The following is a slightly revised version of a 2/18/05 post to TarotL. For the larger context of this interpretation of the trumps, see The Riddle of Tarot.
The lowest-ranking Tarot trumps—from the Pope on down—must be understood as a group.
The middle trumps, however, are probably the most obscure to modern eyes. The ranks of man… to what purpose are they depicted in Tarot? It is plain enough that they meet with Death, and after that the Devil and Death itself are triumphed over. In general terms it is a Triumph of Death, but what is that middle section about? That message of the middle cards is as foreign to us as it was universally understood in the late Middle Ages. This obscurity is unfortunate because the middle trumps express the moral heart of Tarot, the "author’s message" or authentic meaning of the hierarchy. The middle cards tell the story to which the ranks of man are subject, the worldly prelude to the inevitable eschatological triumphs of God. This post will attempt to explain the medieval sensibility and the specific meaning of the middle trumps, between the Pope and the Devil… eventually. Along the way, we can gawk at some parallels between Tarot and some of the most characteristic works of medieval arts and letters.
|The Middle Trumps|
|THE THREE MORAL VIRTUES|
Parallels will be drawn between those trumps and their sequence on the one hand and aspects of some of the most influential Italian works of the century preceding Tarot’s invention. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio form a triumvirate, commonly acknowledged the greatest of Italian poets. It is hardly surprising that people would look to them as possible sources for Tarot imagery or influences on its design. William Seabury wrote about Dante and the trump cards, and also mentioned Boccaccio’s encyclopedia of moralized biography, De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, as a source for Tarot’s Court Cards. Gertrude Moakley conceived and made famous some parallels between one of Petrarch’s most popular and influential works, I Trionfi, and Tarot’s trumps and suit cards. Various writers in addition to Seabury have compared images from Dante’s Commedia to the trumps. So we’ll start with those previous comparisons as background, even though (with the exception of Moakley’s more general insight identifying the trumps as a whole with a trionfi) they contribute little to our understanding of the middle section of the trumps.
William Marston SEABURY began (but never finished) a study of The Tarot Cards and Dante’s Divine Comedy, published posthumously in 1951. In that work, he talked about Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium as being rather vaguely related to the Tarot trumps. "Some of the characters and subject matter reviewed by Boccaccio may be found in Dante’s Commedia and also in the Tarot Cards." Seabury mentions in passing some far-fetched analogies between the trumps and De Casibus: Adam and Eve, presumably reflected in the Love card; Nimrod, presumably reflected in the Tower card; Hercules and Sampson, presumably reflected in Fortitude, etc. This would scarcely be worth mentioning, as it is the kind of simplistic free association that fills so many popular Tarot books… but then Seabury comes to his main point. Over two pages are devoted to a discussion of the Four Kings of Lombardy as models for the four Kings of the suit cards. Seabury was under the impression that the regular deck derived from Tarot, which was a common mistake in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, the four Kings were not part of Tarot per se. They were part of the regular deck, which was expanded by the addition of trumps. The four kings in playing-card decks derive from an earlier time and distant place that knew nothing of Boccaccio. What seemed an interesting lead in the mid-20th century turned out to be a dead end… but we'll return to De Casibus below.
Since the mid-20th century, writers have made comparisons between the Tarot trumps and Dante’s Commedia. Again, SEABURY first noted the obvious, that one could find analogs for all the trump subjects in Dante’s encyclopedic work and its many cycles of illustration over the centuries. Joseph CAMPBELL (1979), the most celebrated author to every opine on the subject matter of the trumps, argued (in a very general fashion) that the Commedia and Tarot were closely related works, deriving from the same sources. However, Hajo BANZHAF (2000) discerned a more systematic comparison between the two subjects, one that meaningfully reflected the actual design of both works. He compares the second half of the trump cycle (from the Hanged Man and Death onward) to Dante’s journey through three realms of the afterlife, Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. This is a genuinely insightful parallel, and while in retrospect it seems an obvious basis for comparison, it appears that no one had taken that approach before. It recognizes the conceptual integrity of both works, rather than simply ransacking Dante’s enormous literary and iconographic legacy for isolated subjects to be compared outside their native context.
