Are Monkeys Domesticating Wolves?

The domestication of the dog was one of the pivotal moments in the development of human civilization.

Gelada baboon, Wikimedia commons

Gelada baboon, Wikimedia commons

Most likely, wolves gathered by human campfires after a hunt. The humans allowed the wolves to scavenge, which disposed of animal remains and may have served as a deterrent to other predators.

Both wolf and human gained from this uneasy peace, and in time the wolf, through selective breeding, became the working dogs we know today. Their ability to protect and control herds and aid man in hunting was absolutely central to our development. Man and wolf walked out of Eden side by side.

Are modern primates and wolves now doing something similar?

In the alpine grasslands of eastern Africa, Ethiopian wolves and gelada monkeys are giving peace a chance. The geladas – a type of baboon – tolerate wolves wandering right through the middle of their herds, while the wolves ignore potential meals of baby geladas in favour of rodents, which they can catch more easily when the monkeys are present.

The unusual pact echoes the way dogs began to be domesticated by humans, and was spotted by primatologist Vivek Venkataraman, at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, during fieldwork at Guassa plateau in the highlands of north-central Ethiopia.

Even though the wolves occasionally prey on young sheep and goats, which are as big as young geladas, they do not normally attack the monkeys – and the geladas seem to know that, because they do not run away from the wolves.

“You can have a wolf and a gelada within a metre or two of each other and virtually ignoring each other for up to 2 hours at a time,” says Venkataraman. In contrast, the geladas flee immediately to cliffs for safety when they spot feral dogs, which approach aggressively and often prey on them.

When walking through a herd – which comprises many bands of monkeys grazing together in groups of 600 to 700 individuals – the wolves seem to take care to behave in a non-threatening way. They move slowly and calmly as they forage for rodents and avoid the zigzag running they use elsewhere, Venkataraman observed.

Both animals are altering standards patterns of behavior to improve their chances of survival.

Man’s relationship with dogs is the most profound and important connection humans ever developed with another species. There’s no reason to assume the evolutionary engine of civilization stopped 18,000 years ago. We may be witnessing some of the same mechanisms today.

UPDATED: Dennis Mahon sent me this link about baboons kidnapping and raising feral dogs. Amazing stuff.

A Game for Training Missionaries About Indigenous Cultures

The World of Playing cards is a terrific site with reproductions of historic cards from around the world. Most recently, they  shared Snapshots: A Missionary Card Game from the Church Mission Society circa 1910. It’s described as a basic set-building game of 48 cards with 12 sets from representing different cultural practices around the world. Each set has four cards, each of a different color, showing some aspect of culture in Japan, Sudan, and so on. The goal is to prepare the missionaries to work in these places as they preach the Gospel.



You can find more at World of Playing Cards.

The Gell-Mann Effect

Murray Gell-Mann

I miss Michael Crichton. It’s not just that he was a marvelous storyteller who could spot a trend ten years away and turn it into a ripping good yarn, but that he had a clarity and honesty in his writings and speeches about science and society that is sorely needed today. His skeptical approach to global “warming” was refreshing (links to pdf), and his critiques of the media were spot on.

In a speech called “Why Speculate?” (2002, pdf) he formulated what he called The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, which is something all media consumers need to keep at the backs of their minds every time they read.

It’s a more detailed version of a basic idea: I believe everything the media tells me except for anything for which I have direct personal knowledge, which they always get wrong.

Take it away, Dr. Crichton:

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward–reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story–and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

I’ve been asked why I only commented on the historical part of the Cosmos documentary by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I confined my comments to church history because I know church history, and my comments on the rest of the show would have been the assessment of a novice: perhaps interesting to some, but hardly useful as a content critique.

My assumption would normally be that because Tyson is a scientist, the science content will be strong. He’s not a journalist, so it’s more likely the Gell-Mann Effect doesn’t hold in this case. He only gets into trouble when he tackles a subject on which is wholly ignorant (history).

But why would I assume that he’s a skilled scientist? I don’t know Tyson from Adam. Wikipedia tells me he’s an astrophysicist, and he may be a good one.

Or maybe he’s not. I don’t even have the critical mechanism to make that assessment, since I wouldn’t know a good astrophysicist from a bad one from a pomegranate. Maybe he’s just good at boiling complicated issues down to a 13-year-old reading level. We only accept his bona fides on the basis of the authority of others.

“Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a great astrophysicist,” we are told by people who should know. His list of achievements is impressive, and that’s the end of it. It’s reasonable to assume, in this case, that the science content of Cosmos is generally solid, even if the one element of the show about which I have direct knowledge is completely misleading.

This doesn’t apply to the mainstream media, however. There is a genre of science writing that can be quite accomplished, but it’s rather rarefied and hardly the norm. Most mainstream science writing is rewriting of press releases about studies from people who need coverage about those studies to keep grant money coming.

If a story is of the “a new study shows” variety, it’s almost always entirely worthless. New studies may indeed show somethingorother, and they may even be correct, but the signal-to-noise ratio in mainstream coverage of studies skews far enough to “noise” that you’re better off just ignoring the whole lot.

This is a basic truth, but it also creates a serious problem. We swing from one extreme to the other. We go from believing everything is true to believing nothing is true. Humanity has trouble with nuance.

So much material–and so much of it worthless–gets shoved like pork bits into the meat grinder of the mainstream media that it ultimately creates confusion. There is a breakdown in trust, not in the media (which we keep blindly looking to for accurate information, even while asserting that we don’t trust it!) but in the perception that truth is knowable. The data overload dulls our critical sense. Our bullshit filters are broken.

One after another people march through my comboxes asserting as ironclad truth things I know from primary evidence to be untrue. They are certain, and nothing will shake them from that certainty.

