Life with the Tarot

 Saul Hofileña, Jr.'s Cartas Philippinensis

Saul Hofileña, Jr.'s Cartas Philippinensis

A strange sight greeted me in the middle of rice fields in Jaen, Nueva Ecija sometime in the late ‘80s. The Agrarian Reform program had just begun. My clan, heirs of my farmer grandma, was waiting for a dialogue with her tenants. I noticed a group of them waiting around a small table with … was I seeing right? Tarot cards?

I approached them to make sure, but an aunt gripped my arm, “Don’t!” she said. “That’s the work of the devil!” Shocked, I stood still. What misunderstanding was this? Age took precedence. I stepped back, silent as the moment revealed that barely literate farmers knew the Tarot that so fascinated me.

But what was it my aunt feared? Now I began noticing things like that long line waiting for fortunes to be told by a Tarot reader in Quiapo. In my hometown, Tarot cards laid out with coins and paper money caught my eye. My townmates were gambling; they called it “sakla.

Nearly 20 years had passed by then since hippie friends first introduced me to the Tarot as divination. I wanted to know more. This was before the Internet so I could only pick up bits and pieces of lore in books. This was how I discovered that the Tarot goes back to ancient Egypt. Then a hint turned up in Herman Hesse’s “Journey to the East” with a mysterious “band of brothers” appearing and disappearing from a surreal library winding through past, present and future.

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A sketchy story came together, leading back to the Library of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, no less. It seems constant threats to this library compelled its keepers to compress as much of its contents as they could in symbols painted on playing cards. They hoped these cards, the Tarot. would preserve their knowledge in the hands of gamers and gamblers outside Egypt.

There was more to discover with the advent of the Internet. The Wikipedia says the Library of Alexandria, pride of the Ptolemaic dynasty in the 3rd century BC, was run like a university with visiting sages and mages from all over the ancient world.

But in 48 BC Julius Caesar’s army torched part of the library. Much later in the 270s AD, Aurelian managed to destroy the main library. What remained was transferred to a "daughter library” in a temple called Serapeum. But in 391 AD the Coptic Christian Pope Theophilus destroyed that and its “pagan symbols,” too.

Finally, the library was completely destroyed in the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 64 AD. But why was the Library of Alexandria such a target? Did Egypt’s foreign rivals to power fear its much older spirit tradition? How different was that from my Catholic-educated aunt calling the Tarot “the work of the devil” twenty centuries later?

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Egypt’s plan to save their tradition worked. Eight centuries later, Tarot symbols as we know them today turned up as playing cards in a game called “tarochi” in Milan, Bologna, and Ferrara. Up came more cards as time passed, emblazoned with philosophical, social, poetic, astronomical, and heraldic ideas along with heroes of Rome, Greece, and Babylon. Were disciples of Alexandria’s sages and mages behind them, I wondered -- perhaps the Great White Brotherhood of Rosicrucians?

Whatever the truth, by the late 18th century the Tarot was widely used for divination, perhaps a throwback to Egypt’s view of immortality with “brothers in the stars.” Was this what threatened younger religions?

Tarot in the Philippines

The Tarot slipped into Christianized Philippines with European travelers in the 18th century. Interestingly, its use in divination is strongly associated with places where the Union Espirista Cristiana de Filipinas still thrives.

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The Union Espiritista founded on February 1905 by spiritualists in Pangasinan and Manila was part of a global federation devoted to spiritual sciences called “occult” -- meaning “hidden,” so ancient they’re largely forgotten.

Intriguingly, the key espiritista practice of direct revelation by the Spirit through mediums in trance was a practice of Philippine babaylan culture, too. Filling in huge gaps of history antedating Christianity, excised by its leaders, the Tarot a perfect fit.

At the other end of a spectrum of trying to gain a foothold in a troubled visible world by human contact with the spirit world was divination with the Tarot. Natives of Pampanga, Pangasinan, and Manila informed me that just like Quiapo, fortune-telling with the Tarot is still widespread in their public markets. Gambling with the Tarot, too, is a familiar sight in rural gatherings. And the omnipresent Tarot de Marseille was likely the first deck to reach the country.  

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Another deck published in 1910 by the mystic and occultist Arthur Edward Waite is, however, the most widely-known as spiritual guideposts. Alongside is a staggering variety from the exploding movement for “higher consciousness” in the ‘70s – the Aquarian Tarot, Tree of Life Tarot, Alchemical Tarot, Robin Wood Tarot, Witches’ Tarot, Tibetan Buddhist Morgan’s Tarot, Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot with astrological, zodiacal, elemental and Qabalist symbols.

They retain the original symbols, but emphasize different facets of spiritual practice for a new generation of seekers. Disillusioned by institutional religions in a world perpetually at the brink of nuclear war, they were seeking the ultimate truths of life and death.

A New Blossoming

The new Cartas Philippinensis -- Tarot cards by the historian and wildly imaginative art connoisseur Saul Hofileña painted by the artist Guy Custodio – joins a fresh layer of spiritual tradition far older than the world’s major religions. Taking on the Tarot’s five centuries of European tradition and linking its symbols to central events and figures in Philippine colonial history, Cartas is a 21st century artifact and easily a collector’s item.

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Unlike the usual 78 cards of the traditional Tarot, however, it limits itself to 22 cards of the Major Arcana (Secrets), each interpreting archetypes in Philippine colonial history.

