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 รจ 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.

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