by Christine Payne-Towler.
This essay presents some of the symbols, numbers, arrangements and other clues which, added together, make a strong suggestion that even the earliest Tarot decks were made with esoteric considerations in mind.
For the modern scholarly definition of “esotericism”, which we shall uphold through the course of this article, please refer to my previous article, "What is Esoteric?" in which I reference Antoine Faivre’s articles on the “representative esoteric corpus.” If you read this article to the end, you will see that Faivre suggests that we will find esotericism in the Tarot by the early sixteenth century: "Playing cards, appearing around 1375, began from the early fifteenth century to be symbolic repositories for the gods and the planets."
This article will develop that idea in some detail.
Some Context for a definition of "Esotericism:"
Looking for a pithy source to quote who could pin-point the issues before us, I found a chapter called "Neoplatonism and Hermeticism” in the excellent book Astrology in the Renaissance; The Zodiac of Life, by Eugenio Garin. Grounding himself in the Council of Church Unity, which in 1439 was moved from Ferrara to Florence, Garin waxes eloquent on the powerful impact that “the most serious participant of the Council” (p. 58-9), George Gemistus Pletho, had upon the Latins assembled.
“… Pletho, the restorer of the cult of the pagan gods at Mistra, announced, whilst discussing with his Florentine friends, the imminent end of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the advent of the conversion of men to the religion of truth. His implacable adversary George of Trebizond was to write: "I myself heard him in Florence when he said that within a few years the whole world would have one and the same religion, one mind, one soul, one sermon. And when I asked him if it would be the faith of Christ or that of Mohamed, he replied: neither of these, but another faith, which is not so different from that of the gentiles."
As it is well known, Pletho was thinking of the resurrection of the Hellenistic divinities, of the cult of Zeus, of Apollo, of the sun and of the stars. Garin goes on to quote some prayers from Plethon’s Peri nomon, which are addressed to the Sun, Moon, Venus, Stilbon (Mercury), Phaenon (Saturn), Phaethon (Jupiter), and Pyrois (Mars), saying in part "…we celebrate you as our radiant protectors, along with the other stars which a divine providence has thrown into space...”
Garin goes on to say:
“This is the Platonism of Mistra, which was reintroduced into Florence after the council through the initiative of Cosimo de’ Medici. As Theodore Gaza, who joined with Bessarion in fighting George of Trebizand’s accusations, suggested, it was a Platonism which was reminiscent above all of Celsus and the Emperor Julian. Naturally Pletho liked to refer to the philosophy of the ‘Chaldean Oracles’: undoubtedly he took part in the success enjoyed by Julian’s works, and especially his oration to the sun, which became a text particularly dear in Florentine circles.” (p. 59) “Pletho was at the same time both a great thinker and a great reformer. His interpretation of Platonism and Hellenism found its conclusion in a rationalism which exploited the scientific possibilities implicit in astrology to the full. His Zeus, his One-All, his heavens, his destiny (heimarmene), carried the consequences of a natural law, which necessitates and links everything together, to their logical conclusions, where everything can be foreseen and is predictable because everything is preordained: where religions, revelations, prophets, apostles and saints are brought back to the absolute plane of reality….What is most important in all this is that Pletho himself opened the way to a series of recoveries, however reductive, of great significance: from the praise of the Greek gods to the solar cult, from the ‘Chaldean Oracles’ to Emperor Julian, from Zoroaster to the ‘Mysteries of the Egyptians’ of Iamblichus. “
Garin’s chapter continues to elucidate the unfolding esoteric paradigm as it was realized by later Renaissance Magi , but for our purposes, this is enough.
Oldest Incomplete Groups of Cards
One of the challenges we face in trying to reconstruct the potential esoteriscism of the earliest cards is that we are missing many packs outright, and have only fragmentary evidence of others. Even those fragments are useful in our search, however. Readers who possess Stuart Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of Tarot Volumes I and II are encouraged to follow along and look as well as read.
Interestingly enough, it is my dominant impression, looking over the cluster of Visconti- and Sforza-family decks, that these are not the best place to look for examples of clear esoteric symbolism in the cards. A possible explanation for this might be that, having been created to be wedding commemoration presents, family heraldry and local flavor fill up the spaces where we would, in other decks, find intriguing clues to esoteric thinking. Therefore the V-S family of decks will not enter into our range of examples, which center instead on the Marseilles pattern which became the “industry standard” for 78-card decks by the arrival of Tarot’s hundred-year anniversary in Europe.
