Monday, April 28, 2014

Chapter 7: Sacred Symmetries:

In Chapter 7 Decker presents his theory that the tarot is three sets of 7, one for the descent into matter, one for life in matter, and one for the ascent to heaven. He follows here Robert O'Neill, who presents this same idea in Tarot Symbolism, 1986. What is of interest is how it is justified. Decker's main new text is the Latin Asclepius, sometimes spelled Aesclepius, which existed throughout the Middle Ages in Latin translation. The deck he mostly refers to for evidence on the cards is still the Tarot de Marseille (of which there is no evidence that it was the original tarot, other than it serves Decker's purpose).

I have already alluded to how the descent works: We go from the "Good Daemon" creator god, the Juggler, through Wisdom in the Popess. Then the soul goes into Intellectual Manifestation--the Ideas--in the Empress and Sensible Manifestation in the Emperor. These two come from Apuleius's De Mundo. The Pope then, for Decker (p. 166), is Beatitude, the blessing of creation, and the Quintessence above the four in matter. Appropriately, the Pope usually is shown giving a blessing.

Love is the World-Soul, of which our individual souls are a part. He does not say how that is expressed in the card. "Aristotle taught that the material world desired to draw close to God," he says. But in that case, the card would not be part of the descent; God is the other way.

It seems to me that it would have been better if he had used some other quote about the World Soul, one that supported his idea that the principle of Love entering the soul urges it closer to other souls, which are imbedded in the world. Plato's Timaeus speaks of the world-soul as "fairest and best" (30c), made after God's image, but does not talk about individual souls being drawn to the world for that reason. But there is Logion 38 of the Chaldean Oracles, imbedded in Proclus's In Parmenides 895 (Ruth Majercik translation, 1988):
For after he thought his works, the self-generated Paternal Intellect sowed the bond of love, heavy with fire, into all things.
If so, the love-infused individual soul descending into matter would be drawn into the cosmos, where the "bond of love" had taken root. The sunburst behind Cupid would be an indication of the divine origin of love, because the sun, in Platonism, was the standard image of the One. Whether the designer of the original tarot would have known the Chaldean Oracles. They weren't appreciated in the West until Plethon's edition, and there is no evidence of its being paid attention to in Italy before the 1460s. However there is the question of how it got to Italy in the first place. The logical way would have been for Plethon to have brought it with him when he visited in 1438-1440.

There is also the passage in the Poimandres, section 14 (, also in Copenhaver, Hermetica, p. 3, a part not in Google Books) in which Anthropos looks into the water of his own reflection, reaches down to embrace it, and Physis, Nature, draws him into her iron embrace. But the original tarot was before this text was known in the West.

The Chariot, Decker says, is the ensouled body, combining the number 3 for the three parts of the soul with the number 4 for the elements, as he said in an earlier chapter.

Again, there is additional support for this view in the Oracles, although this time they would have had to go to the source, Proclus. In Vol. 1 of his commentary on the Timaeus, Proclus says (Logion 201 in Majercik; the quotation is taken to be from the Oracles)
Particular souls become mundane through their "vehicles."
The next seven cards Decker calls "Probation" (p. 167). He sees the soul moving under the influence of supernatural powers as described in the Asclepius.  In what follows, Decker refers to specific sections in the Asclepius, mostly using an obsolete translation by Scott, but in one case correcting it. For people who want to follow his argument, and mine, while reading along in a good translation of the Asclepius, I have used the current standard translation by Copenhaver (Hermetica, at ... er&f=false). Since originally posting, I have put in all the page numbers and section numbers. In a couple of cases where Decker has interpolated comments in brackets and ellipses (in dots) I have used Decker's translation followed by Copenhaver's. Unfortunately many of the quotations come from pages that are not in Google Books' version. In these cases I have included a link to my scan of the relevant page.

