Why this number of trumps?

#1
I'm not sure if this question belongs here or in the thread regarding the sequence of trumps. Being new here, forgive me if this question has been asked and answered already.

What is the opinion of the members on the number of Trumps? Was 21 chosen specifically, and then allegorical images were chosen to fill that number, or were the images chosen for the sequence and they just happened to result in 21 cards?

If the number 21 was deliberately chosen as the number of trumps, was this because of its relation to pips on a gambling die, or the number of throws of two gambling dice, or was it because of some pre-existing list of other concepts?

If the trump subjects were chosen for other reasons, and just happened to result in 21 cards, then it would seem odd that the fourth cardinal virtue was not included, if there was no set limit to how many trumps there could be.

Re: Why this number of trumps?

#2
Hi, RLG,
RLG wrote:... forgive me if this question has been asked and answered already. What is the opinion of the members on the number of Trumps? Was 21 chosen specifically, and then allegorical images were chosen to fill that number, or were the images chosen for the sequence and they just happened to result in 21 cards?
It has been asked and answered many times, but there seems to be no consensus opinion. There are lots of theories, including a couple that are very characteristic of the theorists, and a relatively new idea that is interesting, plausible, and far more historically contextualized than most. (It's Ross' idea, not surprisingly, and I would not be able to do it justice, so I'll leave it at that.) I'll mention a couple, and then my own.
RLG wrote:If the number 21 was deliberately chosen as the number of trumps, was this because of its relation to pips on a gambling die, or the number of throws of two gambling dice, or was it because of some pre-existing list of other concepts?
The most common idea, among those who don't have any good explanation for the trump cycle, is that the number 21 (or 22) corresponds to something non-Tarot. This is natural enough. With no understanding of the trump cycle itself, they are left with little recourse except to guess that it might be a crappy representation of something else.

Perhaps the most sober of these explanations is that the number of unique outcomes when throwing two dice, just as 56 -- the number of suit-cards in a standard Tarot deck -- is the number of outcomes with three dice. Perhaps the silliest (and most widespread) is that the number 22 is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet and the trump cards encode secrets of ancient Egyptians who favored the Hebrew alphabet. (Hey, I don't make this stuff up!) Many people who care little about the actual meaning of Tarot's trump cycle have played this game, simply finding a corresponding list and matching the subjects with the Tarot trumps. Many of these lists don't even have 21 or 22 items, as a recent book published by a member of this forum illustrates, and none of them have any sensible 1:1 relationship with the subjects on the trump cards.

The number 22 is favored by Kabbalists and the number 21 is favored by other numerologists, often calling themselves Neopythagorean. These are very common presuppositions and seemingly self-defeating, if one's quest is to understand historical Tarot. As a working hypothesis, it means that the trump cycle itself is an arbitrary selection, forced to fit a number or pattern rather than to have any systematic meaning or design. So why bother with something that you assume from the start is crap? I don't know.

On the other hand....
RLG wrote:If the trump subjects were chosen for other reasons,
For example, if they actually MEAN something, in a coherent design....
RLG wrote: and just happened to result in 21 cards, then it would seem odd that the fourth cardinal virtue was not included, if there was no set limit to how many trumps there could be.
Here you are doubling down on the same error. Virtue = 4, number over meaning. You are assuming that the common grouping of four Cardinal Virtues were the only meaningful grouping of virtues, which is false, and that the Tarot trump cycle had no meaning of its own so it needed to just copy something else, which is false.

In fact, there were many dozens of virtues discussed and depicted in the Middle Ages and beyond, and there were countless groupings of virtues. If we assume that there were "other reasons", i.e., a meaningful design, involved in the selection and ordering of the trumps, then we first need to figure out what those reasons were. A particular virtue might be appropriate in a particular context, to convey a particular meaning.

Beyond that, however, the three virtues in Tarot are a complete set, in the same sense that the four Cardinal Virtues are a complete set and the seven Cardinal Virtues are as well. The group of Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance constituted the Moral Virtues. Prudence was one of the five "Intellectual Virtues". It was often grouped with the three Moral Virtues because, as Aquinas explained, it has moral action as its object. The best detailed discussion of the seven Cardinal Virtues -- four classical and three Christian -- at the time and place of Tarot's invention, is in Aquinas.

Consider the design of the middle trumps as I argue them. Overall, they constitute a 3-act narrative, with successes in love and war followed by reversals of Fortune and Time (or the renunciation of the Hermit), and then the downfall depicted by the Traitor and Death. This is a coherent narrative design, and the general sequence is maintained in almost all of the orderings. These are the good and bad circumstances of life in a Wheel of Fortune narrative.

That is the middle section of the 6/9/7 design.

In the Tarot de Marseille ordering each of these pairs of circumstance is followed by an (arguably) appropriate virtue. Victory in love and war confer dominion, husband over wife and victor over vanquished. Justice is the virtue which mitigates the exercise of dominion, rendering unto each person that which is their due. Time/Asceticism and Fortune call for the virtue of Fortitude, which triumphs over them in the Tarot de Marseille sequence. Betrayal and Death are not overcome in this life, which is why Temperance needs wings -- as a psychopomp -- to triumph over Death. For some more details on the appropriateness of Temperance in that role (especially as Nike Oenophoros, with her connection to Christian funerary art, the Bible, and the Eucharist) see my posts on Winged Temperance in this thread:

Winged Temperance
viewtopic.php?f=11&t=71&start=40#p1819
Image

Nike Oenophoros
That is the 3-3-3 sub-division of the 6/9/7 design.

