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Chapter 8 - Tarot cards and Mithraism

The graphic design artist who created this magnificent Tarot deck was Gioseppe Maria Mitelli (1634-1718) from Bologna, Italy. Etcher, painter and sculptor, and son of Agostino Mitelli, a painter of the Baroque period; best known as a fresco painter of quadratura, Gioseppe studied with several prominent Bolognese painters. He has created over 500 etched prints of contemporary manners and morals, with his most renowned series of etchings at L'arti per via, loosely based on drawings by Annibale Carracci celebrating the vendors and artisans of Bologna. His large posters, illustrating ceremonies and pageants, warfare, folklore, trades and religious paintings, provides a rich cultural source for contemporary Bolognese life.






Mithra, Mithraic Mysteries, and Tarot cards


The introduction of tarot cards in Europe is dated between 1375 and 1378. These cards were acting as a conduit for conveying the messages of the mystery religion of Mithra (Latin and Gk Míthrās, Old Persian Mithra, derives from proto-Indo-Iranian mitra, from the root mi- "to bind" ), the god of light and truth, and represented by the sun.

The Myth

The cosmology of Tarot is based on the seven planets of the Mithraic cult which represented beneficent deities. Such a zodiac representation was liberally deployed on the sculpted and painted monuments and in the design of the mithraeum in order to render it a true likeness of the cosmos for induction into the mystery of the descent of souls and their exit back out again. Each one of these heavenly deities has its own representative shadow on earth. They have exactly the same names as their heavenly fathers. The earthly-Mithra himself is the son of Mithra -- the sun, but Helios Mithras is one god. This difficulty, in identifying the heavenly fathers from their earthly sons, has been a great source of confusion for many researchers. The seven days of the week, the seven sacred metals, the seven rites of initiation, and so on were all dedicated to these seven deities. According to the Mitraists' myth of genesis the spirits of all men were created simultaneously, which at their births had to descend from the heavenly paradise to their bodies.The seven planets bestow on people their fates and personalities. Mithra is the friend and the savior of man who is under the spell of Ahreman the evil spirit and his collaborates. Mithra was “born of a Virgin” ( and this is why the calendar originally began in the constellation of Virgo), over Petra Genetrix -- the rock that gives birth, by a river under a tree, as some shepherds watched his birth. When he entered the world he wore the Phrygian cap on his head, and a sword in his hand. The hero-god first gives battle to his father the sun, conquers him, crowns him with rays and makes him his eternal friend and fellow. Then follows the central epic of Mithraic belief, tauroctony or the killing of the bull.


The wild bull created by Ahura Mazda which Mithra pursued, overcame, and dragged into his cave is depicted in many Mithraic relief with a remarkable consistency. Mithra at the mouth of a cave, straddling the bull and plunging a dagger into its heart. A dog and a snake dart up at the blood flowing from the wound. A scorpion fastens on the bull's genitals, and a raven perches on the god's billowing mantle. Extraordinarily, the tail of the dying bull has transmogrified into an ear of wheat. On either side of the scene the twin gods Cautes and Cautopates are posed, the former holding a raised torch, the latter a lowered torch. Above and to the left is the Sun god, above and to the right the Moon goddess. Frequently in tauroctonies from the Rhine and Danube areas, a lion and a two-handled cup are added to the scene







This allegory of an arduous quest to kill the bull and bring it back to the cave associates with Man's spiritual journey towards perfection. The spiteful meddling of Ahriman in the form of cataclysm, droughts, and fires interfere with Man's salvation, which at the end is reached by the beneficence of Mithra. Eventually, with the deliverance of Man assured on earth, Mithra partakes a last supper on earth, accompanied by Helios and his companions. After the supper he is taken in his fiery chariot across the ocean, to his heavenly father from where he works to deliver his future followers. As Frothingham has argued :
" During all the period of his labors and exploits Mithra was not a divine being but a hero. His apotheosis to the divine sphere, like that of Heracles, came afterwards; and only after his translation, in the chariot of the Sun, could he have been represented with the nimbus. This explanation seems supported by the fact that the most important group of representations of Mithra with a nimbus and radiate head is on the Scythian coins of Bactria, struck for Kings Kanerkes and Hooerkes between 87 and 129 A.D.1 In these coins Mithra is represented standing nimbed and radiate as the protector of the King. Another important instance of a radiate and nimbed Mithra is on a relief at Nimrud-Dagh on the temple connected with the funeral monument of King Antiochus of Commagene (69-34 B. c.).2 Here also Mithra stands in front of the King as his protector."

Mithraic conducts was basically of ascetic nature; characterized by temperance. Absolute continence was celebrated as gracious and honorable. At the apocalypse, Mithra; in his capacity as Sol Invictus or Nabarses -- meaning never conquered -- will return to earth riding on a bull, which he will sacrifice, to bestow immortality on everybody.

