Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Dionysus and the Historical Tarot 4

15th - 18th Century Cultural Contexts


by Michael S. Howard

This is a continuation of "Dionysus and the Historical Tarot 3" -  Part IV, the fourth part of four, has the following sections:

B13: Impiccato. B14: Morte. B15: Diavolo. B16: Fuoco. B17: Stella. B19: Luna. B19: Sole. B20: Angelo. B21: Mondo. B22: Conclusion. B23: Appendix, The Tale of Cupid and Psyche.


B13: Impiccato 

In the first known list of the trumps, that in the so-called "Steele Sermon" of the late 15th century Ferrara area, the title for this card was Impichato, meaning "Hanged Man". Folengo,, 1527 Mantua, spelled it appiccato. This title was repeated by Citollini in Venice 1561 and Piscina c. 1565, with the spelling "Impiccato". Many lists, more than the other, have Traditore, the Traitor. Variants are Crux, by Alciati 1544 and Juda, Giovio 1550 (sources:, and In the Marseille tarots it is
Le Pendu, The Hanged Man, a translation of Impicatto.

These titles, and their associated images, can be related to Dionysus in various ways. Onemight be to the traitor Lycurgos in Diodorus, imagined in a traditional Italian emblem of betrayal. Another is as the candidate for initiation being lowered into the earth, like a seed being planted..It is the PMB image (at left below) that particularly suggests this latter, by the indentation underneath the figure's head. The same detail is preserved in the Marseillle-style cards of two centuries later (Noblet, center, and "Chosson" right).

                                         appeso 1

Such a process was described unsympathetically by Livy, as what was done with people who would not commit the atrocities demanded of them (Meyer, The Ancient Mysteries, p. 86, not in Google Books). In other words, they were betraying the oath of obedience they gave at the beginning of their initiation:

§ «
Men were said to have been carried off by the gods--because they had been attached to machines and whisked away out of sight to hidden caves; they were people who refused to enter the conspiracy or to join in the crimes, or to commit violations» §

But those who studied the Roman sarcophagi in the 16th-17th centuries could see with their own eyes that the lower level was merely where the initiations took place: notice the woman on top, probably on the ground floor. (I don't know what is happening there).

                                                       Appeso 2

There was also the testimony of Pausanias about the oracle of Trophonios, in which the one to experience the oracle descended into a cave by a narrow opening

( (I owe these references and the photo to Daimonax at and the page following):

§ «
They have made no way of descent to the bottom, but when a man comes to Trophonios, they bring him a narrow, light ladder. After going down he finds a hole between the floor and the structure. Its breadth appeared to be two spans, and its height one span. The descender lies with his back on the ground, holding barley-cakes kneaded with honey, thrusts his feet into the hold and himself follows, trying hard to get his knees into the hole. After his knees the rest of his body is at once swiftly drawn in, just as the largest and most rapid river will catch a man in its eddy and carry him under» §

In the Orisis myth, what is parallel is the episode in which Typhon closes the lid on the coffin which Orisis innocently lay down in for size, as described by Plutarch (sec. 13). The Hanged Man imagery of course does not fit this act But when the coffin floats to shore, a mighty tree grows up around it.

Both Osiris and Dionysus are what is known as "vegetation gods": that is, their burial, death, and rebirth is seen as analogous to the of the plants that are sacred to them.  The seed is buried in the earth, just as a person is. There the shell of the seed disintegrates, but within it develops the beginnings of a new plant. In the PMB Hanged Man, the hole beneath him is like the hole that is dug when one plants a seed. His bodily shell will disintegrate, but his life will be born anew, assuming he is one of the "initiates". That is also what is going on in the Dionysian initiation itself, except that it is not physical death that is involved, but the death of a certain limited, fixed personality, with a hard shell that only being underground can get rid of, so that the new being can emerge.

How do we know that the Hanged Man is an initiate, rather than a traitor, a Judas, who will not be born again? I think we have to look particularly at the PMB image. He is colored green, the color of plants when they are growing, taking in carbon from the carbon dioxide in the air and releasing the oxygen left over. Green appears in other PMB cards as a symbol of fertility, too: the Empress and all the Baton Courts have green sleeves. Green stains on clothing was a sign of sexual acts done in secret on the grass out of doors (see Batons are singled out because wood is the trunk of green trees. Another thing is the unusual space in the PMB's trousers, extending further from the crotch than usual, as though to hold a rather large sexual organ. This same space in the clothing of the Noblet and Conver is even colored differently, to suggest a codpiece.

I suspect that this particular card, done for the Sforza of Milan, was meant to refer to a particular person to whom this image had been directed. Muzio Attendola, Francesco Sforza's father, had switched sides away from Antipope John XXIII and to his enemy the King of Naples. John's response was to have him hung upside down in effigy on all the bridges of Rome, with a poster declaring him traitor on 12 counts.
The best documentation I have seen of this is in a discussion at
To me the significance of the event (not discussed) is that his switching sides helped to upset the balance of power between different claimants to the papacy and resolve the schism, by enabling the King of Naples, Muzio's new employer, to weaken John sufficiently to make him participate in a conclave, at which Martin V was elected.
(See about this,
and about Muzio).
So of course the Sforza wouldn't consider him a traitor. Not only did he help end the schism, but Bianca Maria Sforza's father's wife's father was elected pope. I think the point is that all people labeled "traitor" aren't necessarily traitors. John XXIII was, by the time the Sforza card appeared, an antipope, i.e. a pretender, and deserting him helped to bring the church back on track. In the Bible, even Jesus was considered a traitor to his religion by the Sanhedrin.

In the Marseille-style versions, there are other indications that the person being hung is destined to be reborn. His hair forms a halo around his head. The Noblet's two poles are green and white, i.e. living and dead (see Flornoy's restoration at Since neither Jesus nor Judas was ever alleged to have been hung upside down, he might even be, as "traitor", Jesus rather than Judas. The "Chosson" and Conver cards do not have different colored poles, but they do have poles with 6 notches on each side, as opposed to 6 and 5 on the Noblet. Flornoy's restored versions of Noblet and Dodal are below, along with the Conver. As you can see, in the Dodal and Conver there is a 13th notch next to the rope from which the Hanged Man is suspended; that would be for someone other than the 12, i.e. Jesus. (To the far right, I also include the extant fragment of the Cary Sheet card, showing how it is similar to the Marseille designs, with the odd fingers, or whatever they are, hanging down).

                               appeso 3

One final aspect, peculiar to the Noblet, suggests the rites of Dionysus. His face looks like he is either dead or in a trance. I am reminded of the upside-down men in Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delight. Hanging upside down sends the blood to the head; With the mouth open, rapid breathing is facilitated. The result is a "high" comparable to the trance-state of dancing Bacchantes.

                                          appeso 4

B14: Morte

The Death card, always Morte in Italian, or La Mort in French, was always number 13. Perhaps the unluckiness of 13 comes from that fact. In Italy at that time, there was nothing unlucky about the number; the unlucky one was 17. For the Death card, given the man with the scythe, there corresponds the dismemberments in the myths. I have already alluded to the texts about Osiris but not quoted the precise parts dealing with the dismemberment. First, Diodorus Library of History Book I:21 (*.html).

