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The Boiardo 15th c Poem
Tarot history in brief

quotations from various people

Functions of Readings
What is Tarot?


Med. on XVIIII

Emily E. Auger

Tarot and Other Meditation Decks

L. Atkinson

Orphalese Software review

S. Arwen

Memory & Instinct

Kathy Berkowitz

Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 1)
Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 2)
Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 3)
Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 4)

Nina L. Braden

Tarot in Literature

David Brice

Birth of Tarot

Colin Browne

Square & Compasses Tarot

Lee A. Bursten

Journeys in Tarot Creation
Vachetta review


Review: The Lo Scarabeo Story

Ross G. Caldwell

Tarot History

Bonnie Cehovet

Tarology - Poetics of Tarot
Review: Secret of Tarot
The Mystereum Tarot

N. Chishty-Mujahid

Concerning Ghisi’s Laberinto

Craig Conley

A House of Tarot Cards

A.B. Crowther

Rachel Pollack interview

Jean-Michel David

On Paneurythmy and Tarot
Tarot's expression of the numinous
Yarker, Tarot & Arcane Schools
Waite-Smith Sun card
The Fool as Wandering Jew
Tarot as Christian Art
Education through Tarot
Tarot: the vatical & the sacral
Fortuna, Ass & Monkey
Steiner and Tarot
1701 Dodal restored!
Enc. Tarot vol I-IV: review
Christ, World & Sin
Caveat Emptor:
       Visual Tarot

Tarot & AlefBeit
Review: Jean Payen Tarot
Tarot and Freemasonry
I-Ching and Pip Cards
Whither directing your course?
Tarot & the Tree of Life
Ovid, Egypt and Tarot
When the Devil isn't the Devil
Four elements and the suits
Court Cards & MBTI
Certification & Codes
Jean Dodal Marseille
Conference FAQs
Golden Dawn
Kabalah & Tarot
Golden Tarot review
Annual spread
Iraqi Museum
Two Brief TdM reviews
Meditations on the Tarot

Enrique Enriquez

The Joy of Wordplay
J-C. Flornoy interview
Embodied Tarot
Indirect Suggestions
Whispering to the Eye

Mark Filipas

History of Egyptian Decks
Lexicon Theory

Jean-Claude Flornoy

in memorium
from Oral Tradition

Roxanne Flornoy

Children and Tarot
from Oral Tradition

Mary Greer

Killing the Thoth Deck
On the Tarot of the Four Worlds
Egypt, Tarot and Mystery School Initiations

William Haigwood

The Sixties: Counterculture Tarot

Alissa Hall

Parlour Tricks

Kris Hadar

The Tarot

Claas Hoffmann

Crowley-Harris 'Thoth' deck

Michael J. Hurst

Tarot Symbolism review

K. Frank Jensen

Century with the Waite-Smith

Shane Kendal

A Poetry of Tarot

Ken J. Killeen

The Metaphysical Bible

Barbara Klaser

Language of Tarot

E. Koretaka

Cardinal Virtues

Dovid Krafchow

Kabbalistic Tarot

Lisa Larson

Perceptions of Spirituality

Suzan E. Lemont

Therapeutic Tarot Work

Eric K. Lerner

Diloggun and Tarot

N. Levine

Tarot of Prague review

C. Liknaitzky

Journey in Ceramics

Joep van Loon

Tarot Wheel

Karen Mahony


S.J. Mangan

Fool, Alef & Orion

Robert Mealing

Petrarch’s Triumphs
Jean Noblet Tarot
Hunting the "true" Marseille Tarot
Cary Sheet

Fern Mercier

Playing the Fool

C. de Mellet

Inquiries into Tarot

Sophie Nusslé

Fantastic Menagerie

Robert V. O'Neill

Tarot Symbolism
Tower Iconology

Michael Owen

Xultun Tarot

Dan Pelletier

Magic Manga Tarot
the Blank Spot

Robert M. Place

The Fool's Journey

Debra Rosenthal

Looking at the Jacques Vieville

Mjr Tom Schick

Tarot Lovers Calendar

Inna Semetsky

Counseling Reading for Spouses
Learning the language of images
Re-Symbolization of Self
Tarot (dis)contents

Diana Sobolewska

'Bateleur's tale'

Russell Sturgess

Jesus's New Testament

N. Swift

Sufism & Tarot

Arthur E. Waite

Symbols of Tarot

Iconology of the Tower Cards

June 2003

by Dr. Robert O’Neill

Abridged by Jean-Michel David

The Early Tarot Images

Figure 1

There are five surviving images of the Tower from the 15/16th centuries (Fig. 1). Four of the towers are square with doorways and four show rocks, hail, or masonry falling. Three show flames coming from the top of the Tower and apparently originating from the Sun in the upper corner. One shows a couple falling and another appears to have an animal partially concealed behind the tower. Images of the Tower similar to those in Fig. 1 occur occasionally in religious art and are common in the Apocalyptic tradition but do not occur in the traditions associated with Petrarch or the Dance of Death.

