The Attitude of No Symbolism or Secret System.

#1
I made a quip in one of the threads that sometimes I think the printer gathered up disparate images to make do for the new game called Tarot.
Then I saw that a poster made a statement that some were searching for ideas that there was no hidden meanings in the sequence of 22.
I am not sure whether it was a joke or not :? but......
In O'Neill's Tarot Symbolism on page 88 of the New edition, he devotes a chapter to this theory or attitude.
O'Neill writes this..
This attitude is the result of three factors; first, scholarly research reveals that tarot was played as a game long before it was used as fortune-telling or picked up by occultists; second, there is a reaction of scholars against the nonsense contained in many occult interpretations of the tarot; third, the trumps appear much less symbolic if the original designs are represented by the surviving fifteenth century hand painted decks.
I would add to this that there does not seem to be this sequence, as a sequence, anywhere but in Tarot- even though the images abound at the time of Tarot's birth. O'Neill gives good argument for this not to be true- that the cards themselves speak with symbolic or allegorical imagery.
I also think the cards speak with allegorical content- but even if they were disparate images gathered on the shop floor from left over bits and pieces they would have this content surely?
Anyway, what I want to know is how would someone go about proving there was no secret meaning/ hidden secret in Tarot?
I can understand the search for it, but not the dismissing of it.
How to say something was not there? What kind of research would that be? I find this quite fascinating... even if I was having a leg pulled :roll:
~Lorredan~
The Universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
Eden Phillpotts

Re: The Attitude of No Symbolism or Secret System.

#2
Hello Lorredan,

There is a painting from Edouard Manet I love. It is quite ‘insignificant’ within Manet’s body of work. Its title is “Still Life with Ham”, and it literally depicts a huge ham on a plate, over a table, with a silver knife in front of it. Looking at this painting, from 1880, one can hardly say that it contains any symbolic meaning. The whole issue these years was to break the boundaries of ‘grand theme’ to paint motifs. But if we go a little further back in history, to a painting like “The Five Senses” by Jacob Marrell, things change. In Marrell’s painting (1670) we have a huge table filled with all kinds of fruits, food and elements, each one of them allegorical to one of our five senses. Right in the middle we have a ham. Compared to this, Manet’s paint feels like a zoom in. Different elements in Marrell’s painting will represent different senses, but the ham comes here to take the place of the famous skull we have seen in so many paintings, as a memento mori.

I would say it is impossible to move backwards in the history of pictorial representation and ignore symbolic/allegorical meaning. It would be like ignoring the use of pigments in painting.

BUT

Symbolic meaning within historical context is not the same as symbolic meaning assigned by the fantasies of an independent author.

I personally see all the more recent tarots (Eteilla’s, Waite Smith, Thoth...) as interpretations of the historical tarots. There is a fundamental gesture there which consist on saying “this element means this, so I reshaped it to make the meaning clearer”. I simply don’t agree with that. IMO, the fact that now the interpretations are culturally accepted as the real thing is an enormous disaster. So, when it comes to a secret code, or symbolic/allegorical meaning of the tarot, there has been a historical tendency to deform the images that makes me very skeptical of any alleged symbolic meaning which cannot be traced back to late Medieval/Renaissance times, or within the context of Christian Europe.

It is one thing to say that the ham on Merrell’s painting symbolizes the decay of flesh, and a very different one to say that hams are symbols of Mary Magdalen’s hymen.

For me, the problem about trying to “crack the tarot’s code” isn’t the existence of a code itself, but the insistence most tarot enthusiasts have of saying “well, perhaps all the known facts say that hams symbolized the decay of flesh, but maybe they symbolized Mary Magdalen’s hymen. I mean, she had one, and the Church might have suppressed it. We can’t take for granted that hams aren’t a symbol for Mary Magdalen’s hymen just because official facts says otherwise. Besides, hams are pink, aren’t they?” Honestly, such attitude dives me mad. I can’t help myself but listening to these arguments with Disney’s “If youuuu wish upooon a starrrrrrr” at the background.

I really don’t know if I am explaining myself correctly. I truly wish I am.

Best,

EE
What’s honeymoon salad? Lettuce alone
Don’t look now, mayonnaise is dressing!

Re: The Attitude of No Symbolism or Secret System.

#3
EnriqueEnriquez wrote:“well, perhaps all the known facts say that hams symbolized the decay of flesh, but maybe they symbolized Mary Magdalen’s hymen. I mean, she had one, and the Church might have suppressed it. We can’t take for granted that hams aren’t a symbol for Mary Magdalen’s hymen just because official facts says otherwise. Besides, hams are pink, aren’t they?”
:lol: :D :o :shock: :D Oh my god, you're killing me Enrique.

