The Game of Saturn
The Game of Saturn
Peter Mark Adams
Limited to 71 copies; bound in quarter black python and shantung with custom marbled endpapers, all edges red under gold, presented in a solander box
– Sold out
Standard hardback edition
Limited to 800 copies; bound in black shantung cloth with imperial purple endpapers
– Sold out
Bibliothèque Rouge edition
High quality paperback; isbn 3786393596
4to (280 × 222 mm)
Extensively illustrated in full colour throughout
The Game of Saturn is the first full length, scholarly study of the enigmatic Renaissance masterwork known as the Sola-Busca tarot. It reveals the existence of a pagan liturgical and ritual tradition active amongst members of the Renaissance elite and encoded within the deck. Beneath its beautifully decorated surface, its imagery ranges from the obscure to the grotesque; we encounter scenes of homoeroticism, wounding, immolation and decapitation redolent of hidden meanings, violent transformations and obscure rites.
For the first time in over five hundred years, the clues embedded within the cards reveal a dark Gnostic grimoire replete with pagan theurgical and astral magical rites. Careful analysis demonstrates that the presiding deity of this ‘cult object’ is none other than the Gnostic demiurge in its most archaic and violent form: the Afro-Levantine serpent-dragon, Ba’al Hammon, also known as Kronos and Saturn, though more notoriously as the biblical Moloch, the devourer of children.
Conveyed from Constantinople to Italy in the dying years of the Byzantine Empire, the pagan Platonist George Gemistos Plethon sought to ensure the survival of the living essence of Neoplatonic theurgy by transplanting it to the elite families of the Italian Renaissance. Within that violent and sorcerous milieu, Plethon’s vision of a theurgically enlightened elite mutated into its dark shadow – a Saturnian brotherhood, operating within a cosmology of predation, which sought to channel the draconian current to preserve elite wealth, power and control. This development marks the birth of an ‘illumined elite’ over three centuries before Adam Weishaupt’s ‘Illuminati.’ The deck captures the essence of this magical tradition and constitutes a Western terma whose talismanic properties may serve to establish an initiatory link with the current.
This work fully explores the historical context for the deck’s creation against the background of tense Ferrarese-Venetian diplomatic intrigue and espionage. The recovery of the deck’s encoded narratives constitutes a significant contribution to Renaissance scholarship, art history, tarot studies and the history of Western esotericism.
I · Decoding the Deck’s Hidden Symbolism
The deck’s structure and major themes
Hidden meanings and ancient lore
The esoteric worldview of the Renaissance elite
The Alexandrian theme
The Babylonian theme
The Carthaginian thesis
II · The Rites of Ammon and the Cult of Saturn
The rites of Ammon
The Ferrarese cult of Saturn
III · Theurgy, Ritual Magic and Sorcery
The theory and practice of theurgy and magic
Sexual magic and alchemy
IV · Art, Diplomacy and Espionage
The deck’s origins
Diplomacy and espionage
V · Conclusions
i · Evidence that the Sola-Busca’s design was derived from a literary rather than an artistic blueprint
ii · Hidden codes and secret ciphers
iii · Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato
The Sola-Busca is the oldest complete tarocchi in existence. It is also one of the first to be produced using copperplate engraving, a fact that accounts for its high quality and fine detail. Dating from the late 15th century, it appears to have been commissioned by or for a Venetian patrician. It therefore offers a unique opportunity to explore certain heterodox and libertine currents within the culture of both the Ferrarese and Venetian elite at the height of Venice’s wealth and power. The deck has been carefully preserved and handed down from generation to generation for over five centuries. It received its designation from the surnames of its last private owners, the Marquise Antoinette Busca and her husband Count Andrea Sola-Cabiati. Purchased by the Italian Ministry of Culture and Heritage in 2009, it is now held at the Pinacoteca di Brera art gallery in Milan.
Apart from its historical importance, the deck is significant on account of its intrinsic quality. A Renaissance masterwork, it is perhaps the finest tarocchi deck in conception and execution of this, or any other, age. The deck is also interesting for less obvious reasons. First and foremost, it is not what it represents itself to be. On the surface the trumps appear to depict figures from the Republican era of Roman history and the court cards, key figures from the life and times of Alexander the Great; but as we will see, both of these explanations merely serve to disguise the deck’s deeper layers of meaning. Uniquely for a tarocchi of this or any other age its imagery makes no reference whatsoever to Christianity – even the minimal reference of the traditional tarot theme of the Last Judgment is absent.
Playing cards were first introduced into Europe from the Islamic world at an unknown date. The earliest documented evidence of their presence occurs in the late 14th century. The cards are described as being composed of four suits: cups, polo sticks, swords and discs. Each suit consisted of ten numbered and three court cards. Tarocchi evolved from decks like this through the addition of a fifth suit of twenty-two trump cards. The word ‘trump’ is derived from ‘triumph,’ or trionfo in Italian, and indicates one of the major sources of the imagery used in their design. Triumphs, dating from ancient Rome, were civic processions in honour of a successful general. In the Middle Ages they were enacted to welcome visiting royalty and for major civic and religious festivities. These ideas were subsequently amplified by the addition of traditional themes such as depictions of the cardinal and theological virtues, astral and mythological figures and religious iconography.
By the 15th century the triumphal processions described in Dante’s Commedia, Boccaccio’s Amorosa Visione and Petrarch’s Trionfo increasingly appeared as themes in paintings. These representations added to the common stock of imagery to be drawn upon in the design of some of the earliest tarocchi. The existence of these stock images helps to explain the uniformity of imagery that we see in tarocchi across Europe.