In this "Probation" section (cards 8-14), the first of the supernatural powers is the light of the sun, which Decker (p. 169) identifies with Justice (as in Durer's "Sol Iusticiae", which shows Christ holding the attributes of Justice, with a sun behind). There is no mention of Justice in the passages of the Asclepius that he cites (section 19 and 27; in the Copenhaver translation, these are on pp. 77, sentence at bottom of page (in Google Books), to the end of that paragraph, on p. 78 ( ... r78&79.JPG); and 83 (in Google Books), starting with "the one who dispenses" and ending "all things that are"). Decker identifies the two concentric circles on Justice's crown as a solar symbol. In a hand-painted Justice by Bembo, he says, both the upper corners contain stylized suns or bursts of light. I have no idea what Justice he means; the PMB has no such thing. The unpainted woodcut of the BAR has something corresponding to his description, but something similar is on many of the cards.

The Hermit, Decker had said much earlier in relation to Horapollo, represents the "horoscopus", the horoscope-caster and "keeper of the hours". In the Asclepius (Copenhaver translation, top of p. 78, ... r78&79.JPG), the horoscopes are the Decans. The ruler of the Decans is the Pantomorphosis, the all-form. Not able to picture such an entity, the tarot relies on Horapollo, Decker says.

Again, I think a reference to something else in the Platonic world would have been more appropriate. The Timaeus famously said that "Time is the moving Image of Eternity." ( So the Hermit, if embodying Time, would be the image of the Deity. It is perhaps with this idea in mind that the Marseille Hermit, starting with "Chosson" and Dodal, show the image of the sun on the inside of his robes. The Oracles support such an interpretation. Proclus says (Majercik, Oracle 195, from In Tim. III, 45),
But (the theurgists) have praised Time itself as a god, and one (Time god) (they praise) as 'Linked to the Zones' ...the other as Independent of the Zones"..
I presume that the "Zones" are the spheres of the planets and fixed stars. The one "linked to the Zones" would be Time; the other is eternal.

The Wheel, Decker says (still p. 169), is Fortune, which this section of the Asclepius describes as ruler of the entire system of six planets (excluding the sun), which Decker says is indicated by the six knobs of the Tarot de Marseille. Actually the Asclepius (p. 78 again, ... r78&79.JPG) refers to "seven spheres". What is the justification for separating out the Sun? Again, Proclus, citing the Oracles, seems to provide such a position (Majercik logion 200,In Tim. III, 132):
Regarding the planets, (Julian the Theurgist says) that (God) established them as six, "intercalating" the fire of the sun as the seventh.
The Asclepius (still p. 78) says that Unity governs the sphere of Air. Decker says (p. 170) that there is a gap in the text just at this point in the Asclepius, allowing the tarot designer to insert Fortitude here, air being indicated by the feathers on the hat of the Tarot de Marseille lady. That interpretation of the text of course is quite arbitrary, not to mention that the interpretive jump from hat to air is rather long. And actually, in Copenhaver's translation of this passage (Copenhaver p. 78, end of first paragraph), ... r78&79.JPG) what governs the air is "all the gods". How either Air or the god" relates to Fortitude remains unclear.

The Hanged Man, Decker says (p. 170), is the result of "celestial Jupiter" administering the law, which he theorized in relation to Manilius, is "the unseen power that causes the man to suffer".

Death is Plutonian Jupiter, a merger of the two gods, also mentioned in Hesiod's Works and days. Decker does not quote from the Asclepius, but this god is described in section 27 (Copenhaver p. 83, in Google Books):
The one who dispenses (life), whom we call Jupiter, occupies the place between heaven and earth. But Jupiter Plutonius rules over earth and sea, and it is he who nourishes mortal things that have soul and bear fruit.
Thus we see vegetation on the Tarot de Marseille card, Decker says. So in Decker's hands, the Death card is Nourishment. However his quote only gives the god power of nourishment over "mortal things", and if Death nourishes anything, it seems to me, it is only an immortal thing, the soul.

Temperance is for Decker (p. 171) Kore, the maiden Persephone, a fertility goddess and regenerator of life, because that is what mixing the elements results in, as pictured on the Temperance card. Actually the Asclepius does not mention Kore or Persephone. The fertility goddess mentioned is Venus (Asclepius 21, Copenhaver p. 79, ... r78&79.JPG):
For each sex is full of fecundity, and the linking of the two or, more accurately, their union, is incomprehensible. If you call it Cupid or Venus or both, you will be correct.
That would more naturally be the Love card, I think.