If we actually accept that Tarot meant something, then that meaning comes first. If the Pope and lower-ranked cards are (as they obviously are) a ranks of man motif representing Everyman, and if the Devil and higher cards are eschatological, then the middle cards are a distinct segment, as Dummett suggested and as I have explained. In that series of allegories there are three sections, and in Tarot de Marseille they are perfectly parallel. Each of the 3 acts of the middle trumps shows an aspect of life, and overall the three acts constitute a tragic narrative arc: successes, reversals, and downfall. And each of these aspects of life is met with an appropriate virtue.

There is no a priori numerology requiring four virtues, or anything else. There is instead a meaningful design that just is what it is -- exquisitely well designed. You can't shoe-horn in another virtue, Prudence or anything else, without screwing up the design, just as you can't switch the virtues around (Golden Dawn style) to make astrological correspondences fit without doing violence to the original meaning.

As always, that kind of detailed design where every subject and its position is explained as necessary to an overall design is not accepted by anyone else. However, consider it a possibility. IF there really is such a detailed meaning to the trump cycle, something that explains the choice of subject matter and the arrangement from the top down,

i.e., the 3-3 / 3-3-3 / 3-3-1 design,

then there is little or no need to make up stories about things like numerology, in any of its forms. If every card in every position can be explained as necessary to the overall design, then there is no need for a separate explanation of the number 22. The only explanation is that it requires 22 subjects to tell that particular story in that particular way.

Best regards,
Michael

P.S. There are a some other Nike Oenophoros and "Nike at an altar" images in Wikipedia media, in the Nike in Ancient Greek Pottery category.

Nike in Ancient Greek Pottery
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Categ ... ek_pottery

It should also be noted that John Opsopaus, in the Temperance page describing his Pythagorean Tarot, mentions related ancient art showing Iris or Hebe as cup-bearer. These are sometimes very similar to Nike in ancient art, even indistinguishable. However, Opsopaus fails to mention Nike/Victory at all, and therefore fails to make the connection that was actually in historical Tarot. The Christian "Victory over Death", a biblical allusion, is the essence of this traditional Nike symbolism.

mjh
We are either dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, or we are just dwarfs.

Re: Why this number of trumps?

#3
Thank you RLG for asking this question. It may have been asked many times, but the answer MJ has given here is one of the best, most easily understood (by me) summaries of this I think I have come across. I actually really understand what is being explained, and it makes sense, finally. Usually I get confused at certain points and give up on reading the rest of the explanation, but this time around, it all just made perfect sense. I am thinking that RAH's diagram of the 3 acts and all of that has helped me to understand this more completely. (Thank you RAH for those awesome diagrams and all of the rest!)

And thank you Michael, for giving such a well written and succinct explanation of this. I do not think have read any explanations of why Prudence is not in the trumps before that made so much sense. It's so nice when something finally clicks in my brain. :)
"...he wanted to illustrate with his figures many Moral teachings, and under some difficulty, to bite into bad and dangerous customs, & show how today many Actions are done without goodness and honesty, and are accomplished in ways that are contrary to duty and rightfulness."

Re: Why this number of trumps?

#4
Hi, Prudence,
prudence wrote:Thank you RLG for asking this question. It may have been asked many times, but the answer MJ has given here is one of the best, most easily understood (by me) summaries of this I think I have come across. I actually really understand what is being explained, and it makes sense, finally. Usually I get confused at certain points and give up on reading the rest of the explanation, but this time around, it all just made perfect sense. I am thinking that RAH's diagram of the 3 acts and all of that has helped me to understand this more completely.

And thank you Michael, for giving such a well written and succinct explanation of this. I do not think have read any explanations of why Prudence is not in the trumps before that made so much sense. It's so nice when something finally clicks in my brain. :)
Thank you!

LOL -- if anyone is likely to be long-winded and get people confused along the way, with digressions even within a single convoluted sentence that might cause people give up in mid-screed, it is me; so I appreciate the comment but, having said that, let me muddy the waters a bit more.

Keep in mind that this explanation about the necessity of three virtues only works with Tarot de Marseille. With each and all of the other orderings, this explanation fails. (There might be another justification which I haven't thought of, but this one only works with Tarot de Marseille.) It is one of the numerous icongraphic reasons why I think that the 15th-century Milanese standard pattern was probably very much like Tarot de Marseille (Chosson or Noblet, but without the borders, names, and numbers), and that it was the original ordering.

And because you mentioned it, there is one other possible point of confusion that I should try to clarify. Several of us use the term "3-acts" in describing some aspect of Tarot. I think that Enrique and others have been using it to refer to the overall design of the trump cycle, which is entirely different than my use of the term. I try to use it in regard to the middle trumps exclusively. Same term, different meaning.

As I describe the trumps, the lowest ones are a schematic representation of Everyman, a diagram if you will emphasizing the different categories of mankind. In dramatic terms this is like listing the Cast of Characters, a list with the dramatis personae that might be printed in the pages before the text of the play itself. Ultimately, they represent Everyman, but the criteria by which they are distinguished is itself informative, and constitutes a setting to the moral allegory of our lives. We need to "know our role", or mind our place, as it were. The highest trumps show the End Times triumphs over the Devil and Death. This is an epilogue, not really our story. The moral allegory which we live is depicted in the middle trumps. That section has three acts in itself.

Damn... hope I didn't just undo my brief moment of clarity!

Best regards,
Michael
We are either dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, or we are just dwarfs.

Re: Why this number of trumps?

#5
mjhurst wrote:Hi, RLG,
Consider the design of the middle trumps as I argue them. Overall, they constitute a 3-act narrative, with successes in love and war followed by reversals of Fortune and Time (or the renunciation of the Hermit), and then the downfall depicted by the Traitor and Death. This is a coherent narrative design, and the general sequence is maintained in almost all of the orderings. These are the good and bad circumstances of life in a Wheel of Fortune narrative.

That is the middle section of the 6/9/7 design.

