Friday, May 9, 2008

Death's Egalitarian Triumph

The Pompeii mosaic, 1,400 years before Tarot, asserts death's universal sovereignty, as does any memento mori. However, it was designed to emphasize a fundamental equality between the most disparate members of society. Ultimate equality was a precept of the Stoics. Arguments can be made that virtue is the summum bonum and achievable by all, that only the wise are truly free, or that slaves and nobles ultimately derive from the same stock. These all point toward egalitarian conclusions, but death is the only irrefutable example of universal equality. The emblem from Wither, two centuries after Tarot, makes the same point and just as emphatically, while Van Veen's allegorical emblem has more in common with the trump cycle itself. Countless works of art and literature, song and drama, reminded people of death, and most of them took pains to allude to the universality of it. This might take the form of an Everyman character, perhaps the three nobles of the Three Living and Three Dead, perhaps the King of Life in a morality play, or an allegorical figure named Mankind. Probably the most common figures in such representations were emperor and pope, the highest members of society. In each case the expressed or implied protagonist of the allegory was all mankind, but the variety with which this subject was depicted, or sometimes simply assumed, was extreme.

Among the most spectacular examples, and more closely related to the provenance of Tarot, are the Italian Triumph of Death works, such as the fresco at Pisa (c. 1340) and the one at Palermo (c.1450). Each of these has the ranks of mankind shown in a relatively explicit form of the three estates. Although all are subject to death, each grouping may be used to convey a different ancillary message. In the Palermo fresco the third estate is not shown as peasants, craftsmen, merchants, and the like, but as the most miserable of society's dregs. Beggars and cripples are pleading for the relief of death. The clergy and nobles, presumably less deserving of being struck down and certainly less desirous it, are shown as dead, dying, and in the direct path of the oncoming horseman.

In the Pisa Triumph of Death a number of related stories are told. These place members of the three estates in rather different relationships. A group of cripples, lepers, and the like at the center of the fresco are pleading for Death to release them from their misery, like the group in the Palermo picture. A large heap of dead bodies to the right of center includes an assortment of stations. Larger still are groups of nobles at the left and right of the picture. The hunting group at the left is being instructed by a monk, in the familiar form of the Three Living and the Three Dead. The garden party at the right is in the path of Death herself, a bat-winged Reaper descending upon them. The main representation of clergy, however, is the monks at the upper left. They are shown as being above the fracas, and the monk lecturing the nobles has descended from their isolation to perform that duty.

These secondary stories being told do not change the overriding message of Death's triumph over all. The point is not that the miserable dregs of society and the virtuous monks are invulnerable to death. Each group has a different way of relating to that inevitable eventuality. The monks are fully prepared and therefore indifferent, rather like Durer's Christian knight who rides past Death and the Devil without a passing glance. The beggars are desperate; that can only be shown while they're alive, so that is how they are portrayed. Although it is convenient and conventional to group assorted death-genre works together, to understand any one of them in detail requires taking the differences into account. In many cases the artist was conflating one or more rather conventional and generic ideas with one or more rather novel and specific ones. If, for example, one wanted to simply allude to spectacular and well-known Triumph of Death works, then a list might begin with Pisa (and the associated Anchorites and Judgment works), Palermo, the Costa triumphs of Fame and Death from Bologna, the Triumph and Dance of Death works at Clusone, and Bruegel's Triumph of Death. Each one, however, is a unique work. Even in as seemingly unified a genre as illustrations of Petrarch's Triumph of Death there were strikingly different traditions.

Costa's Triumphs in Bentivoglio's Chapel

Frescoes in the Camposanto, Pisa

The ranks of mankind as illustrated in the Tarot trump cycle are sufficiently complex and peculiar that most Tarot enthusiasts cannot discern them at all. This is despite the fact that the highest two subjects are as conventional as possible, the Emperor and Pope. This is also despite the fact that the three estates are clearly depicted with two subjects from each of the categories. As with most other such representations, a secondary story was also being told, and that complexity, combined with a wealth of mistaken preconceptions, places the design beyond the grasp of Tarot's many thousands of would-be exegetes. They cannot or will not accept such obvious design features as the Pope being the highest subject of that type, or the two religious, two noble, and two lowly figures being a representation of the three estates. As an example of readily intelligible variations, society's dregs as illustrated in Tarot are not the blind, cripples, lepers, and the like, but low-life entertainers, a Fool and a Mountebank. What could be more in keeping with the nature of the work itself, a card game? The subjects still convey the highest and lowest, and thereby all, just as surely as the 1st-century mosaic or the 17th-century emblems. Tarot just does it a bit differently -- which is itself typical -- and in a manner appropriate to the cycle's use in a game.

