Saturday, May 3, 2008

Blunder and Bullshit

Fools and charlatans are as natural and complementary a pair as victims and criminals. If we think of occult Tarot as a morality play, the central characters would be Blunder (the fool, symbol of Folly) and Bullshit (the con artist, symbol of Deception). Tarotists often identify the Fool as the neophyte seeker while the Magician gulling him is the initiated guide, sensible and revealing interpretations of the characters Blunder and Bullshit.

While Blunder and Bullshit do their best work as a team, they can provide some howlers on their own. Despite the fact that most would-be Tarot interpreters will die without ever seeing beyond their initial New Age preconceptions about fortune-telling, magic, mysticism, and fuzzy Jungian blather, it still seems possible that a rational reading could be accomplished in less than a lifetime. In the previous post it was asserted that, with a little background knowledge, some common sense, and a bit of Googling, one might sort out an involved iconographic scheme in a relatively few hours. That doesn't mean there isn't room for errors and omissions, and some may have been made in that very post. As examples, however, I'll draw from others. First, a list of some sources that were consulted before writing the previous post... and another look at our mosaic.

Selected Sources

Ross sent the following link to a nice quality image.

Another good quality image turned up at Wikipedia's page on skull symbolism.

Another good quality photo turned up on imageshack.

A succinct source is's entry, "Polychrome table-top mosaic from Pompeii".
"Roman, first century CE. "Death levels all" theme depicting builder's leveling tool from which is suspended a skull, butterfly, and wheel of fortune; from one side of the level hang a sceptre and royal purple robe, while from the other hang a beggar's staff and rags. Naples, National Archaeological Museum. Credits: Barbara McManus, 2003."

A 2006 article by Colleen Carroll turned up on In it, she provides some general background on both Roman mosaics and the iconography of our mosaic. Unfortunately, neither her descriptions nor interpretations of the mosaic are reliable.

Who was Hiram Abiff?
J.S.M. Ward
Baskerville Press, 1925.

The Cambridge Ancient History v.XI
John Anthony Crook, Elizabeth Rawson
Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World
Katherine M. D. Dunbabin
Cambridge University Press, 2000

The Lost World of Pompeii
Colin Amery, Brian Curran
World Monuments Fund, 2002.

Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity
Serafina Cuomo
Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Note that despite doing my research online, most of the sources listed are published books. This reflects the fact that even today the Web itself is, in most cases, a shabby alternative to the stacks. Google Books and's Search Inside feature are often the best resources available on the Internet.

Perceptual Filters

The two examples to be discussed are from what should be, a priori, the best and worst sources I found. Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity is a scholarly book that not only develops serious historical questions in a sober manner with detailed examination of evidence, but in addition, Chapter 3, Death and the Craftsman, deals directly with ancient Roman symbolism related to our mosaic; the concluding section of that chapter uses our mosaic as one of two key examples; and our mosaic is even used for the book's cover art! This is not just a passing mention. So we begin our bad examples with a best-case situation, where a serious researcher leaps to a conclusion, based on genuine evidence, but fails to critically consider whether or not it can be justified.

The picture on the cover of this book is another non-funerary item from Pompeii -- a small mosaic, originally used as a table top in the outdoor triclinium of a large house which was at least partly occupied by a tannery. The startling image it presents is that of a skull (possibly modeled after the skull of a monkey) hanging from a carpenter's square, in the guise of a piece of lead hanging from a plumb line. The skull rests on a butterfly which in its turn rests on a wheel; the libella is supported on one side by a draped piece of purple cloth and a crown, and on the other by a traveling cloak with a stick and satchel. The various objects have been read as symbolizing the poor on the one hand and the rich and noble on the other, who are united and leveled in death. The wheel is the wheel of fortune, and the butterfly is a common image for the soul. The association is, as one historian has said, 'easy to grasp': the carpenter's square conveyed the idea that death is the great equalizer.

Let us first point out the obvious blunder, underlined in the above quote. The skull is not suspended from the line, and cannot possibly take the place of the plumb bob, as the plummet is shown above the skull. This is a very clear and accurate depiction of the plummet, including the fact that its reach does not extend beyond the base of the tool, and even including 3-D shading. In addition, the skull is enormously out of proportion to serve this function, and would descend below the feet of the tool rendering it useless. This interpretation is a blunder in several ways, falsifying the actual image and imposing another one which makes no sense. Other preconceptions have made their way into the passage as well, such as referring to the tool as a square. The angle is about 104 degrees, which is absurdly obtuse (insert your own pun here) to be called square, especially given that the author has noted that the tool is carefully depicted in most details. This level was not intended to be a multi-purpose device, either practically or symbolically, and would not function as plumb or square.

Again, we need to remember that this is not a casual description by someone who is only passingly interested in the image. This mosaic was closely considered, and the skull is both literally and figuratively the central element of its design. Yet the notion that the skull is intended as a weight was nonsensically imposed on the the picture -- what would lead to such an arbitrary and obviously false reading? It turns out that Cuomo had another artifact in mind when interpreting the mosaic.

Note also that the Pompeii mosaic is not unique; apart from other small objects, a strikingly similar image is preserved as a bronze weight for a steelyard [scale] in the shape of a skull with a butterfly on top of it. The functioning of a steelyard requires in fact an equalizing operation between weights and wares.

This beautiful bronze skull and butterfly has obvious symbolic connections with the mosaic. The skull is, as almost always, an iconic symbol of death and the butterfly, in the Hellenistic context, certainly represented the soul. And, given the function of the item in a balance, the allegorical leveling symbolism of Death is unmistakable. It is a wonderful cognate to our mosaic, but it does not make the skull in the mosaic into a weight. This appears to be a simple case of overextending the significance of one artifact into the interpretation of another. Correcting for the mistakes in reading the mosaic takes nothing from Cuomo's overall presentation, so there is no reason to think them anything but honest mistakes.

