by Christine Payne-Towler
for the Tarot Arkletters; September 2005
One of the ongoing controversies associated with the Tarot is whether or not the cards (the Trumps alone, or both Trumps and pips) partake in the esotericism or magical consciousness of the times in which they first appeared. Are modern users projecting our desire for magical and esoteric correlations onto the cards, or is it possible that the Triumphs were built with some inherent, interior worldview to which we have currently have lost the key?
Investigation into the cultural climate of the times unearths some amazing clues to the thinking of the 'cognoscenti' of the mid-1400's and the kinds of preoccupations that entertained them in the privacy of their homes and grounds. For a general overview, check out Jocelyn Godwin's The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance (Phanes Press, 2002). Godwin's focus is on "...a mood, a longing, and a hunger for a particular sort of beauty..."(p. 18), which drove and empowered the early-Renaissance imagination. There can be no doubt that this same mood and hunger was behind contemporaneous efforts to collate and catalogue the magical arts and arcane sciences inherited from antiquity, which are also strongly represented in his survey.
Godwin's focusing lens for study in this book is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, long seen as the single most recondite and arcane, puzzling and creative feats of the earliest publisher's art in Italy (first edition; 1499). To gain some slight insight into the implications of this monumental tome, let's turn to Liane Lefaivre's analysis of the Hypnerotomachia. Laying aside her theory about its ultimate authorship, we find this testimony from some of the book's earliest fans (p. 80 of Leon Battista Alberti's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili; MIT press, 1997):
"The Hypnerotomachia has never struck its readers as anything but hard to read. Its patron Leonardo Crasso wrote in his dedication to the first edition that its pages contain 'so much science that one would search in vain through all the ancient books [for its meaning] as is the case for many occult things of nature.'
In order to understand the work, Crasso continues, 'it is necessary to know Greek, Roman, Tuscan and the vernacular language,' as the author, 'an extremely wise man (vir sapientissimus), thought that this was the one way and reason to keep the ignorant from being able to impute his negligence.' Thus, he writes, the author 'devised his work so that only the wise may penetrate the sanctuary,' for 'these things are not for the populace, not to be recited on the street corners; they are drawn from the storehouses of philosophy and from the sources of the Muses, with the novelty of a language full of embellishments' (p. i). In the same vein, Jean Martin, who translated the first French edition of the book in 1546, declared in his preface, 'You may believe, Gentlemen, that under this fiction there are many hidden things that it is not legitimate to reveal."
My copy of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is the edition Jocelyn Godwin prepared with the help of Thames & Hudson in 1999. Representations of the original Italian edition can be found at http://mitpress.mit.edu/e-books/HP/hyp000.htm. It can be seen from the plates that illustrate the book that its overall thematic and artistic sensibility is strongly akin to the well-documented antiquarian slant of the early Renaissance, with figures that in some cases refer directly to subjects we see in the Tarot as well. E.g.
In another place I have written more about this work, but for the moment let's allow it to stand as one example of the Renaissance magician's body of sources that this article will cite.
Alongside this feat of the publisher's art we find another type of catalogue, rather lighter on mythopoetic and novelistic romanticism but much more solidly grounded in the operative instructions that govern the Hypnerotomachia’s endless rituals, processions, plaques, epigrams, works of architecture and art, etc. Two such magical catalogues (often called grimoires at the time) are now available in greatly improved formats. The first one raised for consideration here is The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage (mine's a Dover edition brought into English by S. L. Macgregor Mathers, published in 1975). [This can be found online at http://www.esotericarchives.com/abramelin/abramelin.htm]. Abramelin's Book, originally titled Cabala Mystica, was composed in Hebrew by Abraham Ben Simeon, who was both an alchemist and a magus in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century in Germany. It was translated out of the Hebrew into French in 1458, while a prior a German translation drops enough hints for us to derive a publication date of 1438 for it. From this we see that it pre-existed the first packs of Tarot cards that we currently know about.
The other grimoire I want to point out is Henry Cornelius Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy (mine's the recent Llewellyn edition edited and annotated by Donald Tyson.) [Selections from this can be seen at http://altreligion.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.esotericarchives.com%2Fagrippa%2Fhome.htm This was first published in 1531 (though written before the turn of that century), and was intended to be "...the most complete repository of pagan and neo-platonic magic ever compiled" (quote from the back cover).
