Alchemy as Encryption


It might help to know that alchemy is an encryption, not a direct linear code.  So it is based in relativity, and one symbol does not absolutely mean one thing.  As an index yes, certain symbols are employed that have a stated meaning… but when put in use they signify dynamics rather than coordinates.  The encryption works by using analogues of nature, and some traditional lore such as constellations, but is activated individually by the fore-content of the reader’s mind, creating a unique, imagination fueled encryption whereby two people who have the same intent will understand each other, but should two have different purposes for the encryption, the contents will remain mysterious between them, or interpreted only to the extent that the reader is familiar with themselves.

Using and reading alchemical encryption starts with a basic primer of deconstruction.   Of behaviors – cardinal, mutable and fixed.  Of four elements, simple and philosophic.  That’s 3×4 to start.  Add to this metals, signs, planets, and stages of process, and the variables run into the thousands.  Not bad, and yet to the creative, visual brain it is handled pleasantly, as a tapestry.  While the deconstruction is required to read and write the encryption (and this may give insight into other uses of hieroglyphs, at their height, from the land that gave us the alchemical code) one develops a relationship to a certain deconstructive philosophy, that lends towards analogies of refinement, separation, combination, finding the best in things, and dealing with the daily proliferation of darkness.

So the encryption has been used to many purposes, which makes it unique and less pedagogic than many traditions, and more akin to natural philosophy, than the maxims of a historic figure.  The greatest error is to assume one true purpose at work every time an alchemist sets down to use the encryption, to send a message through time, (or to themselves, given that many treatises were private notebooks, showing an individual working out questions and theories, and using the encryption as shorthand for themselves alone).  Newton made this error, until at last he did not, and realizing that he worked to separate out the chemical from the spiritual, introduced him directly to nature, and to his own nature as well.  After which he created a new symbol language, this time a linear code and not a language encryption, called calculus.   He was no longer living in an intellectually dark place and period where encryption of science was necessary.  On the contrary, the clarity of his new language was vital to moving everyone further along.

Many alchemical treatises are devoted to receipts (recipes) and other secret lab notes, describing actual and proto-science experiments… but not remotely all of them.   But to read a scientific treatise when your pursuit is spiritual, is to achieve only confusion until you grasp this.  The fascinating lesson here, is that with the mercurial nature of the encryption Cleopatra devised, one devoted to philosophy alone may yet learn and appreciate new things, even by applying themselves to the reading of a strictly chemical treatise… reflecting well, above as to below, that much can be learned from nature, whether directly observed in the outer world, or when it is distilled and reflected in works on paper by another human being.

One of two drawings attributed to Our Cleopatra (there are many others with that name, ours is not the most famous and the last to rule Egypt as well known in art and movies, but one that lived a few centuries later). The inscription is Greek, and reads “Hen To Pan” – All is One. With Miriam the Prophetess, inventor of the double boiler, both were founding sages of the same alchemical school, inventors, and authors of numerous books, all of which is lost.

So it is a misunderstanding to think of alchemy as one thing, with one truth and code, because any reading is a mixture, always, of one part nature, and one part the nature of the reader.  But when the nature of the one that wrote the treatise, and that of the reader, are in accord, are of like nature, the meaning becomes clear to the reader instantly.  As though by an attraction of magnetism, they click together easily without difficulty, and the student is rewarded for continually looking elsewhere until their own nature is revealed to them, through likeness.

To use another famous example, Jung, who had the benefit of a broader collection of treatises and artworks than many that came before him, was convinced of a single, higher code that unified all the encryptions.  A very common impression.  And in part he was correct, that part being the philosophy of subjective understanding, inherent in the imagination, and he attributed that as a form of early psychology.  But at the same time, he also projected back into them all a universality that does not allow for the differing uses for which alchemy has been applied.  Being in this situation, where one code is assumed for all expressions, one is forced into the position of saying it is due to ‘higher and lower’ understanding, to explain why one treatise is sensible and another has none at all for the reader.  Missing the personal variable that completely makes the encryption, which changes from writer to writer, reader to reader… without understanding that author and reader must first already be entangled… an uncomprehending reader is left to assume that an author missed the point, or gained it… and in truth this is only a measure of how well you understand them in advance, and further, agree.  This is a common error of interpretation through alchemy’s history, but his intellect did derive many observations about the contribution to likeness, and individuality, just the same, from a very close understanding of the spiritual branches of its usage, that brought interesting modern insights into the life of the mind.

Modern scientists carefully refer to the subject, knowing what he did not seem to accept… that some treatises contained reproducible, laboratory information while others clearly did not.  This is what led Newton out of his metaphysical forest, to which his heart ever remained, but resolved the suffering he endured from paradox by ending it.   Discovering different natures in different authors, extracting the pure, scientific language that he was looking for, from the many other kinds of tree in that forest he had long wandered in.  He had found his own nature, and by doing so, the natures of others that matched his operation.  So modern scientists carefully state with good reason, that in some cases, alchemists were conducting true proto-scientific research, and often the encryption of alchemy served them well, to preserve their safety, their lives, or their trade secrets.   Indeed, even today some risk and hostility remains, and paradox continues to plague human reason, as many climate and environmental scientists are losing their jobs, as fortune’s winds turn to favor profit over international cooperation.

The only thing to add to this then, is to say that those who once used alchemy to conceal their studies of the physical chemistry of nature, no longer require alchemy’s form of secrecy, and to follow their footsteps and understand the whole of alchemy better, one need only purchase a book or register at their local college for any class in science.  This has been set free, and no longer needs alchemy, but the student of alchemy has always needed science.

Meanwhile, there are other purposes that alchemy was used for as encryption, that still benefit from the dynamic of the imagination by which it works so effectively.  It is well said that it does not need protecting… it protects itself.  I have read treatises that concealed baldly political statements, marital recommendations especially for those that had passions that made them vulnerable to the poorer spirits of the day, or to vent grievances against social ills.  Again, and the encryption is miraculous for it, and beautiful, if its workings were understood it explains why it is called Art… and not some other thing… for by the faculty of art it is used even today…  When you read a treatise that does not match what you are hoping to read, if you are not reading for its subject, by your own nature or purpose…. you will not find it readable, unless it is for you, by one that shares your nature or purpose!  And so, historical alchemy has its series of symbols that are easily named, but humans have long used alchemy in so many countless other configurations and arrays of symbols, and really anything will do to carry the function… that the codex of Cleopatra is but one color in a wide spectrum!  Understand this and much mystery will fall away.

And yet I have not touched on the true secret, and I never will.  For even this world is not ready for it, and for this reason, the great work continues.  Devoted to the whole of nature, devoted to the good, and the masterpiece of humanity, you cannot go wrong, whatever your understanding.

For all this, spiritual alchemy is enjoying a rising popularity, as it is amenable to climbing walls and bridging torrents, and does not discriminate but works through affinity alone.  It still has validity in the quest for wisdom and an understanding of nature, because of the dynamics by which it works.  The deconstructive language it uses, drawn from nature’s behaviors, is much like learning to mix colors of paint to match what the eye sees and the light reveals, or learning to place fingers on the strings of an instrument, in which measure assigns notes, and the air carries waves that form harmony and disharmony… this as good as any introduces the positive use of deconstruction, which is to dissolve complexes anywhere, in anything, and thereby separate out the course material from the gold, and from the philosopher’s stone.    

To return to an earlier example, that of a psychologist seeking to make universal what is truly many separate parts compounded… when one goes to a school that promises to teach alchemy, or devotes themselves to a guide, they are essentially matching their nature, to a degree, to that of a teacher in order to study.  And in this way, their understanding of the teacher’s use of encryption will be perfect.  But this does not equate, not remotely, with a perfect understanding of alchemy.  No, it is two individuals holding the same key to encryption, and this only.  And so, as a mild warning, it should be taken to account that one’s nature may not match that of the teacher, and one may grow apart from their understanding as one grows closer to their own nature.  This need not be feared, as the individual who grows in understanding of these operations, will eventually be led to their own nature, even if they are drawn away from their teacher’s intent, and the symbols themselves will come to resemble the student, more than their initial teacher, as their understanding increases.  And this may well lead to new teachers, or to nature in completion, indeed, it always does.

Louise Bourgeois

Sometimes, the school or teacher becomes so self assured by witnessing the matching encryption among students, that they come to believe they have obtained a perfect understanding of alchemy, and they begin to interpret their possession to be the whole secret of alchemy itself, and becomes hostile to its own members, or restricts their use of the language for their own purposes.  Believing they possess the secret, they choose to become the enforcer of its secrecy, and here we have them becoming lost in the reality of symbols, and so straying from the reality of the operation, forgetting what is meant when the wise say that it protects itself.  All that is accomplished is to preserve the use of but one key of encryption, between student and teacher; but in the natural world, in the long run, it does not do much about differing natures, and affinity, regardless of how closely one key matches one lock.  And in this way the operation and the whole of nature is preserved against human possessiveness.

Summary:  Alchemy is an encryption, not a code with one true meaning for all its parts and narrative.  It works visually, by interacting with imagination.  It works by using a visual language of deconstruction, which improves understanding of many things outside one’s personal experience.  As an encryption, it has been used in history to express many things, from science, to politics, to spirituality, to psychology.  As an encryption, your own understanding will cause you to grasp a treatise that was written in the same spirit as that which you seek, and others will be opaque and insensible either in part or completely, though with practice, you will derive something even from treatises not written to match your purpose at all.  Finally, that which is meant to be secret, remains secret.  Even your best efforts to expose it will collapse on themselves, or you are simply in error in the first place.   The way in which this works, the second ‘miracle’ besides the way the encryption works between any two individuals, is called the ‘riddle of sphinx’.

 Sulphur  Mercury  Salt
 Cardinal  Mutable  Fixed
 Faith  Charity  Hope
 Existence  Consciousness  Bliss

Cardinal – Referring literally to the four directions.  Directed, pointed, branched.  A behavior of creation, and it happens everywhere, in all directions.  Anything is possible.  Have faith that all things intersect.

Mutable – As in mutation and adaptable. Changing form, transformation.  Metallic liquid.  Think of water, which like many elements changes between ice, liquid, and clouds.  A heart may change, or even melt, especially through charity.

