Saturday, April 26, 2008

Prodicus' Allegory of Virtue and Vice

The Choice of Hercules, also known as Hercules at the Crossroads or The Two Paths, is the oldest well known allegory in Western literature. Although the parable dates from the fifth century B.C., it was a common motif more than two millennia later, in Renaissance and Baroque art. Hercules was always one of the most popular heroes, and the choice between virtue and vice is the fundamental moral dilemma. The allegory is related to Tarot in two ways. First, the Tarot trumps themselves constitute a moral allegory, and Hercules at the Crossroads is one of the earliest examples of such personification, reflecting the most basic and characteristic subject. As discussed in the previous post, the design of the middle trumps in TdM decks includes a variation on the Stoic De Remediis trope with appropriate virtues triumphing over successes, reversals, and catastrophe. Second, occultists maintain that the image on the Love card (at least in some versions of TdM) was an illustration of this subject, renaming it "The Two Paths" and changing the iconography to clearly match the alleged meaning.

The story is attributed to the Sophist Prodicus of Ceos, (Pródikos, 460?-400? BC), a contemporary of Socrates (c.470–399 BC). At that time the Homeric gods were already being allegorized as embodiments of natural elements and forces, and their exploits moralized. Sextus Empiricus, the second-century Skeptic, listed Prodicus among the atheists because he apparently viewed the gods as personifications representing useful and notable things: the sun and moon, rivers and springs, bread and wine, water and fire, etc. Like his younger contemporary Socrates, Prodicus was ultimately condemned to death by the Athenians for his impiety.

Galen quoted from Prodicus’ On the Nature of Man, and Cicero mentions a work On Nature, but Prodicus apparently included the allegory of Hercules at the Crossroads in his treatise on The Seasons. The earliest surviving account however, translated here, is related by the character of Socrates in the Memoirs of Socrates, by Xenophon (431-350? BC). The Cynics Diogenes (c.412-323 BC) and Antisthenes (c.446-370? BC) also used the parable of Hercules.

Socrates relates Prodicus’ allegory

Excerpt, reproduced from Project Gutenberg
The Memorable Thoughts of Socrates, by Xenophon
Translated by Edward Bysshe 1712, ed. Henry Morley

“How,” said Socrates, “you know not this difference between things voluntary and constrained, that he who suffers hunger because he is pleased to do so may likewise eat when he has a mind; and he who suffers thirst because he is willing may also drink when he pleases.  But it is not in the power of him who suffers either of them through constraint and necessity to relieve himself by eating and drinking the moment he desires it?  Besides, he that voluntarily embraceth any laborious exercise finds much comfort and content in the hope that animates him.  Thus the fatigues of hunting discourage not the hunters, because they hope to take the game they pursue.  And yet what they take, though they think it a reward for all their toil, is certainly of very little value.  Ought not they, then, who labour to gain the friendship of good men, or to overcome their enemies, or to render themselves capable of governing their families, and of serving their country, ought not these, I say, joyfully to undertake the trouble, and to rest content, conscious of the inward approbation of their own minds, and the regard and esteem of the virtuous?  And to convince you that it is good to impose labours on ourselves, it is a maxim among those who instruct youth that the exercises which are easily performed at the first attempt, and which we immediately take delight in, are not capable to form the body to that vigour and strength that is requisite in great undertakings, nor of imprinting in the soul any considerable knowledge: but that those which require patience, application, labour, and assiduity, prepare the way to illustrious actions and great achievements.  This is the opinion of good judges, and of Hesiod in particular, who says somewhere—

‘To Vice, in crowded ranks, the course we steer,
The road is smooth, and her abode is near;
But Virtue’s heights are reached with sweat and pain,
For thus did the immortal powers ordain.
A long and rough ascent leads to her gate,
Nor, till the summit’s gained, doth toil abate.’

And to the same purpose Epicharmus:—

“The gods confer their blessings at the price
Of labour—.”

Who remarks in another place—

“Thou son of sloth, avoid the charms of ease,
Lest pain succeed—.”

“Of the same opinion is Prodicus, in the book he has written of the life of Hercules, where Virtue and Vice make their court to that hero under the appearance of two beautiful women.  His words, as near as I can remember, are as follows:—

“‘When Hercules,’ says the moralist, ‘had arrived at that part of his youth in which young men commonly choose for themselves, and show, by the result of their choice, whether they will, through the succeeding stages of their lives, enter into and walk in the path of virtue or that of vice, he went out into a solitary place fit for contemplation, there to consider with himself which of those two paths he should pursue.

“‘As he was sitting there in suspense he saw two women of a larger stature than ordinary approaching towards him.  One of them had a genteel and amiable aspect; her beauty was natural and easy, her person and shape clean and handsome, her eyes cast towards the ground with an agreeable reserve, her motion and behaviour full of modesty, and her raiment white as snow.  The other wanted all the native beauty and proportion of the former; her person was swelled, by luxury and ease, to a size quite disproportioned and uncomely.  She had painted her complexion, that it might seem fairer and more ruddy than it really was, and endeavoured to appear more graceful than ordinary in her mien, by a mixture of affectation in all her gestures.  Her eyes were full of confidence, and her dress transparent, that the conceited beauty of her person might appear through it to advantage.  She cast her eyes frequently upon herself, then turned them on those that were present, to see whether any one regarded her, and now and then looked on the figure she made in her own shadow.

