Monday, April 29, 2019

The mystery of baschetti

Spellings vary . . .
I prefer the authentic Italian orthography.
Lots and lots of very young children mispronounce spaghetti by transposing the /s/ sound to the beginning of the second syllable. While Bil Keane renders this naively, by simply moving the letter s, giving us pasghetti, in fact every child I've known (including myself when I was very young), has pronounced it /bəˈskɛtɪ/ -- which in Italian spelling would be baschetti.

Why does the /p/ change into a /b/? Well, in fact it doesn't change at all -- but the rules of English phonetics mean that the same sound -- an unaspirated voiceless bilabial stop -- is heard as /p/ when it comes after /s/ but as /b/ when it begins a word. The so-called "voiced" (lenis) stops /b d g/ are actually voiceless in word-initial position, and are distinguishable from their "voiceless" (fortis) counterparts /p t k/ because the latter are aspirated. However, fortis stops lose their aspiration after /s/, so the distinction between the two is lost in that position. That's why disgust and discussed are homophones for most speakers, and why it's so easy to mishear Hendrix's "kiss the sky" as "kiss this guy." Sky is realized as [skaɪ], so when the /s/ is removed, it leaves guy [kaɪ] (not kie [kʰaɪ]). Thus, when the /s/ in spaghetti is moved, both the /p/ and the /g/ change their character, being heard as different phonemes in spite of not actually changing their sound. Hence baschetti.


The question is, why do children only do this with the word spaghetti? It's common for children to simplify consonant clusters by simply omitting one of the consonants (as in myyo for smile), but spaghetti is the only word I'm aware of in which the /s/ is not omitted but transposed to a different part of the word. We might expect, by analogy with baschetti, that some children would pronounce spider as byster, for example, but they don't, as far as I know. Byder, yes; byster, no. Nor have I ever heard of a deskosaurus.

My best guess is that it has to do with spaghetti being stressed on the second syllable, and that the /s/ is being moved from an unstressed syllable to a stressed one. I can't think of any other common words where the first syllable is unstressed and begins with /s/ + a fortis stop, and the second syllable is stressed and begins with a lenis stop, which could explain why baschetti is the only one I've ever heard. Few little kids are likely to have words like stability and twenty-three skidoo in their vocabulary, so the hypothesis that they might pronounce them as daspility and twenny-fwee gistoo never gets to be tested.


Update: Here are some stats on the relative frequency (measured in Google hits) of various spellings of this mispronunciation.

  • pasghetti (32,900)
  • pasgetti (21,700)
  • bisgetti (20,700)
  • pisgetti (17,800)
  • pasketti (16,400)
  • basghetti (14,000)
  • basketti (9,260)
  • bisghetti (8,660)
  • basgetti (6,690)
  • pisketti (4,240)
That's a total of 152,350 hits, which can be analyzed as follows.
  • 61% begin with "p"; 39% begin with "b"
  • 66% have "a" as the first vowel; 34% have "i"
  • 44% have "g"; 36% have "gh"; 20% have "k"
The following spellings were not included in the analysis because most of the Google image search hits for them were not pictures of spaghetti. ("Pisghetti" arguably should have been included, since it mostly yielded pictures of a Curious George character called Chef Pisghetti, who is obviously named after the mispronounced pasta dish.)
  • baschetti (252,000)
  • bischetti (154,000)
  • pisghetti (19,300)
  • bisketti (17,800)
  • paschetti (15,600)
  • pischetti (2,790)

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Reaper of Marseille

At first glance, there appears to be little to say about L'Arcane sans nom; it's just the Grim Reaper, a standard-issue symbol of death. Actually, though, it differs from the familiar symbol in significant ways. Our modern Reaper is always shrouded in a hooded cloak of black, hiding everything from view except (usually) the skull face and the skeletal fingers that clutch the scythe. (I originally wrote "his" in the preceding sentence but we must remember that death is a feminine noun in all Romance languages and is personified as such; the Grim Reaper is La Faucheuse. Éliphas Lévi calls her "that old queen of the world who is on the march always and wearies never . . . the sordid mistress of our tearful valley.") The Reaper of Marseille is naked. The other striking difference is that, while we are accustomed to seeing the Reaper holding his (sorry, "her") scythe ominously, the Tarot card shows it actually being used to cut human beings to pieces.


Where does the original Reaper symbol come from? The Bible compares death to sowing, not to reaping. "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit" (John 12:24).

The earliest use of "reapers" in a death-like role is in the interpretation of the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:36-43).
Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, "Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field."
He answered and said unto them, "He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear."
The theme "the reapers are the angels" is taken up again in Revelation 14:14-20, this time with much clearer reference to death.
And I looked, and behold a white cloud, and upon the cloud one sat like unto the Son of man, having on his head a golden crown, and in his hand a sharp sickle. 
And another angel came out of the temple, crying with a loud voice to him that sat on the cloud, "Thrust in thy sickle, and reap: for the time is come for thee to reap; for the harvest of the earth is ripe."
And he that sat on the cloud thrust in his sickle on the earth; and the earth was reaped. And another angel came out of the temple which is in heaven, he also having a sharp sickle.
And another angel came out from the altar, which had power over fire; and cried with a loud cry to him that had the sharp sickle, saying, "Thrust in thy sharp sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth; for her grapes are fully ripe." 
And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs.
The blood coming out of the winepress makes it clear that "the vine of the earth" bears human "grapes" and that the reaping angel is killing them. Still, though, as in Matthew, "the harvest is the end of the world." The reaping angel is not a symbol of ordinary death, but of the mass slaughter preceding the second coming. The biblical sickle -- and, even more so, the larger scythe wielded by the Tarot and post-Tarot reapers -- is a tool for cutting a swath through a field, severing hundreds of individual stems with each swing. One never speaks of "mowing down" a single victim.

Also, in the Bible the reaping is done by angels, and even by the golden-crowned Son of Man sitting on a cloud -- not by animated skeletons.


The animated skeletons (or nearly-skeletal corpses), which come to those Death has chosen and lead them away, are a familiar theme in medieval art -- the Danse Macabre or Totentanz -- but these personifications of death do not cut down their victims with scythes but rather take them by the arm and lead them away. They are rarely armed at all, and when they are, their weapon of choice is not necessarily the scythe. The Nameless Arcanum from the Visconti-Sforza deck has a skeleton with a longbow and arrow, for instance, striking from a distance like far-darting Apollo.

One theory is that both the change from angels to corpses and the introduction of the scythe occurred as a result of the Black Death, when corpses became a familiar sight and when people were indeed being "mown down" on a scale suggestive of the Apocalypse. By the time the plague had ended and regularly scheduled programming had been resumed, the image of Death as a scythe-wielding skeleton had become a permanent fixture of the popular imagination.

It has also been suggested that the Reaper's scythe originally belonged to Father Time -- who in turn got it from the harvest god Saturn, the conflation of Cronos/Saturn with the similarly named Chronos/Time having been a common error since antiquity. The identification may have been reinforced by the myth of Saturn devouring his own children, tying in with the image of time the devourer in Ovid:
Tempus edax rerum, tuque, invidiosa vetustas,
omnia destruitis vitiataque dentibus aevi
paulatim lenta consumitis omnia morte!
Thou glutton Time, and Age that envièth,
All things you wreck, and tear them with your teeth,
Consuming all, by slow degrees, in death.
Once the hybrid figure of Father Time has been created, bearing the hourglass of Chronos and the scythe of Cronos -- what can the latter implement be for if not to cut down those whose sand has run out? From that to the Grim Reaper is but a short step.

If the Reaper did in fact develop out of Father Time, it would make the Nameless Trump a close art-historical cousin to the Hermit, whose lantern was originally an hourglass and whose earliest names were Vecchio (Old Man) and Tempo (Time) -- a bit surprising given the stark contrast between that serene old man and this ghoulish hacker-to-bits!


The image of the Reaper actually using her scythe -- and not only to kill but to dismember -- is, as far as I know, original to the Tarot and does not exist in pre-Tarot allegories of Death.

