Egypt in the pre-Gebelin tarot

This thread is intended to be a place to explore how Egypt can be found in the historical tarot before de Gebelin in 1781. I seems to me there are two main ways: (1) details in the tarot changed over time, or were selected from earlier imagery to the exclusion of other imagery for the same subject,, in a way that makes its images amenable to an Egyptian interpretation, based on what was known or said about Egypt at the time of viewing; and (2) details that can be seen as related to Egypt in some way, whether or not they are there by the intention of the designer. My main focus will be on (1).

Let me make it clear from the outset that it is extremely implausible to suppose that the tarot sequence (the 21 triumphs plus the Fool) originated in ancient Egypt or in any Egyptian-inspired cult elsewhere in Greco-Roman times. While some individual subjects can be related to ancient Egypt well enough, no sequence of images even remotely resembling the tarot sequence has been found in any temple, tomb, or papyrus in Egypt or any walls or pillars of any temple, basement, or tablet devoted to Egyptian gods or their syncratic equivalents in Roman times. I am talking about the particular combination of images and ideas that make up the 22 tarot images, or some significant part of them, not isolated images and concepts in isolation. The tarot is above all a set of images or ideas. That sequence, or at least that part of it preserved in the earliest known cards, is far more plausibly related to the images and literature of pre-15th century Italy, of Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Dante, as well as some of the most common imagery of the medieval Church: in particular the "Triumphs" of Petrarch and the seven virtues of the Church. The other cards also depict common features of medieval Italian life and ideas.

The first person who first speculated in print on an Egyptian origin seems, to have been Court de Gebelin in 1781, over three centuries after the tarot appeared in Northern Italy, based on the tarot of his time. But even if someone had speculated earlier in some document about an Egyptian origin, that would not in itself by evidence of such origin, but rather of someone's theory about the tarot. However that does not preclude a relationship between the mythology of Egypt and the tarot as it existed before de Gebelin.

Similarly, the contrary, the lack of such speculation in extant documents before de Gebelin, does not in itself preclude that the fantasy of Egypt affected the imagery of the tarot and its interpretation. People did not write analyses of the symbolism of details in works of art, much less playing cards, except sometimes in so far as they illustrated some tenet or other of the Christian faith. Thus, for example, there is no account in the early centuries of the specific imagery in Botticelli's "Primavera" or even of the details in the six Petrarchan triumphs that were painted over and over again in manuscripts and wedding chests, most of which Petrarch didn't even mention. People still didn't write much about the symbolism in playing cards, even in the early 18th century. I want to make it clear that I am only talking about details, not the general themes (Love, Time, Death, etc.), which were of course written down in numerous places by around 1500.

In this post I will give one example of what I mean, namely the sphinx at the top of the Wheel of Fortune. It seems to me obvious and something that has been pointed out often, although usually in connection with Eliphas Levi's other creatures, Hermanubis and Typhon (which I do not claim to find in the dog- or donkey-like and monkey--like creatures to the right and left of the sphinx).

In the Tarot de Marseille I (Tarot of Marseille, style I) of Noblet (below left), 1660s, the Wheel of Fortune has a king on top, pure and simple (the banner could be taken as suggesting wings; but without further attributes it is not). In Chosson (below right, from either 1672 or the 1430s, but seen also in the Madenie of 1708, not shown), that same king is most reasonably seen as having the face of a man and the body of a lion, which is what defines the Egyptian sphinx.
Such a characterization may be seen in Clement of Alexandria, in the section of his Stomata entitled "Egyptian Symbols and Enigmas of Sacred Things" and so not hard to notice (Book V Ch. 7 at
Besides, the lion is with them the symbol of strength and prowess, as the ox clearly is of the earth itself, and husbandry and food, and the horse of fortitude and confidence; while, on the other hand, the sphinx, of strength combined with intelligence— as it had a body entirely that of a lion, and the face of a man.
The change from king to sphinx, I submit, was meant as a deliberate reference to the sphinxes of Egypt, not only the Great Sphinx (of which only the head was above ground) but the smaller sphinxes that lines the approaches to temples. Given that the lion was popularly seen as the king of beasts, it a fitting image for one who has the power to raise his subjects up and throw them down. Moreover, it has a little goatee reminiscent of the false beards put on statues and reliefs of gods and pharaohs.

It is also not a Greek sphinx, because that one had the head of a woman and was not a king; nor did the Greek sphinx. Yet it does obliquely suggest the Greek sphinx, by association, by the banner behind suggesting wings, and its symbolic appropriateness, given the traditional interpretation of the card. In particular what fits is the famous sphinx of Oedipus, who while granting him the throne of Thebes thanks to his solving her riddle, also led him into her trap, that of marrying his mother, the seed of his downfall. Hence the falling figure on the 15th and 16th century Italian cards (below, 16th century Ferrarese, 1440s Brera-Brambilla, 1450s PMB), wiser than his upward counterpart, as indicated by his humanoid head, continuing in that respect the tradition in which the one aspiring to reign had an ass's head, and the one descending had only an ass's hindquarters. (The one on top as a complete ass--as opposed to a figure whose actions are sometimes enigmatic-- would not have been looked upon with favor in the age of French absolutism.)
I do not exclude the possibility of animals in other TdMs before the standard Tarot de Marseille II, having a monkey on top, or a cross between a king and a donkey--even the Noblet has a trace of that, in the King's left leg--or some other animal. It is usually fairly vague what animal it might be; I know that the Payen is sometimes seen as the baboon of Thoth ( ... ortvne.png), but that is too much of a stretch for me.

