Greek Statues & Iconography and the Tarot Images



One correction to the last series. In the first post, the section on Venus, paragraph on Andrea Vitale, I said "But the figure is surely not the Virgin Mary." I should have said "But the figure is not prima facie the Virgin Mary." As it turns out in the next post, section on the bellies, the Virgin Mary is indeed one candidate, by analogy to others.

Tomorrow I go on vacation for a week, mostly away from the Internet.



In reviewing my previous posts, I see that most of the images that I put on my friend's website and copied to my posts here did not show up in the posts! I think I know what I did wrong (not right-clicking on the images as the first step in copying them). So now I will have to either insert them somehow or re-post the whole thing. My comments don't make much sense without the images.


Hello Mike,

Posts 38, 39 and 40, have all their images intact :)

To change the text in the paragraph below, "But the figure is surely not the Virgin Mary", just click the word 'Edit' on the bottom right of the post. The editing window will open and you can alter the post contents, you may also give a brief reason for your 'editing' in the box provided.
Andrea Vitale ( has proposed that the star on the figure's shoulder is similar to the eight-sided star sometimes put on the shoulder of the Virgin Mary, meaning the "fulness of life" of the eighth day of creation. He does not say how this association relates to the meaning of the card: perhaps she is offering the water of life. But the figure is surely not the Virgin Mary.

Very indepth considerations Mike, thank you!

Bee :)


Thanks for the tip and compliment, Bee. On my computer, some of the images showed up, but 12 did not, all ones that I had on my friend's website. Instead, there were blank spots on the posts, where images should have been. So I re-posted the 12, using the "edit" function at the bottom of the posts, and now all show up for me. They are mostly images with captions, as they are jpg images that I used in a talk about a year ago.

I apologize profusely for my technical incompetence (even after several people, including my friend with the website and Huck a while back, had told me the way to post images). Unless one is pretty familiar with the cards and the issues, what I was saying is hard to follow without the images! Hopefully I have them all in there now.

Now I will work on posting the continuation.


Noblet trees

In this post I will look at the trees on the Noblet Star card in terms of Greek mythology. First, here is the relevant detail of the Cary Sheet (c. 1500, probably Milan):


Here is the Noblet (c. 1650 Paris) as it exists in the Bibliotheque Nationale, somewhat faded over time:


One difference between the Cary Sheet and the Noblet that I have not discussed is that there are clearly two trees on either side of the main figure, instead of generic plants on a low hill and a high one. What trees in Greek mythology could correspond to the two, consistent with the meaning of the lady with the two jars (discussed in my previous posts)?


For the fat tree, I see two reasonable candidates: the pomegranate (above) and the fig (photos of trees below, left). The pomegranate was sacred to Persephone. Her eating from Hades’ pomegranate grove (with his encouragement) is what condemned her never to leave for long from the Underworld. So when Persephone comes to live with her mother Demeter, the plants and trees come alive; when she must return to Hades, everything wilts. On the card, the cycle of nature is reflected in a deciduous tree, now symbolizing death and reincarnation endlessly repeated, the cycle involving the water of Lethe.


Fig trees are related to Dionysus. The juice was used in wine-making, to remove toxins ( In appearance the fruit was held to resemble the female genitalia (Simoons, Plants of Life, Plants of Death, p. 285, at Google Books). It was thus appropriate to the orgiastic dances of Dionysus’s satyrs and nymphs, as well as to the water of Lethe, drunk before emerging from a woman’s body in a new incarnation.

The branch of the fig tree, suitably carved, is of a phallic nature. It relates to Dionysus’s own return from the underworld, as told—for the purpose of revealing the mysteries--by the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria. A man showed Dionysus an entrance to Hades, and Dionysus agreed in exchange to let the man have sex with him upon his return. But the man died before Dionysus could grant his request. Then, as Clement of Alexandria tells it, “Cutting off a branch from a fig-tree which was at hand, he shaped it into the likeness of a phallus, and then made a show of fulfilling his promise to the dead man” (Exhortation to the Greeks 2.30, at


This last detail is illustrated on a Roman-era sarcophagus (above), although in this case the figure holding the fig branch is a satyr reenacting the event. My copy of the image is from This myth is described in Virgil's Eclogues and in Servius's commentary on them, sources mentioned often by the 16th century mythologist Cartari. It is also the only reference I have found to Mnemosyne as a body of water as opposed to a goddess.

