Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Astral Journey of the Soul

Porphyry and Plutarch in the context of the medieval cosmograph


By Michael S. Howard



This essay is meant as an addition to Andrea Vitali's essay The astral origin of the soul  

( in which he interprets some of the later cards in the tarot sequence in terms of allegories by Porphyry (On the Cave of the Nymphs) and Plutarch (On the Face that Appears in the Orb of the Moon). Although I have tried to summarize the main points of contact, I urge you to read Andrea's essay first. I am of course responsible for any errors of fact or reasoning in the present essay.

Here I will use additional material from Plutarch - as well as other sources, especially Dante, - to shed light not just on the “celestials” (i.e. Star, Moon, Sun), but on all of the cards from Death on, in an interconnected way in which one card leads to the next. In so doing I will be putting Plutarch's and Porphyry's allegories into the framework of the ancient and medieval "cosmograph", from which I think two 16th century essays on the tarot sequence, one more than the other, also draw.


The ancient Platonists, as Andrea describes, imagined the soul as journeying from heaven to earth at birth and then back again after death. Not only did they imagine the specific way-stations on the journey, in terms of various astral regions, but also described the process of getting from one to the next. Plutarch in particular made a substantial contribution in the essay that Andrea cites, On the Face that Appears in the Orb of the Moon. I want to argue that the whole tarot sequence, from Death to World, as pictured in the Milan-based tarot (principally the Cary Sheet, but to some extent the Pierpont-Morgan-Bergamo earlier and, to be sure, the “Marseille” images later) can be seen in Plutarch’s terms.

But first I need to say something about the interpretation of the Platonists' myth of the “ascent through the spheres”, as well as the accessibility of Plutarch's version in 15th century Italy.




In the Middle Ages the “ascent” myth was known chiefly through Macrobius’s Commentary on the dream of Scipio (see  its section XII.13) and depictions of the so-called “cosmograph”, or map of the cosmos, in illuminated manuscripts. These "cosmographs" consist of a series of concentric circles, with the earth in the middle. One, now in Paris, was in the Visconti Library in 15th century Pavia (I thank Ross Caldwell, at

It is of particular interest for showing a series of monkish figures at various points in the journey, each one assisting the one below him (my scan from Roob, Alchemy and Mysticism, p. 283).


 foto 1



This illustration occurs in an untitled work variously given the title "Journey of the Soul" and "States of the Inner Man" (the latter by its translator Angus J. Braid in his book Mysticism and Heresy). These alternative titles exemplify the allegorical nature of the cosmograph: it is about a man or woman's inner spiritual state at  various levels, but expressed in terms of a physical journey through the spheres. The text of the manuscript speaks as though it is, in its higher levels, about the soul after death: e.g. (Braid, Mysticism and Heresy, p. 352)


...when the soul has divested itself of the body, it naturally tends toward wholeness and integration, because every created being, naturally seeks to return to union and completeness. Any occurrence of evil would , however, prevent such integration.


How a soul divested of the body can commit evil is not explained. But two sentences later, we see that the author is speaking metaphorically:


The felicities of the denuded life of the soul - i.e. when it has freed itself from corporeal concerns - are found to be ten in number...


I count 33 levels in the illumination. The manuscript has 30, but the four elements are treated as one level. Also, the labels on the levels are not the same; the illuminator has used other sources. The manuscript divides the 30 into three groups: 10 "felicities" of the rational soul, 10 levels of the unified (i.e. divine) soul, and 10 "grades of misery" of the vicious soul, in the power of materiality. Together they constitute a program for turning away from the world and toward God.

Both the illumination and the text are influenced by the Byzantine theologian today called pseudo-Dionysius, thought in the Middle Ages to be “Dionysius the Areopagite” the disciple of St. Paul. St. Paul, of course, had spoken of one “caught up to the third heaven” (II Corinthians 12:2). But in his Celestial Hierarchies, a Christianization of the 5th century Neoplatonist Proclus, ps.-Dionysius turned Proclus's "Henads" into 9 choirs of angels, each at a different level, and related the Platonic ascent imagery found in Proclus (chiefly, quotations from the so-called "Chaldean Oracles) to numerous passages in the Bible. Correspondingly, nine of the levels of the "unified soul" in the manuscript I just discussed are named after these nine choirs of angels. Celestial Hierarchies had been translated into Latin several times in the Middle Ages. It was translated again in c. 1437 Florence, at Cosimo de’ Medici’s urging (Dennis Lackner,  "The Camaldolese Academy", in Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy, p. 19).

How the tarot sequence might have been influenced by ps-Dionysius, in this work and others, is a topic I have discussed at, in connection with the “Oracles” just mentioned. This group of sayings, found mainly in the works of  Proclus, was brought to the attention of the West by Gemistos Plethon, a Byzantine scholar who had visited Florence in 1437-1438 as part of the effort then to unite the Greek and Latin churches (where the chief translator was the same person who had translated ps.-Dionysius). But here I am going to focus on Plutarch, who came earlier than Proclus, ps.Dionysius, and even a little bit before the Chaldean Oracles.



Plutarch’s Moralia, in which On the Face that Appears in the Orb of the Moon appears, was for the most part unknown in Italy before the early 15th century. The first instance of the full collection of essays that I have been able to trace is a manuscript transcribed in Greece by Francesco Filelfo in the early 1420s, when he was there in the service of Venice. (Robin, Filelfo in Milan, p. 124, calls the Moralia "one of his most cherished works"; that it was "copied out in.his own hand" is on p. 251.) Filelfo brought his transcriptions to Florence in 1427 and took them with him when he left that city, going first to Siena, then Bologna, and then for most of the rest of his life, Milan, where he had the post of court poet, first for Filippo Visconti starting in 1438 and then to the Sforza after him. In Filelfo's own philosophical writings, his debt to Platonism is evident. But I have found only one aspect that corresponds specifically to Plutarch's essay, his failure  to say that individual souls are immortal (Robin p. 156), which we will see also in Plutarch.

Florence, Ferrara and other Italian cities undoubtedly, by the 1450s, had copies of the Moralia as well. In Florence, Ficino had an appreciation of the Platonism of Plutarch's time similar to that of Filelfo, although Filelfo also drew on Aristotle more than Ficino did.



