Part 1 (of 3)
John R. White, Ph.D.
]Saturn is a mysterious god and undoubtedly a demanding one – demanding enough that he is often viewed not only as harsh but as “malefic.” A number of recent and recently translated works attempt to understand Saturn in his various aspects. In some cases, like Moros’ God of the Black Cube, the purpose is to foster devotion to Saturn – or at least to his darker side – by means of a practical, contemporary, and usable grimoire. Other recent texts look to Saturn as a source of important esoteric currents manifest in history, as in the case of Troy McLachlan’s “intuitive history,” The Saturn Death Cults. In contrast, and in a more positive vein, the essay “The Western Tradition,” translated in Volume Two of Introduction to Magic by Julius Evola and the UR Group, describes Saturn as the source of the Roman Golden Age and of the Primordial Tradition.
Of all the recent texts relating to Saturn – indeed, among all recent esoteric texts that have come to this reader’s attention over the last decade – none is more important than Peter Mark Adams’ Game of Saturn. Decoding the Sola-Busca Tarrochi. Adams’ book is a thorough, scholarly, and readable account of a crucial chapter in Western esoteric history – the era of the Italian Renaissance and particularly the period around the production of early tarot decks in the 15th century – which explores the Sola-Busca Tarot within its historical and social context. Yet the book should not be understood as a study narrowly focused on the concrete details of this era or merely a scholarly history concerning a single tarot deck. Rather, like we would expect from any good case study, Adams draws from his investigation a number of principles which illuminate the nature and history of Western esotericism in general, far beyond the confines of this specific era.
Indeed, I will suggest that Adams has rendered an important service to those of us interested in the history of Western esotericism in general or in the history of the tarot in particular, as well as to anyone seeking to understand the role of esoteric practices among cultural elites of the Renaissance. Adams breaks much of the code implicit in this obscure and mysterious deck in a brilliant, profound, beautiful, and readable book, unlocking a number of its mysteries. He has thereby pulled back the veil not only on some of the widespread esoteric practices of Renaissance magic and, in particular, some of its darker sides, but has done so in a manner which forces us to wonder about their implications into our own time.
The Sola-Busca tarot or tarrochi deck has been shrouded in mystery for many centuries, in part because of a number of unique characteristics. The deck’s history takes us back to the late 15th century, not far from the era of the original tarot decks, and to Ferrara, one of the great Renaissance centers for tarot deck production. The quality of the Sola-Busca deck and the manner of its production is unmatched, perhaps in the history of tarot decks, using as it does a method of copperplate engraving. There is only one completed and colored deck, at least so far as we know; apart from that deck, there are only a few other cards scattered in various places in Europe, still uncolored, suggesting that the deck was not produced in high numbers. As Adams notes, the only complete deck looks to be in nearly mint condition, implying that it was not, at any rate, used for gaming, as were most of the tarot decks produced at the time. Furthermore, judging by the locations of the partial decks, only elite, aristocratic families seem ever to have owned a deck of the Sola-Busca Tarot.
However, the mysteries associated with the Sola-Busca deck arise not only from these historically distinctive features, but from cards themselves. Though from a purely structural standpoint the deck is standard, having for example seventy-eight cards, twenty-two of which are major trumps, and minor trumps including both numbered and court cards, the deck’s similarity to standard decks appears more or less to end there. A careful examination of the images displayed on the cards reveals some surprising and even disturbing images, not only unlike the standard decks but apparently completely outside the meanings we characteristically attribute especially to the major trumps in the standard decks.
For unlike standard tarot decks, there are definite historical figures depicted in cards of Sola-Busca deck, derived, as a rule, from ancient, medieval, and renaissance literary traditions, both fictional and historical. Consequently, only someone cognizant of the extant literary tradition available almost exclusively to highly educated people of the Renaissance are likely to understand its references. Furthermore, though one might expect the figures illustrated in the deck would at least be important from a literary or historical point of view, in fact most of them are minor figures, not the sort one might expect to represent the great archetypal energies one usually associates with the major trumps of the tarot. Oddly enough, though the major trumps draw from the period of Republican Rome or from legends surrounding the life of Alexander the Great, the actual figures and themes expressed in the cards’ images refer not, say, to the heroic spirit or great historical events one might expect, but rather to a more hidden spirit.
