Tarot: The Meaning of the Cards

Fourth in a Series

The images on Tarot cards can tell us nothing of the future, but a great deal about the past. Their content emerges from a mixture of Greek philosophy (primarily neoplatonism) and Catholic theology, popular piety, culture, and the arts. The subjects could be quite varied, with anything from allegorical figures such as reason, faith, and labor, to pagan gods or historical figures.

For starters, let’s look at what we mean when we talk about the images. Here are the most conventional cards in the trump suits of a typical Italian Tarot deck:

The Hanged Man, from a Minchiate deck

Value: Common name
0 or 22 The Fool
1 The Juggler or The Mountebank (The Magician)
2 The Popess (The High Priestess)
3 The Empress
4 The Emperor
5 The Pope (The Hierophant)
6 The Lovers
7 The Chariot
8 Justice
9 The Hermit
10 Wheel of Fortune
11 Fortitude (Strength)
12 The Hanged Man
13 Death (Mystery)
14 Temperance
15 The Devil
16 The Tower (The House of God)
17 The Star
18 The Moon
19 The Sun
20 The Last Judgment
21 The World

Please note: these are the most common images and names. There are significant regional and historical variations and orders. French Tarot usually feature bucolic scenes or other, less densely allegorical imagery. In addition, as the cards were adapted by occultists, they were changed. “The Magician” and “The High Priestess” are bastardizations of authentic tarot symbolism.

The overall shape of the symbolism becomes more clear in the expanded Minchiate decks, which contain 40 trumps. The earliest we can date this larger sequence of cards is the 16th century, and its use was limited.

There are two possibilities for its origin. The most likely answer is that it’s a regional variant created to afford a much broader range of scoring options while also filling in perceived “gaps” in the symbolism, probably for pedagogic reasons. The second possibility is less likely: the 40 trumps are the original set, and the 22-card versions are abbreviations. I find this idea appealing since the Minchiate is more comprehensive and thus would be a more useful teaching tool, but there’s no proof of this at all.

Certainly, the Minchiate decks have a more robust set of images. In addition to the standard cards, they add the 12 symbols of the zodiac; the four elements (Fire, Water, Earth, and Air); and  Hope, Prudence, Faith (instead of La Papesse), and Charity. It creates an deepening of meaning. For example, in the original set, “Love” clearly represents Eros, while the Minchiate also adds Caritas (Charity). In the structure of the deck, the zodiac–representing the heavens–precedes Star, Moon, Sun, and World, creating a more expansive sense of the cosmic.

Some of the card images are quite obvious in their meaning. The Emperor and The Empress, Death, Sun, Moon, Stars: these are common images that would have been part of life in the 15th century, or even today.

The Fool, pursued by a dog

Yet even those common images have depth. Let’s take The Fool, which is not the same thing as a Joker in modern decks. The Fool is used in many games as an “excuse”: it can be played if the person holding him has no other card, and is then returned to the player’s hand. In society, “the fool” was a common feature of medieval life, and no mere clown. Sometimes the fool would say the things no one else would say, and therefore held hidden wisdom. Sometimes he was merely a vagrant or idiot. Thus, in scoring, The Fool could be worth the least or the most depending upon the rules.

Before he was dressed in motley, he could have been a “Holy Fool”: a mendicant figure that may have originally represented the humble lifestyle of the Franciscan Order.

In many card images, The Fool is harassed by a dog. Is this just a dog chasing a vagrant? Or does it represent the Dominican Order, sometimes called the “dogs of God” as a pun on their name (Latin: “domini canis”). Is this a representation of the disputes between the Dominicans and the Franciscans?

You see how easy it is? Once you start looking into these images, and working through the history and faith of the time, the ideas and connections emerge. We may not know the “real and final meaning” of an image, but it’s all part of the rich symbolism of the age.