Banzhaf also recognizes that such parallels do not indicate that Dante was a source, or even an influence, on the design of Tarot. The parallels merely provide a prominent example of the common subject matter that was incorporated into Tarot. Many other such comparisons can be drawn from the vast traditions of Christian eschatology, including the sermons, moral treatises, literary and artistic works, etc. about the Novissima, i.e., the Last Things and especially allegories of Death. Morally, Christian eschatology intended to inspire Stoic virtue and contempt for this world. Spiritually, these Stoic values promised a short stay in Purgatory and eternity in Heaven. Parallels between the higher trumps and Dante’s Commedia do not explain the specific choice of subject matter or the arrangement of those subjects into the Tarot cycle, but they are still informative. Tarot is a unique work of art, and must be respected as such; but to the extent that we understand such thematically related works and their comparison with Tarot they do provide insight into the significance of the trump cycle in the medieval world that created it. Context counts, both in this larger sense, and in terms of interpreting the individual images.
Moakley’s fundamental insight was identifying the trump hierarchy as a triumphal hierarchy. Trionfi, not in the sense of Petrarch’s poems or the Tarot cards, but as an artistic motif, literary motif, as an actual triumphal procession honoring some leader, or as an allegorical pageant, were hugely popular forms during the period of Tarot’s invention and first popularity.
Dummett continues: "A frequent ingredient in such Renaissance triumphs was the idea underlying Petrarch’s poem I Trionfi, in which each successive personified abstraction triumphs over, that is vanquishes, the last; thus, in the poem, love triumphs over gods and men, chastity over love, death over chastity, fame over death, time over fame, and eternity over time." Attempting to fit the trumps to Petrarch’s specific design was Moakley’s secondary thesis. "The case would be clinched if it were possible to explain the subjects of the triumph cards of the Tarot pack as forming a triumphal procession of this sort; but in spite of Miss Moakley’s determined efforts, supplemented subsequently by those of Mr. Ronald Decker, such an explanation, while plausible in principle, is difficult to make convincing in detail. Nevertheless, in default of a better explanation, we may accept it as likely, though by no means certain, that it was this association of ideas which prompted the use of the name 'triumphs' for the additional cards of the Tarot pack." (The Game of Tarot, 87.)
|The Triumphs of Petrarch|
The problem is that the six-triumph schema of Petrarch’s poems was simple and universally known, and the Tarot trumps do not fit that design. Moakley explained this lack of fit by recourse to another concept overlaid on Petrarch’s design, a Carnivalesque parody. Lack of fit between Tarot and Petrarch’s design is not taken as indicating a poorly executed work or a weakness of the theory but as a satire of that design. The trumps are considered "a ribald take-off" of Petrarch’s story. "Perhaps because, in the merry mood of Carnival, everything possible was done to make fun of the solemn story."
Moakley’s allegorical interpretation of Tarot not only included the trumps, but also the suit cards, and she integrated the two interpretations into a single theory of Tarot’s meaning. Her interpretation of the suits of the Latin-suited deck had four main elements: 1) each suit represented a company of knights; 2) each suit-sign represented one of the Cardinal Virtues; 3) the suits were taken to accompany the triumphs of the trumps; 4) the primary allegorical meaning of the suit-signs was travestied in a ribald fashion. (The association of suits with virtues has a sixteenth-century precedent.) She thus presents each suit as a chivalrous embodiment of its respective virtue, thereby connecting them with knight’s processions and the like, using that to integrate the suits into her overall conception of the deck.
Whether her interpretation is plausible as an historical explanation for the choice of subjects and their sequence, it is certainly a plausible commentary on the trumps. That is, her allegorical interpretation is just the sort that might have been made by 15th-century Italians. This is in stark contrast to the modern occult fantasies that are commonly passed off as "what a 15th century card-player might have seen in the cards". In both Banzhaf and Moakley, we see enlightening parallels with the Tarot trumps.
