The History, Art, & Symbolism of the Tarot
A new book by Robert M. Place
Jean-Michel asked me to include an excerpt from my new book, The Fool’s Journey: The History, Art, & Symbolism of the Tarot, in this, the September issue of the ATS Newsletter, but first I would like to explain the focus of my book. The book started as an exhibition that I curated from the Craft and Folk Art Museum, in Los Angeles. The opening was on January 24, 2010. It had record attendance and received much praise, including from two articles in the Los Angeles Times. This exhibition was designed to focus on the Fool and the twenty-one trumps in the modern occult and divinatory Tarot as it is popularly known in Western culture. To fully understand and appreciate the Tarot’s symbolic and artistic heritage, however, we must look into its history and ask ourselves what the artists who first created these decks, containing these enigmatic images, were expressing.
The Tarot was first created in 15th century Northern Italy to play a trick taking game that is the ancestor of Bridge and, although evidence suggests that cards of all kinds have also been used for divination, the Tarot was primarily designed for game playing and continues to be used for gaming in many parts of Europe today. Like other popular art forms in the Renaissance, the Tarot was influenced by alchemy and Hermeticism and captured the Neoplatonic, mystical philosophy of the period. The Tarot can be seen as a window into the Western mystical tradition: a pictorial conversation between mystics and artists that has lasted over five centuries. It has continued to inspire mystics, occultists, and artists to create new decks and works of art based on its symbolism.
The Tarot’s mystical allegory is expressed in the enigmatic parade of images called the trumps. The term trump is derived from the Italian trionfi, which means “triumph” and refers to a type of procession or parade. This parade originated in ancient Rome and was revived in the late Middle Ages. By the Renaissance, it had taken on a mystical symbolic character and artists commonly made reference to it as an organizing principle and a means of illustrating an ascension to greater and greater spiritual truth.
The Fool and the 21 trump cards are unique to the Tarot and are designed to express the universal human progression to spiritual fulfillment. Through the trumps, the Fool encounters signs of inspiration, suffering, and death on his way to the final trump the World. A mystical vision of the purified soul, the World, is represented by a beautiful nude surrounded by symbols representing the throne of God. When the soul dances on the throne of God, time and death are conquered, and the Anima Mundi (the Soul of the World) is revealed. Now that the Fool, who is our representative on this journey, has achieved the highest spiritual goal, we may share in his tranquil wisdom.
The Fool’s Journey was designed to bring appreciation of the Tarot and its mystical tradition to a wide audience and to replace false notions about the Tarot with real history and insight. Once the exhibition ended, on May 9, 2010, I decided to that to further its goals and reach a larger audience I would create a book based on the exhibition. Also, in a book I could provide more information on the history and symbolism of the Tarot and illustrate it with more examples than were possible in the limited space of the museum.
The full color book begins with introductory chapters on the history and symbolism of the Tarot, a listing and discussion of the decks represented, followed by a chapter on the Fool and each of the twenty-one trumps. These chapters open with an illustration form my Annotated Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery (a set of images that I completed just for the exhibition) and then present examples from Tarot decks that represent key points in the Tarot’s 500 to 600 year history, side-by-side with related illustrations from the Renaissance. Alchemical texts, occult sources, and ancient Egyptian works of art. The decks included are the hand-painted 15th century Visconti-Sforza Tarot, my facsimile of the circa 1465-500 woodcut Tarot of Ferrara, facsimiles of the earliest Tarot of Marseille Tarots, created by Jean-Claud Flornoy, the first occult reference to the Tarot, the first occult Tarot, a first edition of Pamela Colman Smith’s modern popular Tarot, the first New Age Tarot by David Palladini, and my Alchemical Tarot, followed by examples from several modern designers, including: works by Paulina Cassidy (the Paulina Tarot), Chatriya Hemharnvibul (the Fenestra Tarot), Evan Lee (the Twilight Tarot), Ciro Marchetti (the Legacy Tarot), Thalia Took (the Alphabet Tarot), and Patrick Valenza (the Deviant Moon Tarot).
