Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot


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Roger Caillois: Preface to Le Tarot des Imagiers du Moyen-Âge by Oswald Wirth

Translator’s Introduction

The literature on the Tarot is vast, but it is, for the most part, wholly negligible as far as its intellectual value is concerned. Since the earliest writings of the Chinese literati on the Book of Changes, of Cicero on divination, or of Plutarch on the decline of the oracles, countless writers and thinkers have opined and expatiated on the nature and workings of the divinatory phenomenon from all manner of angles, and the Tarot is no exception. Few, on the other hand, have delved into that other perennial object of human fascination, games and play. One writer who examined both, and in their most intimate details, was Roger Caillois, whose writings on the subject are some of the most penetrating and insightful, bar none.

Throughout his variegated career, Caillois remained fascinated by games, and much of his written output reflects this interest. In English, it is perhaps his book Man, Play and Games which is best known. Yet Caillois also had an abiding interest in the Tarot, first reflected in his scathing review of Joseph Maxwell’s book in 1936, which we have published here, as well as in the incisive and quite brilliant preface he wrote thirty years later for the 1966 Tchou reprint of Oswald Wirth’s classic work, Le Tarot des imagiers du Moyen Âge. This preface, like that of his friend and contemporary, Jean Paulhan, seeks to explicit the mechanisms of divination and of interpretation according to an implacable yet poetically expressed logic. One year later, Caillois would devote a lengthy entry to the Tarot in his encyclopaedia of games (s.v. Les Cartes, in Jeux et Sports, Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, 23:961) which has been described as “a small encyclopaedia of Renaissance esoteric and semiotic systems.” (Michel Beaujour, Poetics of the Literary Self-Portrait, NYU Press, 1992.)

Many of the key ideas encapsulated in this essay are thoughtfully considered and presented in the overall context of Caillois’ work in the lengthy introduction to The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader, edited by Claudine Frank, Duke University Press, 2003, a work in which, moreover, the interested reader will find the related and complementary essay ‘The Image,’ which expands on this notion of “accurate imagination.” Indeed, with respect to the last sentence of this piece and its crucial notion of “accurate imagination” (imagination juste), the translator of the Roger Caillois Reader notes that the French word justesse “has the additional connotations of “soundness, “rightness,” and truth,” (op. cit. p. ix), and later provides some further insight into the roots of this idea, stating, “Deliberately or not, Caillois’s postwar attempt to theorize the norms of adequation proper to an accurate imagination (imagination juste) was revisiting Reverdy’s 1918 theory of conscious poetic creation, founded on the claim that, “an image is not strong because it is brutal or fantastic — but because the association of ideas spans a great distance and is accurate [juste].” (op. cit. p. 315.) (The essay by Pierre Reverdy, also entitled ’L’Image,’ is to be found in Neil Matheson’s The sources of surrealism : art in context, Lund Humphries, 2006.)

Furthermore, that introduction equally underscores the dynamic tension between Caillois and Paulhan, who, let us recall, also penned an influential preface to a work on Tarot, notably their views on language, analogy, signs, ideograms, and the image, and the introduction to the essay ‘The Image’ itself is also highly instructive. In fact, we find that the essay ‘The Image’ may be considered as a dialogue with Paulhan (op. cit. p. 316), and it appears to us that the prefaces both men wrote to these highly influential books on the Tarot must also be considered as forming an integral part of this dialogue.

In order to correct another glaring omission from the English-language Tarot literature, we present this remarkable preface, omitted from the English edition of Wirth’s book.

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Preface to Le Tarot des Imagiers du Moyen-Âge by Oswald Wirth

Roger Caillois

That a game may be used for divination is almost contradictory. In effect, every game, and most particularly, a pack of cards, necessarily presents itself as a totality: a series of constant elements from which it is neither possible to subtract nor to add anything, and which it is not possible to modify either. A game, that is to say, the sum of information to manipulate, must be fixed and complete, otherwise the game, that is to say, the sequence of operations which mixes this information, is falsified from the outset. Conversely, all divination bears on an unlimited domain, since it includes all possible events, which are infinite in number, and which fork at every opportunity in an unpredictable manner (or predictable perhaps, which is practically the same since certainty remains excluded). To this infinity must normally correspond another infinity, which is that from whence the soothsayer draws his oracle: the splashes of lead, the reflections that pass through a crystal ball, the entrails of victims, or the smoke from incense, the oil spreading over some water, or ink stains, the simulacra of dreams, the drawings of coffee-grounds. Here and there, nothing is repeated, completely identical to itself, just as in life, where the same vicissitudes occur, the same misfortunes, the same chances, but never completely superimposable.

