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The Tarot Enigma





Despite the efforts of historians in recent years, much of Tarot symbolism from an academic perspective remains shrouded in mystery. Some say the Tarot was devised simply as a card game, and it is true that since its first appearance in Northern Italy in the early 1400’s the Tarot was used in this way. Inevitably it later also became fashionable as a means of fortune telling. Interpretations of a more fanciful nature were eventually placed on the cards by romantic occultists such as Court de Gebelin, Eliphas Levi and others like them. Their various theories have gone a long way towards shaping – or perhaps distorting - the development of the Tarot and influencing the way it is widely understood today.


The arrival of the Rider/Waite deck in the early part of the twentieth century created a template to which many later decks adhere. Apart from the pip cards having been given pictorial images, the Rider/Waite was the first to switch the position of the Justice (8) with the Strength card (11), hence the rhyme: ‘Arthur Edward Waite who changed eleven to eight’. The popularity of the New Age movement encouraged wider interest in the Tarot, resulting in a colossal variety of designs appearing, many of which conform to the Rider/Waite format and others more or less reflecting the personal whims and fantasies of the designer, thus altering the Tarot almost beyond recognition.


So is there such a thing as a standard Tarot deck, and if so, was its design intended to convey any specific spiritual or mystical meaning? To address these questions we need briefly to examine the cultural background from which the Tarot emerged. Scholars generally agree that the Tarot was a product of the Renaissance, a period in European history when long-established ecclesiastical dogma came under sustained questioning from more enlightened thinkers, many in support of Neoplatonic, Gnostic and Hermetic ideas and who would have been regarded by the Church as heretics. Some of the speculative ideas expounded in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code may be little more than fiction, but nonetheless it is not unlikely that the intelligentsia of the period, by using cleverly devised codes, attempted to conceal from the authorities ideas of a subversive nature. In fact, if one valued one’s life it would be imprudent to do otherwise. Concealing knowledge in codes, for a variety of reasons, is a practise that goes far back into history.


The Tarot imagery we recognise today was standardised quite early. In all probability, the arrival of what are called the Trump or Triumph cards were, at some point around the fifteenth century, incorporated into a standard-style four-suit deck of playing cards consisting of Clubs, Swords, Coins and Cups. The Tarot in fact is a hybridised system. What was the reason for such an addition?  At this point research becomes speculative, which is why academics without recourse to verifiable independent evidence reject outright the possibility that a person, or persons unknown, with a view to circulating potentially subversive ideas may have attached the Trumps to a supposedly innocent set of playing cards. One can hardly blame academia for its blind spots; after all, it can only deal with the evidence as presented. But if the Tarot is an ingenious method of concealing information from the eyes of the vulgar then it has largely been successful in guarding its secrets - unless one approaches it with that particular possibility in mind. Let’s look at the only reliable and available information handed down to us – the Tarot itself; in particular the various decks that more faithfully conform to the earliest designs and which are known generically as the Marseilles Tarot.


In the Marseilles, like all other traditional style decks, the numbers four and ten are of specific significance. Pythagoras regarded four as a mystical number because the sum of the first four numerals amount to ten, which is a higher vibration of number one. Ten continues the sequence to produce all other numbers. From a mystical perspective, therefore, four contains within its essence the vibration of every other number ad infinitum.  Pythagoras demonstrated the relationship between 4 and 10 in the Sacred Tetraktys, a diagram consisting of 10 dots arranged in the form of a pyramid: top, 1 dot, second row 2 dots, third row 3 dots, and bottom row 4 dots. This relationship between 4 and 10 underpins the mystery of the Tarot. Even a casual examination of the pip cards will reveal that there are four suits, and that each suit contains 10 cards plus 4 Court cards. It seems rational to assume that whoever added the Trump cards to a standard 4-suit deck did so not for arbitrary reasons, but because he or she was intent in cleverly concealing something important from the eyes of the profane.


But before we can understand the significance of these numbers in relation to the Trump cards, we first of all need to examine the puzzling origin of the name Tarot in connection with the Marseilles deck. In Italy, where the Tarot originated, the cards were called Tarrochi. The French, however, curiously renamed them Tarot. Many theories have been devised to account for such a word, none of which cuts any ice with sceptical academics.


