Category Archives: Fooling with the Deck

Fooling with the Deck: Week 14: The Empress (3)

This blog is part of a series on the historical and metaphysical tarot, Fooling with the Deck:  A DIY Journey through the Tarot.

Empress Card
(An early 18th century Empress card, from the Jean Dodal version of the “Tarot de Marseille”.  Most 19th century esoteric decks were based on this older pattern.)

The Empress is typically the third card in the sequence of trumps.  It usually depicts a crowned woman sitting on a throne, with a shield in one hand and a scepter or imperial orb in the other.  Because the draped back of the throne resembles wings in some older decks, the Empress herself may be winged in later representations, like the late 19th century Wirth tarot.

Empress Card
(The winged Empress from the late 19th century tarot  by Oswald Wirth.  The deck only uses the 22 trumps.)

Many tarot trumps have obvious partners, like the Empress and Emperor.  In the “Tarot of Marseille” pattern they both hold scepters and shields decorated with a single or double headed eagle.  This is the heraldic device of the Holy Roman Empire, a confederation of states spanning from Northern Italy to Germany that lasted from the 9th to 19th centuries CE.  As the “king of birds”, the eagle is a traditional symbol of imperial power, used even earlier by the Roman and Byzantine Empires.

Emperess and Emperor Cards
(The Empress and Emperor in the Jean Dodal version of the “Tarot de Marseille”.  They carry the same attributes but in opposite hands, even the eagles face different directions.)

While the tarot has four Queens, it only has one Empress.  The card represents the highest position of temporal power available to women historically.  A woman holding symbols of imperial authority is also a standard allegory of the State, just as the Popess could be a representation of the Church.  During the 18th century the Papess, Pope, Emperor, and Empress were replaced in some regional decks because their imagery was considered sacrilegious or subversive.  For example, the Empress was replaced by Juno, the Roman equivalent to Hera, queen of the gods, in the “Tarot de Besanon” pattern, associated with the card manufacturing city in eastern France.

Juno
(Juno from an early 19th century “Tarot de Besanon“.  The Emperor was replaced by Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of Zeus.)

Authors during the late 19th century to early 20th century produced their own rectified tarot decks, believing they were correcting the title, imagery, and meaning of the cards.  They transformed the Empress into a more transpersonal figure.  The iconography of the enthroned woman developed in prehistory as a symbol of the Divine Feminine, usually accompanied by a pair of animals or a child.  This imagery has been repeated cross culturally from the Egyptian Isis, to the Anatolian Cybele, and the Christian Mary.


current empress(The Empress card from the early 20th century Rider-Waite deck, after which most of our contemporary decks are designed.)

Both the Wirth and Waite versions incorporate imagery from the Book of Revelations:  “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”  This Woman of Apocalypse is commonly interpreted as Mary.

The next post is the four pip cards numbered 3 (coming soon).
The previous post was Judgment (20, 2+0 = 2).

© 2014, Christopher Lee Matthews
Images: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Be sure to visit our TWO online stores: The Metaphysical Department of Enter the Earth and Enter the Earth.

Fooling with the Deck: Our Tarot Ancestors: Early 18th Century Pierre Madenie Deck

This blog is part of a series on the historical and metaphysical tarot, Fooling with the Deck: A DIY Journey through the Tarot.

Historical Tarot Packaging
I just picked up this beautiful reprint of the Pierre Madenie deck by Tarot de Marseille Heritage.  (I have no affiliation with the company.)  It was originally produced in Dijon, France in 1709.

The reproduction illustrates a few points about historical and contemporary decks we’ve been discussing lately:

1: Outer Wrapper:  Traditionally playing cards were sold bundled in decorative paper wrappers.  This proved the deck was new, advertised the publisher, and could be stamped to show that taxes had been paid.  Today’s folded paper box and sticker seals are their direct descendants.

tarot02
2: Maker’s Mark:  At least one card usually bears the maker’s mark and printing date.  A ribbon on the 2 of coins is often used in the “Tarot de Marseille” pattern, other decks use the ace of coins instead.  The ace of spades plays this role in both American and English standard playing cards.

