Ten years ago, about the time I ceased being a newbie(1), there were countless lively debates in the online Tarot community, debates over the iconographic analysis of Tarot’s trump cycle, the historical meaning of Tarot. These exercises included hotly contested disagreements over big issues and small. Some questions were quite specific, such as the proper placement of the Fool within the series of allegorical images. One post would claim that the Fool was "obviously" the first, another would point to the numbering and insist that the Magician was certainly first so the Fool must be last, as in some early listings and later decks. Dedicated occultists claimed that the proper placement was next to last, while others noted his unique role in the game and denied that he had any allegorical role or place in the series.
Other threads concerned more encompassing topics, such as the general character or genre of the trumps. Empty buzzwords were the main arguments employed, labels like Neoplatonic, Kabbalistic, Neopythagorean, Gnostic, Pagan, heretical, “just a game” (always used as a derisive strawman), etc. All the usual esoteric claptrap had defenders: astrological signs, numerological symbols, a mystical hierarchy of enlightenment or Fool’s Journey, the initiatory myth and ritual of a hypothetical proto-Masonic secret society, yak-yak-yak. More eccentric, idiosyncratic, and often outright crackpot historical theories were put forth. Gertrude Moakley’s thesis, a Carnivalesque parody of Petrarch’s allegorical Trionfi was sometimes defended. Michael Dummett’s assessment, that the trumps were a vaguely hierarchical series of common triumphal images, simply chosen to serve as readily identifiable trumps for the game, was the default position or null hypothesis. I played my part, year after year arguing that the proper genre for the trumps was a moral allegory of Stoic-Christian renunciation (contemptu mundi) and reward, including End Times triumphs over the Devil and Death.
Hundreds of such discussions played out, and different sorts of evidence and argument were produced. One common argument, used by all sides, was “my interpretation is more period-appropriate than yours”. This usually took the form, “what would a Renaissance card-player have seen in the trumps?” Variations included substituting “Italian noble”, “educated layman”, “enterprising card-maker”, and other dimly imagined characters in place of the card-player. Robert V. O’Neill (Tarot Symbolism, p.364) stacked the deck by making the hypothetical exegete a “Renaissance Magus”, assumed to have created Tarot. A more appropriate question might be as follows: If someone, anyone in Renaissance Italy, cared enough about the meaning of the trumps to bother explaining the Tarot, what would they have said?
With the publication of
In English-speaking countries, Tarot is almost universally associated with the make-believe worlds of fortune-telling and the occult. Books on Tarot (at least in English) are commonly consigned to the astrology aisle along with crystals and conspiracy theories of the Holy Blood, Holy Grail genre. However, Tarot has a serious side as well. On the very short shelf of worthwhile books about Tarot, most deal with its history as a game or as a cult artifact, and about half have the name Michael Dummett on the title page. After the publication of The Game of Tarot in 1980, the origin and history of Tarot were no longer “lost in the mists of time”. Anyone genuinely interested in the subject could readily find answers. That book also detailed the 18th-century origins of occult Tarot, dispelling the fictions of Renaissance magi as well as those regarding ancient Egyptian priests, the Knights Templar, and Gypsy fortune-tellers. Because of the still-pervasive myths about Tarot, some background is in order.
Tarot was a popular card game from its invention in Northern Italy, circa 1440, to the present: this was massively documented by Dummett three decades ago. He wrote a comprehensive history of Tarot and its changes over time and across Europe. His narrative begins with the introduction of playing-cards to Europe and the later invention of the game and deck of Tarot. The supposedly mysterious “Major Arcana”, a group of 22 allegorical cards, were added to a regular 56-card deck of the period to serve as trump cards for a trick-taking game. He traced its early popularity and spread in the Renaissance, when it was played throughout most of Italy and into France, along with variations in the early decks. Renaissance sensibilities resulted in some classicized versions of the deck, while in the 16th century there were literary works (tarocchi appropriati) based on the standard trump subjects. Dummett documented the ways in which the game and deck were changed as they passed from country to country and over time, and the heyday of Tarot in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as modernized decks made the game more popular than ever. He was the first writer to investigate and document the most bizarre development, as Tarot decks were adopted by a few French occultists during the Romantic Era who imposed arbitrary meanings and a farcical origin myth on the trump cards. A century later, the popularization of this new Tarot took place in late-Victorian England. Prior to that, occult Tarot as an object of legend and mystery had failed to catch on outside of a few fringy Freemasons. This is the real history of Tarot before the 20th century.
The meaning of Tarot, the art-historical study of the cards’ iconography including the 21st-century debates by amateur enthusiasts discussed above, is a separate question.(2) In terms of sober studies, the iconography of Tarot is even more rarely examined than the history. Explaining the Tarot: Two Italian Renaissance Essays on the Meaning of the Tarot Pack, (Ross Sinclair Caldwell, Thierry Depaulis, & Marco Ponzi, 72 pages, 2010), is the first book to address the subject seriously in more than a decade. Better yet, it addresses it with essays from Renaissance Italy!
The Meaning of Tarot
New Age folklore has it that Tarot was banned by the Church and condemned as “the Devil’s breviary” or The Devil’s Picturebook. While these things aren’t actually true, it is the case that the oldest surviving discussion of the Tarot trumps, the so-called Steele Sermon, was extremely negative. Following a long tradition regarding dice, this Ferrarese preacher wrote that games were the invention of the Devil. While the preacher hated all games, he reserved his harshest condemnation for Tarot:
There is nothing in the world pertaining to games as odious to God as this game of Triumphs. It appears in fact that it contains every disgrace to the Christian faith, as is laid open by running through it. It is said and believed that Triumphs, so called, were named so by their inventor the Devil because no other game triumphs over the soul’s destruction as in this one, in which not only are God, the angels, planets, and the cardinal virtues disparagingly placed and named, but the true lights of the world, that is the Pope and Emperor, are also forced [into it], which is absurd, and the greatest disgrace to Christians is to enter this game. The 21 Triumphs are in fact the 21 steps of a ladder that take one deeper into Hell.