“‘As they drew nearer, the former continued the same composed pace, while the latter, striving to get before her, ran up to Hercules, and addressed herself to him in the following manner:—

“I perceive, my dear Hercules, you are in doubt which path in life you should pursue.  If, then, you will be my friend and follow me, I will lead you to a path the most easy and most delightful, wherein you shall taste all the sweets of life, and live exempt from every trouble.  You shall neither be concerned in war nor in the affairs of the world, but shall only consider how to gratify all your senses—your taste with the finest dainties and most delicious drink, your sight with the most agreeable objects, your scent with the richest perfumes and fragrancy of odours, how you may enjoy the embraces of the fair, repose on the softest beds, render your slumbers sweet and easy, and by what means enjoy, without even the smallest care, all those glorious and mighty blessings.

“And, for fear you suspect that the sources whence you are to derive those invaluable blessings might at some time or other fail, and that you might, of course, be obliged to acquire them at the expense of your mind and the united labour and fatigue of your body, I beforehand assure you that you shall freely enjoy all from the industry of others, undergo neither hardship nor drudgery, but have everything at your command that can afford you any pleasure or advantage.”

“‘Hercules, hearing the lady make him such offers, desired to know her name, to which she answered, “My friends, and those who are well acquainted with me, and whom I have conducted, call me Happiness; but my enemies, and those who would injure my reputation, have given me the name of Vice.”

“‘In the meantime, the other lady approached, and in her turn accosted him in this manner:—“I also am come to you, Hercules, to offer my assistance; I, who am well acquainted with your divine extraction and have observed the excellence of your nature, even from your childhood, from which I have reason to hope that, if you would follow the path that leadeth to my residence, you will undertake the greatest enterprises and achieve the most glorious actions, and that I shall thereby become more honourable and illustrious among mortals.  But before I invite you into my society and friendship I will be open and sincere with you, and must lay down this as an established truth, that there is nothing truly valuable which can be purchased without pains and labour.  The gods have set a price upon every real and noble pleasure.  If you would gain the favour of the Deity you must be at the pains of worshipping Him; if you would be beloved by your friends you must study to oblige them; if you would be honoured by any city you must be of service to it; and if you would be admired by all Greece, on account of your probity and valour, you must exert yourself to do her some eminent service.  If you would render your fields fruitful, and fill your arms with corn, you must labour to cultivate the soil accordingly.  Would you grow rich by your herds, a proper care must be taken of them; would you extend your dominions by arms, and be rendered capable of setting at liberty your captive friends, and bringing your enemies to subjection, you must not only learn of those that are experienced in the art of war, but exercise yourself also in the use of military affairs; and if you would excel in the strength of your body you must keep your body in due subjection to your mind, and exercise it with labour and pains.”

“‘Here Vice broke in upon her discourse—“Do you see, my dear Hercules, through what long and difficult ways this woman would lead you to her promised delights?  Follow me, and I will show you a much shorter and more easy way to happiness.”

“Alas!” replied the Goddess of Virtue, whose visage glowed with a passion made up of scorn and pity, “what happiness can you bestow, or what pleasure can you taste, who would never do anything to acquire it?  You who will take your fill of all pleasures before you feel an appetite for any; you eat before you are hungry, you drink before you are athirst; and, that you may please your taste, must have the finest artists to prepare your viands; the richest wines that you may drink with pleasure, and to give your wine the finer taste, you search every place for ice and snow luxuriously to cool it in the heat of summer.  Then, to make your slumbers uninterrupted, you must have the softest down and the easiest couches, and a gentle ascent of steps to save you from any the least disturbance in mounting up to them.  And all little enough, heaven knows! for you have not prepared yourself for sleep by anything you have done, but seek after it only because you have nothing to do.  It is the same in the enjoyments of love, in which you rather force than follow your inclinations, and are obliged to use arts, and even to pervert nature, to keep your passions alive.  Thus is it that you instruct your followers—kept awake for the greatest part of the night by debaucheries, and consuming in drowsiness all the most useful part of the day.  Though immortal, you are an outcast from the gods, and despised by good men.  Never have you heard that most agreeable of all sounds, your own praise, nor ever have you beheld the most pleasing of all objects, any good work of your own hands.  Who would ever give any credit to anything that you say?  Who would assist you in your necessity, or what man of sense would ever venture to be of your mad parties?  Such as do follow you are robbed of their strength when they are young, void of wisdom when they grow old.  In their youth they are bred up in indolence and all manner of delicacy, and pass their old age with difficulties and distress, full of shame for what they have done, and oppressed with the burden of what they are to do, squanderers of pleasures in their youth, and hoarders up of afflictions for their old age.

“On the contrary, my conversation is with the gods, and with good men, and there is nothing excellent performed by either without my influence.  I am respected above all things by the gods and by the best of mortals, and it is just I should.  I am an agreeable companion to the artisan, a faithful security to masters of families, a kind assistant to servants, a useful associate in the arts of peace, a faithful ally in the labours of war, and the best uniter of all friendships.