For examples of intriguing but inconclusive esotericism in the earliest Tarots, let’s look at Kaplan’s Volume 1, chapter IX, “Other Early Handpainted Cards”. On pages 110-111, we see the eight remaining cards of the Goldschmidt Cards, and three examples of the Guildhall pack. Those Goldschmidt cards manage to be quite suggestive even through their number is small. We cannot extrapolate a whole system from a fragmented deck, though the details I am pointing out often reference esoterica when we find them in other contemporary contexts. In any case, the imagery being pointed out here has little or no relevance to the world of games.
The card identified as The Fool (?)
wears a hoop around his middle, held up by suspenders, and also shows
a six-spoke wheel on the wall behind him. Out of Cirlot’s giant
entry in his A Dictionary of Symbols on the symbolic significance of
the wheel, I quote; “One of the elementary forms of
wheel-symbolism consists of the sun as a wheel, and of ornamental
wheels as solar emblems.” (p. 350) The Pope (?) shows a crowned
anchor suspended on the wall next to him, and appears to have a
salamander -- alchemical signifier of the fire element and
transmutation -- in his hand.
The Ace of Swords (which might also be a Death card) has the Templar device of a skull and crossed thighbones superimposed on an ornamental dagger, while a broken chain hangs from the scabbard behind the skull. The possible Sun card beams his rays down onto three mounds of earth (the symbolic Holy Hill) surmounted by the Teutonic Cross. The Ace of Cups shows a serpent alchemical motif. Finally there’s the image of a crowned sea-serpent, which Kaplan explicitly states is “decidedly different from the crowned snake or dragon of the Rosenthal… and Von Bartsch … Visconti-Sforza tarocchi cards. Not only does it look like a fish of almost humorous facial features, but it is also not in the act of devouring any human being.”(p. 111) About half of these cards have a distinctive checkerboard floor pattern which is visually quite eye-catching and could bring a meaning of its own to bear.
Of the three surviving cards from the Guildhall set, the most interesting one portrays the Flaming Sun hovering above the hilt of a Sword, which points downwards through another suspended orobourous snake. There are words both in the background of the sun, and on a floating scroll behind the hilt of the Sword. Kaplan hazards a guess that the words say “mia arm(o)ur”, which might be a reference to Eros Magic beliefs current at the time. The fountainous Ace of Cups, familiar from the V-S packs, is enhanced with the checkerboard floor, hanging anchor and short dagger also seen in the Goldschmidt cards.
A few pages further along in this chapter from Kaplan, we see the calculations of astrologers illustrated in the Gringonneur Cards as well as both copies of the D’Este cards (pp. 115-118). In the D’Este set, the astronomical motif seems to spread across all three Astral cards – the Star, the Moon, and the Sun. Given that we are seeing celestial observations being taken and calculations being made in preparation for the act of charting the positions of sun, moon, and stars, the implication seems to spread beyond just the enjoyment of old myths and legends into operative Astrology. (We see similar actions in the Star and Moon of the Rothschild Tarot or Minchiate Cards, p 129.)
Moving to Kaplan's Chapter XIV of Volume 2, we get a look at another collection of early Tarot fragments. The Italian cards which are shown pp. 272-83 will figure into our analysis of the Pip cards later in this article. What is really exciting about this chapter is the collection of cards found in the moat and cisterns of the Sforza castle in Milan, Italy. This collection is a treasure for those with an eye for Plethon’s imprint upon the Latin imagination! From page 289 to page 296 we see cards from a collection of decks which apparently were themed to the very pantheon that Plethon was extolling in the quotes above! The various backpatterns on the cards show us images of Saturn, Mars, Truth, Hercules, Proserpine, Pluto, Jove, Mercury, Venus, The World, and The Lovers.
