Culminating: The Nines In Tarot

This is one of a series of articles that I wrote over my five years as the tarot columnist at Planet Waves. I will be re-releasing these, one at a time, over the coming weeks and months.

I was struggling this morning to come up with a collective idea for the Nines — a theme that runs through each and all of the cards. With some of the numbers that we’ve explored, the Twos and Fours for example, something has made itself known to me right away in terms of a connecting principle.

With the Nines, though, there seems to be such a striking contrast between the Wands and Swords — both suggesting a form of conflict — and the Cups and the Pentacles — which on the surface seem to indicate achievement — that I was immediately taken in by their differences, not their similarities.

But, as I have so often experienced when working with tarot, it’s better to take a closer look before coming to any conclusions; not everything is as it first seems. What we see on the surface isn’t necessarily the whole story. In fact, it seldom is, as we peel away one layer of meaning, only to come across another.

Therefore, taking a closer look, what strikes me most about the four cards this week is that all of the characters are alone — or, at least, they are the only human figure on their card. Have you noticed that the Minor Arcana in the Rider-Waite Smith deck has focussed increasingly on a single figure as we have moved through the numbers, from Ace to Nine? This sense of isolation started in the Sevens, continued in the Eights, and is present in the Nines for the final time. (I am excluding Court Cards here, which I feel are discrete in many ways, even as they move with the evolutionary flow of the Minor Arcana.)

What is this isolation about?

To me, it feels like a process of going within. In the Nines, we are close to reaching some point of expression, although it's still currently taking shape. Hence culminating rather than culmination: the idea is not yet fully developed.

Let’s see how this idea of ‘culminating’ is described in each card.

Nine of Wands

Nine of Wands - Waite-Smith tarot deck Nine of Wands from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

A man stands in the foreground to the right of the card, sleeves rolled up, bandage on his head, holding a wand close to him with both hands. He is looking askance at the remaining eight wands behind him, and I’m pretty sure that if we were to verbalise his expression, it would be something along the lines of this:

“And don’t you even think about it!”

This card tells me that he has come through quite a battle with the wands — perhaps the one that we see him waging in the Seven of Wands. Perhaps the wands activated in the Eight of Wands — flying through the sky as they are — needed to be reined in; there was a need to harness the will — our creative principle — in order to direct it more effectively. Whatever happened, it didn’t happen without effort on the part of the protagonist.

Right now, there is a ceasefire, and I feel an implicit striving for resolution. There is a visual separation between the one wand — identified with the figure — and the other eight, which he shuns by turning his back on them, shoulders squared against their presence. The grey surface that is home to the figure is contrasted with the background, the man unwilling to associate with his erstwhile adversaries, even though the sky is cloudless blue, the hills green and small enough to look surmountable. There seems to be no threat on the horizon.

Is it simply the memory of what has taken place that creates the impasse?

Is it the fear of taking up the full complement available to him?

After all, the Ten of Wands — with its depiction of an unwieldy bundle of wands carried by a lone figure — isn’t quite the outcome he might hope for if he is looking for reasons to do so. What is clear to me is that this, like the Seven, is a battle that takes place within, not with an external antagonist. The figure is looking at the eight wands with mistrust, but they stand alone, unattended by anyone else. The punchline to all of this is that he was the one who made them move; he was the one responsible for setting off the chain of events where the energy of the Wands — unbridled creative drive — reached a point where they had so much momentum that he wasn’t able to call the shots when we wanted to. Finally, he can — but he’s still looking at them instead of himself! Working with the power of the will and learning to express it in alignment with self is hard work. Maybe that idea is starting to have its day in the Nine.

Nine of Cups

Nine of Cups - Waite-Smith Tarot deck Nine of Cups from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

A well-dressed man sits — legs apart and square, arms crossed — on a wooden bench in the centre foreground of the picture. Behind him, displayed in an arc on a stand draped in blue cloth, are nine cups.

The figure seems content — smug, even, if the slight creasing-closed of his eyes is anything to go by — and his robes and red headdress bear testament to his wealth.

“Look at these,” he seems to say. “They are all mine!”