But the tree on the card seems more likely to be a cypress, because of the density of its branches (photos of trees above, right). Cypresses were sacred to Apollo, Hades, and Artemis
Since Artemis was the goddess of childbirth and Hades the god of death, that tree suggests birth and death, or death and rebirth. Apollo's associations are similar: he was born in a cypress grove; also, a young man who died of love for Apollo was changed into a cypress. The cypress was well-known for its resistance to decay and thereby found frequent use in coffins.

If the tree is an evergreen, moreover, then the trees offer a symbolic reinforcement of the two streams. The water of Lethe offers forgetting and a new incarnation, just as the deciduous tree dies in winter and revives in spring. The water of Mnemosyne offers an escape from death and rebirth; similarly evergreens retain their greenery throughout the year. It is also a kind of Greek equivalent to the tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life: the fruit-bearing deciduous tree is a tree of death, while the evergreen offers eternal life.

A cypress is mentioned in the “gold tablets” that were put in some ancient Greek and Italian graves, found in the late 18th century and after. Some writers have related them to the Star card, even though the discovery was too late. It is possible that some tablets had been found earlier and not made public for fear of accusations of grave-robbing. The inscriptions on the tablets, as we shall see, offer striking resemblances to the Romano fresco, and also to Dante’s account of the two streams in the Purgatorio (both discussed in a previous post).

Several of the tablets talk about two springs and one or two trees. An example of the “long type,” from 4th-3rd century b.c.e. Petelia, in Calabria (opposite Sicily on the Italian mainland) is the following:

You will find a spring on the left of the halls of Hades,
and beside it a white cypress growing.
Do not even go near this spring.
And you will find another, from the Lake of Memory,
flowing forth with cold water. In front of it are guards.
You must say, 'I am the child of Ge and starry Ouranos;
this you yourselves also know.
I am dry with thirst and am perishing.
Come, give me at once cold water
flowing forth from the Lake of Memory.'
And they themselves will give you to drink from the divine spring,
and then thereafter you will reign with the other heroes.

The specification of a “cypress” is the first of five coincidences between the gold tablets and tarot-related imagery of the 16th-17th century.

Ge is the earth-goddess; Ouranos is the god of heaven. "I am the child of Ge and starry Ouranos" is a password to be used by the soul after death. Another translation is "I am the child of Earth and Starry Heaven." This phrase also appears in Paul Christian’s mid-19th century occultist interpretation of the cards, supposedly based on a secret tradition but appearing shortly after the texts of the first tablets were published. The phrase also appears in Hesiod's Theogeny, 6th century b.c.e., which has been known as long as any literature from that time ( There it applies to the gods. The Orphics held that humanity is descended from the dust left when Zeus burned up the offending Titans in a blast of lightning, hence a mixture of matter and divine spirit. By saying the password, the guardians know that soul is worthy of the immortals. (

Here Memory is not only water, it is a lake. The other spring must just gush out of the ground and become the source for the River Lethe. In both the Giulio Romano fresco (detail below) and the tarot card, one spring runs onto the ground, the other into a lake or other large body of water.


Another gold tablet, from 2nd century Crete, is of the “short type”, a brief dialogue:

A: I am dry with thirst and am perishing.
B: Come, drink please, from the ever-flowing spring on the right, where the cypress is. Who are you, and where do you come from?
A: I am the son of Earth (Ge) and Starry Heaven (Uranos).

On this tablet, one is supposed to drink at the cypress; on the other, that was where one was not supposed to drink. Other tablets say that the first spring, to be avoided, is by the cypress, and that it is on the right. The problem with secret oral traditions, in a culture that is used to writing things down, is that details get confused as they get passed down from one person and place to another. You will notice that the card-makers, Noblet, Dodal, Chosson, and those after, were not unanimous about the placement of the trees either.


A variation on the theme is one described by John Ops on his “Pythagorean Tarot” website (, that some tablets say that the two trees are dark and white cypresses. I have not myself found any reference in the literature on the tablets to this distinction between dark and white cypresses. Ops’s own citations say nothing about them either. And again there is the problem of which goes with which spring. But I do not discount Ops completely. Curiously, in the Romano fresco, there is what appears to be a dead tree behind the main one--or merely shedding its needles, as some evergreens do in the winter. Perhaps it is the fresco’s equivalent of one of Ops’s trees.