For me, the severed body parts that litter the ground are a key part of the meaning of this trump, and I have commented on them before, in relation to Marcus Aurelius's advice to aspiring nihilists Stoics to "look at the individual parts and move from analysis to indifference." Death is fundamentally a matter of severing connections, dissociating parts, de-composing -- which is why analysis can kill.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Four people in a meeting thinking about a Tyrannosaurus rex

The title pretty much says it all, I think.

I created this image (cobbled together from stock clipart, not my own draftsmanship) for my own inscrutable purposes and thought it had a certain charm that made it worth sharing.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Dice and the Tarot trumps: another approach

Having read my earlier posts on the subject (here and here), Kevin McCall has the following thoughts on mapping the Tarot trumps to rolls of the dice.
As far as the association of cards of the Major Arcana with dice rolls, it seems like another way into the system rather than an ordering of die rolls could be by considering the symbolism of the numbers 1 – 6 and then trying to associate each number and each pair with a card.  After reading about Pythagorean number symbolism and tarot symbolism, here are some of my thoughts (highly speculative):
I think the Air Hexactys is the best of the four, but perhaps with some modification:
We know the Magician is (1,1), Priestess is (1,2), World is (6,6) and Judgment is (5,6).  I think that 1 must mean magic or beginning, 2 female or passivity, 3 male or activity, 4 terrestrial but in a negative sense, 5 combining 2 and 3 as representing balance, and I think Opsopaus is right that 6 represents finality and the celestial.
In that case, the Magician (1,1) would be pure beginning
The Empress (2,2) would be pure feminine, and the Emperor (3,3) pure masculine.
Then, it makes sense that the Priestess is (1,2) for magic, feminine and then the Hierophant “should be” (1,3) for magic, masculine.  Then, the Lovers “should be” (2,3) for masculine and feminine coming together.
Justice “should be” (5,5) as complete balance.  The Chariot (3,5) combining activity, victory with balance and self-control.  The Hanged Man (1,6) at the apex of the pyramid makes sense because I think this card represents the midpoint and beginning (1) and ending (6) coming together.   Temperance should be (1,5) for wisdom combined with balance, i.e., good judgement.  Fortitude should be (2,5) for passive balance, resistance rather than the activity represented by the Chariot.
The Devil, Death, and the Tower should all have 4, since these are all cards with a negative connotation, i.e., “terrestrial” cards, with terrestrial in a pejorative sense.  Death as (4,4) as given in the Air Hexactys makes sense because if 4 represents change, time, corruption, then Death is of all the cards, most representative of this archetype.  I’m not as sure about the Devil and the Tower, but these could be (2,4) and (3,4) respectively, with the Devil being passive corruption, sin (in a “Luciferian” sense, as Steiner would put it) and the Tower combining a dramatic change (with 3 as activity) and 4 as change but in a destructive, harmful sense.  The Hermit as (1,4) can also make sense, in particular if Opsopaus’s version of the Hermit as Time is correct, in either case representing either beginning in an earthly sense, caused by time or a lonely search for wisdom in the world.
I think Opsopaus is right that the World, Sun, Moon, Star, Judgement, and Hanged Man are all celestial cards, so they should all have a six somewhere.  (3,6) for Sun makes sense because this would be masculine/celestial.  (2,6) for Star gives contemplative/celestial.  (4,6) for Moon would mean the moon is bridge between earthly and celestial.  And, the idea of the sublunary realm, with the sphere of the moon being the lowest heaven, the boundary between nature and the Heavens makes sense for this correspondence. 
We can view Judgement and Wheel of Fortune as a pair.  Judgement representing is perfectly fair and final judgement, while the Wheel of Fortune is arbitrary and fickle.  Fortune metes out rewards and punishments on earth, while Judgement does in Heaven.  Then, Fortune should be (4,5) corresponding to Judgement as (5,6).

My comments:

McCall's approach here is similar to what I did in my post on the Tarot-astrology correspondences worked out by the Golden Dawn, which resulted in reordering the Justice and Strength cards. Before considering the accepted (Marseille) ordering of the Arcana and how to align it with the accepted (Sepher Yetzirah) ordering of the planets, signs, and elements, I looked at each card and considered what astrological correspondences, if any, seemed to make sense for it, irrespective of traditional ordering schemata. I could then evaluate the Golden Dawn mappings against these "natural" correspondences. Dice-Tarot mappings like those given by McCall here, based on qualitative considerations without taking into account the order of the trumps or the ranking of rolls, could play a similar role vis-à-vis the various systems I have been examining, helping to choose among the four Hexactyses (and, for that matter, among the various historical orderings of the trumps, of which the now-standard Marseille sequence is just one; Opsopaus's original Fire and Water Hexactyses were in fact applied to a variant of the Ferrara sequence).

Regarding the specific mappings proposed by McCall, I am in broad agreement with him as to the basic symbolic meaning of 1, 2, 3, and 6. However, the traditional meaning of 4 is rest, stability, stasis -- quite far from McCall's "change, time, corruption." (Interestingly, despite our near-opposite understandings of 4, we are agreed that it is appropriately mapped to Death -- which can be seen either as the ultimate change or as final rest.) I also have trouble accepting 5 as "complete balance"; For an odd number to represent balance is, well, odd. Five more often represents disruption, breakdown, crisis -- but also creativity, novelty, transcendence. Basically, it's something completely different being added to the stable arrangement represented by 4 and shaking things up.

By the way, while McCall thinks the symbolism of 2 and 3 as feminine and masculine means that 3-3 "should be" the Emperor, but I find the Triumphal Chariot even more appropriate. The charioteer is just as much a man as the emperor is, and I find the achieved status of the conquering hero to be far more archetypically masculine than the ascribed status of a passive throne-sitter.

I'll probably revisit this idea later and consider what numerical associations seem, irrespective of "ordering" considerations, most natural and appropriate to me.

Friday, April 19, 2019

My metal detector is with me all of the time.

As the attentive reader may have inferred from my frequent references to him in recent posts, I have been rereading John Opsopaus's Pythagorean Tarot. In the early days of the Web, Opsopaus's was one of the very first sites to deal in any detail with the Tarot, and so when a random hunch moved me to google altavista "tarot," Opsopaus's highly idiosyncratic hand-drawn versions, together with the formidably erudite commentary accompanying them, served as my introduction to the cards. Later the content of the site was published as a deck of cards with a 480-page handbook, which I eventually bought a decade or so later, more for old times' sake and as a gesture of appreciation than anything else. The cards themselves are not much to my taste, and that lack of rapport makes actually reading with them out of the question, but I do dip into the book and its parent website from time to time.

Today, while I was reading Opsopoaus's commentary on the sixth Arcanum -- called by him, in accordance with the pre-Marseille tradition of Italy, not "The Lover(s)" but simply "Love" -- a song suddenly came into my head which I hadn't listened to in years, one that was released in the same year that the original Pythagorean Tarot website was published: "Metal Detector" by They Might Be Giants.

The song is about a guy at the beach who is ignoring everything around him -- seashells, seagulls, volleyball games, "bathing beauty dolls" -- because he's completely focused on using his metal detector to find things underground. "I've got something to help you understand," he says, and "then everything on the top will just suddenly stop seeming interesting." And this is his whole life: "My metal detector is with me all of the time."

What made me think of that? Well, here's an excerpt of what Opsopaus has to say about Love:
This is no ordinary marriage, but an alchemical conjunction of brother and sister. Upon its consummation the masculine poles (consciousness, thought, intuition) will be destroyed, dissolved in the subconscious mother sea; this represents the dissolution that must precede the rejuvenation of the masculine elements. The divine child will consume the mother's substance while it grows in her womb, and she will die in birth, thus obliterating the feminine poles (unconsciousness, feeling, sensation). The child, however, will survive, and manifest a well-tempered balance of all oppositions, thus reincarnating both parents.
To paraphrase William Blake: Children of a future age, reading this indignant page, know that in a former time, Love, sweet Love, was thought a metaphor for some sort of abstract Jungian-alchemical rigmarole! The Tarot is, ultimately, a tool for examining and contemplating the human condition in all its various aspects. When such bedrock human realities as Love are being used as fodder for symbolical schemata, we seem to have entered Metal Detector land, where all natural, human meaning is nothing but a distraction from the real business of finding something shiny and inorganic under the surface.

