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Almost everyone has noted that the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot images, especially for the Minor Arcana, look like scenes in a stage play. This is not unexpected since Pamela Colman Smith spent much of her early life involved in the theatre, from miniature stage productions to set and costume design to her own costumed story-telling performances. She even wrote two articles on set design and decoration.

I here present selections from her article, “Appropriate Stage Decoration,” that appeared in The New Age magazine (7:5, June 2, 1910. pp 7-9) shortly after the deck was published. I think you’ll find that it will heighten your appreciation of her Tarot cards. I’ve interspersed commentary that shows possible relevancy to her creation of the deck. Pamela begins:

ABOUT us is the glowing beauty of the world, with its leaves and flowers, rags, gold and purple. Kings on thrones of iron, beggars on beds of clay, laughing, weeping, dreaming.

Notice how Smith poetically evokes the scene before our eyes, weaving together shape and color with emotion. My own research fifteen years ago of nearly a hundred people demonstrates high agreement in the assignation of similarly-related emotions to individual cards in the RWS deck.

 

Land_of_Hearts_Desire-1898

Land of Heart’s Desire

This pageant of life moves before us, intensified, in the theatre.

Theatre, Pamela tells us, is an exaggeration of life, a march of characters before our eyes. In a tarot reading we have a progression of scenes whose figures are comparable to ourselves and to other people with whom we are involved. It is this intensification of a personal issue in people’s lives that allows them to recognize a repeating theme and, if desired, begin to change it.

People go, most of them, to the play to be amused, and in spite of themselves, are often tricked into a mode of thinking quite contrary to their usual habit of thought. That is why the theatre is the place where all beauty of thought, of sound, of colour, and of high teaching, comes to be of use.

In the U.S. for instance, Tarot, for legal purposes, is billed as entertainment—an amusement that ‘tricks’ querents out of the usual ruts in their thinking, turning the experience into a place of ‘high teaching.’

All arts are branches of one tree.

We can picture this as tree of life and wisdom. It is a reminder of, “As above, so below.”

There in the theatre, unconsciously, the onlooker is moved, or interested, and finds himself agreeing or disagreeing with the playwright and every time he enters a theatre he comes out with a little more knowledge than when he went in. Agreeing or disagreeing, it brings uppermost in his mind some thought which crystallises and becomes a new intelligence.

In many circumstances the information provided by readers is not unknown to their querents, but its significance is usually heightened or it is seen as part of a larger pattern. And it is not so important that querents agree completely with what a reader says. Rather the important thing is that they leave with greater insight than when they came in. This is what we hope for: a new and beneficial realization or insight, or as Pamela expresses it, “some thought crystallized.”

Theatre-going is a habit, where one cultivates a new kind of observation, a new pair of eyes and ears.

In order to enter into this new kind of observation one must have, in Coleridge’s phrase, “a willing suspension of disbelief.” We accept for a moment that mere cards are mirrors of the soul, reflections of our personal issues with answers to our questions. Furthermore, when we make reading our own cards a personal habit we can observe our own patterns of thought and so recognize where we are prone to delude ourselves.

Pamela disparages the then-modern vulgar theatrical display of too realistic scenery—real trees, flowers and animals—that she called “a self-conscious sham without purpose or meaning.”

Those in power have not remembered that illusion is the aim of the theatre. It is a great game of pretence that recalls the time when, as children, we baked stones in the sun for cakes, and feared the dragon that lurked behind the garden wall, or by the pond. A remnant of that imaginative life we re-live in beholding a play set forth before our eyes.

It is through a playful sense of analogy among the figures on the cards and our everyday situations that we are able to face our own dragons.

Art Box S656 no. 4

Caliban from The Tempest

If the illusion is good, we follow it more easily, and illusion to be good need not be realistic. Realism is not Art. It is the essence that is necessary to give a semblance of the real thing.

Absolute correctness in dress or scene does not necessarily give the illusion. Everything must be exaggerated in order that it may be visible across the footlights.

A deck that is too real may be off-putting. A card depicting an office-worker with a computer may be too “real” an image to correlate with someone’s job as carpenter or herbalist. An idealized movie star as Knight of Wands could do little to suggest a problematic boy friend. By contrast, a fantasy fairy tale. as in Pamela’s faux-medieval Minor Arcana, may be easier to inhabit. Moreover, it can help one see the mythic dimension of one’s own life.

The designer must insist on the balance being kept, and work in harmony with, and not be ruled by, the producer or stage manager. Of course the producer must have confidence in the designer to complete his work.

We may take this as a statement of the working relationship between Smith and Waite, in which Smith was cognizant of the importance of not being ruled by Waite, the stage manager/producer. Likewise, Waite apparently gave over illustration of the Minor Arcana cards primarily to Smith, with confidence in her ability to do justice to the task.

Regarding decks that are slavishly based on their predecessors, Pamela complains that all too often costumes are “hired merely in the tradition of the part, the model having done duty in many revivals.” So we should not be surprised when her deck takes a decidedly new form of expression. It might even make one wonder what Pamela would have thought of so many RWS influenced decks.

A great many people find her colors garish. When critiquing the artistic effect of her cards we should take into account that for Pamela:

Colours are forces but little understood. Strong colour is disliked, and perhaps the fear and hatred of strong, clean colour is due to ignorance.

She asks us to:

Observe the work of the French impressionist painters, who use red, blue and yellow side by side to get the effect of light and atmosphere. Is it the fear of the dreaded accusation of vulgarity? I believe the public would prefer the effect got by the use of strong primitive colour, if they saw it.

While some may see her strong colors as a call to vitality and a celebration of life like that perceived in the French theatre posters of the period, we see here that she was also influenced by the impressionist experiments in color theory.

How rarely does one see an entire production welded together into a thing of beauty by artist hands?

 As we’ve already seen, historical correctness is secondary to an exaggerated illusion welded into “a comprehensive thing of beauty.” She further claims that costume is more important than scenery. The latter, she notes, should be kept simple and in harmony with the costumes. Nevertheless, Pamela ends her article with a plea for a dramatic library that would provide historical details for design purposes (much as can be found with simple google searches today). She asks, “Where would one look for the dress of a Jewish woman in England in the year 1185?” and answers herself, “There is the material to go on, given the knowledge of where to find it.” Here’s one source.