The Tarot de Marseille II figure is also clearly not a cat (as in the Egyptian cat-god), except perhaps in the Payen or in the sense of the genus "big cat". Yet in that latter sense people might have related what Plutarch said about Isis's sistrum (even though the top of a sistrum is not a wheel either), if only because it fits the by then standard theme of the card (On Isis and Osiris section 63, at ... is*/D.html):
The upper part of the sistrum is circular and its circumference contains the four things that are shaken; for that part of the world which undergoes reproduction and destruction is contained underneath the orb of the moon, and all things in it are subjected to motion and to change through the four elements: fire, earth, water, and air. At the top of the circumference of the sistrum they construct the figure of a cat with a human face, and at the bottom, below the things that are shaken, the face of Isis on one side, and on the other the face of Nephthys. By these faces they symbolize birth and death, for these are the changes and movements of the elements; and by the cat they symbolize the moon because of the varied colouring, nocturnal activity, and fecundity of the animal. ... By the human features of the cat is indicated the intelligence and the reason that guides the changes of the moon.
Nephthys was sometimes called "End" (Plutarch sect. 59), because she was identified with that part of the land that borders the sea (sect. 38), the sea being her husband Typhon (sect. 33). With birth at the bottom right of the card, the course upward, counter-clockwise, is of the young person seeking recognition. With death on the bottom of the other side, that side is the downward course toward obscurity and death after whatever recognition one has received.

Such an interpretation would be supported further by the image of the sun dial, whose pointer goes at least half way around a circle from dawn to dusk and which can be presumed to have been omnipresent in Egypt, as a land of sunshine. Both this and the association to the Plutarch passage just quoted are very secondary associations to Egypt, of the second type that I characterized initially (those probably unintended by the card designer); that of the sphinx is of the first type.

From Plutarch's interpretation it is then not a large jump to that of Eliphas Levi in 1856, in which Plutarch's Isis becomes Hermanubis and the Good Daemon, Nephthys her husband Typhon and the Evil Daemon, and the sphinx an image of God, which sends evil downward and elevates the good, a version of what Clement said about the Egyptian sphinx, at the end of the chapter already cited:
Therefore also the Egyptians place Sphinxes before their temples, to signify that the doctrine respecting God is enigmatical and obscure; perhaps also that we ought both to love and fear the Divine Being: to love Him as gentle and benign to the pious; to fear Him as inexorably just to the impious; for the sphinx shows the image of a wild beast and of a man together.
Of course kings in this world were meant to be seen, in 17th century France, as representatives of the divine in both functions.

My general theme at this point is changes in the tarot sequence from the time of the Tarot de Marseille I of Noblet, i.e. around 1660, to the TdM2 of Chosson/Madenie up to Conver 1761, that reflect ways Egypt was imagined then. In the Wheel the sphinx is primary, the course of life from birth to death secondary. I have similar examples in other cards, but I will stop here, in case people have other comments on changes in the Wheel from c.1660 to c.1760 in relation to how people, at least educated people, in France imagined Egypt then.

Re: Egypt in the pre-Gebelin tarot: Devil & Death

I want to draw attention to a couple of other changes from Noblet to to the Tarot de Marseille II, in the Devil and Death cards.

In the Devil card, the customary pitchfork or trident, used to capture souls, has become a torch, an instrument for seeing in the dark. Below are the Cary sheet c. 1500, Noblet c. 1660s, Conver 1761).

The earliest instance of that torch that I have found is in the frontispiece of a 1618 alchemical work by Michael Maier, reproduced tions in de Rola's Golden Game, of "Typhon". I will give the top half.
You can see the characteristic Devil-breasts on Typhon, in Plutarch merely male, and the face on the abdomen, more animal-like than the one on the pre-Tarot de Marseille II Devil card, because of the ears. Possibly he had in mind Plutarch's cat at the top of the Wheel, now a chaser of little animals. In any event, de Gebelin was not the first to associate the image of the Christian devil with the Typhon of Plutarch's On Isis and Osiris, there the evil principle par excellence.

What is the significance of the torch? It brings to mind Plato's image of the fire in the cave, by which cut-out images are projected onto the cave wall, images of images of real things, seen by the prisoners as the things themselves. This is a Greek image, but since it had been asserted often that Plato was instructed by Egyptian priests, it may have been thought of as Egyptian as well. It also suggests the torch of nocturnal or underground initiations, illuminating truths hitherto unseen, in this case, the Tarot de Marseille card, the chains binding the prisoners below. One must first become aware of one's shackles before casting them off.

Notice also Isis's water bucket, evidently to douse the torch, a depontentiation of Typhon, whose torch is by then no longer needed. This act associates her with the zodiacal sign of Aquarius that we see on the Star card, a card now, if not before, to be associated with Isis herself. (I will say more about that association in another post, as it seems to be rather older than the Tarot de Marseille II. For now I will confine myself to the Devil,) The stars, however dimly, at least reveal objects beyond the cave. Osiris may also be in the sequence implied by the frontispiece, a character whose earthly glory is to be seen earler in the sequence, if we read left to right.

In this frontispiece the phrase "Egyptian-Greco" is important. Greece is merely Egypt as preserved in the ancient Greek and Latin texts.

Another likely influence on the Tarot de Marseille is the tradition represented in Maier's emblem in the Atalanta Fugiens, for which the motto is, "By treachery, Typhon slays Osiris and scatters his limbs abroad, but majestic Isis reassembles them."
In the tarot, instead of a reaper and his victims, the grass takes on the shape of hands in the Tarot de Marseille of Noblet, and by the Tarot de Marseille II actual hands, feet, and heads, rise up out of the earth, suggesting the beginning of new life, but not yet magically combined into a whole personality, and also a journey upwards, since it is hands and feet that are generated first, whose strength is needed on Jacob's ladder.
There are also transitional forms between implicit and explicit, such as Payen, 1713, revels in (in color at ... n1713.html).

