Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Ranks of Man in Tarot

The Tarot trumps constitute a hierarchy, both in terms of the game and iconographically. In the game of Tarot their rank is their only real meaning. Illustrative of that, modern Tarot decks -- usually double-ended and with French-suited pips -- have large numbers on the trumps and perfectly arbitrary subject matter illustrated. Iconographically, the composition of the cycle of trumps is triumphal, with each card in some sense triumphing over the lower ones, and with each succeeding type of subject matter triumphing over the lower sections.

Those three types of subject matter were pointed out a quarter century ago by Michael Dummett. The lowest-ranking figures, up to the Emperor and Pope, constitute a ranks of man motif representing Everyman, the protagonist of the allegory. The middle trumps, above the Pope and below the Devil, constitute a De Casibus narrative arc, the allegorical heart of the trump cycle. Two examples of successes (in Love and War), two reversals (Time and Fortune), and two forms of downfall (Traitor and Death) are arranged to illustrate the Fall of Princes. The three Moral Virtues, virtues which pertain to the three appetites, are either grouped with the success or shown triumphing over each of the three stages of the De Casibus arc. The highest-ranking trumps show eschatological subjects emphasizing the ultimate triumphs over the Devil and Death itself. That is the generic story of the Tarot trumps. When examined in detail, the individual designs become more challenging to interpret.

If context counts, that is, if there is meaning to the sequence, then the subjects must be interpreted within that appropriate context. For example, given the three types of subject matter, the lowest trumps must be interpreted, at least primarily, in the context of a ranks of man. However, the specifics of ordering may also be meaningful. This is most obviously apparent when noting that the two highest-ranking subjects of this section are the Emperor and Pope. Differences in ordering may suggest differences in meaning, so the subjects must be analyzed within each ordering. More than a dozen pre-Gébelin orderings are known. Each locale created their own version of the Tarot deck, often changing the iconography a bit, but always changing the order of the trumps so that their Tarot would be a bit different than that played in other areas. Some of these changes were apparently quite meaningful in terms of the order and iconography, and are susceptible to detailed interpretation. Others appear to have been more or less random, although most of them maintained the above design in general terms. (Those of the Southern Tradition did the greatest violence to the design, particularly in the lowest-ranking trumps.) Here are representative examples of the ordering of the lowest-ranking trumps.

Mankind: From Highest Prince to Lowest Scoundrel
Western Decks Eastern Decks Southern Decks
TdM Susio Steel MS Metropolitan Charles VI Rosenwald
Fool Fool Fool Fool Fool Fool
Bateleur-1 Bagatella Bagatella-1 Bagatella-1 (Bagatella-1) Bagatella-1
Popess-2 Empress Empress-2 Empress-2 (Empress-2) Popess-2
Empress-3 Popess Emperor-3 Popess-3 (Emperor-3) Empress-3
Emperor-4 Emperor Popess-4 Emperor-4 Pope-4 Emperor-4
Pope-5 Pope Pope-5 Pope-5   Pope-5
1. Bagatella or Bagatto was the most commonly used name for what is today called the Magician. Bagatelle can be found in any dictionary, and the name suggests someone who entertains with frivolous things.
2. It seems likely that there was no Popess in the Charles VI. All decks in the Southern tradition revised the lowest trumps, in various arbitrary ways, to mitigate or remove this inherently ambiguous and potentially offensive figure. However, the Charles VI deck might have had an unnumbered additional card, like Poverty in the Sicilian deck, to maintain the total of 22 trumps.


1. The Steele Manuscript, Bertoni, and Garzoni ordering is one of the two simplest. The Pope and Popess are the highest-ranking figures, suggesting the earthly ruler of the Church and the Church herself. The Emperor and Empress are next, as secular parallels. Female figures with identifying attributes are the conventional form of personified allegory, and these two subjects, Popess and Empress, appear perfectly in keeping with that convention. Two lowly performers are ranked below. The Bagatella, lowest of the trumps per se, is an entertaining performer but also a low life, a charlatan and professional deceiver. As such he is associated with the Father of Lies, just as the Fool immediately brings to mind the atheist of Psalms 14 and 53. Allegorically, fools and the deceivers who mislead them are outstanding representatives of those not included among the faithful, the good people of Church and State who are already represented. Note that both of these representatives of the dregs or the damned are also playful entertainers, and both are given special value in the game. This may have originally been connected with their ambiguous, playful yet disreputable character in the allegory.

