July [27] 2008


If the place I want to arrive at could only be reached by a ladder, I would give up trying to arrive at it.  For the place I really have to reach is where I must already be.  What is reachable by a ladder doesn’t interest me. –Ludwig Wittgenstein

For centuries Tarot scholars have approached the 22 Major Arcanum through their esoteric roots and properties. In his landmark study of the Major Arcana’s historical and esoteric foundations, Robert V. O’Neill (1986),  has detailed Tarot’s likely emergence in the Italian Renaissance, along with its philosophical and metaphysical underpinnings to the ancient teachings of Plato and Neoplatonism, Gnosticism and the mystery religions, Hermeticism, Christian mysticism, Jewish kaballah, Eastern religion, alchemy, medieval memory arts, numerology, and astrology.1  

            Many scholars have imagined the Tarot trumps to chronicle The Fool’s movement of psychospiritual initiation through the essential twenty-one “doors” of personality development and transformation that comprises the Major Arcana.  The Fool, alone of no real number, the great unmanifest zero, is thought to embody everyman (woman, and child) in all his or her innocence, potentiality, and absence of fear.  The Fool is the blank slate of infinite possibility (or as Rupert Sheldrake suggests, the ready and waiting fully-loaded automatic camera) who now is possessed to make his way through the rigors of experience and the phenomenal world.  Each numbered key (or trump) opens for The Fool one essential door on a sequential procession through psycho-spiritual initiation, growth, maturity, and integration.  As one step is trodden and assimilated, a natural progression is made ready for the incorporation of each next developmental step of the great journey.

                  On this so-called ‘Fool’s Journey’ linear assumptions first mark this commencement at the earliest stage of development, namely at Trump 1, The Magician.  The Magus, as prime mover, is believed to be the primary agent of human will and personal power.  His motivation is wizardly mastery of the phenomenal world through the  creative powers of self-transformation.   As The Fool enters The Magician’s chambers, such lessons will be studied at many individual points within Trump 1’s “spectrums of possibility”, for as the wise Hermit Emerson correctly observed, “Life is a succession of lessons, which must be lived to be understood.”    

            In a psychologically reflective age, perhaps one journey-maker discovers within this first door her own karmic pattern of victimization and is subsequently given to consider The Magician’s unique talents for self-creation and responsibility vi-a-vis existential choice.  Another traveler is taught to visualize desired outcomes or perhaps the imaging of charms through The Magician’s slender invoking wand.  Thus through countless cycles on the mythic journey, The Fool (our ‘Everyman’) will repeat this and every other challenge on the archetypal circuit until the time when, serendipitously, each lesson has become sufficiently absorbed and integrated.

            This is the divine myth of the rationalist. Developmental progress is then tracked through The Fool’s forward movement progressively and numerically, one door at a time– from door “number 2” to door “number 20”– up until the final door of the grand progression is entered, that being, of course,  The World card (Trump 21), representing the quaternity of wholeness aroused by transcendent celebration (“the dance of life”) and sublime realization.  The journey presumably ends there, where in principle, the final state is now fully opened, apprehended, realized, and complete. 

            Yet despite this final attainment on The Fool’s Journey, the primacy of importance is still accorded to the earliest trumps of the procession, the archetypal Mothers and Fathers, the Magicians, Priests and Priestesses of the primary trumps–the so-called ‘root’ cards– if only by their initiatory agency as first causes.  The World card, for instance, as number 21, reduces numerologically downward (2+1) to its earliest value, The Empress, Trump 3.  Judgment (Trump 20) reduces to The Priestess (2+ 0] or Trump 2, and The Majestic Sun (Trump 19) reducing first to The Wheel Of Fortune –Trump 10  (1+9= 10)– but then even more profoundly to its primary root in The Magician or Trump 1 (10=1+0=1).   In a manner of speaking, one must first achieve “root card success” much as the waning Freudian implores “Oedipal success” (or the Post-Freudian demands “object constancy”) before The Fool is sufficiently prepared to take on the greater demands of psychological maturity.      

            Number symbolism thus becomes crucial to the linear unfoldment of the process, as development conceptualized through a ‘past, present, and future’ now adds a progressive arithmetical dimension to Tarot’s numerology.  The Fool’s Journey is predestined from the beginning, out of which a hierarchy of sorts is predetermined.  For example, Trump 3 –The Empress is seen as “higher” (or at least, likely to occur “later”) on the evolutionary spiral than Trump 2– The Priestess.  But by what guiding principle exactly?  In all cases, does the insight and penetration of The Priestess always precede the nurturance and love of The Empress? 