“My votaries, too, enjoy a pleasure in everything they either eat or drink, even without having laboured for it, because they wait for the demand of their appetites.  Their sleep is sweeter than that of the indolent and inactive; and they are neither overburdened with it when they awake, nor do they, for the sake of it, omit the necessary duties of life.  My young men have the pleasure of being praised by those who are in years, and those who are in years of being honoured by those who are young.  They look back with comfort on their past actions, and delight themselves in their present employments.  By my means they are favoured by the gods, beloved by their friends, and honoured by their country; and when the appointed period of their lives is come they are not lost in a dishonourable oblivion, but live and flourish in the praises of mankind, even to the latest posterity.”

“Thus, my dear Hercules, who are descended of divine ancestors, you may acquire, by virtuous toil and industry, this most desirable state of perfect happiness.”

“Such was the discourse, my friend, which the goddess had with Hercules, according to Prodicus.  You may believe that he embellished the thoughts with more noble expressions than I do.  I heartily wish, my dear Aristippus, that you should make such an improvement of those divine instructions, as that you too may make such a happy choice as may render you happy during the future course of your life.”

Other translations:

The Memorabilia, by Xenophon
Translated by Henry Graham Dakyns, (1838-1911)
First Published 1897 by Macmillan and Co.

Memoirs of Socrates and Oeconomicus
Translated by Edgar Cardew Marchant
from Xenophon in Seven Volumes, v.4
Book II, Chapter 1

The Memorabilia, by Xenophon

Even a Blind Pig...

The TdM Love card is not a very clear representation of this allegory and, typically, occultists have not bothered to search for cognate images to justify their assertions. However, a 1580 painting by Paolo (Cagliari) Veronese does have elements reminiscent of the common Chosson/Conver style card. Vice is shown with a throne supported by a feminine sphinx, another motif familiar to occult Tarot. The moral lesson of the picture is indicated by the engraved legend in the upper-left corner:
Honor and Virtue Flourish after Death.


That motto is, of course, consistent with the moral stance of the trump cycle, both in terms of virtue and death. The hot curvy blond with the bare back and harlot-scarlet dress has apparently ripped his stocking, and he seeks refuge with the plain brunette, in her virtuous-green and royal-purple dress and Minerva's laurel wreath. In the Tarot card the figures of Virtue and Vice are reversed L-R from the painting. The key elements of the comparison are the attractiveness and stylish hair of Vice, the wreath of Virtue, and the gestures made by the three figures. Cupid, naturally enough, is aiming his arrow to the side of Vice/Venus. The central figure's body is turned slightly toward Vice/Venus although he pushes her away with his left hand -- she stands on his "sinister" side. His head, naturally enough, is turned toward Virtue/Minerva. So it appears that the old adage about the occasional luck of blind pigs is true of occultists too, and the comparison seems apt in any case.

12/23/09 Postscript: My favorite example of the Hercules' Choice genre is that by Jan van den Hoecke, a follower of Rubens. In his 1635 painting we find Venus and Minerva backed up with fairly conventional depictions of Love and Time/Death. However, the Cupid who attempts to chase Minerva away with a Y-shaped stick, gestures above, as if to suggest Caritas rather than Cupiditas. Minerva is gesturing downward, indicating perhaps a worldly virtue. A second Cupid in the background appears to be aiming his arrow at a couple in the shadows, so we may have both sacred and profane Love being illustrated, with Virtue as a middling choice rather than the highest. In any case, although giving Venus a longing look, Hercules is turned toward Minerva. (The head-versus-body orientation is reversed from the TdM Lovers card, but in keeping with the Paolo Veronese painting.) He takes her hand and, with his other hand over his heart as if to explain his departure, appears to have decided in Virtue's favor. The great white horse, (like the chariot, a symbol of triumphal entries), suggests that Minerva's path leads to glory.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Three Moral Virtues

Another of the blunders which continue to baffle Tarot enthusiasts today is the imagined "missing virtue". In most standard Tarot decks there are three named virtues, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. Tarot authors to this day have not bothered to do any sober research on the subject of the virtues. What little research that has been attempted is far-fetched, yielding obscure and tenuous connections. Most, however, prefer to rely on their preconceptions, derived in large measure from 19th-century occultists and their 20th-century parrots. Those earlier writers, along with most Tarot authors today, have only heard a single set of virtues, the set of four Cardinal Virtues. Thus, there is only one grouping of virtues imaginable to them, and the set of three represented in Tarot is necessarily defective and/or hiding a secret.

