Monday, April 28, 2014

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment