My 130 Ancestors

I received this comment on the My Books page today:

I’ve seen you over at the mnemotechnics forum. I wonder if there is a place where you’ve listed your 52 ‘ancestors’ for playing cards? I love the idea of my 52 characters being useful memorable items themselves – and possible pegs for further info.

Graham is talking about two of my memory experiments which I referred to in a discussion over on the mnemotechnics forum. These are the two experiments as I describe them on the page called My 40 Memory Experiments.

They are in chronological order because that adds more information to the memorisation. I’d be intrigued to know which characters people would chose, which they’d leave out and which they would add who I have not mentioned.

Standard card deck – 52 Ancestors

Part of the card deck. I use the old fashioned royal faces on the right.

The world memory champions memorise shuffled card decks by giving a character to each one and creating stories. My ancestors are in chronological order. I start with Homer and go to Oliver Cromwell, to be followed by the Tarot Ancestors below. I consider the method to being akin to the stories told by indigenous cultures of the pantheon of mythological characters.

For example, Attila the Hun is the 7 of Hearts. I call him Atilda the Honey. I imagine a tilda (~) as the horizontal bar of the 7, and he is a honey because it’s Hearts and all lovely. It is so ludicrous a nickname that it is memorable.

Having given historical characters to each card in my deck, I am using them to memorise  their roles, expanding to the historical events, contemporaries and the context of their lives. They are memory hooks for far more than just their lives. This has gone very well and I am now extremely interested in these people. Having a hook enables me to remember more about them than before. It now overlaps with History Journey and Countries. But it is not confusing, just each mnemonic device aiding the other.

Tarot deck – another 78 Ancestors

Half the tarot deck

The 78 cards of a tarot deck are heavily illustrated, lending themselves to the creation of stories. I have encoded another 78 historical characters, from Blaise Pascal to Linus Torvalds. I’m now adding more layers of data to the structure.

The fact that image may not bear any relationship to the character is no problem. I just have to get imaginative to make the link.

I have chosen people who I think give me the best chance of covering a great deal of the influences on my culture. I am sure others would have chosen differently. I wonder how much my personal biases show.

A Homer 800 BC
2 Pythagorus 570 BC
3 Confucius 551 BC
4 Herodotus 484 BC
5 Socrates 470BC
6 Plato 428? BC
7 Aristotle 384 BC
8 Alexander the Great 356 BC
9 Euclid ~300 BC
10 Archimedes 287 BC
J Cicero 106 BC
Q Julius Caesar 100 BC
K Cleopatra 69 BC
A Augustus 63 BC
2 Jesus 4 BC
3 Pliny the Elder 23
4 Ptolemy 90
5 Constantine the Great 272
6 Augustine of Hippo 354
7 Attila 406
8 Mohammed 570
9 Charlemagne 742
10 Averroës 1126
J William the Conqueror 1028
Q Genghis Khan 1162
K Thomas Aquinas 1225
A Dante Alighieri 1265
2 William of Ockham 1287
3 Petrarch 1304
4 Geoffrey Chaucer 1343
5 Johannes Gutenberg 1398
6 Mehmed the Conqueror 1432
7 Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui or Pachacutec 1438
8 Christopher Columbus 1450
9 Leonardo da Vinci 1458
10 Erasmus 1466
J Niccolo Machiavelli 1469
Q Nicholaus Copernicus 1473
K Michelangelo 1475
A Sir Thomas More 1478
2 Martin Luther 1483
3 Henry VIII 1491
4 Charles V, Holy Roman Emporer 1500
5 John Calvin 1509
6 Miguel de Cervantes 1547
7 Francis Bacon 1561
8 William Shakespeare 1564
9 Galileo Galilei 1564
10 Johannes Kepler 1571
J Thomas Hobbes 1588
Q Rene Descartes 1596
K Oliver Cromwell 1599
Pentacles     1
1 Blaise Pascal 1623
2 Louis XIV of France 1638
3 Isaac Newton 1642
4 Gottfried Leibnitz 1646
5 Johann Sebastian Bach 1685
6 Voltaire 1694
7 Benjamin Franklin 1706
8 Carl Linnaeus 1707
9 Leonhard Euler 1707
10 Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712
knave Denis Diderot 1713
jack Adam Smith 1723
queen Immanuel Kant 1724
king James Cook 1728
chalices         1
1 Paul Revere 1735
2 James Watt 1736
3 Edward Jenner 1749
4 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749
5 Louis XVI of France 1754
6 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756
7 Napoleon 1769
8 Ludvig von Beethoven 1770
9 Jane Austen 1775
10 Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss 1777
knave Charles Babbage 1791
jack Michael Faraday 1791
queen Charles Lyell 1797
king John Stuart Mill 1806
wands           1
1 Abraham Lincoln 1809
2 Charles Darwin 1809
3 Otto von Bismarck 1815
4 Karl Marx 1818
5 Queen Victoria 1819
6 Florence Nightingale 1820
7 Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevski 1821
8 Gregor Mendel 1822
9 Louis Pasteur 1822
10 Leo Tolstoy 1828
knave James Clerk Maxwell 1831
jack Lewis Carroll 1832
queen Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840
king Frederich Nietzsche 1844
swords         1
1 Thomas Edison 1847
2 Alexander Bell 1847
3 Oscar Wilde 1854
4 Sigmund Freud 1856
5 Nikola Tesla 1856
6 JJ Thompson 1856
7 Emmeline Pankhurst 1858
8 Max Planc 1858
9 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1859
10 Marie Curie 1867
knave Gerturde Bell 1868
jack Mahatma Gandhi 1869
queen Vladimir Lenin 1870
king Ernest Rutherford 1871
Arcana           0
0 Winston Churchill 1874
1 Joseph Stalin 1878
2 Albert Einstein 1879
3 Leon Trotsky 1879
4 Ataturk 1881
5 Benito Mussolini 1883
6 John M Keynes 1883
7 Neils Bohr 1885
8 Erwin Schrodinger 1887
9 Ramanujan 1887
10 Jawaharlal Nehru 1889
11 Agatha Christie 1890
12 Haile Selassie 1892
13 Mao Zedong 1893
14 Louis Leakey 1903
15 Georges Simenon 1903
16 Alan Turing & Paul Erdos 1912
17 Indira Gandhi & Nelson Mandela 1917
18 Rosalind Franklin 1920
19 Benoît B. Mandelbrot 1924
20 Martin Luther King 1929
21 Linus Torvalds 1969
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Author: lynne

