Draft — Written by Jake:
Hidden in the symbolism of the early tarots are legends and myths from ancient times. In the Baddeley Tarot the meaning and pattern behind these stories are revealed, linking them to once forbidden esoteric wisdom. Being thoroughly researched, all the cards draw upon imagery that have their origin deeply embedded in the mythological past and which reveal a path, a journey of the soul, through life and beyond.
This deck reveals an ancient system that draws upon the spirit and philosophies of the time in which the tarot was first conceived. The illustrations are made in a style and technique inspired by the Renaissance masters. Multiple layers of meaning are interwoven in the imagery to create a rich tapestry so the air of inspiration and the fire of divination can guide our own soul’s journey.
The Baddeley tarot
The journey of the soul
By Jake Baddeley
Artist: Jake Baddeley
Edited by: Peter Loupelis (Dev/Line)
I would like to dedicate this book to the Goddess. In particular to my mother for the chance to be here and my loving wife who has put up with my obsessions for so long.
PART ONE: INTRODUCTION
The Journey Begins
you made a choice, a door has opened, and a journey lies before you. what you have in your hands is a guide for this journey
It is a game of cards.
It is a book with no words.
It is a book of allegories
It is a book that can be read in any order and that can contain all the stories in the world.
It is the journey of the soul
A picture is worth a thousand words. This old adage is very true of the tarot, as so many libraries have been filled with discourses upon its imagery and I am about to write some more. Although the ancient decks seem rude in their draughtsmanship, these images seem to have been crafted through chance or design to be able to contain many layers of meaning, leaving only one specific interpretation inadequate and constrained. Their symbolic nature invites reflection but at the same time eludes precise definition. This is perhaps the beauty of the tarot and why many have been drawn to it throughout the ages
The tarot is a name given to a particular set of playing cards that have come down to us from the distant past. There have been many variations through the ages as it developed and changed, blurring the distinctions between traditional playing cards and divinatory or oracular decks, making it difficult to say what is and what is not a tarot deck.
The usual definition is that tarot evolved from Trionfi, (Triumphs) playing cards with an allegorical nature that developed in Italy around the 15th century. The tarot is therefore a product of the Italian renaissance and this is reflected in its intellectual and artistic style.
Tarot is usually a deck of 78 cards. Unlike standard deck of 52 playing cards, it contains 22 cards called ‘trumps’ and 56 other cards which include 40 pip cards and 12 court cards. The numbered cards (pips) are numbered Ace to Ten, plus four court cards: King, Knight, Queen and Page. Each of these fourteen cards is assigned to a suit. There are four suits: swords, batons, cups and coins. The trumps can be seen as a fifth suit — 21 numbered cards plus an unnumbered card called 0 The Fool.
At first sight the trumps appear to be an eclectic collection of meaningless pictures, their message, if there is one, is unclear. No instruction manual has come down to us explaining the images and so this has led to many diverse theories of what exactly the trumps are describing.
This deck is my interpretation of the traditional images as I understand them, based upon my own research and insight. Part One of the guidebook will examine the history of the tarot’s development and an explanation of the symbolism of all the cards. It will also dive deep into what I have found to be the sources for the esoteric symbolism, found in the artwork and texts of the Italian Renaissance period, and the ideas and rituals of the classical Greek period.
The Deep Roots of the Tarot.
As an artist interested in symbolism, I have wanted to make a tarot deck for a long time. Yet not just to copy another, rather to try to find the ‘true’ meaning of the cards and express this in my own way.
There are, as I have said, many different variations that have developed even in the early days of tarot, each with its own idiosyncrasies, its own order of the trumps, different rules, different meanings. Which of these is the real tarot? Was there ever an original moment of conception, an archetypal deck? If so, it has never been found and therefore remains a matter of speculation or personal preference.
I, like anyone else, can only guess what the original designers of the tarot meant when they chose the images adorning its cards, so in order to make this deck I first had to spend many hours of research searching for clarification. This search led me to the early tarots which appealed to me the most and on the way discovered many fascinating details about tarot history which I have incorporated into the design of the deck.
Most of the best preserved early tarots come to us via a style of deck called the Tarot de Marseille. These were the most popular and long-lasting decks until the modern age. It is this design that I have followed the closest as for me they contain the most profound images. The origin of the order of the cards of The Baddeley Tarot however finds its origin in Milan around the beginning of the 15th century, so traces its beginnings to one of the very early tarots.
A Short History of the Tarot
Tarot has been developing and changing throughout the ages and across nations since the invention of paper first reached Europe. The tarot still bears the marks of even earlier games from which it developed. Firstly came dice, which later developed into dominoes, which were then to develop into Chinese playing cards, games that were all based on the hierarchy of number.
Dice can be traced back to China and India reaching back to at least 3000 BCE. Dice was also a game of value and has been used since earliest times as a form of both fortune telling and gaming. The term ‘pips’ was the traditional name for the numbered cards in tarot. It was also the word used to denote the dots on dice and dominoes. That the dots on a dice add up to 21 is also a clue, perhaps being a source of the 21 numbered trump cards. The first pip card in tarot and playing cards is referred to as ‘Ace’. This originally also came from dice, referring to the side with one pip. It is derived from the latin word for ‘unit’.
As the Chinese were the first to invent paper, they have the oldest examples of card games, some of which already had the familiar court-based hierarchy of royal retainers and four suits that we recognise from modern cards. The idea of trick taking, or trumping one card over another was also already an inherent part of the game.
The Chinese cards have had a clear influence upon playing cards used by an Arabic people who came to power in Egypt sometime in the early 1300s who formed the Mamluk Empire. They adapted the images to their own needs and culture, interpreting the Chinese images in their own way. The Crusades that took place at this time, very likely had a large role to play in their dissemination into Europe. These cards had familiar elements, such as four suits adapted from the Chinese face cards showing ministers and kings, but lacked the trump cards used in tarot.
Playing cards entered Europe through the ports of Spain and Italy. By this time the first paper mills and printing presses had arrived in Italy and France allowing card games of all sorts to proliferate among the populace.
Tarots of Milan
The earliest tarot-like deck we know of was commissioned by Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan, around 1425. The humanist scholar and astrologer Maurizio da Tortona, was asked to devise an allegorical card game based on virtues and temptations for the Duke. The deck had four suits, with four extra cards depicting classical gods in each suit. There are no surviving examples of this deck so no one knows how it looked.
Later around 1450 other decks were commissioned by Visconti. Many of these have survived and are beautifully embossed with gold, showing delicately painted figures.
(c. 1500), also from Milan, is a sheet of uncut trump cards, which are the earliest example of what would be known as the Tarot de Marseille.
The Marseille Tradition
When the Italian cards spread to France, the French card makers began to develop a new style — the suits of clubs, spades, diamonds, hearts, and the use of three court cards became the new standard all across France, with the exception of one city: Marseille. For mysterious reasons, this was the only city to retain the old Italian style and remained faithful to the symbolism it represented. The oldest surviving deck from this period is the Jean Noblet Tarot dated to around 1650. Many experts take this French pattern to be one of the definitive tarots.
It was not until the 18th century that occultists of France and England chose to redesign the tarot adapting it specifically for cartomancy, emphasising the occult aspects. These cards were the first radical departure from the original Italian designs in three hundred years, and led to the now popular Rider–Waite Tarot designed in the 19th century.
The Symbolism of the Cards
Renaissance Italy was the centre of a reawakening of interest in astrology, mystical Christianity and ancient Greek philosophy, which influenced the thinking of the era when the various tarots were made. At the root of these philosophies, especially Greek thought, was a doctrine of the reincarnation of the soul. I have found that these same themes are found in the tarot trumps, and that they informed its design and order.
It appears that if one read the cards as if they are illustrations to myths and stories, their message is a coherent one. If you know the myth you know the message and at the core of this message is the doctrine of reincarnation. This shall be clarified as we progress. Although the symbolism contained in the tarot requires an in-depth knowledge of Neoplatonic philosophy, Greek myth and mystical Christianity both to construct it and to understand it, a simple reading of Dante’s Divina Commedia will be enough to point you in the right direction. If someone had tried to fit La Divina Commedia into a card game it might have looked a lot like the tarot.
We also know that the first tarot-like deck was created by Maurizio da Tortona, who would have been familiar with this stream of knowledge, including Dante.
It seems to me quite clear that the message in the trumps describes a ladder to God, an ascending or descending series of allegories of divine and cosmic themes that describe our struggles while on this earth and offer a method of living in harmony and in accordance with souls striving for the greatest good.
This reminds me of something Plato said:
The ultimate design of the Mysteries … was to lead us back to the principles from which we descended … a perfect enjoyment of spiritual .
The Mysteries of the Tarot
Elemental Correspondences of the Suits
Like all tarots, this deck works on a system of correspondences where a set of symbols relates to another in a particular way. For example, the four suits traditionally used in tarot have particular symbolic associations. These symbols can vary according to the system being used. Historical tarots have used a variety of correspondences, so far as these are known. The ones used here were chosen for their poetic logic and their archetypal symbolism.
Cups are obviously vessels to hold liquids, traditionally for drinking, and so have the association with the water element. Coins were usually made of metals like gold, silver or copper, and so were associated with the earth element.
I have interpreted the Baton as the rule of the ancient kings, which was used to measure and bring order to the world, known as the ‘royal cubit’. A statue of the king of Gudea can be seen holding the royal cubit as far back as Sumerian times. This aligns the element air with measurement and thought.
This leaves swords associated with fire, which is often seen as corresponding to the energy of the martial spirit. In this deck, the suit of swords is associated with strength and action.
If we place the four classical elements next to the suits in the order shown, interesting correspondences arise, adding layers of meaning to the cards .
|Swords||Fire||Warmth, dry, brightness, passion||Spirit, being|
|Batons||Air||Ephemeral, weightless, movement||Mind, thinking|
|Cups||Water||Cool, moist, smooth, soft, purifying||Emotion, feeling|
|Coins||Earth||Hard, heavy, stable||Body, doing|
This list of associations can be further explored revealing their relationship to the professions and the different qualities people would need to succeed in them.
|Swords||strength, energy||being||leaders, warriors|
|Batons||measuring, dividing||thinking||scientists, philosophers|
|Cups||healing, nurturing||feeling||priests, doctors|
|Coins||wealth, solidity, matter||doing||merchants, labourers|
We can see that Cups align with the element of water introducing the aspects of coolness, softness, moistness and purification — these qualities augment each other, being comparable, but distinct. The straight line of the Baton could be used for measuring and dividing, which are aspects of thinking — therefore useful to scientists and philosophers. And so on.
In this way, the associations of the suits build up into a web of correlations adding layers of meaning to the cards and facilitating their use as divinatory tools. The foundation of this web of relationships are the four elements — fire, air, water and earth.
The Magic of the Pips
Each suit has ten numbered cards (the pips) and four face (or court) cards. Like the trumps, the pips in this deck are designed to be interpreted as a ladder from, or indeed to, Heaven. Each number can be read symbolically or poetically from one to ten as an unfolding of creation. These are complemented by further correspondences, the qualities of plants and of the planets, which have similar characteristics of growth and development. This is done to aid the interpretation of each card, turning it from a unit of counting into a symbol, or an allegory. The following table shows the process of emanation, from the divine unity of zero, to the fully manifested life form as signified by the number ten.
|The Qualities of the Numbers||As Plant Life||The Ptolemaic Order|
|1||Primary movement||Seed||The whole element|
|2||Duality, choice, growth||Germination||The zodiac (constellations)|
|3||Birth of the many||Establishment||Saturn|
The pips in historical tarot decks—like standard playing cards—were simply numbered cards of each suit. Today numbers are mostly seen as units of counting and nothing more. In the ancient past, they were viewed with magical significance and philosophical depth. For our journey we need to see the deeper meaning hidden in the numbers. We have to see the poetry in numbers.
