On March 19, 2021, I published an article on my blog in which I introduced my newest project, The First Occult Tarot, a Tarot based on an essay published in 1781, in Court de Gébelin’s eighth volume of his monumental encyclopedia, Monde primitif (accurately translated as Primordial World). I chose not to base the deck on the first article by Court de Gébelin, but on the second article, written by his friend the comte de Mellet.
I made this decision because I find de Gébelin’s interpretation of the cards somewhat shallow and comte de Mellet’s interpretations are more complete. I feel that they are closer to the interpretations that these images would have had in the Renaissance. He clearly sees that each of the three groups of seven trumps has a distinct character, different from the other groups. His overall interpretation is well founded in Hermetic philosophy. Basing his observations on the Besançon Tarot instead of the Tarot of Marseille, he reads the trumps from the World to the Fool as a descent from the Age of Gold, trumps 21 to 15; through the Age of Silver, trumps 14 to 8; and to the Ages of Copper and Iron, trumps 7 to 1 and the Fool, representing the madness of the modern world. What is implied but left unsaid, is that if the trumps describe the descent of humans into a state of ignorance, when we read them forward, from the Fool to the World, they describe the ascent back to a state of spiritual Oneness. Like the Hermetica, they are a textbook for achieving gnosis.
At this time, I have completed the trumps and most of the cards in the minor suits. Unlike de Gébelin, de Mellet discussed the minor suits and their role in divination. However, his list of meanings and imagery for the pips and courts is random and incomplete. When he has neglected to supply meanings, I have completed my list by researching traditional 18th- and 19th- century meanings associated with playing card divination, particularly L’art de tirer les cartes, “The Art of Reading Cards,” 1843, by Joahannès Trismégiste, an author who was either heavily influenced by de Mellet or working from the same model. I was also able to gain insights by examining the imagery on the Besançon and Aluette cards, the decks on which de Mellet based his observations. The imagery on my pips is heavily influenced by the Aluette cards, an 18th century French four-suit deck that made use of the Spanish suit symbols.
Like de Gébelin, de Mellet believed that the Tarot originated in Ancient Egypt, but their experience of Egyptian art and culture was mostly of the late Hellenized period when Egypt was merged with Classical culture. I based my imagery on this combination of Egyptian and Classical art. I was also influenced by the art of the 19th century Egyptian fantasy known as Egyptomania.
To complete this project, it was essential that I have an accurate translation of the 18th century French text, and until now, an accurate translation was not to be found. Fortunately, David Vine, an expert in historical French and a highly skilled translator, took on the task and has published a complete and accurate translation of both de Gébelin’s and de Mellet’s texts. along with Vine’s commentaries based on his extensive research of period French sources. And as an even greater stroke of fortune, David Vine has agreed to work with me on the book I am writing to accompany The First Occult Tarot deck, and which will now include Vine’s translation of de Mellet’s description of the trumps.
I still have royal cards to design and a book to write. So, it will be a while before you can preorder The First Occult Tarot deck and book set. But meanwhile, I recommend getting a copy of David Vine’s Vintage Tarot Texts: Antoine Court de Gébelin 1781; Louis-Raphael-Lucrece de Fayolle Comte de Mellet, published by Editions letarot.com.
The original Alchemical Tarot was published by Thorsons, a branch of HarperCollins located in London. It came out in 1995. The Lovers card that I designed for the deck was deemed too sexy. Therefore, the publisher had me redesign the trump. So, I illustrated the King and Queen engaged in the foreplay that would have led to the sex act that was illustrated on the first version. After the Thorsons edition went out of print, I regained the right to publish the deck and I created The Alchemical Tarot: Renewed. For this second edition I decided to print both versions of the Lovers, both numbered 6. (I use both cards when reading and find that they illustrate foreplay and action.) From then on, each edition of The Alchemical Tarot had 79 cards instead of the traditional 78.
That is until the most resent version, The Alchemical Tarot: Renewed 6th Edition, which has 80 cards, because of the addition of a 22nd trump.
The 6th edition of The Alchemical Tarot is being printed at this time. It is subtitled “the Blue Sky Edition,” because unlike the 4th and 5th editions, which let the parchment background serve as the sky color, this edition has blue skies, unless of course they are grey or black (as on the Devil). The cards have silver edges instead of gold, as on the 5th, and the two-part cloth covered box is blue instead of green. The deck includes a little book with a blue cover. The biggest change, however, is that there is a 22nd trump card, called Truth, which brings the total number of cards to 80. This card is a tribute to Rosemary Ellen Guiley, who was my partner on the book for the first edition, and who died in 2019.
The first card from the Alchemical Tarot to be published was the Star. It was published in the Fall, 1989, edition of Gnosis Magazine along with a one-page article that I wrote explaining the symbolism of the card and the concept of the deck. This was actually the first card that I designed for the deck. And this was the first thing I had ever published.
Rosemary Ellen Guiley, who was a well-known New Age author, having written numerous books on spirituality and the occult, including several encyclopedias, was also a subscriber to Gnosis and she read my article. Rosemary wrote to me and invited me to contribute to a book she was writing called The Mystical Tarot. I contributed two drawings of trumps: Temperance and the Devil, and I wrote several pages expounding on my insights correlating the Tarot with alchemical symbolism. The Mystical Tarot came out in 1991. This was the second time I was published.
After that, Rosemary had me do research for her for a book on alchemy, and we stayed in touch. Eventually she asked me how I was doing with my Alchemical Tarot project. I was working as a craft jeweler at that time and had limited time to work on the deck, so it was going slowly. Rosemary explained to me that I needed to get an advance from a publisher to free up my time so that I could finish the deck. She offered to partner with me on the book for the deck and to show me how to write a proposal, and that is how we got a contract with an advance from Thorsons. The deck and book set was published in 1995. This was the third time I was published.
Shortly after The Alchemical Tarot was published, Rosemary had a startling vision. In the middle of the night, Rosemary awoke to find Hermes Trismegistus, the first alchemist, standing at the foot of her bed holding a large Tarot card, called Truth. He told her that it was the 22nd trump. Rosemary described the card to me, and I made an illustration of Hermes holding the card for her to use in her lectures.
The card depicted a pyramid with a flame at the top. The pyramid was composed of four stone layers, but the layers seemed to float separate from each other with air between them, so that there were actually seven layers, but three of them were invisible.
At first, I did not know what to make of this image. I found a related illustration in an alchemical text: Heinrich Khunrath’s Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aerernae, 1602. The sixth illustration in the book depicted a triangular mountain with a flame at the top. The front face of the mountain was flat and covered with a written text. The illustration was called “the way of the wise leading to the door of the Amphitheater of Eternal Wisdom.” I showed this to Rosemary, but I knew that I had to delve deeper to reveal the meaning of the card.
On the first page of Khunrath, there is a small detail at the top of the page that was leading me closer to the meaning of the card. The image depicted the tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God in Hebrew: yod he vau he. But the letters were arranged in a triangle with yod at the top, yod he on the second layer, yod he vau on the third, and all four letters on the bottom. This I discovered was a kabalistic version of the Pythagorean sacred symbol called the Tetractys.
Pythagoras (circa 580–490 BCE) was one of the earliest Greek philosophers, in fact he is credited with having coined the word philosophy. Much of his teachings are at the core of alchemy philosophy. And the Tetractys symbol expressed the most essential aspects of his philosophy. Here is a description of the Tetractys derived from Chapter Four in my book The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism.