In Plutarch’s essay

(*/D.html, or, with the Greek,, there are three parts to the human being: body, soul, and mind or spirit; this is his variation on the Platonic triad of the three parts of the soul. At death the body is separated from the other two  Here is a quote from Section 28 (943B, Loeb translation p. 199); I have left in the footnote numbers, although in this case all they do is refer us to the relevant classical sources):


As to the death we die, one death reduces man from three factors to two and another reduces him from two to one; 332 and the former takes place in the earth that belongs to Demeter (wherefore "to make an end" is called "to render one's life to her" and Athenians used in olden times to call the dead "Demetrians"), 334 the latter in the moon that belongs to Phersephonê...


The first death is what we see on the Death card, bodies returning to Demeter’s earth. But the soul--in Plutarch’s account, the combination soul/mind--is not affected and in fact is made lighter by this event.



Exactly which card follows Death varies from list to list in the early accounts. In the earliest one, that of the so-called “Steele Sermon”, the next card is the Devil. That is also true in the Florence-Bologna cards (so called "group A" order). From the Milan area, the first lists are later; they have the next card either as Temperance (Susio, 1525-1575) or as "Fama". (Alciati, 1544). In Piedmont, Piscina, whom I will cite later, also has Temperance after Death (although he does not locate either on the cosmograph, unlike the cards that follow). I take "Fama" to be somebody's attempt to imitate Petrarch in his Trionfi poem, where Fame outlasts Death. That idea did not catch on, so I will ignore it. But why is Temperance, a virtue eminently associated with the control of bodily appetites, put after Death? In this regard, the image is of interest from the perspective of the cosmograph.

If we take Death to correspond to the element of Earth in the cosmograph, then the next one up is either water or air. Sometimes water was the lowest element, and sometimes it was the second one.

It is possible that the Temperance card at some point corresponded to the sphere of water, seen as higher than earth. Here I want to caution that my speculation has nothing to do with Platonism or Plutarch, but only with the cosmograph. It strikes me that the soul leaving the body is like water being poured form one pitcher to another. If so, the first pitcher would the body; but what would the second be?  Here I will draw not on Plutarch but on Dante In  his Purgatorio Canto XXV, the soul acquires something like a body, but it is only air, like a rainbow formed by light shining on water-saturated air. Thus its body is air illumined by the soul. Here is a modern prose translation


of Dante's explanation, the most relevant part in bold print:


And when Lachesis [one of the Fates] has no more thread to draw, the soul frees itself from the flesh, taking both the human and divine powers: the other faculties falling silent: memory, intellect, and will far keener in action than they were before. It falls, by itself, wondrously, without waiting, to one of these shores: there it first learns its location.

    As soon as that place encircles it, the formative power radiates round, in quantity and form as in the living members: and as saturated air displays diverse colours, by the light of another body reflected in it, so the surrounding air takes on that form that the soul, which rests there, powerfully prints on it: and then, like the flame that follows fire wherever it moves, the spirit is followed by its new form.

    Since it is in this way that it takes its appearance, it is called a shadow: and in this way it shapes the organs of every sense including sight. In this way we speak, and laugh, form tears, and sighs, which you might have heard, around the mountain. The shade is shaped according to how desires and other affections stir us, and this is the cause of what you wondered at’.


Commentators on Dante call this insubstantial image the soul's "aerial body". That term is as good as any. Such a change in “vehicle”, as the body was sometimes called,  might be one interpretation of the Temperance card, and one reason for a placement after Death. It is not literally in the region of water after death, but it is like water poured from one pitcher, the material body, to another, the aerial body. If nothing else, the image offers itself to our contemplation of life after death.

It is possible that the placement of the card just before or after Death had nothing to do with the "aerial body". Temperance was traditionally represented by a lady pouring water from one vessel into another, either to dilute wine or to moderate hot water. If so, the association with water, relating to that element in the cosmograph, could still explain why it appears after Death, by the latter's association with earth.

The card's allegory, in appearing after the Death card, would in that case still need explaining. If we consider the separation of body from soul and spirit from an allegorical perspective, as a person's shifting his orientation away from the world and toward God, then temperance is the appropriate virtue, the control of bodily appetites by the rational soul.

However, in Plutarch's allegory,  as well as that of the tarot sequence, the immediate consequence is not, as we will see, "felicity", as in the medieval manuscript, but rather torment. Bodily desire fights back.



The next tarot card, whether after Temperance or Death, is the Devil, clearly pictured on all versions of the card. He is usually thought of as inhabiting a region below the earth. That does not fit the cosmograph very well. But on the early cards, the Devil is shown on the  surface, picking up souls either in his mouth or on a stick that conveys the soul into a basket





Moreover, such devils are invariably shown with wings. In medieval frescoes, demons were shown in the air contesting with angels for the souls of the newly departed, for example in a cemetery for nobles in Pisa (top of the page at, upper left of fresco). Augustine, too, speaks of demons as being in the air in. City of God VIII.14,; his only disagreement with the pagans is that they view the demons as good):


There is, say they, a threefold division of all animals endowed with a rational soul, namely, into gods, men, and demons. The gods occupy the loftiest region, men the lowest, the demons the middle region. For the abode of the gods is heaven, that of men the earth, that of the demons the air.


This interpretation of the region of air as the domain of demons is found also in a c.1565 interpretation of the tarot sequence, one of only two that have survived from its early two centuries (there are none from the 15th). Francesco Piscina writes

(; the translation below is a more literal version of the one that Tarotpedia gives; I thank Marco Ponzi for drawing my attention to this passage in this context):


Ma parendo hormai all' Autore d' haver posto imagini & essempi a bastanza di cose mortali e terrene, descende à por figure di cose più degne cioè celesti, ma per che secondo la dottrina de Filosofi la Natura non sopporta le mutationi troppo repentine, ne che si trapassi da l' un estremo all' altro senza debito mezo, perciò prima ch' ascendere alle cose celesti come termine estremo delle terrene pone essempi de Demoni, come che quasi essi se ben sono figliuoli degli Dei si come Melito interrogato da Socrate rispose cosi essere, non pero sono veramente ne terreni ne celesti. poscia che etiamdio è stato opinione di molti, & ispitialmente de Platonici, che siano i Demoni Spiriti che stanno fra l' Aria & che siano come certo mezo fra i Dij e gl' huomini.