What is common to all the gold tablets that mention a second spring, is that the spring to be drunk from is the one further away (Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the 'Orphic' Gold Tablets, p. 50f, in Google Books). This principle also works for the Romano fresco, if we exclude the other trees in the scene as being too far from the spring to count. On the Noblet, however, it is not clear which is closer and which is further away.

The presence of two springs, or at least two sources of flowing water with guardians, is another coincidence between the gold tablets and both the Romano fresco and the tarot card. This feature is also present in the widely read accounts of Dante and Pausanias. But the tree, or perhaps two trees, is not in these sources.

I have mentioned two trees in the Romano fresco, an apparently dead one in back and a central one next to the old man, an evergreen with broad branches. This tree has broad limbs more characteristic of a cedar than of a cypress. In particular, it could be a Cedar of Lebanon. There is a picture of one on the Lebanese flag. Since ancient times it has been associated with immortality due, like the cypress, to its resistance to rot (;


Lebanon is also the home of the 4th century St. Maron, who introduced the three-barred cross later adopted by the Papacy. The Maronite Church identifies this cross with the Cedar of Lebanon, saying it looks like one ( This is the cross that de Gebelin thought derived from the Djed pillar—Osiris’s backbone, symbolic of the stability of Egypt, not a tree. But there is not much resemblance.


We also see a reclining figure reminiscent of a famous statue by the classical Greek sculptor Phidias, in the Athenian Acropolis (below). Some say it is Theseus, but the reclining position, as though holding a cup or some grapes at a banquet, suggests Dionysus, to scholars now as it would have to the humanists of Romano's time ( See also Wikipedia Commons entry for Dionysus British Museum.)


The presence of Dionysus in the fresco is another possible connection to the gold tablets. These tablets were probably a product of Orphism, a Greco-Roman cult that saw Dionysus as a savior god. In the 1980’s some scholars hypothesized that the tablets were Pythagorean; but then new tablets were found explicitly mentioning Bacchus, i.e. Dionysus, and most scholars went back to Harrison’s earlier hypothesis.

Now let us look at one more gold leaf, much of it illegible:

But so soon as the Spirit hath left the light of the sun,
To the right-----------------------of Ennoia.
Thou must man--------------------being right wary of all things.
Hail thou who has suffered the suffering.
This thou never suffered before.
A kid thou art fallen into milk.
Hail, hail to the journeying on the right.
----Holy meadows and groves of Persephoneia.
(Harrison, Prolegomena to Greek Religion, p. 584, in Google Books)

The first three lines have to do with what the soul is to do after death. That the soul is to choose what is on the right is clear from the last line "Hail, hail to the journeying on the right." At the earlier appearance of "right," in the second line, is a word that never appears otherwise, Ennoia. My guess is that it is where one goes if one drinks of the spring of Memory.

Harrison (p. 588) points out that "Ennoia" is similar to "Eunoe," which Dante used for the stream of Memory at the end of the Purgatorio. The main difference is in the beginning, "Eu" versus "En". "Eu" means "good." The root for the other half, nous, is the same. "Eu" is a very frequent beginning to many words used in Orphic contexts: eunoias, "good thoughts," for example, also occurs on Orphic tombs, in the phrase "good thoughts and remembrances." Another gold tablet refers to Dionysus as Euklaes, Glorious One, and Euboulos, He of Good Counsel.

”Ennoia” is probably one spelling of the Greek word meaning “Thought.” What Harrison perhaps did not know is that another similar word, "Ennoea," was common in Gnostic writings of the same time period as the tablets. It was Greek, but appeared in Latin characters in the Latin translation of the heresiologist Irenaeus, starting in his account of Valentinus, the leading Gnostic teacher of his day, and continuing in his discussion of the first Gnostic heretic, Simon Magus. To Simon, as Irenaeus presents him, "Ennoea" is the name of the feminine aspect of the highest god, his thought actualized. Ennoea puts his thought into action in the lower world, where she finds herself in exile from the divine realm. She appears again with this name in numerous Gnostic teachers (see Irenaeus, Refutation of all Heresies, I.1.1, I.12,1, 1.12.3, I.23.2, I.23.5, I.29.1, I.29.2, I.30.1. at Often she is the one responsible for the creation of the archetypal world. She is the one whom the Gnostics also called Sophia, Wisdom, similar to Hochmah in the Hebrew Bible, the bride of God. In Christianity she corresponds to the Virgin Mary, who Dante saw as Queen of Heaven in the highest circle of Paradise On the tablet, what the line probably means is that in choosing the spring on the right the deceased will enter the realm of Ennoea, Thought or Intellect. .