In this respect, however, the Sola-Busca is quite idiosyncratic. For although the deck has the structure of a standard tarocchi – twenty-two trump cards, four suits each made up of ten numbered cards and four court cards for a total of seventy-eight cards – there, all resemblance to any other tarocchi begins and ends. Since the deck is divided into the three sections that characterise standard tarocchi (trumps, court cards and suit cards) we can briefly summarise the main features of each.
Regarding the trumps, with the possible exception of two cards, none of them shares any recognisable features, imagery or symbolism with any of the other ‘standard’ patterns of tarocchi. Instead, for the most part, they depict male military figures dressed in armour and, in many cases, bearing arms. Each trump has been provided with a name. Some of these names are recognisable family names from Roman history, others are completely unknown. But given the fact that certain Roman families dominated its political and military life for centuries, the names could relate to as many as a dozen different people spread over the course of five centuries. One of our tasks, therefore, is to try and see if we can narrow down which individual is being referred to by looking for any additional clues that the cards might have to offer. If we can isolate a specific individual we can then look at their biography for further leads to explain their presence in the deck. Some of the named trumps cannot be located in any of the popular historical accounts of Roman history, such as Livy’s History of Rome or Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans, and this fact constitutes another puzzle. Who or what do these figures represent? The various actions the figures are engaged in are also puzzling. The scenes depicted on the trumps range from the obscure to the grotesque, from unintelligible ritual gestures to scenes depicting wounding and decapitation. One trump (VIII Nerone) depicts a baby either being held over or thrown into the flames of a small fire. What exactly is going on here?
The court cards include names almost exclusively associated with the life and times of Alexander the Great. However, none of them reference the historical exploits for which he was renowned. Instead we are introduced to the tall tales and fantastic exploits of the Alexander Romance literature. Given the diversity and fantastic nature of these tales, what narrative, if any, connects the characters depicted in the deck?
Regarding the suit cards, the Sola-Busca is the first, and for the next five hundred years the only, tarocchi deck to feature fully illustrated suit cards. Each card is decorated with an imaginative theme involving the suit emblem. Some are suggestive of distinctly ‘alchemical’ operations, others involve mythical creatures, grotesqueries or people caught in strangely contorted poses. Still others display an unmistakably homoerotic content. On a historical note, photographs of the deck were displayed at the British Museum in 1907. They were viewed there by Pamela Colman Smith, the illustrator of the popular Waite-Smith tarot deck, who made them the basis for the design of some of that deck’s suit cards. These images have subsequently been carried forward to every deck derived from the Waite-Smith, which constitutes the vast majority of the tarot decks in use around the world today. In this way the influence of the Sola-Busca’s designs has, largely unknowingly, been perpetuated throughout the world.
This brief summary of some of the deck’s main features does not throw any light on the deck’s purpose, but it does allow us to form some conclusions about what the deck was not designed or used for. The deck’s homoerotic imagery, its ambiguities of identity and various gruesome scenes surely precluded its use either as an educational aid or a sumptuous wedding present. Given the fact that in the 15th century homosexual acts were criminal offences, some warranting capital punishment, this surely indicates that the deck was only ever meant for private viewing within an intimate circle. Finally, the deck’s near perfect condition after some five hundred years indicates that it was rarely, if ever, used for casual gaming.
The only conclusion that we can draw from these facts is that if, indeed, the deck is a tarocchi deck, it is utterly unique and needs to be approached on its own terms, rather than by comparison with other historical decks. Rather than working from established traditions of tarocchi iconography; it is as though the deck’s designer took a blank sheet of paper and started afresh to design a rich, complex, artefact utilising the broadest range of literary and historical sources; he then converted his design into unique images replete with linguistic puzzles and ambiguities and, ultimately, created a deck of gaming cards.
The primacy of literary and historical sources in the deck’s design
Describing the deck as primarily inspired by literary and historical, rather than artistic, sources provides us with a distinct perspective and approach to the interpretation of its imagery. Although the deck illustrates people and events from a number of key texts, the choice of names assigned to the cards, or combination of names and symbols, has in all cases been derived from sources which, by and large, lack imagery.
The literary nature of the deck is evidenced by the fact that it is possible to exchange many of the names assigned to both the trump and court cards with no loss of meaning whatsoever. In other words, the weight of reference within the deck is borne by the names assigned to the cards rather than by their imagery, which, in many cases, appears to serve a purely decorative purpose. This general rule does not apply, however, to a relatively small number of cards whose symbolic content and assigned names form a synthesis directing us beyond their associated historical and literary narratives towards a deeper, underlying worldview; and yet another distinctive group of cards that appear to depict ritual actions.
One of the stranger features of the deck is its repeated reference to Carthage. Carthage (the modern Tunis) was a city state founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BCE. Situated on the coast of North Africa, it commanded the narrow straits that separate Africa from Sicily and the eastern and western basins of the Mediterranean. With Rome’s continued southerly expansion into new territories conflicts of interest soon evolved into all-out warfare. In the 2nd to 3rd centuries BCE Rome and Carthage engaged in a series of three major wars, wars that inaugurated the Roman colonisation of North Africa.
