The search for a hidden meaning may be a unicorn hunt; but if there
is a meaning to be found, only a correct basis of fact will lead us to it.
Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot
Very few people have taken a serious look at the Tarot trump cycle and opined on its meaning. A great many people have indulged their preconceptions about the cards, biases usually deriving from two centuries of occult drivel. The most noteworthy of the fatuous commentators was Joseph Campbell, who blathered a bit about Tarot and Dante in the late 70s. A flaky history professor, Theodore Roszak, repeated some New Age drivel about the Fool's Journey in the late 80s. Then there are hundreds of other pop-culture Tarot authors and thousands of writers on the Internet, most of their opinions stemming from a relatively few writers of previous generations. There are four criteria for making the list, and none of that horde qualify.
- The sine qua non is independent thought. The ten writers on the list have been able to look past the pop-culture dreck and see something of their own, right or wrong. This is a relatively objective criterion, at least compared with the next two.
- Getting the gist of it right, correctly identifying the basic idea behind the trump cycle, is a second criterion for making the list. Evaluating this necessarily requires some standard of comparison, and that is naturally my own view. The trump cycle is essentially a Triumph of Death, a Stoic-Christian moral allegory related to hundreds of other works in the tragic/macabre family of genres. A few writers caught a glimpse of this, and most did not.
- Seeing some of the structure and details of the series is a third criterion for making the list. The crucial insight in terms of structure is the identification of three distinct types of subject matter. The lowest register or group of trumps ends with the Pope, an obvious but almost universally unrecognized fact which refutes the prevalent but simple-minded septenary analyses. Beyond that, substructure is apparent in each of the three sections of the trump cycle. Again, a few writers saw part of this, most did not.
- Moving the discussion forward in some way, beyond the stagnant world of humbug and imposition, is the fourth criterion. In addition to insights about the design such as those indicated in the second and third items, relevant factual findings and/or correct identifications of trump subjects taken out of their cyclic context contributes to the overall progress in terms of understanding the trump cycle.
The ten interpretations will be presented in chronological order. A 4-part score will be given to each writer to indicate how well each criterion was met.
1876: Theodore Low De Vinne (1828-1914) was an American printer and scholar of printing and typography. His analysis of the Tarot trump cycle was contained in a single paragraph in The Invention of Printing (1876).
The Wheel of Fortune is emblematic of the fate which assigns to one man the condition of a Hermit, and to another that of an Emperor. The virtues of Temperance, Justice, and Strength which man opposes to Fate, the frivolity of the Fool, the happiness of the Lover (if he can be happy who is cajoled by two women), and the pride of the Empress, are all dominated by the central card bearing an image of the skeleton Death -- Death which precedes the Last Judgment and opens to the righteous the House of God. In these cards we have a pictorial representation of scenes from one of the curious spectacle plays of the middle ages, which were often enacted in the open air to the accompaniments of dance and music. The union of fearful mysteries with ridiculous accessories, and the ghastly suggestion of the fate of all men, as shown in the card of Death the reaper -- these were the features which gave point and character to the series of strange cartoons popular for many centuries in all parts of civilized Europe under the title of the Dance of Death.DeVinne was quite unaffected by occultist preconceptions and correctly identified the significance of the trump cycle in the most general sense, but he didn't bother with the details and was not noticed by subsequent writers.
His score, subjective but not wholly arbitrary, is 5/4/0/1.
1926: Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942) was a Christian mystic and scholar of the occult, and created what became the standard esoteric Tarot deck. Despite spending his adult life wallowing in the mystical side of occult societies, he remained a relatively sober analyst. He discussed the trumps as a composite design in the 1926 article "The Great Symbols of the Tarot", noting that "there is no doubt that some of [the cards] correspond to estates and types", i.e., the ranks of man and allegorical circumstances of life shown in the first and second sections of the trump cycle, and that some of the higher-ranked cards, "including the Resurrection card and the Devil", "are doctrinal in character", referring correctly to the eschatological nature of the highest trumps. Although he failed to correctly identify the groupings and found some images completely obscure (which he termed "symbolical"), this was still a considerable insight into the structure of the trumps. Likewise, his comments about the Chariot and Death suggest some glimpse of the De Casibus narrative arc of the middle trumps.
