- The Game of Tarot: from Ferrara to Salt Lake City by Michael Dummett
Duckworth, 600 pp, £45.00, August 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1014 7
- Twelve Tarot Games by Michael Dummett
Duckworth, 242 pp, £5.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1488 6
During recent decades a variety of very distinguished academics have taken time off from their learned pursuits to write imitation Agatha Christie detective stories, so when I first learned that Michael Dummett, widely regarded as the most formidable philosopher of his generation, was about to publish a book about Tarot cards, I rather naturally assumed that it must be an exercise of this same recreational sort. In a certain very off-centre sense, my assumption was correct. The Preface to The Game of Tarot explains the origins of Dummett’s project roughly as follows.
In 1968, he spent three months in the United States. It was a year of political disaster. Nixon became President; Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. But for Dummett things were even worse at home. He was ‘deeply involved in work to combat that racism which has, over the past fifteen years, disfigured our national life and dishonoured our country’, and in 1967 the Campaign against Racial Discrimination (CARD) had disintegrated. Dummett was in deep personal distress. ‘I found it almost impossible to do any more work on philosophy or logic than my teaching duties made essential ... But when one is engaged in what produces constant emotional anxiety, there is need for some kind of refuge, and my new hobby became for me a refuge.’
The new hobby concerned cards of a different denomination. It seems to have been sparked off partly by the fact that when Dummett’s son Andrew came across a book of rules relating to a French version of Tarot, father and son had together learned how to play the game and found that it was a very good one, and partly by the fact that his present collaborator, Sylvia Mann, who is the foremost collector of playing-cards in Britain, had recently published a book on her subject.
The resulting product is altogether astonishing: encyclopedic in its scope; monumental in its learning. Indeed, were it not for the lucidity and elegance of Dummett’s style, one would inevitably describe the general manner as teutonic. The 600 pages of The Game of Tarot are printed two columns to the page with learned footnotes by the hundred, some of them over a column in length.
Let me emphasise from the start that the book is a history of the game of Tarot; it is not a history or analysis of the designs of the Tarot cards, a quite different topic which might turn out to be more interesting than Dummett himself considers at all likely. It should also be stressed that Dummett is the sole author: Mann’s main role was to suggest literary sources which might prove worth investigating and to put Dummett in touch with other playing-card experts throughout the world. The fact that, at the end of the day, a whole galaxy of scholars of the most diverse sorts should have collaborated in the enterprise speaks volumes for Dummett’s powers of persuasion and for his capacity to arouse interest in unlikely lines of argument.
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary entry for Tarot reads:‘Also Taroc. 1598. [F., ad. It. tarocco (pl. tarocchi), of unkn. origin.] a. One of a set of playing-cards, first used in Italy in the 14th c. Also used in fortune-telling. b. pl. The game played with these’. The general effect of Dummett’s study is to show, first, that while the game of Tarot (initially called trionfi (Triumphs – hence ‘trumps’) did in fact originate in Italy in the 15th century, it later developed many different forms in many different countries, some of which are still played, and, secondly, that, insofar as the Tarot cards have any connection with fortune-telling, this is only a recent (and largely British) development.
Vol. 2 No. 18 · 18 September 1980
From William Empson
SIR: It is improbable that, as Michael Dummett appears to say in his books on Tarot (LRB, 4 September), the Tarot pack was used merely for games. Our familiar pack was symbolical to start with; nobody in the Renaissance would invent such a random thing without making it symbolical, or claiming to. And the picture cards of the Tarot are rather aggressively mysterious.
Vol. 2 No. 20 · 16 October 1980
From John Henry Jones
SIR: The trouble with Michael Dummett’s book on the Tarot, to which William Empson referred in a recent letter (Letters, 18 September), is that while it leaves us dispossessed of some of our favourite myths it does not go far enough in explaining (or attempting to explain) the origin of these cards.