Historical, Neoplatonic and Magical Texts
Many of the names assigned to the deck’s trump cards appear to have been derived from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans, a text that was also used extensively by Shakespeare as source material for his Roman plays. Whereas Shakespeare selected characters whose narratives leant themselves to heroic dramatisation, in comparison the deck’s choice of names – including marginal, unknown and disreputable figures – is highly idiosyncratic; indeed, certain cards appear to ‘escape’ from any system of classification altogether. These facts alone should raise suspicion as to whether historicity was the determining factor behind their selection; but if it was not, how do we account for their presence?
This popular material has been supplemented by ideas traceable to Plato’s Timaeus, Cratylus and Republic as well as much more arcane astrological and Neoplatonic sources from late antiquity. These include Marcus Manilius’ Astronomica, Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs and one of the key Neoplatonic theurgical and magical texts, the Chaldean Oracles. A collection of second to 3rd century CE hexameter verses of obscure provenance, the Oracles were, nevertheless, held in the highest esteem – fully the equal of Plato’s Timaeus – within Neoplatonic tradition. Unlike many of the other sources referenced by the deck’s designer, the Oracles introduce a stream of practical theurgical and magical activity into the design of the deck’s imagery. Finally, we can add the key text of Renaissance astral magic, Picatrix, to an already rich mix. We will deal with these more obscure references as they arise in the course of our investigation. The existence of such learned references within the deck’s imagery should alert us to be on the lookout for some deeper, richer layer of meaning than is apparent from the surface imagery.
The design of the court cards is derived, in large part, from a long standing, popular, story-telling tradition known as the Alexander Romance literature. It consisted of collections of tall tales and fantastic exploits that grew up around the life of the historical Alexander the Great even before his death in the 4th century BCE. These tales coalesced to form a unique oral tradition of interlocking stories narrated by professional storytellers throughout the Levant and Middle East. It was only much later that they evolved into a literary genre whose popularity spread across Europe and continued well into the 17th century – a span of some two millennia. The deck’s designer has supplemented this material with additional narratives about Alexander the Great drawn from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander (in Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans) and Morals as well as Cicero’s On Divination and Herodotus’ Histories.
The deck is, in effect, the translation of a set of philosophical, historical, literary and magical sources into a visual format; and it is for this reason that the deck lacks the distinctive imagery of conventional tarocchi iconography. These facts strongly suggest that the deck’s designer hailed from a background in Renaissance literary scholarship rather than the workmanlike disciplines of the Renaissance artist. In addition, the range and depth of the deck’s references suggest a polymath with ready access to a large number of high quality texts, texts that would only have been found in one of the fine libraries of the Renaissance elite – such as that of the ancient ducal d’Este family in Ferrara where the deck originated.
The outcome of the unknown designer’s research and the technical skills of his executor was a masterwork of Renaissance craftsmanship. But given the time, money and ingenuity expended on its creation, the deck clearly served some important purpose; but if so, what was it? Was it merely a rich man’s folly, the product of eccentric scholarship and the wealth necessary to realise it in this elaborate form? It is not possible to dismiss the deck quite so easily. There are six main reasons for suspecting that it served a deeper purpose:
Firstly, the cards took considerable time and expense to design, create and decorate. We know that their production took place in Ferrara and that the client was a Venetian patrician. Between 1482 and 1484 Ferrara and Venice had been involved in a debilitating war. In the post-war environment anti-Venetian feelings were running high. Tense diplomatic negotiations were ongoing in the years leading up to the supposed year of the deck’s completion in 1491. We need to interrogate this historical background before we casually assign a reason for the deck’s existence.
Secondly, as we noted, the explanation that the trumps depict ‘illustrious Romans’ does not stand up to scrutiny. Even a cursory glance at Roman history reveals that there are major omissions amongst the historical figures; and some of the figures who are identifiable in Roman history are not illustrious at all – in fact quite the reverse. Others cannot be located in any history of Rome, whilst some are not even Roman, let alone illustrious. With this curious and unbalanced selection of figures in the most prominent suit, what message was the deck trying to communicate?
Thirdly, certain trumps include imagery that is clearly symbolic rather than representational. We will need to pay careful attention to the deck’s symbolic language if we are to have any chance of understanding it.
Fourthly, the explanation that the court cards depict the life and times of Alexander the Great also fails since the cards make almost no reference to anything Alexander the Great actually did or was known for. Instead, two cards reference his purely mythical exploits – flying in a chariot drawn by gryphons and killing the basilisk. We need to establish what underlying narrative connects the nine cards that are obscurely connected to Alexander.
Fifthly, some of the cards depict hermetic emblems and mythical beings or hint at obscure alchemical processes. Although this layer of symbolism forms an attractive subtext, it is fragmentary, disjointed and lacks narrative continuity. This is not the case with most contemporary illuminated alchemical texts – for example the early 15th century Book of the Holy Trinity. Their rich, though obscure, nature does at least retain the sense of a definitive narrative movement characteristic of a process possessing a well-defined beginning, middle and end. There is, therefore, a possibility that some portion of the deck’s symbolic richness was included to hint at the existence of some deeper layer of meaning whilst at the same time deflecting attention away from its precise nature.
Sixthly, the existence of unpainted cards in a handful of collections scattered across Europe provides evidence that more than one copy of the deck was printed from the engraving plates. Apart from the one complete and painted deck held in Milan, four unpainted cards are held at each of the following locations: the Kunsthalle in Hamburg, the British Museum in London and the Petit Palais in Paris. A further twenty-three unpainted cards are held by the Albertina Museum in Vienna. Given the absence of any other complete decks, it would appear that only a small number of copies of this deck ever existed and of these still fewer, perhaps only one, were ever completed by being painted. The existence and curious pattern of distribution of these cards suggests that the one painted deck that we call the ‘Sola-Busca’ is only one piece of a much larger puzzle concerning the intent and target audience of the deck’s designer.