An actual ladder into Hell was not an unknown subject or image: it would be easy to depict from the steps along the way. At the bottom was Satan tormenting Cassius, Brutus, and Judas, another easy thing to illustrate. (As an aside, they were in the lowest depths of Hell because betrayal was the worst sin for the traitor and the worst turn of fate for a great lord, like Caesar or Jesus. This is why it is shown in Tarot as the archetypal downfall, leading to Death.) Tarot does not show such a descent, nor anything like it.
The astonishing thing about the preacher's conclusions are that he almost certainly knew they were the direct opposite of Tarot's design. He listed the trumps—in order, by name—which is sufficient to make the actual outline clear to anyone of that time and place. The lowest-ranking trumps include the Pope and lesser figures including Empress and Emperor, as did the many Dances of Death and Triumphs of Death. These paintings preached silent sermons from church walls throughout Europe, frequently alongside a Last Judgment, a natural pairing. The middle trumps included conventional allegories such as Love, Fortune, the three Moral Virtues, and ultimately Death, as did many moral allegories in art and literature. The highest-ranking trumps include, by the Steele Sermon’s own account, the Star (often depicted as the Advent Star), Moon and Sun as in countless works of Apocalyptic art, (deriving from biblical passages), the Angel of Resurrection, the virtue of Justice representing Judgment, and the World, which the Ferrarese preacher explicitly identified with God the Father. If this is a ladder, then it leads from the conditions of life in this world to God the Father in the next! As George Leake summarized the relation between the game itself and Tarot’s standard trump cycle, “God wins”. If the preacher of the Steele Sermon were right about Tarot, the top card might have looked like this:
In terms of Tarot iconography, most New Age interpreters ignore historical evidence that doesn’t relate to fortune-telling or the occult: even 30 years after publication of The Game of Tarot, none of them have taken Dummett’s crucial iconographic findings into account. And as mentioned above, few respectable writers have ventured into the terra ignota of Tarot iconography. The trump subjects were for the most part common currency of late-medieval and later Christian art, and the trump hierarchy obviously suggests meaning, but precisely what that meaning was is not immediately clear. Playing-card historians of the 19th century offered only a sketchy interpretation, but it was very close to the mark: Paul Lacroix and others observed that it “was certainly an imitation of the famous danse macabre”. This was a more accurate assessment than any which have been published since, probably because the influence of occultists has made the subject matter seem more and more mysterious. Today there are many people who are professional obscurantists, people who obfuscate Tarot history and meaning for money—just look at the Tarot shelf of any well-stocked bookstore.
Among the 20th century writers worth mentioning are A.E. Waite, who debunked some of the occult myths a century ago, William M. Seabury and Joseph Campbell, who both failed to make Tarot a reflection of Dante’s Commedia, Gertrude Moakley, (with help from a 10-year correspondence with Erwin Panofsky), who did a decent job of reading Tarot as a reflection of Petrarch’s Trionfi, John Shephard, who failed to make Tarot represent an astrological scheme via Children of the Planets, and Timothy Betts, who failed to make Tarot into a Apocalyptic legend of the Last Emperor and Angelic Pope. But two other interpretations, from 450 years ago, are better than any of those: the two essays translated and published in Explaining the Tarot.
Explaining the Tarot: Two Italian Renaissance Essays
The meaning of the Tarot trump cycle remained hazy, despite Dummett’s detailed and coherent history of 540 years of Tarot as a game, and 200 years of occult Tarot. Then, in 1987, Franco Pratesi introduced the world to two 16th-century Italian essays moralizing the Tarot deck. These were detailed readings of the trump cycle, from the period rather than just arguably period-appropriate.
With these discourses, Tarot takes its place alongside previous moralities of Chess and regular playing cards, along with the ubiquitous dice, as a symbol of the vagaries of Fortune, as another avenue of reflection on the human condition, and the concerns of people of their time and place. These two discourses are the earliest ever written, and offer a rare glimpse into the other side of the game of Tarot in its first centuries—the meanings educated people might have seen in the pictures on the cards.
(Explaining the Tarot, pp.5-6.)
The texts remained little known and generally unavailable. Their greatest significance in terms of the history of Tarot was probably the odd trump orderings listed, (nearly all early lists are unique, as are these two), and the manner in which Piscina’s Discorso supported a hypothesis of Dummett’s about the development of Tarot in Piedmont. The moral allegories themselves are not revealing in terms of Tarot history.(2) However, the authors of Explaining the Tarot were just as interested in the moral allegories themselves as in the historical aspects which had already been assimilated by playing-card historians. They felt these texts were worth the time and effort of transcribing and translating into English, and there seem to be many potential audiences for the result.
Ross Sinclair Caldwell is a fixture in the online Tarot community. He has translated a number of obscure but significant texts into English besides these essays, some of them mentioned below. His articles published in the IPCS’s The Playing Card include “Marziano da Tortona’s Tractus de deificatione sexdecim heroum”, “The Devil and the Two of Hearts”, and “The Proto-historiography of Playing Cards”. Thierry Depaulis is one of the most prominent playing-card historians, current Chairman of the IPCS, and co-author of the definitive study of the origins and early history of occult Tarot, A Wicked Pack of Cards (1996), among many other publications. Marco Ponzi is another habitué of online Tarot forums, and has also been involved in translating a number of significant period works into English. Caldwell and Ponzi discussed the book with Enrique Enriquez.