Changes, Star through World, 1700s Tarot de Marseille

Another card that changes in a way that suggests Egypt is the Judgment card. In Noblet and the other Tarot de Marseille II's, there is a mountain behind the middle figure. That changes to a rounded hill. The effect, coupled with the tonsure, is to produce something like an Eye of Horus, also known as the "Wadjet Eye".
This change also fits the theme of the card. The tonsure suggests that the middle figure is a priest, who in this world transmits the means of salvation, taking the role initiated by Christ, who seems to be the middle figure in the Cary-Yale. In the Isis-Osiris myth Horus is the savior-figure.

Other savior figures are on the Sun card, namely, the Dioscuri. This is a change from Noblet's man and woman, seen also in the Sforza Castle card (near left and far left below, respectively).
The Dioscuri, while Greek, were assimilated to the Isis-Osiris cult during Roman times, when Greco-Egyptian sailors prayed to Isis for safe sailing. The Dioscuri became her helpers, as they already were for Roman soldiers. In a Roman relief below, we see the Dioscura in the right and left upper corners of the relief, with Isis and Osiris in the center.
In the Greco-Roman version of the Isis-Osiris cult, Osiris was the solar principle and Isis the lunar. So the Sun card has Osiris lookng down on the Dioscuri, no doubt his children once he had taken on the attributes of Jupiter.

Along with the change from a man and a woman to two boys, there is a change in the amount of water on the ground, between Noblet and the Tarot de Marseille II cards. There are just puddles on the Noblet, while in the Conver water takes up most of the ground, and the two boys are standing on little islands. An Egyptianate explanation of the change would be that what is being depicted on the "celestials" is the course of the Nile flood, from the rising of the Dog Star at the Solstice through the zodiacal sign ruled by the Moon, through that ruled by the Sun. Perhaps it was thought that in August the flood was already subsiding, whereas a closer reading of the Greeks on Egypt showed that it was still rising then, not subsiding until later. So while the water was relatively confined in the Moon card, the boys now can hardly find a place to stand. On this interpretation the wall behind them would suggest the canals built to trap and divert the water, as was being done most notably in Holland in the 17th and 18th centuries.

I am not sure what is being depicted just below Osiris and Isis on the Roman relief. On the one hand, it could be the winged solar disc, on the other hand, it might be a phoenix, since there are what appear to be flames below it.
Speaking of phoenices, on the Star card, the main change, which happens in the later Tarot de Marseille II and also the later Tarot de Marseille I is the addition of the bird on the tree, which, since it appears in every Tarot de Marseille deck thereafter, seems quite deliberate. In an Egyptian context, as seen by the Greeks, that would be precisely a phoenix, a symbol of rebirth for the Christian mythographers. St. Ambrose (340-397) wrote of it ( ... p_djvu.txt)
When the phoenix realizes that he is coming to the end of his life, he build himself a casket of incense, myrrh, and other aromatic plants, into which he enters and dies when his time has come. From the moisture proceeding from his flesh he comes to life again... By the very act of his resurrection the phoenix furnishes us a lesson by setting before us the very emblem of our own resurrection without the aid or precedent or reason.
Another source, the medieval Physiologus, compared the phoenix to Christ ( ... ix&f=false). These characterizations fit well with the theme of the card as rebirth. Moreover, just as the Dog Star is the harbinger of the Nile Flood, so is the phoenix. Horapollo had said (Boas trans., p. 61):
When they wish to depict the soul delaying here a long time, or a flood, they draw the phoenix. ...A flood, since the phoenix is the symbol of the sun, than whch nothing in the universe is greater. For the sun is above all things and looks down upon all things. ... ...whatever the Egyptians do in the case of the other sacred animals, the same do they feel obliged to do for the phoenix. For it is said by the Egyptians beyond all other birds to cherish the sun, wherefore the Nile overflows for them because of the warmth of this god, concerning which we have spoken a little above
On the card there is no fire, but we are seeing the phoenix before the sun rises and before its nest bursts into flame. It first stretches its wings to the east, anticipating the rising sun, which we won't actually see for two cards. Below, the Noblet and Dodal are seen as restored, accurately, by Flornoy. The Chosson may be as late as the 1730s.
In the above frontispiece, the fire that will consume the bird is at the bottom of the card, connected to the nest by a tube and a flask, as it is a book on alchemy. However there were other depictions of the phoenix without the fire under it. Its position in the tree, facing the east with outstretched wings, is enough. It would be difficult to represent convincingly on the card in any event. An example of a phoenix without its fire (or even a tree!) is in the so-called "Bembine Tablet", named for its most famous owner, Pietro Bembo starting in 1527. It is identifiable by the tuft at the back of its head.

Then there is the World card, at the very end of the sequence. There is a change from the androgynous figure of Noblet and the masculine one of Vieville to a clearly feminine one. As Andrea Vitali reminds us (, Macrobius in his (Saturnalia I, c. 20 -21) had said that "Isis is the World-Soul," which in Plato's Timaeus is where the stuff of souls originates, as well as the four elements of body that surround her (the Evangelists were each associated with a different element, although not in a uniform way). Andrea also cites Apuleius (Metmorphoses 11, 4), who has her say (I am using the Lindsey translation p. 237):
"Behold, Lucius," she said, "moved by your prayer I come to you - I, the natural mother of all life, the mistress of the elements, the first child of time, the supreme divinity, the queen of those in hell, the first among those in heaven, the uniform manifestation of all the gods and goddesses...
As to where souls end up, it seems to me that the partisans of Egypt in the 17th-18th centuries would have also resonated with what Plutarch says at the end of On Isis and Osiris
But when these souls [the best and purest] are set free and migrate [start of 383] into the realm of the invisible and the unseen, the dispassionate and the pure, then this god [Osiris] becomes their leader and king, since it is on him that they are bound to be dependent in their insatiate contemplation and yearning for that beauty which is for men unutterable and indescribable. With this beauty Isis, as the ancient story declares, is for ever enamoured and pursues it and consorts with it and fills our earth here with all things fair and good that partake of generation.
With Horus secure on the throne of Egypt and Osiris as Lord of the Dead, Isis would naturally be with her husband, as a kind of proto-Persephone, yet not in the bowels of the earth but as the soul of it all, the visible manifestation of the invisible. If so, she provides a rather sexy ending, taking on the role of the Ascended Virgin as Queen of Heaven in all her beauty but without the impropriety of showing Mary nude. Egyptian reliefs, in contrast, often showed Isis as bare-breasted and in a long, form-fitting dress, which could easily be taken as nudity.
This portrayal of a nude Isis on the World card was not new, however. The Anonymous Parisian in the 17th century, followed by the Flemish cards of the 18th century (below , Hautot) had already taken her, as Providence and the protector of sailors. The image on the cards is quite similar to those on Roman era coins.
She was also shown in that role in the 1647 Venice edition of Cartari's Images of the gods of the ancients ( ... artari.jpg) While Mary also served that function, she would hardly have been depicted in such a compromising pose as we see on these World cards.

