A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. March's Theme: "Pets"
Volume 4 Issue 3 ISSN# 1708-3265
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Feline Influences on Cartoesotericism
Or What's with all the Frickin' Cat Tarots?!
with Jeannette Roth
Note: This is a SERIOUS work of research. Really. Mostly. Therefore, like any good research paper, it must meet the MFCR (Minimum Footnote Citation Requirement) set by the International Board of Pretentiously Erudite Publications. However, being published for the first time via the medium of the Internet, the necessary footnotes cannot be placed at the end of each page for quick and easy reference -- the entire article, long as it is, is of course only one "page." Therefore, through the power of HTML parameters, we have made it possible for readers to access the footnotes by simply hovering the mouse over the citation number. After a second, the text of the footnote will appear -- that is, if your browser software is compatible with this feature. If not, well . the text of all the footnotes has been provided at the end of the article, and can be accessed quickly by clicking the citation numbers, which have been linked to the appropriate notes. Use these links if you must, but remember: Timeless Spirit Magazine is not responsible for any motion sickness or vertigo you may experience by the repeated up-and-down motion of checking the footnote reference and then returning to the main text. In fact, we recommend that using the actual links be attempted only by trained professionals, and parents should provide strict supervision when being used by children under 13 years of age. You have been warned.
Fido may be Man's Best Friend, but apparently it's Fluffers who has captured the hearts and minds of tarot enthusiasts. For every dog-themed tarot published, four or more cat-themed decks have hit the market. The sheer volume of such decks begs the question: from whence springs this fortuneteller's fascination with felines? This propensity for pussycats? This tarotist tendency toward tabbies?
Having run out of alliterative interrogatives on the subject, I decided to further examine and explore this esoteric enigma, (1) as a service to my Timeless Spirit readers. (2) And after an exhaustive, in-depth investigation involving not one, not two, but three whole Google searches, a small but promising lead finally appeared
Current Trends in Academia
An article on an obscure conspiracy website (www.obscureconspiracies.net) (3) provided a possible starting point. The next thing I knew, I was on a plane headed for Angus Fruck University in Apocriph, AL. There, I arranged to meet with Dr. Boyard Umb (4), to discuss his rather unorthodox investigations into the subject of tarot and cats.
It was Dr. Umb (5) who introduced me to the "Revised Egyptian Origin" theory of tarot. "We all know the original Egyptian Origin Theory has been completely debunked at this point," laughed Umb. "I mean, imagine believing the tarot could have been invented by Egyptian priests or something. Those guys couldn't ascend their way out of a papyrus bag. Think about it. This fellow Moses comes along and calls up darkness and some boils, and it doesn't even occur to them to counter with a few torches and little garlic and onion juice? (6) Gimme a break."
"The problem with the research done up until now is that the investigators have been looking in the completely wrong places. (7) Everyone has been searching for evidence that the Egyptian mystics devised the structure and symbolism of tarot. In fact, it was ancient Egyptian cats who gave the secret of tarot to mankind."
Cats? The true inventors of the tarot? The concept struck me as being a bit far-fetched. Determined to get to the truth of the matter, my tough journalistic instincts prompted me to ask the hard-hitting question:
"You really think so?"
"Absolutely," Umb replied. "Whereas man started out with the spiritual enlightenment level of a fetid turnip, (8) and has been slowly but dedicatedly trudging toward cosmic understanding ever since, it's been just the opposite story for cats. Thousands of years ago, cats were vastly evolved spiritually. But their contemporary descendents, well don't even get me started. My own cat can't even do a basic chakra meditation without having to stop and lick his butt when he gets to energizing Swadhisthana."
Origins and Evolution
Umb continued on to explain how, because of human inability to decipher the complex structure of the feline language, ancient Egyptian cats instead made the attempt to communicate their advanced spiritual knowledge through a rich but concise iconography. Though lacking the opposable thumbs necessary to hold a paintbrush, (9) they were still able to provide the necessary elements by using their claws to sketch out the pictorial structure of the major arcana. (10) Egyptian scribes copied down these images, which they then immediately misinterpreted as requests for little catnip-scented balls of string or bowls of Purina Bast Chow.
As the power and influence of the Egyptian Pharaohs began to decline, however, cats found it necessary to seek their fortunes elsewhere. And whither goest the cat, so goest the tarot. (11) How the secret of tarot was passed down from feline generation to feline generation is not exactly known; what is known is that eventually, a Persian longhair named Alligo, who resided in Milan during the 15th century, tried once again to disseminate the information to humans by attempting to communicate it to his noble Italian masters. Unfortunately, the somewhat "artistically-tempered" Alligo opted for sculpture over the sketching method employed by his Egyptian ancestors. As a result, his creations went unnoticed for many years, since the Viscontis generally left the job of cleaning the litterboxes to their housekeeping staff.
However, it's clear that the poor-but-patiently persistent pussycat (12) finally managed to catch someone's eye (13) -- if not the attention of the Viscontis themselves, then certainly that of artist Bonifacio Bembo, who was in the midst of his legendary "brown period" at the time. (14) After re-rendering the revealed occult knowledge in a more acceptable 2-dimensional medium, (15) Bembo excitedly presented the 78 miniature tableaus to his noble patrons. The artist's timing was perhaps a bit unfortunate, though; that very night, Bianca Maria Visconti's husband, Francesco Sforza, was hosting his annual "Come as your favorite naughty heraldic emblem" masqued ball. In the drunken revelry which followed, Bembo's tiny feline-inspired masterpieces were somehow scooped up, and employed in an impromptu game of strip Canasta. (16) Once again, it seemed that fate -- and a few too many bottles of cheap cognac -- had cruelly dislodged the meatball of knowledge from the pasta plate of enlightenment.
Reviewing the Evidence
Dr. Umb's story was certainly fascinating, but deep down inside me, a small voice wondered if perhaps his account was a wee bit questionable in spots. So, once again, with the unrelenting journalistic determination I learned from years of watching Matt Lauer and Al Roker on the "Today" show, (17) I asked Umb if maybe, perhaps, if it wasn't too much trouble or anything -- could he pretty please cite any evidence he might have to support his assertions?
To my relief, Umb seemed more than happy to supply several examples to back up his claims. (18) After fetching his U.S. Games reproduction of the Visconti-Sforza deck, Umb drew the trump now most widely known as "The Magician," and pointed out several subtle but fascinating details. "The Magician card -- also known in early decks as The Juggler (19) -- is usually described as a sort of street performer, standing behind a table upon which rest the tools of his trade -- juggling balls, for example. But this interpretation is based solely on preconceived notions stemming from a human-centric view of the universe. In fact, the figure depicted is merely a kitchen servant who is preparing the evening meal for the family cat. The item pictured at the right end of the table -- typically mistaken as being some sort of hat -- can be seen on closer inspection to actually be a pair of fish (see enlarged detail at right), which the servant is about to scale using the knife in front of him. The two round 'balls' located nearby are actually yummy little liver-filled cat treats which will accompany the meal as an appetizer. The cat in this household will clearly eat well tonight, thus illustrating the profound Purrmetic Axiom: As I Stuff, So Meow." (20)
Umb went on to highlight other relevant details in the Visconti deck, such as the tantalizingly "bat-able" string held by the woman in the "Moon" card, and the presence of the catnip plant at the base of the "Tower." "Each has a deep, esoteric significance which can be unlocked through disciplined study and meditation -- but you have to think like a cat," explained Umb. "This means you must feign aloofness from the card. Glance at it only occasionally and briefly, and with an expression of subtle contempt suggesting that the card is somehow a bit beneath you. Then, when you think it's not paying attention, sneak up from behind and pounce on it, and demand it to reveal its secrets to you, or you'll chew a hole clean through the top border."
Further Historical Precedents
At this point, curiosity got the better of me, and -- unheeding of the proverbial fate this state of mind presaged in the cat -- I asked Umb which of the historical decks best captured the original Egyptian designs. Umb's response: "Without a doubt, it has to be the various Marseille decks. From the cat in the 'Fool' card onward, every major arcana image and every court card is filled with feline symbolism."
Once again, I expressed my finely-honed sense of journalistic skepticism in no uncertain terms: "Um is it possible that maybe you could kindasorta be just a bit mistaken about that? And, er isn't that actually a dog on the 'Fool' card?"
Umb snorted. "Dog on the 'Fool' card? Another utter misinterpretation which has led countless spiritual seekers down the wrong path. Look again at the image," he urged, whipping out a handy copy of the Grimaud reproduction of the Marteau illustrations. "That there's a cat -- maybe not the best-drawn cat, (21) but it's a cat nonetheless. But of course, it was far more convenient for the 19th century occultists to call it a dog, simply to conform to their idiotic esoteric theories. Wirth actually got it right, but then Waite goes and has Pamela slap that yappy little canine on his card, and the whole world's like, 'oh, wow, man a dog! Amazing! Yeah, a dog, that's soooo deep!' By the way, I don't sound slightly bitter about any of this, do I?"
"Anyway, the point is: sure, dogs are loyal, but to the point of stupidity. That dog on Waite's deck is going to go right over the edge of the cliff with his master. They'll both plummet to horrible deaths, and meet their ends none the wiser than when they started. But check out the cat on that Marseille card. He's clearly trying to tell his master that, for heaven's sakes, he's got a giant hole in the tushy of his pants! (22) The Fool is about to go walking all over town with his little pink derriere hanging out, and here's this cat, trying to keep the guy from making a laughing stock of himself. A good friend may go to the ends of the earth with you and beyond, but it's a true friend who cares enough to tell you hey, yeah, that dress really does make you look fat."
After my interview with Dr. Umb, I walked away with a better explanation for the contemporary proliferation of cat-themed decks. (23) The phenomenon could now be framed as an unconscious striving on the part of contemporary tarotists to return the discipline to its true roots. And we may well expect the trend to continue, as more of the tarot community is able to get in touch with its "inner feline."
Further exploration of the topic will certainly lead to the eventual restoration of the "one, true" tarot, complete with its original rich and profound icons -- from the minor arcana suits of Scratching Posts, Milk Saucers, Grooming Brushes, and Hairballs, (25) to mysterious and insightful symbolic major arcana motifs such as the Goldfish Bowl of the Unconscious and the Illuminated Kibble. And the sooner the better, for the results hold the promise of a better world. (26) A world where every man, woman and child can be secure in the knowledge that there will be a warm sunbeam pouring through the window where he or she can curl up for an afternoon nap. A world where tummy rubs and cute, squeaky, catnip-filled mouse toys are legal and plentiful. In brief: a world where a man can purr and a woman can lick her own groin without hesitation or shame. (27)
It could be a beautiful world indeed. If it doesn't all go to the dogs first. (28)
Footnotes (provided as a service for the browser popup title impaired)
1. Alright -- so I had one more
alliteration left in the bag. Back to
Jeannette Roth has been collecting and studying tarot decks for over 20 years, and has presented lectures on topics related to tarot evolution and imagery around the midwestern U.S. for nearly 15 years. She is the co-owner of The Tarot Garden, which maintains the largest publicly-accessible database of 20th and 21st century tarot and cartomantic decks in the world.
Feel free to check out Tarot Garden's auctions on eBay!
Feel free to check out Tarot Garden's auctions on eBay!
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