Monday, April 28, 2014


Ron Decker is a well known tarot historian, with publications going back to the 1970s and a frequent collaborator in some of the now-classic works of tarot history, most notably Wicked Pack of Cards with Thierry Depaulis and Michael Dummett. Now he has produced a long-awaited tome on the historical tarot, The Esoteric Tarot: Ancient Sources Rediscovered in Hermeticism and Cabala, 2013. Much of the book, although with key pages omitted, can be seen at

My focus in this post will be on his Introduction, where he introduces the idea that the cards are allegories. He even gives a dictionary definition of tarot which defines the subjects in these terms (p. 1):
 Tarot (TAR-o, ta-RO) noun [French < Middle French , Old Italian tarocco (plurach tarocchi)]. a set of carda depicting certain allegories and providing a deck for oracles and games.
He explains that tarot as a game is well documented from its earliest mention, notably in books by Michael Dummett. As oracles, he says, that use is not documented before the 1700s., first mentioned by Etteilla. As allegories, too, the first discussion in non-Christian terms is in the 1700s, when de Gebelin and de Mellet argued that the allegories were Egyptian. In this case, Decker insists that the cards were not Egyptian, but they were affected by an Egyptomania that existed in Italy at the time of the earliest known tarot cards, "albeit blended with classical and Christian motifs" (p. 7,not on the Amazon website)

In fact, he claims, the cards were hieroglyphs in the Renaissance sense. Decker explains that in the Renaissance a hieroglyph was not seen as something uniquely Egyptian, but rather an image that shows one thing but means something else, to those who knew how to interpret them. That is what they read in the Greek texts about Egypt, he documents later. This was a standard way of interpreting texts at that time, applying the tradition of "polysemic" interpretation of scripture (he cites Hugh of St. Victor, c. 1140) to poets' own productions, starting at least with Dante. He says (p. 8) that Renaissance artists
designed their own hieroglyphs with hidden messages. Renaissance intellectuals were fascinated by riddles enigmas and codes. Their meanings, when lacking a qualified interpreter, could elude the casual observer. This exactly what happened to the Tarot in its earliest days. In the very period when both the archetypal Tarot and allegorical art were most familiar, viewers complained that the trumps were a senseless mishmash.
And why was that? He says that if the symbolism had been based on some well known work, such as Petrarch or the Apocalypse of John, people would not have been mystified. Instead (p. 10):
The Tarot mystified most Renaissance observers because of the curious combination of images and their confusing hierarchy. Individual trumps, however, were usually familiar, quite apart from the Tarot. They were standard allegories. Apparently, the deck's designers used exoteric symbols to disguise esoteric systems. This process was fashionable in Renaissance iconography. Conventional symbols were rearranged to produce new allegories that were unusual or unique.
If so, how do we know what these esoteric systems were, given that nobody wrote anything analyzing the tarot sequence in their terms? It would seem that we will be lost in speculation, in which those of de Gebelin, de Mellet, and Eteilla are as good as any other. Against this, Decker has some sharp words (p. 6, not in Amazon:
Some modern tarotists variously bolster the Egyptomania and the pseudo-cabalism. The Egyptian magicians and Jewish mystics are currently asked to share credit with Sufi masters, Samaritans, Rosicrucians, Hindus, earlyh Freemasons, Eleusinian hierophants, worshipers of the Earth Mother, Dionysian revelers, Chaldeans, Celtic sages, and Babylonian priests. None of those groups, including Egyptian priests and Jewish rabbis, ever claimed to have invented the Tarot. Tarotists are undeterred and fabricate Tarot theories that defy the historical record. They exceed the interests and expertise of intellectuals in the Renaissance. The inflated constructions of most Tarotists are easy targets for sharp criticism from academics.
But can we dismiss all these groups so easily? The problem is that no historical group of the time claimed to have invented the tarot. Decker's criterion for what is allowed is a matter of what does not "exceed the interests and expertise of intellectuals in the Renaissance". That part is useful. However Renaissance intellectuals, artists, and their patrons were in fact interested in Dionysian revels and rites (see my essay at, the Chaldean Oracles (see, and what Jewish rabbis had said (, at some point in the 15th century. The only issue is whether they were so interested at the time of the tarot's invention, i.e. before 1440. That requires investigation and inference, as I have tried to do in the blogs just cited..

Decker concludes by saying that what is important is to study the iconography of the cards within the context of the times they were done. To make his point, he gives two examples, the cards numbered I and XXI, commonly called "the Magician" and "The World".


Decker says that the first trump, "the Juggler", is really the Agathodaemon, or "good demon", the helpful spirit, in Christianity known as a good or guardian angel. He was "usually represented as a boy, an old man, or a god" (p. 11). He gives no sources, but this much is supported on Wikipedia . He goes on:
The spirit, as a personal companion, also dispensed lots (in Latin: sortes, which relates directly to "sortilege" and "sorcery"). Agathodemon's lot indicated the kind of life chosen by the prenatal soul. The physical lot was a small token, usually a short strip of wood, papyrus, or parchment.
I have found no confirming source for Decker's assertion about how the guardian spirit related to the prenatal soul, much less verification that it was known in the Renaissance. In none of the texts he later cites do I find such an allegory.

Decker then shows us a woodcut by Hans Holbein the younger, the frontispiece to what he says is a 1525 Basel edition of the Tabula Cebitis, an ancient Greek allegory. Here it is (p. 13, not in Amazon):
What we are to notice is the old man at bottom center, holding a "wand" and with a "broad-brimmed hat", just like the Juggler's.

 Actually, what Decker has given us is a different cutter's not very exact copy of Holbein's original. It may have been done in 1525, but it is difficult to tell, because he did not give us the title of the book, which would have been in the center. But Holbein did do such a design, a metalcut, and it is of the Tabula Cebetis, done as the title page for a different work, Tertullian's De Patientia, in 1521 (see,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger.jpg). According to the British Museum, ... 6&partId=1, Holbein was inspired by a woodcut from a Tabula Cebetis published by Singriener and Vietor in Vienna in 1519, which itself was a second edition. It may or may not have looked like Holbein's. Here is the relevant detail:
As you can see, Holbein has not given him a wide-brimmed hat. He does have a rod in his hand. Whether it is a "wand" is not clear. (Also, "GENIUS" is spelled correctly.)

Decker says:
The "tablet" is described as an extensive mural or frieze. It probably never existed physically but was the author's literary invention to support a homily. It charts the soul's progress through the precinct of Life.
He continues:
Holbein shows unborn souls as naked babies. Each takes it turn consulting a bearded man labeled "Genius." (In the text the figure is called a daimon and a daimonium.) Holbein represents the Genius as bestowing a lot, shown as an open scroll of small size (figure 0.2). He admits souls into a landscape full of allegorical beings. They are comparable to some Tarot inhabitants: lovers, Virtues, hermits. The Genius is the only figure here who carries a wand and wears a broad-brimmed hat. He thus resembles the Juggler.
Moreover, wide brimmed-hats are "artificial signs of exotic dignitaries, such as biblical prophets, ancient magi, Christian apostles, Arthurian knights, Trojan heroes (footnote: Saxl, A Heritage of Images, 60). Decker argues (p. 12):
The Juggler's hat likewise identifies him as a native of a remote region, which, in this context, I take to be the abode of souls before birth. I would judge that the Juggler, as the first trump, stands in the same position as Holbein's Genius, at the beginning of a soul's journey through mortal life.

In the Tarot de Marseille, the Juggler's outstretched hands usually hold a wand and a circular object. The implements impress me as divinatory lots. At the ancient temple of Fortune at Antium, priests scattered small sticks and balls on an altar. The resulting patterns were interpreted to reveal the future. The Juggler, as Agathodemon, presumably casts lots and informs the soul of its mission in life.
As I read Decker's description, there is nothing even in this practice of priests (for which a reference would be nice) to suggest anything about a prenatal soul's "mission in life". And of course, as I have said, Holbein's figure is not wearing a wide-brimmed hat (see again,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger.jpg).

To find out what the old man is doing, one has to look at the text. As we have seen, Holbein's accompanying text was not the Cebes Tablet. But Holbein's design does seem to have been inspired by it. Cebes' Tablet, ed .Sandra Sider, mentions (p. 2) that
Holbein interpreted the text as a Christian allegory that pictures Happiness wearing a shining halo with Heavenly Jerusalem behind her.
Despite the various books this served, once one looks at the allegorical figures and compares it with the text of the book it is clear that , although dividing into two paths what in the book is just one, Holbein is illustrating the Tabula Cebetis. The paths both involve resisting the vices so as to be among the virtues. This is not on the face of it an unreasonable way of describing the tarot sequence as well.

Sider, amplifying on the British Museum's  says that the Tablet was first published in Bologna, 1497 (p. 3 n. 20), in a Latin translation "written by Ludovicus Odaxius (teacher of Bembo and Castiglione) and edited by Filippo Beroaldo" (p. 3).  Beroaldo, a friend of Pico and Poliziano, was professor of Rhetoric and Poetry at the University;  I have no information on the availability of the Greek manuscript before 1497. If the text is to be the source-document of the early tarot, this question is of some importance.

Looking in several English translations of the text, I found none that makes reference to lots being distributed at the entrance. The "genius" is instructing the souls as to the meaning of the scene they are about to tread, and what plan they should follow if they are to attain Felicity. A 1616 translation describes how the narrator, walking through a Temple of Saturn, chances upon a picture "hung up before the door of the Oratory" (p. 105 of EPICTITUS Manual. CEBES Table. THEOPHRASTUS Characters, by Io. Healey, London 1618, reproduced in Sider and also in Cebes in England with introductory notes by Stephen Orgel, 1980).

Our narrator, still inside the Temple of Saturn, sees a great enclosure, with a gate (Healey pp. 106-107; gere I modernize the spelling and punctuation):
In the entrance, there stood the picture of a grave aged man, who seemed to give some directions to the persons as they entered; talk had we about the signification of the portraiture, but none could conceive truly what it should intend. At last, as we were in this doubt, an ancient man that stood by stepped unto us, and told us: Strangers (quoth he) it is no wonder if this picture trouble you to understand the true meaning thereof; for there are but few of our own Citizens that can give the true interpretation hereof, as he that offered it intended.
The artist had been a stranger to the city and a follower of Pythagoras and Parmenides. Fortunately, the man saying all this had been his pupil and could explain the picture. Of course he is begged to do so (Healey pp 112-113):
So the old man lifting up his staff [1557 translation: rod] & pointing to the picture: See this enclosure, quoth he? Yes, very well. Why then, mark me: This is called LIFE: and the great multitude you see flock about the gate, are such as are to enter into the course of this life. And that old man which see with a paper in one hand, & seeming to point out something therein [1557: as it were showing somewhat] with the other, is called Life's GENIUS [1557: Genius]. He instructeth those that enter, what method to observe in their course of life, and layeth them down what they must follow upon peril of their own destructions.
As we see, there is no mention of the man in the picture having a wand, or even a stick. Holbein has given him a stick, but since the other old man is lifting his staff, presumably the one in the picture, too, is a staff. There is no mention of the hat either; Holbein gives him one, but the brim is not exactly wide like the Bagatella's. It is possible that the later artist was influenced by the tarot, I suppose; but now we are not talking about the 1440s and the origin of the tarot.

I can't identify passages in the Greek text, but I did check the 1498 Paris Latin edition (identical in wording to the Bologna, Sider says). Here is the sentence, with a little before and after:

It is something like "Senex aute ille superio (qui manu altera pagina quandatenet: altera nescio quid demostrat) Genius appelat". which I assume means something like, "the old man who has a page in one hand and points with the other is called Genius. Whether the text has him pointing to the paper is not clear to me. If he is, it is likely merely a copy of the picture, to illustrate the lecture he gives to all the new souls, for them to imprint in their hearts before they take the drink of what Plato called Lethe, forgetfulness, but here is called Error and Ignorance, which is in the cup of the first woman they see (on the left in the Holbein). One rather free translation of 1759 (The Tablet of Cebes, or a picture of Human Life, A poem copied from the Greek of Cebes the Theban, by "a gentleman of Oxford") actually says as much, about those souls who fail to follow the plan:
Each to the ruling Passion doom'd a slave
Mourns the loft[y] plan his Guardian Genius gave. (ll. 306-7).
And it concludes:
Such is the Plan of Life our Artist drew,
Observe the outlines, and his Plan pursue... (ll. 429-430)
Again, this is not an unreasonable interpretation of the tarot sequence. The immediate problem is whether, however, the figure we have been focused on can be identified with the Magician, or  Bagatella (otherwise meaning "trifle"), of the early tarot. I

I found another book, Cebes in England, ed. Stephen Orgel, that has a reproduction of the same woodcut as in Decker except that the center part, blank in Decker's book, is filled in with the title of a book by Strabo, and the date 1523. My scan is at ... Strabo.JPG

This figure, to be sure, has a rod and medium-brimmed hat.