Let also not forget the connection between Ham and Eggs!
The Tarot will lose all its vitality for one who allows himself to be side-tracked by its pedantry. - Aleister Crowley

The Sad Fact of No Symbolism or Secret System.

#4
Lorredan wrote:Anyway, what I want to know is how would someone go about proving there was no secret meaning/ hidden secret in Tarot? I can understand the search for it, but not the dismissing of it.
AFAIK, no one has attempted the impossible task of "proving" a negative, no one is likely to try (or even want to if it were possible), and no one simply dismisses the possibility of meaning hidden in the trump cycle. Some, like Dummett, have not pursued that question but even he was very explicit about the possibility being real. Others, like myself, continue working on just such a profound and coherent meaning in Tarot and even claim to have found it. As Enrique pointed out, some interpretations (mainstream Christian ones) tend to be discounted and shrugged aside by most Tarotists, unless they coincide with biases of the esoteric mainstream, such as astrology or Cabala or neo-Jungian generalities, etc. But any coherent meaning that is discovered in the Tarot trump cycle will qualify as having been a secret from every Tarot enthusiast for the last few centuries.

Second, the idea that there is no coherent or systematic meaning in early Tarot is not an attitude or assumption, although it may be a conclusion. However much I dispute it personally, it remains a perfectly reasonable conclusion based upon the utter failure of ________ [fill in your own estimate of the number, but it's very large] Tarot "experts", working separately and together for 227 years, to provide any alternative. In A Wicked Pack of Cards, Decker, Depaulis, and Dummett put it this way: “The test of whether a coded text has been correctly deciphered is that it allows a coherent message to be read.” Tarot experts have thus far failed that simple test: no one has created a persuasive interpretation of the trump cycle.

In the 1986 book you cite, Bob O'Neill examined all of the esoteric and exoteric systems that had gone before, which is to say, virtually all systems, and pronounced all of them failures. Every one. O'Neill's book provided a great service in examining, from a deeply sympathetic point of view, the traditional occult interpretations, and he found that they all failed even as rational systems of correspondence, while none came close to providing an explanatory basis for the selection and ordering of the subjects. That's rather persuasive, given his personal commitment to occult Tarot and decades-long use of Tarot for meditation, his extensive reading and his creation of numerous decks, etc.

Moreover, he could find/create no such coherent system of his own. According to O'Neill, some images were taken from astrology, some from alchemy, and so on, creating a sampler of esoteric subjects with a vaguely unified overall design. O'Neill clarified this rag-bag assessment in a 5/30/00 post to TarotL. "I don't see it as a grand synthesis. I see it more like a sermon. There is a basic Neoplatonic mystical story and illustrations/examples inserted—from Petrarch, Catholicism, Catharism (?), Alchemy, Astrology, Neopythagoreanism, Hermeticism, QBLH(?), etc. -- attempting to assert that there is only one truth and all paths are the same. So it is a hodgepodge.... So the Tarot is not a great masterpiece? I agree. But I still see Tarot as explicable under the same hypothesis -- an attempt at a syncretistic synthesis.... Imagine you have taken a long journey and didn't keep a diary, but took snapshots. Afterwards, you select 21 images to represent the most significant experience you had at each of the 21 locations -- hoping that each image would elicit the same kind of 'feelings' you had at that place. That is the kind of hodgepodge/synthesis I see in the Tarot."

At this point, given the inability of two centuries of self-proclaimed experts on symbolism and esoterica to come up with anything even they can agree on or that a sympathetic critic like O'Neill could endorse, there would appear to be a very solid basis for concluding that either 1) esotericism attracts a particularly inadequate sort of intellectual hack, mere poseurs who can't understand even the very thing they claim to be most expert in, or else there may be no systematic design to the trump cycle. Unless the occultists are all morons, it's a very viable conclusion that the trump cycle contains no systematic meaning.

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

Re: The Attitude of No Symbolism or Secret System.

#5
It seems to me to be fairly obvious that there was some kind of meaning, or at least rationale, to the choice and order of the images.

Much is made of the several historic variants in ordering, but they have much more in common than they differ. They all begin with the Fool or the Mountebank, follow with a sequence apparently depicting earthly authorities, move on to allegorical figures from Christian imagery, and they all conclude with either the World (the Second Coming, the kingdom of Zion) or with the Last Judgment (sometimes reinterpreted as an allegory of Fame). The Grim Reaper is always at 13, even if the previous and the following cards are different.