§ «
When Osiris was ruling over Egypt as its lawful king, he was murdered by his brother Typhon, a violent and impious man; Typhon then divided the body of the slain man into twenty-six pieces and gave one portion to each of the band of murderers, since he wanted all of them to share in the pollution and felt that in this way he would have in them steadfast supporters and defenders of his rule» §

And Plutarch Isis and Osiris 18, after Isis found the coffin (here as "coffer") containing Osiris's body (

§ «
But when Isis had gone to see her son Horus (who was at nurse in the city Buto), and had put the coffer away, Typhon being out a hunting by moonlight came upon it, and recognizing the corpse, tore it into fourteen pieces, and scattered them abroad» §

It is also the dismemberment of the infant Dionysus, as various authors reported. Here is Diodorus, speaking of Dionysus (V: 75 at*.html

§ «
... Orpheus has handed down the tradition in the initiatory rites that he was torn in pieces by the Titans» §

It could also be the dismemberment of Pentheus in Euripides Bacchae, after the Maenads discover him but think he is a wild animal. The Marseille versions of the card, as if to emphasize the theme of dismemberment, correspondingly show body parts on the ground.

                                        morte 1

In the imagery of vegetation, it is not only the cutting of the stalks but also the separation of the wheat from the chafft, and the grapes from the vine. Diodorus theorizes
(III:62, at*.html

§ «
...the statement that he was torn to pieces, while yet a youth, by the "earth-born" signifies the harvesting of the fruit by the labourers...» §

Thus the scattered body parts in the Marseille-type cards (center and right above). However in this case, if 12 represents the putting of the seed in the ground, the two cabbage-like heads could represent the rebirth, and Death's sweep of thescythe merely clears away weeds.

The result, shown on the Noblet and"Chosson" (center and right above) is the seeds sprouting as the heads of our initiates, like bulbous plants. And Death seems not to be aiming to cut them down, as in the Cary-Yale (at left) but merely to clear the weeds that are near them.

B15: Diavolo

Besides Diavolo, other early titles were Pluto and demonio. The Devil might be Typhon, whom Dionysus fights on behalf of his father in Diodorus, and whom Horus, also called Typhon, fights on behalf of his father Osiris in Plutarch. He is the force of disorder who must not, in Plutarch's account, be destroyed. He could also be Hades, whose realm Dionysus must enter in order to bring his "mother" (was it originally his wife?) out of Tartarus. Correspondingly, it is the journey through darkness in the "mysteries", of which Apuleius wrote (Marvin Meyer, The Ancient Mysteries, p. 189):

§ «
I approached the confines of death. I trod the threshold of Proserpine, and borne through the elements I returned. At midnight I saw the Sun shining in all his glory. I approached the gods below and the gods above, and I stood beside them, and I worshipped them. Behold, I have told my experience, and yet what you hear can mean nothing to you» §

In the "Marseille" versions, the lower figures are tied by ropes to the upper one. This might have been suggested by a relief along a causeway at Sakkara (unfortunately I cannot find the book documenting this).

                                     diavolo 1
Sakkara is near Cairo and could easily have been copied on papyrus by some enterprising Egyptian and sold to a passing European merchant-tourist, as early as the 15th century. The Cary Sheet card (at right above) conveys the same idea, the binding of those captured by the horned figure, whether Devil, the Egyptian Seth-animal, or the goat-horned Dionysus (from a Christian point of view).

                                         diavolo 2

Alternatively, there are suggestions of  ropes in the underground scenes of the Dionysian sarcophagi, not to restrain the candidates but to help guide them through the darkness (above). This "Devil" is two-formed, in the sense of being both male and female. Besides the breasts and the lower feminine face, coupled with the male sexual organs and face, there are the 2 dots on one side and 3 dots on the other. In Plutarch, 2 is a feminine number and 3 a masculine one. As for the wings, I will deal with those in section 21, about the "Angelo".

B16: Fuoco

The Tower card was originally Fuoco, “Fire”, then later "House of Pluto", House of the Devil" and in France "Maison-Dieu", literally, "God-House". In Dionysus's myth, the card corresponds to the palace of Pentheus, seemingly destroyed by lightning and earthquake in Euripides' Bacchae, as shown on the Charles VI and Rothschild cards (below, left to right). As you can see, the main difference is in the two falling figures.

                                                     fuoco 1

The Marseille design has one figure falling from the tower, the other lying down, or perhaps crawling out a small opening.

                                        fuoco 2

In Euripides' play, there is the fall of Pentheus from a tree later in the drama. It might also be the state of things after Dionysus's defeat by Perseus and the death of Ariadne, when he dives—or Perseus throws his body--into a lake near Argos, called Lernaean by some, Alkyonian by others; the myth says he entered Hades by way of its bottom, looking for his mother, which is odd considering that it was his wife who just died (Pausanias 2.37.6. Diodorus Siculus, 4.25.4, Hyginus, Fabulae 251, Clement of Alexandria, etc. all in sections 5 and 7 at A good summary of the various accounts, most of them available in the Renaissance, is in Daniel Ogden’s Perseus, pp. 28ff, at
. Similarly, the Noblet card's one figure is falling into water, at least as Flornoy has restored the card, center above:

Comparing the Noblet and Conver (above right)The direction of the smoke and fire is of interest it seems to be coming out of the tower, reaching up to the sun in the Noblet, but going the other way in the Conver. In Noblet's way, there is a sense of calamity within the structure causing the smoke, which is now reaching up to God, or the god, in supplication. 

Another similarity between card and myth is brought out by comparison with Dionysian sarcophagi.
                                                 fuoco 3

In this way of taking the image, the tower is genuinely phallic, and it is exploding upward in a giant ejaculation, one that by that act perhaps destroys its physical being but reaches up to the godhead above. In less sexualized form, it is something like the madness that Erasmus described, doing things that if taken to extremes would be taken as signs of impending voluntary death, such as fasting and renouncing one's possessions and by this means for a brief moment actually leaving the body and entering the divine realm. This meaning is much attenuated in the Conver, where the smoke, fire, and destruction is coming from above, as in the 15th century cards, as though divine retribution for transgression.


B17: Stella

The only variation in the title is that sometimes the reference is to Stelle, Stars (in Aretino's Carte Parlante,  1543, while Piscina's Discorso, c. 1565, uses both singular and plural). What is depicted varies. I do not see Dionysian/Osirian themes in the card until the Cary Sheet of c. 1500.

 In the Osiris myth, this card could represent the goddess and star heralding the rising of the Nile, the return of Osiris. Plutarch, Of Isis and Osiris 38, identifies the star as Sirius and the “water-carrier of Isis”; in section 41 it is Sothis, which he says is the soul of Isis. The goddess in Roman Egypt is at right below; the Cary Sheet card is at left:


                                                              stella 1

The five other stars on the Cary Sheet card (including the one on the figure’s shoulder) would be the five planets of fate. It is the triumph over death and Typhon, god of the drought. The two jugs might represent the two branches of the Nile, the White Nile with its rich earth symbolizing the body, and the Blue Nile coming from Ethiopia symbolizing the spirit (with Ethiopia represented on the right side of the card by a mountain). At Dendera in Egypt, Greco-Roman era zodiacs typically portrayed Aquarius with two jugs, and according to French Egyptologist Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt in Le Fabuleux Histoire de l'Egypte (pp. 257f, 311), they perhaps did symbolize the two branches of the Nile; but in some cases the "water-carrier" was not Sothis but rather a consort of Khnum, who resided just above the first cataract of the Nile, i.e. at the beginning of the Nile proper. The figure with the jugs was sometimes male, sometimes female, and sometimes both at once. Below, the first image is an actual photo of one of the female jug-carriers at Dendera; the other is of drawings provided by Desroches-Noblecourt (p. 311):

                                       stella 2
                                          stella 3

The annotations above are mine, not Desroches-Noblecourt's. In Egypt below the First Cataract, both streams. that from the White Nile and that from the Blue Nile,  must be present in a healthy amount for the land's renewal--a suitable allegory to encourage one to attend both one's body and one's spirit.