Beauty and the Bestial
Adams opens the book with a quotation from the great cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” It is hard to imagine a more fitting quotation for Adams’ study. The Sola-Busca Tarot is in fact a masterpiece of Renaissance art and fittingly enough housed in Milan’s Pinoteca, precisely for that reason. One of the chief selling points of Adams’ book, in fact, is that it includes magnificent pictures and illustrations of these cards. Happily, since the book is formatted in the “coffee table” size and format, one gets a robust and concrete sense of the cards and of the ambiance they exude. Nonetheless, embedded within the images of this most beautiful of tarot decks is a truly barbaric system of sorcery.
Adams tells us that, once he began to study the deck’s imagery, he sensed a deeper meaning than the surface of the cards suggested:
As I studied the cards in ever greater detail, I became aware of a growing discrepancy between the existing narratives surrounding them and the meanings that the cards themselves were suggesting to me (xiii).
Nonetheless, the deeper stratum (or strata) of meaning could not immediately be discerned, in part because it required a substantial knowledge of the literary tradition informing the deck. Whereas, for example, one could simply meditate on, say, the major trump “The Star” in a standard tarot deck and draw from it some measure of meaning, one’s approach would have to be different with the Sola-Busca deck, because one would need to research, understand, and connect its literary references. Adding to this difficulty, according to Adams, is that there are in fact a relatively small number of major trumps in Sola-Busca deck which are symbolic in the usual sense: in some cases, the imagery is purely representational, referring for example to the figure named on the card; in other cases, the imagery appears to be more or less decorative, without even a representational function. Thus, understanding the deck and its purposes required something beyond a purely meditative consideration, entailing substantial literary and historical investigations to supplement meditative and associative approaches.
It is perhaps for these reasons that Adams chose to study the deck ethnographically, i.e. by examining the historical and social context in which the deck was produced and designed, and by determining the likely purpose of the deck, rather than treating it from a purely meditative stance. There may not be, in fact, any other way to study this deck. As Adams discovers, the deck appears to be designed for a very specific purpose and intended to be used for a very precise set of magical practices, something a more general study of tarot decks could only elucidate to a certain point. Consequently, Adams undertakes what amounts to a literary detective story to figure out the meanings and purposes of this deck.
Adams’ subtle and profound reading of the deck requires a slow, reflective, and scholarly approach, something which cannot be imitated in a brief blog post like this. However, in order to offer a taste of his approach, I will attempt to summarize one of Adams’ subtle analyses of a major trump from the deck, number XIII Catone. In order to follow along, it might be useful for the reader to have a picture of this card. Happily, it is this very card which is used on the front cover of the book, which can be accessed at the publisher’s site: https://scarletimprint.com/publications/the-game-of-saturn. (Also, the outstanding designers of Lo Scarabeo have produced an excellent reproduction of the entire Sola-Busca, available from Llewellyn. Unfortunately, the accompanying information booklet did not benefit from Adams’ investigations.)
The card Catone, the thirteenth of the major trumps, names a specific figure in Roman history, Cato. The card includes some striking imagery. The main figure, presumably Cato, holds a spear whose point has penetrated the left eye of an unusually large head, lying on the ground. Cato is reading a scroll, which says (in Latin), “I am ruled by fate.” In the upper righthand corner is a star, whose emanating light is illustrated by rays resembling dotted lines descending from the star. The star, however, along with its rays, is black, suggesting perhaps the Saturnine image of a malefic “black sun.”
A quick but undiscerning glance at this card might suggest that this is just another image of Death, parallel to the thirteenth major trump in the standard decks. Indeed, there are a few parallels which could buttress that assumption, including a decapitated head and the star shining in the distance, reminiscent perhaps of the sunrise emerging in the background of the Death card in the current standard decks. A little more consideration, however, shows that there is little in this card which is actually similar to the Death card. The main figure, for example, is not a stylized image of Death as one finds, say, in the traditional Visconte or Marseilles decks or in modern decks such as the Rider-Waite or BOTA. It is the image of a man – the historical figure, Cato – who appears to have put the spear through the left eye of the head. The head on the ground is larger than a human head, suggesting perhaps a mythical creature. Furthermore, one cannot help but feel something of a malefic tone emanating from the black star in the background and diffusing throughout the card’s picture.