It is natural to begin with nothing — zero, emptiness. It is less than one. The number one has many poetic associations. It is simplicity, unity, wholeness and the beginning, but it is also still and alone. The number two signifies duality, choices, opposites, companionship and is balanced. Three is dynamic and strong, but things have started to get complicated. By the time we have reached ten, a full cycle is complete as ten might then be seen as a higher order manifestation of one, again a point of stillness. I have listed my key words for each number in the chart above.
This way of thinking was typified by the Greek philosopher-mystic Pythagoras, who’s teachings were all about the deeper qualities of numbers and their relationship to the geometric forms they created. Pythagorean thought can be condensed to a simple shape, the ten points of the Pythagorean tetractys, which symbolised the first ten numbers and the inherent unity within
[Design: Insert Figure 1]
Figure 1: the Pythagorean tetractys, a geometric representation of the universe as numbers.
The Pythagoreans were also geometers, and with every number comes a geometric form that describes it. This tradition was known in the ancient world as ‘sacred geometry’, where the philosophical implications of geometry were paramount. With a compass and ruler they mapped how number generated form from unity as if they were revealing the handwork of the gods. This was their version of a cosmogony — a logical and geometric creation myth.
The void, emptiness, was symbolised as a point — a centre of no size; essentially infinite.
From this came the first and the simplest of all forms, the circle. Geometers know that this form is the mother of all others, as it is the starting point from which all the other forms can
be generated. It is the first thing that a compass does. It is a natural number one.
[DESIGN: insert Figure 2a (no caption]]
Within this apparent completeness, the full circle, is another form waiting to be born. The centre and the circumference produce the vesica, two identical circles that overlap. Duality
is born — twoness.
[DESIGN: insert Figure 2b (no caption)]
These first steps begin a journey of expansion that geometrically and inevitably produces an
image very much like a flower or a seed. It is a natural pattern dormant in the circle.
[DESIGN: Insert Figure 2c (no caption)]
The Pips have now acquired a poetic meaning to their numbers and the geometric forms that they take. We see a process of generation that has much in common with the growth of a plant.
A plant also begins its life as a seed; as a point. It divides and grows, eventually creating the shape of a flower, and then moves through a complete cycle and a new beginning back to the seed. It is an apt metaphor for the process of growth that the numbers represent.
Each of the pips shows one of these stages of growth that complement the numbers and forms. It might seem arbitrary to assign to each number a planetary influence, but when we do, we see a complete harmony of agreement in the symbolism.
The Planetary Spheres
The pips in this deck also correspond to the planetary spheres. These fit naturally together as they are both ladders to heaven in ten steps. They are arranged in the ‘Ptolemaic order’ — an arrangement of the planets and stars that has its roots in the earliest of civilisations. It is the logic of form unfolding from emptiness, only this time on the macrocosmic scale .
According to ancient philosophy, out of this divine emptiness—or primeval chaos—came the elements (fire, air, water, then earth), which in turn made the stars, the planets, then mankind. Each stage of creation is numbered from 1–10, beginning with the elements and ending with the Earth.
[DESIGN: insert Figure 3 ]
Figure 3: caption this
- Each suit represents one of the four elements — fire, air, water and earth. These were said to be the first things that were created from the void.
- From the fundamental parts came a greater order—the stars and the universe—represented here as the constellations of the zodiac.
- Then came the planets (seven were known to the ancients). Each was an aspect of God expressing itself in a planetary form. Each has its own tendencies, qualities and affinities. and are seen as one of the sources of the varying natures of man. The slowest and coldest planet Saturn is identified with old age, with wisdom, time, discipline. He was seen as the grandfather of the other gods from which they all sprang.
- Jupiter, the king of the planets. He stands for leadership, oversight, male sexuality and will.
- Mars, the god of war, aggression, action and courage.
- The Sun stands for harmony, healing, health and happiness, consciousness, balance and justice.
- Venus is the goddess of love, beauty, sex and marriage.
- A small quickly moving planet, Mercury demonstrates dynamic processes, and is associated with the god of merchants, magic, cleverness and writing.
- The Moon is linked to the feminine cycles of womb and birth, water and growth, the unconscious mind, emotion and intuition.
- The elements are condensed into matter. All the elements that have been generated in the stars can now be used for the formation of life. Like the Moon, the Earth was traditionally seen as a goddess of fecundity, but is related to solidity, nurturing, mothers and abundance of life in general.
The numbers that are now assigned to the planets follow an ancient logic, one followed for thousands of years and still used today. For example, the military headquarters in the US is called the Pentagon. It represents the number five. The architects surely knew that this was the number of the planet Mars, the god of war.
Within this order some might recognise aspects of the Tree of Life, as represented in the Kabbalah, who’s associative index follows a similar pattern and is in fact born from the same roots.
As the numbers unfold, form is created according to the rules of Pythagorean or sacred geometry — number as shape, and shape as number. This can be seen in the geometric construction of the underlying compositions of the illustrations.
With these correspondences in mind we can then understand the meaning of each of the pip cards.
With experience and practice these basic interpretations will grow in clarity and develop in depth taking on ever more subtle meaning as your skill with the tarot grows.
, from Peter Apian, Cosmographicus Liber
The Fates in the Sky
In the system of Astrology that has its root in Sumer, the stars and the planets were seen as influences upon the fate of humanity. From an early time comparisons were drawn between the influences of the fixed stars in the sky and the planets wandering across them. Astrologers would declare that “Venus rules Taurus” drawing upon an agreed schema of correlations that were derived geometrically.
The traditional Sumerian–Ptolemaic order of the planets (see figure 2) followed an order that describes their apparent speed through the heavens as seen from earth. To equate the planets with the zodiac however, a different system was used. The Sun was removed from its position and placed next to the Moon with the remaining planets being placed in descending in order as seen in the following diagram (below). Around this the zodiac was placed, creating alignments between the stars and the planets.
Figure 5: The heliocentric order of the planets
This created a heliocentric order of the planets, antedating Copernicus by at least a thousand years. It explains the zodiacal signs’ correspondences with the planets. An example of the use of this scheme in the tarot is XVIII The Moon, which includes the sign of Cancer in the form of a lobster.
The thinking behind this scheme is an equation between the summer and winter poles of the zodiac and the hot and cold poles of the solar system. Because Leo rises during summer in the northern hemisphere and Aquarius during winter, a solar–lunar polarity is created. The planets have therefore also been assigned to the circle from warmest to coldest, resulting in an order of the planets that describes their distance from the sun.
This scheme was the source of the traditional correspondence of the planets to the stars, and is found at the core of ancient astrological and magical thinking of both the east and west at least since the time of Patanjali (c. 200 CE). It was this system that was used by Ptolemy (100 CE) to assign the planets to the stars. It maps the sky as it was in c. 2000–4000 BCE with the solar cross — the solstice and equinox being found in Leo, Taurus, Aquarius and Scorpio, suggesting that this was the time when the system was developed.
If we refer to the numbered cards (the pips) in this deck, we see that each card is associated with two zodiac signs in the same manner as the chart above. This is because each numbered card also represents a planet. We now have an astrological aspect to the mix. When a card is drawn ‘upright’, the solar aspect is in effect; when it is drawn reversed, the lunar aspect is playing out. In this way the symbolism of each numbered card branches out into many more levels and nuances, making the deck as simple or as complicated as one may wish.
Chakras and the Zodiac
According to the law ‘as above, so below’, this was also the system used in ancient India as the traditional assignment of the planets to the chakras, or spiritual centres of the body. The Indian mystics used an astrological system based upon similar premises of the Sumerian and Egyptian traditions — that of the fundamental polarity of sky and earth, father and mother, night and day. The solar, masculine signs and the lunar, feminine signs divide the sky in half from pole to pole and—in an act of poetic genius—divide the individual human also into masculine and feminine halves, a doctrine also found in alchemy.
[DESIGN Insert Figure 6]
Figure 6: The Yogic system of the chakras and their traditional relationship to the planets and constellations.
In Figure 6 (above), we see the arrangement of the planets and their corresponding zodiac signs with the seven major chakras on the shushumna. This is the system used by Goswami Kriyananda of the Kriya Yoga tradition and is mentioned by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. The planets follow the modern order, minus the Earth, with the Moon and Sun grouped together.
The crown chakra correpsonds with the Sun and the third eye chakra with the Moon. As the Sun is traditionally seen as an active principle aligned with daytime, and the Moon as passive and aligned with the night, we can interpret each constellation accordingly. Each chakra can be seen to consist of three qualities. A right-hand path corresponding to the masculine; a middle path, being balanced and represented by a planet; and a left-hand path corresponding to the feminine. For example, the throat chakra can be expressed in its masculine aspect as Gemini, its feminine aspect as Virgo, or its balanced state as the planet Mercury.
The qualities of the chakras as they are experienced by the yogi align with the qualities of the planets. The correspondences vary among different yogic traditions, but in this system the qualities of the chakras are assigned the same tendencies and qualities as the planets in Western astrology. The reason that it is so easy to overlay these two systems without contradiction speaks to their common origin — they are branches of the same root.
Root chakra: Saturn — stability, foundation, solidity
Sacral chakra: Jupiter — procreation, creativity, expansion, growth, the will
Solar Plexus chakra: Mars — power, aggression, action
Heart chakra: Venus — love, joy, peace, trust
Throat chakra: Mercury — expression, communication
Third Eye chakra: Moon — intuition, reflection, dreams
Crown chakra: Sun — awareness, thought, truth, knowing.
The chakras complement the other qualities of the pip cards and give us insight into the subjective passions and emotions that they represent, together with their rightful place within the subtle body of man.
[DESIGN: Insert Figure 7]
Figure 7: the chakras and their yantras, with action phrases
The Family of Humanity
After the creation of the heavens comes the creation of earth and of humankind. So, after the numbered cards we come to the court cards, which are comparable to the human family, the microcosm of the macrocosm and the universe in miniature. They are also linked to the four elements, represented by the four suits.
|King||fire||Ruler, master, confidence, authority|
|Knight||air||Testing their strength, individuating|
|Queen||water||Nurturing, protecting, internally secure|
|Page||earth||Inner child, student/apprentice, learning, developing|
Each court card represents a different personality or temperament. These personalities are arrived at through a mixture of different correspondences.
The assignation of elements to both the suits and the court cards creates a set of double elements in various combinations, producing combinations equivalent to the wet–dry and hot–cold polarities of Aristotle, found in his text On Generation and Corruption. Aristotle related each of the four elements to two of the four sensible qualities:
- Fire is both hot and dry.
- Air is both hot and wet.
- Water is both cold and wet.
- Earth is both cold and dry.
Galen, building upon the ancient tradition of the elements, divided people into four types — choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic and melancholic. Each of these also signified a personal embodiment of an overruling element.
Those ruled by fire were choleric; they had all the qualities of fire — action, intensity and power. Those ruled by air likewise had an airy nature known as sanguine, which was dynamic, changeable, cheerful. Phlegmatic people—ruled by water—were constant, predictable and adaptable. While those of an earthy nature were known as melancholic, and seen as pale, sad, moody and of an artistic or poetic temperament.
This gives each card a distinct personality and an extra layer of symbolism. The chart below (Figure 8) can be used to see these relationships and their results. For example, if two elements are near to each other—such as water and earth—we can read the resulting combination as a cold temperament. If two elements are opposite each other, they cancel each other out, producing a balance between the two.
For example, Kings correspond with the fire element. The suit of Cups corresponds with the water element. What does this make the King of Cups? If we refer to Galen’s chart we find that water and fire are opposite each other, therefore balance each other. He has both a strong and wilful side as well as an emotional sensitive nature.
If we take the Page of Batons as another example, we find that the Page corresponds to the water element. Batons correspond to the air element. This makes their temperament ‘moist’, a combination of sanguine and phlegmatic.
In this way each court card acquires a character or temperament that when chosen can be read oracularly.