Fixed – Not only crystal, as with salt, crystallized… but also predictable, reliable, numeric like the fixed stars.  Hope as an anchor, the anchor fixes a ship so it remains in place on a sea, or gives it some stability during a storm when tethered to its weight, dropped into calmer depths.  And also distilled, as with salt water left to dry in the sun, as hope drawn up in difficult times.

The Alphabet

This will be a bit advanced unless you’re an enormous fan of Tarot lore.  If so, please skip past this chapter.  It is not necessary for the intuitive reading method described above.

The most common tradition has each trionfi matched to a letter.  Very old lore already involves special myths and meanings for each letter, and until the rise of scripts, writing was exclusive territory, very limited to regions, to the few who had access to lettered courts.  A closely guarded secret, and probably the origin of much of the imperative of secrecy legend holds for things like this today.

Right alongside the flowering of Hermetic lore in the Renaissance, the involvement of Jewish scholars produced important works of Kabbalah which have a prominent place in the library of magic, especially having a flourishing in European communities in the medieval and Renaissance period.  There can be no question that their antiquity have both Kabbalah and Hermeticism as not only contemporary, but related.  Because of secrecy (and lack of literature) on the origin of these traditions, we have mainly surviving poetry to get a glimpse of the world they developed in.   But they are intriguing, and describe the sacred importance of the alphabet among the bards.  The poems describe sailing from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, North Africa to Ireland, and to attend festivals in Egypt, all from the days when Sacred Groves still held a high and somehow intercultural place.

Marble seated harp player. Ca. 2800-2700 BCE. Late Early Cycladic I-Early Cycladic II. Marble, H. with harp 11 1/2 in. (29.21 cm)
Syncretism, Quicksilver, the Mercurial Path

It is possible that in the complicated, shape shifting character of Hermes, the avatar of many paths, of old ways, of writing and dance and so many other things, we have a personification of all the stories of spiritual life before the city states, anything ‘from long ago’.  Religion before the great temples, or the caves hidden stories below the now refined steps of marble.  The Hermetic or Mercurial is difficult to understand when so many other late Olympian characters arrive to redouble such places, but that’s precisely it, they are modern restatements and new styles and fashions for dealing with the complexity of life.  Hermes continued among them for several mythic reasons – for being a reminder of old ways, and for being the Exalted Seer or Shaman that had earned their place among the gods.  And as myths tend to go, probably describes an actual historic person, who did manage to accomplish an advancement worthy of memory, like deriving an alphabet out of hieroglyphics to democratize written communication.  If so this person likely lived around four thousand years ago.  Or perhaps he has always been abstract, a stand in for all the initiated poets and scribes.

As for embodying a reverence for the old ways, even as civilization had moved on to whole new visions of itself, it wasn’t so much the scantily clad youth that earned his place in fertility lore… it was the old tree on the hill, the little spring near the cave.  These old folk magic places are pure Hermetic territory.   Even modern people having no names to put to them, feel something admiring for the old standing stones, and that is the ‘Hermetic’ they experience.  In that case, Hermetic is a synonym for ‘spiritual’.  Some of those stones are more recent, some were laid up long ago by cultures so old even their languages are not known.

In the oldest poems, we have limited lists of names from stories to help guess at what they’re called now, enough to find that even before written record, “word travels fast” and stories had a way of traveling across continents and back, quickly and with little change.  A classic example where the names and places change but the grand finale does not, is the affinity between the story of Krishna and the Naga, which has striking similarities in both age and character, to that of Hercules and the Hydra, George and the Dragon, Marduk and Tiamat, or Seth and Apep.  Another uncanny similarity is that between the caduceus carried by Roman Mercury and the jade carvings of intertwined snakes from clear across the world, relating to the Chinese myth of Nüwa and Fuxi, brother and sister, who are credited with the creation of humanity, and, yes, the Chinese writing system, as well as hunting, fishing and farming.   In one version, writing was discovered when a phoenix dropped a  hoof from an animal that it was crunching on into the dirt, leaving an interesting mark.

It once excited antiquarians to believe there was this singular, perfect lost culture, if you could only peer back far enough, that would tie it all together, this was the old legend regarding Atlantis.  This kind of thinking, that all myths and accomplishments are the fragmentations of a lost but superior culture, still persists on television in many ways today.  The older a fortress, the bigger it gets in the movies.  But those who study these things deeply, especially the movement and branching of languages themselves, point to an equally simple, yet opposite conclusion – they are similar because they have blurred together over time, and because, at their root, these are stories about nature, and people’s memories taking place within it.

One lesson that seems to come from Hermetic philosophy, is that there is always another beginning, different from the one we were taught.  And there will be other beginnings long after we are gone, especially if we do our bit successfully and preserve the best stories.

Hermes then, known to many cultures by various names, is like a super hero compendium of old stories, the best storyteller, having been everywhere and seen everything, standing at every crossroads, drinking from every spring, the first shaman, the great inventor, and the creator of writing, the best thing that the oldest ancestor of civilization could have done.  In a way, Hermes isn’t really a person at all, but living language, and that extends to the languages of life, death, and history.  When a new ruler took up places where the old ways had been, they built temples to Hermes and Mercury over them, and would offer messages inscribed on silver, a metal that never fades, and could be melted and reshaped over and over again.

Some say the alphabet was invented from watching the cranes fly in formation, or the marks birds left walking in the sand.  Some say it was the way the reeds moved in the wind, others said the motions of a snake gave the idea first, or the marks left by the way sheep knuckles (an early form of dice) fell in the dust.

Giovanni Bellini, Feast of the Gods
Sola-Busca 1491 – Artful, but with major differences, this deck is believed to belong to a completely different secret transmission that the one discussed here, and not all of the decks may have been Hermetic.
Stacked Cards

I resisted the idea that tradition that the Trumps were tied to the Kabbalah for a long time, mainly because it did not seem to mesh with the pictorial themes that I knew to be Classical. I felt something was not right about the way it’s been taught.

However, as I’ve realized the cards do favor Hermetic lore and better understood what that meant, it shows that for all the tribal Celtic and Iberian and Gothic and eastern and northern crossovers in the cards, the Egyptian influence that tradition holds is indeed precisely its link to the key of the alphabet, and this too was Hermetic.  What I think is missing is to take one step further back… we can still find our match of 22 letters in the Semitic alphabet of the Phoenicians, it does appear likely to be the work of one hand.  It is the source of the Hebrew alphabet, but it is more contemporary to the old sacred sea, tree and bird culture of forgotten times.   Not only this, the earlier letters match a little more smoothly, suggesting that the arrangers of the deck, however they pulled it off, happily welded together the lore of Hermes to the humanist concerns of their own time.

The script of the Phoenicians contains the full 22 letters necessary to match the cards, as does the Hebrew.  As does the older Greek alphabet, its offspring also, and so very distantly, its great grandchildren Coptic, the Runes of the North, and Cyrillic could also be used, why not?  This convinced me at last that there was merit to the letter association from the start.

In any case, before I present the tables below, I just want to review the assertions that can be drawn about the North Italian and Marseilles contributors to the deck.  This would mean that the arrangements a) match the order of the Semitic alphabet, b) contain one variation after another on Hermetic themes, c) contain references Classical, Celt-Iberian, Gothic and other cultures, and d) are loaded with humanist themes, including the Power of Women.  From this we derive a person capable of a clever feat, who is familiar with non-Latin languages, who is intimate with the Classics, including pagan writers and Hermetic themes, who is familiar with the traditional seaside cultures of France, Spain and Italy, who is familiar with current scholarship, the natural sciences, has considerable sympathy for women and a disdain for oppressive ecclesia.  Far too many intersections in one artwork for a gradual development.   Definitely of multiple worlds, the inventor(s) were well travelled and highly privileged in access to knowledge.  Whoever she/they may be, they devised the Tarot arrangement to explain something more complicated than just a secret history or a rite, they presented a package dealing with the intersectionality of cultures, including folk wisdom regarding the cognition of language itself.

Giovanni Bellini, Detail from Four Allegories – Falsehood or Wisdom

I found that by taking this step back a bit further to the Phoenician alphabet, the letters more closely matched themes on the individual cards.  Look at The Wheel of Fortune (IX) – taytu is literally a drawn wheel with an ancient value of 9 (before Indian numerals arrived via Arabic expansion, letters served double duty as numbers), while the letter’s shape and meaning have changed a great deal by the time of Hebrew, and the Kabbalah.  If I am correct, we have on staff at the development of the Tarot a master scribe who is in possession of what was assumed to be a lost script at that point, and has hidden it in there… an extraordinary thought.  Or note how appropriate nahsu is for Death’s scythe, or qoph, resembling an ankh or possibly birth, for the moon.  Because the alphabet is essentially the same, what this means is that the Kabbalah can still be used to read the key in the cards, but the cards do not themselves necessarily need carry correspondence to the specific sephiroths of the Kabbalist’s Tree of Life to be read.  Because the lore of the alphabets already extends back quite far.  However you use this, what a perfect hiding place in plan site, a perfect book of many paths in one.

However, to make this work with the order of the letters, several of the cards needed to be switched one place, while the Fool needs to travel farther (and this is what the card does in the play of the game).  This not a new observation in the study of this kind of correspondence.  It is probably an added level of encryption.  Not a new trick for the poets of old, it is well recorded that the bards intentionally scrambled the lines of their recitations in order to communicate warnings, reference concealments, and extend alternative meanings.


Francesco Petrarch’s Triumphs

Attributed to Domenico di Michelino, Triumphs of Love, Chastity and Death, 1442
Attributed to Domenico di Michelino, Triumphs of Love, Chastity and Death, 1442

Aër felice, col bel vivo raggio
rimanti; et tu corrente et chiaro gorgo,
ché non poss’io cangiar teco vïaggio?

Happy air, remain here with your
living rays: and you, clear running stream,
why can’t I exchange my path for yours?

Sonnet 227

The most reasonable key for the sequential inspiration of the Tarot is the parade, and combined with its function as a Humanist document, a popular illustrated poem written in the 14th Century by Petrarch, called Il Trionfi.   Each Trionfi was a float, or a boat in the case of water parades, spectacles put on by the nobility for all, depicting mythological, historic and religious scenes.  An ancient tradition for communication, they travelled among the imperial cities spreading a spectacle and shaping cultural perspectives.  By visiting this page you will find a strong index of these illustrations, giving an idea of the time range – the close similarities between the themes and the cards in the Tarot become immediately apparent.