In Sider there are other translations with other pictures. Here are a couple from a French version of 1541. First, of the first old man pointing to the picture in the Temple of Saturn. You see his cane:
And then of the Genius:

Here he's pointing and holding with the same hand! Neither has a very wide hat.

There is also the relevant part of a 1531 German version of the Tablet by Erhard Schoen, famous for his "Schoen Horoscope" (see the thread viewtopic.php?f=14&t=942) that shows figures very much like tarot trumps in the zodiacal houses (and I think "Huck" on THF found him listed as a cardmaker).

You see no wide-brimmed hat and no cane or wand on this one either. Since they were not mentioned in the text, they must not have been thought important.  I don't think holding a sign saying who he is will work as the paper he is supposed to be holding. But Schoen does a good job showing people drinking the cup of Error and Ignorance.That comes from Plato's Republic book X, the Myth of Er.

Yet it is still possible, even without the "wand" and "wide-brimmed hat", that the old man in the picture is in the same position in the allegory as the Bagatella in the tarot sequence, introducing the game--and the tarot sequence--as an allegory for life. It is also possible that the 1523 cutter who gave him a stick and wider-brimmed hat had in mind the tarot card in his particular way of drawing the Genius. As applied to the Bagatella, the Genius's Plan would be the Tarot Sequence, the 22 cards. If you keep them in mind, you'll reach Felicity, no matter what cards you are actually dealt.

In a card game, whether you win or lose depends on what the other players do. But if you keep the 22 fully in mind, you will have more chance of winning. Sider notes (p. 2):
Genius cautions the pilgrims that merely listening to his exegesis will prove useless, and even dangerous, unless they understand his words and fix them in their memories. The Tablet could thus be viewed as a miniature memory theatre.
The same has been said about the tarot sequence (see e.g. Andrea Vitali's "Giordiano Bruno and the Tarot", ... 23&lng=ENG).

If so, the Bagatella is in this way like a Platonic Jesus, now seen as teaching us his plan before we are born, before we forgot it and need the Gospel writers, who wrote it down when Jesus came in the flesh.

The Bagatella's hat, in relation to present life, may still be a symbol--not of far-away places, but rather of a far-away time, before we were born. Large hats in fact then were associated with earlier times, when people dressed more gaudily, as well as with exotic people, such as famous condottiere.

It is true that the Tarot Bagatella is usually depicted as young and clean-shaven, whereas Holbein's man at the gate is invariably old and bearded.  However Decker is specifically relating this image to the Milan-based tarot, which is in fact where the deck was made in which the Bagatella card first appears. In that one, the Bagatella is an older, bearded man. From Basel into Italy, one first passes through Milan. Also, the Agathadaemon was more frequently represented as young. So a change in the imagery would not be out of line.

Another allegorical context in which Holbein's frontispiece and the Cebetis Tablet both fit is that of life as an inn where one stays briefly on the way to eternity. "Innkeeper" (the Latin "propinat") was in fact the earliest known description of the Milan-based card, in Alciati's 1544 poem (quoted at The same concept, with exactly the allegory of life as an inn, was used by Francesco Piscina in his Discourse about the tarot in c. 1565 Piedmont, which is next to Lombardy ( see "Bagato che √® l' Hoste"--Bagato who is the Innkeeper", at When I look for depictions of figures similar to the tarot figure before 1440, I do not find conjurers, but I do find innkeepers (   In that spirit, the PMB Bagatella's "wand" (at left, could as well be a quill pen, with which he is writing his accounts.

I do not deny that the figure on the card is also similar to the Bagatella seen in the De Sphaera, done in the 1460s for Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan (at left, Perhaps there were different ways of seeing the figure, even in the same region.

The Tabula Cebetis gets us part of the way to one understanding of the Bagatella. In this allegorical interpretatation (and there are surely others), he is at the beginning, a kind of gatekeeper. In Plato's philosophy the soul is imprinted with the truths it needs before it is born. This figurecan be seen as a pictorial representation of that imprinting, after which the soul is allowed  entrance into the inn of life.. That is one way of being at the beginning.


Along with the Agathodaemon, Decker says, there was the Agatha Tyche, Good Fortune. And in contrast to both were the Bad Spirit, Cacodaemon, and a negative form of Fortune. In the "Holbein", he says, the negative form is portrayed on the lower right of the woodcut. She has wings, stands on a ball, and holds out some kind of prize (pp. 12-14, not on Amazon):
She is the ancient Fortuna, represented on a sphere to symbolize her instability. The poet Horace made Fortuna the ruler of the seas, inconstant and unpredictable. Her attributed can be nautical, such as a rudder or a sail. In the Renaissance, her perch often became a world globe, symbolic of her power over the whole universe.
This analysis of the figure in the woodcut (and in Holbein's original, which does a better job with the wings) is correct. But whether the figure who stands on a globe of the world is another thing. He offers nothing in the Renaissance to correspond to such an image except a tarot card. one from a Florentine deck of the late 15th century usually called the Charles VI;  the card is usually called "The World". His interpretation of the Charles VI card seems to me debatable: a lady standing on a ball, the only attribute of Fortune here (assuming that a circle with hills in it counts as Fortune's ball), does not here indicate instability, but rather triumph over the world, as indeed Decker says. It is merely that instead of unstable fortune, she is is Good Fortune. But what substantiates Decker's claim? Edgar Wind (Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance, p. 101 and figure 53) analyzed the Renaissance symbol of a lady on a ball as indicating the attribute of fast-moving, and the lady as Opportunity ( The drawing as a whole (school of Mantegna, c. 1470) illustrates the motto Festina lente, make haste slowly. The fleetingness of opportunity is something close to instability, in that it doesn't last long. But it is not the same thing as either Good or Bad Fortune. As for the octagonal halo, it was used to indicate virtues rather than goddesses. Neither Fortune nor Opportunity is in any list of virtues from that time or earlier that I know of. Opportunities are sometimes deceiving. In Wind's example, the youth is restrained by Wisdom, who stands on a very stable--and unoving--cube.

In favor of his interpretation, Decker offers us two cards of a later time,  of the "Anonymous Parisian: deck of the 17th century (, and one from the cardmaker Hautot in Rouen of the early 18th century ( A naked lady not only stands on a globe but also holds a sail. On these cards the subject is named "Le Monde". It is again a globe of the world--or better, the material universe, since there is a sun, moon, and stars as well as buildings and hills. But as I say, the lady could also be Opportunity, with all its risks. There is still no reason to think that the 15th century card, which has no sail (suggesting fast movement), has the same meaning as these later ones.

He also offers an "Egyptian connection": a passage in the 2nd century Latin writer Apuleius's Metamorposes (also known as the Golden Ass) in which a priest of Isis contrasts the two Fortunes, a "Fortune blind and iniquitous" of robbers, wild beasts, and daily exposure to the fear of death, to that of "the Fortune "who can see, and who also illuminates the other Gods with the splendour of her light", a "saviour Goddess" identical with Isis. Decker notes that Apuleius has his hero follow with "truimphant steps". And (p. 17):
"Triumphs" was the original name of the tarot cards. Were they so-called merely because they resembled the allegorical parades, also termed "triumphs" in Renaissance Italy? Or did someone interpret the allegorical cards as culminating in the triumph of Isis?
It is a question worth asking, certainly. However in Christianity what corresponds to Isis as a savior-figure is not Good Fortune but Providence, which works in mysterious ways. Saviors do not always bring good fortune. Sometimes they bring adversity and even death, so that by our choice we can free ourselves from the snares of temptation. She is Good Fortune, even in Apuleius's novel, only n a non-material, spiritual sense. This is a distinction that needs to be made.

Decker goes on to note that besides a good and bad fortune, there was in Roman times a bad as well as good daemon. The Bad Demon, the Cacodemon, would of course correspond to the Devil card.


Now we come to his general thesis about the early tarot. It is that the cards originally were designed by someone knowledgeable about Greco-Roman writers enchanted by Egypt (p. 17):
I will again cite Apuleius, as well as other Roman authors, notably Manilius, Nicomachus of Gerasa, Lactantius, Macrobius, and Martianus Capella. They were not from Egypt, but some were enchanted by Egyptian lore. Most were Platonists. All were highly regarded by Renaissance intellectuals. The trump cards unexpectedly illustrate rare ideas from rare manuscripts and therefore are difficult to identify at a glance. This partially explains why the trumps have avoided easy analysis.
And, after discussing Christian elements in the Devil card (p. 18):
Other Christian concepts and cliches re prominent in the trumps. I conclude that their cretors were Christian Platonists (possibly Hermetists) with an interest in Egyptian Platonism (essentially Hermetism).
In the remainder of the Introduction, Decker talks about the possibility of cabalist influence on the early tarot. He says (p. 19)
Cabalistic literature was abstruse in its subject matter, written in a demanding language, in scarce manuscripts, scrutinized in secret, and jealously guarded by Jewish cliques. If a christian Hermetist succeeded in overcoming those obstacles, why do we not have the name of such an independent and intelligent person?
Only in 1486 did Pico della Mirandola begin to legitimize cabalistic studies among Christians. He makes no mention of Tarot cards.By the early 1500s, Christian esoterists certainly were blending Hermetism and cabalism. A famous example is Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa's De Occulta Philosophia (Cologne 1533). He makes no mention of Tarot cards.
The problem is that nobody mentioned tarot cards in any other esoteric context either, including those who wrote in areas that Decker thinks did influence the early tarot: astrology, Pythagoreanism, Hermes Trismegistus, etc. Pictorial art, even when obviously symbolic, simply wasn't analyzed in symbolic terms by anybody then. It was left for people to think about them for themselves. In fact, even when people write that they can't understand the mishmash, I wonder if they are not merely, in a humorous vein, inviting people to think about them.

Also, we do know of Christians who had some understanding of Kabbalah before Pico.:Ludovico Lazzarelli was one,  who gained his knowledge in 1460s Padua (see Moshe Idel, Kabbalah in Italy, pages referenced at He is not at the origin of the tarot, to be sure, but he is not 18th century either, which is when Decker starts to see cabalist influence (p. 19, and also a later chapter). In fact Christians had taken pains to acquaint themselves with esoteric Jewish texts for centuries, if only for the purpose of converting them with their own texts, as Idel has documented (Kabbalah in Italy, Ch. 19, especially This subject has yet to be explored with any thoroughness. Given the prejudice against Kabbalah by orthodox Jews and against anything Jewish by Christians, it is not an easy to say anything about this with any confidence.

I have devoted an essay, with documentation, to how the tarot cards and subjects relate to Kabbalist and Kabbalist-inspired writings that were available in Latin in late 15th and early 16th century Italy ( It is a matter of correlating the 10 sefiroth plus the En Sof, as described in Latin then, with the 22 cards, once going down and once going up the "tree". I have no evidence that such writings were accessed by Christians in the first half of the 15th century, to be sure.

 So this is the introduction to Decker's book: interesting ideas, good methodology, facts that are partly right, reasoning not completely free of prejudice.. There is enough of interest to keep going.

Chapters 1 and 2


Chapter One continues the discussion initiated in the Introduction about the orientation of the original tarot as being Greek and Roman authors with a special emphasis on Egypt. All of this chapter is reproduced at Amazon's website except pp. 37, 40 and 43. Of these, only p. 43 contains essential information, on Horapollo' Hieroglyhica; I will summarize that information when I get to Decker's Ch. 3, in which he deals particularly with that text

Decker's main subject is the word  "Thoth", which for the 18th century authors de Mellet and Etteilla was so intimately connected with the tarot that they even called  the tarot "The Book of Thoth". Thoth is in fact mentioned in Plato's Phaedrus, a text he said in the Introduction (p. 9) was available in Italy from 1423; Decker cites Michael J. B. Allen, Marsilio Ficino and the Phaedran Charioteer, p. 5. I would add that although the part of that dialogue on the Charioteer, 246A-254e, was translated in the 1420s,  the part mentioning Thoth, 274C-D, was not, until Ficino's translations of the 1460s. However enough people would have known the Greek text in the cities of the early tarot that its unavailability in Latin is not important. Plato writes:
I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who [274d] invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters.
Plato, in turn was supposed to have studied in Egypt. Decker writes, p. 27:
According to Clement of Alexandria, Plato was the pupil of Sechuphis of On [footnote 1: Clement of Alexandria [Titus Flavius Clemens], Stromata, I, 15, 69. Plutarch names Sechuphis of On as one of Plato's Egyptian tutors [footnote 2: On the Daimon of Socrates, 578].
After Plato the Corpus Hermeticum combined Egyptian religion with Greek mythology and philosophy, he says. The Corpus arrived in Italy in the 1460s, Decker says, p. 29 (actually, 1460 precisely, per Wikipedia), too late to have influenced the original tarot. However Latin intermediaries were enough to have influenced the imagery and order of the original trumps. This is a promisory note on which he will have to deliver.

