Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The astral origin of the Soul

A Neoplatonic myth in the iconography of a few cards of the Triumphs


Essay by Andrea Vitali, 1991


Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, June 2013


Gathered together here are writings on the Platonic myth of the astral origin of the Soul, taken from the iconographical essays on the cards of the Stars, the Moon and the Sun, to which is added the Platonic concept of the Anima Mundi in the card of the World. This collation does not replace the need to acknowledge the individual analysis of the iconology of the cards mentioned, to which we refer to the essays for a thorough understanding of all the iconographic elements present in the cards. Put together in succession, these writings can be useful to those who wish to explore this issue personally, without having to find the passages referring to the myth within the individual iconographic studies. For pictures, however, you are referred to the individual essays.




The close relationship of the soul with heaven, as the point of origin and return of the soul, was a general belief in “Ionic physics” I (V-VI century AD), but it took its decisive shape as described in the myths of Plato's Phaedrus and Timaeus. The presence of iconographic elements of the myth, as illustrated in the cards of the Stars, the Moon and the Sun in the sixteenth century Cary sheet, bears witness to the inclusion of a cosmological theme of a Neoplatonic character, which culminated with the representation of the Anima Mundi in the World card. These iconographic models were maintained throughout the subsequent production of Tarot decks.


The Stars


A substantial change in the iconography of the card of the Stars is found starting in the XVIth century Cary sheet, where a nude young girl is shown kneeling in the act of pouring the liquid contained in two pitchers into a stream below. Above her, in the sky, is a big star with four other small stars placed in pairs on either side. She is a Naiad, a river nymph, depicted as usually described in the iconology texts of the XVIth century. One of her splendid representations is painted in the Room of Psyche at the Palazzo Te in Mantua.


I have found this allegory explained in De Antro Nympharum, a work composed in the second century after Christ by the Neoplatonist Porphyry, whose writings were a subject of great interest in the Middle Ages, Michael Psellus (XIth century) drew up a summary of the Porphyrian interpretation of De Antro, but the rediscovery of Porphyry happened through the work of the Florentine Platonists Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola; and it was in the XVIth century, on the occasion of the flowering of printed editions of Greek texts of Platonism, enriched by works attributed to the ancient theologians - Orpheus, Pythagoras, Zoroaster, the Chaldean Oracles, the Hermetic texts - that the first printed edition of this book was published, edited by Lascaris and published in Rome in 1518.


Pico della Mirandola in the Oratio de hominis dignitate [Oration on the Dignity of Man] praised Porphyry’s richness and his “Multiiuga religio” [Many faceted religion], while Poliziano admired his Life of Plotinus, as a combination of history and oratory.


Porphyry interprets the antrum [cave] of Ithaca, described in the verses of Homer, in the light of a fundamental theme of Platonic thought: the descent of the soul into the world and its return to God. Homer's verses are as follows: "At the head of the harbor there is an olive tree with large leaves: close by is a lovely dark cavern, sacred to the Nymphs called Naiads; therein are craters [bowls] and amphorae [urns] of stone, storing there the honey of bees. And there are long looms of stone, where the nymphs weave purple mantles, a wonder to behold; here flows perpetual waters, there two gates are; one, aimed at Boreas [god of the north wind], is for men’s descent, the other, however, that turns to Notus [god of the south wind], is for the gods, and humans do not enter, but it is the road of the immortals" (§1).


For Porphyry the cave becomes the representation of the cosmos and in this sense shows many similarities with the Mithraic cult: the Nymphs and the bees are souls, the purple mantles woven by the Nymphs represent the formation of the body around the bones, while the two gates of the antrum are the gates of descent and ascent of the cosmic path of the soul.


But let us read on this what Porphyry writes: "The theologians placed in caverns the symbol of the cosmos and the cosmic powers and intelligible essence ... (§ 9). By Naiads-Nymphs are indicated in a specific sense the powers that preside over the waters, but the theologians designated by it all the souls descending into generation in general. In fact, they believed that all souls possess water which, as in Numenius, is divinely inspired, and he says that for this reason also the prophet said: "The divine breath moved over the water" (§10).


