Meaning: The raw primal state of humanity. The self stripped bare. Basic equality of all beings. Crossing into the unknown. Leaving things behind.
Reversed: Delusions of grandeur. Missing something obvious. Out of touch with the situation. Unable to adapt.
The Fool, at times the Beggar, and here Le Fouis, the Filthy. Purposely absent from the numbered, it is mysteriously accorded card zero, and this card is often without a number at all. In the Paris example the usual space for the card number is curiously crazed, as though a broken mirror. And it is this less common version of the Fool, as a Jester, that is the one immortalized in our standard playing cards, the French suits.
Through its versions, the Fool represents a raw condition, a person who is out in the open, exposed. This can be said to be on the road, and this card is often called a Wanderer for this reason. One beginning on a journey is often thought of as young, but the Fool is not a child, he could be any age. He is certainly crossing from one place to the next as he does age. Sometimes he has a dog or a creature nipping at his heels, not so much reminding him of the teeth of what he leaves behind, but of his raw inner animal, the memory of his primal, persistent self. Perhaps a reference to Diogenes of Sinope, who lived and slept with the dogs, or Lazarus, who was licked by dogs, revealing a compassion dogs possess that humans have a bad habit of restraining. The Fool in the Charles VI deck is unique, he is a half dressed giant, with a slingshot, surrounded by children who climb around and gathering up stones for him.
Likened to a homeless man, or with feathers in his hair a wild man living in the forest, the Paris deck strikes a subtle win by portraying the Fool as a Jester eyeing the head of his Ninny, a poke at the comedic duplicity of human life, or how little removed we are from a more basic state.
Meaning: Producing wonders through study and practice. The usefulness of amusement, artistry and deception in public life. Make it entertaining and people will accept what you have to say easier.
Reversed: Poor use or recognition of an opportunity. Ungracious, disorganized, insolent or hostile towards admirers or friends. Ignoring the ways of natural law.
Among the earliest Tarot decks, only a few exhibit the orchestrated association with the four suits that has become standard, or putting the coin, sword, cup and stave on the table. As though to say, the Magician’s tools are the four elements, this is what new decks usually display. But in a different reading, consider the card’s original title, the Juggler, and in the French tradition, we have the Le Bateleur, which in some slightly differently spelled way I don’t recall also means The Fool. The Magician is a street performer, gifted with sleight of hand, capturing attention and using distractions to create the illusion of invisibility.
It is in a Magician’s domain to perform tricks and wonders for the public. To make the ordinary surprising, the make it happen as though from nothing. Pulling things out of the air is normal fare, and it is with modest tools that the Magician is able to extract from the world the wonder and lessons hidden all around. The kind of knowledge that makes such a student of great use to others, a magical presence.
In any case, the card is traditionally read as a version of the self, along with the beggar Fool, and the Hermit. Perhaps there is something telling in all this. As it happens the first three cards are the ones the occult interpretations of Tarot most frequently get right. The Tarot is composed of cards that are both relevant in their day, and contain elements of the most enduring and popular Classical gods and goddesses. There is a selectiveness about which ones that is compelling, as you will discover.
The Magician card is correctly identified as Mercury, or Hermes. The Roman and Greek gods were different but associated. The comic book version is that he’s the ultimate conductor, of messages from the gods, and especially, of dead souls to their new home wherever that may be. This fast conducting would revive the Roman vision as a neoclassical icon of the postal and electricity industry, cars, and space travel.
And we’re getting closer to the significance of Mercury, after all plenty of other gods doing double duty as a way to picture ancestors. At the root of the messenger identity is the real reason for this character’s distinction – in all forms Hermes is the god of language, of the first letters, or writing. This is why the occult named it the Book of Thoth, also the giver of letters. Hermes in his various forms is also the god then of codes, ciphers, diplomacy, barter and haggling. He is also a master of disguise. A common form, whether among the Germans as Odin or in Rome as Mercury, is that of an old traveling man, or anyone he wishes really. So in the card just before the Magician, we have the Fool, a perfectly typical Hermes disguise, and in Chronos we see his Old Man routine, a favorite in Greek vase painting, in the Hanged Man we see the shamanic origin story of letters, and it is the Northern one spent dangling from a tree. In the South the origin of letters is more typically associated with birds, the tracks they leave in wet sand or their flying formations, and so are sometimes said to have been seen in the air, and of course Thoth has the head of an Ibis. In the caduceus we see another, the snakes of creation wrapped around a stylus, their movements suggesting the first letters, the emblem of genesis. Similarly, Hermes has wings on his cap, on his shoes, and on his wand, suggesting a flock of birds, again a legendary origin of the alphabet.