3: Blank Cards:  After being printed on large sheets, playing cards are cut into their individual sections.  Because the tarot has 78 cards, rather than a more even 80, the process typically produces 2 spare cards.  Contemporary manufacturers turn these extras into title cards, advertisements, or leave them blank.  Some people use the blanks in readings to signifying mystery, the unexpected, or the divine without attributes.

The two spare cards in the Pierre Madenie reprint are title cards , one in French, one in English.

tarot03
4:  Order of the Four Suits:  The tarot is usually organized with the trumps on top and the four suits beneath them in sequence, Ace to King.  When I opened the Pierre Madenie deck, the order was trumps then batons, coins, cups, and swords.  Other sets vary.  However most contemporary decks theoretically, and sometimes literally, consistently group the cards as trumps, then staves, cups, swords, and coins.

In card games like bridge, the four suits may be relatively ranked.  During bidding spades are the highest, then hearts, diamonds, and finally clubs.  In traditional tarot games, the trumps rank higher than pip and court cards and are higher or lower than another trump depending on their number.  The four suits themselves are all equal.

So while the sequence of the trumps is derived from the original game, this arrangement of the suits is another late 19th century development.

© 2014, Images and Text, Christopher Lee Matthews

Be sure to visit our TWO online stores: The Metaphysical Department of Enter the Earth and Enter the Earth.

Fooling with the Deck: Tarot Week 13: Judgment (20, 2+0 = 2)

This blog is part of a series on the historical and metaphysical tarot, Fooling with the Deck: A DIY Journey through the Tarot.

tarot judgment card
(An early 18th century Judgment card, from the Jean Dodal version of the Tarot de Marseille, after which most 19th century esoteric decks were based.)

Judgment, also spelled Judgement, is typically the twentieth card in the sequence of the trumps. It was also known historically as the Angel. Although named after the Last Judgment, it more technically depicts the Resurrection of the Dead. Christians believe the souls of the dead will be restored to their bodies, or given new ones, to face God’s judgment.

In the 18th century Tarot of Marseille Judgment above, three people rise from the same rectangular grave, answering a call from an angel. The angel’s trumpet bears a flag with a cross. The three figures are a woman, man, and possibly a monk with tonsured hair, seen from behind, signifying that everyone will be judged.

judgment01
(A 15th century Judgment card from the Visconti tarot.)

Usually an angel or pair of angels are depicted. However the 15th century Visconti tarot also includes God in the scene. Later decks are missing certain religious or political figures because putting them on playing cards became seen as sacrilegious or offensive to authority.

For example, in 18th century Bologna, local church officials asked printers to remove the Pope, Popess, Emperor, and Empress from the deck.  They were replaced by four cards depicting “Moors”, a historical name for the Muslim population of Northwest Africa and the Iberian Pennisula (Spain and Portugal). This racially stereotypical motif is also found in other decks and may reference the Arab introduction of playing cards into Europe.  The church also requested that the Last Judgement be removed, because of its angel, but it remained the same.

The 15th century game of minchiate is a sister to the tarot, played with 97 cards instead, with 40 trumps and a Fool. Many of the potentially offensive trumps inherited from the tarot were replaced or redesigned. The deck has a similar looking card with an angel, playing a trumpet, but over a cityscape instead. Rather than Judgement, it is an allegory of Fame.

judgment03
(The Judgement card from the early 20th century Rider-Waite deck, after which most of our contemporary decks are designed.)

The Judgement card from the Rider-Waite deck is modeled on the Tarot of Marseille. It depicts two groups of the dead, a woman, man, and child, rising from their graves, in a mountainous landscape.

Their pose is influenced by the formerly secret deck of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a Victorian magical society that revived interest in the spiritual tarot. A. E. Waite had been a member, even heading a later group that formed from it. The Golden Dawn believed there was a connection between the Hebrew alphabet and the trumps of the tarot. The Judgement card was the letter shin, which looks like a flaming “w”, and is associated with fire. The figures in the trump were grouped to resemble the letter.

Numerology focuses primarily on numbers between 1 to 10. Anything higher is reduced down by adding its digits together, until a smaller number is reached. For example, 20 may be seen as an extension of 2 because = 2+ 0 = 2. Like the High Priestess (2) and Justice (11), some of Judgement’s (20) meaning derives from its relationship to 2. The two’s in the tarot all have themes of balance, polarity, or change, symbolic qualities of 2.

