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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.
Petit Oracle des Dames, 1790s
This is the Tower card from my Buddha Tarot
that is being republished by Schiffer Books
and will be out in the Spring of 2021
For the last year, I have been answering questions about art, the Tarot, and other subjects, on a question and answer website called Quora. I have noticed that there have been numerous questions posted about the Tarot that are related, such as; “How Accurate is the Tarot?” “Do Tarot card readings accurately predict the future?” or “Why do so many intelligent people believe in Tarot readings?” For this post I have combined by answers to these and other common questions about the Tarot.
I find that the Tarot is accurate, but I may not use the Tarot in the way that you think.
I am a Tarot designer, an author, and besides reading for clients I have taught thousands of people throughout the US and in many parts of the globe how to read Tarot cards. And I have always found that the cards provide sound advice.The first thing that I tell my students is that I do not recommend using the Tarot to predict the future. From my experience with the Tarot and from observing how others use the cards I do not think that is what happens in a reading.
If we could use the cards to make true predictions they would be fated outcomes that we could not avoid. We find this type of prediction in numerous myths, like the myth of Oedipus in which the oracle tells Oedipus that he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Of course, his father and mother are unknown to him and no matter how he tries to avoid his fate, because he does not know who they are, in the end he fulfills the prediction. Tarot card readers do not make fated predictions like this. Even when they say they are predicting the future they make it clear that if something unpleasant is on the horizon the reader intends to help the client to avoid the problem.
Oedipus solving the riddle of the sphynx
Tarot card readings are actually an intuitive examination of the present. In the present we can perceive events that are starting to unfold and we can make informed decisions about how to handle them. But we can also examine the past or look into relationships we are having right now. I feel that the best use of the Tarot is to use the cards to access inner wisdom, a wiser self that I call the Higher Self. If we use the Tarot to access this inner wisdom it will help up to make better decisions in the present. Instead of predicting the future, we can use the cards to help us to create a better future.
This process works because everyone has intuition and the Tarot is a tool for developing intuition. When we shuffle and lay out the cards, they provide a visual story that we can interpret like a dream and we find that the story that we see in the cards has meaning for us or for a client.
Still, we may ask, how do we get the right series of cards to create our story by simply shuffling the cards? I am not sure, but it seems to me that when we are shuffling we are unconsciously organizing the deck so that our story will emerge when we cut the cards. I have found that the unconscious mind is actually more in control of our behavior throughout the day than the conscious mind, and as we said, in the unconscious we know things that we may not be consciously aware of. The cards help bring this information into consciousness. I have also found that the mind is capable of bringing forth information in a way that defies time and space. Because of this, I do not believe that the mind is physical. The brain is only a transmitter for the mind and the mind exists on a nonphysical plane. This is why intuition can exist and why we can use the Tarot as a tool for intuition.
Fortuna from The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery
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The pen and ink drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), depicting a man fitting his body into a circle and a square by adjusting the position of his arms and legs, is undoubtedly the most famous drawing in the world. I base this statement on the observation that this drawing is ubiquitous in modern society, from movies and books, to advertisements and logos for holistic enterprises. Few people, however, know its name or the mystical philosophy that it symbolizes. It is called Vitruvian Man.
Leonardo’s drawing called Vitruvian Man
The title of the drawing refers to Vitruvius, an ancient Roman architect who wrote a series of ten books on architecture, which was one of the few collections of books of its type that survived into the Renaissance. In the third volume, which is on the proportions of temples, Vitruvius states that these sacred buildings should be based on the proportions of man because the human body is the model of perfection. He justifies this by stating that the human body with arms and legs extended fits into the perfect geometric forms, the circle and the square.
This fragment of Pythagorean philosophy added credibility to the Renaissance belief that “man is the measure of all things,” and it seized the imagination of Renaissance artists and philosophers. Many artists tried to illustrate this divine relationship, but with varying success. An illustration of Vitruvian man by Cesariano in his Cosmo Vitruvius of 1521 reeks of failure. Cesariano drew a perfect circle and square tangent to each other at the four points of the square; then he forced a figure of a man into the design so that his hands and feet touch the points. The result was one of the most disproportioned figures of the Renaissance, with arms too long, legs too short, and hands and feet too big. A system of relationships alone did not make beauty happen.