This terrible certainty is selective, and based almost wholly on a half-remembered account from an unremembered source. When it reinforces biases, a “truth” is accepted. When it challenges biases, it is resisted. It takes long study and careful cultivation of a healthy and engaged critical skepticism to sort lies from truth, and none of us can do it for everything. All of us will, eventually, make an appeal to authority, and that’s okay.

We just need to choose the right authority, or choose many authorities and weigh the evidence ourselves, rather than trying to take a shortcut to the truth by trusting a mainstream media that is clearly incapable of explaining most things accurately.

I’m going to let Crichton have the last word here, but do read his whole essay, and any others you can find.

Let me point to a demonstrable bad effect of the assumption that nothing is really knowable. Whole word reading was introduced by the education schools of the country without, to my knowledge, any testing of the efficacy of the new method. It was simply put in place. Generations of teachers were indoctrinated in its methods. As a result, the US has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the industrialized world. The assumption that nothing can be known with certainty does have terrible consequences.

As GK Chesterton said (in a somewhat different context), “If you believe in nothing you’ll believe in anything.” That’s what we see today. People believe in anything.

But just in terms of the general emotional tenor of life, I often think people are nervous, jittery in this media climate of what if, what if, maybe, perhaps, could be—when there is simply no reason to feel nervous. Like a bearded nut in robes on the sidewalk proclaiming the end of the world is near, the media is just doing what makes it feel good, not reporting hard facts. We need to start seeing the media as a bearded nut on the sidewalk, shouting out false fears. It’s not sensible to listen to it.

Personally, I think we need to start turning away from media, and the data shows that we are, at least from television news. I find that whenever I lack exposure to media I am much happier, and my life feels fresher.

In closing, I’d remind you that while there are some things we cannot know for sure, there are many things that can be resolved, and indeed are resolved. Not by speculation, however. By careful investigation, by rigorous statistical analysis. Since we’re awash in this contemporary ocean of speculation, we forget that things can be known with certainty, and that we need not live in a fearful world of interminable unsupported opinion. But the gulf that separates hard fact from speculation is by now so unfamiliar that most people can’t comprehend it.

The Rising (and Fall) of Flappy Bird

One strange new spectacle of the information age is the accelerating lifespan of fads. Things flash across the web, are seen by millions, and then vanish.

The social media drawing game Draw Something was, for a brief time, the biggest game in the world. It was so huge that social gaming powerhouse Zynga paid $200 million for its creator, OMGPOP. While the ink was still wet on the contract, Draw Something crashed and burned, shedding its 10 million daily users and doing serious damage to Zynga.

The latest pet rock was a mini-game called Flappy Bird, but it came from the exact opposition end of the creation spectrum as the mega-million-dollar behemoth Zynga. Flappy Bird was created by one young Vietnamese man named Dong Nguyen. The game is perfectly simple and strikingly artless, but its combination of easy to understand and difficult to master hit a sweet spot for many gamers.

Flappy Bird has one input: tap. The game field is a side-scrolling series of tubes lifted straight from Mario games. (Nintendo has said they don’t intend to sue and did not demand that the game be taken down.) Tubes extend from the top and bottom of the screen to different lengths, creating a gap between them. The goal is to steer a bird (which really looks more like a fish with wings) through as many gaps as possible. This is done with one tap, which makes the bird rise. After each tap, the bird falls. Thus, he’s only kept in the air by a series of perfectly timed taps that will enable him to pass through the gap between the tubes. If it so much as brushes one of the tubes, the game stops and you go back to the beginning.

And that’s it. That’s all it does. The first try for every gamer will be a failure. Psychologically, this means the gamer will have to try again, at least to clear the first tube.

But that counter is there mocking you: can’t you get more than a score of “1”? So people try to get a sense of Flappy’s broad movement arcs in order to earn a slightly higher score. This takes many, many more tries, and in the course of trying, the high score gradually goes up a little. It only takes about 5 minutes to get to 4 or 5, but as the string of actions rises, so do the stakes and thus the tension. Once the player has a sense of the controls, the score challenges them to go for higher numbers, since they’ve already invested this much in learning the ropes.

Thus the game enters a compulsion loop that addicted players found hard to break. This simple, nothing game causes the person playing it to pass through several psychological states–curiosity, engagement, attempted mastery, self-criticism, personal challenge, despair, and, most of all, suspense—with the most rudimentary elements. It appeals not because it’s some grand statement, but because it generates a very definite and raw emotional response–tension created by suspense–that some people find appealing. They’re willing to put up with the frustration for that sense of suspense. It’s not complicated or mysterious: it just seems so to people who don’t search out that particular psychological state.

But why did it catch on? It had no marketing, and was largely ignored upon release in May. By summer it had started to find an audience in Russia and Australia. By December there was a huge spike in US downloads, and by January it was number 1 in 107 countries.

At the point, it was fully viral, and ultimately logged 50 million downloads. The game was free, supported by a single banner that its creator claimed was earning $50,000 a day. Once it became viral, the game itself ceased to matter as a game: it became a new media phenomena that had its own cultural life.

And then, on February 9th, it was gone. The creator had a meltdown, and posted to Twitter: “I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird’ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down. I cannot take this anymore.”

And he did just that. Flappy Bird was gone from the store, which had the opposite effect from the one Nguyen desired: now people wanted to talk to him more than ever. (As of this writing, he has never talked to anyone in the media or done any promotion beyond his Twitter feed.) What was a viral game suddenly became a news story covered by everyone from USA Today to Time Magazine. Phones with the game still on it were getting bids up to $5000 on eBay.

The sudden fame and massive media attention was part of what caused Nguyen to pull the game. The viral nature and the angry comments of thousands who were addicted and frustrated by its difficulty troubled Nguyen greatly. He felt that people were misusing the game and it was causing too much disruption in their lives and his own. Demands for a sequel and new content made him realize that nothing more could be done with the original game: any changes would wreck it. The fad was on the verge of being played out, and if Nguyen was more a canny marketing master rather than a fame-rocked indie programmer, the time of its removal couldn’t have been chosen any better. He is now world famous.