I see a strong correlation between this card and the Ten of Cups. But while here, as with the Ten, there is contentment, it is self-congratulatory. The cups are laid out for our perusal and admiration. They are self-conscious. By far the boldest part of the image is not the cups themselves, but the man’s hat, which throbs out of the card like an LED.

Perhaps, then, he’s not saying, “Look at these,” but rather, “Look at me!”

And so our attention is drawn to his head — a strange place to be looking given that cups are about emotions. But there is no heart to this picture, and I think that this is the point: the Nine of Cups is the intellectual understanding of emotions, which is self-defeating. You cannot ‘understand’ emotion; you can only experience it.

The cups are on show to us, but the implicit message here is that, like any display, they are not to be touched. My sense is that cups only really work when they are offered for the sharing. That is when emotion is experienced rather than understood.

Here is the process of culminating. The cups are present in abundance, but they are treated like possessions. It is only when they are released that they come fully into their own. The configuration in the Nine then becomes the rainbow in the Ten, overarching a group of people — as opposed to an individual — who are in its embrace rather than exhibiting something that they view as ‘theirs’. For now, however, the potential sits here, waiting to mature and develop.

Nine of Swords

Nine of Swords - Waite-Smith Tarot deck Nine of Swords from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

Swords represent our thoughts and mental processes; and it is our thoughts that shape how we experience our environment. In the Nine of Swords, a figure sits up in a bed, hands over eyes, in a state of despair. The bed seems hard, and what comes to me when I look at it is the phrase, “You made your bed, now lie in it.”

The background is black, impenetrable, while, counterintuitively, the lower half of the picture is colourful, an eiderdown or quilt alternating roses with astrological glyphs, a carving in the wood depicting a scene of submission. It is rich in symbolism.

As for the swords themselves, if we follow them from their handles at left across the card, they lead off the right edge of the picture, their tips missing. Metaphorically, they are rendered ineffectual against a physical adversary. As with the Nine of Wands, there is conflict, but this is no outward battle. Rather, it is the inner expressed outwardly. Our inner experience manifests in the world around us, our outer world mirrors our experience. As above, so below; on the eiderdown, the rose of our own heart sits side-by-side with symbols that describe the heavens.

Thus, we draw our battle out from within and project it onto others. This is usually an unconscious process, emphasised by the figure in the Nine of Swords, hands over eyes. While everything seems to stand in our way, while everything feels like an uphill struggle and strife becomes the order of the day, we remain unaware that we have brought this perception with us. Our eyes are still covered, even when we believe we are seeing clearly.

Once we open our eyes in the Ten of Swords, we open up to the potential for surrender in order to emerge from the darkness.

Nine of Pentacles

Nine of Pentacles - Waite-Smith Tarot deck Nine of Pentacles from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

In an image that is bathed in yellow from an invisible sun, we see a woman standing in what I take to be a garden, the wall behind her covered in grapevines, her right hand resting on the highest of nine pentacles gathered around her, her left hand a perch for a masked falcon.

A snail edges along the ground at her feet, a detail that makes me smile. It feels inclusive.

The woman is obviously successful in some endeavour, and it is time for her to release some of that into the world: as soon as the falcon is unmasked, it will fly from her hand. However, a falcon like this one is a well-trained bird, and it is expected that once it has flown and performed the function it is meant to perform, it is to return to its owner’s hand.

And I think here there is a caution: to avoid becoming so focused on the physical, and on acquiring things, that we are unable to fully release those things that we can never fully possess.

The woman’s headdress matches that of the falcon. Is she, in a way, just as owned by what she has, trained to return to it again and again with little questioning of the ability to be unfettered and to fly free?

And so to the snail again.

Nothing is ever added unintentionally in Pamela Colman-Smith’s illustrations. It is small, for sure. But unlike the vines, the woman’s robes, the falcon’s confining mask, the two mirrored trees in the background, it is not cultivated, and doesn’t fit the picture of perfection that the image seems to be striving for in some way. It moves unhindered in a highly regulated landscape.

It is a tiny, but compelling, reminder of the potential that lies outside the limits that we place on our lives.

The Nines bring us to the point of new beginnings. It feels like all it takes is a shift in perception and a step in a revealed direction for the world to open up. Our potential calls to us.