Minchiate Pips and Aesop's Fables

Laura Borealis

I'm currently very interested in minchiate decks, and have been looking at the scans here and here, among other places.

Both of those decks have semi-illustrated pips. Some cards are unillustrated, having just seven batons or six cups, for instance. But some have little people or animal figures, like a deer, a lion, a monkey with a hand mirror. I'm sure everyone who owns or has looked at minchiate decks has noticed these.

This evening I was looking through the scans of the Antiche Minchiate Etruria deck, and I realized that the animal figures on the Two of Batons are the fox and stork from one of Aesop's Fables!

The story: the fox wants to play a trick on the stork, so he invites the stork over for dinner, and he serves a delicious-smelling soup. However, he serves it in a broad, shallow dish, and the stork can only dip the end of his beak in it. So he goes hungry, while the fox laps up the soup with apparent relish. The stork decides to turn the tables on the fox, and invites him for dinner in return. The stork's soup is served in a tall jar with a narrow neck. The stork can drink the soup easily, but the fox can only lick around the rim of the jar. The moral is something along the lines of, if you play tricks on others, expect to be paid back in kind.

I found a site with several illustrations of the fable, here, including several that pre-date the minchiate deck. Wikipedia says it has been illustrated since the Middle Ages. There's no doubt in my mind that the bottom of this card depicts Aesop's fox and stork. I'm not sure about the leaping human figure at the top, though. :p

I haven't positively identified any other pips as illustrations of Aesop's or other allegorical fables, but some of them do seem to be telling a tale. Take this dog or fox in what might be a henhouse. The chickens look a bit perturbed, don't they? And that afore-mentioned monkey with a mirror feels like it comes from a story, too.

Animals cavort on other cards too, including the trumps. Why is there a fox and a porcupine on Libra? All the versions of minchiate Libra that I've seen have them. Maybe if I knew more about historical astrology, that one would make sense to me. I did some quick googling on that but didn't turn up anything yet.

If I discover any more Aesop's Fables or other allegorical tales in the pips, I'll post 'em. I have Brian Williams' minchiate deck and book on the way; maybe he will shed some light too.


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Laura Borealis

The Four of Cups with the monkey and the mirror may relate to a fable called "The Snail and the Mirror;" link to the story indexed here. It's not as unambiguous as the fox and the stork, though, and it doesn't satisfy me.

ETA: I almost wonder if it's related to the snake-charming Prudence and her mirror.


I like this laura, and I'm certainly intrigued as to what other fables might be found on the pips, very nice find. So whilst playing the game of Minchiate the players were being reminded of their morals! I like that.

Le Fanu

I had noticed this. Especially the Stork and the Fox and the Monkey with the mirror. There are other cards which, even if not Aesop, have a parable-like feel to them.

Looking at the LoS Minchiate (1725), I see;

The 5 of Swords has a Fox/dog popping its head out of a chicken hatch and scaring all the chickens!

The 8 of Swords has what looks like a hedghog sniffing either a coiled snake or a baby hedgehog (can't quite make it out!) and a monkey - again - holding up a mirror.

The 4 of Swords has what looks like a weird dog or weasal on a stool attempting to read a tablet (of stone?) and a unicorn at the bottom of the card.

The 2 of Swords has a meek deer turned away from the viewer.

Plus the 3 of Cups has a very proud lion strutting against a fluttering scroll.

Laura Borealis

Great examples. :) The monkey on the 8 of swords seems almost faun-like to me, just looking at the legs and feet -- those look like hooves. But the head is a monkey's head. So hard to tell what the artist had in mind, sometimes.

Interestingly, on the Al Leone Minchiate Fiorentine, the hedgehog has become a rabbit. The Al Leone is several decades later, even though the art seems to have gone backward in time. Are hedgehogs pan-European? I associate them with the British Isles, not with Italy. Maybe it morphed due to unfamiliarity... or maybe the artist just likes bunnies. Forgive my rambling, I haven't had my coffee yet...

Back to the pips and the tales they tell. The 3 of swords is clearly Romulus and Remus suckling from their wolf foster-mother. Examples: Etruria and Al Leone. Wikipedia article on the lads here. Raised by wolves! So clearly the stories referenced in the pips are not just from Aesop's tales; they're coming from mythology too, and who knows what other sources. It may be difficult to identify just what is meant by a weasel on a stool. :p