I sat down to do research on the Tarot for a young adult novel, yet found that the majority of the books dealt only with the meanings of each card. There was precious little on their actual history. Most of the books simple threw out a vague paragraph or two about playing cards, Egyptian gods, and mystical forces. Yeah, that’s going to help.
Then I stumbled on Paul Huson’s book Mystical Origins of the Tarot. He linked the Tarot to the Turkish Mamlük cards and all the way back to Chinese “money-suited” Dongguan Pai cards. All this explained the origin of the four suits. Huson’s best argument links the major arcana (which he calls trumps) to Christian morality plays like the Dance of Death.
Okay, strap on your time traveling belts, it’s history time.
The Catholic Church had long banned any sort of pagan drama (read Greek theatre). But, once they had successfully eradicated all hints of pagan storytelling, the Church allowed certain dramatic events (relating to the bible) to be depicted at Easter or Christmas. What started as a pure recitation of Gospel, gradually blossomed into lines of verse performed on a stage.
The French drama, “Adam”, appeared by the twelfth century, which was performed before the gates of the church. By the thirteenth century, plays not based wholly on scripture appeared. The “Miracle of Theophilus”, by Rutebeuf, depicts the popular legend of Theophilus, who lost his holy office and bartered his soul to the devil to regain it. (A precursor to Faust.)
Morality plays were an offshoot of the Miracle plays, which encouraged proper Christian behavior rather than simply quoting gospel. The most famous morality was “Everyman” (originally called “The Summoning of Everyman”). In this drama, Everyman, who dresses in fine clothes and seems to lead a wild and sinful life, has a visit from Death. Everyman must undergo a pilgrimage to absolve himself from sin before meeting his end. He asks if he’ll have any company on this journey. Death replies that only those who are brave enough will come.
The various characters represent virtues personified. One by one, all the characters desert Everyman, unwilling to face Death with him. Everyman’s friends and family (Fellows, Kindred, Cousin) refuse to go along. Finally Goods (representing worldly belongings), also backs away.
Good Deeds would accompany Everyman, but she is too weak to walk. Her sister, Knowledge, leads Everyman to Confession, who instructs him how to show penance. This allows Good Deeds to travel with Everyman.
Discretion, Strength, Beauty, and Five Wits promise never to leave Everyman’s side. Yet, when they arrive at his grave, and Everyman begins to die, they each leave. In the end, only Good Deeds will follow him into the grave. The play makes its grim point that we can only take with us the things we’ve given.
The Black Death ravaged Europe throughout the fourteenth century. The epidemics were so frequent and merciless, that everyone had to face the prospect of death. This led to the Dance Macabre (Dance of Death), as an offshoot of the English morality play.
This is another play where Death is viewed not as a destroyer, but a messenger from God. The drama consisted of a monk reading Scriptures while actors representing death (dressed in yellow linen painted with bones) escorted other actors to the grave. Every position in society was represented (the King, a Bishop, a beggar, a soldier, a farmer, etc.) The purpose of the play was to illustrate that regardless of your position or wealth, you were going to die and must Repent now. This idea was summed up in the phrase: “Memento Mori” which translates to “Remember you shall die.”
This procession of figures mimics the trumps of the Tarot. We start with the lowly Fool, and travel up through the Emperor (representing the king) and finally the Pope. At least that’s the theory laid down by Paul Huson. He goes on to state that the various middle trump cards mimic the personified virtues (Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, and the Hermit for Prudence). Dame Fortunate routinely appeared in morality plays, and she’s represented in the Tarot as the Wheel of Fortune.
The four most important events in a Roman Catholic’s life, known as the Four Last Things, are represented by the four trump cards: Death, the Devil, Judgement, and the World (if we agree with Huson that the world could mean heaven).
I found the connection of morality plays (like the Dance of Death) with the Tarot a compelling argument. There are plenty of books that border on pseudoscience, linking the Tarot to UFOs and Egyptian gods, but Huson lays out a reasonable argument based on historical traditions.
Next time you pick up a Tarot deck, think back to these Medieval dramas. And remember, you too shall die, so start wracking up those good deeds.