Cesariano’s version of Vitruvian Man
It took the genius of Leonardo da Vinci to solve the problem. Leonardo started by drawing a perfectly proportioned man and then found the circle and square in the figure. The circle and square are only tangent at one place, the base. The thing that he added was beauty. I keep a copy of his illustration on the wall over my drawing table and refer to it as a guide for my own figures. I believe that beauty in itself is a greater mystical revelation than any system of symbols or correspondences, and I think that Leonardo shared this belief.
I have lived with Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man for many years now and it has taught me many things. It has been like having Leonardo as a teacher. You may be asking yourself, why was it so important to Renaissance artists and philosophers that a human body could fit into a circle and a square? As stated above, the idea that Vitruvius was expressing can be traced back to one of the most influential of the early Greek philosophers, Pythagoras. Pythagoras lived in the Greek colony of Croton, in Southern Italy in the 6thcentury, BCE, the same time that Buddha lived. Like Buddha, Pythagoras taught his male and female disciples that after death we are reborn, we live through many lives, and we are on an endless wheel of reincarnations until we purify ourselves and return to our divine source.
Purification included a vegetarian diet, moral behavior, meditation, and contemplation of the numerical abstractions that underlie reality. Pythagoras was the first person to call himself a philosopher, which means to love Sophia(wisdom). We have no writing that can be attributed to Pythagoras. Everything we know about him comes from other authors, particularly the biographies written by Neoplatonic authors in the 3rdand 4thcenturies CE. Yet from what we know, we can credit him as being one of a handful of people that were instrumental in creating Western culture. Because of the similarities between Pythagoras’s philosophy and the Orphic Mysteries, some historians theorize that if he did write anything it would have been poetry and he would have signed it Orpheus.
Mosaic depicting Orpheus charming animals with his lyre
Orpheus, the mythical, semi-divine musician, was credited as the founder of the first mystery cult, a religion based on a secret redemptive ritual. And as implied above, this religion is believed to be a major source for the Pythagorean teachings. Many followers of Orpheus were poets and musicians who believed that their inspiration came directly from Orpheus; hence, they would sign his name to their work.
In the Orphic creation myth, the beautiful god, Dionysus, was born of the incestuous union of Zeus and his daughter Persephone. Zeus’s wife, Hera, was jealous and wished to destroy the child. To accomplish this she had her allies, the Titans, dismember and devour him. Of course, Zeus was heart-broken and in a fit of anger, he burned the Titans to ash with a volley of lightning bolts. Only Dionysus’s heart remained, and from this, Zeus created a new Dionysus. However, from the ash of the Titans mixed with the devoured Dionysus, the human race was born. Therefore, the human race is part divine and beautiful like Dionysus and part vicious and material like the Titans. The purpose of the Orphic mystery was to redeem the Dionystic soul and make it the dominant influence in the lives of the devotees. This, of course, is similar to most mystical teachings and can be related to Hindu, Buddhist, Gnostic, and Hermetic beliefs.
Roman Relief depicting Dionysus
The Orphics, like the Pythagoreans, saw a connection between music and numerical order. This type of reasoning led to sacred geometry. Expanding on this logic, Pythagoras taught that geometric figures were powerful magical symbols. The circle, being connected to the sky and the cosmos, with seven spherical planets believed to be circling the earth, was a symbol of the divine Dionystic soul. The square is the natural way that humans relate to the physical world. We have a front and a back, a left and a right. This is why there are four directions, four seasons, and four classical elements. It is why my house has four sides and I am sitting on a four-legged chair while I write this on my square keyboard and read it on my square screen. The square became a symbol of the Titanic physical aspect.
The first step to the liberation of the soul is to recognize that we are made of both aspects. In Pythagorean thinking, if a human can be shown to fit into both symbols this would be a geometric proof of our dual nature. This belief was incorporated into alchemy, and other ancient disciplines where it was called “the squaring of the circle.” In Medieval art the squaring of the circle was symbolized by a hexagon or the octagon, and that is why these shapes were used to depict the Grail and in the construction of baptismal fountains.
In this way, the teaching was passed on to the Renaissance. In Venice around the year 1500, Leonardo, once again making use of the circle and the square, demonstrated geometrically that humans are composed of physical bodies containing a divine soul.
Although this bit of history helps to explain the main theme of Vitruvian Man, we have not yet completed our exploration of its symbols. As we said in the beginning, Leonardo was able to solve this problem by drawing a beautifully proportioned figure and then finding these truths within the figure. To understand this statement fully we have to understand the significance of ratios.