In order to decode this card, Adams turns to historical and literary sources from which this image was likely constructed, in the hopes that some underlying meaning can be discerned. The first clue to the deeper layer of meaning is of course the main figure, Cato. There are two famous Romans named Cato, Cato the Elder and his great grandson Cato the Younger. Adams notes that both of them were known to be rigid disciplinarians and relentless in the courtroom. However, there is also a definite reference to Cato the Elder in a text of Plutarch – a text readily available in the Renaissance – in which the youthful Cato flatters a governor by telling the latter he missed a gladiator show to see him, at which point the governor has a condemned prisoner brought and has him beheaded in front of them, for Cato’s amusement. The figure of Cato along with the head on the ground in the card suggest just this story.
While Plutarch’s narrative gives a first layer of meaning, the presence of elements outside the story such as the malefic star, the head having a spear through its left eye, and the Latin phrase all suggest there is another layer of meaning, to which the reference to Cato is perhaps only an indication – as well as a blind. Adams turns to a medieval text central to Renaissance astrology, The Book of Hermes on the Fifteen Fixed Stars, in order to understand the malefic star in the image:
When we review [the attributes of the fifteen fixed stars] Caput Algol stands out as the most likely candidate. Not only is its influence considered highly malefic, its name is derived from that of the ancient Babylonian demonic entities called gallu via the Arabic al-ghul meaning ‘head of the ogre’…Caput means head and Algol is also known as the ‘Demon Star’ or ‘Satan’s Head.’ In astrological lore the star is associated with the ancient hero and demigod, Perseus. Perseus famously killed and decapitated the serpent-haired Gorgon, Medusa, whose gaze turned people into stone. The second century BCE astronomer and mathematician, Hipparchus, made a separate constellation out of the stars around Algol to represent the Medusa’s head. It was usual for the whole group to be referred to as ‘Perseus and the Gorgon’s Head.’ In this arrangement, Algol is represented by the left eye of Medusa – the eye penetrated by the spear in XIII Catone (30).
Once this connection is postulated, Adams notes, one can see around the feet of Catone in the card’s image the equipment given to Perseus to kill the Gorgon, suggesting just this second layer of meaning. Hence, we can infer that below the surface layer of meaning, which appear to refer to Cato the Elder, is a hidden meaning related to Perseus killing the Gorgon.
Now to understand the significance of this point, we need also to understand the relative importance of astrology for the European aristocratic courts in the Renaissance. As Adams recounts, after the Black Death emerged in the late 14th century and the profound cultural traumas associated with it, there was a strong demand for knowledge with privileged insight in order to determine what kinds of action were worth their risk. Astrology and astral magic were therefore at a premium, especially in aristocratic courts, where actions of political import were undertaken only under favorable astrological conditions and avoided during unfavorable ones. In fact, the d’Este court, where this deck was designed and produced, was consistently accused of “necromancy,” a term which, at the time, suggested the invocation of demonic entities for the sake of practical – personal or political – ends.
Once we consider the merit of these accusations and further understand that Caput Algol was considered perhaps the most malefic of astrological forces, “the most unfortunate and dangerous star in the heavens with a reputation for causing violence and unnatural death (32),” we can begin to understand the background meaning of this trump and indeed the basso continuo which runs throughout the Sola-Busca deck: it is in fact an encoded grimoire of dark, astral magic. This particular card at least encodes some reference either to how to draw the malefic energies of Caput Algol or to the consequences of such an action or both. Adams shows us again and again through careful and well-argued analyses of many of the images among the major trumps, with the aid of an ethnographic approach, how the deck carries both (1) a manifest level of meaning, suggesting definite historical and literary figures yet also blinding the unwary and, simultaneously, (2) a hidden, latent layer of meaning suggesting actions and rituals associated with dark magic and attack sorcery. By the end of Adams’ investigation, we are left with the unavoidable conclusion that not only the d’Este family but more generally the elite families of the Italian Renaissance not only knew of such practices but specifically employed magicians – often men who doubled as priests and exorcists – to engage in such practices. Later, Adams will also describe the background cosmology hinted at in the deck, which illuminates the sentence “I am ruled by fate.” Among other things, the magic hidden in this deck along, with the cosmology underlying it, appear to serve the purpose of guaranteeing that their practitioners consistently reincarnate as members of the social elite.
To be continued.
John R. White, Ph.D. (Pittsburgh PA) is a Jungian psychoanalyst and mental health counselor. He was a philosophy professor for twenty years, prior to becoming a psychoanalyst, and his current research interests concern the various links among psychology, parapsychology, philosophy and esotericism. He is a student of several esoteric traditions. White currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Hermetic Studies.