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The Triadic Structure of the Tarot

This essay puts forth an argument that the basic structure of the major arcana cards of the tarot is triadic. The original designers of the cards did not leave us their note books. All attempts to read their minds are thus utterly speculative. This system is not based on historical research, it is simply a conjecture based on the evidence of the cards themselves. I begin with a few assumptions:

1. The tarot trumps represent a sequence from the mundane to the spiritual (as does its close cousin, the Tarocchi of Mantegna)

2. The tarot trumps also present images of dualism and the resolution of dualism.

Let's begin by looking for obvious dual pairs in the cards. I * means I think the two cards unambiguously constitute a dual pair. A + is a likely possibility, others listed are more remote possibilities. In making this determination, the ordering of the cards is a factor. I use the Tarot of Marseilles ordering as a standard, although I recognize that there was variation among the early decks, particularly the Italian ones.

  • Juggler and Papess: frequently regarded as a dual pair in their modern guise of Magician and High Priestess, the possibility is much less convincing when it is a juggler or craftsman and a female pope.
  • Papess and Empress: virgin and mother.
  • + Papess and Pope: male and female counterparts. The only problem is that they are not adjacent cards in most decks (although they are in some), so I hesitate to assign a *.
  • * Empress and Emperor: no need to comment, I think.
  • Emperor and Pope: secular and religious authorities.
  • + Lovers and Chariot: closely related to traditional images of Venus and Mars (Cupid is Venus's child), a classic male/female dichotomy in mythology--the origin of the standard symbols for male and female.
  • Hanged Man and Death: images of death or transformation, one passive, the other active.
  • * Moon and Sun: ancient symbols of duality; the sun is male, the moon female.

Now let's look at cards that may represent transcending duality. The most obvious are the three virtues, which were described by Aristotle in terms of moderating between extremes. Others would be angelic or religious guides, especially when accompanied by pairs.

  • + The Papess: sits between two pillars, is a religious figure.
  • The Empress: two high pillars (sometimes wings) on the back of her thrown.
  • + The Pope: sits between two attendants, again a religious figure.
  • + The Lovers: Cupid seems to be resolving the young man's dilemma.
  • + The Chariot: two horses under the control of Mars.
  • * Justice: one of the virtues, also directly symbolizing balance with the scales.
  • Hermit: a religious figure (monk).
  • * Fortitude: another virtue.
  • Hanged Man: balanced between two uprights.
  • * Temperance: a virtue, two urns.
  • Devil: between two slaves
  • Star: a rather angelic image, although there are usually no wings.
  • Moon: two towers, two dogs.
  • + Judgment: an angel, strongly religious theme
  • * World: a clear depiction of mastery, integration, and balance.

The striking thing is that the three virtues are numbered 8, 11, and 14, with a spacing of exactly three cards. This is suggestive that each virtue card represents a resolution of the duality of the two cards that come before it. Each virtue is the final card of a triad, perhaps. Let's presume this is so, and extend the pattern backward and forward through the sequence. I will use the lists above to evaluate how "good" a triad each is. If a dual pair appear as the first two cards, or a transcending card appears as the final card, that scores points: 5 points for matching a *, 2 points for a +, and 1 for the unmarked ones. If a card turns out in the wrong spot in the triad, the points are subtracted. Here's how the triadic system based on the placement of the virtues scores:

  • First Triad: Fool, Juggler, Papess (-2)
  • Second Triad: Empress, Emperor, Pope (+3)
  • Third Triad: Lovers, Chariot, Justice (+5)
  • Fourth Triad: Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Fortitude (+4)
  • Fifth Triad: Hanged Man, Death, Temperance (+5)
  • Sixth Triad: Devil, Tower, Star (0)
  • Seventh Triad: Moon, Sun, Judgment (+6)
  • Final Monad: World

The total score is +21, very high. If we start grouping with the Juggler instead of the Fool, the scores are -6, -8, -8, -5, -5, -5, -2, for a total of -39, completely abysmal. The score for starting grouping with the Papess is left as an exercise for the reader, but suffice it to say it is not encouraging.