Egypt in the pre-Gebelin tarot: Hermit & Pope

What other cards changed in interesting ways between around 1650 and around 1760? I can only find a couple more, and they are pertty weak, both connected with Hermes Trismegistus. One is the Hermit card, of which Conver changed the spelling starting in 1760. Below are Noblet 1660s, Chosson 1672-1734, and Conver 1761.

The usual French spelling of the word for "The Hermit" is "L'Ermite". "L'Hermite" is acceptable but less common. But why the change? One possibility is a desire to associate the card with "L"Hermetique", the Hermetic, i.e. the follower of Hermes Trismegistus.

A corresponding change in the Pope card is the restoration of his three-bar staff. Although it was the standard papal staff even in the 15th century, it was not on the card until the Catelin Geoffroy of 1558 and the Anonymous Parisian of the early 17th century , the two at left below. Then it was suddenly dropped in favor of other types of cross in Vieville, Noblet (below right), Dodal, and Payen (second below left and middle)

Then the three-barred cross reappears in the Tarot de Marseille II (Madenie 1708 above).

Why these changes? One possibility is that the religious conservatism of Louis XIV somehow banished the hint of Hermes from the cards, where it had been, to survive, or reappear, in the hinterlands later. In any case, the staff is made to order for interpreting it, if one wants to (as was done explicitly in the late 19th century) as signifying the "Thrice-powerful" Hermes, the honorific referring (as in the Emerald Tablet) to that Egyptian deified sage, reputed to be the most powerful in each of the "three parts of wisdom of the whole universe": theurgy for the super-celestial, astrology for the celestial, and alchemy for the terrestrial . Or alternatively, as Ficino wrote, "they called him Trismegistus because he was the greatest philosopher and the greatest priest and the greatest king" (both from

Finally there is one card that in one later Tarot de Marseille I version, that of Dodal c. 1708, affects an Egyptian style of female dress. It did not get repeated in the Tarot de Marseille II or any other Tarot de Marseille I that I have seen. This is the Dodal Temperance lady, who is clearly bare-breasted, but with something substantial around her neck and upper chest. This is so much like the typical Egyptian dress seen on Isis and other goddesses on Roman-era Egyptian temple walls, both exterior and interior, that I find it hard to accept as mere coincidence.
The wings and the pouring from one jug to another, however, have nothing to do with Egypt that I can see. I am not saying it is an Egyptian image, merely that one detail seems to refer to Egypt.

Re: Egypt in the pre-Gebelin tarot

I am now ready to look at the previous century of cards, from 1550 to 1650. What changes in that period suggest an orientation toward ancient Egypt?

One has to do with the straps on the Popess's front. In most early tarots there are no straps at all, on either the Pope or the Popess. Then in 1558 Catelin Geoffroy, straps in the form of an X appear across the chest of the Pope but not the Popess. Such straps are a standard part of the Pope's depiction, even if not shown that often. But then in Noblet, the straps are no longer on the Pope but rather on the Popess.


Why this change? One possibility, the only one I can think of besides that of a card maker's whim, is that it associates the Popess with Isis or her priestess, based on a standard depiction of her in a statue from Hadrian's Villa that at some point became part of the Capitoline Museum. It also appears on statues of her priestess. I give one below, from Sicily, although I don't know when it was known about. The same depiction occurs in the 1647 edition of Cartari's Images of the gods of the ancients, which would have made it well known.


After this, some card makers exaggerated the points on the Popess's crown (e.g. Paiche, at right below, from where de Gebelin was from, Switzerland, while others downplayed them on the Pope (I get Paiche from Kaplan vol. 2, who does not show the Pope card). Then de Gebelin could point to the points and see them as the crescent moon headdress mentioned as such in the Greek and Latin literature about her, and also seen on the "Bembine Tablet", a Roman-era piece of carved ivory with Egyptian designs on it named after its most well-known owner, Pietro Bembo, who acquired it in 1527..

Admittedly this does not look much like a crescent moon, nor do the points on the Popess's crown. But this crescent moon was well attested in the literature. Diodorus Siculus, besides explicitly identifying her with the moon (I.11.1, at ... s/1A*.html), says "they put horns on her head because of the appearance she has to the eye when the moon is crescent shaped" (1.11.4). Similarly Plutarch: "the statues of Isis that bear horns are imitations of the crescent moon" (sect. 52 at ... is*/c.html). Ovid, well known before the Greek writers since he wrote in Latin, says likewise, of Isis's appearance to an expectant mother in a dream (Metamorphoses, Book IX, tale of Iphis, ... card%3D666, ... card%3D666)
Inerant lunaria fronti
cornua cum spicis nitido flaventibus auro
et regale decus.