Numenius, the teacher of Porphyry, mentions in these verses the prophet Moses, whom he compared to Plato, who was "Moses speaking Attic". This refers to the verse "...the spirit of Elohim moved upon the face of the waters" in Genesis (1, 2). Regarding the formation of the limbs around the bones, Porphyry writes: "The craters of stone and amphorae are as many symbols adapted to the nymphs who preside over the water welling from the rock, and as a symbol, what would be more relevant to the souls of those that go down into generation, leading to the creation of the body?” Therefore the poet dared to say that on these looms they ‘weave purple mantles, a wonder to behold.’ For the flesh on the bones is formed around them, in living beings the bones are the stone, because they are similar to stone, so it is said that the looms are made of stone and not of other material; the purple mantles, then, would obviously be the flesh, i.e. the tissue that is formed from blood" (§14).


Porphyry also explains why the jars are not full of water, but of honey: "The theologians use honey in many disparate symbols, because it is a substance with many properties, as it has both the power to purify and the power to preserve ... (§15). Therefore, honey is used to purify, to preserve against rot and as a symbol of the seductive power of pleasure which causes generation; for this also it is appropriate to the nymphs of the water, as a symbol of the pristine purity of the water - where the nymphs preside  - their purifying virtue and their cooperation in the generative process: water, in fact, cooperates in the generation" (§17).


The bees, like the Nymphs-Naiads, become for Porphyry a representation of souls: "Springs and streams are proper to water nymphs and even more to the nymphs-souls specifically of what the ancients called bees, because they are architects of pleasure. So Sophocles uses an appropriate expression when referring to souls, saying, "Hums the swarm of the dead coming to light" (§18).


The relationship souls - bees is also found in Plato (Phaedrus, 82 b), who compares temperate and fair souls to bees, wasps and ants as a civilized species in which men may reincarnate. The two doors of the antrum of Ithaca are identified by Porphyry as the two constellations from which the soul descends into generation making its return: “Considering the antrum the image and symbol of the cosmos, Numenius and

his follower Cronius say that there are two extremities in the sky: one of them is more to the south of the winter tropic, the other is north of the summer Tropic. The summer tropic is at Cancer, the winter one at Capricorn. And because Cancer is the closest to us it was logically attributed to the Moon, which is the closest to the earth; Capricorn, because the south pole is invisible, was signified by the planet that is the highest and most distant of all" (§ 21).


And again, "The theologians, therefore, considered as gates these two signs, Cancer and Capricorn - which Plato called entrances - and said that of these two Cancer is the gate through which souls descend, Capricorn that by which they ascend. Cancer is the northern descent route; the southern, Capricorn, is the road of ascent. The northern regions belong to the souls descending into generation, and rightly so, since the door of the cave to the north is accessible to men; the southern regions are not the place of the gods, but of those who return to the gods, and that is why the poet said that path is not of the gods, but "the Immortals", an expression that fits souls well, because they are immortal or themselves or in their essence (§22-23).


The nude girl under the stars then depicts a Nymph-Naiad, a Platonic symbol of the descent of the soul into generation.


The Moon


In the sixteenth century Cary sheet we find a completely different image: the moon with its rays dominates the landscape. half water and half land. In the water is represented a crayfish or crab, while on hilly terrain two constructions are placed opposite each other.


