Friday, February 09, 2018

Hello, is this thing on?

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, 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.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Today's Card

5 Staffs

Today will be a struggle, but you are well prepared and ready for the challenge.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Yet another new beginning

To begin, I would like to dispense with two of the most prevalent myths about the Tarot, one on either side of the credibility divide:

Myth #1: The Tarot was invented in ancient Egypt and passed down through secret societies like the Templars and the Masons until emerging in Renaissance Europe. Alternatively, the pictures on the 22 so-called "Major Arcana" refer to secrets discovered by the Crusaders, or some other tale. Essentially, the basic notion here is that the Major Arcana existed, as a complete set of symbols, long before the appearance of the cards in Europe, and the cards were used for centuries to pass along and teach esoteric wisdom hidden under the guise of a card game.

Truth: All the way back in 1909, A.E. Waite, who at the very least commissioned and to some extent helped design the cards drawn by Pamela Coleman Smith that have become the dominant images by which the Tarot is known today, completely demolished the claims by Court de Gebelin that the cards have their origin in ancient Egypt. Waite went point by point through de Gebelin's "proofs," showing each one of them to be unfounded, and proving that one of them, at least, was a complete fraud. There is, in fact, no Egyptian word "Tar" meaning "road," no Egyptian word "Ro" meaning "king or royal," and Tarot does not mean "The Royal Road to Wisdom" in Egyptian or any other language. He simply made it up to bolster his claim to have discovered the Egyptian nature of the cards, knowing that no one could contradict him since no one knew anything about the ancient Egyptian language. The Rosetta Stone would not be discovered for another 18 years, and by the time anyone knew enough to prove de Gebelin wrong, the myth was so firmly entrenched that it still persists today.

Waite also dismissed other claims to ancient origins, summing up the history of the Tarot as follows: "We shall see in due course that the history of Tarot cards is largely of a negative kind, and that . . . there is in fact no history prior to the fourteenth century." Nearly a century of scholarship has largely confirmed this, and narrowed it a bit: there is in fact no history prior to the fifteenth century.

This offends some Tarotists, who feel deeply the need to believe that the symbols are ancient -- and indeed some of them are. But the Tarot as an oracle, as an intact set of symbols with esoteric and occult meanings, used in divination or contemplation toward spiritual advancement or for focusing magical intent, cannot possibly be more than half a millennium old, and has developed significantly, changed and grown and altered in character over time, and continues to do so. The oracle is a living tradition of fairly recent origin, rather than a static revelation passed down from the ancients.

Myth #2: There is nothing to the Tarot that is at all oracular or of occult significance. The cards were invented in the 1400s to play a game, and was never anything else until the occultists discovered it and attributed all sorts of ridiculous things to it.

Truth: This one is frankly harder to dismiss, but I think it's wrong. For the most part, those who have not had personal experience with phenomena that can't be easily explained by current scientific theories of the nature of the universe would do well to listen to the skeptics, because there are far more delusional and fraudulent messengers among the supposed cognoscenti then there are conduits of worthwhile and useful information.

On the other hand, those of use who have had such experiences know that there are things that are not explainable by our modern scientific theories of the universe. And the skeptics are too often insistent on disbelief, instead of truly having open minds.

The skeptics are right to say that the Tarot was not invented to pass on secret information. They go too far in insisting the cards were without symbolic meaning in their earliest days, and the symbols often included things we would today think of as "esoteric" or "occult," though the game players didn't think of them that way.

What I mean by that is that many things we associate with the "occult" today (although little is really "hidden" in our Internetted world) were once part of everyday life. The Popes of the period that saw the birth of the Tarot regularly consulted the stars, either for themselves or through astrologers. To suppose that the more educated and affluent players, at least, would be unaware of fairly obvious references to such things is absurd, although it's also absurd to say that they used a card game to cover up their interest in such things for fear of being burned as witches.

The Tarot developed from a card game rich with symbolism into an occult tradition gradually over time. We really don't know when people started using the cards for fortune telling, but it seems pretty clear that the Marseilles traditions reflect to some extent occult sensibilities, and they were established by the middle of the 1600s. Certainly there is no reason to doubt Etteilla or de Gebelin on the existence of an ongoing tradition of fortune-telling with the cards at the time they were writing, in the late 18th century.

