Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Star


Essay by Andrea Vitali, 1991


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, June 2018


In the Sermones de Ludo the card after “Sagitta” (i.e. the Tower) is “La Stella”, the Star, a name it has kept ever since, the only variation being the plural form “Le Stelle”, seen in Aretino of 1543, Alciati of 1544, and Spelta of 1607 (1).


The card in the Visconti-Sforza Tarot (figure 1)  and that of the Victoria and Albert group (figure 2) show a girl holding high a star with her hand; no other stars appear. The Tarot of Ercole I d’Este (figure 3) shows two astrologers scanning the sky, again with only one star.


The Three Kings appear on the card of the Rothschild Sheet, depicted holding up the crown of Christ, with one star above (figura 4). In the Florentine minchiate (figure 5), one Magi King is shown riding a horse and holding with his hand the chalice with his gift, again with one star. All the stars shown on these cards have eight points: we shall see later what this means.


By the middle of the 17th century in France, some changes have occurred. While maintaining the motif of the astrologer, the Vieville card has four small stars put two by two on either side of the large star (figure 6). In the Noblet card, called “L’Estoille” (The Star), there are seven small stars, and instead of an astrologer we see a maiden pouring out liquid from two jugs (figure 7).


These changes in both French tarots already appear, however, in an early 16th century sheet of cards known as the Cary Sheet (Milan?): as in the Noblet, a naked girl is shown kneeling while pouring out the liquid contained in two pitchers into a substantial body of water. Above her in the sky, as in the Vieville card, appears the large star with   four small stars (figure 8).


The maiden on the card is a Naiad, a river nymph depicted in the usual way as described in 16th century iconology texts. There is a splendid example painted in the Room of Psyche at the Palazzo Te in Mantua (figure 9 - School of Giulio Romano). I found this allegory explained in the De antro Nympharum [On the Cave of the Nymphs], a work written in the third century c.e., by the Neoplatonist Porphyry, whose works were of great interest throughout the Middle Ages.


Michael Psellus (11th Cent.) had drawn up a compendium of the Porphyrian interpretation of the De Antro, but Porphyry was rediscovered through the work of the Florentine Platonists Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. In the 16th century, when the printing of the Greek texts of Platonism flourished, enriched with works attributed to the ancient theologians – Hermes Trismegistus (the Corpus Hermeticum) Orpheus (the Orphic Hymns), Pythagoras (the Golden Verses etc.), Zoroaster (the Chaldean Oracles), - the first printed edition of this work was published, edited by Lascaris, in Rome of 1518.


Pico della Mirandola in his Oratio de hominis dignitate [Oration on the Dignity of Man] praised Porphyry’s richness and his “Multiiuga religio” (Multi-faceted religion), while Poliziano admired his Vita Plotini (Life of Plotinus), saying i is “as literary, or rhetorical, as it is philosophical” (tam oratorium quam philosophicum,), according to his friend Ficino (2).


Porphyry interpreted the cave of Ithaca described in Homer’s Odyssey in the light of a basic theme of Plato’s thought: the descent of the soul into the world and its return to God. The verses of Homer are as follows:


And at the head of the harbor is a slender-leaped olive

and near by it a lovely and murky cave

sacred to the nymphs called Naiads.

Within are kraters [bowls) and amphoras [jars]

of stone, where bees lay up stores of honey.

Inside, too, are massive stone looms and there the nymphs

weave sea-purple cloth, a wonder to see.

The water flows anceasingly. The cave has two gates,

the one from the north, a path for men to descend,

while the other, toward the south, is divine. Men do not

enter by this one, but it is rather a path for immortals. (§1) (3)


For Porphyry, the cave becomes the representation of the cosmos, and in this sense he reports numerous analogies to the cult of Mithras; the Nymphs and the bees are souls; the purple cloth woven by the Nymphs represent the body as it grows around the bones, while the two gates of the cave are the ways of descent and return of the cosmic path of the soul.