Part of an eleventh century floor mosaic in the parish church of Pieve Terzagni near Crotona features what is known as a magic square. The version depicted there is a SATOR/AREPO square, which was prevalent as far back as the 6th century and possibly long before. The square is reproduced below:


S  A  T  O  R
A  R  E  P  O
T  E  N  E   T
O  P  E  R  A
R  O  T  A  S


This square, along with other varieties, was well known throughout Europe during the Renaissance and what is significant about it, apart from the fact that SATOR/AREPO when reversed produces the words ROTAS/OPERA, is the word TENET forming a cross in the centre of the square. The cross is an ancient symbol long pre-dating Christianity, of which the earliest types consisted of four arms of equal length and often represented the four points of the compass. Reading the word TENET forwards or backwards starting from each T, the word ten appears four times. However, as this word derives from Old English it is unlikely that the palindrome TENET has any connection with number ten in this context. In modern usage, the word tenet means dogma or doctrine and appears to be derived from the Latin word ‘tenere’, meaning ‘to hold’.


Two possibilities present themselves: the word TENET may allude to ‘holding or subscribing to a particular dogma’, or on the other hand it is the letters themselves that are of significance. The latter is the more likely explanation in view of the fact that the letters present in the square form the words PATER NOSTER, which is Latin for the first two words in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Our Father’. PATER NOSTER is sometimes depicted in the form of a cross, the letter N appearing in the centre. The SATOR/AREPO square may be a subtle way of stating that ‘God is our Father’.   Let us now examine a similar magic square:      


R  O  T  A  R
A      A      O
T  A  R  O  T
O      O      A
R  A  T  O  R


Like the SATOR/AREPO, the above square also contains the words ROTA. Travelling clockwise around the border of the square, ROTA appears four times and commencing from each letter T in the same direction so too does the word TAROT. Deriving the word TAROT in this way from ROTA employs Notarikon, a Cabbalistic method by which certain letters, such as initials or other letters of any given word or series of words, creates an entirely new word. As such it is a useful cryptographic device. But also like the SATOR/AREPO, two words form a cross in the centre; the words are TAROT. In spite of academic scepticism, the evidence here suggests that the word TAROT is most likely derived from the Latin word ROTA, meaning ‘wheel’.


Before we move on to explore the numerical relationship between the Trump cards and its symbolism, it is of interest to point out that all the T letters in both the SATOR/AREPO and ROTA/TAROT squares are bordered by the letters AO, which represent the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet: Alpha and Omega. In the Book of Revelation we read: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, saith the Lord”. The relationship between beginning and end is alluded to in the title Trumps, which is a derivation of the word triumph and in Medieval Europe associated with a procession. It seems likely from this that the Trump cards symbolise a type of process with a specific starting point and conclusion, possibly of an initiatory or mystical nature.


Much debate has centred on the position of The Fool card in the procession, owing to the fact that it is un-numbered. However, its position must be at the beginning and the reason for this will become apparent in due course. A cardinal mistake generally made by both academics and many commentators when seeking to make sense of the Tarot is in assuming that the connection between one Trump card and another is dependent on the order by which the cards are numbered chronologically. A similar error led to the assumption by nineteenth century occultists that because there are 22 Trump cards, then it must follow that the cards are intended to correspond to the 22 paths on the Tree of Life. In this way the Tarot became erroneously linked directly to the Cabbala, and remains so in most occult quarters to the present day.


The reason why there are 22 Trump cards is much more likely to be based on the numbers 4 and 10, as expressed in the pip cards. The Trump cards are actually comprised of 2 sets of 10 rotating cards, along with 2 axis cards, which are The Wheel of Fortune 10 and The World 21. These two cards appear in the middle and together reduce to 4: 10 plus 21 = 31, and 3 plus 1 = 4. Those familiar with the Rider/Waite and other modern decks will know that a lemniscate appears above the head of The Magician and also above the head of the female depicted in the Strength card. Looking like a figure 8 on its side, the lemniscate was introduced as a mathematical symbol for infinity by John Wallis in the seventeenth century.   In all probability Wallis, being a Freemason, derived the lemniscate from similar and more ancient signs symbolising eternity or infinity. One such sign is the letter ‘S’ and this graphism appeared in many ancient cultures. Its serpentine shape was often incorporated into amulets. In the Marseille and other traditional decks the same S shape is found encircling the two discs in the card entitled the Two of Coins and is also alluded to in the shape of hat brims depicted in some of the Trump cards. This symbolism is highly significant because it seems to convey in a thinly disguised fashion the method of laying out the Trump cards to reveal specific and possibly subversive ideas. Commencing with The Fool, the first 10 cards are laid out clockwise in a circle:


0 The Fool; 1 The Magician; 2 The Papess; 3 The Empress; 4 The Emperor; 5 The Pope; 6 The Lovers; 7 The Chariot; 8 Justice, and 9 The Hermit.