The originality, the advantage, and at the same time, the paradox of applying a pack of cards to divination consist of the fact that the unlimited, the possible accidents, then find themselves dependant on the visible presence and the inexhaustible combinations of a small number of traditional symbols, whose significations are furthermore consigned in all manner of widespread glossaries. To be sure, the soothsayer claims the right to clairvoyance and does not hesitate to declare that therein lies the essential. Nonetheless, for the consultants, the cards constitute a guarantee: they enable them to control the enigmatic sentence of fate, such that their own hand picks it from the deck. It but remains to the prophet to interpret it according to a code that is so well-established that the mage hurries to explain the reasons for his disagreement should he diverge from it. Now, this double restriction resolves itself to his advantage. The interpreter, in effect, finds himself hindered rather than helped by an infinity of different signals. For he must reduce (I have explained this with respect to oneiromancy) their multitude to a small number of events which must occur to everyone with more or less certainty: an encounter, a journey, love, betrayal, illness, failure, success, riches or ruin, and inevitable death. Every divinatory science, I was saying, is constrained to pass through this narrow door: to reduce the innumerable amount of information to the dozen or so random events that man must almost necessarily encounter over the course of his short life.

It is therefore not absolutely unfortunate that the repertoire of signs be impoverished, but it is important that they may be combined amongst themselves in many ways, like the planets and houses of the heavens in the immovable firmament, like the rows of cards laid out on the pythoness’ card table.

Only totalities are apt to contain the infinity of human situations. The planets, which are seven or nine in number, and the signs of the zodiac which are twelve, the coloured rectangles which are thirty-two or seventy-eight (or whichever number one wishes so long as they express a closed set) constitute similar totalities which summarise and enclose the universe. Nothing occurs, nor will occur, which does not find itself reflected beforehand by some configuration or other of the inflexible stars, distant, eternal, or through the arrangement of some symbols, chosen and ordered, faces mute, by a blind hand which, beneath the appearance of chance, leads the irrefutable Fate.

The hypothesis is extravagant, and, as such, unassailable. An act of faith in the pre-eminently improbable, it defies all argument. It amounts to affirming that every aspect of a given totality corresponds to a precise state that exists in the past, the present, or the future of another set, mysteriously linked to the first. To slide from one system to another, it is then only necessary to know, I wish to say to invent, the necessary correlations. But let us come to the game of cards.

In China, an unfortunately late text without authority relates that 32 ivory tablets were presented to the Emperor by an officer of the court towards the year 1120. Some were relative to Heaven, others to the Earth, and others yet to man, while the greater number concerned abstract notions such as chance, or the duties of a citizen. The sovereign would have had them reproduced and spread throughout the Empire. This game, called “One Thousand times Ten Thousand,” a total number if ever there was one, in reality only counted 30 cards: 3 series of 9 cards each and 3 trumps, which are the cards names “a thousand times ten thousand,” “the white flower,” and “the red flower.” On the cosmic cards are drawn four red marks corresponding to the cardinal points, and on the human cards, sixteen marks corresponding to the cardinal virtues, so-called by analogy (benevolence, justice, order, and wisdom), each expressed four times. The sum of the marks of the game sums up the number of stars. The game is thus a microcosm, an alphabet of emblems, which covers the universe. This encyclopaedic tendency appears no less clearly in the Indian games, just as systematic, but more closely derived from theology. At the end of the 16th century, fifty years or so after the mention of the games sent by Baber to Shah Hassan, Abu’l-Fazl Allami described a game of 144 cards, 12 series of 12 cards. Abkar would reduce it to 96 cards, that is, to 8 series.

It is accepted that the game of 96 cards in an Islamic adaptation of an Indian game of 120 cards, divided into 10 series of 12 cards, corresponding to the 10 incarnations or avatars of Vishnu and illustrated with their symbols. The iconography varies with the centres of production. This game is called Dasavatara. It is still played today in India. Each series consists of two figures, the king and the vizir, and 10 point cards, numbered from 1 to 10. In the first five series, the order of the numeral cards is ascendant, from 1 to 10, the 1 being the lowest. In the latter five series, the order is inverted, and the 1 becomes the highest. Usually, the strongest card of the game is, during the day, the one that represents the incarnation of the god as Rama or as Narasimha. After the sun has set, it is the one which bears the figure of Krishna, at least, when it is present in the game.