Isis had crescent horns upon her forehead,
and a bright garland made of golden grain
encircled her fair brow. It was a crown
of regal beauty.
The Latin here actually says "garland made of golden spikes" (spicus), which some might have related to the spikes seen on the crown on some cards. The "spikes" are understood, at least today, as grain.

Another innovation, one only seen in the Noblet and not before or since, is in the Tower card. It is the first one we know of that shows a man falling from the tower. That in itself is not Egyptian; it is rather the way one of the round circles falling down is put next to his head and given the shape of an Egyptian crown, specifically, the crown of Upper Egypt. The same is true on the other side, with the other man, as though they had lost their crowns in their fall. Here it is, in Flornoy's restoration. There is even a head-band, which is also typical of Egyptian depictions, usually with a cobra or some such thing, which the crown so close to the forehead also suggests. I include on the right the card that came next in the Tarot de Marseille I tradition, the Dodal, to show how already the shape of the bubble has lost its Egyptian shape. On the left, for comparison, I include a slightly more complicated version of the crown, actually combining that of Upper and Lower Egypt, typical of united Egypt. I include this particular image because it was so visible, on the exterior wall of a temple easily visible in the 17th century and very close to the Nile north of Thebes, that of Dendera. Osiris, however, was typically represented with just the crown of Upper Egypt.
There is a story in Herodotus (Histories 3.27 to 3. 75) that corresponds roughly to this losing of the crowns in a fall. Cambyses, king of Persia through a ruse there involving another man who he makes his second in command. They go off and conquer Egypt, and Cambyses commits the sacrilege of killing the Apis bull. Then they need to go back, I assume to Babylon. The king, now pharaoh as well (in the sense of ruling Egypt), accidently cuts himself with his sword and then dies of infection. In the capital, meanwhile, the ruse has been discovered and a movement is developing to expose the second in command. In response he calls the people to hear him speak from the tallest tower in the city, where he confesses his crime and jumps to his death. So these two, with their new Egyptian crowns, would correspond to the two men on the card. The second in command is the man falling, Cambyses the one lying on the ground.

Re: Egypt in the pre-Gebelin tarot: Hermit again

Now I want to look at Egyptianate explanations for changes in the cards between around 1550 and the cards of the 1660s, Noblet and Vieville. I will start with the Hermit card. If you compare the Hermit cards before the 1660s to Noblet and Vieville, there is a detail in the later ones that the occultists made much of later. I am not talking about the change from an hourglass to a lantern, but rather the way the cloak keeps the light from shining onto the area to the left of him. Below, the first row is the PMB, 1450s Milan, a card that is probably French found by Lambert in the BNF and dated by Depaulis to c. 1500, then the Catelin Geoffroy of 1557, and the Anonymous Parisian of sometime around 1600. Then below them I have the Noblet of the 1660s, Chosson of 1672-1734, and Conver 1761 (I showed these earlier, in connection with the change from "Eremite" to "Hermite"). The Vieville, far left in the second row, is similar to the Noblet, only it is hard to say what he is holding. The Lambert is notable for the object on his back; I detect three tiers, which might suggest "Trismegistus" to some.
Paul Christian called this card "The Veiled Lamp" and that is indeed what the cloak serves as. This suggested to him that the card was not only about prudence, but about keeping your things secret. He says:, History of Magic, 1870, p. 103 of the English translation:
The lighted lantern signifies the light of the mind which should illuminate the past, the present and the future. The cloak that half conceals it signifies discretion. The stick symbolises the support given by prudence to the man who does not reveal his purpose.
Secrecy is of course part of the initiation into the mysteries of Isis that Apuleius described in The Golden Ass. After a brief and elusive sentence about his experience, he says (Lindsey trans. p. 249)
Behold, I have told my experience, and yet what you hear can mean nothing to you. I shall therefore keep to the facts which can be declared to the profane without offence.
And of course secrecy is part of Hermetic philosophy, the pearls that must not be thrown before swine.

Notice also the sun with its rays peeking out of the Hermit's robe. There is a hidden light within those robes and that person.

What is to me especially striking is that this idea of the cloak spread away from the body by one of the arms is also to be seen in the temple complex at Dendera. I do not know whether this is inside or out; offhand I would say that the light in the photographs looks too strong to be inside. . I put it next to a few of the others.
What the priest is holding I think is an implement used in embalming. The goddess next to him, whom I think people in the 17th century would have taken to be Isis, is suckling a standing child, who would probably have been taken to be Horus.

Re: Egypt in the pre-Gebelin tarot

Another change we see in the 1660s, one that does not continue afterwards, however, is what appear to be wings on the back of the Justice lady, as opposed to the back of a chair, which came later, or nothing in particular, which was the case earlier. Justice in Egypt was Ma'at, whom the Greeks called Themis. was typiclly shown with very broad wings in Egyptian reliefs and frescoes.

Also striking, in Noblet, are the flesh-toned blouse, emulating the Egyptian bare-breasted look that we see more explicitly on the Dodal Temperance (see earlier post), and the necklace, as though a simplification of the one on Maat.I do not know if this is a coincidence or not, as I have no idea whether the image was known in 17th century France.
In any case, it is not hard to read Justice as a form of Isis. Plutarch wrote (On Isis and Osiris section 3 ( ... is*/a.html), my highlighting::
Moreover, many writers have held her to be the daughter of Hermes, and many others the daughter of Prometheus,10 because of the belief that Prometheus is the discoverer of wisdom and forethought, and Hermes the inventor of grammar and music. For this reason they call the first of the Muses at Hermopolis Isis as well as Justice: for she is wise, as I have said, and discloses the divine mysteries to those who truly and justly have the name of "bearers of the sacred vessels" and "wearers of the sacred robes."
And there is Diodorus (Library of History 1. 14.3). :
Isis also established laws, they say, in accordance with which the people regularly dispense justice to one another"
She also governed Egypt in Osiris's absence (I.17.3), presumably with justice and wisdom.

