This article on the tetraktys tarot spread is reprinted from an earlier incarnation of my web site. It also appears in The Minchiate Tarot book by Brian Williams. It remains one of my favorite spreads to use for getting a big picture of the energies at work in my life at any given time. I hope you enjoy it.
Platonic philosophy holds that mind precedes matter, and that the universe is created through emanations from the Divine Mind. Neoplatonists developed these ideas further, using the tetraktys of Pythagoras, a geometrical figure consisting of ten points arranged in the pattern of an equilateral triangle. At the top of the triangle is the monad, the pure state of unity that represents the Divine Mind. The base of the triangle consists of four points that stand for the four elements of the material world. Creation proceeds downward through two intermediate levels of emanation: a dyad of complementary principles and a triad of spiritual essences.
The description given here is a personal elaboration of these ideas for use with the tarot, based on the tetraktys spread from A Renaissance Tarot by Brian Williams.
The cards should be laid out, one row at a time, going from top to bottom and right to left. To read the spread, turn over one row at a time, beginning with the bottom row and working upward.
Tetrad: The Material World
The cards of the bottom row represent concrete situations in one’s life, including events, thoughts, and emotions. This is a snapshot of the issue in question, viewed from four different directions, invoking four different cognitive functions or orientations of personality.
From right to left, the positions are
Fire: One’s creative energies, initiative, will, and desire for control. This card addresses the questions, “What do I want? How am I trying to achieve it? What is aiding or interfering with motion toward my goals?” Fire is the pure force of the personality, untainted by structures and complications, outgoing, aggressive, and uncompromising. It is pure purpose.
Air: One’s thoughts, strategies, and concepts. This card addresses the questions, “What is my analysis of the situation? How do I conceive of things? What plans am I formulating? What is aiding or interfering with the clarity of my thought?” As with fire, air represents the impulse to control, but it is now tempered by the constraints of logic and objectivity. Comparing the cards that appear in the air and fire positions may illuminate the difference between your inner desires and the conditions needed for a sustainable solution.
Water: One’s feelings, emotions, and moods. This card addresses the questions, “What are my feelings? How do I respond emotionally? What do I love? What is aiding or interfering with my experiencing love and happiness?” Unlike fire and air, water is a heavy element. It can signify attachments, things that draw us inward toward security, rather than outward toward adventure. It can also show subconscious feelings or intuitive impressions.
Earth: Practical matters, daily routine, obligations. This card addresses the questions, “What am I attending to? What gives me stability and continuity? What keeps me grounded? What is aiding or interfering with my being secure and safe?” Whereas water is tempered by the outgoing passions of the heart, earth is purely protective. It stands for the security of hearth and home, and one’s financial and practical resources.
Taken together, these four cards represent the opportunities, conflicts, and interrelationships among the different spheres of your life. They may indicate barriers in some areas, balanced by progress in others. They tend to be descriptive, rather than judgmental. It is worthwhile to study this row for awhile before revealing the other cards, concentrating on possible courses of action that acknowledge the situations depicted in each of the four elemental cards.
Triad: The Spiritual Forces
The three cards of the second row show your situation as part of the continuing cosmic drama. All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. This row is the script, the plot outline, which connects and explains the “scenes” depicted on the bottom row.
From right to left, the positions are
Creator: The agency through which new things are being brought into being. This card addresses the questions, “What is driving me in new directions? What is the energy behind my desires and plans? What is pulling me out of my old habits?” Remember that problems, not just positive experiences, can stir up new opportunities. This card stands above the fire and air cards. This small triangle within the larger triangle of the spread represents the universe’s continual drive for novelty, as reflected in the microcosm of the personality. The creator is pumping new situations and purposes into your life; the fire card is the internal urge to act out the creative force; the air card is your means of understanding and managing it.
Sustainer: The agency through which you find equilibrium in the midst of change. This card addresses the questions, “What is helping me maintain balance? Where is the stationary point from which I can observe and handle all the different factors?” Many of us make choices by relying heavily on one of the modes of functioning depicted in the bottom row: our purposes, our concepts, our emotions, or our practical obligations. The sustainer stands above all these separate approaches, surveying and appreciating them all. The sustainer takes the exuberant raw energy of the creator and gives it structure, shaping it into something of more lasting value. Like the creator, the sustainer also rests at the top of a small triangle, presiding over air and water, representing the impartial balancing of the objective, intellectual, proactive approach with the subjective, emotional, and reactive.
Destroyer: The agency through which old things are consumed and dissolved. This card addressed the questions, “What is reducing my options, what is laying down the rules and punishing me when I violate them?” Endings are frightening. Limitations are frustrating and painful. But it is these things that provide the structure, the frame, within which the story unfolds. If every possibility in the mind of the creator were made permanent by the sustainer, life would become overloaded and unlivable. The destroyer discards what is not meant to be and what has outlived its time, thus keeping the entire cycle in motion. The destroyer stands over the elements of water and earth, establishing the fixed forms of the practical world and the feelings through which we become related to those forms.
