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Occult History of the Tarot, III

May 2, 2012

The Early History of Tarot Divination, II

Tony Willis

The divinatory meanings allocated to the 25 Minor Arcana cards on the Bologna list represent something of a mixed bag. Although a good many are assigned in a rational manner, particularly those relating to the court cards, the logic is inconsistent. For example, while most court cards are said to indicate people, several do not; the Knight of Cups signifying “settlement”, and the Queen of Coins “truth”.

The King of Cups stands for an old man; the Fantesca of Coins, a young lady. All well and good from the point of view of reason so long as kings consistently stand for older males and Fantes and Fantescas consistently indicate young people. The logic breaks down, however, when we note that the King of Coins represents “the man” and the Fantesca of Cups “the woman” with no qualifications regarding age.

In certain Tarot traditions the knights are associated with thoughts. Sometimes they represent the thoughts of the king of the same suit. That is to say, the Knight of Cups stands for the thoughts of the King of Cups (described perhaps as “a man of the law or the church”), the Knight of Batons for the thoughts of the King of Batons (“a business man, probably married and a father”), and so on. At other times the knights indicate the querent’s own thoughts. In this latter instance, the Knight of Cups would represent thoughts of a loving nature and the Knight of Coins thoughts concerning financial matters.

But the list assigns the meaning “thought of a lady” to the Fante of Batons, and the meaning “though of the man” to the Knight of Coins. It is possible that, since the King of Coins stands for “the man”, the Knight of Coins represents a thought in the head of the King of Coins. Yet, even if that is so, it doesn’t help us to understand why the Fante (male servant) of Batons should stand for “thought of the lady”. If there is a relationship between the Fantesca (female servant) of Cups – “the lady” – and the Fante of Batons – “thought of the lady” – it is at odds with the relationship between the King and Knight of Coins. Nor is it clear in English translation whether “thought of a lady” indicates “a thought in a lady’s head” or “the Fante – i.e. the person represented by the Fante of Batons – is thinking about a lady.” The same applies to “thought of the man”, though in this case it is more likely that the intended meaning was “a thought in a gentleman’s head”.

According the methodology of the keyword system, which I will describe more fully later on, it is possible that the King of Swords also represents a person. The meaning assigned this card by the Bologna list is “evil tongue”, but this may be shorthand for “a man with an evil tongue.” In similar fashion, the Queen of Coins (“truth”) might be understood to represent a person who tells the truth. Certainly the Knight of Batons stands for “one who knocks at a door” and not a door-knocker of the brass variety; though what kind of person might be described as a “door-knocker” in the eighteenth century Italian vernacular I do not know.

The Knight of Cups is given the meaning “settlement”, and there seems no way of massaging this designation so as to have it indicate a person. The same may be true of the Queen of Coins; for though I have conjectured that this queen may signify “a woman who tells the truth”, that is nothing more than a slim possibility, a presumption based on a later, more modern Tarot practice.

The same kind of confusion awaits us when we move on to consider the spot cards. Some attributions seem familiar. The 10 of Swords has the meaning “tears”, and though this attribution may be more readily associated by many with the 9 of Swords, the 10 is, nevertheless, connected in the minds of a great many tarotists with sad and distressing circumstances such as bereavement or loss of employment. According to the list, the 10 of Coins indicates “money”. This is logical: a coin is money, and ten coins is ‘a lot of money’ – it is, at any rate, the greatest number of coins to be found on any Tarot card. Exactly the same kind of reasoning lies behind the allocation of “tears” to the 10 of Swords. If Swords are thought of as “the difficult suit” (and the attribution of two negative meanings to the three Swords cards on the list suggests that this is the way suit was viewed), then the 10 of Swords will be taken to represent a high degree of disappointment or a very hurtful loss.

It may strike the modern mind as strange that the Ace of Coins signifies “table”, but this could be another example of the keyword method at work. At a later date, the Tarot-reader Etteilla gave the same designation to the Ace of Cups. He used it as an aide memoir; because what he means by “table” is “a table laden with food”. In connection with the Ace of Coins, the intended significance might be that the person consulting the Tarot has enough money to buy food every week. Although, admittedly, there is nothing to indicate how the person who concocted the list viewed this attribution.

Reasoning backwards from what is known of Etteilla’s method, however, there is a slim possibility that the 10 and Ace of Cups have been assigned their meanings according to a similar logic. The 10 represents “roof-tiles” and the Ace “the house”. It may be that one card was understood to represent the house as a building, a thing of bricks and mortar, while the other represented the house as a home. The 10 of Cups today is often seen as representing the home in this way. Whether “roof-tiles” represented home or the house as a physical building to the compiler of the list is something we shall never know, though “roof-tiles” suggests the physical side of things.