The logical leap to the Magician being a symbol of invention, and so technology, is easily made. The Book of Thoth is I think a fair and appropriate title then, despite the Tarot’s distance from Egyptian ideas, because the Humanist Tarot is loaded with comparative genesis stories and symbols that taken together seem quite interested in the question of origins.
A final clarification should be made. As Mercury, Hermes and Thoth are all similar, they are linked with another character that may have been known to our Humanist inventors, namely that Hermes Trimestigus, the Thrice Great author of the fabled Emerald Tablets which contained the secrets of alchemy, including changing lead into gold. There is nothing found yet that matches this sort of artifact, from Egypt. The text is generally though to be written in Arabic before the 8th Century. It could be that illegible engraved gem stones worn by Persians and other armies the Crusades met led to its believability, or even that such an object once was made, but fine Emerald by nature doesn’t tend to appear in large slices useful for writing tablets, and no such real tablets have been found.
Meaning: Mother of Mothers. Female power. The Book of Life, the Law of Nature, the world where the light of science shines and reveals. The balance that is hidden in plain sight, in everything.
Reversed: Ignorance of the ways of nature. Trying to escape the inevitable. Avoiding the truth, or by concealing the truth causing harm. Censoring or oppressing another.
The Papess, or female Pope, is a woman wearing the Pope’s crown. A brilliant jab at the obvious, the depiction of a female Pope points to a curious fact throughout the history of Christian life – no woman could hold such power. Some mention a Pope Joan, or the Bogomil, as a possible identity, but the more natural answer is that the Trumps are make a point of putting the Pope in drag. In the French style, the title La Pances is sometimes used, which means “The Belly”. In the Swiss deck, this card became Juno, a warlike mother goddess of the ancients, because they were strictly against Rome as a whole. In all, a card loved by most Tarot readers as the High Priestess, she is often described as the epitome of wisdom, but this gets confusing considering the next card is very much aligned with Minerva, Athena, and wisdom goddesses. I think these two cards, High Priestess and the Empress, are forever poetically scrambled.
This curious card is about honesty, the first clear Humanist challenge to the world presented early on. Where has the spiritual authority of a woman gone, what does a Papess even mean? It is said that once upon a time, one smacked their hand against the earth when you swore solemnly, in the same way that Vesta was once said to create whatever she wished. Or you swore on the Three, or the Tripod, a reference to the Oracle of Delphi and its guardian mother snake, Python. Amon the Germans the number 3 appeared in love tokens and meant True.
The distinction with the next card is simple, the Papess is the animation and tenacity of life, the power of life. She is a mother goddess, from a time when many goddesses, including mothers, were Virgin in one way or another, because the word relates to the mysteries of creation, life, and were in everyday use as words for the different ages of women. The Empress is about the power of culture, another kind of life, with another kind of goddess. If you think about it, placing a seed in the soil it germinates and sprouts as though it were asexual, though we all know today it is not. The earth takes the dormant seed and returns with moving, growing life. This something for nothing was the very essence of virgin birth to the heathen mind.
In Great Mother temples like that of Vesta in Rome, women could dedicate themselves for protection from marriage or to take on orphans, who vowed to remain asexual. But the Mother religion more importantly accepted virginity as an offering from the common people. Unmarried women came to the precincts to learn about sex, and offered themselves as ritual prostitutes to as many or as few as they wished, a popular practice among some cultures to prepare young women for marriage, and a kind of safe love motel for the young. Other key centres of old with this kind of practice, also known refuges for women, were Corinth and Ephesia.
Vesta is almost certainly who is depicted, among candidates if the Papess were an old goddess with Hera, and Isis, who was a virgin also. As a root virge meant a lot of things, like becoming, arriving, birth, and also growth, or branching, so virga also stood for the stick the Romans whipped you with. It alludes to creative power, and in another time, a virgin could simply have meant a young girl, a woman yet to become a wife, or yet to be a mother. The story of this word reveals a fascinating transformation in words for women into restrictive, rather than descriptive uses as goddess culture was eclipsed.
The relevant Renaissance atmosphere involves a Vatican deeply involved in the dispute and trade of territory and rights, as much a competitor to the Nobles as the merchants and developing middle class. Within itself, competition for various factions, and the Monastic Orders, paints a picture of a power structure up for grabs. The time period of the Tarot takes place in this setting, the simple existence Papess is a political challenge to patriarchal Roman structure without question, or at the least a jeer.