The next post is the Empress (3).
The previous post was Justice (11, 1+1=2).

© 2014, Christopher Lee Matthews
Images: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Be sure to visit our TWO online stores: The Metaphysical Department of Enter the Earth and Enter the Earth.

Fooling with the Deck: Week 12: Justice (11, 1+1 = 2)

This blog is part of a series on the historical and metaphysical tarot, Fooling with the Deck:  A DIY Journey through the Tarot.

Justice Card
(An early 18th century Justice card, from the Jean Dodal version of the Tarot de Marseille, after which most 19th century esoteric decks were based.)

Numerology focuses primarily on numbers between 1 to 10.  Anything higher is reduced down by adding its digits together, until a smaller number is reached.  For example, 11 may be seen as an extension of 2 because 1+1 = 2.  Like the High Priestess and Judgement, some of Justice’s meaning derives from its relationship to 2.

The earliest surviving tarot decks have unnamed and unnumbered trump cards.  From the 16th to 19th centuries, different printers in France, Switzerland, and Italy produced similar looking decks, adding both names and Roman numerals to the trumps.  The printing press made the tarot accessible to the general public and helped standardize the number, order, and appearance of the cards.

This group of similarly looking decks was later named the “Tarot of Marseille”.  The pattern may have spread from the French port city, a major manufacturer of playing cards historically, but likely originated in Italy.

Almost all decks today follow a variation of this Tarot of Marseille sequence. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a Victorian magic society interested in Western esoteric traditions, believed the tarot trumps signified the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and corresponding elements, planets, and zodiac signs.

justicetarot
(The Justice card from the early 20th century Rider-Waite deck, after which most of our contemporary decks are designed.)

Their model switched the positions of Strength and Justice, associated with Leo and Libra respectively.  The Strength card shows a woman with a lion, like Leo the zodiac sign.  It was changed from 11 to 8.  The figure of Justice bears scales like Libra.  It was changed from 8 to 11.  The Golden Dawn believed this reversal corrected an occult blind, an intentional mistake used to conceal information from the uninitiated.  The early 20th century Rider-Waite deck preserved the switch.  Since most contemporary decks are based upon it, this modified sequence became the standard.

Besides this change in order, the Justice card has remained very consistent over time.  Both the early 18th century Marseille deck and early 20th century Rider-Waite depict a seated crowned woman, facing forward, with a sword in her right hand and scales in her left.  The Rider-Waite places her between two pillars, like the High Priestess.  Justice is not blind in the tarot, that motif became popular during the 16th century.

This imagery is typical of Medieval and Renaissance allegories of Justice.  Her iconography ultimately derives from representations of the Roman goddess Iustitia (“justice”), herself modeled on the Greek goddess Themis (“custom, law, right”).

Three out of the four cardinal virtues are tarot trumps: Justice, Temperance, and Strength.  Only Prudence is missing. However all four are found in the Minchiate, a 15th century Florentine deck similar to the tarot but with 97 cards.  This has led to speculation whether the card is missing or signified by an existing trump, from the Hanged Man to the World.

The next post is Judgment.
The previous post was the four pip cards numbered 2.

© 2014, Christopher Lee Matthews
Images: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fooling with the Deck: Week 8 to 11: The Four Two’s (2)

This blog is part of a series on the historical and metaphysical tarot, Fooling with the Deck:  A DIY Journey through the Tarot.

What do the two’s represent in playing cards?

The two of each suit is also known as the “deuce”. The word derives from the Latin duo, meaning two. Deuce itself comes from the Middle French deus and originally meant “a roll of two in dice”. In games of chance with two dice, it is the lowest score possible, equivalent to the modern “snake eyes”. Like the ace, the deuce originally signified bad luck. In card games where the ace is high, the deuce becomes the lowest card.

Deuce is traditionally a euphemism for the Devil, as in the expression, “What the deuce!”. Just as 1 may represent unity, 2 can signify change, conflict, or duality, like the separation between God and Satan.

Where do the images on the two’s come from?