Next comes the soul's ascent (Decker p. 171). What corresponds to the Devil and Tower cards is what happens to the soul if negatively evaluated by the Good Demon; it goes "tumbling down" into storms of fire, water, air, and earth, as the Asclepius indeed says (section 28, p. 84 of Copenhaver, in the link to Copenhaver's translation already given). If judged positively, it ascends through a pagan version of Purgatory. He sees the figures on the Tarot de Marseille Tower card as tumbling to Hell. But he also mentions purgatory for this card, purgation through fire.

The Star is divine providence, promising that the purgation will not be unduly extreme, but will fit the offenses committed in life (Asclepius 28, as Decker quotes it, p. 172).
The divinity foreknows all [of one's deeds], so the penalties inflicted will accord with the offences.
(The corresponding quote in Copenhaver is on p. 84: "The divinity foreknows all of it, so one pays the penalty precisely in proportion to one's wrongdoing.")

It is a pagan Purgatory. Earlier he had identified the Star of the card with Providence. To me the Asclepius quote sounds more like divine Justice.

Then, for the Moon card, Decker quotes the Asclepius as follows (section 29)
When the shadows of error [cf. the Moon card] are dispelled from the man's soul, and he has perceived the light of truth [cf. the Sun card], his senses are wholly absorbed in the knowledge of God.
(The sentence in Copenhaver's translation, bottom of p. 84, reads: "And when the shadows of error have been scattered from a person's soul and he has perceived the light of truth, he couples himself with divine understanding in his whole consciousness.")

Decker observes: "The sun, of course, dispels shadows and sadness." Thus the Asclepius says, as Decker quotes it (still section 29);
"The sun its divinity and holiness...The sun is indeed a second god.
The full quote, in Copenhaver, p. 85, is
In fact, the sun illuminates the other stars not so much by the intensity of its light as by its divinity and holiness. The sun is indeed a second god, O Asclepius, believe it, governing all things and shedding light on all that are in the world, ensouled and soulless.
 (I have reproduced the page at ... aver85.JPG; this passage is at the top.)

At the Angel, the soul rediscovers its immortality, Decker says. There is in fact no mention of an Angel at this point in the Asclepius. The Good Daemon did his work earlier. The part about immortality is the rest of the sentence about his perceiving the light of truth (Copenhaver bottom of p. 84 in Google Books, top of 85, ... aver85.JPG):
...and when his love of it [divine understanding] has freed him from the part of nature that makes him mortal, he conceives confidence in immortality to come.
But perhaps the Last Judgment and recognizing one's immortality come to the same thing, for a Hermetic.

There follows, after skipping several pages of the text, a mystical passage about the world. Decker quotes without comment (beginning of section 30, corresponding to the first sentence of the section in Copenhaver, p. 85, ... aver85.JPG):
The world must be full of life and eternity...Eternity's life-giving power stirs the world, and the place of the world is within that living eternity....The world will never stop moving or be destroyed.
All in all, the fit to the Asclepius is very loose. When there is nothing in the Asclepius, as happens frequently, Decker uses something from another text. I don't see anything objectionable about this, since they are all from the same era and roughly the same perspective, the Platonism of the Roman Empire (even if the Renaissance didn't know that). But such a wide assortment of texts weakens his case that the Asclepius is a source for the tarot, because what he does cite is common to the whole tradition.

In fact the Asclepius does talk about devils, called "baleful angels" in Copenhaver's translation (p. 82 in Copenhaver, end of section 25, in Google Books), in a section whose language is very close to that of the Bible's Book of Revelation. It describes how "Egypt" will be taken over by them, until God finally has had enough, "washing away malice in a flood or consuming it in fire or ending it by spreading pestilential disease everywhere" (section 26, still Copenhaver p. 82). Then the old order will be restored, in a kind of this-worldly New Jerusalem. The world that Decker quotes, the one that "will never be destroyed" is something else, the world of the senses; it is part of a denial that there will be an "end of the world" either in the material or non-material sense.