            Some tarotists have ventured into thicker linear woods still.  Addition and subtraction become attractive operations once the symbolic magic of numbers reaches our calculating minds.  Through a simple arithmetic operation, Trump 2 may then be added to Trump 3 to create Trump 5, the priestly Hierophant.  Elaborate metaphysical formulae and kabbalistic rationales are then applied to justify such calculations.  I believe, however, that such seductive meanderings will soon lead The Fool to his early retirement.  Numerological entities have become “trumped up” to take on additional mathematical properties, in effect, mixing in one steaming cauldron both number quality and quantity.   Add a Priestess to an Empress and voila!  Out comes a Pope.  But does this truly make good sense?

            The linear formulation of The Fool’s Journey through progressive doors of growth and initiation is similar to contemporary Western theories of personality development; ironically, both are formulated within scientific (mechanistic) constructions of causation and evolution that were popular at the turn of the last century when much of the groundwork for psychology was laid.  The view  assumes a linear path of change and growth.  Even when framed within esoteric doctrine, Tarot paradigms have often carried structural presuppositions parallel to mainstream cultural and scientific perspectives.  Linear time, an essential feature of this worldview, is in fact a metaphysical assumption all its own.  No matter how matter-of-fact it appears to us today, linear time assumes that change flows like a line, independently of the events it supposedly contains.  It assumes The Fool passes through the successive doors of the Major Arcana with a predetermined script, following a developmental yellow brick road of sorts, independent of his own subjective inclinations to veer off onto various sidestreets or poppyfields.  But as we know, for all the hoopla surrounding his eminence, the great Oz of Emerald City was something of an embarrassment.



            Rather surprisingly, notes psychologist Brent Slife (1993), the extraordinary success of the relatively recent paradigm of linear time owes its greatest debt to nothing more temporal than the Industrial Revolution’s introduction and marketing of mass produced, affordable wristwatches.  Imagine–our brave new world invented by the precursors of the Timex!  Now every citizen could confidently point to their timepieces as proof that their hours, and indeed their lives, were fastly ticking away.  What we have since taken for granted as “time” in many ways is no more than a modern invention manufactured in the 19th century.  The full ramifications of this point are obviously larger than our brief mention here.   But Slife makes a clear and I think critical differentiation:

Time is distinguishable from linear time: Time is a concept having to do with  change.  Linear time is a concept having to do with the organization or interpretation of that change.2


            The fact is, linear time remains today so confounded with Time (the overall concept) that the two are virtually indistinguishable for most people in Western culture.  The progressive stages of The Fool’s Journey mirrors this Newtonian paradigm of ‘Time’s arrow’: an absolute measurement of change that moves progressively forward towards a future, but is independent of the events that are contained.  While subjective accounts are variable, the path itself is predetermined.  Effects are linked more to the influence of previous causes than to parallel events, or future possibilities.  Inferred in this premise is the placement of primacy to the past.  Ontologically, the past is thus considered the ‘mother of experience’ as the linear premise attributes greatest weight to the earliest events; the “first” in a sequence is the temporal entity that supposedly starts the process. Slife notes:

The metaphor of the line means that the present and future must remain consonant with the past.  The past is thought to be the temporal entity with the most utility.  The present is less useful because it is just a stopover on the line of time, and the future is even less useful because it is not yet known with any certainty.  Only information from the past is viewed as substantive and certain enough to be truly known and understood.3



           Often this so-called journey through the Majors is further sub-divided into three parallel lines of seven trumps, corresponding to the 3-fold Hegelian dialectic of change (thesis/antithesis/synthesis), the laws of becoming, or psychological process.  Such sub-groupings give the Fool’s itinerary a new set of hierarchies.  Depending on the theorist, the first row of seven may signify the stages attending the development of consciousness [Magician (1) through Chariot (7)], the second those attending the features of the unconscious [Strength (8) through Temperance (14)], and the third, those attending the collective unconscious or transpersonal realms [Devil (15) through World (21)].  Presumably, this procession through grade levels of psychospiritual education guides the soul’s initiation into higher consciousness. 

