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MikeH  MikeH is offline
Join Date: 03 Nov 2007
Location: Oregon USA
Posts: 443
Star card: nymphs


Andrea Vitale ( has observed a detail at the bottom right of Guilio Romano's large fresco in the "Hall of Psyche," Palacio Te, Mantua, c. 1528. The picture on Trionfi is not very clear, so here is another (from The Tale of Cupid and Psyche, by Sonia Caviccioli, translated from the Italian):

Vitale interprets the scene in terms of Porphyry's essay "On the cave of the nymphs," a Neoplatonic exposition of a passage in Homer's Odyssey; Vitale says that the essay had been recently translated into Latin. (On Aeclectic, on the thread I cited two posts back, Venicebard also drew attention to this passage in Homer in relation to the Star card.)

The Odyssey, Book 13, says:

"At the head of the harbor is a long-leafed olive tree, and near it a pleasant, shadowy cave sacred to the nymphs that are called Naiads. Therein are mixing bowls and jars of stone, and there too the bees store honey. And in the cave are long looms of stone, at which the nymphs weave webs of purple dye, a wonder to behold; and therein are also ever-flowing springs. Two doors there are to the cave, one toward the North Wind, by which men go down, but that toward the South Wind is sacred, nor do men enter thereby; it is the way of the immortals." (trans. A.T. Murray, at

It is possible that Romano's fresco illustrates this scene, if instead of "doors" we read "gates" (as some translators do) and we assume that the water from the springs run down one side into the ground and down the other side to the lake in the distance. But it is a stretch: each leaves out numerous details that are in the other. In Romano, there is only one Naiad; the other, the old man, might even be a primeval Aquarius, dumping his nectar into the lake.

Nor does Porphyry add any of these details ( The water does not even flow out of the cave, for all Porphyry says. It is the cold water inside the cave that attracts souls there, to be born in the cave of this world. The cave is then a place of purification, in which the souls that hear the nymphs become bees. Romano has no bees. One would think he would at least have an olive tree, as in Homer's first sentence. Romano's tree has needles.

Porphyry does add a characteristically Neoplatonic touch: when Homer says of the southern gate, "nor do men enter thereby; it is the way of the immortals," he does not mean, says Porphyry, that the gate is for the gods alone: "...the southern gates are not the avenues of the Gods, but of souls ascending to the Gods" (Sec. 11). Men, or at least their souls, do not enter by this gate; they enter as men by the other gate, and leave by there as well, for a new incarnation, except for those lucky enough to have heard the nymphs, who represent intellect. Then like bees they fly to heaven.

I am not saying that Porphyry's "cave of the nymphs" is irrelevant to our card. But there are some gaps to be filled. So let us look elsewhere. There are other magical springs in the writings of antiquity. Daimonax, quotes Pausanias's account of a place in Greece where people journeyed so to be put in a trance and enabled to see into the future (before there was tarot, of course). Here is the passage:

"...Then he is led by the priests, not at once to the oracle, but to certain springs. Here he must drink what is called the water of forgetfulness, in order that he forget everything he has hitherto thought of. Then he drinks from another water, the water of Memory, that he may remember what he sees below.... After his ascent from [the oracle of] Trophonios the inquirer is again taken in hand by the priests, who set him upon a chair called the chair of Mnemosyne (Memory), which stands not far from the shrine, and they ask of him, when seated there, all he has seen or learned. After gaining this information they then entrust him to his relatives. These lift him, paralysed with terror and unconscious both of himself and of his surroundings, and carry him to the building where he lodged before with Tykhe (Fortune) and the Daimon Agathon (Good Spirit). Afterwards, however, he will recover all his faculties, and the power to laugh will return to him." (Pausanias, Description of Greece, Frazier trans., at Google Books, p. 494f)

The waters are forgetting and remembering, Lethe and Mnemosyne. Lethe, we know from Plato's Myth of Er (Republic 621), was the water drunk by those who were about to return to the world of mortals for another incarnation. Mnemosyne, or perhaps the two together, puts one beyond this world. In the Orphic Hymns, beloved to Ficino and Pico, the ancient poet prays to Mnemosyne:

"Come, blessed power, thy mystic's mem'ry wake
To holy rites, and Lethe's fetters break."

