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More about Contra-positive cards

July 20, 2010

A few days ago I posted an article here about a technique called “Contra-positive Cards” which I think is a revolutionary new way to find solutions to the problems that the cards can reveal.

Here is a brief overview of the technique as described in that article:

When you get a troublesome card from the Minor Arcana, consider its “contra-positive” card (yes, I just made up that term) to find a way to solve the problem.  … What’s a “contra-positive” card?  Here’s the definition:

To find a Pip card’s contra-positive card, subtract the card’s number from 11 to get the new card’s number, and use the contrary suit for the new card.  The pairs of contrary suits are:

Wands (fire) vs. Cups (water)
Swords (air) vs. Pentacles (earth).

In the few short days since I wrote that article, I have gotten a lot of positive feedback on it. I have thought more about it and, of course, I’ve been working with it more. As a result, I have a few new additions to it that I want to post here to see what you all think.


Balancing the good with the bad:

My friend Karen Borusiewicz made this suggestion: “And even for those ‘positive’ cards you might want to look at the ‘contra’ card for warnings or obstacles.”  I then used that idea and noted in a subsequent comment.

Similarly, in a subsequent Facebook discussion with Paul Hughes-Barlow, he noted that “for complete balance, you also need to consider what your method means to ‘positive’ cards just as much to ‘negative’ cards – then it can be a universal law.”

Applying this technique to all of the Pip cards did cross my mind when it initially came to me, but at that time I thought that it would be needed for finding solutions to problems indicated by a difficult card, so I only mentioned that.  I see now how valuable it can be for gaining further insights into a “good” card too by looking at that card’s dark side.


Court Cards:

So far I’ve only addressed the Pip cards – the Ace through TEN in the four Minor Arcana suits.  So what about the Court Cards?  Those cards have a suit, so we can find the contra-positive suit in the same way as for the Pip cards:

Wands (fire) vs. Cups (water)
Swords (air) vs. Pentacles (earth).

But the Court Cards aren’t assigned a number, so how should we get the contra-positive number?  The solution came easily to me – instead of using numbers, we can still pair the cards with their inverse ordered mate by using the CC hierarchy.  In this way, we get the following contra-positive pairings:

Page – King
Knight – Queen
and back again.

King of Swords -- Tarot of the Masters

So, for example, the contra-positive card for the King of Swords would be the Page of Pentacles.

One way to see how this association works would be to sYouth (Page) of Coins (Pentacles) -- Tarot of the Mastersay that the problem of the King of Swords’ rigid “Expert’s Mind” (“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki) may be addressed or mitigated by tapping into the sense of awe and wonder about the world indicated by the Page of Pentacles.

On the other hand, the problems inherent in starting a new job (Page of Pentacles) can be alleviated by seeking expert help, which could be in the form of a person, textbook, etc.


Major Arcana Cards:

For the Major Arcana cards, the application of the contra-positive concept is a bit trickier. These cards do have numbers assigned (in varying ways depending on your deck, of course) but their suit, if we can call it that, does not have an “opposite” suit.  Each card does have an astrological association, which provides an elemental assignment for the cards associated with the zodiac signs, but what about the ones with planetary assignments instead? Maybe we can use the sign that their planet rules? Or maybe use an elemental association directly linked to that planet? Hmmm…

At that point, my head began to hurt. Taking this path was becoming much too cumbersome, and I began to fear that the Majors just wouldn’t fit into this model. But then the phrase “Occam’s Razor” popped into my head and a proverbial light-bulb clicked on over my head. Simply put, this term is a rule of thumb that says “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”[1]

(In an example of how the Universe works its wonders in arcane ways, a friend on FB had recently used this term which made it fresh in my mind.)

So what was the simple solution? I realized that the Major Arcana, which is associated with the quintessential element of the Soul, does not have an inverse. Or we might say that it is its own inverse. However you want to state it, this means that the contra-positive card for a Major Arcana card is another Major Arcana card, which you can find by finding its reverse numerical number, as indicated here:

0 – 21
1 – 20
2 – 19
3 – 18
4 – 17
5 – 16
6 – 15
7 – 14
8 – 13
9 – 12
10 – 11
and back again.

Note: An easy way to do this is to subtract the original card’s number from 21 to get the contra-positive number.

I have not yet had the opportunity to work with this Major Arcana system, however, so keep in mind that this is a work in progress. But even at first glance there are a few very interesting pairings here.

Marseille Pope (Hierophant) . Marseille Maison Dieu (Tower)

One such pairing is the Hierophant and the Tower, which in the iconic Tarot de Marseille deck were called “The Pope” and “The House of God” (La Maison Dieu) respectively.

My recoloring of the RWS Lovers . My recoloring of the RWS Devil card

Another is the oft paired Lovers and Devil cards.

As noted above, the numbering of one deck might give you somewhat different pairings than with another deck.  However, except for the Strength v. Justice numbering alternatives, most (not all, but most) modern decks have the same numbering scheme.

So I intend to work with this for a while to see how it works out, and if you do too, I would love to hear your results. And thank you all for your comments so far and (in advance) for your future comments.

[1] This quote is attributed to Albert Einstein.

  1. Wow! I am sure glad you came up with a simpler way to do the Majors! I was starting to panic.
    The Fool remains uncounted in this system so would equal the World? The Magician/ Judgement; HP/ The Sun? etc.?

    • Hi Paul,
      Like I said, this is a work in progress, so I’d love to hear how it works for other people. I think it makes sense so far, but if anyone comes up with something that makes more sense to me, I’m open to suggestion.