Even the most superficial examination of the subject (for example, glancing through Katzenellenbogen's Allegories of the Virtues and Vices in Mediaeval Art) would reveal that there were many different virtues arranged in a many meaningful groupings. Moreover, the grouping presented in Tarot is one of the most fundamental in the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas, which means, it is Roman Catholic doctrine and known to all who know anything about the virtues. Here is a discussion of the three Moral Virtues from the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia

MORAL VIRTUES are those which perfect the appetitive faculties of the soul, namely, the will and the sensuous appetite. Moral virtue is so called from the word mos, which signifies a certain natural, or quasi-natural inclination to do a thing. But the inclination to act is properly attributed to the appetitive faculty, whose function it is to move the other powers to action. Consequently that virtue is called moral which perfects the appetitive faculty. For as appetite and reason have distinct activities, it is necessary that not only reason be well disposed by the habit of intellectual virtue, but that the appetitive powers also be well disposed by the habit of moral virtue. From this necessity of the moral virtues we see the falsity of the theory of Socrates, who held that all virtue was knowledge, as he held that all vice was ignorance. Moreover, the moral virtues excel the intellectual, prudence excepted, in this, that they give not only the facility, but also the right use of the facility, for well-doing. Hence moral virtues are virtues absolutely; and when we say without qualification that a man is good, we mean morally good.

As the proper function of the moral virtues is to rectify the appetitive powers, i.e. to dispose them to act in accordance with right reason, there are principally three moral virtues: JUSTICE, which perfects the rational appetite or will; FORTITUDE and TEMPERANCE, which moderate the lower or sensuous appetite. Prudence, as we have observed, is called a moral virtue, not indeed essentially, but by reason of its subject matter, inasmuch as it is directive of the acts of the moral virtues.

JUSTICE, an essentially moral virtue, regulates man in relations with his fellow-men. It disposes us to respect the rights of others, to give each man his due. Among the virtues annexed to justice are: (1) religion, which regulates man in his relations to God, disposing him to pay due worship to his Creator; (2) piety, which disposes to the fulfillment of duties which one owes to parents and country (patriotism) ; (3) gratitude, which inclines one to recognition of benefits received: (4) liberality, which restrains the immoderate affection for wealth from withholding seasonable gifts or expenses; (5) affability, by which one is suitably adapted to his fellow-men in social intercourse so as to behave towards each appropriately. All these moral virtues, as well as justice itself, regulate man in his dealings with others.

But besides these there are moral virtues which regulate man with regard to his own inner passions. Now there are passions which impel man to desire that which reason forbids and those which hold him back when reason impels him forward; hence there are principally two moral virtues, namely, TEMPERANCE and FORTITUDE, whose function it is to regulate those lower appetites. Temperance it is which restrains the undue impulse of concupiscence for sensible pleasure, while fortitude causes man to be brave when he would otherwise shrink, contrary to reason, from dangers or difficulties.

TEMPERANCE, then, to consider it more particularly, is that moral virtue which moderates in accordance with reason the desires and pleasures of the sensuous appetite attendant on those acts by which human nature is preserved in the individual or propagated in the species. The subordinate species of temperance are: (1) abstinence, which disposes to moderation in the use of food; (2) sobriety, which inclines to moderation in the use of spirituous liquors; (3) chastity, which regulates the appetite in regard to sexual pleasures; to chastity may be reduced modesty, which is concerned with acts subordinate to the act of reproduction. The virtues annexed to temperance are: (1) continence, which according to the Scholastics, restrains the will from consenting to violent movements of concupiscence; (2) humility, which restrains inordinate desires of one's own excellence; (3) meekness, which checks inordinate movements of anger; (4) modesty or decorum, which consists in duly ordering the external movements of the body according to the direction of reason. To this virtue may be reduced what Aristotle designated as eutrapelia, or good cheer, which disposes to moderation in sports, games, and jests, in accordance with the dictates of reason, taking into consideration the circumstances of person, season, and place.

As temperance and its annexed virtues remove from the will hindrances to rational good arising from sensuous pleasure, so FORTITUDE removes from the will those obstacles arising from the difficulties of doing what reason requires. Hence fortitude, which implies a certain moral strength and courage, is the virtue by which one meets and sustains dangers and difficulties, even death itself, and is never through fear of these deterred from the pursuit of good which reason dictates. The virtues annexed to fortitude are: (1) Patience, which disposes us to bear present evils with equanimity; for as the brave man is one who represses those fours which make him shrink from meeting dangers which reason dictates he should encounter, so also the patient man is one who endures present evils in such a way as not to be inordinately cast down by them. (2) Munificence, which disposes one to incur great expenses for the suitable doing of a great work. It differs from mere liberality, as it has reference not to ordinary expenses and donations, but to those that are great. Hence the munificent man is one who gives with royal generosity, who does things not on a cheap but magnificent scale, always, however, in accordance with right reason. (3) Magnanimity, which implies a reaching out of the soul to great things, is the virtue which regulates man with regard to honours. The magnanimous man aims at great works in every line of virtue, making it his purpose to do things worthy of great honour. Nor is magnanimity incompatible with true humility. "Magnanimity", says St. Thomas, "makes a man deem himself worthy of great honours in consideration of the Divine gifts he possesses; whilst humility makes him think little of himself in consideration of his own short-comings". (4) Perseverance, the virtue which disposes to continuance in the accomplishment of good works in spite of the difficulties attendant upon them. As a moral virtue it is not to be taken precisely for what is designated as final perseverance, that special gift of the predestined by which one is found in the state of grace at the moment of death. It is used here to designate that virtue which disposes one to continuance in any virtuous work whatsoever.