Franco Pratesi announced Piscina to the playing-card world by in 1987, and others have commented on it since including Dummett, Pietro Marsilli, and Giordano Berti. In Explaining the Tarot, Caldwell et al. introduce Piscina with a summary of its content, some analysis of the trump sequence used by Piscina, and some background on both the Discorso itself and its author. Nineteen footnotes provide much-appreciated help with some obscure points. Here we will skip through the outline of Piscina’s essay, discussing a few points in some detail: his introduction, the lowest trumps, his revealing comments on Temperance, and the etymology of “Tarot”.
Piscina begins with a great emphasis on the order of the cards. He points out that the universe itself is well ordered, and that virtue (doing good) depends upon that order. “So the wise author of this game considered the importance of good order.[...] So these figures would have given but little pleasure if he had not placed them following and using a beautiful and convenient order. He applied all diligence in doing so.” Piscina’s next order of business is to emphasize the value and Christian content of the trump cycle. He explains that the inventor of Tarot wanted to impart “moral teachings” and illustrate that many worldly affairs are unwise. “In this way he proved to be not only a good and loyal follower of the Catholic and Christian faith, but also a true expert and excellent in the customs of civil life....”
Then comes his discussion of the 22 allegorical cards and their meaning. As is the case with most subsequent Tarot exegetes, Piscina is clearly making this stuff up as he goes, and is aware that he does not have a fully coherent story to tell. As an example, he offers multiple explanations for the Fool’s meaning and role in the game. The obvious explanation—the Fool represents the vice of Folly and the foolishness of all mankind, as in Erasmus or Brandt—eludes him. The Fool is the Vice as in a Morality Play. Instead, Piscina suggests the foolishness at the beginning and end of life, infancy and senility, as his first try. Then he has a second go, borrowing from a 1531 comedy titled The Deceived, Act III, Scene ii, in which innkeepers at the Inn of the Mirror and the Inn of the Fool take part. He says that the Matto carries a mirror—which we see in no surviving deck—and he identifies the Bagatto as an innkeeper, another unknown image. However, there are at least some images of the Magician which might be interpreted as an innkeeper serving drinks. An actual 15th-century illustration of an innkeeper provides a good comparison.
Another peculiar element of Piscina’s account is the fact that it shares elements of two different families of Tarot, known technically as C-Western and A-Southern. One of the two Southern aspects is the absence of Empress and Popess cards, replaced by a second Emperor and second Pope. As in Southern decks, these so-called Papi, princes of the two great estates—Nobles and Clergy—are unranked or, rather, they are tied in ranking above the Bagatto and below everything else. That is, if two or more are played in a single trick, the last one played trumps the others.
Piscina’s account of Temperance, ranked above Death, is particularly noteworthy. This placement has befuddled many commentators on the Western decks, but here it is explained well.
Death is placed here, after all the preceding figures, to mean that all those which we have discussed in detail are subject to Death, as Popes, Emperors, Triumphs, Strengths, Vices, and all the other above mentioned figures. And this is verified by the fact that after Death, placed in the thirteenth place, there follows nothing on which it has any power. Then Temperance comes: a most beautiful virtue that moderates us in the pleasures of the body, according to the law, and that can here be interpreted as any other virtue, that does not fear the strikes of Death, nor the inconstancy of Fortune: on the contrary, virtues make men immortal, according to the opinion of the Poet, they take the man out of the grave and preserve him for a long and immortal life. Since the author thought to have put enough images and examples of mortal things, he moves to place figures of more worth things, that is to say, celestial.
(Explaining the Tarot, p.23.)
The Medieval Heritage of Tarot
The individual subjects of the trump cycle are commonplace, but so are the dominant themes of the overall moral allegory. The power of Fortune and Death in this world and the need to face both good and bad fortune with Virtue were pre-Christian, and the ultimate triumph over sin and death at Judgment, as described in Revelation 20, was Church doctrine from the dawn of Christianity.
The Greco-Roman ancients had three main flavors of contemptu mundi: Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Stoicism. The Platonic rejection of this world was transcendent, otherworldly, seeking God in asceticism and mysticism. Gnostics were even more emphatic in their hard-edged dualism. Both felt that they knew the way to a world beyond this one. Stoic apathea, indifference to this world, was focused on virtuous living in the face of Fortune’s gifts and assaults. All three were deeply influential on subsequent Christian thinking, reflected in art and literature as well as theological writings.
In the Middle Ages, Christianity borrowed heavily from both these approaches, virtuous asceticism and the hope of transcendence. The ethical teachings of the Stoics, rejecting the blandishments while ignoring the enticements of fickle Fortune, were embraced as a way of life in this world ruled by Death. This was appropriate to life in the post-lapsarian world between Adam’s Fall and Christ’s Second Advent. Simultaneously, Apocalyptic beliefs about resurrection and judgment in the afterlife provided a means of overcoming the inescapable, assuming that one was virtuous.
Boethius wrote his autobiographical De Consolatione Philosophiae as a moral allegory, but the story epitomizes medieval tragedy. Tragedies tell of someone’s downfall, usually a great figure, and they begin with his triumphs and rise to greatness. Then come reversals and decline, (peripeteia), at the whim of Fortune, and a final downturn or catastrophe. Fortune and her Wheel entered Christian iconography through De Consolatione.
Boccaccio compiled an encyclopedia with Examples of Famous Men (De Casibus Virorum Illustrium), upon which much of his 15th-century fame was based. Each example illustrates the tragic narrative arc in which no amount of success or virtue can triumph over the reversals of Fortune and ultimately Death.