Regular readers will of course be well aware that my metal detector is with me all of the time, too, and the main purpose of this post is to serve as a reminder to myself -- of what has real value, and what will in the end be cast to the moles and to the bats.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The linear ranking of dice rolls

Trying to judge the relative merits of the four possible systems (described here) for mapping dice rolls to Tarot trumps, I tried to find historical examples of the rolls of two or more dice being mapped to a linear series.

Remembering that John Opsopaus had mentioned (here) that "San Bernadino's sermon of 1243 draws an analogy between the 21 rolls of two dice and the 21 letters of the (medieval) Roman alphabet," I tried to track down the sermon in question (which turns out to be Contra Alearum Ludos, actually delivered in 1423 by St. Bernardino of Siena) to see in what order the rolls had been assigned to the letters of the alphabet. Opsopaus cites an article by M. G. Kendall (qv), which quotes Bernardino as follows: "Missale vero taxillum, esse volo: [. . .] in eius missali solum alphabetum, hoc est viginti una literae comprehendantur, ac totidem puncta in decio concludantur." Kendall translates the last bit as "just as that missal is composed of a single alphabet of twenty-one letters, so in the [game of] dice there are twenty-one throws," and comments, "The twenty-one possible throws are undoubtedly those with two dice." I find this interpretation unconvincing. Bernardino is comparing the missal to a single die (taxillum), and puncta obviously refers to the points on the die rather than to the number of possible throws of two dice. (Each face of a die is marked with a different number of points, from one to six, and 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 = 21). So, not only does Bernardino not list specific mappings from rolls to letters, but it seems unlikely to me that he had possible rolls of the dice in mind at all.


I had a bit more luck with an article by Fritz Graf (qv) on Greek oracular texts used in astragalomancy (the rolling of four-sided "dice" -- actually tali, the knucklebones of animals, with sides numbered 1, 3, 4, and 6 --  as a form of divination). The standard method was to roll five tali (5d4, to use D&D terminology), for a total of 56 possible rolls, and the texts list these possible rolls as a numbered list. While we're more interested in the 21 possible rolls of 2d6, these astragalomantic texts are still useful as an indication of how the ancients put dice rolls in linear order.

The first thing to notice is that the rolls are ordered according to their total value. Any roll that totals 15, for example, "outranks" -- i.e., corresponds to a higher number on the list than -- any roll that totals 14. This is a point against the "Fire" and "Water" systems of Opsopaus, discussed here, which rank rolls according to the value of the highest or lowest die rather than the total.

Among rolls with the same total, the ranking system is not so clear. Here are the relevant data (the asterisk marks a lacuna in the text, incorrectly restored by Graf and corrected by myself):
  • 11134 > 11116
  • 11144 > 11333
  • 11136 > 11334
  • 11344* > 13333 > 11164
  • 11444 > 11336 > 13334
  • 11346 > 33333 > 11166 > 13344
  • 13444 > 33334 > 11446 > 13336
  • 14444 > 33344 > 13346 > 11366
  • 33336 > 33444 > 13446 > 11466
  • 33346 > 34444 > 14446 > 13366
  • 11666 > 33446 > 13466 > 44444
  • 33366 > 34446 > 14466
  • 33466 > 44446 > 13666
  • 34466 > 14666
  • 44466 > 33666
  • 16666 > 34666
I can't make head or tail of this and almost suspect that there is no system to be discovered, that rolls with the same total are listed in arbitrary order. Looking at the first line above, 11134 outranks 11116; eliminating the three aces that the two rolls have in common, we can infer that 3-4 outranks 1-6. This suggests the "Earth" system, where rolls with the same total are ranked according to the Low. (See this post for an explanation of the terminology.) However, in the next two lines we can see that 1-4-4 outranks 3-3-3, and 1-3-6 outranks 3-3-4, which is inconsistent with that system.

I'll spend a little more time looking at the list in Graf's paper to try and find some pattern to the rankings. At any rate, the focus on the Sum first seems to support either the Air or the Earth Hexactys, as opposed to the systems proposed by Opsopaus.


Update: I went back through the astragalomantic oracle text and examined all the pairs of rolls that have the same total and three tali with the same value -- in other words, pairs of rolls that are identical except that one has 1-6 where the other has 3-4. There are 20 such pairs. For 15 of the pairs, 3-4 outranks 1-6.
  • 111-34 > 111-16
  • 114-34 > 114-16
  • 116-34 > 116-16
  • 144-34 > 144-16
  • 333-34 > 333-16
  • 334-34 > 334-16
  • 136-34 > 136-16
  • 344-34 > 344-16
  • 146-34 > 146-16
  • 336-34 > 336-16
  • 444-34 > 444-16
  • 346-34 > 346-16
  • 446-34 > 446-16
  • 366-34 > 366-16
  • 466-34 > 466-16
For the remaining five, 1-6 outranks 3-4.
  • 113-16 > 113-34
  • 133-16 > 133-34
  • 134-16 > 134-34
  • 166-16 > 166-34
  • 666-16 > 666-34
I can't for the life of me figure out what makes these five different. I've tried everything I can think of, including poker-style rankings (seeing if, for example, three of a kind always outranks two pair or vice versa), but there just doesn't seem to be any pattern. My tentative conclusion is that my initial impression was right, and that rolls with the same total are listed in arbitrary order.

Monday, April 15, 2019

The root trumps of the Air Hexactys

In the previous post, I discuss the idea that each of the 21 Tarot trumps originally corresponded to a particular roll of two dice and look at four possible systems of trump-dice mappings. Since John Opsopaus has already discovered two of them and dubbed them the Fire Hexactys and the Water Hexactys, I have used the other two classical elements to give corresponding names to the remaining two systems. Here I want to look in more detail at the system that seems to me to be both the most natural one: the Air Hexactys -- illustrated below using the Jodorowsky-Camoin version of the classical Tarot de Marseille trumps.

In the diagram above, the cards are laid out in 11 columns corresponding to the 11 possible values of a roll of two dice (from 2 to 12). Where two or more rolls have the same value, they are ranked according to the higher of the two numbers rolled. (Thus, for example, in the third column, the roll 1-3 outranks 2-2 and is placed above it in the diagram.)

The cards in the bottom row of the diagram correspond to the six doubles, from "snake eyes" on the left to double sixes on the right. These six trumps, then, indicate the basic meaning or character to be associated with each of the six faces of the dice; and the 15 remaining trumps represent combinations of these six basic elements.

For any trump in the diagram, following the two diagonal paths down to the bottom row will lead us to the two "root trumps" whose meanings it combines. Take, for example, the 8th trump, called Justice, corresponding to the roll 2-4. Following the diagonal path down and to the left leads us to 2-2, the Empress; following the other diagonal down and to the right leads us to 4-4, the trump with no name ("Death"). Justice, corresponding to a roll that combines 2 and 4, should represent some combination of the symbols and ideas found on the Empress and Death cards -- and such proves to be the case. Like the Empress, Justice depicts a woman seated on a high-backed throne, the shape of which is suggestive of a pair of wings; unlike the Empress, though, this woman is armed with a sword -- a deadly weapon corresponding to the Grim Reaper's scythe. In fact, it turns out that all three of the trumps that depict deadly weapons (the other two being the Lover and the Wheel of Fortune) are arranged in a diagonal line leading to Death. Likewise, all the trumps featuring crowned males are connected to the Chariot.

Many other such connections are evident.

The Hermit card depicts an old man carrying a lantern, and the dice connect it to the Magician and the Moon. The hermit is a wizardly figure -- another type of "magician" -- and his lantern indicates that he is traveling by night. The only person who ever carried a lantern by day was Diogenes the Cynic, known as "the Dog." Either way, the Moon card, with its night scene featuring dogs, is indicated.

The Wheel of Fortune is connected to the Chariot and Death. A chariot of course has wheels, and the charioteer wears a crown like the sphinx on the wheel. The sphinx's sword matches the Reaper's scythe, and in a broader sense both the Wheel and Death represent the ultimate futility of everything, and how people rise only to fall in the end.

The Tower -- which depicts a tower being destroyed and people falling to their deaths -- connects to Death and the Moon. The Moon card features towers.