Petrarch is sometimes called a ‘father of Humanism’ and his writing also helped develop the modern Italian language style.  Looking at his character might explain the thoughts of Tarot’s compilers.  One of his books criticizes the presence of the Pope in France, it is a series of private letters to friends urging his removal to Rome.  A concern with separating church power from government, this adds possible cause for the intentional limitation of Christian symbolism in the Tarot. He is also known to have coined the term ‘Dark Ages’, to describe what had come before, and his work clearly involves an appreciation for the wisdom of any time, and not just the authorities of the present.  It is without question that the themes of the Tarot, Petrarch’s poems, and Carnival parades are closely matched.  These works shared learned audiences and culture makers, remember that early on, hand painted cards and books were luxury goods, as with the set of il Trionfi plates produced by a student of Mantegna, creator of one of the earlier competitors for the modern Tarot.    And in these images you see that the association between myth and the cards is not imagined or arbitrary, but is directly sourced to a popular movement in Renaissance culture.

The following illustrations are by Godefroy Batave, made in France in 1489-1515.  Looking closely at the images, you begin to see characters throughout that have their own places in the Tarot, such as the presence of Hercules in the Triumph of Love, and the goddess with a Column who also sometimes appears as the Strength card, here as the Triumph of Chastity, or just standing in the crowd of other Triumphs.

Triumph of Love
Triumph of Love

The Triumphs begin with Love, and in these illustrations, they begin at the Temple of Venus, with what appears to be the fiery resurrection of a blindfolded Eros. The horses that pull the cart of Eros are labelled Independence. Regrettably I don’t have a good enough scan to read all the labels, but the crowd is populated by Emperors and heroes throughout antiquity. If you look closely, you will see that all the men have a woman interacting with them, often just behind, and these include likely vengeful connections, such Cleopatra behind Caesar, Judith holding up the head of Holofernes, and more esoteric, a mysterious shadow character labelled Le Umbra, or Shadow, standing next to a man labelled Le Feur, or Fire. Before them all, three successive high Father Gods of the ancients, Pluto, Neptune and Jove stand before the cart, and Jove appears to be stabbing the horse.

Triumph of Chastity
Triumph of Chastity

Chastity has no exact match in the deck, but in the image above, you’ll note that Chastity is relegated to a castle shrine, while the central figure is labeled mysteriously only as Laura.  Indeed, the poem is probably about a Laura specific to the poet’s life, an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade of all people, whom he loved but could not be involved with because she was married.  This makes the poem at once personal, about the ethics of sexual conduct, and the personal nature’s striving to be independent of a religious morality is sensible.  Here Eros is no longer blinded, but fixed upon her with his arrow is blocked, and the horses now have wings.  In the next panel, she has replaced Eros in the chariot, who now sits bound passively at her feet, the horses have become unicorns, and women in the entourage are show breaking wood.  Perhaps describing the taming of desire, the loss of will or volition, or describing the loss of love when one is attached to objectives of purity.  Faced with the unreachable, he writes of romantic love being pitted against his goal of being a mystic, something he is unable to reconcile, revealing the poem to be existential and not particularly in the service of religion, rather frustrated by it.

Triumph of Death
Triumph of Death

The interesting elements of these panels on Death are numerous. The first Panel of Death’s triumph over Love begins with a group of women and children. The only man in the group seems to be labelled Sypion Lustrion.  Scipio the Roman general who defeated Hannibal makes another connection to Iberia, and a Lustrion was a five year period between the census, which was completed with an important animal sacrifice of purification, fitting for a Death scene. Scipio is known for a story in which his devotion to women was illustrated; when the captured fiancée of an Iberian chief was brought before him as a slave, he returned her to her tribe. He was disparaged in the Senate for being too obsessed with Greek culture to be a proper Roman.  Pliny the Elder recalls that Scipio had such a memory that he knew the names of every person in Rome.  In the Next panel Death carries away Laura, who in fact died of plague, her column lying broken beneath its wheels.  It is a reminder perhaps to take measure of all that one cares for, as it will be lost. In a way, Death as a symbol may show it to have lost some of its sting, explaining the matter of fact appearance of the reaper, a product of this time, inhuman, unimpeachable, and incontestable.  Shades of death are explored in other cards, but the Death card itself is, like other humanist symbols, flatly allegoric.

Triumph of Fame
Triumph of Fame

The Triumph of Fame is a most interesting revelation – for it plainly connects the theme of resurrection on XX Judgement to one’s memory in history, without turning the page towards ascension or departure to another world.  This is mirrored in the arrangement of the Tarot.  In these panels, the now dead Laura has a triumphant Death standing on her body, but then through the Triumph of Fame,  or perhaps a better meaning would be Memory.  Death is bound where eros once was, and sits passively in the cart, while Laura’s body has been wholly replaced with the spirit of Fame, her banner the blue field and stars.  In this scene, people who have been buried long ago are standing up, Alexander is one, just beyond a fresh pile of unrisen dead, those left behind by Fame, and these include a Pope and a Cardinal.

Triumph of Time
Triumph of Time

This stunning allegory, following the passing of Laura to her Fame, continues what I consider a tale about the fate of women in history that is embedded in the Tarot.  It is not idle but a call to action.  In the first panel, the virtues of Time, the procession appears to be singing or calling, above them a group of women labelled the Hours of Day and the Hours of Night, along with the Zodiac, describe a pragmatic, nearly clockwork idea of passing time. Now the cart heads back the other direction, and the horses have become elephants.  Meanwhile the next panel presents a solar chariot which follows the arc of time, while seated in it and looking back at the singing throng is a bound figure called Lenoiree, undoubtedly Le Noire or darkness, who is shown to be bound to the recurring movements of the Sun.  Perhaps it is in part to say, the Sun will always rise, here timelessly set upon on an ornate golden rendition of the Tree of Life. Drawing this cart are four horses colored and named for the Four Humors, or physical matches to the four Aristotelian elements – Blood, Phlegm, Yellow and Black Bile, all to underline the cycles of Time as a process of Nature.

Triumph of Eternity
Triumph of Eternity


One of the interesting things revealed in the last Triumph’s pages are just how exceedingly strange and inventive the friezes were, especially in a masterpiece like this.  The theme of Time continues on the virtues of Eternity panel, but the there appears to be a clamor of life, of creatures and fish, and people are hiding in the rocks from it all or perhaps are also coming up to the surface. The elemental horses seem to be trying to pull apart but the sun is fixed in its arc.  Above the belt of time is a striking move – a deity seen only from the torso down.  We have a clue as to the identity, and I will just say it involves the rainbow behind.  In the new panel is an interesting gathering of the Roman Church, that especially shows an important theme in Renaissance art, the destruction of Constantinople and the final scattering of the Eastern scholars.  The handling of paint shows the influence of their icon paintings.  There are four Saints – Augustin of Hippo, Ambrose, Gregory, and Theodore, who I do not know enough about to comment, but all seem to have been writers, and perhaps inspirations for Petrarch.  What’s very interesting is the depiction of a Christ and Pope sitting side by side on a little couch.  All of Petrarch’s Triumphs end in a Christian motif of a kind, at the end, but not a standard one.  The Tarot, however does not include this closing image.

Petrarch was considered a master of allegory, and in his writing extolled an inner life as being more important than outer symbolism, through the weighing of stories old and new for their usefulness in obtaining wisdom.  This alone answers critics of esoteric side the Tarot who insist subtle meaning and metaphor are entirely absent.  His poem a possible inspiration for the Game, as both a man of reason and a spiritual thinker, a person of the courts, and a poet willing to climb Mont Ventoux in the French Alps, once sacred while in his time being rapidly deforested for ship building.  He is said to be the first to write about climbing for its own sake, and so is a called a father of Mountaineering also.  It was on this mountain he had an epiphany, a humanist realization which we can still admire today, regarding the value of cultivating an inner life.  It’s said at the top of the mountain he decided to read St. Augustine, and as the wind blew the book open, Petrarch’s eyes were immediately drawn to the following words:

“And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.”

Petrarch’s response was to turn from the outer world of nature to the inner world of “soul”:

“I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. […] [W]e look about us for what is to be found only within. […] How many times, think you, did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation […]”

In Petrarch’s lyrical poems, the Triumphs do indeed run in order, signifying one theme overcoming another.  Eternity trumps Time, which in turn trumps Fame, Death, Chastity, then Love.  Part of an ongoing discussion about the order of the Tarot involves the question of the Trumps, do the cards really mean to state a similarly explicit order?  Does the Hermit really beat Justice?  Does Justice really defeat Victory or Chastity?  Is this Fool’s Journey like a ladder, the right way to look at the Trumps?

We can look at this by comparing the order of Petrarch’s Triumphs as they appear in the cards.  Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Eternity are the way he ordered his lyrics.  Among the cards we can match the Triumph of Love to VI The Lovers.  For Chastity, we have XI Strength it would seem; Death is unchanged for card XIII.  Fame appears to be XX Judgement, and while Time is played by IX The Hermit so frequently in the illustrated poems, this stunning series by Batave is more intensely esoteric, and matches Time to XIX The Sun, the impassive Apollo a good match to the archaic solar chariot, which reveals new attitudes about natural science.  Finally, the Triumph of Eternity seems to match XXI The World, but in the case of the card, it is Gaia, Rhea or Hera, or Fortuna, or some goddess of the whole package who is present, and not an Ecclesiastic scene, and this replacement seems to be of a specific intention.

Matthew Greuter, Triumph of Time, Nuremburg 1596
Matthew Greuter, Triumph of Time, Nuremburg 1596

The cards that match this poem’s sequence are scattered and not adjacent in a group, and filling the space between them are other cards that are like mirror images of Hermetic meaning, filling out the parade and making it more of a pageant, than the allegory of  a man’s romantic suffering.

The mystery of Laura and the Pillar she carries around remains to be solved.  Perhaps the pillar refers to being sturdy or upright, or to her virtue, or to being bound to something heavy, like duty, that she must carry everywhere with her.  The analogy of a woman as a pillar of society is very old, and some say the colonnades and caryatids of old are just civilized depictions of the sacred groves of trees.  Since Petrarch was quite preoccupied with the question of memory, and of the memory of many people who had passed on before, I think on one level the pillar is a humanist symbol for wisdom.  This pillar is broken in the Triumph of Death, but is replaced in some new form fashion defeating death in turn.