Mithraic Mystries

The Mithraists worshipped in their sanctuaries Mithraeum which were subterranean caves. There were numerous temples in the Roman empire, the majority have been found in the city of Rome itself. There were five at Ostia alone and could accommodate between forty and a hundred worshipers. These caves were quite dark and required artificial lighting for their conduct of religious rites. They also contained a well. To reach a Mitraeum one had to pass a labyrinth of subterranean passages, which had allegorical connotations, and were used in the initiation ceremonies.

There were seven degrees of initiation into the mithraic mysteries: corax, Raven; cryphius, Prophetess; miles, Soldier; leo, Lion; Perses, Persian; heliodromus, Solar messenger; pater, Father. To each rank belonged a particular mask and garb. These represented seven stages of Justice for the just, who passed through the seven gates of the seven spheres of the planets, leading to a hermetical abode of Mithra the father. Each apotheosis' stage represents a higher degree of humanity until, at the final stage the humanity of the initiates reaching this highest stage submerges into the Mithra's pure spirit of Godlines.

The initiation ceremonies depicted on the frescoes at Capua, Italy show that the initiates were blindfolded, kneeling, and prostrated. These ceremonies enacted the spiritual journey of Mithra . According to Tertullian, a second century North African Christian theologian, the candidates for elavating into the the miles rank were tested for their gallantry. The test consisted of a kind of armed encounter, which the candidate had to force his way towards a coronal. Upon reaching the coronal, a reward was offered to him by an officiant; who suggested to crown him with the coronal. The aspirant had to decline, by saying that Mithra alone was his crown.





This typical mithraeum at Capua, Italy is a small rectangular subterranean chamber with a vaulted ceiling. An aisle usually ran lengthwise down the center of the temple, with a stone bench on either side two or three feet high on which the cult's members would sit during their ceremonies. At the end of the aisle was always a carved relief, a statue or a painting depicting tauroctony or bull-killing scene by Mithras



Tarot Cards



The earliest documents on Tarot are found in the northern Italy, early in the 15th century (1420-1440). Mithraism and Orpheic Mysteries as well as Neoplatonism philosophy were among the influences of Renaissance in Italy that originated Tarot, that were referred to as carte da trionfi (cards of triumph) . The concept of Trumps -- a variation of triumph derived from Greek thríambos hymn to Dionysus . The Dionysus myth is closely related to the Mithra and the Orphic Mysteries. According to these Mysteries the human race, were part divine and part evil. Both the Mithraism and the Orphics Mysteries believed in the sacrosanct essence of the soul, and that it was through initiation into the Mysteries and through the process of metempsychosis that the soul could be redeemed from its evil legacy and could accomplish everlasting beatitude. The concept of Triumph of the soul was developed in Neoplatonic centers in Rome, Athens and Alexandria, where the mystical aspects of Mithraism, including divination, demonology, and astrology were practiced. The Neoplatonic Triumph of the soul was a variation on the theme of the popular trionfi motif appeared in art, literature, religious processions, festival pageants, and so on. A Tarot deck , consisted of 78-card deck, of which there were a hierarchy of 22 allegorical trump cards closely related to the Mithraic symbols, such as; judgment, justice, devil (Ahreman), temperance, Mithras' chariot, the sun, and the moon and so on . Each trump triumphed over the lower-ranking trumps.

Tarocchi of Mantegna is one of the earliest known tarot or Tarocchi packs, being dated to c.1465. The artistic design is attributed to Andreas Mantegna (1431-1506); who was a Renaissance artist living in Italy. In this deck there are no dark cards (Traitor, Death, Devil, Fire). This suggests the Tarocchi del Mantegna was oriented towards spiritual teaching . As Man ascends the sequence, He approaches the Divine, each subsequent card is not only more powerful, but also more noble.


Artists have used the aesthetics of Tarot concepts for their artistic imaginations, and numerous artists have used its allegorical concepts as a conduit for creative expression. However, these allegorical expressions have been acculturated in order to maintain, consciously or unconsciously, the spirit of Mithraic teachings . The vast majority of all Tarot decks in the 15th through 17th centuries share that acculturation, which resulted in a methodical design. The series of images was similar in style to to the mural paintings in Mithraea. Tarot quickly spread in northern Italy, through Milan, Bologna, and Ferrara. While printed decks became popular, the affluent households commissioned lavishly painted cards, often decorated with gold and silver leaf backgrounds. Historical records from 1436 show that the d'Este court of Ferrara had even a printing press for making cards.

Two of the oldest known Tarot or Tarocchi packs, are the Tarocchi of Mantegna being dated to c.1465, and the Visconti-Sforza deck of the late-fifteenth century. The Tarocchi of Mantegna has been attributed to Andreas Mantegna (1431-1506) the painter and printmaker of the School of Padua, although some researchers dispute this and are of the opinion that it is the work of Parrasio Michele, Master of the School of Ferrara. With the proliferation of cards into new locales some minor innovations were introduced in the sequence of the trumps and their iconography. Of course there are some exceptions; such as the classicized Sola Busca deck and the literary Boiardo deck, which both depict drastically different designs. Nevertheless, despite various alterations in iconography, whether attempts in decimalization or conversely elaborate decorations did not change the overall allegorical characters of the cards .