In the Pythagorean school ten was considered the perfect number. In fact, the number ten was such a symbol of perfection that the Pythagoreans developed an alternative model of the cosmos in which there were ten celestial bodies. In this model, Earth was considered a planet and added to the ancient seven, which included the Sun. The seven ancient planets were the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. It was believed that these eight planets, Earth and the other seven, orbited a Central Fire that was not the Sun. To bring the number of bodies to ten, it was further theorized that there existed a counter-Earth that could never be seen because it was always orbiting on the opposite side the Central Fire from Earth.
In another example of the Pythagorean use of the number ten to represent the numerical intelligence of the universe, the Pythagoreans constructed a triangular arrangement of ten dots with one at the top, two on the second layer, three on the third, and four at the base. This symbol was called the Tetractys, and the Pythagoreans considered it sacred. The Tetractys expressed the concept of emanation in its simplest form, from the greatest unity at the top, representing the One, to the diversity of the world of form at the bottom, which was associated with four directions, four seasons, and four elements. It was like a pyramid reduced to a diagram. The most important aspect of this symbol to the mystic was that it could be used as a meditative tool, a ladder, that he or she could use to visualize an ascent back to Oneness—a state of being connected to the universe and to the part of an individual that is permanent and beyond the reaches of death.
There are many classes of symbolism that can be attached to the Tetractys. One of the most basic is a geometrical progression. With this theme, the single dot at the top depicts a point, a theoretical beginning with no dimension. The second layer has two points, which describe a line. Although a line has length it has no depth and still cannot be perceived any easier than the point. Next, are three points, which are necessary to form the first polygon, the triangle. This gives us a two-dimensional plane. The base has four points, which allows us to form the first three-dimensional object, the tetrahedron, which is composed of four triangular sides, like a pyramid with a triangle for a base. This is the beginning of physical reality. These four physical layers correspond to the four stone layers in Rosemary’s pyramid.
If we also look at the relationships between the layers, called ratios, these describe numerically the vibrations of the three essential notes in the music scale: the whole note, which had a ratio of one to two; the perfect fifth, which has a ratio of two to three; and the perfect fourth, which has a ratio of three to four. These three musical layers correspond to the spaces between the stone layers in Rosemary’s pyramid.
Together with the four physical layers these musical layers give us seven layers altogether—four physical layers and three non-material layers. Like the sacred ziggurat, symbolizing the seven emanations of creation and the seven essential gods of Babylon, the Tetractys had seven layers but here numbers have replaced the gods as emanations. To fill out the music scale Pythagoras devised four other notes and created our familiar Western diatonic scale with its seven notes, denoted by the seven vowels in the Greek alphabet. The Tetractys can be correlated to all seven notes in the scale, and just like the notes, the seven layers can be correlated to the seven ancient planets and in alchemy the planets are correlted to seven metals. seven operations in the Opus, and to seven soul centers which ascend the human spine. With this correlation we can see that the emanations can be viewed as existing within the human body.
Now that it has been explained, the symbolism of the twenty-second trump seems obvious. But it took me several years to figure this out. Also, you might ask why I did not add the twenty-second trump to The Alchemical Tarot years ago. I guess that I felt that it belonged to Rosemary, but now that she died it seems that it is time to add it to the deck.
Most of you know me as a Tarot designer and author, but before I designed my first Tarot deck I was well known as craft jeweler. Recently, I posted some of my jewelry on Facebook. They received a lot of attention and my Facebook friends seemed to want to know more about that period of my career. This article is about how I got involved in jewelry and I will display some examples of my work.
In the 1970s when Rose Ann and I got married and we were back from our honeymoon in Europe, I worked as an art teacher in a grammar school near the New Jersey shore. The pay was low, and I had to have it divided over the ten months that school was in session. That left two months in the Summer with no pay. To make money during the summer, I took advantage of the outdoor art shows that were popular in towns along the Atlantic shore. The biggest one was the annual Maurice Podell Art Exhibition. It was my best earning event, but even though I was doing well selling my drawings and paintings, I noticed that the exhibitors in the crafts section were doing much better. So, I decided I would become a craftsperson.
To earn a degree as an art teacher, I had to become proficient at several crafts, Including, ceramics, textiles, and metalwork, but the one craft that I was most fond of, since I was first introduced to it in high school, was enameling. I realized that enameling was a technique used in jewelry, and that I had some basic knowledge of sculpting and soldering metal, so I decided to become a jeweler.
Enamel is colored glass fused to a metal base at high temperatures (1,500 degrees F) in a kiln. It works best when fused to pure metals: copper, fine silver, or 24K gold.
The ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians made colorful jewelry by shaping flat pieces of lapis, turquoise, and carnelian to fit into cells created by flat gold wire fuse to a gold base. Eventually artisans realized that they could substitute pieces of colored glass for the stones. But it was not until later that the Greeks developed the technology that allowed them to grind the glass to a power and melt it in the gold cells at a temperature that would melt the glass, fuse it to the metal, but not melt the metal. Once fused in place, the surface of the enamel was ground smooth with fine stones. This is called cloisonné enamel and it reached a high point during the Byzantine period.
The Celtic and Germanic people of northern Europe also used enameling to bring color to their jewelry, but besides using wire to create cells for the glass, they carved out areas in a thick metal plate and fuse the enamel in these recessed cells. This technique is called champlevé. Champlevé remained popular during the Middle Ages and was used to decorate religious objects.
During the Middle Ages, Limoges, France was a center for champlevé enameling. It was here in the Gothic period and in the Renaissance that Limoges artisans, possibly with the help of alchemists, developed a new technique in which they fused glass to the surface of the metal without creating cells. This allowed them to blend colors and create shading so that they were painting with glass. This technique is called Limoges. Key to the technique is the use of an extremely finely ground opaque white glass that is fired in numerous layers to create highlights against a darker surface.
Limoges is actually the technique that I started experimenting with in school. But at first, my technique was basic. Having little money to start my jewelry career, I focused on enameling on copper, the cheapest metal, that would work. I used opaque colors with layers of the fine opaque white to create form. The school I taught in had a kiln that I was allowed to bring home to fire the pieces, and I was in business. After a while I set up a bench and bought a drill and a jeweler’s saw, which allowed me to cut out shapes. This is a piece from that period.
When I earned enough from the business I began to invest in silver and started developing my metal working. Instead of casting, I concentrated on sculpting the silver directly. I learned to hammer and raise the silver from the back, a technique called repoussé, and punched details into the front with various shaped tools, called chasing. I bought a torch and a buffing wheel, and I was ready to quit teaching and do this full time. Quitting my job might have been a scary thing to do, but luckily, they were paying me so little that I was immediately earning more from jewelry than teaching. Rose Ann joined me in the business. She did some of the production work with me but mainly she was more interested in marketing at the craft shows and I was more interested in designing and creating.
This is an early chased and repousséd brooch that I designed for the University Museum in Philadelphia. It is based on a Scythian stag in their collection.
As my work became more sophisticated, I added filing and engraving to create a more sculptural form like these Celtic designs and other pieces.
I also started carving and sculpting the metal, as you can see in these pieces.
