The Tarot game is a pastime of Italian origin based on a deck of 78 cards. 22 of them are called Trump-cards (from now on we will use the archetypal Italian translation “Trionfi” that means “Triumphs”) and have allegorical meanings, while the remaining 56 cards are marked by 4 suits (Swords, Cups, Batons, Coins). The cards of the second group are further divided into 10 pip cards (from 1 to 10) and 4 Court Cards (Jack, Knight, Queen, King).
As widely witnessed by literature and movies, the recreational purpose of the Tarots has been widely overcome by their presumed foreseeing powers. However, due to an odd twist of fate, a paradox hangs over these cards: they should shed light on the future, but their actual past is still unknown.
The origin of the Tarot game is in fact still subject to debate. However, one of its possible “ancestors” is traced by scholars in the first ever known playing cards in Europe. These foreign decks came from Moslem dominions along the Mediterranean coasts during the fourteenth century: their name was naips, as they were mentioned in 1371 by the Catalan poet Jaume March. A contemporary card game called in Saracen language nayb must have been deeply similar (or maybe the same thing) to March’s naips. It was mentioned in a fourteenth century “Chronicle of Viterbo (an Italian city)“ : the Chronicle recorded the first introduction of this entertainment in the city in 1379.
Then it took a few decades to find traces of a real “Ludus Triumphorum” (“Game of Trionfi” in Latin), that would later take the widespread name of the Tarot game. It is interesting to identify the strokes of genius that led to the invention of this pastime, because they will help us examining the graphic work that you can see at the beginning of this article: the cover artwork of the music album “VII: The Chariot”, which has been released in 2019 by the Greek black-metal band Order of the Ebon Hand.
Let us then resume the discussion where we suspended it: the first appearance of the game of Trionfi. It cannot certainly be placed after 16th September 1440, since on that day the Lord of Rimini (an Italian city) Sigismondo Malatesta (1417 – 1468) received as a gift a deck of well refined «naibi a trionfi», that had been decorated with the nobleman’s insignia, as the author of the gift wrote in a note.
Unfortunately further documents concerning the exact “year zero” of the game are lacking, therefore we have to turn to theories. One of them places the invention-year around 1430, and suggests the court of Filippo Maria Visconti (1392 – 1447), duke of Milan, as “workshop”. A second hypothesis assigns the paternity of the pastime to a Pisan prince who died in 1419 on the basis of a controversial anonymous painting of the seventeenth century. Someone refers also to another theory based on a document from 1442 that finds out the “cradle” of the Trionfi at the Este court in the Italian city of Ferrara.
Anyway, regardless of the precise date of conception and the inventor’s identity, there is common element in the different theories: the “Ludus Triumphorum” was born in the early decades of the fifteenth century in the aristocratic context of an Italian court. In fact the true novelty of the game consisted in adding to the 56 “common” cards 22 more cards embellished with an allegorical meaning (exactly the Trionfi). The allegories in question had purposes of moral teaching and spiritual elevation: for example this is the case of the cards that represent, respectively, the virtue of Temperance and the one of Justice; just as the Wheel card undoubtedly warns about the frailty of the human condition.As far as the ethical purposes are concerned, an evident similarity can be found between the game of Trionfi and a work in verse with the same name that was developed over the course of about twenty years by the Italian writer Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374).
In fact the author at the basis of the poem intended to celebrate the virtues that bring human beings closer to the divine; this encomiastic intent is demonstrated by the structure of the work itself. It is precisely divided into 6 “Triumphs” so that the next prevails constantly over the previous one. Starting from the initial Triumph of Love, the Triumph of Modesty overcomes Love; then the Triumph of Death overcomes Modesty; the Triumph of Fame overcomes Death; the Triumph of Time overcomes Fame; until the final Triumph of Eternity overcomes Time.