Now a word about “archetype(s)” -- defined by Carl Gustav Jung, that great scholar of human consciousness,  as “a mental image inherited from our earliest ancestors… archaic patterns and images from the collective unconscious, the psychic counterpart of instinct revealed in behavior, images, art, myths, religions, or dreams.”

Zooming in on formative experiences in the Philippine with powerful archetypes, Cartas addresses the lingering trauma of colonization. Plumbing three centuries of a people’s subjugation turns out a decolonizing narrative prodding a wounded psyche’s healing with greater self-knowledge – a process its author must have undergone himself.

The first three cards sum up Cartas’ perspective of imperial Spain’s absolute power over las islas filipinas. The first sardonically depicts the Spanish king as El Loco, the Fool, who barely knew the people and lands he conquered and exploited.

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The second has the friar advisor to the Crown in its church-sanctioned conquest. This is El Mago, the Magician reducing prayers to Latin spells virtually hypnotizing colonial subjects into passive tools for power and profit.

The third card captures imperial arrogance in Governor General Narciso Claveria as El Emperador, the Emperor. By casually renaming most of our indio ancestors to make tax collection more efficient in 19th century Philippines, Claveria erased their past, determining the future status of their progeny.

The next cards portray the indio’s inner resources against complete subjugation. The first is the Virgin Mary as La Emperatriz, the Empress sustaining indios in the trials of their history like their old goddesses. Another is the beata as La Sacerdotisa, the High Priestess, her own kind of babaylan serving her needy people in unchartered religious communities free of the male priest’s worldly power.

El Papa, the Pope, is given the face of Manila’s Bishop Cesar Ma. Guerrero in the country’s transition from Spanish to American rule, Japanese occupation and early independence. Guerrero, a gifted exorcist, was a man of great spiritual strength praised as “santo y sabio”, holy and wise -- a counter-force to entrenched power and moral decay in his own Catholic Church.

This vein of historical irony snakes through the card La Justicia, “Justice,” with laws written in a language the majority were kept from learning, entrapping them in the master’s absolute power. It partners El Colgado, the Hanged Man, with indio priests punished for refusing to take part in their friar-parish priest’s exorbitant fees for baptisms, weddings, and funerals.


Unlike the usual 78 cards of the traditional Tarot, however, Cartas Philippinensis, limits itself to 22 cards of the Major Arcana (Secrets), each interpreting archetypes in Philippine colonial history.

Given the friars’ power, La Luna, the Moon – an archetype of visions, dreams and illusions -- describes the clamor for reforms as “howling at the moon.” Friars even defied a royal decree to teach the indios Spanish, the better to keep them obedient in fearful ignorance.

Opposite the Moon is El Sol, the Sun, the oldest archetype of enlightenment. Hofileña points out that the sun is also the insignia of the Dominican Order. Inspired by Spain’s Catholic Reformation, they indeed “risked life and limb to cross uncharted seas to bring Catholic doctrines to the New World.” Founding the University of Sto. Tomas, one of the oldest in the world, they then published the first books printed in the Philippines.

But such is human nature. By the 19th century, the Dominican Order had vast landholdings granted by the Crown for their missionary work. Now they were charging mounting rentals on agricultural land, causing much suffering in countryside Calamba, Sta. Cruz de Malabon, and Orion, Bataan. Supposed to be a mendicant order, heartless Dominican administration of friar lands led to their arrest and vilification in the Philippine Revolution.

La Torre, the Tower, a classic archetype of sweeping violent change, highlights an abusive government steadily sowing seeds of its own destruction with the friars. It recalls the execution, advised by the friars, of the native priests Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora for leading a movement to Filipinize the clergy in 1872.

Witnessed by a young Jose Rizal, this execution was so shocking, it seeded Noli me tangere, a moving novel on his subjugated people. Its secret spread ignited wildfire, led to Rizal’s execution and finally to the Philippine Revolution of 1896.

Among other arresting insights in Cartas Philippinensis, especially striking is La Estrella, the Star, originally meaning renewal and new hope. Hofileña alters this to mean “the linked destinies of Spain and the Philippines written in the firmament, predicted in the stars.”

La Estrella has a highly evocative brown woman pouring water into the flowing river of life from two jars the color of her skin, symbolizing earthly and cosmic forces. Above her to her right is the constellation of Pisces, the stars of March 1521, when navigator Magellan’s landfall accidentally discovered the Philippine islands.

Above to her left, the December stars of Sagittarius three centuries later gleam over Spanish defeat by American battleships in Manila Bay, ending Spain’s imperium in the Philippines in December 1898. This major historical turning point would see the new colonizer’s Stars and Stripes next waving over a defeated Filipino struggle for sovereignty.

Today La Estrella turns prescient as China’s flag, with one huge star and four smaller stars, waves over military installations on seven islands reclaimed from Philippine territorial waters now, without the nation’s full knowledge and consent.

Might the Tarot really be a keyhole to peer into the fate and destiny of these ever-contested islands? If so, it’s high time for collective will to return La Estrella’s original meaning of renewal and hope.


 Sylvia Mayuga

Sylvia Mayuga

Sylvia L. Mayuga is a veteran Filipino writer on the arts, culture and history of the Philippines. She has three National Book Awards to her name.


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