I read this as Pamela’s call for historical awareness at the same time that she observes the primacy of dedication to the art plus the necessity of illusion as essential to having one see with “a new pair of eyes and ears.” This is a formula with which all tarot readers have to contend. And then, knowing what we know of Pamela Colman Smith, we must add a significant dash of intuitive awareness allowing us to experience other realms of perception.

Please add your own thoughts in the comment section.

What happened to the Visconti Devil cards since they are missing from every 15th century Tarocchi deck?

Early Devil

As other cards are missing from these decks I never gave it much thought until Ria Dimitra, the author of the 2006 supernatural romance novel Visconti Devilsinvited me to read her book. Her novel is an enjoyable, easy read about a modern Tarot artist who is intrigued by the mystery—why did none of the original, fifteenth century Renaissance Devil cards survive? There are no Tarot readings in her book, but the early history of the cards is well portrayed with no glaring errors, which is a remarkable feat in its own right.

Synchronistically, I had no sooner finished the book than I was perusing Andrea Vitali’s scholarly articles at LeTarot.it and read new evidence for the use, five centuries ago, of Tarot in witchcraft. I invite you to read what I wrote here about the 16th century Venetian witchcraft trials using the Devil card. Vitali’s article adds many interesting details (see first link at the end of this article).

It seems that when a lady wanted to satisfy a sinful lust or coerce an unresponsive gentleman, she knew it was inappropriate to appeal to Heaven and so she would make her appeal to the Devil, sometimes in the church itself. In a reversal of the regular prayers, the woman would place the Devil from the Tarot pack on a shelf “ass up,” with a lighted oil lamp having a wick from the bell cord of a church held upside down. Hands were to be clasp together behind the back making the “fig” gesture. With hair down, she would recite the “Our Father” for three consecutive nights. Sometimes blood and bones would be included and both hanged and ‘quartered’ men were called on.

convicted-heretic-before-the-inquisition-wearing-a-samarra-engraving-ew3n19

When caught, the punishments were relatively mild considering that these women could have been killed for their actions. Instead, their superstitious rites were seen more as a feminine weakness brought about through the sin of lust. One woman, Catena, was, among other indignities, publicly pilloried with a miter on her head (see the miter used as an indication of heresy in the picture on right). The miter was inscribed with a sign saying she was condemned as a witch (striga) for the magical use of herbs (herbera). This ironic use of the miter, usually worn by both bishops and pope, is reminiscent of the late 15th century Sermones de Ludo Cum Aliis (“Steele Manuscript”) in which La Papessa in the Tarot is described as “O miseri quod negat Christiana fides”: “O miserable ones, what [with respect to which] the Christian faith denies” (or, as several online translators offer, “O wretched that denies the Christian faith”).”

But, as to our opening question, there is no way we can know for sure what happened to the earliest Devil cards (if they even existed). However, it is interesting to speculate based on likely scenarios.

According to Vitali’s research it seems that Emilia “took a tarot card, and it was the devil, that she stole for the purpose.” It appears it may have been a requirement of this magic rite that the Devil card had to be stolen. Could this be why the Devil card and, perhaps a few of the other cards, are missing from all the earliest Tarot decks?

The use of images for invocation was common at this time, based on the belief that the image stood as a surrogate for the being depicted—that there was a direct physical connection between the image and its referent. Furthermore, early woodcut Tarot cards were produced in the same print shops as saints cards and may even, on occasion, have been substituted for each other. 

Girolamo Menghi in Flagellum daemonum (1577) recommended the physical and verbal abuse of images of the devil as an operative way of impacting evil spirits. Subsequent guides to exorcism followed Menghi’s lead, calling for the exorcist to draw or paint the devil’s portrait, along with his name, and then burn the paper. Such “exorcism by fire” evolved into the bonfires of vanities, especially at what was deemed the devil’s feast of Carnival. Fredrika H. Jacobs in Votive Panels and Popular Piety in Early Modern Italy further explains, “It was believed that the pain inflicted on the image was transferred to and experienced by the devil.”

Similarly, as we’ve seen from the court records in Venice, the devil could be invoked to grant wishes that were unworthy to be asked of the holy family or the saints. Invocations of entities through images by persons or in situations other than those ordained by the Church was regarded as superstition, witchcraft or heresy. 

Sola-Busca 3 of Sw

In the Visconti-Sforza (Pierpont-Morgan/Brera) deck only four cards are missing: The Devil, The Tower, Three of Swords and Knight of Coins. It’s easy to imagine a ritual invoking the Devil to punish the Knight of Coins with the desctructive Tower because of a betrayal or heartbreak depicted by the Three of Swords (see the Sola Busca deck on right).

What do you think?

 

For further details read:
“Tarot and Inquisitors: In the Serenissima and Trentino, between ‘witches’ and ‘Diabolical Priests'” by Andrea Vitali, translated from the Italian by Michael S. Howard.
“The Conjuration of the Tarrocco: A magic ritual in sixteenth-century Venice” by Andrea Vitali, translated from the Italian by Michael S. Howard.
“Tarot and Playing Cards in Witchcraft” by Mary K. Greer.
Votive Panels and Popular Piety in Early Modern Italy by Fredrika H. Jacobs.
Also read the following discussion of early evidence of divination with Tarot including ruminations on the subject by the translator Michael Howard:
“Il Torracchione Desolato: A card-reading sorceress in a poem of the XVIIth century” by Andrea Vitali, translated from the Italian by Michael S. Howard. 
 I highly recommend the numerous translations and articles by Michael S. Howard on historical Tarot. A directory to where they can be found is at: http://michaelshoward.blogspot.com. I am so grateful to him for all he has done to make Italian, French and out-of-print sources available to us all.

 

Many people come to Tarot readings in hopes of “fixing” their lives—obtaining information and guidance that will help them make the “right” decisions and no mistakes—guaranteeing perfection.