If the order concealed a secret, it was not well kept. There are variants - Minchiate, the Tarot of Bologna - that add to or subtract from the canonical list of trumps, but even these variations share a whole lot with the familiar Marseille order. Despite almost doubling the number of trumps, in Minchiate Death is still XIII. And despite the reduction of the number of trumps, in the Bolognese Tarot Death remains XIII. Priests who condemned the game in sermons, and presumably had no interest as players, knew the outlines of the order. The order existed before either numbers or titles were added to the cards. Players learned it early, and kept it about as consistently as any list transmitted originally by oral transmission. (The earliest decks seem to have lacked numbers and titles; at least, the painters who made the preserved painted versions did not add them.)

What I think some esotericists do is to seriously overestimate the level of sophistication in the process of transmission. When I was in college, we had a card game of baroque sophistication; we called it Bong 98, but I've seen it called Bartok or Mau Mau elsewhere. It was a version of Crazy 8's with many added complications, and the complications were of the essence of the game, since it doubled as a drinking game, and the player who misremembered the rules was "punished" with extra drinks. There was a patter that explained the initial rules; as the game developed, more parts were added. The fun and challenge came in trying to remember the baroque rules while becoming increasingly befuddled.

You gather that something similar to the transmittal of the rules of this game might have been involved. There may have been a patter, now lost, that explained the order so the players could commit it to memory more easily. Some reference to the symbolic imagery of the cards is made by the order; mortals appear first, then allegorical or cosmic figures, and it ends with eschatological images. Death is 13 because 13 then and now was the canonical unlucky number. The question is not whether there was meaning of a sort there. The question is whether this meaning was Hermetic, Platonic, or otherwise requiring hard study, literacy, membership in secret societies, or deep spiritual insight? Or could it have been gotten entirely from popular culture and folk religion?
Le beau valet de coeur et la dame de pique
Causent sinistrement de leurs amours défunts.

- Baudelaire

Re: The Attitude of No Symbolism or Secret System.

#6
Thank you both EE and MjHurst!
I must explain myself- I have for 15 years have felt that the occult system that I learned over 30 years ago by having only the RWS; finally appeared to me to be a load of Cock and Bull. I had never seen a Tarot de Marseille until 5 years ago, at the time I was retired from Business, but converted my computer into a pleasure machine and searched tarot forums for an answer; to my increasing disquiet it seemed my idea of Cock and Bull was more and more correct. I have at AT questioned and questioned from all sorts of angles- to find an answer. I even decided at one point that it was purely alphabetical from a Phoenician graffiti. Nothing seemed to be the answer- so I finally figured there was no answer, it would have to be an accident (not that accident is the best word)and I was chasing shadows. Everyone's answers to the sequence was a squeeze- squishing the 22 into a shape because they were so malleable. I even have delighted in a little sculpture squishing myself. I have no problem with fantasy, as long as it is a declared fantasy.
What decided me about this 15 years ago was a structure in the local park, by the river, that was in the shape of a cross- with five holes like a crucifix (no one noticed another exactly the same on the other side of the river)and over the years I have seen this structure become an altar with flowers and gatherings as people have considered it holy. It is a marine device for boaties when the river is in flood. Even today, notices in the paper for spiritual gatherings state they will be held by the Crucifix in the Park. It is like fruit and veg that look like the Virgin Mary or Jesus. People prefer a spiritual answer(or long for one).
You have both clarified the debate for me. In fact the still life paintings example is a hoot! Mary's Hymen indeed. :lol:
Soooo... to answer my question- it is a research project to prove the 'usual' depiction of the Ham is that it is decayed meat and not a hymen? Is it a case for going now to Art History in each card depiction to clearly state the reason this was portrayed was in that way as 'usual'? I have a problem, because the images always look somewhat off to the side of 'usual'. Mjhurst says
At this point, given the inability of two centuries of self-proclaimed experts on symbolism and esoterica to come up with anything even they can agree on...
Do you think Tarot enthusiasts on the opposing side to occultists have clearly explained their viewpoint? O'Neill is the only one I have read that even openly discusses this. (I had a brand new unread Dummett that got destroyed in a flood last year- and I have not been able to replace it as yet.) I like the snapshot analogy- that makes sense.
It will be a personal relief to me if the Trump cycle contains no systematic meaning- the fuzz in my head will clear away.
Thanks again
~Lorredan~
Ps Posted before Steve Gus- will come back.
The Universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
Eden Phillpotts

Re: The Attitude of No Symbolism or Secret System.

#7
I finally got a chance to visit the famous 'outlet' mall in Karuizawa. Amongst the 50% off Armani and Brooks Brothers was a Lego shop. I use to have tons of Lego blocks when I was a kid. I strolled through the shop and was surprised to see how these 'building blocks' had evolved. Gone were the huge sets of my youth, with more types of blocks, and more quantities of blocks for creating your vision. Now all the Lego sets are designed to build one specific thing - a robot spider, a pony barn, a Star Wars X-wing fighter, etc. These 'sets' have very specific designs, and they can't easily be altered. They have basically become 'snap together' model kits, no longer requiring forethought or planning, and certainly do not encourage the creative process, or patient reasoning or deductive exploration. Definitely a bad thing!! The real shocker was when a little boy who was playing in the 'play zone' picked up a random handful of the 'old fashioned' building block style Legos and asked his Father, "What do these make?", then got rather upset when Dad explained they didn't make anything!! You had to think of something yourself and try to see if you can make it! The kid ran off to look at one of the boxed robot kits...

