Of all Tarot of Marseille trump cards, Arcana 13 is the only one that bears no name. Another card is the only one without a number, but it does have a name: Le Mat. In ancient French, the word “mat” has two principal meanings originating from two different etymologies. One origin traces the word to the Latin adjective matus, which indicates a dazed mental state provoked by drunkenness. In this case, “mat” means “afflicted” or “depressed.” The other meaning derives from the Arabic expression as-sah mat, translated as “The king (sah) is dead (mata), a chess term from which the word “Checkmate” originates.[1] Thus, according to this acceptation of the word, “mat” means “dead,” which corresponds well with the figure of the skeleton holding a scythe in Arcana 13. The other acceptation, for its part, matches the character on the Mat card, who seems to be wandering aimlessly, in tatters, with his pantaloons falling and his buttocks getting mauled by an animal. Is there a link between the nameless card and the numberless card? Could they be two complementary figures of a unique mystery?

Nicolas Conver, Arcana 13 and Le Mat, 1760

The Mat card depicts a walking man, holding a bundle over his shoulder, with a walking stick in the other hand. Strangely, his attire is that of a Middle Ages royal court fool: ruff and belt decorated with little round bells, multi-coloured striped doublet, and a cap with horns. Thus, the card inherits from two distinct traditions in medieval iconography: the pilgrim and the fool.

Such a strange combination only can be found before the 15th century’s last decade in Marsilio Ficino’s works. The pilgrim fool appears several times in his writings, manifested spectacularly in an undated letter (definitely written before 1476).[2] Writing to his dear friend, Cristoforo Landino, Ficino begins with an apparently philosophical question: Why are men so proud of their reason, even though they live foolishly? After providing a few examples of inconsistencies in human behavior, he begins an exhortation apparently addressed to all humans:

Oh fools! Oh wretches! […] Pilgrims! Why do you seek treasure far away, when it is nearby, indeed within yourselves?[3]

Thus, Ficino stigmatizes the thoughtlessness of humans who, rather than trying to improve themselves, pursue material riches that can only leave them unsatisfied. The words he chooses to describe humans combine folly (“fools”), misery (“wretches”), and exile (“pilgrims”). Moreover, Ficino continues with an evocation of physical death:

I am often given to wonder, too, Landino, at the reason why we fear merely that one death, which is clearly the end of dying, but never at all our daily deaths.

Here, Ficino alludes to his conception of physical death as a liberation of the soul from the body, freed from the natural cycle of life, implying permanent transformations related to growth, reproduction, and aging. So, in three consecutive sentences in his letter, Ficino assembles the main elements of the Mat card: exile (a man walking), folly (the fool’s attire), and misery (the clothing in rags). Where do these disparate elements come from, and why did Ficino put them together?

The human soul’s journey is a frequent theme in ancient philosophy, arising from a wide current of thought that developed from a metaphoric interpretation of the Homeric tales. In the fifth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Empedocles echoed verses from the Iliad to evoke his own existence as a wanderer and an exile away from God.[4] About a century later, Plato probably alludes to Odysseus’ adventures in a Phaedo passage, comparing whoever thinks he can trust human intelligence to know what becomes of the soul after death to a shipwrecked sailor drifting on a raft over a hostile sea. Indeed, such a man could “sail through the dangers of life as upon a raft, unless someone should make that journey safer and less risky upon a firmer vessel of some divine doctrine.”[5] This text uses wandering as a metaphor for the human incapacity to know the aim of one’s existence by means of his own intelligence, with the only possibility of reaching this knowledge being the grace of a divine revelation.

Penelope’s Painter (attr.), Odysseus and Eurycleia, red figure skyphos, 440-435 B. C.

Thereafter, the Platonists – notably Plutarch, Plotinus, and Macrobius – read Odysseus’ adventures as a tale of the soul’s exile away from its heavenly homeland, where it is bound to return.[6] Ficino, having read most of these authors’ works, probably was inspired by this ancient tradition when he imagined his image of a pilgrim. However, he aggregates this source with another current of thought that developed concurrently, originating from the Bible.