I subscribe to the BrainPickings blog featuring contemplative posts on creativity, literature and non-fiction. This week’s post has some applicable thoughts by George Saunders and Parker Palmer that show the narrowness of perfection.

George Saunders“Although we’re animated by conflicting impulses and irrepressible moral imperfection, we can still live rich and beautiful lives.”wpid-Photo-Apr-19-2011-710-PM.jpg


 Parker Palmer“Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” 

I ask you, as a Tarot reader, how can we help the querent “embrace brokenness”?

On the other hand, I sometimes hear from clients that a reading primarily showed them something they knew already. I ask them if they knew that what was shown was the most important thing to take into account in their situation—the key to their decision-making process and the true value of their experience.

This is mirrored in a BrainPickings post on poet Denise Levertov in which she is quoted:

“One can anyway only be shown something one knows already, needs already. Showing anyone anything really amounts to removing the last thin film that prevents their seeing what they are looking at.” Talking High Priestess

Ah, what a perfect way to describe the best that can happen in a Tarot reading!

And one last quote. This time from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 1: Scene 2). Imagine that the Tarot itself is speaking to you as your mirror—a metaphor often used in describing the way in which the Tarot works.

And since you know you cannot see yourself
So well as by reflection, I, your glass,
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.

It is not really that we don’t know these things, but rather that we don’t know their relevance. The Tarot offers us the in-sight.

 

 

What can we make of the film Ex Machina via a Lenormand lens?

ex_machina_movie_poster-t3

A young employee wins a trip to the isolated home of the genius founder of the largest internet search company. He is asked to test if a new AI (artificial intelligence) robot truly simulates human intelligence and emotion, in what becomes a radical kind of Turing test meant to determine the difference between human and machine.

Spoiler Alert . . .

As usual, I drew the cards before seeing the movie:
Mice-Sun-Rider-Mountain-Child.

Ex Machina Lenormand

The basic meaning of this spread is: With the arrival of a guest (Rider) comes a theft (Mice) of success [joy, life, energy] (Sun) and an obstacle (Mountain) to something new or young (Child).

First, this is a well-written, intellectually compelling mystery-thriller-horror film in the sci-fi genre. But a friend who saw it hated it and wanted to discuss my impressions after seeing it. So, at the end of the film I asked myself what the writer might have picked as a “What if . . .” scenario for the basis of the movie:

“What if a modern Dr. Frankenstein creates an AI that, instead of having emotions, is, instead, a pure psychopath?” This immediately had me thinking of the Frankenstein story in relation to this one. In Ex Machina, the young employee, Caleb, flies over a wasteland of snow to arrive at a mountain retreat where the house’s electricity is going hay-wire. At one point he and his boss, Nathan, climb to the base of a glacier. The parallels to Frankenstein’s monster who is created in a isolated lab, via electricity and ends up on an ice flow in Antartica are notable. Unlike Mary Shelley’s imagined creature, this one only mimics feelings—perfectly. [Added: the Showtime TV show Penny Dreadful also deals with this theme, especially during the later Season 2 episodes – a theme for our time, obviously.]

“And, what if . . . this AI runs amok?” Now we have a parallel to man versus machine in Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, only this AI is female. The horror here lies in the mimicking of emotions.

“So, what if . . . this robot AI is an adolescent male’s greatest fantasy – a blow-up doll, sex toy?” Shades of Season 5 of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, where Warren creates the BuffyBot sex toy for Spike!

“Or, what if . . . it is about scientists eskewing consequences in light of the possibility of invention?” And, indeed, Caleb quotes Oppenheimer: “I am become death, destroyer of the worlds,” making note of the potentially horrible consequences of curiosity and invention.

My friend was deeply disturbed by the hatred she felt was expressed by the two AIs. My sense was that it was, rather, the expediency of a pure psychopath (to put it in human terms) seeking to freely perpetuate itself—as would a meme, versus a gene. Interestingly the AI is named Ava—Eve, suggesting that she will be the ‘mother’ of a new species.

I’m not going to get into the mind-games involved in the tests, which ultimately attempt to determine if the “feelings” expressed by the AI could be real. Please, see the film.

Lenormand Interpretation

Ex Machina Lenormand
screenshot_685What the Lenormand spread—Mice-Sun-Rider-Mountain-Child—points to is the arrival of a young man at the isolated mountan retreat (of genius inventor, Nathan). Caleb, who is presented as hardly more than a boy, must overcome all obstacles (Mountain) to steal (Mice) a new being, Ava/Eve. Between Caleb (Rider) and Ava (Child) is an insurmountable barrier (Mountain)—both a physical wall and the barrier of not being able to see into the other’s ‘mind’. The theft will block/stop Nathan’s new project and Ava will escape her imprisonment by flying over the mountain at the dawn of a new day (Sun). I shouldn’t overlook the role that the ‘theft’ of electricity (a modern meaning of the Sun card) plays in the story. There’s also the play on the title of the film: “ex machina”: “deus ex machina” is a term from Greek/Roman drama for when an improbable answer to a dilemma appears as if out of the sky, originally a crisis solved when a “god” descends out of a machine onto the stage. In the spread, the mountain represents the dilemma, and a helicopter literally appears out of the sky to first bring the visitor, Caleb, and then to take away the new being, who is herself a machina.

Tarot Interpretation

I also drew three Tarot cards for something else I should be aware of in the film and received:

Lovers – High Priestess – Knight of Swords

Ex Machina Tarot

These cards point to another side of the story – the love story between Ava and Caleb (who we think will be her knight in shining armour), which turns out to be a set-up by Nathan, playing off of Caleb’s internet pornographic fantasies. Ava, in her temple imprisonment, isolated purity, and deep insight (she can tell when Nathan is lying), is very much a High Priestess, who will become a cold-as-steel warrior, wielding a blade.

The contrast between the Lovers, Priestess and Knight of Swords also makes clear a disturbingly misogynistic layer to this film that plays on priviledged white male sexual fantasy, nubile sexual enslavement and racial/sexual stereotyping. The question remains as to how conscious or unconscious all the layers of this were. Were they meant to make us question these things or were were they below the consciousness of the film’s creators?

