Bestiaries were quite popular in the Medieval period. Compendiums of pictures and text about animals, both real and imaginary, bestiaries served a religious function with moralistic stories associated with each creature. The symbolic nature of each animal was largely drawn from Biblical references and/or traditions and teachings.
I have picked out a few of the common animals found in many traditional tarot deck trumps and researched their historical meanings based on the era in which the cards were created. This is by no means an exhaustive list and you may find additional meanings and interpretations as well as additional animals, depending on the deck.
ancient kings of Persia, Babylon and the Roman legions. The feminine aspect of the card juxtaposed with a very masculine symbolic animal would appear to align this woman with the greatest power of all -- the Venus of the Apocalypse of Christian narrative. The Emperor has a matching shield with the eagle heraldry prominently displayed. One of the qualities of the eagle is its sight, its ability to see prey from a very large distance and calculatingly descend upon it with precision. This kind of sight is attributed to good leaders who are capable of seeing the outcome of their actions in order to determine the best course for the good of all.
The Chariot was originally drawn by horses, not oppositional sphinxes, and carried a woman, not a man. Horses represented wealth and power to the medieval culture. I relate it to the idiom, "If wishes were horses then beggars would ride." Only the wealthy rode horses. Only wealthy had workhorses and riding horses and warhorses. The horses on the Chariot are doubled and so is the speed and ambition. With the horse imagery comes the willingness to work, the power to accomplish and the grace and swiftness to get there quickly. In the Death card, the Grim Reaper is often seen riding, trampling churchmen, bearing a scythe. The horse is usually black, but not always. In this case, the horse is seen as a representation, with its rider, as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. However, it retains its symbolism as something powerful and swift. In most very early decks, a horse was not featured in the Sun card, with the exception of the Vieville Tarot which shows a man riding a white horse under the sun. A male rider on a white horse was a common representation of Christ who, upon his Second Coming, it is prophesied that he will be riding in triumphal glory on a horse: "And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him [was] called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war" (Revelation 19:11)
The Wheel of Fortune of the early Marseilles decks replaces the human characters of the Wheel with monkeys. The decks had started toward morphing the human figures on the Wheel to wearing ass ears depicting the foolishness of those who rely on Fortune and then replaced them with donkeys and finally to monkeys. The message is the same: scoundrels and fools.
|Oswald Wirth Tarot|
The Moon card, from an early Cary deck, features a crab in the water under the moon. Its association with Cancer and the Moon is astrologically obvious, but it is also a symbol of inconstancy. The crab walks both forward and backwards in a sideways fashion and so seems indeterminate as to where it may go. Likewise, the moon was also seen as inconstant, always changing, waxing, waning, appearing bigger then smaller, visible at night but also sometimes during the day.
In a following post I will continue the animal hunt with animals found in the court cards and Minor Arcana in various decks. The symbolism shifts a bit in the later esoteric decks because the animal symbolism was often derived from distinct astrological and/or Kaballistic symbolism rather than cultural.