Haven't posted here in almost a decade, almost forgot I still had this blog. But I started a response to a response to a Facebook post (which itself was a response to another post - Facebook gets recursive like that) and it ended up being the equivalent of four pages printed out, according to MS Word, so I'm posting it here instead, and all I'll put on Facebook is a summary and a link.
So. This started out as a response to Ross Caldwell. Just so people who DIDN'T get here from Facebook (although where else would they come from?) know what's going on, someone posted a question on a Tarot History forum: "Why do you think the Major Arcana was created and what purpose do you think it serves?"
I answered with a very long post by Facebook standards (though still much shorter than what's below):
It's pretty clear from looking at the scant surviving 15th century evidence that the Trumps were not "created" as the whole we now have, and indeed the term "Major Arcana" is rather a non sequiter in terms of the Tarot's origins. It began as a game, a trick-taking game that probably did have, from the beginning, some symbolic and philosophical underpinnings. It was originally called "trionfi," which means "triumphs," and in which you can already see the work "trumps," and whist, bridge, hearts and similar games that name a "trump" suit are all descended from it. The first cards we know of, which have not survived but a rather detailed description of them has, had 16 "trumps" patterned after Greek Gods, which were not yet separated into a fifth suit but spread out four each to the individual suits - though as described the lowest of them was higher than a king, and they ran from lowest to highest in sequence, so together they all essentially constituted a suit of trumps. Next (probably, dating is problematic) we have a partial deck that includes SIX court cards in the "Minor Arcana," with male and female pages, knights, and kings. It also includes Faith, Hope and Charity as trumps, though we don't know for sure how many it had altogether because so much of it is missing. The famous Visconti-Sforza deck, the most "complete" 15th century deck extant, is "missing" the Devil and the Tower, if it ever had them, plus six trump cards are clearly by another hand - they are usually considered to be replacements for cards that got damaged, but some or all of them could also be new additions to keep the deck up-to-date with changes to the game. Sometime between the middle of the 15th and fairly early in th 16th century the set of Trumps resolved itself into more-or-less the ones we have today, with the number set (21 + the Fool) and variations duly noted (Jupiter and Juno in place of Pope and Papess, in some versions, for instance). What they mean is what they mean to you, in the long run. What they meant to the earliest card users was very, very different, as the Trumps themselves were very, very different. Robert Place has some of the most comprehensible and believable explanations for what kind of philosophical system was originally intended and how that can be used to help vitalize a modern reader's practice in "The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination." Out of the three dozen or so Tarot books I own (and others I have read), it's in my top five.
Later I put in an even longer post, about how his question presupposed that there was a "Major Arcana" (or "Big Secret") hidden in the trionfi cards from the beginning, and that was what I objected to. I ended up with:
I believe in an evolutionary Tarot, that developed in stages. Parts of it were there from the beginning. Indeed, I think even the Marziano Tarot had a symbolic meaning to its sequence. I think the specific meanings of the sequence varied and developed from time to time and place to place as the individual cards within the sequence developed and changed. Which is why I cannot accept the assumption of your question, that there ever was such a thing as a “Major Arcana” that was “created.” The Oracle of the Tarot evolved gradually over time from a simple trick-taking card game, which in the long run I actually find a great deal more Mysterious.
To which Ross Gregory Ronald Caldwell, said:
Stephen , I'm of the opinion that the game of Triumphs was created with all of the familiar subjects. Evolution seems like an impossible idea, when it was diffusing rapidly at the same time. It could not have ended up with the same subjects and number is so many different places unless it diffused as we have it. The game was standardized too soon and spread too far early (by the mid-1440s) for there to have been many different numbers and subjects. Equally important as the fast diffusion across the length and breadth of Italy, all of the surviving subjects in all of the surviving decks, show standard subjects. Visconti di Modrone is an exception, as a private commission with 6 court figures as well. It is not a standard production, but the surviving trumps, except for the three theological Virtues, are standard as well. I admit precursors (Fernando de la Torre's Emperor) and at least one separate invention of the idea of a permanent trump sequence (Marziano/Visconti), but as the game under the name "trionfi" played with "carte da trionfi", it was a standard product we would recognize as Tarot.