Below are two early Marseille-style cards, the Noblet as the original now looks, Flornoy's restoration, and the "Chosson" of a little later.

                                            stella 4 

One jug goes into water and the other onto land, where it makes the land green. In back is a dark blue body of water.  The difference in destinations might suggest the two paths of the "Cave of the Nymphs" of Porphyry, as described by Andrea in his essay on this card. There, one door in the cave is for the immortals and leads to the gods, the other leads back to our world for another reincarnation. Both are for souls that have been on earth; Greco-Roman examples might be Hercules or Dionysus, whose deeds on earth merited him a place with the gods. As Andrea quotes Porphyry

 « ... the gate of the cavern facing north is accessible to human beings; the southern regions are not the place of the gods, but of those who return to the gods, and this is why the poet said that this is the path, not of the gods, but of the immortals, an expression which is fit for souls, since they are immortal in themselves or in their essence” (§22-23)» §

The southern gate, therefore, is for souls qualified to return to the gods. The other is for souls who must return to our world, the world of human beings.

But since there is no cave on our card, and no doors either, more explanation is needed.


In the Dionysian rite, the big star on the card would be Dionysus, and the little ones, seven of them in the Marseille cards, wold be his protector-nurses, the Hyades, who in the myth are later turned into stars (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.26-29; Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 192; Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 21; Nonnus, Dionysiaca 14. 143 ff, all at So they help Dionysus triumph over the Titans, i.e. nature, and Juno, the Queen of Heaven from whose breast flowed the Milky Way.

Alternatively, the smaller stars might have been seen from their role in astrology, as instruments of fatte, e.g. the seven planets, the constellations of the zodiac, and other combinations. In that way the big star represents domination over fate, i.e. ascending above the stars. In the Renaissance worldview, heaven was precisely there, above the stars, in the realm of the Primum Mobile, First Moved, where the angels were, where God's plans were actuated, and the realm of the Prima Causa, that of God, the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover.

How does one get above the stars? We left Dionysus descending to hell and returning via the lake. I think it would have been understood by analogy to Dante's journey to Paradise in the Divine Comedy.

Dante in the Purgatorio informs us that he came upon two streams at the very top of Purgatory. A lady beside one of them picking flowers explains the secret of the spring from which they both flow:

 «As it discharges, open on two sides.Upon this side with virtue it descends,Which takes away all memory of sin; On that, of every good deed done restores it.Here Lethe, as upon the other side Eunoe, it is called...» §

Drinking from the first, he forgets everything sinful, including even his passion for Beatrice. Drinking from the other, he remembers all his good deeds, and his memory of Beatrice is restored. Thus purified, he can enter Paradise (Purgatorio 28, 130ff. at  The second stream, in that it enables remembering, is much like the spring of Mnemosyne in Pausanias.Dante has taken the word "Eunoe" because it is Greek for "knowledge of good". It also sounds somewhat similar to the Bacchic cry of "Euoi".

But what connects Dante to Dionysus is not that, but Pausanias' description of the oracle of Trophonius. I have already quoted this account for my interpretation of the Hanged Man card as a candidate descending to a lower level through a small hole. But before he does so, In Pausanias, he has to drink from two springs.  (9.39.3, at

One makes one forget one's earthly cares, while the other enables one to remember what will occur in the cave (Description of Greece 9.39.3 at

§ «He is led by the priests, not at once to the oracle, but to certain springs. Here he must drink what is called the water of forgetfulness, in order that he forget everything he has hitherto thought of. Then he drinks from another water, the water of Memory, that he may remember what he sees below» §

The Orphic Hymn to Mnemosyne, popularized by Ficino, also tells us that the power of Lethe can be broken by Mnemosyne (

§ «Come, blessed power, thy mystic's mem'ry wake» §

To holy rites, and Lethe's fetters break.

We know from Plato's Myth of Er at the end of the Republic that Lethe is a river in the underworld that souls drink from before they reincarnate, so that they will forget everything about the upper world and their former life on earth. Since Lethe is a stream, probably Mnemosyne is, too. Although Pausanias's account of the oracle makes no reference to Dionysus, people in the 15th-18th centuries would have connected the two because of this Orphic Hymn. Orpheus was the continuer of Dionysus according to Diodorus, in the passage I cited about Tharopes.

If the water of Lethe, in Plato's Republic, leads downward, moreover, the other one must lead upwards, as in Dante; that is where the Orphic wants to go. In that way the two streams are similar to the doors in Porphyry's "Cave of the Nymphs". One water, then, brings the soul back to earth in a new birth, symbolized by the green. The other heads to the divine water of the immortals. Drinking of both, as in Dante, leads us upwards beyond fate. And on the moralizing level, it is a new reminder to care for both the body and the spirit.

There may be a suggestion on the cards themselves that the two springs are the sources of the water flowing out of the two jugs. On Conver's versions of the card, 1760 and 1761, someone has scratched out, on the plate, part of one L in the title, as you can see by comparing them (the lower two) with the "Chosson" title (on top).  The result is  to turn "LETOILLE" into something very like "LETOULE",thus sugesting a kind of visual pun. "Toule", according to Flornoy, is Marseille dialect for "spring" (

                                                      stella 5

B18: Luna

The Moon card could simply be one last attack of madness, i.e. lunacy, which Dionysus both inflicts and suffers. But the Moon is one of Dionysus' mothers in Cicero, and Isis' and Osiris' mother in Plutarch. So on the card we might have the dominance of these Moon goddesses. The Moon is also Isis herself in Apuleius, as Andrea notes in his essay on the card ( At the beginning of Book 11 of The Golden Ass, the protagonist Lucius addresses a prayer to the goddess of the Moon (Lindsay translation p. 235), and the goddess Isis rises from the waves. She tells him to go to a ceremony at the port the next day (p. 238):

 «Tomorrow my priests will offer to me the first fruits of the year's navigation. They will consecrate in my name a new-built ship» §

There he will be delivered from his ass-form and return to his natural human form.

In this regard  Cartari 1647 edition shows Isis holding a ship in her hand; for the relevant quote from Cartari's text (first published 1556) in English and Italian, see Andrea's essay.

                                                                     Luna 1

The connection between the Moon is in part that the Moon governs the tides, so important for sailors. Also, it lights the way at night and was regarded as the protector of ships at sea.  In this context, the two towers on the card, present even in the Cary Sheet version (below left) could be lighthouses, which are merely human inventions emulating the moon's function, as Andrea observes.  
                                            Luna 2

On the Marseille-style cards (Conver 1761 is above right), something like rays or raindrops emanate from the Moon. The dogs even catch them in their mouths. De Gebelin in 1781 speculated that they were the "tears of Isis" mentioned by Pausanias, and I tend to agree.
(For de Gebelin, see The Pausanias quote, Description of Greece 10.32.18, is at Pausanias writes of a Phoenician he met who said that Egyptians saw the summer rains as the "tears of Isis" mourning for the dead Osiris, which in the highlands gather to become the Nile flood, the revivication of Osiris. Grief serves its own resolution.