Even if one uses somewhat different estimations of which cards are dual pairs and which cards represent transcending duality, I think it is clear that grouping the trumps by threes, starting with The Fool, has much to commend it. Notice that all the *s are matched. Let's look at the first, second, and third cards of all seven triads together and see if a pattern emerges.

The first cards are Fool, Empress, Lovers, Hermit, Hanged Man, Devil, and Moon. Although male figures seem to outnumber the female ones, there is definitely a theme of passivity, emotionality, and submission running through these cards. I think they represent the female side of the duality.

The second cards are Juggler, Emperor, Chariot, Wheel of Fortune, Death, Tower, and Sun. There are several very strong masculine images here, lots of violence, aggression, and destruction; also decisiveness and clarity. I think they represent the male side of the duality.

The third cards are Papess, Pope, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, Star, and Judgment. The appearance of the virtues is, of course, the inspiration for constructing this system in the first place, so is not surprising. What is remarkable is that virtually every religious guide that appears in the tarot is also in this group. The Papess and Pope are the only religious symbols before the virtues enter the sequence, and the Judgment card shows the only angel in the traditional deck. Many people see the Star as a spiritual guide. This arrangement seems to confirm that interpretation.

An objection may be raised that a grouping of seven triads ought to exclude the Fool, which is unnumbered, and work only with the cards labeled 1 through 21, especially since 21 = 7 x 3, so it will all come out even. What justification is there for starting the sequence with the Fool instead of the Juggler? One answer is already clear from the analysis above: it works better! However, I think a more historically grounded response is also possible. In the Tarocchi of Mantegna, the first card of the first series is the wretch, who closely resembles the Fool. In this system, he is the first figure of the series, not an additional card that is outside the series. I think that the tarot Fool was likewise intended to be the first and lowest card in an ordered series. There may be significance to the fact that the tarot trumps were organized as one unnumbered card plus 21 numbered ones, rather than 22 or 21 numbered cards alone (it obviously makes the game more interesting), but I don't think that should stop us from placing the Fool at the beginning of the tarot series.

Given this structure, it remains to develop interpretations for each of the triads, explaining what dualism is being represented and how the third card resolves it and leads to the next higher triad. This is necessarily a speculative exercise. My own tentative interpretations follow. Although the basic triadic structure may have been given the deck by its designers, these specific interpretations are admittedly modern and personal. Links connect to essays that explore the individual triads in greater detail.

Fool, Juggler, and Papess constitute the Physical Triad. Here the issue is one's relation to the physical environment. The Fool is the wretch, the idiot, a victim of the natural world, subject to the elements. The Juggler is the artisan and also the charlatan and thief, who works with his hands and thus dominates the physical world. That is the submissive/agressive duality seen throughout the triads, here with respect to the physical environment. The Papess is (perhaps) a nun, representing a simple form of retreat from a purely physical existence, a vocation available even to the common people. The nun may also devote herself to charitable work, thus opening the next triad, that of society.

Empress, Emperor, and Pope constitute the Social Triad. These are all figures of authority in human society. The Empress is the mother figure, representing a life given over to caring for others. She is the giver, the one who lives to please. The Emperor is the father, the lawgiver, the punisher, representing the patterns of authority and hierarchy that permeate society and must be obeyed. The opposing demands of generosity and discipline are reconciled by the Pope, representing religious tradition, specifically the Christian ideal of supplementing the Law with mercy and charity. Following religious traditions addresses the demands of social existence, and also leads to the world of personal morality, which is the next triad.

