(Letter to the editor, rejected by Antiquities Journal Monthly. Self-published and distributed at Liggett & LaSalle University's Student Union. Reprinted with the permission of Dr. John C. Miles.)
Did you know that Jeremiah Rosemont picks his nose? In his sleep, he picks his nose. Did you know that? I have no beef with you. You publish the excitable dithering of Dr. Jeremiah Rosemont to sell copies of your ridiculous magazine, he of the undercover pick, the somnambulant harvest, and I don't bite my thumb at subscribers of Antiquities Journal Monthly, either. Though, for the duration of this letter, do your best to keep up with the smart kids, ok, Gentle-minded Readers? The only reason most of you buy this rag is so you can feel like Indiana Jones with a copy under your arm while downing an espresso on Boston Common, and an article like Rosemont's makes you feel big-brained for having read it, even if there are too many long words in it, because he's a Tarot Authority. The only value you otherwise put on an antique tarot card is the final auction price—or maybe the glory of running back to your museum curator and shouting, "Mommy, mommy, look what I found!" You'll just have to play at raiders of lost arks during the next trip to Cancún. Because class is now in session.
I don't break silence for much; I'm so happy I could wet my pants to be out of your world of Harrison Ford wannabes and curators who'd whore their mothers for national cred. But Jeremiah Rosemont's droning about capital-T "Tarot" to the Antiquities Journal Monthly in the last issue ("Debunking the Occult Origins of the Tarot," Antiquities Journal Monthly. Vol. IV; No. 2) made me howl like a dog with its leg in a trap. Consider this letter my own chewed off paw.
No occult origins for tarot, eh? Rosemont, Rosemont, Rosemont. I'm surprised AJM and its high premium on adventure (!) and mystery (!!) bought your tidy little turd of an article.
Don't get me wrong. I have nothing but respect for Rosemont's hidebound, plodding scholarship. I agree enthusiastically with his thesis on five key points that we forged together as drunken undergraduates. Hey, I know! Let's arrange them in patented Antiquities Journal Monthly bullet points, Editor, so your subscribers can better picture these ideas in their pointy little heads:
• There is nothing Egyptian about tarot.
• Tarot is of Italian make, mind, and origin.
• Tarot is no older than 1420.
• Tarot was designed to be a game.
• Gertrude Moakley's work, tying tarot to the Roman triumphal march, rocks.
There. See? I can be civil.
But simply because neither of us is performing wow-dude, New Age, hermetic, astro-numero-kabbalistic gymnastics to position tarot cards in magical Egypt, it doesn't mean tarot is "completely devoid of occult origin." Tarot is a vibrating, living, literal myth, an echo of Rome's foundation story and the occult disciplines embedded there. So Rosemont is dead wrong: Divining occult knowledge was always a resonating component of tarot from the creation of the very first deck.
Let's press on. So Indiana Jones can keep up, I'll divide my argument in two.
Tarot's very structure points to a divinatory tradition, and we need look no further than the sources that Rosemont cites in order to learn which tradition that is.
As Rosemont says, any worthwhile fisticuffs over tarot's origins should begin with Gertrude Moakley's seminal work, The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family: An Iconographic and Historical Study (New York: The New York Public Library. 1966). But first, let's get the treasure hunters up to speed on her thesis so they can enjoy the fight, too.
Moakley said that Bonifacio Bembo and other tarot artists of the early Renaissance were evoking the "triumphs," those lavish, celebratory marches of Rome's early Classic Period. To quote Rosemont paraphrasing Moakley, "Tarot cards were triumphal parades in miniature." The design choice of depicting ranks of suited knights, kings, and queens was clearly deliberate. It was extant. And Moakley's thesis has been expanded upon in numerous papers since 1966, so Rosemont is on solid ground with this tie to the triumphal rite.
But what was this rite? Why was the triumphus conducted at all? As you know, Indiana, triumphs were parades celebrating victorious Caesars and war generals, victors who were called triumphators. The victor and his troops entered the walled city of Rome through a special gate called the Porta Triumphalis (named for this very rite), rounded the Circus Flaminius and Circus Maximus, ascended the Via Sacra Capital, and finished at the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. Pulled by a team of white horses, the triumphator's chariot was the centerpiece of the parade, and, accordingly, the triumphator himself was decked in the trappings of the divine—a purple and gold toga, the Etruscan crown of laurel leaves, and his face painted red, just as the waiting god in the temple was painted. The triumphus unleashed a carnival atmosphere, with rank-and-file soldiers singing ribald songs of mockery about their general as he drove before him the captured enemy, animals from remote, conquered lands, and his spoils of war for the celebrating citizens of Rome to view.