Overall, very little is known about the deck itself – the circumstances of its creation, its purpose or who designed it. My own research reveals that its conceptual design involved the creation of a complex system of multi-layered symbolism derived from classical philosophical, literary, historical and astrological sources. Whilst the copperplate engravings used to print the deck were undertaken by a noted Ferrarese artist, its design bears all of the hallmarks of a sophisticated, learned and wide-ranging intellect; one fully capable of satisfying the discriminating taste of an elite and highly educated clientele.
Although we do not know who painted the one full surviving deck, the deck appears to have been completed by 1491. That said, we have no idea when it was designed or how long the process took. Given the complex web of interrelations that exists within its imagery, it would have required significant effort over some considerable period of time to arrange all of the references and translate them into a consistent pattern of imagery before the artistic process of drafting and engraving could even commence.
The Sola-Busca tarocchi therefore stands alone – an obstinately opaque artwork on the borders of mainstream awareness. Even after prolonged study the deck retains its strangeness, its sense of being, stubbornly and irredeemably, odd. Why, then, should we spend time on it? The quality of its design and execution are first rate. It is enigmatic, a challenge to those who cannot refrain from arcane pursuits through the literary, historical and esoteric thickets of the past. There has obviously been considerable knowledge, time and money spent on its creation. Its survival over the course of five hundred years means that it has been cared for and protected as it passed, unscathed, through the turbulence of the centuries to arrive, today, in a near pristine state. That alone is remarkable. But there is about the deck another quality, one that, after initially disregarding it, repeatedly draws your attention until the style and imagery begin to take root and colonise some part of your awareness. The deck occupies its own, self-defined zone of meaning; one constituted from the shards of historical and literary narratives spanning millennia but carefully positioned to simultaneously suggest, and obscure, some deeper, more exacting zone of psycho-spiritual turbulence. From these uncertain beginnings themes will begin to emerge, to coalesce, and then to solidify. Slowly the treasure box will open a little and begin to divulge its secrets. This book is a treasure hunt through the multiple folds and blinds of this Renaissance masterwork. Too late, you may at some point begin to realise that this treasure casket is, in fact, Pandora’s box.
A review by Kadmus Herschel for Gods & Radicals
The story told by The Game of Saturn, written by Peter Mark Adams and published by Scarlet Imprint, is more of a historical thriller – a demonic mystery – than anything else. In fact, placed into a narrative rather than purely historical structure it would make an amazing Hollywood movie. Renaissance espionage amongst rich and powerful northern Italian aristocrats, secret magical cults and surviving worship of dark forgotten pagan gods, human sacrifice and shocking sexual secrets; the story has it all. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interesting in the Tarot, occult history, or paganism. I also highly recommend the book, for reasons I will discuss at the end of this review, for anyone interested in the use of magic and the occult for revolutionary political and social purposes.
The Game of Saturn is the first full historical investigations of one of the earliest, and certainly the most enigmatic, tarot decks. The Sola-Busca tarot is, in fact, the oldest tarot deck for which we have a complete set of cards. Beyond this there are several particularly interesting aspects of the deck that set it off from amongst its contemporary competitors. Most notable is the fact that it provides full illustrations for what would later come to be called the Minor Arcana while other decks of the time, and for some time thereafter, offered rather generic illustrations for the “pip” cards of the Minor Arcana. Consider the following examples of the “Seven of Disks (or Coins)” from what is commonly considered the oldest tarot deck, the Visconti-Sforza deck, on the left and the Sola-Busca deck on the right.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect that sets the Sola-Busca apart from other decks, however, is the extremely enigmatic nature of the deck’s pictures. In order to expand upon this point I will lay out a bit of the likely history of tarot.
Tarot’s History and Origins
The mythological history of the tarot largely derives from the 1781 work of the French author Antoine Court de Gebelin. His creative speculations then influenced the creation of what we might call the first modern tarot deck by the French occultist Etteilla in 1789. The work of Court de Gebelin and Etteilla combined to form the standard story offered by the famous French occultist Eliphas Levi in the 1850s in which the tarot originates from the ancient wisdom of Egypt, with its twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana corresponding to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, and the entire meaning of the cards deriving from Hermetic and Qabalistic teachings along with further elemental and astrological correspondences.
The British Order of the Golden Dawn extensively adopted the ideas of Levi, Etteilla, and Gebelin in its teachings in the late 19th and early 20th century which, in turn, led to the creation of the Smith-Waite Tarot of 1910 (both Smith and Waite having been members of the Golden Dawn). The Smith-Waite tarot forms the basis of almost all decks constructed after it with most of the exceptions to this rule being decks derived, instead, directly from the Golden Dawn’s original designs and teachings (Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot deck and his text The Book of Thoth, for example, would be a major alternative influence on modern decks except that Crowley is largely presenting the Golden Dawn understanding of the tarot – upon which Waite too draws – with a few key alterations that, within the Qabalistic framework, are very important but within the larger history of tarot are rather minor).
As interesting, and useful, as the mythological history derived from 18th century France and the meanings of the cards which derive from this history is, it is almost entirely false. Most scholars agree that the Tarot originates from sometime between 1410-1430 in Northern Italy with the first deck likely being that designed by the astrologer Marziano de Tortona for Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan. This deck would later be the basis of the surviving fifteen fragmentary decks all formed in the 1450s that constitute what is called the Visconti-Sforza deck.
