on 25 June 2011
'Explaining the Tarot' contains two texts in Italian dating from the sixteenth century together with their translations into English. Both texts have been dated to circa 1565 and both treat the Tarot from a moralistic point of view. As the author of one of the texts puts it, "the trumps succeed one another by logical and moral necessity." There is no mention of divination in the texts; they confine themselves to such things as the moral triumphs each Major Arcana card achieves over those below it in terms of number, and the social implications of the four suits.
For the student of the Tarot's history, perhaps the most remarkable point raised is that, over one hundred years after the creation of the Tarot, neither the Trump order nor the naming of the Trumps have become stable. Certain distinct Trump orders have been identified and they are sometimes labeled the Eastern order, the Western order, the Southern order. The second text in 'Explaining the Tarot' doesn't adhere to any of these, and is seemingly a mix of two of them. Some accepted Trump names are nothing like those recognized today. The card we now call the Hermit is The Hunchback or The Old Man, identified by the author of one text as symbolizing Time. Trump 12 is The Traitor, hanging by the foot being a punishment for treason in Italy in that era. These early names have been known for some time; these texts make it clear that the early names lasted for well over a century in Italy, no change being made to them or even being considered. The card we call the Tower had several names (and presumably illustrations to go with each name). It could be Fire or The Thurderbolt or more often in these texts The Heavens. As such it precedes the celestial Trumps - the Stars, the Moon and the Sun that grace our skies. One text identifies the figure on Trump 1 as an innkeeper (vide Les Miserables 'Master of the House'?), the other calls him a juggler, but the description of the juggler's actions is of legerdemain, sleight of hand, so the card most likely represented a stage conjuror or trickster, such as one who plays cups-and-ball, find-the-lady in modern terms.
The authors of both texts describe the Fool first, as if he came lower in the social and moral order than the Juggler/Innkeeper (whereas occcultists for a long time placed him at the end of the Trumps or near the end), though both also make the point that this card was treated in a special way when the game of Tarot was played; that he was untouchable, as fools were at royal courts.
Those interested in divination by the Tarot will find little to interest them here. It is those who concern themselves with the history of the Tarot who will find fascinating these explanations of what people of the sixteenth century thought of the Tarot as a chap-book of morality and ethics, and the way they related it to society.