So why didn’t Dante say “Ennoea”? Irenaeus's work, in its ancient Latin translation, was a basic reference throughout the heresy-hunting Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and beyond. In Dante's time, the Inquisition was at its peak, having eradicated all but the mildest of heresies throughout France, Italy, the Low Countries, Spain, and Germany by a process of systematic terror against whole populaces. (On the Inquisition up to the 1230's, see For Dante's time, early 1300’s, see:

Using the term "Ennoea" or "Ennoia" as a stream that introduced one to Paradise would have endangered not only Dante but anyone who possessed or copied his works. Moreover, it did not quite fit his context, one of goodness rather than thought. So perhaps he changed one or two letters, affecting only the diphthongs.

So we have four coincidences between the gold tablets, supposedly unknown before the late 18th century, and European works of art from the 14th to 17th century: (1) two guarded streams (Dante, Romano, Noblet); (2) one or two trees near the streams (Romano, Noblet); (3) specific indication of a cypress as one of the trees (Noblet); (4) indication of Dionysus, among other gods or heroes (Romano, Noblet); (5) word similarity, Eunoe and Ennoia (Dante). For 1 and 4, the coincidence can be explained by reference to Pausanias. The others cannot.

But another explanation would simply be the naturalness of the objects chosen. "Eunoe" is a natural word for Dante to choose. In pictorial art, trees are natural symbolic landmarks, and the cypress a natural choice to symbolize death followed by immortality, just as a pomegranate or fig tree is a natural choice to symbolize death followed by a new incarnation.

All the same, associating the card with the the gold tablets adds an unearthly, mystical resonance to an already unearthly and mysterious card.


Dodal's and Chosson's bird

Dodal and Chosson, as opposed to Noblet, put a bird on the fat tree. They also switch the positions of the two trees.


What is the bird? Although many candidates have been put forward, there is only one that fits both the times and the overall meaning of the card: the Phoenix of Greek mythology, as conceived in the Middle Ages and carried into the 15th-17th centuries. The Greeks got their mythical bird from the Egyptians, for whom it was the Bennu; but I can find no European references to the specifically Egyptian myths about the Bennu before the deciphering of hieroglyphs in the 19th century.

Here is a medieval depiction of the bird, one of two in the 12th century “Aberdeen Bestiary.”


I do not propose that the image-makers consulted this particular Scottish manuscript; it is merely an example of what was a common idea. Besides bestiaries, the Phoenix was in astronomy books, as it was also a constellation.

In the 16th-17th centuries the bird made its appearance in snumerous places. Pico della Mirandola was dubbed "the Phoenix of the age." Shakespeare wrote his highly popular "The Phoenix and the Turtle” and singled out the bird for special mention in the plays. And according to Wikipedia, 17th Christian Hebraists puzzled over different translations of Job 29:18. In Jewish translations and commentaries it ended with "I shall multiply my days as the Hol, the phoenix" (quotation from( The Hebrew word Hol was interpreted variously as "Phoenix," "date palm," and "sand."

In the "Aberdeen Bestiary," the following text appears beside the images:

“The phoenix is a bird of Arabia, so called either because its colouring is Phoenician purple, or because there is only one of its kind in the whole world.

”It lives for upwards of five hundred years, and when it observes that it has grown old, it erects a funeral pyre for itself from small branches of aromatic plants, and having turned to face the rays of the sun, beating its wings, it deliberately fans the flames for itself and is consumed in the fire.

“But on the ninth day after that, the bird rises from its own ashes.

”Our Lord Jesus Christ displays the features of this bird, saying: 'I have the power to lay down my life and to take it again' (see John, 10:18). If, therefore, the phoenix has the power to destroy and revive itself, why do fools grow angry at the word of God, who is the true son of God, who says: 'I have the power to lay down my life and to take it again'?