            Variations on the theme are sometimes suggested to conform to related philosophical/metaphysical theories.  Richard Roberts (1982), for instance, contends that the Major Arcana makes more sense when divided into two rows of 9 [Magician to Hermit] [Wheel of Fortune to Moon] (with the remainder of 4), owing to the hermetic properties of the Magic Number Nine which show “the ability to preserve the original archetypal meaning of the number to which it is added, and yet transforms that number as well.”4 

            Still other Tarot commentators have suggested splitting the Major Arcana into two parts, separated at the midpoint of The Wheel of Fortune and Justice.  In this division by halves, The Fool’s Journey is marked off by central oppositional cycles in the lifespan, such as the ascent/descent of spirit and matter, the first half/second half of life, the structuring and deconstructing of reality, or even the personal/transpersonal stages of individuation.  However, implicit in each of these models remains the presupposition of linear development and change, one which I believe ultimately places unnecessary limitations on experience and possibility. 

            As a curious reminder of the inherent problematics that can spin away from an over-reliance on linear laws, Tarot historian O’Neill (1986) to the chagrin of many tarotists, has discovered early evidence of significant variance in the numbering system of the Major Arcana.  For example, a 16th century variation of the deck inverts trump 7 and 8 and furthermore reverses the sequence of trumps 9, 10, 11.  Purists beware!  Noting up to eight variations of the traditional Tarot de Marseilles (circa 1567) not including Waite’s well known modern inversion of trump 8 (traditionally Justice) with trump 11 (Strength), followed almost religiously by contemporary designers, O’Neill notes:

But even if we argue successfully for the ordering of the Tarot de Marseilles…we still have problems with numbering.  The sequencing of the cards causes little problem for the interpretations developed throughout our studies.  But variations still cause problems for our study of Numerology.5 


            By Qabalistic tradition (Hermetic), the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet describe in their sequence the entire cycle of existence, and in combination, the infinite units of creation.  The 22 images of the Major Arcana appear to be an attempt to convey symbolically the essence of each letter.  The Fool’s Journey (from Aleph to Tav–Fool to World) can certainly be viewed as 22 episodes in the life of the universe, or of a man or woman, or of an enterprise, or perhaps even a course of analysis.  Sequences can be divided into groups such that they reveal a myriad of operating formulae fixed within this universal structure. In the final analysis, writes Lon Milo DuQuette, in The Tarot Of Ceremonial Magick:

It is not the Fool’s Journey but the Fool’s Story  (illustrated by the infinite combination  of letters to form words) that affords us a mind-boggling peek at the workings of the divine mind–a creative consciousness in which patterns and formulae play a secondary role in a cauldron churning with the potentiality of all possible possibilities.  This would explain the desirability to transfer the concept of each letter to cards that can easily be shuffled and grouped in nearly infinite combinations. 6


            In search of his divine innocence, The Fool must remain free of all calculation, operating, instead, “like a  complete fool,” one might say.



1   O‘Neill, Robert V., Tarot Symbolism;  Fairway Press, Lima Ohio, 1986.


2 Slife, Brent, Time And Psychological Explanation ;  SUNY Press, New York, 1993.


3 Ibid


4 Roberts, Richard, and Campbell, Joseph, Tarot Revelations; Vernal Equinox Press, San Anselmo, CA, 1982, pp. 59-80.


5  O‘Neill, Robert V., Tarot Symbolism;  Fairway Press, Lima Ohio, 1986, p. 298.


6  DuQuette, Lon Milo, The Tarot Of Ceremonial Magick, Samuel Weiser Inc.,  1995.












  1. Elinor Greenberg Says:

    Hi Art, I am a NYC psychologist who integrates tarot and psychotherapy. My area of specialty is personality disorders–specifically a combination of Gestalt therapy theory and James Masterson’s developmental, object relations approach. It is fun for me to read your work and I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your approach to translating back and forth between the psychology and tarot worlds.

  2. Elinor Greenberg Says:

    Hi Art, I am a NYC psychologist who integrates tarot and psychotherapy. My area of specialty is personality disorders–specifically a combination of Gestalt therapy theory and James Masterson’s developmental, object relations approach. It is fun for me to read your work and I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your approach to translating back and forth between the psychology and tarot worlds.

    • artrosengarten Says:

      Thanks Elinor. Sorry, I’ve been terribly delinquent on answering posts and very much appreciate your comments. I believe I’ve heard of your tarot work before, your name sounds familiar. Best, Art

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