The Big Idea: Barth Anderson

Just because we’re in the middle of a Reader Request Week, it doesn’t mean we should ignore The Big Idea series. Indeed not — and here’s the awesome Barth Anderson, to talk about his latest novel, The Magician and the Fool, in which an exploration of the history of the Tarot leads the characters in the novel down unexpected roads… and (naturally enough) into danger. Publishers Weekly says “Those willing to surrender themselves to this talented author’s compelling vision will find a fevered dream universe where understanding in the normal sense is probably not possible, nor even necessary.” Which makes perfect sense when dealing with Tarot. And now, Anderson explains how he stacked this particular deck of cards in his novel’s favor.


Finding a fresh take on tarot cards’ origins is a tough task. It’s a subject that’s been played out for centuries, after all, but I think I struck a new tune about tarot’s history in my new book, The Magician and The Fool.

Tarot has a compelling, confusing past, full of wannabe occultists and self-styled scholars mucking up the very history they say they’re investigating. One can kind of understand why, because at tarot’s core is a mystery: There is no first, original deck that we know of, or even a reliable etymology of the word “tarot.” Consequently, the subject of tarot’s origins is ripe for people seeing what they want to see in it.

My standards were very high for the tarot content in this book about scholars dabbling in the mystic, because proof of occult origins for tarot is sketchy. The first record that tarot was even used for divination comes nearly one hundred years after their creation. Also, the cards are no older than roughly 1420 at the earliest, created in Italy, and the original, primary purpose of the cards was to play a game called tarocchi, which was probably of Italian origin, too.

So historically speaking, that’s it. That’s the 411. Divination? Gypsies? Masons? Not so much. But I was writing a fantasy mystery, so I was willing to speculate on an occult origin, nonetheless .

But it had it to ring true historically — in particular, I didn’t want to rely on the old chestnut that tarot had Egyptian roots. Tarot has a habit of reflecting popular culture back at itself, and the Egyptian-origin theory is a slice of wishful thinking from Paris circa 1800, when Egypt and tarot were in vogue simultaneously (Napoleon had just sacked Egypt and Josephine was a tarot fan). The very idea that anything wondrous could come out of Italy? Sacre bleu!

After completing my first draft, the narrative had magic Dumpster divers, a menacing, pre-Egyptian god bearing the head of an extinct species of sheep, a mess-with-your-head structure, and a stormy gay relationship between two crazed historians. Fun, but, sadly, still no fresh ideas about tarot’s origins.

So after the first draft was complete, I took my research away from Egypt and started digging in ancient Rome. I chose Rome because the structure of a tarot deck, according to the seminal work of scholar Gertrude Moakley, was designed to imitate the Fifteenth Century triumphal parades in Rome and Milan. These parades were enormously popular (with suited ranks of royalty riding on display) because they re-established the tradition of the ancient Roman “triumph” held for victorious generals.

This Renaissance festival, however, was a bloodless, mundane imitation of the ancient Roman triumph, a rite that reflected on Rome’s most important myth: Its foundation story. Interestingly enough, the triumph also had at its climax the reading of a sacrificed bull’s liver.

So, my theory was (drum roll for the Great Big Fat Idea, please!), tarot cards were evoking this ancient rite and its occult liver-reading, a bit of divination that was critical for ancient Romans because there was a fratricidal murder committed in their founding narrative.

In other words, they had reason to consult the occult.

In the myth, Rome’s founding twins, Romulus and Remus, held a contest of augury (!) to determine where the Eternal City should be built. The contest ended with Romulus slaying Remus and naming the new city after himself. The triumphal parade wound through Rome in such a way as to pass key geographical reminders of the famous twins’ lives (circling the hill where the she-wolf raised them for example), so for the tarot designer(s) to evoke Rome’s ritual parade was to evoke the myth, the augury contest, the ancient murder, and the occult consultation with the divine.

To my knowledge, this connection between tarot and the occult aspect of the triumph of antiquity has never been made before.*

The point of all this? To create a cosmic mystery for one of my book’s crazed scholars to uncover, and to build a solid foundation on which my characters and narrative could dance. Great Big Ideas have to resonate meaningfully in a story or they never rise above the level of wacky scholastics. While this book is about wacky scholastics, in finding Romulus and Remus I’d also found a tragic myth loaded with pain and poetry which could mirror the fiery relationship at the core of the main narrative.

And that’s where the second draft started.

* John C. Miles, one of The Magician and The Fool’s main characters, wrote a letter to the editor of Orbis Tertius Hermeticus magazine, discussing the origins of tarot, which Strange Horizons has graciously agreed to reprint. Watch for it in May or June.


Read an except of The Magician and the Fool here. Visit Barth Anderson’s LiveJournal here.

11 Comments on “The Big Idea: Barth Anderson”

  1. So, my theory was (drum roll for the Great Big Fat Idea, please!), tarot cards were evoking this ancient rite and its occult liver-reading, a bit of divination that was critical for ancient Romans because there was a fratricidal murder committed in their founding narrative.

    Well that sounds like fun.

    I have an alternative. The Tarot was not invented for divination at all but instead was a book of “heretical” knowledge.