The Cary Sheet card (above left) does not have the drops (that deck has them only on the Sun card), nor even the dogs. Instead, what I seem to see are crocodiles around a lake, with a temple and obelisks in the background--an Egyptian scene. One of the crocodiles might be holding something in his jaws. The same is clearly true for the Conver crayfish, the detail of which I have enlarged at top middle; it might also be in the same place in the Noblet, which I have enlarged. What could that something be? Here I think we have to apply Plato's theory of knowledge. All true knowledge, knowledge of the eternal Forms, is the recovery of memories from before we incarnated on earth. The dialectic of ascent out of the world of opinion is also a return through that world to what lay before it. In the Cary Sheet, the forms, like untarnishable jewels, are held in the jaws of the crocodiles. In the Cary Sheet, they are in the jaws of the crayfish. Even though we would like to ascend, nonetheless we must go back over our experience on earth and find the eternal by looking more deeply into the ephemeral. It is like Dionysus descending into the lake to rescue his mother. From what he learns on the surface, he goes back to the womb and before. And in the event that it is not really his mother he is after, but rather Ariadne, who had just died, that, too, is a precious jewel; it is his other half, the recovery of which, in the myth of the androgyne, related by Aristophanes in the Symposium, will make him as he once was.

The crayfish in the Marseille cards is like the crocodiles in the Cary Sheet. It guards the treasure. For the crayfish, I turn again to Porphyry in "On the Cave of the Nymphs". The northern gate is associated with the constellation of Capricorn and the southern one with the constellation of Cancer.

 «Cancer to the north is the descending path, Capricorn to the south is the rising path» §

The crayfish represents the constellation of Cancer, i.e. the world of generation. And not only are there these constellations. There are also dogs: Clement of Alexandria, discussing the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, says:

 «And some will have it that by the dogs are meant the tropics, which guard and watch the sun’s passage to the south and north» §

So we have the two gates on the card, each with its guard-dog. I think that in Clement's case, the dogs serve to keep the sun from going too far south or north, to keep it inside the Ecliptic. They are safeguards against another Phaeton, who once let the horses of the sun wander everywhere. Nonetheless they are guard-dogs. What, in the context of the Marseille card, do they guard?
The only thing there is the towers. Now I have to turn to Plutarch's essay On the Face in the Orb of the Moon (*/D.html), from which Andrea also takes inspiration.

In section 28 we learn that souls who have ascended from the earth through Hades, which he locates in the space between the Earth and the Moon, end up on the Moon. Here is what he says about this journey to the Moon (243C):

§ «Unjust and licentious souls pay penalties for their offences; but the good souls must in the gentlest part of the air, which they call "the meads of Hades", pass a certain set time sufficient to purge and blow away the pollutions contracted from the body as from an evil odour. Then, as if brought home from banishment abroad, they savour joy most like that of initiates, which attended by glad expectation is mingled with confusion and excitement» §

This "confusion and excitement" is much like the meaning of "tarachas" as understood in the 1497 Greek-Latin Lexicon: perturbation. They are in the vicinity of the moon. I cannot help but think that the madness that for Erasmus was a brief experience of heaven, for Plutarch, as a priest of Apollo, would have been the experience of being on the Moon, mad with divine Lunacy, but not yet to the heights.

The "gates" are on the Moon and are the ways beyond this state, for the better sort of souls. Andrea has discussed them in detail in his essay on the Moon card (
But I will give a summary here. They are passages through the mountain ranges on the Moon that look to us like the lines of a face. Of these valleys between ranges, Plutarch says (end of section 29):

§ «The largest of them is called "Hecatê's Recess", where the souls suffer and exact penalties for whatever they have endured or committed after having already become Spirits; and the two long ones are called "the Gates" for through them pass the souls now to the side of the moon that faces heaven and now back to the side that faces earth. The side of the moon towards heaven is named "Elysian plain", the hither side "House of counter-terrestrial Phersephonê"» §

One gate allows souls to go to the other side of the Moon, to the side facing Heaven. I imagine that in the distance on the Cary Sheet card, flanked by obelisks, is a Temple of the Sun, on Plutarch's Elysian plain. From that place, at the proper time, wise souls will travel to the Sun. The other gate leads back to the earth, as in the case of the two gates in Porphyry's cave. But the descent from the Moon is not like the return to Earth from Hades in Plato's "Myth of Er", which involved the drinking of the waters of Lethe. These souls that return are purified souls. Neither human nor yet immortal, they manage oracles and help the righteous side in times of battle, as the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, were said to do. If they misuse their power, they suffer the penalty in "Hecatê's Recess". Eventually when they have served long enough they leave their "soul" part (i.e. the emotional part) on the moon, just as they left their bodily part on the earth, and they ascend to the Sun.

So the dogs guard the towers, to make sure that no one worthy goes either way, down or further up. Or else they are two initiates, come this far and not knowing what to do next except honor Phersephonê--and also the Sun, which they see either reflected in her face or behind her, as in an eclipse. 

B19: Sole

The Sun, in this essay by Plutarch, was the next destination of the soul after the Moon; it was the place of immortality. of the separation of mind from soul (the "it" that is the third word below). Plutarch says of the souls that tend oracles and offer other assistance to humans (section 30, 4th sentence):

 «They achieve it, some sooner and some later, once the mind has been separated from the soul. It is separated by love for the image in the sun through which shines forth manifest the desirable and fair and divine and blessed towards which all nature in one way or another yearns, for it must be out of love for the sun that the moon herself goes her rounds and gets into conjunction with him in her yearning to receive from him what is most fructifying» §

The Sun as bringing the power of regeneration to the earth is a scene on some early tarot Sun cards.

                                       Sole 1

In the Cary Sheet (the reconstruction is by Andy Pollett), the child is the outcome of the regenerating power of the sun. In the Italian card, it is the growth of the trees. And in Vieville, it is the child again, this time on a horse.

The theme of the child in association with the sun also appears also in the PMB card, c. 1465-1475 Milan. In the Cary Yale, c. 1440s, its predecessor is the Charity card, at left below.

                                                   sole 2

Vieville's addition of a horse might have been suggested by a line in the Chaldean Oracles, first popularized by Ficino in his translation of an edition prepared by Gemistos Plethon. These "Oracles" are Orphic-like sayings embedded in the writings of the Neoplatonists of the Roman Empire, a combination of Platonism and Zoroastrianism that is also apparent in Plutarch. Here is the line, as it appears in an English translation of 1661.


                                   But also to see a Horse more glittering than Light.
                                   Or a Boy on [thy] shoulders riding on a Horse,
                                   Fiery or adorned with Gold, or devested,
                                   Or shooting and standing on [thy] shoulders. 

The line is not in Ficino's translation of the Oracles, but was known at that time, as it was in Proclus's In Rem Publicam (1.111.3-11 of Kroll’s 1899 Leipzig edition). This Neoplatonic text was available in the 15th century: according to Hankins (Plato in the Italian Renaissance p. 94) it was in the library of  the humanist Filelfo in Milan. picked up during the years he spent in Greece; after Greece, he had taught in Florence previously and intermittently remained in touch with scholars there and in Rome, teaching in both places at the end of his life (died 1481). The fragment was included in a later edition of the Oracles, published in Venice 1593 and Paris 1599 (per WorldCat) edited by Francesco Pratrizi. In the context of the Oracles, it is a mystical vision of an initiate into the Oracles, receiving illumination from the Sun.