The a priori notion that there must be something missing from the group of Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance is just another occultist superstition, maintained as conventional wisdom in the Tarot community today. As to the question of why the three virtues governing the appetites would be included along with other allegories of life in the middle trumps, the most basic answer should be obvious... but in case it isn't...

The middle trumps, those above the Pope and below the Devil, depict the ups and downs of Fortune's Wheel. Successes in love and war, (by extension, in both personal and public life), are represented by Love and the Triumphal Chariot. Reversal of fortune is indicated by Father Time, also described as the Old Man or Hunchback, and the Wheel itself. (Some decks turn Time into a Hermit, morphing his hourglass attribute into a lantern, suggesting a voluntary rejection of the worldly successes of Love and the Chariot.) Betrayal, represented by the Traitor or Hanged Man, was an archetypal downfall of the great, leading to Death. The tragic narrative arc, from triumphs and reversals to catastrophe and death, is known as the Fall of Princes, because nobles are the traditional subject of tragedy. Dramatic elements such as the Triumphal Chariot and the Hanged Traitor are appropriate to such princely narratives. By extension, however, this is an allegory of Everyman’s life, where triumphs and betrayals are more mundane but the joys, pains, and mortality are just as real. Long before Tarot was invented, Boccaccio wrote an influential encyclopedia of such rise-and-fall narratives in the form of moralized biographies, The Examples of Famous Men, (De Casibus Virorum Illustrium or The Fall of Princes in Lydgate's translation).

This is the section of the trump hierarchy where the three Moral Virtues occur. In decks where they are shown with the successes (Love and Chariot) the meaning is clear: No level of success, nor even moral virtue, can protect one from the vicissitudes of reversal, leading to downfall and death. This also was a typical element in the De Casibus tales. In the most coherent and sophisticated ordering a far more complex and carefully designed cycle is observed. Each of the three sections of the Fall of Princes cycle is triumphed over by one of the three Moral Virtues, and each one is appropriate to that section of the cycle. Success in love and war confers dominion, husband over wife and victor over vanquished. The appropriate virtue for the exercise of dominion is Justice, which triumphs over these two cards. The reversals of Time and Fortune are hardships to be endured with Fortitude, and Fortitude is a conventional "remedy" for turns of Fortune. Finally, although no virtue can literally triumph over Death in this world, Tarot de Marseille -- the deck with this ordering -- is also the only deck in which Temperance is turned into an angel! The winged figure triumphing over Death is naturally a psychopomp, a guide for the soul after death. The water mixed with wine (a conventional attribute of Temperance) becomes the saving sacrament, which is also water mixed with wine, where it symbolizes the dual nature of Christ.

The three Moral Virtues are not only a complete set, with no "missing virtue". They are also precisely the virtues which one would most expect to be represented in a cycle showing allegories of life. Beyond that, in the one pre-Gébelin Tarot deck showing a detailed systematic design throughout, the three Moral Virtues were specifically matched to the three turns of Fortune's Wheel, making the design of the middle trumps a cognate for Petrarch's Remedies for Good and Bad Fortune as well as for Boccaccio's Fall of Princes. Understanding the Moral Virtues in Tarot illuminates both the childish ignorance of the occultists and also the genuine conceptual complexity and brilliance of Tarot, an architectonic masterpiece of didactic art.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Short List

My Tarot odyssey began nearly ten years ago. It started with a simple curiosity about the pictures on the cards: Why those subjects? What did they originally mean? Did their sequence tell some kind of story? I assumed that the answer was readily available in a book, perhaps repeated in many, probably available in an encyclopedia entry. I was a newbie, and that naive.

There were no encyclopedia entries explaining the trump cycle. So the first stop was the local bookstore where there were dozens of Tarot books -- I skimmed many. I even bought some and read them through, although it quickly became obvious that the authors were fools or charlatans. I joined the largest of the online Tarot forums and began asking questions. This was hardly more satisfactory than the bookshelves, and both took time.

It was soon apparent that today's occultists didn't know anything about the object of their obsession, at least not in historical terms. It turned out that most of the more interesting ideas came from an earlier generation of occultists, from the late-19th and early-20th century. So I began reading Levi, Papus, Waite, Wirth, Crowley, and the excellent Golden Dawn intro, The Qabalistic Tarot by Robert Wang. This took more time, and as I gained a basic grasp of this traditional occultist approach to Tarot, it became clear that these guys also didn't know what Tarot was about. The next turn in my path was the neo-occultist Tarot Symbolism, by Robert V. O'Neill. It argued that most of the more interesting ideas of the traditional occultists came from Renaissance magi and Neoplatonic mysticism. That seductive figment, popular since the mid-1970s and still the dominant paradigm among today's more sophisticated Tarot enthusiasts, lead me eventually to my own studies. All told, these excursions constituted a long detour, a side trip through other people's Tarot theories, down many dead ends, wrong turns, and ultimately going about in circles, (most of these folks just repeat what others have said in a slightly different form), which took about two years.

This post is a short list of books that, given a decade of hindsight, I should have read first. (A couple of them were not published at the time, but you get the idea.)

Tarot History

There are not many English language books on the subject of Tarot history. Most of what is available can be found in these four books.

The Encyclopedia of Tarot
Stuart R. Kaplan
U.S. Games Systems, 1978.