(Since the Author appears to have established enough images and examples of mortal and terrestrial things, he moves to place figures of more worthy things, that is to say, celestial ones, in accord with the doctrine of Philosophy, that Nature does not allow changes that are too sudden, nor that move from one extreme to the other without giving the mean its due [debito], so that before ascending to celestial things as the extreme end of earthly things, it places examples of Demons [Demoni], being almost, and in fact which are sons of the Gods. As Meleto said in answer to Socrates' question, they are neither earthly nor celestial. It has been the opinion of many, and especially the Platonists, that the Demons are Spirits that are in the Air & are somehow in the middle between Gods and men).


Here is the relevant passage from Plato’s Apology. Socrates is questioning the prosecutor Meletus, who has charged Socrates with not believing in any gods:



....I believe in spiritual beings at any rate, according to your statement, and you swore to that in your indictment. But if I believe in spiritual beings, it is quite inevitable that I believe also in spirits; is it not so? It is; for I assume that you agree, since you do not answer. But do we not think the spirits are gods or children of gods? Yes, or no? “Certainly”.


The “Certainly” is Meletus’s reply. If Socrates believes in spirits, then of course he must also believe in gods, and Meletus, who affirms Socrates to be an atheist, is caught in a contradiction.

The word translated as “spirits” is the Greek “δαίμονας” 

(, first word), “daimonas”, which in Piscina becomes “demoni”. Platonists writing in Latin, such as Apuleius and Augustine, had in fact used the term “daemones” to refer to beings in the air, intermediate between men and gods (see Piscina is imagining a version of the cosmograph in which “demoni” are in the middle between terrestrial and celestial things. It is not only Piscina who speaks this way: Alciato in 1544 used the term "daemon".

In the next sentence Piscina discusses the Tower card:


Dietro i Demoni viene il Fuoco per debito mezo fra le stelle cose celesti, & le mondane...

(After the Demons, comes Fire, as the due mean between the stars, that are celestial, and mundane thing...)


If Fire is the realm of the next card, it is reasonable to suppose that Air was meant as the realm of the one preceding, given the Devil’s wings and the depictions of demons in the air. Augustine also puts demons in the air

For Plutarch, it is in the air between the earth and the Moon that he locates Hades, the pagan Hell (943D, Loeb p. 201):


All soul, whether without mind or with it, 337 when it has issued from the body 338 is destined to wander in the region between earth and moon but not for an equal time. Unjust and licentious souls pay penalties for their offences; but the good souls must in the gentlest part of the air, which they call "the meads of Hades," 339 pass a certain set time sufficient to purge and blow away the pollutions contracted from the body as from an evil odour. 340 Then, as if brought home from banishment abroad, they savour joy most like that of initiates, which attended by glad expectation is mingled with confusion and excitement. 341


Here the translator's footnote 339 is of interest, as a region of "dark air":


For the location of Hades cf. De Iside, 382E and the etymology in De Latenter Vivendo, 1130A (cf. Plato, Gorgias, 493B and Phaedo, 80D); for the identification of Hades with the dark air cf. [Plutarch], De Vita et Poesi Homeri, § 97; Philodemus, De Pietate, c. 13 (Dox. Graeci, p547b); Cornutus, c. 5 and c. 35; Heraclitus, Quaestiones Homericae, § 41


For good souls, who will proceed to the moon, Hades is more like Purgatory than Hell. As to where “home” is, the translator's footnote 341 is relevant:


For life on earth as the soul's exile from its proper home cf. De Exilio, 607C-E; and for the comparison with initiates and what follows in this vein a few lines below cf. fragment VI (VII, p23.4-17 [Bernardakis]).


But it is also a place filled with turbulence and terror. Plutarch says (Sect. 28, 943D, Loeb p. 203):


For many, even as they are in the act of clinging to the moon, she thrusts off and sweeps away; and some of those souls too that are on the moon they see turning upside down as if sinking again into the deep. 342


Also, the earth draws souls back to it by means of the shadow it casts when it is between the moon and the sun, which sometimes manifests as a lunar eclipse (Sect. 29, 944B, Loeb p. 209):


At the same time too with wails and cries the souls of the chastised then approach through the shadow from below. That is why most people have the custom of beating brasses during eclipses and of raising a din and clatter against the souls, 356 which are frightened off also by the so-called face when they get near it, for it has a grim and horrible aspect.


Of course Plutarch thinks the “face” is no such thing; I will get to that later.


Footnote 342 in the previous passage refers us to a description in The Genius of Socrates of the River Styx, interpreted as the path to this Hades above the earth



As the Styx draws near the souls cry out 125 in terror, for many slip off 126 and are carried away by Hades; others, whose cessation of birth [footnote 127: release from the cycle of birth and death] falls out at the proper moment, swim up from below 128 and are rescued by the Moon, the foul and unclean excepted. 129 These the Moon, with lightning and a terrible roar, forbids to approach, and bewailing their lot they fall away and are borne downward again to another birth, as you see.


We have here considerably more than a "due mean" between earth and sky, as in Piscina. The early Tower cards are similarly intense. Almost invariably, lightning coming from above wreaks destruction, with people falling as early as the so-called "Rothschild sheet"

(,  more dramatically in the  Tarot de Marseille. A similar such visitation from this region is one that Andrea cites as destroying the house and flocks Job’s elder son, an affliction from Satan. Such destruction from above is depicted on the Tower card, first called “Fuoco”, Fire, or “Sagitta/Saetta”, arrow, meaning thunder-bolt, then, sometime in the 16th century (e.g. by Susio), "Diavolo". Below is the Cary Sheet, a 16th century Venetian card (with a devil inside), the Noblet of Paris c. 1650 and the Vieville of around the same time and place.






It is still in the place Plutarch calls Hades. Such towers spouting fire were often depicted in images of Hades during the Renaissance. There is some similarity, too, to illustrations of the destruction by Satan of the house of Job's eldest son, as Andrea has shown. Another similarity is to depictions of the Tower of Babel, such as that below (with a devil in the same place as on the Venetian card), from Lydgate's Fall of Princes, a free translation of Boccaccio's Lives of Famous Men. 