The sun as the source of divine illumination is probably also the explanation for the droplets coming down from the sun, which we see on the Cary Sheet card and in the Marseille-style cards thereafter. Andrea, in his essay on the card, has given us the image of St. Paul being struck down by God on the way to Damascus.

                                                           sole 3

On the left I have put the d'Este Sun card. Although there are no droplets, what we see is a conversation between the philosopher Diogenes, whose residence was said to have been a large barrel with a commanding view of the port of Corinth, and the world-conqueror (and emulator of Dionysus) Alexander the Great. He sees Diogenes and asks if there is any favor he could do him. Diogenes' response is, "Cease to shade me from the sun" (in Diogenes Laertius, 3rd century c.e., Lives of Eminent Philosophers, at One message of this anecdote is the Biblical proverb "All is vanity under the sun", Ecclesiastes 1:12, 17, applying not only to Alexander's ambitions but to philosophers' prating (Ecc. 2:12.7). (Andrea makes this observation in his essay.) Diogenes is the archetypal Cynic. Another message is about the metaphorical sun. Alexander is trying to corrupt Diogenes no matter how noble he thinks he is being. With Alexander comes darkness. Wisdom requires poverty and powerlessness as its very precondition. Alexander's offer would put Diogenes permanently in the shade, removed from the sources of illumination.

At the end of section 30 of On the Face in the Orb of the Moon (also the end of the book itself), Plutarch brings in the Fates:

§ «Of the three Fates too Atropos enthroned in the sun initiates generation, Clotho in motion on the moon mingles and binds together, and finally upon the earth Lachesis too puts her hand to the task, she who has the largest share in chance» §

Atropos, the one who cuts the thread, for Plutarch  is the one associated with the Sun and generation. For while in being taken back by the sun the soul dies in bliss, pure mind is born there, and the sun generates new souls in the womb of the moon. Clotho, the one who spins the yarn, the stuff of soul, is associated with the Moon, the place of soul-substance. Finally, Lachesis, the one who measures the thread that determines the length of life, is for Plutarch the fate associated with the earth, for "she has the largest share in chance". The imagery of these figures is represented in a Flemish tapestry, c. 1510, illustrating Petrarch's Triumph of  Death over Chastity; each of the Fates is labeled

( Clotho can be seen holding the spindle.

                                           sole 4

Some early tarot cards, such as the "Charles VI" and "Beaux-Arts-Rothschild," had it differently: Clotho was on the Sun card. One can find biblical justification for such a placement, e.g. Ecclesiastes 1:3: "What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?" That placement is also supported by what Plutarch says in another essay, "On the Genius of Socrates" (as Ross Caldwell, drawing on notes by Michael J. Hurst, has pointed out to me
There Clotho is assigned to the sun. The Vieville Moon card of 1650, on the other hand, fits the Plutarch I have been quoting here, in which Clotho is assigned to the moon.

In Plutarch's other essay, Of Isis and Osiris (sect. 42ff), the Sun is Osiris. In some tarot Sun cards, a man and a woman are shown beneath the sun:

                                                      sole 5

And correspondingly in the Minchiate. I include the Charity card so that you can see, first, its similarity to the Cary-Yale card (both are typical Church images of that virtue) but also for its number: 19 is the same as that of the tarot Sun card, suggesting to me that the Sun replaced Charity in the tarot but kept its original position in Minchiate.

                                             sole 6

These figures correspond in gender to the Gemini as depicted in the Dendera Zodiac (I take these images from Desroches-Noblecourt p. 331):

                                      sole egizio                                                      

A similar male-female depiction also occurs in some Renaissance depictions of that sign, e.g.

                                            sole 8

In Egyptian mythology they would be Shu and Tefnet, the Sun's first children, although the Renaissance might not have known their names. Notice also the two jugs of Aquarius, common in the Renaissance but not before or after.

In the Dionysian myth, the sun-god Apollo is Dionysus's half-brother, celebrated in the summer at Delphi after a winter honoring Dionysus. In the "Marseille" version of the card, there are two boys, one with his arm around the other. This gesture is present as early as the 1515 "Schoen horoscope," in which various houses are illustrated with images from the tarot trumps (house 5 at right below). It continues in the c. 1600 "Sforza Castle" card (center) and remains with basically the same facial expressions and arm gestures even in the 1672 or later Marseille II design of the "Chosson" card (left) that was copied everywhere in the 18th century.

                                          sole 9

On Dionysian sarcophagi, there are sometimes two boys with a similar gesture, for example:

                                         sole 10

This particular sarcophagus seems to have been found in 1956 (, so probably not known in the Renaissance. But there are such boys in other sarcophagi as well, always at the end of a procession


I theorize that the Renaissance interpreted the two boys as Castor and Pollux. The immortal Pollux's sacrifice of his immortality for the sake of raising up the mortal Pollux would have been seen as a precursor to Christ's own suffering for the sake of humanity. It is the human version of the goat sacrifice also implied on the sarcophagi and the Renaissance imagery they inspired (i.e. at right below, Cartari 1581's image of Priapus (on the left, which I determine by comparing it with the 1647 image, shown in the section on Ferrara; the one with wings is probably Bacchus; he could be Carpocrates, but I don't see him mentioned in the text, and following).

                                                           sole 10

Perhaps for the purpose of the ritual sacrifice, Renaissance versions of the Gemini show one of them with a sickle much like Priapus's.

                                                                       sole 11

Similar to the goat, on the othe hand, is one of the twins on the "Chosson" card (below left), which suggests a tail on the left boy's thigh, left a white space on the card, less conspicuous but still present in the Conver card (below left). The 1999 Camoin-Jodorowsky version of that card makes it unambiguous:

                                          sole 12

You will also notice what appear to be collars on the “Chosson”, a feature copied by Conver 1761 and most other Marseille II designs. Daimonax points out that this links the pair with the noose-wearing pair on the Devil card. In this way the repetition of two figures suggest a pair going through initiation, whether male and female (like Tamino and Pamina in Mozart's Magic Flute or wise and unwise (like Tamino and Papageno). This starts in the Pope card, which in Chosson (left below) has the suggestion of an unseen figure on the right reaching its arm over the initiates and a knife-like fold; in Conver 1761 the fold is more like a knife in the hand; Camoin-Jodorowsky 1999 make the knife unambiguous (this feature is again pointed out by Daimonax).

                                        sole 13

In case you still can't see the knife, here is the detail by itself in the middle, with the 1999 version and the 1761 version on either side.

                                         sole 14

In all these cases, the Pope seems to be looking at the other, of whom all we see is the arm.It is a subtle foreshadowing of ritual death of the mystery-god or his substitute, for the sake of the other, A similar mystery was enacted every day in the Eucharist, in which the bread was broken to symbolize the breaking of Christ's body, and wine was poured to symbolize his blood.  In the contemplator of the card, a sunukar mystery was enacted, the immortalization of the human through the sacrifice of the divine. It is this mystery that Erasmus's Folly saw as the prelude to divine madness (section 55, p. 205 of 1993 translation). From the "death of the passions"--in Plutarch's terms, the death of the soul--comes "a new life"--in Plutarch's terms, the ascent of the spirit to the Sun.


Alfonso d'Este's court painter Dosso Dossi, whom we know so far from his sensuous Bacchanal paintings, did what I think is a very apt painting of the divine madness of which Plutarch and Erasmus spoke, epitomized by Jesus in the garden, after the Last Supper while he is preparing for the ordeal ahead. I find it a very unusual "Agony in the Garden,"as it is called (Humfrey and Lucco, Dosso Dossi,: Court Painter in Renaissance Italy p. 123).