Re: Egypt in the pre-Gebelin tarot: Moon

Another couple of cards with significant changes are the Moon and the Sun. Compared to the Cary Sheet, the main addition is the addition of the dogs, an addition that continues in the Tarot de Marseille II.
Dogs in relation to the moon are susceptible of a variety of interpretations, even their darker and lighter colors, i.e. "between the wolf and the dog", a particularly dangerous time of night. Both of course are known for barking or howling at the moon. And Artemus had her hunting dogs. Etc.
Andrea Vitali, in his online essays "Sigismondo Malatesta and the Triumphs" ( and "The Moon" (, has called attention to similar dogs in the portrait of Sigismondo Malatesta with St. Sigismund, where they indicate faithfulness and watchfulness in the day as well as at night. There is even the feature that the one dog's head, that of the silver dog, is higher than the other, which Andrea in the "Malatesta" essays says that this means that greater watchfulness is needed at night (however the other dog's depiction is not very well preserved; it looks to me standing on all fours, so better able to respond to danger). In the Tarot de Marseille Moon card, one dog raises himself on his forelegs, which might connote greater watchfulness. If so, Chosson's might express greater watchfulness at night but not Noblet.

In the story of Isis as related by Diodorus, she is led to the various burying places of the parts of Osiris by dogs. Presumably that would be at night, since Seth's men would be on the lookout for her by day.

Isis in the Roman period was herself identified with the moon, and Osiris with the sun. In this regard dogs also had a guiding function, in keeping both the sun and the moon from straying too far north or south at the solstices. Clement of Alexandria, who by living in Alexandria would be "of Egypt", Greco-Egyptian, says: (, find "dogs"):
And some will have it that by the dogs are meant the tropics, which guard and watch the sun’s passage to the south and north.
We owe this reference to de Gebelin, who said:
Clement, himself was Egyptian, since he was of Alexandria and who consequently knew what he was talking about, assures us in his Tapestries that the Egyptians represented the Tropics under the figure of two dogs, which, similar to gatekeepers or faithful guards, kept the Sun and the Moon from going to the Poles.
But a familiarity with Clement may be presumed long before de Gebelin.

For de Gebelin this guarding function is also performed by the two towers, which are "the two famous pillars of Hercules, beyond which these two large luminaries never pass". I cannot find any classical source for this reference, but it does seem to be part of the lore of "Egyptian" Masonry, which de Gebelin seems congenial to; it has the same meaning as the dogs. A quotation from Albert Pike, a 19th century American Mason, posted on the Internet at ... -hercules/ has it that
The Solstices, Cancer and Capricorn, the two Gates of Heaven, are the two pillars of Hercules, beyond which he, the Sun, never journeyed: and they still appear in our Lodges, as the two great columns, Jachin and Boaz, and also as the two parallel lines that bound the circle, with a point in the centre, emblem of the Sun, between the two tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.

While none too clear as it stands, the general meaning is that the pillars of Hercules serve the same function as the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, marking off the boundaries of the sun's inclination in the sky at the time of the solstices. Somehow, as seen from somewhere, their peaks marked two points in the sky in the south and the north. If so, the towers on the card do the same for the moon, de Gebelin reasoned. Towers mark boundaries. The dogs then warn when the moon or sun gets too close.

Otherwise, there is the Moon's role, personified as Isis, as a guide to sailors, a function well recognized in the 16th and 17th centuries. Andrea's essay is excellent on this point, and all I can do is copy and paste it (improving the translation a bit as I do so):
Concerning the function of the two towers as lighthouses, it necessary to know that Ancients attributed to the Moon the property of always being a light for sailors. In Natale Conte’ s Mythology, dated 1551, the author writes that the Moon was
... venerata dagli Egiziani col nome di Iside e preposta alle tempeste e ai naviganti come attesta Luciano nel Dialogo Zefiro e Noto).

(...worshipped by the Egyptians under the name of Isis and assigned to storms and tsailors, as Luciano affirms in his Dialogue between Zephyrus and Noto)

(Book III, ch.. XVIII, page 468).

Cartari reports an image of the goddess (figure 6) holding a little ship in her hand and defining her as
(Imagine d’ Iside dea Egittia che è la Luna tenuta la dea de naviganti... e che sono poi stati di quelli, li quali le hanno dato nella destra mano una navicella, con la quale volevano farsi mostrare, che ella passò in Egitto, conciosia che quivi fosse celebrata una festa come scrive Lattanzio, dedicata alla Nave di Iside.

(the image of Isis Egyptian goddess who is the Moon, regarded as the goddess of sailors…and then there were those who gave her a little ship in her right hand, through which they intended to show that she passed to Egypt, aware that there a feast was celebrated, as Lattanzio writes, dedicated to the Ships of Isis.)
(pages 85-86).

The relation Moon-Isis as Goddess of sailors is also underlined in a fourteenth-century capital of the Ducal Palace in Venice, where the Goddess travels on a boat holding in her hand the lunar sickle, accompanied by Cancer exalted in its ideal domicile (figure 7).

Indeed, in Apuleius’s Metamorphosis the author describes the Ships of Isis, giving us a great depiction of this ritual. Pignoria, writing about an ancient cameo representing the goddess, says:
Nel cameo s’e rappresentata Iside come si vede nelle medaglie antiche di Hadriano e di Antonino Pio;... et significa questa figura a mio giudicio il Navigio d’Iside, del quale si fa menzione nel Calendario Rustico Antico. Et nella medaglia d'Antonino si vede un Faro di Porto che tanto piu conferma la congettura. Leggasi Apuleio nell’11.

