Thursday, November 15, 2007

Saturn's Ouroboros and Pop-culture Iconography

The previous post attempted to explicate a tiny bit of Tarot iconography, the Ship and Tower in Sicilian decks. The Ship and Tower presented an anomaly, and an explanation was offered, along with some historical support. Today we'll take a critical look at a more typical example of what passes for iconography in the online Tarot community.

A couple days ago, in an 11/12/07 posting to a online Tarot forum, the following attempt at iconographical analysis was presented. (Only the germane passages, actually mentioning the supposed dragon motif, are quoted -- over 1,000 words of misdirection, not directly related to the analysis, have been deleted.) It is important to keep in mind that the writer was not a child, nor a "newbie", but someone with years of study regarding topics related to Tarot, playing-card history, the E-Series model book, art history, ancient history, medieval history, Renaissance history, and so on. This is the kind of pseudo-historical analysis that predominates online Tarot discussions among the most knowledgeable participants: taking a detail out of context, ignoring everything already known about it, and imagining what it might have meant if it were in a very different context.

Some events - just to remember (and to observe a special motif: the dragon)

1389: The Osman leader is killed by an assassin. The symbolic of St. George "killing the dragon" is applied to the assassin, the dragon" meaning the Osman.[...]

1408: A knight order is founded by Sigismondo, called the Order of the Dragon (remembering the assassin of 1389). As in other knight orders the members get a sign: a dragon, variated occasionally in its form according the rank of the members.[...]

Somehow in this time: "Dracula" becomes a member of the Dragon order, then first political engagement 1448[...]

Well, why I do tell you that: In the time of development of the Trionfi the "crusade" was always a theme to the Italian princes. Also we have the feature, that the persons, which were connected to "Trionfi cards" often were also connected to "Knight orders" and naturally to these "crusades". All this context wouldn't make it surprizing, if some of the Tarot decks would have hidden "crusade signs".

Mantegna Tarocchi, Saturno ... holds a dragon in his hand, biting its tail - like the sign of the dragon order.[...] Well, it might be, that this mythological story was turned towards the actual political situation of the time, the fight against the Osmans, which possibly were seen in the role of Saturn.[...]

We've also a dragon for Rhetorica ... perhaps, I don't know, cause many humanists had as a major occupation to preach and to argue in the pro-crusade-way.

Other dragons appear in the Chronico-picture (also with tail-biting), the Prudentia and in the Mercury presentation.

The suggestion is that Saturn's dragon is some sort of puzzle, requiring a special explanation -- a secret/occult explanation. The hidden meaning devised is that the dragon is an emblem of the Order of the Dragon; the Order of the Dragon is identified with the Ottoman Empire; and Saturn, depicted with such an attribute, therefore represents the Ottoman Empire. Other dragons in the falsely so-called "Tarocchi" are taken to confirm this reading, and some vague notion of a pro-crusades agenda is being surreptitiously conveyed by this "Tarot deck". The pervasive occult assumption that "Tarot decks" must contain "hidden" messages is, as usual, taken for granted.

Saturn and Father Time

First, of course, is the blunder of mistaking the falsely so-called Mantegna Tarocchi for a Tarot deck, or any deck of cards, or even a game. This is unmitigated and inexcusable folly for anyone who has read about the subject; it is, nonetheless, very popular nonsense. Second, if one wished to discuss dragons and Tarot, it is certainly a viable topic. There is the Visconti serpent devouring a Saracen. (It is, of course, revealing rather than concealing its message.) There are the dragons of Portugese-suited decks. Sylvia Mann and Virginia Wayland wrote a book, The Dragons of Portugal (1973) about such decks in both Europe and Asia, and Dummett discusses the relationship between Portugese decks and some Tarot decks of the Southern Tradition, including both Minchiate and Sicilian Tarot, in various places.

Within Europe, the Portuguese-suited pack was not confined to Portugal, or even to the Iberian peninsula. Regular Portuguese-suited packs from Sicily, dated 1597 and 1639, complete with dragon Aces, bear witness to this, as does a celebrated one made in 1692 by the Spanish cardmaker Infirerra for Malta. Another was made in Rome in 1613, also with dragon Aces, and a Tarot pack, employing a fully-fledged 'Portuguese' suit-system, was made by the same maker at about the same time, while in Sicily a Portuguese-suited Tarot pack is still in use at the present day.
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 19.)

Most important, however, is the assumption that Saturn holding an ouroboros is a mystery which requires an imaginative solution. Panofsky devoted a chapter to Father Time, explaining this connection, among many other things. It originated with the conflation of Chronos (Greek: Time) with Kronos (Roman: Saturn), and the identification was noted as far back as Plutarch.