Eventually, we were able to exhibit in the top craft shows in the country including the Smithsonian in Washington, and the American Craft Council shows in Baltimore, New York, Atlanta, Dallas, and San Francisco. These shows were very competitive, and we had to be accepted by a jury to be allowed to exhibit. To prepare for the juries, I had to create high end portfolio pieces and have them photographed by a professional photographer, who specialized in photographing crafts. As I needed to create more elaborate pieces, my enameling evolved, and I focused on cloisonné. This is a cloisonné brooch that I made at that time. It is called Leda. The enamel has 24K gold wire set on fine silver, the setting is repousséd sterling, 14K gold, with a ruby for the eye. I entered in in the 1984 Wilhelm Muller Competition, in Germany. It won an honorable mention and was exhibited at the Stadtischen Museum, the Goldsmith’s House in Hanan, and was on tour until 1985.
Here is a cloisonné necklace that I designed. The create the gold areas I would fire clear enamel over 24K gold foil.
Here is a cloisonné brooch that Rose Ann made, called Flower-Bird.
These pieces also earned my work a place in galleries and museum, including the American Craft Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Delaware Art Museum. I was even invited to create an ornament for the national Christmas tree when Clinton was president. They also generated a lot of publicity in craft and jewelry magazines. These are two pages from a 1984 issue of Lapidary Journal.
The sculpture is sterling, 14K gold, opal, carved moonstone, horn and, Colorcore Formica. The triangle at the top detaches to be worn as a brooch. It was sold at the American Craft Council show in Baltimore that year to a gallery owner. The Turoe Box was made with a grant from the New Jersey council on the Arts. It is sterling, 22K and 14K gold, emerald, ruby, and has a deerskin lining. I sold it to Steve Martin at the WBAI Craft Show in New York. The Rabbit Fan Brooch is sterling, 14K gold, and lapis lazuli.
Here are some other boxes that I made.
Here are two other fan brooches.
At that time, I began experimenting with alternative materials like Colorcore Formica, antler, and horn. This piece is called Kore. The figure is carved antler, set against Colorcore with gold leaf, the setting and chain are sterling. The pink rhodochrosite stone in set in antler. I liked using antler as an alternative to ivory because deer drop them every year and I could search for them in the forest.
This piece is called The Philosopher’s Stone. It is sterling, 14K gold, carved horn, antler, Colorcore, gold leaf, opals, and turquoise. It was purchased by a Unitarian minister.
This is a page from a 1992 issue of Ornament magazine. The House Brooch was in a gallery show at the American Craft Museum that year and it received a lot of publicity. The brooch is sterling, 14K gold, Colorcore, slate, horn, and emerald. The woman who bought it told me that she was wearing the brooch on her vacation in Italy when a woman came up to her and said: “Where did you get that brooch; it is famous?”
This is a series of pieces that I made by carving horn and antler. I added 14k gold details, opals, and a garnet. You can see how fine deer antler is a good substitute for ivory. these pieces were inspired by ancient Spanish sculptures from the 6th century BC.
In the 1990s I returned to Limoges enameling but in a more evolved form. I repousséd the fine silver. I use transparent glass that I ground myself, and opaque white that I ground and sifted to make it finer. I now used the 24K cloisonne wire placed flat to add gold details, and I made 14K gold settings. These are some examples. By the end of the 1990s there were less crafts stores and galleries still in business, and inspired by my dreams and by synchronistic events, I switched my attention to illustrating and creating Tarot decks.
Anyone knowledgeable about Tarot history knows that the first occultist to write about the Tarot was the Parisian Freemason Antoine Court de Gébelin. In 1781 he published the eighth volume of his occult encyclopedia, Monde Primitif, and starting on page 365, he included an article on the Tarot in which he put forth his theories on the origin and meaning of the Tarot’s trumps and minor suits. De Gébelin theorized that the Tarot was a series of hieroglyphs that originated in ancient Egypt, were passed onto ancient Rome, and from there to France and Germany.
His article was accompanied by a series of engravings created by Mademoiselle Linote, who died the same year that they were published. Her illustrations are sketchy copies of a standard set of trumps from a French Tarot of Marseille, most likely the Conver Tarot, from 1760. De Gébelin added titles to them that suggested what they might have signified in Egyptian culture.
The Fool retains his name, but his dog is interpreted as a tiger, and in Linote’s engraving the animal does look like a cat but with spots, not stripes. It seems that Court de Gébelin was not distinguishing between a tiger, a cat that does not live in Africa, and a leopard, a cat that does. Trump One is the Juggler or Cup-Player, who is said to be holding the wand of Jacob or of the Magi.
Trump Two is the High Priestess, who is the wife of Trump Five, the High Priest, head of the hierophants. Trumps Three and Four are the Queen and the King, and their scepters are said to be the Tau cross.
Trump Six is the Wedding, depicting a priest, wearing a laurel wreath marrying a man to a woman with flowers in her hair.
Trump Seven becomes Osiris Triumphant, symbolizing the god’s return in the Spring. Trump Eight is Justice, but also Queen Astraea on her throne.Trump Nine is The Sage or the Seeker of Truth and Justice. Court de Gébelin correctly recognized the Hermit, holding his lantern in front of him, as a reference to the ancient philosopher, Diogenes, who held out a lamp during the day because he was searching for virtue.
Trump Ten retains its title, the Wheel of Fortune, and its symbolism as a satire on the nature of fate.
Trump Eleven remains Strength, a woman closing the mouth of a lion. Trump Twelve is now the virtue Prudence. Court de Gébelin said that it originally represented a man holding one leg up as he prudently decided where to place it, but that this image was reversed by ignorant card makers when reproducing the deck. He offers no explanation for why Linote depicted the man tied to a stake.
Trump Thirteen is Death with her scythe. Court de Gébelin refers to Death as female and says that she is numbered thirteen because this number is unlucky. Trump Fourteen is Temperance, who, as in the traditional interpretation, is pouring water into wine to make it less potent.
Trump Fifteen becomes Typhon, a Greek name for Set, Osiris’s evil brother. Trump Sixteen is the House of God, its French title, or the Castle of Plutus, a reference to a tower stuffed with gold that fell into ruin crushing its worshipers. Court de Gébelin also relates the image to a story told by Herodotus about two Egyptian tomb robbers.
Trump Seventeen is the Dog Star, which rises when the Sun is in the sign of Cancer. Court de Gébelin recognizes the seven smaller stars as the seven planets, and says that the woman is Isis, who is their mistress. Trump Eighteen is the Moon rising between the pillars of Hercules. The drops in the sky are the tears of Isis, and Court de Gébelin says that the entire picture symbolize the time of the flooding of the Nile. Trump Nineteen is the Sun, the Father of all Humans.
Trump Twenty is the tableau misnamed “The Last Judgement,” because Court de Gébelin says that it represents the creation of humans, not the reanimation of the dead.
The final Trump, Twenty-one, is Time misnamed the World. Court de Gébelin says that the woman is the Goddess of Time standing in the wreath of time, with the emblems of the four seasons in the corners: the eagle representing Spring, the lion Summer, the ox Autumn, and the young man Winter.