Above, I referred loosely to sources, influences, and parallels; the terms need some definition. Iconography looks for the authentic meaning or "author’s message" of a work, the subject matter that explains the composition, and in that quest the work itself provides the primary data. To the extent that it is a unique work, its meaning is also unique, while to the extent that it is derivative it will derive meaning from other works. Cognates, (directly related works that include sources, influences, and contemporaneous parallels), and analogs, (which may be related only in the eye of the beholder), can both be informative. The actual comparisons are an iterative process during which both the subject work and its relationship to cognates and analogs develops. Comparisons with possible sources, influences, parallels, and analogies is often enlightening. As I am using them here, these terms indicate different degrees of relationship between the work and comparison works.
Potential SOURCES refer to closely similar subject matter from a specific work, which has the same significance in both works, and which is expressed in a corresponding fashion in both works. The source work must have been potentially available to the creator of the work, either in direct form or through an intermediate work. Both proximate sources and ultimate sources may be of value in examining a work, but the proximate sources are the more revealing.
Potential INFLUENCES refer to similar subject matter, motifs, cultural sensibilities or the like which are characteristically expressed in the work, although possibly in a modified fashion. The influence must have been potentially available to the creator of the work, either in directly or indirectly, and an argument must be made that the creator actually relied on the influence for some aspect of the work.
PARALLELS refer to similar subject matter, motifs, cultural sensibilities or the like which are characteristically expressed in the work, although possibly in a modified fashion. The parallel work need not have been potentially available to the creator of the work. While an influence is taken to have been influential on the work, a parallel is not. It is simply another expression of a closely related idea within the same cultural milieu. If the relationship is not close and the meaning is not similar, if only superficial similarities are being observed, then the ANALOGY fails to be a genuine or meaningful parallel.
Given some definitions, we still need an example to illustrate them. The Hanged Man in Tarot is primarily a traitor, in the process of being executed. The modern ANALOGY with Odin, for example, is an odd and far-fetched comparison based on superficial and incidental similarities, revealing nothing of historical interest. The PARALLEL between Tarot’s Hanged Man and the image as used in Fanti’s Triumph of Fortune, however, is extremely valuable. In his work, the figure naturally symbolizes treason, and serves as a warning to both princes and to those who would betray them. This parallel provides a documented moral interpretation of the figure, although coming decades after Tarot it obviously could not be a source or influence. Hanging by one foot was symbolic of betrayal or treason. Other, more well known but less explicitly informative parallels to Tarot’s Hanged Man include the figure’s appearance in public effigies, in portrayals of punishment in Hell, and as a form of abuse and public humiliation before or after execution. Moakley cited the practice of “baffling”, and Vitali found an image used allegorically to illustrate betrayal in love. A 1393 document describes the practice as a form of torture and execution in the very area from which Tarot originated a half-century later. The document is another parallel, but the contemporaneous practice in the same locale must be considered an INFLUENCE. Gertrude Moakley suggested that the figure specifically represented Muzio Attendolo, condemned by the Pope as a traitor and publicly depicted in this fashion. If that were in fact the case, Muzio and his effigy would be the SOURCE of the Hanged Man image in Tarot.
Most of the following comparisons are what I consider meaningful parallels from three of the most prominent voices of the Middle Ages. For the most part I am not suggesting that their works were sources or even specific influences on Tarot’s design, but that they are more than mere analogies. They help explain the thinking that went into the design of the trump cycle by illustrating other results of the same thinking.
De Remediis and De Casibus were both elaborations of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophia, and they represent the larger Stoic Christian tradition of contemptu mundi, contempt of the world. Petrarch’s Remedy or Physicke for Fortune was a catalog of examples illustrating Philosophy’s lesson to Boethius, and Boccaccio’s Examples of Famous Men was an encyclopedic collection of biographies which typically mirror Boethius’ own rise and fall.
Although Boethius’ Consolatione was a moral allegory based on autobiography, the story epitomizes medieval tragedy. Tragedies tell of someone’s downfall, usually a great figure, and they begin with his triumphs and rise to greatness. Then come reversals and decline, (peripety or peripeteia), and a final downturn or catastrophe. This is also the cycle of the cards between the Pope and the Devil.
