Sorting Through the Games

February 3, 2012

Lovers' Tarot Card
Lovers' trump from Visconti tarot, Italy circa 1445. Photo courtesy of Cary collection of playing cards, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

My very old-fashioned family of origin would casually tell fortunes as they indulged in their passion for card playing. Actually, they called it “what the cards were saying,” and it was based on the patterns that emerged during the game. During my very first game of euchre, my great-grandmother drew cards that disconcerted her and my mother. “I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything,” my mother insisted, though she later voiced apprehension in the car on the way home while my father tried to reassure her. Meanwhile my grandmother, having received a portent that the end was nigh, became nostalgic and sorted through an old box of keepsakes, trying on the wedding ring she no longer wore. We know this because the ring was on her finger and the contents of the box were spread on the bed beside her when she was found the next morning, dead from an unsuspected heart problem. Of course my mother suffered self-recriminations later, having recognized and explained away the signs. I’m not sure that anything could have been done. There is a place in the hospital for people who have received a death message in a euchre spread, but it’s not on the cardiac floor.

Euchre is a game which evolved, like so many others, from the French triomphe: the tarot. While today the tarot is usually associated with divination or instruction, it was once a form of entertainment. The tarot cards, in turn, developed from sets of cards introduced by Arabs into Italy and Spain in the fourteenth century. These Arabic cards had ten numbered cards in four suits–sticks, swords, coins and cups–along with three decorative cards for each suit. These cards were much like the ordinary playing cards we have today.

Conventional wisdom tells us the tarot continued solely as a game for centuries and only much later became a form of divination. This is highly implausible. In the medieval and early modern mind, the world was not divided into discrete categories of meaning and non-meaning. Everything had meaning; and pictures, whether well or badly drawn, were highly symbolic in their content. In a world where God (or the devil) spoke continually, divination could not be delegated to a separate sphere of life. Whatever the four suits meant to the Arabs (and they undoubtedly meant something), the suits in the card deck, the numbers on the cards, and the king, queen, knight and knave all held significance in the mind of the European player. With the introduction of the “trumps” — the major arcana — deeper and more complex meanings could be garnered. Divination would naturally be occurring in the course of a game because meaninglessness and triviality had not yet been invented.

Yet this is not the only reason for supposing the cards were fraught with divinatory meaning from the first time they were shuffled. When historians describe tarot as a “game” this is actually a euphemism for gambling. Early card games — not just the tarot — were a channel for gambling passions. Anyone who has known a gambler knows the extreme significance placed on the elements of the game. Eventually everything
surrounding the bet becomes so steeped in meaning that life outside the gambling arena takes on a comparative sense of unreality. In this regard it is interesting that in China, where the very earliest playing cards have been documented, passion for gambling is longstanding and integral to traditional culture, while divinatory insight is complex, preoccupying and pervasive. Gamblers have no corner on the market for superstition, but to suppose that tarot cards were used for centuries in gambling before they were used for divination stretches credibility.

Several German keys for divination with playing cards appeared between 1505 in 1543, and an Italian system appeared in 1540. These books are usually not considered relevant to tarot divination because they refer to ordinary playing cards. Around 1750 the first written summary of divinatory meanings for the major arcana appeared. This is the sole basis for the common assertion that tarot card divination did not exist for the three centuries following development of the tarot. Why a written manual so late in the game? One explanation is that during the eighteenth century a broad array of sciences were being systematized and recorded, many for the first time. We would expect a tarot key to appear during this time, and the absence of an earlier one does not preclude the existence of tarot divination before this time. Indeed, it says very little one way or the other.

Playing cards and tarot are not much different in origin and early usage, and divination does not occupy a separate, contained sphere of life. It is plausible and consistent with the few available facts to assume that tarot cards were used for divination from the beginning.


Sources

Rita Aero. Things Chinese. Garden City, NY: Dolphin Books, 1980.
International Playing Card Society, History of Playing Cards
Jean-Claude Flornoy, Tarot History and Tarot Divination
Mary K. Greer, Lola Lucas, K. Frank Jensen, Timeline of the Occult and Divinatory Tarot
Paul Huson. Mystical Origins of the Tarot. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2004.
Robert Swiryn. The Secrets of the Tarot. Kapaa, HI: Pau Hana Publishing, 2010.
Tarotpedia, Francesco Marcoloni
Trionfi, Oldest Evidence for Divination with Cards

Groundhog Day: An American Pagan Holiday

January 27, 2012

Groundhog picture
Mother groundhog eating peanuts. Photo by EIC.

February 2nd is the pagan holiday known as variously as Imbolc, Brigid’s Day, Candlemas and many other names. Many calendars label it “Groundhog’s Day,” referring to the adage that the length of the remaining winter is determined by whether the groundhog sees his shadow (i.e., whether the sun is shining) on this day.

Groundhog Day is an American adaptation of vestigial bear worship, brought to the Pennsylvania colony by early German settlers. Bear worship in central Europe goes back to the Neanderthals, who left Cave Bear skulls in an excavated cavern in Switzerland. Statuettes from the region dedicated to bear goddesses date to the days of the Roman occupation. In Christian times the belief persisted that on Candlemas the bear would waken from her slumber for a winter perambulation. Candlemas is a Christian holiday (the purification of the Virgin Mary) with pagan antecedents across Western Europe. It is the time when the days lengthen noticeably, and people naturally begin to wonder when spring will arrive. If the bear sees her shadow, tradition says, spring will come in another six weeks. Conveniently, this coincides with the vernal equinox, another pagan holiday.