This rite was conducted for nearly a millennium—until Rome fell with barbarians fornicating in its streets. But a thousand years after that, at the dawn of the Renaissance, the triumphal rite was reborn along with so many other Classic traditions. Instead of Caesars, these Renaissance fad-triumphs celebrated "virtues." For a wedding, "Love" might ride in triumph, while for a political inauguration, "Justice" would triumph. These images from the rapprezentazioni were exactly what Benifacio Bembo was evoking in the first tarot deck.
Back to Rome.
The red-painted triumphator disembarks from his chariot. He climbs the steps to join the chief Etruscan diviner called the summus haruspex, who waits with his attendant haruspices holding a white bull tethered. The crowd waits, too. A breath is taken, inhaled by all of Rome. Incense smokes on altars in every home. The bull's head is forced down below the level of its chest, which exposes the hump between its neck and back, presenting a clear passage to its vital organs. The triumphator then takes the mighty spear of Jove from one of the haruspices, raises it like a thunder bolt, and drives the spear between the cervical vertebrae, through the heart and lungs, crying, "Io, Jupiter!" The haruspices then roll the animal onto its back and disembowel the bull so that the summus haruspex can "read" the liver. It was his job to divine whether or not the god had accepted the sacrifice from his twin, the red-painted triumphator.
Now, for his own purposes, Rosemont cites my article "One in Vermillion" (Orbis Tertius Hermeticus Magazine, Vol XXI, No. 3). Yet Rosemont willfully ignores the connection between the divinatory tool of tarot and the divinatory climax of the triumphus. Why? Because if he had discussed the ultimate purpose of the Roman rite, which was to "divine" a cosmic decree on behalf of Rome, Rosemont would have been agreeing with me that tarot has its roots in the occult. Instead, Rosemont hid behind his pedestrian need for status as "Tarot Authority" and "World-renowned Scholar," rather than lie down with "flea-bitten dogs" like me. Did I mention he picks his nose in his sleep?
Bottom line: Tarot and Roman occult divination are structurally intertwined.
So if Rosemont wants a tarot "devoid of occult origins," he'll have to seek support elsewhere than the seminal work of Gertrude Moakley. Worse for Rosemont, tarot is bound to even more blatantly magical matters—namely, a sect of wall builders and an ancient spell dating back to the Bronze Age, all bound up in the story of occultists Romulus and Remus.
With me so far, tomb raiders?
But before walking down that road, let me define the word "myth." You AJM readers are too busy bidding on moldy bones, so you probably stopped reading papers long ago. You aren't familiar with my work at Liggett & LaSalle University, where I created the Department of Urban Mythology, so, to be clear, I don't use the word "myth" to describe calcified morality tales, Joseph Campbell's self-help bliss-chasing, or cute fables. In my world, myth is (a) an oral narrative that commemorates a cosmic rip, that bursts from humanity like a rooster-tail of blood, and (b) a rite commemorating that narrative and/or event. Without those two factors, you're talking about folklore, not myth. Though Jeremiah Rosemont used his authority and status several years ago to liberate me from my tenure at Liggett & LaSalle, and the burden of the salary that went with it, my life's work is still a search for living, modern myths that make sense of the world—but more, that make the world. Not to tell a "true myth" is to submit to madness, and, conversely, to tell a true myth is to work one's fingers into the warp and weft of reality.
You used to agree with me on this, once upon a time, Rosemont.
Now Romulus and Remus's story was a true myth in its day, more central and long lasting than any other in Rome. Just as tarot is uniquely Italian, so is the myth of Romulus and Remus. The triumphus rite and the tarot both evoke this sacred foundation story.
Born to a Vestal Virgin named Rhea Silvia, as the story goes, the babes Romulus and Remus were exposed in the wilderness by Rhea's enraged uncle, suckled by a she-wolf, and raised as foster-children by shepherds. When they come of age, the high-spirited twins depose their uncle the king, and quickly set about the task of founding a new city in the aftermath of their insurrection.
The twins were also augurs, diviners, trained in an occult practice called the "Etruscan Discipline." Their religion, handed down through generations in Etruria (northern Italy) was comprised of three books or colleges. Authorities on the subject of tarot (red alert, nose picker!) should note that one of these books, according to the historian Festus, covered "prescriptions concerning the founding of cities . . . [and] the laws relating to city gates." In short, Romulus and Remus were the right tools for the right job: Magicians tasked with the magic of city building.
In order to show how Romulus and Remus are the godfathers of tarot, I need first to remind you Ivy League rubberneckers that the Etruscans were something very odd, by all accounts. They're thought to be part of the Tyrsenoi, members of the Anatolian Diaspora (circa 1200 B.C.E.), who had migrated from Asia Minor into eastern and southern Europe. Some hold that the Etruscans were indigenous to northern Italy, but the archaeological record has their sophisticated cities simply appearing, as if these people had landed here all at once.