After de Gébelin’s article in Monde Primitif, he placed another article composed by the Comte de M, identified as Comte de Mellet. Comte de Mellet’s theories differ from de Gébelin’s on several points. From this, we may assume that Court de Gébelin did not feel that his theory was the final word, and he wanted to present other possibilities. For example, while de Gébelin believed that Tarot meant “the Royal Road” in Egyptian, de Mellet makes the case that the Tarot is actually the mystical Book of Thoth. He theorizes that the name Tarot is derived from the Egyptian Ta Rosh, which he said means the science of Thoth or Mercury, a possible reference to alchemy. He says that the book or deck was brought from Egypt to Spain by the Arabs, and from there, the soldiers of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V carried it to Germany in the 16th century. He suggests a relationship between the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the Fool and the twenty-one trumps. He discusses the meaning of several of the pip and court cards and demonstrates the use of the deck for divination.
But his discourse on the trumps stands out the most, because it is more coherent and presents a unified approach that unites the trumps in one continuous narrative. Most scholars agree that the de Mellet article is older and most likely influenced de Gébelin. Not only is it older, but it is more complete and effectively it is the first description of a recreated occult Tarot deck. Therefore, we may call it the “first occult Tarot.”
As we look at the details that de Mellet describes, it is clear that he is not describing the Tarot of Marseille but he is describing the Besançon Tarot, which was first carved by Francois Isnard (1695 – 1765), who lived in Strasburg, France. The deck became popular in South Eastern France, Switzerland, and parts of Germany. De Mellet clearly describes cards that only appear in the Besançon, such as Jupiter with his eagle instead of the Pope for the fifth trump and Juno with her peacock instead of the Papesse for the second trump. We will see other similarities as we go over his discourse.
Comte de Mellet interpreted the trumps as a Hermetic text describing the creation of the world in three stages. Starting with the World trump and working backwards, because he claimed that the Egyptians read from right to left, he divided the trumps into three groups of seven and related each group to one of the Classical Ages: the Age of Gold, the Age of Silver, and the Age of Iron. There are actually four Classical Ages, but de Mellet has combined the Age of Bronze the Age of iron into one for his discourse.
The Age of Gold begins with Trump Twenty-one, the World or the Universe, depicting Isis in the center of the egg of time with the symbols of the four seasons in the corners. Then comes Judgement, depicting Osiris creating humans from Earth.
Next in order is the creation of the Sun, with the union of man and woman below. The figures on the Besançon Sun seem to be male and female and this is made even more clear in the modern version called the 1JJ Swiss Tarot.
Trump Eighteen is the creation of the Moon and the animals, symbolized by a wolf and a dog, representing wild and domestic animals. The Besançon Moon does seem to depict a dog and a wolf. Trump Seventeen is the creation of the stars and fishes.
Sixteen is the House of God overthrown, and Fifteen depicts the Devil or Typhon, who ends the Golden Age, and brings suffering to all humans. De Mellet mentions that the Devil’s minion is clawing the Devil’s thigh. Again, this is a detail that we find on the Besançon trump.
The Age of Silver begins with trump Fourteen, Temperance, who educates humans in the need for moderation to help them avoid Death. Thirteen is Death, who has now become a reality to humans.
Twelve is the accidental suffering that attacks humans, symbolized by a man hung by his foot, but also a symbol of Prudence. De Mellet had no need to turn the Hanged Man right side up as de Gébelin did.
Eleven is Strength subduing the lion, a symbol of savagery. Ten is the Wheel of Fortune expressing the injustices of this faithless goddess. De Mellet describe the Wheel as having a rabbit ascending and a monkey at the top, which we can see on the Besançon Wheel.
Nine is the Sage searching for Justice, and Eight is Justice.
The Age of Iron begins with Trump Seven, the Chariot of War. Here he also briefly mentions the Age of Bronze but merges it into the Age of Iron. De Mellet describes the Charioteer as a king holding a javelin. He seems to be interpreting the charioteer’s scepter with its pointed top as a javelin. However, in a later edition of the Besançon Chariot, printed after 1791, after the French Revolution, the block was modified to remove the Charioteer’s crown, which was now unpopular, and the top of the scepter was modified into the head of a javelin (thanks to my Facebook friend Koy Deli for supplying this detail). In the editions after 1810 the crown was replaced but the javelin was retained. Was this due to de Mellet’s influence?
Trump six depicts a man standing between vice and virtue being guided by blind love instead of reason.
Five is no longer the Pope but Jupiter on his eagle, as he appeared in the Swiss decks.. including the modern 1JJ Swiss Tarot.
Four depicts the King, symbolizing that might and not reason rules. Three is the Queen, the King’s mate.
Two is Juno, with her peacock as she appears in the Besançon. She represents pride and idolatry. One is the Bateleur, holding a wand and misleading people with his magic, and then after the last trump, we have the Fool, representing madness and being attacked by the tiger of his regrets. The dog on the Besançon Fool has stripes, like a tiger.
I find that Comte de Mellet’s interpretations of the cards are closer than Court de Gébelin’s to the interpretations that these images would have had in the Renaissance. He clearly sees that each of the three groups of seven trumps has a distinct character, different from the other groups. His overall interpretation is well founded in Hermetic philosophy, and what is implied but left unsaid is that if the trumps describe the descent of humans into a state of ignorance, then if we read them forward, from the Fool to the Universe, they describe the ascent back to a state of spiritual Oneness. Like the Hermetica, they are a textbook for achieving gnosis.
I have been studying de Mellet’s Tarot more closely. Years ago, the curator at the Morgan Library was kind enough to send me a photocopy of the original essays from his copy of Monde Primitif. And recently, I have obtained a new more accurate translation of the 18th century French. As my next project I have started working on creating the deck that de Mellet describes. Here is the first of the cards, Isis in the center of the World Egg and surrounded by the wreath of time.
The pip cards in the traditional Tarot of Marseille mostly depict a repetition of the traditional Italian suit symbols: coins, cups, swords, and staffs, with some decorative details, like flowers and vines, to fill in the spaces. These decks were primarily designed for playing card games. In 1909, when Pamela Colman Smith redesigned the deck to express occult philosophy and to be used primarily for divination, she modified the symbols to look like magical tools: pentacles, cups, swords, and wands, and added allegorical scenes to the pips, in which the figures interact with the suit symbols––scenes that were meant to provide a divinatory meaning. When I first became aware of the Tarot in the 1960s it was the common opinion that Waite and Smith were the source of this innovation; and that this unique innovation is what made the Waite Smith Tarot user-friendly and popular with Tarot readers.
The Three of Swords: the Tarot of Marseille, The Waite Smith Tarot, and the Sola Busca
While reading Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of Tarot, many years ago, I discovered that Smith’s pip designs were heavily influenced by The Sola Busca Tarot, a 15th century Italian deck that made use of the same technique on the pips. This is especially obvious when we compare the three of swords from both decks. It is not clear, however, that the scenes on the Sola Busca pips were designed for divination.
My continued study of divination with cards has led me to explore decks in the Metropolitan Museum, the British Museum, and the National Library in Paris, and to follow the discoveries and revelations of the community of scholars studying the history of cards. What I have learned is that before the modern association of the Tarot with divination ordinary playing cards were more commonly employed for this purpose. And as the pips in the minor suits in the Tarot are based on these playing card decks; the pip cards must have had divinatory meanings associated with them from an early date.
In the late 1700s, decks of oracle cards were created that consisted of a set of meaningful images with a small rendering of a traditional playing card included at the top of the card. The most famous of these decks is the Lenormand, which is based on the Game of Hope, published in Nuremberg in 1799. It seems that these were the first decks designed primarily for divination, and they had imagery associated with the pips. But I am starting to see that decks with meaningful imagery on the pip cards may have an even older history.
Game of Hope Cards, 1799
The latest evidence indicates that the series of twenty-one trumps that are found in the Tarot of Marseille originated in Florence in the first half of the 15th century. In fact, the oldest mention of the term trionfi, the original name of the deck, is found in an account written in Florence in 1440. By the end of the century, the name of the deck in most of Italy changed from carte da trionfi in Ferrara to Tarocchi, and when the cards made their way to France the name was shortened to Tarot. In Florence the name changed from naibi di trionfi to Minchiate, which means something like the Fool’s game. A new version of the deck with forty trumps, including cards for the twelve signs of the zodiac and the four elements, was created in Florence in the early 16th century and the name Minchiate came to become associated with this 97-card version of the Tarot. By the 18th century the Minchiate was more popular in Italy than the original twenty-one trump Tarot and even became popular in Paris. But in the 15th century the original twenty-one trump version spread through northern Italy to Milan, and from Milan to France, when it became the model for the Tarot of Marseille. I find it interesting, however, that the 16th century expanded Minchiate contained meaningful allegorical imagery on many of the pips, often illustrating stories from Aesop’s Fables.
Three 19th century Minchiate pips
In the 15th century, playing cards spread to Germany, and by 1460, Germans had developed their own set of suit symbols: hawk belles, hearts, leaves, and acorns. But what is interesting is that by the 16th century most of the German decks included satirical and allegorical scenes on the pips. I have seen and read about early card decks that were intended for divination that had the divinatory meaning written on the cards in the form of short poems. Having the meaning written on the cards makes it clear that they were used for divination, and it seemed that this was the norm for divination decks until the 18th century when divinatory pictures started to appear. But the allegorical scenes on the Minchiate and the German cards clearly tell stories that could be used for divination. As far as I know, however, no one has found evidence that they were used for anything other than games.
Recently Fortune Rebecca Buchholtz, a friend of mine in Germany, sent me PDF copies of several German Renaissance lot or fortune books that are in the national library in Germany. These are books designed for divination. They contain pages of divinatory answers, each accompanied by a picture––in one example they are pictures of playing cards. The answers are located by either spinning a wheel with the pictures or numbers on it or by picking a playing card and matching it to the picture in the book. The Mainz Lot Book from 1505 is the one that contains pictures of German playing cards next to the answers. This is a clear example of early divination making use of cards, but the pictures just depict the German suited cards, and the answers are written next to it in the form of a poem. This is not that different from having the meaning written on the card.
A page from the Mainz Lot Book from 1505
The book that I found most fascinating is Jorg Wickram’s Das Weltlich Loszbuch (the secular fortune or lot book), from 1560. The book contains divinatory answers that are accessed by spinning a wheel and the written answers are accompanied by numerous bizarre comical illustrations. These illustrations are clearly intended for divination, and I was struck by how similar they are to the moralistic allegorical scenes found on the German pips from the same century.
In these illustrations from Das Weltlich Loszbuch we see Fortuna sifting fools, two fools carrying a bee infested heart, a bull playing a bagpipe, a fool riding a pile of feces, and a cat acting as bishop to adoring mice.
Now compare these illustrations to the scenes found at the bottom of the pips from the suit of bells in Hans Schaufeiein playing cards, from 1535. There is a lazy man swatting bees, a fox walking upright carrying hens in a basket, an alchemist examining feces in a flask, a woman trying to milk a bull, a woman blowing air up a dog’s anus, and a man playing a flute while a rabbit dances. They seem related.
The Tarot of Marseille is not the name of an individual deck of cards. The name refers to a style of Tarot decks that originated in France. The earliest existing example is The Jean Noblet Tarot. published in Paris, circa 1650. Tarot historian, Giordano Berti, tells us that the name was officially given to the deck in the 1930s, but we find that French occultists, Like Éliphas Lévi, were already using this title to refer to the French Tarot in the 19th century. These decks have a Fool, twenty-one numbered trumps, with titles in French on each, and four minor suits, each consisting of ten pips and four royals, and featuring the Italian suit symbols.
Il Bateleur from the Jean Noblet Tarot
Decks that are called the Tarot of Marseille are not necessarily from Marseille. They are not even always from France. Some are published in Switzerland or northern Italy, complete with French titles, and the Tarot of Marseille is not the only modern variation of the Tarot. The Tarot did not originate in France. It originated in northern Italy in the 15th century and, was only introduced to France at the end of that century. Consequently let us look at how the Tarot first came to exist.
In the 14th century, playing cards were introduced to the European Christian culture through contact with the Islamic culture in Spain. The deck that was first introduced is known as the Mamluk deck. It had four suits: coins, cups, scimitars, and polo sticks, each with ten pips and three all-male royals. The first European decks were created in Spain and Italy. They were based on this model, but the suits became coins, cups, swords, and batons or staffs, and the royals became a knave, a knight, and a king. Cards were mainly designed to play card games, but from the beginning, there is evidence that they could also be used for divination.
In northern Italy in the early 15th century, a new deck was created with a fifth suit depicting enigmatic symbolic figures on each card. The cards in this fifth suit were called trionfi. Trionfi was the name of a type of parade in which each character in the procession was more important than the previous one. This Italian term is the origin of the English term trump, and we can see that in this parade each figure trumped the one that came before. This deck was designed to play a game that is the ancestor of bridge. A queen was also added to the royal cards.
At first there seems to have been several variations of the trumps. The oldest known deck to have them was conceived in approximately 1420 by Marziano and created for the duke of Milan. It has sixteen trumps, each depicting a classical god. There were also decks that had only one trump, the Emperor. These were called imperatori. Some time between 1460 and 1494, Count Matteo Maria Boiardo of Ferrara created a deck called Triumph of the Vain World. This deck had a Fool and twenty-one trumps in the fifth suit, but most modern readers would not recognize the list of trumps, which included figures like: Leisure, Fatigue, Desire, Secret, Doubt, Danger, and others. Each card also included a three-line poem expressing a divinatory meaning. The Sola Busca Tarot, created during the same period had twenty-one trumps that consisted of mythical and historic heroes. Even The Cary Yale Visconti Tarot, created for the duke of Milan, circa 1445, and which contains many of the trumps that are now found in the Tarot of Marseille, also included the three Christian virtues, which are not found in the Tarot of Marseille..
Giove (Jupiter) from my recreation of the Marziano Tarot
The latest evidence indicates that the series of twenty-one trumps that are found in the Tarot of Marseille originated in Florence in the first half of the 15th century. In fact the oldest mention of the term trionfi is found in an account written in Florence in 1440. By the end of the century, the name of the deck in most of Italy changed from carte da trionfi to Tarocchi. In Florence the name changed to Minchiate, which means something like the Fool’s game. A new version of the deck with forty trumps was created in Florence in the early 16th century and the name Minchiate came to become associated with this version of the Tarot. By the 18th century the Minchiate was more popular in Italy than the original twenty-one trump Tarot.