1951: William Marston Seabury (1878-1949) was a lawyer who published studies regarding issues of international film censorship, the economics of film distribution practices, trade associations, and the like, and an enthusiastic Bridge player. His study of Tarot was limited, and his notes were published postumously, but given what he did write it is clear that he was content with vague parallels in lieu of real explanation. He makes the list only because there are so few writers who took an original look at the trumps rather than creating or justifying occult babble. Seabury mentioned Boccaccio’s De Casibus, but he did not understand what the connection might be. Like so many others before and after him, he looked at the subjects out of their sequential context, and it is the sequence of the images which establishes a De Casibus or Fall of Princes motif in the trump cycle. He also mentioned Holbein’s Dance of Death at some length, listing eleven trump subjects which he found in that work. Unfortunately, he failed to draw any conclusion from that, simply adding it to his catalog of medieval analogies, including Dice & Chess, Florentine Guilds, the Feast of Fools, and above all, Dante.
1956-66: Getrude Moakley (1905-1998) was a librarian at the N.Y. Public Library. Her book, The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family: An Iconographic and Historical Study, was the first detailed, art-historical analysis of a specific deck and its unique iconography. (Decades later, we are have yet to see a second.) Moakley's most fundamental insight was that the hierarchy of trumps were a hierarchy of allegorical triumphs, hence the name carte da trionfi. She presented the trumps and the suit cards as all meaningfully integrated into a Carnivalesque pageant, a triumphal procession based loosely on Petrarch's I Trionfi. In interpreting the Visconti-Sforza cards as reflecting primarily themes from Petrarch's poem, Moakley weaves in a number of other motifs as well. Interpreting the suit cards, for example, she cites the allegorical interpretation of Innocentio Ringhieri which identified the suits with the four Cardinal Virtues. Moakley then presents each suit as a chivalrous embodiment of its respective virtue, thereby connecting them with the knight's processions mentioned above, which integrates the suits into her overall conception of the deck. This ambivalence, mixing Carnival vanities and moral allegory, fits neatly with the cultural sensibilities of the Carnival/Lent cycle.
One of the most compelling identifications Moakley provides in support of her theory deals directly to this Carnival/Lent aspect. The Mountebank, lowest of the trumps, is identified as the Carnival King himself, and the singular Fool is interpreted as the personification Lent. She discusses the unique iconography of these cards in the Visconti-Sforza deck, explaining their peculiarities in terms of these meanings. And she describes their role in the pageant. Into this context of a playful Carnivalesque procession, Moakley suggests that Petrarch’s triumphs were blended. They were excerpted, simplified, and rearranged "in the merry mood of Carnival." Some elements seem straightforward, such as Love followed by the Chariot. In the Visconti-Sforza deck, Love may well illustrate a betrothal picture of Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti. The Chariot has a female sovereign being pulled by winged horses, and might easily be intended to conflate the conventional Tarot Chariot with Petrarch's Triumph of Chastity.
Moakley resolves discrepancies with her interpretation with speculation about humorous intent: Lack of fit with Petrarch's design is taken not as a weakness of the theory but as implied satire of that design. The trumps are considered "a ribald take-off" of Petrarch’s story. "Perhaps because, in the merry mood of Carnival, everything possible was done to make fun of the solemn story." Unfortunately, there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the various mismatches, and no coherent connection with Petrarch's design. If it were intended as a satire it fails utterly, since the object of the satire is no longer visible. Such interpretive freedom means that there is little real explanatory power to the hypothesis. However, to the extent that Petrarch's Trionfi themselves were a Triumph of Death, she has glimpsed the central design of the trump cycle. And she discovered genuine historical cognates for supposedly enigmatic and mysterious cards that Waite had termed "symbolical".
1977: Ronald Decker was an art and art history teacher, and curator of the U.S. Playing-Card Company's collection. From the fragmentary presentation of his ideas that I've seen, it appears to be both novel and, in some ways, insightful. In particular, his analysis of a systematic design in the TdM trump cycle appears sound, although he fails to understand either the overall gist of the trumps or the meaning of the individual cards.
