Poets Keys Pt. 2 – Waxing and Waning – Sacred Days of Autumn

I have the unique pleasure of being born and now living in the southwestern United States, in one of the largest of the new cities on earth. Los Angeles is located not far from the border of a culture with a different dominant language. Though my family is not directly descended from them, playmates and street samples and tidbits of life have made my cultural upbringing anything but singular.  Not only does the vast swathe of cultures loosely combined into ‘Latin’ America start just to the south here, but this culture also has some unique religious differences, and as a whole, is rooted in two continental trees, one of them being indigenous, whereas my own can be said to be wholly immigrant.  In old schoolbooks, I sometimes run across the absurd notion that the indigenous people of the Americas were ‘wiped out’. To serve this idea part of our culture of denial, one that cannot tell fantasy apart from reality, wants to build a wall to keep out what in fact are nations stacked up of people who are descended from the indigenous.  A dark fantasy that was never accomplished, though it clearly was dreamt of in North America, completely falls apart every time it turns to face the south.  This is my theory about a major vein of racism that pours from the lowest moral characters of our social elite.  The world doesn’t match the decrepit bedtime stories their forefathers clung to, to justify an enact violence, so they manifest it in absurd ways, like impossible walls, and believing entire cultures are of the same mind.  A group of tourists, numbering 50 people in a bus, is not of the same mind!  How on earth this sensibility falls apart over a national or language scale is one of the true mysteries of the darkest regions of the mind.

In any case, the metropolis I live in, which is said to boast the greatest number of residents from the greatest overall number of countries of any city on earth, is a kind of unique that has never existed before.  Exploring it is like looking through a family album of many, perhaps most, of the peoples on earth.  As a kid I wondered over bus route pamphlets filled with a dozen languages, just the biggest ones spoken here, some completely made of mysterious symbols.  What an enormous feat of intellectual cooperation, just to get the city’s working people to their jobs every day.  These symbols always fascinated me, I knew to me they were mysterious, while to others who were initiated, completely ordinary and describing the same boring stuff most of daily English’s advertisements and shopping lists contained.  Initiation is, after all, the ‘coming up’ or maturing in an understanding of the world, that is conferred at the doorway to adulthood, conferred on a teenager.  Not a master’s degree.  Not expertise.  Just the opening of eyes to explore this strange universe for themselves, or the shining of a mirror on a statue’s face (a classic anthro- way of ‘waking’ a new statue).  In our society, most kids get little more than a kick in the ass and sometimes a ticket to a battlefield. But that’s not what this brief is about.

I want to explain that living in this city has helped me understand, or invent in my imagination, a nuance regarding this season of thin veils and witches and all that is just great.  Because today is Nov 2nd, the day after the Feast day, and to the south, and for half of this city which has roots in the south, it is the day of spirits, and of the dead.  And my own roots, ancestrally being mostly from a weird northwest corner of europe, yet totally American and Angeleno culturally, gave us the day of spirits and the dead as the evening before the 1st of November, the ‘ninth month’.  It has been called the ninth month for as long as the roots of our language has existed.  It was, of course, some Roman elites that changed it around, and gave names to the nameless months when the land lays sleeping.

And I just thought it’s interesting, because the American take on Halloween was essentially to expand its importance, while many Americans, descended from Puritans or what have you, may be completely unaware of the existence of the feast day of All Saints.  Yet in the ancient poems, we know that All Saints is very old, and is the harvest feast proper.  Before the saints makeover was applied, it was the feast of All Gods.  The work is done, the winter store has been prepared, or the second harvest is nearly ready in the luckier warm regions.  In some places, the land is already asleep, in others, it is getting mellow and cooling off, and the seas are perhaps becoming temperamental and stormy.

In both climates, animal, fish, and plant behavior is significantly changing.  And in both places, the wheel of stars above, its hub the North star, and its most visible engines, the sun, the moon and the five eye-visible twinkling planets, continue their dance.  But three of them in particular are behaving very differently, in very predictable ways, that set them apart from the steady circling planets.  (True, honorable mention, Mercury, the fastest one does seem – we know it’s an illusion of geometry now – to go back and forth, like a messenger.)  The north star never ceases as the hub of every fixed star… but the whole things moves in the sky.  The wheel of the stars change, not just the constellations that slowly take their turns on the horizon.  The axis shifts.  Meanwhile the moon, steady and eternal, its changing is constant, change is its describing constant…. yet it is the picture of time itself, reliable, and you plant by it.  Comes and goes day or night, it has no limitations.  Thus the moon was like a mother to so many.  But the sun, of course, appears to lose all its power, to fade and hover close to death, and it did this every year, as though it had a weakness that the moon does not.  For this reason, in those cultures, the moon was the mother, the sun was the child, one that rapidly aged and then perished in a flash every year, and was restored each spring.

This parade of the gods, this dramatic change in the heavens and on the land at once, was given a calendar day that marked the seasons of work and rest that most people lived by.  Even hunters were used to running around getting ready for it, before the farmers.  And this feast, one of hope, one of pointing out the changes in the visible signs, teaching them, and being amazed at the spectacle of this world, took place to mark the first day of the ninth month.  The equinox was used to figure the approach of harvest, but this feast was greeting its arrival, and placing your bets and offerings in hope for a little mercy I imagine.  This is also the season when people get sick more frequently, and in the cold and sniffles, when some of the more vulnerable health-wise tend to slip away from this world.  There are so many reasons this is a ‘thin time.’

So isn’t it interesting, in American culture, where only a percentage of the people celebrate or even know the phrase ‘All Saints Day’ have elevated Halloween to international fame, in some places reintroducing it, so I’ve read.  And the flower painted skull, of ancestors and Dia de los Muertos… the iconic representation of a kind of mirror of Halloween coming from many cultures to the south (and there exist memories and echoes of their indigenous correspondence here in the north, in our southwest corner at least) has also reached international renown.  While I know a few things, I won’t speculate too much on the southern traditions here, and their relationship to seasons, because there are others far better at it than I.  But I have always seen the reflection, and it has always reminded me of a well known old symbol for the moon, which tells in one symbol the cycle and behavior of it, of waxing, fullness, and waning between the darkness.

And I thought to mention that both these days of spirits and ancestors are on either side of a Feast day,  that going far back enough was meant to celebrate all the heavens, and their relationship to the land, and what lies beneath.  And in this way, the ‘thinning’ on either side of the day, the night before, and the day after, in a sense are a kind of loophole produced by the feast itself, and that perhaps one way to look at it, is that the night before or day after are the celebrations that best match the origins of the day in betweent them.  So in a sense, we have an expanded feast of three days, that for many, bizarrely, has a hole in the middle like a donut.  Isn’t that strange?  I just want to mention that it’s strange, and a kind of reflection or commonality, not to make some big reveal.