[DESIGN Insert Figure 8]
|King of Swords||fire of fire||Very fiery, choleric.|
|Knight of Swords||air of fire||hot|
|Queen of Swords||water of fire||balanced|
|Page of Swords||earth of fire||dry|
|King of Batons||fire of air||hot|
|Knight of Batons||air of air||Very airy, sanguine|
|Queen of Batons||water of air||moist|
|Page of Batons||earth of air||balanced|
|King of Cups||fire of water||balanced|
|Knight of Cups||air of water||moist|
|Queen of Cups||water of water||Very watery, phlegmatic|
|Page of Cups||earth of water||cold|
|King of Coins||fire of earth||dry|
|Knight of Coins||air of earth||balanced|
|Queen of Coins||water of earth||cold|
|Page of Coins||earth of earth||Very earthy, melencholic|
Major Themes of the Soul’s Journey
As the trumps are the distinctive element that makes up tarot and sets it apart from simple playing cards, it is important to know the meaning of these images.
An important aspect of these images is their numbering. Early decks had no numbers but at some point it became important to know their sequential order and card makers began to use Roman numerals to denote this. Numbering for the trumps varied surprisingly little through the ages and the various places it was made. As I understand it, this is because there is something about this order that was important; something that reveals the tarot’s deeper meaning.
When read in the correct order, the trumps tell a story — a story of the journey of the soul.
The numbering of the trumps I have used for this deck is derived from an early known historical order found in the Tarocco Bolognesse, a tarot pattern found in Bologna Italy.
The names of these cards was originally in Italian, so in order to express the original archetypal meaning in English, some of the names have been adapted. For example, the ‘Juggler’ is the original title for what today is called the Magician; while ‘Fortitude’ is the original name for the Strength card in modern decks.
No explanation is known to have accompanied the original tarot. There are no interpretations of the cards meanings that have have come down to us. This is the reason that there is so much diversity in the explanations offered today by tarot scholars and users.
Therefore all interpretations are my informed guesses based upon historical research, intuition, convention or invention. Using research, many of the meanings become self evident. I chose key words that convey the meaning that was intended by the designers of the early tarots. When in doubt I have taken recourse to my own intuition and common sense. This is not to say that my interpretations are authoritative in any way, or exclude other ways of reading the cards. They are simply a reflection of my own prejudices and opinions and should be seen as a guide, a place from where to start your own exploration.
When we number the trumps in this way, four distinct phases become apparent in the ordering of the cards. They all represent distinct stages of the journey of the soul.
The Social Hierarchy
0 The Fool
I The Juggler
II The High Priestess
III The Empress
IV The Emperor
V The Hierophant
The first phase is the social hierarchy of the society, court and the empire. It is an order of rank beginning with the 0 The Fool the most despised member of society, the lowly street performer and ending with the the power of the church, a card originally representing the Pope. If we interpret these images as archetypes in a more general sense they can represent the family, or perhaps the journey of the soul as it transits from child to parent to grandparent.
VI The Lovers
VII The Chariot
The next set of images in the order are all of an archetypal and moral nature. This row of cards bears a striking resemblance to the classical cardinal virtues. The virtues were central to the Greek philosophies that were resurfacing during the renaissance and made their way into both mysticism and Christianity. These were fortitude, justice, temperance and prudence often represented in this order. If we refer to the trumps we see an almost identical list.
The card X Fortitude matches easily with the virtue of fortitude. The cards IX Justice and VIII Temperance likewise match with their virtues. The card VII The Chariot represents victory and seems out of place, but it is preceded by VI The Lovers originally representing love, one of the three theological virtues.
The virtues were seen as the qualities that the soul needed to learn in order to ascend the mystical ladder to perfection. We will explore this further below.
XII The Hermit
XIII The Hanged man
XV The Devil
XVI The Tower
After this the ‘wheel of fortune’ (card XI) turns and the cards take on a different flavour — adversities.
Wisdom, asceticism or old age (XII The Hermit) is followed by punishment or atonement (XIII The Hanged Man). Death (card XIV), the Devil (card XV), and destruction or Hell (represented by XVI The Tower) all follow upon one another signifying the soul’s journey through hardship, suffering and its path through the underworld. Depictions of the Last Judgement in Christian iconography, especially from the renaissance, often show these same elements together in unison. In Hell, we find images of the devil, the dying and the damned, including the inverted (hanged) man seen in the cards. The adversities—or vices—will be examined in greater details below.
XVII The Star
XVIII The Moon
XIX The Sun
XX The World
These are followed by the cosmic themes of the stars (card XVII), planets (cards XVIII and XIX), judgement and ending the world (cards XX and XXI), suggestive of the soul entering the heavenly realms and returning to the Source. The series ends with the ‘Last Judgement’, a concept found in Christian theology, but who’s roots are much deeper. It is a moment when God judges the soul according to its qualities and deeds from the life that has been led. In Greek thought it was the point when the soul was returned to the world or was to enter heaven and union with the Divine.
The Wheel of Fortune
The result of this interpretation is a structure that has a significant order. Four sets of five cards each , with XI The Wheel of Fortune as the centre around which all revolves.
By balancing itself around the centre, the tarot has declared itself a ‘wheel of fortune’. On one side of the wheel we have earthly life and the virtues; on the other, adversity, death and the afterlife. The circle implies that we go around and around in a cycle of death and rebirth.
You may also notice that there are fourteen cards before XIV Death; there are also seven cards after it. This might be compared to the seven realms of the underworld and the seven heavenly realms in ancient myth. According to Greek thought, there were seven stages in the life of man that equated to the symbolism of the planets. Equally, as is evident from the Inanna’s journey to the underworld, there were seven planes in the underworld also.
The trumps can be seen as illustrations of the seven stages of life and the seven stages of death that the soul of man encounters on his journey around the wheel. It reminds me of the famous palindrome the Sator square.
[DESIGN: Insert Figure 9]
It is thought this magic square palindrome could refers to a wheel — but which wheel could this be? There is only one of significance: the wheel of fortune which is the Cosmos. My translation would then be “Saturn and Apollo sustain the Goddess’ work of the wheel.”
- Sator = Saturn
- Arepo = Horapollo, a combination of Horus and Apollo (both sun gods)
- Tenet = sustain
- Opera = the work, and the name of the goddess who is the wife of Saturn; in plural form, thus indicating a group of goddesses
- Rotas = the wheel
As Saturn is the outer most planet and the sun represented by Apollo the inner most, this would make sense as the wheel of the cosmos.
Figure 10: The wheel of fortune as it was understood in the Renaissance showing birth, death and the cycle of life. In the centre stands the goddess Fortuna, blindly turning the wheel of fate. Notice the allegory of the angel and the grave found at the bottom of the wheel, familiar from the Judgement card denoting birth and death, but also suggesting the circular nature of the journey of the soul.
The Codes of the Tarot
The Celestial Harmony
During the period when the tarot was first being developed and printed, the Italian literati of the time were studying and translating texts from the Romans, Greeks, Hebrews, and other sources from the distant past. Some of these ideas had already found their way into Christian thought through the works of Thomas Aquinas and others. Not surprisingly, many of these ideas were also found referenced in the tarot. However, there were some fundamental differences of view upon some major theological points that could not be reconciled with Christianity. For example, God was singular in Christianity, while the ancients had multiple deities and whose mythology was inextricably entwined with that of the planets. Another important distinction was the views of the afterlife — the Church denied the concept of reincarnation which the Greeks embraced. There was no coming back. Many of these ideas were deemed heretical, and anyone who repeated them publicly were condemned (often to death).
According to Greek tradition, the universe was ordered as series of spheres beginning with the realm of the Gods as the outermost and ending with the earthly plane. It is known as the Ptolemaic order (see above) but was derived from more ancient sources traceable as far back as the Sumerian civilisation around six thousand years ago. It was a map of the universe and our place within it, but it was also a creation story and was meant to be read as a series of events that led to the creation of humanity, comparable to the modern cosmogony of the ‘big bang’.
It began then with the divine sphere, the Locus Dei, or the abode of God. For the Greeks this was known as the Empyrean Heaven, occupied by the fire element. The elements of water and air were assigned to the subsequent spheres.
After the elements the stars were created. The sky was ordered into the constellations, the twelve regions of the sky and their archetypal qualities which we now call the zodiac.
After the stars came the planets, each in their own sphere listed long ago by the Sumerians according to its apparent speed against the fixed stars. They eventually came to be named after the Greco-Roman pantheon of the gods — Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon. It is an order that, through a simple but clever algorithm, generates the days of the week and the hours of the day, that we still use today.
After these came the Earth. It was seen as a combination of the elements transformed into solid matter and envisioned in order of lightest to heaviest — from fire in the outer ring, to air, water and with earth at the very centre. Indeed, this is the true order we find them physically on the planet. Today we use this mode of thought to define the elemental states of matter as plasma, gas, liquid and solid.
Although this was at its core a scientific and astronomical view of the cosmos, it also incorporated more poetic aspects that relied upon a system of correspondences. This system can be found in many early civilisations and equates like with like, building a network of associations that was the science of the time. These ideas can be found at the core of Platonic and Hermetic thought, astrology and alchemy.
To these, planetary deities were assigned—amongst other things—one of the seven known metals, each metal reflecting the qualities of each deity’s character.
Lastly came humans, who were created from the four elements in greater or lesser proportions, determining the make up of their individual character. As we have seen, the Greek philosopher Galen developed this elemental scheme in greater detail in which the humours played a role, constituting the foundation of medicine for thousands of years.
All together, this made ten circles, or ‘planetary spheres’, although variations can be found that list up to twelve spheres, according to the system being used.
If we now take another look at the trumps we see that they too have a similar form. They follow an ascending order of importance from the lowest through to the highest social ranks, up to the planets and stars, and ultimately the source of divine judgement, God.
The numbered cards also follow this pattern. There are ten numbered cards that match to the ten planetary spheres, and four court cards representing the four primary elements that make up the world and human society.
The Ladder of Souls
The ancient Greeks saw the planetary spheres as a ladder or path that the soul would travel from its inception in heaven to its incarnation on earth. Upon death, it would make the return journey back to its source. It was a philosophy of the immortality of the soul.
An example of this thinking can be found in Plato’s Republic. In the 10th book, The Myth of Er, Socrates describes a journey of the soul through the heavenly realms. Thought to be dead, the hero Er comes to life again and recounts his journey through the afterlife:
He said that, when the soul had left his body, he journeyed with many others until they came to a marvellous place, where there were two openings side by side in the earth, and opposite them two others in the sky above. Between them sat Judges, who, after each sentence given, bade the just take the way to the right upwards through the sky, first binding on them in front tokens signifying the judgement passed upon them. The unjust were commanded to take the downward road to the left, and these bore evidence of all their deeds fastened on their backs.
— Plato, The Republic
We start then with a description that is reminiscent of XXI Judgement, the card which represents the judgement of the soul and is entirely in keeping with Plato’s description.
Next the soul, according to Plato, encounters the ‘spindle of necessity’ — the spinning wheel of the Fates who decree the future of each soul. In Plato’s description the wheel symbolises the order of the planets and stars which are spun by the Fates. This equates with the symbolism of XI The Wheel of Fortune as well as the ladder to heaven that is the core structure of the tarot deck. Lots are chosen by the souls handed from the fates, before they descend again to earth, symbolising the qualities that the soul will take on in the next life. The ‘lot’ here denotes a lottery, the use of tokens to represent a decision. It is worth noting that Plato mentions two kinds of lots, one set with numbers and another with images.
With these words the Interpreter scattered the lots among them all. Each took up the lot which fell at his feet and showed what number he had drawn…
— Plato, The Republic
The lots with images portray the diverse stations and roles “as well as of all conditions of men.”
… Then the Interpreter laid on the ground before them the sample lives, many more than the persons there. They were of every sort: lives of all living creatures, as well as of all conditions of men. Among them were lives of despots, some continuing in power to the end, others ruined in mid-course and ending in poverty, exile, or beggary. There were lives of men renowned for beauty of form and for strength and prowess, or for distinguished birth and ancestry; also lives of unknown men; and of women likewise. All these qualities were variously combined with one another and with wealth or poverty, health or sickness, or intermediate conditions; but in none of these lives was there anything to determine the condition of the soul, because the soul must needs change its character according as it chooses one life or another.