The learned writers of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. began to provide Kronos-Saturn with new attributes like the snake or dragon biting its tail, which were meant to emphasize his temporal significance. (See Martianus Capella, Nupt. Philog. et Mecur., I. 70: 'Verum sator eorum [viz. Saturn, the father of the gods] gressibus tardus ac remorator incedit, glaucoque amictu tectus caput. Praetendebat dextra flammivorum quendam draconem caudae quae ultima devorantem, quem credebant anni numerum nomine perdocere.' If it were true that the dragon biting its tail signifies the Year it would be possible that it originally belonged not to Saturn, but to Janus, as is related by Macrobius, Saturnal. I, 9,12. However a monster which seemed to devour itself' is also connected with the Iranian Aion and in this case its original meaning would have been that of Endlessness or Eternity, as was mostly assumed in later times. Mythographus III, I, 6, borrowed the motif (as an attribute of Saturn) from Remigius' Commentary on Martianus Capella and transmitted it to the succeeding tradition.)
(Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, 1939.)

In later illustrations based on textual sources this tradition was continued. "In the earliest known specimen, the Regensburg drawing of around 1100... [Saturn] carries a sickle, as well as a scythe and, in addition, the dragon biting its tail." Although this attribute was occasional rather than invariant, it was never abandoned. The ouroboros was used, for example, in some illustrations of Petrarch's Triumph of Time, as well being borrowed for personal devices, (e.g., the ouroboros and rose device of Barthélemy Aneaue, left), various emblems, and was identified by iconographers like Cesare Ripa: "The personification of Time [right] is an aged man.... In one hand he holds a mirror (only the present part of time is perceptible, and even that is as unreal as an image in a mirror) and in the other a snake biting its own tail (an ancient symbol of time or eternity, or the year, which follows upon itself)." However, the early and persistent conflation of Saturn and Father Time meant that their meanings, associations, and attributes -- like the ouroboros -- were interchangeable.

More Mysterious Dragons in Tarot

Our manque iconographer listed other "dragons" in "tarot decks", that is, other reptiles used as allegorical attributes for particular figures of the E-Series model book. He suggests that these too should be taken out of context and arbitrarily interpreted as making a statement about the crusades. Rather than following this fanciful nonsense, we will simply point out some obvious alternatives. First, the dragon alleged to inhabit RHETORIC seems to be invisible, so we offer this corresponding interpretation: ______________________.

The engraving displayed with the comment, however, was LOGIC. This figure does hold a (veiled) dragon, as shown in the Dürer copy, above-right. A snake (sometimes a pair of them fighting/arguing) was one of the traditional attributes of Logic, symbolizing cunning argumentation. An earlier 15th-century image (left) shows Logic as depicted by Stefano da Verona, with snakes confronting each other in the lap of Logic, with Aristotle seated to the side. In the E-Series composition, a similar debate appears to be taking place between the figure of Logic herself and the serpent/dragon. (The veil presumably indicates deception on the dragon's part, harking back to the logical/crafty serpent who argued with Eve in the Garden.) There can be no doubt that the E-Series artist found dragons a more engaging form of serpent, and used them routinely; but substituting one serpent for another is iconographically commonplace, hardly justifying a special explanation.

The dragon in CHRONICO is, not surprisingly, another ouroboros, appropriate to the figure. Iliaco, Chronico, and Cosmico are unique figures. They were used to fill out the fourth decade of the E-Series, being placed beneath the seven Cardinal Virtues. As explained by John Shephard (The Tarot Trumps: Cosmos in Miniature, 1985) they correspond to the three "poetic" forms of celestial rising, Heliacal, Chronic, and Cosmic. (Shephard notes that this was discussed by Iohannes de Sacrobosco, an English monk and a contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas. He published a book on astronomy, De Sphaera, which was a widely known and influential text on the subject for several centuries.) As such, these "risings" form a kind of allegorical transition between the more mundane Liberal Arts and the higher realms of the Virtues and the celestial Spheres.

The serpent at the foot of PRUDENCE appears to be a basilisk. In any case, the proverbial wisdom of the serpent is most famously mentioned in Genesis and Mt.10:16. Each of the seven Cardinal Virtues in the E-Series has an animal attribute. All but one are like the serpent of Prudence, i.e., conventional: the lion for Fortitude, the snake-killing crane with a raised stone for Justice, the pelican for Charity, the phoenix for Hope, and the dog for Faith. The only one which appears surprising is the dog looking into a mirror on Temperance. For that, one interpretation might come from a passage in James. It discusses the Temperance of the faithful.

19 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. 22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does. 26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
(James 1:19-27)

Finally, the serpents on MERCURY's staff form a caduceus, his most characteristic attribute. Like the other examples, there is no need for an imagined "pro-crusades" agenda to justify Mercury being portrayed with his usual attribute. (Other aspects of this depiction are not typical, and do require explanation. Jean Seznec did that work in detail.)

The "Research" Behind the Iconography

It should be noted that most of the factual basis, including illustrations, for the ouroborous-as-Ottomans interpretation discussed above came from the English-language Wikipedia article on the Order. It is a largely undocumented article (the only reference cited is another short Web page) with what appear to be New Age neo-Pagan speculations as well as historical information, and it has Wikipedia disclaimers for lack of citations, disputed neutrality, and unverified claims.