In the Tarot de Marseille ordering each of these pairs of circumstance is followed by an (arguably) appropriate virtue. Victory in love and war confer dominion, husband over wife and victor over vanquished. Justice is the virtue which mitigates the exercise of dominion, rendering unto each person that which is their due. Time/Asceticism and Fortune call for the virtue of Fortitude, which triumphs over them in the Tarot de Marseille sequence. Betrayal and Death are not overcome in this life, which is why Temperance needs wings -- as a psychopomp -- to triumph over Death. mjh
Hi Michael,

Thanks for the very informative reply. I lean toward the idea that the trumps were arranged as a narrative, and the number of trumps was simply a coincidental result of that narrative, especially because I fail to see any correlation with the trumps to something like the 22 Hebrew letters, and AFAIK, no one has come up with a viable list of 21 or 22 items to which the trumps were matched, (though I could be wrong, and/or such a list could appear someday).

Seeing as how you believe that the trump cycle in the Tarot de Marseille pattern has, in the middle section of a 6-9-7 pattern, a series of 2-1/2-1/2-1 images, where a Virtue is used after a pair representing a rise, reversal, and fall, do you see the initial set of 6 'ranks of man' in the same way?

In other words, the Fool and the Bagatto are followed by the Popess, then the Empress and Emperor are followed by the Pope. So is this order determined in a similar way to the middle section? Is there some reason why the 'peasants' (for lack of a better term), are followed by the Popess (as Mother Church perhaps?), while the nobility is followed by the Pope? I can see how the Pope would 'trump' the nobility, as the ultimate authority in the world, but does the Popess play a similar role, perhaps as the Church is the authority over the (religious) lives of the peasants?

Your argument seems persuasive for the middle section being in the order that it is in the Tarot de Marseille, so I'm wondering if there is a similar argument for the first 6 cards? Obviously the Fool and Bagatto are always the lowest, while the four 'Papi' seem to have been shuffled around a bit in the various traditions, which is why I ask if you have an argument for a specific sequence of these. If the narrative of the trumps is not tied to any specific number of cards, then I would expect there to be some reason why these Papi were used, in a specific order, rather than just having one representative for each of the three ranks of man.


RLG

Methodology and the Lowest Trumps

#6
Hi, RLG,
RLG wrote:Seeing as how you believe that the trump cycle in the Tarot de Marseille pattern has, in the middle section of a 6-9-7 pattern, a series of 2-1/2-1/2-1 images, where a Virtue is used after a pair representing a rise, reversal, and fall, do you see the initial set of 6 'ranks of man' in the same way?

In other words, the Fool and the Bagatto are followed by the Popess, then the Empress and Emperor are followed by the Pope.
Looks like a pattern, doesn't it? And seeing that kind of thing is crucial. The structure is a key to understanding the overall design. That is part of a larger methodology of starting from the known and fitting the pieces together around those you've already figured out.

On a personal level, a prerequisite to historical interpretation is being willing to follow the cards where they tell you to go, rather than insisting on some preconceived design. Every image is ambiguous, some a little, others a lot. For example, in talking about the Love and Chariot cards above, I am sticking very close to obvious meanings, but certainly not the only obvious meanings. There is no question that these victories confer dominion, but is that the first thing you would think of when you see Cupid or a triumphal chariot? Probably not. That particular emphasis, "spin doctoring" or whatever, was not arbitrary. Dominion over others is the salient aspect of Love and the Chariot precisely because we need to make sense of the series, this pair of subjects followed by Justice. Rather than impose a preferred meaning, or connecting a card to a preferred cognate text or image, we need to find a meaning that would connect with the other cards in the sequence. In particular, each triptych has a pair of related cards and a third card that trumps them both. That is one of the conceptual units that has to make sense.

The 6/9/7 analysis creates three conceptual units that have to make sense, in addition to the series as a whole making sense. The 3-3 analysis of the lowest trumps creates two conceptual units that have to make sense both in their own right and make sense in terms of the larger 6-card unit. And carrying it a step further, each of the seven 2-card units (Matto and Bagatto, Empress and Emperor, Love and Chariot, Time and Fortune, Traitor and Death, Devil and Lightning, Moon and Sun) must also make sense as a pair. That's what I meant by "top-down" design. Whoever created it had a big idea, Level-1, which included three parts. Each part was then developed into its own sub-design, Level-2, each consisting of two or three parts. Each of those parts was then developed into two parts, Level-3, a pair+1 structure. The 2-card groups can then be analyzed as pairs of cards, making a Level-4. And because of that level-by-level development, conflating at least two layers of meaning for each of the three main sections, compromises were necessary.

So the question to ask in each case is, what meaning makes sense of the card in its own right and in terms of its place in each level of the analysis? You must be willing to follow the cards. Most people want to guess at a meaning and then force it to fit, rather than assuming that they should fit and adjusting the meanings so that they do. The meanings I suggested back in 2000 were things I didn't know much about, didn't fully understand, and certainly didn't prefer. Over time, despite having explored and explained each piece of the analysis in great detail, having researched each section from different directions, having found better cognates and the like, the basics of the analyis are still the same. This is from a post just over nine years ago.
Michael on TarotL wrote:Virtue Triumphs Over Circumstance

The next nine cards are equally simple to interpret, now that we have the method: interpret each card in the context of the others and the triptych pattern. For example, the first two cards of the third triptych show victory in love and war, a royal betrothal or wedding picture, and a triumphal chariot. These have many elements in common, such as the citywide celebrations that might accompany such events. What I'm looking for are the interpretations that link up with Justice, and contrast with the Hermit/Wheel and Traitor/Death pairs. Both marriage and military victory confer dominion, husband over wife and victor over vanquished. Justice is the virtue that overcomes dominion, as only the dominant are in a position to do injustice. "All's fair in love and war" -- NOT! This interpretation works, at least for me, in connecting the triptych together and in making it comparable to the next two triptychs.