Victoria, or the Laurel Tree. Always imported, the one in Rome was taken from the Phoenicians and renamed.
Victoria, or the Laurel Tree. The famous one in Rome was taken from the Phoenicians, renamed Victoria.  It was moved into the Senate almost 300 years later, to mark the defeat of Cleopatra’s Egyptian empire.  Later it would become a symbol of the last days of struggle for religious freedom in Rome.

Another clue in the analysis of this pillar is that the poet never physically describes anything above her foot.  Now, foot is pied, as in pedestal, and pied is also stone, we have this word play behind the numerous pillars of Victory stretching back in time.  And in the name Laura we have a root in Laurel, the tree from which the Victory crown is made.  In the earliest forgotten times, when the Animals and Trees themselves were the main characters of mytho-poetics, and not the humanoid gods they would become, the Laurel stood as the queen of the Dryads.  Known as Daphne to the Greeks, this is the tree into which the virginal girl is transformed to escape the aggressive desire of Apollo, making her a symbol of the entrapped feminine.   Indeed, like the humanist objection to church corruption, the temples of Apollo kept women as sex slaves, making a Dionysian intention in using the Triumphs more possible.   Another interpretation could be drawn from finding an allegory of the loss of love caused by striving for purity, where Apollo is a source of light and time, but is destructive if approached directly, as anyone with a sunburn can explain.  So it might be that Daphne and Apollo cannot touch, just as Idealization and Reality cannot touch except to result in destruction (like the century of religious war that leads to this time period).  In all of these, the myth is a protest of the abuse of power and regret at the losses it caused.

Perhaps another allusion to Petrarch’s untouchable love Laura, a kind of pragmatic chastity rather than a sexual one, that what he’s really saying is that he can’t say everything.  If she is Laurel, it makes her the ‘first’ of many feminine goddess symbols that have served as the ‘support’ of the sun or moon.   Just in the immediate region where these images were painted, Provence, the Celt-Iberians and neighboring tribes have quite a few variations on goddesses who are represented as trees and pillars.  In this lies another key as to why the Tarot would contain strong female as well as male reflections in a book of Hermes… the origin of the alphabet, along with the trees and standing stones themselves are all represented as distant memory in what we now call Hermeticism, and Hermes was neither male or female, but the embodiment of wisdom escaping the confines of death.  This does reaffirm the tradition of the High Priestess card serving as Isis, who has her own tradition of being referred to as the Pillar, in symbol form, appearing as the ankh.

A stelae of Arentia Arengia, a Celt-Iberian goddess who is depicted on numerous pillar shaped stones.
Pedro Roque, 2008, Ataecina ("Reborn of Night"), a goddess from the Iberian tribes comparable to Persephone., but clearly presented as a tree stump supporting the Sun.
Ataecina (“Reborn of Night”), a goddess from an Iberian tribe, compared to Persephone.  A broken column or tree stump inscribed with the Sun.


The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trimestigus

The popularity of Hermeticism soared around the same time as the first Tarot, even becoming a kind of decorative kitsch, with many flavors of esoteric rambling, sometimes aesthetic, sometimes artistically profound within and without the church.  Scholars now agree that many things may have been grouped together under that label that were not originally related, leading to overly simple conclusions today – the most common one being that an old world had disappeared and a new one was forced into its place.  Viewed from a perspective of power, this mistake is easy to understand, generally the view of the powerless does not easily accept a theory of significant change.  But Hermeticism is stated up front as being dedicated to the good, and wisdom is its prize, and so it found homes in many different philosopher’s homes and became naturally entangled with them.

In the Renaissance, the Hermetic story becomes involved with a narrative of loss, memory, and longing for the return of balance.  So it includes not only empires and famous figures, it can be found to compare paradises of pleasure to hells of warfare and corruption.  A conflict not so much over a lost past, but a matter of lost understanding, and disconnection from nature.

Giovanni Bellini

The Emerald Tablet is a legendary piece of Hermetic lore.  It was said to be the central object from an unspecified temple of Thoth, though Egyptologists have found no parallel to this legend in the primary sources.  Hermes Trimestigus (Thrice-Great) was the name the Greeks gave to that Egyptian god, recognized as a different face for their own inventor of writing, but distinguished by a unique doctrine of ‘Thrice Greatness’.

The origin of the Emerald Tablet story can be traced to an esoteric tract floating around in the Renaissance era that scholars mainly agree, is most likely to have been originally written in Arabic, somewhere around the 8th Century, and was brought back in translation by Crusaders.

The timing of the document is suggestive of any number of sources, which could have made their way into a surviving scrap in Arabic.  Justinian being a notable cause of such remainders, for closing the academies and banishing scholars from the precincts of Sophia, many of whom fled south and east to other learning centers.  It was this imperial attack on its own scholars that led key source documents to drift away into other languages, where such works were preserved, even Aristotle, and only returned to the West later by way of another culture’s archives.   One thing we can all have in common with humanists in the Renaissance, is in lamenting how much wisdom and connection has been lost, repeatedly, by the habit of unchecked power to destroy knowledge and limit the minds of humanity.

My impression of the brief Emerald Tablet is that it is from a very old academic and spiritual tradition, that strongly focused on comparison, union and intersection.  One that possibly played a hand, before it was banished and erased, in the development of a church that some Renaissance humanists thought was an imperfect representation of a more timeless pursuit.  As you will see a little later, at times they went as far as to describe it as a kind of coup.  Scholars in the Renaissance dwelled on several major historical dispersals of their forebears, that contributed to this change in power and outlook  – Caesar destroying the libraries of Alexandria, Justinian’s banishing of the Platonic Academies, and the Second Crusade where the armies for the Roman church devastated the capital of the Eastern church out of sheer greed and laziness, which led to the fall of Constantinople.  Each event sent scholars spilling in every direction, looking for safe harbor.

By the time of the Tarot, yet another utterly endless war over dogma had spoiled the land and lives of the people, and the artwork’s attitude reflects having had quite enough.  The popularity of Hermeticism then was not purely about the transmission of past wisdom, but also as a rebellious or balancing aesthetic.  It was embraced by cultured, learned people to show they were not purely enslaved to official disputes and politics, and sought earnestly to protect themselves from both the toll of militarism and religious abuse that fueled it.  Perhaps it was also a denouncement of the vanity of nobles, made by nobles, in an effort to win the public or protect themselves, and show they were not mere stooges in the thrall of internal warfare and conquest, but preferred to engage in culture and infrastructure building instead.  The region’s use of allegory was traditional to avoid danger, but also served as a public declaration that they were no longer in hiding, and were free to nuance their own houses of faith.

In this way lore under the umbrella of Hermeticism was also a resistance movement pushing back new forms of tyranny – against the Inquisition which had made its first target the French region of Languedoc, at precisely the same time that Spain decreed its expulsion of Jews.  Our Plutarch wrote that he was radicalized as young man, by watching the church participate in the sale of an entire population of Moors as slaves in Spain.   The Hermetic flowering would eventually work its balance, though centuries passed before many felt its relief, and bad seeds in the church would no longer be able to easily incite open war on those who did not subscribe to their particular doctrines, or to murder women for healing or seeking their own choice in healers.

The cards first appear not long before the Inquisitor’s intolerant office was established, indicating the climate of the times.  All Hermeticism really did to resist was to exalt humility, wisdom and nature – through art, literature and performance, and this found intellectual allies within all the major establishments.  It was ultimately the church’s own extremists, who drove decisions to create an ever ‘more violent Christianity’ that can fairly be said to have caused it to splinter, even then taking many more innocents with them.  Sadly, new voices like theirs continue to prey on people.

Text of the Tablet

Kneller, Isaac Newton
Kneller, Isaac Newton, late 17th C.

So here is Sir Isaac Newton’s own translation from the Latin of the legendary Emerald Tablet of the Alchemists, which is written as a riddle:

  1. Tis true without lying, certain & most true.
  2. That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below, to do the miracles of one thing only.
  3. And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
  4. The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
  5. The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
  6. Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
  7. Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
  8. It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
  9. By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
  10. & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
  11. Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
  12. So was the world created.
  13. From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world.
  14. That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended.

Here is a Latin version printed in Nuremburg in 1541:

Chrysogonus Polydorus
Chrysogonus Polydorus


Hermes Trismegist, Siena Cathedral, Floor Mosaic, 14-16th Cent.
Hermes Mercurius Trimegistus, Siena Cathedral, Floor Mosaic, 14-16th Cent. Far from our perception of large monopolies in simple histories, the whole of the church at the time was quite fractured, and varied from region to region.

Now when it comes to Hermes the Thrice Great, there is an interesting theory about the first three Trumps, namely that each is a different face of Hermes, or are three criteria to confirm if something is a fit and can be called Hermetic.  It’s interesting, because in occult legend, which holds the Tarot as a Book of Hermes, these first three cards are traditionally interpreted as different facets of one’s own self!  As that goes, the Fool is one’s wild or simple state, the Magician one’s skillful state, and the Papess or High Priestess is one’s higher self.

Walter Crane, The Strangers in the Village, from the tale of Philemon and Baucis, in which a poor couple generously entertains two gods in disguise as poor travellers. They instruct the couple that the village is going to be destroyed, but they would be spared if they climbed a certain mountain and did not look back.
Walter Crane, The Strangers in the Village, from the tale of Philemon and Baucis.  The dogs nipping at his heels is a frequent theme for the Fool.

But in being introduced as also being of these sorts of greatness, we have a new puzzle to solve.  The first Hermes, then, is the Fool.  We know that Hermes was a master of disguise, being young or old at will, handy for someone who is constantly traveling.  There are many accounts of the fool being virtually naked, suggesting a humble manner, or just the preferred garb of a messenger.    Standing stones, especially at crossroads, were thought of as his earliest images, also stone piles and grave markers, which add his reputation for being connected to travel to the other world of death.  Such places were the haunts of travelers and hermits, places of shelter, in multiple senses of the term.  Dwelling in the woods and sleeping by the side of the road, milestones themselves were associated.  Certain types of standing stones, called Herms, are essentially a phallus or lingam, and played fertility roles.  Perhaps the Wanderer card is indeed our Hermes of the Road.

A famous road story, recorded in Ovid and therefore well known in the Renaissance, was of Philemon and Baucis, in which a poor couple generously entertains two gods who arrive disguised as poor travelers.  In thanks, they warn the couple that the village was going to be destroyed, but their lives would be spared if they climbed a certain mountain and did not look back.

