted Zoroaster in touting the excellence of the Nine: “The number Nine is sacred, and attains the summit of perfection.” He went on to define the 9 of Wands in similar terms: “The Nine represents always the fullest development of the Force in relation with the Forces above it. The Nine may be considered the best that can be obtained from the type involved, regarded from a practical and material standpoint.” Of the 9 of Cups he said “In this card is the pageant of the culmination and perfection of the original force of Water.” He was less enthusiastic about the 9 of Swords, noting only that “the previous disorder is now rectified.” The 9 of Disks “inevitably brings back the balance of Force in fulfillment.” Crowley dismissed the Tens with very few words: “Here is the end of all energy.”

Because the 8 occupies the sphere of Mercury (planet of adaptability, variability and dexterity) on the Pillar of Severity and is volatile like its counterpart the 7 (of which Crowley said “the position is doubly unbalanced; off the middle pillar and very low down on the Tree,” implying instability and enervation), I often see in cards of this number an overcompensation for the excesses of the 7, perhaps moving too far in the opposite direction as a result of reactionary zeal (or maybe nervous jitters). When reading the pip cards as a numeric sequence in accordance with esoteric number theory (both Pythagorean and Hermetic), the Sevens, Eights and Nines present a unique conundrum because they depart from the elegant geometric simplicity of the first six numbers. This makes them more difficult to conceptualize in metaphysical terms without relying on prior philosophical assumptions — many of them rooted in spiritual or religious paradigms — of dubious value to practical interpretation. Here I will focus on the Sevens and Eights, which I have found particularly confounding in a mundane sense.

Elizabeth Hazel, in her excellent book The Tarot Decoded, suggests that they are mystical and palliative numbers, respectively, but this doesn’t square well with the qabalistic view of “the Descent of Spirit into Matter” exemplified by the Tree of Life. Transmuting “force” into “form,” spiritual energy becomes more enmeshed in physical reality and therefore more stable and reliable but also more constrained in its fluidity of expression the further it travels down the Tree. Although he was an erudite metaphysical scholar and not strictly a qabalist, Joseph Maxwell characterized the odd numbers as seeking balance, implying that they lack such innate fulfillment, while the even numbers are striving to remain poised under the evolutionary pull of external change. Both the Sevens and Eights are caught in the onrushing, downward spiral of devolution (which Crowley described as “the gradual exhaustion of the original whirling energy”) following the momentary respite of the Sixes. They imply a sloughing off of the outworn excrescences of the Sixes and a struggle to revitalize the elemental pulse in a coherent and pragmatic way. In the overall scheme of things, they give the unmistakable impression that “the bottom is about to fall out” after the pleasant interlude of the Sixes, or maybe that a purging “flush” is imminent; even at their best they aren’t especially promising cards in most of the suits.

Hazel considers the Sevens to represent a “need to clarify,” and a “test” of the stabilizing urge of the Solar Sixes that may have outlived its usefulness, while the reactionary Eights signify a partial restoration of the balance lost in the process, suggesting a corrective pendulum-swing of redirected force that may over-compensate. (She also calls Eight the “sum of effort,” expressing the concept of “4+4.”) Although his pronouncements were often harsh, Crowley made a vivid observation in this regard. The Seven, he proposed when speaking of the suit of Cups, represents a “corruption” of the stagnant bounty of the Six that no longer serves the purpose of elemental expansion, signaling a systemic breakdown of what the Greeks called the “second perfection.” The Eights complete the alchemical analogy by symbolizing “putrefaction” or a cleansing reduction of the wastage left by the Seven in order to reinstate the conditions for further refinement of the energy (perhaps through a Mercurial force of will rather than the gentler regenerative powers of Venus). What follows is an eventual purification and “re-centering” of the elemental energy in the Lunar Nines (the Greeks’ “third perfection”). A telling analogy is that of agricultural manure, which is a toxic bacterial sludge when spread, but through the mellowing agencies of time and weather, transforms into a stellar fertilizer.