The second circle is a continuation of the first, following an anticlockwise pattern, and comprised of the following 10 cards:


11 Strength; 12 The Hanged Man; 13 Death; 14 Temperance; 15 The Devil; 16 The Tower; 17 The Star; 18 The Moon; 19 The Sun, and 20 Judgement.


Following on from card 9 is The Wheel of Fortune 10, the first axis card. This circle ends with the Judgement card and following on from that is the second axis card, The World, which crosses the Wheel of Fortune in the middle. The result is that all 22 cards assume the shape of a lemniscate, or a continuous figure of eight. The central feature of this serpentine arrangement is that each of the 10 cards in the first circle corresponds to each of the 10 cards in the same position in the adjoining circle. In other words, by inverting the lemniscate the cards sharing the same position are complementary. The following list shows the pairings of all 22 cards:


0 The Fool               20 Judgement
1 The Magician       19 The Sun
2 The Papess          18 The Moon
3 The Empress        17 The Star
4 The Emperor        16 The Tower
5 The Pope             15 The Devil
6 The Lovers           14 Temperance
7 The Chariot          13 Death
8 Justice                 12 The Hanged Man
9 The Hermit           11 Strength


The axis cards, 10 The Wheel of Fortune/ 21 The World, together reduce to 4: 1+0+2+1=4.


  The number 4 equates to the temporal plane, which is why in astrology 4 is associated with the Fixed Earth sign of Taurus. Both axis cards also share circular symbolism. In an article of this length one can only examine briefly what the Tarot designer, or designers, may have encoded in the pictorial and numerological symbolism. In view of the fact that the Tarot is a product of a predominantly Christian culture, much of the symbolism clearly reflects that background.


The process begins with The Fool whose values are at odds with those of the degenerate world. In the words of St. Paul: ‘If any man among you seems to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise’ (1Cor.3: 18). The purpose of the fool is to chart a course through each of the Tarot symbols, challenging as he goes the false values of mankind and acquiring wisdom in the process. When his quest is over the Fool will have achieved gnosis and can confidently face the final judgement.

The Magician card equates to the Sun and according to Pythagoras, symbolises the active and masculine principle.

The Papess card, on the other hand, symbolises the Feminine Principle and equates to the passive and mysterious attributes of the Moon. It would seem that the Tarot inventor attached great importance to the Sacred Feminine and probably took the view that the head of the Church should be a woman rather than a man. This possibility is given weight by the fact that a certain young woman from Milan called Maifreda di Pirovano was an ancestor of Bianca Visconti Sforza who commissioned the painting of the earliest Tarot deck, known as the Visconti Sforza Tarot. Near the end of the thirteenth century Maifreda had actually been elected by a certain female cult of Christians to replace the pope.

The followers of a woman called Guglielma of Bohemia founded this cult around 1260, but when Guglielma died in 1281 many of her followers came to believe that she would return in the form of the Holy Spirit to crown the first papesse, or female pope. Consequently, in 1300 the Guglielmite sect, with the support of many wealthy Lombardy families, elected Maifreda to be head of the Church. Unfortunately, but hardly surprisingly, the patriarchal Church took a very dim view of such a plan and Maifreda, along with several other members of the Guglielmites, was arrested and burned at the stake the very same year. The earthly remains of Guglielma were disinterred and also burned. The general view is that the Guglielmite sect also died with Maifreda and her faithful followers in 1300. But one can never be absolutely sure.

There were many influential supporters of Guglielma and Maifreda still alive after the execution and many take the view that the depiction of a papesse figure in the Visconti Tarot deck was in commemoration of Maifreda. If that’s the case then we’re entitled to ask if Tarot imagery was intended from the very beginning to conceal subversive ideas. This possibility is given further support by evidence in the Gnostic gospels that Jesus regarded Mary Magdalene, traditionally and wrongly denigrated by the Church as a prostitute, as a most important member of Jesus’ entourage. The canonical gospels also reinforce, albeit in a rather understated manner, Mary Magdalene’s unique importance by informing us that she, rather than any of the male disciples, was the first person to witness the risen Christ.