The traditions of the Tarot developed gradually, with no clear beginning and no end in sight, but with a few solid reference points. That the cards began as a game with undoubted but fairly superficial symbolic content can no longer be doubted. It is also now apparent that for the first century of their existence the suit of trumps varied from deck to deck more than previously acknowledged. However, many of the eventual settled order of trumps were present fairly early on, and certainly by 1500 a set of trumps existed that would be passed down more-or-less intact, although the order would be changed and some of the pictures altered. Alongside this stable tradition, however, there existed also a tradition of playing the game with trump suit that bore no relation to the familiar Tarot trumps, with decks that are usually now referred to as "Tarock" decks to differentiate them from the more familiar symbolic cards. And this tradition turns out not to be a later degradation, but present from the very beginning -- indeed, it now appears that the very first deck of cards, the very first version of the new game from which Tarot evolved, contained not symbols like Death and Fortune but Greek gods. And there were only 16 of them.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The point is that there are no ancient and absolute meanings behind the symbols in the Tarot, and while this doesn't quite mean that the cards mean whatever you want them to mean, it does mean that anyone who tells you they have the absolute truth about them is either a liar or a fool.

If the Tarot cards, and in particular the 22 so-called Major Arcana don't represent ancient wisdom passed down intact from the ages, if the cards don't symbolize specific things that we can point to and learn absolutely and rely on, what's the point? How can they be meaningful to our lives, or have any answers for us when we consult them?

There are two answers. The first is that any set of cards, representing any number of ideas either in words or pictures, shuffled up and dealt out together, could be used as an oracle, because the power of the oracle is not in the cards themselves, but in yourself or at least in the connection between yourself and whatever you believe oracles such as the Tarot help you connect with.

The second answer is more subtle, and more specific to the Tarot: although the symbols are neither ancient nor unchangeable, they are also neither wholly arbitrary nor without tradition. After several hundred years of intense concentration by those who at least thought of themselves as adepts, in one fashion or another, the cards have accumulated a real power not easy to explain to the skeptical but not available to the reader using non-Tarot oracle cards or ordinary playing cards -- although both of these can, in fact, provide useful answers in readings. The fact that various authorities have imputed differing and even contrasting meanings to the cards does not vitiate the real psychic energy accumulated by the fact that so many highly attuned individuals were paying attention to the cards, which alone would boost their profile on the cosmic scale.

There will be those for whom the last paragraph seems completely nonsensical, either because they do not understand it or because they understand it but do not believe such things to be possible. If you are among them, you are welcome to strike it out and go on as if I had not written it, as it is not necessary to my thesis. I do ask that you not hold it against me, the way I seek to allow myself to be open to the wisdom of even those writers who open with the absurdities of de Gebelin's Egyptian fantasies. Not everyone who says foolish things is a fool, and even the fool may speak wisdom.

I may also say that wisdom can come disguised as apparent foolishness, and advise the reader to be open-minded even to things that may sound strange at first, but most of my readers will already be aware of that.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Still more on Tarot origins

In addition to the far-too-many Tarotists who blithely pass on completely discredited misinformation about the history of the Tarot, either from ignorance or chicanery, there is a slightly smaller group that does at least recognize the value of historical scholarship, but is so heavily invested in the belief that the Tarot represents "ancient wisdom" that they endeavor to keep as much as possible of the traditional mythology of Tarotic origins without violating known facts. Their tortured theories, however, regularly violate Occam's dictum that the simplest explanation is usually the best.

Personally, I have no problem realizing that the Tarot is a relatively modern invention, and that to the extent that it contains traditions and symbols that have been around for centuries before the cards were first invented, for the most part those things have been put into the cards gradually over time. They were not invented as a means of passing that knowledge and those symbols on surreptitiously under cover of a card game. They were invented as a card game and developed into something much more. To me, this does not make the Tarot any less useful, any less important, or any less real.

On the other hand, some Historians tend to discount the very real importance of the symbolic content of the Trumps, at least, among the players of the game in 15th Century Italy. And while the cards and those meanings were never "secret" or "occult" in the usual sense of those terms, it's also true that many ideas that were abroad at the time, including some related directly to the game of trumps and the symbols it used, were what we would today label "esoteric" or "occult" (although the original meanings of those terms is pretty ludicrous when applied to things available to anyone on the Internet!).

