Two days ago Ross Caldwell pointed out to me a magnificent mosaic from the late 1st century BC or the early 1st century AD. This little masterpiece of Roman art would be at home in the most sophisticated collection of 16th- or 17th-century emblems. The motto would be Claudian's famous exclamation, "Death levels all!" (Omnia mors aequat, from The Rape of Prosperine, book II, line 302.) That is also a central them of the many Triumph of Death and Dance of Death works from the mid 14th century through the 17th century, including the Tarot trump cycle. Thus the allegory depicted in the mosaic, although entirely pagan, immediately reminded both of us of the Tarot trump cycle. Yesterday Ross invited me to post on the mosaic, to use it as an example illustrating some methodological points from recent discussions on a Tarot forum, but it may be better to let them rest. I will address some of the topics here, instead.
The first point demands that we begin by openly admitting what most Tarot writers conceal or deny: We are talking about a far-fetched parallel, at least a priori. It comes from 1,400 years before Tarot was invented. It was, with absolute certainty, unknown to those who created Tarot. It could not be a source or an influence on the design of Tarot. Moreover, given my insistence that Tarot is a Christian allegory, there is an obvious disconnect between it and any purely pagan allegory. Such honesty carries a price, which is why it is so rarely seen in the writings of Tarot enthusiasts. The burden is clearly on me, the writer, to explain the alleged relevance of the mosaic to Tarot. The significance in terms of Tarot cannot be simply assumed as self-evident, (even though it might be to Ross and me). To make such an explanation necessitates knowing something about both works and it requires detailed analysis of their alleged affinity. If I leave those things as an exercise for the reader, then I'm just another bullshit artist and poseur, pretending to know something and pretending to say something. That is true regardless of whether there is a genuine parallel between the two works or not.
A second point concerns critical thinking, figuring things out based on the information at hand rather than abdicating that primary task while whimpering about having imperfect knowledge. Everyone always has less than complete knowledge. Some Tarot enthusiasts consider two decades of study insufficient to form any coherent conclusions about the meaning of a complex work like the trump cycle. This sets a new and tragically low standard for the term "slow learner". I've had two days to look at this allegory and write this post. Admittedly I had the aid of Google Books and Amazon.com's Search Inside feature, but then so does everyone else in the online Tarot community. Of course, if I couldn't do a decent job in two days, I'd take three. However, if I couldn't make any sense of it after a period of twenty-some years, after reading the views of dozens if not hundreds of others who studied the same allegory, I might consider taking up a different hobby.
This mosaic was apparently discovered in 1874, in Pompeii. It is about one foot square and contains ten major elements, arranged in three columns. Although sometimes described as a table top, which it may have been, when such symbolic mosaics are found in situ they usually occupy the center of a plain or patterned mosaic floor. The central mosaics usually range in size from one to three feet square, and those in Pompeii are usually symbolic, (rather like the images in emblem books). One example is in the House of the Labyrinth, also in Pompeii, in which the patterned floor neatly expands on the central mosaic's depiction of Theseus and the minotaur.
The present mosaic was found in a triclinium, an open dining area. While emblems of death might seem peculiar in a dining area, this was actually a traditional dinnertime reflection. A famous scene from Satyricon provides an example.
While we were reading the labels, Trimalchio clapped his hands for attention. "Just think, friends, wine lasts longer than us poor suffering humans. So soak it up, it's the stuff of life. I give you, gentlemen, the genuine Opimian vintage. Yesterday I served much cheaper stuff and the guests were much more important." While we were commenting on it and savoring the luxury, a slave brought in a skeleton, cast of solid silver, and fastened in such a way that the joints could be twisted and bent in any direction. The servants threw it down on the table in front of us and pushed it into several suggestive postures by twisting its joints, while Trimalchio recited this verse of his own making:
Alas! how less than naught are we;
Fragile life's thread, and brief our day!
What this is now, we all shall be;
Drink and make merry while you may.
The point here is simply that such macabre concerns were considered suitable mealtime subjects, as they were when Parisians ate lunch by the Church of the Innocents with the Dance of Death for their scenery. This was true for both the wealthy and for the working classes. Likewise, they tended to share the mors aequat omnia sensibility of death as the great leveler.
The composition of this mosaic includes not only well executed detail but also sufficient trompe l'oeil in the form of directional lighting/shading and 3-D rendering to make the composition appear precariously balanced and unstable. It is equally correct to say that the objects are shown as being perfectly balanced: the builder's level is perched atop a scepter on the left and a walking stick on the right.
The most striking element by far is the large white skull in the center of the composition, neatly and symmetrically framed by the other elements. The objects depicted on the left include a scepter/spear to which a diadem (the white ribbon of Hellenistic kingship) is tied and a royal-purple robe tied to the scepter with a golden cord. The objects depicted on the right include a rough-cut walking stick from which a beggar's pouch is hung and to which a ragged robe is tied with a plain cord. These attributes, insignia of the highest and lowest stations, are correspondingly arranged on either side of the skull. The scepter and the stick are exactly the same length, as is shown by the builder's level balanced on top of them. A clearer image of post-mortem equality between the most exalted and least respected members of society can hardly be imagined.