As spice for our imaginations, Kaplan also shows us the Labyrinth pack by Andrea Ghisi, from 1616 (pp. 304-306). This is not a Tarot deck proper, but even a quick glance shows conversance with all the foregoing packs of Tarot, Minchiate and Mantegna images. What is great about these images is that each one gets a very explicit title, giving us a catalogue of Arts, Sciences, Virtues, Planets, Powers, Muses, gods, Graces, States of Man, Biblical figures and symbols which clearly indicate the common body of ideas which Tarot also utilizes on the Trumps. Seeing them all together on these three pages really brings home the “world of imagination” which epitomizes the intellectual and entertainment trend followed by the generations who were collectively refining the Tarot. It also puts us firmly in mind of the catalogue of values Faivre has distilled for us to epitomize “esoteric symbolism”.
Complete Decks Provide Esoteric Perspective
In the case of Tarots that are more nearly complete, we get a chance to see another order of symbols building up on the faces of the Pip and Royalty cards. From here out I will be citing examples that follow the Marseilles pattern, at least in their Trump ordering.
The Anonymous Parisian Tarot ( Kaplan’s pp134-5), an early 17th century pack, is not represented in full in the Encyclopedia Vol 1, but what is shown features several cards that are quite suggestive. Not only do we see heraldic shields displaying the arms and devices of the various regions of the French countryside (themselves filled with symbolism), but embedded into the design for the Two of Coins is a talisman bearing the sigil of the Geomantic figure called Populus, aka “The People” (see John Michal Greer’s Earth Divination, Earth Magic; A Practical Guide to Geomancy, p. 174).
Seeing the sigil of Populus here on the Tarot card (even if incorporated into a local lord’s personal coat of arms) motivated me to keep my eyes open and see if there might be any other “spillovers” discernable between the Geomantic paradigm and the pip symbols of Tarot. Once this thought had taken hold, it helped me to break out of viewing the Pip arrangements as being simply dictated by dice patterns. That finally opened my mind to the Pythagorean revelation that firmed up my conviction that none of these details have been left to accident. But let us proceed systematically….
The Elemental Aces
First we must contemplate the suit symbols themselves, which are displayed at their highest level of detail on their respective Aces. Collecting the Grimaud Marseilles, the Fournier Marseilles, and the Conver compilation-deck together with my Encyclopedias around myself, I laid out the four Aces and investigated the universe they were describing. Here’s what they portray:
The Ace of Swords is crowned with the familiar Ducal Crown of the Visconti family, but what is that composite symbol made up of, and what are the references it is making? The Palm Frond is a symbol of fecundity and victory, appropriated to Christ in the New Testament. The Laurel Wreath is sacred to Apollo and expressive of Victory (over Self, over negativity and all distractions and over enemies, both within and without). The Crown can stimulate multiple associations, one of which is Kethir on the Hebrew Tree of Life. Cirlot in his A Dictionary of Symbols says “The metal crown, the diadem and the crown of rays of light, are symbols of light and of spiritual enlightenment.” (p. 69.)
We see here gathered primary spiritual symbols of achieved consciousness in these three ancient Paths, which history tells us met and mingled in the Alexandrian synthesis. Each symbol is emblematic of a “Crowning Achievement” in it’s own realm, and all of them are together surrounded by numinous "energy drops" of a similar vitality and mobility as those which surrounded the Ace of Wands. So although previous commentators might see this symbol as simply the Visconti Ducal Crown, I see as well Plethon’s predicted culmination of the old Racial Religions into the unified faith, vision, and inspiration of a coming New Dispensation. (We should be so lucky, to this very day!)
The Ace of Clubs is Prometheus’ tool for carrying fire to Earth. This is not just a romantic suggestion, because it is easy to see in each of these Aces that the club has been hollowed out in the center and is filled with a fiery red substance which is scattering sparks all around it. It’s especially interesting to note that the Clubs on most of the cards of this suit are actually fully refined Wands -- all except for the Ace, the Page and the Knight. The Page’s club is held downwards, therefore unsuitable for ignition, while the Knight’s club is upright and filled with fire. Though we don’t know the whole reason why these differences appear, there would be no mistaking which Element is to be attributed to this suit in the paradigm of Elemental Magic!