The Estates and Ranks of Man

Thursday, May 8, 2008

A Pair of Emblems

A week ago I noted that the Pompeii mosaic would have been at home in a 16th- or 17th-century book of emblems. Here are two very different images that convey the same basic message, taken from two of my favorite emblem books. The first comes from Otto van Veen’s Emblemata Horatiana, and the motto of the emblem is Mortis Certitudo.

It makes no difference whether you're wealthy,
born a descendant of ancient Inachus,
or whether you live out in the open,
a poor man and of a humble family—
[you're still] the prey of pitiless Orcus.
We're all driven to the same end, sooner or later
our ticket will come out of the upturned jar,
destined to put us in [Charon's] boat
for a never-ending exile.
(Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Ode 2.3)

Otto Vaenius, Q. Horatii Flacci Emblemata (1612)

The ranks of man are illustrated with exemplars. Death is personified and his lottery is shown in the most literal fashion possible. So too is Charon's boat, the river Styx, and the eternal rewards and punishments on the other side. The second example comes from George Withers' Collection of Emblemes. (The images were created by Crispin van Passe for a different emblem book, a couple decades earlier.)

Mors Aequat Sceptra Ligonibus. This is a much more direct parallel with the Pompeii mosaic, being symbolic rather than an allegorical scene. All the ranks of Mankind are illustrated by only two symbols, one representing the highest and the other the lowest. But the message is the same: "For when his fatal blow Death comes to strike, he makes the beggar and the king alike."

George Wither, A collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne (1635)

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Blunder and Bullshit

Fools and charlatans are as natural and complementary a pair as victims and criminals. If we think of occult Tarot as a morality play, the central characters would be Blunder (the fool, symbol of Folly) and Bullshit (the con artist, symbol of Deception). Tarotists often identify the Fool as the neophyte seeker while the Magician gulling him is the initiated guide, sensible and revealing interpretations of the characters Blunder and Bullshit.

While Blunder and Bullshit do their best work as a team, they can provide some howlers on their own. Despite the fact that most would-be Tarot interpreters will die without ever seeing beyond their initial New Age preconceptions about fortune-telling, magic, mysticism, and fuzzy Jungian blather, it still seems possible that a rational reading could be accomplished in less than a lifetime. In the previous post it was asserted that, with a little background knowledge, some common sense, and a bit of Googling, one might sort out an involved iconographic scheme in a relatively few hours. That doesn't mean there isn't room for errors and omissions, and some may have been made in that very post. As examples, however, I'll draw from others. First, a list of some sources that were consulted before writing the previous post... and another look at our mosaic.

Selected Sources

Ross sent the following link to a nice quality image.

Another good quality image turned up at Wikipedia's page on skull symbolism.

Another good quality photo turned up on imageshack.

A succinct source is's entry, "Polychrome table-top mosaic from Pompeii".
"Roman, first century CE. "Death levels all" theme depicting builder's leveling tool from which is suspended a skull, butterfly, and wheel of fortune; from one side of the level hang a sceptre and royal purple robe, while from the other hang a beggar's staff and rags. Naples, National Archaeological Museum. Credits: Barbara McManus, 2003."

A 2006 article by Colleen Carroll turned up on In it, she provides some general background on both Roman mosaics and the iconography of our mosaic. Unfortunately, neither her descriptions nor interpretations of the mosaic are reliable.

Who was Hiram Abiff?
J.S.M. Ward
Baskerville Press, 1925.