Strength (a woman controlling a wild animal) connects to the Empress (a woman in control) and the Moon (wild animals).

The Pope has a crown and scepter (ferula) like the charioteer, and the two monks in front of him are in the same positions as the charioteer's horses. Like the empress (but unlike the charioteer and the emperor), he holds his scepter in his left hand.

The Hanged Man occupies a special position, at the apex of the triangle, and is linked to its two other corners, the Magician and the World. He is dressed in motley, as is the magician. His legs are in the same position as those of the dancer of the World, and like her he is surrounded by a stylized representation of the zodiac.

The ease with which these and other connections jump out at me from the diagram, suggests that the Air Hexactys constitutes a meaningful arrangement of the trumps and will repay further contemplation.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Dice and the Tarot trumps

In my post on the Magician, I mentioned that the number of cards in the Tarot deck (56 suit cards, 21 trumps, and the Fool) likely has something to do with dice, there being 56 possible rolls of three dice and 21 possible rolls of two. (This was drawn to my attention by John Opsopaus, who got it from Gertrude Moakley, according to whom it was first discovered by Maurice G. Kendall.) Although we can probably assume from the numbers that each card originally corresponded to a particular roll of the dice, no record of those correspondences exists, leaving them a matter of inference and guesswork.

Matching the Minor Arcana to dice rolls is complicated by the latter's being divided into four suits, with no obvious way of so dividing the 56 possible rolls of three six-sided dice. The Trumps are somewhat more straightforward, though, since they represent a simple sequence from 1 to 21. All that is required is to rank the 21 possible rolls of two dice from lowest to highest. These possible rolls can be represented schematically in a triangular arrangement, as below, and our task is to convert that triangle into a one-dimensional sequence. (Opsopaus calls this representation of the sixth triangular number a hexactys, by analogy with the Pythagorean tetractys.)

Obviously, "snake eyes" (two aces, 1-1) is the lowest possible roll, followed by 1-2, and these will correspond to trumps 1 and 2 (the Magician and Papess in the Marseille ordering), respectively; at the other end, the highest two trumps (the Judgment and the World) answer to 5-6 and 6-6.

Beyond that, though, several systems are possible. When two dice are rolled, there are three numbers to consider: the number of the higher die, the number of the lower die, and the total. For convenience, I will call these the High, the Low, and the Sum. The ranking of the rolls will depend on which of these three numbers takes precedence over which. Take the third trump, for instance. Should it be 2-2 or 1-3? Both rolls have a Sum of 4, but 1-3 has a higher High, and 2-2 has a higher Low. Logically, there are four possible rules we could follow:

  1. Rank rolls according to the High. Among rolls with the same High, rank them according to the Low or the Sum. (The ranking will be the same either way.)
  2. Rank rolls according to the Low. Among rolls with the same Low, rank them according to the High or the Sum. (The ranking will be the same either way.)
  3. Rank rolls according to the Sum. Among rolls with the same Sum, rank them according to the High.
  4. Rank rolls according to the Sum. Among rolls with the same Sum, rank them according to the Low.

Opsopaus considers only the first two systems, saying that they both have their merits and that he is unable to choose between them. He calls the first the Fire Hexactys because he represents it as an upright triangle (like the alchemical symbol for fire) with 1-1 at the top and the sixes at the bottom. The second is the Water Hexactys because he represents it as an inverted triangle (like the alchemical sign for water) with the aces at the top and 6-6 at the bottom. In keeping with the elemental theme, I have dubbed the third system the Air Hexactys (because, as I have diagrammed it, vertically higher rolls outrank lower ones) and the fourth, the Earth Hexactys (for the converse reason).

The diagram below gives the mappings for all four hexactyses. The numerals are the numbers of the Tarot trumps, while the dice rolls are represented by the color scheme introduced above (where red is 1, orange is 2, etc.)

How to decide which of the four systems is the best? I consider the Air Hexactys the most intuitively natural mapping. When rolling dice, it's natural to focus on the Sum first. We think "I rolled seven" first; distinguishing the various "seven" rolls (1-6, 2-5, 3-4) is secondary. I also think it's most natural to consider the High before the Low -- just as in poker, if two players both have Two Pair, we look at the value of each player's higher pair first to determine who wins.

Another thing to consider is that the bottom row of each diagram consists of "doubles," which will be rolled only half as frequently as the other rolls. It makes sense that these less-frequent trumps should be "special" in some way -- as the Magician (1-1) and World (6-6) obviously are. The unnamed 13th Arcanum ("Death") is another obviously special trump, and the Air Hexactys (uniquely) assigns it to a double, 4-4. Appropriately, 4 is the number of death in East Asian cultures, just as 13 is in the West.

Other possible considerations include the trump at the apex of the triangle (another "special" position), and which trumps are adjacent to which others in the diagram. We might also consider whether the six rolls including a given number have anything in common. I will look at these points in detail later, to see whether or not my initial preference for the Air Hexactys is confirmed.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Wheel of Fortune: Rider-Waite

For the most part, Waite's version of the Wheel of Fortune is a synthesis of two of Lévi's designs. The disc itself is copied very closely from the Sanctum Regnum, while the creatures around its circumference are based on those in the Clef. Waite says as much in his Pictorial Key to the Tarot: "In this symbol I have again followed the reconstruction of Éliphas Lévi, who has furnished several variants. [. . .] I have, however, presented Typhon in his serpent form."

While the Wheel of Fortune is traditionally represented as either standing in the ground or mounted on a post, Waite has it floating in the sky -- a choice which presumably reflects Lévi's association of it with the wheels of Ezekiel. Rather than an actual wheel with hub, spokes, and rim, it has become a solid disc marked with lines suggesting those features. For the most part, the disc is identical to the one portrayed in the Sanctum Regnum, but there are a few changes. The physics terms have been removed, as have the 24 red "paw-prints" accompanying the letters of the Tetragrammaton. (Of these, Lévi's Transcendental Magic says that to "these four-and-twenty signs, crowned with a triple flower of light, must be referred the twenty-four thrones of heaven and the twenty-four crowned elders in the Apocalypse.") The letters TARO have been moved onto the disc itself, replacing the images of the four living creatures, and the latter have been moved to the four corners of the card and rearranged so as to correspond to the fixed signs of the zodiac rather than to the vision of Ezekiel. Each of the living creatures is holding (and perhaps reading?) a book -- an iconographic convention that normally indicates that the creatures are being used as symbols of the four evangelists, Matthew (the man), Mark (the lion), Luke (the ox), and John (the eagle).

A further oddity is the Hebrew letter yodh -- the first letter of the Tetragrammaton, located at 1:30 on the wheel -- which at first glance appears to have been rotated 90 degrees from its proper orientation. If you try to correct this error by rotating it, though, you will find that it is impossible -- that what we have is actually a rotated mirror image of the Hebrew letter.

I find it hard to believe that Waite could have made such an error. These Golden Dawn types were completely obsessed with the Tetragrammaton, and the letter yodh was a particular favorite of Waite's; a sort of "yodh confetti" appears as a decorative motif on several of his cards (the Aces of Cups and Swords, and the Moon). I suppose this sort of error is easier to make when a word is being written around the circumference of a circle rather than horizontally, and we must also keep in mind that the card was actually drawn by Pamela Colman Smith rather than by Waite himself, but I still find it surprising -- particularly given that they had Lévi's picture, with its correctly oriented yodh, to copy from. If the modification was deliberate, Waite must have meant something by it, but I can't imagine what. (This anomalous yodh has been preserved, whether deliberately or through ignorance of Hebrew, in some other Rider-Waite-based decks, such as the Hanson-Roberts, BOTA, etc.)