The plumb bob of the level touches the top of the skull, which sits on a butterfly and a wheel. Again, the 3-D shading of the skull and wheel, along with the shadow of the wheel, give the illusion that these objects are stacked on top of one another. This suggests a unreal degree of substantiality to the butterfly, or that the death-head is weightless, or perhaps that the death-head is depicted on the wall in the background while the other items are free-standing in front of it.
Elements of the Composition
LIBELLA -- The builder's level can have various meanings in period art. It may be a totemic item in a funerary composition, simply being a tool of the deceased's trade. However, the libella repeatedly appeared in funerary art along with an ax and a rule, which were probably symbolic. The rule measures and the ax cuts, suggesting the end of life, while the level indicates the egalitarian result. There is also the level's symbolism as virtue. A pendulum or plumb level works like a the scales of a balance, indicating level when the line is in the middle. (Libella is the diminutive of libra, and the verb form libro could mean to level or to weigh. Words like deliberate and equilibrium reflect this family of meanings.) Aristotle's conception of virtue, of course, was likewise a mean between extremes, and the opposite of unbalanced. Regardless of what Freemasons might think, being "on the level" is as natural a metaphor being "even-handed" or "well-balanced".
SKULL -- The skull in this mosaic is the only element not reflecting good draftsmanship. The skull has the large brain case of a human, and the sutures, although they are badly positioned, indicate that the artist was somewhat familiar with skulls. However, the maxillary prognathism and absent chin are simian in appearance, and the bony ear is bizarre. I have read no explanation for this, and have none to offer. However, the significance of the skull as an icon of death is sufficiently clear in any rendering.
BUTTERFLY -- The butterfly was a symbol of the soul, and appeared in various works of art and literature. Famously, Psyche was turned into a butterfly and shown with butterfly wings. As such, the butterfly could be a metaphor for a Neoplatonic post-mortem ascent through the spheres.
WHEEL -- The wheel might suggest Fortuna, who was given this attribute during the period when the mosaic was made. However, it might also be a symbol of journey, metaphor for life. The six spokes suggest an elaboration of this, the six Ages of Man. Any of these would convey the same general idea, man's lot in life.
The SCEPTER is a symbol of royalty and the associated power and authority. Ancient Roman leaders were also warriors, and were sometimes depicted with a SPEAR either in addition to or in place of a scepter. The DIADEM (white ribbon) was the Hellenistic symbol of kingship, a status so high that even power-mad caesars took care to reject it. The PURPLE ROBE tied with a GOLDEN CORD -- another symbol of power, wealth, and privilege.
The vagrant's STAFF is the opposite of a scepter. The PERA, (Cynica pera or Cynic sack) was a leather bag (purse, pouch, wallet, knapsack, etc.) and along with the walking stick was a long-standing symbol of a rural figure or an urban beggar's poverty. These items were adopted by the Cynics and other ironic sages, the obnoxious "wise fools" like Diogenes. The RAGGED ROBE tied with a PLAIN CORD is the opposite of the purple and golden insignia on the left.
The Parallel with Tarot
The lowest trumps of the Tarot cycle include representatives of both the highest and lowest social status. The Emperor and Pope are the highest figures in medieval Christian society, while the Fool and Mountebank are among the dregs. In both works the notion of merism, that form of synedoche wherein the highest and lowest encompass and thereby represent the entirety, is clearly at work. In both works, the subject of the allegory is all Mankind.
The allegory proper, that which happens to Man, is equally encompassing. The wheel, as an allegory of either the ups and downs of Fortune or of the Ages of Man, spans the entirety of Everyman's life. This is spelled out in more detail in the trump cycle, where successes (Love and the Chariot) are followed by reversals (Time and Fortune) and downfall (Betrayal and Death). However, the abbreviated version in the mosaic is still culminated by the dominant feature of the work, the allegory of Death. If the libella is taken as an allusion to virtue in life, then this would be an added parallel with the trump cycle; but it is more likely just a meta comment about the leveling effect of Death, and the moral of the allegory.
The butterfly can be taken as the post-mortem soul. Released from its mundane, sub-lunar imprisonment as a caterpillar, it can fly free. This suggestion of a triumph over Death is in keeping with the highest-ranking cards of the trump cycle and their eschatological content. Again, it is an abbreviated version, and obviously a purely pagan one; but it completes the tripartite parallel between the mosaic and the trump cycle.
Whether one accepts the reading of either work, or the alleged parallel between them, at least interpretations are provided and the parallels are spelled out. One can accept this analysis, reject it, or perhaps correct it and build something better. But there is something there, something beyond a weak analogy nebulously insinuated. The Tarotists' claim that endless years of mindless rummaging, feeling and fondling a thousand different possibilities, are a necessary prerequisite to any critical thinking about the trump cycle, is suspect at best. Whether a disingenuous ruse to shield bankrupt pet theories or an implicit admission of gross and incurable ignorance, it is something to be ashamed of.
December 28, 2013 postscript:
This childish interpretation was found on the Internet, without any authorship information. It seems to be worth including here, as a characteristic example of the most typical sort of bullshit one finds in Tarot books and online discussions.