The 6 Petrarch’s Triumphs clearly correspond to as many cards in the game of Trionfi, but they do not explain the meaning of the remaining 16 figures, and this is understandable: given the variety and complexity of their subjects, it is evident that the artistic, philosophical and religious works that inspired the cards of the Trionfi must have been many and manifold. They should be sought at least throughout the whole fourteenth century.
Therefore, let’s focus on one single card: the Chariot (the Carro in Italian). We can clearly see a recent version of it in the artwork at the beginning of the article, but the iconographic features of this card have remained almost unchanged over the centuries. It constantly portrays the figure of a man in arms firmly driving a vehicle similar to an ancient Roman chariot, that is furiously pulled by two horses.
The martial tone of the image evidently recalls desire for self-affirmation and the steadfast will to achieve an intent. The graphic work chosen by Order of the Ebon Hand is from the first glance consistent with this meaning. In the introductory notes to “VII: The Chariot” the Greek band has in fact summarized the allegory at the basis of the card with the words “war” and “fate”, and then explained how precisely the clash between the concepts of Identity and Death, and between Freedom and Oblivion is the leitmotif of the album. The conquest of an objective becomes, always using the words of the band, a ruthless race where the Chariot, metaphorically seen as an “instrument of manifestation” of the clash, takes on different forms from time to time depending on the conflict in progress.
For example, it initially takes the features of the gargantuan armor-plated warship that entitles the opening song of “VII: The Chariot”. Instead, in the sixth song of the album, which is dedicated to the Homeric hero Ajax Son of Telamon, the battle does not rage on the sea nor in the fields in front of the city of Troy: it takes place in the soul of the Greek champion himself. Ajax cannot bear his own failure as a warrior nor the shame that follows it. Consequently he is appalled by the awareness that each of his next days will be inexorably empty, and that each of them will only have the task of bringing him closer to death. The hero’s decision is clear; however, the cry of rebellion that we read in the lyrics of the song («This I Cannot Stand») is unequivocal: Ajax gets on the chariot of his desperate pride in a race against oblivion.
I will certainly leave to the reader’s curiosity to find in the remaining tracks of the album the other expressions of the conflict concept that Order of the Ebon Hand have illustrated with their music. Anyway, let us point out one last detail of the cover’s illustration: the coats of the two horses. The former is white and the latter is black… If considered on the whole with the Chariot and its driver, they recall the theory Plato (428 BC – 347 BC) came up with to represent the concept of soul.
In fact in his writing “Phaedrus” the Greek philosopher proposed an allegory in these terms: a charioteer wishes to drive a winged chariot towards the supra-celestial region (“hyperuranium”) which is the “realm of ideas”. Therefore he must necessarily lead both the white horse and the black horse pulling the vehicle to the same direction. The charioteer personifies the rational soul; the docile white horse stands for the will at the service of reason; the recalcitrant black horse runs after to «love for food, drink and amorous pleasures» and it is also known as “concupiscible soul”. The most difficult task for the driver is metaphorically to convince the black horse to follow the road towards hyperuranium.
As mentioned above, the works that inspired the cards of the Trionfi were certainly many. Given the characteristics that we have just examined, it is more than possible that Plato’s winged chariot contributed to specifically define the iconography and allegorical concept of the Trionfi’s Chariot, all the more so considering that some representations of the card expressly show the two horses as opposed.
It is also undeniable that the conflict between the white horse and the black horse of the Philosopher shares several points with the interpretation of the Chariot card proposed by Order of the Ebon Hand, and therefore with the concept of conflict dealt with in their album. The whole figure of Plato’s winged chariot, in fact, can also be read as an allegory of the clash of the human being first of all with himself. The charioteer-rational soul struggles to reach an ideal condition, but a part of himself, that is the black horse-concupiscible soul, pulls him in the opposite direction: the soul is consequently involved both in an “external” conflict and in an “inner” conflict. The charioteer faces the conflict and he “is” the conflict: he struggles in this continuous battle to push himself “upward”, towards the perfection of ideas… towards the Triumph.