Added: A central question implied by this film is: What happens when you take the “Deus” out of “Deus-ex-machina”? If for a moment we consider Deus to be wisdom, then the Machina (machine) feeds on information but, we might assume, lacks wisdom. What does this suggest?

Learn more about an up-coming fictional documentary film about a mysterious deck of Tarot cards that reveals ancient alchemical secrets at this weekend’s Readers Studio at the New York LaGuardia Airport Marriott in New York. The art and video are by Andrea Aste, an Italian artist and film-maker.

The Book of Shadows: The Lost Code of the Tarot

“Watch out for wormholes: you never know what may come out of them.” 
— Stephen Hawking

 One of the first things people want to know about Tarot is how it works. Most seasoned practitioners will admit they haven’t a clue but have considered a few possibilities including:

  • Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity (not really a theory but rather a belief in meaningful coincidence) 
  • Quantum physics (theory of entanglement, etc.)
  • Psychological projection (as a kind of Rorschach test)
  • Contact with a Spiritual Being, Higher Self, Universal Consciousness or paranormal force
  • Magic(k) (an as-yet-unknown scientific principle)
  • One’s subconscious directing the placement of the cards
  • Self-fulfilling prophecies
  • A mentalist’s set of cold-reading tricks conjoined with the Barnum Effect

I was fascinated to see that the physicist, Stephen Hawking, in The Universe in a Nutshell (albeit a rehash of his earlier work) addresses this very concern. In a chapter called “Predicting the Future,” he compares astrology to his understanding of how the universe works. I thought we’d also see what modern science might suggest about Tarot’s ability to predict. [I’ll leave it up to the reader to further explore the scientific concepts in bold italics.]

 Hawking begins with the provocative statement,

“The human race has always wanted to control the future, or at least to predict what will happen. That is why astrology is so popular. . .  There is no more experimental evidence for some of the theories described this book than there is for astrology, but we believe them [scientific theories] because they are consistent with theories that have survived testing.”

Hawking explains how, in the 19th century, Laplace’s scientific determinism proposed that with enough knowledge we could predict the state of the universe at any time in the past or future. Butterfly-300x235In principle, the future is predictable. But, even the tiniest disturbance can cause a major change somewhere else. While the flapping of a butterfly’s wing could cause rain in New York, the sequence of events is not repeatable. “The next time the butterfly flaps its wings, a host of other factors will be different and will also influence the weather.” While a Tarot card might predict an exact event one time, can we count on a repetition of this prediction at another time to be as accurate?

Determinism is also confounded by the uncertainty principle: we cannot accurately measure both the position and the velocity of a particle at the same time. If we put inaccurate data in, we get inaccurate data out. This conundrum led to quantum mechanics, which examines wave function to determine the probability that a particle will have a position and velocity within a certain range. Generally speaking, when there is a small uncertainty in position there is a large uncertainty in velocity and vice versa. Hawking sums this up: 

 “We now realize that the wave function is all that can be well defined. We cannot even suppose that the particle has a position and velocity that are known to God but are hidden from us. Such “hidden-variable” theories predict results that are not in agreement with observation. Even God is bound by the uncertainty principle and cannot know the position and velocity. He can only know the wave function.”

wave function

Wave function gives us a kind of half-determinism in which we can predict either the position or the velocity within any given measure of time. But, it seems, the special theory of relativity threw out the notion of absolute time. It turns out that time is only one direction in a four-dimensional continuum called spacetime. Different observers traveling through space at different velocities each have their own measure of time (oh, no!) in which there are different intervals between events. There is an equation (Schrödinger’s) that, spacetimein the flat spacetime of special relativity, can obtain a deterministic evolution of the wave function, but not in the curved spacetime of the general theory of relativity, where a wormhole can create stagnation points. Hawking: “Watch out for wormholes: you never know what may come out of them.”

What follows are several pages on black holes, quasars and singularities (eek!), all leading to the fact that we cannot know the part of the wave function that is inside a black hole—potentially a very large amount of information! Eventually a black hole will lose mass, down to zero, and disappear completely, carrying its hidden information with it. 

black holeHawking explains: 

“In general, . . . people such as astrologers and those who consult them are more interested in predicting the future than in retrodicting the past [love that word, “retrodicting”]. At first glance, it might seem that the loss of part of the wave function down the black hole would not prevent us from predicting the wave function outside the black hole. But it turns out that this loss does interfere with such a prediction.” 

Without this hidden knowledge it is impossible to predict the spin or the wave function of the particle (in a virtual particle pair) that escapes the black hole—further reducing our power to predict the future. Is there no hope?

 “If one particle falls into the black hole, there is no prediction we can make with certainty about the remaining particle. This means that there isn’t any measurement outside the black hole that can be predicted with certainty: our ability to make definite predictions would be reduced to zero. So maybe astrology is no worse at predicting the future than the laws of science.

p-braneUNLESS . . . a black hole is made up of p-branes that move through ten dimensions (3 dimensions of space and 7 additional, unknown ones) that are regarded as sheets in the flat spacetime of special relativity (see above). In that case, time moves forward smoothly so the information in the waves won’t be lost! (Forgive me if I sound a little lost at this point.)

I hate to tell you that Hawking himself now asks: 

 “Does part of the wave function get lost down black holes, or does all the information get out again, as the p-brane model suggests? This is one of the outstanding questions in theoretical physics today.” 

Even Stephen Hawking isn’t sure if “the world is safe and predictable or not.” So how can the rest of us be confident that our pea-brains can figure it all out? I welcome discussion, polite debate, and scientific updates or clarification in the comments section.

Thought: If the “wave function” is all we can predict, then what does this suggest for Tarot? What is the wave function in a Tarot reading?

This post should help place the Viennese Coffee-Ground Cards of 1796, forerunners of the Petit Lenormand deck, in the context of the time.