Professor Dummett flails the 18th century and later occultists mercilessly for their duplicity in propounding an antique. Egyptian origin for the Tarot and for their belief that the Tarot trumps embodied the secrets of an ancient wisdom. My own view is that the delights which they have produced (and who dare say these are not creations?) are a sufficient reward and recompense for their naughtinesses. The occultist’s viewpoint is well-comprehended and expressed by Kathleen Raine in Yeats, the Tarot and The Golden Dawn. She sees the occultist movements in terms of an imaginative creativity, and this is arguably at least as important as the social intercourse, intellectual exercise or sheer escapism of card-playing.
That card-playing was of pre-eminent importance in relation to the history of the Tarot Michael Dummett leaves us in no doubt. Indeed, it is his contention that the Tarot was invented as a new card game embodying a hitherto unknown feature, the principle of trumps, and he stresses that it was not until the late 18th century (when occult revelation pronounced the cards to be of near-diluvian antiquity) that the Tarot was used for any purpose other than card-playing. Now, the invention of trumps must rank as the most significant development in the history of card-playing since the introduction of playing-cards to the West in the mid-14th century. It is not strange that someone should have conceived of the use of master cards in a trick-taking game, but what I do find strange is the form in which the invention is embodied and the fact that the inventor is not known. On Dummett’s theory the inventor of this new game produced a whole new pack of cards incorporating four suits of 14 (corresponding to the existing playing-cards but with an additional court card in each suit) and a set of 22 picture cards, the trumps, trionfi or atouts, known to occultists as the Major Arcana. The pictures, says Dummett, are standard Renaissance subjects: The Emperor, The Pope, The Last Judgment, Temperance, Fortune etc. (It would burden the argument here to mention the inclusion of such non-standard subjects as The Hanged Man and The Tower.)
His theory is based, not only on surviving cards from the 15th century, and on written testimony in the sermons (dated 1450-1480) of a Dominican friar, but on the lack of any comparable cards outside Italy from the same or an earlier period. But lack of evidence cannot be used to support a theory, and all Michael Dummett has really proved is that the earliest known location for the game of Tarot was Italy (1442, possibly even a little earlier). Thus, while the theory of an Italian invention is in accord with the known facts, it cannot be regarded as proven and may well be wrong. I think it is, primarily because the subjects and hierarchy of the trionfi appear to have been standardised from the beginning. The list of trumps which appears in the Dominican’s sermon would serve as an adequate inventory for a standard pack of the present day; apart from occasional (often politic) variations, the subjects and order of the Tarot trumps have remained unchanged since their introduction. This argues a high stage of development of the Tarot pack when it occurred in Italy, and it is just this condition in respect of playing-cards which Dummett uses to adduce that these were not a Western European invention but a foreign introduction.
But if the Tarot is not an Italian invention, where did it come from? I would suggest a sorely beleaguered Byzantium, which was to afford many a refugee and many a manuscript in the decade or so following Dummett’s 1442. Survivals of an Eastern Imperial tradition are said to persist on some packs in the details of the papal vestments and regalia and in the head-gear of the Emperor.
A more telling anomaly (for Michael Dummett’s thesis) is the number of the trumps: 22 (or better, 21 + 1, since the 22nd trump, The Fool, is usually unnumbered and has a specific role in play). Dummett hedges the question of why such a large number of trumps should be necessary. I have looked carefully into the play of the games represented in his book and can find no cogent reason why there should be 22 trumps. It has been suggested that this number was chosen so that the ratio of trumps to any suit should be 3:2; other investigators have suggested that the number 78 was important; but considered dispassionately, neither of these reasons makes sense. Playing with Tarot cards is very tiresome because of the cumbrously large hands involved (25 cards in the three-handed games). If we consider the difficulty of playing with a pack which had no indices and in which the trumps were not numbered, we must revere all the more the mnemonic powers of the peoples of the Renaissance.