Lovers, Chariot, and Justice constitute the Moral Triad. "Fitting in" is not enough; life calls upon us to make difficult choices, to set our own moral compass. The Lovers introduces the issue of choice, and also shows love as a powerful motivator, something that overrides the Pope's recommendations for leading a socially acceptable life. Cupid, about to shoot his arrow, is the first supernatural being depicted in the tarot, indicating that we are beginning to leave the mundane world of ordinary life behind. We become passive, submitting ourselves to the imperatives of love. The Chariot is the war god riding through the world in victory. This is masculine morality to an extreme: kill the evil ones, conquer and save the world. It is a picture of righteous aggression. Under the dominion of the Chariot, one's moral purpose overrides societal concerns. These two powerfully opposing moral visions are brought under control by Justice, the first virtue in the tarot. She represents a principled balance between righteous revenge and compassionate forgiveness. The issue is the same as that addressed by the Pope, but it is now on the level of moral principle, rather than recipes for acceptable conduct. Now that we have encountered a deep principle we are obliged to follow, we are led to the task of self-examination and self-mastery, the next triad.

Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, and Fortitude constitute the Triad of Self-Mastery. The Hermit, recognizing that virtue is an abstract moral concept, not a matter of social conformity, turns his back on the social world and seeks to find knowledge from within. He deliberately chooses a life much like that which the Fool led without choice: poverty, isolation, passivity. The aggressive principle that leads to self-mastery is the Wheel of Fortune, the brutal ups and downs of life that are inflicted upon us, even on the righteous (Pope) and the just. This, too, severs the bonds that link the ego with the mundane. Both retreat from the world (Hermit) and unrelenting engagement in it (Wheel of Fortune) can be demanding and unsettling. They are resolved with the emergence of personal character (Fortitude), through which one can face the world with confidence and perspective. But is the ego strong enough to face its own finitude?

Hanged Man, Death, and Temperance constitute the Triad of Transcendence. What lies beyond self-mastery? Nothing, unless one is on a spiritual quest. If that is the goal, then the ego is a vehicle, not an end in itself. It has taken us as far as it can, and now must be released. Like the Hermit deliberately "victimized" himself to rise above the social world and enter the world of the self, so the Hanged Man does the same to rise above the world of the self. He passively, placidly, betrays his own identity and accepts his punishment. Suspended upside down, he waits for his sense of self to drain away and be replaced with a transpersonal spirit. For those who do not go so willingly, there is Death, ready to remove the ego through abrupt violence. Like the Wheel of Fortune, Death is a great equilizer, removing any delusions of privilege. What comes out of these experiences is a sense of the fluidity of the ego (Temperance), in which the spirit washes back and forth, neither fully self-involved nor fully selfless, but balanced and elevated. Having found this point of equilibrium that is above the ego, one is prepared to enter a completely other-worldly terrain.

Devil, Tower, and Star constitute the Triad of Liberation. In gnostic myth, the maker of the material world was not the true God, but rather an evil demiurge intent on enslaving the human spirit within a prison of matter. He is there, ready to waylay the aspirant mystic who rises high enough leave the earth behind. In more psychological language, transcending the individual ego still leaves one subject to the nightmares of the collective human consciousness, the powers and fears arising from existence itself. One is still bound to the illusion that the material world is an ineluctable reality, and it is the Devil who holds the chains of bondage. One is again in a state of submission, of indefinite suspension. The opposing force is the Tower, the thunderbolt that smashes the Devil's heavenly tower and dissolves the illusions. Passing beyond them both, one arrives at the Star, a state of perfect freedom in the rarefied upper reaches of the spiritual universe. The star itself is the spark of light that is the human spirit, recognized now as a fragment of the divine spirit.

The Moon, Sun, and Judgment constitute the Triad of Gnosis. Now, at last, the aspirant knows the divine spirit at first-hand, but the knowledge is still dualistic; polarities and qualities are still experienced. What is revealed now is the fundamental, abstract source of all the dualities: the female and male principles distilled to their essence, the Moon and Sun. The Moon is a state of half-light, of suspension, of fluid emotions. The Sun is clarity, action, and brilliance. The way beyond them both is announced by the angel of Judgment, who delivers the chosen souls out of the wreckage of the world that was and into the birth of the world to come.

The end of the journey is the World, the final monad. This is the level that the angel of Judgment has opened up, and it is nondual. It comprises only the World, which is the self merged into the whole of creation.

Copyright © 1998-2008 Tom Waters