But symbols and their varied interpretations–as interesting as they are historically, psychologically, artistically, and even spiritually–are not a religion in and of themselves. They have no innate power, but are merely signposts pointing to the truth.  And they certainly don’t enable someone to foresee future events.

Some cards remain a puzzle. La Papessa (The Popess/Papess) is often wildly misread as a reference to the mythical figure of “Pope Joan,” a “female pope” who never actually existed. The answer is actually far more mundane: The Popess would represent the association of the Pope with Rome or the Church, which would be depicted as feminine figures (eg, “Holy Mother Church”). It’s simply an allegorical image. It confused the occultists so much that they changed this one to The Priestess. This helped reinforce Margaret Murray‘s longdiscredited notions about the survival of a “pagan” witch-cult well into Christian times: one of founding myths of neopaganism.

Similarly, The Hanged Man mystified some people with its image of a man hanging from a scaffold by his left foot. Gallons of ink have been spilled trying to figure out What It Could Possibly Mean.

In fact, it was a Northern Italian method of execution for traitors. That’s it.

Some cards depict money bags under the hanged man, associating him with the figure of Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus.

Researcher Timothy Betts finds evidence for this in a 1393 decree for Milan and Lombardy: “Let him be drug on a [wooden] plank at a horse’s tail to the place of execution, and there be suspended by one foot to the gallows, and be left there until he is dead. As long as he lives let him be given food and drink.”

Pictures of the sort—dubbed “shame paintings”—also were used to insult and defame particular people. It was way of calling them out as traitors: one of the worst things you could call someone at the time.

As you can see, the cards are overflowing with lore and dense with meaning. That’s how the world is, particularly the world of medieval Catholicism, in which the average person was part of a grand drama of life and death, with vast armies of angels and demons fighting over every soul. The immanence of the supernatural imbued everything from high art and the grand drama of worship down to songs and games and stories with a glittering sense of wonder. Every mass, simple bread and wine became the incarnate God. Glory and the miraculous were part of the fabric of everyday life: lives which often were hard, brutal, and brief.

No one would deny that images have meaning beyond mere illustration, and that this meaning may echo beliefs shared by all cultures stretching back to Egypt and ancient Israel. It’s important to recall, however, that Judaism was informed by its long contact with the culture of ancient Egypt, and Christianity emerged out of Judaism, and, at the time of the invention of Tarot deck, Europe was a Christian culture. Thus, it’s only natural to find some symbols that echo each other without being derived from some pool of lost ancient wisdom. It’s simply the common coin of a shared cultural experience. Or, if you like, what Carl Jung would call the collective unconscious.

The problem is that occultists (as well as some anthropologists working in the shadow of James Frazier) claimed concrete and direct connections to specific Egyptian and Hebrew imagery. For example, in From Ritual to Romance (the book which influenced the writing of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste-Land”) Jessie L. Weston connects the tarot to the legend of the grail. Part of this is done by simple misreading of symbol. Due to the prevalence of the occult tarot at the time Weston was writing, she mistook the suit of “coins” (a relic from from the origin of playing cards in Chinese money cards) for “dishes” and the suit of “staves/clubs” for “lances,” and made symbolic links to grail lore.

Similarly, Weston claimed that the symbols of the tarot were “discovered” on the ceiling of Medinet Habu, a mortuary complex in Egypt. She also asserts that the “temple” at Medinet Habu has 22 columns to correspond to the 22 “major arcana.”

In fact, the images of Medinet Habu are fairly standard political and religious images extolling the glories of Ramesses III and recasting him in typical Osirid modes. In addition, there are more than 22 columns in the complex: 24 columns still remain in whole or in part, with more lost to time.

And with these errors corrected, Weston’s theories about the grail/tarot/Egypt link simply vanish in a puff of smoke, like so much “ancient wisdom” to which the New Age movement lays claim.

Further Reading

The Truth About Tarot
The Real History of Tarot
The Fake History of Tarot
The Meaning of the Cards

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