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Tarot Symbolism, 1

May 29, 2014

By Tony Willis

This essay seeks to address the questions “To what extent were the earliest Tarot images symbolic?” and “What kind of symbolism did they contain?”

The answer to question number one is that the first Tarot Trumps known to us were entirely symbolic, that they continued the medieval practice of representing ideas as images. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the manner by which the Virtues that were adopted into the canon of Trumps were depicted. The first illustration below is of the Trump Temperance from a Tarot deck painted around 1480. The illustrations accompanying it are taken from the interiors and exteriors of various European churches and cathedrals. Most are paintings but one is a sculpture. They all show the Lady Temperance pouring water from one vessel into another, this key factor remaining unaltered over six centuries of ecclesiastical art. The chief, possibly the only difference between these representations is that Lady Temperance will be dressed in the fashion of the time at which the painting or sculpture was created.



But the image of Temperance is not a secret symbol. Nor is there anything esoteric about the images of Justice and Strength as they appear in fifteenth century Tarots. Any Italian, any Christian, looking at these Trumps would understand at once what was being symbolized. The same is true of all the remaining fifteenth century Trumps, though that fact is not so obvious, perhaps, to twenty-first century eyes.

For example, the Trump that was at first called The Pope (Trump 5) represents a generic pope. It is not a portrait of Callixtus III or Pius II or Paul II, all of whom were popes around the time the Trumps were devised. It is not a portrait of any previous pope; it is a symbol of what a pope – any pope – stands for, or should. It is an image conveying the idea of pope-hood or pope-ness. The first illustration in the second row below is from the same, circa 1480, deck as the Temperance card above. We can tell that the central figure is a pope because he is seated above two cardinals. The only prelate superior to a cardinal is a pope, and in medieval art, the way of demonstrating superiority was to seat the senior person at a higher level. This pope has in his hands two keys, though as he holds them close together one has to study the image carefully in order to ascertain that both are present. These are the keys promised to St Peter, the legendary first pope, by Jesus. According to Matthew 16:19, Jesus bestowed Simon Peter, notionally at least, with the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, pronouncing, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”. Wikipedia explains that Jesus’s statement “is understood in Roman Catholic theology as establishing two jurisdictions, Heaven and Earth; the silver and gold keys are said to represent these two jurisdictions. The silver key symbolises the power to bind and loose on Earth, and the gold key the power to bind and loose in Heaven (another interpretation says that the silver key represents “binding” and the golden key represents “loosing”).”

The first illustration on the first row below is from a deck of similar age to the image we have been looking at, or perhaps a little earlier. It shows a pope in the act of blessing. One can tell that this is a pope because he wears the triple crown, the use of which was the exclusive prerogative of the popes. A Catholic website reports that the triple crown represented, among other things: –

the pope’s triple roles as leader of worship, teacher and community leader

the pope’s powers and responsibilities: temporal, spiritual, and material

The pope in the first illustration below carries a Papal Staff topped by a cross. The photograph at the end of that row is of a recent pope also wearing the triple crown and holding a Papal Staff topped with a cross. The Tarot de Marseilles Pope (second illustration) duplicates much of the symbolism of the earlier representation: he is making a blessing and he is crowned with the triple tiara. The cardinals from the c. 1480 deck appear to have been reintroduced into the design, for one of the figures standing before the Holy Father has what looks like a cardinal’s hat hanging down his back. The papal staff of the Marseilles deck Pope ends in a triple cross. There is a historical background to this form of cross: besides the cruciform shape of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, there would have been a small bar lower down for the crucified person to rest his feet on. In Jesus’s case, the gospels tell us that in addition a notice was placed on the cross reading: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. The triple cross commemorates these features of the crucifixion story. It also repeats the symbolism of the papal triple crown.



The triple crown, the triple cross, the two keys and the crosier, or shepherd’s crook, are symbols of St Peter as first pope, and of all popes who come after him. They therefore make ideal significators of the concept of pope-hood, their imagery presenting almost a job description of what it means to be pope by alluding to his roles as priest, teacher and spiritual guide. But again none of these symbols are secret. They can be found adorning the interiors and exteriors of many religious buildings all over Europe and beyond. See the photograph above of a roundel from a stained glass window.

None of the three images of Tarot Popes shown above contain any secret, hidden or subversive symbolism any more than the fifteenth century representations of Justice, Strength and Temperance do. Nor do any of the other Trumps – the Emperor, the Devil, Judgment. The Trumps are replete with symbolism. We have seen that demonstrated in the two cards whose imagery has just been dissected. But it is an exoteric symbolism we were looking at, a symbolism that everyone at the time would have understood, symbolism no more threatening or outlandish than today’s road-signs – “No Parking”, “Road Narrows”, and so on – are to us.


The Tarot Trumps, then, started out as ideas figuratively represented. There was the idea of Death, the idea of the Devil, the idea of what is was to be an Emperor or a Pope. There was the idea of the Day of Judgment (Trump 20). Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) wrote a play, hardly ever performed now, called When We Dead Waken, proving that thoughts of what would happen on Judgment Day were alive and well in the collective unconscious of nineteenth century Europe. And as we have seen, the ideas conveyed to fifteenth century sensibilities by the words Justice, Strength and Temperance were depicted figuratively, also. At the time the Trumps were created, all the symbolism employed in their design was exoteric, most if not all of it elucidated by ecclesiastical literature. Over the course of six centuries, the exoteric symbolism of the church’s Cardinal Virtues, Justice, Strength, Prudence and Temperance, hardly changed in its essentials. But how have these images fared at the hands of occultists?