Another problem, of course, is Decker's reliance on the Tarot de Marseille, even to the number of spokes on the wheel. There is no evidence for that deck being the original tarot, especially in such detail.. All of his arguments fitting the various texts to the Tarot de Marseille, to extent they are valid, could be explanations for why these details were added later, as opposed to being original. Except for the texts that explain the order, all relate to small details on the cards. As far as the order of the trumps, there is no evidence for the Tarot de Marseille order until 1544, over a hundred years after the original tarot. This is not to say that better arguments cannot be found. Decker simply doesn't provide them.

The 3x7 array is another issue. It is generally agreed that there are three sections to the sequence, but usually Love and Chariot are put in the first section (this was first articulated by Dummett in Game of Tarot, 1980). A case could be made for Love and Chariot on the descent, as I have suggested, but one has to assume that the deck's designer was alert to Proclus's citations of the Chaldean Oracles. Other than that, the sequence descent-trials-ascent, as grounded in Hermetic-Platonic texts of the first two centuries of the common era, is still worthy of consideration.

I myself would have made more use of the Chaldean Oracles, both by way of Plethon's edition and Proclus, although not for the time period of the tarot's invention. For more on this, see Chapters 1-3 of my "Tarot and the Chaldean Oracles", at


As far as influencing the tarot at the time of its invention, there are only two areas where it seems to me, after reading his argument, there might be a case, and even then only for the time when it took its present shape of 22 cards.

One area that still seems to me relevant is that pertaining to Egyptian hieroglyphs, especially Horapollo, because of (1) the Egyptomania of the times, (2) the good fit with some of the imagery, i.e. the Bagat in the PMB and several in the Cary Sheet, and (3) the presence of Ciriaco in Cremona at the right time, Sept-Dec 1451, a very good time for both Filelfo and he to give input to the Bembo on the PMB; also, Simonetta, his chancelor, was there at least in July and Francesco in December, per letters written by them (Phaeded at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=976&start=20#p14396). Filelfo had the full Greek text of Horapollo, and Ciriaco likely the Latin 37 sign version.

Another group of texts with a persuasive case is that of ancient arithmology, notably Macrobius, Martianus Capella, possibly also Philo. This Pythagorean-based "arithmetical theology" (Theologumena Arithmeticae, as one 4th century text is called) is really the best account I know for why the Popess is number 2, Justice is 8, and the Wheel is 10 (as the end of a cycle); the other cards from 0 to 9 also fall in line. For the cards above 10, the correspondences are looser. But once the precedent had been set in the first ten, the remainder could perhaps afford to be such.

That Filelfo was in Cremona in late 1451 increases the probability that Pythagorean arithmology influenced the order, at least of the PMB. A letter by him quoted by Robin in Filelfo in Milan (pp. 49-50) shows him quite adept at the playful use of its correspondences. Filelfo would also have known the relevant dialogues of Plato and the Latin works of Apuleius, Macrobius, and Martianus Capella.

Filelfo would also have had some familiarity with Proclus, at least to the extent of familiarity with the Chaldean Oracles imbedded there, some of which Plethon had called attention to. Filelfo's own philosophical writings are closer to Proclus than they are to Augustine. Robin (Filelfo in Milan p. 151) paraphrases his 1473-1475 De Morale Disciplina:
God is pure mind, light, and fire. This being is the light that illuminates truth, the fire that kindles the love of virtue.
Filelfo here makes no reference to Christ, the Trinity, etc., she says. From God comes the eternal forms, including those of the virtues, and it is through love of those, God's works, that virtuous action occurs, without which knowledge of the virtues would be meaningless (p. 157) and by means of which, among other things, the soul grows closer to God. That doctrine, close to that of Proclus and the Chaldean Oracles (see Majercik's Oracle 51), would also apply to the virtue cards in the tarot, which Decker had so much trouble pulling out of the Asclepius. This is Filelfo of the 1470s. Whether he had such an orientation in the 1450s, when the full 22 card tarot was probably born, is a difficult question.

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