Recurring Card Patterns and Probabilities

If you’re like me, you have no doubt looked at what seems to be a wildly notable pattern of cards having something dramatically in common in a spread, and wondered, “what’s the odds of that?” We’ll start with a simple example. In a three card spread, what are the odds of getting three Eights? I’ll tell you. The odds are 19,019 to 1. If you see some cards and know they had odds against them all appearing together of nineteen thousand to one, you’re going to pay attention. And in fact, the 19th and early 20th century experts took note of these patterns. You’ll find that Waite, in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, has an entire section on "The Recurrence of Cards in Dealing." He even provides additional meanings for these patterns. For example, in the case of those three upright Eights, Waite writes that it signifies marriage. Waite most likely was looking at a layout of ten cards. Given seven additional opportunities to draw an Eight in a ten card layout, the odds drop all the way down to 175 to 1. But more than just numeric patterns, we can also ask what the odds are for getting all the cards associated with Capricorn. Or if we see four of the six cards associated with Venus, we can look up the odds of that. Fortunately modern spreadsheets provide something called a hypergeometric function which allows us to answer questions like these. And you’ll be able to download a spreadsheet in which you can plug your own numbers.

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Two Questions On the Hermit

Two questions about the anonymous but enlightened hermit: (1) who is he and (2) why the six pointed star? Less mysterious but also important is the question of why Waite included the very, very negative secondary set of upright divinatory meanings in the Pictorial Key to the Tarot? As we examine the questions, we’ll find links to Father Time, the Christian God the Father, and the head of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. We’ll also stumble across that famous number, 666. In the end, the identity of the Hermit is in the eye of the beholder, since he seems to hold more than one identity. But that may be appropriate for a major arcanum associated not just with prudence, but also with dissimulation and treason.

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Tarot Reversals – The Eights

You’d think that the Eights, which after all, should hold the promise of the infinity sign—an eight turned on its side—would share a theme of endless vistas and promise. But no. We could say that the Eights tell the tale of a journey—just not a very pleasant one. But a journey makes perfect sense, given that the qabalistic influence, Hod, is thought to represent the two feet of a person’s body. The beginner of the Eight of Pentacles takes the first steps. The Eight of Wands continues, swiftly approaching a conclusion; things are looking promising. But then the Eight of Cups comes to the fork in the road. And you know what Yogi Berra said: "when you come to a fork in the road, take it!" And so, unfortunately, the Eight of Swords binds herself at a time of crisis. The relationships between the divinatory meanings (as defined by Waite in the Pictorial Key to the Tarot) of the upright vs. reversed minor arcana in the RWS can be interpreted as a change of perspective. We find visual clues to better understand reversals by looking at the characters’ points of view. Where there is more than one character, we look at their perspectives of each other. Where there is a single character, from the point of view of an outside observer. Welcome to the annoying Eights and their reversals, the roadtrip from Hell of the Waite Colman Smith deck.

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The Eight of Pentacles – A One Page Guide

A.E. Waite expends a lot of effort to make sure we see the laborer of the Eight of Pentacles as one who is learning his craft. In the Pictorial Key, he not only mentions this fact in his divinatory meanings for the Eight, he also points it out in his description of the Three of Pentacles. Why does he draw our attention to this? I suggest that Waite’s message is that tarot, and indeed, magic, can be learned by us in the same way that the apprentice learns: by starting out with the simple tasks; then through long experience at those tasks, over time, he becomes the skilled artisan. Our laborer wields his hammer like Mercury’s caduceus (which is basically a wand). He imbues magical energy into the symbol of the classical element of Earth, the coin. The result is the trophy, a symbol of something that he has won through his effort.

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The Star, Goddess at First Light

You’ve got to hand it to Pamela Colman Smith on this one. She took one of the least attractive cards in the Tarot de Marseilles deck, and without substituting any major new elements, turned it into one of the prettiest cards in the RWS deck. But new or old look, The Star raises many questions. Who is she? What Star in particular? Why eight points on the star? Why eight stars? Its order in the majors is important, for one. It is first light after the darkness of The Tower. This is why it’s dawn. And the Goddess appears to be the female goddess from the dawn of civilization herself: Ishtar. There are a number of reasons for the eight stars of eight points each, some of which Waite rolled into his mystical Christian skewing of the tarot. Waite was as heavy-handed on this one as Colman Smith’s hand was deft. The Star is one of those cards where stories and myths abound; and it is through those stories and myths that we can understand it better.

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Distribution Probability Counts by Spread Sizes

Given a fair-sized spread—say ten cards—we sometimes might say to ourselves, “hmmm… that’s a lot of swords there…” or “gee, not a single court card…” Those insights can and do affect the “bottom line” of a reading. Knowing, for example, that in the spread you just laid out for your client, Mars is very heavily represented can provide a rather important insight. Though deck designers often try to give us clues, it might be easy to miss something like that. Some decks even print the zodiac, planetary and/or qabalistic symbols on each card, specifically for this reason. This post isn’t going to give you any startling revelations. It’s just an odd, longish table I drew up to calculate, using standard deviation functions, the minimum-maximum numbers of the types of cards we should expect, in layouts between 1 and 16 cards in size. You’ll find breakouts for the classical elements, the Zodiac signs, the planets, the major and minors, the court cards, and, last but not least, reversals. If you find it helpful, great. If not, no worries… we’ll get back to those deep analysis type posts soon enough; this is just my way of takin’ a break. 😉

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