Besides the symbolism of geometric forms, the Pythagoreans believed that whole numbers are symbols equated to specific qualities as well as quantities: one represents unity, two polarity, three the beginning of form, etc. the most powerful way that numbers were seen to impact on reality, however, was as ratios. Ratios are relationships between numbers. For example, the number four has a 1:2 ratio to the number eight, because two fours can fit into eight. Six and nine have a 2:3 ratio. In this example the unit of measurement would be the number three, because two threes can fit into six and three threes into nine. Similarly, nine and twelve have a 3:4 ratio.
The Pythagoreans found that music could also be expressed as ratios, and that these three ratios were essential to its creation. The ratio 1:2 described the whole note, 2:3 the perfect fifth, and 3:4 the perfect forth. It seems that these ratios underlie all musical harmony. Every culture has to find these same notes and create their musical scale around them in order to have music. Beauty has this objective aspect as well as a subjective aspect.
Pythagoras believed that the universe was ordered in this same way. The Pythagoreans believed that the earth was a sphere in the center of the universe and that there were seven planets that circled the earth on a series of ascending crystal spheres, one inside the other, like the layers of an onion. The seven ancient planets are the ones that can be seen with the naked eye: Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Notice that the moon and the sun were considered planets and the earth was not. Pythagoras called the universe a “cosmos,” which meant that it was a beautiful, musical harmony. He believed that the ratios described by the speed and orbits of the planets could be expressed as musical notes and he used these note to create our Western diatonic music scale with its seven notes. This cosmic music scale has been called “the music of the spheres.”
Classical artists used ratios to develop the perfect figure, and like other Renaissance artists, Leonardo also used ratios. To make use of ratios, Leonardo had to find a way of measuring the figure by making use of relationships within the figure, not by measuring it with an external scale such as inches or any other external system. His unit of choice was the head. Leonardo’s figure has a one 1:8 ratio with its own head. In other words, it is eight heads tall.
You will notice that Vitruvian Man has dividing lines drawn on his body. There is a line at the chin that indicates the limit of the one head unit, a line at the nipples that marks the length of two heads, a line at the groin that marks four heads, a line below the knees that marks six heads, and the base line the marks eight heads. The base line forms the bottom of the square and the top rests on his head. Therefore, the square is eight heads tall as well. Notice that the man’s lower set of extended arms, the ones that are at a right angle to his body, touch the square on both sides. Because the width of a square is equal to its height, the length of the arms has to be eight heads as well. In other words, our extended arms are the same length as our body from head to toe. Try measuring you friends; you will find that this is true with only slight variations.
The vertical lines on the shoulders of Leonardo’s figure measure the two-head width of the torso at the shoulders; the line at the joint of each arm measures an additional one head in each direction; and then we jump another two heads on each side to the fingers and the sides of the square. The dividing line between the hand and the forearm, however, stems from a different unit of measure. This is called the “golden proportion.”
To explain the significance of the golden proportion it will be helpful if we first study the most sacred of the Pythagorean symbols, the Tetractys. The Tetractys is an arrangement of ten dots in a pyramid with one dot at the top and four at the bottom. To the Pythagoreans, it symbolized how the divine unity of the number One, at the top, emanated or gave birth to the physical world, symbolized by the number Four at the bottom. One way of describing this emanation, from the top down, was that the unity of One gave birth to the duality of Two and the dimension length. Two gave birth to a third, which created three points, and with this added dimension the possibility of creating a two-dimensional plan, having height and width. Then with a fourth point, three-dimensional reality could be created, the world of form with length, width, and depth.
The Pythagorean Tetractys
Now we are ready to discuss proportion. To the Pythagoreans, proportion described a relationship between two ratios. They noticed that there are three different levels of complexity of proportion and they correlated them to the bottom three layers of the Tetractys. At the bottom, the most complex proportion described a relationship of four items: A is to B as C is to D; 1:2 = 4:8. This was called “discontinuous proportion.” For example, a dog (A) is smaller than a man (B) like a horse (C)is smaller than an elephant (D). The next three-dot layer related to “continuous proportion,” which involved three items: A is to B as B is to C; 1:3 = 3:9. For example our dog (A) is related in size to a man (B) as the man (B) is related to the horse (C).