Petrarch wrote another kind of encyclopedia of Fortune, De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae. As with Boccaccio’s De Casibus, this was Petrarch’s most respected work in 15th century Italy. Based on the Stoic Seneca’s De Remediis Fortuitorum, Petrarch’s version treated both good and bad fortune as circumstances demanding virtuous remedies.
These are just a few of the most prominent examples of the Stoic-Christian sensibility in which the circumstances of Fortune triumph over Mankind and thereby require Virtuous behavior. The best resource summarizing this network of themes is Willard Farnham’s 1936 The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy.
Confirming the validity of a meaning at least rather like that given by Piscina is the fact that Temperance, alone of the virtues in Tarot, is given angelic wings, and that attribute only appears in decks of the Western order where she triumphs over Death. Virtue is psychopomp, seeing the soul to its reward. But there is more to the triumph of Virtue over Death.
Piscina explicitly describes the four Papi as being subject to the middle trumps, which triumph over them. These middle trumps begin with things like Love, Triumph, Justice, and Fortitude, and conclude with Death. This is a clear statement of the De Casibus (Fall of Princes) narrative arc, a tragedy depicted in Tarot via allegory rather than historical exemplars of Boccaccio. He identifies lower-ranking trumps as things that are subject to Fortune and Death, and the higher-ranking trumps as those which are not. In this and a number of other ways, the Stoic-Christian contemptu mundi genre of Tarot is correctly identified by Piscina... 450 years ago. (See sidebar for some famous examples.) The triumph of Virtue over all these circumstances of life exemplifies the related motif of De Remediis (Remedies for Fortune). In general terms, this is the historical meaning of Tarot.
Like many Tarot exegetes after him, including Moakley, Piscina felt the need to incorporate the suit cards into the trump-cycle allegory. (This is a hallmark of post hoc moralizations rather than art-historical iconography.) After dealing with the trumps he offers several readings for the suits. Reporting on what others say, the suits may refer to any of various quaternities such as seasons, ages of man, etc. He then adds two interpretations of his own. None of them are particularly well thought out, well connected to the trump cycle, or revealing of any original or intended meaning of the suits. (Also, there is no indication that the pips of Cups and Coins would be ranked in reverse order, as they routinely are and probably were in Piscina’s provenance.) The most interesting fact is that both of these 16th-century writers felt compelled to include a moralization of the suit cards at all. Piscina’s final comment on the suits refers to the perfection of the number 4, including a reference to Ficino’s discussion of Plato’s Timaeus.
In his closing remarks, Piscina makes a self-deprecating comment that is revealing in terms of the etymology of “Tarocco”, i.e., “Tarot”. It is translated as “I know that many will say that a Tarocco has tarotly (if I may say so) discussed and spoken of Tarot”. The meaning appears to be that a fool has foolishly spoken of Tarot. This is explained in some detail, with other historical examples of a similar usage, in a the final footnote for Piscina. After centuries of shameless bullshit about “Tarot” being Egyptian for “Royal Road”, and similar fictions, we now have two plausible etymologies for the word.
The Anonymous Essay
This essay was almost wholly unknown, outside the tiny world of playing-card specialists, prior to the publication of Explaining the Tarot. The introductory comments of Caldwell et al. point out a number of ways in which the anonymous Discorso contrasts with Piscina’s. Among them, it is more formal and more developed with historical comparisons and examples. Many details are different, but the overall impression of the two allegorical readings is remarkably similar. Caldwell et al. provide a detailed discussion of the surviving texts and their determination of the likely provenance of the original. Forty-two footnotes explain or expand on obscure references.
The first playing-card moralization, Brother John of Rheinfelden’s 1377 (1429) Tractatus de moribus et disciplina humanae conversationis, was written almost immediately after the introduction of cards to Europe.(3) It failed to make specific identifications for the suits, but it did suggest that two suits were considered good and two were evil.
Brother John’s distinction reflects the ranking of the pip cards in masculine versus feminine suits. Swords and Staves used linear symbols and the pips ranked in natural order, while Coins and Cups were circular and pips ranked in reverse order. This ranking was characteristic with Latin-suited decks in Tarot and some other early games. The identification of two suits as masculine and two as feminine might be the only authentic allegorical symbolism in the original European/Arabic suit-signs, and even that may be over-interpretation.
Meister Ingold’s 1432 Guldin Spil associated all the suits with sin. “From [The Golden Game] we learn that the 52 cards of the pack represent the 52 weeks of the year in which we fall into sin, the sins in question being symbolized by the four suits (roses, crowns, pennies, rings) and thirteen ranks depicted on the cards. We also learn that the ranks represent various medieval characters who ‘win’ one another in a given order of precedence, suggesting the mechanics of a trick-taking game—possibly Karnöffel.” (Parlett, 51.)
Around 1465, Count Matteo Maria Boiardo created his own deck with suit-signs representing Love (Arrows), Hope (Vases), Jealousy (Eyes), and Fear (Whips). The named Court cards of the French suit system, established circa 1480, suggest the possibility of allegorical associations with the suits, which some insightful analysis might yet reveal.
An essay by Galcottus Martius, De Doctrina Promiscua, circa 1488, seems to recall Brother John’s simple division into two kinds of suits: those in which greater values are beneficial and those in which greater values are detrimental: “When there is need of strength, as indicated by swords and spears, Martius suggests that many are better than just a few; in matters of meat and drink, however, a little is better than a great or excessive amounts....” (Kaplan, v.I, 28.)
Pietro Aretino’s 1543 Les Cartes Parlantes says “that swords recall the death of those who have become mad over gaming; batons or clubs, the chastisement that they merit who cheat; coins or denari, the food of gaming; cups, the wine in which disputes of the gamesters are drowned”.