Flappy Bird is, technically, a terrible game. But it’s also one which snags certain people and snares them in a feedback loop that taps into our desire for distraction and tendencies toward compulsive behavior. There is nothing more meaningless than nudging up the score of a badly designed mobile app, yet we do it anyway for the emotional charge.

Perhaps its very purity is what made Flappy Bird a hit. It boils down the essence of a certain kind of game: purposeless, simple, and difficult to get right. It’s like a paddle with a ball on an elastic. Nothing is to be gained by mastery, and mastery is difficult, but we try nonetheless, just to prove we can.

In an article of almost sublime wrongness, a professor named Ian Bogost waxes PhDish about Flappy Bird and games in general. That he fails to understand the entire continuum of games from Aksumites scratching mancala-style boards in the dirt to the latest app is made clear by his repeated assertions that games, including things like Go and Chess (!), are mere vectors for human frustration devoid of any higher purpose or social function beyond staving off existential dread:

Flappy Bird is a condition of the universe, even if it is one that didn’t exist until it was hand-crafted by a Vietnamese man who doesn’t want to talk about it. A condition in the sense of a circumstance, but also in the sense of a blight, a sickness, a stain we cannot scrub out but may in time be willing to accept. A stain like our own miserable, tiny existences as players, which we nevertheless believe are more fundamental than the existence of bird flapping games or machine screws or the cold fog rising against the melting snow in the morning. Because the game cares so little for your experience of it, you find yourself ever more devoted to it.

Good Lord, what a load of crap. I know it’s almost impossible for modernists to see beyond their own pinched understanding of the universe, but to make such patently absurd claims and apply them not just to a game with 50 million players (most of whom do not share this view of the universe), but to the entire history of a rich and diverse aspect of human culture, is unalloyed nonsense. There’s more:

To understand Flappy Bird, we must accept the premise that games are squalid, rusty machinery we operate in spite of themselves. What we appreciate about Flappy Bird is not the details of its design, but the fact that it embodies them with such unflappable nonchalance. The best games cease to be for us (or for anyone) and instead strive to be what they are as much as possible. From this indifference emanates a strange squalor that we can appreciate as beauty.

Given the vast scope the subject (one for which the writer lays claims to expertise, although I’d never heard of him before) this is as wrong as wrong can be. Games exist on a spectrum, from the raw and primal to the elegant and elevated, tapping into deep human needs for problem solving, emotional engagement, psychological stimulation, socialization, and cultural expression. Games–even contemporary electronic games–are primarily a social phenomena in which participants agree to a set of rules in order to engage the imagination and intellect.

Flappy Bird is on the “raw and primal” end of the spectrum. It’s telos is to offer a stark challenge that leads to initial engagement and emotional stimulation (or manipulation, if you want), crude as that stimulation may be. It’s not a symbol of our existential dread.


Anybody can make a Flappy Bird game using the Flappy Bird generator. Here’s my version: Flappy Alexander VI, in which the worst pope in history has to fly between Lucrezia Borgias.

“Check Your Privilege”: The Tournament!

“Check Your Privilege” is the modern rebranding of political correctness, which in turn was an aggressive rebranding of “consciousness raising,” and THAT was just plain old cultural Marxism. It’s the idea that society is inherently homogeneous, and therefore automatically represses those who are–to use the modern word–“others.”

Certain people, so the theory goes, accrue privilege simply by being. Their social status, gender, race, sexual habits, class, religion, and so on make them a de facto elite, who oppress the other by their mere existence.

We’re told to “check our privilege,” which is a shorthand way of saying, “Shut up, white boy, and let the transsexual black Muslim homeless dude tell you how things REALLY are.” Those who are perceived to be part of the mainstream are thus devalued, and the marginal uplifted.

Privilege allegedly affects all of our perceptions. Some of us don’t have to worry, say, about being pulled over for “driving while black,” or facing a higher likelihood of sexual assault because we’re women, or being told to move along because we’re wearing shabby clothing while sitting too long in park.

This freedom means some of us are rendered unable to comment on any issues because our privilege blinds us to their reality. It automatically eliminates our empathy, imagination, sense of fairness and the right, and moral codes. It colors everything we do, and is even more oppressive when we pretend not to have it.

Of course, if you mouth the right pieties and agree with the right social policies and political leaders, those blinders fly away on wings of angels, and you become one of The Enlightened.

It’s intellectually dishonest, logically inconsistent, and psychologically and sociologically incoherent.

That’s why I am, for the first time, linking to Gawker, a site I really detest. They have, however, done something ballsy and wonderful: A Privilege Tournament:

Privilege: so sweet to have. But even sweeter to not have. Privilege has its benefits, but the lack of privilege confers that sweet, sweet moral superiority. With that in mind, we have decided to determine who, exactly, has the least privilege of all.

These days, teary privilege confessionals pour forth from the lips of college students in equal proportion to the fiery critiques of our grossly unjust world that pour forth from the unprivileged masses. None of it, however, is very scientific. This is the privilege bracket. It is like an NCAA bracket, but without the privileged assumption that you know about sports, which are an inherently masculine-dominated, ability-privileged activity. Here, we will pit eight categories of non-privilege against one another, tournament-style. Each round, the least privileged will advance. At the end, only a single category of non-privilege will be left standing. Or, more likely, unable to stand.

It’s like a modern version of Queen for a Day, a game show in which women told stories of personal and financial ruin, with the most miserable winning … I dunno, a lifetime supply of Chinet.

Who will be the LEAST privileged? Muslims? Gays? Bulimics? Amputees? Prisoners? I can hardly wait to find out. And no one will be able to dispute the results because SCIENCE!

Ideologues can stand a lot of things, but mockery is not one of them. The “check your privilege” gibberish has dribbled out of the university over the past few years, along with other attempts at social manipulation like microaggressions and breaking human sexual experience into ever-multiplying identity groups.