2. The Susio and Metropolitan deck ordering is equally straightforward. The Pope and Emperor, supreme rulers of Church and State are the highest ranking figures. The Popess and Empress are next, in the corresponding order, representing the good people of the Church and State over which the Pope and Emperor reign. Overall, this ordering is virtually identical in reading to that previously discussed. In both designs one can readily see a version of the Three Estates concept. Two cards show religious figures, two have nobles, and two cards depict figures from the social nadir. The exalted figures represented include the very highest of the high, while the commoners selected for this rank of man are among the least respected roles in society. This emphasis on the extremes is a traditional method of illustrating a range, sometimes known as merism. (See discussion below.)

3. The Tarot de Marseille and Rosenwald ordering is the most complex, being ambiguous and yet still intelligible. The problem is that the Empress outranks the inherently ambiguous Popess. This immediately suggests some odd, alternative or additional meaning must be implied. At first glance the meaning appears to be the same as the two orderings above. In the table below, this meaning is indicated in the legends above the figures. But the anomalous placement of the Popess, being triumphed over by the Empress, requires another interpretation. Rather than interpret the Popess as the Church, we may interpret her as False Religion, represented by a female pope. (The Tarot de Marseille design derives from Milan, which no doubt recalled a real female "pope", the Guglielmite Manfreda, who had been burned at the stake by the Holy Inquisition in 1300.) The resulting series suggests two 3-card groupings, as indicated by the legends below the figures. The three lowest figures show the lowest of subjects, the damned, triumphed over by the saved, noble souls and their divinely inspired leader. The Empress (State) triumphing over the Popess (False Religion) is analogous to the State's role as the executive arm of the Inquisition. The meanings slip back and forth from one interpretation to the other, like the images in a 3-D hologram, and while they are always intelligible they are never quite coherent.

Everyman in Tarot de Marseille
Fool Bagatto Popess Empress Emperor Pope
T H E    D A M N E D
(fools & deceivers)
T H E    S A V E D
(noble souls)


4. The Southern tradition is the most varied and by far the most corrupt. Being based on attempts to solve the Popess problem, they are best treated as a kind of miscellaneous category rather than meaningful variations. Most of them eliminate the potentially offensive Popess in one way or another, and some effectively eliminate the whole point of the section. The early Rosenwald deck, mentioned above, maintained a meaningful design, but the Southern orderings went downhill sideways after that. The ordering of the fragmentary Charles VI deck can only be guessed at, but it apparently eliminated the inherently ambiguous and potentially offensive Popess altogether. In the Minchiate Tarot deck the subjects have been drastically changed, making hash of the ranks. Suffice to say that there are no religious figures shown. The Sicilian Tarot deck also eliminated the religious figures. The Bolognese variation is the most mindless corruption of the original, obliterating the intended design. To avoid any misconceptions about the ambiguous Popess figure, ranking was eliminated altogether, and later the subjects were changed to four "Moors", completely eradicating the sense of the series.

Other decks in other regions also dealt harshly with the religious figures. Most notably, the Belgian Tarot pattern replaced them with by Bacchus and the Spanish Captain (a character from the Commedia dell'Arte). The 17th-century German-Swiss Tarot de Besancon replaced them with Juno and Jupiter. These changes also destroyed the allusion to three estates along with any semblance of meaningful social hierarchy. In one location after another, the original medieval Christian narrative of Tarot was denatured.

Allegorical Synopsis and Pictorial Schema

The original choices do seem odd, (although not in comparison with the travesty of later changes), which may also have contributed to misunderstanding and dislike for the design. So how does one convey everything, such as the concept of Mankind, in only a few examples? What does it take to be sparing of words or images while still making a forceful, comprehensive, and even poetic statement? Synecdoche is a device whereby a specific instance is used to symbolize a general class, a part is used to symbolize a whole, etc. For example, referring to a person as a "hired hand" illustrates synecdoche: mentioning (and thereby emphasizing) only a particular aspect, (usually a salient aspect, as the hand is symbolic of a manual laborer), but clearly implying the whole person.