The 1544 deck of Virgil Solis may well have had symbolic intent behind the choice of suit-signs. These same suit-signs were subsequently used by Catelin Geofroy in his famous 1557 Tarot deck).
In 1551, Innocentio Ringhieri wrote Cento Giuochi liberali dt d’ingeno, which associated the suit-signs not with sins, as Ingold had, but with the four Cardinal Virtues. Cups symbolized Temperance, Columns showed Strength, Swords represented Justice, and Mirrors [Coins] symbolized Prudence.
Those examples all pre-date the two essays in Explaining the Tarot. It is remarkable that every surviving allegorization is unique, as are those of Piscina and the anonymous author discussed here. There was a great tradition of moralizing the suits, but apparently none of them ever became popular, much less dominant. And the list goes on: A 1582 book by Jean Gosselin associates the four suits with the four elements, with which they are commonly associated (although in different pairings) by occultists today.
One of the most widely known interpretations of the suit-signs comes from the Jesuit Claude François Menestrier, writing in 1704. He interpreted the four suits as social allegories: Hearts represented men of the Church, Diamonds the merchants, Clubs were symbols of the peasantry, and Spades represented the “Noblesse d’epee”.
Menestrier’s interpretation is well-known because it was repeated by the first occultists who took an interest in Tarot, in 1781. Antoine Court de Gébelin identified the suits as representing “the four estates into which the Egyptians were divided”, repeating Menestrier’s assignments with the corresponding Latin suit signs. The Comte de Mellet’s essay confirmed this correspondence.
Nearly half of the essay is devoted to the suit cards, so some discussion is in order. Just as the suit cards were invented long before Tarot, so was their allegorization begun almost immediately upon the introduction of cards to Europe. As Piscina noted, these varied greatly. The anonymous author may have adopted one such system, or more likely invented his own, and appended the wholly unrelated trump moralization to it. In the anonymous Discorso the suit-signs are said to represent wealth (Coins), the means of acquiring wealth by military (Swords) or political (Staves) power, and the manner of indulging wealth (Cups). This might not be a very appealing allegorization, but it is very worldly and as such it suits the author’s asserted connection between the suit cards and the trumps.
Starting with the observation that four is a perfect number, echoing Piscina, Tarot (“the first card game to be invented”) was created with four rulers, “because human action and will tend toward four universal ends, which are all included in pleasure, which the Epicureans consider as the highest good.” He begins with the suit of Coins, from which the others derive. Detailed examples are given, and then a transition is made to Swords. He claims that “the use of arms and war” is largely about getting money, but this discussion is cut short. He transitions almost immediately to Batons, by which wise rulers govern over men of war and, again, accumulate wealth. This section is also very brief, leading directly to the suit of Cups. Like Coins, Bacchus and banquets are discussed at length. Then he discusses the connection between these cards and the trumps, explaining that it is not just a game with allegorical figures, but an allegorical game. That is, the rules are meaningful to the allegory.
The wise author considered how the course of human life is always entangled with mundane delights and, however short, it is never satisfied and always desires something more; and these things are lost in death in a very short time: all this is clear and manifest foolishness. He places those things before our eyes, with diverse beautiful figures, in order to make everyone know his passions and his errors and, leaving aside vanity and the very short and harmful pleasures, to raise his mind to the contemplation of God. Therefore he added to his most beautiful game XXII hieroglyphic figures that represent different subjects, intending that, in the game, when void of cards of the four [suits], they should supply them. He called them triumphs, since they are affects and passions that triumph over men.
(Explaining the Tarot, p.53.)
This author understood both the theme and outline of the trump cycle allegory and the relation of the allegory to the game. His analysis of the Fool is also insightful.
[The designer of Tarot] assigned the Fool as the Captain of the first group [the worldly cards], with such condition and privilege that whoever by chance receives it can never lose it, unless he loses the whole game; it can replace any other cards, it does not capture and it is not captured. This shows that all defects can be lost and left, except for folly: everyone keeps his own as long as he lives.
(Explaining the Tarot, p.55.)
This author sees what Piscina missed: the Fool represents Folly. As such he can be substituted for any other, (played in lieu of any trump), because we are all fools in a sense. He is the Vice, and as one might expect based on that character in morality plays, he is the most playful figure in Tarot’s moral allegory. In an equally direct and meaningful reading, the Magician is a deceiver, symbolizing Deception as surely as the Fool means Folly. Tarot’s designer placed the Bagatto next to the Matto because, with his sleight of hand, he makes one thing look like another (the definition of allegory, by the way), just as the mundane world deceives people with false appearances. “As a juggler, it contains nothing either permanent, nor durable, and leads to a miserable end, under the false appearance of good.” With regard to the Fool as Captain, this is similar to ideas such as the Lord of Misrule or King of Fools, and Giotto's vice of Folly wears a crown (of feathers) and displays his scepter (club) in a clownish parody of sovereign authority. Some Fools in Tarot seem to wear a similar feathered crown.
Finally, a few words on the highest trumps, the terminus which triumphs over all trumps and suit cards, the goal toward which their hierarchy leads. The image below shows the three highest-ranking trumps from a printed deck, roughly contemporaneous with the anonymous Discorso, possibly from the same region, and certainly with the same order of these cards. This shows the Resurrection-Justice-World grouping, in which God “is represented by Justice, because at Judgement day he will be a most righteous and severe Judge, repaying everyone according to their deeds. The last figure is the World, which he created from nothing; since it includes everything, it also includes this game, which is a true image and portrait of all that is contained in man, who is a little world.”