With Gawker’s highly trafficked Privilege Brackets, the idea finally bottoms out and the absurdity is revealed.

Do I expect it “Check Your Privilege” to go away now? Of course not. Progressives don’t surrender their tools quite so easily, and the Priesthood of Academia will continue to preach their gospel of hate.

But I do know that the idea has finally passed its sell-by date, and like hyphenated-Americans, it’s now just another thing to mock.

Divination: A Fable

Okay, folks: it’s the busy time of the year: I have to write a paper on Pope Benedict and complete a large magazine supplement in the next couple of weeks. Plus, you’re all on vacation anyway, right?

Well, you should be.

So, I’ll leave you with something light. I love folk tales and fables, and sometimes I write my own based on older forms and traditional stories. One of the fascinating things is the way these forms repeat across cultures yet build unique variations and tones that are culturally specific. Because of this, tales convey a vast array of human experience in a very compressed format, acting not just as entertainment, but as a communal sapiential tradition passed from one generation to the next.

This one is about the dangers and folly of trying to predict the future.

Man and the zodiac, from a medical almanac, 1399

There once was a king who kept an astrologer to examine the heavens and predict his future. The astrologer often was as wrong as he was right, but he was able to gloss over his errors and exaggerate his successes, and thus the king came to believe in the man.

The astrologer’s influence in court became so great that the king soon grew to rely upon his council for all major decisions concerning the realm.

In time, the king started coming to the astrologer for even minor questions about affairs of state.

At last, the king would not get out of bed without first asking what fate held for the day ahead.

One morning, the astrologer came to the king’s chambers looking shaken. Although the king could tell something was amiss, and demanded an answer, the astrologer was loathe to present bad news. Finally, he admitted what he had seen his charts: the king had but six months to live.

A fit fell upon the king, and he took to his bed in dread fear. One by one, his knights and courtiers came to rouse him to good cheer, but to no effect. And one by one, they were sent away, and the kingdom began to falter.

Only the astrologer was left by his lord’s side, consulting his astrolabe and reading his charts.

At last, a humble knight came to ask if he could do anything for his king. The king said, “No, for I am doomed. My astrologer has seen it in the stars, and the stars never do lie.”

The knight looked to the astrologer, and said, “Indeed. And certainly a man must know his own stars better than those of another. Have you foreseen the day of your own death?”

The astrologer said with confidence, “Of course. Without doubt, I shall die 33 years hence, on the 5th of May, of an ague.”

Whereupon the knight rose to his feet, drew his sword, and cleaved the man in twain from chops to groin.

Seeing this, the king was restored to his senses, and the kingdom once again flourished.

Moral: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (See also: Leviticus 19:31 & 20:27, Deuteronomy 18:14, Isaiah 8:19)

[Source: traditional. You’ll find a similar version in the Sermones of Cardinal Jacobus de Vitriaco (13th century France).]

How to Play Tarot: An Explanation with Sample Rules

Detail from Ducale Tarot

Note: This is the seventh in a series which looks at the real history of Tarot. I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. We will get to all of it in time, but for now please be aware that this series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming.

French Tarot (Ducale)

Since Tarot games spring from a common source, they share certain rules that make them a distinct family of card games despite myriad differences. If you count variants, there are hundreds of ways to play games with tarot cards. (The key work on the subject is almost 1,000 pages long.) Some of them are almost comically complicated. Once we look at the scoring for a sample tarot game, you’ll have a nice illustration of the source of most card game rules: taverns full of drunk men.

For starters, like many European games, “eldest” (the player who receives cards first in the deal) is to the dealer’s right, not his left as in American games. Thus, dealing is counter-clockwise, with all cards dealt out. This—along with large size of the tarot cards—means hands are larger and more cumbersome to hold. Play may be solo or in partnership, and cards may have odd or unique values. A higher trump beats a lower trump. The lowest trump is the I, as is called the Pagat or Bagotto.

In numbered suits, there is a quirk of play in some games that has Swords and Batons ranked in typical descending order (K, Q, C, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, A) but Cups and coins ranked the opposite direction (K, Q, C, J, A, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). Thus, a 3 of Cups beats a 10 of Cups.

Why, yes: that is spectacularly confusing, but you’ll get used to it.

Games from France and Sicily don’t tend to follow this bizarre tradition.

The rules of trick-taking card games apply. Cards are played in tricks, with one player leading and the other following. The lead plays a card face up the center of the table, and the player to the right follows with a card of the same suit if possible. If the lead card is trump, trump suit should follow. If a player cannot follow suit and has a trump, he must follow with the trump, even if it’s a losing trump. If he can’t follow, he can play anything at all.

In many games, the player holding The Fool can play this card as an “excuse.” This rescues the player from having to play a bad card. The Fool incurs no penalty. It stands in for a regular play, and is then returned to the player’s hand, where it will be scored at the end of the game. In other games, the Fool is the highest Trump.

The player with the highest suit or highest trump wins the trick. The player who takes the trick leads the next trick, and so on until all the cards are exhausted. The usual pace of trick-taking games is followed, with cards scored, gathered, and shuffled; deal passing to the right; and various rounds comprising a complete game. The word “rubber” is not traditional to Tarot rules, but it expresses the pace of play nonetheless.

Detail, Ducale Tarot

Scoring can be extraordinary complex and subtle, and is where much of the variation among Tarot games is found. Players may compete singly or in teams, and the number of players varies from game to game. Winning points are determined not just by number of tricks buy by the value of the trumps won. In some counts, each trick counts for a point and then value cards are added to the total. Court cards may have a fixed value—King: 4, Queen: 3, Cavalier: 2, and Jack: 1. Number cards usually have no value.