The Sevens embody complexities and conflicting impulses. As odd numbers, they represent a post-apocalyptic echo of the fiercely disruptive Fives that eliminated all obstacles to emanation of the Sixes. If the Martial Fives “break eggs to make omelets,” the Venusian Sevens rummage through the stale remnants of the Sixes in search of that last morsel of ham. A high degree of bedeviling detail coupled with being pulled in different directions by circumstances can result in not being able to “see the forest for the trees,” which in turn can stall progress until all is sorted out. The Eights come under the sway of Mercury, so their method is predominantly mental, and their enfeebled, unsettled position on the Tree makes their signature mode of expression anxiety, or in slightly more constructive terms, obsession with petty details. Unproductive vacillation or frittering away of energy are other possibilities. Together, they “check and adjust” one’s advancement.

Thus, the experience of the Sevens and Eights in series can be likened to that of learning to ride a bicycle. Leaving the comfortable stability of the Sixes behind, one first wobbles this way (Seven) and then that (Eight), One is an unnerving departure from balance and the other is a corrective “steering” — and perhaps “over-steering” — maneuver. The first is a “gut” reaction (“Oh no, I’m going to fall!”) resulting in an uncontrolled jerk of the handlebars, while the second is a quick mental calculation of how much to jerk them back in the other direction. The outcome is a swerving path that hopefully spells forward progress and not skinned elbows and knees!

As the result of an ongoing Facebook discussion, I’ve been solidifying my opinion of the tarot Eights as an expression of anxiety. This appears clearly in two of the Waite-Smith (aka RWS) cards but is less obvious in the other two. Although I’m not well-versed in it, my understanding is that conventional numerology treats Eight as a “power” number, and in exoteric tarot it is read in the suit of Wands as showing an influx of positive energy. Conversely, in qabalistic terms (at least as defined by Crowley) it is considered attenuated and inconstant in manifesting its elemental purpose. Its association with astrological Mercury partakes of that planet’s reputation for mental multiplicity (and occasional duplicity as exemplified by the Magician). Combining its unstable state with the mutability of Mercury creates a hotbed for anxiety to flourish. The RWS 8 of Cups warns of dejection and the 8 of Swords conveys apprehension, both states of nervous malaise. The 8 of Wands and the 8 of Pentacles require a deeper analysis.

The 8 of Wands is typically interpreted as the prompt arrival of something; in the Thoth tarot it is even titled “Swiftness.” Although it is often deemed a fortunate card, I see it more as the rapid onset of a stimulating and perhaps revelatory challenge that requires a creative response without going too far out on a limb. Another common meaning is “rapid communication,” and in that sense I see it not so much as the delivery of “good news” but simply as “news.” Anxiety is caused in the 8 of Wands by a compulsive and possibly crippling sense of urgency that works against a calm, rational assessment of the situation. It looks like a case of the “jitters” to me.

In the 8 of Cups, the distress of the retreating figure is palpable. He appears despondent, as if peering into the eight cups has left him mortified. Abandonment of hope would seem to be fertile ground for anxiety to take root.

The 8 of Swords is a welter of uneasiness; lacking sensory cues, it is impossible to decide which way to turn, or even which end is up. The figure on the card is in a state of partial sensory deprivation. She can’t see or touch anything, so she can only advance by feeling her way with her feet, which does not speak well for her ability to overcome her dilemma with any degree of confidence. Anxiety springs from not knowing how to proceed.

On the face of it, the 8 of Pentacles is a sober, orderly card. Nothing could be less stressful than quietly plugging away at one’s trade in a secluded workshop. In casting around for a hook on which to hang the notion of anxiety, I realized that the meticulous attention to detail that expert craftsmanship demands can overflow into anal perfectionism, constantly questioning the quality of one’s work and endlessly reworking. The fear of not being good enough can foster a bumper crop of nervous tension.

Another thought is that, being on the opposite pillar of the Tree of Life from the equally compromised Seven, the Eight can in fact furnish a palliative foil for the immoderate overreach of its counterpart, even if it might compound the original error through over-correction. Like all of the binary (even) numbers, the Eight is compensatory in its operation, striving to bring symmetry to a lopsided equation by reining in wasted motion. Until a dynamic “steady state” is achieved in the Nine, trying to make progress can be a nerve-wracking, stop-and-go experience, jerking first one way and then the other. Suffice it to say that I’m never entirely comfortable when encountering an Eight in my readings.

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at .

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