1980-85: Michael Dummett (1925-) is the foremost scholar in the field of Tarot history, with many books and articles to his credit. His insistence on facts and reason is unparalleled in the Tarot world, and his originality and productivity are likewise in a class by themselves: he literally wrote the book on Tarot history. However, he also contributed greatly to Tarot iconography. His studies documented, among a great many other historical findings, that there were over a dozen different orderings of the trumps. He analyzed their patterns of similarity and difference, which is a crucial first step in making sense of their meaning. If the trump subjects have meaning as a coherent work of art, then somewhat different orderings convey somewhat different meanings. Conversely, the commonalties convey a generic content, a design which was recognized and respected by all those who revised the orderings. If the trumps constitute a work of art with a coherent meaning, then the order of the cards is the composition of that work while, if the trumps do not constitute a coherent system, then we may agree with Dummett: "Certainly most of the subjects on the Tarot trumps are completely standard ones in mediaeval and Renaissance art; there seems no need of any special hypothesis to explain them." As Dummett put it, "The hidden meaning, if any, lies in the sequential arrangement of the trump cards".
Dummett discerned in those commonalties the tripartite structure of the hierarchy and identified three types of subject matter in the trumps. This is another crucial step in Tarot iconography, and one which no other author has successfully negotiated. It is discussed in some detail in the earlier post, Iconography and the Order of the Cards. In terms of seeing into the gist of the trump cycle, however, Dummett declined to offer an interpretation. Despite providing these profound findings and insights, he didn't follow up with an iconographic analysis at all. In lieu of that he proposed a null hypothesis, that there is no such coherent meaning. The trumps were a kind of triumphal sampler of readily distinguished subjects in a vaguely conceived hierarchy, for mnemonic purposes only. Were it not such a vitally important and arguably sufficient alternative, against which all other hypotheses must be measured, this would rate a zero for the second criterion. However, given that it is the benchmark which other views must exceed to even merit consideration, it's importance must be acknowledged.
1985: John Shephard "studied the tarot in relation to the astrological and mythological literature of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for several years. He is a member of the International Playing Card Society, the Astrological Association, and the Astrological Lodge of London." Shephard, like some others on the list, understood almost nothing about the design of the trump cycle but nonetheless made a serious attempt at ekphrasis. Being expert in astrology, he interpreted the trump subjects and the cyclic structure in astrological terms. However, instead of following the occultist approach to correspondences, he developed a system based on the Children of the Planets conceit. While still bordering on the absurd, with far-fetched interpretations and inordinate complexity in the service of a trivial program, his analysis was at least novel and period appropriate. (Also, along the way, he presented a very valuable and wholly correct analysis of the E-Series model book iconographic program.)
1998: Timothy Betts, in his book Tarot and the Millennium: The Story of Who's on the Cards and Why, argued that the trump cycle was a peculiar retelling of medieval legends of the Second Coming and the Last Emperor. It was a novel interpretation, with no debt to the occultists, but he missed the essential meaning of the trump cycle and its structure completely. He did, however, discover and report on some relevant historical facts.
2000-02: Michael J. Hurst. I have followed key leads provided by Moakley and Dummett. Moakley's most significant insight that the trumps are an allegorical trionfi. Rather than taking the trump cycle as a travesty of Petrarch's I Trionfi, however, I have treated the hierarchy as a unique moral allegory and attempted to explain it in its own right, as one of many such works. Dummett's observation of the division of the series into three sections with different types of subject matter is fundamental. Each individual trump subject must be interpreted within the context of its register, the section of the overall program in which it appears.
2008: Ross Gregory Caldwell, although indebted to Moakley in a general sense, has taken a different approach. Trionfi in their most literary incarnations tend to be primarily allegorical, with Petrarch's cycle being the defining example. In their more common and pragmatic form, triumphs tended to be public-relations events staged for the benefit of military or political leaders. Alfonso's triumphant entry into Naples in 1443 is a well-documented example from the same period in which Tarot was created, but ancient monuments and descriptions tell a similar story. Allegory and homage are, in a sense, the two extremes toward which triumphs may be directed, although they are never actually separated. Caldwell has argued that the trump cycle represents a kind of speculum boni principis in the form of a generalized procession, which corresponds well with events like Alfonso's entry. As such, it might be based -- as some have speculated -- on an actual procession. Regardless of the origin of the hierarchy, as a card game designed for an Italian noble it would fit beautifully with descriptions of the value attributed to such games: not merely recreation but ennobling inspiration.
As of this date, Caldwell has not made a detailed presentation of his ideas.