Last but not least, the winged feet of course point to both light steps and swift movement, and mail in those days was conducted by messenger, so as a runner, and a skillful dancer as well.  Everything about this character points to a person with few possessions but their wits, here, there and everywhere in between, a wanderer of humblest persuasion.

Mercure, Berthouville Treasure, Silver
Mercure, Berthouville Treasure, Silver

The second Hermes would be our Magician, and this is a perfectly good fit in a few ways.  First of course is a reputation for magic, but also of business and fortune, of speedy returns.  The Magician is an entertainer and in every card is in public, conducting business.

In some forms, he wears a winged helmet like a cauldron or crucible turned upside down, recalling amusing parallels between the mind and a boiling stew or a place to melt down the hardest metals.  It is a modern view that genius is a possession, anthropologists have explained that genius was once more widely thought to be a visitor, another kind of possession.

The caduceus of course is archetypal of a magic wand in action.  It is topped with various visual symbols ‘combining all of creation’, the twin headed crescent, the entwined serpents, or the eternal or love knot.  In the middle of them, gathering or passing through them, a straight and simple wand, topped with a sphere, sometimes winged, to again denote the light and the swift.  It is the sort of wooden support that painters have used for a long time, to reduce hand fatigue when painting details.  It endures as an emblem of the medical world today, as serpents were symbols of medicine and healing in ancient times.  Every emblem of this device points to creation and creativity.

A stone herm with genitalia missing.
A stone herm with removable parts. 

Finding the third Hermes in the High Priestess might take a little imagination.  Beyond the somewhat typical association with the soul or the sanctuary as feminine, the original title of Papess indicates a more formidable role.  The most common association is with Isis, which has a unifying mother role, as both a mostly secret foundation of the patriarchal structure that had developed and a not so secret contributor to Marian culture.  But to draw closer to the book’s subject and find a third face, the tradition of Hermaphroditus makes a closer fit.  In myth, the daughter of Hermes and Aphrodite was a beautiful androgyny.   The surprise gender switch of a Papess card, in the midst of a society that did not acknowledge such a post, matches this idea well, there’s something impossible and yet of vital importance about the third card.

In a deck that moves on to familiar cycles, symbols and ranks, the first three cards start out as quite a strong statement with this combination of the male and female gods of sexual fertility.  The third card would quickly be adapted to include two pillars, reinforcing a kind of balance inherent in its purpose.  The book symbol could refer to the mythic role of the alphabet, or a statement about language itself.   So we have a third card that points to balance, unity and combination.

Rare Coin from Greek Islands

If we were to use the first three cards to reflect on what was Thrice Great, one might then guess: humility, creativity, and unity.  These correspond neatly to the three Great Principles, of cardinal, mutable and fixed.

But even if this theory of three faces is the intention behind the first three cards, and I’m not convinced that they are, we still have the initial imagery depicted to discuss.  The actual imagery led some early interpretations to instead see three states of man – the pauper, the merchant, and then the noble ranks.  But again, the Papess card throws a wrench in that idea, which doesn’t make such obvious sense.  Indeed, none of the three are very typical of these suggested ranks.  In the first Fool cards, we have depicted not a noble spiritual seeker, but a bedraggled person, an outcaste, a sin eater, or a person with mental challenges.  Nearly all the first Magician cards are referred to as Jugglers, and are not displaying the four elements tidily, but a small table of various wares or tricks, that only later become uniform.  And the Papess is not seated between two solemn columns, but was possibly someone very real to them, like a woman from a noble family, or author of the deck.  In this case we derive not three noble principles, but three conditions of life, and none of them are usual – a beggar rather than a peasant, a conjurer rather than any other sort of merchant, and a woman of means and power (with an impossible title to prove it).  Rather, we have three exceptions, so I don’t think they are representative of the states of life.  I think it’s important to keep in mind the possible social and economic purposes the artist who devised the deck had in mind, and there may have been obvious connections now lost.  See what I’ve written for each card for further speculations.

If that isn’t enough for one mystery, let me add one more, a poetic one, remembering that the Thrice Great refers specifically the the Ibis, whose footprints are said to be one inspiration for writing, and whose head looks like a stylus dipped in ink…. what if the three faces were as simple as a bird, a human, and a tree?  Just for fun.

As we progress through the deck, we will find that many other cards possess some or all of these Hermetic principles, or personas that are part of the wider lore in various cultures and times, whose stories possess these principles.

Isis from Ermete Trismegisto e Mosè by Pinturicchio, 1492-94, Appartamento Borgia, Roma
Isis from Ermete Trismegisto e Mosè by Pinturicchio, 1492-94, Appartamento Borgia, Roma
Reims Lugus, a Tricephalic (Three Headed), Celtic, who may have been the 'highest god is Mercury' that Julius Caesar recorded of the Gauls.
Lugus of Reims, a Tricephalic (Three Headed) deity, Celtic, possibly who ‘their highest god is Mercury’ that Julius Caesar recorded of the Gauls referred to.  He might also have meant that their traditions were shamanic compared to Jovian Rome. Alas, he seriously wrecked their culture so it is hard to know.

A Brief History

Elihu Vedder, The Questioner of the Sphinx, 1863
Elihu Vedder, The Questioner of the Sphinx, 1863

One thing you must first know, is that a poet will try their best to trick you.  Lines assembled beside each other may conjure a crystalline sentence, but they are like bones, light and disjointed when you move to pick them up.  They somehow remain separate, and so belong, to the poem.  When it comes to sacred poetry, political agitprop, heroic histories or tragedies of collapse, we can expect the poets to tell even greater lies.  So it is, we have artifacts like the Tarot, that are misunderstood but can’t ever be fully understandable at all, given that the arrangers are long gone.  So we see the familiar lines tossed like salad, goading us to make sense of it.  And it is this, the enlivening of the imagination and the sidestepping of sensible correspondence, that gives us something in the cards to read.  Set aside all hopes that the Tarot is a complete theory of everything, or remotely helpful in clarifying details about the past we shall never likely know, for the past is, ultimately, a story.  What we are left to know then is something dynamic about the relationships of symbols in our minds, and how to shuffle, deal, and put them in play.

The origin of the Tarot is not mysterious or lost in time.  Originally, it appeared as a card game, more accurately the marriage of two separate card games into a new one.

The first game appeared in the hands of the Mamelukes, a name meaning ‘owned’ for they were an army of slaves.  Many of of them were from the far north, captured by Vikings and sold through the Byzantine empire to Caliphs in Egypt.   They became a North African warlord caste that briefly came to rule Syria, taking over the Ottoman Empire for a little while as well.  From these hands a deck of cards with four suits that we still know well today, spread across Europe in the hands of soldiers.

Mameluke Cards – Suit of Cups

The second game used a Renaissance educational deck, which became the ‘triumphs’.  These trionfi combined with the soldier’s poker like deck, made up the game of Tarocco (Imitation), perhaps because the trionfi contained many virtues to imitate.   The trionfi were a selection of cards drawn from another series of decks which made games of a wide range of pictures, including the states of man, the parts of the cosmos, the sciences (at the time better known as natural magic) and the virtues.

The first of these decks were luxurious, hand-painted and even gilded delights made for elite children.  For the ruling class, a sense of inheritance from the lost civilizations of Antiquity was important, as much as a reformation of cultural values, and both desirable goals are folded together in these types of cards.  Teaching decks have been found with upwards of fifty cards.   The Tarot was clearly a selection made out of these kinds of games, and reduced to a convention of 22.  Whether the 22 were chosen more by design or by popularity is unclear, but the trumps are all interesting, and it is a game.   The first decks have variances in the number and genders of horse riders and pages, possibly representing actual family members.

Virtue Cards
Giuseppe M. Mitelli, Engraved Minchiate Cards

As the Tarot was getting started, it was one among many games of decks larger and smaller, of a similar composition – a now beta version of Tarot called Minchiate included twenty more trumps, for more than 90 cards in the game.  We do not know in most cases who painted the earliest Tarot decks, but the game became much more widespread and easier to trace once a printer in the ancient port city of Marseilles carved the first series of plates in the mid 1600s, and in doing so set down the first real standard for the deck’s overall design.  The more affordable printed cards brought the game into the public domain.   Though various printers made their decks signature with novel cards (the Ace of Coins typically carrying the maker’s imprint), and you will find that many of the names would be new in later decks, most of the key symbolism in the Tarot has not changed since the printed Marseilles.

Hard Times

The time period between the first appearance of Tarot in 1400 and the arrival of printed decks in the mid 1600s was very rough for the common people, who had much cause to crave a separation from their past, and to consider new outlooks.  The Hundred Years War dividing the church left economic troubles and strife in France, and nearly a quarter of the people died, mostly of starvation followed by a plague which further reduced some places to less than a third of their populations.  But by the turn of the 18th century, recovery was speeding along, thanks in part to the humble introduction of the potato, and attitudes had changed among descendants of the survivors.   The Inquisition was forced to reduce its severity towards witchcraft, but while it was losing cases in court, it motivated by prospects of seized wealth collected during the centuries of conflict.   The scars of whole communities erased and defrauded as heretics still fresh in popular memory.  England had fallen into Civil War, but likewise, the accompanying sharp spike in witch burnings had cooled off, leaving the fate of Joan of Arc symbolic of much more loss for French minds.  She would also live on in the minds of English speakers, for defeating King Charles in single combat as much as her execution as a witch, thanks to Shakespeare’s play Henry VI.

The Marseille – Charles Cheminade deck

Another arduous change was for the Dutch – after sixty years of war, helped by the sudden and uncanny destruction by storm of the great Armada built by Spain with gold plundered from the New World, they finally evicted the Spanish occupation of their country and put an end to the witch trials there, creating another oasis of a more tolerant, more rebellious society, and it was already improving their economy. These improvements in the quality of Dutch life were comparable to life in the Free Imperial Cities of the German speaking world, points in that patchwork mess of small kingdoms and seats that was any map of the region in 1700.  Granted charters a thousand years before by Charlemagne, their people had fared better than most and became beacons driving alternative methods of government and society, and the people in France must have felt some credit was due for this.  Louis XIV openly declared that he didn’t believe in witchcraft, and in 1685 reduced the crime ‘pretending sorcery’, a step removed from blind superstition, effectively freezing the taint, and economic drain, of the inquisitor.  The changing of the question, “Are witches to blame for this?” to “Do you think witches are real?” was not just part a process that would lead to separating of church power from the state, creating greater tolerance, it also helped to create the occult, which was born with the enlightenment.  It would become acceptable once again to have eccentric and creative magic folk in the court, and many of them would become pioneers of science.