With this article, I am including sample pages from the opening of the chapter on symbolism and the full chapter on the Wheel of Fortune. As you will see, the discussion on the ladder of the planets in the Symbolism chapter complements the Wheel of Fortune theme. I chose this trump instead of the more obvious Fool or World because I feel that it represents the essence of the journey and the problem that challenges the Fool.
Robert M. Place
II. The Symbolism of the Tarot
[Figure 2. From Earth to Heaven, the Seven Ancient Planets as the Cosmic Soul Centers]
The Tarot is a creation of the Italian Renaissance and evolved into its modern form throughout the 15th century. All of the images that appear on the trumps are related to the art of that century and to the century before. Like all art from this period, that of the Tarot was meant to have both body and soul–physical beauty and symbolic meaning. The Tarot, like other artworks of the Renaissance, is a product of the rebirth of ancient Classical culture that gave this period its name and, like other aspects of this reborn culture, it derives from a synthesis of art, philosophy, religion, and mysticism. Tarot images and themes are therefore best understood in relation to two mystical philosophical concepts that originated in the Classical world and influenced Medieval and Renaissance thinking: the ancient view of the cosmos and Plato’s concept of the soul. Both of these concepts present a model for the mystical purification and ascent of the soul and that ascent is the message of the Tarot’s allegory.
The Ancient View of the Cosmos
Of first importance to the understanding of Tarot images is the ancient view of the cosmos and its mystical significance for the individual. From the ancient world to the Renaissance, the earth was believed to be a sphere located at the unmoving center of the universe and the fixed stars, formed into constellat ions, were thought to revolve around the earth from east to west. Between the fixed stars and the earth, ancient astronomers placed a series of seven crystal spheres fonning seven layers, each one encasing the ones be low as they ascended toward the stars. On each sphere there was a planet that orbited independently from the fixed stars. When viewed with the naked eye, these are the only objects in the sky that seemed to do this. The planets were each named after a god and, by the Hellenistic period, their order was determined by the speed of each planet. From the bottom up, they were: Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The planets were also believed to form a ladder between heaven and earth that the soul would descend at birth and, as it did so, at each planet it was given certain qualities by the god of the planet. Once the soul made it to the Earth plane, it was clothed in a body made of the four elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire; and subject to mortality and fate or fortune. This cosmic theme was described by Plato (429-347 BCE) in his “Myth of Er” in the last chapter of the Republic, commented on further by Cicero ( 106-43 BC) in his De Republica, included in On the Daimon of Socrates, by Plutarch (50-120), and was incorporated into the mystical worldviews of the Neoplatonists, Hermeticists, alchemists, Sufis, Kabalists, and mystical Christians.
The seven planets of the ancients were also thought of as the soul centers of the cosmos and corresponding soul centers could be found ascending the spine, from the sacrum to the crown of the head, in the microcosm of the human body. The Neoplatonist philosopher, Iamblichus (250-325), tells us in his biography of Pythagoras (580 or 572-500 or 490 BCE) that this older mystical philosopher developed the diatonic music scale with seven notes, marked by the seven vowels of the Greek alphabet, to capture the sound that each planet made as it orbited the Earth. This harmony was called the music of the spheres. Further, Iamblichus tells us that Pythagoras used this scale in a musical treatment to bring the human soul centers into harmony with the planets. Effectively, these notes functioned like virtues meant to cure the imbalances, or vices, located in each soul center.
Ancient mystics looked at the ladder of the planets as a two-way path. They believed that by entering a deep state of contemplation they could climb this sevenfold ladder while they were alive, let go of the seven endowments of the planets, and in this purified state enter the heaven beyond and receive a vision of their true immortal nature. This process is described in the first book of The Corpus Hermeticum, “The Poimanders of Hermes Trismegistus.” As we can see, astrological beliefs were intimately connected with the philosophical Hermetic goal – the achievement of enlightenment – and the process involved letting go of or healing the seven vices attributed to the gods of the seven planets: Luna’s force of increase and decrease, Mercury’s evil cunning, Venus’ lust, Sol’s arrogance, Mars’ audacity, Jupiter’s greed, and Saturn’s falsehood.