(In the cameo Isis is depicted in the same way as she is in ancient medals of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius; and for me this figure means the Ships of Isis, mentioned in the Ancient Rustic Calendar. And in Antoninus Pius’s medal we see a lighthouse that confirms this conjecture. You can read it in the 11th book of Apuleius.}
(Lorenzo Pignoria in "Notes to Cartari' s Book of Images" in Images of the gods of the ancients, 1647, page 298).

The Numismatic Cabinet of the Sforza Castle in Milan holds many different coins in conformity with the way that Pignoria described them. They are bronze Alexandrine drachmas of the imperial age coined by Antonius Pius (138 - 161). On these coins there is Isis's portrait on one side and “Isis Pharia”, or the goddess sailing in a wooden boat towards a lighthouse, on the other side (figure 8).
Antoninus Pius was one of the better Roman Emperors ( To see Andrea's figures 6-8, go to The image of Isis holding a ship is from a different edition of Cartari than the 1647 that I posted earlier.

Re: Egypt in the pre-Gebelin tarot: Sun

The final 1660s card I want to look like for possibly Egyptianate innovations is the Sun card, which as I presented earlier in discussing the 18th century's image of Gemini, had a man and a woman on it instead of two boys.

Along with that card should also probably be shown the "Sforza Casle" card, found during remodeling in a wall as filling in some earlier modifications. There is also the minchiate Sun card, which also shows a man and a woman but in a different pose. Why should such images be on Sun cards?
In the case of the minchiate, its Gemini card also seems to show a man and a woman holding hand, this time, as befitting mythological images, nude.

The minchiate seems explainable as a theme traditionally connected with the month of May and (even if it only starts in May) the sign of Gemini. I found a c.1581 poem connecting Gemini and love, by a then-popular but soon forgotten poet named Salutis du Bartas:
And third the Twins, especially as the quadrille
Of gentle-fierce Cupid makes of the male and female
One truly perfect body, the fruits grow twins,
And suddenly we see flower and grain harvests.
Looking in the Pierpont Morgan Library's online collection of medieval zodiacal images, several show naked couples in nude embrace, taking baths together, etc. Moreover, there are zodiacs that show such going on as well, for the sign of Gemini.
But why the sun? All I can think of is that it is the increasing warmth and sunshine of May-June, after a dark and rainy winter, that promotes such amorousness.

But there might be someothing else. In one zodiac, the naked Gemini couple has what look like pyramids behind them. Here I show both the top and the bottom, so you can see what hills and mountains look like, by comparison. There is a difference.
Also, there is the astronomical ceiling at Dendera, whose Gemini shows a man and a woman holding hands. In this case, what is above them is a giant scarab, which they would have known from Horapollo was a solar symbol, even while here it seems to be the Greco-Egyptian sign of Gemini. Below I show first the relevant part of the actual ceiling, which has been in the Louvre since 1822, then a reconstruction of what it looked like originally, and finally the thoroughly Egyptianized version by Falconnier and Wegener in 1896 Paris, obviously, at least to me, modeled on the Dendera.
A problem is that the couple on the Noblet don't look very amorous. They are affectionate, probably, but it is more care and concern than lovemaking. In this case the relation to the sun becomes obscure again.
All I can think of, in relation to Egypt, is that the scene could be seen as that of Isis reuniting with Osiris in the afterlife, after half a lifetime of not being together, with the sun-god Ra, ruler of the gods, looking on. According to Diodorus, Isis ruled Egypt for a long while after Osiris's death (Library of History 1.22, at ... s/1A*.html):
Isis, they say, after the death of Osiris took a vow never to marry another man, and passed the remainder of her life reigning over the land with complete respect for the law and surpassing all sovereigns in benefactions to her subjects.
Or alternatively, the scene might be not their reuniting but rather Osiris's ending his brief resurrection by Isis, going from Egypt to become Lord of the Dead--a rather obvious parallel to the ascension of Christ that people might have made.

Also, if what is being depicted on these later cards is to some degree the Nile flood, it shows the swollen water, Osiris, merged finally with the land, or Isis, as she absorbs his life-giving moisture, leaving only the puddles visible in Flornoy's reconsruction (at the top of this post). And it is the month of August, governed by the Sun, following Cancer, governed by the Moon, from which new crops, governed by Virgo, will grow.

Egypt in the pre-Gebelin tarot: Star

I am going to ease into the cards as they appeared before 1560 or so, not so much focusing on changes in the details presented, but rather on continuities as well as changes. I will start with the Cary Sheet Star card, which I want to relate to the same Dendera astronomical ceiling that I invoked for the Sun card. Here I put the card alongside the relevant zodiacal sign at Dendera.
A number of things are noteworthy as shared between the two images:

(1) The figure is pouring from two jugs, while in ancient and modern zodiacs alike, Aquarius has only one jug. Here are two examples of ancient zodiacs, for comparison.
(2) The figure has aspects of both sexes, a kind of androgyny. In the one, there are breasts but the figure looks male. In the other, there are no breasts but the figure looks otherwise feminine. Aquarius is typically quite masculine.

(3) Two fish-tails appear near the figure, one significantly larger than the other. In the card, they seem to be part of fishes whose bottom half is in the water. In the zodiacal figure, there is a small fish at the figure's feet, and to his right is the large tail that attaches to the figure of Capricorn, which is next to Aquarius in the zodiac. (It is not Pisces, the next zodiacal sign.)