In my fanciful imagination the the Papess card is the first of four cards that are an assertion of a kind of historic progress of governance, beginning with the Papess as the Mother culture and therefore Matriarchy. It is followed by the Empress, or Civilization, a balanced culture. Then the Emperor, which is the transformation into Patriarchy that follows Empire, and lastly the Pope, which is the Oligarchy that gives all the others the right to exist. We will see as we read along how this pans out.
Most routinely in the occult, the card is associated with Isis. There are many historian objections to this, largely the lack of real information about Old Egypt in that day. But Isis had reached all the way to England through the Empire, and though a mystery cult and therefore quite unclear who she was to people in the late Middle Ages, just names to a ruin for most really, her image did continue to be associated with an underground Black Madonna following that was generally thought to be her rites continued, reflecting a continued awareness of her among the learned. We see in Pompeii that her cult had grown quite prosperous in the late Roman days.
So in this I agree, in that she is as good a mother figure as any. But there’s more credibility to her being in the mix than not. In the earliest days of Christianity, the Iseum or Temple of Isis was all the rage in Rome, which had grown with the popularity of Greco-Egyptian culture, with stars like Marc Anthony and Cleopatra and the ghost of Alexander still intriguing us today. And it is known that the Ankh and Cross bear close similarities, as well as the role of Isis in healing the poor and sick, an early hospital, especially for women during the precarious process of labor, and bylines like, “I am the blood and the resurrection,” which were clues to her two strongest roles – motherhood and returning the dead to life. She was the virgin mother epitomized, who gave birth to the promised child Horus (Harpocrates), a baby born on a lotus, who was the reincarnation of her dead husband Osirus, the rebirth of the Sun. She is the late crystallization of the once typically goddess role of granting the right to Kingship.
Though little was known to the Renaissance Humanists about even these late days in Egypt, we do know that the Iseum, for a time, was regarded as on equal with the first Christian Basilicas. A few still appear on a greater map of Christian outposts, one of the earliest Maps of the World to show China, the Tabula Peutingeriana or Peutingerian Map from the 1st Century CE, where Iseums are clearly marked. Without question this was a time of competing comparative religions, and Isis was in the Roman mix.
The Red Basilica, probably built by Hadrian at Pergamon was devoted to the Egyptian export religion and the great wealth the expanded Empire’s inclusion of Egypt had brought. It is unique for being built over a river flowed beneath its precinct walls, suggesting a mystery rite of river baptism. This Basilica was one of the first to be converted to a Church by the Byzantines. It is fair conjecture that some, if not all, of the old Iseums throughout Europe may have formed a distinct type of Church, possibly more sympathetic to the fate of Goddess culture and potential sources of Humanist intrigue. Churches North, East and West of Rome had distinct cultures and their own interests in easing off the dependency on Latin impositions of history and government.
Meaning: The power of women of authority, property, and influence. Using influence to promote wisdom in culture. Defense of the house. Duty to one’s own people.
Reversed: Suppression over gender or other difference. Ruthless business tactics, misuse of power. Abandonment of responsibility.
Readers are often tripped up trying to imagine a distinction between the High Priestess and the Empress. It helps to look for the most relevant identity during the time of the card inventors. It could be historical, considered to portray Sophia, Empress of the Byzantine Empire, regent for Justin II once he had gone mad, or Cleopatra. In our culture royalty doesn’t have a solid place in our imagination. For cultures living in the time of landlords and serfs, the Empress card may have represented a specific and grand lady of their own choosing. Meanwhile, occult tradition likes to say the Empress card is the daughter of the High Priestess and the Magician.
In history if we narrow down to contemporary understanding of the title of Empress, it would exclusively refer to the title Holy Roman Empress. Among the earliest depictions, the Visconti-Sforza, the Empress appears with an Eagle emblazoned on a yellow or gold field as she traditionally continues to do, which is the coat of arms of the King of Rome. This image dated to the 1455, and we can discover that the Empress as that time was Eleonor of Portugal, consort of Frederick III, first of the Hapsburgs. She is said to have liked dance, gambling and hunting, and was imprisoned far from Portugal in Vienna, where she was a charitable influence. In the Hans Burgkmair painting, it’s work noting the Empress holds a book, as she often does in the historic Tarot. The pair were married in Rome, and the North Italian decks seems to commemorate this in some way. By the time of the printing of the Marseille Tarot, there had been 14 Hapsburg Empresses, and around that time, the last of a line. The Empress and Emperor cards had scarcely changed.
