Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Modern Catholic Looks at Tarot

The previous post contrasted the manner in which a modern Tarot enthusiast might look at Catholic iconography (e.g., declaring a personification of Ecclesia to be an evil Egyptian magician, with a tail!) with the way in which a rational person might interpret the same image, based on copious evidence from the period including many dozens of cognate examples. Tarot was an inspirational card game created by 15th-century Italian Catholics for the enjoyment of 15th-century Italian Catholics, and that is the only proper context for interpreting the moral allegory of the trump cards. The trump cycle has much in common with other moral allegories of the time, (including various Triumph of Death and Dance of Death works), with other allegorical cycles (including Boccaccio's Amorosa Visione and Petrarch's I Trionfi), and with the immensely influential catalogs of Fortune, Boccaccio's encyclopedia of moralized biography De Casibus, and Petrarch's encyclopedia of moralized circumstance, De Remediis. This was the stuff of mainstream pop-culture Italy in the 15th century.

Petrarchian Triumph of Death, after Heemskerck
Three Registers: All Mankind, Allegorical Triumph, Afterlife

Michael Dummett (The Game of Tarot, 1980, and other works) was himself a Catholic, and that may be one reason why he was never deceived by the fools and charlatans of the Tarot community and their two centuries of anti-Catholic folklore. Another modern Roman Catholic -- one who has also spent many years involved with all manner of games -- is currently presenting a summary analysis of Tarot history. Thomas L. McDonald is nearly finished with a series of blog posts on the "real history" of Tarot. Many of his conclusions are the same as any other rational person's might be, and vastly better than might be found on a Tarot "history" forum. (He even discusses Ross' translation of Bishop Wibold's devotional game.) McDonald just uploaded the post which I was waiting for, on the meaning of the cards, so we'll post some links and comments.

1. Reclaiming Tarot (July 3, 2013)
2. The Real History of Tarot (July 3, 2013)
3. On Divination (July 3, 2013)
4. The Bishop’s Dice Game (July 15, 2013)
5. The Fake History of Tarot (July 16, 2013)
6. The Meaning of the Cards (July 21, 2013)
7. Playing Tarot (link added 7/23/13)
8. Meditations on the Tarot (link added 7/24/13)

Sadly, McDonald has adopted the typical pop-culture approach to interpreting the cards, taking the images out of context and cherry picking a preferred reading for each. He offers more reasonable interpretations than most Tarotists, because his bias is appropriate to the subject matter, and he has therefore accepted the findings of playing-card historians. For example, two of the subjects which have baffled generations of Tarot enthusiasts are the Popess and the Traitor. McDonald gets them both right, but he fails to understand what they're doing in the series.

Some cards appear to be a puzzlement. La Papessa (The Popess/Papess) is often wildly misread as a reference to the mythical figure of “Pope Joan,” a “female pope” who never actually existed. The answer is actually far more mundane: The Popess would represent the association of the Pope with Rome or the Church, which would be depicted as feminine figures (eg, “Holy Mother Church”). It’s simply an allegorical image.

This is very good, as far as it goes. But what is the Church doing as one of the lowest of the trumps, triumphed over by almost every other subject? Was Tarot created by heretics, or perhaps by proto-Protestants?

Similarly, The Hanged Man mystified some people with its image of a man hanging from a scaffold by his left foot. Gallons of ink have been spilled trying to figure out What It Could Possibly Mean. In fact, it was a Northern Italian method of execution for traitors. That’s it. Researcher Timothy Betts finds evidence for this in a 1393 decree for Milan and Lombardy: “Let him be drug on a [wooden] plank at a horse’s tail to the place of execution, and there be suspended by one foot to the gallows, and be left there until he is dead. As long as he lives let him be given food and drink.”

McDonald has this subject, the Hanged Man, identified as clearly and correctly as the Popess. (He even cites Timothy Betts, Tarot and the Millennium, 1998.) Of course, this basic identification has been well known for decades, since Moakley (The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo, 1966), and it is still presented out of context. Without the sequential context of the entire sequence there is little understanding to be gained. Does the relatively high rank of the Hanged Man, in the middle of the cycle, mean that Tarot is celebrating evil? Why would a Traitor triumph over the Holy Roman Emperor and the Vicar of Christ, or over the three Moral Virtues? McDonald's problem is that he ignores the central question re Tarot's meaning: What is this figure doing in the trump cycle? Why does he follow cards like the Triumphal Chariot and Love, then Time and Fortune, and why does he precede Death? Overall, however, McDonald has done the most important things a writer on Tarot can do: Start with Dummett; remember that Tarot was and is a game; and remember that the trump cycle was created by Roman Catholics, for Roman Catholics.


  1. Well thanks, I think ...

    Honestly, I can't argue with your points, although I think calling it a "typical pop-culture approach" is a bit harsh, even if it is somewhat true.

    You raise interesting questions, but I wasn't going quite that deep. Order and context is important for the cards, but in writing for a larger audience in a contained format (a six-page magazine article) I was more interested in a few strong examples rather than in detailed analysis such as you seem to do (quite well) here. In adapting the article as blog posts, I was mostly interested in fleshing out the spiritual rather than historical angle. I do wish I had time to explore out some of the deeper significance from history.

    This ends the series, but not necessarily the posts. Be aware, however, that if I post again, it will be in the context of Meditations on the Tarot, which means theology not history.

    I'm sorry I didn't find this site sooner. It would have improved my story.

    1. Thanks for your interest. I particularly appreciate your view that "the cards are not innately wicked. They only become so by misuse". There were many different approaches to gaming in pre-Modern Europe. In terms of Tarot as a game, the more thoughtful writers and jurists agreed that it was not like dice, a game of pure chance. As a "mixed game", involving both Fortuna and Philosophia, chance and judgment, Tarot was often excluded from local prohibitions against games. (The greatest explanation of "mixed games" is in the opening of Alfonso X's "Book of Games".)

      In terms of the iconography of the trumps, it was an inspirational game with a characteristic allegory of the period. My focus is on the question raised by Dummett, whether there is a systematic meaning to the sequence. He thought not, but he admitted the possibility. He even discovered the 3-part design of the trump cycle which permits explaining the whole.

      I believe that the trumps, in most pre-occultist decks, do in fact tell a fairly coherent story, one typical of 15th-century Italy. In fact, there were two rather detailed explanations of the trumps written in Renaissance Italy. Three playing-card historians (Ross Caldwell, Thierry Depaulis, and Marco Ponzi) transcribed them and translated them into English back in 2010. These suggest that the trump cycle was in fact a moral allegory rather similar to the interpretation I have concocted. I strongly recommend their booklet, "Explaining the Tarot". My review of it, attempting to contextualize the significance of the commentaries, is here:

      Regarding Tomberg's book, it is surely one of the most thoughtful esoteric reflections on the cards. Your conclusion is something I've been preaching to Tarot enthusiasts since 2000:

      "That was the entire allure of Tarot: that it was non-Christian.
      And now, when they can no longer deny the false history they peddled for so long, they act like it never mattered and everyone knows it anyway. The original cards reflect our faith. The pope and the Church, the virtues, the mysteries of life and death, and the idea of a divinely ordered cosmos are all embedded right there in images create by a wholly Christian culture."

      You are correct that my personal views are purely secular, but that has no relevance to the historical interpretation of a work of art. Tarot reflects the values, sensibilities, and beliefs of its time and its creators. I hope that you may find some things of interest in my posts.

      Best regards,

  2. Nice post, MJH.

    I guess I have a stronger criticism of McDonald's series - he speaks a lot about "Truth" and Dummett at the same time and in a way that makes it clear he is completely unaware of Dummett's famous views on truth. Dummett was a devout and traditional Catholic, but he wasn't simple-minded. Oh no.

    I often wonder MJH why people who appear to have discovered cards basically yesterday feel a need to mansplain them to us. ;) Do you have any insight into this tendency? I appreciate, in constrast, how you have always treated us fellow card collectors as intelligent peers.

  3. Sorry for an off-topic comment, but knowing the author's criticism and common sense from his posts on the imagery of the trumps, I would be glad to read, what he has to say on the topic of origins of German and French suits and their correspondence (or lack thereof) to the southern suits. Especially it would be great to see, what does he think about the arguments summarised by Paul Huson (in his "Mystical Origins of the Tarot"), concerning carreaux and trèfles as being a variation of batons and coins, respectively.
    Anyways, my utmost respect to the author!

    1. Hi, Anon,

      Correspondences do survive, sort of.

      Latin suit-signs were about the same as Mamluk ones. Polo Sticks changed to batons (Italian) or clubs (Spanish). The Italians were not keen innovators in this regard. "The Italian cardmakers... displayed a resolute conservatism, never deviating from the original suit-system that dated from the first introduction of playing cards. The German ones, by contrast, went in for hectic experimentation with suit-symbols, probably from quite early in the fifteenth century, and only in the second half of the century settled down to the regular though not yet exclusive use of what was henceforward the German national suit-system." (Michael Dummett, 'The Game of Tarot'.)

      The Germans played with various designs in the early 15th century, and their changes seemed to be playful rather than practical or symbolic. "Playing cards in Germany first appeared with several different archaic suit systems involving a variety of everyday objects including flowers, animals, hunting equipment or coats of arms. Gradually standardisation occurred and today the German national suit marks are: Hearts (Herzen), Bells (Schellen), Leaves (Laub) and Acorns (Eicheln)." (WOPC)


      The French made more pragmatic changes. First, they tried a simplified Spanish design. "The only survivors among Spanish-suited cards in France today are Aluette cards (primarily of Brittany) and the French Catalan pattern of the Eastern Pyrenées." (WOPC)

      Playing Cards in France

      Ultimately, they made a great simplification:

      "The French suit-system, appearing about 1480, should certainly be seen as an adaptation of the German one, with Spades (Piques) corresponding to Leaves, Clubs (Trefles) to Acorns and, of course, French Hearts (Coeurs) to German ones. The shapes of the French suit-signs, in all three cases, are regularised versions of those of the German signs. The only failure of correspondence is between Diamonds (Carreaux) and Bells; and, even there, one early French pack has Crescents in place of Diamonds, tallying more closely with the round shape of the Bells. This change was a brilliant commercial stroke by the French cardmakers." (Dummett.)

      German and French designs are clearly and directly related: There is a visual correspondence, in outline, between Spades and Leaves, Clubs and Acorns, and the Hearts are the same. The simpler French designs made production easier and cheaper, and also enhanced recognition by drunken cardplayers.

      However, there is relatively little obvious correspondence between the German/French suits and the earlier Latin ones. In Latin decks, two suits have phallic/linear symbols (the masculine suits, ranked in increasing order) and two suits have circular symbols (the feminine suits, ranked in decreasing order). This geometric distinction is absent from the German/French designs, although the red/black contrast in French decks is related and, "originally, Hearts and Bells were coloured red, while Leaves and Acorns were green" in German decks. (George Beal, 'Playing Cards and Their Story'.)

      Matching the French and Latin suit signs is an English tradition. Sylvia Mann noted, "the English adopted the French suit-marks but, apart from the heart suit, in naming them adopted the spirit of the Italian suits: spades from the Italian word, diamonds from the idea of riches, and clubs from the batons." So, according to Mann's reconstruction, these are the correspondences:

      Latin: Swords, Staves, Cups, Coins
      German: Leaves, Acorns, Hearts, Bells
      French: Spades, Clubs, Hearts, Diamonds

      Huson covers a lot of speculative and fanciful material, far-fetched symbolism he attributes to the cards. This foreshadows his later fortune-telling lessons, but tells us nothing about the history of playing cards.

      Best regards,

    2. That final point should have been expanded a bit, as it addressed the main question, but there is a 4,096-character limit for Blogger comments.

      On page 15 of Huson's book, he presents his analysis of suit-sign correspondences. He admits that most playing-card historians have arrived at the conclusions which were presented above. The Acorn, tri-lobed with a stem, is a close match with the clover, also tri-lobed with a stem.

      Rather than accept the consensus conclusion of playing-card historians, Huson prefers to follow the lead of what he calls, "cartomancers of the French school". This neatly illustrates the difference between history and occult apologetics, also known as pseudo-history.

      Best regards,