One attribute of the Ace of Swords and the Ace of Wands that has puzzled many people is the tongues of flame that swirl around them (and which reappear on several of the Trump cards). Remembering that Pletho brought with him renewed interest in the Chaldean Oracles, let us quote from sections 20 through 24 (Pg. 37-8 of The Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster edited by W. Wynn Wescott):
- 20. "The Soul, being a brilliant Fire, by the power of the Father remaineth immortal, and is Mistress of Life, and filleth up the many recesses of the bosom of the World." (Psellus,28; Pletho,11.Z)
- 21. "The channels being intermixed, therein she performeth the works of incorruptible Fire. "(Proclus in Politica, p.399. Z. or T.)
- 22. "For not in Matter did the Fire which is in the first beyond enclose His active Power, but in Mind; for the framer of the Fiery World is the Mind of Mind. "(Proclus in Theologiam, 333, and Tim., 157. T.)
- 23. "Who first sprang from Mind, clothing the one Fire with the other Fire, binding them together, that he might mingle the fountainous craters, while preserving unsullied the brilliance of His own Fire. "(Proclus in Parm. Platonis. T. )
- 24. "And thence a Fiery Whirlwind drawing down the brilliance of the flashing flame, penetrating the abysses of the Universe; for from thence downwards do extend their wondrous rays."(Proclus in Theologiam Platonis, 171 and 172. T.)”
Here we have delineated the mixing of fire and air (Divine Mind) during the devolution of Soul into manifestation, according to the Chaldean system expressed through the Oracles. I believe this explains both the “fiery drops” around the aces of Fire and Air (and the Tower, Sun, Moon and Judgement card), and equally the chain of elemental associations that is meant to be projected onto the suits.
Proceeding “down” the elemental chain, the Ace of Cups is the over-proliferated, castellated and crenellated Grail Cup we are familiar from the family watermarks used by the papermaker’s guilds of the times. The Cup is usually depicted as open on the Pip cards, but the Ace is dominated by an elaborate lid more reminiscent of a Ciborium, (the container holding consecrated Host on the Altar in the Sanctuary), than a simple cover. One of the suggestions emanating from this covered Cup is that it could be an alchemical vessel, sheltering its contents in a slow but steady gestation. Amongst the Royals of this suit we see the Cup in different modes, one of the most interesting of which shows the Page, having lifted the lid of the cup, still hiding the contents under his cloak protectively. What does this furtive gesture refer to in the game of Tarot, I wonder?
The Ace of Coins completes this stage of our survey by representing the 4-elements schema that dominates the Western Esoteric Tradition. We see this 4-fold division in space (four directions), in time (four Seasons), in society (for stations of humanity in the Royals), and in the elemental constitution of the manifested universe (Air, Fire, Water, and Earth). This concept is stated explicitly in the World card of the Rothschild set that shows a 4-elements wheel with Mercury standing upon it. We also see the same quadrature on most of the existing Marseille-style Coins from all over Europe. Finally, in two out of three of my decks of this type, the rounded petals of the central flower which demarcate the four directions/seasons, are interspersed with pointed segments emerging from between their petals to mark out the cross-quarters or midpoints of the seasons. Together the petals and pointed segments make a complete Wheel of the Year symbol.
Trans-Disciplinary Number Symbolism
Reading about Pletho and the topics that he raised among the Italians during his visit leads into further explorations of the magical and esoteric interests of the times in which Tarot appeared. One thing that becomes obvious is that the emergence of the “Chaldaen Oracles” actually enhanced the profile of the Pythagorean and Cabbalistic mysticism which had grown in popularity under de Medici patronage.
By putting the words of Iamblichus right next to those of the Chaldean Oracles and the Sefir Yetzirah, we can get a flavor of the numeric “mysteries” as they appeared in the popular philosophic disciplines of the day. First let’s look at The Theology of Arithmetic, attributed to Iamblichus and translated by Robin Waterfield.
In the chapter “On the Tetrad” (p. 57), we read:
“…they used ‘ever-flowing Nature’ as a metaphor for the decad [the pyramid of 10], since it is, as it were, the eternal and everlasting nature of all things and kinds of thing, and in accordance with it the things of the universe are completed and have a harmonious and most beautiful limit. And its ‘roots’ are the numbers up to the tetrad – 1, 2, 3, 4. For these are the limits and, as it were, the sources of the properties of number – the monad of sameness which is regarded as absolute, the dyad of difference and what is already relative, the triad of particularity and of actual oddness, the tetrad of actual evenness.”