The numeral cards contain the emblem of the Avatar which gives them its name, as many times as their value indicates. These emblems are generally the following: fish, tortoises, seashells, discs (one may as well say coins), lotuses, jugs (almost cups), axes, bows, staffs and sabres. But, elephants, monkeys, oxen, horses, lions, nagas, or women are no less employed. Some games represent scenes in which 1 to 10 characters are found, according to the value of the card: a solitary smoker, two men having a conversation, a lady and her maid visiting a sadhu, two men performing a rope trick, with two others helping out, a young girl dancing before the king and three courtiers, etc.

The first card games known in the West are closer to the rational and civic Chinese symbolism than to the luxurious mythology of India. The Naibi, cards known in Italy since the 14th century, are a type of mnemonic device of useful knowledge. They are composed of 50 images distributed in 5 series of 10 cards. The series correspond to the stages of Life, to the Muses, to the Sciences, to the Virtues, and finally, to the Planets. The Estates of Life range from the most humble condition to the supreme power, temporal and spiritual. They are the beggar, the servant, the craftsman, the merchant, the gentleman, the knight, the doctor, the king, and finally, the Emperor and the Pope. To complete the second series, Apollo is added to the nine Muses. To the cards depicting the seven planets are added the cards symbolising the Eighth Sphere, the Prime Mover and the First Cause. For the Sciences and the Virtues, there was plenty of choice. The game was entirely didactic. The Tarot was in all likelihood born of the combination of the Naibi and the point cards. The latter, from 1 to 10, consisted of the four series we find in Spanish playing cards: cups, swords, coins and staffs. These suits supposedly allude to the clergy (the cup is a chalice), to the nobility, to the merchants, and to the peasants respectively. A Venetian treatise from 1545 proposes another explanation: “the swords evoke the death of those whom gambling has driven to despair; the staffs indicate the chastisement deserved by those who cheat; the coins depict money, fuel of the game; and finally, the cups recall the drink with which all the players’ quarrels are appeased.” The Naibi seem to have provided the major arcana, numbering 21, without counting the Mate, which is unnumbered.

The 78 cards of the Tarot remain the preeminent instrument – preferred and prestigious – of the cartomancers. Following the method of the draw adopted, one uses either the major arcana alone, or the entire deck. Ordinarily, the seer spreads before the client the 22 major arcana, face down, and has him choose 12 which she then lays out, keeping their order, in 12 positions called “houses.” She then mixes the remaining arcana with the point cards and begins the procedure anew. Each House is thus provided with 2 cards. The first is supposed to reveal the principle that directs the House, the second any possible reactions and the events to come. The 12 Houses are respectively the domiciles of life, of goods, of one’s entourage, of paternal heredity, of children, of servitude, which is to say of servants and domestic (not mounted) animals, of the spouse, of death, of religion, of honours, of friends, of afflictions. Each corresponds, moreover, to a part of the body. The set englobes all that may befall over the course of existence. The astrological origin of this frame is evident. The 12 Houses are moreover modelled on the zodiacal influences.

As to the cards themselves, particularly for the major arcana, they have been the object of the most varied and subtle exegeses. The emblems of the point cards are identified with the four elements: the swords to air (for the sword swirls in the air), the staffs to fire (they stem from wood, which is flammable), the cups to water (they contain liquids), the coins to the earth (they are made from the metals it bears). This is not enough: the swords symbolise moreover willpower and power; the staffs, work and the duties of one’s condition, material energy and fertility; the cups, love and mysticism, the intimate elaboration of the spiritual riches; the coins, finally, the knowledge and art of combinations, every creative industry which arranges the external world.

We would never end enumerating the superimposed teachings which the 22 major figures are supposed to bear. There is no conjectural science nor esoteric doctrine (astrology, arithmosophy, alchemy, etc.) which has not been called upon to enlighten (or thicken) the mystery.

A lot of ink has been spilt over this disparate series. Some discovered the universal hieroglyphic language therein. Court de Gébelin deciphered the treasures of traditional wisdom. The Egyptomania of the first half of the 19th century claimed to identify the symbols by means of the Zodiac of Denderah. The modern occultists, Éliphas Lévi, Papus, Stanislas de Guaïta, Oswald Wirth, finally, each interpreted every detail and the colour of every detail. Everything takes on a hidden and initiatory significance.