Another thing pertains to the stars above the figure. There are five small stars, counting the one on the figure's shoulder, not seven as in the Tarot de Marseille. In the Dendera zodiac in fact the 5 visible planets are represented all the same, as small men with staffs. The sun and the moon are depicted as large discs, as they are in the tarot. As for the large star above the figure, there was in a few other temples (I don't know about Dendera) shown a female figure with a star over her head, usually interpreted as Nut, goddess of the night sky, but would probably, given the Greek texts about Egypt available c. 1500, have been interpreted as Isis, as I will explain later. The small star on the figure's shoulder might be Venus, as Venus was the planet governing the 1st decan of Cancer in the Astrolabium Planum of Johann Engel, published Venice 1495. The first decan of Cancer is announced by the rising of Sothis which also heralds the annual flood. That would associate the figure itself with Venus, but not in the Egyptian interpretation, unless in the sense in which, as in the famous address of Isis to Lucius in The Golden Ass, "Paphian Venus" (Lindsey trans. p. 237) is taken one name of Isis.

When I say that ancient and modern zodiacs present Aquarius as an adult male pouring water out of one jug, I do not include the 15th-16th century in that generalization. Just then, for some reason, Aquarius was sometimes depicted in an androgynous way, and sometimes with two jugs. Here is one with 2 jugs; there may be an attempt to show the figure with breasts, given the two dots on his chest, but this is at best a hal- hearted attempt. But the stockiness of the figure compares with that of the Hapi. Even closer is the 1660s Noblet, with masculine stockiness
There is also the minchiate image of Aquarius and that of a 15th century Italian Book of Hours, shown below with the Cary Sheet card. The main difference is that the non-tarot images have short hair.
Masculine figures with breasts were a familiar image in ancient Egypt, because they were fertility gods. Called "Hapi", they were usually presented as a pair and with papyrus plants growing out of their heads , of which the two outside ones are bent.
The figure in the Dendera zodiac, unless it has lost something, has neither characteristic; it is a Ptolemaic attempt to combine Greek with Egyptian imagery.

Now I want to address how the card is easily interpreted as Isis. Court de Gebelin was the first to point out the relationship in print, but the connection is even in Horapollo, known in Florence two decades before the first known mention of tarot. Here is what he says about how the year is represented in hieroglyphs (Boas trans., p. 44f):
And among them Isis is a star, called Sothis by the Egyptians, by the Greeks the Dog-Star, which appears to rule over the other stars. Now greater, now less, as it rises, and now brighter, now dimmer. And according to the rising of this star, we note how everything during the year is going to happen. Wherefore it is not unreasonable to call the year Isis.
The new year in fact began with Sothis, on June 21. On the Dendera astronomical ceiling there is a large pole indicating the time of the year when Sothis first appeared on the eastern horizon.

Isis's relationship to this special star heralding the Nile flood is also in Plutarch and Diodorus. Plutarch says (On Isis and Osiris 21, at ... is*/B.html):
...the soul of Isis is called by the Greeks the Dog-star, but by the Egyptians Sothis...
And also, in section 38:
Of the stars the Egyptians think that the Dog-star is the star of Isis because it is the bringer of water.
By "bringer of water" he of course means the Nile flood. Here we might recall Michael Maier's frontispiece with Typhon, Isis and Osiris. Isis has a bucket, presumably full of water to douse Typhon's flame.
Diodorus makes the same identification to the dog-star as Plutarch, saying that Isis's tomb bore an inscription that read in part "I am she who riseth in the star that is in the Constellation of the Dog" (I.27.4, at ... s/1A*.html).

This connection to Isis can be seen in Roman-era coins: In this role she was called "Isis Sothis" and appeared as such on Roman coins such as the ones at left, riding a dog, meaning the dog-star according to R. F. Witt's Isis in the Roman World (Cornell: Ithaca NY 1971). These pictures are his figures 63 and 64. I think there is a star above her head on one of them. What lettering that remains is definitely Roman rather than Greek.
Finally, there is a 16th century Star card now in Rouen showing a nude woman and the notation "prominent star" (at left below). While Venus could also take this title, the association with ships and Sirius points rather well to Isis. Next to it I put the image from Cartari showing Isis with a ship. For more on Isis's association with ships I refer you to the quote from Andrea Vitali in my previous post on the Moon card.
At this point we have to wonder: why are there two streams, when Greco-Roman zodiacs invariably, outside of Egypt, had a man with one jug? I suspect it is because the life-giving power of the Nile is the result of both of its branches before it reaches Egypt, the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The White Nile brings nutrients, but its relatively constant flow does not bring them to the crops except during the summer rains in Ethiopia, when water comes as a torrent from the highlands. This is a phenomenon discussed by Plutarch, and also by Horapollo, who not only mentions these rains as the cause of the flood (Boas p. 57) but says that the flood was depicted by three water jugs:
To symbolize the rising of the Nile, ... sometimes they draw...three great water-jars. ... And the three water-jars, no more nor less, since the rise of the Nile, according to them, takes place in three ways. One they attribute to the land of Egypt, for it produces water. And another is the ocean, for water is borne into Egypt by the ocean at the time of the rise. The third is rain-storms, which are produced in the southern parts of Ethiopia, at the time of the rising of the Nile.
I have never seen any Egyptian image with three jugs. It seems to me that the Greeks would have known that the ocean, i.e. the Mediterranean Sea, did not contribute to the Nile flood, because it is sea water, unusable by fresh water plants; moreover the level of the sea would not have risen in the summer, except locally in response to the Nile flood. Also, they would have known about both main branches of the Nile upstream. The convention of water-jugs remains, but is two instead of three. Horapollo is sometimes right, but not always.

These two sources of the Nile also explain why there is a high hill or mountain on one side of the Cary Sheet card and a much lower hill on the other side. One would be the Ethiopian highlands, the other relatively flat. Finally, it also explains one other detail on many of the Tarot de Marseille II cards, namely, that one of the jugs has brown water coming from it, while the other is clear (as in the Chosson at right above). Either that, or one jug is poured on the land (rainfall on the lowlands and the other in a large body of water (the torrent from the highlands). It is again the White Nile and the Blue Nile, allegorically, a strong mind/spirit in a strong body.

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