le pendu wrote:I've spent the last five years exploring tarot history with many of you, often almost everyday we've crossed paths and exchanged thoughts. Together we've considered Templars, and Cathars, and Gnostics, and NeoPlatonists, and Mystery Schools, and Exiled Jews, and Gypsies, and Druids, and just about every other possible... (oh hell, I don't know what word I want.. "fringe"? "alternative"?)... group that can be imagined as the possible creators of tarot. (Not to mention the Atlantian Dolphin Mermaid Goddesses!)
Yet, I always come back to the Catholicism in the Tarot...
One of the reasons that conversations on TarotL, LTarot, and recently on Aeclectic have come back to Christian themes again and again is that for most of the last decade I've been relentlessly pushing that idea, attempting to make exploration of mainstream Christian themes and motifs as acceptable as fortune-telling, astrology, numerology, Kabbalah, neo-Paganism, heretical sects (Albigensian or otherwise), Renaissance magic, Neoplatonic humanism, initiated mystery traditions, sorcery, the Magdalene mythos of Holy Blood and Holy Grail
, neo-Jungian archetypes, and similar occult and New Age fascinations.
le pendu wrote:... and it proves to be both the most convincing, and yet still conflicting... both at the same time! I look at cards like Judgement and ask "How can this not be a Christian creation?" How can we explain away the iconography of an angel calling the dead from their graves with a blow of his trumpet? We've also got the Pope in there, and the Devil, and several common virtues. In the Tarot de Marseille, we even have the four evangelists on The World. Some of the iconography is "mid-way" understandable: The Emperor and Empress, Star-Moon-Sun, Love, Time, Death... not what I would imagine as particularly "catechismic", but easy enough to understand in the general scheme. Even some cards like the Wheel of Fortune and the Fool are understandable enough as cautions against a life without God and The Church to guide you.
But then we run into The Popess, The Hanged Man, and The Magician; and I have to wonder "What on Earth are these doing here?" Are these common Catholic symbols? Are they in groups of cosmic organization like the Mantegna? I find myself having to "excuse" their inclusion to keep the subject properly on Catholicism.
I don't understand what you are saying here at all. In what sense is any interpretation of an individual subject, taken wholly out of context, "convincing"? When taken out of context, there are always alternative readings not only possible but plausible.
The idea that any symbol has one and only one correct meaning (e.g., they were Catholics, ergo the Chariot is the Church) is the kind of silliness that we find in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code
, with his idiot-savant "symbologist" Robert Langdon. He sees a wildly ambiguous symbol with no defining context and comes to a matter-of-fact conclusion about its meaning.
Symbols, like words, mean different things in different contexts. Open an unabridged dictionary to any page and you'll find words that have a dozen or more meanings. You can't tell which meaning is intended if you take the word out of its context (the sentence in which it occurs) before attempting to interpret it. No sane person would try. And yet virtually all Tarot interpretations ignore the context of the subjects, taking them as independent figures rather than pieces in an overall composition. Doesn't that sound amazingly
As Panofsky insisted, you need to identify the genre of a work before you start attempting to decipher details. In the case of the trump cycle, you need to find some overall significance to the sequence, based on the most conventional and least ambiguous subjects, before attempting to interpret the less conventional and most ambiguous subjects. These particularly obscure and/or ambiguous subjects, like the Fool, the Popess, the Chariot, Fire/Lightning, the Moon, Sun, and Star, are then interpreted within that larger context so as to make sense of the whole. If that can be done, then maybe you have a good reading. If it can't be done, then maybe Dummett was correct and there is no coherent meaning to the whole.
le pendu wrote:It's easy enough for me to look at The Popess, and imagine that she is some mislabeled version of "Faith", or a pair with The Empress representing "Church and State personified"; but I do have to wonder how she worked herself into this set?
What is the context of the lowest-ranking cards? How can she be interpreted so that it makes sense?
le pendu wrote:I have a hard time imagining the Magician's place in a 15th Century Catholic's perception, but I can't help but feel that he doesn't fit in with the common group.
You know some things about him which might help form a common-sense image. He's the lowest-ranking trump that can actually take a trick -- that's a clue. Look in other places for tricksters and deceivers in particular, or for entertainers in general. If you find an allegory with Reynard the Fox depicted at the top of Fortune's wheel, for example, wearing a papal tiara and representing (according to the accompanying text) the Antichrist, that's a clue as to how such tricksters were viewed. If you know that the status of such individuals in society was infamia facti
, debased merely for being a lowly entertainer, that's a clue. If you know how such people were considered damned, that might be another clue. This is from Bob O'Neill's page: "In a 12th century tract designed to guide the local pastor in directing his parishioners, the question is asked whether a ‘jongleur’ will be saved. The answer is no – for they are servants of Satan (Gurevich 1988)." Satan was, after all, the Father of Lies, and a professional deceiver provides an obvious allegory of Deception. "You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and he stood not in the truth; because truth is not in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father thereof."