— Plato, The Republic
These lots are remarkably similar to the tarot, as they represent images of the diverse lives and personalities that the soul must choose in the life to come, as well as numbered lots, thematically linked to the planetary spheres and fate.
After the soul’s choice is ratified by the Fates, the soul drinks from the river of forgetfulness before they return to another life on earth.
When evening came, they encamped beside the River of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold. All are required to drink a certain measure of this water, and some have not the wisdom to save them from drinking more. Every man as he drinks forgets everything.
— Plato, The Republic
Although Plato does not tell us, the river of forgetfulness was presided over by Spes, the goddess of rebirth. Spes—also being the Latin word for ‘hope’ — can be found in the tarot as XVII The Star.
So although the order is a little muddled, the themes found in the trumps and The Myth of Er have much in common. This can inform us about the deeper meanings of some of the trump cards.
The Vices and Virtues
The trumps are better understood as a series of illustrations for myths. The genius of the tarot is when taken as a whole, these myths tell another story. They describe a theology, a story of the journey of the soul. If the trumps are a journey, what part do the virtues have to play?
One aspect of the Neoplatonic tradition was to mitigate the influences of the planets through meditation and prayer to gain immortality eventually — the perfection of the soul. The way to do this was to name the generative and limiting aspects of each planet and use the one to conquer the other. During the Renaissance period, these aspects were known as the ‘vices and virtues’ and had percolated into Christianity from Greek thought. If the trumps were a ladder to God, then the virtues would be a necessary part of this journey.
The order of this assignment of the vices and virtues had been more or less standardised by theologians of the Renaissance, and they varied somewhat from the Greek. An interesting example of the vices and virtues can be found in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua that contains a series of frescoes by Giotto (1303–05) called The Cycle of the Virtues. Surprisingly, this chapel can tell us a lot about the tarot.
Here the vices and virtues are said to symbolise humanity’s progress toward bliss or heavenly happiness. With the aid of the virtues, humanity can overcome the obstacles (vices) in its path. This came from a doctrine inspired by the Summa Theologica by Saint Augustine (400 CE) who was known for his interest in Neoplatonism.
As one walks down the aisle of the chapel, the vices and virtues are painted on the panel walls; virtues on the left and vices on the right. At the end of the aisle is the the Last Judgement.
The vices found here are not the traditional seven deadly sins of pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust. Here we have a different set in a slightly different order. In Christian iconography, the virtues were portrayed in two groups: the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance; and the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Here, in the chapel they are also organised in a slightly different order, an order that has its origin with Plato.
|The Seven Vices||The Seven Virtues|
|The Last Judgement|
At least some of these figures were originally Greek and Roman Deities. Fides was the goddess of faith, and Individua, the goddess of jealousy. Spes was also a goddess, as we have seen, that of Hope.
As one walks down the aisle in the Scrovegni Chapel, the vices and virtues appear on each side. The figure placed at the beginning of this path on the right is Foolishness, represented by a woman dressed as a jester with feathers in her hair and a stick in her hand — almost identical to the Fool of the Visconti deck. Opposed to Foolishness is Prudence, which Giotto depicts as a mature, intellectual woman, sitting behind a table. Next, we see a woman trying to tear off her clothes (Wrath) in contraposition to Temperance, who is calm and smiling. Injustice is seated on a ruined throne, has long finger nails and a sour face, while Justice sits opposite her, weighing the righteous and the unjust with a balance. Many of these images are familiar from the tarot trumps.
Infidelity is blind and holds a female idol while her opposite, Faith, composed, holds in her hands the Word of God and a cross. Envy, an old woman, burns in the flames while words in the form of a snake come out of her mouth. Opposite her, Charity, offers food from her filled basket, a symbol of abundance. The path ends with Desperation—death by hanging—who can only be relieved by Hope, a graceful woman who flies upwards to grab her prize, a shining crown.
Giotto though, has a secret. Hidden in this allegory are the seven planets and the pagan gods they represent. This is certainly not something that would have been tolerated by the church if it was explicit, and so has been subtly worked into the symbolism such that it is there only for those with eyes to see it.
The vices and virtues on either side of the aisle are the extremes of a third middle point, invisible to the eye but perceivable to those who recognised the symbolism. This only becomes clear though if we are familiar with the symbolic planetary qualities.
For example Prudence, which meant forethought or understanding, was considered by the ancient Greeks, and later by Christian philosophers, as the cause, measure and form of all virtues. He was considered to be the charioteer of the virtues and as such had his place at the top of the planets. Saturn, who’s place is also at the top of the list, stood for wisdom and age, so is rightfully equated with Prudence. Mars, the god of war is perfectly aligned as he presides over Temperance and Wrath. Jupiter is the king of the gods and as such stands for leadership and will. His virtue is therefore Fortitude and his vice Inconsistency. Since earliest times, the Sun has been associated with justice and so corresponds perfectly with both Justice and its vice Injustice. This symbolism is reinforced by the fact that the painting of Justice is positioned within the chapel marking the exact centre of the space, geometrically and metaphorically linking the centre point with the Sun — yes, the architects knew the ‘correct’ order of the planets.
Venus as the goddess of love is paired with Faith and Infidelity; a symbolism so obvious that it needs no explanation. Mercury as the god of money and merchants is paired with both Charity and Envy, and the Moon with Hope and Despair, both related to the Moon’s central theme of intuition or emotion.
As far as I am aware this alignment to the planets has not been noted before and is a key to understanding their relationship with the tarot in general and the trumps in particular.
Giotto’s frescoes perfectly illustrate Neoplatonic philosophy, describing the relationship between the virtues, the vices and the planetary spheres that rule them. It was the ascent and descent though the planetary realms that influenced the soul on its journey, imbuing it with the qualities of each planet. Philosophically, we can only pass through the gates of Heaven when we have perfected the unification of the seven vices and virtues, balancing the powers of each planet.
This alignment shows us how these layers of allegory were crafted to contain an explicit exoteric meaning; but also to have a potentially heretical esoteric meaning, as this clever web of metaphors hid the seven pagan gods in plain sight in a Christian church.
What is more relevant here is the fact that each fresco can, in most cases, easily be linked to a tarot trump, thematically or iconographically.
|0 The Fool||Foolishness||Saturn||Prudence||XII The Hermit|
|XI The Wheel of Fortune||Inconsistency||Jupiter||Fortitude||X Fortitude|
|VII The Chariot||Wrath||Mars||Temperance||VIII Temperance|
|(V The Hierophant)||Injustice||Sun||Justice||IX Justice|
|VI The Lovers||Infidelity||Venus||Faith||II The High priestess|
|IV The Emperor||Envy||Mercury||Charity||III The Empress|
|XIII The Hanged man||Despair||Moon||Hope||XVII The Star|
|The Last Judgement
XX The World
XV The Devil
XVI The Tower
Fourteen of the 22 Trumps (if we include 0 The Fool) have found a place as a vice or virtue. The result is balanced, consistent and speaks for itself. As these puzzle pieces fell into place, one space was empty and only V The Hierophant remained. The significance of the position he has thus acquired suggests a deliberate message, one that would not be taken kindly by the Church.
Upon the end wall of the church is the imposing and magnificent fresco of the Last Judgement by Giotto. It depicts Christ judging the departed souls. On the left hand side the heavenly ranks of angels, and on the right, the tortured souls of the damned. Each scene is thematically linked to the vices and virtues, with the vices leading to Hell and the virtues to Heaven.
Amongst these scenes of Heaven and Hell we can find the group of trumps that relate to the adversities. XV The Devil is represented by an Giotto’s image of the Devil. XVI The Tower—which in earlier decks was titled the ‘House of the Devil’ representing the underworld—can be found in the depictions of Hell. XIV Death is also to be found here, as death and resurrection is the theme of the fresco. Of course XXI Judgement itself is shown in the form of Christ judging the resurrected dead.
The last of the trumps to be found is XX The World. Traditionally it shows a naked woman in a mandorla — a vesica shape usually reserved for the iconography of the Virgin as she ascended to heaven. Other historical tarots depict the celestial rings of the Ptolamaic order, or the heavenly world of the afterlife. What they all share in common is the depiction of a gateway, a portal to a new world. These are all in accordance with Plato’s Myth of Er, the tradition of the four gates — two ascending and descending to Heaven, and two ascending and descending to a new life on Earth. The doorway of the vesica can be seen in Giotto’s fresco containing the image of Christ as the judge.
This brings the total to nineteen of the 22 trumps. The missing cards are XVIII The Moon, I The Juggler, and XIX The Sun. Of course, the Sun and the Moon can be found in the central column, the path of the planetary gods. This mysteriously leaves just I The Juggler without a place anywhere in the chapel. This bothered me for a long while until I made a deeper analysis of the trumps. As can be seen from their descriptions later in this book he aligns perfectly with all the qualities of Mercury, so we can place him, too, in the central line of planets. Thus, all 22 trump cards are accounted for in Giotto’s Cycle of the Virtues frescoes.
Roots in Antiquity
The numbering of the cards plays an important role in their interpretation. The sequence assigned to the trumps used in this deck follows that of the Tarocco Bolognese, one of the oldest tarot we know of. It also has some interesting properties.
If we divide the series of trumps in the centre, being XI The Wheel of Fortune, we create two balanced halves — 0 The Fool is outside this order, so is not considered part of the sequence. Each half comprises ten cards. Each half-deck can be divided in two again creating four sets of five cards, each with their own themes: the stations of humanity, the cardinal virtues, the adversities and the planetary spheres.
This same structure is also found in the ‘Mategna’ decks. The Tarocchi di Mantegna are two of the earliest known tarots, dated to around 1465–70. Its themes are overtly humanist or Neoplatonist, in that they are inspired by classical Greek thought. Although the design of the deck is not strictly a tarot it follows the same logic, being divided up into similar basic sets:
- The archetypal social stations of humanity
- The nine Muses with Apollo.
- The liberal arts.
- The cardinal virtues.
- The planetary spheres.
These themes are not randomly pulled out of a hat — they belong together, in the sense that they are all parts of the same scheme unified by the Greeks along the axis of the planets. According to this philosophy, in order to rise through the planetary spheres one must learn the virtues. In order to learn the virtues, one must study the liberal arts, and the liberal arts are ruled over by the nine Muses. Even the social stations had their place on the heavenly ladder.
[DESIGN: Insert Figure 11]
Figure 11: Music of the Spheres, wood cut by Franchino Gafori (1508)
This wood cut illustrates the correspondence between the planetary spheres on the right, the Muses on the left and the tones and intervals of the Pythagorean musical scale in the middle. The entire scheme represents the Hellenistic cosmos of Plato and Pythagoras. The seven liberal arts also fit into this scheme.
It is ostensibly the path that the soul takes on its journey through the planetary spheres, echoing the same themes that can be found in the Scrovegni Chapel.
A deeper look at the philosophy of the Pythagoreans reveals the same core themes that inform the historic tarot, as both represent the moral discipline of balancing the vices and virtues to attain spiritual growth. Traditionally attributed to Pythagoras, the Golden Verses was a text widely distributed during the Renaissance and held in great esteem as a form of moral guidance. We should not be surprised, therefore, that elements of these ended up in the form of a philosophical set of playing cards created during this period. Here, we find references to temperance and a balance in all things, and gluttony, sloth, sensuality and anger as vices to be restrained by the power of reason and wisdom.
To the avoidance therefore of these evils, four sorts of Vertues [sic] are necessary. Prudence in the rational part, Courage in the irascible, Temperance in the concupiscible, and lastly Justice, which is conversant about all the faculties, as being the most perfect, and comprising all the other vertues [sic] in it self, as parts. For which reason it is first of all mention’d in the Verses. And next Prudence, together with the best designs and undertakings which take their Rise from it, and end in compleat and perfect Justice.