In the rest of the chapter, Decker gives a brief rundown of numerous references to either Thoth or "the Egyptian Mercury" in numerous classical works available in Latin, Christian as well as pagan: Cicero, Manilius, Apuleius, Tertullian, Cyprian, the Latin Aesclepius, Lactantius, Julius Firmicus Maternus, Ammianus (p. 37, omitted by Amazon), Augustine, and Martianus Capella (partly omitted by Amazon). Then he turns to Hieroglyphs. discussed in Greek by Clement of Alexandria, Plotinus, and finally "Horapollo", author of the Hieroglyphica  (omitted by Amazon). This is actually only a partial list. Others are conveniently quoted at the end of Boas's translation of Horapollo. He does not document that all of these authors were known in early 15th century Italy, but I have checked and all were except possibly Clement, for whom there is no evidence until Ficino's time (

In sum: this is a promising introduction.


Chapter Two discusses the evolution of the suit cards. He says that they evolved from dice via domino cards, 21 of them for each combination of two dice, which the Chinese duplicated and reduplicated to make decks of cards, but without suits. From this point on Amazon stops giving us a free look at Decker's book.

The next deck known is that of the Moguls in Central Asia, which the Muslims introduced from Persia into India; it had 8 suits of 10 number cards plus 2 courts. Research leading to this conclusion was presented by Michael Dummett in his 1980 Game of Tarot. Decks also went west to the Mamelukes in Egypt, probably after the lifting of a papal embargo on Muslim goods in 1344; at that time the Mameluks were favored by Italian shippers (p. 50). Their deck had 4 suits with 3 courts (p. 46f).

Decker does not mention where else cards went, since his focus is on Italy. They of course went other places in the Mediterranean , e.g. Marseille, Barcelona, In Spain, Muslims still controlled the South, and many Muslims lived in Christian territory. They were also found in Northern Europe in the 14th century, but with a very different look. Dummett's focus on Central Asia offers a possible explanation for this difference.

Given that the cards had already spread to Central Asia, it seems to me that it cannot be excluded that cards went to Northern Europe by a different route than via the Mediterranean. In the 1340s the Plague raged throughout the Mediterranean area, as it did through much of Northern Europe. However Prague was relatively free of it, and would likely have preferred cards that had not passed through Plague-infested areas (on beliefs about the relationship between paper and the spread of the Plague, there is a line in a late 15th century sonnet by Luigi Pulci of Florence).That would explain why German cards have a very different look than those of the Mediterranean, with types of trees rather than the Italian suits of cups, coins, staves, and swords.

Also, the Mamelukes themselves had come from between the Black and Caspian Seas. That is rather close to the trade routes through Central Asia. They might have brought the cards with them.

None of this is discussed by Decker, but it seems consistent with his presentation.

Decker advances a theory about hidden astrological significances in ordinary cards, starting with the Mogul suits, which he hypothesize happened when the 8 suits reached the city of Harran in what is now eastern Turkey, a city that he says had retained its worship of the Greco-Roman gods and something of Hermetism (p. 52). Decker assumes they had the Corpus Hermeticum; but checking his source, Copenaver's translation with commentary of the Corpus, I see that it speaks only of "Hermetic magical practices" there. Decker says that in Hermetism Thoth was associated with the Moon, as opposed to Selene, Diana, and other female goddesses. I am not sure where Decker gets that information.. It is not in the Corpus Hemeticum that I can find, I see that association only in Copenhaver's notes to his translation, as a fact about the historical Thoth in Egypt and not something in the Hermetica. There is in these dialogues, to be sure, the pupil "Tat", but he is hardly the god himself, nor is he associated with the moon. I have searched the ancient secondary sources as well, but of course not everything.

For Decker the 8 suits were each given one of the planets, plus the "Part of Fortune", which in astrology had to do with material fortune. His argument is to compare the colors of the Mogul suits with those associated with these entities in writings about the temples of the gods in Harran (p. 58); he finds a close match and thus identifies each of the eight with the corresponding astrological entity (p. 56). Somehow the suits were reduced to four, those planetary entities associated with fire and water, which are the first elements created in the Hermetic creation myth. He gives no reference, perhaps he is referring  to the creation myth at the beginning of the Poimandres,  p. 1 of Copenhaver's Hermetica, in which the narrator describes a vision bestowed on him by Poimandres, the "mind of sovereignty", i.e. the nous (mind) of Platonism and other systems:
I saw an endless vision in which everything became light - clear and joyful - and in seeing the vision I came to love it. After a little while, darkness arose separately and descended - fearful and gloomy- coiling sinuously so that it looked to me like a (snake). Then the darkness changed into something of a watery nature, indescribably agitated and smoking like a fire; it produced an unspeakable wailing roar. 
Actually, water is not being mentioned as such; it is fire, of a watery nature, which in fact contains all four elements mixed together. But perhaps this is close enough, since indeed "water" and "fire" are mentioned before "air" and "earth".

Decker then says that Thoth, the inventor of writing according to Plato and associated with the ibis, shown in images as a scribe or architect with a writing or measuring stick, became in Europe the deity associated with Batons, He poses the Picatrix as an intermediary here: one of its talismans bears the image of ibis-headed Thoth with his measuring stick, although the depiction has been reduced to "a man with the head of a bird leaning on a cane" (p. 55).

There is actually a similar reference that was more accessible than the Picatrix, in The Marriage of Mercury and Philology (II, 174; Stahl & Johnson translation, p. 56), where a divination-related ibis  with a staff is described, as part of a description of a guest at the wedding: I put the most relevant parts in bold:
There came also a girl of beauty and of extreme modesty, the guardian and protector of the Cyllenian's home, by name Themis or Astraea or Erigone [translator's note: This figure is identified by Hyginus (Astronomica 1.25) with the zodiacal sign Virgo]; she carried in her hand stalks of grain and an ebony tablet engraved with this image: In the middle of it was that bird of Egypt which the Egyptians call an ibis. It was wearing a broad-brimmed hat, and it had a most beautiful head and mouth, which was caressed by a pair of serpents entwined; under them was a gleaming staff, gold-headed, gray in the middle and black at the foot; under the ibis' right foot was a tortoise and a threatening scorpion and on its left a goat. The goat was driving a rooster into a contest to find out which of the birds of divination was the gentler. The ibis wore on its front the name of a Memphitic month.
The other astrological associations, he theorizes, were the Sun for Coins, Venus for Cups, and Mars for Swords (p. 62). So there are two fire signs and two water signs.The broad-brimmed hat of course will be of interest for the image of the "Bagatella" on the early tarot cards.

How would the Europeans have managed to learn the astrological symbolism? Decker says that the Mamelukes retained the symbolism in their suit cards. The polo sticks, corresponding to Batons, appear between two crescent moons (p. 58); also the sticks sometimes end in dragons. In astrology the head of the dragon and the tail of the dragon are two "nodes" of the moon (p. 59). This argument of course assumes that Harran used the pre-Hellenic Egyptian association of Thoth with the moon.

In the case of Cups, Venus is a water sign, and in the Mamluk deck in the Topkapi museum, ducks are associated with Cups. Also the suit of Harps in the Mogul deck are green, which is the tint of copper when it tarnishes, the metal of Venus. Musical instruments and cups were associated with Venus in Mameluke art (no references given). Finally,
The Mamelukes certainly depicted Mars with a sword.
They knew that gold (as in the Coins) was associated with the Sun.
More elaboration, at least some references, would have been nice. Green could have been associated with Venus in another way, as the color of renewal, new life and growth after the winter's cold. The spring is Venus's season.

Here is my assessment. Looking on the Web for discussions of Mogul/Moghul cards, especially at the pages in "Andy's Playing Cards", I see a variety of suits and colors, including an astrological deck of 9 suits, including the seven planets and both the head and the tail of the Dragon ( The colors for the various planet-cards pictured do not match Decker's assignments; but the mere existence of such a deck is enough to give Decker what he needs for an assignment of some Mogul decks' suits to planets. On Wikipedia, I see a description of a Moghul deck of 8 suits with 12 cards each at; but nothing else is said about it. Wikipedia gives a link to Ambraser Hofjagdspiel and Hofamterspiel. This is the Northern European connection that seems logical. These games all have 12 cards per suit (in 4 suits).

There is something else that supports Decker's thesis that Europeans learned the planetary associations from the Muslims, orally and by what was on the cards. Either that, or it is the ultimate origin of Decker's theory, given that there are so many possibilities.  The theory corresponds to some things de Mellet in 1781 says about the suit cards, presented as though he is reporting from his own observations or what he has heard from others. On two of the Aces, reporting on Spanish names for the cards (I am using J. Karlin's translation in Rhapsodies of the Bizarre, pp. 55-57; the original is at ... les_Tarots):
III. Names of various Cards, preserved by the Spanish
One-eyed or the Ace of coins, Phoebea lampadis instar., consecrated to Apollo....
The Serpent or the Ace of batons (Ophion) famous symbol & sacred to the Egyptians.
We saw the serpent before, in the Poimandres, where it was watery fire. De Mellet continues, in section IV:
The Ace of Swords, consecrated to Mars....
The ace of cups indicates a unique joy, that one by oneself possesses.
And for the suits (sections IV-V):
The Cups in general announced happiness, & the Coins wealth.
The Batons meant for Agriculture prognosticated its more or less abundant harvests, the things which should have occurred in or that regarded the countryside.
They [the Batons] appear mixed of good & of evil...
All the Swords presage only evil, mainly those which imprinted by an odd number, still bear a bloody sword. The only sign of victory, the crowned sword, is in this suit the sign of a happy event.
The Hearts, (the Cups), portend happiness.
The Clubs, (the Coins), wealth.
The Spades, (the Swords), misfortune.
The Diamonds, (the Batons), indifference & the countryside.
The Moon is appropriate for Batons and the countryside, because (a) cudgels are the weapon allowed to peasants; (b) the Serpent was indeed sacred to the Egyptians, as far as was known, in that authorities such as Horapollo had it as a symbol of the "Almighty" and "Spirit" (Hieroglyphica I, 64); (c) the Moon both waxes and wanes, and so could be seen as bringing both good and evil; (d) the Moon is important to farmers for the planting cycle. This account has the virtue of not depending on Thoth as the deity of the Moon, as the serpent was associated with the supernatural in many traditions, while Thoth is not associated with serpents in any ancient text available in the Renaissance that I have found. So one explanation for de Mellet's characterizations would be as a survival from the Moguls through the Muslims. However there other ways in which these associations could have developed.

According to Decker, the Europeans, when they introduced Queens so as to make four courts, also associated the courts with these same four deities: the Sun for Kings, Venus for Queens, Mars for Knights, and the Moon/Thoth for Pages (p. 66). With astrological input from both the suit and the rank, the combination of planets can induce conflict or not, according to standard medieval astrological associations (p. 68).

For the four that have the same planet each way (suit and court), Decker sees astrological symbolism visually in the cards. The Tarot de Marseille King of Coins "sits with legs crossed in a meditative pose, which bespeaks an Apollonian person" (p. 68). He adds that the pose can be traced back through medieval portrayals of saints to ancient portrayals of poets and philosophers.

Actually the King of Cups also has legs crossed in the Tarot de Marseille (in the PBM, Batons), all except Cups in the Budapest cards (p. 277 Kaplan vol. 2), as well as the Emperor (Tarot de Marseille and CY) and the Hanged Man in the trumps. Also, Panofsky says that in the Renaissance crossed legs symbolized the detachment necessary for judges (Life and Art of Albrecht Durer, p. 78):
This attitude, denoting a calm and superior state of mind, was actually prescribed to judges in ancient German law-books.
It is true that the image that he is commenting on, a Durer Christ, has solar symbolism top and bottom:
But the crossed legs are not, that I can find, associated with Apollo in particular. It conveys Christ's role as a judge, at least according to Panofsky. Christ was also associated with the sun.