The world had clearly changed and the tarot came into popularity during these dramatic centuries.  A pastime born into eerily empty villages, fields abandoned, roads adrift with displaced people, wandering beggars and highwaymen.  A society recovering from having forgotten how to function smoothly after centuries of neighbors turning on each other.

Decadent Recovery

The countless women that had been lost in the long age of witch hunts is a possible reason for the Tarot taking the shape that it did.  It is easy to see as a response to the times why these packs had such a selection of powerful female characters and symbols.   Several of them are matches of a popular Renaissance theme in the art of the elite, called the Power of Women.  Another painting theme born in this time, especially in the north, was a decadent vernacular dedicated to witches, now boldly adding a fantastic and erotic correlate to the Bacchanal that shapes modern visuals of the conjuring woman today.  New visuals for a culture recovering from ravages, new ethics more universal than what the powers and authorities blamed for the ruin had allowed.

Serravalle Sesia Italian Deck

In addition to the Marseille, prints reveal a popular interest in grotesqueries as well, horned creatures and monsters were found to decorate table wear and wallpaper, as though to make up for centuries of censorious living.  It was a time when the beliefs of the Medieval era, including  a strong vein of expecting the world to end very soon, was giving way to a preference to try their luck, since the other outlook hadn’t worked so well.    To the rich, new blood was being added from outside the system of nobility, changing the balance of power by adding something flexible and able to innovate, a middle class.  Galileo and Isaac Newton were changing ideas about accessibility to knowledge, and inventions like Jethro Tull’s seed drill were putting an end to famine.  Though the newspaper as we know it dates to the same time period as the Tarot, very few would have known the year 1700 had brought the prediction of microbes, the idea of extraterrestrial life, and the first correct identification of a dinosaur fossil (a claw).   In this context the Tarot’s purpose, thanks to technology and new attitudes, can be understood from the beginning as an instrument that looked towards the future while it also served as an escape into story and legend.  And because it was dear to the enjoyment of life, because it is a game, it survived when so many things began to change swiftly.

Etteilla’s Deck – No longer a game…

Occult Adaptation

The transition of the Tarot from an amusement in the Renaissance to its reputation as a key to arcane lore happened quickly.  Books had already been written, offering different takes on to what the cards mean, such as the Discourse by Francesco Piscina, as early as 1565.  It is an individual named Etteilla (Jean Francois Alliete) who is credited with printing the first truly occult deck in 1791, that includes interpretive words and astrological associations.  He is credited with applying the associations of planets and signs, most of the names and, along with a book by Antoine Court, cemented a story that the Tarot had originated in Ancient Egypt, which he called the Book of Thoth, the Egyptian god equated with Hermes.  Though he created the groundwork that is so often repeated today, reports of the Marseille in use for fortunes run much earlier than that, and probably were impossible to resist from the very beginning.


A hundred years later, the tarot would undergo another paradigm shift at the hands of the extraordinary Pamela Colman Smith, a synesthetic artist whose paintings of visions induced by music led to her creation of the iconic Waite-Smith deck, after the Marseille the most imitated and modified tarot, and still the best known tarot today.  Her major contribution was to add individual vignettes to each of the suited cards, transforming them from the stacked symbols of playing cards and making them considerably more individual and readable.  For many years, decks drawn from her designs were better known as the Rider-Waite, but recently her contribution has come to be recognized properly.

Pamela “Pixie” Colman Smith (b. Feb 16 1878 d. 1951)

Is it Egyptian?

For much of Antiquity until this time, many have believed that the ruins of Egypt were an origin point of true civilization, along with a notion that ancients were essentially better humans than we are. It is true that it is among of the longest continually surviving civilizations. It is also in part due to more recent religious traditions, that the people of ancient times lived much longer lives, or were larger and stronger than we are today, and miracles were thought to be more visible.  Welcome to the world view of a world in inevitable decline, where the beginning is more noble than the end will be.  We are still influenced by this apocalyptic world view in popular culture today.  Into the medieval period, it is reported that many were taught to expect this great end quite soon.  The Renaissance might be defined as a change in attitude regarding this coming doom, as being less reliable as one century after another had passed by.   The growing need for alternative views that could promise a future is evident in retrospect.

This may explain some of the significance of claiming the cards were from Ancient Egypt, an earlier wisdom that was more like a wheel and less like a car about to crash.  And the fetish for lost wisdom and secret origins is something that our culture still generates.  Just keep in mind that in the days when the Tarot was created, old Egypt’s distant walls were covered with hieroglyphics absolutely no one could read, and almost no clues to the words, names and stories in them were available, outside of second-hand accounts from historians.  While there is a strong case for a Hermetic expression being contained in the cards, or at least the selection,  the deeper origins of that long lost culture are not exclusively Egyptian.  While much of the surviving body of Hermetic works and its link to the origins of the alphabet were compiled in the late libraries of Egypt, it belongs to a shared culture from a lost age, pointing towards neolithic stone sites, bards, and sacred groves, found many lands far and wide, including places where trees no longer grew.  To a modern, the idea of looking backwards for origins does not include this antique focus of being necessarily bigger and better.  This can’t be a bad thing, but it may explain a great deal of confusion about the Tarot.

As the game’s popularity had faded, people started leaving the trumps out to play other games, and it fell out of favor to games using the smaller 52 card deck it contained.  Its reputation as a tool of divination took over, claiming the original Tarot almost exclusively for the occult world.   And here we are now, trying to claim usefulness  of reading as cognitive exercise, and we are able to clear the table without much trouble to make them relevant for a modern mind.  It’s quite a story.


So, once again, though we can date when most of the occult ideas were first applied, that is almost exclusively offered with a new pack of the cards today, a more liberal, poetic view of these cards in the context of social change remains to be written.  Examples include the rebellious choices for many trumps, that respond in a very direct way to social and economic troubles specific the the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  In these cards there are hidden meanings, but they apply themselves far better to the rise of Humanism and reformative thinking, than they do anything Egyptian.   For example, the Papess card (picturing the non-existent and surprising concept of a female Pope in a patriarchal society) was transmitting whatever its irreverent original message was (we’re not precisely sure, there was possibly still a feast holiday for a then seven centuries old legend of a woman who disguised herself as a man, Pope Joan),  in any case clearly loaded with a double meaning.  That card would become the High Priestess once the occult got hold of it, eclipsing its original name, still a card symbolizing a woman of spiritual authority.

So it’s important to understand that the deck, specifically the trumps, are a collection of separate ideas before they are structured points leading to a specific conclusion.  The cards are a mixture of old ideas, especially those which stand in for things that have apparently been true for a long time, and new ideas, like the illustrating of teaching principles.  The cards were made new for successively new purposes – to teach, to gamble, and ultimately, to tell fortunes.  We can add a new development to this, by using the cards to exercise the mind.


The Triumph Cards (0 – XXI)

The pictorial fifth suit for the 78 card deck still played in a few corners of Europe.  A triumph meant both a win and a procession, like a parade. Many people read the trumps as being ordered intentionally, from 0 Fool at the beginning to XXI World at the end, one card being a development from the last.  This approach is called the Triumphant Procession, or the Fool’s Journey.  This book does not rely on that narrative approach alone.  Instead it looks to the trumps as a crowd of performers on the march, mummers, each their own character, presented en masse to those watching.  In game play, the higher numbered trumps do beat lower ones, but they are also clearly ordered in groups, like chapters in a book.

Rather than a ladder, I see the cards arranged in little groups, as though to describe a world view.  I’ve named the first three cards Wisdom Types for the fact that the Fool and the first two trumps are traditionally afforded important roles in self realization, mirrors of the self if you will. The wanderer is wild, the Magician is active, and the High Priestess is the higher self. The second class I call Power Types after some contemplation, as the first two (Empress and Emperor) are notoriously vague in their interpretations (with little to distinguish them from the four kings and queens in the suits). I realized these cards could be seen as three successive power structures, from old to new, that might explain their order, and it would make sense to have them follow the cards of the self. The third class of trumps I call Treasures, here we encounter four virtues that are very humanist in their aim. The next class is Trials and Labors which appear to go on and describe a range of complications and learning opportunities that are part of growing into this world. The last group I call Splendors of Nature beginning with the Star, and summarize both cosmic and earthly totalities.

The first and second column is the most common numbering and typical titles.   Third column in italics are my own one-word terms for the card’s meaning.  The Items marked with an (*) asterisk means the cards that match the famous illustrated poem of the time, Petrarch’s Triumphs, with the name in bold.   In the fourth column are neo-Classical myth symbols represented in the images.

Wisdom Types
0. Fool Wanderer  Hermes
I. Magician Entertainer  Hermes
II. Papess Teacher  Hermaphrodite
Power Types
III. Empress Matriarch  Athena
IV. Emperor Patriarch  Jove
V. Pope Oligarch Roma
VI. Lovers Love*  Eros
VII. Chariot Liberty  Victory
VIII. Justice Justice  Nemesis
IX. Hermit Truth  Chronos
Trials and Labors
X. Wheel of Fortune Station Fortuna / Tyche
XI. Strength StruggleChastity* Diana / Hercules
XII. The Hanging Sacrifice Hermes / Green Man
XIII. Death Death* Death
XIV. Temperence Discipline Virgo / Janus
XV. The Devil The Wild Marsayas
XVI. The Tower Vainglory Mars / Toranis
Splendors of Nature
XVII. The Star The Star  Venus / Aphrodite
XVIII. The Moon The Moon  Artemis
XIX. The Sun The SunTime*  Splendor Solis
XX. Judgement Return, Fame*  Victory
XXI. The World The World  The World

About the Illustrations

The deck I chose as the main illustration for each Trump later in this work are from the Paris Tarot, also known as the Anonymous Tarot because the deck isn’t signed.  While in the Marseille style and period, it shows the most overt signs of purposely trying to distinguishing itself as esoteric.  The other card examples are at least as early, including a more standard Marseille for comparison, and various versions of the Visconti, among the earliest known Italian hand painted decks.