But the most sacred proportion involved two items, thereby drawing us back toward primal unity at the top of the Tetractys. This was called the golden proportion: A is to B as B is to A+B. In Vitruvian Man, the length of his hand (A) relates in size to his forearm (B) in the same way that his forearm (B) relates in size to the length of the entire arm, with forearm and hand combined (A+B). This is the golden proportion, and it can also be found the relationship between the fingers the palm as related to the entire hand and in the divisions of the leg and foot.
Leonardo then related these measurements to other parts of the figure. Notice how he conveniently shows us the man’s left foot in profile. He even places the heel in front of the big toe of the right foot so that we can see the full length. The length of the foot is the same as the length of the forearm, and the length of the hand is the measurement of the face, from the chin to the hairline. The face in turn is divided into thirds, which coincide with the eyebrows and the tip of the nose and is echoed in the length of the ears. However, the most important illustration of the golden portion is the division of the body at the navel. If we divide the figure at the navel into its two unequal parts, we find that the height of the first shorter part, from the top of the head to the navel (A), relates to the longer distance from the navel to the feet (B) in the same way that this length, from the navel to the feet (B), relates to the entire height of the figure (A+B).
If we divide the square in half we will find that the middle falls right at the line drawn through the groin. At the level of sexuality, we are centered in the physical. To find the center of the circle, the spiritual center, we have to move up to the navel, which is the place where we were connected to our mothers at birth, and now we see that it is also the golden division. To Renaissance philosophers, these insights offered further proof that all humans contain a divine spark and that even out physical bodies are based on divine proportions.
Click on this link to read my article
My Journey to the Alchemical Tarot
It was in the summer of 1987 when I first conceived of The Alchemical Tarot. I was studying an alchemical image that symbolized the Philosopher’s Stone. I had been studying alchemy for some time and I was well aware that the Stone was a mystical substance, whose creation was the central purpose of the alchemical quest, known as the Magnum Opus. Alchemists stipulated that the Stone is not actually a physical substance; it is “the stone that is not a stone. It is composed of a spiritual essence, known as the Anima Mundi. Although it is nonmaterial, the Stone has the power to transform any substance into its highest form. It can turn lead into gold; it can cure any illness; and it can transform an ordinary man or woman into an enlightened sage.
Because it is nonmaterial, alchemists created mystical diagrams, what we now call mandalas, to portray it. The image I was studying in 1987 depicted a heart, surrounded by a thorny wreath, and placed in the center of a cross. The cross framed images of the four elements, one to each corner. This type of mandala is called a quincunx.
Although I had seen images like this before, this time it was different. The image seemed to unlock a secret portal in my mind and in an instant I saw that it was symbolically interchangeable with the Tarot’s final trump, the World. In a flash, I realized that if the Tarot’s series of twenty-one trumps culminated in this image, which symbolized the Anima Mundi and could be linked to the final result of the Opus, then the whole series of cards could be correlated with this mystical quest. I then 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 The Alchemical Tarot, which was published by Thorsons in England, in 1995. The first edition of The Alchemical Tarot went out of print many years ago, but I regained the rights to publish the deck and I have published three newer editions. For each I made improvements in the drawings, the coloring, and the symbolism. The fourth edition, The Alchemical Tarot: Renewed, was published in 2015, it is still in print, and you can buy it through this website. I have now designed this fifth version. For this newer deck I have broken away from the initial drawings and redesigned the cards. Therefore, I have given it a new title.
My Newest Alchemical Deck
The Tarot of the Alchemical Magnum Opus began when I attempted to redesign The Alchemical Tarot in a simpler iconic form, something like the iconic images found in traditional oracle decks, such as the Lenormand oracle. I wanted to create simplified images that captured the essence of what each card was saying. While the original Alchemical Tarot images are strongly based on actual 17th century alchemical engravings, for this version I have created my own images expressing each of the alchemical processes in my own way.
I also waned to make a deck that could have been printed using wood blocks, like Renaissance cards. I used only four colors: black, white, blue, and red, each representing a separate wood block printed on a parchment background. (I found it necessary for the maintenance of alchemical symbolism to add yellow on three cards.) Because the colors each represent an area printed from a carved block, the colors are hard-edged without gradation. The black lines define the outlines and darkest areas and the blue and red areas act as medium tones that define the forms and textures. This simplified code for interpreting forms, like alchemy itself, can be traced back to ancient Greece. It is a cornerstone of Western art. What I also realized was that through this process I was distilling the symbols, paring them down to their essence. It was a work of alchemical art.