— Hierocles of Alexandria, The Golden Verses
The Fool’s Journey
Let us take another look at the tarot trumps and follow the journey of the soul, letting the story unfold according to the clues we have so far.
The Fool is the soul who takes a journey through life. He takes on different roles as he travels through life, starting out poor at the bottom of society and working his way up as he ages, learning as he goes. He makes it to a position of power and fame. He masters his passions, becoming strong, true and wise. But calamity befalls him, and he is punished for his past sins. The wheel of fortune turns, and he eventually retires from the world to learn wisdom.
Eventually he dies, travels through the underworld, is stripped of his pride and his attachments. Eventually, he ascends to the light where his soul is judged, and he passes on to the afterlife, or returns to Earth to live another life according to his fate.
Imagine my surprise when I found that this story has already been told. In part at least, by the alchemist and Neoplatonist Ramon Llull in 1283, in the novel Blanquerna.
The central character of the novel was born to Evast and Aloma, a nobleman and his wife, who give their son an education based on religious and philosophical pursuits.
His mother tries to have her son marry the beautiful Cana. But Blanquerna persuades Cana to become a nun, and she later becomes an Abbess. The hero also faces sexual temptation in the form of a maiden named Natana in a scene comparable to that of VI The Lovers. This part of the book includes a description of the seven sins and virtues. Faith, Hope, Charity, Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance are listed.
Now having chosen a religious life, Blanquerna becomes a monk and quickly elevates to the station of abbot. In time, he is elected Pope. As he matures, Blanquerna listens to the advice of a “wise fool” named Ramon. He reforms the Church completely, with Ramon’s help, and finally becomes the hermit he had always desired to be.
The plot of Llull’s story is virtually identical to the story of the trumps as far as XII The Hermit, including the vices and virtues. Here, as in Giotto’s frescoes, Prudence and the Fool are seen as a pair.
In order of appearance, the trumps alluded to in the novel are:
- IV The Emperor — Father
- III The Empress — Mother
- II The High Priestess — Abbess
- VI The Lovers — He meets the beautiful Cana
- IX Justice}
- X Fortitude} — All the virtues are mentioned
- VIII Temperance}
- V The Hierophant — He becomes Pope
- 0 The Fool—Meets Ramon
- XII The Hermit — Becomes a hermit
With this in mind we begin to suspect that the trumps and the plot of Blanquerna are related in some way, perhaps drawing from a common source that is still undiscovered. The ideal life exemplified in this—when compared to the cycle of death and judgement as seen in Giotto’s frescoes—form the greater story of the ascent and descent of the soul found in Neoplatonism, Christian mysticism and the tarot.
Dante’s Divina Commedia
Many of these themes come together in La Divina Commedia, an Italian poem by Dante Alighieri completed in 1320. The poem is a description of the medieval worldview of the afterlife as it had developed in Christianity by the fourteenth century. Allegorically the poem represents the soul’s journey towards God. It is divided into three parts and describes Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.
The narrative presents an image of divine justice as punishment or reward. The work is a synthesis between Aristotelian ethics and Roman Catholic theology, especially that derived from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas who, if you remember, was the inspiration behind the Scrovegni chapel. Dante began this work a few years after the Scrovegni Chapel was painted by Giotto.
La Divina Commedia is comparable to the tarot because they both pertain to a journey through the afterlife, and they are both based upon the same root philosophies drawing upon the use of the vices and virtues and the planets as a means to perfection of the soul.
If we were still uncertain as to the meaning of some of the other trumps found in the cycle of the afterlife, La Divina Commedia clarifies these somewhat for us.
The first part of the story, ‘Inferno’, begins in Hell. This is divided into circles familiar from the Ptolemaic order of the planets. When he enters the infernal realm, Dante is immediately confronted with the cries of the damned, and after long descriptions of their suffering we meet the devil — three-headed, red, white and black in colour (the traditional colours of the goddess), winged and terrible. We meet the traitor Judas and another, “… whose heads are down”, hanging from the jaws of the Devil.
In the eighth circle approaching the centre of Hell, Dante, seeing tall structures in the distance, thinks that he sees towers. Instead, what he sees are the enormous figures of the giants who stand in a circle around the pit of Hell. The narrator compares the circularly arranged giants to the towers that ring Monteriggioni, a circular fortress built by the Siennese as a front in their war against the Florentines:
… Because as on its circular parapets
Montereggione crowns itself with towers,
E’en thus the margin which surrounds the well
With one half of their bodies turreted
The horrible giants, whom Jove menaces
E’en now from out the heavens when he thunders.
Sandro Botticelli was commissioned to illustrate La Divina Commedia in 1485, In some of these illustrations he draws the towers not as giants but as real towers ringing the pit of Hell. Another of these drawings in particular represents the Tower of Babel in the process of being destroyed. We see a collapsing tower with two men falling while others are lying on the ground, drawn in a way very similar, if not identical to the images of XVI The Tower.
[DESIGN: Insert Figure 12a and 12b]
Figure 12: (a) XVI The Tower from the Jean Noblet Tarot; and (b) Illustration of the Tower of Babel by Botticelli.
Antaeus the giant takes the two travellers, Virgil and Dante, in one of his enormous hands and slowly sets them down at the base of an enormous well. They are now in the Ninth Circle of Hell, the realm of traitors. ‘The Traitor’ was an alternative name for XIII The Hanged Man, who was sometimes compared to Judas. Judas has his own circle too, right in the centre of hell.
Virgilius, when he felt himself embraced,
Said unto me: ‘Draw nigh, that I may take thee’;
Then of himself and me one bundle made.
As seems the Garisenda, to behold
Beneath the leaning side, when goes a cloud
Above it so that opposite it hangs.
Dante here mentions the Garisenda, a famous tower built in Bologna, which around the thirteenth century was a city famous for its towers. Altogether, Dante mentions three towers, one from myth and two whom he personally knows and has no doubt seen — the Garisenda and Montereggione. Either of these towers can be seen today and either could have been the model for XVI The Tower. The towers in this context are symbols of power, of the will to dominate and of overweening pride as many were built too high and eventually collapsed.
[DESIGN: Insert Figure 13]
Figure 13: The Garisenda, Bologna, Italy.
Later in the poem (Canto XXIX), a triumphal parade is described. Dante witnesses a procession of various allegorical figures including a chariot (VII The Chariot). He then goes on to list the seven virtues.
The next part of the poem is set in Purgatory. The symbolism here will by now be familiar to us as the planetary spheres. Purgatory is a huge mountain on the top of which we find Eden, where the souls of the blessed reside. It has a seven-fold planetary structure in which the souls are purified from their sins as they ascend to Heaven. Towards the summit, the soul is immersed in two rivers by Matilda, who plays the role of Spes. The two rivers are named, Lethe, that brings forgetfulness of sins; and the Eunoè, that restores the memory of the good deeds done. Only then can the soul gain access to Eden.
The last chapter is a prayer to the Virgin — the beatific vision; the ultimate salvation. We now know why the Goddess is portrayed in XX The World. She is the Blessed Virgin, the Goddess, the Queen of Heaven.
Dante’s Divina Commedia encapsulates many of the themes found in the tarot and shows that they are both drawing upon the same sources, namely the journey of the soul through Heaven and Earth. However, Dante was not inventing these themes — he was following a much older tradition.
During his journey through the underworld Dante is accompanied by a guide called Virgil. This is a clue as to his inspiration. Virgil was a Roman poet, who in his masterpiece The Aeneid describes the descent of Aeneas into the land of the dead, and from which Dante drew upon for his description of the underworld. Aeneas in his turn was accompanied by the Cumaean Sibyl, an important Roman prophetess, symbolising that his journey to the underworld is oracular in nature.
In that ancient poem, one of the first things Aeneas and his guide encounter is a river. Here the themes and symbols of Spes are obliquely alluded to in the mention of bees, who the initiated would recognise as a reference to the goddess of the river Lethe.
 Meanwhile, in a retired vale, Aeneas sees a sequestered grove and rustling forest thickets, and the river Lethe drifting past those peaceful homes. About it hovered peoples and tribes unnumbered; even as when, in the meadows, in cloudless summertime, bees light on many-hued blossoms and stream round lustrous lilies and all the fields murmur with the humming.
Aeneas asks who these myriad souls are, and is answered:
Spirits they are, to whom second bodies are owed by Fate, and at the water of Lethe’s stream they drink the soothing draught and long forgetfulness.
Furthermore the souls of the dead must undergo spiritual cleansing, reminiscent of the punishments and adversities found in the trumps.
Therefore are they schooled with punishments, and pay penance for bygone sins. Some are hung stretched out to the empty winds; from others the stain of guilt is washed away under swirling floods or burned out by fire till length of days, when time’s cycle is complete, has removed the inbred taint and leaves unsoiled the ethereal sense and pure flame of spirit: each of us undergoes his own purgatory. Then we are sent to spacious Elysium, a few of us to possess the blissful fields. All these that you see, when they have rolled time’s wheel through a thousand years, the god summons in vast throng to Lethe’s river, so that, their memories effaced, they may once more revisit the vault above and conceive the desire of return to the body.
After this again we are confronted by an analogy of XVI The Tower, this time in the form of a castle, indeed a tower, containing “… the Titan’s brood, hurled down by the thunderbolt, writhe in lowest abyss”. Now we can understand the meaning behind Botticelli’s illustrations of the towers in Hell.
 Suddenly Aeneas looks back, and under a cliff on the left sees a broad castle, girt with triple wall and encircled with a rushing flood of torrent flames – Tartarean Phlegethon, that rolls along thundering rocks. In front stands a huge gate, and pillars of solid adamant, that no might of man, nay, not even the sons of heaven, could uproot in war; there stands an iron tower, soaring high, and Tisiphone, sitting girt with bloody pall, keeps sleepless watch over the portal night and day.
Again we find the theme of punishment for overweening pride and the urge to dominate others, only this time the fault is with the Titans, the old gods vanquished by Zeus to the underworld. After which, we learn of a triumphant procession where the heroes of Rome are named and honoured, not only reminiscent of Dante but also of VII The Chariot. The poem ends with the character’s return to the light and the land of the living, reminiscent of the themes found in XIX The Sun and XX The World.
The triumphal procession is itself analogous to the trumps, as it was ordered according to the importance of those taking place. Indeed, this theme of ordering according to virtue was the subject of an important poem written by Petrarch, The Trionfi, a series of fourteenth-century poems thought to have influenced both Boccaccio and Dante. Petrarch describes a triumphal procession as an allegory for the virtue of various moral and philosophical concepts such as love and time, arranging them in an order where one naturally trumps the other. By doing so, he follows the same logic found in the trumps and the pips and reveals the thinking behind both — by creating a ladder of virtue leading to God.
Both Dante and Virgil are making a particular effort to include the themes of the procession and the tower into this vision of the afterlife. They seem to have little to do with the main plot, making them seem a little forced and contrived — why is there a procession in the afterlife? This suggests to me that they are referring to an original format that we have yet to discover for reasons we are still unaware of.
A closer look at some of the trumps reveals a deeper connection to an even older source.
In the Sermones de Ludo dated to 1440 the card La Stella is listed, and it suggests the images of a woman praying to a star found in the early tarots. We see a similar image in Giotto’s fresco of the virtue Hope. Other images of this virtue from the period show her with an anchor, which we also find in the Cary–Yale-Yale ‘Star’ card. In many Renaissance works, the anchor was used to symbolise this virtue. Therefore, we can be reasonably certain that this card represented ‘hope’.
Later, this card takes on a different symbolism. The three kings of the nativity appear on the card of the Rothschild Sheet (c. 1590), with the star being the one they followed to Bethlehem, another symbol of hope. In the deck of Jacques Vieville (c. 1650), we see the image of an astronomer measuring the speed of five planets or stars with callipers and an hour glass and a tower with a clock. The message suggests architecture and astronomy.