The Hermit and the Wheel both have many possible interpretations. But when looked at in conjunction with Fortitude, the element that comes through is hardship and frustration. The Hermit, in all his guises (Time, Hunchback, etc.) illustrates hardship, sometimes as age, sometimes as infirmity, sometimes as asceticism, etc. The Wheel, especially when showing the ascending figure with the ears of an ass, shows the futility of ambition. *We* might think of Pat Sajak, but because of the structure of society back then, with huge lower classes, small retainer and governing classes, and a minute ruling class, social mobility was almost always downward. Both Hermit and Wheel are properly joined to the virtue of Fortitude, which overcomes hardship.

The execution of a Traitor and the depredations of the Reaper are properly contrasted with Temperance for several reasons. First, the simple analysis: Temperate speech and action will prevent being hung as a traitor, while temperate consumption will hold off (temporarily, at least) the Reaper himself. Temperance overcomes mortality, at least for a while.

A second argument relies again on the Bible. "If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'" 1 Co. 15:32. In other words, if death is not defeated, let us be intemperate. This connection between Temperance and the triumph over Death is not logically translatable into the defeat of Death BY Temperance, but it does make a connection.

A third connection is perhaps even more tenuous, and yet I like it most of all. It is from 1 Co. 15:21-22: "For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive." The pouring from one vessel to another strikes me as an excellent image for that passage, and it is reinforced by 1 Co. 11:25: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood", also Lk. 22:20. This is, however, more allegorical than most of the preceding interpretations, which stress the face value of the cards.

I'm not sold on any of those arguments, but the three together combined with the other patterns in the deck, convince me that something *like* that connection between Death and Temperance is valid, in the same sense as the other triptychs.
The "Christian Tarot" (Jun 25, 2000)
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/TarotL/message/3193

Sounds pretty familiar, eh? One of the reasons for quoting that to you is because you can see that while the conclusions have developed a bit, with some better historical examples and perhaps more articulate arguments, I was using and promoting the exact same method that I just presented to you above. And, you can see that I applied the same type of methodology and analysis to each part of the trump cycle, because the first thing I do in that quoted section is refer to the method and structure from the first section. That's because Tarot de Marseille, unlike other decks, is complex but perfectly systematic.
RLG wrote:So is this order determined in a similar way to the middle section? Is there some reason why the 'peasants' (for lack of a better term), are followed by the Popess (as Mother Church perhaps?), while the nobility is followed by the Pope? I can see how the Pope would 'trump' the nobility, as the ultimate authority in the world, but does the Popess play a similar role, perhaps as the Church is the authority over the (religious) lives of the peasants?

Your argument seems persuasive for the middle section being in the order that it is in the Tarot de Marseille, so I'm wondering if there is a similar argument for the first 6 cards? Obviously the Fool and Bagatto are always the lowest, while the four 'Papi' seem to have been shuffled around a bit in the various traditions, which is why I ask if you have an argument for a specific sequence of these. If the narrative of the trumps is not tied to any specific number of cards, then I would expect there to be some reason why these Papi were used, in a specific order, rather than just having one representative for each of the three ranks of man.
The short answer is "yes", in Tarot de Marseille that same detailed, pair+1 triptych sub-structure holds throughout the seven triptychs, and below that level of analysis each of the pairs is meaningfully related. The problem is that the designer (we'll call him Baldrick) had a cunning plan, too clever by half, and so things are messy. In the middle section he combined a De Casibus (Fall of Princes) narrative arc with a De Remediis (Remedies for Fortune) sub-structure. This is perfectly neat. However, in the lowest and highest sections he combined less perfectly congruent ideas. Hence derives much of the mystery.

BUILDING BLOCKS

Let's see... where to begin... you've actually been reading all this long-winded stuff? Hmmm... okay. Then we'll start at the beginning. We'll start with the obvious, working from the known to the unknown, from the big picture down to the details. And we'll consider more than just Tarot de Marseille, at least in passing, although that is the version in which it's easy to see a more fine-grained compositional structure. In another thread some of the people here have been talking about the "building blocks" of Tarot history and iconography, settled questions that should serve as foundational for further investigation. I have a much longer list, but I'll start by offering a few such factual findings, established conclusions, and working hypotheses, along with some of their justifications and implications. (I'll just discuss three, as background and context, and then we'll get to your question about the lowest trumps.) A month ago, Ross posted these as his initial proposed building blocks. It is a really good start, but by quoting these five items from Ross you will be able to see the strong overlap.
Ross wrote:Tarot was invented to play a game.
The trump series originally had a coherent meaning.
There are three families of orders for the trump series.
Every one of the original orders has a coherent symbolic meaning.
Not every tarot trump series has a coherent meaning.
Unified/Coherent Hierarchical Compostion. The first thing to keep in mind about the Tarot trumps is that they were trumps, i.e., special cards in a card game. As such they were hierarchically arranged, and that arrangement is the overriding design of the trump cycle as an artistic composition. Therefore, as argued by Gertrude Moakley, the original name (carte da trionfi) had a double meaning. The trionfi were both a hierarchy of trumps for the card game and a hierarchy of allegorical triumphs to give inspirational meaning to the card game. This carries an implicit assumption, i.e., working hypothesis, that they constitute a unified composition as well as the explicit assumption that they are a hierarchical composition. (BTW, I would disagree with Ross' view that every one of the three families of ordering had a coherent design. I would only argue that the original ordering would have had such a design. The variations have meaningful changes, but not necessarily, nor as far as I can tell in fact, systematic overall design. It could have been the case, but it isn't a necessary working hypothesis, and it doesn't appear to have been the case.)