From that, since it seems most polite to speak for my own ancestors, but I can’t do that great a job, being American.  I don’t really want to romanticize the past, or fuel national fervor of any kind, but I did want to point out that these are behaviors observed in nature, are part of nature.  They’re observations, they’re magical and real and relate to the world in a direct way, in the pull of tides and the behavior of living things, in menses and migrations and crop ripening.  The lights above and the changes in weather have had a history of direct observable relationships.  And in a ‘drier’ situation, where one was unfortunately frequently sober minded, and often undernourished, another huge effect comes about at this time that might be little known to many modern folks… we dream like crazy as this season turns!  Earlier to bed, cooling mornings, deeper sleep… in my own body I have observed, yearly, tremendous spikes in dream recall if not activity.  The psyche comes alive, it seems, as this seasonal shift happens!  Add to this all the busyness and preparation and yes, looking for a dance partner.  So many reasons for dreams during this shift in life.  And how dreams once imposed themselves on reality!  How fantasy and reality are even dangerously confused at times (nationalism and all sorts of predation spun from ideals and programming).

So I wanted to share these wonderful symbols regarding nature and shifts.  They’re from the region of most of my ancestors, but they are very old, and predate the dominant culture that came to be there now.  They’re from a collection of tribes called the Picts.  They come from earlier days of Celtic culture, with elements of a shared artwork that reaches rather far (to the middle east), pointing to almost timeless trade routes, and interactions across vast distances.  The few artifacts are of exceptional skill that the larger culture actually lost.  Later cultures would completely overwhelm and absorb them, like the Scots who have their own yet different, later Celtic connections, and of course the Romans (rather a dozen separate nations on the Roman cultural payroll to be exact) who described them.  The Saxons, Vikings and the rest came so many centuries after, you could say these never met the Picts at all.  Mostly just the stone is all anyone’s met.  Can’t even guess at the words or names with much luck.  Part of the inspiration in Lord of the Rings for the early elves or dwarves, who vanished long before, leaving only wonders of craft, came from these mysterious previous inhabitants whose skills were lost and replaced by a stretch of crudeness and sad ruins.

Anyway… I can’t speak to the nation or culture even, being from Los Angeles!  But I can look at the symbols, and tell you what they describe, without knowing whatever the culture may have though of them!  And what they describe… is the wonder of nature.  That’s where we meet.  That’s where our roots intertwine.  It’s my love, as a storyteller, to point to the earth, to the root of the tree.  Because peace, prosperity and kindness come from seeing something in common with each other, a certain kind of truth.  Then pointing up, to the mind, to the tree above, to the skies where it reaches into.  And there you find nature extends below us, and above us.  And this is beauty.  From the root of nature, we are the story, and we weave the story.  And from us, as our spirits go, our story returns to nature, to be read again and again, and never very accurately, in endless languages, by endless cultures.  A single finger pointing up, and a single finger pointing down, and there you have your Feast of All.

Now I’ll just finish with a picture essay.  The official academic account, is that the jury is out on a positive identification of the exact meaning of these symbols.  The official anthropological account is that our minds tend to generalize what we do not know, but when you go and talk to specific people, even if they live no more than a few hours away from each other, the details are always more complicated, more numerous, and never matching the simplification.  This is why we have always had a secondary playbook, a quick translator in our back pocket, called ’emblems of union’ – because the reality of culture is as diverse as the teeming lands of the living, and all the stars, and all the dead that have gone before.  Union is a timeless tourist passport stamped with the symbols of infinity, while reality is a brief glimpse, as if in a flash of lightning, of a vast, exquisite tree so old its first children’s bones have turned to stone.

To begin, a segue involving a photograph of bat fetuses by Dorit Hockman.

Observe these bats.  In a simplistic way, we say that they are blind.  But haven’t they simply exchanged over time one sense faculty for another, just as they abandoned the preferred mode of mammals, to run or swim, with flight?  Haven’t they simply come to see nature in terms of sound waves, instead of light waves, really just slid along the scale of electromagnetics a bit?  We can’t imagine seeing nature they way they do, and we can’t know much about the individual creature’s personalities.  So we do all we can, when faced with the mystery of one of our natural cousins.  We project our own symbols and meanings all over them.  So here, I am reminded of good advice I have taken and stored in my heart, reflected back at me wherever it finds a match, and something of a goal reminder.  To hear no evil (doesn’t a bat hear with its eyes?), to squeak no evil (or does it see with its voice?), and to see no evil (or can it see better by covering its eyes?)  Which is which?  What fun, and how accurate, and appropriate, about perception, our stories about the magic of nature, and the way we blur together fantasy and reality.

And now to the subject I wanted to share, a Pictish stone. Already a long gone memory to the tribes of Scots. Considered an artifact of the root of the stories of druids, and the bards.

What have we here?  I will break down what I see with full acknowledgement of all the tales lost to time.  The serpent in one of its many shape changing forms… sometimes river, sometimes, smoke, sometimes lightning.  This time, the heavens.  There are not only several snake constellations, but the wheel of stars, in one of many stories, has been called the ‘serpentine skirt’.  And because of this, time itself, for even the old stories include the mysterious fact, that a cycle seemingly endlessly repeating is the heartbeat of nature.

Next symbol, what I fancy (and project) to be something like the yin-yang of the northwest.  An arrow, in the shape of a zig zag (aka “Z rod”), pierces the twinning behavior of two celestial orbs.  Later stories relate this to the very old tale of the slaying of a dragon, shared across so many boundaries.  I place both of these discs as the sun, in summer and winter, the zig zag the back and forth of seasons, dying and then restored to fullness over and over again.  A central mystery, and therefore, a common symbol on these sacred monuments.  And below it?  A hand held mirror, in the exquisite style of the lost workmanship of its time.  To later people, a reminder that so much refinement can be lost, to the point of understanding itself, if you don’t care for culture.

Another way of drawing this ancient awareness of ebb and flow, wax and wane, this ancient awareness of waveforms that penetrate the cycles of nature. In this case, the ‘graphical truth’ is displayed by sea horses.
A graphical composition of four common symbols left behind by the mysterious Picts on stones, found in various combinations, and elaborated with animals and knotwork surrounding.  This may be clicked for a larger version, that you can color as you like.

And here we have them together.  The graphical brilliance of the depiction of the moon and its wave form of behavior – a broken arrow dividing the crescent into three parts.  The parts often have maze style knot work in the center keystone shaped section, and counter directional spirals on either side to enhance the cycle nature depicted by the arrow.  A broken arrow (“V rod”) could also be taken to point out that the moon never ‘dies’ and journeys anywhere, providing light through both day and night.  The arrow points one way, and I project onto this the modern concept of the ‘arrow of time’.