Hebrew is read from right to left, a fact which occultists have considered significant. (For example Jean-Baptiste Alliette, the first known professional Tarot reader, is better known as "Etteilla" -- that being the "kabbalistic," i.e. right-to-left, reading of his name.) If we start at yodh and read from right to left -- that is, counterclockwise around the disc -- we will find the Tetragrammaton interspersed with the letters TORA in that order. I am not aware of Lévi's ever having mentioned TORA as another possible reading of ROTA/TARO, but Waite was certainly aware of it. On his High Priestess card, the priestess holds a scroll labeled TORA -- or perhaps it is the more conventional spelling, Torah; the part of the scroll where the final h would be written is hidden inside the folds of the priestess's gown. Waite's decision to hide or omit the h shows that he intended to link the Torah with the Wheel and the Tarot -- and, via the staurogram, with the Cross. I am reminded of the Bible Wheel created (but no longer endorsed) by Richard Amiel McGough; it involves "rolling up" the 66 books of the Protestant Bible like a scroll, creating a wheel-shaped diagram which McGough links with cruciform halos of the type worn by the Saint-Sernin Christ. The word torah means "law," which is also the meaning of dharma; I have already pointed out the Wheel of Fortune's similarity to the Dharma Wheel of Buddhism.

A deck of cards is like a codex, which is like a scroll, which is like a wheel, the spokes of which are like a cross -- all these things can be linked. The question is whether all this linkage has any coherent meaning, and specifically whether it has anything to do with the original Wheel of Fortune concept. We shall return to this question later.


Turning now to the three creatures positioned around the wheel, we find that they are based on Lévi's but differ in important ways. The sphinx is blue as in the Tarot de Marseille and wears an Egyptian headdress as in the Clef, but it has no wings, and it appears to have its tail between its legs like a beaten dog. Like its Marseille counterpart, and unlike Lévi's version, it holds its sword in its left hand and appears to be almost cradling it rather than wielding it -- presumably because it is after all a sphinx and lacks opposable thumbs. Strangest of all, Waite's sphinx is holding the sword by the blade rather than by the hilt! The sword is in the "hands" of a creature completely incapable of using a sword -- a strong indication that Waite does not see the sphinx as some idealized depiction of a fully realized Man.

The creature on the bottom right side of the wheel corresponds to Lévi's Hermanubis -- a conflation of the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Anubis, bearing the caduceus of the former and having the dog's head of the latter. Waite's version has no caduceus and thus cannot be clearly identified as Herm-anubis as opposed to common-or-garden Anubis. He is completely naked, even though both Anubis and Hermanubis -- and even the dog of the Marseille card -- are always depicted with clothing; and is red, even though Anubis's characteristic color is black. (I assume the blue sphinx, yellow snake, and red cynocephalus comprise a color scheme corresponding to some alchemical folderol or other, but who knows.) The position of this creature is also very strange. Rather than grasping or climbing the wheel, as those in his place generally do, he has his back to it and is somehow adhering to it in defiance of gravity. He is also so positioned as to occupy two of the traditional stations of the Wheel simultaneously: the bottom (sum sine regno) and the rising position (regnabo). Anubis as the god of embalming and mummification, and as psychopomp (whence the identification with Hermes), is connected both with death and with the hope of resurrection

The snake is also defying gravity, barely even touching the wheel. Waite explicitly tells us that it is "Typhon in his serpent form," so it is presumably based on the Proteus/Typhon figure labeled "hyle" in the Clef. Typhon did not really have a "serpent form"; like his mate Echidna, he was only part serpentine, and is generally portrayed as a winged giant with snake-like legs. Waite has perhaps confused him with Python, with whom he is associated (but not identified) in the Homeric hymns. The choice of a serpent for the descending creature perhaps reflects biblical symbolism. Typhon made war on Zeus and was cast down into Tartarus -- like "that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which . . . was cast out into the earth" after losing the "war in heaven" described in Revelation 12. Waite's comments in the Pictorial Key suggests that all three of the creatures around the wheel are supposed to be examples of "Egyptian symbolism," so he must have had in mind the longstanding tradition identifying Typhon with the Egyptian god Set -- but Set was never portrayed as even partly serpentine. If the snake is an Egyptian symbol, I would naturally identify it as Apep. While Set is considered to be the Egyptian Typhon, and while Set and Apep are definitely distinct characters, it would perhaps not be too much of a stretch to think of Apep as "Typhon in his serpent form." Apep is appropriate for the descending position on the wheel because he is the quintessential defeated monster. The Egyptians never portrayed him except as being defeated by Ra or Set or one of the other deities, out of a superstitious fear than any other portrayal would give power to Apep.


Overall, I have to admit that my first impression of the Rider-Waite version of this card is that Waite made rather a mess of things, presenting a congeries of symbols with no organic connection with one another. But perhaps a bit of randomness is appropriate enough for a card representing Fortune.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The staurogram, the eight-spoked wheel, and the Wheel of Fortune

In my recent post on Éliphas Lévi's influence on the Wheel of Fortune Tarot card, I discuss the staurogram, consisting of the Greek letters TAPΩ, its probable influence on the image of Christ seen in the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse, and its incorporation by Lévi into his eight-spoked "Wheel of Ezekiel."

Since writing that post, I have discovered the Chrismon of Saint Ambrose (engraved on one of the walls of Milan Cathedral), which combines the staurogram (TP) and Labarum (XP) into a single glyph, resembling an eight-spoked wheel.

The eight-spoked wheel was itself an early Christian symbol, representing, like the better known "Jesus fish," the Greek word ΙΧΘΥΣ ("fish"), used as an acronym for Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτήρ ("Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior").

This confirms me in my opinion that, given that Lévi wanted to incorporate a Latinized staurogram into his Wheel of Fortune, where it could be read either as ROTA or as TAROT, he really should have put R at the top of the wheel rather than T. But the real question is whether Lévi had any business identifying Christ and the cross with the Wheel of Fortune in the first place. The Wheel is a symbol of futility and meaninglessness, of endless repetition, of rising only to fall again. What has any of that to do with Christ?


In his comments on the Chrismon of Saint Ambrose in La bolla di Maria (available in Italian here; see p. 15), Pietro Mazzucchelli connects the eight spokes of the Chrismon with the eight Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. We can find an exact analogue in the Buddhist Dharmachakra -- an eight-spoked wheel  representing the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to enlightenment.

This wheel is a basic Buddhist symbol -- so much so that, in countries where Nazicentrism has rendered the swastika unacceptable, it has become the standard iconic representation of Buddhism, taking its place alongside such icons as the cross, the crescent, and the star of David.

The strange thing is that the wheel, in the form of the Bhavachakra or Wheel of Life, is also the standard Buddhist symbol of samsara -- the endless, meaningless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth from which Buddhism is meant to save us. Can we see in Lévi's conceit a Christianization of the same concept -- the transformation of a symbol of futility and nihilism into a symbol of salvation from the same? In the cross itself, a symbol of death has become a symbol of victory over death; could the Wheel be an extension of the same idea?

A wheel (when not mounted on a fixed stand, as it sometimes is in the Tarot) represents the transformation of cyclical repetition into forward, linear motion. As the wheels of a chariot turn, the chariot itself moves forward. 

The well is deep

I have once again been immersing myself in the Fourth Gospel. Reading through the account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well (John 4), I was overcome by a sense of frustration. The narrative as it has come down to us is so choppy and disconnected that it seems very obviously to have suffered much in transmission -- additions, deletions, general garbling -- to the point that what we have now must be quite different from whatever was first laid down by the pen of the Beloved Disciple -- if it was laid down by his pen, and if he ever even existed. How to extract from the text truths now nearly effaced by centuries of textual wear and tear? How even to be sure that there are any such truths to extract?

I seemed to hear the voice of the Samaritan woman, addressing to me words first addressed to someone quite different: "Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep." Down, down, twenty centuries down lies the living water, and we have nothing to draw with. Who do we think we're fooling with our Bible-reading pretensions?

The line "The well is deep" kept running through my mind, and soon I realized why: because of its similarity to a line from Nietzsche which I had recently translated: Die Welt ist tief -- "The world is deep," with the German for "world" resembling the English well. "Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht," adds Nietzsche -- "and deeper than the day had thought." Even the brightest light of day illumines only the surfaces of things, and the truth behind the phaneron in which we live is no more readily divinable than that behind the Bible. We have nothing to draw with, and the world is deep.


Jesus' solution to the problem of the deep well is to bypass it entirely, in favor of an internal source of water: "whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life." And the woman replies, "Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw."

And then they drop the subject. They talk a bit about the woman's marital history, Jewish and Samaritan holy sites, and the Messiah, but no further mention is made of the living water -- leaving the reader to wonder what it is, how to get it, and whether or not Jesus ever ended up giving it to the woman. (The Fourth Gospel is full of such loose ends. How does Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus end, for example? We don't know; the story just suddenly stops.)


