Once upon a time, you could look at a trump card and the symbols were as plain as day. Yet somewhere over its six-hundred year trek through history, the Tarot meanings became mired in mystery. What was obvious to a medieval troubadour has become a mystery to us today.
Teasing out the original meanings of the Tarot trump is a bit like untying the Gordian Knot. Most historians want a simple, clear-cut answer and so they look to Petrarch as the originator of Trump card symbolism. His poem, “I Trionfi” (1356-1374), means Triumph, and many of the trump cards appear in his stanzas. Italians of the fourteenth century used the word triumph to describe decorated floats drawn in a procession, much like our New Year’s Day parade, each float “triumphing” over the next.
Petrarch was a romantic in the true chivalric sense. He passionately loved lady Laura de Noves. However, she was already married and could never return his affections. So, like all frustrated lovers, he wrote a poem about it, consisting of six triumphs. First there was Cupid to represent his love of Laura, followed by Chastity, because she properly refused his love. Next came the dreadful triumph of Death, for Laura had succumbed to the plague. Triumphing over death was Laura’s Fame (presumably from Petrarch’s poem). The unceasing ravages of Old Man Time won over her fame. Finally, the sixth and ultimate triumph was Eternity, where Laura and Petrarch were reunited in heaven.
It’s easy to pick out Tarot symbolism from Petrarch’s poem. We have Love, Temperance, Death, Fortune (for Laura’s fame), The Hermit (for Old Man Time) and The World (for Eternity). However, Petrarch’s poem hardly accounts for all the trumps, leaving out many of the familiar cards. Most historians are content to rummage through alchemical and astrological symbols for the missing trumps. Paul Huson, author of Mystical Origin of the Tarot, has a more compelling solution. Rather than search for obscure and little known symbols, why not look at the popular entertainment of the time: the medieval drama.
One morality play that stood out among the rest was the Dance of Death (also known as the Danse Macabre). Between 1347 and 1364, the Black Death ravaged Europe. It came for the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak; no one was immune to its devastation. So was born the Dance of Death, a play that illustrated the all-conquering power of the Grim Reaper.
The earliest recorded illustration for the Dance of Death comes from the cemetery of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris (1424–25). Here we see members of all social classes, from the Pope all the way down to the fool, dancing with skeletons. The dead escort the living to their tomb. Death was inevitable and the dance reminded people of the phrase“memento mori” (you too shall die).
The dance often ended with this refrain:
Who was the fool, who the wise,
Who the beggar or the Emperor?
Whether rich or poor, equal in death.
Here, many of the images from Trump tarot I through XIII appear as figures in the dance. The unnumbered Fool is also present, as a stock character to jibe and jest. Petrarch spent many of his years wandering Europe in search of Latin manuscripts. He would have certainly encountered the Dance of Death and this explains the inspiration for the triumphs of his famous love poem.
But how did these symbols, so recognizable to the common folk of Europe, become so obscure today? The answer lies in the Reformation. Medieval dramas were originally designed as a form of propaganda, to convert people to the Catholic faith. The rising Protestant movement found the plays offensive, and many vanished from France, Italy and England during this time. In fact, the Parliament of Paris banned all religious plays in 1548. The Dance of Death, along with other morality plays, was tossed out as medieval rubbish. With them, went to knowledge of what the Tarot trumps truly represented.
The Fool’s Journey
We can use the knowledge of the Dance of Death play to better understand the Tarot.The Trumps, at their core, tell the story of a soul’s journey through life and into the afterlife. Traditionally, this is called the Fool’s Journey, with the Fool being you, and each Trump card standing as metaphor for an experience in your journey.
The Journey can be broken in to four sections. First we have the familiar characters from the Dance of the Dead. The Fool would represent you and each of the other cards might be people who influence you in life. The Empress and Emperor are your parents. The High Priestess and Hierophant represent religious teachings. The Magician is there to awaken your own abilities.
Next come the experiences in your life that teach you moral lessons. The Lovers illustrates the loss that comes with falling in love. The Chariot carries you on your journeys throughout life. Strength, The Hermit, Justice and Temperance each teach you moral lessons needed for a full life. We need the strength to face life’s challenges, but also to seek The Hermit’s truth. Justice requires us to weigh the facts, while Temperance has us look beyond cold logic to the emotional side.
Now you slip into the underworld, on a spiritual journey. Dame Fortune, with her famous wheel, was a constant figure of medieval morality plays. She speaks of humanity’s ride on her ever spinning wheel, sometimes up, and sometimes down. The Hanged Man teaches us to sacrifice for the greater good (either in the heroic sense or for to benefit our true self). Finally comes Death, the event we all must face. In the Tarot it is often figurative: a transformation and rebirth. The Devil represents our shadow selves, all the negative qualities we’ve tried to hide from the world. The Tower shows us the world falling apart, destroyed to the very foundation. Yet we can rebuild. The bolt that brings the Tower down is a moment of realization, a sudden change in how you see the world.
Finally you transcend mortality and complete the cycle. In your efforts to rebuild your life after the destruction of the Tower, the Star offers you guidance. She stands for new hope that appears when you come to grips with the truth. Just as The Star illuminates our way, The Moon distracts us with doubts and questions. We need to see past these illusions to find the joy and brightness of The Sun. The final Judgment was always heavy on the mind of the medieval peasant, but it need not be for you. This is a chance for you to acknowledge your wrongdoings and move past them. With The World, you come full circle, back to the cliff you started at. Only now you are a different person.
Often life can seem to us a pointless cycle of lugging ourselves through the day. Like Sisyphus—who pushes the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down—we wonder is this all worth it? Remember that the Tarot cards are a journey, not a destination. You learn through their use and accept your failings. Just as Petrarch was brave enough to cope with his pain and loss, so can you.
A quote from another influential medieval play, this time Everyman, can serve as inspiration. Here Death speaks to Everyman, and says:
I am not moved by gold, silver, nor riches,
Nor by pope, emperor, king, duke, nor princes.
For I could receive gifts great,
All the world I might get;
But my custom is clean contrary.
I give you no delay: come here, and do not tarry.
Do not delay on your life’s journey. Only you can make the trek.
How do you feel about The Fool’s journey? Are there aspects of the trump cards that act as signposts for your life experiences? Comment below.
Tim Kane is the author of Tarot: The Magician, a novel showing one girl’s healing journey through the Tarot. He explores what it’s like to travel inside the Tarot cards themselves, bringing the symbolism to life. He lives and teaches in Chula Vista, California, with his spectacular wife, daughter, and a dog that stands upside down. He enjoys traveling to the dark places of his mind and bringing back souvenirs.
Find Tim at his website or on Facebook.