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.

Playing the Tarot Game

The Tarocchi Players ofCasa Borromeo, Milan 15th C
The Tarocchi Players of Casa Borromeo, Milan 15th C



It has occurred to me that I have never before seen a companion book for a Tarot deck that included the rules for actually playing the game.  So here they are, at least one version.  And there may be insight in the way the game is played that can apply to our understanding of the story of the cards.

French Rules

Tarot belongs to a class called trick-taking games, the closest comparison would be Pinochle or Hearts.   A trick is a single round of play, where players compete to take all the points in each trick.  Games involving math may be losing popularity, but Tarot play is fast moving.  Each game ends when the cards run out.  These rules are for four players, there are variants (at the end) for two, three or five players.

Card Values

The deck consists of 78 cards. There are four standard suits, and each suit contains fourteen cards ranking from high to low:

King, Queen, Knight, Jack, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

In addition to the four standard suits there is a extra suit of twenty-one trumps numbered from XXI (high) to I (low).

Finally, there is a special card called the excuse, the Fool card.

Three cards, the I trump (called the petit), the XXI trump and the excuse are particularly important in the game, and are known as bouts (ends).

In each hand one player, the taker (le preneur) plays alone against the other three who work together against them.  The taker’s objective is to accumulate enough card points to win the hand, by taking tricks.

The total points in the deck is 91.  For every card in every trick taken, you get the following card points:

Bouts (XXI, I, excuse)  4½
Kings                   4½
Queens                  3½
Knights                 2½
Jacks                   1½
All Other cards:        ½

In a nutshell, the taker tries to win tricks and collect as many cards as they can to win a bid.  The number of points the taker needs to win depends on the number of bouts the taker has in his tricks:

 Bouts   Points to Win
   3          36
   2          41
   1          51
   0          56

The Deal

The first dealer is chosen at random – thereafter the turn to deal passes to the right after each hand (the whole game is played counter-clockwise). The player opposite the dealer shuffles and the player to the left of the dealer cuts.

18 cards are dealt to each player, in packets of 3. During the deal, six cards are dealt face down to the centre of the table to form the talon (heel) or chien (meaning dog, in English we call this a kitty), for a group of cards set aside during the deal. The chien cards are dealt singly at any time during the deal, at the choice of the dealer. The first three and the last three cards of the deck cannot be dealt to the chien.

Curious Rule: Le Petit

A player who is dealt the I of trumps on the first pass of three, immediately declares this and the hand is cancelled – the cards are thrown in and the next dealer deals.  The I of trumps typically depicts a juggler or street magician.


Each player, starting with the player to the dealer’s right and continuing counter-clockwise, has just one chance to bid on the hand, or pass. If someone bids, subsequent players have the choice of bidding higher or passing. If all four players pass, the hand is thrown out and the next dealer deals (this happens quite often).

The possible bids, from lowest to highest, are as follows:

Petite (small) also called Prise (take).  You can use the chien cards to improve your hand (see below) and you then try to take enough card points in tricks to win.

Garde (Guard)Same as Petite but outranks Petite in bidding.

Garde sans le chien (Guard without the dog) No one looks at the chien, but the card points in it count as part of the taker’s tricks.

Garde contre le chien (Guard against the dog)No one looks at the chien and it is counted as part of the tricks of the opponents of the taker.

The highest bidding player becomes the taker. The remaining three players form a temporary team, trying to prevent the bidder from making enough card points.

In Petite or Garde, the taker turns the six cards of the chien face up for all to see and then takes them into his hand. He then discards face down any six cards which must not include trumps, kings or the excuse. In the (very rare) case that the taker can’t obey this rule, he can discard trumps (but never bouts); any trumps discarded must be shown to the other players. The cards discarded by the taker count as part of his trick.

Note on Bidding: As the number of bouts decides how many points the player must collect, the taker must win more than half the deck if they have one or no bouts, something to consider when bidding. The XXI trump is high card and won’t be taken, likewise the excuse usually returns to its owner, so only one bout, the I trump, is a possible addition after the cards are dealt, unless an available bout turns up in the chien.



Game Play

When the discard is complete, the cards are played. The player to the dealer’s right leads to the first trick.

Each trick is won by the highest trump in it, or the highest card of the suit led if no trumps were played. The winner of a trick takes the cards and starts the next trick.