Both sides in this debate would do well to remember that the late Middle Ages, segueing into the early Renaissance -- the period that produced the first trionfi cards that eventually became the Tarot -- was a period of intellectual ferment, philosophical debate, heretical religious exploration and deep superstition. Many things now identified with the "occult" were ordinary knowledge then, and not hidden at all.

The most obvious example here is Astrology. As late as the 16th Century -- long after the Tarot cards were in existence -- a newly elected Pope put off his formal investiture by three weeks to make sure that it took place on an astrologically auspicious day. It's true that the Church formally frowned on astrology, as well as most other forms of divination, but belief in them was widespread, among educated and intelligent folks as well as the masses, and the Church did little to fight it. It wasn't hidden. It wasn't secret knowledge known only to a few -- although obviously some knew more than others, and to some extent the ability to cast horoscopes and plot the movements of the stars and planets could be said to be "esoteric."

Much more than just the obvious symbolic content of having a skeleton with a scythe represent the concept of death was at work from the earliest beginnings of the game of trumps, and that the oracle we have today is in many ways a natural, perhaps even an inevitable, extension of that.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

More on Tarot origins

That many Tarotists still quote de Gebelin's version of where the word "Tarot" comes from (see last post) is unfortunate, not only because it reveals those individuals to be ignorant of a subject they presume to lecture others about, but because it gives the Historians ammunition to paint all Tarotists as careless about facts. Indeed, far too many Tarotists dismiss the importance of historical evidence altogether, blithely making all sorts of wild claims that cannot be supported, and either completely ignoring the record or arguing that since the "secret doctrine" was passed down through secret societies, no record of it can be expected.

In fact, most of the "secret wisdom" of the Order of the Golden Dawn was gathered by MacGregor Mathers from the rare books collection at the British Museum. Nearly all of it was written down, and nearly everything that isn't traceable through a chain of documents is, in fact, highly suspect. Not necessarily false, all of it, but highly suspect. And much of it is false, like de Gebelin's Egyptian fantasies.

On the other hand, the contention of the Historians that there is nothing to the Tarot is demonstrably false, though not all witnesses will perceive the evidence the same way. Those of us who have had experiences -- with Tarot or otherwise -- that are not explainable by reference to mundane explanation know that there is more to our lives than current science allows for. Those who have not, or who willfully ignore such happenings, can never be convinced that we are not all either liars or delusional. They cannot be reproduced on demand in a laboratory setting because they are more akin to the inspiration that causes a painter or composer to create than to combining chemicals in a test-tube.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Another take on defining Tarot

The Tarot is an oracle, which means it is a tool for getting in touch with something or someone outside our ordinary human consciousness. Some believe they are communing with God, others that they are merely dredging up things from deep in their own subconscious. Still others theorize that the Tarot puts us in touch with pagan gods, or mysterious but natural forces we don't yet understand. In any case, if the Tarot works for you, it is because you are making contact with something or someone that is separate from the "you" that thinks and asks and makes decisions.

On the other hand, there are those who say that the cards are nothing more than a game, invented in 15th Century Italy, upon which occult figures, beginning in the 18th Century, imposed esoteric meanings, passed along and expanded by deluded followers and deliberate tricksters. There is no such thing as an "oracle," or if there is such things are not to be found in a pack of cards.

These two diametrically opposed points of view -- let's call them "Tarotists" and "Historians" -- have battled each other fiercely in print and online for the last two decades or so.

The Historians point out that there is no evidence to support the assertion that the 22 so-called Major Arcana existed, as an intact group of related symbols, at any time prior to the 15th Century. Indeed, there are some indications that they weren't even all present in the earliest decks of trionfi cards (Italian for "triumphs," the original name for the decks, the Trumps, and the game played with them). No one mentioned the possibility that the cards were of Egyptian origin until Court de Gebelin published Le Monde Primitif (a large work of several volumes and many hundreds of pages remembered now only for those portions dealing with the Tarot), and his theories are not only unsupported, at least one of his most famous assertions is demonstratably false. Not only that, but the strong likelihood exists that he was not duped into believing it, but invented it himself, passing it along as "secret knowledge" he was privy to, which casts doubt on everything he wrote.

I'm speaking of the oft-quoted etymology of the word "Tarot" as consisting of the ancient Egyptian word "tar," meaning road, and "ro," meaning king or royal, thus revealing the Tarot to be the "royal road to wisdom."

It's utter nonsense.