Perhaps the whole 'point' of the Tarot Trumps was to 'make your own'!! Maybe they are a general set of 'building blocks' of the 15th century universe, and the novelty was to create an arrangement of the parts. Maybe we are like the little boy picking up a handful of Lego and asking, "What do these make?"


Cheers,

RAH
When a clock is hungry, it goes back four seconds.

Re: The Attitude of No Symbolism or Secret System.

#8
You gather that something similar to the transmittal of the rules of this game might have been involved. There may have been a patter, now lost, that explained the order so the players could commit it to memory more easily. Some reference to the symbolic imagery of the cards is made by the order; mortals appear first, then allegorical or cosmic figures, and it ends with eschatological images. Death is 13 because 13 then and now was the canonical unlucky number. The question is not whether there was meaning of a sort there. The question is whether this meaning was Hermetic, Platonic, or otherwise requiring hard study, literacy, membership in secret societies, or deep spiritual insight? Or could it have been gotten entirely from popular culture and folk religion?
It seems to come back to my query in another thread- which came first ? - the game and the need for images to fulfill the games purpose or a sequence of images already there and co-opted for the game. For me it is the first premise- we have a game and lets get suitable images from what is available- not a pre - existing sequence.
I might add I have no problem with what happened, starting with the likes of Levi- but I do have a problem with the stated claim that is what it meant originally. I do not care that local people have made a marine device into a holy object- but to deny that it is a marine device in the first place seems silly and uninformed.
Perhaps the whole 'point' of the Tarot Trumps was to 'make your own'!! Maybe they are a general set of 'building blocks' of the 15th century universe, and the novelty was to create an arrangement of the parts. Maybe we are like the little boy picking up a handful of Lego and asking, "What do these make?"
I have been doing this for thirty or more years RAH! I would prefer to have an answer not from my own bias, which is what occult Tarot has become. It makes me into a Crowley fanatic if that was my bias. It seems to me that the only place the sequence is, is in Tarot, gathered from a whole pile of images of the time and made to fit the game.
~Lorredan~
The Universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
Eden Phillpotts

Re: The Attitude of No Symbolism or Secret System.

#9
.
Lorredan wrote: I would prefer to have an answer not from my own bias, which is what occult Tarot has become.
Hmm. Somehow I think we are talking different things here. I was speculating that the cards may not have an 'answer' at all, not so far as something 'occult'. Clearly there is meaning to the images and structure - starting with a snapshot of the social order of the time, something akin to the 'three estates', followed by an allegory of human life - love, fame, fate, aging, death, then a snapshot of the heavens with heavy Christian leanings - all ranked and ready for a game of afternoon cards...

My speculation with the Lego story was not that Tarot was intended as a 'build your own occult system set', but merely a pondering if maybe the sequence could have been deliberately designed to be general and vague, in order to inspire players to shuffle the images and use them creatively to make little poems or such 'parlor distractions', which of course is exactly how they were used, intended or not. Of course none of the players would have any 'bias' about their verse being 'the correct' interpretation, as the obvious purpose would have been to facilitate unending variation of interpretation, thus making the game more interesting.

I reckon the trumps were quickly appropriated for fortune telling too. More akin to the Magic Eightball school of divination than the 'studious' predictive sciences like Astrology or Geomancy.

Of course I'm just thinking out loud here. :)


Cheers,

RAH
When a clock is hungry, it goes back four seconds.

Re: The Attitude of No Symbolism or Secret System.

#10
My speculation with the Lego story was not that Tarot was intended as a 'build your own occult system set', but merely a pondering if maybe the sequence could have been deliberately designed to be general and vague, in order to inspire players to shuffle the images and use them creatively to make little poems or such 'parlor distractions', which of course is exactly how they were used, intended or not. Of course none of the players would have any 'bias' about their verse being 'the correct' interpretation, as the obvious purpose would have been to facilitate unending variation of interpretation, thus making the game more interesting.
Thanks for clearing that up RAH! I understand your premise now whilst thinking out aloud :)
I ponder a lot also.....I think maybe they needed to be Christian enough to be understood and be able to escape taxation as secular, and typical enough to be seen and gamed with in poor light, and borrowed from some other pile in the print shop maybe emblems- pattern books and the like.
~Lorredan~
The Universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
Eden Phillpotts

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