Visconti-Sforza deck of the mid-fifteenth century which is recognised as the earliest tarot.Thirty-five of the original cards are located in the archives of the Pierpont-Morgan Library. The remaining extant cards are divided between twenty-six cards at the Accademia Carrara, and thirteen cards at Casa Colleoni, both located in Italy.


This deck is the restored version of the Tarot de Marseille by Philippe Camoin (aka Tourrasse) and Alexandro Jodorowsky. They spent 3 years restoring the 78 cards as closely as possible to the original Tarot de Marseille.


The Tarot of Marseilles (or Tarot of Marseille), also widely known by the French designation Tarot de Marseille, is one of the standard patterns for the design of tarot cards. The name Tarot de Marseille is not of particularly ancient vintage; it was coined at least as early as 1889 by the French occultist Papus (Gérard Encausse) in Chapter XI of his book le Tarot des bohémiens (Tarot of the Bohemians), and was popularized in the 1930s by the French cartomancer Paul Marteau, who used this collective name to refer to a variety of closely related designs that were being made in the city of Marseille in the south of France, a city that was a centre of playing card manufacture, and were (in earlier, contemporaneous, and later times) also made in other cities in France.


During the late 1700's and into the early 1800's Alphonse Louis Constant, a French occultist, a Catholic Priest and author who wrote under the pseudonym of Magus Eliphas Levi , created the basis for the most popular Tarot cards still in use today. He believed in the existence of a universal “secret doctrine of magic” that had prevailed throughout history and was evident everywhere in the world. He found close connections between some of the Jewish iconography and the Mithraic myths. In his 'Histoire de la Magie' He argued that that the Mithraic bull represents the angel with the fiery sword who guards the entrance to Paradise;
"the great magical work is the conquest and direction of the burning sword that the cherub [the bull-headed angel ] wields to prevent the return to Eden. In Mithraic symbolism the master of light is seen as vanquishing the bull of earth and plunging into his flank the sword that sets free the life, represented by the drops of the bull's blood."

In his book 'Transcendental Magic',1860, Levi offered his picture of devil in the form of 'Goat of Mendes drawing,' arguing that his image symbolist the position of non ascended / non aware humans, linked more to their bestial nature than their god like consciousness. Levi's ideas had deeply affected the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and greatly influenced its members such as Arthur Edward Waite who adopted the Baphomet sigil as the death card in his Rider Waite Tarot Deck . Levi was also a student of astronomy, astrology, and the metaphysics. When he created his first Tarot deck, he incorporated his knowledge of religions, the elements in nature (fire, water, earth, air), and what were believed to be powerful astrological events and symbols. There are even references to scriptures from The Bible shown in some of the cards. Levi claimed he created the cards as a tool to aid his students in the art of spiritual enlightenment, self improvement, and self awareness.

This deck is the well known Rider-Waite Tarot deck. It was designed by the artist Pamela Colman Smith under the conceptual instructions of Arthur Edward Waite, an English mystic, occultist and prolific writer on Masonic and esoteric subjects, who was a member of the Mithraic Order of the Golden Dawn. Waite had the Christian imagery of older Tarot decks' cards toned down—the "Pope" card became the "Hierophant", the "Popess" became the "High Priestess".



In the early 20th century, the Waite-Smith deck was created that because of its minimalistic Art Nouveau style became very popular. A. E. Waite was a prominent member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a mystical order based on a -Mithraic hierarchy and initiation. It was founded in Great Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the aim of practicing theurgy and spiritual development. The artist, Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the cards and contributed with her artistic vision to the design of the deck under the Mithraic instructions of A.E. Waite. One can get a glimpse of Waite's instructions from what he has written in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry:
It appears from the testimony of Porphyry that Mythraic Mysteries depicted ... the decent of souls into generation and their emancipation or ascent there from, by which they delivered from the law of metempsychosis, one of the doctrine being that human souls are "clothed in bodies of every kind." Such an ascent connote readily enough the idea of regeneration, which has been called the Secret of the Rites. These were celebrated in caves, considered as an image of the world, and hence having two gates. That on the northern side symbolized the way of coming in, namely, by the law of generation; that on the southern side represented the way of going out and following a path of ascent from the life of humanity on earth to the life of the celestial gods... Celsus, as quoted by Origen, speaks of souls going down and up through the planetary spheres and says that in the Mithraic Initiation this is represented by "a ladder with seven gates and at its summit an eight, corresponding to Saturn, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, Moon and Sun, the eights and last presumably that of the soul's deliverance.


Go to the next chapter; Chapter 9 - The Byzantine Art


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