The Game of Tarot: from Ferrara to Salt Lake City
Michael Dummett, Sylvia Mann
Duckworth, 1980.

The Encyclopedia of Tarot: Volume II
Stuart R. Kaplan
U.S. Games Systems, 1986.

A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot
Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, Michael Dummett
St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Tarot Iconography

Despite his disinclination to propose an iconographic interpretation of his own, or to comment on those of others, Michael Dummett has nonetheless been the most insightful of all Tarot commentators. In The Game of Tarot, and in a 1985 article, "Tarot Triumphant" in FMR, he analyzed the trump sequence into three types of subject matter, based on analysis of the many different orderings of the trumps. This is a crucial finding which no one else has followed up on. (Except me, of course. I'm crazy about it!) Dummett also established the "null hypothesis" of Tarot iconography, namely, that there is no overall narrative or schematic design to the trump series. The series is simply a collection of well-known and easily distinguishable subjects arranged in a vague hierarchy to serve as trumps in a card game. In lieu of a convincing, i.e., consensus alternative, this explanation remains the best by virtue of its parsimony: no additional assumptions required. Of those who have attempted the challenge directly, only Gertrude Moakley proved to be a plausible analyst. (See The Unicorn Hunters for more details.)

The Tarot Cards painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family:
An Iconographic and Historical Study

Gertrude Moakley, Bonifacio Bembo
New York Public Library, 1966.

The Tarot Trumps, Cosmos in Miniature:
The Structure and Symbolism of the Twenty-Two Tarot Trump Cards

John Shephard
Aquarian Press, 1985.

Tarot and the Millennium:
The Story of Who's on the Cards and Why

Timothy Betts
New Perspective Media, 1998.

Petrarch and Trionfi

Perhaps Moakley's most valuable insight was that the Tarot trumps, carte da trionfi, were not merely analogous to a medieval triumph in that one card trumped another, but also in the sense that one allegorical subject triumphed over another in a concatenated series of triumphs, like that of Petrarch's hugely influential poems, I Trionfi. While her detailed interpretation of the trump cycle as a ribald parody of Petrarch's Triumphs has relatively little explanatory power, the general idea is sound and both the poems themselves and scholarly treatments of them provide insight into the sensibility behind the trump cycle. Another important book by Petrarch is his Remedies, the basic idea of which appears to be reflected in the most popular historical Tarot deck, Tarot de Marseille.

The Triumphs of Petrarch
Francesco Petrarca, Ernest Hatch Wilkins
Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962.

Lord Morley's Tryumphes of Fraunces Petrarcke
Francesco Petrarca, Henry Parker Morley trans., Lord, D.D. Carnicelli ed.
Harvard University Press, 1971.

Petrarch's Triumphs: Allegory and Spectacle
Amilcare A. Iannucci, Konrad Eisenbichler eds.
Dovehouse Editions, 1988.

Petrarch's Remedies for Fortune Fair And Foul:
A Modern English Translation of De Remediis Utriusque Fortune, with a Commentary

Francesco Petrarca, Conrad H. Rawski
Indiana University Press, 1991.

The Larger Triumphal Tradition

The social impact of the trionfi conceit was enormous, and not merely in art and literature, nor Carnival and Corpus Christi celebrations. From late medieval religious processions to the politically imposing events of the Renaissance and for centuries after that, rulers used triumphal pageants for political purposes. This world of street theater and spectacle is the overriding context of the trump cycle, and in fact Ross Caldwell argues that the cards may reflect just such a triumphal procession. Chapter 4 of Enter the King provides some excellent parallels with the trump cycle, and Imago Triumphalis is a succinct overview of the history of triumphs into the High Renaissance. Also, the William Prizer article discussed in the previous post is very revealing in terms of how such events were produced and in terms of the subject matter of the trump cycle. There are a number of books on ancient Roman triumphs, but the new one by Mary Beard is both informative and very readable. (So is her blog.) Finally, one of the books on Mantegna's Triumphs of Caesar needs to be included because of the still-promoted Tarot legend regarding a passage in Vasari and the falsely so-called Mantegna Tarocchi, the E-Series model book. Also, the spectacular and influential Trionfi di Cesare in some ways epitomize the triumphalism of the period.

The Triumphs of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna
in the collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Hampton Court

Andrew Martindale
Harvey Miller, 1979.

Enter the King: Theatre, Liturgy, and Ritual in the Medieval Civic Triumph
Gordon Kipling
Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1998.

Imago Triumphalis:
The Function and Significance of Triumphal Imagery for Italian Renaissance Rulers

Margaret Ann Zaho
P. Lang, 2004.

The Roman Triumph
Mary Beard
Harvard University Press, 2007.

Boccaccio and the De Casibus Tradition

The middle section of the trump cycle shows an allegorical summary of the Fall of Princes narrative arc: success, reversal, and downfall. This is literally the central allegory of the trump cycle, the meaning of Tarot. The best survey of the contemptu mundi sensibilities behind this world view, contextualizing the importance of Fortune and Death in the medieval mind, is Willard Farnham's The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy. The exact same world of art, literature, drama, sermons, etc. constitutes the medieval heritage of Tarot.