Because there is a pattern of parallels between contemporary people and classical mythology throughout the deck, we should look at the Empress with a wider scope. Of course, the wife of any Holy Emporer is a virginal role, and in the portrait she holds the white lily, in those times a symbol of this (introduced into painting around the same time by Boticceli as a symbol for purity). But there is another ruling woman, who was known as the Virgin and for being wise, who was ever compared to every Queen and Empress alike as ordinary talk. This would be the goddess Minerva, to the Greeks, Athena (which means “I proceed from myself”). Born from the the head of a father she was destined to overthrow, a virgin birth, self born. The independent daughter that teaches what a wise rule looks like. She carries a hooked bird staff, her birds are the dove and the owl. Plutarch says the inscription in her temple was “I am everything which has been, which is, and which will be, and no mortal has yet lifted up my veil.”
The choice of a shield for a Holy Roman Empress also points to Minerva, goddess of war, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, weaving, crafts and magic. If occultists had picked up on the Classical reference, they would have realized their High Priestess card is really the Empress, not the Papess. Perhaps, the allusion is to indicate the Empress is the Goddess of Civilization.
Another goddess in this line, Astraea, is older than these, prehistoric. She is the constellation of Virgo in fact, said to be the last of the immortals to live among humans, who ascended into heaven, vowing to return bringing a new Golden Age.
Of course, a key Virgin goddess of everything in late Antiquity which influences so much of the Renaissance, being the most recent and likely to survive scraps, was the Egyptian goddess of resurrection and king making, Isis. For the latter reason the Empress card has understandably been associated with Isis, but Isis was a mother goddess, not the free life of Minerva the motherless child whom none could touch in combat. The mother mystery is better found in the Papess (High Priestess) card.
Athena also was regarded as a most ancient of Queen Goddess, synonymous with the citadels early cities retired to, called Pallisades today after Pallas, or the Palladion, a small prehistoric object from Anatolia that was said could kill anyone who touched it. It was stolen during the Trojan war, brought to Rome, and kept in her cousin, the Temple of Vesta, for centuries.
Athena, Minerva, Tyche these names were synonymous with the power of civilization, and the power of a Goddess to decide how that happens. Athena like the others was able to command the good spirit of the Earth, or was one and the same, and this manifested as the form of a great frequently bearded or horned snake climbing a tree or altar on command. Why a snake? Its movement has been likened to the hallucinatory vapors of an oracle, incense and offering smoke, and these comparisons have merit. It rise, twists and wends from the grown like the shoots of new plants. It is also a way in which the Earth and its goddess of your choosing can, at any moment, strike and feasibly kill you. Snakes were to the Earth like lightning to the sky or sea, an image of power.
Meaning: Fatherhood. Responsibility for many. Careful instruction and planning. Work within the community. Measured risks.
Reversed: A Tyrant. Use of force to take what isn’t given. Overlooking potential friendships among the lower ranks.
Before the time of the Tarot’s appearance, a significant change had occurred in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor. The traditional ordainment was no longer held by the approval, or authority, of the Pope, and future Emperors simply took the title in turn. But in the time of the Visconti-Sforza, the Hapsburg line began with the marriage of a German, Frederick III in Rome. This Holy Roman Emperor was known as the Peaceful, and being occupied with Germany, cooperating with the Hungarians (his son would make war with them) and even living in the Vienna they occupied. Unlike his former namesake Frederick II, who had threatened to destroy the Republic of Venice two centuries earlier, the Hapsburg would be a friend of Rome. It also must have seemed symbolic in a good way that a new family taking over from the house of Luxembourg brought to an end those who reigned over the misery of the plagues and the Hundred Years War.
Now in the Classical references that run through the Tarot, the Emperor also takes the seat of Jove, or Jupiter, the all father and god of the Emperors of Rome before him. Borrowing loosely from the Greek’s own Zeus of course, the Romans believed that their success came from placing the sky (eagle) god at the highest place. As it happens, Jove’s myths lack many details regarding childhood, spouse or children, because it is the result of previous religious changes, like Olympianism which had condensed regional cults from the country into a pluralistic groups with shared names in the cities. What is key about this, is that with Olympianism, you have the growing establishment of a truly patriarchal society, which Rome would continually evolve towards until only something resembling Jove the All Father remained.