There are no Egyptian words matching that description. And de Gebelin almost certainly knew it, although there remains the (very) slight possibility that he was told this and believed it. Probably, he wanted to bolster his "insight" that the cards were ultimately of Egyptian origin by some real evidence, so he manufactured it. Writing years before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, when no one had any knowledge of ancient Egyptian, he could say anything, claim to be the inheritor of a "secret tradition," and no one could prove him wrong.

That many Tarotists still quote his version of where the word "Tarot" comes from is unfortunate.

Monday, October 10, 2005

What is the Tarot?

Here are two definitions of Tarot:

1) The Tarot is an oracle -- that is, a tool for getting in touch with something or someone outside our conscious minds -- consisting of 78 cards, 22 of which have symbolic pictures that are rich with symbolic meanings and reference ideas, entities, and/or forces that have been known to at least the intellectual and spiritual elites of all ages and places. Most people who use this definition believe the pictures and symbols to have been handed down by secret societies like the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians from some ancient time far earlier than the first historical appearance of the cards,

2) Tarot cards developed in northern Italy in the 15th Century to play a game originally called trionfi, or "trumps," referring to the innovation of the addition of a fifth suit that could "triumph" over the other cards and which was the forerunner of all modern games involving trumps, such as bridge or pinochle. The first historical mentions of the cards in an occult or esoteric context are from the second half of the 18th Century. Most people who use this definition firmly believe that the cards have no esoteric or symbolic meaning (other than the obvious symbolic connotations of "The Pope" or "Death") prior to the injection (some would even say "infection") of occultism into the cards by Court de Gebelin, Etteilla, and other 18th and 19th Century Occultists.

Although these two definitions point to world views so dissimilar as to be antithetical, the fact is that they can be reconciled, especially if you leave off the last sentence (the one starting "Most people") of each of them.

For many Tarotists, believing in the ancient origin and secret transmission of the Tarot, or at least of the truths contained in the Tarot, is an important part of their belief in the cards as a whole. They simply cannot accept the idea that the cards they love began as a card game to amuse nobles in 15th Century Milan, because that calls into question the fundamental basis for how and why Tarot works, as they understand it. This is unfortunate, because these people pollute the waters with false claims -- claims known to be patently false and rejected by the most esteemed occultist writers, much less the historians -- and worse, dismiss the whole notion of historical research as having any value, since these things were supposedly handed down in secret, so of course the historians can't find evidence of it.

It's true that evidence of absence is not necessarily absence of evidence, but it's also true that there is, in fact, no ancient Egyptian word "Tar" meaning "way or road" and "Ro" meaning "royal" or "king," and Court de Gebelin's famous etymology of "Tarot" as meaning the "Royal Road to Wisdom" in Ancient Egypt is completely and entirely bogus, invented to bolster his claim to have found Egyptian imagery in the cards, and published at a time when no one had any knowledge of Ancient Egyptian (the Rosetta Stone had not yet been found and deciphered) and therefore no one could gainsay his supposed "secret" knowledge of it. That's just one example, and you'll find it not just in the anti-occultist books of Michael Dummet and the like, but in "The Pictorial Key to the Tarot," by Alfred Edward Waite, published in 1910 and written by one of the foremost occult scholars of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, whose designs for what was then a new deck, brought to life by Pamela Coleman Smith, have become the standard, familiar Tarot that everyone thinks of when they think of "Tarot cards" today.

There is no better example of the state of Tarot "scholarship" among the majority of those who "believe in" the cards and use them for purposes other than simply playing the game of Tarock (and it has become known to disassociate itself from it's less respectable cousin, the oracle), than the fact that I have in my possession a 1971 copy of Waite's book, in the introduction of which you will find the Egyptian origin of the cards and even de Gebelin's bogus etymology quoted approvingly! Either the introduction was written by someone who had never actually read Waite's book, or he was counting on the reader not to do so!

In between those who wholeheartedly reject all pretense of historical accuracy, either in denial or oblivious to its findings, or possibly even fraudulently attempting to hoodwink their audience, and those who reject out of hand all notion of oracles and spirit guides and fortune telling or advice from cards, lies a middle ground, occupied by two different groups that are both, I think, more reasonable than either of the more radical positions.

The first moderate group basically tries to hold on to as much as possible of Tarot tradition, wanting to believe that that tradition is, in fact, more than 200-250 years old, that there is some truth to the idea that secret societies passed knowledge down secretly. Working within what is absolutely known historically, but pointing out huge gaps in the historical record, they seek to rehabilitate as much as they can of the tradition.