Just like my An Ukiyo-e Lenormand deck, these cards will be three inches by four inches with gold edges, and come with a small book. It will also have the same style two part cloth covered box, as in the photos below. These will be full 78 card Tarot decks.
The shipment of decks arrived on June 28
As of July 1st all preorders have been mailed out.
go to this web page to order the deck:
The Fool and the trumps each relate to an alchemical material or process, which is part of the Opus. The alchemical name appears on each card. The four minor suits are related to the four mundane elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. To delve more deeply into the symbolism I recommend my book, The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism. The cards are pictured below.
The Magnum Opus Cards
The Unnamed Card (the Fool) – This image of a joker represents the alchemist at the beginning of the Work – His ignorance is necessary for him to begin to learn – He is a naive beginner
I. Materia Prima (the Magician) – Hermes, the god of alchemy is the Matter of the Work, containing all four elements – He is the raw material that will become the Stone – He is the spiritual essence found in the material world
II. Priestess of Water (the High Priestess) – She begins the separation of the elements, called Dissolution – She is Water, esoteric spiritually, intuition, a secret, or something that cannot be spoken
III. White Queen (the Empress) – She continues the Dissolution and represents the element Earth, sensation, attraction, fertility, and the feminine principle
IV. Red King (the Emperor) – He is Air, thinking, intelligence, authority, and the masculine principle
V. Priest of Fire (the Hierophant) – He completes the Dissolution representing Fire and exoteric spiritually – He is Hermes Trismegistus, balance, and morality
VI. Conjunction (the Lovers) – The elements are recombined in the Minor Conjunction – Sex, at- traction, coming together, and partnership
VII. Sublimation (the Chariot) – The child of the Conjunction rises impetuously toward the goal – The three glyphs are Mercury, Salt, and Sulphur (the alchemical essences: spirit, body, and mind, and the parts of the chariot) – He is also speed and travel
VIII. Disposition (Justice) – This is the process of weighing – Truth, balance, justice, and the law
IX. Exultation (the Hermit) – Exultation or Exaltation is an enhancement like meditation – The alchemist is contained in the ouroboros (the serpent of time) rep- resenting solitude, inner guidance, and being alone
X. Circulation (the Wheel of Fortune) – The Fixed unwinged dragon swallows the tail of the Volatile winged dragon and is in turn swallowed – They are centered in the wheel of the elements: clockwise from the upper right, Water, Fire, Earth, Air – Fate, transformation, change
XI. Fermentation (Strength) – Above the lion of strength, the Sun and Moon pour their essences into the flaming heart, representing control through love, self control, and discipline
XII. Crucified Serpent (the Hanged Man) – Represents the process of Calcination, in which the serpent, who is Mercury, becomes a willing sacrifice – Suffering, loss, discomfort, illness
XIII. Putrefaction (Death) – This is the depth of the Nigredo, the first black stage of the Opus, symbolized by the raven – The end of anything, decay
XIV. Distillation (Temperance) – Distillation im- itates the natural processes of evaporation and pre- cipitation and is used to nurture the perfection of the Stone – Health, beauty, balance, art, timing
XV. Coagulation (the Devil) – The culmination of the Nigredo, vice, enslavement, addiction, bad habits
XVI. Greater Dissolution (the Tower) – This is a greater separation of the red and the white opposites and the beginning of the Albedo, the second white stage of the Opus – Breaking, separation, sudden change, expulsion, divine intervention, or a sudden insight
XVII. Baptism (the Star) – The Siren of the Phil- osophers, giving forth blood (suffering) and milk (nurturing), with the ladder of the planets above, represents purification and the peace beyond blood red fear and milk white hope – Calm, understanding, and ascent
XVIII. Lapis Albus (the Moon) – The Feminine Moon represents the White Stone that will become the Philosopher’s Stone when it is reddened – Rest, retreat, anticipation, preparation, and dreams
XIX. Greater Conjunction (the Sun) – The joining of the yellow Sun and the white Moon brings us into the Citrinitas, the third yellow stage of the Opus – Spiritual love, soul mates, marriage, en- lightenment
XX. Resurrection (Judgement) – Wheat growing from the skull symbolizes life from death – Re- juvenation, healing, removing blocks, recalling the past, judgment
XXI. Lapis Philosophorum (the World) – This is the Phliosopher’s Stone, the Red Elixir of healing, and the essential fifth element composed of the Anima Mundi (the Soul of the World) – The Good, an inner guide, the attainment of our goals
The Cards of the Minor Suits
I have always loved Japanese art, since I was first exposed to it in high school, especially the woodcut prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige, masters of the style known as Ukiyo-e, which means “the floating world” in Japanese. The use of strong lines to delineate the subject, the areas of flat colors with gradations in tone or transparency, and the compositional device of contrasting a landscape with a figure in the foreground have all influenced my own work. It seems I was in good company, because when Japan opened trade with the West in 1853, Japanese prints influenced many 19th century European and American artists.