This catastrophic or tragic narrative arc is observed in the various historical orderings of the cards. Victory in personal and political affairs (Love and the Triumphal Chariot) precede the reversals of the Hermit (Hunchback, Time) and Wheel of Fortune. (Minchiate has the order of Chariot and Wheel reversed.) After that turn of the Wheel comes the Traitor’s betrayal and execution (Hanged Man), and the skeletal Reaper ends that part of the tale. (The Siciliano deck has the order of Hermit and Hanged Man reversed.) Success, reversal, and ultimately death define the flow of this middle section of the Tarot sequence, just as they define the cycle of the Wheel and the life story of Boethius. Worth noting is that Boethius’ downfall was sparked by betrayal, and the accusation against him was also treason. (In one form or another, betrayal was the most common and dramatic event causing the fall of princes in the De Casibus tradition discussed below, thus the significance of Tarot’s Hanged Man.) In Part 7 of Book IV, Boethius has Philosophy explain not only the nature of Fortune, but the role of Virtue:
"For this reason a wise man should never complain, whenever he is brought into strife with fortune; just as a brave man cannot properly be disgusted whenever the noise of battle is heard, since for both of them their very difficulty is their opportunity, for the brave man of increasing his glory, for the wise man of confirming and strengthening his wisdom. From this is virtue itself so named, because it is so supported by its strength that it is not overcome by adversity. And you who were set in the advance of virtue have not come to this pass of being dissipated by delights, or enervated by pleasure; but you fight too bitterly against all fortune. Keep the middle path of strength and virtue, lest you be overwhelmed by misfortune or corrupted by pleasant fortune." NOTE: Both good and bad Fortune are problematic. "All that falls short or goes too far ahead, has contempt for happiness, and gains not the reward for labour done. It rests in your own hands what shall be the nature of the fortune which you choose to form for yourself. For all fortune which seems difficult either exercises virtue or corrects or punishes vice." NOTE: Both good and bad Fortune are opportunities for moral development.
Virtue, however, does not alter the turn of the Wheel. Virtue is its own reward, equanimity in this life and, for the Christian, the hope of Heaven in the next. Virtue does not gain the favor of Fortune.
As an example of the design in Tarot, in the TdM order of the trumps we see the good fortune of victories in Love and the Chariot call forth the virtue of Justice, that we might not be corrupted by the dominion of husband over wife or victor over vanquished. The hardships of Time and age, the infirmity of the Hunchback, or the solitude and asceticism of the Hermit, like all the hardships and futility of the Wheel, call forth the virtue of Fortitude or Strength. (Fortitude was often paired against Fortune.) And ultimately, mortality calls forth the virtue of temperance, which for Christians is an act of faith in the resurrection. "If I fought the wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink [be intemperate], for tomorrow we die'." (1 Co 15:32, quoting Isaiah.)
In addition to this general narrative arc and the relation between the virtues and Fortune, there is more-specific detail in Tarot that also derives from the Consolatione. Some (including Dummett) have speculated that the therianthropic (animal-like) figures on the TdM Wheel are corruptions from earlier models, due to ignorant and sloppy woodcutters. However, Boethius (Book 4, Part III) explains this meaningful symbolism. It is man’s nature to pursue happiness, (which is goodness, which is the divine), and thereby to become gods. Attachment to the vagaries of Fortune’s gifts is not conducive to this pursuit of happiness.
"In this way, therefore, all that falls away from the good, ceases also to exist, wherefore evil men cease to be what they were. The form of their human bodies still proves that they have been men; wherefore they must have lost their human nature when they turned to evil-doing. But as goodness alone can lead men forward beyond their humanity, so evil of necessity will thrust down below the honourable estate of humanity those whom it casts down from their first position. The result is that you cannot hold him to be a man who has been, so to say, transformed by his vices. <…> Thus then a man who loses his goodness, ceases to be a man, and since he cannot change his condition for that of a god, he turns into a beast." Hence, the figures on the Wheel still resemble the men they have been, but by their attachment to the Wheel of Fortune they have become beasts.
Boethius’ Stoicism in the face of Fortune and Death is the central message of Tarot’s Triumph of Death design.
In the trumps of the middle section we see good fortune before the Wheel’s turn, and bad fortune after. Boethius, as quoted above, emphasized that one should "keep the middle path of strength and virtue, lest you be overwhelmed by misfortune or corrupted by pleasant fortune." That central Stoic message of the Consolatione and the Tarot trumps was elaborated by Francesco Petrarch in his most respected work, De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae.