In fact, it would appear to be a composite set in which images of biblical origin (the last Judgment, the God-House, which strongly resembles the Tower of Babel, the Devil), the virtues advocated by the Church (Justice, Force, Temperance), certain celestial bodies accompanied by signs of the zodiac (the Moon with Cancer, the Sun with Gemini, the Star above Aquarius), the two great powers of the time, the Pope and the Emperor, with the Eagle or the Tiara, and each flanked by a spouse (fantasy, irreverence, or need for symmetry?), all neighbour each other. On the arcanum depicting the World, we recognise the symbols of the four Evangelists. The allegories of Love and of Death are classical. The Hanged Man and the Wheel of Fortune are frequently encountered in medieval imagery. The Hermit with his lantern evokes Diogenes, no doubt. I would willingly recognise Alexander as the crowned victor wearing armour who thrones on the Chariot. The vogue for Alexander was in fact considerable at the time. With Diogenes, he forms a legendary pair, in which disdainful poverty and earthly grandeur oppose each other.

The first card, the Juggler, which brings to mind the famous painting by H. Bosch, The Conjurer, also belongs to the repertoire of the allegories of the time. It dominates the entire game. On the mountebank’s table, the accessories he has taken out of his satchel, joined with the wand he wields, refer, it would seem, to the four suits of the point cards: money for the coins, goblets for the cups, a knife for the swords, the wand for the staffs. In the centre, the dice, lest the player or the consultant forget that the distribution of the cards depends on Fate.

The last arcanum, the Mate or the Fool, a sort of vagabond with a mastiff at his heels, often compared with another painting by H. Bosch, The Prodigal Son, is not a part of the series. It is a free card, it too a vagabond, and versatile. One could no doubt add it to whichever combination one wished to develop: a sort of Joker before its time, the ultimate concession or extra triumph, chance within chance itself, and subsidiary Unknown which corrects the known unknown.

The number of cards varies with the games. An ancient Florentine Tarot consists of 35 numbered cards, and six cards out of series. We recognise the three theological virtues, the four elements, the twelve signs of the zodiac, etc. In a word, regardless of their number and composition, the sequence of symbols is constituted by means of the most widespread speaking images. The symbols are indifferently of secular or ecclesiastical origin, pagan or Christian, learned or popular. The essential, indeed, appears to be to obtain a “totality” which encloses the universe.

The “totality” represented by the cards interferes during the draw, with the “totality” covered by the Houses. All combinations are possible, and there is no conceivable event which does not enter into the double grid. The keyboard is infinite. Furthermore, as I have said, the desired verdict is there, verifiable, legible, obscure, no doubt, but obvious. To be sure, the interested party lacks the gift, or often the knowledge, which would enable him to interpret it effectively. But he knows the principle, he identifies the symbols, he rectifies if needs be the unfortunate hypothesis of the officiant. He puts him back on the right track and thereby takes part in the fascinating reading of his own destiny. Such is, I believe, the reason for the persistent preference for the Tarot, and more generally, for divination by cards. They present themselves as a mysterious language, but one with a strict vocabulary and with a demanding syntax. The consultant himself extracts, in the form of precise images, the elements which concern him. He follows the narrative of the Master, who adapts the general signification to his particular case. The seer no longer appears as a vaticinating mage, who invents perhaps, from changing curls of smoke, from indecisive and almost imperceptible reflections, from splashes of cooling metal; these unstable forms, never identical to themselves, leave the door open to uncertainty, to error, and to deception. This time, the vocabulary has been given once and for all. The hieroglyphs are immutable and limited in number. Fate only intervenes but to indicate those that contain the future of the consultant. It remains but to decipher them, which seems to be a labour of science or of perspicacity. Thus the doctor elaborates his diagnosis by interpreting the symptoms he is qualified to identify.

Oswald Wirth concludes his Introduction to the Study of the Tarot in the following manner: “Games are training. Those of the mind develop precious faculties. Use the 22 arcana of the Tarot to play at divination.” Thus he recommended this game on a game as excellent training to imagine accurately. I have often asked myself, and well before knowing this suggestion, what accurate imagination might be: it is to reunite, insofar as possible, the conditions of a felicitous conjecture.