The Cambridge Ancient History v.XI
John Anthony Crook, Elizabeth Rawson
Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World
Katherine M. D. Dunbabin
Cambridge University Press, 2000

The Lost World of Pompeii
Colin Amery, Brian Curran
World Monuments Fund, 2002.

Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity
Serafina Cuomo
Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Note that despite doing my research online, most of the sources listed are published books. This reflects the fact that even today the Web itself is, in most cases, a shabby alternative to the stacks. Google Books and's Search Inside feature are often the best resources available on the Internet.

Perceptual Filters

The two examples to be discussed are from what should be, a priori, the best and worst sources I found. Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity is a scholarly book that not only develops serious historical questions in a sober manner with detailed examination of evidence, but in addition, Chapter 3, Death and the Craftsman, deals directly with ancient Roman symbolism related to our mosaic; the concluding section of that chapter uses our mosaic as one of two key examples; and our mosaic is even used for the book's cover art! This is not just a passing mention. So we begin our bad examples with a best-case situation, where a serious researcher leaps to a conclusion, based on genuine evidence, but fails to critically consider whether or not it can be justified.

The picture on the cover of this book is another non-funerary item from Pompeii -- a small mosaic, originally used as a table top in the outdoor triclinium of a large house which was at least partly occupied by a tannery. The startling image it presents is that of a skull (possibly modeled after the skull of a monkey) hanging from a carpenter's square, in the guise of a piece of lead hanging from a plumb line. The skull rests on a butterfly which in its turn rests on a wheel; the libella is supported on one side by a draped piece of purple cloth and a crown, and on the other by a traveling cloak with a stick and satchel. The various objects have been read as symbolizing the poor on the one hand and the rich and noble on the other, who are united and leveled in death. The wheel is the wheel of fortune, and the butterfly is a common image for the soul. The association is, as one historian has said, 'easy to grasp': the carpenter's square conveyed the idea that death is the great equalizer.

Let us first point out the obvious blunder, underlined in the above quote. The skull is not suspended from the line, and cannot possibly take the place of the plumb bob, as the plummet is shown above the skull. This is a very clear and accurate depiction of the plummet, including the fact that its reach does not extend beyond the base of the tool, and even including 3-D shading. In addition, the skull is enormously out of proportion to serve this function, and would descend below the feet of the tool rendering it useless. This interpretation is a blunder in several ways, falsifying the actual image and imposing another one which makes no sense. Other preconceptions have made their way into the passage as well, such as referring to the tool as a square. The angle is about 104 degrees, which is absurdly obtuse (insert your own pun here) to be called square, especially given that the author has noted that the tool is carefully depicted in most details. This level was not intended to be a multi-purpose device, either practically or symbolically, and would not function as plumb or square.

Again, we need to remember that this is not a casual description by someone who is only passingly interested in the image. This mosaic was closely considered, and the skull is both literally and figuratively the central element of its design. Yet the notion that the skull is intended as a weight was nonsensically imposed on the the picture -- what would lead to such an arbitrary and obviously false reading? It turns out that Cuomo had another artifact in mind when interpreting the mosaic.

Note also that the Pompeii mosaic is not unique; apart from other small objects, a strikingly similar image is preserved as a bronze weight for a steelyard [scale] in the shape of a skull with a butterfly on top of it. The functioning of a steelyard requires in fact an equalizing operation between weights and wares.

This beautiful bronze skull and butterfly has obvious symbolic connections with the mosaic. The skull is, as almost always, an iconic symbol of death and the butterfly, in the Hellenistic context, certainly represented the soul. And, given the function of the item in a balance, the allegorical leveling symbolism of Death is unmistakable. It is a wonderful cognate to our mosaic, but it does not make the skull in the mosaic into a weight. This appears to be a simple case of overextending the significance of one artifact into the interpretation of another. Correcting for the mistakes in reading the mosaic takes nothing from Cuomo's overall presentation, so there is no reason to think them anything but honest mistakes.