Moreover, if that hypothesis is wrong then it means that there really isn't anything that interesting or special in Tarot. If it is not a great piece of didactic art, at least as well conceived as some of the more complex fresco cycles (like the two panels at the Bentivoglio Chapel, for example), then who really cares about it? Besides fortune-tellers and others who view it as a cultic artifact, of course. This working hypothesis either pans out, delivers gold, or else Tarot is nothing more than the vague triumphal sampler described by Michael Dummett as a null hypothesis. He stated that it might be something more, but pointed out the obvious -- the burden of proof is on us, the geeks who find it fascinating, to demonstrate that it is anywhere near as cool as we think.

Costa's Triumphs in Bentivoglio Chapel (pic are gone -- bye-bye Geocities!)
http://www.tarotforum.net/showthread.php?t=91801

The Trump Subjects are of Three Kinds. The lowest-ranking trumps include an Emperor and Pope, indicating a ranks of man. Assorted conventional allegories follow, leading up to Death, indicating a moral allegory. Subject matter common to Apocalyptic art makes up the highest trumps. Thus, the design is in three registers or segments. This actually constitutes at least three separate conclusions, and taken together they imply a fourth:

Tarot is a Triumph of Death. There are a great many works of art and literature that have a similar trinity of subject matter, so we can easily find cognates and, voila! The genre of the Tarot trump hierarchy is a Triumph of Death. This is, in itself, the Grail of Tarot iconography. All the rest are details. More than that, knowing the genre of a work is crucial in terms of further analysis. If the trump cycle is an astrological/cosmological hierarchy based on the Children of the Planets books (Shephard, 1985), valid interpretations are going to be very different than if it is a representation of Apocalyptic legends about the Last Emperor and the Angelic Pope (Betts, 1998) or a Carnavalesque parody of Petrarch's Trionfi (Moakley, 1966).

In art, hundreds of variations on this topos are known, from great frescos like those from Pisa, Bologna, Palermo, and Clusone, to countless Danse Macabre cycles, miniatures in Books of Hours, illustrations in emblem books, sculptures and bas relief, ivory memento mori, and so on. In literature, death's supremacy is a central element of the Bible. The economy of salvation itself, the thread which ties Genesis with the Gospels and Revelation in a unified narrative, is all about the Devil, sin, and death, Christ's redeeming death and resurrection, and his second coming when the Devil and death itself will be cast into the sulphurous lake of fire. Proximate with Tarot's invention are works like morality plays and Petrarch's Trionfi, which are also about the dominion of Death over Everyman or Mankind. Although the topos of Death's universal sovereignty pre-dates Christianity, and some pre-Christian works neatly parallel later examples of the macabre morality, the great flourishing of death-centered art and literature began around the time of the Black Death, about a century before Tarot was invented. The macabre genres continued in popularity through the Renaissance and for another two centuries.

There are three elements to any Triumph of Death in the Christian world: 1) a protagonist, representing all mankind; 2) an allegory of death's victory; 3) some indication of resurrection to judgment. (We need to specify the Christian world, because the Everyman/Death topos was depicted as a Stoic world as well, and it had no implication of post-mortem resurrection.) Each element may be elaborated in unique ways, and one or another may be emphasized at the expense of others. For example, the protagonist might be an allegorical personification explicitly named Everyman or Mankind. That universal scope might be indicated by a litany of historical figures, using the exemplary mode, or by a different list of subjects, each merely representative of a class of people. The protagonist of the image or story might be three nobles out hunting, or a single King of Life, but in every case it the general human condition being represented. As an example, consider The Pride of Life. This too was written about the time of the Black Death.

The protagonist, the King of Life, is a swaggering braggart whose posse includes Strength and Health. He is warned by his Queen and Bishop to remember that he is only a mortal creature. Instead, he proclaims dominion over all and challenges anyone who would deny it, specifically the King of Death. Naturally, that doesn't work out well; Death wins, and the King of Life is going to hell. He is saved in the nick of time, however, by the intercession of the Virgin.

As an aside, even a picture or carving of a skull, a memento mori in its most simple and naked form, inevitably implies all three elements to a Christian of that era. The skull itself is not only a symbol of Death, but of Everyman and salvation, because Golgotha or Calvary (Greek and Latin for "place of the skull") is where the redeeming blood of the crucified Jesus (salvation) dropped on the skull of Adam (Everyman). That's why penitent saints were routinely depicted in meditation with a skull, pondering the manifold ramifications of that simple symbol.

It is worth noting, before leaving the matter of Tarot's genre, that a number of 19th-century writers, most of them uncovered and pointed out by Ross, described the trump cycle with a passing allusion to the Dance of Death, to which it is clearly related, and some referred to Floskaartjes -- a card game based on the Dance of Death -- as the Dutch Tarot.

Tarot and the Dance of Death
http://pre-gebelin.blogspot.com/2009/01 ... death.html

Addenda et Corrigenda to Lacroix
http://pre-gebelin.blogspot.com/2009/02 ... croix.html

Floskaartjes
http://pre-gebelin.blogspot.com/2009/01 ... rtjes.html

INTERPRETING THE LOWEST TRUMPS

Okay... if you can remember that far back, just before that "building blocks" digression I mentioned that the designer was too clever for his own good, and that the complexity of his design was a fundamental reason for the mystery of Tarot. I also insisted that our job, if we want to figure out the intended meaning, requires us to discern the simplest combination of ideas that can explain the design. And we have as part of our evidence pattern in the hierarchy of Tarot de Marseille, at least in the lowest two sections, specifically that pair+1 sub-structure. So let's look at the ranks of man.

Matto / Bagatto / Popess // Empress / Emperor / Pope

I used the Italian names for the first two, because they were chosen to rhyme. That is part of their being paired, one aspect of that structure which we are both using as a working hypothesis to guide us and attempting to confirm with assorted evidence and interpretation. In Tarot de Marseille they are depicted as a pair, with the Fool walking up to the Mountebank as if to be conned.