A player must follow suit if you can, and if you have no cards of the suit led you must play a trump. If trumps are led, the other players must of course follow with trumps if they can.

Curious Rule: Whenever you have to play a trump (either because trumps were led or because you have no cards of the suit which was led), you must if possible play a trump which is higher than the highest trump so far played to the trick. If you are unable to do this, you are free to play any trump, but you must still play a trump, even though you cannot win the trick with it.

The Excuse

The excuse is an exception to the above rules. If you hold the excuse you may play it on any trick you choose – irrespective of what was led and whether you have that suit or not. With one rare exception (see below), the excuse can never win the trick – the trick is won as usual by the highest trump, or in the absence of trumps by the highest card of the suit led.  You get the excuse back regardless of who wins, unless the excuse is played in the last trick, then the excuse is taken by the team who wins the trick.

You may lead with the excuse, and in this case the second player to the trick can play any card, and this second card defines what suit must be followed.

Provided that the excuse is played before the last trick, the team that played the excuse keeps it in their trick pile, even though they may have lost the trick to which it was played. If the trick is in fact won by the opponents of the player with the excuse, the trick will be one card short; to compensate for this, the team that played the excuse must provide a replacement card from their trick pile to the winners of the trick. This will be a 0.5 point card; if they do not yet have such a card in their tricks, they can wait until they take a trick containing a 0.5 point card and transfer it them.

There is also one extremely rare case in which the excuse can win a trick: if one team has won every trick except the last one, and then leads the excuse to the last trick, the excuse wins.

Playing Tarrochi, Castello di Masnago, Lombardy, 1500s
Playing Tarrochi, Castello di Masnago, Lombardy, 1500s


There are some special bonuses after a game. The scores for these bonuses are not card points, so they do not help you to win your bid. They are extra points which can be scored in addition to what you win or lose for your bid.

Poignée (grip) is a bonus scored if a player declares that he has 10 or more, that is to say, a grip of trumps:

  10 trumps : 20 points 
  13 trumps : 30 points 
  15 trumps : 40 points

To declare a poignée, the holder must show the correct number of trumps just before playing to the first trick. The trumps must be sorted so that the other players can easily see what is there. The excuse can be counted as a trump in a poignée, but if the excuse is shown, this indicates that the player does not have any other trumps concealed. The bonus is counted for the team who wins the hand, so if you declare a poignée and then lose, the bonus points go to the other side. A poignée is only scored if it is declared. It is not compulsory to declare a poignée when you have one; if you hold 10 or more trumps but are not confident that your side will win you may be wiser not to mention it.

Petit au bout is a bonus which occurs if the 1 of trumps is played in the last trick. In this case the team that takes the last trick wins the bonus (10 points).

Chelem (slam) is a bonus for taking all the tricks. The score depends on whether it was announced in advance:

Chelem annoncé: the team (the taker normally) announces chelem before the beginning of the play. The bonus is 400 points if they succeed in winning every trick and -200 points penalty if they fail.

Chelem non annoncé: the team wins all the tricks without having announced it. They get a bonus of 200 points.

Chelem excuse: If one side has won all the tricks except the last, and then leads the excuse to the last trick, the excuse wins. This special rule, which probably comes up about once in a lifetime, allows a chelem to be made by a player with the excuse. In addition, when making a chelem with the excuse in this way, it also counts as petit au bout if you won with the 1 of trumps in the second to last trick.



At the end of the hand, the taker counts his card points and the opposing team pool their tricks and count their card points. The six chien cards are added to the taker’s tricks, unless the bid was “Garde contre le chien”, in which case the chien cards are added to the opponents’ tricks. The taker wins if he has enough points, depending on the number of bouts in his tricks.

The amount of points won or lost by the taker is calculated as follows: 25 points for the game, plus the difference between the card points the taker actually won and the minimum number of points he needed (pt).

The petit au bout bonus is added or subtracted if applicable (pb)

This total is multiplied by a factor (mu) depending on the bid:

     Petite (Prise)         x 1
     Garde                  x 2
     Garde sans le chien    x 4
     Garde contre le chien  x 6

The following bonuses are then added or subtracted if they apply; they are not affected by the multiplier, the poignée bonus (pg)
and the chelem bonus (ch).

