If you’ve been interested in tarot long enough, you’ve more than likely come across the story of The Soldier’s Almanac (known by various other titles as well: Cards Spiritualized; The Soldier’s Almanac, Bible, and Prayer Book; The Perpetual Almanack, or simply, The Deck of Cards).
The story has an obscure history (very much like the tarot itself), but it was quite popular as a folk tale in the 19th century, was “Americanized” in the first half of the 20th century by American folk musicians, and according to Wikipedia, the earliest reference can be dated back to 1762 in a Hampshire, England farm wife’s common book.
The point of the folk tale, which I will put below, is that a poor—and possibly illiterate—soldier uses a deck of cards as his Bible, which seems blasphemous to his superior officer at first, until, in court martial proceedings, the soldier explains his visual mnemonic system of “reading” the cards.
I hope to tie this into my previous blog post by inferring not only that correspondences and relationships can be found between vicarious and disparate-seeming documents (the Bible and a deck of playing cards), but that, the human mind can attribute meaning between obtuse documents and still find pedagogical instruction and meaning in the process. Not unlike—as we discussed in the previous blog about the opening page of the 12th-century Winchester Bible—whereby the illustrators tried to make connections between the Old and the New Testaments of the Bible in order to achieve greater understanding and import from the stories of the Gospels.
So even while sticklers and biblical authoritarians have dismissed The Soldier’s Almanac as containing improper attributions and incorrect correlations, the point of the story is more about the creativity and triumph of the human mind to make those correlations and connections (and also to gain insight and personal meaning from them)…
Here, then, is the folk story of The Soldier’s Almanac:
A soldier, attending divine service with the rest of his regiment in church, instead of pulling out a Bible, like the rest of his brother-soldiers, in order to find the parson’s text, spread a pack of playing cards before himself. This singular behavior did not long pass the attention of both the clergyman and the sergeant of the company to which the soldier belonged. The latter requested him to put away the cards immediately, and upon the soldier’s refusal, conducted him after church to the magistrate, to whom the soldier preferred to be formally presented for his “indecent” behavior during the church service.
“Well, soldier!” exclaimed the magistrate, “What excuse have you for this strange and scandalous behavior? If you can make an apology for yourself, or attribute any reason for it, you would do well; if you cannot, however, be assured that I will cause you, without delay, to be severely punished for it!”
“Since your Honor has been so kind as to provide me with the opportunity,” replied the soldier, “I will inform you that I have been eight days marching with my regiment, with a bare allowance of sixpence a day, which your Honor will surely allow is hardly sufficient to maintain a man in food, drink, washing, and other necessities that consequently he may want, without a Bible, Prayer Book, or any other good literature.” The soldier then drew out his pack of cards, and presenting one of the Aces to the magistrate, continued to address the honorable man as follows:
“When I see an Ace, may it please your honor, it reminds me that there is only one God. And when I look upon a Two or a Three, the former puts me in mind of the Father and the Son, and the latter of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. A Four calls forth the remembrance of the four evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. A Five recalls the five wise virgins who were ordered to trim their lamps; there were ten, indeed, but five of them, your Honor may remember, were wise, and five were foolish. A Six denotes that it was in six days that God created the heavens and the earth. A Seven reminds that on the seventh day He rested from all that He had made. An Eight illuminates the recollection that there were eight righteous persons preserved from the deluge—Noah and his wife, with his three sons and their wives. A Nine recalls to my mind the nine lepers cleansed by our Savior; there were ten, but only one returned to offer his tribute of thanks. And a Ten signifies the ten commandments that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai on two tablets of stone.
At this point the soldier took the Knave and placed it aside, but then continued…
“When I see the Queen, it puts me in mind of the Queen of Sheba, who came from the furthermost parts of the world to hear the wisdom of Solomon, for she was as wise a woman as he a man, for she brought fifty boys and fifty girls, all clothed in girls’ apparel to show before King Solomon, for him to test which were boys and which were girls—but he could not until he called for water for the children to wash themselves; the girls washed up to their elbows, and the boys washed up to the wrists of their hands, and by this indicator did King Solomon discover their sexes.
And when I see the King, it puts me in mind of the Great King of Heaven and Earth, which is God Almighty; and likewise of His Majesty King George the Fourth, to pray for him as well.”
“Well,” said the magistrate, “you have given us a good description of all the cards except one, which is lacking.”
“Which is that?” asked the soldier.
“The Knave,” replied the magistrate.
“If your Honor will not be angry with me,” offered the soldier, “I can give you the same satisfaction on that as any in the pack…”
“Which is?” inquired the magistrate.
“Well,” returned the soldier, “the greatest knave that I know is the sergeant who brought me before you.”
“I don’t know,” said the magistrate, “whether he be the greatest knave or not, but I am certain he is the greatest fool!”
The soldier concluded his catechism by relaying the following: “When I count the number of dots in a pack of cards—there are 365—there are thus as many days in the calendar of a year. When I count how many cards there are in a pack—I find there are 52—there are an equal number of weeks in that same year. When I reckon how many tricks are won by a pack—I find there are 13—so as many lunar months are there in a year’s time. Just so, this pack of cards are all of a Bible, an Almanac, and a Prayer Book to me.”
“The magistrate called his servants, ordered them to entertain the soldier well, gave him some coins, and said that he was the cleverest fellow he had ever heard in his life!