One who has drunk the living water (or drunk of it, rather; no need to drink it all) has thenceforth a well inside himself, making external sources of water unnecessary -- but that initial draught of living water comes not from within but from without: Jesus offers it, and it must be drunk.

Is this another version of the parable of the sower -- where once the seed has been sown, and in good ground, it can bring forth fruit of its own, obviating the need for further sowing?

The sower soweth the word. Is the living water to be similarly interpreted? And what then is the "word"? Some particular message communicated by Christ? Christ himself? The divine logos, or the thoughts of God? And how is one to drink of it?

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Wheel of Fortune: Éliphas Lévi

While Éliphas Lévi did not create a Tarot deck, His influence on the Rider-Waite version of the Wheel of Fortune card is so substantial that he deserves a post of his own.

In Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (published 1854-56, translated by Waite in 1896 under the title Transcendental Magic), Lévi makes the connection between the words tarot and rota (Latin for "wheel," as in rota fortunae) and associates them with the Tetragrammaton:
The incommunicable axiom [on which the Great Magical Arcanum depends] is enclosed kabalistically in the four letters of the Tetragram, arranged in the following manner: In the letters of the words AZOTH and INRI written kabalistically; and in the monogram of Christ as embroidered on the Labarum, which the Kabalist Postel interprets by the word ROTA, whence the adepts have formed their Taro or Tarot, by the repetition of the first letter, thus indicating the circle, and suggesting that the word is read backwards (Transcendental Magic, Book 1, pp. 19-20).
The above text is accompanied by the following illustration:

In the center we can see the Tetragrammaton -- God's name in Hebrew, usually rendered Jehovah or Yahweh in English -- flanked by INRI (for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews") and by a variant of the Labarum made up of the Greek letters TAPΩ, corresponding to the Latin TARO. (I don't know where we are supposed to see the word AZOTH.)

The Labarum of Constantine properly consists of the Greek letters XP (the first two letters of Χριστός, "Christ"), often accompanied by A and Ω ("Alpha and Omega" being a title applied to Christ in the book of Revelation). Lévi's variant, with T instead of X, can hardly be called "the monogram of Christ," but it turns out to be a genuine Christian symbol, known as the staurogram because it was originally used to abbreviate the Greek word σταυρός, "cross" -- shortened to στρός, with the T and P written as a ligature. Like the XP ligature of the Labarum, the TP ligature was later often accompanied by A and Ω. The image below was found on a Catholic website having nothing to do with Lévi or the Tarot.

With only a single T, this gives us taro -- the root vegetable, not the card game. This is where Lévi is, as he indicates, indebted to Guillaume Postel, who in his Key of Things Kept Secret from the Foundation of the World described a complicated symbol which involved writing the word ROTA (and HOMO, and DEUS, and various other things) around the circumference of a circle. Lévi noticed that when ROTA is thus written, one could just as well begin with the T as the R and read TARO, after which we would arrive again at the T, giving us TAROT. (Despite what Lévi implies, Postel himself did not connect his ROTA with either the staurogram or the Tarot. See details here.)

Incidentally, the staurogram, with A on the left, Ω on the right, and P at the top, sheds some light on something that has perplexed me for a long time: the letters on the cruciform halo of the Maiestas Domini image at the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse (a sculpture I discuss extensively in my post on the World card). Cruciform halos generally bear the letters  Ὁ ὬΝ ("the existing one"), but this one -- uniquely, so far as I know, and I've looked at a lot of Maiestas Domini images -- bears the letters A, Ω, and R -- a strange mixture of the Greek and Latin alphabets.

Letters enlarged for clarity
Now I assume that the halo is based on the staurogram, with the cross itself representing T. The P has been Latinized as R, but the Ω has not; its significance is that it is the last letter of the alphabet ("Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end"), so changing it to O is out of the question. It is interesting that this particular Maiestas Domini, which I consider to have been uniquely influential in the development of the Tarot, should (also uniquely) include the letters TARΩ in its design.

Lévi's La clef des grands mystères contains this representation of the Wheel of Fortune.

Aleister Crowley's English translation of the Clef adds a note describing the figure thus:
It is a type of the Wheel of Fortune. The wheel itself is erected on a wooden post, and has a crank affixed to the hub. There is no image of Fortuna to turn it. The base of the post is held by a blunt double crescent on the ground, rounded horns slightly up and in parallel like a hot-dog bun. Two nosed serpents issue from the base, cross once and arch toward the post just below the wheel. The wheel is double, having an outer and an inner ring with eight spokes running through both rims. The spokes have a circular expansion with central hole inside and a bit short of the inner rim. These spokes appear to be riveted to the inner rim. At the top of the wheel is the Nemesis seated on a platform as a sphinx with a sword: head cloth, stern male face and woman’s breasts, winged. The sword is hilt to wheel and up to left. 'ARCHEE' is written over the wing to the left. Rising on the right of the wheel is a Hermanubis or variation of Serapis: Dog’s head, human body, carries a caduceus half hidden behind head and wheel, legs before wheel. 'AZOTH' is written above the head of this figure. A demon reminiscent of Proteus descends the wheel on the left. His head is bearded and horned, his legs are tentacular and finned. He carries a trident below. 'HYLE' is written below his head.
Hyle of course means "matter," while Archée (Archeus) and  Azoth are alchemical terms. Archée is defined at this site (in French) as "the immaterial principle of organic life, different from the intelligent soul" -- in other words, something like what is normally called an "astral body." Azoth, which normally refers to the element mercury, is used by Lévi to refer to "the Universal Magical Agent" or "Universal Medicine,"which he explains as follows: "The Azoth or Universal Medicine is, for the soul, supreme reason and absolute justice; for the mind, it is mathematical and practical truth; for the body it is the quintessence, which is a combination of gold and light. In the superior or spiritual world, it is the First Matter of the Great Work, the source of the enthusiasm and activity of the alchemist. In the intermediate or mental world, it is intelligence and industry. In the inferior or material world, it is physical labor." In other words, it can be just about anything, and the precise nature of its relationship to matter and to Archeus is unclear.

It terms of its apparent influence on Waite, the important things to notice about this image are: (1) the striped Egyptian headdress on the sphinx, replacing the traditional crown; (2) the dog-headed man Hermanubis, replacing the dog; and (3) in place of the monkey, a bearded demon with "tentacular" legs, connected by Crowley with Proteus but equally resembling traditional representations of Typhon.

Waite was influenced even more directly by the treatment of the Wheel in The Magical Ritual of the Sanctum Regnum, "translated from the MSS of Éliphaz Lévi and edited by W. Wynn Westcott, M.B., Magus of the Rosicrucian Society of England" and published after Lévi's death, in 1896. It features illustrations which are "facsimile copies of Lévi's own drawings," and there are notes in Westcott's own voice at the end of each chapter. The illustration we are interested in is this one, accompanying a chapter which is called "The Wheel of Fortune" but actually discusses only the "Wheel of Ezekiel."

Again we have an eight-spoked wheel, and the word ROTA/TARO is written along its circumference, interspersed with cursive writing not notable for its legibility. (Reading clockwise from the top, I believe it reads "T électricité chaleur magnétisme lumière" -- meaning, as I suppose is fairly obvious, "electricity, heat, magnetism, light." It is not clear what these terms, borrowed from physics, have to do with anything.)

I would have rotated the word 180 degrees, with R at the top, O on the right, T at the bottom, and A on the left -- corresponding to the orientation of the staurogram and of the Saint-Sernin sculpture. This orientation would also make ROTA the most natural reading, with TARO as a hidden second meaning, rather than the reverse. Furthermore, the letter A, turned so that its point is to the left, exactly resembles the Phoenician aleph -- which means "ox" and thus corresponds to the ox which occupies that position on the Wheel.

