The History of the Moon Card

The Moon is a card that the occultists modified very little. In the Waite-Smith deck, for example, the design is almost indistinguishable from the centuries-old Tarot de Marseille pattern. In the foreground is a pool with a lobster or crawfish arising from the waters. In the middle distance, two dogs (or a dog and a wolf) stand howling at the moon. In the distance, two hills are topped with towers. The Moon herself shines serenely down on the scene, sometimes partly obscured by clouds.

The old Italian tarot designs, outside the influence of the Tarot de Marseille, show completely different scenes on the card. In the Tarocco Bolognese, we see two astronomers, apparently debating beneath a moonlit sky that also features several stars. One holds a compass and globe, the other a T-square. This theme is echoed in the Minchiate of Florence, where an astronomer with compass gazes upward, "moonstruck"; he sits with a massive disk bearing the Roman numerals I through XII, both a sundial or clock and a reference to the signs of the zodiac. In the Tarocco Siciliano, a woman stands gesturing toward a man lying sleeping beneath a tree, a discarded club by his side.

Although the female maiden or goddess as a Moon symbol was a veritable cliche of Renaissance art, only a few early tarot decks show this obvious motif: Mitelli's 1665 engraved deck shows Diana, complete with her hunting dogs. The Visconti-Sforza triumph cards show a modestly clothed maiden holding the Moon in her hand. This card (and several others in the deck) was almost certainly not made in Milan, but is instead a "replacement" made in Ferrara, perhaps in the 1460s or 1470s, to complete the deck. Neither of these "Moon goddesses" apparently had much of an influence on subsequent tarot designs.

In the Belgian Tarot (17th to 18th centuries), we see a woman with a spindle, a design apparently borrowed from the Ferrarese or Bolognese Sun card design.

The Swiss 1JJ Tarot (a modern design with 19th-century antecedents, related to the Tarot de Marseille) keeps the lobster and one of the dogs, but adds a romantic serenader and his balcony-ensconced lover.

Visonti-Sforza Triumph Cards, c.1450
Tarocchino di Mitelli, c.1665
Belgian Tarot, 1770
Minchiate Fiorentine, c. 1820

The Tarot de Marseille design looks rather unusual in the company of the Italian cards with their astronomers and allegorical Moon maidens, and it was once thought that this was a rather late (17th century) variations. However, an uncut sheet of cards (the Cary sheet) from Milan in the early 1500s shows a very similar design; lacking only the dogs. so there is a possibility that this eerie nighttime scene, lacking human figures, dates back to the very earliest days of the tarot.

The "lobster" is almost certainly meant to represent the astrological sign of Cancer (many old manuscripts show "crabs" drawn like lobsters). So this design, although rather mysterious to modern eyes, was probably completely logical and pedestrian to 16th-century sensibilities. Rather it is the Italian cards with astronomers and compasses that seem to demand explanation: these were classic icons of astronomy or astrology, and hence (one would think) more appropriate to the Star card.

The sequence of tarot trumps is almost explicable as a cosmograph, or symbolic map of the universe. The "celestial spheres" (Star, Moon, and Sun) are grouped together, just before emblems of heaven and God (the Angel and the World), reflecting the conventional understanding of the cosmic order. But there is a peculiarity: the Star appears before Moon and Sun, not after them as the wisdom of the times would have dictated. What gives?

It may be that the tarot designer was thinking more of "increasing power" than of astronomical location: Moon is brighter than Star, Sun is brighter than Moon. It may also be that the Star is meant to signal the celestial spheres generally (the tarot has no cards explicitly depicting the spheres of the planets). with the Moon and Sun singled out for special treatment. This possibility is especially appealing to me, as the Moon and Sun are traditional celestial symbols of the female/male duality, a theme that seems to permeate the tarot. (The tarot designer felt obliged to include a male and female pope, a male and female emperor, and both kings and queens for each suit, at a time when the norm cosisted of a thoroughly male hierarchy of powers.) It seems to me that the tarot designer wanted symbols of the male and female principles (Sun and Moon) positioned at the very top of the celestial realm, just below the heavens themselves, to emphasize the importance of this dichotomy.

As unappetizing as it is to modern minds, we must recognize that throughout most of western history, the female principle was regarded as negative and inferior to the male principle. The Moon is outranked by the Sun, and furthermore presides over the uncomfortable, possibly frightening, world of the night. Many of these associations (deceit, ill omen, confusion, indecision) still cling to the Moon card in divinatory traditions. The original tarot designers, though certainly steeped in the patriarchal culture of old Europe, may have valued the feminine principle more than these cliches would suggest. Certainly the queens, Papess, and Empress are presented just as positively in the old decks as their male counterparts. Perhaps the original designers of the tarot were informed by a philosophy that regarded the feminine principle as essential (if nevertheless alien to the social norms of the time), and so they elevated the Moon above the Stars to (near) parity with the Sun, so that both male and female principles become indispensible templates for the entire created cosmos.


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Copyright 1999 Tom Tadfor Little