Mnemosyne, in the proper context, allows one to break the fetters that return one to our world; in other words, it makes it possible to enter the world of the immortals. Plato does not mention this goddess in his myth, but in one sense she the whole basis for his philosophy: to recover the memory of truths known before birth. And we must not forget Freud, who spoke of the recovery of repressed memories, from before one had language; or Jung, recovering the "collective unconscious"; or Flornoy, describing this card in terms of recovering "la memoire du monde"--the memory of the world (Pelerinage des Bateleurs, p. 190).

Jane Harrison argued (in Prolegomena to Greek Religion, at Google Books, p. 579ff) that the rite that Pausanias describes was an Orphic initiation, by which one may hope to escape the great Orphic wheel (the "Wheel of Fortune") of human incarnations. I would imagine that esoteric circles in the 15th-16th centuries might have seen the Romano fresco in just such terms, and likewise for the Cary Sheet Star card, which may have been one source for the fresco image.

For the Orphic, the two waters make explicit what Vitale assumes for "Cave of the Nymphs," one spring for mortals and one for immortals. Pausanias mentions no nymphs, the Neoplatonic symbols of intellect; for him, anyone upright and brave enough can drink the waters of forgetting and remembering. Pausanias experienced it himself, he says.

We can even identify which spring is which in Romano's fresco: the one in front is the source of the River Lethe, drunk by souls destined to return for another incarnation, and the other the source of the Lake of Mnemosyne (for the "pool of Mnemosyne" in a classical source, see

Lethe, in fact, was a naiad as well as a river, and Mnemosyne a Titan as well as a lake or pool (Wikipedia). So perhaps the lady in the fresco is Lethe, standing guard over the spring that feeds the river. And the other spring, with the Aquarius-like old man, feeds the lake sacred to Mnemosyne.

In the Cary Sheet, however, the two beings seem merged into one, with one jug for each spring: she is neither Lethe nor Mnemosyne, but both at once. Since this point is not generally accepted, I will elaborate. Harrison relates Pausanias and the two waters to a scene at the end of Dante's Purgatorio, one that seems to have escaped the attention of tarot historians. Dante's 14th century work, then still at the height of its fame, was far closer in time to Romano and the Cary Sheet than Porphyry or Pausanias. At the very highest part of Purgatory, Dante sees two streams next to each other. He asks a woman who is picking flowers about them. She explains:

L'acqua che vedi non surge di vena
che ristori vapor che gel converta,
come fiume ch'acquista e perde lena;

ma esce di fontana salda e certa,
che tanto dal voler di Dio riprende,
quant' ella versa da due parti aperta.

Da questa parte con virt discende
che toglie altrui memoria del peccato;
da l'altra d'ogne ben fatto la rende.

Quinci Let; cos da l'altro lato (130)
Eno si chiama, e non adopra
se quinci e quindi pria non gustato:

a tutti altri sapori esto di sopra.
Quelli ch'anticamente poetaro
l'et de l'oro e suo stato felice, (140)
forse in Parnaso esto loco sognaro.

Qui fu innocente l'umana radice;
qui primavera sempre e ogne frutto;
nettare questo di che ciascun dice."

(The water which thou seest springs not from vein
Restored by vapour that the cold condenses,
Like to a stream that gains or loses breath;

But issues from a fountain safe and certain,
Which by the will of God as much regains
As it discharges, open on two sides.

Upon this side with virtue it descends,
Which takes away all memory of sin;
On that, of every good deed done restores it.

Here Lethe, as upon the other side (line 130)
Eunoe, it is called; and worketh not
If first on either side it be not tasted.

This every other savour doth transcend;
Those who in ancient times have feigned in song
The Age of Gold and its felicity, [line 140]
Dreamed of this place perhaps upon Parnassus.

Here was the human race in innocence;
Here evermore was Spring, and every fruit;
This is the nectar of which each one speaks.")

