The Triumph Cards (0 – XXI)

The pictorial fifth suit for the 78 card deck still played in a few corners of Europe.  A triumph meant both a win and a procession, like a parade. Many people read the trumps as being ordered intentionally, from 0 Fool at the beginning to XXI World at the end, one card being a development from the last.  This approach is called the Triumphant Procession, or the Fool’s Journey.  This book does not rely on that narrative approach alone.  Instead it looks to the trumps as a crowd of performers on the march, mummers, each their own character, presented en masse to those watching.  In game play, the higher numbered trumps do beat lower ones, but they are also clearly ordered in groups, like chapters in a book.

Rather than a ladder, I see the cards arranged in little groups, as though to describe a world view.  I’ve named the first three cards Wisdom Types for the fact that the Fool and the first two trumps are traditionally afforded important roles in self realization, mirrors of the self if you will. The wanderer is wild, the Magician is active, and the High Priestess is the higher self. The second class I call Power Types after some contemplation, as the first two (Empress and Emperor) are notoriously vague in their interpretations (with little to distinguish them from the four kings and queens in the suits). I realized these cards could be seen as three successive power structures, from old to new, that might explain their order, and it would make sense to have them follow the cards of the self. The third class of trumps I call Treasures, here we encounter four virtues that are very humanist in their aim. The next class is Trials and Labors which appear to go on and describe a range of complications and learning opportunities that are part of growing into this world. The last group I call Splendors of Nature beginning with the Star, and summarize both cosmic and earthly totalities.

The first and second column is the most common numbering and typical titles.   Third column in italics are my own one-word terms for the card’s meaning.  The Items marked with an (*) asterisk means the cards that match the famous illustrated poem of the time, Petrarch’s Triumphs, with the name in bold.   In the fourth column are neo-Classical myth symbols represented in the images.

Wisdom Types
0. Fool Wanderer  Hermes
I. Magician Entertainer  Hermes
II. Papess Teacher  Hermaphrodite
Power Types
III. Empress Matriarch  Athena
IV. Emperor Patriarch  Jove
V. Pope Oligarch Roma
VI. Lovers Love*  Eros
VII. Chariot Liberty  Victory
VIII. Justice Justice  Nemesis
IX. Hermit Truth  Chronos
Trials and Labors
X. Wheel of Fortune Station Fortuna / Tyche
XI. Strength StruggleChastity* Diana / Hercules
XII. The Hanging Sacrifice Hermes / Green Man
XIII. Death Death* Death
XIV. Temperence Discipline Virgo / Janus
XV. The Devil The Wild Marsayas
XVI. The Tower Vainglory Mars / Toranis
Splendors of Nature
XVII. The Star The Star  Venus / Aphrodite
XVIII. The Moon The Moon  Artemis
XIX. The Sun The SunTime*  Splendor Solis
XX. Judgement Return, Fame*  Victory
XXI. The World The World  The World

About the Illustrations

The deck I chose as the main illustration for each Trump later in this work are from the Paris Tarot, also known as the Anonymous Tarot because the deck isn’t signed.  While in the Marseille style and period, it shows the most overt signs of purposely trying to distinguishing itself as esoteric.  The other card examples are at least as early, including a more standard Marseille for comparison, and various versions of the Visconti, among the earliest known Italian hand painted decks.

The narrative of the world depicted by the Tarot, set in the 1400s, suggests an agenda and probably is not a good example of general public thinking at all, if we are to include everyday people. With a virtual absence of Christian themes, it promotes parallels and alternatives.  While the Pope is present, the curiously unreal inclusion of a Papess raises questions.   The female equivalent to the patriarch card sandwiches Empress before Emperor as though to mirror this point.  Placing her before the Emperor is interesting.  Absent are any images of Christ, Saints or Apostles – the deadly sins and pious virtues are left out as well.  The idea of Judgement and the resurrection it usually depicts is related to memory, not the end of the world.  As the second to last card it is an interesting choice, for it is followed by the notable absence of any kind of afterlife, but instead is completed with the World, almost an outright denial of apocalypse if read in sequence, as though to start again.


While the original deck designers certainly pursued their own esoteric purposes, there was always a great variety of decks of educational game cards made by Renaissance artists, which included the muses, the arts, the Olympians, the Zodiac, the seasons, theories of science, and so on.  These decks could run upwards of 50 cards.  The triumphs in the Tarot, the most common 22, match and are a distillation of those larger teaching decks, pared down to a selection.  This selection, and the selector’s reasons for it, constitute the mystery of the Tarot.

The memory of all those Trumps can be found in a single card included in our modern Poker decks, and that’s the Joker, included as a pair.  Historians dispute whether the Joker is at all linked to the Fool trump, as it first appeared in Poker decks in 1863 following a gap in time.  But the Fool most often appears as a Jester in contemporary Tarot decks on the continent, and both have a ‘wild card’ role, numbered zero as outside the deck (indeed the Fool is the card of a ‘wild man’) so I lean towards the idea of a connection.  It’s not hard to imagine an immigrant to North America adding a little spice back to the poker deck, remembering a more complicated game they grew up enjoying back home.