The previous post looked at a single attribute of a 20th-century Tarot card. Three generations of historical models were traced, from the most proximate to the most distant. Despite the fact that this led us back to 1531, it told us absolutely nothing about pre-Gébelin Tarot, and only established that the modern element itself, as invented and employed by Waite, had zero historical sanction. The symbolism was completely modern, imposing modern meanings on "the olde French cardes" rather than telling us anything about the Renaissance origins of pre-Gébelin Tarot.
Evidence is essential and context counts. To actually understand the significance of Tarot's Old Man card (whether a Hermit or Time, to get ahead of our discussion a bit) requires looking at the early examples, in context. The evidence includes the historical names and images that define the card, which will be discussed more in a subsequent post. Context includes the Old Man's place within the trump cycle, the design and meaning of that hierarchical composition, and the larger social environment and cognate works of art and literature. Some of that cultural context is the main subject of this post.
First, however, regarding the design of the trump cycle, the understanding sine qua non is that there are three different types of subject matter: representatives of Mankind, the allegorical narrative per se, and eschatological subjects. From hundreds of other moral allegories we should immediately recognize the Emperor and Pope as representatives of Mankind and protagonists in whatever tale is being told. Lower-ranking cards are naturally part of that same category, while anything higher than the Pope is necessarily and obviously of a different order. This is not subtle, complex, obscure, or otherwise difficult to discern. The Devil and higher-ranking subjects are characteristic of Christian End Times illustrations, while the middle trumps include some of the most conventional allegories known: Love, Fortune, the three Moral Virtues, and Death. Each card must be interpreted in its correct sequential context.
Different names, pictures, and orderings naturally imply different meanings—a commonplace notion naively rejected by Procrustean Tarot enthusiasts. For example, Justice is a conventional allegory, conventionally depicted and conventionally named in early sources. The allegorical identity of the figure is dead obvious. However, in the Eastern ordering of the trumps it is moved into the section with eschatological subjects, appearing after the Angel of Resurrection and before the New World. It is equally obvious that the primary meaning of the card has been altered by this placement, and it now represents the Last Judgment. Neither the image nor the name were changed, but the context altered the meaning of the subject.
The Old Man card is much more interesting. It had several iconographies and various names, and there were at least two very different meanings intended. Moreover, the placement within the middle section immediately rules out some pseudo-historical folly. Consider these two statements: "The hermit was considered as a separate estate of man in the Dance of Death tradition" and "Hermits are not exempted from the Dance of Death, and indeed are frequently depicted in Death's clutches in medieval art". These writers literally do not know the first thing about the Tarot of history. The existence of three different types of subject matter is the first thing, the essential sequential context that constrains any genuine understanding of the trump cycle. Knowing that, it is absurd to turn the Hermit, (or any figure above the Pope), into just another representative of Mankind. Evidence is essential, and context counts.
The Larger Context
The central allegory of the Tarot trump cycle is a Stoic-Christian tragedy, and is well illustrated by the five images at the top of this page. These images are from a 1503 Parisian manuscript of Petrarch's De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae, and are attributed to Jean Pichore. Petrarch's Remedies and Christian Stoicism in general owed a great deal to Seneca.
As we have seen, Cicero is an important source for Stoicism, and Petrarch's fascination with Cicero naturally led to a close familiarity with his accounts of Stoic philosophy. Not only that, Petrarch also found much of value in Stoicism, and the impact of Stoic ideas can be seen in a number of his works. Two in particular are worth noting. The first, My Secret Book, (Secretum, written c. 1347-53), takes the form of an imaginary dialogue between Petrarch the pupil and Augustine the master, in which Augustine recommends to Petrarch Stoic ideas taken from Cicero and Seneca. The second, On Remedies for Both Kinds of Fortune (De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae, written c.1354-66), was inspired by a work attributed to Seneca (the De Remediis Fortuitorum) and draws heavily on the account of the Stoic theory of emotions [the four Passions of the Soul] in Cicero's Tusculan Disputations. It offers a Stoic-inspired therapy for the emotions conceived as a medicine for the soul.
John Sellars, Stoicism.
Petrarch's De Remediis was probably his most prestigious and influential work in the 15th-century. The basic design was a series of dialogs between Reason and the four Passions of the Soul, rationalizing that Fortune is never as good or as bad as it seems. As an example of the relationship between Remedies and Tarot, as well as an example of the format of the dialogues, consider the Hanged Man, more commonly called the Traitor. The practice of killing traitors by this method is documented in Northern Italy in the 14th century; it was illustrated in various contexts; and it was such a widely known method of humiliating execution that it became a common practice to depict such an execution as a means of hanging in effigy. The place of treason in the hierarchy of sins (Dante puts the traitors Judas, Brutus and Cassius, and Lucifer himself at the center of Hell) is also crucial to understand. Betrayal was the ruler's greatest and most archetypal fear, a terrible turn of Fortune's Wheel. Naturally, this was included in Petrarch's Remedies.
80. BETRAYAL (Sorrow and Reason)
Sorrow: I have been betrayed by my friends.
Reason: I would believe you had you said “by my enemies”. If they are your firends, they do not betray you.
Sorrow: I have been betrayed by members of my family.