Some historians believe Jove was originally a twin with Juno, probably a prehistoric first ancestor story describing some long distant tribal chief. This lends credence to the fortune telling tradition about the card, that the Emperor is ‘the son of the High Priestess and the Magician’, because the same is said of the Empress, making them siblings, not husband and wife. Jupiter is something of a loose copy Zeus, whose parents were Cronos and Rhea, both of whom also appear in the Tarot. But unlike Zeus, the tradition in Rome is that that Jupiter was the son of Fortuna Primigenia (the Original), also once someone’s mother goddess before she was Lady Luck for the Empire, who is also in the deck as the Wheel of Fortune.
The position of the Empress and Emperor as siblings gives us an extra clue about the identity of the Magician, who would then be parallel to Chronos. Chronos is Time, an ancient god of Death, from the days of giants, and is already present in the Tarot as the Hermit. So we have the god Hermes as the next bet for a god of Death and Time to serve as parent, and Magician, and this is one thing the occult generally gets correct. We seal the deal with the fact that the word hermit comes from Hermes of course. Along with the Tower this means the Tarot has four (possibly a fifth if you count Judgement) different incarnations of death, very different cultural ideas, as though the deck is devoted in a way to diversity, rather than summary.
As a bit of extra curiosity, it is said that Frederick III was quite taken by mystic symbols, astrology, the employment of alchemists, and associated with Humanists. He also decorated many of his possessions with the vowels, AEIOU.
Like his namesake, and many curious people of his time, he was obsessed with questions of the Origins of everything. The location of the Garden of Eden, Atlantis the original civilization, or the original true cross and many other things central to the European obsession with traveling to Jerusalem and waging Crusades. Another was the ‘original language’, meaning the quest to discover what was spoken before the Tower of Babel story, because the belief was that one created language of Paradise existed before that time. In 12th Century ignorance, the choices were believed to be Hebrew, Greek, Latin or Arabic. It’s worth revisiting the science-like experiments Frederick II was known to have conducted two hundred years earlier. Frederick II had a group of infants raised separate from all speaking humans, tended to by women who were ordered not to utter a word or even tone, to see what sort of words the babies would utter on their own. He did not make any language discovery, but none of the children survived. So go the early days of science, as with his other experiment, trying to satisfy his curiosity about whether the substance of a soul could be measured, to which end he placed men in barrels and after they died opened small holes to see if anything like a spirit tried to escape.
While the Tarot of North Italy seems almost designed to satisfy the interests of Frederick III in 1450, the greatest Emperor to the people of Marseille in the 1600s may still have been Charlemagne of old. If one was inclined to admire an Emperor, that would be the character. Restorer of the Troubadour way of poets, bringer of the Gothic wonders, friend of Constantine, friend of a Giant, the one who put the Franks above Rome, and in a vague way the revenge of the Celts, Gauls and disparate peoples and languages in that part of the Empire. For the people of Marseille, the Emperor card may well have been Charlemagne alone.
Meaning: Caught between worlds. Translating experience into creativity. Study, patience and gradual gains will reveal the right choice of action. Puzzles are solved.
Reversed: Running on blind. Complete adoption of risk is the territory of both the desperate and the adventurous. Luck and strength both have a way of running out.
The Pope has in modern decks universally been re-identified as the Heirophant. Following the belief that all things mysterious hail from Egypt, it was easier to assume a cover up involving the pope, replacing the ancient Egyptian reader of the heiroglyphs, the Heirophant, with the Pope, than to face the fact that the originators of the Tarot actually meant to include the Pope. In the Tarot, a deck unusually devoid of religious references given the time, the Pope is the last of the authority figure cards.
In the early decks the Pope is distinguished from the Papess in not being in possession of a book. Besides this the subject was open to artistic rendering. The Paris deck shows a sphinx companion, while the Cary-Yale Visconti reveals an extraordinary twist, a regal woman in a gold dress carrying a cross, standing above a cowering king of some sort. And we have the Swiss deck, where the V card is sometimes called ‘the False God’, a Reformation statement.
If we are right about the Emperor standing for Frederick III, then the Pope could well be Nicholas V, who presided over his coronation. He ruled for only eight years, but is known for two very disparate actions. He was open to dialogue with humanists, collected books, and after the disastrous sack of Constantinople sent scouts to recruit their displaced scholars to Rome. And this is good. But he also issued a Papal Bull that helped kick start a European slave trade that would ignite colonialism in earnest, by allowing a legal precedent, the monopoly of the Portugese for the enslavement of Africans in Morocco. And this was yet another example of why having the Pope as the highest political trump was a problem.