The Fool, Trump I (the pagat), and Trump 21 may have the highest values, and are the standard trump honors in many games. Dummett expresses it this way:

“Suppose that all 78 cards are used, and that there are three players, so that there are three cards in each trick and hence 26 tricks in all. To the 26 points for tricks will be added 12 for the Trump 21, Trump I, and The Fool, 16 for the Kings, 12 for the Queens, 8 for the Cavaliers, and 4 for the Jacks, making 78 points in all divided between the players.”

These are the very basics of rules that you’ll find in Tarot games, with additional conventions for bidding, talon, discarding, shortening (or lengthening) decks, as so on.

Where to Get Tarot Cards

Tarot cards are common in bookstores and new age shops, but you don’t want to mess with these. They’re designed not for play but for divination, and most are saturated in occult images that we’re better off avoiding. Not only does this betray the roots of tarot in gaming, but it creates an unpleasant experience for the game. In addition, some of these “designer decks” only include the trumps, and they’re too large to hold as you would a normal hand of cards. (Tarot games already have large hands which can be difficult to hold.)

The Fool (Ducale)

For those who want to avoid any links with the Italian images which inspired the occult tarot, you can go for the French decks. This post is illustrated with cards from the Ducale tarot, which can be bought at TaroBear’s Lair.

The Genoves Tarot by Fournier is readily available from Amazon for about $15. The cards are not occult and they are a reasonable size, sturdy, and handsome.

How to Play Scarto

This simple game contains the basics of Tarot play and can be played with either a French or Italian deck.

Players: 3 people, playing singly

Deck: 78-card French or Italian.

Notes on the Cards: The game originated with the Tarocco Piemontese, a deck in which Trump XX (The Angel: l’Angelo) is the highest honor, and Trump XXI (The World, Mond) is next in order. In other words, just swap XXI and XX.

Card Ranking: The ranking is irrational with the order reversed on the “red” suits:

  • “Black” Suits: Swords/Staves (or Spades/Clubs):
    K, Q, C, V, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
  • “Red” Suits: Cups/Coins (Hearts/Diamonds):
    K, Q, C, V, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
  • Honors: Pagat (Trump I), l’Angel (Trump XX), The Fool

Card Values:

  • Honors–5 points
  • King—5 points
  • Queen–4 points
  • Cavalier (Knight)–3 points
  • Fante (Jack)–2 points

Deal: Deal and play moves to the right. Deal in packets of 5. Dealer takes the final 3 cards, then discards them into a pile (the scart). These will be counted for the dealer at the end. Neither Kings nor Honors may be discarded

Play: Eldest (remember: to the right) leads the first trick. Players must follow suit. If they cannot, they must trump if possible, even if it is not an advantageous trump. If they can neither follow nor trump, they may play anything.
Highest card in suit or highest trump wins the trick.
The person holding The Fool may play this as an “excuse” for not playing a card he is obliged to play. The Fool neither wins nor loses. At the end of the trick, it is returned to the person who played it, and placed in that person’s trick pile. In exchange, the person who played The Fool gives the person who won the trick any card from his trick pile. (Obviously, this will be a low-value card.)

The count may seem confusing, but this is how it works:

Cavalier and king (Ducale Tarot)

1. Sort cards into piles of three, with at least one a high card (Honor, King, etc) in each pile.
2. The Fool is counted separately.
3. If there is one high card, the value of the pile is equal to that card. For example, a batch with 1 Queen, a 4, and an 8 is worth 4 points.
4. If there are two high cards in the pile, add their points and subtract 1. (King, Pagat, and a 4 is worth 9 points.)
5. If there are three face cards in the pile, add their points and subtract 2. (King, l’Angel,and Cavalier is worth 11 points.)
6. If there are only non-honor trumps and numbers cards in the pile, the batch is worth one point.
7. One player will have two cards in one pile. These should be counted as if there are three cards.
8. Add everything together.
9. Subtract 26.
10. This is your score, either positive or negative.
11. Deal passes to the right. A rubber is three rounds.

Final Post: Meditations on the Tarot

Posts in this series:

The Meaning of the Cards [Tarot Series]

Note: This is the sixth in a series which looks at the real history of Tarot. I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. We will get to all of it in time, but for now please be aware that this series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming.

The images on the cards can tell us nothing of the future, but a great deal about the past. Their content emerges from a mixture of Greek philosophy (primarily neoplatonism) and Catholic theology, popular piety, culture, and the arts. The subjects could be quite varied, with anything from allegorical figures such as reason, faith, and labor, to pagan gods or historical figures.

For starters, let’s look at what we mean when we talk about the images. Here are the most conventional cards in the trump suits of a typical Italian Tarot deck:

The Hanged Man, from a Minchiate deck

Value: Common name
0 or 22 The Fool
1 The Juggler or The Mountebank (The Magician)
2 The Popess (The High Priestess)
3 The Empress
4 The Emperor
5 The Pope (The Hierophant)
6 The Lovers
7 The Chariot
8 Justice
9 The Hermit
10 Wheel of Fortune
11 Fortitude (Strength)
12 The Hanged Man
13 Death (Mystery)
14 Temperance
15 The Devil
16 The Tower (The House of God)
17 The Star
18 The Moon
19 The Sun
20 The Last Judgment
21 The World

Please note: these are the most common images and names. There are significant regional and historical variations and orders. French Tarot usually feature bucolic scenes or other, less densely allegorical imagery. In addition, as the cards were adapted by occultists, they were changed. “The Magician” and “The High Priestess” are bastardizations of authentic tarot symbolism.

The overall shape of the symbolism becomes more clear in the expanded Minchiate decks, which contain 40 trumps. The earliest we can date this larger sequence of cards is the 16th century, and its use was limited.

There are two possibilities for its origin. The most likely answer is that it’s a regional variant created to afford a much broader range of scoring options while also filling in perceived “gaps” in the symbolism, probably for pedagogic reasons. The second possibility is less likely: the 40 trumps are the original set, and the 22-card versions are abbreviations. I find this idea appealing since the Minchiate is more comprehensive and thus would be a more useful teaching tool, but there’s no proof of this at all.