Sagittarius from an 18th century Minchiate
In the 15th century, however, the original Florentine deck spread to Rome in the south, and Bologna, Ferrara, and Milan in the north. There were no titles or numbers on the earliest cards, and three distinct orders for the twenty-one trumps developed (with some minor variations). The Florentine order was adopted in Bologna and Rome, another variation developed in Ferrara and influenced decks in Venice, and a third variation developed in Milan. In 1499 Louis XII of France invaded Milan and this region was part of France from 1499 to 1535. It is believed that the Tarot was introduced to France during this occupation, and it was the Milanese order of trumps that was adopted. We also find that the few remaining examples of early printed Tarot cards published in Milan are similar in design to the Tarot of Marseille trumps, particularly the Moon with the two dogs and the World with the four evangelists in the corners. The French added numbers and titles to the trumps and shortened the name of the deck to Tarot.
An early World trump found in Sforza Castle in Milan
The modern association of the Tarot with the occult began with the French occultist, Court de Gebélin, who discovered the Tarot one day when he was visiting the Paris apartment of a German countess. Naturally the deck he saw was the Tarot of Marseille. Observing that the trumps in this deck seemed to express Hermetic philosophy, de Gebélin assumed that the deck, like this philosophy, must have originated in ancient Egypt. In 1781, he included an essay on the Tarot in the eighth volume of his occult encyclopedia, Monde Primitif. In this essay he was the first author to express many of the modern misconceptions about the Tarot, including that the Tarot of Marseilles, is actually an occult hieroglyphic text created in ancient Egypt.
To support his theory, de Gebélin interpreted many of the trumps as having been derived from Egyptian figures. He said that the Papesse was originally a high Priestess, the Chariot stemmed from an image of the god Osiris, that the Devil was originally an image of Osiris’s evil brother Typhon, and the goddess Isis was depicted on the Star card. At that time it was also believed that the Hebrew alphabet was related to Egyptian hieroglyphs and de Gebélin speculated that the Tarot’s Fool and twenty-one trumps could be correlated with the twenty-two Hebrew letters. Because he believed that the trumps described the creation of the world in reverse order from the World card to the Fool, who represented its modern fallen state, he assigned the first letter aleph to the World and worked backwards through the cards, assigning the last letter, tau, to the Fool.
After de Gebélin, numerous occultists became interested in the Tarot of Marseille, and speculated on its mysteries. In 1791 the French occultist, Etteilla, published the first intentionally occult reinterpretation of the deck. This was The Grande Etteilla, and it became the most popular Tarot deck used for divination in the 19thcentury. The trumps in this deck were neoclassical engravings that Etteilla believed captured the original Egyptian style of the Tarot, and he totally reorganized the order of the trumps because he believed that this would better express a connection with the Hermetica, the ancient collection of books on Hermetic philosophy that were attributed to the mythical author and sage Hermes Trismegistus.
In the 1850s another French occultist, Éliphas Lévi, became involved with the Tarot of Marseille and theorized that it was an ancient Kabbalistic text. Lévi developed a more detailed theory about the relationship between the Hebrew alphabet and the twenty-two cards in the fifth suit. He started by assigning aleph to the Magician and worked his way through the trumps in order, but he placed the Fool between Judgement and the World so that it became the next to last letter, shin, and the World became the last letter, tau. In the Kabbalah each letter is correlated with an element, a planet, or a zodiac constellation, and now the tarot cards would share these connections. The twenty-two cards could also be assigned to the twenty-two pathways on the Kabbalistic diagram representing mystical emanation, called the Tree of Life.
Lévi’s illustration for the Chariot
Lévi’s ideas influenced other occultists including the members of the occult society founded in London in 1888, called the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn taught its members that the Tarot was an ancient mystical text. They adopted Lévi’s theory about the connection between Hebrew letters and the fifth suit, which they called the Major Arcana. However, they started by assigning aleph to the Fool and working forward from there. Therefore, the only card that retained the same association as it had in Lévi’s system was the World, which was still correlated with tau. To be able to assign Strength with its lion to the letter teth and the constellation Leo, and to have Justice with her scales assigned to the letter lamed and the constellation Libra, they had to switch the positions of these two cards from the way they are presented in the Tarot of Marseille, so that Strength became number eight and Justice number eleven.
Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith were both members of the Golden Dawn. In 1909 Waite hired Smith, who was a talented artist, to design a modern version of the Tarot. This deck, which was published in December of 1909, is known as The Waite Smith Tarot or TheRyder Waite Tarot. The deck was based on the Tarot of Marseille, but Smith was attempting to illustrate Waite’s insights on the mystical nature of the Marseille trumps, insights that were heavily influenced by Lévi. She maintained the Golden Dawn’s order of the trumps, but did not follow the descriptions as they appear in the Golden Dawn’s teachings. On the pips in the minor suits in the Tarot of Marseille there is only a repetition of the suit symbol and some decorative details, but smith included allegorical images on all of the pips in which the figures interacted with the suit symbols. This device was heavily influenced by the 15th century Sola Busca Tarot, mentioned above, which embraced the same approach. Over the course of the 20th century, The Waite Smith Tarot became the most famous Tarot in the world and helped to reinforce the modern association of the Tarot with divination in the minds of the public.
The Waite Smith Chariot from 1910
When I became involved with the Tarot in the 1980s, the first deck that I owned was the version of the Tarot of Marseille that was published in 1970 by Grimaud, The second deck was The Waite Smith Tarot. I soon began reading books on the Tarot, but because of my knowledge of art and art history I realized that most of the assertions made about the history of the Tarot in the majority of the available books at that time were false. There is no evidence to support the theory of the Egyptian origin of the Tarot. Cards themselves were first created in China in the 10th century, long after the ancient Egyptian culture had been supplanted by Christian and Islamic culture, and they were only introduced to the West in the 14th century.
The earliest evidence indicates that artists living in the Italy in the 15th century were the first to create Tarot cards. These artists would have been working for printers, who also published illustrated books and cards depicting saints. They were certainly Catholics, as there were no Protestants at that time and Jews living in Italy at that time were prohibited from making the type of imagery found in the Tarot, which was strongly influenced by Christian iconography. The idea that the trumps are a secret Kabbalistic text related to Hebrew letters and signs of the zodiac, planets, or elements only works if you deny the actual meaning of the pictures on the cards and think of them as a secret code. There is no evidence to support this theory, and the Minchiate deck created in Florence in the 16th century increased the number of trumps by adding images for the twelve signs of the zodiac, as well as the four elements, indicating that Italian Renaissance artists had no need to hide these figures in a secret code.
From the beginning of my involvement with the Tarot, I have wanted to know what the artists who first created these cards were thinking about their creation. Once we accept that the Tarot was created in 15th century northern Italy, we can see that all of the images in the deck do relate to other works of art created in that same time and place, and I began to reconstruct the philosophy that is expressed in the actual pictures on the earliest cards. In August, 1987, I was studying an alchemical image that symbolized the Philosopher’s Stone, the mystical goal of the alchemical work, and, not unlike Court de Gebélin, I had a flash of insight. I saw how it was symbolically linked to the Tarot’s World trump. It seemed that this image had unlocked a secret door in my mind and in an instant I saw that the alchemical Great Work and the story told in the Tarot’s trumps were all interchangeable. I immediately picked up my copy of Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy and began to make notes in the margins next to the alchemical images comparing them to Tarot cards. This was the beginning of a process that would take several years. The fruit of this insight and labor was The Alchemical Tarot, which was first published by Thorsons, in 1995, and that now has five additional editions that I have published.