This is the top of the ladder, the triumphs above all the other triumphs. This is what the lying preacher of the Steele Sermon referred to as the depths of Hell, and what that preacher’s modern-day analogs—21st-century bullshit artists—identify as astrology, numerology, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Kabbalah, Jungian Archetypes of Transformation, mysteries of the Magdalene or perhaps Albigensian Keepers of the Grail, etc. ad nauseum. In fact, Tarot’s triumph of triumphs is obviously Christian End Times: the Last Resurrection, Judgement, and the New World of Revelation 20 and 21.
Some Implications of the Essays
In terms of the history of Tarot there are a few tidbits about the game, mentioned above. Both orderings confound the neat categories established by Dummett: Piscina, having Temperance trump Death and also the four unranked Papi is “half-C and half-A”, while the anonymous order, having Justice trump the Angel of Resurrection along with the four unranked Papi is half-B and half-A. No one outside the playing-card historians, the specialist community, really cares about such things.
In terms of the meaning of the game, however, there is a wealth of information about how the cards were viewed. These two essays, with their period readings of the Tarot trump cycle, contrast dramatically with most of the 20th-century attempts to interpret the meaning of Tarot. Most obviously, there is nothing occult in these interpretations. There are no correspondences nor astrological associations nor numerological imaginings. Perhaps most notably, there is nothing like the Fool’s Journey in these readings. Quite the opposite: instead of the Fool’s heroic and triumphant journey, we see him as Captain of the worldly trumps, all of them being subject to Folly as long as they live.
These two essays are part of a long history of moralized games, and those provide a context with which the anonymous author explicitly associates himself. In addition to allegories of the suit signs mentioned above, the 10th century Bishop Wibold wrote about Ludus regularis seu clericalis; in the 13th century The Innocent Morality of chess was written, and other versions followed, including chess stories in the Gesta Romanorum; Alfonso X’x Book of Games; Marziano da Tortona described a moralized novelty deck with gods for Court Cards, commented on by Jacopo Antonio Marcello, (Caldwell’s English translations of both were published in The Playing Card); games were moralized by Nicholas of Cusa; a novelty Tarot deck with a Stoic moralization was designed by Matteo Maria Boiardo; the inventory of Alessandro di Francisco Rosselli listed games based on Petrarch’s Triumphs, the Virtues, the Apostles, and one based on the Planets. And so on.
Most of these moral allegories are very creative, imposing meanings on dice, chess, regular playing cards or Tarot cards that were not originally intended. However, unlike dice, regular playing cards, and even chess, Tarot had immediately recognizable, specific and systematic allegorical content designed into the tokens of play, the pictures on the trump cards. The presence of subjects such as the Emperor and Pope, Justice, Temperance, Love, Fortune, Death, the Devil, and the Angel of the Last Resurrection indicate moral content at a glance. Traditional occultists and New Age writers have largely ignored these obvious meanings. Not surprisingly, modern neo-Pagan occultists claim that the Renaissance Roman Catholics in Italy would have seen the same things that the New Age writers themselves see. Given these essays, we no longer have to accept such self-centered guesswork.
Despite their differences, there are several striking parallels between the two essays, and these can provide guidance for someone undertaking an iconographic study of the trump cycle. (It might also be argued that there are strong connections between these essays and the Steele Sermon, although that requires reading between the preacher’s lying lines.) Some of the most important elements are ones that most readers might gloss over, the big-picture aspects of the readings.
- The series/order is crucial. Both authors point out that the trumps constitute a unified composition/hierarchy, which constrains the proper interpretation. Tarot enthusiasts are fond of taking a card, or a detail of a card, even a decorative element or engraving error and developing an elaborate theory based on such cherry-picked material in isolation.
- The trump cycle is a moral allegory. It is not history, mythology, astrology, numerology, fool’s journey, etc., regardless what narrative elements might be appealed to in explaining the allegory. As such, the subjects and their sequence need to be compared with other works of the same general type.
- Both readings are obviously contemptu mundi allegory, denigrating the things of this world and contrasting it with the world to come. This means that the proper works to compare with Tarot are from that Stoic-Christian family of art and literature. The best survey of this material is Willard Farnham’s Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy.
- Both authors noted that there are distinct sections within the hierarchy, with different types of content. Matto and Bagatto are interpreted differently than the Papi; the middle trumps are interpreted differently than the highest.
This is a fairly technical matter, but it is important for would-be iconographers to recognize that the hierarchy is a unified composition and also that it is subdivided. These are two of the crucial points made by Dummett in 1980. Different interpretations will draw the lines differently, and that will suggest different readings of each specific card. However, there is no question that some such sectional groupings were recognized. This explains Dummett’s observation, based on his analysis of all known orderings, about cards being rearranged within sections but, with the exception of a repurposed Justice, not between sections. Below is an example of a work with three distinct types of subject matter. In the lower-right of the composition we see repesentatives of Mankind, up to and including the pope; in the lower-left we see an allegory of Death; at the top we have a Christian triumph of the soul over Death. (As an aside, observe Death’s upward gesture, and recall Savonarola’s statement: “St. Jerome says that in the inner circle of Plato, this adage was in vogue: vera philosophia est meditatio mortis.”)
The diverse potential audience for this book was mentioned above. Not surprisingly, Tarot enthusiasts immediately embraced Explaining the Tarot as a fortune-telling handbook. Others will no doubt pronounce the two Discorsi to be Gnostic manifestos, initiation rituals for a secret society, clues to the mystery of the Grail(4), or whatever other fantasy fixes itself in their imagination. Another possible audience, closely related to the cultists, is the academic field of Western Esotericism. Some writers in this field are legitimate historical researchers who base their conclusions on factual findings, but these usually have little or nothing to say about pre-Gébelin Tarot—the facts don’t support any of the interesting legends and real historians don’t just make shit up. Those who do write about early Tarot and esoteric traditions(5) do just make stuff up, usually variations on traditional occultist fictions. This can either be thought of as the last bastion of the Postmodern revisionist genres (Marxist, Freudian, Feminist, Afrocentric, why not add Esoteric?) or as a tony version of the “exploring the possibilities” cop-out encountered online, adding sophisticated weasel words, citations, and footnotes.