But let us read what Porphyry has to say: "That the theologians made caves symbols of the cosmos and of the encosmic powers has thus been demonstrated....” (§9). “We likewise use the term 'Naiad Nymphs' specifically for those powers set over the waters, and the ancients used to use the term to designate the general class of souls descending into γένεσις [genesis, i.e. generation]. They believed that souls settled upon the water, which was 'god-inspired' as Numenius says, adding that it is for this reason that the prophet said, ‘The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters'” (§10).


Numenius, a master of Porphyry, in these verses quotes the prophet Moses, whom he compared to Plato, the “Moses who spoke in Attic”. The reference is to the verse “… and the Spirit of Elohim moved upon the face of the waters” taken from the Book of Genesis (1:2).


About the members of the body developing around the bones, Porphyry writes: "Kraters and amphoras of stone are thus quite appropriate to nymphs presiding over water which flows from rocks. For souls coming down into yévemg, and the making of bodies, on the other hand, what could be a better symbol than the stone looms? This is why the poet presumed to say that on these they ‘weave sea-purple cloth, a wonder to see’. Flesh comes into being by means of bones and wrapped around bones, and stone represents these bones, because within living creatures they resemble stone. This is why the looms were said to be made of stone rather than some other material. The sea-purple cloth would clearly be the flesh, woven of blood: the sea-purple wool, the fiber itself, is ultimately the product of blood and the wool is even dyed with a product derived from living creatures. Likewise, the production of flesh is accomplished both by blood and out of blood. Moreover, the body surely is a cloak for the soul around which it is wrapped, ‘a wonder to see’ whether you consider it from the point of view of the composition of the composite entity or from that of the soul’s bondage to the body. Thus, according to Orpheus, Kore, the overseer of all things sown in the earth, is depicted as a weaver, and the ancients called heaven a ‘robe’, as if it were a garment cast around the heavenly gods" (§14).


Porphyry also lets us know why the amphorae are full, not of water, but of honey: “The theologians have used honey to symbolize many different things since it combines multiple powers, and is both cathartic and preservative in its effects. 15). “In view of its relationship to purification, to the prevention of decay and to the pleasure of descent into the flesh, honey is an appropriate symbol as applied to the Water Nymphs, standing for the purity of the waters over which they preside and their cleansing powers and their cooperation in γένεσις [genesis, i.e. generation], for water does play a part in γένεσις  [generation].” (§17).


Bees, like the Naiad Nymphs, become for Porphyry a representation of souls: “Springs and running streams are appropriate to Water Nymphs and even more so to those nymphs that are souls, whom the ancients specifically called bees, because of their diligence in the pursuit of pleasure. This is why Sophocles said with great appropriateness, referring to souls, ‘The swarm of the dead buzzes and rises up.’” (§18).


One also finds the relationship between souls and bees in Plato (Phaedrus, 82 b) who compares temperate and just souls to bees, wasps and ants, as civilized species into which only men may reincarnate.


The two gates of the cave of Ithaca are identified by Porphyry as the two constellations from which the soul descends into generation and then returns: “Numenius and his companion Cronius say the cave is the image and symbol of the cosmos and that there are two extremities in heaven, represented by the summer and winter tropics. The summer tropic is in Cancer, the winter one in Capricorn. Since Cancer is very close to us, this constellation is appropriately associated with the moon, which is the closest of the heavenly bodies to the earth. Since the South Pole remains invisible, Capricorn is associated with the farthest and highest of these bodies, i.e. Saturn.” (§21).


And further “Numenius and Cronius say further that the gate of Cancer is the one through which souls descend and that of Capricorn the one through which they ascend. Note that Cancer is northerly and appropriate for descent while Capricorn is southerly and suited for ascent. The northern regions belong to souls descending into generation, and the northern ’gate’ of the cave is precisely the one that is a path for men to descend.’  The southern regions belong not to the gods but more properly to those ascending to the gods. For this same reason, Homer did not say the other was a path for ‘gods’ but rather for ‘immortals,’ a term which applies equally to souls, on the basis that they are immortal either in themselves or by their nature.” (§22-23).