According to Neoplatonic thought, the moon has a dual aspect: the realm of the dead and the place of birth, which dissolves and regenerates bodies. The myth is described in various texts of the Ancients, including De facie quae in orbe Lunae apparet [On the Face that appears in the orb of the Moon] by Plutarch: "The moon belongs to Persephone, daughter of Demeter who for her part possesses the land, and in it [the Moon] live the good after the death of the body, waiting for the second death. In fact, man is composed of not two, but three parts: body, soul and intellect, and mutual separation of the last two is not traumatic, as is the case for the separation from the body, but gradual and pervaded with gladness. The souls of the dead contemplate the nature of the moon, which corresponds to their state of transition, as it is a mixture of terrestrial and astral elements .... At the end intellect is separated from soul to regain the place that is proper to it, i.e. the sun, and only souls remain on the moon, wich retain the image of the body until they dissolve completely, those of the good and wise quickly and easily, and those of the wicked slowly and with difficulty. It will then be the same moon producing new souls, and sending them to bodies born from the earth, providing it with intellect that comes from the sun" (1).


This myth, very well known in the sixteenth century, inspired Ariosto in Orlando Furioso Astolfo recounts how he had to go to the moon, which was believed a repository of human wisdom, to enable Orlando, who was crazy, to recover. A myth to which, without a shadow of a doubt, the creators - or creator - of the images of the Cary sheet, with a deep philosophical knowledge, will refer.


For Iamblichus "The souls live on or below the moon, and from there descend into generation"  (2). Therefore, there is a continuous stream of new souls that descend from the moon to the earth, and as many souls of the dead rising from there to the moon. In this constant coming and going, the two towers delimit the space which separates the kingdom on the Moon ruled by Persephone from that of the earth ruled by Demeter. A limit that can not be crossed except by renewed souls or those who leave the body, with the exception of spirits [demoni] that come down from the moon to the earth "to take care of the oracles, assist and participate in the supreme mysteries, act as guardians and avengers of injustice and shining saviors in battles and on the sea" (3).


The two towers become, therefore, as Porphyry writes, the gates of descent and ascent of souls to and from generation: Cancer is the way by which the souls descend and Capricorn that by which they re-ascend.


It should be noted, with regard to these gates, that Porphyry's De Antro reports that the “theologians" (i.e., the Chaldeans, Orphics and Pythagoreans) supposedly considered as the gates of descent and ascent, respectively, those of the Moon and the Sun (§29), a variant that was not unique: for example, for Firmicus Maternus souls descended from the sun and ascended from the moon (4).


A demonstration of the knowledge of this myth is found in the Moon card of Paul Marteau, whose tarot made in 1930 had the merit of codifying the symbolism expressed in the Tarot of Marseilles; in that card, drops ascend from the earth to the sky, representing the ascent of souls according to the theory of Firmicus Maternus.


Already in Pindar (5) Persephone is sovereign of the cycle of rebirth. In the East, the Moon is the mother of the universe and the deposit of all the seeds  (6). The dual aspect of the Moon - land of the dead and place of birth, which dissolves and regenerates the bodies - has its roots in the fact that the Moon is the celestial body par excellence of the rhythms of life, subject to the universal law of birth, growth, and passing away: it is "The first death".


Kore-Persephone is called Melitōdēs, "honeyed goddess", already in Theocritus (Idylls, 15,94): the scholia interpret it as a euphemistic name, because Persephone, as the subterranean Goddess, brings to the life of men bitterness instead of honey. The Moon, called the balm of “bees”, is the entity that presides over the entrance of the souls into generation, through the Gate of Cancer, its house (De Antro, chaps. 22, 28). In the context of De Antro the epithet melitōdēs assumes a different connotation: if the honey is the pleasure of generation, Kore-Moon is "honeyed" because in it the souls acquire their generative faculties (7).


The Sun


In the Cary sheet of the XVIth century. a variant iconography appears: the sheet is torn precisely at this card, but there is enough to illustrate an iconography that will stabilize in the Tarot of Marseilles: a high central Sun, from which depart sun drops over two children below. This takes us back to the Platonic myth concerning the birth of souls in generation as already described about the cards of the Stars and the Moon.


Regarding the intellect that is transmitted from the Sun to the Moon, so that it is provided to the souls being born on the earth, Plutarch writes that "When the sun with its life force again fecundates it [the soul] with the seed of the intellect, the moon produces new souls and the earth steps in to offer the body" (8). The two children therefore represent the newborn on the earth, in all their richness of body, soul and intellect.