The three Moral Virtues as placed in the Milanese/TdM ordering suggest a systematic design whereby particular virtues are pitted against particular turns of Fortune’s Wheel. Justice is only a concern when one is in position to do injustice, and victories in love and war confer dominion, husband over wife and victor over vanquished. The asceticism of the Hermit and turning of the Wheel itself both require Fortitude. The only hope against betrayal and death is the Christian triumph over death. TdM’s Temperance was given wings, turning her into a messenger of God, so that her mixing of water and wine might suggest a reference to the saving sacrament. Temperance reflects faith in resurrection as expressed by St. Paul quoted above. The corollary of that passage is, if you believe in the resurrection of the virtuous, then you’d better be temperate. (If you don’t believe in resurrection, then all bets are off—party on!)
In most other orderings, the three Moral Virtues are grouped near the beginning of this section. In Charles VI and Rosenwald, the least peculiar of the Southern orderings, they are placed after Love and before the Chariot. In the Eastern orderings, Justice was Shanghaied for an eschatological purpose, and the other two bracket Love and the Chariot. Having the virtues placed with the successes, before the reversal of Fortune, points up the fact that neither Success nor Virtue will avail in this world; the De Casibus narrative arc will play itself out regardless of the exalted status or virtuous nature of the individual.
The Boethian narrative arc was so compelling that it became the conventional structure for moralized historical biographies of the later Middle Ages as well being the essence of medieval tragedy. The Boethian view of Fortune and man’s downfall influenced many artistic works and illuminations. Jean de Meun’s first chapter in The Romance of the Rose (The Advice of Reason, c. 1270s) recapitulates the Boethian view of Fortune in the affairs of men. The author notes that he can provide many historical examples, although he expands primarily on Nero and his teacher Seneca. In Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (c. 1360s) he catalogued the many examples de Meun only hinted at. His encyclopedic collection (nine books) of biographical stories began with Adam and continued to figures from his own lifetime, ending with King John of France, defeated by the British in 1356, about the time the book began being written. While the stories varied, the most consistent theme was the folly of ambition (emphasized in the famous battle between Fortune and Poverty) and the fickleness of Fortune.
"All the notable tragedies which a diligent man can collect from literature, tradition, and observation, show without exception that the mortal world (as distinct from Heaven) is ruled by Fortune, the irrational spirit of chance…. God simply has different methods of procedure in Heaven, which is perfect, and on earth, which imperfect. On earth, because of imperfection and because of Fortune’s dominance, there is no perceptible order of cause and effect such as would permit an ambitious man to avoid material misfortune by forethought, by wise judgment and action, or even, strange to say, by the most perfect allegiance to God and the Christian religion. In other words, no man, no matter how great or powerful—and the falls of the great ones are best proofs of the argument—has any control whatever over his moral life. The moral is plain enough: Trust not at all in this world, but in the next world; the one mortal event certain for all men is death; embark upon no ambitious worldly action, covet nothing that the world can give you, busy yourself with nothing in this world except spiritual preparation for Heaven. Manifestly, the idea stated thus baldly… is only a specially developed branch of the old argument for Contempt of the World." (Farnham, 78-79.)
"In Ubi Sunt lyrical poetry there is many a De Casibus in little. Again there are the lists of great names, but it is not the conqueror Fortune that is sung; it is the conqueror worm. Still, the moral is much the same: Think not that power lasts. The Ubi Sunt verses of St. Bernard—if they are indeed his—are not the fountainhead of it all, for behind them is one of the meters of Boethius quite in the manner, and behind that is much similar melancholy meditation in later classical authors." (Farnham, 81.)
(A couple asides: Bernard of Cluny and Innocent III, 12th century, were among the most famous writers of Contemptu Mundi. "Yesterday’s rose endures in its name; we hold empty names." As I have done repeatedly, onlist and off, I want to again recommend Willard Farnham’s book, The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy (1936) as the best single introduction the medieval Stoic Christian sensibilities reflected in the Tarot trumps.)