Also similar, corresponding to the red and white falling circles on the Noblet, are the depictions of destructive hailstones and fireballs on contemporary illuminations of the Apocalypse: see; below are the hail and perhaps fire (the arrow-like objects) in the lower left of that image:





Such visions of the End Times do not negate Plutarch’s account. The tarot is of course filled with references to Christian imagery, here as elsewhere. Also, the imagery of the Apocalypse was frequently given an allegorical or moral meaning applying in the present. But that is not the only way the elite of the Renaissance would have seen the cards.

But why, if the imagery suggests Christianity, do we need Plutarch at all? one might ask. It is not a question of “need”. Literary texts and other works of art are subject to numerous interpretations; they do not in general say "Don't interpret me except literally!". Not only that, but they are produced with just that strategy in mind. To be memorable, a work must be both popular and have meaning that is not exhausted by a cursory reading. The usual way to achieve that end is to produce in such a way that while a satisfying conventional meaning can be grasped easily, others must be sought after and even debated. That is how to elude the censor, too. In any case, in the book of Revelation only scattered bits apply to the cards; and even then, the application is often strained; for example the sun in the Apocalypse is mentioned only in order to be outshone or eclipsed, whereas in Plutarch and Platonism generally (both pagan and Christian) the Sun is an image of God. In Plutarch, the whole last part, from Death to World, is in the last 3 sections, about three folio pages, of a 30 section work, with little that is extraneous to the subjects of the cards, all presented within one coherent philosophical context, the same Platonic context as that used by Augustine and early Christian writers, forming a narrative that relates to numerous details on the cards.

None of these details are necessary to play the card game, admittedly. Not much at all is needed for that. It is rather that Plutarch provides an allegorical narrative for the sequence that fits the cards in many details over a whole group of the cards, using an account that was of considerable interest in educated circles from the late 15th century to the 18th century. As allegory, it is one way of describing the ascent of the soul towards God in this life, in which the denial of the body's dictates, or more exactly, the soul's desires when oriented toward the body and material things, is a source of pain before it is a source of pleasure.



I will resume the narrative as Plutarch gives it. For those soul/minds that manage to survive the purges of the “Meads of Hades” (Plutarch’s version of Purgatory) there comes “joy most like that of initiates”, as quoted above. He continues (sect. 28, 943D, Loeb p. 203):


Those that have got up, however, and have found a firm footing first go about like victors crowned with wreaths of feathers called wreaths of steadfastness, 343 because in life they had made the irrational or affective element of the soul orderly and tolerably tractable to reason;...


It is here in the “Meads” that some soul/spirits go up, while those without a "firm footing"  have either stayed in Hades or descended to be born again on earth. In that way it is like Porphyry's allegorical interpretation of Homer's  "Cave of the Nymphs," where those souls destined to become gods, i.e. “daemons”, leave by one gate in this cave ("Capricorn"), and those not so destined leave by a different gate ("Cancer") that returns them to earth (see Andrea's essay, If so, the "cave", we can situate the "cave" into Plutarch's account as between the two, the earth and the heavenly bodies. the gates of "Capricorns" and "Cancer" will then be not the actual constellations, but rather in the cave under these constellations.

In the tarot at this point, starting with the Cary Sheet, we see a maiden with two jugs, similar to the nymph in the Hall of Psyche (Mantua late 1520s) that Andrea shows us in his essay.






In the fresco, we see on one side a stream trickling down, which I would interpret as the beginning of the River Lethe; the “water of forgetfulness” of which Plato spoke in the Republic's myth of Er. On the other side, where an old man  has two jugs, is a lake; that would be the Lake of Mnemosyne, Memory, whose water has the power to “Lethe’s fetters break”, as the Orphic Hymn to Mnemosyne says, thereby leading souls to the gods.

While the Cary Sheet has two jugs but only one body of water, it is possible that one jug forms a small stream in the later cards (as below center and right, Chosson, late 17th or early 18th century, and Dodal, c.1700).






To fit the schema of the cosmograph, the obvious problem is that the Stars appear in it after the Moon and Sun, not before. In other words, it is in the wrong place. One explanation (it is one given by Piscina, as we will see) for why the Star is lower than the Moon is that stars give out less light, and the "celestials" are placed in order of brightness, something easy to remember in the course of the game. That is certainly a good explanation, since after all the cards were for use in a game. But there is another way of looking at these particular versions of the card, when the game is done, namely, in terms of where the person with the jugs is. She is below the stars. The stars are significant as a goal, but she herself, like the nymphs is Porphyry's cave, is between the earth and the celestial bodies. In Plutarch's terms, she is in the upper part of Hades, where those destined for the Moon, having escaped the devils and the lightning, have now arrived.


There is something similar to the person with the two jugs in Dante’s Purgatorio, at the top of the Mount of Purgatory. Earlier, between the Terrace of the Lustful and the Earthly Paradise, Dante had to pass through a wall of fire. It is pictured (below) on one late 15th century illumination of Dante's text, done for a manager of the Medici Bank.

I show only the top portion; the whole illumination is at

Notice here the Moon directly overhead, and the stars and sun on either side. 






Beyond the wall of fire (i.e. the Arrow/Fire card), Dante in Canto XVIII encounters two streams, flowing from two sides of one spring at the very top (not pictured in the illumination, but corresponding to the streams flowing from the two jugs in the Cary Sheet Star card). Drinking from the first, called Lethe, causes Dante to forget everything of his earthly life, even Beatrice; being dunked into the second, which Dante gives the name "Eunoë" (i.e. "good knowledge"), causes him to remember his good deeds, so that he  recognizes Beatrice again. By drinking both, with the celestial bodies (the Stars) above him, Dante is eligible to enter Paradise, whose first station will be the sphere of the Moon.