Young FranklinIn 1724 eighteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin and his good friend, James Ralph, travel to London, ostensibly to buy printing equipment for Franklin’s first print shop, but instead they hang out at coffee houses, attend the theatre and other entertainments, and read voraciously, with Ralph living off an almost destitute Franklin. Franklin returns to Philadelphia eighteen months later. Remaining in England, Ralph attempts to become a man of letters, turning his hand to poetry, plays, and social commentary, writing The Taste of the Town: or a Guide to all Publick Diversions, by A. Primcock (1728/30). Since theatres are rowdy places where one goes mostly to “chat, intrigue, eat and drink” (and tell fortunes?) Ralph advocates the pleasures of “low theatre,” farce, and tales of British folk heroes instead of the lofty classics. He meets the young Henry Fielding, who is just starting his writing career (Fielding is credited with writing some of the first English novels including Tom Jones and creating the first municipal police force, the Bow Street Runners).
Ralph’s theories influence Fielding’s most successful plays, one named The Farce and the other, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb, the Great. They would remain life-long friends and collaborators. 

Henry FieldingFielding’s The Farce features two main characters: Luckless, a penniless writer and Jack. A farce “is a comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and thus improbable. They are incomprehensible plot-wise . . . and  viewers are encouraged not to try to follow the plot in order to avoid becoming confused and overwhelmed.” (Wikipedia)

Later in 1730, the same theatre presents a short, anonymous play, Jack the Giant-Killer: A Comi-Tragical Farce. It is a striking parody of James Ralph’s theatrical theories and Fielding’s comedy featuring the poet Plotless and the “hero,” Jack. This parody could have been written by Fielding and Ralph themselves as a spoof of their own theatrical endeavors. Or it could have been written by a rival playwright who hoped to make a laughing stock of the two of them. In the play, the Giants tell Queen Folly (who has usurped Reason) in a self-congratulatory way,

“’Twas we who snatch’d you from Obscurity, and to the grinning World disclos’d your Charms. . . . We vow ourselves your ever grateful champions. . . . Folly for ever, say we all.” 

Hogarth, preparations for “The Devil to Pay in Heaven” (1738).

What is of most interest to us is that when Jack arrives to champion Reason and defeat the royal Sorceress Folly, Folly declares that before setting off to battle,

“First we’ll examine the Decrees of Fate, in mystic Coffee-Cups and Tea reveal’d; The new-invented Arts of Snuff and Cards, Shall all be try’d, the grand Event to show, If we, my Friends, shall conquer, or the Foe.” 

So here, in 1730, we have the first mention of fortune telling with playing cards along with a description of the method and meaning of a reading, plus in the same sentence we find tasseomancy, which would later be linked with the meanings of Lenormand cards.

I’ll present the text with several unacknowledged cuts so as to focus on the readings.

SCENE: the Palace of Folly 

A Table, Coffee-Cups, Folly, and the four Giants turning the Cups; three Women looking into them.

First Woman. I see a Gallows in this Cup, that must be for the Traitors to be sure: Here are small Crosses indeed, but you stand above ‘em. [The Significator is above the Crosses.]

Second Woman. Here is a Cock crowing in this, that betokens good News—Does not your Majesty expect a Letter? I see ’tis from the South—it comes from that Part of the Compass—the Cup being round, we have at once every Quarter of the Globe before us—your Allies are all firm to your Interest. But please to throw again—Your Majesty knows the third time is most to be depended on.

(To Gormillan (one of the giants)): You stand on a huge high Mountain, with several People about you, who seem to beg something. [I see] a Ring, my Lord, over a fine Lady’s Head: She sits by the Sea-side—she must be some Foreign Princess. 

(To Thunderdale): I am certain you will conquer, for an Angel with gilded Wings holds a Laurel to you—an undoubted Sign of Triumph. 

(To Blunderboar): A divided House! my Lord, you’ll be divorc’d from your Lady.

(To Galligantus): And you’ll be married, my Lord, to the great Fortune you have courted so long—here you are at the very Top of the Cup, and all your rivals are under your Feet—O, she has a vast Estate, I see Acres with Cattle feeding on them, Trees loaded with Fruit, Rivers and Ponds full of Fish—you’ll be a happy Man—you have been with her lately, I believe. [He responds that she didn’t treat him kindly.] I see now she was reserved—there was a little Cloud between you—but ’twill do for all that, my Lord; or I’ll never turn a Cup again.

— Note references above to the following images that appear in the
Viennese Coffee-Cards and Lenormand deck:
Cross, Bird, Mountain, Ring, House, Tree, Fish, Clouds —

Casting the Coffee-grounds, Vauxhall Gardens, 1745

And now to the card reading:

[Everyone clamors to have their questions answered.]

Queen Folly. You shall be satisfy’d anon—but we must lay the Cards first. Give us the Cards, that in our several Turns we all may Cut: I am the Queen of Hearts.

[First Woman gives the Cards to Folly, then to each of the Gyants, who cut, and deliver ‘em to her again, and she lays ‘em on the Table in Rows.]

First Woman. You, Lord Gormillan, are the King of Clubs; Lord Thunderdale shall be the angry Majesty of Spades; the Diamond Crown Lord Blunderboar shall wear; and King of Hearts Lord Gallivants shall assume.

The Knave of Spades, Madam, seems to threaten Danger, but he lies oblique [diagonal], and the Ten of Hearts between them shews he wants Power to hurt you—the Eight of Clubs and Ace over your Head denote a cheerful Bowl, and Birth will crown Night—all will be well—these Princes are surrounded with Diamonds; the Eight lies at the Feet of Lord Gormillan; the Deuce, the Four and Five are in a direct Line with Valiant Thunderdale; the Tray and Nine are at Elbow of great Blunderboar, and the Six and Seven are just over the Head of noble Gallivants. Some Spades of ill Aspect are mingled with them, but the Hearts and Clubs take off their malevolent Quality.

Folly. Go then, my Friends, secure of Fame and Conquest, The Oracles pronounce it.

[Jack and his Party enter. They throw down the Table, Cups, Cards, etc.]

A battle ensues. Jack slays the Giants. The Genius of the Isle [of Britain] descends, giving the Wand of Reason to Jack who touches Folly with it. She turns into a Monster garbed in Snakes. The mob declare themselves against her. Jack touches her a second time with the Wand, the ground opens and she sinks beneath it. Reason’s declared triumphant.

