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.