A mother and her twins? I love this composite of a double crescent with maze keystone, opposite churning spiral waves, and an ‘eye’ in the crook of an angle that is suggestive of human anatomy. Below, two complex knotted discs of woven worlds beside one another….

Below this in the drawing, the solar cycle symbol, wave pattern of the annual seasons – winter and summer solstices, and the zig zag arrow of the back and forth.  Sometimes this arrow points in both directions, as in the drawing, sometimes it is one direction.  Both are in their own way, true, the arrow pointing both ways being an interesting way of depicting a perpetual cycle.    Sometimes one part of the Z is like a spearhead, while the other is like a blooming tree.

Beside this back and forth composite, a symbol of concentric circles with ring handles… the top view of a cauldron and well?

In the last line of the drawing, we have the mirror.  From these visuals, and other sources, I find the mirror to be a more complex symbol than simply referring to a planet.  I find it instead is a symbol of the whole of life.  As a symbol of reflection, of ourselves to nature, and nature to the celestial mysteries on display above and in the land.  In the hands of beauty, a reminder of the stars, and of particular stars – sometimes I think of a story of Venus as both wandering, and having a home in the hub, the north star around which a shrewd observer can see all the firmament of stars wheeling.  (This is ultimately an visual phenomenon caused by the position and rotation of the earth).  In life itself, reflection describes how offspring resembles parents, and seed sprout grows into clones of the plants that flowered and seeded them.  Here we have these three wonderful symbols from a lost height in culture, that gorgeously describes fundamental, visible mysteries of the universe by behavior, in wave, and pattern, and habit.

I share this with you, to hopefully increase understanding in how we are able to meet, as tourists if anything, in the open field of nature.  I do this with hope of inspiring understanding, tolerance, peace, and cooperation.    We need it.  People who have been poisoned against all commonality, especially when mind-wiped and having their play turned towards battle as children, become agents of senseless waste and destruction.

Lastly, beside the mirror, a fourth humble symbol, a musical instrument, made of reed flutes bound together.  Of course, a symbol of the wild, our bridge to it, and the modest representation of the storyteller’s art.  The symbol of imagination, dance, creativity, naughtiness, beauty, song… but most of all, perhaps, it is a magical symbol of mind alteration, of consciousness shifting by intention, and even the bonds it may bring about.  Happy fauns making trouble with dance is a favorite of countless images, but the deeper truth beneath this that can be gleaned, is that we can create and shape so much of our reality, through augmentation, culture, and imagination.  We can change the very frequency of our brain’s activity, through music and perception… through the creation of perceptions!  Making music, song, story, it’s one of those weird superpowers of humans, that is in our very bodies.  They were not ignorant of the fact, particularly on cold winter nights and feasting days!  Altogether, mirror and flute, placed beneath these epic, life dictating, constant back and forth cycles… let it be a momento vida!  I want to help resolve paradox, by giving you some concrete links to some of our most lively, broadcast stories.  Live!  See the wonders, the behaviors, the strangeness, and create your life!

Four seasons?  Three of clubs?  Who knows the exact word-frosting.  And yet, the tree of life says what it is… All born beneath be same stars, all branches of the same tree.

Poet’s Keys – More on the Alphabet and Major Arcana

I’m considering renaming this book “The Poet’s Tarot” because, while the deck of cards is certainly a product of dramatic changes in Middle Ages and Renaissance culture, of rising literacy and the start of the flood of books, these developments were conducted in public… yet the day’s intellectuals also worked to set aside the gaze towards the past, to inspire space in which to gaze into the future. So there remains the presence of a hidden tradition and multi-faceted purpose, an occult tradition, that informs the very order of the cards. Such a tradition is recorded, and links neatly to the cards in both subject and image, by observing the letters of the alphabet alongside the major arcana.

In general, we have a picture of the scribe, bard, or poet, throughout many ages and cultures, as a role that involves both the preservation of knowledge and the keeping of secrets, a reputation for magic symbols, and often a practical function for the management of real state power. So we have consistent blurring of the lines between court magician and court scientist, between historian and spy master, for certainly espionage has existed as long as power has been clever.

Until the rise of the North African script developed out of the very old picture language of Egyptian hieroglyphics, writing was even more deeply encoded. Usually unique to a single city state, pictographs were used to convert words into objects. When the scribe, artist or poet developed the script that would lead to all known Western alphabets, and many scripts to the east (a family tree we can see quite clearly today), the big innovation was to transform not words, but the sound of speech, permitting a much smaller, easier to learn set of symbols. It has been argued, this opened of vast abstract territory of the mind, and a new use for the visual capacities of the brain. It has been counter-argued that the poets of old were executive storytellers, and abstraction was never far from the mind even without the boon of general literacy. The invention of the script, at any rate, made communication between people who did not share a language much easier. It gave time to translate, it reduced errors and allowed the use of technical words, borrowed words, and the discussion of ideas beyond bushels of grain and baskets of fish.

Secrecy, Intentional and Incidental

You’ll run across a variety of meanings for secrecy in the lore of magic. The first being the naturalistic concept of the veil, that permeates both witchcraft and mysticism alike. This seeking for insider knowledge of the natural world, and at the same time, of accepting that knowledge precludes admission of a great many things you do not know, and may never know, is central to the origins of natural magic, and ultimately science.

The second sort of secrecy is a matter of personal conduct, both for the sake of survival in unfriendly climates, and the preservation of secret recipes. Thus spell books hidden, locked away, and written in ciphers. In many trades right up to today, like that of goldsmithing, or computer coding for that matter, recipe or source books are synonymous with secrecy.

A third kind of secrecy brings up the habits of secret societies, which have always existed, but are rarely metaphysical, regardless of appearances. From trade organizations, the precursors to worker’s unions, to political cabals of the powerful in all shapes and sizes, in the midst of these, magical orders felt perfectly at home maintaining their own decrees of secrecy, proprietary knowledge and formula, and initiations.  Anthropology makes it clear humans have had secret societies throughout time, and their object was to teach a certain order of knowledge, in a certain way, and that obtaining this knowledge was both a path of maturity, and a way of ensuring that consistent transmission was maintained. In this way, stories have survived for thousands of years, virtually unchanged save for names and minor details. Many of the earliest known books are recordings by scribes of oral society knowledge passed on in this way.

It seems strange to consider secrecy as substantial today, indeed four centuries ago, as writing exploded and literacy increased, secrecy seemed to be waning if anything. And with the incredible ease – perhaps even inevitability – of a surveillance state in combination with networked living and social media, it may be difficult to picture the ability to read and write as having an air of secrecy that it once held.  A letter was once the emblem of privacy, now we count on systems to read and sort our messages.

