Monday, April 28, 2014

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 KomasiƦ 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

To continue reading, click on "Older Posts"

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