                                                          sole 15

It seems to me to suggest ecstasy rather than agony. Done c. 1516, the same time as his lost Bacchanal,  it combines the darkness of the Moon's night with the brightness of the Sun.

Admittedly, the crease in the fabric on the Pope card that might be a knife was not there before "Chosson". Yet I cannot imagine that the idea of the sequence as mystery-initiation started with them. There are too many features that lend itself to that interpretation. In the Lover card, the initiates are the similar male and female figures, in the Chariot the two horses, in the Wheel the figures going up and down, in Death the male and female heads, in the Tower the two human figures, in the Moon the two dogs, and in the Angel the two figures on either side of center. In some cases they are male and female; in others they are red and some other color, light blue or off-white. Red was the color of Seth in Plutarch; the other color would be more heavenly. To these might be added the two jugs of Temperance and the Star, the two arms of Justice, the two figures of Strength, and the two wooden poles of the Hanged Man, one light and one dark. I have mentioned all except the Hermit and the World. The Hermit’s initiatory character is indicated by his lantern and the sun shining in the folds of his robe, as well as Conver’s change in the spelling of his title, from “L’Ermite” to “L’Hermite”, the “H” suggesting an association to Hermes Trismegistus or the god Hermes as guide of souls. Here are the cards, which I have already presented.

                                             sole 16

The figure in the World card (which I will discuss in the next section) could be the female initiation-master welcoming the successful candidate or candidates; or it could be the two now merged as one, merging with the two-sexed Dionysus.


B20: Angelo

When considering the Judgment card, we have to bear in mind that the card was in the early lists called "the Angel". Along these lines, Dionysus was in the 16th century depicted as winged


                                                    mondo 1

The accompanying verse reads:

                    Peaceful Amyclae, you set up a statue of Bromius [Bacchus] the grape-bearer:
                    but why as a flying creature with swift wings?
                    Bacchus takes inventive genius from the soil, and elevates the mind,
                    And carries it on wings like Pegasus’s.

Amyclae is a town in Greece whose statues of the gods were described by Pausanias (

Junius also quotes Catullus as a possible reference for a winged Dionysus:

§ «But in another place abundant with flowers Iacchus was fluttering about» § 

In fact "Psilas", Greek for "winged", was one of his epithets (as is "Iacchus"). Acquiring wings, the deified initiate ascends to Heaven. The effect of wine is also one of a soaring spirit.

Another name for the Judgment card, in Minchiate, was Trombe, Trumpets. In the myth of Dionysus, there is a correspondence at the lake near Argos, as I discussed in relation to the Tower card. Pausanias would not divulge the rites there, but Plutarch, section 35 of Isis and Osiris, says (

§ «..the epithet applied to Dionysus among the Argives is "Son of the Bull". They call him up out of the water by the sound of trumpets, at the same time casting into the depths a lamb as an offering to the Keeper of the Gate. The trumpets they conceal in Bacchic wands, as Socrates has stated in his treatise on The Holy Ones...» §

As in the case of Castor and Pollux, Hades will not yield up a life without taking one in return. With the Dioscuri, it was the sacrifice of the immortal one, part of the time, for the mortal; in the case of the Argives, it is the sacrifice of a mortal lamb—one of Dionysus’s cult animals—for the sake of Dionysus’s immortality. The Christian story has elements of both: it is the sacrifice of the immortal lamb to raise up mortal humanity. In Virgil, you will recall, the animal was a goat. Its sin, eating of the tree, has been redeemed.

With wings, the spirit flies upwards to Heaven, Plutarch's Sun. It is the mystical realm beyond thought and word.

In the Osiris myth, it is true that in Egypt Osiris was judge of the dead; but I cannot find this mentioned in any pre-19th century source. All Plutarch says is “king of the dead” (sec. 79). I do see one reference to the Osiris myth, however: the central figure’s head forms the center of an eye not unlike the symbol of the “Wadjet eye” (at right below), a symbol surely known by the time of the “Chosson” (at left).  Plutarch refers to the eye as a symbol for Osiris (section 51) and to the Sun and Moon as the “eyes of Horus” (sec. 52).

                                                       mondo 2

Since the sun sees everything during the day, and the moon at night, that eye probably would have been identified with the all-seeing eye of God, a well-known hieroglyph, most famously in the US dolar bill (below right). An earlier example is the one at left below, from an 17th century alchemical text. Quo Modo Deum translates as 'This is the way of God'.

                                                       mondo 3

These two examples and others, starting with the Eye of Horus, are at In the mid-15th century, what was famous was the "winged eye" device of Alberti, who was then friends with Leonello d'Este; Alberti made into a medal around 1450; suggesting God.
It had the motto below it, "Quid Tum?", Latin for "What then?". A picture and brief analysis is at
B21: Mondo

In the early lists, the highest numbered card was always Mondo, although the designs varied. They usually involved a worldly scene involving castles and some divine figure above or below it. Exactly what they meant is not clear, although various interpretations have been proposed. I see no particular relationship to the cult of Dionysus. For that, the first card to which I would propose a relationship is one found at the Sforza Castle and dated to around 1600. The only other card anything like it is the final card, the "Prima Causa", in the so-called "Tarot of Mantegna", 2nd series, probably from the 1480s. It shows all the various spheres around the Ptolemaic universe with the animals of the four evangelists in the corners. Their books show the way to God.

                                                     mondo 4

From the world of Dionysus, what is similar to the Sforza Castle card is an Orphic medallion that Pietro Bembo bought after it was looted from Rome in 1527, probably known in Rome before that (where it is possible that the "tarot of Mantegna" was produced). It is at right below. In the center is the deity mentioned in the 5th Orphic hymn (

§ «O Mighty first-begotten [Protogonos], hear my pray'r, two-fold, egg-born, and wand'ring thro' the air,
Bull-roarer, glorying in thy golden wings, from whom the race of Gods and mortals springs.
Ericapæus [Erikapaios], celebrated pow'r, ineffable, occult, all shining flow'r.
From eyes obscure thou wip'st the gloom of night, all-spreading splendour, pure and holy light
Hence Phanes call'd, the glory of the sky, on waving pinions thro' the world you fly.
Priapus, dark-ey'd splendour, thee I sing, genial, all-prudent, ever-blessed king,
With joyful aspect on our rights divine and holy sacrifice propitious shine» §

The epithet "two-fold" is associated explicitly with Dionysus in Hymn 42:

§ «I call upon law-giving Dionysus...whose two-fold nature is both male and female» §

The epithets "bull-roarer" and "Priapus" also associate him with Dionysus. Priapus was Dionysus's son, but also an epithet of Dionysus, as male arousal was associated with moderate ingestion of wine. The bull was one of Dionysus's cult-animals; moreover, the bull-roarer was among the toys with which, according to Proclus' commentary on Hesiod, the Titans tempted the infant Dionysus Zagreus (

The medallion depicts the first-born of the gods, Phanes, light-bringer, two-sexed (the meaning of "two-fold"), here surrounded by an oval in a rectangle, with a personification in each corner, the winds that were at his command. It thus is the pagan antecedent of similar depictions of an androgynous Christ, which in the tarot we first see in the Sforza Castle card c. 1600 (at left above).