One form of synecdoche, frequently used in the Bible, is the figure of speech known as merism, or merismus. When someone uses the expression, "both near and far", they are usually referring not merely to "near" and "far", but everywhere, between as well as at the extremes. So we may refer to the whole of something by mentioning (or depicting) only some of its parts, be that a single typical element, a selection of characteristic elements or examples, or extreme examples illustrating the entirety and its range. In Psalm 91:5-6, we see an example of merism. Because the Lord "will be your shield and rampart",

You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.

The psalm's list of threats is not exhaustive, but merely illustrative, striking, and characteristic. It gives specific examples of what one might fear, but the clear implication is that with the Lord as your shield you will not fear anything, anywhere, at any time. As another example from the Bible, referring to Christ as "the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last" does not indicate his absence in the middle, but merely emphasizes "the Beginning and the End" while implying all.

Frequently, the parts used to illustrate the whole are boundaries or extremes, thereby emphasizing the expanse of the subject rather than characteristic examples. The field of Statistics provides a useful comparison. A distribution may be characterized by many different measures, including measures of typical values (central tendency, such as mean, median, and mode) or dispersion (spread, such as interquartile range or standard deviation) and range (the difference between the lowest and highest values). Tarot used various approaches to representing a comprehensive ranks of man, circumstances of life, and eschatological triumphs. The latter, for example, was enumeration, including every case. This was possible because there are basically just the two eschatological triumphs: the triumph over the Devil and the triumph over Death. The epilogue, Chapter 21's triumph of the New World over all that has passed away, is also included.

An example of how Tarot subjects were selected and used in such a manner, the allegory of Love may represent the personal triumphs and joys of life, while the Wheel of Fortune represents the vicissitudes of life, and Death represents the ultimate transience and mortality of life. Taken together as illustrations of the good, the bad, and the ugly facts of life, they can collectively represent all the circumstances of life. Pierre Michault’s Danse aux Aveugles, from the 1460s, used those three figures, poetically linked by their allegorical blindness (i.e., universality), to just that end.

Getting back to the ranks of man, an emperor and pope were clearly the highest ranking members of society, secular and spiritual. The lowest, however, were not obvious and varied greatly from one depiction to another. Middling figures might also be shown. So in any given depiction the hoi polloi might be represented by respectable figures (e.g., farmer, merchant, miller, butcher, soldier, doctor, baker, etc.) as well as low-lifes (e.g., peasants, fools, paupers, musicians, drunks, gamblers, robbers, cripples, the blind, lepers, etc.) In Tarot, we can consider the Fool and Pope as individually exemplifying the lowest and highest roles in society. By bracketing the entire range of social status, they may collectively represent all of society. Assuming that such meanings were intended in the design of Tarot, then it could in fact be an encyclopedic, universal representation, despite its abbreviated, schematic nature.

Not Just Any Low-lifes

The choice of a Fool and a Mountebank was thus highly discretionary as compared with the Emperor and Pope. Virtually any two members of society, other than clergy or nobility, would have sufficed to reflect the three estates and thereby indicate universality. That makes the selection of a fool and a mountebank more informative about the ideas of the designer than the other figures. These two subjects within Tarot's ranks of man point toward several specific allusions that were intended, thus offering insights to the overall design of the trump cycle. Among the striking features of this pair of choices:

  • They are neither religious nor noble, thus creating a Three Estates motif.
    Showing only nobles, for example, might indicate a narrower speculum principis design.
  • They are very low in terms of social status.
    This further emphasizes the inclusive audience being addressed.
  • They are engaging entertainers, and are given unique roles in the game.
    This points to the fact that the series was created for a game.
  • Folly and Deception are directly related, as are the two performers.
    Likewise, other trump subjects are paired, and this is indicative of a larger structure to the allegorical cycle.
  • Associations with Folly and Deception are deeply disreputable.
    This suggests the alternative interpretation of the Popess in TdM.