The spiritual forces give us a deeper understanding of the material elements. Earth springs from the destroyer, fire from the creator. Thus, earth is a pure expression of inanimate structure, and fire is a pure expression of uninhibited impulse. Water is an offspring of the destroyer and sustainer, receiving bodily grounding from the former and fluid perception from the latter. Likewise, air is a mixture of the creative spirit with the balancing influence of the sustainer.
On this level of the spread, the underlying causes emerge, along with a unifying sense of story or meaning. The sustainer in the center represents one’s maturity, the capacity to work productively with all aspects of life. Besides presiding over the elements on the bottom row (and their distinctive decision-making strategies), the sustainer also holds the creator and destroyer in a dynamic balance, recognizing that both are necessary but neither is sufficient. It is the sustainer card that holds the promise of resolving the issue and living with it in all its dimensions. It is worthwhile to study this card in relation to all adjacent cards, to understand all the influences at work and the character of the sustainer’s response to those influences. Note that the sustainer is adjacent to six other cards in the spread. Only the three points of the triangle are removed from this central vantage point.
Dyad: The Essential Principles
The pair of cards that constitutes the third row represents the fundamental distinction on which the issue hinges.
Light: The right-hand card represents the yang, the thesis, the force, the positive assertion. It addresses the questions, “What idea is asserting itself? What strives to come into being and attain control? What is insisting on expressing itself and being acknowledged?” This is the deliberate conscious manifestation of the theme represented by the monad. Its offspring is the creator. The principle in the light card is a universal, a recurring theme in the cosmos. The creator brings that principle into activity in the particular circumstances of your life.
Darkness: The left-hand card represents the yin, the antithesis, the form, the complementary reply. It addresses the questions, “How does the universe respond? What puts the assertion into context? What is the other side of the coin? What is hidden?” The light implies its own negation; this card shows the precise nature of that negation. For every action, there is a reaction. The principle in the light card, as it pulls itself into being, leaves behind an alter image, which has its own consequences, equally powerful but often more difficult to recognize. The principle in the darkness card asserts itself through the destroyer, by removing possibilities and taking things out of being.
The dyad represents the basic distinction at the heart of the issue. It is not a choice to be made by the questioner; both principles are inescapably present and operating. The decision has already been made to distinguish that depicted in the light card from that depicted in the darkness card. All the rest flows from that separation having been made. What keeps the two sides of the issue in communication is their mutual offspring, the sustainer. Just as the creator manifests the light, and the destroyer manifests the darkness, the sustainer manifests their relationship to each other. The sustainer recognizes the complementary nature of the two principles, and keeps them in communicative motion.
Monad: The Theme
The lone card at the apex of the spread represents the hidden unity behind the complementary principles of the dyad. It thus reveals the theme behind the entire issue. Every card in the spread can be compared with the theme card, to understand how the theme is developed at each level of the structure. It stands at the apex of the small triangle that includes the dyad, and it is clearly worthwhile to study how the darkness and light cards both stem from the theme card. Another important comparison is with the sustainer card. These are the only two cards that lie on the midline of the spread; the theme and the sustainer are the only places where the distinction portrayed by the dyad is held in perfect balance. In the theme card, the distinction has not yet been made, the issue is undifferentiated, without structure. In the sustainer card, there is an integration of the two sides back together. If the dyad represents a question, the theme card reveals the assumption behind the question, and the sustainer formulates an answer.
The Whole Pattern
The tetraktys represents the descent of simplicity into complexity, and the descent of the abstract into the concrete. All four rows should be thought of as simultaneously active, with the higher rows operating “behind the scenes” of the rows below. The spread is read from bottom to top because it is easier to work from the specific to the general. There are no card positions that specifically represent past and future events. Rather, each position offers a particular vantage point on the matter as a whole. By studying the spread, one puts oneself in the role of the sustainer, who sees simultaneously right, left, above, and below. It is this activity, rather than any particular card, that gives insight concerning the “outcome”.
One can think of the whole layout as a family tree, revealing the ancestry of the events and perceptions depicted in the bottom row. It is productive to look for family resemblances. There is also an implied hierarchy of influence. The sustainer has control over its offspring in the tetrad, must treat its triad siblings as equals, but is subject and subordinate to the principles expressed in the dyad. If your ego is attached to one of the elements in the tetrad, then everything in the spread is beyond your direct control. The possibility of identifying oneself with the monad I leave to the mystics.
The horizontal dimension shows the polarity between the passive, receptive, and mysterious on the left hand and the active, assertive, and conscious on the right. These have often been associated with the female and male principles, respectively. The tetraktys arrangement shown here is intended to echo the Qabalistic Tree of Life, with its feminine pillar of severity on the left and masculine pillar of mercy on the right. The left can also be associated with fate, necessity, and the demands of reality, whereas the right shows free will, creativity, and flights of fantasy. In this regard, it is interesting to study the four cards situated between the extremes: the theme, the sustainer, water, and air. These mediate between the tangible forms and the ungrounded impulses, each in its own way. Equally instructive is a survey down the right and left edges of the triangle.
The geometric regularity of this layout creates many interesting patterns, and captures each card in a net of relations that help define its meaning and relate it to the larger picture. This makes it very rewarding for extended study.