(Purgatorio XXVIII, 121ff. At

Here, in this Earthly Paradise, the object is to drink from Lethe to forget your sins, and the horrors of Hell and Purgatory, and then from the water of the other stream, which she calls "the nectar of which each one speaks" (meaning, "of which all speak," I think-i.e. the nectar of the gods), to remember your good deeds. Drinking both constitutes a purification of the mind before entering Paradise.

After drinking from Lethe, Dante does not even recognize Beatrice, because of his past sins toward her. To remember her, he has to drink from the second stream, revealed as the water of Remembering, but Dante calls the stream by the strange name Eunoe. There are two little dots over the last e in Eunoe, indicating that it is a separate syllable. Dante did not make up the word: Eunoe is the name of a nymph, allegedly the mother of Hecuba, the queen of Troy at the time of the Trojan War. The word is compounded of "eu," good, and "nous," mind: awareness of good, in other words. It fits the context. (ë).

One might wonder whether the nymph Eunoe might be the personification of the second stream, just as Lethe was for the first; but Dante does not engage in such classical devices here.

The flower-picking lady appears in the stream called Lethe and draws him into the water. Then:

La bella donna ne le braccia aprissi;100
abbracciommi la testa e mi sommerse
ove convenne ch'io l'acqua inghiottissi.

Indi mi tolse, e bagnato m'offerse
dentro a la danza de le quattro belle;
e ciascuna del braccio mi coperse.

Noi siam qui ninfe e nel ciel siamo stelle;
pria che Beatrice discendesse al mondo,
fummo ordinate a lei per sue ancelle.

Merrenti a li occhi suoi; ma nel giocondo
lume ch' dentro aguzzeranno i tuoi110
le tre di l, che miran pi profondo.

(The beautiful lady opened wide her arms, [line 100]
Embraced my head, and plunged me underneath,
Where I was forced to swallow of the water.

Then forth she drew me, and all dripping brought
Into the dance of the four beautiful,
And each one with her arm did cover me.

'We here are Nymphs, and in the Heaven are stars;
Ere Beatrice descended to the world,
We as her handmaids were appointed her.

We'll lead thee to her eyes; but for the pleasant
Light that within them is, shall sharpen thine [line 110]
The three beyond, who more profoundly look.'

(Canto XXXI, 100f, at

Dante gives us a picture of water-nymphs who are also stars, four in this stream of Lethe and three more in the other stream, Eunoe. And there is the flower-picking lady herself, later referred to as Matilda, who may also be a nymph, initiating Dante at this spring with two streams of Forgetting and Remembering. Our Star card is simply a Renaissance version of this same vision, dressed (or undressed) in the classical style of Botticelli.

Romano's fresco imagery draws from the ancient manner of depicting naiads, but also keeps with the tradition of two springs. Romano's nymph, or naiad, is Lethe, guarding the source of the river named after her. I do not know the name of the old man guarding the other spring, unless it is Aquarius, but his stream flows into the lake sacred to Mnemosyne. And just as the fresco has one stream on land and the other merging with a lake, so do the 17th century versions of the card. With Romano's additions, we are already halfway to the 17th century cards.

Some people (e.g. the "Pythagorean Tarot" website) have invoked for the Star card the so-called "Gold Tablets" found in ancient Greek and Italian graves, having on them instructions not to drink from one spring but only from another. Unlike Pausanias and Dante, there the initiate is expected to drink from only one spring, and to know which one it is. The tablets refer to a closer one and one further away, and to trees next to one or the other.

On the Cary Sheet, one might relate the instructions to the plants next to the jars, one closer and one further away. On the 17th century versions of the card, there are more clues: different trees, a bird on one, and land or water underneath the jars. I will discuss these details in a later post. In the meantime, one major objection to invoking the tablets is the lack of evidence that any were known before the late 18th century; in fact, few people knew what they said until the mid-19th (see Wikipedia). Ah, one might object, there might have been some before, but not made public and later lost. Yes, that is possible, but it is not evidence. I think there is some evidence, and I will provide it in a future post. (I also give it in the post that Beanu cited at the beginning of this thread.)

And there is one more detail, which appears starting in the 17th century, that I want to talk about, namely, another suggestion in the cards of Dante's spring, the source of the two streams. But here I am not sure I understand properly what others have said on the subject, so I will put my thoughts in another post later.
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