Playing cards long predate these and similar decks, and the main distinction that scholars make between any deck of cards and a deck of Tarot is the inclusion of a fifth suit over and beyond the four suits we commonly find in playing cards to this day. The four standard suits came to be called the Minor Arcana much later, and the added suit to be called the Major Arcana, but originally the added suit was made up of cards called “Triumphs” or “Trumps.” Indeed, the deck designed by Marziano de Tortona was first called carte da trionfi or “deck of cards with triumphs (i.e. trumps) added.”
When asking about the origin of tarot, then, we can put aside the so-called Minor Arcana which derive from the standard complicated and fascinating history of playing cards come down to use from both Asian and Arabic origins. Instead, we must ask about the origin of the fifth suit, the Triumphs or Trumps of the so-called Major Arcana. There are useful proposals for the origins of the Trumps, for example there is likely some influence (though rather minor) from Alchemical diagrams (we see this a bit in the Sola-Busca in particular but it is largely missing from most other decks of the time) and perhaps some heritage derived from Church passion plays. But the clearest origin for the Trumps ties into their name. During the Renaissance there was a popular type of parade, called a Triumph, in which each character appearing in the parade triumphs, or beats, the next. These were largely organized in terms of a hierarchy of powers, from worldly power in the hands of the Emperor and Empress, religio-worldly power of the Papess and Pope, to Cosmic power found in such figures as Death, Fame, Fate, and Eternity. Such a parade is presented, for example, in the poem “I Trionfi” by Petrarch in the 14th Century. Sometimes the figures mentioned also include various virtues, or are organized according to the traditional two tier distinction within the seven virtues common in Catholic theology (the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity and the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Courage).
To summarize the points I just made, the unique aspect that makes a deck a Tarot deck likely derives from Catholic cultural and literary influences meant to teach both various virtues and the basic social and metaphysical hierarchy of the Catholic worldview. There is nothing of Egypt here, and very little if anything of Hermeticism, Qabalah, Astrology, or even Alchemy. The Catholic poetry of Petrarch and Dante are better guides to these early decks than more esoteric works. Early decks also contained, at times, more or less than the twenty-two cards so important for the Qabalistic interpretation of the Major Arcana and the order of the Triumphs was very changeable from one deck to the next. Historically, then, we have neither a standard order or number, nor a standard collection of Triumphs or Trumps.
The mythological history I have worked hard to deflate above is, interestingly, rather more useful when we consider the Sola-Busca deck. Indeed, what is true of most tarot decks throughout history is not true of the Sola-Busca deck. There is no overt Christian or Catholic symbolism in the deck. There are, however, references to ancient religious and occult practices, as well as alchemy. There are no Trumps that share the names of what would later become the standard Trumps. Instead the names capture historical and literary references such as those to Alexander the Great and his family, the Roman Emperor Nero, and the famous biblical Nebuchadnezzar. These references are not usually the of the noble nature one would expect. Ultimately, Adams’ points out, “in its depiction of the heroic past the Sola-Busca excels in assembling a cast containing some of the most despicable tyrants and traitors known to classical scholarship.” (p. 19)
Even in imagery we can likely, at best, only find two or three cards that resemble later standard Trumps. We have, perhaps, something like the Tower; and, perhaps, something like the Hermit; and, finally, the Fool as Trump 0.
Other than these cards, however, both the Minor Arcana and the Trumps are far more mysterious and identified with unlike historical and literary references. Take, for example, the King of Swords who is identified as “Alecxandro M.” or Alexander the Great; or Trump 4, “Mario”; or the strange religious and, at times, disturbing imagery of Trumps 15, 8, and 21, “Metelo,” “Nerone,” and “Nabuchodenasor.”
The Story of the Sola-Busca
We should, at this point, have a sense of what the Sola-Busca deck is, and a bit of what it is like. We don’t, however, have any clue as to what it means and why it takes the form it does. We don’t have the traditional meanings to appeal to, we don’t have the underlying structure of the Triumph parades, we are adrift in learning what stories these cards have to tell us. It is, for this reason, well past time to dwell more fully on Adams’ excellent investigation.
Without external props to support our interpretation of the cards themselves, such as those provided by what would become the tarot tradition, we are left needing to draw upon the literary and historical references contained in the names of the cards, the details and symbolic clues of the images depicted, and a careful evaluation of the social and historical context out of which the cards appear. Who, for example, made this deck and for whom was it made? To what purpose was it made?
Adams’ proposed answer is that the deck was made by the ruling aristocratic d’Este family of the city of Ferrara for a secretly gay bibliophile, Marin Sanudo, in the city of Venice following a disastrous defeat of Ferrara at the hands of Venice. Sanudo was in a position to influence negotiations which the rulers of Ferrara hoped would help them re-establish their power following their defeat. The deck itself was likely commissioned by the rulers of Ferrara for both the use of the d’Este family themselves and for their secret ally, Sanudo. The man likely hired to do this work was the family’s court astrologer, archivist, and librarian Pellegrino Prisciani. All of these historical conclusions are powerfully and convincingly argued for by Adams.
These historical details are interesting and important, but far more fascinating is the challenging question of the deck’s meaning and what this tells us about the aristocratic families of Italy in general and Ferrara specifically – to say nothing of the further aristocratic families to which the deck made its way in France and England.