Decker continues
The Queen of Cups holds a vessel with a stem marked by a kind of socket, round and red, like an apple. This recalls Venus, the most amorous goddess, who received an apple as the prize in a legendary beauty contest.
See ... en-of-Cups. This detail is absent from any extant 15th century cards, and it is a forced interpretation of a small detail in any case.

He adds, "The armored Knight of Swords would qualify as Mars". But all the Swords males have armor, in the early cards. And in Batons, the Page "wears a distinctive cap (Phrygian) which may indicate a traveler (therefore a ward of the moon)". I don't think it's really Phrygian, which twists forward at the end (; compare with, and in any case none of the early cards have him with such a cap.

So it is hard to believe that there is planetary symbolism in the courts, beyond what might be in their suits.

Decker uses his theory about the courts to explain why in some card games the Coins and Cups are ranked Ace, Two, etc. in trick-taking ability, while in the other suits it goes Ten, Nine, etc (p. 70). He says that the Sun and Venus were considered "good" astrological signs and Mars and the Moon "bad" ones. If the power of the suits starts with the Ace, then in Coins and Cups the Ace is the "best", but in the others, it is "worst."

But it seems to me that this same result would come about if war and violence (swords and sticks) are "bad", while wealth and piety/pleasure are "good", independently of astrology,

Another thing is that it is not at all clear that the change in court cards from Mameluke to European was simply from 3 to 4. John of Reidenfall wrote of 6 court cards per suit. The Cary-Yale tarot also had 6 court cards per suit. So it might have gone from 3 to 6 at first, and then that was considered too much. Plus, there were few female knights; it was not considered proper. But there were Queens, both in life and in the game of chess. So the courts were reduced to 4. Admittedly, there were maids for Queens as much as Pages for Knights and Kings. Some decks had Maids in Coins and Cups and Pages (male) in Batons and Swords. Such ups and downs are difficult to accommodate to a planetary theory.

Aside from de Mellet, there is no particular reason for associating suits with planets. Cups did not have to be associated with Venus to connote happiness. The Ace of Cups on the earliest cards was a baptismal font. Happiness is in one's association with God. Renaissance images for water showed a monk. Batons are the weapons allowed to the peasants. That is a good enough reason for associating them with the countryside. One Renaissance image shows their association with falconry; the hunt was the aristocrats' notion of countryside.  Swords are weapons of the nobility and warfare, hence sadness. Coins are the tools of commerce and the measure of wealth. It is to be sure possible that

On the other hand, astrology was well respected long before de Mellet, and especially in the Renaissance.  If one were to associate suits with planets, it would be logical to associate Mars with swords, coins with the Sun (as round and golden, however from their association with commerce Mercury would also be possible), cups with Venus (as the goddess of pleasure and longing, both spiritual and otherwise), and Batons, as the weapon of the peasants, with the Moon, which governs the planting cycle (although here, too, Mercury would be possible, since he carries a staff with two serpents on it). Granted that the Mamelukes do seem to have associated suits with particular planets, perhaps these associations passed on the Europeans. But it is hard to say one way or the other. I have found no evidence in Europe before de Mellet.

In sum: there are some interesting ideas here about the associations of suits to planets, but they are weak on evidence. The idea that courts are associated with planets, too, is possible, but only because of who they are, not because of any associations before they reached Europe. Planetary symbolism, as in popular "children of the planets" illustrations, was omnipresent in the Renaissance.

Chapter 3: the Italian trumps

Decker's Chapter Three begins with an account of Marziano's "game of the gods", fairly straightforwardly derivative from the research of Franco Pratesi and Ross Caldwell, which Decker cites. This is a game designed in the 1420s by Milan court humanist Marziano da Tortona for Duke Filippo Maria Visconti, using 16 Greco-Roman gods and demigods allegorically representing the four categories of pleasures, virginities, riches, and virtues. Any of them outrank any of the four suits. They are also ranked among themselves, pleasures lowest and virtues highest, but also tied to the four suits as far as having to follow suit in the course of what in English is called a "trick", i.e. a round in which one person leads and the others have to follow suit if possible; the high card then takes the other cards, for scoring later. This is the first known game with a special trump suit.

 Then comes his defense of a 14 card original sequence, expanded to 22 later (pp. 76-77). It is the familiar one. advanced tirelessly by "autorbis" (alias Lothar Teikmeier), and elsewhere, although without crediting either author and unlike him Lothar not referring to the two earliest post-1450 decks from which cards still survive, the so-called Pierpont-Morgan-Bergamo (PMB), from Milan, or the so-called "Charles VI" probably from Florence.

In Decker's case, in the current book, the 14 original cards are just the first 14 of the Tarot de Marseille, ending with Temperance, a position which I would guess is original with him.

In favor of the original being 14, he cites, first, an order for 14 "figures" in Ferrara of Jan. 1, 1441; second, the  1442 order there for "triumphs" and the order there for five decks of 70 cards in 1457 (4x14 + 14 trumps). Decker does not cite sources; but for the documents,, see again The 1441reference to "14 figures" is in Ferrara, done by a Ferrarese artist, albeit as a gift to a Milanese. The 1457 reference is also from Ferrara.

Despite this location, Decker opts for Milan as where this 14 card original tarot was invented, apparently on the basis of his preference for the "C" (Lombard) order of the triumphs, reflected in the Tarot of Marseille (Tarot de Marseille), of which he holds--without argument, except that it fits the interpretations in the later parts of his book--that a "prototype" was the first tarot, at first with just the first 14 cards, then the other 8 added  by 1465.

Decker adds that the 14 card original was first proposed by him in 1974 (Journal of the International Playing Card Society 3:1, Aug. 1974, pp. 24ff). However a look at his article shows that the number 14 there is mostly coincidence. He was speaking there of the Cary-Yale--a deck he hardly mentions in his book--on the grounds that if there were 16 cards per suit, as there surely are, it would take 14 more to add up to 78. which is the number of cards in the standard tarot deck later. (The reason for 16 is that the surviving cards have female Pages and/or Knights in every suit.) In that essay he also considered--but did not endorse--the idea that the PMB has 14; the problem for Decker is that since the Cary-Yale had a Strength and a World card, it would seem likely they would have been in the PMB, too.

In the current book, Decker does not maintain that the PMB had 14 cards; he hardly mentions that deck. He does not mention the Cary-Yale of c. 1441-1445 either. Instead,  he insists that the original was a prototype of the first 14 trumps of the  Tarot de Marseille, probably coming out of Milan but maybe Ferrara, perhaps the "14 figures" of Jan. 1, 1440, perhaps invented by Bianca Maria Sforza (p. 79).

But why should we go from the "14 figures" of Jan. 1, 1440, to an assumption that these were based on a Milan deck? It may well be that there was a 14 trump deck in Ferrara but not in Milan. Why would a deck have 14 trumps as opposed to any other number? The only principle I can think of is that it matches the number of cards per suit; the trumps are a fifth suit. But Milan then might have had 16 suits per suit, as we see in the Cary-Yale deck of around that time. On the other hand, another old deck, called the "Brera-Brmbilla" from the same time as the Cary-Yale and in the same style, did have 14 cards per suit. So it is possible that on the principle of the same number of cards in the fifth suit as in the others, there were usually 14 cards per suit in Milan, and the Cary-Yale was an exception.

However, the number of cards in the fifth suit might have been determined on some other principle , giving it even more cards; Dummett suggested as one possibility the principle of the fifth suit having 50 per cent more cards than the other suits; that would give the Cary-Yale 24 trumps (i.e. 14 + 7 trumps with 14 cards per suit, or 16 + 8 trumps with 16 card suits), that is, the regular trumps plus the 3 theological virtues, which we know were part of that deck.

Likewise, the 70 card decks can be explained as 22 special cards (trumps plus Fool) plus 4 suits of 12 cards each, as Franco Pratesi has suggested. Some regular decks did have 12 cards per suit then. Also, there are data suggesting other numbers. In 1423 (see, there is an order for 13 figures. In a deck with 13 cards per suit, 13 trumps would be a natural number. These 13 might also be something else, ordinary suit cards, for example. We have no idea.

There are also problems about the priority of a 14 card deck of the specifically Tarot de Marseille variety. First, there is no evidence of anything even like the Tarot de Marseille in imagery before around 1500, in the Cary Sheet (and perhaps some of the "Sforza Castle" cards, given that one of them is a 2 of Coins dated 1497).

Second, everything we do know about the 15th century tarot counts against Decker's theory. The extant court cards mostly do not look like the TdM. Most of the  surviving trumps also look quite different. Most significantly, the last two trumps of the TdM, Judgment and World, resemble cards that are extant in almost all the existing decks: the Cary-Yale, the PMB, the Charles VI, as well as most of the woodcuts of the early 16th century. If these cards were in all those decks, from various cities and with various designs, surely they would have been part of all the decks, at least at those times, and probably part of the original tarot. But they are not among the first 14 of the Tarot de Marseille.

Decker is of course aware that the surviving early cards do not look much like the TdeM. Those were luxury decks, he says, and did not have to look like the common woodblock cards, He dos not address the issue of the Judgment and World cards. He would have to say of them, as far as I can tell, that these were in the luxury decks (in both Milan and Florence, as it happens) but not the woodcut ones--until of course they were, in the early 16th century. I have to say that such a reply seems to me woefully inadequate, given the existence of the Judgment and World cards in all the decks.

One argument he gives for the priority of the Tarot de Marseille is correspondences between the Tarot de Marseille and Milanese fashion and heraldry:
In the Tarot de Marseille, the trump figures wear costumes that are mostly in early Renaissance style (belted jerkins, tights, robes, high-waisted gowns).
Also, the Ace of Swords' blade is  (p. 78f):
encircled with a crown that is draped with two fronds, palm and laurel...The Viscontis adopted the motif of crown and fronds as a heraldic device.
It seems to me that the most these might show is that the Tarot de Marseille is descended from the decks sponsored by the Visconti-Sforza rulers; there may have been many changes along the way, as well as costumes deliberately intended to look old and venerable. It may well be that the Tarot de Marseille is older than as we think, i.e. late 15th or early 16th century. If so, it needs more argument. But even then, it would not be the beginning


Later in the chapter Decker gives an interpretation of another frontispiece, this one from Venice 1526, Fanti's Triompho di Fortuna, a fortune-telling manual based on 21 outcomes, as in the throw of twice diece; it seems to show numerous tarot subjects and suggests to him that tarot cards were probably used for the same thing, fortune-telling (p. 90).

Besides Decker's and Place's discussions, I have found two scholarly articles on this frontispiece, a detailed one by Robert Eisler in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes for 1947, pp. 155-159, and a note by Detlev Baron von Hadeln in the Burlington Magazine 1926, p. 301, about the drawing that preceded the woodcut.I will preface my discussion with a summary of these articles.

About the drawing, it is important to realize that Fanti is "Fanti Ferrarese" (even in the words on the frontispiece) and was a citizen of Ferrara. The drawing is in the Ferrarese style, in particular that of Dosso Dossi, von Hadeln says, and Eisler doesn't disagree. The woodcut, to be sure, is in the Venetian Titianesque style. But the whole project is initially Ferrarese. Dossi is of the more enigmatic of Renaissance artists.

Here is the frontispiece . Eisler identifies the river as the Tiber and the city as Rome. He sees the frontispiece as a warning to Pope Clement VII that he sits precariously between good and bad  fortune (p. 157):
,,it is remarkable how daringly Sigismondo Fanti represents the insecurity of the Vicar of Christ's position at the summit or Medium Coelum of the slowly revolving sphere...
...The female figure on the left is, of course the Bona Fortuna of the system (Agatha Tyche), turning the handle of the world-axis upward, the other is the Malus Genius (malos daimon) turning the handle down and thus threatening to precipitate the Pope from his exalted position at the apex of his power into the abyss of misery he was to experience when he was besieged in the Castello S. Angelo while Rome was sacked and plundered by the soldatesca of the rival Catholic great powers.
The pope at that time was severely threatened by both the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor, and in fact Rome was sacked by the soldiers of the Emperor in 1527, shortly after the book's publication. Eisler says that such an action was not hard to foresee, "in view of the follies committed by the Pope and the cold fury of the Roman Emperor Charles V and of his Most Christian Majesty the King of France" (p. 157).