    That the Italian word Tarocchi, derives from Arabic turuq, meaning the four paths. And taraqqi is a Sufi “school” while also meaning “ascending”

    That the Qabalah and the Tarot were both inspired by Saracen Sufic influence

    That the Tarot came into existence at the same time the Italian-Jewish community was producing the Qabalah (the 22 cards of the major arcana can be associated with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and there are 22 pathways between the sephiroth of the Qabalah)

    It’s fun to let your imagination run wild…

  2. This looks fun, I’ll keep an eye out for it. Thanks!

    I’ve dug around in this area a bit, myself, and of the many theories I’ve seen the most convincing (bar not set very high, here…) is that the major arcana were invented by the troubadours as a series of images used as a storyboard for an illiterate audience in the 12th-13th century. From here, of course, people tend to want to then link the troubadours to either the Sufis in Spain or the Gypsies, depending upon what historical axe they’re trying to grind, so who really knows.

    As far as the minors go, the most convincing historical idea I’ve seen traces them to China through Persia and they were always used to play games with.

    Not sure how a storyboard and a game got associated, however, but there is some pretty nifty history behind the cards, to be sure.

  3. Hey Frank! Loads of conjecture are possible with tarot history, so nothing can be definitively ruled out.

    But you know, my problem with basing anything on the number 22 or the so-called major arcana (I prefer the less woo-woo term “trump” ) is that the earlist decks had any number of trump cards, not necessarily 22. In fact, there’s growing interest and agreement among tarot scholars, that the earliest tarots probably had a 5 x 14 structure — that is, 4 suits of 14 cards each, and one trump suit, also with 14 cards. This theory is based on loads of primary evidence, such as a 1442 memo, perhaps the earliest referring to tarot, that says the deck contained 70 cards total (5 X 14 = 70).

    There *could* be a correspondence between the 22-trump deck and the Qabalah, but if so, it came well after tarot’s invention, probably in the late 15th or early 16th centuries when the structure of the deck began to solidify and card-players began to agree on how to play tarocchi and/or trionfi. You *need* 22 cards to play the former.

    As for etymology, noted tarot scholar Ross Caldwell has the definitive dirt, that the name points probably to Italian origin: “Tarocus,” which meant foolish or to play the fool in vernacular Italian of the day. Caldwell sites several dictionaries from early 16th century that claim this is the source of the word tarocchi.

  4. Mensley,

    Yeah, I agree. The cards most certainly came to Italy from China via Persia. The Chinese invented paper, the Persians picked it up rom them, so the whole notion of a deck with which to play cards most cerrtainly came to italy from that part of the world.

    Which is why I don’t really buy the troubador or gypsey theory. The images of the trump deck in very early tarots correspond very closely to a poem by Petrarch called “Il Trionfi” (the triumph!) — not simply to the words of Petrarch, but to actual plates in the book in which it was printed, with Temperance, Chastity and Death depicted riding in triumph.

    The correlation between a poem called “Il Trionfi” and a game that relied on trump-taking is too tight — even the cards were called “il trionfi at the time. It just seems the simplest explanation that the cards — all of them — were invented for trump-taking games.

  5. Barth,

    I wasn’t aware of the Petrarch stuff, and I’ll certainly look it up, thanks.

    However, you have established correspondence, but not causality, for the majors, so I’m going to need more. Are you sure that Petrarch came up with the ideas? Or did he get inspiration from the same source that caused the cards?

    I’m still positing that the minors came from China via Persia, but we’re still unsure how the majors happened and why the two types of cards came to be conflated.

    Thank you for responding, though, and I’m still looking forward to reading you book! What fun…

  6. Wasn’t the Egyptian connection to the Tarot an invention by Aleister Crowley? No one proposed this before he did, did they?

  7. Mensley,

    Yeah, “causality” is almost impossible to determine so all we have is reasonable conjecture. Petrarch didn’t invent the concepts depicted in the cards, of course, but the structural similarity between Petrarch’s poem, describing virtues and qualities riding in Roman triumph, and tarot cards which were called “trionfi” originally, is more than a coincidence, I think.

    As for the “majors” it’s important to remember that Trionfi and tarocchi were trump-taking games. The “majors” were never a separate deck. They were the trump-taking suit of the tarot deck.

  8. Frank,

    A Freemason turned self-styled tarot scholar named Court de Gebelin first proposed an occult Egyptian origin for the cards in the late 1700’s. This misconception was entrenched during the Napoleonic era by Ettiela and the celebrity psychic of her day, Madame Le Normand. Crowley was heavily influenced by de Gebelin, I think, but I’m not up on Crowley at all.

  9. Barth,

    Crowley was heavily influenced by de Gebelin, I think, but I’m not up on Crowley at all.

    Well I know that he and Waite were both members of the Golden Dawn. And that Waite was a real Tarot scholar. This, of course resulted in the famous Rider Deck.

    It seems to me that Crowley and A.E. Waite were rivals, or, I think more precisely, Crowley considered Waite a rival.

    Crowley eventually split with the Golden Dawn and for his own occult club (Ordo Templi Orientis or OTO) and this resulted in Crowley publishing his Thoth deck which he claimed was establishing the correct, Egyptian, tradition.

    Crowley’s justification (and key) were published in his books The Book of Thoth & Liber 777. But my impression has always been that this was mostly bogus.

    But then again, I don’t have a high regard for Crowley, so that may be some of it….

  10. I’m a tarot symbolism fan and promptly ordered the book from Amazon based on this post. I might not have heard about were it not for WHATEVER… Keep on doing the Good Work. :)

  11. Frank,

    Yeah, Crowley deserves his own books, all to himself. He certainly re-defined tarot (for the worse, in my humble O, but hey).


    Thanks for ordering! Let me know what you think of it when you finish. What do you mean when you say you’re a fan of tarot symbolism? :)


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