Taking the Hypnerotomachia and the two named grimoires as testimony to the intellectual universe of magic and esotericism in the Quattro Centro, we can use them to grant us grounding and orientation in the imaginative universe that typifies Renaissance sensibilities. Between them we see multicultural mythology, alphabetarian and numerological mysticism, astrology, magical rituals and imagery, angelology, divination, seals, sigils, practical Cabbala, and alchemical instructions. However, of these three tomes, the two grimoires tend to be illustrated with graphs and tables more often than representations of human figures, whereas the Hypnerotomachia is as focused on architecture and details of the landscape as it is on representations of the characters enacting scenes from the story. Is there any other collection of magical/esoteric illustrations employing mostly human figures, made during the century that proposed and solidified the identities of the Trumps and reflecting similar subjects and themes as the Tarot trumps, which can therefore help us tie the figures of the Tarot both to the content of the grimoires, and to the mythopoetic dreamscape of the Hypnerotomachia?
Fortunately, there is, and we find this body of magical images illustrating the early medical and alchemical texts, which were also coming into existence and circulation as a result of the Renaissance revival of ancient knowledge. One of my favorite sources for very early imagery with Alchemical/Tarot implications is the book Paracelsus edited by Jolande Jacobi, #XXVIII in the Bollingen Series of Princeton University Press.
Paracelsus (1493 - 1541) was a well educated but ultimately self-taught healer with a magical reputation that made him suspect to clergy and physicians alike. This inconvenient fact kept him on the run, but also scattered his influence around Europe and amplified his reputation quite significantly. He combined astrology, herbalism, talismanic and ritual magic, herbs, music, scripture and lifestyle prescriptions to effect cures for his clients even when the "learned doctors" of the times were unable to do so. Reading his recipes, it is hard to distinguish the medicine from the magic, but from his reputation and his place in history, it is known that he was one of the first harbingers of the future sciences, in that he always insisted in learning "what works" no matter what the source (be it barber, midwife, herbalist, priest or conjurer.)
On P 120 of this collection of Paracelsian writings is a beautiful image of Cosmic Harmony. We see the naked Virgin of the World holding up an astrolabe, which makes a circle around her, and in the four corners are bundles of herbs, flowers, grains etc. That's by Albrecht Durer, entitled "Prognsticationen des Stabius", 1503. I love the concept of "prognostication" in the title (probably referring to astronomy/astrology due to the astrolabe she holds), but even without this hint, it is obvious that this image is a variant on The World card.
On p. 161 of the same book, there is an image called "True and False Wisdom". This one is fabulous! On the left is sitting Dame Fortune, blindfolded on her throne, holding the Wheel of Fortune with three little figures riding the Wheel -- one rising on the right, another one elevated at the top, the third being rotated down the other side, just like we are used to them in the Tarot. Across from her sits Virtue (also known as Prudence, a sometime replacement image for the Hanged One), who gazes at her reflection in a mirror studded with the images of the Seven Planetary Governors. The caption says (under the title), "The fool says, 'Thee, of fortune, we make into a goddess, we exalt thee to heaven.' The sage says, "Trust in virtue, fortune is more transitory than the waves.'" (From Liber de Intelletu,1510, woodcut by Carolus Bovillu).
Another fabulous image from here is the Hermit Pursued by the Devil, drawn by Urs Graf in 1512 (p. 188) This is exactly as described, showing the cowled hermit hurrying worriedly along, staff with crucifix at the top in one hand, rosary in the other. Right behind him, one cold hand on his shoulder, is one of those "erect and glad" old-style Devils, this one with a peg leg as well as an enormous phallic tail which wraps under and up in front, Immensely exaggerating the genital emphasis. Wow! What a dilemma!
One of my favorite collections of alchemical art is Alchemy; The Medieval Alchemists and Their Royal Art by Johannes Fabricius. (My edition is by Aquarian Press, 1989). Therein we can see several familiar figures which, set next to their respective Trumps, go a long way to demonstrating how the synthetic and esoteric sensibility of the times picks up themes from antiquity and evolves them in a way that both appears in/as the Trumps, and also evolves the Trump characters into the increasingly-proliferated alchemical imagery of the following century.
For example, (p. 89), an image of "The Lord Of The Forest." from the Book of Lambspring, a classic near-profile of the king on his throne, crossed orb and wand in hand. This is a larger vista than that shown in the Tarot card though. He sits in a raised dais, defining the Cube of Space, protected by the carapace of solid stone - a built environment with the dragon of nature under his feet - embodying the fortune of the city in the distance. He is "The great and glorious king on earth", says the accompanying poem. (Fabricius took it from Waite's Hermetic Museum.) See the Visconti Sforza Emperor and the Noblet Emperor.