In an earlier post, he had also said that he was "speaking as someone who's made up his mind about the Ur-Tarot (Florence invention, Bolognese order)" which I strongly disagree with (I believe they came from Milan - order is not as important to me, but probably the Steele Sermon order is as close as we can come to the original).
So. I wrote this reply to Mr. Caldwell, but am putting it here because it was WAY too long to put on Facebook:
You have read and studied this subject much more deeply than I have, and I haven’t kept up with developments over the last decade or so, but I can tell that we have a pretty fundamental disagreement about the origin of the cards.
I frankly take it as all but proven that the trionfi began in the court of Milan and spread from there, first among the upper class, and printed cards came later in imitation. I think the lost Marziano deck represents the invention of the *idea* of Trumps, or Trionfi. They may or may not have been actually *called* Trionfi by Marziano (or Michelino the artist, or Duke Visconti himself for that matter), and if they were there’s certainly no evidence of it, but it’s clear that the gods patterned on Greek Gods and heroes *worked* as trumps.
The next stage of development, I believe, switches from Greek Gods and heroes to the allegorical sequence of a Trionfi parade, a la Petrarch’s poem. In my opinion, this also took place in Milan and is probably represented by the deck known as the Cary/Yale deck. We don’t have very many of those trumps, but I believe there were originally 16 of them, just as there were 16 “trumps” in the Marziano deck.
My main reason for believing this is the doubled arrangement replacing the “page, knight, king” and as far as I know the resulting first appearance of a Queen card – which would endure and become a permanent fixture not just of Tarot cards, but of regular playing cards (where it replaced the knight, which is all the more curious since the knight represented the “naib” for whom playing cards were originally named). Since there were 10 pips, then a male page, a female page, a male knight, a female knight, a king, and a queen, each of that deck's suits had 16 cards. If there were 16 trumps, which would have also matched the number of “trumps” in the Marziano deck, you would have 5 suits of 16 cards each. So it would take some serious convincing to get me to believe that there were any more or less than 16 trumps in this deck.
As I said, we don’t have very many trumps from this deck, but we KNOW it did not follow what would later become the standard trionfi/tarrochi/tarot pattern. The most obvious difference is that we have Faith, Hope and Charity here, which are not found in any other deck.
Although the Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscript Library states categorically on their website that these cards were painted by Bonifacio Bembo, who is also usually credited with painting the Visconti-Sforza cards, most of which are at the JP Morgan Library, I believe this deck is older than that. My guess would be on the occasion of the marriage between Filippo Maria Visconti and Marie of Savoy in 1428.
I agree with almost everyone, on the other hand, that the Visconti-Sforza cards were created by Bembo to mark the marriage of Visconti’s illegitimate daughter, Bianca, to the condettiero Francesco Sforza in 1441. I also think it’s likely that the 5 X 16 arrangement had proven to be unwieldy (although at 80 cards, only 2 more than we ended up with) so it was scaled back to a more manageable 5 X 14 (70 cards).
That’s right. I think it’s quite possible that not only were the “missing” Devil and Tower never there, but the six “replacement” cards were also added to keep the deck up-to-date with changes in fashion. They weren’t replacements, they were additions.
There are problems with this notion, mentioned below, but the idea is not originally mine. I first ran into it on trionfi.com, so I guess from autobis, and he sites a Ronald Decker piece as a bit of (admittedly fairly flimsy) backup at one point. I’ve seen it elsewhere, too. Logically, it makes a great deal of sense. I detail why I find it hard to believe below, and despite the objections I do still kind of lean toward it.