At the other end of the gullible-dubious continuum, there might be a potential audience among the Skeptical community, amateur and professional debunkers of pseudo-history. One of the more perplexing (but endlessly entertaining) aspects of both Tarot history and iconography is that the factual evidence is almost diametrically opposed to the self-indulgent fictions that have been promoted so successfully. Famously, “the Tarot pack is the subject of the most successful propaganda campaign ever launched: not by a long way the most important, but the most completely successful. An entire false history, and false interpretation, of the Tarot pack was concocted by the occultists; and it is all but universally believed.” Valuable articles, videos, chapters, and even entire books may be researched and written for the Skeptical audience, and these 16th-century essays are as fundamental to debunking the false interpretations as The Game of Tarot is to debunking the false histories.
Leaving aside the practitioners, promoters, and debunkers of Tarot superstitions and folklore, these essays are amazing documents for people sincerely interested in art history and iconography, the history of games or, more generally, the popular culture of Renaissance Italy. As a contribution to cultural history, these essays provide a remarkably detailed account of a widely played game.(6) Tarot was hugely popular, played by elites and the hoi polloi alike, and this is how it was actually viewed by actual Renaissance Italians. Therefore, second only to The Game of Tarot, Explaining the Tarot would be the essential key to a genuine history of Tarot, or to Tarot’s role, however minor, in the cultural history of Renaissance Italy. Having these fascinating resources published may inspire some academic interest in the subject of pre-Gébelin Tarot. There might be some of the other sort of Tarot enthusiasts, those who play the game, who would be interested in the allegorical origins of the game. Within the specialized field of Tarot history and iconography there are any number of thesis and dissertation topics, as well as academic articles and books, just waiting to be taken up, researched, and published. Another potential audience might exist among Renaissance Faire folk, SCA participant medievalists, and any others attracted to a popular game that was also a remarkable work of fifteenth-century Christian art.
Finally, a few words about an audience of one. My primary interest in Tarot is the iconography and iconology of pre-Gébelin Tarot, that is, the meaning of the pictures on the cards, their compositional meaning within the context of the overall trump sequence in different decks, and the significance of those compositions within the culture that created them. From that point of view this book is a treasure. It redundantly and conclusively answers the question with which we began: What would someone in Renaissance Italy think about the meaning of the Tarot trumps? And not merely what they might have thought about it: these two essays are examples of what they did in fact think and say about Tarot, 450 years ago. On many counts, Explaining the Tarot is a remarkable little book.
- 1. Today is the 10th anniversary of the day I ceased being a newbie and posted my own interpretation of a Tarot deck. Since then, some parts of that interpretation have been dropped, many parts have been revised or elaborated, and in 2002 my reading of that single deck was generalized to cover all orderings of the standard trump subjects. To commemorate the anniversary I was going to write a post about my current views. However, Ross, Thierry, and Marco came up with something better to talk about. Their book was published less than a month ago, and it’s always more fun to discuss something new than rehash my own ideas for the umpteenth time. Also, there’s the priority of primary sources over secondary. Finally, there is the fact that these two essays tend to confirm that a lot of my approach was, in terms of the old arguments, more period-appropriate than were most of the alternatives presented.
- 2. This fundamental distinction between Tarot history and Tarot iconography is understood by very few Tarot enthusiasts. Dummett’s encyclopedic history of Tarot, which made no strong claims about the meaning of the trump cycle, demonstrated conclusively that the history and iconography are substantially if not wholly independent subjects. “We shall not gain any enlightenment if we study the iconography of the Tarot pack. ...it is highly improbable that, by this means, we shall learn anything relevant to the game played with Tarot cards or, therefore, to the primary purpose for which the pack was originally devised....” Fevered speculation about the meaning of Tarot, usually ranging from patently absurd to vapid at best, has so preoccupied the New Age enthusiasts that they still know little about the history. Some even mistake Dummett’s focus on historical matters to be indicative of his blinding bias against occultism, although none of them can cite even one example of that bias impacting his presentation of findings or his historical conclusions. Some have gone so far as to condemn The Game of Tarot as “not history or taxonomy, but actually polemic”, and to falsely claim that Dummett argued that Tarot was “just a game”. In fact, Dummett is the one who first assembled most of the evidence of non-gaming uses of Tarot!
- 3. Here is an excerpt to illustrate the earliest playing-card allegory, as translated by Timothy Betts (Tarot and the Millennium, 1998, pp.87-89.) Note that Brother John’s stated purpose is the same as that of the anonymous Discorso of Explaining the Tarot, teaching morals via playing cards, and both use the parallel with Chess.