The Ace of Batons indicates “annoyances” and the Ace of Swords a “letter”. I can think of no logical reason why the cards should have been assigned these meanings.

Returning to the Trumps, note that The Devil represents “anger”. This is not an attribution modern sensibilities are accustomed to in relation to Trump 15. However, if the illustrations on the cards are there because the Tarot Trumps first saw the light of day in a Christian ethos, then we might expect the inhabitants of eighteenth century Europe also to view the symbols through a Christian lens.

The devil is associated with anger in New Testament. On the one hand anger is said to open the door to the devil (Ephesians 4: 26-27), on the other, we are told in Revelations: “For the Devil has come down to you; full of fierce anger, because he knows that his appointed time is short.” (Revelations 12:12). So in the Christian mind there is a definite link between the devil and anger, and this may have led to “anger” being assigned as the meaning for Trump 15.

Likewise, there is an association between Temperance (Trump 14) and time, its meaning on the list, in the eighteenth century mind. Some representations of the Virtue Temperance depict her with a clock on her head. Moreover, an alternative name for the Trump is The Angel of Time and one of the meanings occasionally given to the card in divination is Patience, almost always in a context relating to the ability to wait calm and unhurried while time passes.

It is unclear why The Angel (Trump 20) should indicate “wedding and settlement”. I think it unlikely that the latter term indicates the settlement of a court case, which is what the card is latterly sometimes said to signify in divinatory terms, particularly once it had been renamed Judgment. It seems to me more probable that The Angel is here taken to cover both the wedding and agreements over attendant matters such as the dowry. We sometimes forget how important such things were at the time; as important then as they are now in arranged marriages among Hindu or Muslim families.

Why should this meaning be associated with Trump 20? Since many of the attributions on the list do have a logical basis, it is permissible to look for one here. The solution that suggests itself to me arises out of the fact that the picture on the card depicts a change of state – from dead-and-buried to resurrected. In many systems of Tarot reading, Trump 20 is said to herald “a change of condition” or “a change of position”. These same expressions are used in some Tarot schools to indicate marriage for a female querent. The change in circumstances brought about in earlier times by the passage from the role of daughter to that of wife are something else we are likely to overlook if we hold too closely to a twenty-first century perspective. A few years ago, two friends of mine, both female, went on holiday together toEgypt. The ladies are much the same age. One is married, the other is not. If something wasn’t right at their hotel, neither the receptionists nor the bell-boys paid much attention to what the unmarried woman had to say. They much preferred to deal with the married lady, and took notice of her complaints. In their eyes evidently the married woman had a degree of status the unmarried woman did not.

The Bagattino (Trump 1) is given the meaning “a married man”. Clearly the figure on the card is male, but why is he said to be married? In the past, for economic reasons, men of the lower orders often married much later in life than they do now. And if the figure on the card is an itinerant juggler or conjurer, there is even less reason why he would be married at an early age. Yet from the Visconti deck onwards, The Juggler is always depicted as a much younger man than The Emperor and The Pope/Hierophant. Assuming logic has had a bearing on all the attributions on the list, it may be that Trump 1 was interpreted as a warning sign: the man in question looks to be unmarried, or presents himself as single, when in fact he is a married man. In former times, Trump 1, usually carrying a title such as The Juggler or The Mountebank, had a darker reputation than the one most Tarot enthusiasts would associate with the card today. It is probable that, due to the juggler’s association with sleight of hand (a juggler was frequently also a conjurer, a prestidigitator), the Trump would likewise accrue a reputation for deception, of appearances belying reality.

The use of logic alone leads to no understanding of why The Star was allotted the meaning “gift”. Since there are many links between the divinatory meanings on the manuscript list and those occurring later in Tarot history, it is tempting to read “gift” as “talent”. Trump 17 is regularly associated with talents, especially in the field of the arts, by Tarot readers between the late eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. The term “immortality” is applied to the Trump too, but generally in terms of immortality through art: the work of art – painting, concerto, sculpture, novel or whatever – lives on, the name of its creator forever attached to it. Thus H. T. Morley records of The Star: “Creation, song, speech, music, hope, immortality, eternal youth and beauty are typified by the Atout.” (Old and Curious Playing Cards, B.T. Batsford, 1931, p. 44. My italics.) Appealing though it is to make this association, sadly the connection remains nothing more than surmise. The complier of the list may just as well have intended Trump 17 to represent the receipt of a present.

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