Based on alchemical engravings, The Alchemical Tarot demonstrates that although the Tarot was not meant to be an alchemical text, the Fool and the trumps can relate to an alchemical material or process, which is part of the Magnum Opus (great work) of alchemy that leads to the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, a mystical catalyst that transforms what it touches into its highest form. Composed of the mysterious 5th element, it can cure any illness, turn lead into gold, and turn an ordinary person into an enlightened sage. In the latest editions of the deck I have added a symbol representing its alchemical process on each trump. The Philosopher’s Stone itself is represented by the World card and the four minor suits are related to the four alchemical elements: Earth to coins, Water to cups, Air to swords, and Fire to staffs.
The High Priestess from The Alchemical Tarot: Renewed 5th Edition
As stated above, the mystical story told in the trumps can be correlated with the Opus, but it is not actually meant to be an alchemical text. I was able to correlate the Opus with the trumps because alchemy is an expression of Hermetic philosophy and the Tarot is based on Hermetic philosophy, a philosophy that stems from Alexandra Egypt in the first centuries after Christ, and was revived in 15th century Italy, where it became a major influence on the arts at that time. As mentioned earlier, the central text of Hermeticism is the Hermetica, a set of books that originally included twenty texts. Although they were written by several unidentified authors, these authors attributed their work to the mythical sage Hermes Trismegistus. Hermes was said to be a man, who had lived centuries before, and through his wisdom he attained gnosis or enlightenment and became like a god. The Hermetica describes this process, and it may be considered a textbook on enlightenment.
At this time, besides six versions of The Alchemical Tarot. (The latest being a distilled simplified version with gold edges, called The Tarot of the Alchemical Magnum Opus.) I have designed eight other Tarot decks. I was able to relate the Tarot to angels, saints and Jewish myths. I was able to correlate the story in the trumps with Buddha’s enlightenment and the novel Dracula. I have attempted to recreate the oldest known Tarot from Marziano’s descriptions, and to create a restored set of the 15th century woodcut deck from Ferrara, a deck that I lecture on the Metropolitan Museum. And I worked for ten years on The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery in which I attempted to bridge the mystical philosophy that I uncovered in the oldest decks with the occult revelations of modern decks. But from the beginning, my inspirations sprang from the Tarot of Marseille.
Now I feel it is time to return to my roots, and I reinterpreting in my own style the Tarot of Marseille. I also want to show that these images are clearly related to Hermetic philosophy and can without being totally redesigned be correlated with the alchemical Opus. The trumps in this deck are based directly on the traditional French cards with the French titles. The original cards are examples of naive folk art, and I have redrawn the figures in a more sophisticated style but one that that is still influenced by Renaissance prints. Each trump displays the same alchemical symbol that I used for the latest editions of The Alchemical Tarot. But the major innovation is that each trump displays a quote from the ancient Hermetica (as translated by Walter Scott in 1924), and that these quotes clarify the meaning of the imagery on the card in a way that demonstrates the underlining Hermetic philosophy.
Although the pip cards in the Tarot of Marseille do not contain much imagery other than the repetition of the suit symbol, this was not the norm for all early decks. From the beginning German decks of playing cards often included scenes of people and animals on the pips along with the suit symbols. Also Minchiate decks made use of this same approach. For this deck I will follow this example and include imagery on the trumps that is based on the divinatory meanings that I have worked out for The Alchemical Tarot. The deck will have gold edges and a two part cloth covered box, Like the one I have used for my other recent decks.
The five of swords from an 1810 Florentine Minchiate that is in my collection.
Below are the twenty-two trump cards for
The Alchemical Tarot of Marseille
This is what I have finished so far.
I will set up a page and continue to post the cards as I finish them.
Please check in from time to time to see haw the deck is progressing.
Since its creation in Germany in1846, the Lenormand oracle deck, originally known as the Petit Le Normand, has enjoyed continuous popularity in Europe, and recently the deck has drawn the attention of American card readers. By now, most people who work with the Lenormand cards are aware that it is based on an earlier deck, The Game of Hope. Here are the facts.
The Ship from the Game of Hope, 1799
The Game of Hope
In their history of the occult Tarot, A Wicked Pack of Cards, historians Decker, Depaulis, and Dummett wrote that in 1972 historian Detlef Hoffmann discovered that the German Petit Le Normand is based on a deck published in Nuremberg as a game in 1799, and authored by Johann Kaspar Hechtle. This deck was titled The Game of Hope. The numbering and subjects on the thirty-six cards in this deck are identical to the Petit Le Normand, but there are two miniature cards at the top of each card, one with French suit symbols and one with German, whereas the Petit Le Normand only has one with French suit symbols.
The Game of Hope was a race game and it came with the following instructions. The thirty-six cards were to be arranged in a square of six rows of six cards, in numerical order and two dice were thrown to see how many cards along the square a player may move his or her marker. There are lucky and unlucky cards, and landing on them brings rewards or penalties. The first player to land on the next-to-last card, which is the Anchor (called Hope in the booklet), wins. If you land on the last card, the Cross, you are stuck. There were also instructions on how to layout the cards for divination, and we can see that, as in the game, the Anchor card was considered a favorable omen and the Cross was not.
The Ship from my recreation of the New York Lenormand, 1882
Coffee Grounds Cards and Conversation Cards
More recently, Tarot scholar Mary Greer was doing research in the British Museum’s archives when she found a deck of cards accompanied by a 31-page book that is an earlier model for the Petit Le Normand. The deck, whose full title is Les Amusements des Allemands, or The Diversions of the Court of Vienna, in which the Mystery of Fortune-Telling from the Grounds of the Coffee-Cup is unravelled, and Three pleasant Games, viz.: 1. Fortune-telling from the Grounds of the Coffee-Cup. 2. Fortune-telling by laying out the cards. 3. The new Imperial Game of numbers are invented, (commonly referred to as the Coffee Grounds Cards) was published in England in 1796. The book states that these cards were based on an Austro-German set of cards published in Vienna in 1794. The cards consist of uncolored engravings with a full landscape on each card dominated by the singular subject. There are a few lines of text on the bottom of each card that are meant to be the divinatory meaning but also offer moral advice.
There are only 32 cards in this deck, like a Piquet deck, four less than the Lenormand, they are numbered differently, and some cards, like the vipers card, do not relate to any Lenormand cards. The majority of the cards, however, can easily be matched with Lenormand cards. Beyond this, I have found that nearly all of these images and subjects, as well as the ones found in the Lenormand, can be traced to a deck created in England two decades earlier, in 1775, called Hooper’s Conversation Cards. Conversation cards are a game in which the cards are used to create a story. Each player picks a card and uses it as inspiration for their addition to the story. These decks also seem related to divination.
The Anchor from the Coffee Grounds Cards, 1796
Hope from Hooper’s Conversation Cards, 1775
I wrote about this in detail in my October 2015 blog, A History of Oracle Cards. In case you want to see what I wrote, here is a link:
At the conclusion of that article I stated that I believe that the Hooper Cards are one of the earliest, if not the earliest oracle deck. Oracle decks are not a variation on the Lenormand deck but the larger group to which Lenormand belongs. The Lenormand is an oracle deck and the earliest oracle cards contained moral allegories and references to divine figures. Since I wrote that, I have come across another conversation deck, Sketchley’s New Invented Conversation Cards. There is an advertisement for this deck from 1775, but this deck may be older. However, this still may not be the oldest source for oracle decks.