Historically the pip cards were marked with different suit signs, in their respective numbers. For example, the two of cups literally has two cups on it. Some decorative elements may also be added, like vegetation. The notable exception is the late 15th century Sola Busca tarot, whose numbered cards have illustrated scenes incorporating the suit symbols.

Most contemporary decks are based on the Rider Waite, originally published in 1909. It was the first modern tarot to have illustrated pip cards, court cards, and trumps. A. E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith were inspired to do so by the Sola Busca tarot, even adapting some its cards. Photographs of the deck were exhibited in the British Museum in 1907, making its imagery available to the public again.

Where does the meaning of the two’s come from?

Most contemporary card meanings are influenced by:

1: Numerology: The numerology of the tarot has been influenced by both Classical Greek and Jewish thought. The 19th century author Alphonse Louis Constant, writing under the pen name Eliphas Levi, theorized a connection between the ten numbered cards of each suit and the ten spheres of the Tree of Life in Kabbalah. For example, the pip cards from 3 to 9 are associated with one of the seven classical planets, taking on its characteristics.

2: Elements and the Suits: The most popular model of the four elements and suits also comes from Eliphas Levi:

Wands: Fire
Cups: Water
Swords: Air
Coins: Earth

Each suit took on the characteristics of its element. For example, the cups may represent emotions, the unconscious, and intuition, all derived from the symbolism of water.

3: The Astrological Decans: The tarot was popularized by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a Victorian magic society interested in Western esoteric tradition.

They associated the pip cards from 2-10 with one of the 36 decans, Egyptian divisions of the zodiac signs, all ten degrees wide. Each is ruled by a different planet. The astrological compatibility of the planet and sign was used to determine the meaning of the card.

© 2014, Christopher Lee Matthews

Fooling with the Deck: Week 7: The High Priestess (2)

This blog is part of a series on the historical and metaphysical tarot, Fooling with the Deck:  A DIY Journey through the Tarot.

Early form of High Priestess
(An early 18th century Popess card, from the Jean Dodal version of the Tarot de Marseille, after which most 19th century esoteric decks were based.)

The High Priestess was formerly known as the Popess or Papess/Papesse, the female Pope. The card depicts a seated woman, with a veil behind her, holding a book on her lap, wearing the triple papal crown.  Other versions of the card include a scepter, a crosier, a staff modeled after a shepherd’s crook, or a pair of keys instead, all symbols of the Catholic church.

The identity of the woman on the card is debated. Mainstream tarot historians interpret the card as an allegory of faith.  The church has often been depicted as a woman, either as the “bride of Christ” or the “Mother Church”, sometimes with the attributes of the Pope. The seated pose with an open book is similar to period representations of Mary during the Annunciation. According to tradition, she was reading when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. The veil and book may also reference the sibyls, female pagan oracles often paired with male Biblical prophets in Christian art.

Some believe the card represents either legendary or historical female popes.

Authors during the late 19th century to early 20th century  “occult revival”, who showed a renewed interest in concealed spiritual traditions, believed the tarot hid a secret wisdom. This belief originated with the Egyptians, was preserved by Kabbalah, the esoteric branch of Judaism, and was revealed by Christian magicians during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  Many of them described or even produced their own “rectified” tarot decks.  They thought by correcting the names, imagery, or number of the cards, as they understood them, they could restore them back to their original form.

High Priestess
(The High Priestess card from the early 20th century Rider-Waite deck, after which most of our contemporary decks are designed.)

The Popess became the High Priestess.  In A. E. Waite’s influential deck from 1910, she wears the horns of the Egyptian goddess Isis, the moon is at her feet like Mary, and her veil suspended between the two pillars of Solomon’s temple.  The card came to symbolize sacred mysteries throughout time, especially those of the Divine feminine, the unknown, and initiation.

Many tarot trumps have obvious partners, like the Sun and Moon.  In some regional versions of the game of tarot, the Popess, Pope, Empress, and Emperor are known as the papi (Italian, literally “fathers”, but also implies “popes”).  The two pairs symbolize religious and secular power and are all given the same value as trumps.  If two or more papi are played during a round, the last one always trumps the others.  This represents the power struggles between the institutions.