The design also features the four letters of the Tetragrammaton and the four living creatures of Ezekiel. (The living creatures are arranged according to the vision of Ezekiel and the camp of Israel, rather than in the astrological arrangement commonly used in the World card. See details here.) The other characters on the Wheel are alchemical symbols, three of which represent the tria prima of Paracelsus: sulfur, mercury, and salt.
These are the three primes, but the Wheel design calls for a fourth -- so Lévi, for reasons I do not pretend to understand, chose the astrological sign for Aquarius, sometimes used in alchemy to represent water, though an inverted triangle is more usual. I am also unsure as to why the sulfur glyph has been rotated 90 degrees but the one for salt has not.

Westcott's notes, appended to Lévi's text on the Wheel of Ezekiel, describe the card in question as follows: "The Tarot Trump marked 10 is named the Wheel of Fortune; the card shows a wheel supported on two upright beams. Hermanubis stands on one side, and Typhon on the other; above is the Sphynx holding a sword in its Lion's jaws. [. . .] This key is figured by Lévi in his Clef des grands mystères, page 117."

Although he references the illustration in the Clef, reproduced above, Westcott's description differs in several particulars from the published version of that illustration. He describes the wheel being supported on two beams rather than one, says the figures on the sides are standing beside the wheel rather than clinging to it, and has the sphinx holding a sword in its jaws rather than its hand. (This last is particularly strange, since human-headed sphinxes don't generally have lion's jaws! He must have meant to write "claws.") He also identifies the Hyle figure as Typhon rather than Proteus, an identification Waite would later follow.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Wheel of Fortune: Visconti-Sforza and Tarot de Marseille

The oldest known Wheel of Fortune Tarot card is, unsurprisingly, also the closest to conventional, non-Tarot versions of that motif. Like Carmina Burana, it places Fortuna at the center of the wheel, has a dais and throne at the top, and labels the four figures with the same Latin mottos: I reign, I have reigned, I have no reign, I shall reign. Like the Miélot version, it portrays Fortuna as winged and blindfolded. It also features a milder version of the transformations seen in the Dürer version: While all four figures are basically human, the one ascending has small ass's ears, the one at the top has a larger pair, and the one descending has an ass's tail.

We now come to this version's own peculiarities. The figure under the wheel is an old man with a long, white beard, dressed in white rags. He is neither grasping the wheel nor even attempting to do so, nor is he being crushed by it. Rather, he is on his hands and knees, supporting the wheel on his back. One gets the impression that he is not part of the cycle -- that while the other three figures rise and fall, he remains where he is, supporting them all. This may be the meaning of his great age: that, unlike the others, he has been in his position since time immemorial.

The other three figures are all children with golden curls, differing only in the color of their clothing and the nature of their asinine features. (So again, this is clearly not a "life cycle" from childhood to old age.) The ascending child is dressed in green trimmed with white, perhaps symbolizing hope and inexperience, and has ass's ears. The one at the top also has ass's ears and is dressed in cloth of gold; he lacks the traditional crown and scepter but does appear to be holding an orb or globus cruciger in his right hand. (I can't make out what, if anything, is in his left.) The combination of gold, ass's ears, and royal status brings to mind the legend of King Midas. The descending child, sporting an ass's tail, is dressed in red trimmed with gold. These are autumnal colors, and in fact the whole color scheme suggests the cycle of the seasons -- but if the correspondence is intentional, we are left to wonder why Autumn is no older than Spring, and why Winter doesn't appear to be revolving on the wheel with the others.

What of Midas Junior there at the top of the wheel? Is he revolving? His similarity to the ascending and descending children suggests that he is part of the same cycle, but there is the problem of the platform or dais on which he is seated. (The Carmina Burana version raises the same question.) Is it attached to the wheel? If so, it is only by chance that it currently happens to be at the top. Rotate the Wheel 90 degrees, and there will be a dais and throne projecting from its side, while the new king, throneless, will have to content himself with sitting on the rim of the wheel itself, as in the Miélot and Dürer versions. But if the dais is not fixed to the wheel, it seems that the king could sit there indefinitely, unperturbed by the rotation of the wheel -- whereas the whole point of the traditional Wheel of Fortune motif is that everyone's station in life is unstable, liable to change at a moment's notice. Perhaps when the rising child reaches the throne, he will push its current occupant off, and back onto the wheel. Or perhaps only the children in red and green are revolving, and they visit the poor old man and the child king in turn as they do so.


In its earliest usage, the term rota fortunae referred to the zodiac, and with the Tarot of Marseille it resumes its character as a literal zodiac -- ζῳδιακός κύκλος, "cycle of little animals." The figures on the wheel are no longer human but have become creatures whose exact identity is not very clear, but which are traditionally identified as a dog, a sphinx, and a monkey. The clothes they are still wearing betray their origins as human-animal hybrids along the lines of those seen in the Dürer woodcut and the Visconti-Sforza card. (The monkey's flaring skirt, in particular, calls to mind the dress of its human counterpart on the Visconti-Sforza card.) Presumably repeated copyings have gradually distorted the figures to the point that they have entirely lost their human character.

The influence, more or less direct, of Dürer on this image would be hard to deny. The wheel is mounted on a stand, turned by a crank; there are only three figures on it, rather than the more conventional four; Fortuna herself is not depicted; and, unlike every other Wheel we have looked at save Dürer's only, it rotates counterclockwise, so that the ascending figure is on the right and the descending one on the left.

Another artist who seems to make his presence felt in this image is Hieronymus Bosch. Looking at the dog on the right side of the wheel, we notice a few strange things about it. In addition to its frock-like garment, it is wearing a collar -- as dogs generally do -- but, bizarrely, the collar is worn over the dog's ears, so that the ears protrude behind it. Another oddity is the tail, with a tuft of fur at the end, looking less like a dog's tail than a lion's (or, given the probable history of the image, an ass's). Where else can we find such a singular-looking dog?  In Bosch's painting The Conjurer, painted a century and a half before the first Tarot de Marseille.

In Bosch's painting, it is clear that the "ears" are behind the collar of the dog's garment because they belong to the garment itself rather than to the dog. The tail is tufted like a lion's, presumably because it has been shaved that way. A further "coincidence" can be seen in the hoop next to the dog, suggesting the Wheel. Some critics have even identified the other creature, the one in the conjurer's basket, as a monkey, but this is a mistake. The reappearance of this pair in the central panel of Bosch's St. Anthony Triptych leaves no room for doubt that it is a barn owl.

Of course, the fact that Bosch intended the creature in the basket to be an owl does not rule out its influence on the Tarot de Marseille. If modern art critics have sometimes mistaken it for a monkey, the cardmakers of Marseille could just as easily have done the same. (Remember that we are operating under the assumption that even manifest errors in the transmission of tradition are potentially inspired.) At the time the Tarot de Marseille was created, the St. Anthony Triptych was most likely in either Spain or Portugal, while at least one version of The Conjurer was likely in France, so it makes sense that the French cardmakers would have known only the latter work, with its ambiguous owl-monkey.

The origin of the sphinx at the top of the wheel is uncertain, but its crown and cape suggest that it is derived from the king typically depicted in this position, having become a quadruped under the influence of Dürer's ass. (The ass's tail could easily be misinterpreted as a lion's) The cape may also be a distortion of what was originally a throne, or perhaps a pair of wings. The sword it holds in its left hand is an innovation, with no precedents of which I am aware, though I would not be at all surprised to discover that some pre-Tarot Wheel of Fortune pictures show the king so armed. As in the Visconti-Sforza card and Carmina Burana, the figure at the top sits on a platform rather than on the wheel itself, so it is unclear whether or not it is revolving with the others. We might also note that this figure is not exactly a conventional sphinx, which should have a human face with the body (including forelimbs) of a lion. The figure on the Marseille card is able to hold a sword, which would not be possible if it had a lion's paws, and its face looks more like the monkey's than like any of the other human faces in the Tarot. Its blue color is also something of an enigma, but color schemes vary so much among different decks that it would be hard to draw any conclusions from it.

French authors generally understand the dog, sphinx, and monkey to be symbols of submission, accomplishment, and decadence, respectively. Valentin Tomberg, on the other hand, sees in them symbols of the various relationships which may hold between the human and animal elements in our nature: The dog "represents animality aspiring to union with humanity"; the sphinx, "animality and humanity united"; the monkey, "the process of the animalization of humanity" (Meditations on the Tarot, 10th letter). The sphinx is thus seen as representing the ideal state of affairs, to which we should aspire -- but we must not forget that it occupies that place on the wheel where Dürer saw fit to put a jackass. A sphinx is, after all, a monster, a grotesque, a hodgepodge of mismatched parts; and it appears rather more sinister than noble as portrayed on the Marseille card.

