Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on Tarot

Tarot and Neo-Pythagoreanism

The numerogical structure of the Tarots


 by Alain Bougearel


The numerological structure in tarots finds its first and clear reference in the literary work by Boiardo written between 1461 and 1494, probably in 1487, and in the so called Sola-Busca Tarots of the end of the XV century, to stabilize then definitively in the decks of the XVI century. This game composed by 78 cards (22 Triumphs + 40 numeral cards = 4 x 10 + 16 cards of court = 4 x 4) seems to derive from the Pythagorean arrhythmology since its relation with the Tetraktys is unequivocal. The Pythagorean Tetraktys is composed by a triangle formed by four alignments respectively by four, three, two point, and more a single point on top. The total of points is ten and this number was considered the more perfect, as it is the sum of the first four (1 + 2 + 3 + 4). These four overlapped lines in physics represented the four elements and, in geometry, the point, the line, the area and volume. The sides of the triangle are formed by four points each one.     

According to the Pythagorean doctrine the number does not represent only an arithmetical entity, but it is even a harmonic metaphysical principle that settles the universe and what happens in it. So the number becomes the essence of everything, the universal law that harmonizes and governs everything, the principle of everything. As primeval element of the physical world, the point is made correspond to the unity from which multiplication derive the different forms of harmony (such as Love, Beauty, Justice, etc.). Therefore Harmony appears as ethical ideal of human behaviour, element of perfection to whom humanity had to aim, to reunite then purified to the great universal harmony.

The Pythagorean mathematicians were known since the Middle Ages in the Latin Occident especially because of Fibonacci and Leonardo from Pisa (1170-1250), close to the Emperor Federico II, while their propagation had its greatest splendour during the Italian Renaissance, in particular because of the cultured Byzantines and the Florentine Platonic neo-syncretism. The presence of Neo-Platonism elements in tarots has already been demonstrated, starting from the iconography of various cards then modified at the end of the XV century to adhere to this doctrine (1), to go on then with the inserting in the so called Mantegna Tarots of images taken from the work De gentilium imaginibus deorum by the hermetic poet Ludovico Lazzarelli, ending then quoting the figures of alchemic nature that we can find in the Sola-Busca Tarots.

In Tarots number 22 of triumphs was originally conceived on the base of Christian mystic numerology to make the man come to the contemplation of God (2) while 78 has extraordinary verifications in the oriental mystic that has later been taken in Occident according to  the practise of transmigration of symbols (3). By means of the concept of the Pythagorean harmony that meant every structure well ordered in parts combined together with equal proportion, it is possible to individualize in tarots a harmonic structure that recovers the same themes of Christian mystic transfiguring them thank to a renewed value of platonic character. 

In the middle of the platonic philosophy there are the man and his relation with other forms of life and with the cosmos. The man, even if on the phenomenical level is a weak and mortal creature, he owns an essential part, or soul, that constitutes a fragment of the divine and universal soul, divided from this one and imprisoned in a mortal body; the universe, in its turn, is represented as supplied with an inner order (cosmos) and constituted by a living substance, eternal and divine. So, men have to undergo to as purification process through a series of deaths and physical rebirths, to find again the union with the universal soul. 

Studying the perfect structure of the universe, of which are visible the orbits of celestial bodies that rotate in perfect circles, the man has that order into himself and to it he equals his soul.

It is very important to consider how in Christian mystic, in the Pythagorean thought and in the platonic one that derives from the first, the search of God by the man - meant as contemplation or as a return to the original nature -  is shown by the recourse to the same numerological values. 

Coming to number 78, that correspond to the sum of cards of Tarots, we can see that this number is the “Pythagorean sum” of the first 12 numbers:

Cards = 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 + 9 + 10 + 11 + 12

Can be represented with the pyramid of the figure below:

                                                                       piramide uno

This pyramid is composed by 16 honours or cards of court (King, Queen, Knight and Page) = 4 x 4 that we can put on the top

                                                                       piramide 2

Besides it is composed by 40 numeral cards = 4 x 10, that we can out at sides as diamond – shaped:

                                                                     piramide 3

Finally, the 22 allegorical subjects or Triumphs, = 1 + 4 + 7 + 10 form the three sides pyramid that can be seen in the picture below.

                                                                  piramide 4

So the pyramid appears complete with triumphs, numeral of court cards and:

                                                                   piramide 5

A triangle with base 12 can be found on the first page of the Almagest by Ptolemy in the version of Venice, 1515. In this work the author, conceiving the Earth as motionless in the middle of the universe, describes with geometrical and mathematical terms the movements and positions of planets, of the Sun and the Moon on a background of fixed stars. The presence of the pyramid, even if turned upside down, testifies the evident influence of the Pythagorean arrhythmology on which many scientists of that age drew.


At this point it is necessary to wonder what mystical meaning had number 56 that united to 22, that we have already examined, appear in the structure of tarots.

So, the numbers that should be taken in consideration are 10 (numeral cards) and 4 (cards of court) both multiplied for 4 on the basis of the suits number. If 10, as we have seen, was considered ad the most perfect number, in the 4 we find the expression of materiality, in the way it expresses itself in the sensible world, which is to say the seasons, humours, the winds, etc.

The 56 that totally results from the multiplication of 10 and 4 for the four suits represented for Rose Cross the number of alchemy (4). In number 78, union of 56 and 22, there is a hidden Pythagorean arrhythmology that reveals the divine perfection (number 10), human nature (4) and then the travel of men to reach such perfection (22). Number 12, from which by the Pythagorean pyramid can be formed number 78, indicates as a whole a complete cosmic cycle, represented symbolically by zodiac signs. A travel that, in philosophical terms, denounces a neo Pythagorean and platonic matrix.

The complete series of Arithmological Structure of Tarot are on:

 You can also get the following:
1. The pythagoric order of the 22 trumps 
2. Datation of the Classic tarot
 As for the Basis of this thesis it is in English and Spanish on:


1 -
In particular the cards of the Stars, Moon, Sun and of the World. The iconographical deciphering of these triumphs is due to Professor Andrea Vitali.
2 - See The Mystical Staircase by Professor Andrea Vitali.
3 - See The Symbols of Tarots between East and West by Gerardo Lonardoni. About the transmigration of symbols it is important what expresses by Professor Franco Cardini in the presentation of the work The Way to the Sacred One. The symbols of Tarots between East and West by Gerardo Lonardoni (Martina Edizioni, Bologna, 2008).
4 - See the work The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, Third day.

 On the author, member of Le Tarot Association, click here