In the Cary–Yale Sheet (c. 1510) the imagery changes again, but this time the references to hope are more archaic. Here, as in the Jean Noblet deck, a naked girl is shown kneeling while pouring out liquid from two pitchers into a pool. At first she appears to be a kind of Venus with long hair offering plenty; but to really understand her meaning we must go to ancient Greece.
Hope—or Spes in Latin—was a Naiad, a river nymph presiding over fountains, wells, springs, and streams. Here, the hope she symbolised was that of plenty, of fruitful gardens and of fields. She was often represented as a beautiful maiden in a long light robe, carrying a bud about to open or jars of plenty.
Originally she was a goddess of the underworld, worshiped in ancient Greek temples dedicated to her as early as the fourth century BCE. Her plant, as befits a goddess of the underworld, was the poppy. There is a painting in the Palazzo Te, Mantua, where we see the image of Spes holding two jars while pouring water into two streams in the manner of the Tarot de Marseille. What is she doing, and why the jars?
In The Myth of Er, Plato tells of the dead arriving at a barren waste called the ‘Plain of Lethe’ (Oblivion) referring to the river that induces forgetfulness. As we have seen this river is presided over by the goddess Spes — but this is not the whole story.
Mystery religions taught of the existence of another river, the Mnemosyne. Those who drank from the Mnemosyne would remember everything and attain immortality. Initiates were taught that they would receive a choice of rivers to drink from after death, and to drink from Mnemosyne instead of Lethe.
Pausanias tells us that:
of the rituals at the oracle of Trophonios at Lebadeia, Boiotia, He [the supplicant] is taken by the priests, not at once to the oracle, but to fountains of water very near to each other. Here he must drink water called the water of Lethe (Forgetfulness), that he may forget all that he has been thinking of hitherto, and afterwards he drinks of another water, the water of Mnemosyne (Memory), which causes him to remember what he sees after his descent … After his ascent from [the oracle of] Trophonios the inquirer is again taken in hand by the priests, who set him upon a chair called the chair of Mnemosyne (Memory), which stands not far from the shrine, and they ask of him, when seated there, all he has seen or learned …
— Pausanias, Description of Greece
This introduces another layer to the story, and places this journey through the underworld as part of a ritual visit to receive an oracle. The Mnemosyne is also referred to in The Odyssey:
Now at the harbour’s head is a long-leaved olive tree, and hard by is a pleasant cave and shadowy, sacred to the nymphs, that are called the Naiads. And therein are mixing bowls and jars of stone, and there moreover do bees hive. And there are great looms of stone, whereon the nymphs weave raiment of purple stain, a marvel to behold, and therein are waters welling evermore. Two gates there are to the cave, the one set toward the North Wind whereby men may go down, but the portals toward the South pertain rather to the gods, whereby men may not enter: it is the way of the immortals.
The image in the tarot of the girl holding two jars refers to these two springs, which makes the card’s meaning more specific. She is not simply a water nymph offering plenty, but an underworld goddess offering oblivion or immortality to the soul. As such, she was part of the ancient Greek oracles mysteries.
Although the early versions of XVII The Star were overtly Christian in their symbolism and may or may not have been assigned the same meaning, the imagery of the Tarot de Marseille contain symbolism that seem specifically chosen to illustrate this particular myth. This myth is part of the cosmic cycle of birth and death, found in both the trumps and the ancient Greek initiation rites.
We can go even further back in time. This story has its roots in a much older story told in Sumer, the Poem of Adapa. Here we have the waters, not of forgetfulness, but eternal life. If you consider it, these are the same thing in any cosmology where the soul is reincarnated. In this story, the water and food of immortality are not touched by Adapa when he stands before the gods, as he is advised not to by the god Ea. He is judged by Anu, the king of the gods, before returning back to earth.
The card XVII The Star is part of the symbolic journey through the afterlife. After passing through death, meeting the Devil and entering Hell, we come to Hope, the chthonic goddess who presides over the waters of remembering or forgetting, before the soul is accepted into Heaven or reincarnated again to earth.
Therefore, the meaning of XVII The Star is hope — as death offers rebirth, renewal and remembering. All her symbols now become clear: the bud (the expectation of new plant life); the Star of Bethlehem found in the Rothchild Sheet; and the jars of water in the Cary–Yale Sheet. In some versions of the Tarot de Marseille, she is slightly pregnant — again, hinting at rebirth.
There are many comparisons to be made between Plato’s story of the soul’s journey through the afterlife, some of the images in the tarot’s trumps, and the order in which they are arranged.
This card again suggests links to the journey through the underworld. The images in the early tarots of XV The Devil are typical of ecclesiastical images during this period, showing a figure in various postures, always with a face on his belly indicating consciousness lowered to that of the base appetites. He is typically shown with bird feet, wings, horns and is often shown devouring souls. The image from the Tarot de Marseille has many of these symbols but introduces some unusual ones. In these decks, the devil is shown holding a torch — usually associated with the ancient Greek goddess Hekatê lighting the way as she guides the souls of the dead. This detail is not typical of other depictions of this card from the period. There is also a female element introduced — breasts. She now presents as having two sexes. Two souls of indiscriminate gender are chained to her, perhaps representing their
enslavement to baser desires or their imprisonment in the underworld.
[DESIGN: insert figs 14a + b]
Figure 14: (a) The Burney relief; and (b) XV Le Diable from the Tarot de Marseilles. Both use remarkably similar imagery. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burney_Relief#/media/File:Relieve_Reina_de_la_Noche_(ca._1800_a.C).jpg
This image, oddly, has much in common with an ancient Babylonian stone carving known as the Burney Relief, dated to around 2000 BCE. This relief is thought to show an image of Inanna or Ereshkigal, both Goddesses associated with the underworld. The parallels are striking, both in general composition and detail.
This relief refers to Inanna’s primary myth of her seven-fold journey into the underworld to claim the throne as her own. She confronts her dark sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the underworld, and sits on her throne. Immediately after this act of defiance, Inanna is declared punishable by seven judges of the underworld, who deem her guilty of hubris and strike her dead.
After she had crouched down and had her clothes removed, they were carried away. Then she made her sister … [Ereshkigal] … rise from her throne, and instead she sat on her throne. The Annuna, the seven judges, rendered their decision against her. They looked at her — it was the look of death. They spoke to her — it was the speech of anger. They shouted at her — it was the shout of heavy .
— Wolkstein & Kramer
After three days, the god Enki sends two sexless beings to rescue Inanna, who escort her revived body out of the underworld. Coming across the waters of forgetting, the two beings are told by Enki not to drink of the water or eat the grain there:
They were offered a river with its water — they did not accept it. They were offered a field with its grain — they did not accept it .
— Wolkstein & Kramer
When Inanna finds her husband Dumuzid indifferent to her absence, the guardians of the underworld drag him down to the underworld as her replacement. He is eventually permitted to return to heaven for half the year in exchange for his sister Geshtinanna, who must remain in the underworld for the other half, resulting in the cycle of the seasons.
It is no coincidence that the themes in this story concern the journey of the soul, the underworld, judgement, and the cycle of life and death. As such, they entirely fit with the themes of the tarot discussed so far.
The Eleusinian Mysteries
An interesting pattern can be seen to emerge. The trump XVII The Star represents a goddess of the underworld who was an element of oracular rituals in ancient Greece. Plato’s description of the wheel of fortune describes a scene where the fates hand out lots to the souls of the dead, a deed similar to those performed at oracle temples, such as at Delphi. XV The Devil appears to illustrate the story of Inanna and her decent into the underworld, a story known to the Greeks as that of Demeter and Kórē (Persephone). Is this myth linked to an oracle? As it turns out these are also the very themes enacted in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
The Lesser Mysteries were intended to symbolize the condition of the soul while subservient to the body, and the liberation from this servitude, through purgative virtues, was what the wisdom of the Ancients intended to signify by the descent into Hades and the speedy return from those dark abodes .
— Dudley Wright, The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites
The Eleusinian Mysteries (also known as the Mysteries of Demeter and Kórē) were centred around a belief in life after death. It was a celebration of the immortality of the soul, and the cycles of life in nature and in humans. The central myth of the Mysteries was Demeter’s quest for her lost daughter, who had been abducted by Hades, lord of the underworld.
As this rite bares many resemblances to the themes in the trumps it might be worth looking at in greater detail.
Demeter is an aspect of the earth goddess Ge, and as such is the goddess of nature, in particular, the harvest. Demeter’s daughter (literally, ‘kórē’) was kidnapped by Hades to make her his queen. Mourning for her lost daughter, Demeter searched the world in vain. This story is told by Homer in his Hymn to Demeter:
Thereafter, for nine days did the Lady Demeter wander all over the earth, holding torches ablaze in her hands. Not once did she take of ambrosia and nectar, sweet to drink, in her grief, nor did she bathe her skin in water.
— Homer, Hymn to Demeter
Eventually she is joined by Hekatê, the goddess of the underworld, and together they continue the search for Persephone.
But when the tenth bright dawn came upon her, Hekatê came to her, holding a light ablaze in her hands.
Finally she comes to rest by a well in the city of Eleusis.
She sat down near the road, sad in her heart at the well called Parthenion [the Virgin’s Place], where the people of the polis used to draw water. She sat in the shade, under the thick growth of an olive tree.
While in disguise, Demeter is taken to meet the Queen of Eleusis. She is first offered a drink of wine, which she refuses, then a potion of minted barley water, kykeōn, which she accepts. She is then charged with the care of the Queen’s son, whom she bathes in sacred fire to make him immortal. One night she is discovered and reveals herself as the goddess Demeter. She demanded that the people build her a temple in Eleusis, and in return she would teach the art of agriculture to the Queen’s son.
Without the maiden Persephone—“the seed”—Demeter refuses to bring fertility to the land. The world withers and grows nothing; until Zeus dispatched Hermes down to Hades, bidding the lord of the underworld to give Persephone up and return her to her mother. However, Hades had tricked her into eating some pomegranate seeds (the food of the underworld), the eating of which binds one there forever. Eventually it was agreed Persephone would spend a third the year with Hades in the underworld and the rest with her mother on earth.
Homer’s account of the story of Demeter is not simply a fairy tale — it is also an initiation ritual. He ends his account with this:
… She [Demeter) revealed to them the way to perform the sacred rites, and she pointed out the ritual to all of them the holy ritual, which it is not at all possible to ignore, to find out about, or to speak out. The great awe of the gods holds back any speaking out. Olbios among earth-bound mortals is he who has seen these things. But whoever is uninitiated in the rites, whoever takes no part in them, will never get a share of those sorts of things [that the initiated get] once they die, down below in the dank realms of mist.
It seems that the myth and the initiation rite are closely related.
Although initiates were sworn to secrecy we can know a little about the some of the rites performed there by piecing together the fragments that time has preserved. Aristotle, who was no doubt an initiate, wrote of the Mysteries in his Synesius:
Initiates do not need to understand anything; rather, they undergo an experience and a disposition — become, that is, deserving .
In the Laws II, Cicero wrote:
….And as the rites are called ‘initiations’, so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope .
And Pindar wrote:
Blessed is he who has seen these things
before he goes beneath the earth;
for he understands the end of mortal life,
and the beginning (of a new life) given by Zeus .
— Pindar, ‘Fragment 137’
Initiates would travel to Eleusis from Athens in a ceremonial procession along the ‘Sacred Way’, twice every year, once in the spring—the time of sowing—for the ‘lesser mysteries’, and again in the autumn—the time of harvest—for the ‘greater mysteries’. They would enter the gates of the underworld, in the form of an underground temple and undergo a mysterious initiation, eventually returning to the land of the living. This journey re-enacted Demeter’s search for her lost daughter, a symbol of the changing seasons and the renewal of life.
[Design: insert Figure 15]
Figure 15: the Ninnion Tablet dated to around the mid-4th century BCE.