What is the point here? Look at the names and the genres that have been cited. I’m only touching on the most famous literary figures and their most directly parallel works, and yet the list is striking. From Seneca (various works), Boethius, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and the many works in the Contemptu Mundi, Ubi Sunt, Triumph of Death, and related genres, this life cycle of triumph, misfortune, and death is one of the greatest and most often repeated themes of the Middle Ages. This theme and sensibility is deeply characteristic of the era. The central section of the trump cycle represents just such a Fall of Princes motif, taking its name from Lydgate’s English translation of Boccaccio. From the endless possible circumstances that might be illustrated, typical examples, (victory in love and war, Time and Fortune, and execution or a more generic end), were abstracted and arranged to epitomize the Boethian life cycle of success, reversal, and death. A millennium after Boethius’ Consolatione, the same tragic narrative arc or reversal of fortune (the De Casibus tradition) was a convention for both moralized history (Boccaccio) and tragedy (Chaucer). Triumphs, hardships, and mortality constitute a schematic but comprehensive grouping like the Three Estates of the lowest-ranking cards. This time the subject is all the circumstances of life, highly abstracted. Various medieval attitudes of spiritual disdain for things of this world (contemptu mundi), historical decline (ubi sunt), and the inevitability of death (memento mori, etc.), were reflected in the Boethian view that divine justice was only to be found in resurrection and judgment: in this world Fortune had a relatively free and capricious hand. ("What else do the groans of tragedy lament but the overthrow of prosperous kingdoms by the random blows of Fortune?")
While treacherous Fortune and Death were inescapable and moral virtue offered no refuge in the world of Time, virtue did hold out hope of reward in Eternity. Boccaccio’s Fall of Princes literary genre was essentially a Triumph of Death genre, based on the Boethian view of Fortune. This is the meaning of the middle trumps, the moral center of the trump cycle.
Moakley’s interpretation of the trump cycle was very close to the correct one. The popularity of Petrarch’s I Trionfi was important to the enthusiasm for all manner of trionfi in art, literature, pageant, and festive production that was flourishing at the time Tarot was invented. As suggested by Dummett, this brilliant insight can be accepted as the proximate source of the trionfi conceit which is the basis of the trump cycle. The content of Petrarch’s Triumphs is paralleled in various ways by that of the trumps, and Moakley focused on it as a source for the subject matter and sequence. Since it did not match Petrarch’s subjects and sequence systematically, she incorporated an unlimited amount of flexibility into her interpretation, making Tarot a ribald parody of his Triumphs. That part was quite mistaken.
Tarot’s trump cycle, while unique, is one of the most characteristic and complete expressions of this generic concept. In general terms it shows a ranks of man triumphed by Death, and then the eschatological triumph over Death. In addition, each of the three sections is meaningfully elaborated. The ranks of man range from the Fool through the Pope, and it emphasizes its completeness by including two representatives from each of the Three Estates. The Triumph of Death includes the complete Fall of Princes cycle, a Triumph of Fortune which emphasizes the reversal of fortune, and which naturally ends in Death. The eschatological section includes not only the triumph over Death, but also the triumph over the Devil, which necessarily precedes it. That connects back to the always-implicit origin of the human predicament, Adam’s sin and his punishment, which is where the cycle of Death began.
The Tarot trump cycle is a characteristically medieval moral allegory of Stoic Christian sensibilities. The middle section is the part which conveys most strongly the moral message, the same moral message conveyed by Boethius, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and hundreds lesser authors and artists who wrote their own Contemptu Mundi, Consolatione, Remediis, Ubi Sunt, and the like, or who created the many Triumph of Death works, from the Three Living and Three Dead and Traini to Costa and Holbein. The popular nonsense about Tarot being a Neoplatonic cosmograph illustrating distinctively Renaissance sensibilities, analogous to the so-called "Mantegna" cosmographic series, is as firmly grounded in iconographic reality as are the more traditional occult fantasies.
I have been told offlist that Gertrude Moakley was born on February 18th, 1905, so today is her 100th birthday. A discussion such as this seems a good way to remember the author of what is still—nearly a half century after it was written—the best iconographic study of Tarot ever published.