Much of the meaning of the trumps today comes from number symbolism.  The numerology of the tarot has been influenced by both classical Greek thought and Jewish Kabbalah.  While the number 1 represents the point, the number 2 represents the line, the first of the two dimensional objects.  Since a line both separates and connects, the number 2 has taken on opposing qualities like separation, change, and conflict but also relationships, connection, and balance.

While the point represents potential, the line is the building block of all two and three dimensional objects.  Therefore the number 2 signifies the birth of the physical, material, and duality.  While the number 1 is usually not gendered, other odd numbers are often seen as “masculine” and the even numbers “feminine” because of the line’s role in birthing all other shapes.

You can also learn about stones used for psychic development, intuition, and divination.

Copyright 2015, Christopher Lee Matthews

Fooling with the Deck: Week Three to Six: The Four Aces (1)

This blog is part of a series on the historical and metaphysical tarot, Fooling with the Deck:  A DIY Journey through the Tarot.

Before reading about the four aces, you may want to read the introduction to the pip cards.

As discussed previously in the Magician card, the number 1 paradoxically represents the lowest and highest.  We also see this in the symbolism of the four aces.  The word derives from the Latin as (“one, a unit, a copper coin with a low value, like a penny”).  Ace itself comes from Middle English and Old French and meant “rolling a one on a die”, equivalent to our modern snake eyes.   Because it was the lowest roll possible, it signified bad luck.

As cards spread and new games developed, the role and meaning of the aces changed.  They were sometimes more valuable or even the highest card, like in poker.  In the game of tarot, aces are typically low and tens high.  However some of the older rules split the suits into two pairs with opposing rankings.  While the court cards remain the same, the highest and lowest pip cards was reversed in cups and coins.

Highest to Lowest Value:

Wands and Swords: King Queen Knight Page 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Cups and Coins:  King Queen Knight Page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Because they represent one, the four aces are also associated with providence, the origins of things.  Historically the artist’s or manufacturer’s name and the printing date were found on specific cards, typically an ace or a two, sometimes a four, often in the suit of coins.  The small number of pips and their even spacing allowed for the additional text.  Older decks sometimes have heraldic devices like a coat of arms on these cards instead, signifying their owners in luxury hand painted decks or local rulers in mass produced ones.   The court cards or certain trumps like the Emperor and Empress may represent actual royalty.

Over time authenticity became more closely connected with the aces alone. Playing cards were taxed as luxury goods until fairly recently. A seal on the outer packaging or a stamp on one of the cards showed this fee had been paid and also proved the deck was new. An ace often served as both the maker’s mark and duty card. The ace of spades was chosen in England and the United States, since it is the top card of an unused deck. A tradition of richly decorating it developed, further shifting the meaning of “ace” from the lowest to highest.

© 2014 Christopher Lee Matthews
Images: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fooling with the Deck: An Introduction to the Pip Cards

This blog is part of a series on the historical and metaphysical tarot, Fooling with the Deck:  A DIY Journey through the Tarot.

What are the pip cards?

The tarot consists of three distinct types of cards. The first two are similar to those in a standard playing deck in the United States:

1: 40 Pip Cards, 10 in Each Suit:  Four suits of numbered cards, ranging from 1-10. Historically the names and symbols representing the four suits have varied by country. Almost all versions of the tarot used spiritually today are derived from the original Italian model:

A: Wands (Also known as staves, batons, clubs, and scepters.)
B: Cups
C: Swords
D: Coins (Also known as discs, pentacles, and money.)

These cards are known as pip cards. The word may derive from the Old French pepin (seed) and refers to the dots or shapes on dice, dominoes, or playing cards that represent its value.

2: 16 Face Cards, 4 in Each Suit: While regular playing cards have three face cards per suit, a King, Queen, and Jack, the tarot has four: a King, Queen, Knight, and Page. These are also known as the court cards, since each group looks like a royal court in miniature. This name is a corruption of the original “coat cards”, in reference to their clothing. Their appearance signified their rank, role, and association with a particular suit, like a coat of arms.

3: 21 Trumps and a Wild Card or 22 Trumps:  As discussed previously in the Fool blog, the tarot deck was originally used to play a game similar to bridge. It has an additional fifth trump suit of twenty one cards and one wild card, the Fool. (Although all 22 are considered trumps in contemporary literature.) Each card depicts a symbolic figure like Justice, Death, or Temperance and are often numbered to represent their relative value in trick taking.

