It’s an interesting story: what does ‘mat’ actually mean or to what does it refer? A sensing-in-the-dark type of answer I have previously provided has included its plausible reference to chess and its arabic provenance as ‘death’ or ‘kill’ (as in ‘check-mate’ – from ‘shah mat’, meaning ‘king dead’). But to be honest, I have never felt happy with this (or any other) explanation, even if the derivative etymology ultimately points to this as a precursor source.
I also realise that the Italian decks have ‘matto’, and that this also has entered common usage. Part of the historical problem is that it appears, from what I have been able to ascertain, that the usage of ‘matto’ as ‘fool’ or ‘foolish’ only entered Italian after its existing appearance on cards that antidate such use.
Surely the word itself would more simply have been understood as one of the common variants of ‘Fol’.
Of disappearing common words
There have certainly been other words that make their appearance on some tarot decks that have been half forgotten – at least by those amongst us who, though perhaps highly familiar with tarot, lack what mediaeval scholars of French, Italian, German, and Latin (amongst others) would take for granted. An example that jumps to mind is ‘pances’ as it appears on the Dodal tarot (I have previously included reference to it, and its meaning, in both ‘A closer look at one of the Marseille decks: the Jean Dodal c. 1701, Lyon‘ and ‘Tarot’s expression of the numinous‘).
In that instance, ‘La Pances’ refers to the womb or ‘belly’ or ‘pouch’. I recall a radio interview on which I was invited to speak of tarot (in French), and as I briefly gave the Dodal as an example of differences in titles (and proceeded to explain the meaning of ‘pances’), the interviewer, who had obtained her Master’s in mediaeval French, thought it rather obvious.
I have long suspected that ‘Mat’ has a similar story…
Of Lumiere (‘Gothic’) Cathedrals
In my Reading the Marseille Tarot (page 534), I mention that petroglyph images found on the cathedrals of both Paris and Amiens have pairings of virtues and vices, in the case in point of, respectively, courage and cowardice. Cowardice is wonderfully depicted in a manner that sees the person deprived of courage as dropping his sword and running away from a rabbit whose emergence from the bushes to his side has frightened the ‘living daylights out of him’ (if non-native English speakers pardon the expression). And here, of course, the similarity to the Fou’s depiction has clear and obvious similarities.
In the book, I also there raise the question whether it could therefore be that our tarot Fol is a depiction derived from representations of this very image, with the rabbit progressively losing its clarity and slowly transforming to a rather obscure representation of an animal that eventually becomes re-clarified as a dog in image-interpretation and thus later also in re-created depiction. Certainly even Noblet, had he paid attention, would have been aware of the Paris cathedral petroglyph.
Even the Italian word ‘matto’, incidentally, may have connections with an earlier etymology that connects to courageous aggression – and thus, through common parlance, of its own inversion. There, its connection with mediaeval Spanish and Catalan may appear more obvious, and its influence on decks designed not far from the Pyrenees region perhaps reflect a lingering of Oc. I would certainly be pleased for those who have greater expertise in linguistic analysis and derivatives to look into this further.
What has led me to re-consider the word ‘Mat’ own derivative, however, is something that may be all too common to German speakers, and that would possibly also explain its usage in decks designed nearer the Rhine.
By a wonderful chance, earlier this year (if I recall, in May), a performance of Schubert’s Winterreise was wonderfully rendered by tenor Nicholas Wijnberg, accompanied by a pianist friend Marcus Cox. It was a piece I had never previously paid much attention – and to be honest, I do not recall if I had even previously heard it.
From its opening, the story – or rather, the journey, brought to mind those that only a fool would dare to make. Its 22nd piece, however, directly brought this to greater focus for two especial reasons: on the one hand there is that line that translated reads:
If there’s no God on earth, then we ourselves are gods!
and the very title of the piece is Mut! (i.e., ‘Courage’).
And so we come full circle… could it indeed be that this little title on the card refers and hints back to an earlier understanding of the fool as the fool’s ‘courage’ and its opposite vice? For myself at any rate, it is by far the more obvious and clear explanation as to the otherwise strangeness of its alternate title.