The next step on the soul’s journey in Plutarch's account is also that of the Moon. Andrea has quoted from that account, but there is more that is of interest. Here is where Plutarch explains the features that people imagine as a face (Sect. 29, 944B-C, Loeb p. 209, 211)


It is no such thing, but just as our earth contains gulfs that are deep and extensive, 358 one here pouring in towards us through the Pillars of Heracles and outside the Caspian and the Red Sea with its gulfs, 359 so those features are depths and hollows of the moon. The largest of them is called 360 "Hecatê's Recess," 361 where the souls suffer and exact penalties for whatever they have endured or committed after having already become Spirits; 362 and the two long ones are called "the Gates", 363 for through them pass the souls now to the side of the moon that faces heaven and now back to the side that faces earth.364


Hecate is a Greek triple goddess, of the Underworld (as Hecate/Persephone), earthly (as the huntress Diana), and of the moon (as Selene). The “Gates”—as in Porphyry’s Cave—lead in two directions, one back to the earth, and the other to the other side of the Moon, that facing the heavens. However unlike souls lower down, the ones returning to earth do not get reborn in bodies but rather are to return as daimons, to tend oracles and assist in worthy causes (Sect. 30, 944C-D, Loeb p. 211). 


Yet not forever do the Spirits tarry upon the moon; they descend hither to take charge of oracles, they attend and participate in the highest of the mystic rituals, they act as warders against misdeeds and chastisers of them, and they flash forth as saviour a manifest in war and on the sea. 367


"Flashing forth as saviors" is an allusion, the Loeb translator tells us, to the Dioscuri, the twins, whom Roman soldiers sometimes seemed to see aiding them in battle. Even such purified spirits, however, since they still have the emotional part that Plutarch calls “soul”,  may slip up and then have to pay the penalty (944D, Loeb p. 211):


For any act that they perform in these matters not fairly but inspired by wrath or for an unjust end or out of envy they are penalized, for they are cast out upon earth again confined in human bodies. 368


For the Christian seeking closeness to God in this life, such souls returning to earth corresponds to clergy or lay people at a sufficient stage of enlightenment to help others in the ascent, where the dnger, of course, is that the others may bring them down to their level.

Since being eligible for either Gate would depend on having been purged sufficiently on this side of the moon, we would expect there to be guardhouses that admit only those qualified: hence the two towers on the Moon card, seen from the Cary Sheet on. The lake at the bottom of the card then corresponds to “Hecate’s Recess” (Plutarch 944B-C quoted above), a place of punishment for those still too attached to materially oriented emotions. The giant crayfish is on the one hand the familiar sea monster of myth and legend, and on the other hand the creature associated astrologically with the Moon. The apparent eclipse of the sun as to the fearsomeness of the scene. Whether there are dogs on the Cary Sheet I don't know. Next to the lake are either two very long dogs or two crocodiles. (Below, Cary Sheet c. 1500, Noblet c. 1650, Conver 1761). 





Souls allowed to pass through the Gate leading to the other side are, in Plutarch’s myth, now invited to contemplate the next stage on their journey, that to the sun, having separated from the soul. There they receive the “ultimate alteration” (944E, Loeb p. 213)


They achieve it, some sooner and some later, once the mind has been separated from the soul. 373 It is separated by love for the image in the sun through which shines forth manifest the desirable and fair and divine and blessed towards which all nature in one way or another yearns.



On the Moon, spirit separates from soul, just as on earth the spirit-soul combination separated from body. On the Cary Sheet card reconstructed (colored part) from the extant right half, all we see--perhaps-- is a boy or cherub in triumph below the sun. That, it seems to me, is the spirit in triumphant separation from soul, inspired by the Sun. The PMB card, which shows an even younger card.dancing on a cloud and reaching for the sun, seems to me a similar allegory, as does the 1650 Vieville version, very similar to the Cary Sheet but with the addition of a horse. 





On the 16th century “Sforza Castle” Sun card, however (at left below), there are a man and a woman, with an air of sadness (clearer in Noblet, Paris c. 1650; of which I give Flornoy's restoration). 






In Latin, “soul”, “anima”, is a feminine noun and “intellectus” and “spiritus” masculine. The separation of two such companions would indeed be sad, even though it is the condition for further progress. The sadness of at least the left-hand figure persists even when the two figures are both male (for two early examples, see Plutarch says that the separation leaves the soul “deserted and alone” (944F, Loeb p. 215), and it becomes absorbed into the substance of the Moon.

To the extent that soul, with its emotions and memories, is the essence of a person's individuality, it is possible that Plutarch thought that if what persists at the sun is merely our reasoning ability in relation to the eternal archetypes, it no longer possesses individuality. A similar consideration may have induced Filelfo not to speak of the immortality of individual souls in his late philosophical writings, as I mentioned earlier. It is the level, rarely attained in this life, of the spirit so entirely devoted to God that there is no ego consciousness whatsoever.

Before birth, on the way down from the sun, new minds (from the Sun) join with new souls (from the Moon’s supply of soul substance, as Andrea has observed); that would be joyous. But on the way up the separation is both joyous and sad. In each case, the scene on the Sun card is actually on the surface of the Moon. The Sun is the goal and source.



The spirit/mind’s ascent to its final reward is then depicted on the Angel card;, which since the earliest known cards has always literally depicted the Last Judgment (below, the earliest known card, for Filippo Visconti before 1447, followed by the PMB, done for the Sforza regime that followed, sometime between 1452 and 1463).






The lower figures (except for one that might be Christ)  are looking upwards hopefully instead of at each other sadly. For Plutarch in The Face that Appears in the Moon, it would the beginning of mind’s journey to the sun--and soul's gradual re-absorption into the moon (944E-F, Loeb p. 215):


The substance of the soul is left upon the moon and retains certain vestiges and dreams of life as it were; it is this that you must properly take to be the subject of the statement Soul like a dream has taken wing and sped... [Note 376: Odyssey XI.222]


True, it is heaven or God and not the Sun that they are looking at. This card simply shows the conventional Christian Last Judgment. Beyond the visible world is the invisible, as the pagan Neoplatonists after Plutarch agreed, and even Plutarch sometimes, notably in On the Genius of Socrates, where he speaks of something beyond the sun, the invisible.