Before we leave this bronze sculpture, however, it may explain some of the peculiarities mentioned in the previous post. The mosaic skull is horribly misshapen. It has no chin, and there appear to be bizarre bony ears on each side. Given the excellent draftsmanship of the rest of the work, this seems to suggest that skulls were not kept around as artist's models, which seems culturally plausible. However, what about the ears? In the bronze weight, we see the absent chin and also vaguely ear-like processes on either side. In this case, however, these are clearly intended as the zygomatic arches, cheekbones. So the absurdly rendered skull in our mosaic may simply be 1) a conventional chinless portrayal characteristic of the period, and 2) a grossly ignorant rendering of the cheekbones.

The most directly salient aspects of Cuomo's presentation are available online. In fact, the entire chapter is available as a PDF file. The discussion of the funerary symbolism of builders' tools is excellent, especially the combination of ax, rule, and level mentioned in the previous post.

The Usual Fuckwits

When it comes to amusing lines of pseudohistory and rank bullshit, few can compete with the fabulous Freemasons. The most appalling tripe routinely derives, directly (as in this case) or indirectly (as with much of the Holy Blood, Holy Grail mythos) from these masters of mischief. In the early 18th century, not long after the invention of Freemasonry, the fable of Hiram Abiff was invented. This was integrated into their initiation rituals as an "historical" authority. As their bullshit was piled higher and spread further, the amount of effort required of the initiate became daunting, and complex memory aids were invented. These took different forms, but are most famously known in the guise of "tracing boards". The 1925 work of pseudohistory, Who was Hiram Abiff?, includes our mosaic as a significant example supposedly documenting Masonic rituals in ancient Rome. Abiff's legend, of course, goes back much further, at least in the fantasy world of Freemasonry. But we pick up the story with our mosaic.

The Roman Collegia had an initiation rite and the discovery of an inlaid marble tablet containing certain symbols suggests that Attis was their hero. On a ground of grey-green stone is inlaid a human skull in grey, black and white.... On the stick hangs a ragged, old, brown cloak tied with a cord, and over it a leather knapsack.... To the top, just beneath the knot, is a strip of white material with a line of dots or holes along the middle, and beneath is a robe of royal purple (red) fastened to the stuff by a cord. There is little doubt that here we have the "tracing board" of the degree of Death and Resurrection worked by the Roman Collegia.... The meaning of the scrip or knapsack is obscure, but it is obviously the reverse of the strip of cloth on the staff, the meaning of which is equally uncertain. The staff is, however, clearly the staff of the conductor of the dead, and the royal robe reminds us of the robes in which they clad the figure of Adonis slain. The thorn staff also seems to refer to the Acacia tree, and we cannot forget the fact that Adonis was not only the God of Corn but also of Trees. The fact that the royal robe is attached to the staff of the Conductor of the Dead clearly indicates that the initiate was symbolically raised from an old worn out physical body to a perfect spiritual body fit for habitation by the Divine King.

Naturally there is more, but this provides us with a couple points of approach. Given that the royal purple and plain ragged robes have been correctly identified, as has the symbolic opposition between the pictorial elements on either side, the rest of the analysis should be rather simple. In connection with Hellenistic royalty, the diadem is an obvious and fully explanatory association for a white band above the purple robe. In connection with paupers in the Greco-Roman world, the symbolism of a plain staff and a leather knapsack would be equally inescapable, rather than obscure. These connections are not merely necessary and, for anyone familiar with the subject matter, obvious, but also sufficient. No further explanation is required, and certainly not any arbitrarily forced reading about things like "the staff of the Conductor of the Dead" and its supposedly clear significance. Piling such inferences on top of arbitrary speculation is, unfortunately, what most online Tarot discussions specialize in.

As is usually the case with such pseudohistorians, we have the ugly combination of ignoring the obvious and imposing the arbitrary. No explanation or justification is given for either, and alternative readings are not considered -- even implicitly -- much less are they compared against the preferred interpretations. Overinterpretation in the form of false specifics is repeatedly introduced. Most misleadingly, there is "little doubt" about the most implausible of conclusions, in this case, that 18th- and 19th-century Masonic practices were instituted nearly two thousand years earlier.

Seeing such weaknesses in both the best (most scholarly) and the worst (most typical) examples of iconography, all one can do is 1) strive for the most parsimonious and conventional readings possible, and 2) seek out and pay attention to those who would disagree with your interpretations. Of course, good advice is only applicable to those who are not intellectually or morally bankrupt, and anyone who writes a book like Who was Hiram Abiff? is almost certainly deficient in one or both of those areas.

P.S. As yet another example of blundering interpretation, the description of the mosaic quoted above views the level as being like a coat hanger, "from which is suspended" the items in the middle, while the items at each side "hang" from the libella. Like Cuomo's assertion that the skull is the level's plummet, this is wildly false both in terms of the illustration itself and in terms of making hash of its meaning. The scepter, wheel, and staff are obviously and dramatically depicted as sitting on a shelf or floor. This is most clearly indicated by the shadows which fall on the floor and which commence from the object itself, showing that the objects are in contact with the floor. If they were hanging above it there would be a gap between object and shadow. More importantly, however, the function of the level and the meaning of the arrangement are based on that fact. The level only works if it is sitting on the things being measured: both scepter and walking stick must be on a flat surface with the libella resting on top of them.