Leaving Iamblichus now to look again at the Chaldean Oracles, we find an already-familiar exposition on the unfoldment of creation from its Origin in the Monad:
- 25. The Monad first existed, and the paternal Monad still subsists. (Proclus in Euclidem, 21. T.)
- 26. When the Monad is extended, the Dyad is generated. (Proclus in Euclidem, 27. T.)
- 27. And beside Him is seated the Dyad which glitters with intellectual sections, to govern all things and to order everything not ordered. (Proclus in Platonis Tlemniheologiam, 376. T.)
- 28. The Mind of the Father said that all things should be cut into Three, whose Will assented, and immediately all things were so divided. (Proclus in Parmen. T.)
- 29. The Father mingled every Spirit from this Triad. (Lydus, De Mensibus, 20. Taylor.)
(Compare this sequence to the Taoist formulation, which states “From the One comes the Two, from the Two comes the Three, from the Three comes the ten-thousand things” In both of these explanations, the fourth step leads into uncountable multiplicity -- an echo of the idea that “four leads to Ten” in the Pythagorean Tetractys.)
Finally let us hear the story of creation from the Sefir Yetzirah:
1. Ten Sefirot of Nothingness: One is the Breath of the Living God, Life of worlds, his throne is established from eternity…
2. Two: Breath from Breath. With it He engraved and carved four directions (breaths of heaven) east, west, north, and south. And there is a breath in each one of them. …
(3, 4, and 5 are declarations about the Alphabet, which appears at this point)…
6. Three: Water from breath. With it engraved and carved chaos and void, clay and mire. He made them like a garden plot, He carved them like a wall, and He decked them like a ceiling.
7. Four: Fire from water. With it He engraved and carved the Throne of Glory and all the host on high. (p. 288-9 of A. Kaplan’s Sefer Yetzirah.)
We can now have a better sense of how contemporary mystical thinking on the principles of Number could have been influencing the Pip cards of the Tarot. Each Number is a potency and a Principle of its own, and from the original four comes the elemental world with all its ten-fold and expanding variations. Let’s take a walk through the numbered cards and see if we can spot clues to this kind of thinking.
Looking at the Numbers In Detail
We already saw that the Aces of each Marseilles deck are not only splendid and elementally alive, but that they also arrange themselves in a hierarchy that matches our original snip from the Chaldean Oracles – unfolding from Divine Mind (crowned Sword) to Fiery Will (Promethian Club) to Fountainous Craters (Cups), and down through the whirlwind to the world as we know it (Coins). Each Ace represents the authentic origin of each element, which is then drawn out through the properties of number to its furthest proliferation in the 10.
The Twos present the second stage of creation in each Element, and as such they will represent “the duad of difference and what is already relative”, as quoted from Iamblichus. This is easily seen in the balanced symmetry of the crossed wands, the Vesica Pisces described by the curved swords, the two cups joined by the floriferated Alchemical Vessel, and the the two coins surrounded by the Lemniscate ribbon. It is the nature of the Wands and Swords to be long and large, so they will tend to fill any card they appear upon without room for much in the way of extra details, but both the Cups and the Coins demonstrate that there is “something special” being hinted at which ramifies the plain-and-simple number/suit values the cards would naturally carry as simple game pieces.
In the case of the suit of Cups, the meaning of the Deuce would follow from the meaning of the Ace, suggesting an Alchemical nuance, perhaps referring to “dual cultivation," a sexual practice that the Crusaders brought back from their travels, and news of which was disseminated through the Troubadour songs and the stories of courtly love. If the rumors about earliest fortune-tellers valuing the Two of Cups as a card of love are true, then the two cups joined to the Alchemical Vessel falls right in line with the Alchemical manuals illustrated by a King and Queen entering the sealed vessel and going through transmutations in each other’s arms. Plus, when looking at the Camoin Deuce of Cups, we see at the base of the card two angels pulling back an ermine curtain to reveal a red Phoenix on a plinth, another broad hint about the alchemical transmutations available through the action of this card. Certainly the heads (of either fishes or birds) that culminate the branches growing from the central vine, face each other with knowing smiles. Does the Game of Tarot have a meaning for this image?