There Plutarch compares the substances of mind and soul with the thread woven by the three Fates. In the Renaissance, the Fate holding the spindle was identified with Clotho. Examples are at


In On the Genius of Socrates, Clotho is identified with the Sun, and so is forming the thread of mind (591B-C, at*/B.html#T591b;

this reference was pointed out by Ross Caldwell on THF)


Four principles there are of all things: the first is of life, the second of motion, the third of birth, and the last of decay; the first is linked to the second by Unity at the invisible, 121 the second to the third by Mind at the sun, and the third to the fourth by Nature at the moon.122 A Fate, daughter of Necessity, holds the keys and presides over each link: over the first Atropos, over the second Clotho, and over the link at the moon Lachesis.


This is where there is a  realm of the "invisible", or "Unity", higher than that of the sun. Atropos is assigned to that one, and Clotho to the sun. Perhaps correspondingly (we cannot always be sure why the images are as they are!), Clotho is on some early Sun card, the “Charles VI” of late 15th century Florence.and the Rothschild sheet of the same place early in the 16th century.




In On the Face that Appears in the Orb of the Moon, however, Plutarch identifies Clotho with the Moon (945C, Loeb p. 221) :


Of the three Fates too Atropos enthroned in the sun initiates generation, Clotho in motion on the moon mingles and binds together, and finally upon the earth Lachesis too puts her hand to the task, she who has the largest share in chance


The order is the same, but now there is no "invisible" realm to come first. Corresponding to that version, perhaps coincidentally, Vieville in c. 1650 Paris put the image of Clotho on his Moon card.



In his c. 1565 Discourse, Piscina sees the Moon and the Sun in terms of this same progression, as expressed in the cosmograph. He explains why the Moon is lower than the Sun in the allegorical terms of the game of “triumphs”. Notice that he gives several explanations; he feels no need to insist on just one, and dismiss others as unnecessary. Of these, the last is in terms of the cosmograph; I highlight it in bold.


...ora havendo noi da entrare nelle cose celesti vedremmo l' Inventore haver osservato un bellissimo ordine, come che dij gran ornamento e splendore alle cose (si come nel principio di questo nostro Discorso habbiamo provato) pone adunque prima cose ch' appariscano la notte come ch' ella sij d' assai da meno dil giorno come adesso vi sarra manifesto cio è le stelle. che le notti serene veggiamo comparere & la Luna, la quale e vinta e superata dal Sole, e ciò per dimonstrarci molte e diverse cose, fra quali per essempio e maggior chiarezza queste bastaranno, e prima volendo significare, di quanto maggior utile e dignità sia il giorno nel qual il Sol luce, della Notte, nella qual la Luna risplende, e etiamdio più degno il Sol della Luna, avvengha che ogni giorno faci il suo corso, & che non possi star ne essere il Giorno senza splendore dil Sole, ma si ben la Notte senza il lume della Luna, conciòsiache la veggiamo alcune volte non comparere, se ben in tempo serenissimo, per questa cagione ancora il Sol vince la Luna, come e più utile d' essa all' humana generatione, [21] ma finalmente concludendo si può dire, che il Sol sij maggior della Luna, e per ciò la vinca, per che egli è in più alto cielo situato della Luna, la qual affermano gl' Astrologi essere nel infimo Cielo: ma il Sole, nel quarto. Il che perche è manifesto e chiaro a ognuno, non ne dirò più oltre.

(Now, entering celestial things, we will see the most beautiful order followed by the Inventor, giving things the greatest ornament and splendour (as we have proven at the beginning of this Discourse). He places first those things that appear at night, since it is much less worthy than the day, as you will now see, i.e. the stars, that appear in cloudless nights, and the Moon, which is won and surpassed by the Sun. In this way he shows many and diverse things among which for example (and for greater clarity they will be enough) firstly he [or it] represents that the day, when the Sun gives light, is of greater utility and dignity than the Night, when the Moon shines, and also that the Sun is more worthy than the Moon. It happens that the Sun makes his course every day, and that there cannot be a Day without the splendour of the Sun, but there can be a Night without the light of the Moon, because we see that sometimes it does not appear, even if the weather is perfectly clear. Moreover the Sun wins the Moon because she [or it] is more useful to human life. Finally, in conclusion, we can say that the Sun is more powerful than the Moon and wins on it because he is placed in a higher heaven [cielo] than the Moon, which according to the Astrologers is in the lowest Heaven, while the Sun is in the fourth.


Why the Star is lower than the Moon is not totally clear. Presumably it is because they are of the night, which is less "worthy" and "useful" then the day, because it gives us less light and heat. Since stars shed less light than the Moon, they are less worthy and thus lower. Piscina invokes the cosmograph, among other things, for the Sun’s priority over the Moon (“he [or it] is placed in a higher heaven”). But that won’t work for the Star. If the Sun is more "worthy" than the Moon, because it gives less light, and the stars are therefore less "worthy" than either, their lower position would be an exception to the rule that the cards from Death to the World reflect the cosmograph, an exception made for the sake of easy recognition of the cards by a simple rule, that of brightness. After all, these are cards used to play a game, where there is a need for easy and quick recognition. However, as I have already said, from the point of view of the person on the card, the cosmograph still fits: the Stars are above her (or perhaps him), just as they are for Dante in the "Earthly Paradise", and, in my assumption, for Porphyry's nymphs in their cave, since one gate from there goes up and the other goes down. 


The highest heaven of all, in the cosmograph, is the goal, God’s Heaven, sometimes called the Empyrian. It corresponds to the "invisible" in Plutarch's On the Genius of Socrates. In Plato's Republic, it would be the Good, of which the sun is merely an image. It is not clear in Plutarch that the intellect at that point retains its individual identity, since all that is left is the reasoning power and its apprehension of the eternal archetypes. However Christianity, with its resurrection of the body, has no such problems. So Piscina can conclude:


Ma volendo finalmente l' Inventore con uno honorato e Cristiano fine fornir queste sue figure sotto le quali ha insegnato & accennato molti costumi, & amaestramenti Civili, hà posto per ultimo ritratto il Paradiso Celeste, nel qual Triomphano l' anime Beate, & vi ha fatto dipingere un Agnolo che cantando e sonando s' allegri di quelli Spiriti benedetti i quali la gratia d' Iddio prima e l' opere sue bone gl' hanno fatti degni di quella felicissima e sempiterna quiete

(Since the Inventor wanted to conclude his figures, with which he has taught and illustrated many civil lessons, with an honoured and Christian end, he placed as last the image of Celestial Paradise, where blessed souls triumph. There he depicted an Angel that, singing and playing, rejoices of those blessed Spirits that were made worthy of that most happy eternal rest firstly by the grace of God, and by their own good deeds).