I understand that point of view, but I do not share it. It is not necessary for me to believe that the cards are ancient, or that the symbols and pictures were passed down intact as some kind of secret wisdom. What matters to me is that the cards work. I can use them to see patterns in my life, and in the lives of others, that can assist us in making better decisions. I also know that the cards can be used to focus magical energies.

I like studying the history of the cards because I think that it makes my appreciation of the symbols richer. Realizing that the meanings of the cards are something that developed over time, and are to some extent arbitrary, frees you to use your own insights to adjust your reading of them. You might even say that the cards mean whatever you want them to mean.

Well, that's not quite right. The cards mean whatever they mean to you. But you can't just decide that in your conscious mind and impose it onto the cards, which are primarily hooking into parts of you that you're not fully in control of. One of my biggest pet peeves is with people who try to deny the reality of the Death card. It's true that it seldom -- possibly even never -- means directly the Death of the person the reading is being done for, and seldom even means an actual physical death of a human being close to them (though occasionally it does). But even if it "only" means a change as many modern Tarotists like to teach, it will be a change that will be traumatic, and it will mean the loss of something or someone that will be mourned. It really is a "bad" card, in the sense that it almost always indicates something painful, even if the final result is positive. The most positive possible spin on the Death card is that it might come up with someone who is trying to kick a habit -- to quit smoking, for example. In that context, it would seem to indicate success -- the habit will be broken, that former way of life will be put aside. But no matter how much you may desire that change, it will still be painful, and you will miss cigarettes for a long, long time (it took me years to quit wanting cigarettes, and I still occasionally dream that I'm smoking and liking it).

So I fully embrace both definitions that we started out with. The cards have no history prior to the 15th Century, and were invented to play a game. The symbols may be ancient, but many of them could have been imposed on the cards as they changed and developed over time. Only the basic, obvious symbolic meanings were there from the beginning -- and they weren't always the same, and we don't know how many of them there were, and the whole notion of today's 22 "Major Arcana" being passed down intact seems ludicrous in the face of the differences between different packs just in the 15th Century. But that doesn't make the "esoteric" or "occult" meanings (odd words to use about something as freely available as information about Tarot) any less real.

The High Priestess card, formerly The Popess and generally referred to here simply as "The Priestess," is a case in point. There is no evidence that she represented, or was thought of as representing, the Goddess, or an aspect of the Goddess, or a priestess of the Goddess, or almost any of the things she is usually said today to represent. Originally, the card was The Popess. She may have represented the Church, the "Bride of Christ" (although she does seem paired with the Pope, rather than with Jesus). She may have been an anti-Catholic slam aimed at the legends of Pope Joan. She may have been a heretical reference to Manfreda Visconti, who was elected Pope of a small sect referred to in obscure histories as the Guglielmites and burned at the stake in Milan in 1300. She may simply be the consort to the Pope as the Empress is consort to the Emperor, in an age that celebrated love and winked at the pretense of priestly chastity.

Or maybe she stands for Sophia, Wisdom, specifically the Wisdom of God, depicted in ancient and medieval thought as female. That's one other possible meaning she may actually have had at the time the card game began -- because it's clear that the game itself was one that involved symbolic meanings of the cards, and the fact that they "trumped" each other in sequence was based on the concepts the pictures symbolized.

That even the Pope, the highest temporal authority on Earth, was trumped by Love in early orderings of the cards is one reason why I think the Popess started out as nothing more than a ribald and mildly blasphemous joke. But Sophia is also a real possibility defendable within the limits of what we know about that time and place.

She was not, in any direct way, an esoteric symbol of Hidden Knowledge.

Yet, that is what she is to me today. She is the Priestess who guards the hidden knowledge, which is the wellspring of the unconscious mind and the soul-connection of the world. Now, that has some connection to the concept of Sophia, the Wisdom of God, but it's not quite the same thing.

Sophia, Mother Church, the Goddess, the Unconscious, these are all symbols that can be found in this card, depending on your philosophical bent. All of them can be useful. I believe that the best card reader is a lifelong student who will eventually make these and other historical connections part of his or her repertoire of associations and connotations to call upon during readings. But none of them is the "real" meaning of the card, in the sense that there was some secret meaning the card had in 1420 that was handed down in secret through the various occult writers to be available to us today. It just doesn't work that way.