Before we leave this bronze sculpture, however, it may explain some of the peculiarities mentioned in the previous post. The mosaic skull is horribly misshapen. It has no chin, and there appear to be bizarre bony ears on each side. Given the excellent draftsmanship of the rest of the work, this seems to suggest that skulls were not kept around as artist's models, which seems culturally plausible. However, what about the ears? In the bronze weight, we see the absent chin and also vaguely ear-like processes on either side. In this case, however, these are clearly intended as the zygomatic arches, cheekbones. So the absurdly rendered skull in our mosaic may simply be 1) a conventional chinless portrayal characteristic of the period, and 2) a grossly ignorant rendering of the cheekbones.

The most directly salient aspects of Cuomo's presentation are available online. In fact, the entire chapter is available as a PDF file. The discussion of the funerary symbolism of builders' tools is excellent, especially the combination of ax, rule, and level mentioned in the previous post.

The Usual Fuckwits

When it comes to amusing lines of pseudohistory and rank bullshit, few can compete with the fabulous Freemasons. The most appalling tripe routinely derives, directly (as in this case) or indirectly (as with much of the Holy Blood, Holy Grail mythos) from these masters of mischief. In the early 18th century, not long after the invention of Freemasonry, the fable of Hiram Abiff was invented. This was integrated into their initiation rituals as an "historical" authority. As their bullshit was piled higher and spread further, the amount of effort required of the initiate became daunting, and complex memory aids were invented. These took different forms, but are most famously known in the guise of "tracing boards". The 1925 work of pseudohistory, Who was Hiram Abiff?, includes our mosaic as a significant example supposedly documenting Masonic rituals in ancient Rome. Abiff's legend, of course, goes back much further, at least in the fantasy world of Freemasonry. But we pick up the story with our mosaic.

The Roman Collegia had an initiation rite and the discovery of an inlaid marble tablet containing certain symbols suggests that Attis was their hero. On a ground of grey-green stone is inlaid a human skull in grey, black and white.... On the stick hangs a ragged, old, brown cloak tied with a cord, and over it a leather knapsack.... To the top, just beneath the knot, is a strip of white material with a line of dots or holes along the middle, and beneath is a robe of royal purple (red) fastened to the stuff by a cord. There is little doubt that here we have the "tracing board" of the degree of Death and Resurrection worked by the Roman Collegia.... The meaning of the scrip or knapsack is obscure, but it is obviously the reverse of the strip of cloth on the staff, the meaning of which is equally uncertain. The staff is, however, clearly the staff of the conductor of the dead, and the royal robe reminds us of the robes in which they clad the figure of Adonis slain. The thorn staff also seems to refer to the Acacia tree, and we cannot forget the fact that Adonis was not only the God of Corn but also of Trees. The fact that the royal robe is attached to the staff of the Conductor of the Dead clearly indicates that the initiate was symbolically raised from an old worn out physical body to a perfect spiritual body fit for habitation by the Divine King.

Naturally there is more, but this provides us with a couple points of approach. Given that the royal purple and plain ragged robes have been correctly identified, as has the symbolic opposition between the pictorial elements on either side, the rest of the analysis should be rather simple. In connection with Hellenistic royalty, the diadem is an obvious and fully explanatory association for a white band above the purple robe. In connection with paupers in the Greco-Roman world, the symbolism of a plain staff and a leather knapsack would be equally inescapable, rather than obscure. These connections are not merely necessary and, for anyone familiar with the subject matter, obvious, but also sufficient. No further explanation is required, and certainly not any arbitrarily forced reading about things like "the staff of the Conductor of the Dead" and its supposedly clear significance. Piling such inferences on top of arbitrary speculation is, unfortunately, what most online Tarot discussions specialize in.

As is usually the case with such pseudohistorians, we have the ugly combination of ignoring the obvious and imposing the arbitrary. No explanation or justification is given for either, and alternative readings are not considered -- even implicitly -- much less are they compared against the preferred interpretations. Overinterpretation in the form of false specifics is repeatedly introduced. Most misleadingly, there is "little doubt" about the most implausible of conclusions, in this case, that 18th- and 19th-century Masonic practices were instituted nearly two thousand years earlier.

Seeing such weaknesses in both the best (most scholarly) and the worst (most typical) examples of iconography, all one can do is 1) strive for the most parsimonious and conventional readings possible, and 2) seek out and pay attention to those who would disagree with your interpretations. Of course, good advice is only applicable to those who are not intellectually or morally bankrupt, and anyone who writes a book like Who was Hiram Abiff? is almost certainly deficient in one or both of those areas.