These things add up, and the honorific status the occultists gave the Fool and Mountebank are -- like so many of their impositions -- 180 degrees off from a sober historical reading. But ultimately, you have to have a context for the figure, based on the other cards and his place in an overall reading. Can you add up a number of things like that and, most importantly, the hierarchy of the trumps, in such a way as to make sense of it all?
le pendu wrote:Same with the Hanged Man; I suppose he was common enough in the secular world, but why not Judas?
Why Judas? What preconception are you entertaining, and why? Again, what is the overall design you are assuming, and how does either fit within it?
Taking things out of context is an entertaining way to pass some time, "exploring" as people like to say. But as you point out, you've been doing this for a number of years now. You've done enough exploring to get a broad and more or less deep background. At some point you need to try fitting the pieces together, rather than just looking for more and more marginally related associations. What unstated assumption are you working with here? Is the hierarchy just a random collection of images, so that the most common are the only ones that make sense? Why else would Judas be more appropriate?
le pendu wrote:And where is Jesus? And Mary? And so much of the other common language of religion at the time?
Why would they be there? What unstated assumption are you making that would justify Jesus and Mary? A Dance of Death
, for example, is about as mainstream a Christian cycle as you can get, being painted on churches throughout Europe. Most of them did not show Jesus and none of them, IIRC, showed Mary. Does that mean they were not
Christian? (Some of them certainly did show Jesus, in a related panel of the Last Judgment, and some showed the Father in a related panel of the Creation, but those were exceptions rather than the norm.)
le pendu wrote:I'm left conflicted. I can't escape the obvious connection to the Bible and the Catholic Church, but I can't explain Tarot is those terms either.
Let me suggest a strategy. Whether considering a particular deck or ordering, or the generic design of all the archetypal decks, if we are looking for a coherent meaning -- that is, on the working hypothesis that the trump cycle is in fact a cyclic work -- then our first resolution must be to keep the puzzle intact. Rosamond Tuve, in a chapter titled “Imposed Allegory” (Allegorical Imagery
, 1966), offers the following two guidelines to avoid inflicting unintended allegorical content on a work. That is, these two suggestions help constrain the possibilities and rein in the ambiguity of individual subjects.
This then is the first safeguarding principle: if large portions of a work have to be covered with blotting paper while we read our meaning in what is left, we are abusing rather than using the images. (234.)
We arrive at a second principle: the principal drift governs the meanings attributable to the incidents born upon the stream; the latter cannot take their own moral direction as they choose. If we ignore the stream’s main direction of flow, and embark on incidents which travel counter to or unrelated to it, arriving at special separable meanings for such incidents, we shall presently drown farcically, amid the laughter of the characters, who sit on the bank well protected by the natures the author gave them, only waiting for the chance to push us in. (235.)
The entire work must be taken into account, and the parts must fit the whole. A corollary is that the obscure or ambiguous elements must be conformed to mesh with the readily discerned ones, rather than selecting a preferred interpretation for an ambiguous figure and then bludgeoning conventional meanings elsewhere to force them into a preconceived form. This is true regardless of whether the preconception is mainstream Christian subject matter or a more traditional (esoteric) interpretation.
Context counts, and the entirety of the work, its composition as a whole, is the primary context for each figure. A pictorial work such as the trump cycle is inevitably going to be schematic at best. However, the surrounding composition should provide enough context to determine the significance of each piece, just as the shape and colors of each jigsaw puzzle piece connect it to the surrounding pieces. The hierarchy of the trumps is the composition of a single work of art. As such, the hierarchical relationships are a fundamental constraint on any sober attempt to interpret the trumps individually or in groups.
Another corollary is that, because a didactic work is necessarily schematic, each element should be essential in some manner. It should have some significance in the overall reading. Moreover, if a source work is being compared to the trump cycle, each supposed element of the comparison should be highly significant to both works -- key elements should have been abstracted from the source, so as to convey some part of that work's meaning. If one must scour the alleged source for incidental elements to mindlessly match to the trump cycle, (e.g., as Dante's Commedia
has been ruthlessly plundered for over a half century), then it is obvious that the meaning is different and that the alleged "source" is probably not even an "influence". For example, if one wants to compare the hermit from images of St. Christopher with the Hermit in some Tarot decks, it is necessary to completely disregard context of the St. Christopher image -- the river, the toddler Jesus, and St. Christopher himself -- and focus exclusively on the secondary figure, isolated from St. Christopher's legend. After thus stripping the figure of his original significance, there is little if any information to be gained by subsequent comparison with the Tarot card.
In short, context counts. Taken out of context, the Chariot could refer to any of dozens of different things, and assorted conflations of them. Given the variations in the Tarot Chariot cards, each individual one probably does
include some additional baggage, on top of whatever the generic design of Tarot might require. Each revisioning of the trumps suggests a different secondary (or tertiary) meaning has been conflated with the standard subjects. Thus, the decks themselves are a form of appropriati, with the primary subjects being conflated with secondary meanings.