The naked girl under the stars, therefore, represents a Naiad Nymph, the Platonic symbol of the descent of the soul into generation. The close relationship between the soul and the sky, the point of origin and return of the soul, was a general belief of  Ionian Philosophy (6th-5th century B.C), but took on its definitive form starting  with Plato's myths described in the Phaedrus, Republic and Timaeus. The presence of these iconographical elements in the myth, also illustrated in the cards of the Moon and the Sun of the same 16th century sheet, testify to the insertion of a cosmological theme of a Neoplatonic nature culminating in the depiction of the Anima Mundi in the card of the World. These iconographical models have been maintained in all following productions of the classical tarot packs.


The relationship between water and life is to be found again in Christian mysticism. On the right shoulder of the Naiad depicted in the Cary Sheet, a small eight-pointed star appears, like those depicted in the sky. The same star often appears on the mantle of the Virgin Mary, signifying fullness of life (figure 10 - Mater Dei Galaktotrofusa, Byzantine Museum, Athens).


This number is related to the eighth day of Creation, when the universe took on life in its totality, after God rested on the seventh day. Christian baptisteries are in fact octagonal, this number indicating the fullness of life which is obtained through the waters of baptism (4).


To represent birth into the world, an Italian tarot (again from the 16th century, currently in Rouen) shows Venus coming out of the water of the sea (figure 11). Already the Sumerians saw Venus as “she who shows the path to the Stars”, symbol of birth as goddess of Love “D’onde viene la generatione humana” (From which human generation comes) (5). In the latter image, the goddess holds a lance in her right hand, an object that became part of her attributes along with the bow and arrows. For the ancient Persians, according to a concept which then became part of Greek and Roman mythology, Venus, as goddess of the evening, favored love and voluptuousness, while as goddess of the morning, she presided over warfare and massacres (6).


The lance held in Venus’s hand becomes a spindle at the top, and it is again Cartari who enlightens us about this matter: “Et appresso di Pausania si legge, che Venere fu posta da i Greci per una delle parche... e che nel tempio a lei dedicato erano guardati gli ornamenti de i morti, per ammonirci della fragilità della vita humana, il principio, e la fine della quale era in potere di una medesima dea. Perché Venere fu la Dea della generatione, e il farla la più vecchia delle Parche voleva a punto dire, che ella metteva fine al vivere humano” (And in Pausanias, we read that Venus was seen by the Greeks as one of the Fates… and in the temple dedicated to her, the ornaments of the dead were kept, to admonish us about the fragility of human life, the beginning and the end of which were both in the power of the same goddess. Because Venus was the Goddess of generation, making her the eldest of the Fates meant that she put an end to human life) (7). 




1 - Pietro Aretino, Le Carte Parlanti [The Talking Cards] (originally Diologo di Pietro Aretino, nel quale si parla del giuoco con moralità piacevole), Giovanni de’ Farri, Venice, 1543); Andrea Alciati, Parergon iuris libri 7. Posteriores, [Compendum for Jurists, Book 7 and after], Sebastian Gryphium, Lyon, 1544; Antonio Maria Spelta. Saggia pazzia, Piacevole pazzia [Wise Madness, Pleasant Madness], Ottavio Bordoni, Pavia, 1607. Alciati lived in Pavia or Milan in 1544. For the last, see our essay Wise Madness, Pleasant Madness.

2 - Denis M. Robichaud, “Poliziano’s Lamia: Neoplatonic Commentaries and the Plotinian Dichotomy between the Philologist and the Philosopher, in Angelo Poliziano’s Lamia: Text, Translations and Introductory Studies, ed. Christopher S. Calenza, Brill, Leiden, 2010, pp. 166-167.

3 - Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs, trans. with an introductory essay by Robert Lamberton, Station Hill Press, Barrytown, New York, 1983.

4 - For a discussion of the mystical meaning of the number eight, read the essay Castel del Monte.

5 - Vincenzo Cartari, Imagini de gli dei de gli Antichi [Images of the gods of the Ancients], In Venice, By Tomasini, MDCXLVII, 1647, p. 279.

6 - Edouard Dhorme, Les Religions de Babylonia et d'Assyrie, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1949, p. 68.

7 - Vincenzo Cartari, op. cit., pp. 161 -162.


Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  © All rights reserved 1991