Even if I’m wrong about that, though, there were HUGE changes that took place in the development of the Tarot Trump sequence after this deck was produced, even though on the other hand this deck cannot in any way be thought of as a “proto-Tarot” or “proto-Trionfi” deck (as the Marziano is usually called, for instance) because it clearly contains the vast majority of Trumps in a form that is immediately recognizable to anyone with even the faintest knowledge of Tarot today.
Let’s look at the individual cards and explain what I’m talking about here:
(obviously, numbering and names is conjectural, as this deck has neither titles nor numbers on the Trumps)
0 – The Fool. OK, beggar, fool, whatever you want to call him, there’s big differences between this figure and the iconography of the Marseilles “Le Mat,” but I have no problem believing he represents the same thing symbolically.
1 – The Magician. And almost immediately we run into an almost insurmountable problem. Yes, he’s seated at a table (rather than standing at one, but it’s a table). Yes, the objects on the table include a knife and a couple of round things and a vessel (looks like a glass of water). But what’s that thing that takes up half the table? Most conjectures I’ve seen say this card is a Merchant, and many specifically say he’s a cobbler (the big white thing is supposed to be his last). That would support my evolutionary view, as I've heard there was apparently a slang word for "cobbler" in the Northern Italian dialect that would have been spoken in Milan or most other places proposed for Tarot’s beginnings that looks and sounds a lot like “bateleur.” Unfortunately, I don’t see it. Whatever that thing is, it’s decorated, possibly bejeweled, and I can think of no earthly reason why a cobbler would decorate his last like that. I think it’s a hat. Maybe he’s a hatmaker, which would still be a merchant, but would no longer have an easy path to get to juggler. In any case, he is NOT a Magician or a Juggler, and I don’t see how you can have anything like an intact symbolic trump sequence with a continuous meaning for hundreds of years if you start out without a Magician.
2-5 – The Papess, The Empress, The Emperor, The Pope. So having just proved these AREN’T the familiar Tarot Trumps, we proceed to prove they mostly ARE. These figures, while certainly not identical to the simplified drawings of the Marseilles deck, are immediately recognizable. No question about it. These are Tarot cards (although of course they weren’t called that yet).
6 – The Lovers. As far as I’ve been able to determine, every single 15th century deck that has a card that we look back on as being “The Lovers” is in fact probably better named “Love” or “Marriage.” The whole iconography or the adulterer surprised with his mistress by his wife (or, if you prefer, a man at a crossroads choosing between Vice and Virtue) did not appear until fairly late in the development of the cards. It’s not present, for instance, in the Catelin Geoffroy cards from 1557, often called the “oldest Marseilles” deck (even though it was actually printed in Paris). Whenever this change took place, it was a seismic shift in the symbolic meaning of this car, and I don’t see how you can have a precise and continuous allegorical meaning for the sequence as a whole that accommodates such a change.
7 – The Chariot. The recurring iconography in many of the oldest cards of the chariot of victory being driven by a female figure is, to me, one of the biggest pieces of evidence for the influence of Petrarch’s poem on the early Tarot sequences. It’s also reminiscent of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale: husbands, surrender to your wives, you’ll be happier for it.
8 – Justice. Don’t know what that knight is doing up at the top there, but this I still pretty obviously Justice. Different iconography, probably at least some difference in symbolism which is largely now lost, but probably basically the same.
9 – The Hermit. Yeah, I don’t think he’s a hermit. He’s dressed too richly for that, in my opinion. With the hourglass in his hand, I’m guessing he’s either meant to be Time – Father Time, if you will, or perhaps Saturn (although there aren’t any other Greek Gods here). The iconography is close enough you can see how the idea of a Hermit with a lantern could have arisen from this, but it’s not the same thing. It looks similar, but it doesn’t MEAN the same thing.
10 – The Wheel of Fortune. And on the other hand, while the Marseille iconography is WILDLY different from this, it’s quite obvious they both represent the same thing, symbolically speaking.