Piscina, familiar with the Piedmont game, ends with the Judgment card, but sees it in a way that corresponds to the top of the cosmograph. Resurrection of the body is of course not a Platonic concept and is not in Plutarch. .The nearest equivalent is the journey beyond the moon, or even the whole ascent from the earth.



Before the Judgment card, Piscina puts the World card, which depicts the four Evangelists, whose teachings must be accepted to gain entry to Paradise.


...considerando egli che benche la misericordia d' Iddio Ottimo e Grandissimo sij immensa, infinita, & incomparabile, che nondimeno bisogna ben operare a conseguir la gloria del Paradiso, il che hanno insegnato i Santissimi Evangelisti, perciò ha prima dell' imagine del Paradiso fatto un ritratto d' essi quattro Evangelisti, intesi e significati pelle quattro insegne, Angelo, Bue, Aquila e Lione, le quali denotano quelli quattro Famosissimi e Sacrosanti Sostentacoli della soave & infallibil fede di Giesu Cristo.


(He considered that, although the mercy of our Good and Great God is immense, infinite & incomparable, nevertheless it is necessary to act well in order to gain the glory of Paradise, as taught by the Holy Evangelists. So, before the image of Paradise, he made a portrait of these four Evangelists, intended and signified by the four symbols, Angel, Ox, Eagle and Lion, who represent those four most Famous and Holy Pillars of the sweet and infallible faith in Jesus Christ).


Below left is the "Sforza Castle" card, unknown date but c. 1600 or before, probably the closest to what Piscina has in front of him; I follow it with Noblet, as restored by Flornoy, and Vieville, both Paris c. 1650).





In other regions of Italy and in France, the World was the last card, and the Angel the means of entry. The Sforza (PMB) card, of the 1460s or 1470s, shows  two cherubs pointing to a castle in a bubble


It looks to me like a vision of the New Jerusalem; we are at the top of the cosmograph. By Piscina's time it had the symbols of the four Evangelists in the corner. Piscina says that the World is in the center. 


Hora la figura del mondo in mezo questi quattro Santi Evangelisti l' Autore hà posto, per insegnarci che il mondo non puo star senza religione i precetti, della quale hanno scritto questi Santissimi Evangelisti.


(Now, the Author has placed the image of the world in the middle of these four Holy Evangelists, in order to teach us that the world cannot be without religion, whose precept has been written by these Holy Evangelists).


Perhaps he is remembering the World-Soul of Plato's Timaeus and the Neoplatonists, the anima mundi. On the card, an androgynous figure is inside a mandorla, a shape which usually enclosed Christ or the Virgin. The figure inside could be either. It is again the entry into Paradise, the top of the cosmograph.



The only other known  early commentary on the tarot, the “Anonymous Discourse",  like Piscina's, is from around 1465; but the language in which it is written, as well as the order of the cards, betrays a more eastern locale, probably, according to his translators, mid-peninsula on the eastern side,south of Ferrara.

First, Anonymous's general characterization of the trumps is of interest because it shows some similarity with the manuscript I started with. Here is the relevant passage, from Explaining the Tarot: Two Italian Renaissance Essays on the Meaning of the Tarot Pack, ed. and trans. by Caldwell, Depaulis, and Ponzi, pp. 52ff. My translation is a  more literal version of theirs:


Quindi considerando il savio Authore il corso della vita humana nelle delite terrane in tutto avilluppata et per breve che sia senza giannai tiempirsi, maggior cosse sempre brama, le qual in poco d'hora nelle Morte si perdono, et che tutto cio è una espressa et chiarissima pazzia in verse belle figure inanzi agli occhi ce le pone accioche conoscendo ciascuno le proprie passioni et li suoi errori, lasciando le vanità et li brevissimi et dannosi piaceri da parte alzi la mente ala contemplatione di Dio, et percio aggiuse al suo bellissimo gioco XXII figure hieroglifice che rappresentano diversi oggetti, volendo nel giuco che in diferto delle Carte dei quatro supplissero et chiamamoli Trionfi, sendo proprij affetti, et passioni che degli huomini tronfano. Quindeci de quali insieme con le quattro professioni sopraditte dal principio sino  all' estremo fine della attiva dichiarano, et gli altri sette la contemplativa con il suo fine, ch' è Iddio.

(The wise Author, considering how the course of human life is always diverted in worldly delights and, however short, is never satisfied and always craving more, which things in a little time are lost in Death, and that all is expressly and clearly madness, places these things before the eyes in various beautiful figures, so that all would know their own passions and errors, leaving behind vanity and short and harmful pleasures and lifting their minds to the contemplation of God. Therefore he added to his most beautiful game XXII hierogliphic figures representing different objects, wanting that in the Game when lacking Cards of the four [suits]  they would be supplied with them, calling them Triumphs, being that which properly triumphs over the affects and passions of men. Fifteen of them, together with the aforesaid four professions, from the beginning up to the extreme end of the active state, the other seven the contemplative life with its end, which is God).


Just as the 12th century manuscript has a division between those spheres that lead to God and those that tend to drag one down unless one is aware of what they do, so does Anonymous distinguish between cards that expose the transient concerns of this life from those devoted to contemplation of what is beyond this life .The difference is that in the tarot sequence only one third (as opposed to two thirds) is devoted to the higher life of contemplation.  

Those seven start with the Devil. He is not, however, put in a cosmograph, but  rather is the negative alternative for us in the afterlife; the contemplation of which leads us to love God, who has provided for our "perfect and  permanent happiness" ("felicita perfetta et permanenta", p. 60; for what follows, the Italian is on p. 62)


Onde egli per sua infinita bonta, et misericordia nel fine della vita nostra dalle mani del Diavolo ci sottragga, et ci faccia seco coheredi della vera sua gloria, et felita del Cielo,..