Certainly, the Minchiate decks have a more robust set of images. In addition to the standard cards, they add the 12 symbols of the zodiac; the four elements (Fire, Water, Earth, and Air); and  Hope, Prudence, Faith (instead of La Papesse), and Charity. It creates an deepening of meaning. For example, in the original set, “Love” clearly represents Eros, while the Minchiate also adds Caritas (Charity). In the structure of the deck, the zodiac–representing the heavens–precedes Star, Moon, Sun, and World, creating a more expansive sense of the cosmic.

Some of the card images are quite obvious in their meaning. The Emperor and The Empress, Death, Sun, Moon, Stars: these are common images that would have been part of life in the 15th century, or even today.

The Fool, pursued by a dog

Yet even those common images have depth. Let’s take The Fool, which is not the same thing as a Joker in modern decks. The Fool is used in many games as an “excuse”: it can be played if the person holding him has no other card, and is then returned to the player’s hand. In society, “the fool” was a common feature of medieval life, and no mere clown. Sometimes the fool would say the things no one else would say, and therefore held hidden wisdom. Sometimes he was merely a vagrant or idiot. Thus, in scoring, The Fool could be worth the least or the most depending upon the rules.

Before he was dressed in motley, he could have been a “Holy Fool”: a mendicant figure that may have originally represented the humble lifestyle of the Franciscan Order.

In many card images, The Fool is harassed by a dog. Is this just a dog chasing a vagrant? Or does it represent the Dominican Order, sometimes called the “dogs of God” as a pun on their name (Latin: “domini canis”). Is this a representation of the disputes between the Dominicans and the Franciscans?

You see how easy it is? Once you start looking into these images, and working through the history and faith of the time, the ideas and connections emerge. We may not know the “real and final meaning” of an image, but it’s all part of the rich symbolism of the age.

But symbols and their varied interpretations–as interesting as they are historically, psychologically, artistically, and even spiritually–are not a religion in and of themselves. They have no innate power, but are merely signposts pointing to the truth.  And they certainly don’t enable someone to foresee future events.

Some cards appear to be a puzzlement. La Papessa (The Popess/Papess) is often wildly misread as a reference to the mythical figure of “Pope Joan,” a “female pope” who never actually existed. The answer is actually far more mundane: The Popess would represent the association of the Pope with Rome or the Church, which would be depicted as feminine figures (eg, “Holy Mother Church”). It’s simply an allegorical image. It confused the occultists so much that they changed this one to The Priestess. This helped reinforce Margaret Murray‘s longdiscredited notions about the survival of a “pagan” witch-cult well into Christian times: one of founding myths of neopaganism.

Similarly, The Hanged Man mystified some people with its image of a man hanging from a scaffold by his left foot. Gallons of ink have been spilled trying to figure out What It Could Possibly Mean.

In fact, it was a Northern Italian method of execution for traitors. That’s it.

Some cards depict money bags under the hanged man, associating him with the figure of Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus.

Researcher Timothy Betts finds evidence for this in a 1393 decree for Milan and Lombardy: “Let him be drug on a [wooden] plank at a horse’s tail to the place of execution, and there be suspended by one foot to the gallows, and be left there until he is dead. As long as he lives let him be given food and drink.”

Pictures of the sort—dubbed “shame paintings”—also were used to insult and defame particular people. It was way of calling them out as traitors: one of the worst things you could call someone at the time.

As you can see, the cards are overflowing with lore and dense with meaning. That’s how the world is, particularly the world of medieval Catholicism, in which the average person was part of a grand drama of life and death, with vast armies of angels and demons fighting over every soul. The immanence of the supernatural imbued everything from high art and the grand drama of worship down to songs and games and stories with a glittering sense of wonder. Every mass, simple bread and wine became the incarnate God. Glory and the miraculous were part of the fabric of everyday life: lives which often were hard, brutal, and brief.

No one would deny that images have meaning beyond mere illustration, and that this meaning may echo beliefs shared by all cultures stretching back to Egypt and ancient Israel. It’s important to recall, however, that Judaism was informed by its long contact with the culture of ancient Egypt, and Christianity emerged out of Judaism, and, at the time of the invention of Tarot deck, Europe was a Christian culture. Thus, it’s only natural to find some symbols that echo each other without being derived from some pool of lost ancient wisdom. It’s simply the common coin of a shared cultural experience. Or, if you like, what Carl Jung would call the collective unconscious.

The problem is that occultists (as well as some anthropologists working in the shadow of James Frazier) claimed concrete and direct connections to specific Egyptian and Hebrew imagery. For example, in From Ritual to Romance (the book which influenced the writing of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste-Land”) Jessie L. Weston connects the tarot to the legend of the grail. Part of this is done by simple misreading of symbol. Due to the prevalence of the occult tarot at the time Weston was writing, she mistook the suit of “coins” (a relic from from the origin of playing cards in Chinese money cards) for “dishes” and the suit of “staves/clubs” for “lances,” and made symbolic links to grail lore.

Similarly, Weston claimed that the symbols of the tarot were “discovered” on the ceiling of Medinet Habu, a mortuary complex in Egypt. She also asserts that the “temple” at Medinet Habu has 22 columns to correspond to the 22 “major arcana.”

In fact, the images of Medinet Habu are fairly standard political and religious images extolling the glories of Ramesses III and recasting him in typical Osirid modes. In addition, there are more than 22 columns in the complex: 24 columns still remain in whole or in part, with more lost to time.

And with these errors corrected, Weston’s theories about the grail/tarot/Egypt link simply vanish in a puff of smoke, like so much “ancient wisdom” to which the New Age movement lays claim.

Next: Playing Tarot. (I am also adding one post to wrap things up and talk about about Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot)

Post in this series:

The Fake History of the Occult Tarot

Note: This is the fifth of a series which looks at the real history of Tarot. I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. We will get to all of it in time, but for now please be aware that this series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming.