Taking Tomberg's interpretation as a starting point, we might see in the progression from dog to sphinx to monkey a progressively fine union of man and animal. In the dog we see animal as "man's best friend," man and animal as close companions but still physically distinct. In the sphinx, man and animal are combined in a single body, but each specific part of that body is either all-human or all-animal. In the monkey, the human and animal elements are blended so completely that no separation is possible; each and every part of its body is human-ish but not fully human. (Dürer's version of the Wheel could perhaps also be interpreted in terms of various combinations of spiritual "humanity" and biological "animality"; we might recall that St. Francis of Assisi was in the habit of calling his body "Brother Ass.")

Why do both Dürer and the Marseille cardmakers leave the bottom of the wheel, where the fully human figure ought to be, empty? Because there can be no humanity without some admixture of animality. A man without any animal nature at all is nothing but a ghost, and as such, invisible.

The Wheel of Fortune: Miélot and Dürer (15th century)

I continue my brief overview (started here) of non-Tarot versions of the Wheel of Fortune motif. This illustration by Jean Miélot, accompanying a text by Christine de Pizan, dates from roughly the same time period as the earliest known Tarot cards, the Visconti-Sforza deck.

Here Fortuna stands apart from the wheel and apparently governs its rotation remotely by means of the authority symbolized by her crown and scepter. The wheel, then, would appear to be consciously obeying her rather than being turned by mechanical means. Miélot might have had Ezekiel's wheels in mind ("Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, . . . for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels"), a connection Éliphas Lévi was to make some centuries later, or he might have moved Fortuna off to the side for purely aesthetic reasons, to make the composition less cluttered. Fortuna is portrayed winged and blindfolded, symbolizing her superhuman nature and her indifference to the merits of those on her wheel. Wise man or fool, one event happeneth to them all.

If the figure under the wheel in the Carmina Burana illustration might possibly be a corpse, his counterpart in Miélot's version leaves no room for doubt -- and he clearly died still embracing the wheel that killed him. The monarch perched atop the wheel seems oddly dressed to me, with robes that look almost like a nightgown; pink is hardly a regal color, and the bright reds elsewhere in the picture make it clear that it cannot be explained as faded paint. The two figures on the sides of the wheel are dressed in countercharged color schemes -- one with a red shirt and blue hose; the other, vice versa. In each case, the part of the body nearest the top of the wheel is clothed in red, and that nearest the bottom, in blue -- almost as if their clothes change from blue to red as they ascend and then back to blue as they descend. (For consistency, the monarch should be dressed all in red, and the corpse in blue, but perhaps pink and gray are close enough.) Fortuna is dressed in the same color scheme, wearing an outer garment of red over an inner garment of blue. If red represents the top of the wheel (success) and blue the bottom (ruin), perhaps Fortuna's costume of red-covering-blue means that she indeed appears beautiful outward but within is full of dead men's bones.

What are we to make of the dead man, holding tight to the wheel even as it rolls over him? Embracing what kills him seems the epitome of foolishness -- but on the other hand, letting go of the wheel at this point makes no sense. He's already at the bottom, so holding onto the wheel can only improve his fortunes; whereas letting go would leave him at the bottom, with no way to regain his lost position. In the long term, though, the wheel will raise him only to bring him down again, so it doesn't really matter. As I've said, the Wheel offers no desirable options -- but Miélot hints at an alternative: on the left side of the picture, behind Fortuna, is a rocky hill composed of enormous boulders. Anyone who could reach the top of that hill would be higher even than the monarch's perch, and the position would be a stable one -- but it would mean doing the hard work of climbing, not just hitching a ride on Fortuna's wheel.


Dürer did a woodcut of the Wheel of Fortune as an illustration for Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools, which was published a few decades after the appearance of the earliest known Tarot cards. Dürer's version is quite different from the others we have looked at. Its relevance to Tarot iconography is obvious, though the nature of the relationship is unclear. The Tarot of Marseille may well have been directly influenced by Dürer's woodcut, but of course that is not possible for the Visconti-Sforza, which predates it. It is possible, but not likely, that Dürer was influenced by the Italian cards and then in turn influenced the French ones. More probably, some lost (or at least unknown-to-me) source lies behind both the Dürer woodcut and the Tarot. But before taking this line of discussion any further, we had best take a look at the image itself.

The major innovation here is the addition of animal characteristics to the figures on the wheel -- a feature which is universal within the Tarot tradition, so that in many decks the Wheel becomes the second trump (the other is the Moon) to feature no human beings.

We have seen that in Miélot's version, the ascending and descending figures are so dressed that those parts of their bodies that are above the hub of the wheel are clothed in red, and those below, in blue -- and I have mentioned that, for consistency, the one at the top of the wheel should be dressed entirely in red. Dürer takes this idea to the next level. The ascending figure is an ass above the waist; the descending one is an ass below the waist; and at the top of the wheel, where a more conventional artist would depict a crowned king, Dürer gives us -- simply an ass. If I am making out Dürer's picture correctly, the ass is reaching out to grasp the moon -- which would of course be impossible even if it had hands.  All the figures on the wheel are dressed alike, in the garb of a fool, so that even the descending figure appears to have ass's ears because his fool's cap is so decorated. The fourth figure, the one who should be under the wheel and who, in Dürer's scheme, would be the only fully human one, has been omitted entirely -- an innovation also adopted by the Tarot de Marseille and decks influenced by it. Also all-but-omitted is Fortuna herself, who appears only as a hand reaching down from heaven to turn the wheel. (These disembodied hands-from-clouds would later be used extensively by Waite in his highly innovative Minor Arcana.)

The wheel itself is much more realistically depicted. Where more traditional depictions have a huge free-standing wheel, supported by nothing and lacking even an axle, Dürer's wheel is mounted on a stand and turned by a crank. Rather than the mystical visions of Ezekiel, it suggests an ordinary piece of manmade machinery. The placing of the wheel on a raised stand also means that it no longer crushes anyone. If the traditional fourth figure had been included, he would simply be clinging to the underside of the wheel, unharmed and still several feet above the ground.

Consider for a moment how completely Dürer's innovations change the meaning of the Wheel of Fortune. In the conventional version of the motif, both the allure of Fortune and her ultimate treachery are clear. She promises a crown and throne to those who trust her, but in the end crushes them mercilessly. Dürer's wheel, in contrast, promises only to turn you into an ass, and threatens nothing worse than an implied return to full humanity and a chance to go around again. The image conveys not so much a feeling of treachery and tragedy as one of complete and utter pointlessness.

What motivates those who cling to Dürer's wheel? Surely they are not drawn in by the promise of a pair of long ears, a tail, and four fine hoofs! No one consciously aspires to become an ass. We can only conclude that they want what the ass at the top is reaching for -- the moon! -- and that they delusionally believe the wheel will carry them high enough to reach out and grasp it. Of course each will have observed that all his predecessors have transformed into asses and failed to obtain the moon, but each thinks he himself will be different. Each believes that he has discovered the secret: to reach the top without becoming an ass and then, opposable thumbs still intact, reach out and take it! But such is the magic of the Wheel that he inevitably does become an ass -- and anyway, the hoofs aren't really what stops him from grasping the moon. A wheel mounted on a stand on the ground just isn't the sort of thing that ever could allow anyone to reach the moon. (Neither, for that matter, is the rocky hill which also appears in Dürer's picture.) Dürer's Wheel has something of the Tower of Babel about it -- the attempt to reach heaven by means of an earthbound structure, and the subsequent loss of the power of intelligible speech (transformed, in this case, into the braying of an ass). But the builders of the Tower did not fail because their speech was confounded, nor do the riders on the wheel fail because they become asses. In both cases, they fail because what they are attempting is by its nature impossible. The means are not commensurate to the ends in view.

Behold, the Lord esteemeth all flesh as one

I was listening to an audio recording of the Book of Mormon, and when it got to the part where Nephi says they "did live upon raw meat ...