Using our building blocks and starting with the most clearly identifiable figures, we can see immediately that the Emperor and Pope appear in many hundreds of Triumph of Death works, using that term broadly to include Dance of Death and other related works. This is part of what tells us that this group, from the Pope down, is such a ranks of man as we see in these other works. This informs and constrains our subsequent interpretation of these figures. Occultists will sheik that ambiguous or obscure figures should be left open to endless divergent readings. My response to that is that they have had over two centuries to figure out the trump cycle, with nothing of value to show for it -- their howls may be profitably ignored.

As an aside, consider a riddle. Some parts seem clear, some obscure, while the whole thing is puzzling. Just as the individual clues of a riddle suggest many different answers, there are many ways to interpret any given Tarot card. The correct solution is the one that does the least violence to the individual elements, while making the most sense of them all together. "What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?", or as the Riddle of the Sphinx is more commonly expressed, what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs during the day, and three legs in the evening? Individually, those elements are vague and seemingly contradictory. When taken together and given the correct answer, the various metaphorical figures become clear and fit together neatly. But those figurative readings of the clues are not necessarily obvious, nor the first thing that comes to mind in a particular case. The context of the whole constrains the correct answer, else it's not a riddle -- it's just bullshit.

Tarot is not compared to a riddle as mere analogy. It is in fact a kind of visual riddle, and was originally designed as such. It's mystery comes from the fact that the original version contained multiple layers of systematic meaning. This required clever design and some conflated (compromised) iconography. The person who created it was not merely theologically and artistically sophisticated, but very ingenious, occasionally ironic, and playful. Although it takes considerable exposition to explain the solution to a contemporary audience, it is possible to make sense of all the pieces and their combination. At least, that's my story.

Back to the ranks of man. Perhaps the most glaring fact about these figures as a ranks of man is that there are two religious figures, two monarchs, and two low-lifes. Knowing that they constitute a ranks of man, representing Everyman, we cannot avoid the fact that they depict the Three Estates of medieval social organization. They are certainly not a typical representation of the Three Estates, but they are indisputably a representation of the Three Estates. That is organizing principle #1 of the lowest trumps: the Three Estates.

Which entails problems. Matto, Bagatto, Popess, and Empress are all a bit strange. Why these subjects? And the Empress triumphs over the Popess -- why this order? Note that these are always our two primary questions: why these subjects and why this order? What might someone have had in mind, what might they conflate with a ranks of man and the Three Estates as part of a Triumph of Death that would explain these odd choices? First, we need to try out some specific interpretations of the figures. Let's pair up the subjects and try the subject matter question first:

Fool -- Folly
Magician -- Deception
Empress -- State (lay people of Christendom)
Emperor -- leader of State
Popess -- Church (clerical people of Christendom)
Pope -- leader of Church

Or something like that. Pretty much face-value interpretations, and they do add up to a summary of Mankind. We have the heads of church and state in Christendom, along with female allegories with papal and imperial attributes representing the bodies of church and state in Christendom. That's quite straightforward. We also have a Fool and a Mountebank/Magician. Given the fact that all the decent Christian people are represented by the Popess and Empress, these figures must have negative meanings. That corresponds with their obvious significance: the higher ranked figure, the Mountebank/Magician, is a professional deceiver, and the Fool is a fool. Given the identity of the two figures, and using the parallel with the leader/follower paradigm of Pope/Popess and Emperor/Empress allegories, the allegorical meaning of Fool and Mountebank is not that obscure. The Mountebank, professional deceiver, is an allegory of Deception and the leader of his ilk, while the Fool, representative of Folly, depicts those who are deceived. This also suits their position at the ass end of the hierarchy, and corresponds with the most well-known and authoritative identification of the fool, from Psalms:
The fool hath said in his heart: There is no God, They are corrupt, and are become abominable in their ways: there is none that doth good, no not one.... Their throat is an open sepulchre: with their tongues they acted deceitfully; the poison of asps is under their lips.
The Fool and Deceiver are not among the God-fearing people of Christendom, but they are still subject to death and therefore properly included in the ranks of man. They are the Damned, and Tarot's ranks of mankind includes them, naturally ranked below the Saved. As such, it is a systematic design in that all three pairs of figures show a representative leader and an allegory of the many followers. It is comprehensive in that it shows both Saved and Damned.

That is the most generic analysis of Tarot's ranks of man. As such, that is, ignoring the order of the trumps, it fits most standard decks. There are problems with it, of course. First, a three-estates analysis strongly conflicts with the analysis into Saved and Damned, because even some Popes will end in Hell, while some of the third estate will end in Heaven. That part of the third estate is actually (according to the allegory) represented by the Empress. So it's messy at best, and it gets worse.
Image

The Three Estates was a commonplace, as was the distinction between Saved and Damned. But there are few examples of the Three Estates being represented systematically, and none are like the design in Tarot. And there are other factors to be considered. The Fool and Mountebank, while good allegories for the damned, were also entertainers. In that sense they were like playing cards themselves -- they might be suspect, even condemned, but they were also fun. The allegory of the Church, while not particularly obscure, was also ambiguous. Thoroughly disreputable figures like Pope Joan and the heretical female pope Sister Manfreda would be brought to mind. There was, in short, ambiguity in the design. And there was the odd order of the cards.

In different decks, this section was revised over and over, and in more ways than any other section of the trump cycle. The images were changed, the subjects were changed, the ordering was changed and, amazingly, in some cases the subjects were neutered and the hierarchical ordering was abandoned! This is the supreme act of violence against the original design, changing not only the subject matter and ordering but eliminating part of the trump hierarchy. Nonetheless, despite all this vandalization of the lowest trumps, the underlying idea is abundantly clear: the lowest-ranking cards represent Everyman, via a ranks of man culminating in Emperor and Pope, as is the case in a great many other Triumph of Death works. Here are a couple other orderings. You can probably see why someone might prefer each of these.