Lydgate's Fall of Princes
Giovanni Boccaccio, John Lydgate, Henry Bergen
Oxford University Press, 1924-27.

The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy
Willard Edward Farnham
Blackwell, 1956.

The Fates of Illustrious Men
Giovanni Boccaccio, Louis Brewer Hall
Ungar, 1965.

A Mirror for Magistrates and the De Casibus Tradition
Paul Vincent Budra
University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Perverse Interpretation

Esoteric interpretations by themselves, given their typical absurdity as applied to Tarot, are credible only to indoctrinated cultists. (Of course, that includes the vast majority of those who have any interest in Tarot.) Modern occult apologetics, however, can be much more misleading. The writers of such polemics routinely take the 22 Tarot subjects out of their sequential context (as a fortune-teller does) and cherry-pick superficially similar, supposedly "archetypal" images from a preferred historical source. This childish and disingenuous game should require no debunking beyond pointing it out. Forms of perverse interpretation, (especially reading works in any context other than the most historically appropriate and plausible), have always been current. This has been true from ancient Gnostic revisions of Homer, the Torah, and Christian legends to the 20th-century Freudian, Marxist, Feminist, Afrocentric and other forms of pathological bias posing as deeper insight. The new element which has been introduced to justify such falsification is Postmodern literary theory. Reception theory, deconstruction, and other manifestations of Postmodern relativistic fraud have been greedily adopted by the more astute occultists. While there are books specifically attacking "the French Disease", the books below are both more interesting than the outraged Pomo-bashing titles, and also more generally helpful in getting perspective on the interpretive quest. (Several other books by Eco could be added to the list.)

Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism
Harold Bloom
Oxford University Press, 1982.

The Open Work
Umberto Eco
Harvard University Press, 1989.

Interpretation and Overinterpretation
Umberto Eco, ed. Stefan Collini
Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?
On the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity

James Elkins
Routledge, 1999.

6/5/10 P.S.
The "Tarot Iconography" category has a new member:

Explaining the Tarot:
Two Italian Renaissance Essays on the Meaning of the Tarot Pack

Edited, translated and commented by
Ross Sinclair Caldwell, Thierry Depaulis, Marco Ponzi
Maproom, 2010.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Carnival Triumph of Death

William F. Prizer's article "Reading Carnival: The Creation Of A Florentine Carnival Song", appears in Early Music History (2004, v.23, pages 185-252). It is an excellent Tarot reference in a number of ways. Here is the article abstract:

One of the most famous—and unusual—carnival songs from Renaissance Florence is ‘Dolor, pianto e penitentia’, variously entitled Carro della morte, Trionfo della morte, Canzona de' morti, or Canzone a ballo della morte. Unlike the majority of Florentine canti carnascialeschi, it is a spiritual text, so resembling a lauda spirituale that the Dominican Serafino Razzi and others could include it virtually unchanged in collections of laude. [All omit the final stanza.] Shortly after its performance, its text was published in Florence, probably towards the end of the first decade of the Cinquecento, in the chapbook titled La canzona de' morti. This small pamphlet also included a woodcut depiction of the carro and four other texts, all equally penitential: Castellano Castellani's Lauda della morte, ‘Cuor maligno e pien di fraude’, modelled on the Dies irae; a Sonetto di messer Castellano, ‘Voi che guardate a questi morti intorno’; a Canzona del carro del travaglio, ‘Perché el tempo dà e toglie’; and a lauda, ‘O mondana sapienza’, which closely imitates ‘Dolor, pianto e penitentia’, including even the word ‘penitenza’ at the end of each stanza.

The song makes direct references to earlier works of the macabre genre, including the Three Living and Three Dead, images of the Reaper and Triumph of Death images, and Petrarch's Triumph of Time. Of course, the call to love others as yourself, and the insistent call to penance, are commonplace virtues. The most striking aspect of this Carnival song is the denigration of Carnival in the second and seventh verses.

Anguish, tears and penance
Torment us constantly;
This our company of dead
Processes, crying "penance!"

We were once as you are now,
You will be as we;
We are dead as you can see,
Thus dead will we see you,
And, once dead, it will do no good
To do penance for your sins.

We too during carnival
Roamed the streets singing of our loves;
And so from sin to sin
We became worse and worse;
Now we wander the world crying
"Penance, penance!"

Blind, stupid, foolish people,
Everything does time destroy;
Splendor and glory, honours and states
Pass away and nothing remains,
And in the end the grave
Makes us all do penance.

Horrible torment, horrible pain
Await the unrepentant,
But those with pious hearts
Are much honoured among us dead.
Love others as you love yourself
To avoid doing penance in the hereafter.

This scythe that we are carrying
Finally makes everyone contrite;
We all pass from this life to the next.
But life, be it virtuous or sinful,
Obtains every blessing from heaven
If you do penance on earth.

If we live, then we must die,
And in dying each soul finds life,
The Lord of Lords
Has laid down this law:
Everyone must depart this life:
Penance, penance.

So many hunts, festivals, or songs,
All will one day bring you torments;
Only abstinence, suffering and tears
Will make you content:
All of you should repent your sins
And turn to penance.