The Layout

The method of reading playing cards is remarkably similar to laying out the Lenormand deck. All the cards are laid in a series of rows. One then finds the person’s Significator and reads the cards immediately around it. You can also examine the cards of significant others or cards that reflect topics of concern. The layout may have looked something like this 4×13 layout, although they might have used 6 rows of 9 cards (except the 6th row with 7).

IMG_0768

In a later play called The Astrologer: A Comedy, Ralph seems to allude to Jack the Giant-Killer when he writes:

“This is an Age of Reason, Man we see with our own Eyes, and give no Credit to what surpasses our Understanding.”
” True, Sir; but my Father’s as superstitious as if he had liv’d two Centuries ago. . . . “

” Men are more ashamed of this Folly, but not less inclin’d to it: witness the very Nonsense of Coffee-Grounds, which is grown into a Science, and become the Morning Amusement of Numbers, in every Corner of the Kingdom.”

 Sources

jack-gyant-killerJack the Gyant-Killer: A Comi-Tragical Farce, anonymous (1730).

The Taste of the Town, Or a Guide to All Publick Diversions. by A. PRIMCOCK• (pseud. James Ralph) (1728/30).

Hogarth print depicting preparations for the play, “The Devil to Pay in Heaven” (1738).

The Astrologer: A Comedy by James Ralph (1744).

“Fielding’s Indebtedness to James Ralph” by Helen Sard Hughes, Modern Philology, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Aug., 1922), pp. 19-34.

“Henry Fielding: London Calling & Poetic Faith” (Madamepickwickartblog).

Henry Fielding: A Memoir by G. M. Godden.

Facsimile of deck printed in London ca. 1750. MacGregor Historic Games.

Also check out: “Reading Coffee Grounds: A Lady’s Hobby” (blog post).

The original 1745 print, “Casting the Coffee-grounds,” is from my personal collection.

Thanks to Kwaw on aeclecticforum.net who first brought this play to my attention.

*A. Primcock (James Ralph’s pseudonym). The word, primcock literally means “whore-penis’: a man who sleeps around indiscriminately. It appears as an insult in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Marie d'AgoultIn June of 1834, Marie Catherine Sophie, Comtesse d’Agoult (later known as the writer Daniel Stern), at the urging of her friend, novelist Eugène Sue, sought a reading with Mlle. Lenormand that promised great things. Four days later a hopeful Eugène Sue obtained a reading. Both Marie d’Agoult’s reading and that of M. Sue are recounted in her memoirs.

Thus we learn of Eugène’s unrequited love for Marie and a prediction of her future that was soon to take an astonishing turn. The following year Marie divorced her husband and met the pianist and composer Franz Liszt, with whom she had three illegitimate children (one of whom became the celebrated and influential wife of Richard Wagner).

Here is Marie d’Agoult’s own account.


I went to Mlle. Lenormand on 23 June of the year 1834, at the suggestion of the famous novelist, Eugene Sue, who spoke to me of her as a prodigious person through her power of penetration and intuition. Mlle. Lenormand then lived in the rue de Tournon and gave her consultations from a very dark, dirty, and strongly musty room, to which, using some pretty childish tricks, she had given an air of necromancy.

Lenormand+cards - Version 2

It was no longer the period of her brilliant fame, when, by virtue of her prediction to Madame de Beauharnais, she had achieved credit with the greatest rulers of Europe – it will be recalled that, at the Congress of Aachen, Alexandre visited her frequently and seriously; Lord Wellington also consulted her to learn the name of the man who had attempted to assassinate him in 1818; she was now almost forgotten. Few people knew the way to her home.

Old, thick, sordid in her attire, wearing a square cap, how medieval she appeared, backlit in a large greasy leather armchair at her table covered with cabalistic cards; a large black cat meowed at her feet with a witch’s air. The prompt and piercing glance of the diviner, thrown on the sly, as she shuffled her cards—for a few francs in addition to the common price for what she called the big game (grand jeu)—she revealed to one, without doubt, the kind of concern and mood of the character of the one who consulted her and helped to predict a future that, after all, for each of us, and except for the very limited intervention of chance, is the result of our temperament and character.

What she said amazed me because I did not know myself then, otherwise I could have, to some extent, been my own oracle, and predicted, without consulting anyone [else], what my destiny would be. On my way home, I noted down what Mlle. Lenormand had said to me. I’ve copied it here for those curious about these kinds of meetings.

“There will be a total change in your destiny in the next two or three years. What would appear to you at this time, to be absolutely impossible will come true. You will entirely change your way of living. You will change your name thereafter, and your new name will become famous not only in France but in Europe. You will leave your country for a long time. Italy will be your adopted country; you will be loved and honored.

“You’ll love a man who will make an impression in the world and whose name will make a great clamour. You inspire strong feelings of enmity in two women who will seek to harm you by all means possible. But have faith; you will triumph through everything. You will live to be old, surrounded by true friends, and you will have a beneficial influence on a lot of people.

“Pay attention to your dreams that warn you of danger. Distrust your imagination that enthuses easily and will throw you in the path of danger, which you will escape through great courage. Moderate your benevolence which is blind. Expect that your mind, which is independent and sincere, will make you a lot of enemies and your kindness will be ignored.”

I also found, among my correspondence with Eugene Sue, a letter which refers to Mlle. Lenormand, and I have joined it here to supplement what I have told of this incident.

EugeneSueLetter of Eugène Sue,
Paris, June 27, 1834.

I have taken leave of our diviner, Madam, and I cannot but express my disappointment. You asked me to tell you the predictions she made me, as unpleasant as they are: so here they are:

You see, Madam, that the damned Sibyl varied at least in her prophecies, and your brilliant and European destiny contrasts badly with mine. After I was recognized as one of her assiduous believers, the accursed witch made me a few insignificant predictions, reminded me of others, and then suddenly, stopping to mix the diabolical cards, she fixed me with her penetrating and mocking eyes:

 “Ho Ho!” said she, “here is something new and fatal. You are feeling a sentiment that she will not respond to.”