P.S. As yet another example of blundering interpretation, the description of the mosaic quoted above views the level as being like a coat hanger, "from which is suspended" the items in the middle, while the items at each side "hang" from the libella. Like Cuomo's assertion that the skull is the level's plummet, this is wildly false both in terms of the illustration itself and in terms of making hash of its meaning. The scepter, wheel, and staff are obviously and dramatically depicted as sitting on a shelf or floor. This is most clearly indicated by the shadows which fall on the floor and which commence from the object itself, showing that the objects are in contact with the floor. If they were hanging above it there would be a gap between object and shadow. More importantly, however, the function of the level and the meaning of the arrangement are based on that fact. The level only works if it is sitting on the things being measured: both scepter and walking stick must be on a flat surface with the libella resting on top of them.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Mors Omnia Aequat

Two days ago Ross Caldwell pointed out to me a magnificent mosaic from the late 1st century BC or the early 1st century AD. This little masterpiece of Roman art would be at home in the most sophisticated collection of 16th- or 17th-century emblems. The motto would be Claudian's famous exclamation, "Death levels all!" (Omnia mors aequat, from The Rape of Prosperine, book II, line 302.) That is also a central them of the many Triumph of Death and Dance of Death works from the mid 14th century through the 17th century, including the Tarot trump cycle. Thus the allegory depicted in the mosaic, although entirely pagan, immediately reminded both of us of the Tarot trump cycle. Yesterday Ross invited me to post on the mosaic, to use it as an example illustrating some methodological points from recent discussions on a Tarot forum, but it may be better to let them rest. I will address some of the topics here, instead.

The first point demands that we begin by openly admitting what most Tarot writers conceal or deny: We are talking about a far-fetched parallel, at least a priori. It comes from 1,400 years before Tarot was invented. It was, with absolute certainty, unknown to those who created Tarot. It could not be a source or an influence on the design of Tarot. Moreover, given my insistence that Tarot is a Christian allegory, there is an obvious disconnect between it and any purely pagan allegory. Such honesty carries a price, which is why it is so rarely seen in the writings of Tarot enthusiasts. The burden is clearly on me, the writer, to explain the alleged relevance of the mosaic to Tarot. The significance in terms of Tarot cannot be simply assumed as self-evident, (even though it might be to Ross and me). To make such an explanation necessitates knowing something about both works and it requires detailed analysis of their alleged affinity. If I leave those things as an exercise for the reader, then I'm just another bullshit artist and poseur, pretending to know something and pretending to say something. That is true regardless of whether there is a genuine parallel between the two works or not.

A second point concerns critical thinking, figuring things out based on the information at hand rather than abdicating that primary task while whimpering about having imperfect knowledge. Everyone always has less than complete knowledge. Some Tarot enthusiasts consider two decades of study insufficient to form any coherent conclusions about the meaning of a complex work like the trump cycle. This sets a new and tragically low standard for the term "slow learner". I've had two days to look at this allegory and write this post. Admittedly I had the aid of Google Books and's Search Inside feature, but then so does everyone else in the online Tarot community. Of course, if I couldn't do a decent job in two days, I'd take three. However, if I couldn't make any sense of it after a period of twenty-some years, after reading the views of dozens if not hundreds of others who studied the same allegory, I might consider taking up a different hobby.

The Mosaic

This mosaic was apparently discovered in 1874, in Pompeii. It is about one foot square and contains ten major elements, arranged in three columns. Although sometimes described as a table top, which it may have been, when such symbolic mosaics are found in situ they usually occupy the center of a plain or patterned mosaic floor. The central mosaics usually range in size from one to three feet square, and those in Pompeii are usually symbolic, (rather like the images in emblem books). One example is in the House of the Labyrinth, also in Pompeii, in which the patterned floor neatly expands on the central mosaic's depiction of Theseus and the minotaur.

The present mosaic was found in a triclinium, an open dining area. While emblems of death might seem peculiar in a dining area, this was actually a traditional dinnertime reflection. A famous scene from Satyricon provides an example.