Reason: That expression is ambiguous. “Family member” can designate a friend as well as a foe, who poses the greatest threat to be encountered in human life.
Sorrow: I have been betrayed by those I trusted most.
Reason: He who trusts no one is seldom betrayed. The more powerful a man is, the less can he safely trust anyone, yet the more people he must needs rely upon. Whence follows that betrayal is a common thing, but especially so when it comes to kings, who are more prone to this ill than any other class of men. We are told that Priam was betrayed by his own people; betrayed were Minos, Nisus, Aeethes, Agamemnon, Alexander, and, before him, Darius; by your countrymen betrayed were Romulus, Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, Africanus Minor, the great Pompey, Julius Caesar, and a thousand others—some kings, some more than kings. But why do I speak of those that have been betrayed as if they were few and far between? Who is there that has not been betrayed—daily betrayed in small and large matters—unless there is no one around to betray him? The worst outrage is that even Christ was betrayed, and that the King of Heaven Himself did not escape that curse of earthly kings.
Sorrow: I have been betrayed; and I am hurt more by the fraud than by its bothersome consequences.
Reason: Well and nobly said! According to Cicero, Africanus, whom I just mentioned, noted that he was terrified more by the thought of treachery among his own kinsmen than by the fear of death. Yet neither treachery nor fear should unduly upset you, because the way things are, it is a foregone conclusion that the perfidy of the betrayer will earn him riches and infamy, and the pain of the betrayed, a good name and bitter loses. Choose whichever you like.
Sorrow: A traitor has duped me.
Reason: The greatest injury is his, not yours. He betrays you, but he condemns himself; he pricks you, but knifes himself; and while he robs you, he slays himself. He may take from you a kingdom, perhaps, or your riches. But he deprives himself of his soul, his reputation, a peaceful conscience, and the company of all decent people. There is no filthier thing under the sun than a foul traitor, whose degradation is so great that those who employ his craft detest the craftsman, and others, who seek to profit by other crimes, shudder at his iniquity.
Sorrow: I have been betrayed.
Reason: Perhaps it is good for you—because you will not as easily be betrayed a second time. It happens often that those who have been alerted by small losses have learned to avoid large ones.
Conrad H. Rawski, Petrarch's Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul.
In addition to Seneca's philosophical writings, his letters and dramas were also influential.
In the Senecan tragedies over and over again comes the emphasis in some form upon the folly of all ambitious effort. Seneca is a fountainhead of much ready-phrased thought for Christian Europe; and one stream of it, not the least, eddies around the general idea that high place draws misfortune just because it is high. The lightning strikes the highest trees, cold blasts smite most keenly the highest mountains, tallest buildings are most easily shaken from their foundations, storms toss mariners who venture farthest from shore; the variations are endless, but the moral always is essentially as Seneca makes the chorus state it in his Agamemnon.
Willard Farnham, The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy.
Farnham then quotes the last line of the following passage. It is the opening chorus of Seneca's tragedy Agamemnon. It presents both the role of Fortuna and the nature of tragedy itself, and is worth quoting in full.
O Fortune, beguiler by means of the great blessings of thrones, you set the exalted in a sheer, unstable place. Never do sceptres attain calm peace or a day that is certain of itself. They are wearied by care upon care, their spirits tossed by some new storm. Not so does the sea in the Libyan Syrtes roll in rage wave upon wave; no so in the Euxine do the waters swell from the lowest depths—those waters close to the snowy pole where Bootes turns his shining Wain, never touching the azure waves—as Fortune whirls the fates of kings in headlong movement. They desire to be feared and dread to be feared; no save respite is afforded them by gracious night, no ease comes to their hearts from sleep, tamer of cares. What citadels have answering crimes not plunged in ruin, or kindred wars not weakened? Right and shame and the hallowed loyalties of marriage abandoned palaces; in place of these comes grim Bellona with bloodstained hand and the Erinys that dogs the proud, always attending immoderate homes—homes that any hour can bring from on high to the ground. Though weapons sleep and treacheries cease, greatness sinks by its very weight, good fortune is a burden that crushes itself. Sails that are filled with favouring southerlies fear the winds that are all too helpful; with its head thrust up to the very clouds a tower is thrashed by rainy Auster, and a grove that casts a heavy shade sees its ancient tree trunks shattered; the lofty hills are struck by lightning, larger physiques are prone to disease, and while the common cattle run out to roam and graze, the loftiest neck is chosen for the axe. Whatever fortune raises on high, she lifts to cast down. Modest estate is longer-lived. Lucky the man content with the lot of average folk, who hugs the shore where the breeze is save, fears to trust his boat to the sea, and rows a course close in to land.
John G. Fitch trans., Seneca.
This is the narrative of medieval tragedy in general and the trump cycle in particular. An inescapable connotation of Fortune's Wheel and one of the recurrent lessons from Seneca is the folly of ambition. This takes many forms, some apparent in the quote above. One of the most striking is in Boccaccio's De Casibus battle between Fortune and Poverty. In virtually all cases, Fortune's fickle behavior is illustrated with a Fall of Princes. This gives medieval tragedy the character of a speculum principis, even if the intended moral lesson applies to all.