For the first three hundred years of its existence, the Tarot appears not to have attracted the attention of occultists. Then during the occult revival of the eighteen hundreds, it was brought center stage in its role as predictive medium and in its role of supposed repository of esoteric lore. The perfectly serviceable images of the Tarot de Marseilles were denounced as inaccurate. The Tarot was so ancient, occultists averred, that it was in fact the fabled Egyptian Book of Thoth, the pictures of which were devised by the god of wisdom himself. How could it be, the occultic train of thought continued, that these pictures would remain unaltered as they were passed down from generation to generation over a period of three thousand years? Inevitably, the thinking goes, they must have been subject to faulty reproduction at the hands of artists lacking sufficient instruction in matters esoteric to grasp the relevance of the original symbolism. As a result, when occultists began designing Tarot packs, they “rectified” the images. Oswald Wirth (first image below) gives Lady Temperance a pair of wings. In the Marseilles deck, Lady Temperance has what looks like a flower on her forehead. Wirth replaces this with a circle with a mark in its center that might represent a dimple. However, since a portion of the occult community had been for some time calling Trump 14 The Genius of the Sun, it is more likely that the symbol on Temperance’s brow is intended to represent the solar disc. Wirth adds a flower also, but on the ground to the left of the figure; there are no flowers on the fifteenth century renditions of Temperance.


How the symbolism has changed on the Waite-Smith Temperance! The wings and the solar symbol have been taken over from Wirth’s design. His flower is now specifically a pair of irises; and at this point the symbolism becomes esoteric. The iris flower is an oblique reference to the Greek goddess Iris, whose symbol is the rainbow. In his B.O.T.A. deck, Paul Foster Case, who follows Waite’s Trumps designs in a good many instances, dispenses with the irises on Trump 14, replacing them with a rainbow. Waite’s Temperance figure stands with one foot on earth, the other on water. In the folds below the neck of its robe the Hebrew four-letter name of God, Yod He Vau He, can be discerned. (More noticeable on the B.O.T.A. card.) On the figure’s breast is a triangle (3) within a square (4). Again, Paul Foster Case chooses to be more direct in his representation of the number Seven, and places a heptagram on the breast of his Genius of the Sun, for that is what the central figure has now been transformed into. On the Waite card, a pathway leads into the background of the picture, where a golden crown hangs in the air above mountain tops. Waite’s additions, insofar as they are indirect references, are occultic. The uninstructed person must look very hard to find the Tetragrammaton etched on the central figure’s robe. She must “understand” that the Three of the triangle is to be added to the Four of the square to obtain the sacred number Seven. She must make the connection between the iris flowers, the goddess Iris and the rainbow God sent as a sign to Noah when the flood would not be repeated.

If you are the kind of person who cannot rest until you know why the four-letter name of God was incorporated into the design of Trump 14, what the number Seven means in this context, and what the golden crown signifies, I refer you to Paul Foster Case’s book The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of All Ages. Case explains simply and without equivocation what each of the symbols on all his Tarot Trumps mean. Turn to his chapter on Temperance and your quest for enlightenment with regard to these points will be over.

But what a gap separates Case’s Temperance and Waite’s from the fifteen century versions of the card! Contrast the austerity of the latter with the repleteness of symbolism found in the former. And does the superabundance of symbolism alter in the slightest degree the meaning of the Trump? No. What it does do is add, by accretion, certain occult principles, bolting them on to Temperance’s innate properties of Moderation, Combination and Action tempered by Restraint. Bolted on? Yes. Look to the bottom right hand corner of the Wirth card. You will see a strange shape next to the card’s title. That shape is the Hebrew letter Nun. Wirth has it on the card because he belongs to an occult school that assigns this letter to Trump 14. Misters Waite and Case subscribe to a school of thought that assigns another letter, Samekh, to Trump 14. Although Waite does not allow the letter a place on his Temperance card, Case includes it. Again, it is to be found at the bottom right of the card, next to the title.

Almost every occultist I have ever met burns with a desire to link the Tarot Trumps with the Hebrew alphabet. Each have twenty-two components. Therefore, the logic goes, there must be a direct relation between the two. If a correspondence between the Trumps and the Hebrew letters exists, it is not easily discerned. I know at least three ways of making the association. Supporters of each method insist that theirs is the correct one, yet fail to convert opponents to their point of view. All three methods are alive and well and competing for adherents as I write. But if the Hebrew alphabet is put to one side, the Trumps still have a tale to tell, instruction to impart, spiritual truths to reveal.

From → tarot, tarot history

  1. Claire LaBrecque permalink

    Hi, I’d like to know where the stained glass with a Papal tiara comes from? Thanks in advance.

    • Sorry, Claire, I can’t help you. The image was picked up long ago on a Google search and there’s no record of where it is from.

      Tony Willis

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