While we were reading the labels, Trimalchio clapped his hands for attention. "Just think, friends, wine lasts longer than us poor suffering humans. So soak it up, it's the stuff of life. I give you, gentlemen, the genuine Opimian vintage. Yesterday I served much cheaper stuff and the guests were much more important." While we were commenting on it and savoring the luxury, a slave brought in a skeleton, cast of solid silver, and fastened in such a way that the joints could be twisted and bent in any direction. The servants threw it down on the table in front of us and pushed it into several suggestive postures by twisting its joints, while Trimalchio recited this verse of his own making:

Alas! how less than naught are we;
Fragile life's thread, and brief our day!
What this is now, we all shall be;
Drink and make merry while you may.

The point here is simply that such macabre concerns were considered suitable mealtime subjects, as they were when Parisians ate lunch by the Church of the Innocents with the Dance of Death for their scenery. This was true for both the wealthy and for the working classes. Likewise, they tended to share the mors aequat omnia sensibility of death as the great leveler.

The composition of this mosaic includes not only well executed detail but also sufficient trompe l'oeil in the form of directional lighting/shading and 3-D rendering to make the composition appear precariously balanced and unstable. It is equally correct to say that the objects are shown as being perfectly balanced: the builder's level is perched atop a scepter on the left and a walking stick on the right.

The most striking element by far is the large white skull in the center of the composition, neatly and symmetrically framed by the other elements. The objects depicted on the left include a scepter/spear to which a diadem (the white ribbon of Hellenistic kingship) is tied and a royal-purple robe tied to the scepter with a golden cord. The objects depicted on the right include a rough-cut walking stick from which a beggar's pouch is hung and to which a ragged robe is tied with a plain cord. These attributes, insignia of the highest and lowest stations, are correspondingly arranged on either side of the skull. The scepter and the stick are exactly the same length, as is shown by the builder's level balanced on top of them. A clearer image of post-mortem equality between the most exalted and least respected members of society can hardly be imagined.

The plumb bob of the level touches the top of the skull, which sits on a butterfly and a wheel. Again, the 3-D shading of the skull and wheel, along with the shadow of the wheel, give the illusion that these objects are stacked on top of one another. This suggests a unreal degree of substantiality to the butterfly, or that the death-head is weightless, or perhaps that the death-head is depicted on the wall in the background while the other items are free-standing in front of it.

Elements of the Composition

LIBELLA -- The builder's level can have various meanings in period art. It may be a totemic item in a funerary composition, simply being a tool of the deceased's trade. However, the libella repeatedly appeared in funerary art along with an ax and a rule, which were probably symbolic. The rule measures and the ax cuts, suggesting the end of life, while the level indicates the egalitarian result. There is also the level's symbolism as virtue. A pendulum or plumb level works like a the scales of a balance, indicating level when the line is in the middle. (Libella is the diminutive of libra, and the verb form libro could mean to level or to weigh. Words like deliberate and equilibrium reflect this family of meanings.) Aristotle's conception of virtue, of course, was likewise a mean between extremes, and the opposite of unbalanced. Regardless of what Freemasons might think, being "on the level" is as natural a metaphor being "even-handed" or "well-balanced".

SKULL -- The skull in this mosaic is the only element not reflecting good draftsmanship. The skull has the large brain case of a human, and the sutures, although they are badly positioned, indicate that the artist was somewhat familiar with skulls. However, the maxillary prognathism and absent chin are simian in appearance, and the bony ear is bizarre. I have read no explanation for this, and have none to offer. However, the significance of the skull as an icon of death is sufficiently clear in any rendering.

BUTTERFLY -- The butterfly was a symbol of the soul, and appeared in various works of art and literature. Famously, Psyche was turned into a butterfly and shown with butterfly wings. As such, the butterfly could be a metaphor for a Neoplatonic post-mortem ascent through the spheres.

WHEEL -- The wheel might suggest Fortuna, who was given this attribute during the period when the mosaic was made. However, it might also be a symbol of journey, metaphor for life. The six spokes suggest an elaboration of this, the six Ages of Man. Any of these would convey the same general idea, man's lot in life.