The Empress, on the other hand, symbolises the earthy, sexual and fertile qualities of womanhood and therefore is associated with Venus the goddess of love. Consequently The Empress equates to The Star, which in fact is the planet Venus, otherwise known as the morning star, identified with Lucifer the Light-bringer, and incorrectly, according to orthodox Christian teachings, identified with Satan.


The Emperor equates to The Tower, otherwise referred to as the Blasted Tower. It is a warning against falling victim to hubris, which inevitably is followed by nemesis, indicating that worldly power and empire building only exist by permission of the gods. Should the gods so choose, then power will dramatically be taken away and that which has been constructed by the hand of man, destroyed from above. It may be significant here to note that Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, was singularly responsible for consolidating the various Christian sects to form the Established Church, the same Church that eventually declared war on other Christian groups that refused to conform to its assumed authority and dogma. The Emperor card might symbolise tyranny in general, but it could equally allude to Constantine in particular. If so, then the pairing of the following two cards makes perfect sense.  


The Pope equates to The Devil and these two cards together clearly suggest subversive and heretical ideas. Most Renaissance intellectuals were contemptuous of the Established Church and, like the Gnostics before them, perceived it as politically and spiritually corrupt and guilty also of promulgating false doctrines. The bible tells us that the Devil can transform himself into an angel of light, which means being able to assume the disguise of a spiritual leader to fool the Faithful.


The Lovers card refers to choice, not necessarily of a sexual nature, and equates to the Temperance card. These two cards together symbolise moderation and balance in all things and the importance of making wise decisions in the face of temptation.


The Chariot clearly alludes to Phaeton from Greek mythology. Against the better judgement of Apollo, Phaeton insisted in taking control of the sun chariot and attempted to steer it through the heavens. Unfortunately Phaeton lacked the necessary skill and failed to keep an even and steady course. The result was that the earth was scorched. Zeus, known to the Romans as Jupiter, finally intervened by hurling a thunderbolt at the chariot and Phaeton fell to his death, which is why The Chariot card equates to Death. It is interesting to point out that the only two Tarot cards named after man-made creations, The Tower and The Chariot, relate to death and destruction. Both cards vibrate to 7, the number traditionally identified with mystery and unseen forces.


The Justice card equates to The Hanged Man, the latter being the most enigmatic and mysterious of all the Trump cards. Various interpretations exist to explain the curious symbolism of a man suspended upside down by one foot, many of them fanciful and derived from nineteenth century occult theories and Masonic symbolism. Card 12 shows a man suspended by his left foot, his right leg placed behind his left in the form of a cross. One theory identifies The Hanged Man with Judas Iscariot who the NT says committed suicide by hanging himself after having betrayed Jesus. However, the fact that the Tarot imagery shows the man hanging upside down may relate instead to Peter who, according to tradition, was martyred by being crucified upside down. According to Roman Catholicism, Peter is the rock upon which Jesus built the Church. (Matt. 16:18,19). The Gnostic gospels, however, reveal much hostility between Peter and Mary Magdalene, the former expressing in chauvinistic terms his distrust and dislike of the woman that many regarded as the legitimate successor to Jesus as leader of the Church. Equating The Hanged Man with the Justice card may have been an attempt by the Tarot designer to show that justice will prevail and that the Church built upon Peter will one day suffer the same fate as The Tower, which as a construction of man rather than God will eventually be destroyed.


The Hermit equates to Strength, the former symbolising withdrawal from the world and a rejection of its values, and the latter symbolising an alternative power to brute force and ignorance. Each card in its own way expresses the necessity to embrace foolishness, which means the challenging of conventional ideas to attain truth and wisdom. The Hermit depicts a male figure adopting a passive feminine response by withdrawing from the world, whilst the Strength card depicts a female exercising control in a gentle way over a type of animal that most individuals assume can only be controlled by masculine aggression. In this sense both cards are a paradox. But the journey through the Tarot is, in itself, a paradox; the moment we think we have arrived we find ourselves back at the starting post.