Historical/anthropological research about games is part of what I do as Editor-at Large of Games Magazine, and a shorter version of this material will appear as the lead feature in our November issue. You can see another example of my research in this series on gaming in Colonial America, which also was compiled into a feature for Games. I believe that games are unique and important elements of folk culture akin to song, story, dance, art, and clothing, and therefore worthy of serious study.

Antoine Court de Gébelin (1720s-1784) was an intellectual, Protestant pastor, Freemason, and occultist who traveled in powerful circles. He believed that there was once an ancient, advanced civilization that spanned the globe, and that the wisdom of this enlightened culture is at the root of common elements of symbolism and language shared by all humans.

Antoine Court de Gebelin: The man who fabricated the “history” of the occult tarot

His major work was a series of books called Le Monde primitif, analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne (“The Primeval World, Analyzed and Compared with the Modern World”), which set out his theories in a series of essays. The work was widely read and remarkably influential (Louis XVI was an admirer), and included an essay exploring the “history” of the cards used for the game of Tarot.

De Gebelin believed that Tarot trumps contained wisdom and hidden knowledge encoded by the vanished ur-civilization of humanity. His work was nothing more than a speculative flight of fancy that imagined the cards being transmitted to the priests of ancient Egypt and connected with the Book of Thoth, a title with a complex history, both real and imagined. Elements of Jewish Kabbalah and the Hebrew alphabet were also “encoded” in the cards. At some point, so he claimed, the cards came to Rome where they were used secretly by the Popes, who eventually brought them to France when the papacy was based in Avignon during the 14th century.

None of this had any roots in history or tradition: Gebelin simply concocted his theory based upon his interpretation of the imagery and structure of the deck.

For instance, the trump suit has 21 cards plus a Fool, for a total of 22 cards. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters. Ergo, the Tarot is Hebrew in origin! The logic is airtight!

Other writers filled in more details, and within two years after the first appearance of Gébellin’s essay, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, using the pen-name “Etteilla,” published a manual for fortune-telling using Tarot, and a fad was born.

All other occult Tarot lore and “history” simply spins Gebelin into ever-more-elaborate flights of fancy.The task began almost right away with card art changed to bring out the esoteric elements. Occultist Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) made these decks a central part of his own Kabbalistic system. Theosophists added them to their toolbox, and their usage continued to spread. Jean Baptiste Pitois (writing as “Paul Christian”) concocted “evidence” tying the images to Egyptian mystery cults and their secrets, or “arcana.” After this, the trump cards were called the “Major Arcana” and the conventional suits were dubbed the “Minor Arcana.”

The English occultists connected with the Golden Dawn (most famously associated with the poet William Butler Yeats) added Tarot to their teachings. Golden Dawn member A.E. Waite collaborated with artist Pamela Colman Smith on a new deck designed to emphasise his interpretation of the occult meaning of the “Major Arcana.” This deck was issued by the Rider Company as a bundle with Waite’s book, The Key to the Tarot. The success of the venture led to the Rider-Waite deck becoming the standard set of images most people associate with Tarot:

Images from the Rider-Waite deck, contrived to meet the occult needs of AE Waite

Every stage in the development of the occult tarot was a lie. At no point from Gebelin on did anyone trouble themselves about the truth. They merely continued to concoct ever-more-elaborate falsehoods about these simple tools of a regional game. Some were mere charlatans, others were dupes and true believers.

Try to imagine it this way: Pokemon cards are created for a collectible game in 1996. A couple hundred years pass, and people forget about them. Then someone finds a deck, and is mystified by the strange words and images. These odd harbingers of lost wisdom! Ponyta! Charmander! Lickitung! Psyduck!

Someone writes a book speculating what they could mean. Someone else pretends this speculation is truth, and writes a second book. Ten years later, people are going into dim tents and praying that the Pokemon reader doesn’t draw Mareep.

In the process of being adapted by occultists, the true purpose of the cards started to be forgotten. Certain regions of Europe retained their interest in the game, but by and large, as the association with fortune telling increased, the use of the decks for play decreased.

Finally, by the 20th century, the real history of the tarot was lost, and tarot games—when they were played at all–became games played with cards “invented” by ancient Egyptians for fortune-telling. It wasn’t until Dummett began digging deeper in the 1970s that the real story emerged, but even then it was trapped in specialty publications.

Fortunately, even many who believe in the divinatory properties of the cards are abandoning the false history. Robert M. Place begins his book The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination with chapters on both the actual and the false history of Tarot, before continuing with an exploration of what he believes to be their mystical properties.

Indeed, as we’ll see in the next post, the images on the cards are the product of a fertile culture of Christian theology and imagination, and they do provide an intriguing set of symbols for examination. They were not chosen at random, but emerged from a culture in which God was an ever-present reality. They have intrigued and inspired people wholly apart from their occult connections.

Next: The Meaning of the Cards

NOTE: I would urge people who are inclined to be irritated by this piece–both Catholics who think Tarot are nothing but evil and Tarot users who find pleasure in the cards–to wait until the end of the series before rendering any judgement. We have a long way to go through the following posts:

The Sexual Excesses of Modern Civilization

Okay, so that title is total click-bait, but there’s a real story behind it. If you want some good inadvertent comedy (and tragedy as well), check out this article in Atlantic Magazine, and marvel at the Stan Laurel-style head-scratching of a liberal academic elite trying to make sense of facts that demolish their carefully manufactured view of human sexuality.

A couple of anthropologists–Barry and Bonnie Hewlett–studied the Aka and Ngandu people of central Africa for years before getting a sense that they approached sex differently than … well, differently than married anthropologists, I guess. They had campfire discussions in which men spoke of having sexual intercourse several times in a single evening. Being western anthropologists, they immediately assumed this was an African version of Jersey Shore in which men naturally exaggerated their monogamous sexual practices for no apparent reason.