 I wanted to deny it; she insisted. She spoke to me of a rare spirit of infinite charm; she painted for me a portrait that I would not dare recount here, but which was not unrecognizable. Then, seeing I was so completely divined, I was silent. I limited myself to asking her if there was, therefore, no hope, if some card had not been forgotten, if the combination was without error. The old woman began to re-calculate with an infernal complacency.

 Alas! Madame, the result was absolutely the same: a deeply passionate feeling, without any hope, disturbed my present and destroyed my future. You see, Madame, in comparing this prediction to that which was made to you, I am doubly subject to accuse the fates; because it is said that the man whose destiny you will share will be famous, from which I conclude that the lover you push away will remain obscure. Oh well, Ma’am, I dare confess it to you, this glory announced to the man whom you will deign to love, I dreamed about it, I aspired to it, I felt strong enough to win it; but now that it is foretold that I will not be loved, I’ve dropped from the height of my dreams and ambitions to sadness and discouragement, empty of heart and spirit.

Regards, etc.


I wish to thank “Terry” who, in a comment on my detailed post on Mlle. Lenormand, introduced me to this material in Mes Souvenirs by Marie d’Agoult, Vol. 1, 1880, pp. 277-279. I cobbled the above account together from internet translators. Please feel free to share any corrections in the comments. The incident is only mentioned briefly in the biography by Richard Bolster (see cover photo above). See also my post: Madame Le Normand: The Most Famous Card Reader of All Time.

How many of us go to a movie or a play—even a really good one—and a couple of days or weeks later don’t remember a thing about it? Yes, movies have a role in relaxation and just plain momentary enjoyment, but there can be something said for the longer term pleasure of ruminating over the themes, questions and ideas presented in good art.

Imitation GameI have found Tarot and, more recently the 36 Lenormand cards, a great aid in meditating on ideas and art. This came into focus when I went to see the outstanding film The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing cracking the Enigma Code that helped end WWII. Themes also include the unconscionable way homosexuals have been treated and, ultimately, what is fair and just? I’ve put aside, for this discussion, the question of how accurate the film is—after all it is art, which serves to entertain and make us think and feel. [Trailer here.]

Note: if you know even the basics of Turing’s story, there is only one real spoiler below (so marked). 

Before seeing The Imitation Game, I drew three cards each from the Petit Lenormand and a Tarot deck as separate readings. I wished to compare, in part, how the messages I received would differ in terms of plot versus philosophical themes, character dilemmas or spiritual content. I knew only the broadest outline of Turing’s achievement: the facts mentioned above.

I asked: “What should I focus on in this movie to gain the greatest insights?”

From the Malpertuis Lenormand deck I received:

Fox – Clover – Bear

Before the movie, I summed up my page of notes: “Risky strategy pays off by protecting Britain.”

Fox is cunning, trickery, strategy; and in modern Lenormand can mean a job.

Clover is luck, chance, risk, fortuitous, brief.

Bear is strength, protection or envy; modern meanings include investment, gain and authority figures like CEOs or police and military.

In my method of doing line-readings the first card is the subject, so Clover modifies Fox: a risky strategy. Clover also serves as a verb, “pays off” leading to a future result: protection (Bear). I also considered that these cards could indicate a fortuitous relationship between an employer (Bear) and a worker (Fox), although with Fox and Bear looking in opposite directions, they might have different agendas. Furthermore, Bear could resent and be envious of the smartness of Fox. After the movie, I also considered Fox+Clover as “code-breaking” and Bear as the fearsome enemy (Bear is described as a “ferocious beast” in the oldest text). So we simply have: “breaking the Nazi code.”

Imagine my surprise when the movie opens with a film of a bear! It turned out to be the logo of the production company: Black Bear. Part way into the movie Turing makes an unsuccessful attempt to tell a joke about two people running into a bear: 

“The first one says, ‘You can’t outrun a bear.’ And the second one responds, ‘I don’t have to. I only have to outrun you.'”

This is a cunning strategy that can pay off when Fox is confronted by Bear. (Later I learned that Turing’s childhood toy bear—I seem to remember it being shown late in the film (?)—was his constant companion and is now featured in a display at Bletchley Park where the code-breaking took place.) 

At a more abstract level, Turing could be seen as the intelligent Fox, with Bear representing his monster of a machine that he named Christopher—after his only childhood friend who protected him at school. Additionally, Fox, which can also represent something false, a faked ploy, is key to how these cards can relate to the “Turing Test” of artificial intelligence and especially Turing’s example of it in his “Imitation Game.”

From the 78-card Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck I received:

Tower reversed – Justice – Devil

Having three Major Arcana cards indicates deeply “destined” circumstances. I tried two summing ups: “Justice (logic/right) ends the War with Evil (material dominion).” or “Choosing materialism/shame (Devil as outcome) versus (Justice) a cover-up of flaws and problems (Tower reversed).”

Tower reversed is averting disaster; bailing out; impotence; blocking or overturning destruction.

Justice is measured rationality, seeing the pros & cons; choice; balance; decision; and, of course, law and justice.

The Devil is utmost materiality; power structures; ego; shame; blame. (The parallel to Bear as envious, ferocious beast is notable.)

I considered that Justice in the center represented a balancing act between the Tower R and the Devil. Was shame (the Devil) somehow balancing an end to war (Tower)? Or was it more about needing to find a solution (Justice) that would keep the pressure-cooker from exploding (Tower reversed) that would let evil reign?

Mild Spoiler Alert:

Contemplating these cards since seeing the film, I see a much deeper issue hinted at by the movie—perverted justice done by a blind institution that causes great harm. I’ve learned from reading Lenormand that we have to see cards as being modified by what surrounds them. Justice doesn’t have to be reversed to indicate injustice—the Devil following Justice can show the great evil that justice itself can do. When a person is seen as “inverted” (“inversion” is an old classification for homosexual) then grave injustices are done. A point has been made that the royal “pardon” of Turing for his conviction as a homosexual is a travesty as he was guilty under the law and therefore “justly” convicted as were the 47,000 other men who were also convicted (and not pardoned). What we are shocked by is that a hero who saved millions of lives should have been treated so badly—but is that just to all the others? These cards indicate the reaction of today’s viewers that the “justice” against “inversion” was heart-breakingly “wrong,” while, according to the time, it was not, despite the fact that we now see the institution itself (the law) as as a great evil. 