The calculation of the score, expressed as a formula, is: ((25 + pt + pb) * mu) + pg + ch

The calculated points are either won by the taker from all three opponents or lost by the taker to all three opponents. The opponents always win or lose bonuses equally: for example if one of them wins petit au bout they all benefit.

Examples of scoring:

Hand #1: A bids garde and has 56 card points with 2 bouts. Each other player gives (25 + 15) * 2 = 80 points to A.

Hand #2: B bids garde, has 49 card points with 3 bouts and takes the last trick with the 1 of trump. Each other player gives (25 + 13 + 10 )* 2 = 96 points to B.

Hand #3: C bids garde, has 40 card points with 2 bouts and the other team takes the last trick with the 1 of trump. C gives (25 + 1 + 10) * 2 = 72 points to each other player.

Hand #4: C bids garde with 3 bouts, and takes 41 card points, but the other team captures his 1 of trumps in the last trick. C now only has two bouts in tricks so his target score becomes 41. Each other player gives (25 + 0 – 10) * 2 = 30 points to C.

Hand #5: D bids garde, has 40 card points with 3 bouts and the other team declared a poignée of 10 trumps. Each other player gives (25 + 4) * 2 + 20 = 78 points to D.

Note: to make the addition easier, some players prefer to round all the scores to the nearest 5 or 10 points.

Giacomo Jaquerio, Issogne Castle
Giacomo Jaquerio, Issogne Castle


Tarot for Three Players

The game is essentially the same as with four players. Each player is dealt 24 cards, in packets of 4. Because the hands are larger the number of trumps needed for a poignée is increased: single 13; double 15; triple 18.

Because the tricks contain an odd number of cards, there will sometimes be an odd half card point when counting. This is rounded in favour of the taker if he wins, and in favour of the opponents if he loses. If the taker is half a point short of the target, the bid is lost by one card point.

Tarot for Five Players

Each player is dealt 15 cards, so there are only 3 cards in the chien. The number of trumps needed for a poignée is reduced: single 8; double 10; triple 13. Half card points are treated as in the three player game.

With five players, there are two teams. Before exposing the talon, the taker calls a king and the player who has that card plays as the partner of the taker; the other three players play as a team against them. If the taker has all four kings, he may call a queen. The holder of the called king must not say anything to give away the fact that he has it. The identity of the taker’s partner is only revealed when the called king is played, though it may be suspected earlier from the fact that the holder of the king will try to help the taker. If the called king (or queen) is found to be in the chien or in the hand of the taker, then the taker plays alone against four opponents.

Many people play that when the taker has a partner, the taker pays or receives double, while the partner and the three opponents pay or receive singly. Others play that the taker and partner split the gain or loss equally between them, which is more awkward, because it can lead to fractional scores. If the taker plays alone, the taker’s win or loss will of course be four times that of each opponent.

Tarot for Two Players

The game is basically the same as for four players, but each player has 21 cards in hand plus 18 more on the table in six piles of three, each pile having the top card face up.

The deal is as follows: three cards one by one to your opponent, face down, side by side; then three cards to yourself, similarly; then three more to your opponent alongside the first three cards and three more to yourself. At this point there is a row of six cards face down in front of each player. Now repeat the process, dealing the new cards on top of the old ones, so that each player has six face-down piles of two cards. Then do the same again, but dealing the cards face up on top of the piles, so that each player has six piles of three cards with a face up card on top. The remaining cards are dealt out three at a time to the two players, so that each has a hand of 21 cards.

There is no bidding. The non-dealer leads, and the play continues under the usual rules – i.e. you must follow suit and trump if void, and when a trump is led it must be beaten if possible. The face-up cards on your piles can be played to tricks as though they were part of your hand. At the end of each trick, if you have played from a pile you turn the next card of that pile face up. At the end of the play, when both players have played all the cards from their hands and their piles, the winner is determined using the usual targets – for example if you have two bouts and your opponent has one, you win if you have 41 or more points and your opponent needs 51 or more to win. If you want to keep score, the winner gets 25 points plus one for each card point the winner has in excess of the target. If the petit is played to the last trick, the winner of the trick scores an extra 10 for petit au bout. There is no score for poignéee.

Vilmos Aba Novák, Card Players, Hungary, 1932
Vilmos Aba Novák, Card Players, Hungary, 1932

Observations from the Tarot Game

As this is a book about reading the cards, here are some notes about what we might pick up in the meaning of the cards from the game play.