A votive plaque discovered in the sanctuary at Eleusis known as the Ninnion Tablet depicts elements of the Eleusinian mysteries. Look carefully, we can see that some of the initiates are holding rods of myrtle over their shoulders, while some carry bundles tied to a stick, reminiscent of 0 The Fool.
The Rites of the Greater mysteries
The rites of Eleusis were dedicated to the triple goddess in the form of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone, who all participate in the ritual. It was aligned poetically with the three phases of the moon. The festivities began after sunset at on the first full moon, the Harvest Moon.
The ritual consisted of three parts — the descent into the underworld, the journey of search, and the ascent to the earth. Three stages of initiation were offered to the participants. This festival lasted nine days, each of which had their own festivities:
The nine days of the Festival are said to be significant of the descent of the soul. The soul, in falling from her original, divine abode in the heavens, passes through eight spheres, viz. the inerratic sphere and the seven planets, assuming a different body and employing different energies in each, finally becoming connected with the sublunary world and a terrene body on the ninth .
— Dudley Wright, The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites
There is some disagreement about the exact length of the festival. Some scholars claim that there were ten days of festivities, which is entirely in keeping with sacred traditions, and can also be found in La Divina Commedia and the Ptolemaic order of the heavens. Other sources claim that the festivities took place for seven days. Either way, these numbers highlight the planetary symbolism of the length of the festival.
If each day was meant to represent a stage on this journey of the soul. Although information is scarce and sometimes contradictory, we can glean the basic structure of the rites from the fragments available.
The Order of the Festival
In a procession called the hiera, sacred objects contained in a round basket were taken in parade from Eleusis to Athens, where they were ceremonially received and placed in the Eleusinium.
The second day was known as ‘the gathering’. On this day the árchōn basileús (magistrate–king who resided over ceremonies) presided over all the cults of the city and made a proclamation. The hierophantēs (male high priest) and the dadouchoi (torch bearers) read a proclamation that calls forth the initiates. A sacred vow of silence is made.
The celebrants, together with their guide, would take a ritual purification in the sea, washing themselves and their piglet, which is to be sacrificed later.
A day of sacrifice in honour of Demeter. It was known as ‘the Day of Mourning’, and was supposed to commemorate Demeter’s grief at the loss of Kórē.
The festival of Epidauria was dedicated to the god of healing and prophetic dreams, Asklepios. On this day, those participants who arrived late are purified, healing rites and dream prophesies are performed.
The procession from Athens to Eleusis began, with the priests and the sacred objects riding in carriages. At the head of the procession was a statue of Iacchos, a cult deity associated with the Mysteries. The mystai (initiates) wore garlands of myrtle and carried branches of myrtle tied with wool. Upon reaching the river Kephisos, they crossed the bridge as onlookers hurled insults, jeers, mockery and abuse at the celebrants .This was in honor of the dirty jokes made by Iambe (also known as Baubo) to Demeter, making her smile as she mourned the loss of her daughter.
An all-night vigil called pannychis was held involving revelry, dancing and offerings. Then they would sit down by the well as Demeter had, and consume the ritual drink the kykeōn made from barley, water and mint.
Demeter’s search for Kórē would recommence, followed by a communion with Demeter. The hierophant chanted the words which each initiate repeated:
This formula is said to have been the password leading to the third degree. They would then enter the gates into the initiation hall, the underworld where the mysteries would take place.
Ancient sources tell us that this day consisted of “things enacted, things said, and things shown.” The Gnostic, Hippolytus, tells us that an “ear of grain” was revealed to the initiates. According to Plutarch, the initiate “beheld a great light, as when the anaktoron opens, changes his behavior and falls silent and wonders .”
In Aristophanes’ play The Frogs, the events upon entering the underworld are described:
[Heracles:] … After this you will see serpents and wild beasts in countless numbers and very terrible. Then a great slough and overflowing dung; and in this yo’’ll see lying any one who ever yet at any place wronged his guest or beat his mother, or smote his fathe’’s jaw, or swore an oath and foreswore himself … And next a breathing of flutes shall be wafted around you, and you shall see a very beautiful light, even as in this world, and myrtle groves, and happy choirs of men and women, and a loud clapping of hands.
[Dionysos:] And who are these people, pray?
[Heracles:] The initiated.
— Aristophanes, The Frogs
The entry into the underworld is described:
Admission to the second degree took place during the night between the sixth and seventh days of the celebration of the Mysteries, the candidates being led blindfolded into the temple and the ceremony opened with prayers and sacrifices by the second Archon. The candidates were crowned with myrtle wreaths, and, on entering the building, they purified themselves in a formal manner by immersing their hands in the consecrated water …
— Dudley Wright, The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites
Celebrants when finally initiated would wear the crown of myrtle, sacred to the goddess. This is clearly stated by Theon of Smyrna:
And the fourth [Initiation], which is the end and design of inspection, is the binding of the head and fixing the crown, so that the initiated may, by this means, be enabled to communicate to others the sacred rites in which he has been instructed. Whether after this he becomes a torch-bearer, or an interpreter of the Mysteries, or sustains some other part of the sacerdotal .
— Wright? (Theon of SmyrnaJ
… Within a few minutes the apartment in which they were was plunged in total darkness. Lamentations and strange noises were heard; terrific peals of thunder resounded, seemingly shaking the very foundations of the temple; vivid flashes of lightning lit up the darkness, rendering it more terrible, while a more persistent light from a fire displayed fearful forms. Sighs, groans, and cries of pain resounded on all sides, like the shrieks of the condemned in Tartarus.
The novitiates were taken hold of by invisible hands, their hair was torn, and they were beaten and thrown to the ground. Then a faint light became visible in the distance and a fearful scene appeared before their eyes. The gates of Tartarus were opened and the abode of the condemned lay before them. They could hear the cries of anguish and the vain regrets of those to whom Paradise was lost for ever. They could, moreover, witness their hopeless remorse: they saw, as well as heard, all the tortures of the condemned.
The Furies, armed with relentless scourges and flaming torches, drove the unhappy victims incessantly to and fro, never letting them rest for a moment.
Meanwhile the loud voice of the hierophant, who represented the judge of the earth, could be heard expounding the meaning of what was passing before them, and warning and threatening the initiates. It may well be imagined that all these fearful scenes were so terrifying that very frequently beads of anguish appeared on the brows of the novices. Howling dogs and even material demons are said actually to have appeared to the initiates before the scene was changed. Proclus, in his Commentary on Alcibiades, says: “In the most holy of the Mysteries, before the presence of the god, certain terrestrial demons are hurled forth, which call the attention from undefiled advantages to matter.
At length the gates of Tartarus were closed, the scene was suddenly changed, and the innermost sanctuary of the temple lay open before the initiates in dazzling light. In the midst stood the statue of the goddess Demeter brilliantly decked and gleaming with precious stones; heavenly music entranced their souls; a cloudless sky overshadowed them; fragrant perfumes arose; and in the distance the privileged spectators beheld flowering meads, where the blessed danced and amused themselves with innocent games and pastimes.
— Dudley Wright, The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites
Of this, Manly P. Hall adds:
During the course of initiation the candidate passed through two gates. The first led downward into the lower worlds and symbolized his birth into ignorance. The second led upward into a room brilliantly lighted by unseen lamps, in which was the statue of Ceres and which symbolized the upper world, or the abode of Light and Truth … The caves dedicated by Zarathustra also had these two doors, symbolizing the avenues of birth and death.
— Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages
Known as ‘the Day of Earthen Vessels’, libations were made in honour of the dead, which involved the pouring of water from two vases. One was placed towards the east and the other towards the west. After the repetition of certain mystical formulæ both were overthrown, the wine being spilt upon the ground as a libation. The first of these formulæ was directed towards the sky as a prayer for rain, and the second to the earth as a prayer for fertility.
The festival ends, there are sports and a feast and everyone returns home.
The above description so clearly describes the later part of the trump cycle that I believe they are one and the same thing. They are both ladders to Heaven informed by the planets and virtues. They both represent a symbolic descent into the underworld and a return. They both use the same symbolism to describe this journey. The most important participants in the festival are all included in the symbolism of the trumps in the tarot.
The priesthood officiating at the sanctuary was divided in to six categories:
- Hierophantēs (Priests)
- High Priestess of Demeter
- Dadouchoi (torch bearers)
- Dadouchousa Priestesses (priestesses assisting the torch bearers)
- Hierophantides (two married priestesses serving Demeter and Persephone)
- Panageis (priestesses who lived secluded away from men)
Many aspects of the Eleusinian Mysteries are familiar terms within the tarot ‘The Hierophant’, ‘The High Priestess’ and the ‘Greater’ and ‘Lesser Mysteries’ are titles used by the occultists of the 19th century in their versions of the tarot, and not part of the original decks. Paul Christian, who named the cards ‘Major’ and ‘Minor Arcana’, made no mention of the Eleusinian Mysteries and was instead convinced of an Egyptian origin for the tarot. How the modern tarot has adopted this particular use of words is seemingly still a mystery, although the insight that prompted this nomenclature seems to be entirely justified.
As the Lesser Mysteries were said to be related to the abduction of Persephone—the descent of the soul into the underworld—we might well associate them with the pips which represent this descent using their number and planetary association.
The Greater Mysteries were focused upon the revelation of the immortality of the soul and were linked to the rites of Demeter. As we have seen, this is the very same theme found within the trumps.
The Eleusinian rites were eventually forbidden by the growing power of the Christian religion, the temple destroyed and the rites discontinued. This presents us with a contradiction. If the mysteries of Eleusis were destroyed how can they appear seemingly intact in the tarot? The Tarot de Marseille, where this tradition is most explicit, appear to have retained a deep understanding of the inner meaning of these rites but hidden it behind the obscure symbolism of the cards. This leads us to suspect that these traditions never did die out but simply lived on in secret.
It is probable, however, that the Mysteries were celebrated secretly in spite of the severe edicts of Theodosius and that they were partly continued through the dark ages, though stripped of their splendour. It is certain that many rites of the pagan religion were performed under the dissembled name of convivial meetings, long after the publication of the Emperor’s edicts, and Psellius informs us that the Mysteries of Ceres existed in Athens until the eighth century of the Christian era and were never totally suppressed.
— Dudley Wright, The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites
If we compare these details of the Eleusinian Mysteries with the trumps, we find incredible parallels.
0 The Fool
The Fool begins his journey. During the procession, the uninitiated would carry a bundle on a stick as they walked the sacred way, reminiscent of the image 0 The Fool.
I The Juggler
The mystai had preliminary instructions and guidance from a mystagogós — an experienced sponsor, or often a friend, who mentored them through the initiation.
II The High Priestess
The High Priestess acted as Persephone.
III The Empress
Demeter, the mother.
IV The Emperor
The árchōn basileús (magistrate–king). The high-ranking official who presides at the Mysteries. His role is that of a judge.
V The Hierophant
The hierophantēs were officiates at the mysteries. Their role was to lead the initiation ritual.
VI The Lovers
In some accounts the High Priestess joined the Heirophant in performing a sacred wedding known as the hieros gamos. This was, after all, primarily a fertility rite.
VII The Chariot
A ritual procession along the ‘Sacred Way’ that included chariots.
XI The Wheel of Fortune
Oracles and fortunes are foretold upon the day of Asklepios.
XII The Hermit
XIII The Hanged Man
Sacrifice and rites of purification were performed. Punishments and the tortures of the condemned in the underworld were also part of the rites.
Demeter and Hekatê descend into the underworld.
XV The Devil
“… Material demons are said actually to have appeared to the initiates”. The Devil in the tarot likely represents Hekatê, as she was originally the Queen of the Underworld.
XVI The Tower
Centre of the underworld, symbol of destruction. “Pealsof thunder resounded, seemingly shaking the very foundations of the temple; vivid flashes of lightning lit up the darkness …”
XVII The Star
A ritual drink is drunk, the kykeōn that likely has psychotropic effects before entry into the underworld.