There are several keys granting access to the meaning of the deck. First is understanding the role of a Neo-pagan and Platonic revival that was occurring in both Italy and Constantinople at the time. Central to this revival was Gemistus Plethon, a Byzantine philosopher whose mission was the use of Platonic philosophy to restructure political and social organization and, more dramatically, to instantiate a return to paganism within the aristocratic classes. Plethon himself, though unnamed, is clearly depicted within the deck in the Ten of Cups.
Plethon’s thinking largely offers Neoplatonic gnosticism, and fits neatly into pre-existing traditions of gnosticism and Platonic Theurgy that Adams covers well. But while this will provide the general context for the creation of the deck, the actual religious and occult insights captured in the deck represent a striking inversion of the Platonic Theurgical theology.
The inversion Adams uncovers represents a rejection of the gnostic dream of escape from a “fallen” material realm and ascension to a higher level of truth and divinity. Where various forms of gnosticism and theurgy aim at rising to the level of the true highest non-worldly divinity while rejecting the world around us and the deceptive lesser divine demiurge that masquerades as its god, Adams shows that the Sola-Busca deck instead identifies itself with the demiurge and represents something of a pact with this lower divinity in rebellion against the transcendental highest god.
The demiurge – variously identified with Baal-Hammon (the patron god of Carthage which was Rome’s ancient enemy), Kronos-Saturn, and the Serpent-Dragon – is the source of worldly riches and power in contrast to the higher goal of transcendence beyond worldly concerns. Conjoined with the Neo-Platonic belief in reincarnation, the pact with the Demiurge the d’Este family maintained seeks continued reincarnation in ever stronger and richer social positions from generation to generation. Rather than escape the world of matter so despised by most gnosticism, the pact with Saturn aims instead at continued existence and power within the world. It is a choice for power rather than transcendent salvation.
This counter-theology and hidden cult of Saturn is well attested to in the symbols, forms, and figures within the deck. Consider, for example, the strange image of the “hermit” in the Ipeo card presented earlier. There we have a praying figure in monkish robes but with bat or dragon-like wings wearing a crown of worldly power. We need not even mention the strangely sinister angel-like head to which the monk prays.
Other details include references to the “toys of Dionysus,” the human sacrifice practiced in worship of Baal-Hammon in Carthage, “Hekate’s Top,” and other ritual technologies and procedures. Ultimately, Adams convincingly reveals that the deck is a grimoire for a secret cult of Saturn – a grimoire for the achievement and maintenance of worldly power through an alliance with the gods of the world rather than those of spiritual escape:
The heavily encrypted cosmology, theurgical and ritual practices that constitute the Sola-Busca tarocchi form a veritable grimoire of elite magical praxis. At the core of the deck’s heretical cosmology stands the demiurge in his most archaic and violent form, that of the hypercosmic Ammon-Saturn, the lord of time and the cycles of creation and destruction… The inevitable consequence of this chain of logic was that ‘true religion’ involved the worship of the hypercosmic demiurge in his most archaic – and thus purest – guise: as the sun behind the sun, the hypercosmic Saturn – whether known as Mithras Helios, Sol Invictus, Phanes, Lucifer, or Ammon. (p. 250)
Why review this book?
In some quarters I was met with surprise when expressing an interest in reviewing this book for Gods and Radicals. The surprise is not, in fact, at all surprising. The story of the Sola-Busca tarot is of a wealthy, elite, privileged, politically powerful and ruthless family using pagan worship and magical operations to maintain their own social, economic, and political dominance. While this understanding of the deck is historically accurate, it fails to fully appreciate the promise of the deck and the decks’ cosmology and anti-theurgical practice.
Allow me to re-present, in an undoubtedly selective manner, the nature of the deck and the magical practice it contains. At a time when the Roman Catholic Church dominated with repressive force and opposition to any pagan survivals we find a Tarot deck identifying with the anti-Roman power of pagan Carthage, the pagan Greek empire of Alexander the Great, and the most heretical of Rome’s own emperors. This deck includes homosexual implications and was intended for a gay man whose own path to power was largely blocked by religio-political opposition to his sexuality. Essentially, even if its aristocratic audience failed to appreciate it, the deck embodies a revolutionary force opposed to key figures of political tyranny and repression.
There is a deeper level at which the Sola-Busca is a useful and promisingly revolutionary force, one contained in its refreshingly worldly and anti-transcendental theology. I must confess to having worked rather a lot with the Greek Kronos and related forms of Saturn. One reason I am drawn to these divinities is because they represent an existing force that naturally opposes currently established physical and metaphysical hierarchies. Zeus, the cosmic king of the Greeks, achieved his throne by overthrowing Kronos, his father. As ancient occult practices attest, worldly change was often provoked through magicians threatening to form, or actually forming, alliances with Kronos against Zeus and the worldly kings and political structures Zeus blessed and maintained.
More than this, however, Platonism and Theurgy tend to embrace both a singular source for all political and metaphysical power (i.e. cosmic tyrannies underlying worldly ones) and rejections of the world that were to inform the Christian rejection of the body and the earth in general. The seemingly diabolical pact with the demiurge, when taken seriously rather than just as an inversion of a pre-existing Platonism, instead represents a rejection of the world-denying body-hating transcendence that has plagued Western culture for millennia. If we reject the existence of the transcendental god, we arrive at a pluralism of demiurges – a truly pagan and polytheist perspective that actually pre-exists Platonism – that this deck can be united with. Given the choice, I will side with an embrace of this world and an attempt to achieve change here and now over the rejection of the world in favor of some transcendental world-hating “gnosis” every time. Ultimately, I would argue, the Sola-Busca deck holds the potential to undermine the very elitism and class from which it arose.