The value of these prints was not recognized at first. They were brought to Europe by Dutch traders, who used them to pad the ceramics that they imported. The prints were then recycled as wrapping for cheese, and in this way they were introduced to French artiest, who liked cheese. Artists soon began collecting these prints and their innovative way of depicting the world seduced many artists. Included in this list are many famous names such as Manet, Whistler, Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, Klimt, Mucha, Beardsley, and the famous Tarot designer Pamela Colman Smith, who was exposed to Japanese prints by her teacher, Arthur Wesley Dow, when she studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in the 1890s.
One of our ceramic masks
Another ceramic mask
Like Colman Smith, I began collecting Japanese prints when I was in collage and have added to my collection over the years. My wife, Rose Ann, and I now have a collection of Japanese prints, cards, ceramics, masks, sculptures (mostly of the Bodhisattva Kannon), one hand-painted scroll, and a kitchen shrine with carvings of the gods Daikoku and Ibisu. We enjoy Japanese food; at times, I have worn a hipari and Rose Ann has worn a kimono. I studied both Zen philosophy and Karate. But until 2018, the closest we have gotten to Japan was Japan Town in San Francisco and in São Paulo, Brazil. Last autum after I was teaching my workshop in Beijing, Rose Ann and I finally got to Japan. Giselle, who organizes the workshop, also planed a trip to Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka. So Rose Ann and I joined her and a few of my students on a bus tour.
The Kitchen Gods Daikoku and Ibisu
A 19th century Ukiyo-e print from our collection
The first place that we visited in Kyoto was the Shinto shrine of the god of prosperity, Inari. Inari’s mesenger and protector is the fox, Kitsune, and there are statues of Kitsune in front of the temples and spread throughout the gardens. The sculpted foxes have various items in their mouths, most often a letter roled like a scroll, a key, or a small whip. Now the fox and all three of these items are some of the symbols included in the traditioal Lenormand oracle card deck. Looking back, I think it was here that I began to fantasize about making a Japanese themed Lenormand deck. But it was later when I was looking at a statue of the god Ibisu, who is the god of fish and also money, that I began thinking how it was odd that the Lenormand card, called the Fish, symbolizes money (something that many people find puzzling about the Lenormand meanings) and here in Japan I was finding the same link in symbolism. I began to work on a Japanese Lenormand in my imagination. By the time I was home, I was committed to completing the project.
Rose Ann on the Way to the Inari Shrine, Kyoto
Kido and Giselle on their way to the Inari Shrine, Kyoto
Rose Ann approached the shrine
Kitsune with a whip
Kitsune with a scroll
Kitsune with a key
Ibisu, the god of fish and money
Beside allowing me to explore the similarities and differences between Japanese and European symbolism, I realized that the deck would allow me to create my own version of Japanese art and my reinterpretation of the prints in my collection or other pieces. I decided to create the designs without borders on a background the color of rice paper. They have strong black lines, like a woodcut print and a limited pallet of colors. At the top left of each card there is an image of the European playing card that each card is correlated with. I decided to call the deck An Ukiyo-e Lenormand.
I was able to find Japanese images that related to all thirty-six of the Lenormand cards, but the Heart, the Ring, and the Cross, were the most challenging. Until modern times, the Japanese did not wear rings or have images in a heart shape. Also even today, there are very few Christians in Japan. These items all typify European culture but not Japanese. As you will see, I had to be creative with my interpretation for these cards.