Accordingly, the muscular man with the dice is the boy (or slave, as they were called "boy") in a quote of Heraclitus in one of Lucian's stories, as Eisler relates:
...there the weeping Heraclitus is asked, "What is the Aeon?" and he replies "a boy playing drafts putting (things) together and taking (them) apart," assembling, dividing."
And the astrologer next to him is Fanti himself (p. 157).

As for the city, Eisler admits that Dossi's drawing had no Pantheon; also, if there was such a clock tower in Rome, it was not famous like the Torre dell' Orologio in the Piazza di san Marco in Venice, where the book was printed (p. 156). The boats and expanse of water better fit the Venetian lagoon then the Tiber, which had bridges.

Decker, of course, puts the frontispiece in the context of the tarot. He does not mention the Ferrarese source (instead, he cites a source saying that the originator was from Siena). He points to various aspects of the engraving that suggest tarot figures. There is the Pope, of course, and on one side the Devil and the other an Angel (of the "Angel" card, as the TdM Judgment card was called), with the World between them, held up by Atlas, as in fact was shown on some World cards. The globe has a dual significance, however, due to the cranks, which turned the Wheel of Fortune in medieval illustrations. On either side of the Pope is a young lady, which Decker says is similar to the situation on the TdM Love card, a choice between virtue (on the left) and pleasure (on the right). Beneath the Devil is a Tower, and on the tower a clock-like circle (with the Roman numbers from I to XXIV) with the picture of the Sun in the middle. Then there are the two lower figures, a muscular man holding one of a pair of dice and an astrologer with calipers and an astrolabe.

I would add that astrologers were associated with the stars, hence there is a reference to that card, or else the Moon card, which in some versions, including ones in Ferrara, had just such astrologers.

In addition, this frontispiece seems to me of significance as similar in content to the 1521-23 Basel one, except for a few changes dictated by the nature of what is inside the book. That is, the city (Rome or Venice) represents life in this world and the people entering the gate at the bottom are souls entering life (similar, that is, to the naked souls entering the gate of life in the other frontispiece). They do so at particular times as indicated by the clock in the tower, from which the astrologer can construct a horoscope. They are faced with a choice between virtue and vice; one woman pointing down is "pleasure" and the one pointing up is "virtue". The Pope looks steadfastly at virtue, so he is a reliable guide. Yes, the two figures at the axle are an angel and a devil; they are in a contest to control the wheel. In the world, sometimes vice wins, sometimes virtue.  the words "virtue" and "pleasure" apply to the wheel-turners as well as the two women. This is an application of the principles of "contempt of the world" ethics, which I have discussed at viewtopic.php?f=23&t=404&p=14117#p14117). It is a matter of what is good and bad for the soul, not the body.

The two figures in the foreground, the astrologer and the dice-thrower, in contrast, are separated from the city. For the dice-thrower, Place (Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination, p. 118) suggests Hermes, as the "god of runners and athletes, who ruled over divination by dice and lots". Eisler (p. 158) mentions Hermes in a different context, that of Plutarch's Isis and Osiris, as the Egyptian god, also called Thoth, who gambled with the moon goddess, Selene. That seems to me at least as relevant as Eisler's boy of Heraclitus.

Decker characterizes the two figures as randomness and predestination. Place considers them to be the two ways of using the book to tell fortunes: one way is to throw two dice, and the other is to go by the hour in which the casting of the fortune is initiated (indicated on the clock). Inside the book is a series of tables, all with 21 rows; by which one works one's way toward a verse that is the fortune.

It seems to me that the time the fortune is being told is comparable to the time of birth in a standard horoscope. It is a matter of using the regular, predictable motions of the stars to infer what their influence will be on human affairs. The procedure is like using the phases of the moon to predict the tides: from the macrocosm of things beyond us we infer the microcosm of the world in which we live.

If so, the contrast is not between randomness and predestination. It is not even between randomness and order. It is between two ways of learning about the likely future (not predestined: that would be against Church doctrine).

The Greeks in the Iliad cast lots to determine the gods' choice of who to send on a dangerous mission; they reasoned that the gods controlled who would get the shortest straw and were making their will known. In The God of Socrates (Apuleius Rhetorical Works p. 309), Apuleius relates that Socrates would consult his daemon, or "guardian genius", before he undertook anything. If it said no, he took it as a warning. The Genius could see further than he could. It seems to me that a Hermetic Christian would have seen dice in the same way (regardless of the fulminations of the Franciscan and Dominican preachers) as warriors in the Iliad saw the casting of lots, or more philosophically, Socrates and the signs from his daimon, as possible means to understanding God's will, leading him upward. In a similar way, it is apparently random at what hour and day a person is born, but it is also a way of knowing God's will. And just as the astrologer can learn from the time of birth what is in store for the person, so can one learn from the lot-book what is in store for the person casting dice.

So I agree with Place that the two figures are essentially equivalent, merely representing two ways of getting to the same place, one by using the hour and the other by using the dice. Both are expressions of the "good genius" that we also saw in the Tablet of Cebes, but in the sense of Providence or a guardian daemon. The only difference is that in the 1521-23 book, the plan is "one size fits all". In this illustration of 1526, it is more differentiated, tied to a particular person throwing dice or consulting the book at a particular time, with 21 possibilities. It is a true casting of lots, whereas the Holbein and the Tabule Cebetis isn't.

Now for the payout: what does all this say about the tarot? There is a Devil, a winged representative of Virtue, a Choice of Hercules with poses similar to the Tarot de Marseille, a Pope, a Wheel, and an Atlas with the sky on his shoulders, as appears on a few decks. The astrologer is like on the Ferrara Moon card; a Sun appears on the clock, which is on a Tower; and there are Stars on the globe. The Pope sits on the globe like a figure on the Florentine-style World card. That's quite a bit, in fact most of the cards after Death in the Ferrara tarot. And there is also the virtue vs. vice interpretation of the Loe card, and the Pope.

Then there is the question of the Magician, which Decker earlier related to the "good genius" at the gate in the fronstispiece illustrating the Tablet of Cebes. I like some of what Place says, on p. 121f. He starts out:
The Tarot's Magician is not an astrologer or an athletic male, yet there is a connection between him and the two figures in Fanti's foreground--particularly to the athlete with the die. One easily recognized pair of objects found on the Magician's table in the Tarot of Marseilles is a pair of dice...
He then goes on to show us a woodcut Magician with dice in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts that probably dates from c. 1500 (the original is on p. 274 of Kaplan vol. 2). In my view it is probably from Venice (due south of Budapest) around the time of the 1526 Frontispiece. But I don't think it is essential that the dice are there. There are no dice in the d'Este or the PMB cards. What works as well are the types of objects on the table, four in the PMB and in the Cary Sheet, which correspond to cards. It is the Magician as dealer--of dice or cards, the cards we are dealt at birth and many times thereafter, which it is up to us to know how to use. Dice and cards are equivalent. Place goes on (and here I put my own additions in brackets):
As dice [and cards, I add] were used for gambling their presence could confirm that the Magician is a gambler and a rogue, but dice [and cards] were also used in the Renaissance for divination, and perhaps the magician, like Fanti's athlete, is offering us a means to obtain advice about our destiny. The Magician is the first trump, and he is introducing us to the parade of trumps just as Fanti's athlete is in the foreground. Whether his dice [or cards] are intended for divination or for gambling, there are two of them [of dice], and there are twenty-one possible combinations of the two when they are thrown. It would be easy to imagine the Magician making use of the throws of his dice [or the drawing of cards] to make connections with the twenty-one figures in the trumps. Like the figures in Fanti's foreground, it may be that the Magician is a guide offering help in finding one's way in the allegory.
So on this view the Magician offers us our individual allotments/lots and also, given the nature of the game, tells us to pay attention to the other trumps more than to the ordinary suit cards. Whether in game-playing or in divination, he is giving us a life situation together with a plan for finding our way in the game or in life. That's my integration of Decker and Place, and of the two frontispieces, 1521-23 and 1526.


Otherwise in the chapter, Decker cites various late 15th and early 16th century documents. He cites the Steele Sermon, the first listing of the 22 subjects. For the 16th century, he has quotes from Francesco Berni and Flavio Alberto Lollio, 16th century, about how the tarot sequence is a mishmash; that supports his idea that the meanings are hidden, as the cards in their Christian sequence do not make a obvious sense as a whole. He also talks about the so called "tarocchi appropriati", the tarot subjects "appropriated" for another use besides playing a game. He mentions Folengo's tarot sonnets in his "Caos del Triperuno" (online translation by Anne Mullaney, starting on p. 138) as examples of use of cards to give advice to individuals, and he quotes Giralomo Barghagli on the practice of associating particular cards with particular individuals during pageants (p. 92). He does not mention Andrea Vitali's account of Barghagli in this connection; see

To summarize the more controversial aspects of this chapter: Decker has given us some reason, far from conclusive, for thinking that the original deck might have had 14 cards. It may well be that some decks had 14 trumps, if that is what the "14 figures" for Bianca Maria Sforza represent, a reasonable enough assumption, and it may well be that these were the original trumps. But there are other possibilities. 14 may have been just the number of trumps in Ferrara, with different subjects than in Milan (hence Bianca's interest in taking them back there). There are also other possibilities that as far as we know are just as likely.

Also, there are numerous reasons for thinking that the original deck did not look like the Tarot de Marseille, nor for its original cards being only the first 14 of that deck. His identification of the Fanti frontispiece as significant in relation to the tarot also makes sense, both for his reasons and Place's. For me, they tend to support the idea that the other frontispiece, and its broad-brimmed hat in some versions of it, are related as well.

It is good that he raised the point that the original tarot deck, and some later ones, may not have had the standard 21 trumps plus the Fool. Some decks may have had 14 trumps. Also, the TdM designs may be earlier than the extant TdM decks, i.e. late 15th or early 16th century. But it is highly unlikely that if there were only 14, they were precisely the first 14 of the TdM, because of the presence of cards corresponding to the TdM Judgment and World in all the early decks and lists.

Chapter 4: Hidden Hieroglyphs

In Chapter Four, Decker addresses one issue he has been postponing: why the designer of the first cards, i.e. the Tarot de Marseille, must have been someone familiar with Roman-era writings about Egypt. His key text is Horapollo's Hieroglyphica, the Greek text that was brought to Florence in 1422 and offered interpretations for 130 pictures claimed to be Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Decker's idea is at least original. De Gebelin, who was the first to publish an interpretation of the trumps in Egyptian terms, did so on the assumption that they meant things actually in Egypt, based on Greco-Roman writings about Egypt. I myself have undertaken Egyptian interpretations with the assumption that the tarot sequence originated in 15th century Northern Italy. It is not hard to interpret each of the group C trumps (Lombardy and France) in terms of something in ancient sources about Egypt or using ideas contained also in books then attributed to Egypt, e.g. the Corpus Hermetica. Thus humanists playing the game might have enjoyed showing off their erudition by giving Egyptian interpretations based on Greek and Latin authors. In the 18th century, Freemasons and others would have enjoyed explaining the cards in terms of the "Mysteries of Isis" they were fond of (see e.g. the novel Sethos and the opera The Magic Flute). Also, designers might have seen opportunities to sneak in Egyptianate details, or provide lead-ins to such interpretations and thereby promote themselves among the well-to-do, while maintaining the obvious Christian imagery. 
Decker says nothing about such interpretations, not even mentioning the Piscina and Anonymous (1570). booklets that analyzed the cards as hieroglyphics; Anonymous even uses the term "figure geroglifiche" to describe the trumps ( ... ostcount=1). Perhaps Decker is content with his, Dummett's, and Depaulis's 1996 assessment (Wicked Pack of Cards p. 33): "Neither of the proposed interpretations is at all plausible"; that is strong language, with which I don't agree, for exoteric meanings. But it never occurred to me that Horapollo was significant for anything more than illustrating the general idea of using an image to convey an idea. or complex of ideas, different from what was there on the surface. Even if his arguments are weak, his correlations might strengthen my own arguments in this area, as seen on my blog "22 Invocations of Dionysus: The Esoteric Tarot Before 1781" ( However I want if possible to avoid equating "bad argument" with "argument that is inconsistent with my arguments" and achieve some kind of objectivity if possible.