Exodus says that Moses, having run away after killing an Egyptian, married one of Jethro’s daughters, who gave him a son. Moses named the child Gershom as, he said, “I am just a sojourner in a foreign land.”[7] These simple words soon would acquire a metaphoric meaning through the writings of Philo of Alexandria early in the first century AD. Philo, a Hellenised Jew, elaborated on a Bible interpretation that relied heavily on Platonic thought. In his treatise On the Confusion of Tongues, he comments on Moses’ escape with these words:

This should teach us that the wise sojourns in the sensitive body as in a foreign land, whereas he dwells among the intelligible virtues as in his native land […] Moses, for his part, says: “I am just a sojourner in a foreign land.”[8]

Thus, Moses’ biblical wandering is compared to the sojourn of the soul in the physical body. It is the duty of the wise to liberate themselves from physical bounds to reach their true homeland: the reign of intelligible virtues.

 With the advent of Christianity, the theme of the human earthly exile continued to propagate. Traces of it can be found in different New Testament texts. St. Peter addresses his first epistle to the “sojourners of the dispersion,” in which he exhorts the sojourners to behave fearfully during their “exile.”[9] Likewise, St. Paul refers to the ideal lives of Christ’s disciples, traveling in a foreign land. In his Letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul uses Abraham as an example:

By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise; for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God. […] All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised, but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth, or those who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland. […] But now they desire a better homeland, a heavenly one.[10]

Therefore, the theme of exile in this world was familiar to Christ’s disciples, who saw it as an image of their condition, being a minority against the dominant mainstream religions of the time. However, important Christian authors would continue exploiting this theme long after Christianity became a major Roman Empire cult, e.g., St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great.[11] The figure of man as a traveler in this world, homo viator, fashioned by successive writers, progressively leads to the very specific image of the pilgrim fool.

To be continued in part two.

[1] Alain Rey, Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, Paris, Dictionnaires Le Robert, 1995.

[2] It was published for the first time in 1476 in Marsilio Ficino’s first book of letters.

[3] Marsilio Ficino, Letters (Vol. 1), translated by members of the School of Economic Science, London, Shepheard-Walwyn, 2001, p. 106.

[4] Empedocles, fragment CXV, in Jean-Paul Dumont (ed.), Les Présocratiques, Paris, Gallimard, 1988, p. 421.

[5] Plato, Phaedo, 85cd. (translation: G.M.A. Grube). Cf. Cristina Caserta, Socrate e il mare. Il modello odissiaco nel Fedone, in Nova Tellus, 32-2 (2015), pp. 75-113.

[6] See, for example, Plutarch, On Exile, 17, 607c; Plotinus, Enneads, I, 6, 8 ; V, 9, 1 ; Macrobius, Commentary on “The Dream of Scipio”, II, 17, 14.

[7] Exodus, 2 22. According to the traditional etymology, as told by the biblical commentator Nicholas of Lyra, in the 14th century, ger in Hebrew means « foreigner » or « pilgrim ».

[8] Philo of Alexandria, De confusione linguarum, 81-82, ed. and transl. J. G. Kahn, Paris, Cerf, 1963, p. 85. On Platonic exile in Philo’s writings, see Anita Méasson, Du char ailé de Zeus à l’arche d’alliance. Images et mythes platoniciens chez Philon d’Alexandrie, Paris, Études Augustiniennes, 1986, pp. 337-368.

[9] 1 Peter 1 1 and 1 Peter 1 17.

[10] Hebrews, 11 8-16.

[11] See Gerhart B. Ladner, « Homo Viator: Mediaeval Ideas on Alienation and Order », Speculum, vol. 42, n° 2 (April 1967), p. 233-259, here p. 236, n. 11 and 14.

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