I think there are 22 Tarot trumps because the subjects already existed as a set of 22, that this set was adopted by a card-player used to a 56-card pack and that the idea of trumps was born from the cards rather than that the cards were an implementation subsequent to an invention of the principle of trumps. Michael Dummett is adamant that the trumps are not to be separated from the rest of the pack – the Tarot pack is a whole, he says, and was invented as a whole. Once again he is rescued by lack of evidence. I like to believe in the pre-Tarot existence of a set of 22 designs because, unlike Michael Dummett, I have a weakness for occultists. It is axiomatic for them that each card of the Tarot is associated with one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and hence with one of the 22 paths joining the ten Sephiroth of the Tree of Life. The cards may thus be used in meditative cabalism as mandalas for traversing the paths of the Tree.
The basis for the present cabalist tradition is undoubtedly Eliphas Lévi (late 19th-century) and since his time the designs of the cards have incorporated the shapes of some Hebrew letters; others have been interpreted as being present where they obviously are not. But quite apart from this late adoption of the Tarot into occultism, I consider that two of the trumps (The Tower, trump XVI, and The Moon, trump XVIII) have, from at least the 16th century, and throughout changes in design, persistently shown an iconographic association with the Hebrew letters ayin and tzaddi respectively (the 16th and 18th letters of the Hebrew alphabet).
This may, of course, he coincidence allied to wishful thinking. Even if there were a proven correspondence between the Tarot trumps and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet I should hesitate to suggest that this indicated that the cards were ever used for cabalistic purposes, but a set of playing-cards that could afford secret communication between cognoscenti in public must have had their use. If this letter/card association is well-founded, it is strongly supportive of the notion of a fixed set.
John Henry Jones
Vol. 2 No. 21 · 6 November 1980
From Michael Dummett
SIR: Sir William Empson considers it improbable that ‘the tarot pack was used merely for games’ (Letters, 18 September). I think that the clue to his opinion lies in his use of the word ‘merely’. Intellectuals, scholars and other serious-minded people are prone to consider playing games a trivial occupation on which no one would expend any genuine effort; for some reason that entirely escapes me, they do not consider pretentious rigmaroles purporting to reveal the future to be equally trifling. Hence, when they contemplate an artefact as beautiful and intricate as the Tarot pack, they cannot bring themselves to believe it to have been invented for play: it must have been intended for some serious purpose such as predicting future events. I think their estimate wrong, both in itself and historically. Attempting by non-rational means to divine what is to happen is one of the most absurd of human activities; devising and playing games, on the other hand, is a manifestation of ingenuity and of delight in order, an art form as worthy of respect as that of the dance. The game of Tarot was born in the courts of early Renaissance Italy; and in those courts men and women did not despise games as trifling, but cultivated them and took them seriously, by which I do not mean portentously.
These are a-priori arguments, intended only to rebut Sir William’s a-priori argument. For my assertion that no one associated Tarot cards with the occult or with fortune-telling until the 1780s, I relied on empirical facts, which I marshalled. I cited a string of references, from the 15th and 16th centuries, to the use of Tarot cards for play and pointed to the utter absence, from before 1781, of any mention of their use for any other purpose or of their bearing any esoteric meaning. I mentioned two texts, attacking or ridiculing the game, whose authors could hardly have failed to mention their occult associations, if they had been thought to have any. I observed that Court de Gebelin, who initiated the whole occultist fantasy concerning the Tarot pack, believed himself to be the first since ancient times to recognise in it more than an instrument of play, and that Eliphas Lévi and his followers, who were anxious to attribute to their occultist predecessors their own beliefs about it, failed miserably, as A.E. Waite also remarked, to cite one plausible reference to it from their works. If my conclusions are to be rejected, some explanation is needed why it took 350 years for the occult significance of the Tarot pack to come to light; it is surely not enough just to insist that something that makes so mysterious a first impression could not have been originally used ‘merely for games’.
Sir William says that ‘nobody in the Renaissance would invent such a random thing without making it symbolical’. Quite so: Renaissance people delighted in symbolism, and used it in all possible contexts, so that its presence needs no special purpose to explain it. There is obviously symbolism in the subjects of the Tarot trumps, but its presence does not imply that the cards were used for anything but play. Most of the symbols were familiar ones: the Wheel of Fortune, for instance, is to be seen on churches in France, England, Sweden and, no doubt, many other countries.