The Pope card could also depict Calixtus III, whose reign specifically overlaps the date of the Visconti Sforza Tarot. This Pope’s response to Joan of Arc shows compliance with popular pressure, she had been retried and cleared of blame. He had been left with a world after the betrayal of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, and having no Eastern front to hold off the Turks spent his efforts with yet another Crusade. He was also a Borgia, and said to have excommunicated an appearance of Halley’s Comet.
The curious term Heirophant comes from the Greek work for someone who reads letters, so there is also a sense of the person who stands before you and recites some sort of information. As a result the card has a reputation as the revealing of things, but unlike the High Priestess with her role in what is hidden, or difficult to obtain, the Pope or Heirophant is by profession already delivering a steady stream of words. He holds the key, and as a pontiff or bridge, his declarations are ever considered to be delivered from another, higher power. So like the Wizard of Oz, this card presents a front for the transmission of information that comes from authority. So it is a card of dogma. I think the occult tradition overly conflates the High Priestess and the Heirophant card, while if the Tarot is viewed as a humanist document, one that seems interested in the fate of the feminine half of the world, the Pope really is a high ranking challenge. For this reason, I think the original title of the Pope is better employed.
The choice of ‘Heirophant’ is an occult way of further painting the Tarot as an Ancient and Egyptian work, because of the similarity to the word for the then illegible Egyptian writing, but the word heiroglyphic did not come about until more modern times. The term Heirophant was not part of the deck when it was created, instead the Pope is the highest of authority figures, the picture of a patriarchal power structure. A point of this is made, because the Tarot is really just getting started, and the number of Trumps that are above the Pope, such as the forces of life and death and the World in the end, are far more in number than the five that he is actually able to trump.
Meaning: You can never know the time and place. But you can choose how you feel in the mean time. Focus on what is loving, and while you beware anything too good to be true, remember that one’s attention shapes one’s world, and in the world of best possible actions and outcomes, love wins.
Reverse: There are things in life that can’t be escaped. Like the law of gravity, some bodies are drawn together in a kind of dance. While you can’t change some things in life, look inside your own loves for other things you can. You can only control your own level of commitment.
In some of the cards Eros has a blindfold on, or his eyes are shut. What does that say about the Lovers, then, if Cupid had his eyes closed? Many have a touch of humor to them as well, a stiff hand shake between pre-arranged children, or a chaperone, or whatever is happening to the startled lad in the Marseilles version.
Eros is everywhere in the classical myths. Like most creatures with wings, it is an active principle of some kind, an interface, or interference if you will. Belonging to a class of beings known to describe aspects of the human psyche, and used visually to indicate an attraction, like a cartoon balloon. By the time we reach the Vatican as it stands today, Cupid devolves into the putti, the cherub, the garden decor. And he’s everywhere, hundreds in a ceiling, love is everywhere.
The imagery of the card varies tremendously, from the intimate to the fraternal, but Eros is the central element. They say the Greeks had several words for love as well, a distinction from English. Eros was physical love, Philos was love through admiration or community, and Agapis was transcendant love. Whether this card reads as marriage or an idealism is entirely up to the reader, but it’s always a nice card to see.
Meaning: Simply for being in the right time and place, you will be rewarded. To make the use of fortune, take a part of what you’ve been given to share with others.
Reverse: Selfishness, uptightness, poor reception of others. Self isolation and limitation, fear of ordinary situations. You must face the crowd, and you must play your part.
The Marseilles ‘mis-spelling’, Charior in Latin means Dearer. The idea of a Chariot seems to have a more ordinary, cart in a procession appearance in the cards. Though a chariot might first lead to the idea of the Sun moving across the sky, there is a card for the Sun later in the deck, and though taught in mythology as a common belief, it is better to call it a folk symbol, like the stork which brings newborns down the chimney. This card is not the solar chariot, by design. A regal male or female may be found riding in it, or rather are being presented in it. It may have two or four steeds, they may be horses or other animals. The Chariot may be drawn like a blocky alcove, or depict something realistic, but it is usually moving towards the viewer.
From early times and still part of life in the Renaissance, a Triumph might easily be understood as a parade. These parades went on for various reasons – old costume carnivals and processions that couldn’t be put down and were thinly disguised, for the public display of sacred objects, for the display of a victorious athlete or general, for the introduction of a new royal, and for the funeral of the same.
