To understand the origins of tarot, we must go back to Greece and the ancient philosophies that underlie the occult traditions in the Western world. For instance, details such as the number of cards in the tarot deck were not determined by accident. In fact, this number is based ultimately on the numerology and musical harmony developed by the sixth century BC Greek mystic, mathematician, and philosopher Pythagoras.
The modern tarot was gradually developed during the Italian Renaissance, when the works of Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, and other Greek writers were receiving intense attention. These works refer to Pythagoras's numerological theories, which caught the attention of Renaissance scholars and occultists and were eventually integrated into the underlying structure of the tarot.
Perfection in Numbers
Pythagoras was born around 580 BC on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea. Legend has it that when Pythia, the oracle of Delphi, predicted the birth of Pythagoras, she foretold that he would become a great teacher of spiritual wisdom for humanity.
Pythagoras is best known for his doctrine of the transmigration of souls and for his theories of music and the harmony of the spheres. In 530 BC he founded a semi-monastic school in the Greek colony of Crotona, Italy, where he practiced divination and instructed his followers. Pythagoras was struck by the abstract concept of numbers, and he is quoted as having said, "All things are numbers," meaning that reality, at its core, could be understood in terms of numbers and numerical relationships. For example, he regarded the number ten as perfect, representing all the principles of the monad (divinity) as embodied in the first four digits (1 + 2 + 3 + 4).
Pythagoras believed that the first four numbers contained the basic principles of the universe, since the manipulation of those numbers can produce all other numbers.
Keys to Reality
To illustrate these concepts, Pythagoras used the triangle, to which he gave mystic significance. The tetraktys or "sacred decad" was a "perfect" triangle consisting of rows of one, two, three, and four items, as in the spread below. The total number of cards is ten, and so ten is a "triangular" number. The ratios of any two adjacent rows of cards are all classical musical harmonies, that is, 1:2, 2:3, and 3:4. No doubt the number ten was also important to Pythagoras because it is the basis of our number system, owing to the fact that humans have ten fingers on which to learn their counting. The fact that the tetraktys had four rows was significant because four was a key number in Greek thought, as evidenced by the four elements, the four seasons, the four winds, the four cardinal directions, and so on. Pythagoras believed that the number ten had a special relationship to the underlying structure of reality. The Jewish Qabalists would later propose a similar idea.
In the end, it turns out that seventy-eight, the number of cards in the modern tarot, is also a triangular number. In other words, 78 = 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 + 9 + 10 + 11 + 12. Some five centuries after the playing cards were first introduced into Europe, modern occultists, using Pythagorean numerology, produced the seventy-eight card tarot deck in the form we know today.
The Pythagorean Tetraktys
When faced with a problem, this ten card spread is useful. The corners of the triangle, cards 1 and 3, represent the central issues of the dilemma. Cards 4 and 5 are influences outside of your control, while cards 6 and 7 represent your own reaction to the problem. Cards 8 and 9 show the tools for a solution, and card 10 is the final outcome.
The spread is applicable to several types of questions, but lends itself best to relationship and business problems, which often have hidden issues that the spread can bring to light.
From Llewellyn's 2001 Tarot Calendar. For more Llewellyn tarot books and decks, click here.
Please note that the use of Llewellyn Journal articles
is subject to certain Terms and Conditions