After the initiation libations were made in honour of the dead, the pouring of water from two vases One was placed towards the East and the other towards the West, and after the repetition of certain mystical formulæ both were overthrown, the wine being spilt upon the ground as a libation. The first of these formulæ was directed towards the sky as a prayer for rain, and the second to the earth as a prayer for fertility.
XVIII The Moon
Ecstatic visions and fertility. Madness and howling dogs are mentioned by Wright, a motif found in the Tarot de Marseille.
XIX The Sun
Revelation, light and heaven.
The innermost sanctuary of the temple lay open before the initiates in dazzling light. In the midst stood the statue of the goddess Demeter brilliantly decked and gleaming with precious stones; heavenly music entranced their souls; a cloudless sky overshadowed them; fragrant perfumes arose; and in the distance the privileged spectators beheld flowering meads, where the blessed danced and amused themselves with innocent games and pastimes.
XX The World
Return and rebirth.
During the course of initiation the candidate passed through two gates. The first led downward into the lower worlds and symbolized his birth into ignorance. The second led upward into a room brilliantly lighted by unseen lamps, in which was the statue of Ceres and which symbolized the upper world, or the abode of Light and Truth…
— Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages
Meanwhile the loud voice of the hierophant, who represented the judge of the earth, could be heard expounding the meaning of what was passing before them, and warning and threatening the initiates .
— Dudley Wright, The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites
It appears that there are meaningful comparisons with the trumps in particular and the tarot in general to the rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Whether we look at the general structure or the smallest detail, the comparison holds true. This is particularly true when we enter the underworld and the rites of the dead.
We know that Plato was initiated into these rites. There is a good likelihood that the description in The Myth of Er is a veiled reference to what took place at Eleusis which might explain the similarity between these descriptions. There are many parallels here with the seven-fold descent and return of Inanna, being the older version of this mythic chain of stories. This might even lead us to suspect that this too was an initiation in its original form.
The Transmigration of Souls
The occultists of the 19th century named the trumps the Major Arcana and the pips the Minor Arcana. Why ‘arcana’? This word means ‘secret’ or ‘mysery’ in Latin. Beyond the association with the mysteries of ancient Greece, are there secrets in the tarot or are they just obscure, therefore mysterious? The answer is, I believe, is a bit of both.
As we have seen, the tarot was mainly derived from Platonic and Greek thought. The trouble with these ideas is that they, in their essence, rest upon the founding idea that the soul is immortal and reincarnates in a cycle of death and rebirth. Followers of Pythagoras Plato, all believed in the doctrine of reincarnation. Reincarnation was first declared a heresy in 553 CE by the second Council of Constantinople. This was just one of the many problems the Church encountered as ideas from a Pagan past were disseminating through Italy.
In 1593, Giordano Bruno a priest and a Hermetic occultist, was tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition on charges of denial of several core Catholic doctrines, including his teaching of the transmigration of the soul or reincarnation. The Inquisition found him guilty, and he was burned at the stake in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori in 1600. It was dangerous to admit that you believed in reincarnation in Renaissance Italy.
Yet another layer to this puzzle is revealed when we understand that secrecy has been associated with the mysteries—especially those of ancient Greece—for millennia. It was punishable by death to reveal the secrets of the Eleusinian Mysteries and their details have been shrouded in allegory and obscure symbolism in order to protect the inner meanings from the uninitiated. The tarot is simply a continuation of this tradition into the modern age. As with many secret traditions this can lead to a complete loss of what the original meaning of the symbolism was intended to convey, as seems to have been the case with the tarot.
Revealed here are the secrets of the ages seemingly designed for the development and perfection of the soul. When we look back to the clues that brought us here—Giotto, Plato, Dante and Virgil—we might wonder if they knew what we now know. A closer look at Dante, for example, reveals certain details that suggest he was deliberately following the rituals of Eleusis. His descent into Hades in La Divina Commedia begins in the springtime as does that of Persephone. The structure of the book follows the same three-fold division as found in the mysteries —Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. The structure of the chapters mirrors the nine-fold days of the festival of Eleusis as there are nine circles of the Inferno, nine rings of Mount Purgatory, and the nine celestial bodies of Paradiso. Images of both Dante and his hero Virgil consistently show them proudly wearing the myrtle crown of the initiate.
As I pointed out at the beginning of this journey, the earliest tarot-like deck we know of was commissioned by Duke Filippo Visconti of Milan, around 1425. Maurizio da Tortona a humanist scholar and an astrologer, was asked to devise an allegorical card game based on the Virtues and Temptations for the Duke. The deck had extra cards depicting classical gods in each suit. There are no surviving examples of this deck so no one knows how it looked. Only someone with a deep understanding of the ancient traditions, metaphysics and astrology—including the rites of Eleusis—could have created the pattern which later became the Tarot de Marseille. An initiate, therefore.
I make no claim to have understood the tarot in any except the most superficial way. My knowledge of the Neoplatonic, humanist and Pythagorean philosophies has only scratched the surface of what I believe is still to be found hidden in the symbolism of these cards. I believe that the best interpretation lies in the ancient mysteries of Greece and perhaps even earlier. The tarot is as many have suspected — intimately linked with the mystic arts, the perfection of the soul and ultimately the rise of man to divinity.
My wish is that you, the reader, may follow this journey of discovery with the tarot as your guide and that it may take you to wisdom and perhaps eventually even to perfection.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR & ILLUSTRATOR
Jake Baddeley was born somewhere, lived somewhere and will most likely die somewhere. Whether he will go to heaven or not is as yet undecided.
As a soul on this earth, his journey is dedicated to art; he has been painting and drawing for as long as he can remember.
He became interested in the tarot due to a long fascination with symbolism and ancient myth. In uncovering these hidden mysteries embedded in the tarot he felt he was slowly being initiated, whether he liked it or not, into something of great significance and value.
He now lives with his wife, son and cat close to the sea writing and painting when ever he can.
Form more information please visit www.jakebaddeley.com
Aristophanes “The Frogs,”
Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer Diane Wolkstein & Samuel Noah Kramer
Andy’s playing cards http://a_pollett.tripod.com
(Aristotle, in Synesius, Dio, 10).
The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites’ by Dudley Wright (1868-1949), Theosophical Publishing House. 1919,
The Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries, by Thomas Taylor, 
Mylonas, George E. Eleusis and the Eleusinian mysteries Princeton uni press 1961
(Hierocles upon the Golden verses of the Pythagoreans )
Homer The Odyssey
Frazer. Golden Bough.
Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 39. 3 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.)
Plato Plato’s Republic. Francis Cornford translation.
Blanquerna. Ramon Llull
(Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies,
Ritual path of initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries. M L Keller
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BA Normal — normal body text. ‘Normal’ has 12pt spacing after paragraphs. So, with this style, there is no need to fiddle around with indents in paragraphs. It will format with a space between paragraphs (not a line break!).
BA Normal with Indent — normal body text, but indented paragraphs. ‘Normal with Indent’ adds the indent but doesn’t have the space between paragraphs. Use this if you prefer the indents.
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- BA List Number Paragraph (may need to manually reset numbering if multiple numbered lists are in the document).Numbered list paragraph (may need to manually reset number count if multiple incidences).
Suggest change title to:a) The Soul’s Journey Tarotorb) Tarot of the Journey of the Soul
- c) Journey of the Soul Tarot
Throughout the ms, this has been referred to as ‘the Cary Sheet’ and ‘the Cary-Yale sheet’ — which is it? We need to be consistent.
The Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries, by Thomas Taylor, 
Do we know where this Plato quote originates from? Which text?
No I can’t find it, not can Wikipedia who quotes it any way. Otherwise some other quote could be placed here
Perhaps you need to make explicit mention of the polarities created here:
Maybe we need to present the first table as an x,y axis showing the polarities?
I am fine with this. Can design supply one?
DESIGN: are you able to create a reproduction of this image?
DESIGN:Insert Figure 1If we can’t use this image for copyright purposes, how hard would it be for you to reproduce it?ED:Write caption.Check copyright.Cite source reference.
Design: This is my image. (Jake)
JAKE: we will definitely need to introduce this section to explain what all this information is.
- Explain the image, and how you’ve incorporated the geometric designs into your card images for the pip cards.
- Explain the idea of sacred geometry and its links to numbers 1-10
- Explain links between planets and numbers — is this the platonic sequence? Did you mention this earlier?
- Explain the link with the plant life sequence above.
DESIGN:Insert Figure 2ED:Write caption.Check copyright.Cite source reference.Peter Apian, Cosmographicus liber, Nuremberg 1524
DESIGN:Insert Figure 3
In the event we can’t get copyright for this image, are we able to do a version of it ourselves? It would look a little clearer anyway …
ED:Write caption.Check copyright.Cite source reference.I have redraw this image and the one below. Design should have them. Jake.
DESIGN:Insert Figure 4ED:Write caption.
DESIGN:Insert Figure 5
We have to re-do the captions above/under each symbol, as there are spelling mistakes.ED:Write caption.Check copyright.Cite source reference.
DESIGN:Insert Figure 3ED:Write caption.Check copyright.Cite source reference.
Design: also redrawn (Jake)
Perhaps an explanation of the image is required also? Just brief mention that Galen linked these to organs and body fluids.
I don’t know if you can make this table a little clearer and more concise?
A more intriguing heading here? Perhaps something along the lines of ‘the soul’s journey’ or something which sums up the themes addressed?
Perhaps ‘The Greater Secrets’ in order to match the previous sections?
Depending on what happens with text above, perhaps this heading won’t be necessary.
Insert image, Figure 7.
We will need to attribute this because it is a photo.
Have you got details of the copyright for this image?
DESIGN: I wonder if it’s possible to put the ‘definitions’ of the words next to the magic square, each in line?
DESIGN:Insert Figure 8ED:Write caption.Check copyright.Cite source reference.
Jake, we will need the copyright info for this image to attribute it appropriately.
Can we use curly brackets to encompass all three to point to the text “all the virtues are mentioned”
DESIGN:Insert Figure 10 (left) and Figure 11 (right)ED:Write caption.Check copyright.Cite source reference.
DESIGN:Insert Figure 12ED:Write caption.Check copyright.Cite source reference.
Ensure quotes are transcribed EXACTLY as they appear in the text they are cited from.
Where does this square bracket close?
Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 39. 3 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.)
Should this be a square bracket?
Ensure all quotes are transcribed EXACTLY as they appear in the cited source.
The phoenix was never mentioned in your commentary. Perhaps lose that, and include the other symbols you mentioned — the two jars, etc.
I adore this line! What a great segue
Do we have references to cite for this photo? We would need it for copyright purposes I imagine.
Same for the Marseilles tarot card
Reference neededPETERDo we also need permission for the two images above? REF:
Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer Diane Wolkstein & Samuel Noah Kramer
Jake: Yes we will definitely need to seek permission to use both of these images.
Ref:https://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section1/tr141.htmWolkstein & Samuel Noah Kramer
The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites’ by Dudley Wright
(Aristotle, in Synesius, Dio, 10).
Cicero, Laws II, xiv, 36
Pindar Fragment 137
We will need to cite reference and gain permission to publish this image.
Dudley Wright in Eleusinian mysteries and rites explains their significance:
The hypothesis on the presence of entheogens in the
Laura Magistrale in Scienze Archeologiche presso ‘Università di Padova
REF:(Plutarch, De profectu in virtute 81).
Dudley Wright in ‘Eleusinian mysteries and rites’
Where is this cited from? Is it from Wright’s book?
This may not be necessary if both these sections are from Wright.
DESIGN: can you group these three together behind one curly bracket with the explanation including all of them?
Is there no analog to the Hermit in the Eleusinian Mysteries?
Not that i can find
Have you mentioned Hermes or Orpheus in the text before? If not, it may be a bit confusing as to why they’re being mentioned now. We probably should only cite what has been mentioned throughout.