Based on a 1707 copy of the Statue of the Order, Constantin Rezachevici ("From the Order of the Dragon to Dracula." Journal of Dracula Studies, Number 1, 1999), described their emblem: "The symbol of the order was, after the statute of 1408, a circular dragon with its tail coiled up around its neck. On its back, from the base of its neck to its tail, was the red cross of St. George, on the background of a silver field." Looking a bit deeper, it appears that the modern recreations of the Order's dragon device derive from at least two artifacts. One is a surviving badge of raised embroidery in silk and gold. (Above-right, reproduced in Kay Staniland's Embroiderers, 1991.) The other is a portrait of German composer Oswald von Wolkenstein, from a 1432 MS of his poems, in which he is wearing the symbol of the Order on his sash (above-left). The distinctive features of these dragons, the superimposed cross and being strangled with their own tails, are absent from the figures in the E-Series, while the distinctive feature of an ouroboros, eating its own tail, is missing from these two period exemplars. And, of course, the significance of the Order and its emblems to artists in Northern Italy as a generalized symbol of crusades remains a mere figment.

The dragon of the order with the same name was not an evil element during the fifteenth century, but a positive symbol of knighthood. The dragon choking itself with its own tail, which in Occidental St. George heraldry and iconography, from where it originates, represented the defeated Satan, becomes, in the absence of the saint and of the cross, a Christian chivalry order of positive significance. The circular dragon, strangled by its own tail, is represented on the coat-of-arms of many noble families in the Hungarian kingdom who were the descendants of some of the knights who were part of the Order of the Dragon during the reign of Sigismund, until the seventeenth century. This supports the fact that the Order of the Dragon enjoyed great prestige throughout the first half of the fifteenth century. [...]
All this European clerical and folklore heraldry, strengthened in a millenary existence (from the fifth century to the fifteenth century) can be identified in the basic illustration of the Order of the Dragon, the snake-like dragon that is strangling himself with his own tail, which, according to tradition, is twisted three times around the dragon’s neck, signifying that he had been subdued by means of Christian spiritual powers....[...]
...the second one, until the death of Sigismund of Luxembourg, was completed with another cross perpendicular to the coiled up dragon, having on the equal sides of the cross the writing “O quam misericors est Deus” (vertical) and “Justus et paciens” (horizontal). This sign was worn on a sash, like in the portrait of Dichters Oswald von Wallenstein in 1432. The necklace of the order was made of two gold chains joined by the sign, a Hungarian cross with a double bar above the coiled up dragon. But on the seal, another dragon was represented, with a big body, with dented wings, not coiled, only two feet with a free tail, with a very small Greek cross on its chest.
(Constantin Rezachevici.)

The Order of the Dragon (Drachenorden)

Among the lessons to be gleaned from such sad attempts at iconographic analysis, several stand out. 1. Don't take things out of context. Saturn, for example, has conventional meanings, associations, and attributes. We don't have to guess and just make things up. 2. Don't deny the obvious or fail to consider it. The ouroboros was an extremely well-known symbol and conventional to Saturn, while the Order's device was obscure and inappropriate. 3. Don't ignore the need for supporting evidence. The claim that dragons were some sort of general symbol for the crusades needs support, and the examples cited fail to support it. Worse yet, many counter examples of dragons used in art and literature refute it. Of course, any conquest or triumph over a dragon, including St. Michael and St. George, can serve as an analogy for some other triumph, especially a knightly conquest. The problem is that nothing in Tarot, nor the E-Series, shows such a triumph. 4. Don't rely entirely on a single Wikipedia article as source material, especially one with multiple disclaimers for lack of citations, disputed neutrality, and unverified claims. 5. Don't invent bogus problems. When a simple explanation is sufficient, manufactured mysteries are gratuitous.

A sixth admonition, more general, might be, "don't ignore the historians". In many cases, these subjects have been studied by extravagantly knowledgeable people, people who published their findings for future reference. That doesn't mean that they're always right, or that they always agree, or that any particular statement is the final word on a subject. In the previous post I mocked Dummett regarding the "harmless appearance" of the Sicilian Tower card. In my opinion, that was a surprising oversight for a knowledgeable Brit to make, given the history of Martello towers. But it was an very rare oversight, and given the many thousands of obscure facts and revealing insights he has uncovered and presented, along with constructing larger theses and an overall history of both Tarot and playing cards in Europe, while bringing a tenacious rationalism to the entire project, such an aberration must be savored. Because most often, such serious writers have already done most of the big-picture work, and done it better than online "Tarot enthusiasts" (you and me) can fully appreciate. As an example, virtually every writer on the E-Series model book notes, usually in the first paragraph of their article, that it is not assignable to Mantegna, it is not a Tarot deck, it was never printed on cards, and some have the clarity of thought to add that it probably wasn't a game of any kind. Thus, there is no legitimate excuse for anyone who has done their homework to refer to the E-Series model book as "Trionfi cards" or "Tarot decks".