The Duke’s Tarot Inheritance: Saturnalia


The Tarot’s ‘characters probably evolved from the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which took place around Christmas time each year.  This is also the principal theory of the often-quoted librarian and Tarot researcher Gertrude Moakley who in 1966 published The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family (who painted the cards, however, is another subject in itself).

According to Moakley, during the Roman Saturnalia festival, slave and master became equal, and the people in Italian cities celebrated by dressing up in costumes and masks. The festival consisted of a lavish procession of ‘triumphs’ in chariots –  actors dressed as major arcana characters – culminating in the ritual murder of the Carnival King, or Bagatino. The source we have for this is Petrach’s poem I Trionfi, or ‘The Triumphs’ of 1354, which predates the earliest tarot cards. In it he describes how the procession told a story of ‘triumphs’, as follows, beginning with:

1 The Lovers, followed by:

2 Chastity (Temperance), which triumphs over the Lovers, or love; followed by:

3 Death, which triumphs over Chastity. Then came:

4 Fame (Judgement), which outlives Death, followed by:

5 Time (The Hermit), which triumphs over Fame. (In fact, the earlier tarot cards show the Hermit with an hourglass to represent time, which later became a lantern in the Rider Waite Smith deck). Then finally comes:

6 Eternity (The World), which triumphs over Time.

The Dukes Tarot Carnival

In the Duke of Milan’s day, many years later, the carnival would have included more tarot characters: Justice, The Hanged Man and the cosmic cards, The Sun, The Moon and The Star. The crowd would have laughed at the obvious sexual reference of Temperance with her cups and Strength, shown as a man with a phallic club. Other cards that may have been part of the procession because they appeared in the early decks have been abandoned, however, as tarot continued its 600-year journey: Faith, Hope and Charity. These ‘lost’ cards made sense in the original decks, as they fit perfectly with the other ‘virtue’ cards of the major arcana: Temperance, Strength and Justice.

Faith  Her signifiers are a cross, for her faith, and a chalice, symbolising the vessel of Christ.

Hope Her signifier is an anchor, the sailor’s symbol of safe return from peril.

Charity Her signifier is a pelican, for generosity and the family.

These three cards’ meanings appear to have been absorbed into other cards:

Faith: The High Priestess

Hope: The Star

Charity: Temperance and the High Priestess. This may not be obvious, as the image shows her with a child more in keeping with The Empress. However, in Catholic catechism charity is aligned with Chastity (more the virginal nun, or High Priestess) and the virtue of Temperance.

Images below are from the Cary-Yale Tarot Deck