But picturing it is easy enough – before the digital computer, people who handled sensitive knowledge relied upon the human computer. It’s generally thought that the use of numbers, like literacy, are cultural phenomena, and not a matter of ‘born talent’. Where it is taught, it flourishes and the people benefit. Where education is restricted, power is concentrated down to an elect population. So one story of the transition from ancient poet scribes to modernity, and why they are inherently humanist, is that in some poetic manner they stole the secret from the temple.   Or maybe you could say the poets stole the secret from the scribes.

Script made writing easier and therefore widespread, a technology changing the world.  Of course, the main reason writing had been limited to the elect priesthood or scribes once integrated with the courts, was the sheer difficulty of memorizing it all. It required training, and most people in those days farmed. So there is a connection between the liberation of writing, and the increase in trade, and the two arise together.  With an alphabet, even a farmer could make notations, without knowledge of thousands of individual pictograms that were chiseled in stone.

Taking writing from the courts and onto sea and road was a Promethean feat. Nevertheless, though made easy enough for a child to earn, it is still a skill to acquire.  Perhaps because the relationship between writing and the imagination isn’t always clear, the general mystique surrounding symbols and glyphs, especially unfamiliar ones, has never faded. The fascination with characters that one cannot read, for example, still has this power to bring someone face to face with the concept of mystery, and people love getting tattoos in languages of other places, just to give them some added affect.

What does all of this have to do with the Tarot? Along my path of study, I have gone through several shifts in my thinking regarding the cards. Much of it has to do with picking up pieces of historical information along the way. Once I had a clearer picture of what the scribes were like in the very early days, and how intensely they kept writing secret, and likely used it for purposes of secrecy, much of the occultation that endures began to make sense. It is said the only person a royal chief feared was the poet, because they set down the songs that would be repeated, that would secure and shape their fame. And these poets were trained from a young age in the art, selected for talent or family of birth, in being clever. The poets of that time served a similar role creatives do today – to entertain and fire up the imaginations, and often to instruct and guide. But they also had a profound magic reputation, because they kept the tales of spirits, and gods, and knew the words to every ritual, and probably wandered around constantly reminded people that they knew these secret things. So it’s no coincidence that wizard cartoons wear capes covered in symbols and letters, or even that the sacred rites of the middle ages were conducted in a language common people often couldn’t even speak – to those who did speak it, it was merely the old imperial language of the courts or a handy way of limiting the audience, but to those who couldn’t, it was just the stuff for incantation and exorcism.

The Poet’s Ciphers

We know that poets didn’t just shape and keep open story secrets like mythology and history. They were living ciphers, full of tricks, and they regarded their main instrument, the alphabet, as being in a sense alive as well. When I was a young man, I was intently drawn into the mysterious for an interest in techniques of forgetting, and rearranging my wiring.  Insuring I’d be isolated even among the fringe by following a solitary autodidact path, I didn’t see any real risks because my emphasis was guided towards spontaneous artistry. It was a good choice for someone that liked to draw and enjoyed music. And it led to other doors of curiosity, like the automatic writing of spiritualists, the transcendental in literature, the usefulness of trance, and the dream emphasis of the Surrealists. It even seemed to connect with symbols in cave paintings, or the any-day mystery of just getting a drawing out from the imagination.

As I grew older, my need for complication seemed to give way to a study of nature, and connecting my knowledge to a whole sense of nature.  This was probably helped by many years of meditation, but I never lost my fascination with the evolution of writing, and the mystery of how the markup of sound can look so completely different from hand to hand, reflecting the way words can sound completely different from language to language. Perhaps it was growing up in a large city surrounded by many other spoken languages, I’ve always been interested in the way we are all separated by seemingly solid boundaries, and yet inevitably, with a marked effort of will and study, these boundaries tend to melt away, or at least allow for doorways and windows, and humanity can turn out to be quite… ordinary and familiar there on the other side.  I grew up in a city where there are streets named Monte Vista and Mountain View, and though they mean exactly the same thing, their stories are slightly different depending on who is reading.  And it turns out, it was this effect that the ancient bards used to as tricks to adjust stories, and add coded information to them even as the story was broadcast to an audience.   Subtle changes in things like place names offered more information to people who were privy… or were trained. Tricks like this become particularly evident in cultures where invasion or takeover had taken place, and we find the poets going to interesting lengths to tell about it, even as they were ordered no doubt to blatantly change the historic record. So and so was always the chief god, or that place the former rulers liked was really a haunted and wicked locale. The bard told the history of the world, and that made their work subject to scrutiny in a way language especially affords. So the poets were able to protect themselves, and history shows a variety of techniques, some easy to spot, most lost to memory and context.

Changing the order of events is a common poet’s trick – even as all the details of a familiar list are sung, at a key point they’re in the wrong order, reminded people that there is something wrong with the tale.  A lot of the old poems are lists (a surviving example would be “The 12 days of Christmas”), of types of tree or animal, or spirit or genealogy, and switching roles of characters, or their names, is a way to send a message.  By making the robin black as night, and the raven red breasted as though shot with an arrow, attention may be drawn, by the astute, to a switch that had taken place, to record deception, or remember an old way. The beauty of these tricks, is that they may be withdrawn under scrutiny, and introduced publicly where needed, or can be passed off as errors of memory yet other times.  To use these tricks required shared knowledge of the lyrics of stories of course, much in the way of ciphering pictographs, poets do call certain elements ‘images’.

And of course, as it is a kind espionage, it is not always used for beautiful, romantic purposes.  A modern example of intentionally using small, well known errors in otherwise familiar langauge can be seen with catchphrases used by white supremacists.  A small reference to a birth certificate, or code words like ‘urban crime’, and denial or even omissions regarding war crimes and genocide, can allude to what is really meant in a public statement.  It suggests allegiance to certain listeners, while reminding them that they must secretly signal what once was open foulness.  So what I have described so far is not that sophisticated, but its existence may be easily forgotten by the sincere.

But what about situations where it’s too risky to recite such tricks publicly, for example when a poem is set to writing, where it may be scrutinized endlessly at leisure, or where the audience listening is also skilled in the craft of the bards, or works for an opposing court?

Another layer of secrecy resides specifically in the lore of the alphabet itself, and that is where the intersection of the Hermetic, the poets, and the Tarot meet.  I too believe the choice of cards in the major arcana is linked to an ancient transmission of the lore of the alphabet. But before we come to a future where it almost seems unlikely, outside of a mystical purpose, to have any need for such a code, let’s back up to return to the ancient poets, and the early days of their alphabet. We have established that they could enhance the sagas with changes and errors.  They also has lore devoted to the alphabet themselves, which were committed to memory as nursery rhymes are to children. It is recalled of the bards, that each letter had its match in a tree, and in a bird, so that a secret message could be spelled out simply by spinning a message that contained certain birds and trees! And it also underlines the sense of the letter as a living thing.  Its adaptability is the success of this ancient phono-script code, for the old poets make it clear that the trees and birds vary according to region, just as story is a varied living thing in their hands.