Going on a long, winding walk through town is a risky affair for nobility, especially when times are hard and there’s dissatisfaction. So for PR purposes, whether to gain support for new leaders, to quell the angry mob, or to just attract a good crowd in the first place, such processions were frequently accompanied by the act of someone tossing something nice into the public. New coins with the new monarch are a classic tradition. Candy for the kids, as occupying soldiers employed in modern times when rolling into a new town in Iraq. Loaves of bread. Something from the brewery. The Chariot then, is a card about charity, the act of those with more securing their relationship to the people through giving. And Charity is a Humanist ideal to which no one should object, a safe ethic to champion without ruffling feathers.
In the Paris tarot we have another amusing notion, with the Chariot portrayed as some swan drawn vehicle of Dionysus, together with a flail bearing Eros. In that formulation, to be sure the Chariot is the labor of Love, and represents the procession of Delight, the scene carved into the sarcophagi of Bacchants. In this procession, the viewer is drawn in by gifts, of wine, music, and the freedom to let your hair down.
The Chariot then has a great deal in common with the modern parade float, it is a public presentation, and can be an announcement. It’s interesting to note that in the
A Chariot in english describes a very specific thing, the tool of war we’ve seen in movies. It might help to know that in the Romance languages the word doesn’t have this sharp distinction. Chariot, Char, Carre, Car, and Cart all are interchangeable, it’s really just a word for something with wheels that you can ride in. So the sense of conquering and such that sometimes appear in interpretations is our own addition.
As floats in a Parade, made with sumptious materials and artistry to wow the people on the streets, the Carts in a Triumph will also carry miniature dioramas of myths, reenactments of the saints, and relics of religious import. The Chariot is instead the image of moving theatre, traveling stages that can shape public perception.
Seeing a visual in the form of an exciting parade, one can imagine better how a game imitating such spectacles could be popular. Hidden in plain sight, in entertaining color and composition, stories old and new transform an ordinary day into a chaotic, carnival atmosphere of beauty, meaning and ideological transmission. The Tarot, like the Triumphs of old, is a media technology that aims to deliver a certain worldview. In the excitement of Humanist times, these were the radio and television of the day.
Meaning: Always with a sword in hand, this Justice is ready to strike when the scales are out of balance. A wrong will be righted. But be prepared for the aftermath of this reckoning, because justice often does not serve equally.
Reversed: It may work for a while, but eventually every deception runs its course. Face your mistakes, make amends where possible, and start new. Learning to see yourself in someone else’s shoes will go a long way to help.
The win for extraordinary card goes to the Paris deck again, with its curious spelling is portrayed as a Janus type figure. This goes along with other depictions of Justice. The people who fancy an Alchemical explanation for every card see a resolution of the Lovers card, of the merger between opposites, the high spiritual attainment of conjunction. A sword in one hand, and scale balancing in the other, justice is a tense association of forces held in check with each other. As Janus it brings in an additional element that unifies the past and future.
The humanist goddess with scales and sword is a standard for North Italian Renaissance, depicted in churches and without, sometimes with wings. It’s often reported in junior myth guides as a continuation of a Roman goddess named Justice, but this is not correct. The modernized goddess Justice is in fact the continuation of Nemesis.
Nemesis has an onerous name in English of course meaning arch-enemy. But she is better seen as a parallel to Fortuna, or rather that both goddesses stem from an earlier connection between the wheel and justice. She is depicted standing with a wheel to make the connection. For this reason she was associated with games and gladiator arenas, she is the goddess of the referees and the making of fair calls, especially those that meant life or death. She was the last character you could appeal to for mercy when you’d gone too far, something like the modern Santa Muerte of Latin America. She was the making of adjustments, watching over a game of good and evil and adjusting the scales by intervening when evil seems to be prevailing. As divine justice she was appeased together with Tyche or Themis, soul of the city and civilization, making them emblems of law and order for the Romans.
Nemesis, therefore, was the enemy of the wrong-doer. In the setting of the gladitorial arena, the fighters are drawn from slaves captured in battle, making her a kind of Nike or Victoria, to the Romans she was Invidia, the one who defeats the enemy. And the fighters drawn from convicts, her name Nemesis means ‘to give what is due’ they make her a symbol of punishment, the archenemy originally of the criminal.