The narrative of the world depicted by the Tarot, set in the 1400s, suggests an agenda and probably is not a good example of general public thinking at all, if we are to include everyday people. With a virtual absence of Christian themes, it promotes parallels and alternatives.  While the Pope is present, the curiously unreal inclusion of a Papess raises questions.   The female equivalent to the patriarch card sandwiches Empress before Emperor as though to mirror this point.  Placing her before the Emperor is interesting.  Absent are any images of Christ, Saints or Apostles – the deadly sins and pious virtues are left out as well.  The idea of Judgement and the resurrection it usually depicts is related to memory, not the end of the world.  As the second to last card it is an interesting choice, for it is followed by the notable absence of any kind of afterlife, but instead is completed with the World, almost an outright denial of apocalypse if read in sequence, as though to start again.


While the original deck designers certainly pursued their own esoteric purposes, there was always a great variety of decks of educational game cards made by Renaissance artists, which included the muses, the arts, the Olympians, the Zodiac, the seasons, theories of science, and so on.  These decks could run upwards of 50 cards.  The triumphs in the Tarot, the most common 22, match and are a distillation of those larger teaching decks, pared down to a selection.  This selection, and the selector’s reasons for it, constitute the mystery of the Tarot.

The memory of all those Trumps can be found in a single card included in our modern Poker decks, and that’s the Joker, included as a pair.  Historians dispute whether the Joker is at all linked to the Fool trump, as it first appeared in Poker decks in 1863 following a gap in time.  But the Fool most often appears as a Jester in contemporary Tarot decks on the continent, and both have a ‘wild card’ role, numbered zero as outside the deck (indeed the Fool is the card of a ‘wild man’) so I lean towards the idea of a connection.  It’s not hard to imagine an immigrant to North America adding a little spice back to the poker deck, remembering a more complicated game they grew up enjoying back home.


The Four Suits

Air, Water, Earth, Fire (L to R)


Background: The Four Elements

In setting about the study of natural magic, or the way nature does things when properly prompted and observed, we encounter things which she might not do without prompting, and so we have the very definition of revealing one of her secrets.  The revealing of secrets, as technology and science bloomed, appeared to simply get easier as time went on, and it did, because it was based on the cumulative experience of human culture.

Distillation by H. Brunschwig, Liber de Arte Distillandi de Compositis,1512
Distillation of Medicine by H. Brunschwig, Liber de Arte Distillandi de Compositis,1512

Part and parcel of the progressive, humanist mind was to consider the way the world might work, the number of things that had yet to be explained in a way that could be observed.  One of the few things inherited from the ancients that was known to be continuously useful, was the theory of the Four Elements.

The dividing of the world into four is one thing the people in the Renaissance could know for certain extended through time.  There are of course the four cardinal directions of North, South, East and West, which define the Earth in a way; now draw a circle around this the way the Sun circles the earth (not so true anymore) and you get a wheel with four spokes.  Draw another wheel around that and you get the ‘serpent skirt’ of stars which does the hoola-hoop around us continually like a snake eating its tail, the ‘girdle’ of stars divided into twelve Zodiac wedges, to roughly match the twelve phases of the Moon.

The Moon domain was beyond, and by all appearances ruled the rhythm of the year.  The count of its twelve cycles controlled the cycle of planting and sowing that kept everyone alive.   And to match the four cardinal directions on Earth, you had four cardinal points of the Zodiac, whichever was overhead making each season like a direction of its own.  The two wheels combined describe space and time.

Lani Kennefec

The cardinal signs of the Zodiac have survived beyond antiquity’s symbolism by being renamed for the Four Evangelists.  The Lion, the Eagle, the Bull and the Man can easily be matched to old the accounts of ‘four living creatures’, which are sometimes combined to form a chimera.  Leo for the height of Summer, Aquarius the low point of Winter, Taurus for the Spring and the Eagle for the Fall equinoxes within the Northern half of the planet.  Don’t let the Ophiuchus the Snake Handler constellation in the chart above for throw you off, for in the sky, it is right beside Scorpio, which took its place for our culture.   In Babylon, the constellation was seen as a titan with snakes for legs.  A reference to many myths, but in general belongs to the Hercules family (which describes a time period), it describes the combination of the sky and the earth, the above and below in one.  Several of our 88 classical constellations feature snakes.

Johannes Mylius, 1622, the Alchemical Sun in Four Stages. Scholars were aware that the new cardinal points had shifted ahead one full sign since the old days.
Johannes Mylius, 1622, the Alchemical Sun in Four Stages. Scholars were aware that the cardinal points had shifted ahead one full sign since the old days.

Together the four cardinal signs form a turning wheel, a symbol known from the earliest petroglyphs, so old it can’t properly be said to belong to any culture we would recognize at all.  Don’t be thrown off by these seasons not matching their signs, a great deal of time has passed since they were invented, and the Zodiac no longer matches our calendar the way it once did (the sun has drifted off by about one full month against their background).

January 1, 2000 BCE
January 1, 2000 BCE
January 1st, 2000 CE
January 1st, 2000 CE

The old philosophers also found four elements useful to describe interactions in nature.  These were also distinct as though cardinal, but could be mixed in various ways.  So what practical use did the elements of fire, earth, air and water continue to have here on Earth?  In the Renaissance, the elements were still in circulation in the sciences for their value in describing two things – chemical behaviors (we still refer to alcohol as ‘firewater’, to use an example, or the highly corrosive liquid acid Aqua Regis calling it a ‘water’). Most commonly, it was used to diagnose physical symptoms of illness.  Inherited from the ancients as part of the early sciences, the four elements in reference to conditions of the body were called the Four Humors.  The four humors were Red Blood (Huma), Yellow Bile (Cholia), Black Bile (Melancholia) and Green Phlegm(a), matching Air, Fire, Earth and Water respectively.  The levels and mixing of these humors in the body were believed to give rise to four temperaments as symptoms.

By studying these various layers of a four-fold wheel, you will grasp the tone and interpretation that has long been applied to the four suits right away, and see why the Renaissance humanists reached for them immediately as a pre-existing model of ancient philosophy upon which to add their trumps and invent the Tarot.  In this case, I wholly support this method, it’s great mental exercise.


Stanza della Segnatura, 15th Cent. An example of developing Church humanism, with its own Elemental correspondences on display.
Stanza della Segnatura, 15th Cent. An example of Church humanism, with its own Elemental correspondences on display.  The Tarot presents a four-fold humanist formula of symbols that looks further back in time.

Putting them to Use

Of course we no longer have any scientific use for the four winds, the cardinal directions, elements or humors, so the old mystic power of the number four might not have much common sense value to us.  But we can look at four wheels as the most stable arrangement for a car, and some still cross themselves with an intersection.  But we did eventually discover that there are actually a limited list of stable elements that making up most every bit of matter in the cosmos, and while there’s more than four (instead, there are eighty elements), their interactions do make for all natural phenomena just the same, from starlight to photosynthesis.   Their combinations and interactions with energy result in shape changing from gas to liquid to solid.  It is every bit as the classical philosophers were trying to understand, only more wonderful, and detailed, and surprising… to an exponential scale.

Beyond this we discovered that all the elements are atoms of different sizes, confirming another theory long held before seen, and now have found the atoms are made of even smaller basic elements: the neutron, proton, and electron, and we have managed to take a picture of an electron at last.  So while we have eighty kinds of stable atom, we find that these are the result of just a handful of even smaller elements, bringing back to a similar reality once imagined as the classical earth, fire, water and air.   So in modern times, we’ve never departed from being able to say, in a sense, that the universe is indeed made up of just a few elements, and the world as we know it is produced by the interaction of different forces working by and upon combinations of these elements.  Real magic is just something that science has yet to explain.

So it’s important to absorb that this subject, the way the suited cards will be handled, was the poetic understanding of natural magic at the time of the Renaissance, and that it was not occult, it actually represented a scientific theory of the time.  It was dry and practical, not a subject of veneration, and only in the occult do you find attempts to revive magical meaning by pointing a sword in each direction or writing a mystical symbol of each of these.  The old conjuration of placing yourself as the center of the earth by drawing a circle divided by the four directions, a prehistoric shamanic practice, of course has more meaning as internal, personal action than it does anything to do with the way the outer world works.  Perhaps we will see attempts to draw the symbols of all 80 elements, that would be a thoroughly modern magician to be sure.

The Techno-Chemical Receipt Book, 1886
The Techno-Chemical Receipt Book, 1886.  A manual of chemistry.

Being able to read the suited cards relies upon this old understanding of the elements and their interaction, and combined with some basic numerology, you will eventually be able to read the numbered cards with ‘instinct’ and not rely on a fairly arbitrary system of titles alone.   The four suits that make up the Minors in a deck of Tarot have no better match for free association than the four elements, central and enduring for breaking apart and analyzing the natural world.    They lend themselves well to visualization, non-binary comparison, and conceptual interaction.  Spilling a liquid that burns is fiery, one that refreshes is watery, while anything liquid is watery in some respect in the first place.  Filling a barrel with wine will make it earthy in the sense that it weighs more, and pouring the barrel out is an airy thing to do, or perhaps a fiery one if it was done in the heat of anger.  Thinking too much is having a storm in one’s head, with too much wind.

Leonhard Thurneysser, Quinta Essentia, 1524
Leonhard Thurneysser, Quinta Essentia, 1524.  Alchemical macrocosm.

By introducing the elements I do not recommend actually believing that these four ideas are materially accurate in explaining the behavior of the natural world.  It would miss the mark to say the elements should be classed as beliefs for the 15th century either, rather they are attempts at analytical thinking.  We’ve discovered microbes and the nervous system and many other better, though considerably more complicated, explanations for what the body does than the four vague Humors the Renaissance doctors stumbled around with.  We are certainly better off for it.

Once used to them, the Four Elements are highly valuable as poetic classifications, a non-rational structure that can help loosen up fixations and mental road-blocks.  Use them as solvents, to dissolve hardened ideas and break them down into something you can observe and measure.  The four elements are good fun, and they won’t conflict with your rational knowledge by having to digest volumes of archaic information literally, instead they make of the Tarot a kind of virtual stage for nonlinear free-association that has everything to do with its endurance.


The Suit of Coins – Earth

Coins, Disks, or Pentacles evolved into our Diamonds, and in German culture, Bells.  The suit stands for what we call the Aristotelian element of Earth.  In the case of Earth, we have a tradition of the element standing for material activity.