This will be a deluxe edition with gold edged cards in a cloth covered box. The cards will be four inches by three inches. For the box, I decided to make one based on an antique deck in my collection. It is a design that I have not seen being used lately. It is in two parts, an open toped box that holds the cards and the little book, and a slip case that goes over the box, making it double thick. The box will be covered with cloth and a label goes on the front and the back. The book will not only contain the divinatory meanings for each card but discuss the significance of each symbol in Japanese culture. There will be references to Shinto gods (called kami), to Bodhisattvas, and other aspects of Japanese culture.
The box is based on the one from an antique Italian deck, but covered in cloth
These are photos of the first sample of the deck to arrive from the printer on 3/18/2019
The Label for the back
Here are the thirty-six cards with a description of each image.
Horses were first brought to Japan in the 6thcentury and were valued by the samurai class for their role in warfare.
Japanese clover is a flowering plant in the pea family that grows in East Asia. Detailed drawings of plants such as this are common in Japanese books containing artist sketches, known as manga. In the Tale of Genji,the clover is used as a metaphor for the season of autumn and the fading of life and love.
Being surrounded by water, boats and ships are essential to Japanese culture. Traditional Japanese boats are built by craftspeople, who follow designs that have been passed down for many generations. They are built of planks nailed together with hand-made square copper nails. The holes for the nails, therefore, cannot be drilled. They are cut into the plank with a chisel.
When Westerners were first allowed into Japan after 1853, they were amazed to see that Japanese houses have massive title or thatch roofs but thin walls made of paper stretched over wooden frames. There are no windows, but the paper walls are translucent and allow light to enter the house. The roofs are actually supported by a structure of heavy wooden beams that are expertly joined without the use of nails.
The Japanese red maple is native to East Asia. It is popular in Japanese gardens and art because of its graceful shape and its vivid red leaves in autumn. Red is a sacred protective color associated with the kami Inari, and with Amaterasu and her sun.
In Japanese art, influenced by Shintoism, clouds, represent the spirits of the dead. In Buddhism, in contrast with the traditional Lenormand meaning, they signify the Western Paradise where Buddhists hope to reside after death.
This image is based on a woodblock print by Hokusai (the most famous ukiyo-e artist) representing a snake with two melons. The snake is one of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac.
Emma-O is the god of the underworld. He holds the souls of the dead until it is time for them to be reborn.
Ikebana(flower arrangement) is one the traditional arts of Japan. It was first introduced in the 15thcentury by a Buddhist priest as an expression of the beauty of nature.
Daikoku is a combination Buddhist and Shinto deity. He is one of the Seven Lucky Gods. He is the god of the rice harvest, depicted standing on bags of rice, and he is, therefore, considered a god of prosperity and of the kitchen. He holds a wish-granting wooden mallet and, as a god of the harvest, the scythe would also be one of his tools.
Small whips like this one are depicted in the mouths of the Kitsune (fox) sculptures that guard the god Inari’s shrines. They signify that Kitsune is a protector.
Because of their love of nature, birds are a common theme in Japanese art. Originally ukiyo-e art mainly focused on depicting kabuki actors or beautiful women. It was Hokusai who popularized nature subjects, known as birds and flower pictures.
Known as the Golden Boy in English, Kintaro is a legendary hero, who was born with immense strength. He was an orphan, who was raised in the forest by Yama-Uba (mountain witch). His only friends were animals, and although he was a child, he used his ax for felling trees like an adult.
Kitsune is the messenger of the god Inari, the Shinto god (or kami) of rice and wealth. Kitsune is believed to ward off evil, which is in contrast with some of the traditional Lenormand meanings and with some of her roles in folklore. The fox spirit in Japanese folklore is a prolific shapeshifter, who often takes the form of beautiful young women, and attempts to seduce men for mere mischief or to consume their bodies or spirits.
Having learned the language of the animals, Kintaro befriended a bear, who became his servant.
In ancient Japan, the star Polaris was believed to be Amaatsu-Mikaboshi. He was an evil god, who represented the void of primordial darkness from which the universe emerged. He was constantly trying to recapture the world and bring it back into darkness. Being void, he had no other pictorial form. When Buddhism came to Japan he merged with the more benevolent Buddhist deity Ama-no-mi-naka-nushi (Divine Lord of the middle heavens), the god who rules over stars.
The Oriental stork is a native of East Asia. It resembles the European stork. In Japan, birds, in general, are believed to be able to interact with the kami.
This samurai hero with his faithful dog is based on a series of prints depicting the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac.