11 – Strength. A big departure from the standard iconography, although there is a lion. Some see Francesco Sforza in the figure with the club, though I don’t personally see it. If it’s a close replacement for a card that looked more-or-less like this that Bembo painted that was damaged or destroyed, then that’s another card that obviously means the same but has VERY different iconography. If the “replacement” cards were added to the deck to keep up with developments in the game, then the original sequence had no Strength card, which I’ll admit is hard to believe. But then, for years people have been stumbling over the fact that there’s no Prudence …
12 – The Hanged Man. Not only is he obvious, but he’s obviously contented and at peace, despite the forbidding circumstances. More than any other single card, this one shows to me that there MUST have been an allegory at work even this early in the development of the cards. This is not the Traitor Punished.
13 – Death. I really, really like this death card. I think having a golden bow instead of a scythe is pretty cool, actually. Like the Wheel of Fortune, different presentation but obviously same idea.
14 – Temperance. Again, not by Bembo, and may or may not have been part of the original sequence. Looks pretty familiar.
15 – The Devil. One of the cards – one of two Trumps – completely “missing” from this deck.
16 – The Tower. Also “missing.”
17 – The Star. Another card not by Bembo, and what we do have is considerably different from the familiar iconography. Indeed, 14, 17 and 18 look like they belong together in sequence, an argument that, even if there WERE more than 14 Trumps, the Devil and Tower are not “missing” but were never there.
18 – The Moon. Not only not by Bembo, but so wildly different from the familiar iconography that it’s hard to even see how the Marseille Moon could possibly be a development from this. There are missing links in the chain …
19 – The Sun. Another card where the iconography is quite different but the symbol seems essentially the same.
20 - Judgment. I’ve always thought this name too abbreviated. It’s obviously “Judgment Day,” and it’s the event rather than the judgment itself that I’ve always believed is being depicted here. Judgment is, after all, essentially the same as Justice, albeit in the Christian version it is said to be tempered by Mercy. In any case, I have never seen a card depicting the separation of saints and sinners or the like, it’s always Gabriel blowing his horn and the dead rising up. Judgment Day. Slight difference in the presentation, but really very much like the standard image.
21 – The World. Another “replacement” card. Could I possibly be saying that the Trump sequence had no “World” card? I’ll admit it seems unlikely, but if the Cary Yale preceded it and had 16, and they wanted to cut it down to 14 … yeah, I don’t know. It does still seem doubtful. As I said above, I do think it’s obvious that the sequence WAS allegorical, and one would think that at least the broad outlines of such a thing would survive, at the very least it would have the same beginning and end, wouldn’t it? And the Cary/Yale, which I believe this derived from, does have a World card. The fact that this card is obviously NOT by Bembo, but that there are 14 cards that DO seem to be by Bembo, is the biggest single argument against the 5 X 14 idea, in my opinion. I do think that, symbolically speaking, something like this card MUST have been there, so unless one of the 14 usually idenfied as original is in fact by another hand, we're looking at 15 Trumps in the original.
I do still like the 5 X 14 idea. You know, some people point out there are only 21 Trumps because the Fool is not a Trump per se (in the rules of the game), so maybe there were 14 Trumps PLUS the Fool.
But even if there were 16 Trumps, or 20, or even 22, it was NOT the same sequence that we are familiar with today. Similar, yes. Very similar, and several of the cards were more-or-less the same. But not all, and a few of the ones that are different are QUITE different.
In any case, I think it’s clear that, wherever it originated, by 1441 when the marriage of Francesco Sforza and Bianca Visconti was celebrated and these cards were probably made, the Trionfi Trump sequence already represented an allegorical sequence that had many of the same iconographic symbols that we have in most of the cards to this very day, but there were some major differences that make it all but impossible for the allegory to have remained intact for the next two centuries. Some of the differences were minor and pictographic, but others – particularly the Merchant/Magician and Marriage/Lovers cards – represent major changes in the original meaning by the time Nicholas Conver printed his deck in 1640.