Borneo Cave Painting

Now we have fiddling with the order of well known stories, and analogues of plants and animals to each of the letters, as ways to deliver a cipher. Memorize the stories, and you may spell out a message, or allude to words with first letters, openly without anyone untrained being the wiser. But we are told this playful cryptography went further still, and expands into gesture and parts of the body. A fascinating account describes how each letter has a specific place on the hand, so that pointing to various joints and crooks served as one of several types of sign language, by which any letter could be indicated as needed.  Each letter had its own hand gesture as well.  It could be concealed in plain view, or done so quickly only the very skilled would read it. And of course, the combined reputation of the poet as magician is a natural assumption, as this ancient code might easily be viewed as magical gestures, or palmistry.   You’ll find that for every cipher the poets used, there is an entire branch of the arts that serves as bramble around it. To the east some gestures are called mudras, and are well known to have double meanings, useful in both art and personal interaction. So the poets of old not only had ciphers of plants and animals, but parts of the body, points on the hand, and gestures of the hand.  Bards and harpers, poets and scribes, what they did appeared to many as magic, but to those in the know, an art of layered conversation that has preserved both its utility and mystique across the ages.

By working with the early alphabet, I have been able to compare the shapes of the letters themselves with their names, and place them into consideration with the body, and the sort of gestures one would be able to make while sitting or standing. Ultimately, my extraction may not be perfect, but some associations click into place so well as to encourage me. And given the intelligence, memory and sophistication of the bardic art, the use of arbitrary ciphers is a given. So if true, it would not be sound to regard the tarot as a key to all the poet’s ciphers, rather one key to one root tradition of them, or even an single message, with the alphabet’s order as the passkey.   While this interpretation may seem on the surface to disrespect a mystical understanding of the cards, I only offer to add to the lore from of my own imagining, I’m not here to spoil someone else’s party.  I do however think that with consideration of the life of the letters, the layering of meaning, and of the intent involved in creating ciphers, that much education about our own mind, our language, and our humanity may be obtained just from digging around in this.  The poets of old are the direct ancestors of many forms of humanities we enjoy today, the road has broadened if it has changed at all. Further, everything about Hermetic lore, and the tales of the letters, indicates a reverence for them, and a mysticism all its own. I propose that to a bard, there is little difference between story and magic, between ritual and the spelling of a word. Indeed, is not magic the making of a spell?  Is not incantation from the word canto, which means to sing?  Most of the old poems were sung. How wonderful, that the major arcana, and the proliferation of divergences, allows its cipher increasing protection in plain sight, by nothing more than time and forgetfulness.

Does the street magician in the first card not do the same today, to use performance, confusion, and distraction to astound and inspire, and at the same time reveal how easily the mind is tricked, or how dream and reality overlap? For my own reasons, in the 21st century, I find no shortage of value to the topics that were trade skill to my ancestors, and continue to unfold in my mind in a story that is both seeds of a forgotten time, and the visions of my own imagination. Like the alphabet the old poets both revered and put to technical use, we have in artifacts of culture a part of the story of branching and origins, and the cards and the letters they represent are another way to this. And perhaps there’s also a reminder that it’s not perfect understanding, which is dubious, so much as the changing nature of meaning, that makes the pursuit of knowledge so continually satisfying.  Sometimes, finding affinity with someone you’d never be able to fully understand in distant past and culture, is like a light in the darkness. But sometimes, they’re pointing the other way, to the future, and reminding you that you’re running out of time, and you might as well make every letter of your effort something magical.

Ordinarily Complex

I’ve spent some time reflecting on the choice of letters, and their names. What seems most important is to unveil our mountains of interpretation, and consider the people who created the alphabet. The legendary scribe who created the system, we know they worked to create a set from the myriad hieroglyphs, and their stroke of genius was the use of spoken sounds instead of a word to symbol relationship, allowing for fewer characters. Were they are master scribe in a temple, a novice apprentice, or a slave eavesdropping in the shadows? No one will know, each is possible. But in asking who used the alphabet and made it grow, we know it was ordinary people, especially those on the move or those communicating across distance and culture – traders, soldiers, sailors, merchants and cattle herders. So if we take the bards seriously, and the alphabet was as much written symbol as gesture, each letter’s name is likely of something already familiar to the nomad. This alone takes some distance from a mystical origin, though from nature all mystery derives, so nothing is lost. The names of the letters point to nomadic, neolithic, ancient life. And by understanding this, further meaning regarding the major cards can be accomplished, in terms of seeing the ‘personality’ and lore built around each letter.

These depths of meaning are not secret, but instead are pooled from common knowledge, from the way the shape looks, what it reminded them of in daily life. This is the multiplicity that the poets built their ciphers, like the one in the tarot, upon – a rich lore long in place.  But this is not all.  Beyond the names, associations, and uses for memory (do we not have A is for Apple, B is for Ball, C is for Cocoa… and also Alpha, Bravo, Charlie… letters long to be mercurial!) the ancients had an immediate use for them that has long since vanished, and does not come to the modern mind so easily.  The letters were also numbers! They were used for counting, right from the beginning, because that’s also what certain hieroglyphs were used for, before the alphabet. So the intimacy with the letters and their stories was intensified another layer, because they were used to add things up. This meant that reciting the alphabet was also counting off… “altu, bayfu, gamlu, daltu…” to the ears of a Phoenician sounded like ‘A B C D’ and also was the exact sound of ‘1 2 3 4’.  So the alphabet was from the beginning an astonishing exercise in multidimensional language. Of course with the arrival of a more efficient system of handling math, first the Roman innovation of using a subset of letters (I V X L C M) derived from tally marks, and then the leap of dedicated numbers which came from the far east, this second personality of the alphabet is nearly vanished from memory, and comprehension. It’s still hard for me to grasp the idea of letter as number naturally, even after reading a few books on this subject of gematria.  But when numbers are counted some sense of number values and listing letters feels the same. The alphabet we’re using rises from one to nine, then in tens, from ten to ninety, then in hundreds, from 100 to 400.  So you still count out loud in most languages in a way that reflects this pre-numeral order, “One and Twenty” or “Twenty One”, so “Kapu Alpu” sounds just as natural.