In places where the bear has long been absent, other hibernating animals have been appointed weather-watchers on Candlemas. The hedgehog is a favorite, and the badger is sometimes mentioned. But the hedgehog is absent in North America, and the badger has long retreated to the upper Midwest. In the open farm country of Pennsylvania, the bear also retreated to far off wooded regions, so the groundhog, which proliferates in cleared woodland, became the designated officiant of the winter holiday.

The groundhog is a member of a family called the marmots, found in some form throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The groundhog is a marmot unique to North America. Like the bear, she often stands on two legs, and she hibernates in the winter. Unlike the bear, she is a true hibernator, not stirring at all during the winter by her own inclination. Hence the town mascots, the most famous of which is Punxsutawney Phil, who are prodded awake on the fateful day.

Groundhog Day exemplifies a Euro-pagan tradition adapted successfully to North American soil.

Sometimes It’s Not as Bad as You Think

January 20, 2012


Witchcraft was in the mainstream news last Friday afternoon and as usual I cringed at the headlines, expecting more of the same: some con artist exposed for swindling gullible people through bogus hex claims, a satanic crime syndicate described as witchcraft, or the rantings of a paranoid preacher. Instead, I found a small group of real witches performing a real spell with invited media participation.

Witches gathered on Friday the 13th at Crow Haven Corner to help New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady break the “jinx” that many football fans believe temporarily follows exposure on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. Witches showered mojo on all Patriots, especially Brady, to help the team perform well in their Saturday game against the Denver Broncos and legendary quarterback Tim Tebow.

Media coverage was largely neutral, with the witches given space to explain and perform their ritual. The witches emphasized that they meant Tebow no harm, but predicted the Broncos would not win. One news headline did make the statement, totally unsupported in the accompanying story, that Salem witches were “hexing Tim Tebow.” Lamentably, it is common for editors to write headlines without bothering to read the articles in their own papers.

The magical element in Saturday’s game made good copy, since Tebow is the conservative Christian darling, painting 316 (for Matthew 3:16) into his makeup before the game and getting down on his knees on the playing field to thank the Lord for victory. In Saturday night’s game, the Broncos were routed by the Patriots, 10 to 45. The Patriots reportedly played brilliantly, with Brady passing 363 yards to Tebow’s 145.

In the aftermath of the Patriot victory, crickets were chirping in the press regarding witchcraft involvement in the game. Had the Broncos won, the more fanatical Christian types would have loudly declared victory for God and Jesus, as well as the team, but witches are rather skittish about calling attention to their power. It’s just as well; in the larger scheme of things this was only a football game. The greater victory was some unembroidered public exposure. Even much of the Christian media reported it straight.

Crow Haven Corner is my favorite occult shop in Salem. I had a psychic reading with Lorelei, one of the organizers of the ritual, a year and a half ago. At that time I met the Fourth Degree canine member of the coven, Chico, who can be seen in the video link lending his support to the Patriots.

MLK Day 2012

January 13, 2012

Nurses march in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Photo by David Shankbone.

I had the good fortune of living for 12 wonderful years in Arizona. There are many good people there, and scenery is unparalleled in its variety and beauty. Discerning citizens agreed, however, that leaving the state for a visit elsewhere was one of the (many) downsides. It was embarrassing. People would invariably ask about felonies committed by elected Arizona officials that would make a Chicago mayor blush. They would ask about boneheaded actions of these officials, like refusing Federal health-care dollars on the principle that it was socialism or refusing to implement the results of public referendums. And of course they would ask about Arizona’s refusal to adopt the Martin Luther King holiday.

I don’t know who came up with the idea of the King holiday, but the first effective push for a paid holiday commemorating Dr. King came from labor unions as a part of collective bargaining agreements. Later Representative John Conyers introduced legislation to make King’s birthday a Federal holiday. The road to acceptance of the King holiday was rocky in many places, but none more so than in Arizona, the only state where the holiday was established by public referendum. Lawmakers punted the issue to the voters, citing concerns about “cost,” effectively hiding their racism behind an anti-labor stance. Labor unions responded by making the issue costly indeed, particularly when Pro football players successfully lobbied to change the venue for the 1990 Super Bowl, which had been slated for Arizona. Following a second referendum, Arizona celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1993 as a state and federal holiday.

If the commemoration had not been so bitterly fought for, I probably would find myself disliking the holiday altogether, because it seems to me that the further we go in celebrating the man, the further we retreat from his vision. King fought with the African-American people who found themselves at or near the bottom of the have-nots, and at the same time saw beyond this to the evils of having classes of disenfranchised people at all. Ending poverty became an obsession with him, and he said “I’m as concerned about white poverty as much as I’m concerned about Negro poverty” (July 4, 1965, Atlanta). He said “Our only hope today lies in our….declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism” (April 4, 1967, New York).

Today the income gap between the top 1% and the bottom 99% is the largest since the 1920s. The US military now has the power to detain American citizens indefinitely without trial. Alabama has joined Arizona in a law harassing immigrants for documentation papers. And speaking of documentation, new voting laws disenfranchise the poorest voters, many of whom are African- or Mexican-American, by requiring papers that are difficult for the lowest income people to acquire. All in one year. It’s an anti-Dream trifecta.

I understand there’s a popular Broadway play right now about King, and his place as one of the great men in American history remains assured. Nothing wrong with that. Yet there’s something going on here that rubs me the wrong way. How can you exalt a person’s life and at the same time ignore everything they stood for? That’s what we do for one day, every January.

Hello Cool World!

January 6, 2012

test by santosh
Web pages are so much fun. Like interior decorating for people without houses.


In the course of my research I discovered (belatedly) that some women do not like the color pink. Who knew?
However, I am sure that my richly discerning readers will recognize that the background to these blog pages is NOT
PINK. It is a cross between pale salmon and bleached coral.

Here’s to a colorful new year!