I am an Honorary Researcher at LaTrobe University. I am the author of 19 books, the most recent being 'Spiders: learning to love them' (Allen & Unwin), 'Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies' (Cambridge University Press, 'The Memory Code' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US and Atlantic Books, UK), 'Memory Craft' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US) [and foreign translations, audio versions and so on]. My latest book is co-authored by Margo Neale. 'Songlines: the power and promise' and published by Thames & Hudson with the National Museum of Australia.

6 thoughts on “My 130 Ancestors”

  1. Loving your work, doing my best to take it all in.

    But you say ‘I wonder how much my personal biases show’… I notice that of the 52 playing cards, only one ancestor is female. And of the 80 (?) tarot ancestors, only 10 are female. I understand how easy this is to do and not notice, given the over-representation of men (specifically white men) in history and in modern times. Even in music and books, I’ve looked at past lists of my own personal favourites and noticed an overwhelming bias of white men (I was a rock and fantasy fan). I notice this bias in Memory Craft too, the over-representation of men both in the historical context and in the modern examples e.g. memory champions, people consulted… I only noticed male bias recently (after watching TED talks on the matter, and studying an introductory science module that is alienatingly white-male biased). But since I’ve seen this bias, I can’t unsee it and I’m doing my best to fight it.

    And, as with so much of your work, I’m seeing an opportunity here to change my own mindset – in this case to correct my past bias. So I’m going to work really hard to set up my 52 playing cards to fairly represent female, male and non-binary and all cultures. The hope is my… I think I’m going to call mine my ‘players’ (in a players on a stage kind of way) but not certain yet… characters will represent the world as it is, rather than as white-male history wrote and continues to write it. I think this could be really healing.

    So once again, thank you. I’m so glad I watched your TED talk one evening last autumn and read your books – your work is changing my life 🙂


    1. Hi Sarah,

      I agree with everything you say. I really like the idea of calling them ‘players’. Given my bias in Ancestors is also physics, that makes the female issue worse, although Marie Curie gets in. But it also shows that as a woman, I can love physics! I was well aware of the problem, and I tried as hard as I could to add more females. I put in a few females by kicking out males who would probably have a higher claim to influencing history and thinking, such as Cleopatra. It says more about who writes history than it does about women! I asked my online cohort via facebook and other means to increase the number of women, but we all had trouble doing so. It has to be women who offer me some kind of written material to learn from, not just learn about. That eliminated a few who I would have liked to have included.

      As one of the first women to graduate in engineering in Australia, I have been aware of this issue for many decades. The memory champion I quote most is Anastasia Woolmer who is female, and the leaders I mention in many competition events are the Mongolian sisters and Yaana who are also female. Andy Fong is not a ‘white male’. The musicians were also lots of females, and the two major influences in the Medieval ideas were both women. There are also plenty of LBGTI people, but I don’t mention their sexuality because it isn’t relevant.

      But I can’t rewrite history, and women just aren’t there before the last few hundred years, in a way that I can learn from them. I wanted my ‘ancestors’ spread over as much of time as I could manage to be able to link other people and events to them, so started with the earliest documented in Homer. Had I allowed all to be much more recent people, I could have added lots of women.

      I am really looking forward to seeing the list you come up with. Please post it here when you have it done.

      Thank you so much for raising such an important topic.


  2. Thanks fire the reply.

    I hope there weren’t other mistakes because I memorized your list and I only noticed the one.

    July is so far away! But good to know when. I had been checking your site frequently to see if was available yet.

    I’m happy that I’m not the only one who has fun with all this stuff. Good luck at the competition!

    1. I am so pleased that you are enjoying these techniques. There are lots more in “Memory Craft”. I also wish it would be published sooner, but that is the slow path of traditional publishing.


    1. Thank you, Christopher. So sorry about the delay. I didn’t notice the comment and my site has stopped notifying me. I have been training for the Australian Memory competitions and have lost track of reality – including this site.

      You are absolutely right about Averroës and William the Conqueror. This is going to look weird in the comments when I update the list because I have changed some of the Ancestors as a result of comments and feedback, Averroës survived the cut, William the Conqueror did not. He’s still in the History Journey, so not lost completely!

      I have checked all the dates now – some of these are wrong – the new list is in my next book, Memory Craft, due out in June. After I do the competitions this weekend. I shall be reviewing everything here, including correcting this error.

      Thank you!


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