”For it is a fact that our Saviour descended from heaven; he filled his wings with the fragrance of the Old and New Testaments; he offered himself to God his father for our sake on the altar of the cross; and on the third he day he rose again.

”The phoenix can also signify the resurrection of the righteous who, gathering the aromatic plants of virtue, prepare for the renewal of their former energy after death.”
( and

You can also read several classical sources at This link also has another picture from the Aberdeen Bestiary.

For the bird’s purple color, one source is the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder:

“We are told that this bird is of the size of an eagle, and has a brilliant golden plumage around the neck, while the rest of the body is of a purple color; except the tail, which is azure, with long feathers intermingled of a roseate hue; the throat is adorned with a crest, and the head with a tuft of feathers.” (The Natural History of Pliny, Vol. 2, p. 480, at Google Books).

Many sources say that the Phoenix built its nest at the top of a tree: Ovid specifies that the tree was the date palm:

“This bird, when five long centuries of life have passed, with claws and beak unsullied, builds a nest high on a lofty swaying palm...” (Metamorphoses 15:385, at

The cards with birds obviously do not show a palm tree. My guess is that the card designers inherited the shape of the tree from Noblet and other earlier card-makers; they simply added the bird as a finishing touch, to convey the idea of death and redemption, the bird as a precursor to Christ and the souls of the righteous, as the Christian commentators make clear. They chose round tree rather than a thin one, to give the bird a place to sit and put its nest. And since it is to convey the idea of immortality after death, it should be next to the Lake of Memory rather than the River of Forgetting.


MikeH said:
What is the bird? Although many candidates have been put forward, there is only one that fits both the times and the overall meaning of the card: the Phoenix of Greek mythology, as conceived in the Middle Ages and carried into the 15th-17th centuries. The Greeks got their mythical bird from the Egyptians, for whom it was the Bennu; but I can find no European references to the specifically Egyptian myths about the Bennu before the deciphering of hieroglyphs in the 19th century.

Hello Mike.
I do not think that the Phoenix is the only reasonable interpretation of the bird that can be seen in some Star cards. Actually, I think that interpretation does not take into account what can be seen in the cards, nor the common iconology of the Phoenix.

I think the Star cards points to Venus, which is also known as the morning star. The bird is there to suggest the idea of early morning: when Venus appears in the sky and the birds wake up and begin to sing in the trees.

This bird seems to me a quite ordinary bird. I see nothing in it that makes me think of the Phoenix (which is a very special bird).

As you have seen, the Aberdeen Bestiary says about the Phoenix that:

It lives for upwards of five hundred years, and when it observes that it has grown old, it erects a funeral pyre for itself from small branches of aromatic plants, and having turned to face the rays of the sun, beating its wings, it deliberately fans the flames for itself and is consumed in the fire.

So what is represented above the bird in the Aberdeen Bestiary image you posted is the Sun. The Phoenix is always represented in association with fire, such as the flaming sun in that image. The other image you proposed, from the next page in Bestiary, is much more common and recognizable:

The Phoenix could possibly have found its place in a Sun card, not in a Star card, and it would likely be represented with fire next to it.


Thanks for commenting, Marco; I am honored. I have read many of your posts and I have learned a lot from them. But let me continue to argue with you on this one.

First, the Phoenix was not always depicted in the texts with the sun and fire (eg. Pliny, Ovid): That only happens at the end, when it burns itself up. There is also the other 499 years, and the preparation period, when it builds its nest and starts fanning its wings before the fire starts. Here is a 17th century example from the English poet John Dryden, quoted in Bullfinch's Mythology (excerpted at

"So when the new-born Phœnix first is seen Her feathered subjects all adore their queen, And while she makes her progress through the East, From every grove her numerous train's increased; Each poet of the air her glory sings, And round him the pleased audience clap their wings."

Specifically, I see the bird on the card as the phoenix starting the process that ends in its immolation and eventual rebirth. The Sun, the card of immolation, is one or two cards further along. The phoenix here is the harbinger of death and rebirth, not the end product. Its black color corresponds to the purple described by Pliny and the Aberdeen Bestiary. In the Conver 1761 card, the color is yellow or gold. Perhaps that is an attempt to associate the bird with the sun.