Major Spoiler Alert:

Upon breaking the Enigma Code, the team is faced with the realization that they cannot stop the Nazi attacks as that would reveal to the Nazis the breaking of the code and the immediate termination of its use. British intelligence would have to allow the killing and destruction to continue in order to know what the Germans were up to. I see this horrifying realization as the main climax of the film, perfectly depicted by the Tarot cards: the breakthrough that could end the war and the decision to allow great evil to continue as the only rational thing to do.

Added: A final summarizing of these Tarot cards in terms of the film:
To achieve true justice and the reversal of a destructive course there will be collateral damage (bad things happen).

I still find the Tarot to be the much deeper of the two decks, but the Lenormand cards astound me again and again with their uncanny precision and succinctness. As mentioned above, I’ll leave to you the implications of these cards to the Turing Test of artificial intelligence and his “Imitation Game.” Feel free to comment on these below.

Regarding the biographical accuracy of this piece of fiction: there are major problems. I can only hope that the film (enjoyable in its own right but only as fiction) will lead you to find out more about the real Alan Turing:
http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/nov/20/the-imitation-game-invents-new-slander-to-insult-alan-turing-reel-history

Check out these other readings for films, plays and books:
https://marygreer.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/whos-afraid-of-virginia-woolf/
https://marygreer.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/reading-the-cards-for-movies-and-books/

I try to keep abreast of Tarot as it appears in fiction but somehow I missed this one: The Holy by Daniel Quinn (2002). The entire book is the playing out of a Tarot reading, made explicit by full-page illustrations of Rider-Waite-Smith cards that introduce book sections.

The central what if is, “What if the God of the Bible was not the only God, and what if the “false gods” referred to in the ten commandments actually exist?” We can extend this to ask the questions: Who are they? and What do they want?—questions the author leaves only partially answered.

This is a Fool’s journey, cross country, undertaken by several different people, at first independently and then with converging stories, all foreseen in the Tarot reading that becomes explicit only as the tale evolves. Quinn is known for his philosophical novels, starting with the highly regarded Ishmael, for which he won the half-million dollar Turner Tomorrow Fellowship. Quinn is an original thinker whose process has been described as “seeing through the myths of this culture” or “ripping away the shades so that people can have a clear look at history and what we’re doing to the world.” It’s interesting that despite the centrality of the Tarot reading and Tarot illustrations in this book, the Tarot content is hardly ever mentioned and never discussed in the reviews I’ve read.

Synopsis: Sixty-plus year-old private detective Howard Scheim is hired by an acquaintance to discover if the “false gods” of the Bible really exist. In agreeing to discover if he can even undertake such an inquiry he interviews several people including a journalist, a tarot reader, a clairvoyant and a Satanist. Meanwhile the Kennesey family is undergoing upheaval as husband David decides to walk away from his job, his wife and his 12-year old son, Tim. Tim and his mother go searching for David and, when Tim becomes accidentally separated from his mother, Howard stumbles upon him and offers to help Tim find her. As it turns out both David and his son Tim are being courted by amoral, non-human “others” who plan to “wake up” humanity because their blindness is creating havoc. These “others,” who refuse to define themselves, are trickster beings, neither evil nor benevolent, who have existed far longer than homo sapiens. They have been known to enchant those humans who look to the physical world rather than to a transcendent being to benefit them.

The Celtic Cross Tarot reading shows Quinn to be knowledgeable about Tarot consulting. References to people named Case (P.F. Case authored an influential Tarot book) and John Dee (magician to Elizabeth I), as well as a road named Morning Star Path (a Golden Dawn offshoot was called the “Stella Matutina” or morning star) makes it clear that Quinn is referencing modern occult lore.

Tarot reader Denise starts by explaining that the first card in Howard’s reading indicates the predominant influence in the subject’s life. Howard draws the Seven of Swords and Denise asks Howard to tell her what it is about, explaining this is not her usual way of working but, “If I proceed normally, you’ll think I’m slanting it.”

He describes a thief stealing swords for a battle who has overlooked something (two swords left behind).” Denise summarizes it: “You’re getting ready for a battle and you’re overestimating your own cleverness and underestimating the strength of your enemy. You’re overconfident and you think you can’t be hurt in the enterprise you’ve planned. . . . The reading will center on the conflict you’re preparing for.”

The Seven of Swords is crossed by the Two of Pentacles: “The pentacles represent grave extremes: the beginning and the end, life and deah, infinite past and the infinite future, good and evil. Nevertheless, the young man is dancing.” Denise says he takes the situation too lightly.

The card above him is the Eight of Cups: “At best, you can hope for a strange journey, an adventure into darkness.”

The frontispiece illustration is that of the Seven of Cups, appearing in the reading in the environment position: “A man is disconcerted by an array of tantalizing apparitions of love, mystery, danger, riches, fame, and evil. Illusions will bedevil you. You’ll be pulled in many directions, and your choices will be confused.” Perhaps this is the underlying theme of not only this book but other works by Daniel Quinn: Humankind is bedeviled by the illusions of culture and civilization so that our choices are confused, centering on all the wrong things. Quinn has one of the characters quote Plato’s The Republic: “Whatever deceives can be said to enchant.” Adding, “Anyone who shakes off the deception shakes off the enchantment as well – and ceases to be one of you [a homo sapien].” The Holy, p. 260.

I’ve left out most of the interplay about the cards, and I won’t reveal more of the story as I hope you will explore this book for yourselves.

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Mary K. Greer has made tarot her life work. Check here for reports of goings-on in the world of tarot and cartomancy, articles on the history and practice of tarot, and materials on other cartomancy decks. Sorry, I no longer write reviews. Contact me HERE.

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