The SCEPTER is a symbol of royalty and the associated power and authority. Ancient Roman leaders were also warriors, and were sometimes depicted with a SPEAR either in addition to or in place of a scepter. The DIADEM (white ribbon) was the Hellenistic symbol of kingship, a status so high that even power-mad caesars took care to reject it. The PURPLE ROBE tied with a GOLDEN CORD -- another symbol of power, wealth, and privilege.

The vagrant's STAFF is the opposite of a scepter. The PERA, (Cynica pera or Cynic sack) was a leather bag (purse, pouch, wallet, knapsack, etc.) and along with the walking stick was a long-standing symbol of a rural figure or an urban beggar's poverty. These items were adopted by the Cynics and other ironic sages, the obnoxious "wise fools" like Diogenes. The RAGGED ROBE tied with a PLAIN CORD is the opposite of the purple and golden insignia on the left.

The Parallel with Tarot

The lowest trumps of the Tarot cycle include representatives of both the highest and lowest social status. The Emperor and Pope are the highest figures in medieval Christian society, while the Fool and Mountebank are among the dregs. In both works the notion of merism, that form of synedoche wherein the highest and lowest encompass and thereby represent the entirety, is clearly at work. In both works, the subject of the allegory is all Mankind.

The allegory proper, that which happens to Man, is equally encompassing. The wheel, as an allegory of either the ups and downs of Fortune or of the Ages of Man, spans the entirety of Everyman's life. This is spelled out in more detail in the trump cycle, where successes (Love and the Chariot) are followed by reversals (Time and Fortune) and downfall (Betrayal and Death). However, the abbreviated version in the mosaic is still culminated by the dominant feature of the work, the allegory of Death. If the libella is taken as an allusion to virtue in life, then this would be an added parallel with the trump cycle; but it is more likely just a meta comment about the leveling effect of Death, and the moral of the allegory.

The butterfly can be taken as the post-mortem soul. Released from its mundane, sub-lunar imprisonment as a caterpillar, it can fly free. This suggestion of a triumph over Death is in keeping with the highest-ranking cards of the trump cycle and their eschatological content. Again, it is an abbreviated version, and obviously a purely pagan one; but it completes the tripartite parallel between the mosaic and the trump cycle.

Whether one accepts the reading of either work, or the alleged parallel between them, at least interpretations are provided and the parallels are spelled out. One can accept this analysis, reject it, or perhaps correct it and build something better. But there is something there, something beyond a weak analogy nebulously insinuated. The Tarotists' claim that endless years of mindless rummaging, feeling and fondling a thousand different possibilities, are a necessary prerequisite to any critical thinking about the trump cycle, is suspect at best. Whether a disingenuous ruse to shield bankrupt pet theories or an implicit admission of gross and incurable ignorance, it is something to be ashamed of.

December 28, 2013 postscript:

This childish interpretation was found on the Internet, without any authorship information. It seems to be worth including here, as a characteristic example of the most typical sort of bullshit one finds in Tarot books and online discussions.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Prodicus' Allegory of Virtue and Vice

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

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

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

Socrates relates Prodicus’ allegory

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

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

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

And to the same purpose Epicharmus:—

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

Who remarks in another place—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other translations:

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

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

The Memorabilia, by Xenophon

Even a Blind Pig...

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


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

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

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Three Moral Virtues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Short List

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

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

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

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

Tarot History

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

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

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

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

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

Tarot Iconography

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

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

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

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

John Shephard
Aquarian Press, 1985.

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

Timothy Betts
New Perspective Media, 1998.

Petrarch and Trionfi

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Larger Triumphal Tradition

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

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

Andrew Martindale
Harvey Miller, 1979.

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

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

Margaret Ann Zaho
P. Lang, 2004.

The Roman Triumph
Mary Beard
Harvard University Press, 2007.

Boccaccio and the De Casibus Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

Perverse Interpretation

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

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

The Open Work
Umberto Eco
Harvard University Press, 1989.

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

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

James Elkins
Routledge, 1999.

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

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

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

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Carnival Triumph of Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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