Where do the meanings of the pip cards come from?

Like the trump cards, both the meaning and appearance of today’s pip cards are greatly influenced by mid 18th to early 20th century thought.

A: Suits and Social Hierarchy: The French author Antoine Court de Gebelin (1725-1784) was one of the first to suggest an Egyptian origin for the tarot in his Le Monde Primitif (1775-1784). He believed the trump cards preserved a book of hidden wisdom and the four suits represented different divisions of Egyptian society:

Swords: Military and nobility
Cups: Priests
Batons: Agriculture
Coins: Commerce

Other period French authors suggested a similar origin for the suits of spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs but from a medieval context. These associations continue to influence the meaning of the four suits. For example, the suit of coins may represent literal money, the physical body, and practical solutions, all derived from its connection to the material world.

B: The Four Suits and the Four Elements: The French author Alphonse Louis Constant (1810-1875), writing under the pen name Eliphas Levi, is best known for popularizing the theory that the twenty two trumps of the tarot and the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet were related. He also taught that the four suits represented the four classical elements:

Wands: Fire
Cups: Water
Swords: Air
Coins: Earth

Much of the meaning of the pip card comes from this relationship, with each suit taking on the qualities of its associated element. For example, the suit of cups may represent emotions, the unconscious, and intuition, all derived from the symbolism of water.

C: Major and Minor Arcana: The French author Jean-Baptiste Pitois (1811-1877), writing under the pen name Paul Christian, popularized the concept of the tarot as a hidden book of Egyptian wisdom in his Historie de la Magie (1870). He claimed to translate an ancient Greek text describing an Egyptian initiation inside the Sphinx and a pyramid using twenty two sacred images. He taught that the tarot trumps preserved this mystery.

In his earlier L’Homme rouge des Tuileries (1863), a Benedictine monk discusses a book of 78 arcana with Napoleon, modeled on the tarot cards. Arcana is the plural of arcanum (Latin, secret), wisdom available only to those initiated. His contemporary Eugene Jacob (1847-1942), writing under the pen name Ely Star, would separate these into the Major Arcana, the trumps, and Minor Arcana, the pip cards in his Les Mystéres de l’Horoscope (1888.)

This late 19th century division still plays an important role in divination today. While the trumps represent something transpersonal, meaningful, or long lasting, the pip cards suggest the personal, mundane, or temporary instead.

Copright 2015, Christopher Lee Matthews

Fooling with the Deck: Week Two: The Magician (1)

This blog is part of a series on the historical and metaphysical tarot, Fooling with the Deck:  A DIY Journey through the Tarot.

Magician
(18th century Magician card, from the Jean Dodal version of the Tarot de Marseille, after which most 19th century esoteric decks were based.)

The Magician depicts a colorfully dressed street performer, holding a stick, standing behind a table with props used either for sleight of hand or games of chance.  It was originally known in Italian as Il Bagatella, which may mean “a trifle”, something almost worthless. It has a low value when used as a trump.

In other versions of the game, the Fool (0), Magician (1), and World (21) are special cards known as bouts (French, “ends”) instead. They are found at the ends of the trumps, as the unnumbered, first, and last cards. If the Magician (1) is played during the last trick, it scores extra points. All three of the end cards are worth additional points later when scoring. Technically the Magician should be the lowest ranking card but is made valuable in certain situations by changing the rules. This reflects period beliefs about the transgressive character of magicians, similar to the Fool card.

Confusingly Il Bagatella is often translated into English as “The Juggler”. The meaning of the word has narrowed over time. Juggling originally referred to any activity like acrobatics, sleight of hand, or illusion that was a form of “magic” distinct from witchcraft.  Although popular as entertainers, the magician was an ambiguous figure because of their wandering lifestyle and association with gambling, deception, and idleness.

Magician
(The Magician card from the early 20th century Rider-Waite deck, after which most of our contemporary decks are designed.)

Authors during the 19th century radically transformed both the appearance and meaning of the Magician card. They believed the objects on his table represented the four suits (stick = wands, knife = swords, bowl = cups, ball/coin = coins) of the tarot.  Some versions also include a pair of dice.  While two dice can produce 36 different number combinations, only 21 are unique pairs. They may symbolize the 21 trumps other than the unnumbered Fool card.