♠Hence it is that a certain game, called the game of cards, has come to us in this year, viz the year of our Lord 1377. In which game the state of the world as it is, is excellently described and figured. But at what time it was invented, where, and by whom, I am entirely ignorant. But this I say, that it is of advantage to noblemen and other persons of leisure; they may do no worse[sic], especially if they practice it courteously and without money... ♠Wherefore I, brother John, the least in the Order of Preachers [Dominicans], a German by birth, sitting as it happened, abstractedly at table, revolving in my mind one way and another the present state of the world, there suddenly occurred to me the game of cards; and I began to think how it might be likened to this state of the world. And it seemed to me very possible that it a likeness to the world. ♠Therefore, trusting in the Lord, I determined to compile a treatise on the subject, and began it on the following day, hoping by God's aid to complete it. And should persons find some passage in it not easy to understand, but obscure and difficult, let them get out of their boat at Burgheim and enter it again at Rinveld [i.e., skip it], and proceed reading the treatise as before, until they come to the end of it... ♠The subject of this treatise may be compared with the game of chess, for in both there are kings, queens, and chief nobles, and common people, so that both games may be treated in a moral sense. ♠And in this treatise I propose to do three things: first to describe the game of cards itself, as to the matter and mode of playing it; second, to moralize the game, or teach noblemen the rule of life; and third, to instruct the people themselves, or inform them of the way of laboring virtuously. Wherefore it seemed to me the present treatise ought to be entitled Of Morals and Everyday Ethical Instruction (De Moribus et Disciplina Humane Conversationis). ♠The first part will have six chapters. In the first will be the stated subject of the game and styles of play. In the second, it will be shown that in this game there is a moral action of virtues and vices. In the third it will be suggested that it is of service for mental relief and rest to the tired. In the fourth it will be shown that it is useful for idle persons, and may be a comfort to them. In the fifth will be treated the state of the world, as respect to morals. In the sixth will be demonstrated the divisors of the number sixty, and the properties of numbers. ♠In the game which men call the game of cards, they paint the cards in different manners, and they play with them in one way and another. The common form, as it first came to us, is thus: Four kings are depicted on four cards, each of whom sits on a royal throne. And each one holds a certain sign in his hand, of which signs some are reputed good and others signify evil. Under the kings are two marschalli, the first of whom holds the sign upwards in his hand, in the same manner as the king; but the other holds the same sign downward in his hand. ♠After this are another ten cards, outwardly of the same size and shape; on the first of which, the aforesaid king's sign is placed once [Ace]; on the second, twice [Deuce]; and so on for the others, up to and including the tenth card. So each king becomes the thirteenth, and there are altogether fifty-two cards. ♠There are others who play in the same manner with queens, and with as many cards as has been already said for kings. There are also others who arrange the cards, so that there are two kings with their marschalli and other cards, and two queens with theirs in the same manner. Again, some take five, other six kings, each with his marschalli and other cards, according to as it pleases them, and thus the game is varied in form by many. ♠Also there are some who make the game with four kings, eight marschalli and the other common cards, and add besides four queens with four attendants; so that... the number of cards will then be sixty. This manner of distributing the cards and this number pleases me most, for three reasons: first, because of its greater authority; second, because of its royal fitness; and third, because of its more becoming courteousness.
- 4. This is not to be taken as a recommendation of Graham Phillips’ The Chalice of Magdalene: The Search for the Cup That Held the Blood of Christ, (2004). The chapters on La Folie Perceval (BnF, Ms. français 12577) and “The Mystery of the Tarot” are fascinating, vaguely linking figures in the Perceval manuscript with the trump cards. Phillips even quotes from The Folly of Perceval, and Chalice reads like a semi-scholarly journalistic account. Reputable scholars like Juliette Wood, on the other hand, have looked—no such romance is included in the famous fr. 12577, nor anywhere else Grail scholars are aware of. It would be an important text within a very well-known manuscript, yet it is mentioned only by Phillips and Justin E. Griffin, and the only source cited by the latter is the former. (Perhaps the missing pages were stolen by members of the Priory of Sion.)
- 5. This is not to be taken as a recommendation of Nadya Q. Chishty-Mujahid’s An Introduction to Western Esotericism: Essays in the Hidden Meaning of Literature, Groups, and Games. After reading this slim (133 pages), expensive ($99.95), and wholly unsubstantiated book (“I am well aware that absolutely no sound historical records posit that Chrysoloras actually founded this brotherhood, and indeed the scope of this chapter does not permit one to prove that he actually did”), it appears to have no basis in fact whatsoever. The author repeatedly admits that her several hypotheses regarding the Sola Busca Tarot deck, the E-Series model book and its copies, Lazzarelli’s Images of Pagan Gods, and Ghisi’s Labyrinth parlor trick are pure speculation. Worse yet, she connects these speculations not with any genuine historical foundation but with other people’s unsubstantiated speculation or invention, all of which centers on a neo-Masonic myth which originated in the late-19th century. Worst of all, her speculations routinely ignore the mundane facts about these subjects. Finally, 30 of the 133 pages are poor quality B&W images, mostly reproductions of individual cards from Sola Busca or prints from the E-Series pattern book and its copies.
- 6. This is not to be taken as a recommendation of Helen Farley’s A Cultural History of Tarot: From Entertainment to Esotericism, (2009). Judging from the Contents, Introduction, and what else can be gleaned via Amazon’s “Look Inside”, this slim (176 pages), expensive ($85.55), pretentious book (“this book forms the first comprehensive cultural history of the tarot deck and its imagery”) should only be consulted via interlibrary loan, if at all. About 1/4 of the book (43 pages) covers the origins of Tarot, focused almost entirely on the Visconti decks and Milan. Chapter 3 offers a wildly implausible reading of the trump cycle in terms of Visconti-Milanese political interpretations, 43 pages which are essentially wasted. The second half of the book is devoted to occult Tarot, being a poor substitute for the kind of information and analysis provided in A Wicked Pack of Cards and A History of the Occult Tarot. Even if Farley had done an outstanding job with the topics she covers, her “comprehensive” treatment has ignored about 2/3 of Tarot history—the 2/3 that is the most characteristic and culturally revealing. But it is much worse than even that suggests: for example, much of her discussion of Tarot's origin revolves around irrelevancies like regular playing cards and dreck proposed by the occultists, Egyptians and gypsies and the like. For example, she spends several pages discussing most of the folk etymologies of the name Tarot, but appears not to be aware of the two historically substantiated etymologies that have turned up in the last few years. Overall, this small book seems to be a large waste of paper.