One more important point drawn from this forgotten use of the alphabet as both sound and number, is that the double purpose explains why the order of the letters has always been rather resistant to change, stable across long periods of time and a multitude of offshoots, languages and cultures. It has been subject to certain changes, but “A” is almost universally where it begins, for example, for A was also 1. This stability then can be assumed to extend to the cards, and by staying true to the order of the letters, I have been able to unearth several switches in the order of the cards, that appear to be intentional (and bardic). I am not the first to speculate intentional shifts in the order of the cards by comparing them against that of the letters, but mine feel especially firm when this early alphabet is employed, as I hope to demonstrate. Even with this detail, there still remains understanding precisely why the shifts are made, and thus made to be noticed, and I honestly can say I have not completed that study though I have my thoughts.

Contemplating the tarot became for me an exercise in imagining the word games and memory songs of people who lived, in a physical way, less complicated or perhaps cluttered lives.  To understand the spirit of a tradition that might be passed down about the letters, I found it useful to imagine who the people who created it and used it. That is a separate picture from the Renaissance sophisticates who created the deck of cards, or from the occult societies. The daily life of the early alphabet, of the ancient poets, is another world entirely to ponder, and one can only hope to get so far with it. Fortunately, it is abstract enough to have meaning and poetics that still crackle with life today, because if we’re talking about people living closely to nature, we can check our inferences against that same nature today, and there is our best chance of gleaning a bit of truth. This also provides a ‘short circuit’ around all sorts of modern thought structures, one of many possible uses of the cards and what I recommend by this book. The old poets sang that the letters were like different trees and birds, so it seems worth the time to consider them as creatures, with forms, and bodies. And these creatures are both sound, and name, and number. Mysterious, shape shifting, and rather like our own dreams and imaginations, as though we entrust our memory to these creatures of encryption because we prefer our recordings to be in flux, rather than precision.  Just like nature.

The Physical Ciphers

Now to describe the three “Silent Spellings” or physical ciphers of the alphabet, or ways the letters are reported as having been used to communicate via the body, without sound or the drawing of symbols.  Much of this is my own intuition, but if there’s anything I’ve learned from going my own way in study, I owe it to my contemporaries to provide new material and systems to play with. Knowing these silent ways of spelling will enhance the meaning of the letters, and underlines their practicality and integration with play, language and daily life.

First are the movements of the body that correspond to each letter, natural gestures or fidgets that are both easy to conceal, and add subtle meaning to the characters. This may be helpful to memorize the letters, let me know if you’re further along than I am (it’s likely). Second, I will show gestures made with the hand that form the letters, a sign language described of old.  Undoubtedly, as hearing impairment has always been with us, this is yet another way the alphabet may have openly transformed certain ancient lives, which was lost in time, until replaced again by need. The third form of silent spelling is easily shown with a chart of the palm of the hand, and where the letters fall on the parts and spaces of the fingers.

After all this, I will speculate on the relationship between the letters, and order of major arcana as I’ve placed them. If you are familiar with the Kabbalah, and Hebrew letters, many will be familiar and the sound of the names as clearly related, but several of the names are different, and yet click with their respective cards, in alphabetic order, very well.  This is what drew me to work with the earlier script.

I may place this last section in with each respective card.

Keys of the Body

(Include drawing of body diagram here)

These gestures have multiple uses, both for understanding, and use as covert signs to anyone else that understands them. Single letters or whole words may be spelled out in public, or concealed in artwork. While they use the upper torso, they appear to be best suited for standing or being seated visibly exposed. Among uses and advantages:

To enhance memory of the letters and their meaning.
As a meditative series of motions, they have a nice flow.
Each gesture is natural, and may be played off as scratching or stretching.
Touching or grasping the intended recipient at these points is an alternative to displaying them.
Using the wrong hand makes each gesture/letter ‘reversible’ for added double meaning.
Some of the gestures require use of a ‘dominant hand’ so personal knowledge of the speaker may add another level of encryption with ‘reversals’.

No. Name Gesture Seed
1   Ox Point to the temple of the head with index of left hand. Ah
2   House Left hand over pubic region. Ba
3   Throwstick Right hand over back of neck. Ga
4   Door Right index touches nostril. Da
5   Jubilee Right hand over throat. Ha
6   Hook Right hand touches genitals, or right index points down. Waw
7   Weapon Left index finger lifted. Zan
8   Thread Left hand sign of horns, or thumb to ring finger. Hat
9   Wheel Dominant hand on solar plexus. Tat
10   Arm Dominant hand sweeps opposite arm shoulder to elbow. Yod
11   Hand Left hand lifted in greeting. Kap
12   Goad Right hand touches lifted left elbow. Lam
13   Water Right hand lifted, palm upwards. Ma
14   Snake Right index and middle finger out, together or spread. Nas
15   Support Right hand draws a line from throat’s hollow to crotch. Sam
16   Eye Dominant hand points to eye. Eye
17   Mouth Dominant hand points to mouth. Poo
18   Plant Left hand lifted palm upwards. Tsa
19   Mirror Dominant hand points to forehead. Ka
20   Head Looking up high, or over shoulder to the right. Ra
21   Tooth Biting thumbnail of dominant hand. Sin
22   Mark Cross the heart, or crossed fingers of the right hand. Tav

Sign Keys

(Drawings of each hand gesture.)

Keys of the Palm

Not my hand.

Tarot’s Cipher – The Keys and the Cards

The purpose of this section is to estimate what the letter means to the card, and the card reveals about the old poet’s meaning with the letter. It also serves to explain where I believe tricks have been made in the order of the cards, in order to contemplate why, and how it shapes the message. The conclusion regarding the tricks that I presently hold, is that hidden within this Book of Hermes are additional reminders of Saturn, each in turn revealing a more existential outcome, or as a reminder of what has been sown and so reaped. The game itself, as it was meant to be played, was a game of tricks where a higher card beat the ones preceding it, and my current impression is a successive order of Saturnine follies and social criticism.