Whether or not you are convinced by my gestures towards a revolutionary theological and political interpretation of the Sola-Busca tarot deck, the historical work performed by Peter Mark Adams in The Game of Saturn is fascinating, enjoyable, and remains important for pagans. This is not least of all because the Sola-Busca is a sincerely pagan Tarot deck – undoubtedly the first such and still possibly the best such deck. The clarity with which Adams allows us to see this, and the depth with which we can appreciate it following reading his amazing and beautiful book, reveals an importantly pagan foundation for the tradition of tarot generally.
To clarify this point, consider that though the official interpretation and theories that underly the Smith-Waite Tarot deck derive from Waite’s Golden Dawn understanding of tarot, nonetheless Pamela Smith closely studied the Sola-Busca deck in order to inform her illustrations of the previously simple Minor Arcana pip cards. The Minor Arcana of the Smith-Waite Tarot, and the countless decks that have since derived from it, is fully “infected” by the Sola-Busca to its great benefit.
(Originally published on Gods & Radicals, July 2017)
A review by Camelia Elias for Taroflexions
Let it be said from the beginning: If you like alternative histories, then this is the book you want to read right now: The Game of Saturn, by Peter Mark Adams.
First off, you want to get this book because Scarlet Imprint produced it. I could say they’ve produced it handsomely, but that would come across as flat. ‘A handsome Devil’ would be more appropriate, but that’s still not it.
What I really want to say is that Scarlet Imprint produced this book with dedication, fearlessness, hard work, and a precise sense of elegant style that, indeed, only Saturn, the planet of ‘take your goddamn time,’ would understand. We are grateful.
Second, alternative history is fascinating.
Why ‘alternative history’?
Simply because what we’re dealing with here is not history that has its basis in documents, textual proof, and taxation of an artefact that describes the precise purpose of a ‘game’, the so-called Sola-Busca tarot.
What we’re dealing with here is the kind of history of cards that tells a story around the cards; a contextual history that proposes a bold thesis; a literary history that, above all, invites us to read beyond ‘convincing argument.’
Alternative history is the kind of history that takes risks, raises your curiosity, and weaves magic into ecstasies of common-sense.
Alban Berg, a Vienesse composer and master of the 12-tone technique said the following:
The best magic always results from ecstasies of logic.
While reading this book, I kept hearing this line at the back of my head. The more I heard this line, the more I appreciated the book.
I can say that there are two kinds of appreciation that go into my experience of reading it: One pragmatic and one aesthetic. The pragmatic relates to valuing the author’s dedication to his idea: ‘This tarot, or tarocchi, is a dark grimoir used for conjurations of dark forces.’
The aesthetic relates to seeing how images can be used to tell a wild story: Historical events and characters, malefic fixed stars, and romance literature all come together in Peter Mark Adams’s book in order to tell a story of what is plausible and what is possible.
The basic question is: How does the elite maintain its power, wealth, and privilege?
As a diviner, one who makes a living telling fortunes, this is good enough for me.
This is good enough for me because I already see history, and prediction markets à la Wall Street, on par with what we do when we read the tarot.
Tell a story. When we read the Tarot, or any other oracular artefact for that matter, we look at is what is plausible and what is possible. We look at what is always a construction.
Why construction? Because what we call ‘fact,’ or ‘reality,’ always already submits to language.
This is another way of saying that ‘fact’ and ‘reality’ are concepts that submit to perception and how we see things in a given time and context.
This means that context rules over fact and reality, and not vice-versa. Ultimately this is the reason why some facts get away with being ‘alternative,’ ‘orange,’ or ‘purple.’
Looking at the images of the Sola-Busca tarot just now, it strikes me that not only are there many shields in play here, reflecting whatever reality, but that they may be thought of as scrying devices in a detective story about a sorcerous Tarot and its function of drawing down power.
Indeed, let us appreciate it when the author says this, in his introduction (xiv):
In essence this work is a literary detective story.
I want to insist on the fact that when we read occult books, it is best not to focus too much on what’s convincing and what’s not, and thus lose ourselves in the fallacy of finding proof when proof is not even proposed.
The ‘convincing argument’ cannot be part of the program, when what we’re dealing with here is an obscure artefact whose date of origin is still debatable.
Consequently, in this essay I’m more interested in looking at how the author is advancing an idea and whether I find it exciting, rather than evaluate to what extent I ‘buy’ the story.
Academically speaking, however, it’s a fair question to ask:
Why was this tarot only first referenced in around 1831, when it is presumed to have been designed around 1491? Where has it been until then? And since then, why have so few engaged with it, art historians and occult writers alike?
If we accept the historians’ proposition that this tarot deck is the product of the Renaissance, then we can also fairly ask:
What’s up with the weird images, with the out of proportion and distorted bodies representing belligerent historical figures, such as Alexander the Great?
Big heads and fat limbs are not the usual stylistic traits we associate with Renaissance iconography.
The plain answer is that we don’t know.
But we can let ourselves be enchanted by the story that Adams tells around what we don’t know about the Sola-Busca tarot.
He does a good job at proposing that the iconography of this tarot follows not so much what we know of Alexander the Great as a historical figure, but rather what we know of the way he’s depicted in literary contexts, such as the romance genre, more specifically the Romance of Alexander, a collection of legends dating back to the 3rd century Greece.