·The subjects of the trumps are arranged in a low to high ranking, giving credence to the idea of a Triumphant Procession.

·The court cards are valuable, the kings on par with the highest trumps, the bouts, for points.

·Still, the trumps beat the suits, an inference could easily be made that they represent, in some respect, fate.

·The bouts are pivotal and shape the whole game.  They are the first and last trump, and the excuse:

·The excuse is an outsider, neither ranked in the suits or a trump.  It’s range of early names makes this clear – the fool, the filthy, the mad, the crazy.  It has almost no shot at winning, but it can interfere with play, and help disguise a player’s hand.

·The I trump, the Juggler or Magician, has a distinct role in the game as Le Petit.  Easily defeated in the ranks, it is almost sure to be lost when it must finally be played, and that changes who’s ahead in the game quickly. But like the excuse, it has a special rule, the ability to stop a game before play begins. After learning how it plays, questions about the Magician are that of fame.  An entertainer, a street performer, using skills to change the shape of their life, low ranking but still among those able to trump the rank and file lives, and whose fortunes can change swiftly.

·The XXI trump, the World, has no special ability, besides being the highest ranking, the unbeatable card.  There is only one rare, slim chance, at the end round of a game in which a team has had an unbroken winning streak, and only then the outsider, the excuse, can beat the World.

·My final thought is that the arrangement of the trumps was not the work of cynics, who wouldn’t have been able to resist putting the Death card at the end, nor the work of the pious, or the Devil would not rank above the Pope.  I consider the arrangement as optimistic, for its uptake of humanist virtues, and with the final clue of the Fool’s slim but long shot at a win, indicates a realist.

Tarocco di Argio Orell


An exhibit against the idea of idolizing a traditional series of trumps.  In other parts of this guide I have commented on the origins of the trumps being varied, connected to educational decks, and very open to interpretation.  Simply because the U.S. inherited the French and the occult view of the trumps at the same time, we do not have the hindsight for a casual glance at the deck to see it as it appears for many in the old world, a living card game, whose imagery can have applied meanings that power a storytelling device.

I chose this deck from 1914 for its all around wackiness in the world of Tarot.  We have an ocean liner company commissioning the deck, which results in four paintings of passenger ships.  But it is a proper deck meant to play the game of Tarocci, with a two-faced Trump design that points to the game, candidate to explain why trump cards are said to have ‘reverse’ meanings.  The delightful artwork comes with two scenes per Trump, a mixture of theatric Orientalism and Art Nouveau, while the suit cards are absolutely minimal.  Elegant all around, the author was either instructed or asked to do away with any troubling cards, there is no Death or Devil, and more of life’s leisures than virtues have been folded into this deck, with only three trumps and the Fool bearing traditional titles.  In place of antique symbolism, exotica visions of Egypt, Persia, Spain, and Japan stand in.   One thing of special note, as I chose this deck because it is so atypical (and non-occult), is that this is one of few decks I have seen that is predominately people of color, and has slightly more women than men.

The owner of a deck, much like a book or artwork, has the right to see in it anything they choose, to reassign as they please, and disregard the rules completely.  This wonderful series of paintings by Argio Orell introduces many new trumps that are as suitable as any for unlocking the mysteries of the mind by exercising nonlinear association, let alone being perfect for playing the game.


I Il Bagatto  The Juggler
II  La Navigazione  Navigation
 III  L’Imperitrice  The Empress
 IV  La Suonatrice  The Actress
 V  Il Drago Guardiano  The Dragon Guardian
 VI  La Sfinge  The Sphinx


 VII  La Lotta  The Fight
 VIII  Il Cantastorie  The Storyteller
 IX  Il Santuario  Sactuary
 X  Il Giardino  The Garden
 XI  La Forza  Strength
XII  L’Artista The Artist


 XIII La Notte  The Night
 XIV L’Uomo e La Donna Man and Woman
 XV  La Seduzione  The Seduction
 XVI  La Fiera  The Fair
 XVII  L’Esodo The Exodus
 XVIII  Il Fato  Fate


 XIX  Il Parasole  The Umbrella
 XX  Il Tempio  The Temple
 XXI  La Danza  The Dance
0  Il Matto The Fool