In the case of the suit of Coins, the Deuce appears ready to begin the process of “infinite multiplication” signified by the ribbon or scarf wrapped in lemniscate-shape around the coins. Modern interpreters give this card the value of “the coin of fate flipping in the air, not yet revealing whether it will signify heads or tails”. But I think there’s a deeper thread of meaning to be encountered here. Let us look back at the Italian Cards presented by S. Kaplan in his Encyclopedia, Volume 2, pages 278-9. There we see a Two of Coins that has a butterfly-like creature instead of a scarf, or else it is the scarf knotted up into a bowtie form. But here, the coins look like eyes, and they blink out of the cards like sleepers awakening. What might be the meaning of such a thing?
Opening Cirlot’s excellent A Dictionary of Symbols, here are the very first ideas presented on the topic of Gold: “In Hindu doctrine, gold is the ‘mineral light’. According to Guenon, the Latin word for gold – aurum – is the same as the Hebrew for light – aor. Jung quotes the delightful explanation offered by the alchemist Michael Maier in De Circulo Physico Quadrato to the effect that the sun, by virtue of millions of journeys round the earth (or conversely) has spun threads of gold all round it. Gold is the image of solar light and hence divine intelligence. If the heart is the image of the sun in man, in the earth it is gold” (p. 114). So we have in the Deuce of Coins an increase of the Light of Earth or the wisdom within the Creation. Remembering that one of the requisite conditions for paradigmatic esotericism is a vision of Living Nature, I think these Golden Eyes of Light help us to see this belief in graphic form on even the earliest of Tarot pip symbols.
The Threes demonstrate the first
fulsome proof that we are not just looking at dice patterns. On the
Wands and the Swords, the threes show us the method that will be used
to differentiate Oddness from Evenness across each suit. This is done
through putting an upright through the X of the Deuce of Wands, and
by placing a single straight Sword in the Vesica described by the two
curved swords on the Deuce of Swords. Again, necessity seems to drive
these two suits’ shapes due to the elongated suit-symbols, so there
can be no resemblance to the dice here.
But in the case of the Cups and Coins, we see the suit-symbols arranged in a Triangle rather than the classical dice-dictated vertical line of three. After reading about the Divine Triangulation in three different creation stories (above), it seems dense to imagine that these Threes were created without any consideration for the mystical meaning of their shape and arrangement. Scanning around between the oldest decks, we can see on the larger-numbered cards that other, more linear patterns of “threeness” were also used (appearing as a vertical or horizontal line, or even sometimes as a diagonal slash, as in the nine of coins in the Italian Cards, Kaplan’s Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, p. 279.) Therefore when we see a triangle on a card numbered three or higher, one must at least consider that there would be a conscious implication of the “supernal Triangle”, the “Monad, Will, and Mind”, or the first three steps of the Tetractys.
The Four cards bring us to the level of the “minimum elements necessary” to describe and fulfill the Decave (1 + 2+ 3+ 4 = 10). So here we would expect to find the “four corners” which anchor the Trinity into the material world of time and space. Both the Wands and the Swords express a two-by-two balance, which comforts the eye with its orderliness and even disposition. The Cups and Coins take the 4-ness into cubic form, certainly echoing the pattern on the dice. The Four of Cups, however, gives itself the further liberty to include a heraldric shield between the four elements, and the symbols appearing upon that shield in the various Marseilles decks can provide us with more clues in our search.
Quite often, this space will be used to contain the initials of the engraver of the deck. But in my Grimaud Marseilles, there is a flower with bi-colored petals, perhaps a red and blue Tulip. The Conver Marseilles deck instead shows a golden Phoenix in flames on a smoking and flaming funeral pyre, set up on a three-legged plinth (directly related to the Two of Cups in the same deck). Finally, the Fournier Four of Cups shows hills of green earth shining in a green firmamant, a perfect expression of Hildegard von Bingen’s concept of “Veriditas”, and an echo of the classical “Holy Hill” symbol mentioned above. I would venture a guess that in each Four of Coins, the image on the shield represents the “seat of Divinity in Matter”, the point at which the “whirlwind of the Three” touches down into the 4-directions, 4-elements, 4-seasons creation and enters into the world of things and beings.
