The Wit of Error: The Early Tarot as Imaginal Text, the Fool and the Feminine as Boundary Metaphors

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




James B. Wiggings


Symbol-systems, Christian culture, Religion, Metaphor

Subject Categories



Among many symbol-systems of the Christian culture, perhaps one of the least likely survivors is the Tarot. Yet it has endured for five centuries without a protective cult or literary framework. Speculation upon the sources and functions are largely fruitless and based upon preconceived notions, except that the Tarot pack appeared in fifteenth-century Italy, as a game of playing cards.

The excessive claims that have been made for its pictures generate a cluster of issues concerning the nature of religion and culture. These issues are: first and fundamentally, if as Huizinga and others have suggested, play is the primary element in the formation of culture, those arts and artifacts designated as playful may reveal deep and pervasive (religious) aspects of their cultural tradition; second and following, those playthings are the texts of the culture, revealing how what is real is what is read, and particularly the ways in which sacred text is created and carried; third and ultimately, both play and sacred text are aspects of metaphor. This study is not an attempt to create a theory of play, text, or metaphor; rather it is to use the Tarot as an example which is paradigmatic of these.

The Tarot serves, in this study, to illuminate the issues of play, text, and metaphor in our on-going search into the complex of religion and culture.

Game--or play--discloses metaphor by means of metaphor. The Introduction establishes some metaphorical qualities of game and text, and characterized by the "foolish" interplay between iconoclasm and re-mythologizing, by the "wit of error." In designating the correspondence between game and the sacred, and by playing the most commonly applied game of Tarot (that of seeking its false origins), the common metaphorical base or dynamic is established.

The figure of the Fool in the Tarot pack, the paradoxical figure of sacred and secular literature, illuminates that metaphorical perspective which includes the primary concerns of the study. Moreover, the Fool and the feminine, exemplify the boundary figures which do the work of iconoclastic imagination. Utilizing the Tarot as a paradigm of sacred text and defining some of the elements of text, it is argued as that which hides and reveals, remembers and invents, divines and interprets, all through story, and all through charting the necessity of deviance--of error. ...


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