  2. I love the contra system you worked out for the majors. I have always viewed the devil as very similar to the bondage of an unhappy marriage. In the devil card, you have a man and a woman chained together in bondage. The tower and the house of God is another great pair! I will explore this more. Very interesting.

  3. Davina permalink

    so if I have this right, using the Lovers and Devil as an example either could be the contrary positive card, depending on which was drawn to start with? If you had the Lovers in a difficult position, the Devil would be the contra-positive card to maybe highight a positive aspect, way forward etc? Or if the Devil was in the initial difficult position,the Lovers would become the contra positive card?

    It seems the courts could be the initial difficulty paired with the contra positive in both orders as you showed with your example.

    • Hi Davina,
      The way I’m seeing it now, the contra-positive card is showing a shadow issue — maybe a “bright” shadow or a “dark” shadow depending on if you consider the original card to be “dark” or “bright”. In other words, it can show a balancing aspect of the original card.
      So, for example, if you get the Lovers in a “problem” spread position and you think, “Oh, this indicates my current relationship. So why would that be a problem? I’m happy that I have a relationship.” So then you consider the Devil card to see the “dark” shadow issue and realize that, yes you have a relationship, but there’s a bit of a “co-dependency” thing going on in it, and that’s the problem.
      Just an example, but I hope you get the picture.
      PS: Please note that I would advise using this technique as a tool when you need it; not something you would do with every card in the spread, by any means.

  4. Davina permalink

    thanks for that James… I have just done a 3 card online reading, and the technique was not necessary so I can see it will not be for every reading. I think I will get a ‘feeling’ as to when it is appropriate, and if it is used will feedback for you. It is nice to have another club in the bag so to speak….lol. might use an 8 iron most of the time, but the 7 iron is there as a ‘just in case’ scenario.

  5. Luna Solis permalink

    Well, James, I had noticed that myself, except that I think that there are two types of pairs, the plus pairs (I have just made this out right now) like the
    Lovers and Devil, because 15 is 1+5 = 6, and the minus pairs like the Pope and the Tower because 16 is 6-1 = 5. Clearly they have a connection!

    More to investigate!!

  6. Davina permalink

    Well have just put this to use for the first time in a reading. (3 x 3 spread I created to use instead of a Celtic Cross.
    9 of swords contra card being 2 of coins. I felt she needed to just get hold of those doubts/fears as they were spiralling out of control (unnecessarily) and regain a sense of balance and perspective as best she could. Also focussing on the main aspects instead of everything as a whole would allow her to know the first step to gaining that sense of control.

    The other one I felt I should read the contra to was the 7 wands – contra card 4 of cups. Someone had to calm this spat, and that meant extending the hand of friendship or peace. I sensed that had to come from her, with the understanding not everyone might be receptive to taking it, but at the least someone would pause and reflect on their actions, thus showing first steps had been taken diffuse the situation.

    I hope I have done credit both to the system and also to my interpretations. The first pairing was the hardest, so any thoughts would be appreciated 😀 Heck I am loving this new path of learning you are offering to us all James. 15 years of reading and I am still feeling inspired by the fact there are new approaches to enhance what I offer. Nobody can ever say the world of tarot will become stale or boring eh. 😀


    • Hi Davina,
      Thanks for sharing this!

      Re: your two examples —

      For the 9/S (doubts/fears) the 2/Pents showing the need to “regain a sense of balance and perspective” sounds spot on. I would only add that the 2/P also can indicate regaining a sense of fun about what you’re doing — that is, if you’re using the RWS or similar deck.

      As for the 7 of wands, if you’re seeing that as a spat, then the contra-positive card (4 of cups) might suggest maintaining or regaining your emotional stability. Here I’m using my numerical and elemental meanings for FOUR (structure & stability) and CUPS (emotions and relationships).

      Glad you’re enjoying this process.

      And I can certainly say that I’ve never heard anyone say that the world of tarot will become stale or boring! ;D


  7. Fionn permalink

    I thought I was the only one that had noticed the connections between the cards that equal 21. I use Strength as the eighth card as the name that Crowley gave it (Lust) to me implies conception, while the Death card implies initiation, a bringing into the world from the realm of ideas.


    • Hi Fionn,
      It’s amazing how synchronous ideas about the Tarot can be, isn’t it!
      As for the two cards you’re asking about —
      I typically see Strength as fortitude, and it is in the face of death that our fortitude, our inner strength, is most sorely tested. (If you see Strength as conception, then Death is the natural dualistic partner — Life and Death.)

  8. Davina permalink

    Hi James 🙂 Just wondered if you had any more insights onto how this works with the Majors? It seems to feel a natural fit with the pairings when I have taken time to look at all the permutations.


    • Hi Davina,
      I hope to get around to a post on that sooner or later.
      But now that you asked, and considering that you are now living in the aftermath of an earthquake there in NZ, I’ll just say that the contra-positive of the Tower card (an obvious choice for earthquakes) is the Hierophant, which indicates the importance of keeping your faith in times of crisis.

  9. Hi James,

    I love this concept. It adds a whole new layer to working with the cards. I can’t wait to start using it with my daily readings.

    Just on a funny note, using your system mine and my hubby’s birth cards are contra-positive for each other. I am a Hierophant (or Temperance/Hierophant depending upon your system) and my hubby is a Chariot (or Tower/Chariot).

    My Hierophant is contra-positive for his Tower and his Chariot is contra-positive for my Temperance. I think I shall have to explore this further.

    • Thanks for the complement, Debbie.
      As for the birth cards for you and your husband, perhaps it means that you complement each other nicely?

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Contra-positive cards « James Ricklef's Tarot Blog
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  3. Suggestions about contra-positive cards in the Minor Arcana — Part 1 « James Ricklef's Tarot Blog

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