The Christ of the Sforza Castle card gradually assumed a more clearly feminine shape, at first an androgynous one (below left, the Noblet of c. 1650). By the time of the "Chosson" of the late 17th or early 18th century (right), she was a lithe nude dancer with a billowing sash.

                                                         mondo 5

Such a sash is reminiscent of the dancing Bacchantes on Roman sarcophagi, thyrsi in hand, such as this one now at the Getty Villa, Malibu California (

The Marseille figure could also be taken as the deified Isis, wand in one hand and a vial of sacred Nile water in the other. As Andrea has said in his essay on the card, for the Roman philosopher Macrobius Isis was the Neoplatonic World-Soul, the animating spirit of the universe (Saturnalia I, c. 20 -21). Macrobius also identified Isis as world-soul with the famous Diana of Ephesus, of the manifold breasts. Andrea cites Apuleius (Book 11 of The Golden Ass again) in this connection; Isis is "natural mother of all life, the mistress of the elements", among other things (la natura madre di tutte le cose, padrona degli elementi", in Andrea's Italian,

Isis, as we saw in the sections on the Papessa and the Imperatrice, was also identified with Venus. She is the celestial Venus of the Platonists, as described by Ficino and the humanists of Ferrara (see section on Ficino) and depicted in the canvases of Bellini and Titian for Alfonso d'Este. Andrea's essay on the card (in English at has a fairly explicit 15th century "Triumph of Venus" scene with the same sense as his Figure 14.

B22: Conclusion

I hope it can be seen how the project of putting Dionysus into the cards might have taken root. It was first a matter of identifying particular aspects of each card with an aspect of the myth and imposing them on cards probably not designed with that myth in mind. This way of seeing the cards actually fits the Milan designs better than those in Ferrara or elsewhere, except for the d'Este Fool and Bagatella.

Then, as this way of seeing continued, those designs were favored over other designs: the magician with the wide hat vs a narrow one, the old man with a lantern vs. one without, the lady with the lion vs. one with columns, the hanged man with the hole under him vs. the one with money bags, and so on.

Also, new elements were worked into the cards in keeping with the themes, e.g.. the animal clawing at the Fool, the purse on the Bateleur's table, the setting of the Emperor, the hand with the knife on the Pope card, the sunburst on the Lover card, the suns on the Hermit’s robe, the sphinx on the Wheel, the body parts on Death, the ropes on the Devil card,  the water on the Noblet Tower, the figure with two jugs under seven stars on the Star card, the Gemini and suggestion of a tail on the Sun card, and the eye/head of the Judgment card There are other details as well, unmentioned here so as not to make this essay longer. I discuss it all in more detail on my blog,

I think it quite likely that Egyptian elements were put into the Cary Sheet designs, including those of the Isis/Osiris myth: notably in the Matto, Bagatella, Star, Moon, and Sun (see the discussions of those cards). One question for further research is whether it is plausible that in Milan of the PMB there was a conscious effort to put Dionysian/Osirian elements in the cards. Already in the program for the Michelino there was much information about Dionysus written by Marziano ( Then starting in 1440 the humanist scholar and poet Filelfo came to Milan, with his Florentine conception of hieroglyphs, his knowledge of Greek texts, including the Neoplatonists, and his close relationship to the Sforza family. His influence on the PMB is unknown. But I must leave this question unexplored.

As a kind of summary, I will present Dionysian interpretations of the tarot subjects in terms of 22 of his epithets, arranged in alphabetical order according to the Greek alphabet. Since Dionysus had many epithets, it wasn't much trouble finding one for each of the appropriate letters of the alphabet, except for two, rho and upsilon, which are not the first letters of any of his epithets. These epithets come from the classical Greek literature as available to Greek-readers in the 16th-17th centuries.

Matto, sin numero: May we not profane thy mysteries, O Dionysos Aigobolos, Slayer of Goats.

1. Bagatella
: May your illusions lead us to knowledge, O Botryophoros, Bearer of the Grape Clusters. 

2. Papessa: May she who knows you favor us, O Dionysos Gynnis, Womanish One.

3. Imperatrice: May your mothers help us to manifest in matter, Dionysos Dimetor, born of two mothers.

4. Imperatore
:  O Enorches, Emballed One, engender in us your divine spirit.

5. Papa, Dionysos Zatheos, Most Holy One, help us to recognize the guides you send us.

6. Amore: 
Life-giving Huês, Bringer of Moisture and Fertility, you send us tears of both joy and anguish. 

7. Carro: Direct our wills that we may pull your cart straight, O Thrambios, He of the Triumphal Hymn.

8. Justizia: At your feast, O Isodaitês, Giver of Equal Shares, all may partake of your joys and none is immune from your wrath.

9. Vecchio:  Your light shines, yet I follow without seeing, Dionysos Kryphios, Hidden One. 

10. Ruota: You raise me up, you strike me down, Dionysos Lênaios, He of the Wine Press. 

11. Fortezza: In your presence, O Meilichios, Gentle One, even the strongest submit to your rule.

12. Impiccato: Reveal to me my darkness, Dionysos Nyktiphaês, Illuminator of the Night.

13. Morte, O Xenos, Stranger, why do you abuse me? 

14. Temperanza:  I am an empty vessel, may I receive your spirit, Oikêtôr, Indweller of the Cup.

15. Diavolo:
Dionysos Paralogos, Beyond Reason, I do not understand your ways.

16. Fuoco, Casa di Pluton: O Dionysos Sôtêr, Savior, deliver us from the torments you send us.

17. Stella:
You who allow me often to forget, help me also to remember, my Teletarchê, Initiator.

18. Luna. Great Phanês, Shining One, Revealer, you illuminate the heights and the depths, in which I see my divine being.

19. Sole: Accept, Lord Charidôtês, Merciful One, this sacrifice of myself, that mortality may know immortality.

20. Angelo:  O Dionysos Psilas, Giver of Wings, show us how to fly.

. Mondo:  O great Ômadios, God of the Raw Feast, I see that there is everywhere only your dance.

For another type of summary, see the next section, the Appendix, which goes through all 22 cards again in terms of a different myth.




In the section on Ferrara, I mentioned that there was a fresco sequence illustrating the tale of Cupid and Psyche done in the 1480s under the supervision of Ercole Roberti, and that while this series is no longer extant, the tale was a subject for numerous marriage chests and also a later series of frescoes, c. 1527, in Mantua under the supervison of Giulio Romano. It seems to me that this tale, and its imagery, is another example of the mind set that would have also applied itself to the tarot sequence.

The imagery (all of it from artwork reproduced in Sonia Cavicchioli's Tale of Cupid & Psyche, an Illustrated History) is not directly taken from the tarot. It is the elements of the story that resemble the tarot sequence. Only one scene in the Palazzo Te actually resembles  tarot imagery, and that is on the side of the banquet scene at the end, in a detail not even mentioned in the tale. There is a naiad, or river nymph, holding two jars out of which water pours. There is a spring above her and a stream below and in front, as though formed from the water coming out of the jugs. There is also a water god in the scene behind her, holding two more jars out of which more water pours, this time into a lake. They could be the River Lethe and the Lake of Mnemosyne. There are other details suggestive of Dionysus, such as the boy on a goat and the scantily clad people holding a boy and a winnowing basket. There is also a Cupid and a young lady derssed in green like Psyche. These details also have other meanings relating to Mantua and its duke, for whom the Palazzo Te was built: the Cupid is himself, the girl his mistress, the lake is the lake at Mantua, the river the river at Mantua, etc. But I want to bring out is a comparison with the Star card: the resemblance between the naiad and the figure on the Cary Sheet Star card, and even more the figure on the Marseille cards later.