On Page 55 is an image from Atalantia Fugiens by Michel Maier (1617), and I love this one because it actually has three Arcana implied in this. Fabricius labels it "Pursuing the imprints of the 'world soul' in a lunar night of bliss and terror”. The image is of an old man in glasses, with a staff and a lantern in his hand, follows the footsteps in the dust of a path illuminated by the light of the Moon. Ahead of him, walks the beautiful Virgin of the World, with a bouquet of flowers in one hand and a bunch of fruits and vegetables in the other. For reference view Noblet's World and Noblet's Moon.
On p. 102, in an illustration called "Infernal guardians around a royal marriage bed reeking with putrefying corpses", we see on one side of the bed/coffin (in which lie the Lovers, dead in each others arms), the classic Misera image from the Mantegna Tarot (old man with wooden leg) and on the other side, the Reaper just like in Tarot, scythe in hand. All he lacks is the red head-rag and loincloth. (by Johann Daniel Mylius, in his Philosophia reformata, 1622).
In past Tarot-related research, there has been a single-minded focus on finding the "original artistic models" of the Trumps somewhere in the artistic works of the Middle Ages. The implication is that an artist of the mid 1400's would not be able, by him- or herself, to envision and realize the Trumps without a precedent from previous generations. Taking Leonardo Crasso's quote as a backdrop, I submit that to be inscrutable enough to foil the curiosity of "the ignorant", such illustrations as we find in the Hypnerotomachia, the Tarot, and the many alchemical works of the era would need to be intricate enough to carry variations of detail that could distinguish the nuances of the ideas being transmitted.
This is very obvious in the collection of images from the Fabricius book, because there's at least three related images on every page, and the book runs into several hundred pages. Every pictured idea exists in multiple iterations, each one showing a different stage of the action, or introducing a new character, or in some other way indicating another transmutation between the characters as the mythic/alchemical action evolves. Modern Tarot researchers can look at a hundred variants of the Emperor Arcanum, proffered by a hundred different deck makers, and if the pictures were not totally deviated from the classic Arcana known from the first four hundred years of Tarot, we will still recognize them as the Emperor in one of his many forms. Why do we think the Renaissance Magi lacked this same capability?
Let me finish this little survey by quoting Raphael Patai’s excellent research in The Jewish Alchemists (Princeton University Press, 1994). His Chapter 23 highlights Johanan Alemanno (1435-1504), the Italian Jewish Cabbalist who introduced Pico della Mirandola to the Cabbala. On page 295, Patai says "...there is in the Sha'ar haHesheq a longer section in which alchemy is combined with the cabbalistic attribution of enormous secret power to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The basis of this combination seems to be the dual meaning of the Hebrew verb "l'saref", which means both 'to refine' and 'to combine'" Then on page 296, Patai describes Alemanno as "...this fifteenth century Italian Jewish scholar who was thoroughly at home in astrology, alchemy, and all the sciences, as well as in the cabbala, the power of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet....and also a serious scholar who had at his fingertips the entire Jewish literature of all the past ages and of his own time. We do not know whether he was an active alchemist, but from his writings it is clear that he knew alchemy and believed in it, and that it served for him as a kind of intellectual philosophers' clay that luted together the disparate elements of his scholarly and mystical comprehension."
This is a theme that one can easily find in modern books on Alchemy, (most notably in David Goddard's The Tower of Alchemy), that within the alchemical and magical instructions can be found a unifying thread of Cabbalism carrying through, webbing alchemy together with shared assumptions and processes either derived from or enhanced by links to Hebrew mysticism. Placed in context with the Hypnerotomachia, the grimoires, and various alchemical treatises on the bookshelves of the Renaissance Magi, it becomes clearer and clearer the way in which this compound "philosopher's clay", blended from alchemy, Cabbala, Number and Alphabet mysticism, esoteric Christianity, astrology, and ceremonial magic was employed to conceive and shape the Triumphs of Tarot.
Research: Esoteric Tarot, Literature and Practice;
Author: Divinatory text at Tarot.com
Author: The Underground Stream;
Bishop, Gnostic Church of St. Mary Magdalene
Founder: Tarot University;
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