Matto / Bagatto / Empress / Emperor / Popess / Pope

Matto / Bagatto / Empress / Popess / Emperor / Pope

So what can we make of the seemingly perverse Tarot de Marseille ordering? What possible secondary reading can we hypothesize to justify the Empress trumping the Popess? I've offered two secondary readings, a good Popess and a bad Popess. Both are more-or-less incongruous with the Three Estates and the Saved & Damned design, but nonetheless appropriate for a ranks of man and therefore an elaboration rather than a contradiction of the face-value interpretation.

The good Popess reading fulfills a need perceived by many, including you, to complete the Cardinal Virtues by finding Prudence somewhere in the trumps. Various cards have been put forward as Prudence, including the Traitor, the Hermit, and the Popess. In one novelty deck, the so-called Charles VI cards, the iconography indicates that the deck designer identified woman on the World card as Prudence, giving her the same polygonal halo that he gave the other three virtues. In Tarot de Marseille, the Popess and Pope may have been intended as representatives of Prudence. You may recall that I recommended Aquinas as the preeminent authority on the virtues at the time and place of Tarot's creation... and certainly one of the authorities in the history of Western civilization. The lowest trumps are a social hierarchy, and according to St. Thomas there are two kinds of Prudence in society, i.e., two kinds of Political Prudence: Political Prudence per se, which pertains to the governed, and Regnative Prudence, which pertains to the rulers. Consider this design.

Matto / Bagatto / Popess (Political Prudence)
Empress / Emperor / Pope (Regnative Prudence)
Love / Chariot / Justice
Hermit / Fortune / Fortitude
Traitor / Death / Temperance

Note that Prudence was traditionally portrayed with two faces, a young woman and a bearded man. St. Thomas Aquinas, (ST II:ii:50, following Aristotle): "The Philosopher sayes (Ethic. vi, 8) that 'of the prudence which is concerned with the state one kind is a master-prudence and is called legislative; another kind bears the common name political, and deals with individuals'.") This reading explains why one of the two "Prudence" cards triumphs over a pair of commoners while the other triumphs over a pair of monarchs.

The bad Popess reading expands on the Saved versus Damned interpretation. She becomes False Religion, vagely associated with characters like Pope Joan and Sister Manfreda. This interpretation has a single recommendation: it makes sense of the sequence.

Matto / Bagatto / Popess (Fools and Deceivers lead by False Religion)
Empress / Emperor / Pope (Noble souls lead by True Religion)

On the plus side, we can interpret the triumph of the Empress over the Popess as the triumph of the State (executive arm of the Holy Inquisition) over False Religion. Perhaps the biggest problem with that reading is that the Popess is never depicted in a negative manner, including as Pope Joan. And there are other problems as well. As I wrote nine years ago, I'm not fully satisfied with the interpretations, but I still think that forcing the interpretation to fit the cards and their sequence is the best approach, (rather than forcing the subjects and ordering to fit a preconceived theory), and building on the evident structure of Tarot de Marseille provides essential information about how that can be done. What might be the best explanatory mix of the inescapable (Three Estates) and optional is an open question, but just as the middle trumps conflated two different motifs to create a complex design, that appears to be the problem -- and therefore the solution -- in the other two sections as well.

LOL -- apologies to those who couldn't make it to the end of this one.

Best regards,
Michael
We are either dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, or we are just dwarfs.

Re: Why this number of trumps?

#7
When you add a separate suit of trumps to a playing card deck, it would seem to me that probabilistic and gameplay issues constrain their actual numbers. You don't want the trumps to be so rare that each one becomes an automatic I-Win card. You don't want them to be so many that they overwhelm the ordinary mechanic of following suit.

In a standard deck of 52 cards, one of every four cards will be a trump. In the Tarot, that ratio is approximately preserved. An exact one in four ratio would put the number of trumps in a 78 card deck at 19.5. The number 21 may have been picked because it is exactly 1.5 times a full suit of 14. I'm leaving the Fool out of this computation, of course; he is a joker that stands outside the ordinary play to a certain extent.
Le beau valet de coeur et la dame de pique
Causent sinistrement de leurs amours défunts.

- Baudelaire

Re: Why this number of trumps?

#8
Hi, Steve, RLG,
SteveGus wrote:When you add a separate suit of trumps to a playing card deck, it would seem to me that probabilistic and gameplay issues constrain their actual numbers. You don't want the trumps to be so rare that each one becomes an automatic I-Win card. You don't want them to be so many that they overwhelm the ordinary mechanic of following suit.
Simply picking a number because it seemed good for the game, as you suggest, is rather like the idea that the number was chosen to match the number of outcomes with two dice. They wanted to add trumps, and they picked a number that was somehow gaming related. However, this idea lacks the substantive content of the dice theory, because lots of numbers could be justified in this manner. The dice theory says "21", whereas this could "explain" almost anything. It is a "just-so" story, made up to fit the facts, and could just as easily fit most other numbers from 14 (a minimum set by the number of cards per suit) to 40 (the maximum number of trumps in some Tarot decks).

In the first half of the 15th century, we're talking about the earliest experiments with trumps. Decks and games were being invented, rules were invented, and games were played, over and over and over. New decks and games and rules were invented, which has continued to this day. But in the 1420s through the 1440s, when trumps were invented a number of times in very different games, the players didn't know the things you suggest they took into consideration, (these trumping games were brand new), and even later there never was any kind of agreement on the "proper" number of trumps. The trump/suit-card ratio in Tarot changed, always increasing, over the centuries of its existence. It takes time for games to evolve.
SteveGus wrote:In a standard deck of 52 cards, one of every four cards will be a trump. In the Tarot, that ratio is approximately preserved.
Approximately, but not really. Your argument suggests that there should have been 19 trumps, to preserve the trump/suit-card ratio, which seems like a poor explanation for there being 21 (or 22) trumps.

The original trump/suit-card ratio in Tarot appears to have been 22/56, or .39. Over time, that ratio was repeatedly increased. Tarot is not just one game or deck; it changed over time, and as people discovered more about the game they increased the ratio by either reducing the number of suit cards or increasing the number of trump cards. One of the most popular Italian versions from the 16th century was Minchiate, with a 41/56 ratio, .73. (Whether you leave the Fool out or include him in, it makes little difference as long as you're consistent. He is, in any case, one of the special non-suited cards that can be played as trumps. He just doesn't win the trick.)

In Tarocchino, the Bolognese Tarot game played with a shortened deck, sixteen cards (the 2-5 cards of each suit) are omitted, resulting in a 62-card deck. Shortened regular decks became commonplace in the 16th century, and that is presumably when the Tarocchino decks were created. The Sicilian Tarot’s shortened deck omits the 2 and 3 of Coins, and the Ace, 2, 3, and 4 of the other three suits, yielding a 64-card deck. A shortened deck is recommended in the earliest surviving rules of Tarot. In order to make the game more enjoyable, it is said to be desirable to separate twelve cards from the deck before dealing. The lowest three cards of each suit (10, 9 and 8 of Cups and Coins, and the 3, 2, and 1 of Swords and Batons) are removed before the hand begins, resulting in a 66-card shortened deck. (Six more cards are discarded after the deal, before play begins. Four discards from the dealer and one from each of the other two players leaves each with twenty cards.) Here are some of the full deck sizes as suit-cards were reduced and the trump/suit-card ratio was changed.

70-card carte grande da trionfi (Ferrara, 1457)
97-card Minchiate (Florence, early 16th century)
66-card Rules of Tarot (France, 1637/1585?)
64-card Sicilian Tarot (Sicily, 17th century)
62-card Tarocchino (Bologna, 17th century)
54-card Italian-suited German decks (mid 18th century)
54-card French-suited modern decks (mid 18th century)
42-card Hungarian decks (late 18th century)

That last one is an aberration with more trumps than suit-cards, but it indicates the extreme trump/suit-card ratio (22/20) that later players found desirable. The 54-card decks were common.

Games played with French Suited Tarot Cards
http://www.pagat.com/class/ftarot.html
SteveGus wrote:An exact one in four ratio would put the number of trumps in a 78 card deck at 19.5. The number 21 may have been picked because it is exactly 1.5 times a full suit of 14.
So the number is completely meaningless, just a random guess at what might would make a good game?

On a related topic, there is a well-promoted view online that the earliest form of Tarot deck had only 14 trumps, making it very much like a 5th suit. It's usually called the 5x14 Theory, and if we're just going to guess what an original designer might have done, that kind of equal-sized group of trumps seems much more plausible than a random multiplier like 1.5x. The plausibility of equal-sized trump suits is bolstered by the fact that there are other decks documented, and even surviving examples, with a genuine 5th suit. These were almost certainly used as trump suits, and the Liechtenstein deck in particular has indications in the iconography to that effect.
SteveGus wrote:I'm leaving the Fool out of this computation, of course; he is a joker that stands outside the ordinary play to a certain extent.
Tarot is not the only game in town with trumps. Games vary considerably, and we have some history. The earliest games with specially designed or designated cards as trumps were apparently Karnoffel and the Marziano deck, both from the 1420s. In Karnoffel, "a suit was selected to be the trump suit; but the peculiarity lay in the fact that only some cards of that suit were full trumps in the usual sense. Others were partial trumps, able, according to their rank, to beat every card of the suit led save the highest, or the highest two or highest three." It is a unique game, and there is no exact ratio for partial trumps; but it would be small. A very different conception of trumps in the Marziano deck, where only the King remained of the regular face cards but additional face cards -- four per suit -- were added above the Kings. These served as trumps. That makes (probably) a 16/44 ratio, or .32, very much the same ratio as when one of the standard four suits is designated as trumps. In other words, a relatively low ratio.

In any case, the idea that they just picked a number, more or less at random, based on what they guessed might make a good game, is definitely one to be added to the list. Unfortunately it doesn't explain anything, because any number that actually appeared could be justified this way. That's what makes it a "just-so" story.

Best regards,
Michael
We are either dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, or we are just dwarfs.

Re: Why this number of trumps?

#9
Perhaps, the number 22, with its associations to Revelations, had become a general symbolic number representing the 'end times', like the number of planets (7) had become a rather general number of fate and luck. :-?
When a clock is hungry, it goes back four seconds.

Re: Why this number of trumps?

#10
mjhurst wrote:
And each of these aspects of life is met with an appropriate virtue...

...you can't switch the virtues around (Golden Dawn style) to make astrological correspondences fit without doing violence to the original meaning.
You can switch them around in a variety of ways and interpret the meanings in a way that would still make the virtue appropriate without too much strain or violence; for example a simple switch of temperance and justice to match the ordering of the virtues in orders A and B for example would match temperance with the appetites of love and praise; and justice as the reward of the soul perfected by virtue or the punishment of the soul disfigured by sin after death - (related to what Ross called the 'crude' moral placements in the B ordering achieved with the switch of the two in the C)- crude maybe but simple, straightforward and easy to understand without due strain that only requires the reading of the lover and the chariot as related to the desire for love and praise rather than the domination of woman and peoples; certainly a change in emphasis in how you read them but hardly a great violence to your interpretation of the original meaning.
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.
T. S. Eliot

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