The Tarot de Marseilles, the oldest deck in 15th century Italy, slipped into the Philippines in the 18th century, most likely in gamblers’ hands. It didn’t take long to use it for divination.
True to its ancient babaylan culture, divination in the Philippines is well-entrenched. The key practice of the Union Espirista Cristiana de Filipinas affiliated to a global federation of occult sciences, is direct revelation by Spirit through mediums in trance like the babaylans. For the less gifted, fortune-telling in public markets and gambling with Tarot cards are familiar sights in rural neighborhoods to this day.
Just as in Europe or anywhere else, divination meets a human need to peer into the spirit world to gain a foothold on a troubled Earth. In a world threatened by nuclear annihilation in the 1960s to ‘70s came a new blossoming for the Tarot in the movement for higher consciousness.
A Tarot deck published in 1910 by the Christian mystic and occultist Arthur Edward Waite arrived in the Philippines at the time, followed by a staggering variety of decks. Taking off on the Rider-Waite deck, each emphasized a facet of spiritual practice: a Tarot for Witches, a Tree of Life Tarot, an Aquarian Tarot, an Alchemical Tarot, a pagan Tarot, a Tibetan Buddhist Tarot, Aleister Crowley’s dark and brooding Thoth Tarot with astrological and Qabalistic symbols reminiscent of his guru Etteilla’s 18th century deck.
Cartas Philippinensis blends into this new layer of spiritual tradition older than today’s major religions. Like the early occultist decks, it limits itself to 22 cards of the Major Arcana for a unique purpose: interpreting universal archetypes with key events and figures in Philippine colonial history.
Archetypes are powerful things—“mental image(s) inherited from our earliest ancestors…the psychic counterpart of instinct revealed in behavior, images, art, myths, religions, or dreams, archaic patterns in images from the collective unconscious,” as the pioneering psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung, who evolved the theory, wrote.
Archetypes in the nation’s formative experiences make Cartas Philippinensis a kind of therapy for the lingering trauma of colonization. Its images and historical passages from three centuries of subjugation becomes a decolonizing narrative prodding collective memories of trauma to emerge from psyches still suffering from their hidden wounds, often without knowing why.
Thus, Cartas begins with three cards configuring imperial Spain’s triangle of conquest over Las Islas Filipinas. The first portrays the Spanish sovereign as El Loco, The Fool, who barely knew the people and lands he conquered.
The second portrays the friar as El Mago, The Magician advising the Crown in its church-sanctioned conquest, reducing prayer to hypnotic Latin spells, turning ignorant indios into tools for power and personal profit.
The third card portrays Governor General Narciso Claveria as El Emperador, The Emperor, the highest authority in the land. Renaming the majority of our ancestors as a tax collection measure in the 19th century, he erased the rich indio past, determining the status of their progeny for generations.
The next cards portray native inner resources resisting subjugation. The first is the Virgin Mary as La Emperatriz, The Empress—a queen ruling Filipino hearts just like their older tribal goddesses in the many trials of their history.
Another is the beata as La Sacerdotisa, The High Priestess, her own kind of babaylan ministering to her suffering people in unchartered religious communities without the worldly power of the male priest.
Manila’s Bishop Cesar Ma. Guerrero becomes El Papa, the ideal Pope, who stood up to entrenched power and moral decay in his own Catholic Church. Known as a gifted exorcist, Guerrero was praised as “santo y sabio”—holy and wise, in a lifetime of righteousness through the nation’s difficult transitions from Spanish to American rule to Japanese occupation to early independence.
The vein of historical irony continues in La Justicia, Justice, where laws in a language the majority did not know entrapped them in the master’s absolute power.
El Colgado, The Hanged Man, portrays indio priests treated like criminals for refusing to take part in their Spanish parish priest’s excessive charges for baptisms, weddings, and funerals.
More than a hint of bitterness marks La Rueda, The Wheel of Fortune, a wheel of medieval water torture often instigated by the friars, grinding suspected subversives to “confess,” no matter their innocence.
El Juicio, The Judgment, is another sardonic card hidden behind a jewel of a church in San Joaquin, Iloilo. Here we find a mural of the punishments of hell awaiting all non-believers who refuse church authority.
Given the friars’ power, La Luna, The Moon—archetype of visions, dreams and illusions—describes the clamor for reforms as “howling at the moon”. Keeping indios docile in ignorance, the friars defied even a royal decree to teach them Spanish.
Opposite the Moon is El Sol, The Sun, the universal archetype of enlightenment, also the symbol of the Dominican Order. Hofileña recalls the good faith of the first Dominicans inspired by Spain’s Catholic Reformation “to bring Catholic doctrines to the New World.” Reaching the Philippines, they founded the University of Sto. Tomas, over 400 years old today, and published the first books printed in the country.
But such is human nature. By the 19th century, the supposed mendicant Dominican Order now had vast landholdings granted by the Crown for their missionary work. Their mounting rentals on agricultural land caused so much suffering it led to the arrest and vilification of many Dominicans in the outbreak of Philippine Revolution.
La Torre, The Tower, is a classic archetype of sweeping violent change. This card portrays the hanging the native priests Gomez, Burgos and Zamora for leading a movement to Filipinize the clergy in 1872. This execution advised by the friars so shocked the nation it became the most fertile seed of revolution 24 years later.
El Mundo, The World, shrinks the indios’ vast seafaring world before conquest into a medieval hierarchy layered on a water fountain—indios at the bottom, friars on top, the crucified Christ on a higher rung but under Spain’s escudo (seal), symbol of its church-sanctioned power crowning the fountain.
In this backward look at history, the spirit of divination is strongest in La Estrella, The Star. Here Hofileña suggests that the linked destinies of Spain and the Philippines was “written in the firmament, predicted in the stars.”
A highly evocative brown woman pours water into a flowing river from two jars the color of her skin. Above to her right is the constellation of Pisces, the stars of March 1521 when navigator Magellan made landfall, accidentally discovering the Philippine islands. Above to her left the stars of Sagittarius gleam over Spain’s defeat by American battleships in Manila Bay, ending Spanish rule in the Philippines in December 1898 three centuries later.
The Western Tarot Star is an archetype of renewal and hope. How striking are the new colonizer’s Stars and Stripes waving over the Philippine revolution’s stolen victory. Equally striking is how China’s flag with one big star and four smaller stars now waves over military installations on islands reclaimed from Philippine territorial waters without a sovereign nation’s consent.
Is this perhaps a call to finally earn renewal of the nation’s dearest hopes waylaid by history?