Following the Pythagorean logic of the inner nature of numbers, we would expect to see no larger groupings of suit-symbols than four, even in the larger numbered Pips, since the dogma states that all larger numbers are made up of units of one, two, three, or four, or combinations of those core numbers. Upon examination, one can easily see that more often than not, we shall indeed note that our suit symbols are grouped into bundles, arranged in “sets” of four or less. I was even amazed to see that when the Nines (made up of three sets of threes, or two fours and one) give way to the Tens, most often those ten Wands or Swords will be arranged in two sets of four, centered with a final pair, rather than two sets of five. This might seem like a random or idosynchratic design, but in the light of what we are learning about the Mysticism of the Decave, the 4/4/2 pattern on the Tens of Wands and Swords begins to make more internal sense.
While scanning for arrangements of pip symbols that moved beyond the images on the dice faces, another fascinating replication of patterns came clear to me. In the numbers above five, the suits of Cups and Coins each detour away from each other, to arrange the suit-symbols in entirely different ways. The Six of Cups demonstrates two vertical lines of three cups each, while the Six of Coins shows an upright triangle atop a reversed triangle. (Overlap them and you have the Seal of Solomon, the Western Tai Chi symbol.) The Seven of cups is two horizontal rows of three cups each with a singleton standing between them, while the Seven of Coins is a reversed triangle piercing downwards into a cube. The Eight of Cups is horizontal rows of 3, then 2, then 3, whereas the Eight of Coins is two vertical columns of four coins each. The Nine of Cups is a grid of three threes, while the Nine of Coins is two columns of four each, plus a singleton between them. The Ten of Cups is a grid of nine with a singleton above, while the Ten of Coins is a replication of the five-dice, doubled (two cubes with the five-spot in each middle). Holding the number-mysticism of the 1, 2, 3, and 4 firmly in mind, I find it hard to imagine that there was no method to the Tarot creators’ madness in delineating the suit symbols this way, referencing ideas which utterly transcend the needs of the Game of Tarot.
A Final Observation
A final observation on the shapes of the numbered cards focuses on the series between the Six and Eight of Coins. As previously mentioned, I was startled when I was the sigil of the Geomantic figure Populus on one of the coins cards of the Anonymous Parisian Tarot. This made me scrutinize my Geomancy books closely to see if there were other figures that might apply to the Pips of Tarot. Geomantic symbols are made up of between four and eight dots each. The individual Figures each neatly symbolize a core value which, when combined together, combine to make up a remarkably sophisticated reading. (One can see strong parallels between the Figures of Geomancy and the Hexegrams of the I Ching.)
By looking over these figures and comparing them to the Pips assemblies, I was able to see how many varied shapes might be made with various numbers of dots, just by changing them around a little bit. This strengthened my conviction that the arrangements on the Tarot Pips are not arbitrary at all, but instead are constructed with a keen eye for visual suggestion.
The clincher was, for me, to discover that the Six, Seven, and Eight of Coins in these oldest of Tarot packs actually replicate three different Geomantic Figures exactly, a finding which I think would be difficult for an oracle-loving person of the 14- or 1500’s to miss. The shape on the Six of Coins is called Carcer or Prison in Geomancy, the Seven of Coins is figuring Rebus, meaning Red (signifying temper and strife), and the Eight of Coins replicates the figure of Populus, The People (whose sigil, several moons stacked one inside the other, we saw on the Parisian Two of Coins.) One can make of this startling discovery what one wishes, but with all the foregoing still ringing in our ears, it would seem a very remote possibility that these figures are all appearing in a sequence, in the same suit, entirely randomly. To the extent that the unknown designer(s) of the Tarot appear to be demonstrating a quite sophisticated command of the subtleties of number and elemental permutations, it seems naive to think of these Geomantic figures appear among the Coins cards unknowingly.
All in all, we see symbols drawn from Astrology, Alchemy, Kabbalah, the Caldean Oracles, the Hermetica, and Geomancy intertwined on this seemingly "plain, non-occult" game deck. Perhaps if modern Tarot researchers are failing to see the hints and clues of an esoteric paradigm underlying the game Tarots, the fault lies in their "eyes to see" rather than in the cards themselves!
Research: Esoteric Tarot, Literature and Practice;
Publisher, The Tarot Arkletters
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