During this period there was revival of interest in the esoteric spiritual traditions of the West and other cultures, including ceremonial magic.  Many thought the four suits represented the tools of Medieval and Renaissance magicians like the wand and staff (staff), cup, blade and knife (sword), and lamen (disk), a geometric talisman of wax, metal, or paper used when invoking spiritual beings.

Since each suit was associated with one of the four classical elements (wands = fire, cups = water, swords = air, coins = earth), a new set of Victorian magical tools developed, inherited by most contemporary magical traditions like Wicca. The Magician card morphed from a street performer to a ceremonial magician with an altar bearing elemental tools.  The large floppy hat of the medieval card became a lemniscate halo,  a horizontal figure eight, associated with infinity.

The Magician card is traditionally associated with the number 1.  1 is paradoxically the greatest and the smallest of the numbers.  For example, the Magician card is sometimes known in French Tarot as Le Petit (“The Little One”) because it has the lowest value as a trump.  However in many numerological traditions 1 represents potential, unity, and the Divine as the source of all things.  Rather than an actual number, one was considered the well spring of all numbers.

The Magician is not only the first numbered trump, it also depicts the aces on the card, the first of each suit.  Because the numbers 1, 10, and 4 are related symbolically, some believe that the structure of the tarot was inspired by number mysticism, with its four suits of ten pip cards.  Because we use a decimal number system, grouping numbers in tens, 1 and 10 represent the beginning and end of a cycle.  10 and 4 are traditionally related because 10 can be understood as the sum of 4 + 3 + 2 + 1.  Both numbers represent a unity of parts to a whole.

Copyright 2015, Christopher Lee Matthews

Fooling with the Deck: Week One: The Fool (0)

Fool
(A 15th century Fool card, from the Jean Dodal version of the Tarot de Marseille, after which most 19th century decks were based.)

Much of the Fool’s symbolism originates in its name and imagery, directly related to its original function in the game of tarot. The tarot began as a deck for a trick taking card game similar to bridge. In bridge one of the four suits (spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs) is named the trump suit and has a higher value during the game.

The tarot has four suits (wands, cups, swords, and coins) plus an additional suit of 21 permanent trumps and one wild card, the Fool. Because it excuses a player from following suit, allowing them to protect a more valuable card, it is also known as the Excuse. However the Fool cannot win the trick and using it allows the next player to change suit.

The Fool’s association with spontaneity, changing direction, and calculated risk are all derived from its original wild card status.  Likewise disruption, reversal, and chance.  These are also qualities of the trickster archetype, who uses delay, repetition, or inversion to bring awareness to an unaddressed crisis, often through absurdity, humor, or breaking the rules.

fool5
However those outside the hierarchy of society are not always welcome.  The 15th century Fool card at the top of the page depicts someone in poverty, wandering on the edges of society, being harassed by a guard dog.   The disheveled Fool from the 15th century “Charles IV” tarot above is being driven out of town by stone throwing children.  He wears donkey ears to represent his foolishness.  The card represented lunacy, madness, and folly to 18th century cartomancers.

By the 19th century, both its meaning and representation had shifted dramatically.   The Fool came to represent the hero of the tarot and the dog his faithful companion, warning him about his obliviousness to the danger ahead.  The card came to symbolize a leap of faith, wisdom rather than worldly knowledge, and the beginning of our spiritual journey, represented by the remaining 21 tarot trumps.

foolcard4
(The Fool card from the early 20th century Rider-Waite deck, after which most of our contemporary decks are designed.)

None of the trumps in the earliest tarot decks were numbered.  Later card makers gave them numbers to show their relative rank as trumps.  As the wild card though, the Fool remained unnumbered and was later attributed to 0.  In the original game of tarot, the Fool was “worthless”, unable to win a trick, but incredibly potent because it changed the flow of the game.  Because of its association with 0, and therefore the start of the trumps, it came to mean new beginnings, potency, and nothingness as a metaphor for the spiritual realm behind the material world.

Copyright 2015, Christopher Lee Matthews