A pagoda is a tower (the traditional name for this card) with several tiers. It is found in China, Japan, and other parts of East Asia. It evolved from the Indian stupa, a funeral mound with a tower projecting from the top that became one of the central symbols of Buddhism. Buddhist stupas held relics and the structure itself became taller and leaner. It served as a symbol of the axis mundi, channeling Buddha Energy down to earth.
Shinto is considered a nature religion, in which the kami personify various aspects of the landscape. Therefore gardens are a natural component of Shinto shrines. Japanese gardens are also heavily influenced by Chinese Buddhist ideas, especially Zen aesthetic principles, such as simplicity, harmony with the natural landscape, and a preference for aged materials. Gardening is considered a high art, like painting or calligraphy. One common feature is the Japanese iris.
Mount Fuji was made famous by Hokusai’s series of woodcuts, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (which includes the Great Wave, the most famous work of Japanese art), and of Hiroshige’s series, One Hundred Views of Edo. These artists popularized the landscape as a subject in Ukiyo-e prints. They depicted the mountain in the background of their landscapes, using it as a symbol of the spiritual and eternal in contrast to the mundane world depicted in the foreground. We may, therefore, add this symbolism to the traditional meanings for this card.
Small statues of Jizo, like this one, can be found along paths and at crossroads throughout Japan. Jizo is a bodhisattva depicted as a monk with a shaved head. He holds a monk’s sounding staff (that rattles and warns away small creatures, who could be accidentally stepped on) and a wish-granting jewel. He is the protector of children (particularly the ghosts of dead children) and of travelers.
Mice are the natural predators of silkworms, which helps to explain the Japanese fondness for cats.
Kokoro, written at the top of this card in Japanese calligraphy, means heart, but also mind, emotions, and feelings, much the same as heart does in the West. The Western heart symbol did not exist in Japan until it was introduced in modern times. We can find this shape, however, in the bleeding heart flower, which is native to Japan.
Before the Meiji Restoration of Imperial power in 1868 rings were not common in Japan, but once the emperor decreed the adoption of Western dress, Japanese metalworkers began to apply their skills to designing Western jewelry.
With the help of his bear, Kintaro taught himself to read.
During the Edo period (the 18thand early 19thcenturies), 50% of males and 20% of women from all classes were literate. Today Japan is included among the most literate countries in the world. Japanese letters were rolled like a small scroll. They are often depicted in ukiyo-e prints and we find them depicted in the mouths of Kitsune at Inari shrines.
Like the gentleman depicted on the traditional Lenormand card, Japanese samurai were nobles who were expected to carry a sword.
A woman dances in a traditional Japanese kimono. Her fan, like the man’s sword, signifies her elevated social standing.
The lotus is an aquatic follower that is similar to the water lily (Lily is the traditional name for this card). In Buddhism, the lotus represents purity of body, mind, and spirit. Buddha and other deities are depicted sitting on a lotus. On the Jizo – The Path card, we can see that Jizo is standing on a lotus.
Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun and the principle Shinto kami. It was believed that the emperor was her descendant. Her necklace is made of hand-carved stone beads called magatama, a traditional design that stems from the earliest Jomon period (1,000 BCE).
Kannon is the bodhisattva known as Quan Yin in Chinese and the Goddess of Mercy in English. She is the most beloved of the Buddhist deities, and has miraculous powers to assist all those who appeal to her. She is also associated with the Moon and childbirth.
This is an antique Japanese key. It is often depicted in the mouth of Kitsune statues guarding Inari shrines. There is one in the mouth of the Kitsune on the Kitsune – The Fox card.
Ebisu is one of the Seven Lucky Gods. He is the god of fishermen and luck. Over time he also became the god of merchants and money. Just as in the traditional Lenormand card, fish and money are linked.
Traditional Japanese anchors are similar to their Western counterparts.
Family crests, called kamon, originated in the 11thcentury among the samurai class. They allowed the members of a clan to be identified during warfare. Today they are included on formal garments. When cloth is dyed for clothing, a resist is applied in the form of the crest so that the crest remains undyed. This kamon is called Nakagawake Kurusu (the cross of the Nakagawa clan).
I have a limited number of necks here right now the rest will be here by the end of May.
They are $30 each plus $8 shipping in the US, $25 for Canada, and $35 for all other countries.
If you are interested in ordering this deck email me at:
US customers may use this link to order: