Tarot Triumph

Edmund Leach

  • 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.

The bulk of the book consists of a meticulous description (types of pack, values and denominations of the cards, rules of play) of all the variations of the game of Tarot so far as they are now identifiable. One way or another, that includes pretty well every card game involving several players that anyone has ever heard of, as well as a great many that they have not. The reference to Salt Lake City in Dummett’s subtitle concerns contemporary American card games known as Frog and Solo. These require a pack of 36 cards and three players, which puts them in the same family as Tapp, a South German game, which is in turn closely related to Württembergiseher Tarock, which, apart from the name, seems to bear hardly any resemblance to the early Italian games, most of which used packs of either 78 or 62 cards. In all, 211 types of game from 11 different countries are fully described, along with a further scatter which are ‘not fully described or only conjectured’.

Insofar as these matters might aid our understanding of the rules of the different games, Dummett also discusses the structure of the different types of pack and, in a general way, the typology of the suit designs and of the pictures on the various triumph cards. Both books are generously illustrated. But this aspect of Dummett’s researsh was secondary. The books are not a guide to the specialist problems faced by collectors of playing cards.

Indeed, a great deal of Dummett’s presentation is pretty tedious stuff except for fanatics. This presumably accounts for the issue of the shorter and cheaper volume. If you simply want to learn how to play Tarot, then a selection of the more interesting variations is provided in Twelve Tarot Games in paperback. This consists of extracts from the larger work pasted up with connecting argument. But you must also, of course, find (or construct for yourself) appropriate packs of cards. And this may prove quite a problem. The 12 games described require packs of various sizes: 78 cards, 62 cards, 63 cards, 54 cards, 42 cards, 36 cards. But that is only the beginning.

Here, in summary, is a description of the Tarot pack known as Tarocco Bolognese, which you can, it seems, readily acquire if you first make your way to Bologna. The pack has 62 cards. There are four suits: Swords, Batons, Cups, Coins, each consisting of four court cards, Ace and 6 to 10. In Swords and Batons these rank: King (high), Queen, Cavalier, Jack, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, Ace (low). In Cups and Coins the order is: King (high), Queen. Cavalier, Jack, Ace, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 (low). There are 21 trumps which rank: Angel (high), World, Sun, Moon, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, four Moors (of equal rank), Begato. Finally, there is the Matto (Fool), which has a quite special role. By comparison chess begins to seem simplicity itself, while Contract Bridge is mere child’s play.

But all that is for the addicts. What about the fortune-telling, and the fables that Tarot originated in Ancient Egypt or Persia or India or China or wherever? Here Dummett is ruthless and devastating. His guiding principle has been total scepticism. Believe nothing unless there is clear positive evidence. If you find such evidence, look at it through a microscope. All, or very nearly all, conjectural history must be totally rejected. Working through the thickets of Tarot legend with this bulldozing machinery, Dummett reached the conclusion that virtually everything that was ‘generally known to be the case’ with regard to Tarot was either demonstrably false or so improbable, in the light of the evidence, as to be not worth serious consideration.

The question of just where card-playing, as such, may have originated depends to some extent upon our definition or terms. What constitutes a game of cards? What constitutes a pack? Dummett cites evidence which shows that a ‘regular’ pack, very similar to our modern four-suited pack of 52 cards, is likely to have been in use in the early part of the 14th century in Persia, and perhaps in other parts of the Islamic world. Card-playing in this form probably first reached Italy around 1375, by way of Mamluk Egypt and Venice. Dummett makes a further case, very elaborately argued, for supposing that the card game that was then introduced was a trick-taking game which shared a common ancestry with games played in India with a 96-card pack (ganjifa).

But this was not Tarot. On the contrary, it is quite clear that the Tarot pack, much as we now know it in England, was invented in Italy around 1430. It was an enlargement of the ‘regular’ pack which had already been in use for about seventy years. The innovation was evidently associated with the simultaneous introduction of a new trick-taking game for several players which required the use of 21 trump cards (triumphs). The triumphs were a sequence of picture cards not identified by a suit sign, like the ordinary suits, and not divided into numeral cards and court cards.

There was nothing mystical about the designs on these cards: but they needed to be easily identifiable, easily distinguished from each other, and easily named. The triumph cards, like the names of the suits and their designs, have varied considerably over the years, and the history of these matters, carefully spelled out in Dummett’s book, has varied from country to country. But fortune-telling is an extremely peripheral element. The earliest reference to the use of cards for fortune-telling in a European source is in an Italian work published in 1540, but the cards used came from a regular pack and not from a Tarot pack. The earliest recorded English publication of a pack of cards specifically intended for fortune-telling dates from 1690. Again it was not a Tarot pack. Cartomancy with regular playing-cards became regularly established around 1760, but the Taro pack was not used for this purpose until about twenty years later.

The contemporary belief, which is current throughout the Anglo-Saxon world, that the Tarot pack was specifically designed for use in occult practices or in divination is not only quite without foundation but also quite recent. Although it has some weak roots in French Masonic writings of the end of the 18th century, it is primarily the product of lunatic-fringe Cabalistic and Rosicrucian materials which were derived, during the latter part of the 19th century, from the bizarre publications of a Frenchman, Alphonse-Louis Constant, born in 1810 but known after 1853 as Eliphas Lévi (Zahed). Lévi wrote about alchemical magic in books which, in Dummett’s words, ‘range from the unintelligible, through the obscure, to the frankly puerile’.

The Tarot cards were incorporated into this rigmarole, and it was in this form that Tarot occultism reached England under the patronage of Kenneth Mackenzie, who, in 1866, had been one of the founders of a Masonic-cum-Rosicrucian Society known as the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia. It was, however, another of Mackenzie’s occultist inventions, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was mainly responsible for the original British vogue for the Tarot mystique.

Dummett’s account of these goings-on is to be found around page 150 and gives cause to wonder just how mad Englishmen of the affluent classes of that period needed to be before they were put under restraint. This is, incidentally, the only point in the book where Dummett, the philosopher, and Dummett, the historian of Tarot, come face to face. He remarks of a certain Dr Wynn Westcott, who supplied ‘the entitlement to set up the Order of the Golden Dawn’, that ‘like the great philosopher Gottlieb Frege, whom he in no other way resembled’. Westcott ‘lived from 1848 to 1925’. Dummett’s growing renown as a professional philosopher is largely derived from his several studies of Frege.

But even this is relatively ancient history. The now widespread British belief that Tarot is an ancient form of cartomancy dates, in the main, from after the Second World War. This very recent efflorescence seems to be the result of some skilful operations in the publishing trade which Dummett understandably dismisses as unworthy of consideration.

I have only one comment to make on the history side of the argument. This is a point of etymology and I would be the first to agree that etymological evidence is, on its own, quite notoriously weak. For all I know, Dummett may have good reason for rejecting it. As emphasised by Dummett in many places, the class of card games to which Tarot belongs is that of ‘trick-taking games’. Dummett’s definition of such a trick-taking game fills half a page (page 167), and I will not attempt to condense it. Whist and Bridge are both trick-taking games. My dictionary offers no explanation as to why the word ‘trick’ should be used in this sense. The Continental equivalents are quite different: German stich, French levée. So is ‘trick’ simply a version of ‘taroc’? Unimportant, but, if valid, worthy of inclusion in the record.

On the anthropological side my views as an anthropologist are, perhaps naturally, rather more mixed. I miss any account of participant observation. Dummett started out with a contemporary form of Tarot as played in France and worked backwards, so it is not surprising that he ended up by making a survey of European card games resembling modern French Tarot in one or more fairly obvious ways. But it is not self-evident that either card games, as such, or European card games, as such, make a particularly interesting category. The point I am making here is implicit in Dummett’s remarks at page 63, where he notes with some surprise (and perhaps irritation) that although trick-taking is not a characteristic of card games played in China, it does feature as a characteristic of T’ien chiu, played with dominoes. But how do we define dominoes?

I have no idea as to what kinds of game (card or other) are permitted in contemporary Communist China, but in the backwoods rural areas of that country which I visited at various dates between 1933 and 1942 it was normal to find gambling marquees set up in market centres or travelling fairgrounds. As in a European casino, the visitor was offered the choice of a great variety of ways in which to lose his money. Some of these games were played with playing-cards, some with bamboo chips, some with ‘dominoes’, some with cowrie shells, and so on. Some games were much more popular than others, and in some games the stakes were much higher than in others, but the rules of the different games were often very similar.

What I am getting at is that I do not feel convinced that the two hundred-odd games which Dummett describes in detail really belong to a closed set. If he had considered European games which are not played with cards at all, and also early Italian games which were not played with cards at all, he might have found the linkages with 14th-century Ferrara working out to a different pattern. Or, to put it differently, despite the vast learning that Dummett displays, he never gives the reader a feeling of what the game might mean to the players. What is the social context in which the action takes place?

The Tarot packs which have survived from early times are mostly fragmentary and most of the fragments come from upper-class households. For this and other reasons, we can learn very little about how the game might then have been played simply from a study of the cards. But much that is relevant might have been learned from an observation of modern Tarot players. Dummett gives us the formal rules of how a great variety of modern derivatives of early Tarot ought to be played, but he does not tell us anything about how these games are actually played. He does not describe the atmosphere of play.

Perhaps I am asking too much, but since Dummett’s project was encyclopedic, he might well have paid closer attention to the relationship between the games he was considering and gambling. Gambling of one sort or another is found in all forms of human society. Moreover, wherever there is gambling you will also find magical procedures for controlling the laws of chance and for making predictions about particular gambling strategies. And that brings us back to fortune-telling.

Dummett could not go back to 14th-century Ferrara to watch the action, but Tarot, he tells us, is still played in modern Bologna. And if he had given us more detail of the gambling environment of that context and of how the Tarot triumphs enter into it, I would have felt that I had a better understanding of why such an exceedingly complicated game should have become so popular, and why, even now, the triumph cards should carry the peculiàr designs that they do.

But that is a carping comment. Other hobbyists may envy Professor Dummett for having a publisher willing to invest capital in such an enterprise, and maybe this is not the book for which he would wish to be remembered in future years. But in its own very special way it is a major achievement of which its author can be proud.