October 22, 2023
War, Peace--and Tarot . . .
Welcome newcomers. On the 1st, 11th and 22nd of every month, I publish a post that begins with a new essay, then discusses a deck or book. But today’s essay concerns a complex and timely topic—so it will be the whole post.
Historian Anne Applebaum pointed out in a recent interview that by dragging Israeli captives across the border into Gaza, Hamas had committed a war crime “as old as Homer’s Iliad.”
That started me thinking about the age-old symbolic dimensions of warfare—and of course that led to wondering what Tarot has to tell us about the patterns of war that have shaped human history.
This is another instance where something I was vaguely aware of suddenly stood out in a bright new light.
First (just for clarity) I’ll recap two of my core opinions.
The original trump images were created and ordered in 15th century Italy. (“Created” is a deliberately vague word here, so if you prefer “discovered” or “channeled” we probably have some overlap.)
A deep understanding of Tarot involves an understanding of the medieval milieu in which it originated.
So when I began examining today’s topic set—war/peace/Tarot—I went straight to the year 1450. And I recognized something remarkable:
Italy was the ONLY European country NOT involved in the long, bloody conflict we call the “Hundred-Years’ War”—which raged across the Continent from 1337 to 1453.
Let’s give that some thought . . . .
War and Peace
For convenience, I date the beginning of Italian Tarot at 1450, though experts are now placing the earliest examples a few years earlier. Also for convenience, I date the Marseilles-type deck as we know it now from Jean Noblet’s 1650 deck. There were plenty of offshoots and variants in between, but these touchpoints serve well.
In order to be succinct, I’m just going to quote from Wikipedia:
Disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire and the Hundred Years War in neighbouring France meant that Italy was more or less left in peace during the 15th century; this allowed its cities to grow rich and to become attractive preys for its neighbours during the 16th century.
But all around them . . .
The Hundred Years' War (French: Guerre de Cent Ans; 1337–1453) was a series of armed conflicts fought between the kingdoms of England and France during the Late Middle Ages. It originated from English claims to the French throne. The war grew into a broader power struggle involving factions from across Western Europe, fueled by emerging nationalism on both sides.
Here’s the list of participants:
And here’s a snapshot of the phases:
Meanwhile . . . Italy was reaping the benefits of relative peace—and using their respite not only for financial gain, but also for a burst of artistic creativity. Though not as famous as their early 16th-century inheritors (Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci), painters and architects like Masaccio, Donatello, and Filippo Brunelleschi began the transition from early to late Renaissance art.
But as soon as the long Anglo-French conflict sputtered to an end (spoiler alert: the French won) an internal war began in Italy, when a batch of pretenders claimed to be the rightful successor to Filippo Maria Visconti, who died without a male heir. Eventually his son-in-law Francesco Sforza became the new Duke of Milan.
It appears that somewhere before/during/after the Milanese War of Succession, the Visconti and Sforza families found time to have their favored artist(s) paint our earliest known Tarot trumps.
So what? When I first started thinking about Tarot and the theme of war, I realized that there really are no obviously “warlike” images among Italy’s early Tarot trumps.
Though we have since come to associate The Chariot with aggressive energy, that wasn’t at all the original implication.
This card, with its lady-like “charioteer,” seems to align with the idea that early trump images were related to the floats used in festival parades.
The King of Swords does seem to be outfitted for battle—but his costume and stance look more ceremonial than warlike.
So I’m staying with the notion that our earliest trumps were not conceived in an atmosphere of conflict, but rather along more philosophical—or at least, aesthetic—lines.
War and . . .
By the time we get to the Jean Noblet deck, The Chariot is looking quite a bit more combative:
It may not surprise that in the 200 years between the Italian model and the French model, France had been almost constantly at war. Really . . . keep scrolling.
Okay. By the time that list ends, France is about to enter perhaps the world’s most deadly conflict: the Thirty Years War. Between 1618 and 1648, at least five million people (soldiers and civilians) died in battle or of starvation and disease. Though the fighting was primarily in Germany, it spilled out at various times across the entire European continent.
So—for whatever it may signify, creation of the Marseilles-type Tarot seems to have come at the juncture between a sprawling and desperately deadly series of inter-related wars, and a subsequent series of more contained conflicts.
Beyond War—Sort of
Rather than go through the various revisions and interpretations introduced by the early esotericists, I’ll just quote Arthur Edward Waite on The Chariot:
He has led captivity captive; he is conquest on all planes — in the mind, in science, in progress, in certain trials of initiation. He has thus replied to the sphinx, and it is on this account that I have accepted the variation of Eliphas Levi; two sphinxes thus draw his chariot. He is above all things triumph in the mind.
It’s worth noting that there were very few overt military conflicts in the world during that first decade of the 20th century, when Pamela Colman Smith was producing the Smith-Waite deck. The lull before the storm, of course, since tensions were already building toward World War I, which would erupt barely five years after the deck was published.
And as a matter of fact—Colman Smith created illustrations for two of the suits (Wands and Swords) that are inescapably violent.
Waite’s commentary on the Minor Arcana images is much less lofty than his explanations of the trumps. So we find that he views the Five of Wands in quite practical terms—ranging from neutral (skill) to cataclysmic (ruin):
Skill, bravery, capacity, defence, address, enmity, wrath, war, destruction, opposition, resistance, ruin. There is therefore a sense in which the card signifies death, but it carries this meaning only in its proximity to other cards of fatality.
Before the Smith-Waite deck, there were no illustrations for the suit cards, so there’s not a point of comparison. But it seems fair to observe that Waite and Smith, in whatever form their collaboration may have taken, decided that the deck’s four suits should be divided into mostly peaceful and mostly warlike depictions . . . .
I’m not going to have a neat ending for this post—drawing lessons or conclusions. It’s just a look at how, over several centuries, motifs of conflict became attached to Tarot imagery. And a reminder that warfare is a global constant of human behavior, while peace is an intermittent and local occurrence.