We are all wanderers on this earth. Our hearts are full of wonder, and our souls are deep with dreams.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Magical Tarot Menagerie Part I
Because tarot cards are a collection of pictures and pictures themselves are symbols, I am fascinated with the  details within these cards that represent various themes and ideas.  Just as a writer will carefully choose words, which are symbols of ideas, an artist will carefully choose images as a symbol to communicate ideas.  While we are free to associate any of these items with any feeling or idea, there is a historical basis to many symbols that can help us decipher the meaning inherent in the image.  Most tarot decks feature animals in many of the cards and I've found it interesting to research the commonly designated symbolic meanings for these various creatures.  Not all cultures are in agreement with animal symbolism. The same animal may be feared or revered (or both) in different traditions.  If the deck is based on a particular cultural tradition, it is  best to research what the animal meant to that group in the time period of the deck's origin.  If one is using an historical tarot, or one based on an historical deck, the Christian/European pagan meanings will be more revealing. If one is studying a Celtic or Native American inspired deck, it would be useful to research the animal imagery associated with those cultures.  Also, because the historical decks featured scenic trumps and non-scenic pips, the animal symbolism on pips, or Minor Arcana, would logically stem more from esoteric tradition, possibly from the Egyptian or Greek cultures, but also Indo-European pagan as well. 

The Medieval culture in which tarot was developed was based primarily on Christian teaching, but the Renaissance had such a widespread influence on the thinking and philosophies of the time. Scholars and religious teachers turned to the classical stories of the Greek and Roman pantheon and brought new meaning and application to them, interweaving Biblical morality into the stories.  The root of much of the day's philosophy had its direct origins in ancient Greece.  The context in which people saw the animals was informed by a combination of history, tradition, and religious teaching.  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.

In the earliest Visconti-Sforza trionfi deck, the Fool does not have a dog.  Yet another deck, the Tarocchi of Mantegna, not exactly a tarot deck, per se, but more a hermetic set of prints that have close similarity to the archetypes in tarot decks, the Poor Man card is shown with dogs, particularly one attacking his leg as we see in later tarot decks such as in the Marseilles versions and all the way up to 20th century Rider-Waite-Smith decks.  The presence of a dog near a poor man is common in Medieval art because they would often attack beggars that came near to houses for a handout.  So the symbolism in the dog's presence in the Fool card would seem to indicate that the man is poor and without financial resources.  Dogs themselves usually represent faithfulness and guardianship.  In the case of the Fool, the dog's loyalty is being expressed by protecting the master's house from intrusion, and not, as commonly thought, toward protecting the Fool from danger. In the Cary-Yale deck there is a small white dog pictured between the couple in the Love card, symbolizing fidelity and commitment.  Dogs are also featured in the Marseilles rendition of the Moon card, one dark, one light symbolizing day and night because the moon is  not only seen at night but can also often be seen during the day as well.  While the moon is seen as very inconstant, the presence of the dogs on the card are a moralistic message to humans to be like the dog and be constantly faithful, stay the course, through inconstant waxing and waning of the times.  However, the fact that they are barking at the moon may symbolize more the wasted efforts of energy expended on illusions borne at times of unclear vision. 

The Empress displays a shield on which the emblem is the powerful eagle.  The wings symbolize protection and speed while the talons and beak assure decimation of enemies.  It is seen to have a noble nature and aristocratic air. It has been used as the official symbol of the 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.  

US Games
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 Strength card in the Visconti deck shows Hercules and the Nemean lion which he killed as the first labor of the twelve he was to accomplish.  The lion has long been a symbol of strength and courage which makes it a worthy opponent for the heroic Hercules.  No one expected him to survive the encounter with the lion.  Later versions replace the man with a woman to represent the virtue Fortitude, sometimes with and sometimes without the lion, but the iconography of the lion often showed the woman subduing it by holding its jaws, reminiscent of the Biblical hero, Samson, whose strength was legendary.  The lion can also often be seen in the World card as the emblem of St. Mark, the apostle writer of the Christian gospel bearing his name. However, that lion has more of an identification with iconography of the four Evangelists than with the usual symbolic imagery of lions.  That one has a name and is therefore unique.

Grimaud Marseilles
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.


  1. This is a great post. Symbolism is always interesting to me -and I love the part about the dog protecting the owners of the house from beggars rather than protecting the fool.

  2. I think I like the Fool's dog discovery best myself. I really had no idea about the medieval interpretation because my foundational deck is the RWS and the dog always looks so friendly...but if you look at the Marseilles Fool, the dog is literally ripping the pants off the Fool. Friend or foe?

  3. Anonymous10:26 AM

    Hi Ginny! I'd like to pass the Stylish Blogger Award to you. You may pick it up at http://janetboyer.typepad.com/tarot_gals/2011/01/stylish-blogger-award.html Keep up the great blogging!

  4. Thanks so much, Janet!

  5. So agree. I love the artwork found in Tarot and the beauty for the holder is that they carry with them tiny bits of art with lots of power. Sea Witch

  6. Yes, Sea Witch! Like an art museum in one's pocket! :)

  7. Hey thanks for the post, I love the crab :)


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