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Book Review: Roger Caillois on Joseph Maxwell: The Tarot

Translator’s Introduction

The publication in 1933 of Le Tarot: le symbole, les arcanes, la divination by Joseph Maxwell (pub. Félix Alcan) occasioned a number of reviews, both laudatory and critical from the occultist milieu. Maxwell (1858-1938) had a dual background as both a medical doctor as well as a lawyer, interested in what what was then known as metapsychic(al) phenomena, or what is now known as parapsychology. One such subject was that of the Tarot, to which he devoted over three decades of research, the fruit of which is contained in this book. Prior to its publication, Maxwell published one article on the Tarot in the special issue of the occultist journal Le Voile d’Isis in 1928 dedicated precisely to that topic, “Le symbolisme des arcanes majeurs”. His book was reprinted in 1984 by Archè. It was also translated into English by Ivor Powell and published a number of times as The Tarot (Neville Spearman, 1975; Samuel Weiser, 1977; C.W. Daniel Company Ltd, 1988).*

Although a later author such as Piek Anéma considered Maxwell’s method to be rational, analytic or empirical, another author, this time with an academic background in sociology – Roger Caillois – thought otherwise, and wrote a critical but thought-provoking review of the book in 1936. Caillois himself was no stranger to the Tarot; interested in gaming systems in general, he would also go on to write a preface to the Tchou reprint edition of Oswald Wirth’s classic “Le Tarot des imagiers du Moyen Âge in 1966,* and later devoted a lengthy entry to the Tarot in his encyclopaedia of games (s.v. Les Cartes, in Jeux et Sports, Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, 23:961) which has been described as “a small encyclopaedia of Renaissance esoteric and semiotic systems.” (Michel Beaujour, Poetics of the Literary Self-Portrait, NYU Press, 1992)

By way of contrast with the former assessment of Maxwell’s work, and in the interest of shedding some light on the singular clash between esoterically-minded intellectuals and more historically-oriented thinkers in 20th-century France, we present this short book review in its entirety. The original was published in Les Cahiers du Sud, 1 July 1936, and may be read on the French news archive here.

Notes: * The English edition of Maxwell’s book does not contain the appendix criticised by Caillois, and the English edition of Wirth’s book (“The Tarot of the Magicians,” Weiser Books, 1990/2012) does not contain Caillois’ preface either.

1984 French edition

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The Tarot, by J. Maxwell (F. Alcan)

Roger Caillois

When faced with the Tarot, two attitudes are possible: the à priori interpretation of the 78 enigmatic cards, or the critical study of their origin and history. Mr Maxwell has chosen the first and has deliberately focused on the explanation of the arcana by drawing on all the symbolisms which it was materially possible to use: numbers, colours, traditional attributes, astrosophic signs, etc…. His ingeniosity is admirable, but too many prejudicial questions are posed that we cannot accept this free exercise without reservations. There is effectively no guarantee that the Tarot is a series of cryptogrammes, and much less that these figures represent, in a veiled way, the sort of Neo-Platonic philosophy that Mr Maxwell has found with his eyes shut. On the contrary, everything leads to believe that the present Tarot is a combination, going back to the end of the 14th century, of the game of numeral cards of Spanish suits, and for the major arcana, of a sort of encyclopaedia of images destined to instruct children in a pleasant manner. Such is, at least, the hypothesis very convincingly proposed by Henry-René d’Allemagne in his monumental work (1) on playing cards, which Mr Maxwell cites in his bibliography, without seemingly having consulted it very much. Moreover, it must be admitted that this explanation leaves the mystery of certain cards intact: thus, for the Juggler, the Hanged Man, the Wheel of Fortune, the Fool. As to the symbolism of the series, it is difficult to see with the author a figuration of the elements: air, water, earth, fire. A work published in Venice in 1545 (2) saw, with much more humour but no less arbitrariness, the swords as the death of those whom playing has driven to despair; the staffs as the chastisement of those who cheat; the cups, the drink that appeases all quarrels; and finally, the coins as the very fuel of the game. In fact, it is probably a transparent representation of social classes: soldiers (swords); clergy (cups, that is, chalices); traders (coins); and peasants (staffs).
Mr Maxwell sees only the means of divination in the Tarot. Yet, the use of this game in cartomancy is not attested once before the end of the 18th century, that is to say, before the barbour-boy Alliette used the reveries of Court de Gébelin to try his fortune at the expense of public credulity in known circumstances, and where the coarsest charlatanism is manifest. This should have incited Mr Maxwell to greater prudence, all the more so as he concludes his work with an analysis of the psychology of conjectural divination which devotes the greater part to the professional skills of the diviner. We regret that in these conditions he should have gone so far astray in the interpretation of these figures, which, despite undoubtedly not being the bearers of any philosophical system, are no less worthy of an in-depth exegesis. But it is fitting to change method and to rely more, in these matters, on historical information rather than on the metaphysics of numbers.

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  1.  Les cartes à jouer du XIV au XX siècle. Volume 1. Volume 2.
  2.  An allusion to Le carte parlanti by Pietro Aretino, first published in 1543. (Thanks to Ross Caldwell.)

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