Which they did. The Etruscans were descendants of a late-great civilization in the previous millennium, a city that was sacked around 1250 B.C.E. by raiding Greeks. Etymologically and culturally speaking, Etruscans were "ex-Trojans," and the occult, city-building magic of Romulus and Remus, therefore, was a wall-spell, called the imperium, smuggled through the shattered walls of Troy.
As I discussed in my paper, Urban Mythology: An Alcoholics Anonymous Program in 1991 Sarajevo (Liggett & LaSalle University Press. 1993), the disciplina etrusca was an occult tract on survival and civic planning that preserved the religious traditions of Troy. The discipline was a strategy for a post-apocalyptic, shell-shocked culture to chart a path out of complete collapse—a strategy and mystic discipline so effective that it survives to this day, finding new guise in the Twelve Step's addiction/"rock bottom"/recovery narrative in former Yugoslavia. Romulus and Remus, via the Etruscan Discipline, were charged with raising the sacked city, casting the wall-spell, re-making the world, and making it Trojan.
I can just see your lips tightening in anger. I can see you saying, "Perhaps, Miles," which would actually mean something vicious like, John Miles is a bipolar freak who shouldn't mix his meds with alcohol. Maybe you've abandoned your investigations into awe and passion, but as for me, I can see that you're holding this very article which does not yet exist and sneering down into these as yet unprinted pages. You're wearing the shirt, the brown and blue shirt I bought, the one with the mustard yellow stripes. You're in a bathroom somewhere, aren't you? In Rome? You have coins from Nicaragua and Honduras in your pocket. You should shave.
Oh, look, you just read that last paragraph. Don't look so mad. I made the jump we always talked about, while you chose static safety. In your world, the academic world, I'm a disgrace. But in mine, I'm up and over and out and away.
So Romulus and Remus assassinated their uncle/king and what happened next impacts every tarot scholar, card reader, bridge player, and builder of empires ever since. Classic writers tell us that the twin brothers held a contest to see where their new city should be built—or IF their new city should be built.
The brothers read the skies for augury to decide the difference between them, and by virtue of having seen more birds, Romulus claimed victory. So he began plowing a trench, a great magic circle for the wall-spell called imperium, laying the foundation of his new city's defenses. Remus challenged his brother and went so far as to leap across Romulus's trench to show him that the guarantees of this world were weak, that walls, even magic ones, never stand forever. According to the Alcoholics Anonymous slash Etruscan Discipline cult in Yugoslavia, this Remus was not just leaping a trench; he was leaping beyond the promise of a resurrected Troy, wars, peace, family, tribe, imperium, five hundred years of Trojan diaspora, and his brother's authority.
The better magician died when Romulus slew Remus for endangering the ancient spell. We hold that with Remus went a secret, other way. We hold that Remus confirmed this when, according to Ovid, he returned from the dead, coming back to console his foster-mother. Standing at the foot of her bed, the shade of Remus told her, En ego dimidium vestri parsque altera voti.
I am the half, and the other side, of your hope.
Remember our oath, Rosemont? The circus? And the circle we drew? Our search for the other side?
Whatever the reason behind their argument, all accounts agree: Remus jumped the trench, and, to salvage his broken imperium, Romulus slew Remus.
Now, interestingly, Romulus was not branded a kin-killer for his action, nor was he even punished. No, the town was named for Romulus and he was eventually deified. Nonetheless, Rome understood his guilt, and by association, their own. Romans knew an innocent had died, and so, they had reason to make amends, to gather the elements of this cosmic rip into the triumphus rite and to atone for losing the other half of their hope:
• Breaching the magic circle was remembered with the gate called Porta Triumphalis;
• Etruscan divination was evoked with liver-reading
• Remus's defiance was remembered with the troops' mockery and ribald songs
• Romulus was remembered with a march of triumph
• Remus, with a spill of innocent blood.
Tarot is a triumphal rite in miniature, and as in the triumphus, all the elements of the story are gathered together. It's the brothers' myth and a gathering of the world—the conqueror, the conquered, the senator and citizen and soldier bringing low the mighty with mockery, the vanity of Romulus, and the leap of Remus—all here, a randomized, pictorialized, shuffle-able depiction of the triumphator approaching god for an answer. And coming to this weave of spells are generations upon generations of askers, begging to peek behind the veil, to stand on Remus's corpse and look out over the wall. Humans so badly want to know that our stations are safe in the world. This is the legacy of the conqueror, and it is you, as you've come to be, but it's not the occultist's way. It's not the way you promised to follow. Now your way is the authority of one over another, brother over brother, status over submission, might over awe, safety over passion, you over me, forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.
But in my tradition, we read this myth, the rite, and the cards a different way. One brother stayed behind, one jumped beyond, and the ghost returns to encourage those who've picked themselves up after their own apocalypses. All the little triumphs, all the injustices, all the questioning, and all the answers, in all those cards.
Completely devoid of occult origin? Christ, you say the stupidest shit, Rosemont.
Dr. John C. Miles