Religious Art

The image of the burning tower is not common in religious art but some examples can be found. Voelkle and L’Engle (Illuminated Manuscripts: Treasures of the Pierpont Morgan Library 1998, p. 31) show an illustration from a German manuscript c.1360 that depicts Lot fleeing Sodom with burning towers in the background. […]

Cavendish (The Tarot 1975, p 122) shows a painting from a psalter of 1424 depicting the building of the tower of Babel. The workmen at the top are arguing and one is shown falling in an inverted position with pieces of masonry. Flint (The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe 1991, cover) shows an 11th century illustration of Simon Magus falling headlong from a square tower.

The Apocalyptic Tradition

The destruction of earthly kingdoms and the fall of Babylon are recurrent themes in Revelations and the artistic renderings of these themes appears to explain the Tarot images. For example, in Revelations 8:7, the first of seven angels blows its trumpet "… and, with that, hail and fire…were dropped on the earth…" and again Revelations 16:20 "…and hail…fell from the sky on the people."

This Apocalyptic reference to hail and fire may explain the falling circles and flames seen on two of the early Tarot (Fig. 1)[…].

There are two places in Revelations where the fall of Babylon, as a symbol of evil, is celebrated. Revelations 14:8 – "A second angel followed him, calling "Babylon has fallen, Babylon the Great has fallen…" […]. The concept of ultimate punishment being dealt to material evil caught the medieval imagination and there are a number of illustrations of these verses that appear to be related to the early Tarot. […].

A 14th century Parisian Apocalypse depicts the fall of Babylon and an angel ordering the merchants to leave the burning city of Babylon (Revelations 18:4-12). The image confirms the association of Devil and Tower. […] An earlier manuscript of c.950 shows the destruction of Babylon with burning buildings (Voelkle and L’Engle op. cit., p. 79). A Dürer woodcut of 1498 (van der Meer Apocalypse 1978, fig. 199) shows towers falling in the background and the harlot of Babylon in the foreground.

Several other passages in Revelations relate to the destruction of the cities as symbols of material power.[…]

These passages were illustrated with images such as a 14th century depiction which shows falling towers, an inverted falling man, and a doorway. A similar image can be found in […] van der Meer (op. cit., fig. 151). […] Similar images can be seen in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript c.1255/60 (Grubb Revelations 1997, p. 49).

Figure 8

The symbolism of the falling towers and men is quite old in the Apocalyptic tradition as exemplified by a Spanish manuscript of c.950 (Fig. 8) that shows the basic theme together with a direct reference to Babylon and illustrates the celestial significance of the event by showing Stars in the sky overhead. That the Spanish Christians associated Babylon with their Islamic rulers is evident from the shape of the towers in Fig. 8 (Seidel, in McGinn 2000).

Iconological Analysis

We have mentioned in earlier chapters [on the site] the iconological association of the Death/Devil/Tower symbols and the Devil/Tower association. For example, Grubb (op. cit., p. 57) shows a tapestry c.1373-81 that depicts Towers falling and Devils. A figure from a 14th century Apocalypse shows the Devil represented as the seven-headed dragon, falling Towers, hailstones as shown on some of early Tarots (Fig. 1) and with Stars and Sun in the sky above.

Another 14th century manuscript shows the falling Towers and hail together with the Moon and the darkened Sun. A similar image from another 14th century manuscript (Deuchler et al. A Forteenth Century Manuscript in Facsimile 1971) shows the falling towers together with the Stars, Moon and Sun.

This association of images has two important implications. First, the juxtaposition of images of 13 Death – 14 Devil – 15 Tower – 16 Star – 17 Moon – 18 Sun seems to confirm the relationship between the sequence of Tarot images in the type B ordering and the Apocalyptic artistic tradition that influenced so much of the religious art of the times. Second, although the juxtaposition of these symbols conveys little significance in the 21st century, it is hard to believe that a 15th century viewer did not saw the apocalyptic implications of this sequence!

[N.B. The common sequence inserts Temperance between Death and the Devil, thereby their altered numeration. ed.]


So how might the 15th century card-players have seen the Tower card? As an urban resident of a city-state in northern Italy, the players would have been intimately aware of the tower as a symbol of power – the ultimate phallic symbol. Perhaps the players would have been proud that the towers of the castles and cathedrals of their city were tall and strong – a sign of their own personal contribution to the city’s prestige and prosperity.

At the same time, the players had been saturated with sermons about the vanities of this world (Rusconi, in McGinn 2000). The players would have heard about the predictions of the Antichrist and the imminent apocalypse. Even if they might not recognize the name of Joachim of Fiore, still the friars led them to expect the overturn of the current regimes, both laic and ecclesiastical (McGinn The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism 2000).[…]

[…] Perhaps we should not be surprised that the Tower card appears in only one of the decks painted for the aristocracy? Perhaps the nobles, subjected to the same fiery Franciscan sermons, were a bit nervous about the implications of the crumbling tower of power?

Robert O’Neill is the author of the classic book Tarot Symbolism, republished by J-M. David.

This article first appeared on reproduced abbreviated with permission of the author.

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