There may even be symbolism there that is not apparent to us. But if there was any hidden symbolism in the pack, the secret was quite soon lost, and this is in itself enough to show that the use to which the cards were put was one to which the symbolism was inessential. If Sir William will look at Alberto Lollio’s mock-serious verse diatribe against the game, published in 1550 and discussed and quoted in Chapter 21 of The Game of Tarot, he will see that the poet, who confesses to having earlier been a devotee of the game, had no conception of any symbolic significance for the trump cards, the meaninglessness of which he derides. In Florence, they removed the Popess, turned the Pope into some kind of temporary ruler and stuck in an extra 20 subjects, to bring the number of trumps to 40; and later changes of subject elsewhere likewise suggest a complete indifference to any supposed symbolism, and, instead, a desire to have easily recognisable and namable figures. A duchess in Sicily objected to the presence of the Devil, and had him replaced by a Ship. In Normandy and in what is now Belgium they replaced the Pope by Bacchus and the Popess by Captain Fracasse from the Commedia dell’Arte.
Whoever first devised the pack may or may not have had symbolic intentions that go beyond what is obvious to us: but, if so, they had, at least by the 16th century, and probably earlier, slipped from the consciousness of those who used the cards, as much as had the military significance of the chess pieces for the Indian inventors of chess from that of chess-players in Europe and the Islamic world. We are disposed to believe otherwise because we have been exposed to the propaganda of the occultists and because we do not live, as did people of the Renaissance, in a world in which the figures on the Tarot trumps are of familiar occurrence in other contexts. But the history of the Tarot pack to be found in the works of occultist writers is pseudo history, bearing no relation to the actual facts; and when the historical facts are looked at, they tell an altogether different story.
Mr J.H. Jones has done me the courtesy to respond (Letters, 16 October), from a standpoint more favourable to the occultists than mine, to the arguments concerning the origin of the Tarot pack which I set out in my book. As I understand him, he does not maintain that the Tarot cards were known, in Western Europe, anywhere outside Italy before the 16th century (or 1480 at the earliest), but is conjecturing a Byzantine origin for the trump cards. Likewise, I do not take him to be suggesting that the composite pack (trumps plus suit cards) was ever used, before the 18th century, for any purpose other than play, or was generally interpreted as having some occult meaning. Rather, I understand him as endorsing the view, rejected by me but propounded by Robert Steele and Gertrude Moakley, that the set of 22 trumps originally existed as an independent set before being joined to the suit cards to form the composite pack, and as coupling this with the occultist idea that the cards correspond to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
If he were right on both points, there would remain much in common between us, supposing that I have interpreted him correctly. It would still hold good that there has been no continuous tradition of occultist interpretation of the cards, and that the composite pack, from its first formation, was used only for play, until the late 18th century. But I venture to say that Mr Jones’s theories are more speculative than any suggestion of mine. There is a question here of burden of proof. Mr Jones says that I am ‘rescued by lack of evidence’ in holding that the trumps were, from the outset, part of a composite pack. My point was that there is virtually no evidence for the opposing theory: it so happens that every one of the many incomplete hand-painted 15th-century sets that survive contains at least one suit card. Since we have imperfect knowledge, the idea that the trumps originally formed an independent set cannot be ruled out as impossible: but, in the absence of any evidence for it, it seems to me unreasonable to believe it.
The same goes for the Italian origin of the cards. We have many cards, and many references to them, from 15th-century Italy; we have many references, and one set of cards, from 16th-century France, as well as ones from Italy in that century: the natural conclusion is that they originated in Italy and spread to France about the turn of the century. I gave specific reasons for supposing that this happened during the French occupation of Milan. I never considered Byzantium, where, so far as I am aware, playing-cards of any kind were unknown. Mr Jones’s conjecture is worth investigating, but, without evidence, it is mere conjecture.