To introduce this Hieroglyphica, Decker has much to say about the origins of this document in the ancient world and what corresponds to its decodings in the actual Egyptian language, as determined by modern Egyptology; he also speaks of Durer's use of Horapollo c. 1515. But he gives nothing on the dissemination of this text before 1441 into places like Lombardy or Ferrara where tarot-designers would have lived. He just says (p. 101)
Nine fifteenth-century copies of the Hieroglypica reportedly exist [footnote 14: Stanislaus Klossowsky de Rola, The Golden Game: Alchemical Engravings of the Seventeenth Century (New York: George Braziller, 1988), 20 n13). Latin translations of the Hiroglyphica, or parts of it, must soon have been available. It began to influence the polymath Alberti in the 1430s, if not earlier.
De Rola does indeed say that there are nine 15th century copies, but with no references. In any case, the issue is when and where in the 15th century.

I will help Decker here. Curran in The Italian Renaissance (p. 124) writes that Cyriaco of Ancona or a or a contemporary may have made in the 1430s the “Latin abridgement of 36 signs from Horapollo’s book I that was copied years later in a sylloge now preserved in Naples. It is an hypothesis first advanced by Giovanni Batttista Rossi and still “has considerable merit,”. That is out of 70 in part I and 119 in Part II. The translation would probably have been made for his 1435 visit to Egypt. In 1438 he surely heard Plethon talk on Plato and other subjects (such as, I think, the "ancient theology"), because he is depicted in the Medici Procession of the Magi, which started out as a portrayal of everyone who had gone to the conclave in Florence then; he later visited Plethon in Mistra, Greece. Upon his return from each of his trips, Cyriaco probably made the rounds of cities and courts, as we know he did after his last trip. There was also his travel journal, probably with copies of hieroglyphs; the part on Egypt is now lost, probably burned in a fire in Pesaro; the last owner was a Alessandro Sforza, Wikipedia tells us (; Alessandro is the probable commissioner of the "Catania" tarot deck, one of the four or five earliest decks with extant cards, probably contemporary with the PMB. We know that Cyriaco went to Ferrara to talk with Leonello in 1449, because of his famous description of the Belfiore Muses in the Belfiore (cited by Venturi, North Italian painting of the Quattrocento: Emilia, 1931, p. 29. In that year also he went to see Sigismondo Malatesta, the man for whom the first recorded tarot had been made in 1440 (Woodhouse, Gemistos Plethon, p. 161), In 1450 he moved to Cremona and stayed they until he died, 2-4 years later (per Wikipeda). Cremona is where the Bembo workshop was, which did the early extant cards done for the Visconti and Sforza in those years. It is also where Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Sforza stayed for part of these years, to escape the plague raging in Milan.

Other translations of Horapollo were made during that century. Charles Dempsey reports that George Valla, who was at Pavia 1465-1485 and then Venice, made a partial translation of Horapollo (“Renaissance Hieorglyphic Studies and Gentile Bellini’s Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria,” p. 344, in Hermeticism and the Renaissance: Intellectual History and the Occult in Early Modern Europe). Other partial translations were made in the early 16th century, and the first complete one in 1517 (D. L. Drysdall, “Fasanini’s Explanation of Sacred Writing,” (Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 13 (1983):1, p. 128f).

It is also certain that Filelfo,  in Milan 1439-1451. then in Cremona to escape the plague, and then back to Milan,  had a copy of the Greek or knew its contents. In 1454 he cites Horapollo specifically and gives the correct definition of "eel" in a letter to Scalamonti, the biographer of Cyriaco (“Renaissance Hieroglyphic Studies,” in Hermeticism and the Renaissance: Intellectual History and the Occult in Early Modern Europe p. 354). Ross Caldwell  noticed an allusion to Horapollo in a Filelfo sonnet ( ... stcount=48). Guarino in Ferrara probably would have had a copy. Alberti, who was in Ferrara during the late 1430s and early 1440s. would also have had a copy, because he quoted it in his treatise on architecture. And numerous Greek-readers would have had it in Florence. For fuller information, see my posts at ... stcount=44 and the following two.

In examining Decker's decoding via Horapollo, I looked to see if it makes any order out of the mishmash. On this reading, the first trump is someone "who enjoys creating"; the first step, I suppose, in the journey is being created. Then it goes to "inherited traits"--whether from previous lives or from one's biological parents, is not said. Then we have "mother", then "ruler who doesn't tolerate mistakes"--a bit like father--to "governance", i.e. state or church. Then it's on to "achievement", "triumph", "the middle way" (Justice), the fleetingness of time (the original Hermit as carrier of an hour-glass), and the cycles of the years. That that comes "strength", "prolonged suffering", "departed spirits", and finally "rebirth". That is the end of the first 14. It looks like a picture of life, ending with either a new birth or, more Egyptian, the resurrection of the dead. He says that the next 7 are an expanded version of what comes after death. First is "lust, blasphemy, weakness, and audacity", tending to pull one back to earth, I assume; then the heeding of God's word in Purgatory (if that's "Egyptian"), fate or destiny, the honoring of the moon goddess, the concord of the sun, rise of the spirit, and Isis at the end. (For the interpretation of Isis, see my quotes from Apueius at viewtopic.php?f=23&t=404&p=14117#p14117)

Yes, it makes some sense, much like what other researchers have found in a Christian context. The idea of "new birth" in a new body is Pythagorean; I find no trace of it in classical writings about Egypt; but Pythagoras was said to have studied in Egypt. If Rebirth seems strange here, remember that this is a an Egypt of the Roman Empire, in which Apuleius's Lucius (not in Egypt, but somewhere where there is a cult of Isis) heeds Isis's call and is transformed. It is also a cosmos in which longing for the body, assisted by wicked spirits, can keep a departed soul from rising.."Prolonged suffering" is not necessarily unto death; Lucius's suffering is in the body of a donkey, symbolic of someone attached to the body.


So let's look at how well Horapollo correlates with the tarot. Here, besides making sense of the sequence, both as 14 and as 22, I want to consider that when Horapollo isn't enough by itself, we might supplement it with other classical writings pertaining to Egypt and its religion,such as Herodotus, Plato, and the Roman-era Platonists, especially Plutarch and Apuleius I do so with the idea that the tarot would have been seen not only in terms of esoteric symbolism from Egypt per se, but also as providing insight into the "ancient theology" before Christianity and into a Platonist world-view congenial to many humanists of the Renaissance. Again we have to note the time at which such world-view could have been expected among humanists advising the courts o the Sforza in Milan, the Estensi in Ferrara, the Medici of Florence, and the Bentivoglio of Bologna. As will be evident, the convergence of data begins in the late 15th century, strongly suggesting that an Egyptian perspective was not part of the conception of the original tarot.

In this presentation, I include a variety of images. So as not to interupt too much the flow of the argument, I leave them as links to click on if you wish. In many cases there will be, other material besides the image that I am talking about; that is because I am getting these images from my blog, where I give other arguments besides the ones here. I am not trying to include everything, just enough to make the points.

1. We start with the Bagatella or Juggler. His hands are his most prominent feature, and for "hands" we have "person who enjoys building". in other words, a demiurge. Decker changes it to "person who enjoys creating," which is the much the same thing. But Decker is thinking of the potter-god Khnum, creating humans on his wheel. I have found no evidence that such a god was known in writings available in Italy, although it could have been part of what Cyriaco had picked up. As I have said at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=937&start=40#p14102 there is evidence of the creator-god Ammon and the mind, nous, of the Asclepius, as well as the Agathadaemon of Apuleius, deriving from Plato's Symposium,which appears also in the Greek Hermetica.

2. For the Popess, the only thing Decker finds relevant in Horapollo is the book. A book means "very old". A related meaning, Decker says, is that for papyrus, "ancient descent," the same sort of thing. However what is meant there is a sheaf of papyrus plants, which looks much different from what is on the card (Durer has such a sheaf in his depiction of Maximilian, emphasizing his ancient descent ( ... nsl1-3.jpg); he indeed, like Pope Alexander VI, traced his ancestry back to Osiris). So I go with "very old", describing the book, the woman, or what she knows.

3. For the Empress, Decker insists that the bird on her shield is a vulture, quite different from the Emperor's Eagle. A vulture represents "mother". I don't see a vulture ( ... obConv.jpg), and it looks the same to me as the Emperor's bird ( ... erDion.jpg). But isn't it the job of Empresses to provide future Emperors? A more natural Egyptian interpretation, for a different bird than the Imperial eagle would be a hawk, which looks more similar to an eagle. For "hawk" Horapollo has "Ares, or Aphrodite", the latter in the sense of a fertility goddess.Ares would be the figure on the Empress's lap; Aphrodite would be the Empress herself. There is also "the lord of sight" or "sublime things". A reader of Plutarch, On isis and Osiris LI (, would associate also the hawk-god Horus, sitting on his mother's lap as in the Roman coins that were being collected by rich antiquarians ( ... sisCar.JPG). That would be an expression of the ancient theology of God the Son, as seen in mature form in the Madonna and Child paintings of Renaissance Italy.

4. The Emperor's eagle represents "a king who is aloof and intolerant of mistakes". Boas has "king living in retirement giving no pity to those in fault" (ii, 56) Yes, that is a good negative interpretation of the card. An Eagle carrying a stone means a man living in safety in a city (II, 49). That could be a positive meaning, the Eagle as contributing to safety.

5. For the Pope, Decker focuses on his stole, i.e. his vestment; Stoles symbolize governance in Horapollo (1, 40) Actually, in Boas's translation, it is not just a stole, but one placed near a dog, who gazes at the king or judge who is naked! Interestingly, Durer draws the stole on the dog, and it is crossed, similar to how the Popess's stole is crossed on the Tarot de Marseille ( ... gStole.jpg, ... obConv.jpg). Some versions of the Pope, e.g. Rosenwald, are like that, too. I notice that in Apuleius, stoles are symbolic of the sacred. Sacred governance is a fairly obvious meaning that would hopefully not offend the Papacy..

6. For the Love card, Decker finds nothing in Horapollo. But the laurel on the the Tarot de Marseille Lover card's left lady's head ( ... tFidii.jpg) in Greco-Roman art represents achievement, he says:
 The male "lover" stands between Pleasure (the cute girl) and Virtue (the homely girl). But the latter has an attractive personality: she wears a laurel wreath, a symbol of achievement. A laurel wreath figures in the medallion that Matteo de' Pasti designed for Alberti, who regarded the wreath as a hieroglyph for "joy and glory".
There are no references, but what he says seems true. But in fact laurel is mentioned in Horapollo, II.46; it represents a healing oracle. Love of Virtue (if it is the choice between Virtue and Pleasure) can indeed be healing. But there is no laurel in the early cards ( ... hGring.jpg); the earliest I see is the Schoen Horoscope, where it is more likely a crown ( ... eville.jpg). Another interpretation might focus on the two figures plus Cupid of the PMB and Cary Sheet: in Egyptian mythology, they could be Isis and Osiris and their son the hawk-god Horus. If the Tarot de Marseille, then it is one Horus with Hathor and his mother, while another Horus flies in the sky (Plutarch, XIX, has two Horuses). This would be another manifestation of the "prisca theologica" (ancient theology), which in mature form would show the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus, with his mother and Mary Magdalene looking on later at the foot of the cross, sadly in that context.

7. For the Chariot card, Decker focuses on the breastplate, which was on the card in the 15th century, although in Florence rather than Milan. He says it meant "triumph". This meaning is not in Horapollo, he admits, but was reported by Cyriaco of Ancona after his travels there. He has no documentation of this, but in support he gives a 1780 picture of an obelisk, said there to represent the victories of Alexander, with various pictures on it, including a very detailed, realistic breastplate. It is obviously not a true representation of an Egyptian obelisk; but it might indicate what people thought.

I can help Decker out here. In the illustrated novel Hypnerotomachia, published 1499 but written earlier, a breastplate is indeed given as a hieroglyph for "triumphal trophy". This book's hieroglyphs mostly aren't in Horapollo, but some might have had some ancient source. Also, Renaissance art of the time conventionally used the breastplate as a symbol of victory (e.g. Marco Zoppa's "Venus Vitrix" or "Venus Armata", cited in Wind, Pagan Mysterious of the Renaissance, p. 91 n.32). Perhaps it came from Cyriaco and Egypt, perhaps not. In any case, chariots were typically the vehicle of choice in Greco-Roman writings about victory parades, in Egypt and elsewhere.

Or this: Horapollo does have an interpretation of a man in armor: the image means a mob (II, 12). Decker ignores that. Could the card represent a rabble-rouser, like Julius Caesar or Mark Antony?