No Letter Name Key Name
1   Ox The Mage I
The first letter is the head of an ox, the first wealth.  On a personal level, it is a creature that requires taming, underlining the magician’s need for skill.  On a symbolic level, it is a creature that has horns, male or female, either as mother associated with a cow’s milk, or as a father bull seeding.  As nature is fickle, the magician is also a trickster, and creates something seemingly from nothing.
2   House The Papess  II
The letter for house is a seated figure.  The priestess sits at a threshold, between two pillars of possible and impossible, public and sacred, between worlds of darkness and life.  Possibility brings creation into structured form.  Rightly considered a card of initiation and mystery, as a higher order of magician, thus a higher order of trickster, only working within instead of without.
3   Throwstick The Empress  III
The stick was a spear thrower of very ancient use.  Perhaps memory of fervent invocations made to the thrower, to aid in the spear’s flight.  In the cards, status can overwhelm tradition and culture, including the ability to destroy them, as with jealous Juno.  Symbolically, the offspring, child of the first two.  So it beats the former cards, and yet is a result of them.
4   Door The Emperor  IV
The open tent flap, the original triangular door.  Reversed is a pudenda, another kind of door.  So the opposite of birth, a kind of death, and the letter reminds us also of the pyramid, four sided, the man-made mountain tomb.  Approaching the tent of one’s chief is the death of personal agency, as at the figurative top of the pyramid, status is defeated.
5   Jubilation The Pope  V
The symbol is a hand placed against the jaw or neck, feeling the notes of a song.  It is the power of voice, this card can make decrees that change the structure of power.  The ability of sound to augment structure, reminds the body of the ancestral fireside dances.  Mystically, a new point of creation appears within an apparently solid structure, which hints at chaos, entropy, corruption, change, and of course, another level of initiation, beyond the world of power.
6   Hook The Lovers  VI
What beats an institutional vociferation on the subject of love?  The actions of love, of course.  As a symbol, a sexual glyph of the phallus or pudenda, of course, as you like it.  The hook of course means to find a catch, or picture a hat rack. And a prop that works well in pairs – as tent posts, crutches, or for a fire’s turning spit.  Upright, two into one is a symbol of union, and upside down, a symbol of branching, fruitfulness, and dowsing if you can. 
7   Weapon The Chariot  VII
The ancient names of these letters reveals a poetic order – for here what follows prick or prop, is the sword.  The slashing motion of a sword reveals the shadowy side of the carriage.  In the time of the cards, it is but an ornamental curiosity, a parade float, the amusing inspiration of the Triumphs in the game.  But nearer the time of the letter’s origin, it was a fearsome war technology, one that brought an invaders’ occupation of Egypt.  In simplest terms, conquest defeats love. 
8   Thread Justice  VIII
As a symbol of stitching a seam, mending and weaving suggest law, custom and negotiation, or a spool of thread, suggesting destiny.  Of course, justice is famously flawed, manipulable, and worse has an arm devoted to exacting penalty that may extend to cutting lifelines.  Mystically, at 8 the scales suggest the next level of order, beyond absolute power, and of course, the balance of ones own heart factors in; these things are more stable than mere dominion.
9   Wheel Wheel of Fortune  X
In this first trick of card ordering, the letter named the wheel so clearly matches the Wheel of Fortune.  We also have the spinning wheel, which naturally follows thread, both are very old symbols for fate.  By merging this with the folly inherent in the wheel of fortune, we have a wry commentary on the subject.  Fittingly enough, fortune is a frequent champion over justice, as true today as it was then: life is unfair.
10   Arm The Hermit  IX
Swapping the order, we have the symbol of a raised arm, and a card of a figure holding out a lantern, as a tidy match.  This card is also known and named to be Saturn (Chronos).  Recalling Diogenes looking for an honest person but unable to find them, or simply a person enveloped by darkness – perceiving and beating the wheel is ultimately a solitary solution, involving truth.  And of course, death reaps it all, so an hourglass is often there in place of the lamp.  This is also the next development of initiation, what could be called practical disenchantment.
20   Hand Strength  XI
The symbol of the hand resembles the open lion’s mouth of the card, and of course how long have performers placed their hands into the mouth of beasts?  Yet in other early versions, a pillar is being broken.  Both are images of the breaking of a spirit, in this case, fear or perhaps illusion.  As the wheel follows the thread, the hand belongs to the arm, so courage and effort is the message of this card, as a means to defeat the isolation of disenchantment.
30   Goad Hanged Man  XII
Held in the hand is a goad, or crook, the sort of tool used to herd sheep.  In the cards it’s associated with an execution, or effigy.  Of course mystically, it’s about discipline and sacrifice to obtain knowledge, and resembles a person hanging upside down.  But in a series of ascending defeats, the goad here is presumably held by a power, the capital punishment an indication of oppression.  Even with courage, or perhaps because of it, expect intensified pressure, interference and constant steering, as though you were someone else’s livestock.
40   Waters Temperance  XIV
Again the letter order made a clear case for a trick in the ordering of the cards.  Mayim clearly resembles the heiroglyph for water, also the source for the sign of Aquarius, which is clearly the inspiration for the card.  In the usual order, following XIII, the card is often taken to mean rebirth in some sense.  But placed to follow XII, it comes off as advice.  A pattern emerges, of warning and suggestion, problem and solution.  The card refers to mellowing, as with the mixing of water with wine, here to flow with circumstances, the strategy is another level of courage – adding to the mix, and the use of caution and flexibility.
50   Snake Death  XIII
The letter for the switched card looks like sidewinding motion, a better match. Here another Saturnine reminder, that the reaper is still coming, even if you get the hang of the waves.  And of course, that goes for everything and everyone that may have stood in your path.  The connection of water to snake was once as natural as arm to hand. The snake is another analog to flow, and looks like the flowing path of a river, and they often live there.  As an old symbol for healing, it also resembles the smoke of sacrifice, the hopeful and thankful prayer.  So it reminds us of what flows beneath: we are all like skeletons clothed in hope, a reminder to offer your best.
60   Support The Tower  XVI
The last trick in ordering is just as obvious by letter.  Drawn from a glyph marrying aspects of tree and backbone, its straightness of course matches the form of a tower.  And a fitting follow up to the snake, the smoke of burnt offering rising from the top of the altar, making this card a perfect stand-in.  The card, either tree or building struck by lightning, or the pandemonium of hell’s open mouth, then shows us that the ‘offering smoke’ is ignited by a calamity.  Instead of XIV being followed by XV, which never made sense, we have a reminder of impermanence extended all the way to the source.  And a message of folly – that the sacrifice of life by power, or for power, is waste, as whatever called for the symbolic death will be struck down in turn anyway. 
70   Eye The Fool
Now to explain how the Fool, the numberless card, has come to be transported here  to serve as a match for the letter called the eye.  The explanation is easy – it came by elimination of all the other letters, and happened to snap right in place, given that it often has a zero in place of a blank.  In the time of the alphabet’s creation, the number zero did not exist, but by the time of the card it does.  The Fool is crazy or just unskilled, and placed here in the way of defeating the former card, is perhaps the only way to overcome the implications of the struck tree or tower.  Or perhaps now empty, or seeing things with an open eye, or with empathy, the wanderer begins their journey in the Tower’s rubble, not at the start of the deck where it is filed by the printer.  In play in the game, the Fool is called the Excuse, and it has almost no chance of winning, except by special rule, an extremely rare circumstance, if it leads the very last hand of the round (and thus has not been discarded as a low card).  By definition, an excuse can mean having a reason for, and the act of, refusal.  Its placement suggests a strategy, ‘go ahead, go mad darling’ or perhaps a confirmation, ‘yes dear, it is madness.’
80   Mouth The Devil  XV
The trick ordering then assigns this card its letter by default, and this is the only one that might not easily be guessed on sight.  The figure is a chimeric satyric character standing on top of a well or fountain (old fountains were often public wells with a facelift), to which a pair of figures is chained.  It would seem the letter is being related to the the mouth of the well, but it also resembles a horn.  As the well is a source of life, this well follows the struck tower, perhaps it is found beneath it.  And the letter between them, the O, resembles a well looked at from above.   Following the pattern in the deck of beating each strategy for endurance with a momento mori or reminder of oppression, as the open eye grasps the crumbling tower, the mouth starts a new cycle of problems to solve.  There is a guardian at the passage into the dark of the earth, and we are chained to this source of water.  Probably, it’s both a reminder to watch one’s mouth, and that the world is fundamentally, in its depths, unjust.
90   Plant The Star XVII
The letter matched to the card is a glyph of a plant, a good follow to the mouth, symbol of nourishment.  The names of the letter and the card also sound alike – Sadu and Sideris.  Stars have long been baked onto bread, into cakes, and incised on pies.  Complimenting a mystical association with return and the changing of form, the star resembles the flowers and seeds of countless plants.  The symbol of a flower in the mouth is one of silence, an interesting reflection on the card it beats.  In Gothic cathedrals, the most elaborate glass-work, the rose window, is placed in front of the rising sun – life goes on.  And of course, the card belongs to Venus, the star that fell into, or rose from, the water, which overcomes the emblem of the classic scapegoat.  In the old myths, satyrs and other sorts of faerie were blamed for bad luck, and used to explain troubles.  In the time of the cards, humans had been made to pay a terrible price, facing the same kind of accusations.  After a symbol of corruption, false evidence used to imprison, and the chaining of knowledge, the star overcomes it by health, guidance and nourishment.
100   (Copper) Mirror The Moon  XVIII
The letter, whose name is at the root for copper, I take to mean either mirror, or reflection, as the letter resembles both these things.  It also resembles a seed sprouting, and a seed is a reflection, or copy, of the plant that bears it.  In about 450 BC, a philosopher named Anaxagoras was imprisoned for claiming that the Moon reflected the Sun’s light, so that idea was around a long time ago.  I think the letter is drawn from both hieroglyph and sound of the Egyptian word for life, which also endures in the symbol of the planet Venus.  A suitable letter to follow the plant, which in turn happens to be the mirror image of the letter named water.  Probably, this letter the moon reflected in water, two of nature’s mirrors together.  And in the beautiful, simple way its drawn, it resembles a head facing two directions, which is of course the behavior of the moon each month as it waxes and wanes.  Now you know, the letter Q is the ankh, a mirror, a seed, metal, and the moon! Farmers know plants and animals alike respond to lunar phases, so another source for the reflection reputation comes from observing life responding to nature’s cycles and seasons.  The moon beats the star because it is complete, accounting for all the sides and cycles, light and dark, and not just the heaven sent loving and nourishing part.  After the flowering has gone to seed, it is the germination and growth.