The bird on the card is big, with a large wingspan and a long body. It is most reasonably a species of heron or some other tall waterfowl. 16th-17th century artists would have been familiar with such birds from the hieroglyphs on the obelisks of Rome and also, among other examples, from the "Nile Mosaic of Palestrina" (see and the photo at What I am referring to is in region 3; on top it shows Ethiopian hunters shooting at birds. The card-designers might have used such generic pictures of waterfowl as their inspiration. But such a possibility seems to me irrelevant. (Thus I deleted this reference from my post.) It is what the bird means in the context of the card that counts.

On the card, I totally agree that the bird is associated with Venus. It is the Morning Star in bird form. But it is still the Phoenix. A web article on the Phoenix makes this point. The comments in brackets below are in the original.

"...Like the phoenix, Dido, whose epithet was 'Phoenissa' constructed a funeral pile and threw herself on the flames. [Might relate to the morning Venus, the rays of the Sun extinguish its light].

“From ancient Greek times the phoenix has been associated with the bennu bird of Egyptian mythology. The planet Venus was called the 'star of the ship of the Bennu-Ausar' (Osiris), mentioned as the Morning Star in this invocation to the sacred sun bird. [Our planets and everything in our solar system are also represented in the fixed stars and constellations] "I am the Bennu, the soul of Ra, and the guide of the gods in the Tuat; let it be so done unto me that I may enter in like a hawk, and that I may come forth like Bennu, the Morning Star." [5]. Some see a possible connection with the Egyptian word Bennu and our word 'Venus'. There has also been some speculation that the words phoenix, Venice and Venus are ultimately related." (© Anne Wright 2008, at

I did not include this quotation in my post because, first, the author did not cite her sources, and second, I could not verify that Europeans in the 16th-17th century were familiar with such Egyptian accounts (the quote sounds to me like it is from a pyramid text).

However after reading your post, It seems to me that such verification is unnecessary. We know from the card itself that a bird was associated with the planet Venus. And in the context of the birth and resurrection theme of the card, any mythologically-minded person would immediately think of the phoenix. Like Venus as the Morning Star, it exposes itself to the fire and the Sun, the rays of which extinguish its own small light.

All the same, it would be helpful if we knew of some 15th-17th century mythologist who actually did make the connection between Venus and a bird, the Phoenix or any other. I will look in Italian and French sources. And if you know of any, even about generic birds associated with Venus, let us know. It is too large to be a dove, one of the birds associated with Venus, and too dark to be a swan or a goose; moreover, I know of no death-rebirth myth in a tree about any of these, known in 16th-17th century Italy or France.

Another possibility is that Europeans actually did know some Egyptian myths about the Bennu at that time, and knew it was a large, tall, fairly dark (at least gray) bird with conspicuous wings. Besides the account quoted by Wright (if from a pyramid text, unknown until the 19th century at least), there is the one about the Bennu as the soul of Osiris, sitting in the willow tree that grew around his coffin in Lebanon. Since the Greeks did write about this tree, that myth is the more likely of the two to have been known. If it could be verified that Europeans in the late 17th century (I say this because there does not seem to be any card before then with the bird) knew any of these details, then I would happily revise my position.

I have also examined pictures of kites (Isis) and hawks (Horus); they do not have the right size or shape. Vultures do not fit either. Stylized eagles sometimes look like the bird on the tree, but I know of no appropriate myth to go with that bird.



Bennu may also be written/pronounced Beanu....

Alchemists depict two birds - the Phoenix representing "volatile" - Fire and air,
and Aquila, representing "fixed" - earth and water.

Perhaps this is Aquila, tying in to the water and earth aspects of the water that is poured, and the water and earth onto which it is poured?

Wasn't Venus/Persephone born of the oceans and the god's wasted seed?



I have noted in my own pursuit of the Bennu bird that the tuft of feathers on the head is generally represented (at least in more modern artistry),
but I don't see it in the tarot cards displayed.

The colors sound a bot like a peacock.
It has the long neck, tufts, purple breast, but green rather than azure tail,
although there are many colors in the tail.

I am also reminded that there waas an early proto-tarot which had different birds for all cards. Perhaps the bird is a hint to look at the type of bird in that deck?