So that by his infinite bounty and mercy, at the end of our life he delivers from the hands of the Devil and makes us co-heirs with him of his true glory and the felicity of Heaven,...


 It is in discussing the next cards that the cosmograph enters in. I assume that "Cieli" in what follows is his name for the Fire/Arrow card, and that he is thinking of the part of the heavens from which lightning comes (p.62;  . quindi accrescendo et con gli occhi et con  l’intelleto ai Cieli, la Stella, la Luna, et il Sole, le supranaturali fatture de Dio, cosi nello stellato, et fisso come nei mobili Planeti il Mondo, il quali dalla propria di ciascuno intelligenza depende ch' è l'Angelo, il quale li governa, et muove in virtù del primo Motore, ch' è il grande et immortale Iddio rappresentato per la Giustitizia, percioche nel giorno del Guidicio si mostrera giustiss[im]o Giudice et severo retribuendo a ciascuno secondo l'opere sue.


L'ultima figura e il Mondo di niente da lui fatto, il quale si come ogni cosa comprende, cosi anco questo gico concludo, il quale e una vera imagine et ritratto del naturale di tutto quello, che nel' huomo,il quale e un picciol mondo, si contiene.


(Therefore we rise with our eyes and intellects to the Heavens, the Star, the Moon, and the Sun, the supernatural creatures of God,  so in the fixed stars as in the mobile Planets, the World. Each of them depends on its own intelligence, which is the Angel, who governs and moves them, in virtue of the first Mover, who is the great and immortal God. He is represented by Justice, because at Judgement day he will be a most righteous and severe Judge, repaying everyone according  to their deeds.


The last figure is the World, which he created from nothing; since it includes everything, it also includes this game, which is a true image and portrait of all that is contained in man, who is a little world).


This is the articulation of a cosmograph both outside us and within (as a "little universe", as in the hermetic "as above, so below"), but ending with the Cosmos rather than the Celestial Paradise. In Italian, as in Latin before that, "il Mondo" can mean either "the world" ( i.e. the earth, the globe) or "the universe". The context makes it clear that he means the latter. The contemplation of the Cosmos confirms our admiration for God, who is at the top as "first Mover". Anonymous speaks of Justice here because in the B order, Justice is second to the last, meaning God's justice rather than humans.

My guess is that since Anonymous does not mention the Evangelists, he is probably not looking at a Milan-style World card, but rather something like the c. 1473 d' Este or the 1460s-1470s Charles VI (both below), which show a circle with castle-studded hills or mountains in it, like the land in central Italy where Anonymous probably lived (according to Caldwell, Depaulis, and Ponzi's introduction).  





A variation on this depiction is that of the "Rothschild Sheet", early 16th century,, which divides the circle into quarters, probably representing the four elements.

This style of card continued in the Bolognese Tarocchini,

from p. 32 of Vitali and Zanetti's Il Tarocchino di Bologna, said there to be 17th century).



You will have noticed Anonymous's use of the term "hieroglyphic figures". This does not refer to anything Egyptian, but rather to the idea that hieroglyphs were just any picture-writing  used for sacred things, where the meaning of these pictures is not what is literally depicted but rather something quite different, that bears some analogy to that object, but not anything obvious, or even anything that a non-learned person would know about (see my essay at

The term "allegory" is similar, although with more history behind it ("hieroglyph" was known only from a small number of sources) and so of looser applicability. In one common sense of the term, an allegorical figure is a concrete image that stands for an abstract concept, i.e. a woman with scales for justice. In another sense, "allegorical" means a type of interpretation, in which a narrative overtly about one thing has another meaning that is hidden and is only revealed by the interpretation, whose relationship to the original can at best be known in the context of the whole narrative. (Some quotes from The Cambridge Companion to Allegory expanding on  this point are in my THF post at and the one following.) For example, orthodox Christianity interprets the Old Testament in terms of the New, seen as a continuation of the Old.  A Gnostic Christian narrative might reveal a quite different interpretation of the same Old Testament text. Mostly, in the medieval and Renaissance period, the interpretations were unstated, and if they had to do with the afterlife, even unstable. As St. Paul had said, "Videmus nunc per speculum in enigmate", Now we see through a mirror in enigmas.

So a picture of some stars, if it is a hieroglyph, is not about stars, or even the concept of a star.. What it is, is a matter of context, both internal and external. Similarly, an account of the moon by a Platonist such as Plutarch would in one sense--since he discusses how big it is, what it consists of (rocks, mountains, hollows), etc. in terms of what can be deduced from observation--be taken as about the concrete object known to astronomy. But in so far as he talks about the rewards and  punishment of souls--the parts I have been quoting here--he would have been taken as speaking allegorically, since none of this is inference from observation.


Renaissance thinkers typically did keep these two discussions separate. "Astronomia" and "Philosophia" were different subjects.  However they had many interrelationships were frequently not kept distinct even by educated people such as Piscina and Anonymous. So we see them on the one hand talking about the actual entities Moon, Sun, etc.and on the other hand about their allegorical significance, in relation to the "inner man" and the relationship to God, but not distinguishing clearly one discourse from the other.


Neither Piscina nor Anonymous, I want to make clear, is making any reference to Plutarch or any doctrine like his. They only have to do with the cosmograph, seen as a map of the heavens (and sometimes  allegorically as well, of the "inner man"); they serve to show that its applicability to the tarot sequence was a natural interpretation in the second half of the 16th century, if not before.


Plutarch is relevant only to a philosophical/psychological approach to the cosmograph, in terms of the soul's allegorical journey, inner and otherwise, in terms that are similar to but also different from Christian doctrine. He is a rich source of meaning, with imagery that connects to man of the details on the Milan-based cards. His writings provide a layer of meaning that would, in the Renaissance and after, have made of these cards a valuable visual commentary on humanity's place in the cosmos and the inner emotional and intellectual process of freeing the mind from the vagaries of materially oriented desire and fulfilling the desire of oneness with God in this life. There are Christian accounts of that project, e.g. the "Imitation of Christ" texts of the time, that bear some similarity to Plutarch's; and even ones in terms of the cosmograph, e.g.. the 12th century manuscript, but this is the only one I know that presents the project in a cosmograph that also fits the last part of the tarot sequence.