Among other virtues, Prizer's article uses what is known about this particular, exceptionally well-documented song/trionfo to illustrate the general process of creating such an event.

The song clearly began with the original concept. The brigata (company of friends)—or its leader—who wanted to sponsor a song at carnival tried to create an original and clever metaphor for the sexual act and its objects; this would form the basis for all that followed. Next, the brigata as patron would commission someone to write the text of the song. This person actually provided, with the poem, a detailed outline of the project's visual appearance: what objects would be present and the general nature of the costumes. This accomplished, the patrons could go to the artist or artisan who would make and decorate the appropriate masks, costumes, and objects to hold and to gesture with during the song. If the members of the brigata were to be mounted, then the horses would have to be given apposite blankets and trappings as well. At some point, the patrons would also commission a composer to write appropriate music for the text. Depending upon the lavishness of the presentation and the brigata's musical abilities, it might have been necessary to hire a separate group of performers to sing. Finally, the group needed a plan for processing through the streets of Florence and at least a rudimentary choreography that would allow them to move and gesture together as they sang. If the work was to be performed at night, then liveried torch bearers would be necessary, so that the populace could see the costumes and implements. Any carro production involved a further step: it required an artist who would execute the wagon, following the concept. It is rare that we can name more than one or two of the collaborators in the production of a mascherata or carro, perhaps the poet and the composer, for example. If Lorenzo de' Medici were the poet of a given song, then he may have been the patron as well, and thus have furnished the general concept and the specific details entirely by himself. In most instances, however, all the parties remain anonymous, and we are aware only that the process must have involved these diverse elements. ‘Dolor, pianto e penitentia’ forms an exception to this pattern. We can assign names for three of the entities necessary: patrons, poet, and artist.

Ten pages of historical detail later, Prizer summarizes the creation of this Trionfo della Morte.

For carnival of 1507, Lorenzo Strozzi, with his brother Filippo, decided to present a carro to shock their fellow Florentines. They probably took the idea to Castellano Castellani, who furnished the detailed concept with the text of ‘Dolor, pianto e penitentia’. They then most likely approached Bartolomeo degli Organi to set the poem to music, and Piero di Cosimo and his bottega to construct the carro in the Sala de' Papi in S. Maria Novella and work out its decorations. On the evening of 17 February—martedi grasso—of this year, the Strozzi and their brigata, dressed as skeletons, left the church and presented the carro with its music, poetry, costumes and decorations.

Prizer then (19 pages into the article) begins to explore the breathtaking effect of the Trionfo della Morte in terms of verbal, visual, and musical parallels.

The carro impressed and frightened the Florentines in three separate though interlocking ways: textually, aurally, and visually. The words they heard, the sounds, and the sights all joined together to create an impression of shock and horror in the spectators....

... so the Carro della morte presents a mirror of Florentine popular religious beliefs. It also illuminates the essential links between carnival and Lent in its citizens' minds. Carnival existed only because of Lent: it was a period of carnal excesses in every sense of the word, atoned for during the following penitential period. The ribald texts of the carnival song were replaced by the spiritual ones of the lauda, but here again there was a link: lauda text were often sung to the very carnival-song settings to which they formed the devotional counterpart. At least part of the astonishment described by Zeffi and Vasari was caused not only by the subject matter of the text but also because the penitential subject matter intruded on the ritual of carnival.

At this point, let's recall some of what Vasari had said about this spectacle.

The trionfo, pulled by oxen, was a very large carro, black all over and painted with the bones of the dead and with white crosses. On top of the carro was a huge figure of Death with a scythe in its hand, and around the float were many covered tombs. In every place that the trionfo stopped [to allow its riders] to sing, the tombs opened and several figures emerged, dressed in black cloth, on which were painted the skeletons of the dead—arms, chests, flanks, and legs—in white over the black. Appearing as though from a distance were torches covered with masks shaped in front, behind, and even at the throat like the skulls of the dead, very realistic but a horrible and frightening sight. These figures of the dead, to the sound of certain muted trumpets, rose up half-way out of the tombs and, sitting on them, sang with a hoarse and dead tone and a music full of melancholy that most noble canzone still renowned today, ‘Dolor, pianto e penitenzia’. In front of and behind the carro were a great number of the dead mounted on horses chosen with diligence from the most gaunt and emaciated that could be found, with black trappings decorated with white crosses; and each rider had four footmen dressed as the dead with black torches and a great black banner with crosses and bones and skulls. Behind the trionfo were trailed ten black banners, and while they processed, the company sang together the Miserere, Psalm of David, with trembling voices. This dread spectacle, through its novelty and its horror, as I have said, terrified and shocked the whole city....

Novelty and horror. Talked about, emulated, written about decades later. Triumphs of Death had been widely known and well respected moral allegories for two centuries when Vasari wrote, and illustrated printed editions of Petrarch's Trionfi, including triumphal wagons very much like this one, had been popular for decades when this Trionfo della Morte was performed. No one, however, had brought such a spectacle to life with anything approaching the drama of the Strozzi brothers' 1507 Florentine production. It is also worth remembering that Florence was the center of interest in both trionfi conceit in general and Petrarch's Trionfi in particular.