Coins have the association of commerce, wealth and growth.  The attitude of the element includes concepts like elegance, generosity and management. Diamonds, like gold, cut through worldly affairs like nothing else.  Coins inversely can deliver a meaning of waste, squander, hoarding, and the diseases caused by greed.


The Suit of Cups – Water

Cups evolved into our own Hearts, as it is known in almost all western playing cards, except in the Swiss deck, where the suit became Roses.

The suit traditionally stands for the element of Water.   In the case of water, we have a tradition of the element standing for matters of the heart.

Cups have the reputation for questions of romance, happiness, joy, and freedom.  They also may attract inverse interpretations that come from excess, mad desire, disappointment, illusion and obsession.   What’s helpful in distinguishing the ‘heart’ of Cups from the ‘fire’ of Staves is that Water settles and pools, so the Cups suit describes the experiences of the heart.  Fire spreads and radiates, the suit of Staves then describes actions of the heart (among your other parts).

The Suit of Swords – Air

Swords evolved into our Spades, as well as Leaves, and in Switzerland, Shields.  The suit traditionally stands for an element, that of Air.  While no one can take a physics class that teaches the classic four elements as a theory of science any longer,  the symbolic meaning of the element, in terms of personal development, still has value.

In the case of air, we have a tradition of the element standing for mental activity.  Swords have a reputation for trouble and conflict, a good fit for the suit of plots, schemes and strategy.  The Ace of Spades is widely regarded as the most sinister single card.  I think it’s appropriate that mental activity has an edgy reputation.  Swords can also deliver meanings of wit, skill, negotiation and judgement.

The Suit of Staves

Staves in Tarot are variously called Wands, Rods, Batons, and sometimes Arrows.  The suit of Staves actually evolved from a Mameluk suit of Polo Sticks, the only of their suits changed by the Tarot, which in turn became our familiar French suit, Clubs.  Staves can appear as a club of the sort Heracles carried, ordinary sticks, or the emblem of a Clover or Tree.  The Germans turned it into Acorns.

The suit traditionally stands for the element of Fire.  In the case of Fire, we have the element standing for natural interactivity and human passion.

Staves have a reputation for impulsive action and daring, for tempers and mob rule, and also for “the explosive interaction of things that nature has set aside spectacular outcomes for” as Agrippa, a lawyer who defended accused healers against the Inquisition, once explained about the confusion between natural magic (science) and malevolent witchcraft in his time.  Wood is a useful material, stacked like fuel, put on the fire to draw heat from its stored energy, and shaped into useful objects, like boats, buildings and machines.

German Suits

The Court Cards

The Minors, the cards that bear four suits, the numbered cards and court cards, constitute the single most popular deck that travelled from east to across Europe, and is still in daily use for every hand of Poker and Blackjack.  The formula that is found in the Tarot, of ten numbered cards and four court cards, is the way they arrived as the Mamluk game preferred by the warlord caste of North Africa, Egypt and ultimately, the Ottoman Empire.  Surviving packs of these cards are often of great beauty, with the four suits kept virtually identical when added to the Trumps for the creation of Tarot – coins, cups, swords and polo sticks.  Some of them have inspirational quotes and contemplative poems written into their design.

Mamluk Officer Cards

The four suits did not change at first, but the four generals for each suit quickly shifted from the battlefield to a landed hierarchy in European hands, usually with kings, queens, knights, and princelings.  Many early hand painted decks, and prototypes for standard decks, featured specific people in fact, such as family members.  As Tarot was replaced by other games, the court cards were here reduced to three, the King, Knight and Knave, and there, a Queen was added back in, restoring four in some decks, bumping out the Knight or Knave in most others.

The court cards are a succession of human rank, specifically of the nobility kind.  They range from the princeling squire to the ruler.  Many books tells you all kinds of stories about interpreting the court cards, but they’re never much help if we want to let instinct guide us.  It’s up to you to find a natural way to fold them into the story.  Typically a fortune teller will tell the client the court card is a real person, a mysterious stranger or friend.  But why make something up?  Why not consider the court cards as different forms of mastery of their particular suit’s qualities?  In this way, the court cards become aspects of yourself.  Mirrors to evaluate where you are on your journey.  It especially helps if you have a strong grasp of gender – then you won’t feel confused by the significance of Queen or King, archaic concepts themselves for us, and can focus on their abstract qualities.

Mamluk Ranks

In Tarot, there are four court cards for each suit.  The court cards lend themselves to personalities, and these personalities in their respective ways run a ‘house’ that is conceived by the elemental character the suit.  The four houses are the four suits, each with its own ruling style.  Get to know the reputation of each house, and the personalities living in it will be easier to imagine.  I simplify them thus:

Also known as the Prince, Princess, Knave, Page, Valet, Squire and 2nd Lieutenant. This is the servant character in the Court cards, not only the young searching for position within an established order, but acting in favor of the suit, the one that does all the actual work.  The mastery of procedure, the executor, and the tool.

Also known as the Chevalier or Horseman.   The easiest way to remember the Knight is to consider them as being on a quest, one specific to their house’s qualities.  This is a hero character, they begin from a point of unproved title and end by gaining, or failing, in the service of their suit.  A Knight is bound by oaths and fealty, not so independent as the Jack, but not a servant, and without the responsibility of a Monarch.

Interpret the queen as mastery in the inclusive sense, of bringing home the fruits, the thriving of the suit in question.  Integrating new lessons into one’s life,  knowledge of how to bring the house under complete control.  Combining facility with enterprise, the Queen is the emblem of a city built with the qualities of the suit she represents.

Interpret the king as mastery in the exclusive sense, of the appearances and legends of mastery that accompany the suit in question, the throne and the arms and the seat of this power.  The outward expression, including the way in which his suit would dominate, how he is known to the world at large, and to history.


The Numbered Cards (1-10)

The numbered cards are part of the Lower Arcana, a division of the deck whereby the trumps are the Major Arcana. The truth is, there are more suit cards (56) than trumps (22), and if the whole deck is to be put to use as a creative tool, it isn’t enough to revere the trump cards, we’ll want to understand how to make a story of the bulk of the deck to make good use of reading it.


The suits are usually arranged with cards number 1-10 and 4 court cards.  Because the medieval Kabbalah is influenced by earlier Neoplatonic schools in the use of a tree of degrees to explore any concept, from origin to reality, many believe and teach that Kabbalah is the origin of the cards.  From my understanding, the present occultist idea of Kabbalah was developed well after the cards and applied later, because the ten points on the Tree of Life fits neatly over the system of emanation taught in Greece, Egypt and Rome as an academic staple more than two millennia.  While you can learn the Jewish mystic system over top of the Tarot, and many do, or write as though that is the one true way, Kabbalah is a separate system and there is no requirement, especially not to read the cards the way I recommend in this book.

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Maybe you are the type that has a rabid, fleet, borderline savant mind and you need three layers of culture to contemplate a top ten list.  I do not mean to exclude you, but have to consider after perusing popular decks in the U.S. – faeries, UFOs, cartoons, and erotic themes abound – tradition and history are quite beside the point.  Though my approach to reading is not the most popular by a long shot, it is more honest.  The mystery we’re after is an internal, personal one, the mystery of our lived interface, the territory between thought, sense and reality.  

Reading the Numbered Cards

The Elemental Way

The use of the four Classical elements of Earth, Water, Air and Fire may be familiar to you, the elemental way of reading the numbered cards is both traditional and adopted by occult revisions.  For creative association they serve well, and have been passed on as a result.  But the fact that there are 14 cards per element stretches even the most obsessive sort of mind. With the numbered cards, we’re going to make limited use of fortune telling tradition because there really isn’t a purely intuitive way of making these cards useful.

It is clear that the first card makers, at least in Northern Italy, were thinking of the elements when they appropriated the suited cards. The elements were still a significant part of science, medicine, and natural magic, being usefully comprehensive for describing physical symptoms, behaviors in organic chemistry, and other places where the adjectives serve. The later printed decks, the ones that reached the common people, are very clear about indicating the element of the suit, usually in the Ace card.   So this association of the suits to elements was made well before the game became occult, and may be considered authentic to the deck’s design.  The real challenge isn’t learning the character of each element or suit, but memorizing the keyword titles that have been established with essentially arbitrary interpretations.

When the memory won’t kick in and you’re winging it without a book, you can always rely on the element and the rank, high or low, to at least add a little shade more to a reading.

Staves, Wands, Clubs

2. — Power. 3. — Virtue. 4. — Closure.
5. — Anxiety. 6. — Victory. 7. — Honor.
8. — Speed. 9. — Force. 10. — Oppression.

Cups, Hearts

2. — Love. 3. — Abundance. 4. — Luxury.
5. — Dissatisfaction. 6. — Pleasure. 7. — Corruption.
8. — Lethargy. 9. — Delight. 10. — Satisfaction.

Swords, Spades

2. — Peace. 3. — Sorrow. 4. — Alliance.
5. — Defeat. 6. — Science. 7. — Ignorance.
8. — Chaos. 9. — Cruelty. 10. — Ruin.

Coins, Disks, Pentacles, Diamonds

2. — Change. 3. — Work. 4. — Security.
5. — Fear. 6. — Success. 7. — Failure.
8. — Experience. 9. — Gain. 10. — Wealth.

Here’s a handy little chart you can print and tuck into your deck, click first for full size:

Numbered Cardslt

The various decadent era occult organizations can be summed up as presenting the Tarot as the key to unlock an ancient knowledge.  While it may be that trans-generation powers of folklore and myth can indeed deliver old knowledge, the Tarot most certainly as whole did not get its design in Ancient Egypt or anywhere that far back.

It is this folk lore that gives the cards their various traditional fortunes.  But a drawback has been placed within the essence of reading the Tarot, the largest block of 40 cards is too difficult for many to memorize, let alone intuit or feel their way for an association.  This technique of using correspondences is rote memorization, which eventually becomes the possession of the body, and can lead to a recall produced through feeling in response to a visual of the card.

Few decks are illustrative enough with their numbered cards to offer much for a visual storytelling element, so learning the cards is about imagining these relationships creatively, adding sophistication to an otherwise linear, colorless number, but most significantly, though numbered and titled and classified, the numbered cards show the depth, ease and humanity of making irrational, illogical and arbitrary calculations.

Stay Strong, practice makes better!
Stay Strong, practice makes you better!