I’ve been translating a booklet written in Italian that came with a deck of tarot cards, I Tarocchi di Robot. I thought it would be easy using MS Word translator and Google translator — just type in the text. And it was easy. Mostly. There were places of disagreement between the two translations, and even some words that seemed wrong in both translations. I’m pretty sure the writer meant suit of cups and suit of wands rather than seed of cups and seed of wands as presented in both translations, though who knows. When it comes to the tarot, people seem to like being mysterious simply for the sake of being mysterious. So I had to do some translation of the translation, if you know what I mean.
Most of the booklet was about the history of the tarot, which I didn’t bother with — I have several histories in English, which should be enough for anyone, and what was left seemed to be more about the philosophy of this particular deck rather than a practical application or practical information about the individual cards. According to what I could translate:
Robot is a word of Czech origin which means work. It was the playwright Karel Capek who invented the term robot in a novel, Rezon’s Universal Robots, which illustrated a utopian society governed by thinking machines. Later the word robot was used to designate automatons of various shapes and attitudes, and provided the inspiration for an infinite number of literary works, films, and comic books. But in the science fiction strands dedicated to the relationship between men and machines, Robot Tarot is an absolute novelty for the theme itself and for the way it has been developed.
Looking at the triumphal cards, or the Major Arcana, you immediately see that the characters represented, although they are obviously automatons, do not express the insensitive coldness of machines. On the contrary, they seem to be inhabitants of a world parallel to ours, or perhaps later than it. An extremely evolved world, where cyber science has been able to transfer human qualities to androids. Thus, the merits and defects carved into the genetic code of humans are found in the Robot Tarot. Among these automatons there can be love, madness, courage and lies. They too are divided by a social hierarchy, they know suffering and aspire to perfection, to that Paradise that only metaphysical thought is able to touch. There is undoubtedly a hint of poetry in these cards and also a lot of irony if the virtues of the tarot cards, which are difficult for humans to use, can be attributed to thinking machines. So, to be fully ironic about these figures, we want to give them even deeper meanings by imagining that metaphysics, the most sublime or most illusory science (since it tries to explain the meaning of things and life) finds itself projected into this world of steel, plastic and silicon where the soul would seem to be governed by capacitors and transistors and the spirit sacrificed to ideals of pure efficiency and productivity.
There’s definitely poetry in these cards — even without knowing what the images mean (in a tarot sort of way) and even without liking robots (I have no real interest in robots of any kind or in any medium) it’s easy to feel . . . something. The cards are truly stunning and unique, and yes, it delights me to think of automatons — creatures far from human thought — bringing us a deeper understanding of human life.
The main thing I learned from my efforts at studying the Italian prose was how the various suits translated into more traditional terms.
On the basis of what hidden logic have the coins turned into lights, the cups into scarabs, the swords into lasers, and the wands even into the suit of nothing? The answer to this question allows us to enter the philosophy of the Robot Tarot, thus tearing the veil of mystery that lingers on their fantasy world.
We have said that robot means work, and the Minor Arcana refers to work, not to manual and intellectual work but rather to natural work, that is, to those laws which, permeating the Cosmos in every direction, also dominate machines and inert bodies. We know that the creator of this deck knows the symbolic value of the beetle, a sacred animal not only among the Egyptians, because it is considered capable of being reborn from its own decomposition. In the Robot Tarot this figure replaces the Cup, another symbol of regeneration linked to the drink of immortality (think of the Grail Cup containing the blood of Christ, or the cup of the Hindu soma). The Scarab thus expresses the perpetual movement of life in the Universe, and in this movement three phases are distinguishable: one creative, one destructive, and a third one balancing.
The destructive energy, which does not necessarily have a negative meaning, and symbolized by the suit of Laser, replaces the symbol of the Sword (think of the Cherubim sword of fire, the Hindu vajira, or the lightning of Zeus). The creative energy, on the other hand, is represented by the suit of Light. This symbol, which replaces the Coin, is complementary to the Laser or, if you will, the other side of the same coin: as there is a light that destroys, there is another that gives life. The interdependence between these two energies was summed up by alchemists with the symbols of Mars and Venus, by the Taoists with the yin and yang image, and by the Hindus with the symbols of lingam and yoni.
The last pole, that of the permanent balance (equilibrium) and represented by the Nothing that replaces the suit of Wands, symbol of agriculture, of the seasonal balances and of the eternal fluctuation of the Galaxies (the Cosmic Tree). A thought of Heraclitus expresses the properties of this symbol: “Nothing is born and nothing dies, but everything becomes,” formula similar to the modern law on energy conservation.
And that’s all the booklet said about these cards in particular. Unfortunately, the very next part negated this information:
Playing with the analogies between Minor Arcana, symbols of esoteric traditions and universal principles of physics (motion, stillness, creation and destruction), we have proposed a logical structure capable of explaining the contents of the Robot Tarot. In any case, completely different structures could be built and other values and formulas discovered in them. But we prefer that it is the very reader who seeks, between the reflections of the plates (illustrations?) and the flashes of the lasers, the laws that link thought to forms, the relationships between the science of bodies and that of souls (i.e. among the Minor Arcana and the Major Arcana). After all, even this quest can turn into a game, as the history of tarot cards shows.
So in other words, the cards can mean anything a person wants them to mean. In a way, that does make sense since the tarot is not supposed to tell fortunes but help people gain a greater understanding of themselves and their relationship to life, as well as to help the reader of the cards develop a greater intuition.
But that doesn’t help with understanding the meaning behind the cards. I suppose, if I were to do a study of this deck, I’d have to check to see the traditional meaning of all the cards, and then interpret them in a robotically metaphysical way. (A metaphysically robotic way?)
Or I could just enjoy looking at the evocative images as I have been doing.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.