But when they talked to the women, it turned out that, yes, couples did copulate several times in a single evening, and that this was done in order to have children.

I know! Crazy-talk, right? As enlightened Westerners, we know sex has nothing to do with children at all. Babies are just a punishment meted out by a capricious biological processes.

Of course the Aka and Ngandu also had sex for pleasure, but in a place with such extremely high infant mortality, children were not seen as an unfortunate byproduct. They were seen as essential.

And then the Hewletts learned the ugly truth at the heart of these primitive peoples:

[they] found that homosexuality and masturbation appeared to be foreign to both groups

Is the strong cultural focus on sex as a reproductive tool the reason masturbation and homosexual practices seem to be virtually unknown among the Aka and Ngandu? That isn’t clear. But the Hewletts did find that their informants — whom they knew well from years of field work — “were not aware of these practices, did not have terms for them,” and, in the case of the Aka, had a hard time even understanding about what the researchers were asking when they asked about homosexual behaviors.

The Ngandu “were familiar with the concept” of homosexual behavior, “but no word existed for it and they said they did not know of any such relationships in or around the village. Men who had traveled to the capital, Bangui, said it existed in the city and was called ‘PD’ (French for par derriere or from behind).”

Given all this, the Hewletts conclude, “Homosexuality and masturbation are rare or nonexistent [in these two cultures], not because they are frowned upon or punished, but because they are not part of the cultural models of sexuality in either ethnic group.”

Quelle horreur! You mean homosexuality and masturbation are culturally conditioned? That’s unpossible!

Except, it’s not all that unheard of. Other anthropologists have come across cultures without any real understanding of disordered sexual practices, which are largely rooted in psychological and sociological, not physiological, causes. The article attempts to wave the magic wand of genetics at the problem, reassuring their panicking readership that, indeed, genetics can explain this, because SCIENCE! Their genetic mutterings are fairly vague, but from what I can tell, they’re suggesting that if there is a genetic component to homosexuality (“and there is increasing evidence that [there is], in many cases,” they say soothingly), it makes perfect sense that isolated tribes would not have this genetic component.

Because homosexuality has never been found in genetically separated cultures? Try again.

Are they suggesting that there’s a Mitochondrial Gay Eve to match Mitochondrial Eve, and all gay people trace their lineage back to her? How, where, when, and why did this genetic gay component enter the human family tree? Aren’t evolutionists always telling us that we’re nothing but chains of reproduction stretching back to single cells, with all behavior oriented towards passing on the best possible genes? If that’s the case, how does the “gay gene” fit in? It serves no purpose. In fact, it’s functionally sterile, and thus if it existed, wouldn’t it have vanished long ago as an evolutionary dead end? Am I missing something here?

The Hewletts correctly observe the three components of human sexuality: desire, behavior, and identity. They appear to believe that the desire element is universal and hard-wired, but that culture affects behavior and identity. There’s something to be said for this in developed civilizations. Certainly, the whole idea of someone being homosexual (behavior) is barely more than a hundred years old and the idea of claiming membership in a gay sub-culture (identity) is even more recent, while the idea of homosexual activity (desire) is quite ancient.

Where they–and much of modern social science–goes awry is in seating desire purely in biology. It may in fact originate there in some cases. Certainly, we find young children with gender identity disorders that cannot have come from cultural conditioning. At some point we’ll identify exactly what goes wrong in fetal development to produce GID, and maybe then we’ll find a more humane solution than the chemical and surgical butchery we’re practicing now to turn men and and women into non-men and non-women.

But insisting on a biological element in all (or even most) instances of same sex attraction is just junk science. Desire is a mysterious thing, and we can’t rule out some real biological component to sexual disorders, but moving from that to the “born gay” routine is just politically motivated nonsense looking to reaffirm people in their okayness.

The Hewletts believe it’s possible that same-sex desire exists in Aka and Ngandu men, but the lack of any social acceptance or understanding keeps it repressed. To their credit, they are cautious about this claim, and admit there is no proof for it.

The lack of masturbation actually shocked them more than the lack of homosexuality. Homosexual activity requires not only having the desire, but identifying and communicating that desire to someone who shares it, a proposition that is somewhat fraught in certain cultures, to say the least.

Masturbation, however, is a party of one. They find it unfathomable that any people who enjoy the pleasures of sex can fail to treat their genitals as a self-contained recreational unit.

Mired in their Western, modernist, post-moral biases, they fail to see a people who have a frank and practical understanding of sex as rooted, quite simply, in babies and bonding between people of the opposite gender. That’s what sex is. Everything else is simply a misuse of sex. It may be a vastly entertaining misuse of sex, but people trying to eek out a simple existence can be forgiven for not reducing all of life’s experiences to self-amusement and self-gratification.

My favorite part of the whole story, however, comes at the end:

Studies of small-scale, rural, non-Western cultures like the Aka and Ngandu paint a more complicated picture of human variation. The Hewletts remark that, “the Western cultural emphasis on recreational sex has … led some researchers to suggest that human sexuality is similar to bonobo apes because they have frequent non-reproductive sex, engage in sex throughout the female cycle, and use sex to reduce social tensions.” But, the Hewletts suggest, “The bonobo view may apply to Euro-Americans (plural), but from an Aka or Ngandu viewpoint, sex is linked to reproduction and building a family.” Where sex is work, sex may just work differently.

I can’t think of a more perfect summary of the Enlightenment and all the modernist movements that evolved in its wake. The efforts of the intellectual elite for the past 200+ years has been to reduce us all to bonobo apes. In fact, the Western view of recreational sex has been imposed on people who were once very traditionally moral.

And when our civilization falls, and we’re all reduced to subsistence living, the Aka and Ngandu–along with any traditionally religious people who haven’t been hunted to their deaths–can teach the survivors the true purpose of life and sexuality.

h/t: Kathy Schiffer