Nemesis and Themis have their oldest sanctuary in the Southern Greek islands, though the origin of these two appears to be Antioch. Because of their association with luck, good and bad, for last chances, the original insurance claim for ‘acts of Goddess’, and as a solace of victims who seek revenge, all common reasons for people to seek archaic magic, a sense of these characters endured centuries after the Empire tried to put them down.
Though the Paris version of the Marseilles deck shows a Janus type head, this is novel, and I treat the presence of Janus in the Tarot under the card of Prudence.
Meaning: A hard won prize, the completion of a journey. Wisdom as the highest aim serves as a lantern in the dark, or an hourglass at midnight.
Reverse: Withdrawn and despairing, certain of defeat our deepest passions are often sacrificed first. Stay the long journey and you will gradually find your way.
After the scales of Justice come the sands of Time, or the light of the lantern, depending on who you ask. The lantern carrying figure may refer to the Stoic philosopher and freed slave Epictetus, with a stick for his bad leg and his famous lantern, or Diogenes who was known to wander with a lantern by day, ‘trying to find an honest man.’ The card serves us an ancient archetype of the minimally material lost in their head monkish type. But the hourglasses and luxurious attire of the Italian versions conjures a different image.
As a traditional fortune telling card, whether the Hermit or the Heirophant, we have a retiring character that describes a personality type well known. In our age of computers perhaps more people can relate to this sort of life, being consigned to a seclusion in which, presumably, one is managing some course of study. The calling to step back from the world in order to gain wisdom, mental disciplines, peace or recovery takes many forms, for the purist mechanic, musician or zen type devoted to refining just one skillset, to the monk who seeks some higher form of contact by living a discipline, to the cynic who drifts about disabling passing fancies with philosophy. As a result, the card has an occult reputation as a secret keeper, or the revealer of hidden knowledge, or the reward of such knowledge.
Looking at the mythopoetic images in the cards is stranger than this however, the hourglass reference and the posture of the figure closely resembles a popular card image at the time of Chronos, the horrible Titan eating his child with several others lined up. Even the gods face twilight. And whether it’s time or darkness that must be crossed, the ancient god Hermes, who got involved in the business of dead souls at times, was known to take a humble old man’s appearance when he performed this job, of was conducting typically important dead people away from their expired bodies to wherever their new homes might be. Between, Chronos and Hermes, we have old time gods of death, which were somehow retired yet kept around here as a helpful guide character instead, perhaps they still have a little clout with the underworld. The association with time and age is made stronger by the alternate use of these symbols, lantern and hourglass. Chronos has the sense of old time, ages past, the sands of time erasing history. It is the existential malevolence of time. Hermes has a sense of fleeting time, he is the buzzer at the end of the run, he arrives unannounced, unexpected despite being inevitable (again existential), and his four wings, the four winds, promise less doom than a swift change of state. In the early days, either the underworld or a new form was for ordinary people, but the elect, the kings and such, were swept away to the North Star, a labyrinthine spiral castle of glass, or other places of waiting to be placed again in history. The Hermit has stepped out of his cave, and his lantern is lit, he is ready to greet his visitor.
A deep view perhaps for the card more likely interpreted as the philosopher’s ideal behind the Tarot deck, the very embodiment of wisdom itself. But if the Hermetic theory of the Tarot proves to be the strongest, the Hermit is just one of many representations of Hermes or Mercury scattered throughout the deck. For reading look for Wisdom in the earlier cards, in the first two nobles, the High Priestess and the Empress, spiritual and worldly wisdom beside one another. They may rank low in the triumphs of the world, and are but disguises for something that is continued beyond, to higher views, nonetheless.
By being a psychopomp, which is not as glam as you’d think, the Hermit is likewise inheritor of the role of Christopher (Christ-Over), the Anubis and even the Jolly Green Giants of old European mythology. The one that takes people across on their shoulder.
In the old days, the pan-cultural symbol’s job was death, as the image of Time, but in the Tarot he has instead evolved into a picture of wisdom. A symbol of reward. In the old days, he ate the children, now he gives them a hand across the river.
And that’s an interesting reflection of the role of Death in the humanist Tarot – though the Hermit can be associated through folklore with old titans of death, there is a card for Death and it is no god at all, only a skeleton in a robe performing function as a formality, a caricature. Meanwhile the image of the Triumph as a chariot remained popular during the Renaissance, also for a game played with the Tarot, from which the Trumps get their name. producing Time as an elderly man, one one or two crutches, on a Triumph drawn by Stags.