8. For Justice, Decker finds no interpretation in Horapollo. But he focuses on the the dot in the circle in the middle of the lady's forehead on the TdMII ( ... moinSM.jpg), a feature never found before Chosson and Conver ( ... eGring.JPG); Decker says it is the "middle way", something Pythagoras talked about, and Pythagoras was said to have studied in Egypt. I don't recall this in Pythagoras, and in any case this is quite a stretch. But suppose we focus on the upper part of the card except the scales, whose meaning is too obvious. Then we get "a bust with a sword", which means "impiety" (II, 19). Surely the one for whom the sword is intended is impious, obvious but at least in Horapollo.

9. In the case of the Hermit, Decker sensibly opts for the historically correct (for the 1440s) image of the old man with an hourglass. Horapollo has no man with an hourglass, but he does have a man "eating the hours", which Durer represented as a man putting an hourglass in his mouth. The image means "horoscoper", Horapollo says, in other words an astrologer. That seems to me quite suitable, given the hermetic perspective and Apuleius. If the "good genius" sends the signs, e.g. the cards dealt or dice rolled, someone needs to interpret the signs. The old man is an interpreter of what has been, is, and is to come. For some reason Decker does not take that route. Rather, the esoteric meaning is that the man "should observe, display or declare the hours". That seems to me an obvious surface meaning, not needing Horapollo. Decker goes on: the esoteric meaning is "timing". That is vaguely connected with Horapollo, although in a way that Decker does not explain; Horapollo interprets "eating the hours" to mean that different foods are appropriate for different hours of the day.

10. For the Wheel of Fortune, Decker sees the "little apes" on the Tarot de Marseille Wheel (never seen or mentioned in the 15th-16th century) as baboons sacred to Thoth, noting the cycles in the heavens, but he adds, sensibly, that wheels are symbolic of cycles anyway. But in fact Horapollo does have a non-obvious interpretation, about monkeys. They mean a man with two sons, one of whom he raises as his heir and the other he slays (Ii-66). That does seem to fit the Tarot de Marseille card, with a king in the middle and a figure going up and another going down ( ... an0251.JPG). On the early cards, however, the figures are simply men, with another at the bottom; in the 16th century it changes to the donkey-headed and -tailed men we see in the cards now in Budapest ( ... talian.jpg). By Noblet the man at the bottom had dropped out; so maybe Horapollo's are close enough. The dual role of raiser-up and bringer-down also fits the Sphinx in the tale of Oedipus; it is a Greek tale, but an equally famous Sphinx was in Egypt.The figure at the top of the TdMII does resemble a Sphinx.

11. In the Strength card, the lion is prominent. In Horapollo, a lion's fore-quarters represent Strength. That is obvious and exoteric, a property of this image even at Chartres Cathedral ( ... llChar.jpg). One might get an esoteric meaning from Plutarch, the lion as a fire-animal and hence Seth, the desert-god that Isis gains supremacy over. Or the lion as the sun-god Ra, whom Isis bends to her will to have Horus's legitimacy recognized over Seth's (, XIX).

In the Renaissance, a comparable picture is Botticelli's Pallas and the Centaur, in which Athena restrains a centaur from acting on his impulses ( ... icelli.jpg). Athena was recognized, e.g. in Horodotus, as a Greek equivalent of Isis.

12. Decker goes to rather absurd lengths with the Hanged Man:
Portraits of criminals were displayed, upside down, to disgrace them publicly. The Hieroglyphica cites a ladder as a hieroglyph of "a siege" (II, 28). This might be taken as a metaphor for "prolonged suffering". I suggest that the trancated branches, as seen in the T de M, were used as ladder rungs. The man's tormentors would have climbed the rungs to hoist him onto the gibbet.
There are indeed such notches in the 15th century tarot, although in Florence rather than Milan ( ... aGring.JPG), The ladder is now removed, Decker says, so we don't see it. But do we interpret the hidden meaning by what is absent, and especially for a use, siege-warfare, not in the picture, and not for the users but rather those it is used against, also not in the picture? That is not the way memory theaters work.

I myself would rather focus on the hole in the ground under the Hanged Man's head in the PMB, retained in the Tarot de Marseille ( ... odCon2.jpg). Osiris, tricked by Seth, enters the darkness of his coffin but is the seed from which a mighty tree will grow. Plutarch XIII relates how the coffin went out to sea and then floated to land, where an imposing tree grew around it. Isis found it and brought Osiris back to life. It is like Christ's entrance into the crypt from which he is resurrected.

13. Decker sees a mask on Death's face, and says that in Horapollo a mask means "departed spirits." But Death is not a departed spirit. Here I like de Gebelin's story of the mummy displayed at banquets, to remind people that to hold death at bay practice moderation. Plutarch XVII says that the custom was to bring out "a dead man in his warn one to make use of the present and enjoy it, as very soon they themselves will be as he", The story was cited by Montaigne Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. David Frame, p. 62, 65, 85), The heads and feet at the bottom of the Tarot de Marseille ( ... onver2.jpg) are like the scattered limbs of Osiris in the tale told by Plutarch and Diodorus, symbolic of the resurrection to come. Pico gave that interpretation, saying, in his Oration of 1486 (quoted in Wind, p. 134)
...we shall sometimes descend, with titanic force rending the unity like Osiris into many parts, and we shall sometimes ascend, with force of Phoebus collecting the parts like the limbs of Osiris into a unity.
14. Temperance is the last of the first 14. For Decker it symbolizes rebirth. He gets that from the lady pouring liquid from one vessel to another, which he says is comparable to Horapollo's "a rush of water, from above to below" symbolizing rebirth. I'm not sure that the little stream going from one jug to anther qualifies as "a rush of water"--actually, "water gushing forth over heaven and earth", in Boas' translation (as opposed to the 1840 translation Decker found). In any case, what is symbolized is "the rising of the Nile", in Horapollo, nothing about rebirth. Decker needs "rebirth" because it's the end of his "original" sequence of 25 cards, and it has to either start over or go to another level.

I think the argument could be improved in two ways. First, what Horapollo says is "three water jugs, or water gushing over heaven and earth". We have only two jugs; but when Durer illustrated this image, he had two as well ( ... erJars.jpg). Perhaps there was a mistranslation: I haven't seen the Latin, either the 1435 or any later. Another way of seeing the card is as the mixing of wine and water for the Eucharist, which sets the stage for rebirth in the resurrection to come. The rising of the Nile is likewise the condition for the rebirth of the plants of the land of Egypt. This sacred rejuvenation is a precursor of the Eucharist. It could also be seen as the combining of water and fire, the water of Osiris with the fire of Seth, upper and lower Egypt, and also of good and evil, which Plutarch XLI, quoting Euripides, said "makes the world go well"; the popularity of this idea is shown in Montaigne (Essays 3. 13, "On Experience." Knopf ed., p. 290). Evil is the condition for good. Without evil to fight against, good is merely a habit or reflex.


15. Evil is the subject of the next card, the Devil. Decker points to the animals that are implied in this figure, the goat, oryx and bat. "As hieroglyphs, they respectively symbolize lust (I. 48), blasphemy (I, 49) and weakness and audacity (II, 52)." Boas has this latter as "a weak man who is rash". In these ways evil is not outside, but inside the human being, all of us. At the same time, Apuleius, the Hermetica, and Plutarch all warn us about earth-bound evil spirits that take advantage of our weakness to bind us to them. The danger is within and without. The Cary Sheet shows a devil picking up souls as though they were garbage on the ground ( ... om16th.jpg).

The Tarot de Marseille shows a Devil on high and two small devils tied to his platform by ropes. brian Innes in his book The tarot related this portrayal to an Egyptian relief ( ... erSeth.JPG). Although I can't now find my reference, I found in one book about Egypt that it is from Sakara, near Cairo; so Cyriaco could have drawn it. Modern Egyptology says it is Seth and other gods bringing enemy captives to the Pharaoh. If the Devil card actually showed such a scene in its 1450s appearance, there could be a connection. However no early cards in fact show captives bound to the Devil by ropes. Nor is there any report of the Sakkara image appearing in books about Egypt before the 20th century. Unless more evidence turns up, the interpretation of the Devil as Seth requires another source than this. The idea of the Devil binding souls is of course a conventional Christian one. Marco Ponzi, in discussion of this point on THF, posted a photo of a relief on a 12th century capital near Paris, originally posted by "Fauvelus" at, that fits the card well.

16. Another interesting interpretation of Decker's is of the Tower card, which has a lightning-bolt on it. Horapollo doesn't have "lightning", but he does have "thunder", which means "far-off voice". Decker says, "surely it is of divine origin" and that the Tower is a conventional symbol of Purgatory; I didn't know that, and he has no reference. Hence "Souls in Purgatory still have the option of heeding God's Word and gaining salvation." He is thinking of the tarot sequence at this point as the soul's progress as far as Purgatory, something for which he has not yet laid a foundation and is surely not Egyptian. The lightning as representing the Word of God is not bad, using Horapollo to build a a Christian interpretation. But lightning represents God's will even without Horapollo, e.g. the Tower of Babel, Moses on the mountain, and various enemies of Israel struck dead.

For Egyptian towers, my favorite story is in Herodotus (History Book 3 (Thalia), pp. 17fF, AT ... ng/62.html).. The Persian king Cambyses conquers Egypt, thus becoming the new Pharaoh, and commits sacrilege by killing the sacred Apis bull. On the way back to Persia he dies of a an accidental self-inflicted injury (hence the man lying at the bottom of the tower) and his deputy, involved in shady dealings over the succession, has a fit of conscience--the voice of God, no doubt--confesses all to the summoned crowd and jumps off his platform, the highest tower in the city In the Noblet card, instead of circles, the shapes near the heads of the men are more like Egyptian hats, shown most clearly in Flornoy's restoration; the Dodal has some of this, but more ellipses ( ... dHeron.jpg). Below I give a detail, from Flornoy's restoration of Noblet, so you know where to look.

17. A star, Decker notes from Horapollo, means fate.. On the Cary Sheet we have one big star over four smaller ones, or five if you include the one on the lady's shoulder ( ... Sothis.jpg). That might. it seems to me, represent the transcendence of fate by means of Providence, assuming that the lady is Venus, a manifestation of Isis in Apuleius. Horapollo says,
And among them Isis is a star, called Sothis by the Egyptians, by the Greeks the Dog-Star, which appears to rule over the other stars.
Plutarch calls it both Isis and "Isis' water-carrier" (On Isis and Osiris XXI, XXXVIII) and the herald of the Nile flood, which we see pouring in two vessels, one on the side of a mountain and the other on the side of a hill. In Africa, the Nile is formed by the conjunction of two rivers; the White Nile flows slowly and picks up rich clay;, the Blue Nile comes in a torrent in the summer from the Ethiopian rains. The clay wouldn't get to the fields without the torrent. The allegory might be that for rebirth attention is needed both to the body (slow) and the spirit (torrent).

To judge when the Egyptianizing influence might have come to the tarot, one indicator might be the switch, for a while, from one-jugged Aquariuses to two, and a feminizing of the figure so that it is sexually ambiguous In the Dendera zodiacs, above ground on a trade-route since Greco-Roman times, Aquarius is shown with two jugs and sexually ambiguous ( ... ETNota.jpg, ... r2Nota.JPG). That might have induced the change. I see an Italian Aquarius, c. 1475, that fits this description ( ... hHours.jpg), and a zodiac in Troyes of 1497 as well ( ... zodiac.JPG). The 1497 zodiac will be of interest for the Sun card as well; the Dendera zodiacs relate to both the Moon and Sun cards, as we shall see.

In the Tarot de Marseille, there are seven smaller stars rather than five.These could be to represent the seven planets. But two of them, the Sun and the Moon, do not look like stars and have their own cards next. Another possibility is the group of seven stars mentioned as "sweet influences" at Job 38:31, in the Vulgate identified as the Hyades. "Influences" means astrological influence in the context of the poem. In Greek mythology the Hyades were rain nymphs; their weeping for their dead brother Hyas comes to us as rain. It is similar to the function of Aquarius or Sothis.