In alchemical texts, which also looked to Hermes Trismegistus as their initial source, the seven planets were equated to a hierarchy of seven metals: lead to Saturn, iron to Mars, tin to Jupiter, copper to Venus, quicksilver to Mercury, silver to Luna, and gold to Sol. The alchemists believed that all of these metals were made of one substance but impurities caused their diverse qualities. Lead, the most impure, fell to the bottom of the list but through alchemical processes it could be purified and transformed into the ascending purer forms of metal until it became gold, the most pure. Therefore, the alchemical quest to transmute lead to gold can be seen as a manifestation of this same mystical purification and ascent of the soul.
The Wheel of Fortune
[Figure 130. Fortuna, The Annotated Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, 2009]
Because of its name, the Wheel of Fortune may seem to symbolize fortune or good luck but, as we saw in the frontispiece for the Triumpho di Fortuna (Figure 86), the Wheel of Fortune is symbolic of the wheel of the zodiac and represents time and the physical world. The traditional symbolism of the image has more to do with the problem of fate and mortality than luck. This is the temporal world that the virtues are intended to challenge. The Wheel of Fortune is one of the two trumps present in the oldest existing Tarot, the Brambilla Tarot created between 1420 and 1444. The Visconti-Sforza Tarot contains a symbolically similar image. Winged Fortuna stands blindfolded, symbolizing ignorance or indifference, in the center of her wheel. Four men, symbolizing the four stages of life: youth, maturity, old age, and death, are positioned around the rim. The man on the left ascends the wheel and is sprouting ass’ ears, which are incised in the gold leaf background. Also incised in the gold, a ribbon issues from his mouth with a written statement that when translated reads, “I will reign.” On top of the wheel, a man sits holding a mace and an orb. He is crowned with full-grown ass’ ears and declares, “I do reign.” Descending the wheel headfirst, a man with an ass’ tail but no ears bemoans, “I have reigned.” Finally, at the bottom, a bearded old man crawls and says, “I am without reign.” These four figures illustrate the foolishness of chasing worldly fortunes and fame.
This image is a standard Christian icon that was often found outside of the Tarot. An example can be seen in the illustration from Liber de Sapiente (Book of Wisdom), a Parisian book on philosophy published in 1510. On our left, blindfolded Fortuna sits insecurely on a sphere balanced on a plank over an open grave. She is holding a wheel that is similar to the Visconti-Sforza Wheel. On our right, Wisdom or Pmdence s its securely enthroned on a stone cube. She holds the mirror of wisdom, a symbol of self knowledge. On the rim of her mirror are five stars, a sun, and a moon, representing the seven ancient planets, that similarly precede the World tmmp in the Tarot. Also as in the Tarot, the virtue Pmdence or Wisdom is dep icted tmmping Fortuna.
The same four figures, representing the four stages of life, but without Fortuna, are depicted around the wheel on the Tarot of Ferrara trump. Here, the ascendant has an ass’ head, the figure on top is a complete ass, and the descendant has an ass’ tail. Below, there is a prostrate old man with a beard. They each have a ribbon bearing the Visconti-Sforza quotes in abbreviated form. In the Tarot of Marseilles, the Wheel of Fortune depicts an allegorical wheel suspended from a stand by a rod with a crank handle. Except for the top figure in the Jean Noblet Tarot, the men on the rim have been reduced to foolish monkeys. The ascending one with ass’ ears and a tail, the surmounting one with a crown, a cloak, and a sword/scepter, and the descending one with an ass’ tail. The figures symbolize the three states ruled by Fortuna’s three daughters: Clotho (who rules the past) Lachesis (who rules the present) and Atropos (who rules the future).
De Gebelin recognized this figure as the Wheel of Fortune. He, however, interprets the three figures as humanlike animals: (from left to right) a monkey, a dog, and a rabbit. De Gebelin correctly describes the image as a satire on those who chase after fortune. The Etteilla a Jeu de la Princesse, influenced by de Gebelin’s words, depicts a wheel with a rabbit ascending, a monkey on top, and a man descending.