                                   a 1 

So now I want to go through the cards one more time as adjuncts to the tale, as told by Apuleius in The Golden Ass and illustrated on wedding chests, Romano's frescoes, and two other fresco series of the same time period, namely, Raphael's version in Rome a little earlier than his pupil Romano's in Mantua, and that of Perin del Vega, another pupil of Raphael, in Genoa.

Psyche is Greek for "soul". That makes it even easier to see it as an allegory of the soul's journey.

In a 5th or 6th century version of the story, when Christianity was already the religion of the Roman Empire, Psyche was depicted as the daughter of the sun-god Apollo. Since Christ was seen as the new Apollo (his day of worship, after all is Sun-day), Psyche thereby acquires a kind of divinity, like Christ and the various divine children of pagan Rome. On a 1490’s wedding chest from Florence, perhaps following this tradition, the sun shines behind the father at psyche’s conception.

                                                 App 2

As a marriageable young girl, Psyche was of course renowned as a great beauty; however none clamor to marry her. Here I would compare the d'Este Matto, whose apparatus is being admired by young boys, with Psyche and her admirers, as painted by by Perin del Vaga for Pope Paul II.


                                     app 3 

Naturally, Venus is jealous of the attention paid to Psyche, and she orders her son to sue his arrows to make her fall in love with some doddering fool, so that she will be a laughing stock instead of an object of worship. Venus pointing out Psyche can be seen in the cloud in the image just given (above), or close up in Romano's fresco (below). Correspondingly, for the Bagatella and the Papessa I would compare Cupid and Venus. Conjurers were always in demand for love potions, and that is just what Cupid's arrows are. Venus, Cupid's mother, will set Psyche various tasks for the purpose of seeing if she is worthy of her son, none of which she thinks Psyche has any chance of fulfilling. She is thereby the initiation master of the story; in all initiations there were tests to be passed.

                                        app 4

But Cupid pricks himself on his own arrow and falls in love with her himself. Therefore he cannot make her fall in love with anyone else, or allow anyone else to fall in love with her (below, from a wedding chest). The god of love's passion for Psyche, also a metaphor for Christ's love for humanity, is one possibility for the Love card.

                                                         app 5

Psyche's parents are distraught. These are my candidates for the Empress and Empress, just as Dionysus's parents were candidates for the same cards. They go to the oracle of Apollo and is told that she will meet her husband, a horrible monster, if she is taken to the top of a certain mountain and abandoned. Apollo, her spiritual father, corresponds to the Pope card.


                                          app 6

She is taken to the mountain, and at night the wind picks her up and carries her far away. Here is Romano's depiction of that scene. This is the equivalent of the Carro card, as depicted by Romano on the ceiling of the Palazzo Te.


                                           app 7

Psyche finds herself in a luxurious palace, attended by unseen servants who bathe, clothe, and feed her. At night there is the swishing of wings, and Cupid makes love to her. This is another possibility for the Love card, their mutual love. She is in bliss, despite his admonition that she must never see what he looks like, or she will lose him forever (below, from de Vega).


                                         app 8

She has her sisters come for a visit, and they are filled with envy. When they find that her lover comes only in the dark, they say that he is probably the monster that the oracle predicted. So she has to know, and lights a lamp after they have made love (below, Romano). This would correspond to the Vecchio or Hermit, the type with the lantern; it is the lamp of knowledge and seeking, which moves us forward. If there is any analogy to Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, Psyche's disobedience is a "happy fault" in the end.


                                             app 9

She sees her lover is the most beautiful young man there could be, but he flies away. Not only has he seen her, but the lamp oil burns him. He flies away and goes back to his mother's, where he lies ill from his wounds. This is the Wheel of Fortune, which has turned against both of them. There is a beautiful sketch by Raphael of Psyche watching Cupid flee.

                                                                       app 10

Psyche eventually asks Venus to let her see him. After much scolding, Venus gives Psyche a series of tasks. The first three, I think, correspond to the tarot virtue cards. The first task is to sort out, in one night, four immense piles of seeds that Venus has mixed together. Psyche despairs, but the ants come and do the sorting. It seems to me that this corresponds to Justice, where every act has its due reward or punishment. In administering justice, one needs to sort out the facts in relation to principles.


                                         app 11

After that, her next task is to bring Venus several baskets of golden wool from the fierce golden rams of the sun. A friendly reed, of the kind used to make Pan's pipes, advises her that all she has to do is wait until night, when the rams are sleeping, and pick the wool off the trees that they have rubbed up against. It seems to me that what corresponds is the virtue of Courage, associated with the lion, a solar animal.


                                             app 12 

The third task is to get water from both the middle of the River Styx, where it cascades down a steep gorge, guarded by dragons. In this case Jupiter's eagle comes and fills her jug from the stream. This corresponds to Temperance, with its water pouring from one jug to another. We might also compare it to the two jugs on the Star card.


                                         app 13 

The fourth task is to get some of Venus's beauty cream, which is supplied to her by Proserpine (Persephone) in Tartarus. This is the journey to the underworld I see in the cards. The descent is the Hanged Man, the Devil is Proserpine's husband Pluto.



The Tower card, then called the House of Pluto,  is part of this scene in hell.

                                                     app 15

Just past the guard-dog Cerberus and out of Tartarus, Psyche cannot resist temptation and does take some of the beauty cream. She instantly falls into a coma and is near death. That is the Death card, but also the darkness of the Moon card, in which the precious jewel of divinity is waiting to be picked up, just where it would be madness and the height of folly to do so. Her act and subsequent coma corresponds to the divine madness described by Erasmus, of the one who simulates dying (through fasting and other mortification) and gets the experience of divinity. By using Venus'e beauty cream, she has in fact stolen, and even earned, her right to live among the immortals.

                                            app 16

But there is Hope that Psyche's Faith will be rewarded Charitably (I invoke the names of the three Theological Virtues, which were present in the Cary-Yale deck of the Visconti. In minchiate, they are still there, with the numbers given in tarot to the Star, Moon, and Sun.) In Psyche's case, her hope is that Cupid will rouse himself from his sickbed, as we see he does. He is her star in the East, so to speak, come to save her from her dark night. But he cannot do anything by himself. The beneficence of the Sun is represented by Jupiter, for Cupid decides to ask Jupiter to allow him to marry her (shown here by Raphael).

                                               app 17

For that, she will have to be immortalized. So she is brought up to Olympus on the wings of Mercury (again shown by Raphael), a scene comparable to the Angelo card.


                                                 app 18

And the marriage takes place there, an apotheosis scene as Romano portrays it, which is how I see the World card, an elevation to the realm of the gods.


                                           app 19

And in due time a child is born, who in the tale of Apuleius is named Voluptas, Pleasure. In her honor, the gods have a banquet, a feast of the gods as in Bellini's painting for Alfonso in 1514. only with Cupid and Psyche instead of Liber and Libera, and Voluptas instead of the infant Bacchus. Here they are as Romano painted them.

                                                           app 20

Inspiration on fertile soil results in pleasure of many kinds.

                                                           app 21

This sequence of course also corresponds in essence not only to the myth of Dionysus but to that of the "mystical staircase" of Christianity; all would have been seen as part of the ancient theology, prisca theologia, that suffused the ancient world.