Mr Jones is right to say that the set of subjects for the trumps was standardised at a very early date, but wrong to say the same about their order. The order used everywhere outside Italy (with small variations) was probably derived from Milanese practice, but in Ferrara, a different order was employed, and, in Bologna and Florence, yet a third. This puts in doubt any firm association (for which, again, there is no evidence from pre-18th-century sources) between them and the Hebrew letters. Of course, it does not show that there was not originally such an association, which was never generally known or was quickly forgotten: but, to establish what it was, or to make the theory plausible, one has first to decide which of the different orders was the original one. The fact is, as it seems to me, that, if there were ever such an association, it is very hard to discern. The occultists, who have all believed in such an association, have been quite unable to agree what it is – that is, which card should be taken to correspond with which letter. Mr Jones favours associations between trumps XVI and XVIII which agree with Eliphas Lévi’s system; but, as he well knows, there are rival systems. The Tower and the Moon have not always been numbered XVI and XVIII respectively; if Mr Jones will look at the tables on pp. 399 and 400 of my book, he will see that they have often been numbered XV and XVII. I am not sure why he is so convinced that they correspond to the two Hebrew letters he associates with them. The iconography of these cards, especially of the Tower (whose original meaning is probably the House of the Devil), has varied enormously, as can be seen from plates 6, 13, 18, 26, 27, 30 and 31 in my book: thus, in the Sicilian pack, there is no lightning on the Tower, while, in the Belgian one and some French predecessors, there is lightning but no tower on the corresponding card.
In any case, it is not certain that 22 is the original number of trump cards (counting the Fool as a trump): the earliest surviving hand-painted pack may have had more (it had six instead of four court cards per suit). Mr Jones wants to press the question: why 22? He asks more generally: ‘Why so large a number of trumps?’ In many games there are more trumps than cards per plain suit: in Skat, for example, there are 11 trumps and seven cards in each of the three plain suits. In Tarot, where there are four plain suits and it is compulsory to play a trump when unable to follow suit, at least a similar proportion is essential. The tendency has, in fact, always been to increase the proportion of trumps to suit cards, by reducing the number of suit cards to 41 in Sicily, to 40 in Bologna, and to 32 or even 20 in Central Europe, or by increasing the number of trumps from 2l + 1 to 40 + 1 in Florence. So the only remaining question is: why specifically 22? I do not know how much of an answer the question merits: in devising the pack, its inventor had to pick on some number, and the precise ratio of 3:2 between trumps proper and cards in each plain suit, to which I called attention, seems to me sufficient explanation for his choice. I do not see that the thought, ‘It can hardly be a coincidence that 22 is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet,’ is much more impressive in this case than in that of the chapters of the Book of Revelation.
I do not wish to be dogmatic. It is conceivable that whoever first fixed the number of Tarot trumps at 22 had the Cabala in mind: but if so, his idea was very rapidly forgotten, and he failed to leave unmistakable clues to it. I argued, in my book, that, in the absence of the generic idea of playing-cards, the 52-card pack has too complex a structure to have been invented de novo without any evolutionary forebears: but my thesis that playing-cards were introduced into Europe from the Islamic world had also positive evidence as well as this a-priori argument to support it. I do not think there is a similar a-priori argument concerning Tarot cards. Certainly playing-card packs consisting solely of picture cards were known in 15th-century Italy. It does not strike me as improbable that, given both these and the regular four-suited pack, someone should have had the idea of adding picture cards, to serve as trumps, to the regular pack; there is no need to suppose either that that specific set of picture cards had already existed as an independent unit, or that the idea was imported from Byzantium or elsewhere. Given such an invention, in which the trumps did not form a suit in the ordinary sense, there would be nothing especially natural in having the same number of them as of cards in an ordinary suit: what special explanation do we then need for there being 22 of them?
It is not surprising that we do not know the name of the inventor of the game of Tarot and of the pack with which it is played: we know the names of the inventors of exceedingly few games (not even of that great benefactor of mankind, the inventor of chess).
New College, Oxford