The Wheel of Fortune in the Waite-Smith Tarot is again strongly influenced by the occult teachings of Eliphas Levi. The monkeys have been transformed into Hellenized Egyptian deities. The human figure with the head of a jackal is Hermanubis, a syntheses of the Greek god Hermes with the Egyptian Anubis. He is the guide of the soul and represents the good. The snake is Typhon, the Greek name for Set, who is the evil brother of Osiris. The Sphinx on top represents wisdom and equilibrium. The letters on the rim of the Wheel may read ROTA (Latin for wheel) when read from the bottom, TARO, when read from the top, and TORA, when read from the top counter-clockwise. Between the Latin letters are the four Hebrew letters that spell the name of God, the Tetragrammaton. Levi calls it the wheel of Ezekiel, which explains the inclusion, in the corners, of the Four Living Creatures, which are included in the Old Testament prophet’s description of the Chariot of God as well as representing the evangelists. The alchemical symbols on the cross bars of the inner circle are, from the top: mercury, sulphur, solution, and salt.
The dragons on the Wheel of Fortune in The Alchemical Tarot are inspired by an engraving in Abraham Eleazar’s Donum Dei (God’s Gift), 1735. It is a detailed representation of the double ouroboros seen earlier in the Hierophant’s book (Figures 75 and 76). The scaly, red, masculine serpent on the bottom represents the Fixed State, and the white, winged and crowned, feminine serpent on top represents the Volatile State. Each serpent is transforming into the other as they swallow each other’s tail. This process had to be accomplished over and over changing the contents of the retort from gas to solid, and back, as the work spiraled to completion. The four elements in the corners refer to the elementary wheel of the sages in which the alchemists transformed one element into another until each element was realized. In alchemy, the Wheel itself was the means of conquering fate.
On the Wheel of Fortune in the Deviant Moon Tarot a morose thick-bodied Fortuna turns a carnival-like wheel of fortune to determine the fate of a suitably panicked imp sitting on a stool. Above, a devil raises two wands. On the wheel, there are images of heartbreak and death interspersed with a lucky star and a magic hand. This image accurately captures the Renaissance fear of Fortune’s unreliable gifts and unexpected downturns. This message is emphasized by the fact that the floor in the scene is a tombstone. Evan Lee’s trump also depicts a nightmarish scene, with his male figure immersed in a sea of industrial cogwheels and, although David Palladini’s trump is influenced by the Waite-Smith example, he has managed to set a sinister tone with a stern Egyptian head topping the Wheel and serpents rising on either side.
On this trump in the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, a blindfolded Fortuna stands in the center of the wheel of the zodiac. As in the Renaissance, Fortuna’s wheel is the wheel of the year. Between her and her wheel, are seven stars, representing the seven planets of the ancients. In the four corners, are listed the four humors, which represent the manifestation of the four elements in the human body. This image represents the mythical world of matter that was presented by Plato in the last chapter of The Republic, in which the soul descends from heaven through a gate in the zodiac and down the ladder of the planets to be incased in a body made of the four elements. Fortuna is the same figure that appears on the final trump, the World, but there she is uncovered and radiating her true essence.
images on the left:
Figure 131. Fortuna and Sapientia, Charles de Bouelles’s
Figure 132. La Ruota della Fortuna,
Figure 133. Cunning and Time turn the Wheel of Fortune,
Figure 134. La Ruota della Fortuna,
Figure 135. La Roue de Fortune,
Figure 136. La Roue de Fortune,
Figure 137. The Wheel of Fortune,
Figure 138. The Wheel of Fortune, The
Figure 139. The Wheel of Fortune,
Figure 140. The Wheel of Fortune,
Figure 14 1. The Fixed and the Volatile, Abraham
Figure 142. The Cherub of Ezekiel, The Ritual of
Figure 143. Blind Fortuna, Gregor Reisch’s Margarita
Figure 144. The Wheel of Fortune,
Figure 145. The Wheel of Fortune,
Figure 146. The Wheel of Fortune,