With this, I find confirmation that  the cipher in the cards relates to the distortion of gender, and exalts female power, which matches my findings in the cards from looking at them as mythological selections.  And here are three very different references to female power in a row, with a demonized (or wrathful) scapegoat above an opening into the earth, an idealization of beauty and life, and finally a complete and balanced representation.

200   Head The Sun  XIX
If the moon is a mirror, how perfect is the sun card being matched to a letter that is a drawing of a head?   A string of escalating reminders of mortality and hope, brought about by overcoming illusions, reaches its peak by indicating the great equalizer.  A famous ancient saying of course is that we’re “all the same under the sun” – dead headed it shines the same regardless of who or what we are.  In much early lore, the sun was the child of the moon, and it is typically painted as a giant head, dumb and smiling like a baby.   Dying in the winter, reborn a child again in the new year, creates a picture of the sun as prone to a short life, compared to the steady cycling of the moon.  Another reminder of mortality, we are each like to the sun with short live.   But focusing on this bare equality of a dead headed sun (like a foolish eye?), still places this golden child above the moon, for being the energy source of most growing life that it is.  To underline this on several levels, in the cards there typically occurs three pairings of people – the first as lovers in card VI, then chained to the devil’s well in card XV, and in the sun card, they have become twin children at play!  Thus, understanding reflection, here the cycles and limits of life, gives way to one’s own radiance.
300   Tooth Judgement  XX
Before this radiant frolicking in hope gives you too much joy, the pattern of this constant succession of triumphs and follies demands one last reality check.   Following the letters in relation to the order of cards, and making a few arrangements to the cards to match the true order of the letters, seems to have deliver a bittersweet, critical back and forth message on life, one that contrasts sharply with the card’s more mystical reputation for perpetual ascension.  And yet this story also recommends strategies for growth and endurance.   Remember that the keys traditionally have two faces, upright and reversed.  This cipher is the shadow of the political theater of the carnival parades that inspired the face of the game, that was placed right atop the standard pack of cards that was already long in use for play and for fortunes, like a tricky frosting. The parade of floats, the dream, is more merciful.  That’s what these teeth, following the letter named head, in combination with the card of reputation, remind us of – a head has its teeth.  Too much sun can kill, and how the reputations of symbols have changed with time!  Some are clearly reversed by now, and have flipped before.  Time’s judgement reveals, condemns and buries – some names continue, some are swallowed whole, and some come to a different reputation, or reading, than they deserve.
400   Mark XXI The World
With that, the letter of the hatchmark or cross, the ancient mark of the unlettered for signing a contract, or the finish of a treasure hunt, is the match to our home.  It is the symbol of the wheel, but now without the eye encircling it, just a frame, only its spokes.  Now time encircles it, and the author remains anonymous. The letter named mark also brings to mind an ancient tradition, made with ash for a day one remembers a condemnation, prior to a sacred execution.  Just a final momento mori perhaps, or a small clue that it was a priest (or papess?) that has hidden this relatively cynical message, and now leaves you with their blessing.


Ring around the rosy cheek’d,
Pockets full of poems speak:
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!

Now that I have completed this assessment, I can almost hear the laughter of the tarot’s arranger, a creative author for whom time and knowledge delivered the wisdom of a wide eyed fool, and the final flourish of drawing an axis through the whole of the world of struggle and effort.  Consistently reminded of our short time and trials, the recommendations are clear, practical and humanist.  Despite oppressive odds, certain interference, and looming death… love, justice, courage,  hope, an open mind, silence, reflection and radiance are the recommendations of this poet’s wheel.  If there is any doubt that some cheer at least was intended, the whole of this sacred book was delivered to you… as a game.

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