In the TdM, the hills and mountains of the Cary Sheet become trees, and a bird is added ( ... olChos.jpg). The bird faces right, the direction of the rising sun, and has its wings spread. That fits Horapollo's description of the Phoenix, one that particularly fits the frontispiece to the French translation of the Hyperotomachia, c. 1600 ( ... eauLGE.jpg). Horapollo talks about the Phoenix three times. The most relevant passage is at II, 35. I highlight the most relevant words:
When they wish to indicate a long-enduring restoration, they draw the phoenix. For when this bird is born, there is a renewal of things. And it is born in this way. When the phoenix is about to die, it casts itself upon the ground and is crushed. And from the ichor pouring out of the wound, another is born. And this one immediately sprouts wings and flies off with its to Heliopolis in Egypt and once there, at the rising of the sun, the sire dies. And with the death of the sire, the young one returns to its own country. And the Egyptian priests bury the dead phoenix.
The phoenix is also connected with the rising of the Nile. I, 34, says that among other things the phoenix symbolizes a "a flood, since the phoenix is the symbol of the sun, than which nothing in the universe is greater." I, 35 elaborates:
And whatever the Egyptians do in the case of the other sacred animals, the same do they feel obliged to do for the phoenix. For it is said by the Egyptians beyond all other birds to cherish the sun, wherefore the Nile overflows for them because of the warmth of this god, concerning which we have spoken a little above.
I have read somewhere that one reason for the connection of the sun with the flood is that occurs in the month of Leo (which of course is Greek, but we are dealing with Greco-Roman Egypt).

The phoenix was often shown with a fire under it, unlike the bird on the Star card. If the bird derives from Horapollo, the lack of a fire does not mean anything, because Horapollo mentions no fire.

The bird could also be an eagle, although in that case the derivation is not from Horapolo. Psalm 103:5 says:
Renovabitur sicut aquilae iuventus tua" 
(Your youth will be renewed like the eagle's)
The reference would appear to be a belief expressed in a 13th century Bestiary (
The eagle is the king of birds. When it is old it becomes young again in a very strange manner. When its eyes are darkened and its wings are heavy with age, it seeks out a fountain clear and pure, where the water bubbles up and shines in the clear sunlight. Above this fountain it rises high up into the air, and fixes its eyes upon the light of the sun and gazes upon it until the heat thereof sets on fire its eyes and wings. Then it descends down into the fountain where the water is clearest and brightest, and plunges and bathes three times, until it is fresh and renewed and healed of its old age.
The sun is then offstage right, and after flying into the sun it will dive into the pool. The allegory is much the same as with Horapollo's Phoenix..
18. Decker finds a dog in the Moon card, and concludes that it means the Moon is a divinity. But there is no dog in any 15th century Moon card, and it doesn't take Horapollo to interpret the Moon as a divinity. I think he would have done better to take the meaning of "crab", which is the same word as "crayfish" (in Horapollo with an oyster, but let's keep it simple): "a man careless of his welfare".

Actually, "scarab" in Greek is "karabos", which also means "scarab" ( Pictorially, the Cancer on the Dendera zodiacs could be either a crab or a scarab ( ... teCrab.JPG). Thus we may invoke Horapollo on the scarab (I, 10), where it is indeed connected with the Moon:
When the male wishes to have offspring, it takes some cow-dung and makes a round ball of it...Then, burying this ball, it leaves it in the ground for twenty-eight days, during which tine the moon traverses the twelve signs of the zodiac. Remaining here, the beetle is brought to birth. And on the twenty-ninth day, when it breaks the ball open, it rolls it into the water. For it considers this day to be the conjunction of the moon and the usn, as well as the birth of the world. When it is opened in the water, animals emerge which are beetles. It symbolizes birth for this very reason. And a father, because the beetle takes its birth from a father only.,,
Assuming a mistranslation of "karabos" as "crayfish", we have precisely the situation on the Cary Sheet Moon card, with its Egyptian background of two obelisks, a temple, and what I think are crocodiles (look carefully!) by a lake ( ... detNot.jpg). The crocodile, Horapollo says, is a destroyer (II, 35):
When they wish to represent a man at war with another, they draw a scorpion and a crocodile. For each destroys the other.
It is also a lunatic, as we see at I, 67:
When they wish to represent a plunderer, a fecund man, a madman, they draw a crocodile, because it is fecund and has many offspring and raves.
I want to get back to the dogs, two of them. It is totally commonplace that dogs bark at the moon. But we are looking for hidden, i.e. non-obvious interpretations. I find one in Clement of Alexandria, in a work that might not have been known until around 1500 or so. The dogs are not in the Cary Sheet, done around that time.  Here is what Clement of Alexandria had to say about dogs Tropics; it is in the same short section that discusses the nature of hieroglyphs, so there is no way the humanists would have missed this part ( He is talking about what the Egyptians meant by various symbols, such as the lion, the ox, the horse, etc. I have put in bold the most important part :

And in what is called among them the Komasi√¶ of the gods, they carry about golden images— two dogs, one hawk, and one ibis; and the four figures of the images they call four letters.For the dogs are symbols of the two hemispheres, which, as it were, go round and keep watch; the hawk, of the sun, for it is fiery and destructive (so they attribute pestilential diseases to the sun); the ibis, of the moon, likening the shady parts to that which is dark in plumage, and the luminous to the light. And some will have it that by the dogs are meant the tropics, which guard and watch the sun’s passage to the south and north. The hawk signifies the equinoctial line, which is high and parched with heat, as the ibis the ecliptic...
I think the idea is that if the sun went any further north in its mid-day course than the Tropic of Cancer, it would make the summer too hot. And if it went any further south at the tropic of Capricorn, the winters would be too cold. So the dogs keep the sun on course. From a Greco-Egyptian perspective, they are guard-dogs. The gods did not want another Phaeton, whose erratic leading of the solar horses burned the land and led to the creation of the Sahara Desert. The card, while focusing on the moon, is on this view also about the sun. on the Noblet card, one disc is wholly inside the other, as in an eclipse. 

19. Decker sees two men on the Tarot de Marseille Sun card greeting each other, This symbolizes "concord" or "unanimity". He ignores that it is also the Twins, who had the same feelings. But the early cards had no such two men. The PMB has a child reaching for the Sun; in the Cary Sheet, there is appears to be a boy waving a flag, retained in the Vieville ( ... eville.JPG). It suggests that the new birth has happened, and it is cause for joy. That is not something particularly Egyptian.

But in the earliest TdM-style cards, that found in the Sforza Castle, and the c. 1650 Noblet, it is a male and female pair touching each other, ( ... Noblet.jpg) and Minchiate ( ... unGem2.jpg). In relation to Egypt, that would correspond to the Egyptian representation of the Gemini at Dendera, clearly seen as male and female ( ... Gemini.jpg); the Greek Gemini have become the Egyptian son and daughter of the Sun, Shu and Tefnet. At this point Horapollo's dictum applies. In the 1497 Troyes zodiac ( ... zodiac.JPG), we also see a man and a woman for Gemini. Whether that image is part of the original tarot is dubious, because the "Sforza Castle" is later than the earlier Milan cards which show no such two people.

20, For the Judgment (or "Angel:) card, Decker focuses on the Angel's wings. He says that "wings" meant "wind", and wind is breath or spirit. Actually, the image is not "wings" but rather "a hawk rising toward the gods". Since "hawk" is a symbol of the soul, it would follow that a hawk rising up would mean the soul or spirit rising. An angel is not a hawk, but there is enough here to force the analogy, as an Egyptian prefiguration of the angels who assist in the Resurrection, lifting the soul up or giving it wings.

By the time of the Chosson, however, there is what seems to me an allusion to one of the major Egyptian gods ( ... Wadjet.jpg). The hills conjoined with the tonsured head of the middle figure form an eye, very similar to the "eye of Horus" or "Wadjet" that was depicted schematically.Plutarch LII describes the eyes of Horus as the sun and the moon. Since the sun sees everything, that eye probably would have been identified with the all-seeing eye of God, a well-known hieroglyph, most famously in the US dollar bill ( ... _Seal.jpg; on the left, the Latin means "This is the way of God").

21. For the World card, Decker has already said that the lady in the middle is Isis. Horapollo says that a woman is Isis (1,3). That fits Decker's interpretation of the Tarot de Marseille card, to be sure, but many other cards as well. That is no objection: in Apuleius, Isis is all goddesses combined into one. Thus for example, even the Cary Sheet's Popess could be Isis, as O'Neill has pointed out. It is quite similar to the Isis of Pope Alexander VI's fresco series ( ... ryIsis.jpg, where I have given a mirror image of the fresco, as woodcuts like the Cary Sheet do that to an image). From there we have the curtain behind the Tarot de Marseille Popess as the "veil of Isis" in Herodotus, and we are on our way to the Golden Dawn.

For the Fool, a card he says was added after the first 14 and was not part of the sequence, he interprets the card by the animal reaching up to the Fool: it is a hyena, which the artist, an Italian, didn't know how to draw. That gives the card the meaning of "unstable, because sometimes male and sometimes female". But the early Fool cards had no animal on that card, not even the Cary Sheet, which shows the left half of the card ( ... ywFool.jpg). And when there was an animal in art that might have been suggested by the Tarot Fool, as in "Tarot of Mantegna" Misero ( ... ovegni.JPG) or Bosch's "Wayfarer" ( ... nBosch.jpg), it was unambiguously a dog. A dog looking at something means that what it is looking at is a divinity, Horapollo says. Divinity is one interpretation of the Fool.


Can one suppose that the inventor of the cards had to have had Horapollo and the other texts in front of him? There is one major problem. Much of the argument depends on card images that cannot reasonably be thought to exist until late in the 15th century at the least. It is not that "absence of evidence implies evidence of absence", which is indeed a fallacy. It is that there are many contra-indications (contradiction seems too strong a term, the medical term better) in the early cards of Decker's hypothesis.

Also, interpretations involving the Tarot de Marseille too often require knowledge of Egypt that was not available until later, unless Cyriaco was exceptionally well informed. Moreover, correlations do not imply causation, even when repeated 22 times. The early cards simply don't suggest Egyptian interpretations, except possibly the Bagatella with his odd, wide hat. On the other hand, the Cary Sheet was done at a time when over Egyptian references were being made everywhere. The Pope had his apartments painted with scenes from Egyptian mythology and traced his ancestry back to Osiris. Not to be outdone, the Emperor had Durer draw hieroglyphs around him and had his ancestry also traced back to Osiris, and to Hercules as well. After that it was simply a matter of completing the job. Egyptomania was still rampant, and when the Counter-Reformation clamped down, it still raged in France and elsewhere in Northern Europe. Apart from what the designers would have done, I see no reason why a system of "hidden symbolism" such as I describe shouldn't have readily been imposed by viewers of the cards, regardless of whether the artists had them in mind.

Ross Caldwell ( ... stcount=49) has objected that if Alberti, Filelfo, etc. had been designing tarot cards, they would have come up with something more recondite than what we see. I reply that the situation here is not like the designing of medals and personal devices, where enigma is meant to suggest profundity; and it is not like the emblem books of later years, where enigmatic images encouraged people to read the rather pedestrian explanations. It is like in Shakespeare, where in "Get thee to a nunnery", "nunnery" means both a place for nuns and a whorehouse; and in "I took thee for a fishmonger," "fishmonger" means both a seller of fish and a procurer. The innocents can enjoy the lines, and so can the cynics. Italian poetry of the period was full of such double meanings, usually obscene or insulting. But they don't have to be understood for the poems to have meanings on a surface level.. Likewise, here it is a matter of taking cards that make perfect sense in commonplace terms and using more obscure, "recondite" sources to give them new meanings, sometimes followed by new designs that cater to them. For example, dogs were conventionally asssociated with the Moon, as was the crayfish (astrology) and large bodies of water affected by the tides. That does not exclude other meanings, however. For me there is no question but that the card were first Christian and also likely Petrarchan (for its name Trionfi, for its sequence of images through life and beyond, and most of all for the six stages with clear correspondences in the early Milanese cards). It is with what happened later, at first in narrow humanist circles and then more broadly, that I have been concerned.

I cannot, to be sure, prove that such interpretations of the cards were made historically between the time Horapollo was discovered and the early 18th century, the time of the final TdM style. All that can be said is that these quotations from Horapollo fit the cards and that certain details added to the cards after their initial appearance, at least as shown by the Cary-Yale, support Egyptianate interpretations. Also, it is not a question of finding an explanation of all these details that cannot be explained in other ways. Some can be explained in other ways, with different assumptions about when the details were added.. These interpretations merely add another dimension, consistently through all the trumps, to the Christian one which is also there.

One aspect of the tarot that these references to Horapollo do not include in their interpretations is the order of the trumps. The trumps do not follow the order in Horapollo at all. In fact, the order of the explanations seems to follow no order at all, unlike the tarot sequence. For that, Decker will need something else, something that puts the meanings so far adduced into numerical order. His next chapter is entitled "Numinous Numbers".

When I posted this defense of Decker on the Tarot History Forum, it aroused a storm of opposition. If you would like to read the objections and my replies (some of which I have tried to incorporate here), they start at

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