Oracle decks are based on earlier forms of divination that made use of regular playing cards. That is why each figure card in the standard Lenormand also has a smaller playing card depicted on the face. If we substitute Tarot pips for the equivalent playing card pips we find that there is no correlation between the Tarot’s divinatory meanings and the standard Lenormand meanings. This led me to believe that they are two separate independent systems, but now it seems to me that there is a connection between Oracle symbols and the Tarot. To illustrate this connection I will make use of the Anchor, the decisive symbol in The Game of Hope.
The Anchor, a Symbol of Hope
The anchor is a crucial part of a ship. It holds the ship securely in port and can be dropped during a storm to prevent the ship from being blown off course. Because of this, early Christians used the anchor as a symbol of the Christian virtue hope. This connection can be traced to a quote in the New Testament:
“God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”
Hebrews 6:18. 19
Because the anchor also forms a cross on its upper portion, it became a popular Christian symbol that we find carved in the catacombs, where the first Christians held their services in secret in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
Early Christian images of the anchor symbol
In the Middle Ages, Church leaders combined the three theological or Christian virtues that are praised in the New Testament: Faith, Hope, and Charity, with the four cardinal virtues that were praised in the works of Plato, and Aristotle: Temperance, Strength, Justice, and Prudence, to form a list of seven principle virtues. By the 14th century, we find examples of the seven virtues carved or painted on the walls of churches. Here is a painting of Hope, labeled with her Latin name Spes, painted by the famous Renaissance artist Giotto on the wall of the Arena Chapel in Padua, in 1306. It depicts a winged figure reaching for a crown held aloft. Other images made at that time are similar, but the winged figure is shown praying, as in this engraving of Hope from the 15th century Tarocchi de Mantegna.
Giotto’s fresco of Hope, 1306
Hope from the 15th century Tarocchi de Mantegna
The standard set of 21 Tarot trumps contains three of the Cardinal virtues: Justice, Strength, and Temperance, but not the Christian virtues. However, this was not the case in the beginning. The oldest Tarot decks in existence are The Brambilla Tarot, created 1420 -1444, and The Cary-Yale Visconti Tarot, created circa1445. These were both created for the duke of Milan. The Brambilla only retains two of its trumps: the Emperor and the Wheel of Fortune, but the Cary-Yale retains eleven trumps. Most of these trumps are recognizably similar to modern ones, such as the Emperor, the Empress, the Wheel of Fortune, and the World, but the deck also contains the three Christian virtues as well as the cardinal virtue Strength. The Cary-Yale Strength card depicts a praying woman kneeling on, or triumphing over a male figure, representing the vice despair. Her crown is now on her head and she is focusing on a source of light above. But the biggest change is that we now find an anchor tied to her hands.
The Cary=Yale Visconti Hope card, c1445
In the Visconti-Sforza Tarot and later Tarots created in Italy and France the Christian Virtues are no longer there, except for a variation of the Tarot that was created in Florence in the 16th century.
The Minchiate’s Influence
In 16th century Florence, an unusual variation of the Tarot was created that had 40 trumps and a Fool in the fifth suit. It was given a new name, the Minchiate. The name Minchiate is first found in a letter written in Florence by Luigi Pulci, but he was applying it to the standard Tarot deck with 78 cards. This deck is believed to have originated in Florence but was originally called Trionfi. The name Minchiate seems to be derived from a dialect word for “nonsense.” Perhaps he intended it to be a reference to the fact that the Tarot contains a Fool card. The name caught on in Florence.
By 1506, a new 97-card deck was created by dropping the Papesse and adding 20 new trumps, which included the four elements, the twelve signs of the zodiac, Prudence, and the three Christian virtues, including Hope. At first the deck was called the Germini, a reference to Gemini the last zodiac sign depicted in the deck. By the 1540s the game became so popular that Florentine printers ceased production of the 78-card decks and the name Minchiate was applied to the new 97-card deck. In the 17th century Minchiate spread throughout Italy and into France. By the 18thcentury it was more popular in Italy than the Tarot. After the 1930s, interest in the game died out.
Hope from a Minchiate published in Bolognas, 1763
The figure of Hope in the Italian Minchiate depicts a praying woman with a crown above. She does not have wings but she does have a halo. This figure is similar to the Cary-Yale Hope but the anchor is missing. Yet, in other 16thcentury images of Hope we do find her holding an anchor. In 1655 a French version of the Minchiate was published in which Hope’s anchor was restored to the deck. This was the Francois de Poilly Minchiate, also called the Minchiate Francesi. Besides the restoration of an anchor the deck differed from the Italian decks by substituting five Classical gods: Mercury, Cupid, Venus, and Bacchus for the first four cards, and Mamus, the god of folly, for the Fool. The deck’s publisher also dropped other trumps to make room for the four ages of man and the five senses, but it kept the seven virtues, the four elements, the twelve signs of the zodiac, and the Star, Moon, Sun, World, and the Angel of Fame (the Minchiate version of the Judgement card).
16th century engravings depicting Hope with her anchor
The Minchiate Francesi has a distinct style that is different form the Italian decks. Later a version was created that reduced the number of trumps back to the original 21, but it still retained the gods and the virtues including Hope. What is important for our study, however, is that the gods, the virtues, and the ages of man all had an influence on later oracle decks, and Hope’s anchor found its way into the Lenormand decks.
The Minchiate Francesi Hope card, 1655
The Minchiate Francesi depicts hope as a beautiful woman stranded on an island with her anchor in the midst of a turbulent sea. Compare this image to the numerous images of lady Hope found in later oracle and Sibilla decks. In Hooper’s Conversation Cards, a shipwrecked sailor has been substituted for the woman. In Sketchley’s New Invented Conversation Cards the symbol of Hope has been distilled down to just her anchor. This is the version that found its way into The Game of Hope and from there into numerous Lenormand deck.
Robert M Place
Hope from Das Oracle des Dames des Etteilla, 1897
Hope from a French Oracle Deck, 1890
Hope from an 19th century Austrian Oracle Deck
Hope from Jue de la Fortune Tres Fin, 1880
Hope from Sibilla Originally, 1890
The Anchor from the Old Gypsy Fortune Telling Cards, 1940
My recreations of Hooper’s Conversation Cards Hope card, 1775
Sketchley’s New Invented Conversation Cards, c1775
The Game of Hope Hope card, 1799
My recreation of the Anchor from the New York Lenormand, 1882
The Anchor from Wabrfagekarten Lenormand, 1875
The Anchor from my Burning Serpent Oracle, 2014
The Anchor from my An Ukiyo-e Lenormand, 2019
Four nines from my Hermes Playing Card Oracle, 2015
Since writing this article, I was introduced to the Petit Oracle des Dames, an oracle deck published in France in the late 1790s. This deck combines images from an earlier French oracle, Jue Divinatory Revolutionnaire, 1791, with images from the first occult Tarot deck the Grand Etteilla. Thus forming a indisputable link between oracle decks and the Tarot.