The World


In the image of the World in an Italian Tarot of the XVIth century. of which few cards remain, now in the Museum of the Castello Sforzesco [Sforza Castle] in Milan we find an iconographic variation that will stabilize later in the Tarot of Marseilles and in all subsequent decks: an almost naked girl is depicted within a mandorla, surrounded by the figures of the four Evangelists in animal form (Tetramorph). She is the Anima Mundi, already represented by a female figure in the Latin manuscript Clavis Physicae composed by Honorius of Autun in the XIIth century, currently at the National Library in Paris. This set of drawings and diagrams represents "one of the most perfect expressions of the imaginative activity of the men of the twelfth century, and at the same time the faithful translation of a representation of the world tied to the Platonic, or platonized, system as the Greek fathers and their disciple of the IXth century, John Scotus, had interpreted it" (9).


The Anima Mundi, in this manuscript, is depicted as a young girl with two medallions on the sides of her head that surround the Sun and the Moon in the guise of a man and a woman carrying a torch. She holds in her arms a weather vane on which is written "Vegetabilis in arboribus, sensibilis in pecoribus, rationabilis in hominibus" (vegetative in trees, sensate in animals, rational in humans). On the four sides are placed medallions, representing the four elements, each supported by three hands. Each medallion has written inside the quality of each element. At the feet of the woman there is another inscription that commemorates the three faculties that Plato gives to man: "Rationabilitas, Concupiscibilitas et Irascibilitas" [rationality, concupiscence, and irascibility]


William of Conches, annotating the Timaeus (34 c - 35 c), states that the soul of the world is a spirit or natural force inherent in things that gives them movement and life. It is completely and entirely in everything, but its power is exercised variously. It located in the midst of the universe, in the movement of the stars, in the vegetative power of trees and plants, the sensate power of animals, in the reasoning power of humans.


In the thought of Plotinus and Porphyry the function of unifying the material, making it harmonious, is entrusted to the Soul of the World, the demiurgic principle that is both the receptacle of the body of the world and the principle that keeps the universe together.


On the nudity of the girl as depicted on the card, we observe that for the Gnostics, as for Porfirio, nudity is a symbol of an ideal to be pursued: it is the nakedness of the soul that refuses the body, clothes and prison, to regain its original state and return to its divine roots. Symbolically it is death to the profane world, a prelude to initiatory rebirth and is therefore purification. Nude. it is initiated into the mysteries and, nude, the soul ascends to the divine" (10).


See an addition to this essay by Michael S. Howard titled The Astral Journey of the Soul   




1 - Dario del Corno, introduzione a, Plutarco, Il Volto della Luna [introduction, Plutarch, The Face of the Moon], Milano, 1991, pp. 37-38.

2 - Laura Simonini, ed., Porfirio, L’Antro delle Ninfe, [Porphyry, The Cave of the Nymphs], Milano, 1986, p. 176.

3 - Plutarch, op. cit., p. 112.

4 - See Silius Italicis, Pun., 13, 556.

5 - Fr.133 Snell-Maehler.

6 - Giovanni Lido De mens. 2.6, 3.4, 4.53.

7 - Laura Simonini, op.cit., p. 175. On the quality of the honey in reference to the myth see our account in the iconological analysis of the card of the Stars.

8 - Plutarch, Il Volto della Luna [The Face of the Moon], translated by Luigi Lehnus, 1991, p. 114.

9 - M. Ch. D'Alverny, Le Cosmos symbolique du XII siecle [The symbolic cosmos of the XIIth century], in "Archives doctrinale et d'histoire littéraire du Moyen Age" [Archives of doctrine and the literary history of the Middle Ages], XX, 1953.

10 - Laura Simonini, op.cit., pp. 239-240.


 Copyright by Andrea Vitali © All rights reserved 1991