The distorted and grotesque images may mirror the exaggerations and hyperbole we find in fiction and tall tales.
Thematically, Adams tells the story of the Renaissance Italian lords of wealth and money – hence the reference to the temple and rites of Saturn, the lord of wealth and money – and how these lords went about maintaining their power and privileges by making recourse to underground initiations, following mystery traditions, and participating in pagan rites. Not very Catholic.
Furthermore, Adams traces the lines of the story of how closely interconnected alchemy is with magic in the Renaissance. For this, the weaving of alchemy with magical discourse, we have plenty of evidence, as there’s almost no text dating to the 15th century that’s not about magic and how to craft surviving beyond one’s conditions.
But Adams tells not only the story of the elite as the only group fortunate enough to have access to knowledge about mystery rites, conjurations, and revivals, but also the story of how the elite may have been resisting the existing dominant code and power.
Stressing the importance of Hellenistic thought and its emphasis on magic and theurgy for appropriate political action may well have had a counter-cultural function.
At the same time, the fact that the elite has also used its privilege to misuse power is hardly news, but what we can appreciate in Adams’s story is the idea that hidden secrets can also be located in plain sight, staring you in the face.
There’s always something very unsettling about the obvious, especially when the obvious is dressed in seemingly obscure and complex code.
Perhaps that’s why we can think of the obvious as rather diabolical, because it relates to what’s under your nose, to what you can breathe and dance into the world.
At the heart of the book is the thesis that we can read the cards as a representation of a cosmology derived from Plato’s Timaeus.
However, what gives the deck its flavor is Neoplatonic thought as filtered through the gnostic lens of the Mythraic mystery cult (99).
Adams gives very detailed descriptions of all the lines he pulls together, making the book an Encyclopedia of what might go into the context of constructing a ‘hidden gnostic grimoire.’ (246)
How this deck was used as a dark grimoir, however, is anybody’s guess.
Adams’s own suggestion here is that through working with the deck, while maintaining the idea of personal gnosis, one might arrive at tapping into the connections that went into the purpose of the deck.
The proposition is that we use this deck for contemplative work, though there’s an implicit warning: Stick with evocation rather than invocation, as you don’t want any of the presumed malefic powers associated with the images of the deck take possession over your curious self.
Alternatively, we can use this set of cards as more than just a talismanic object to reflect on, or as an aid to the magician who may desire to decapitate his enemy, or at least to stick a spear through their eyes (in reference to Adams’s discussion of planetary power, here particularly the fixed star Algol).
In my own work with the cards, I appreciate them for their oracular power and divinatory capacity.
Those following my cartomantic work will know that what interests me the least is lists of meanings that are randomly created for the purpose of devising a method for reading the cards.
Methods are good, as they inspire us in a particular ‘straight’ way, but what is better is the simple approach of formulating a specific question whose answer we can find the ‘crooked’ way, which is to say, the poetic way.
Divination has been associated with a secret language, the language of the birds, or the green language that enables us to participate in the integration of our unconscious desires with our conscious acts.
In this sense, we never need ‘meanings’ that are pre-determined. What we need is an active way of looking at something, whether that be straightforward images, odd images, obscure images, abstract or literal images, dogmatic images that follow religious or pagan design, any images.
Perhaps the greatest mystery is found in the way in which we are capable of responding spontaneously to what we see whether that be a ghost or garlic. We can ask the ghost for advice, and we can ask the garlic to protect our turf. Meaning is always created in context, not in categories or lists.
What I find fascinating is when we combine the use of images crafted along a specific system (for example, the tarot has 78 cards, 22 trumps and 56 pip cards), with conjectures about the purpose of sets (for example, the idea that the tarot is used to heal, to kill, or to play with).
What we find at this intersection of system with purpose is a way of going beyond cultural pre-conditioning.
The Game of Saturn is very much a book that suggests the value of going beyond cultural dictations.
However, going beyond cultural dogma is always a tall order, because it invariably implies an act of violence.
You don’t kill dominant power by submitting to it, by going to church and hoping that things will get better. You kill a dominant power by transgressing its most odious rules, by making sacrifices, by taking risks, by invoking the old gods, and by inducing a state of frenzy that disrupts habitual patterns.
To the outside perceiver, invoking the demiurge, and transmitting knowledge via symbolic content that’s encoded on cards and carton will always seem like a mad project. But how much madder is the Catholic church with its hierarchy and dominant power?
All things being equal, what is the difference between the Catholic church burning some bodies, and the Pagans slashing some throats? None whatsoever.
Therefore I’ll say, all power to the transgressors, the designers of cards who tickle our imagination, the storytellers, and the mad dancers. It is the transgressors who always teach us something beyond the human condition.
What I take from Adams’s book is that we can take any historical fact, event, rite, and doctrine, and read into it what is always a travel of discovery. With every turn of the cards, what we do is discover new ways of thinking about forgotten practices of living magically.
Along these lines, let me end here with this question that I pose to the Sola-Busca tarot, as this is what I do best: Read the damn cards. In my reading I will not rely on any ‘meanings,’ or back stories, but rather go with what I see.
Scarlet Imprint will soon release a deck to accompany Adams’s book, and it will be exciting to see what Adams makes of both the cards as a grimoire, and the cards as a tool for divination.
(Published on Taroflexions on 4th May 2017, where the full review can be read)