A Pagan Tarot: Review of “The Game of Saturn” by Peter Mark Adams

The story told by The Game of Saturn, written by Peter Mark Adams and published by Scarlet Imprint, is more of a historical thriller – a demonic mystery – than anything else. In fact, placed into a narrative rather than purely historical structure it would make an amazing Hollywood movie. Renaissance espionage amongst rich and powerful northern Italian aristocrats, secret magical cults and surviving worship of dark forgotten pagan gods, human sacrifice and shocking sexual secrets; the story has it all. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interesting in the Tarot, occult history, or paganism. I also highly recommend the book, for reasons I will discuss at the end of this review, for anyone interested in the use of magic and the occult for revolutionary political and social purposes.

The Game of Saturn is the first full historical investigations of one of the earliest, and certainly the most enigmatic, Tarot decks. The Sola-Busca Tarot is, in fact, the oldest Tarot deck for which we have a complete set of cards. Beyond this there are several particularly interesting aspects of the deck that set it off from amongst its contemporary competitors. Most notable is the fact that it provides full illustrations for what would later come to be called the Minor Arcana while other decks of the time, and for some time thereafter, offered rather generic illustrations for the “pip” cards of the Minor Arcana. Consider the following examples of the “Seven of Disks (or Coins)” from what is commonly considered the oldest Tarot deck, the Visconti-Sforza deck, on the left and the Sola-Busca deck on the right.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect that sets the Sola-Busca apart from other decks, however, is the extremely enigmatic nature of the deck’s pictures. In order to expand upon this point I will lay out a bit of the likely history of Tarot.

Tarot’s History and Origins

Visconti-Sforza Tarot
One of the original Visconti-Sforza decks I visited in person when it was on display at the MET Cloisters in New York. Forgive the mediocre quality of the image.

(In discussing the history of the Tarot I will be drawing both on general common knowledge, material covered in The Game of Saturn, and the excellent book The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination by Robert M. Place.)

The mythological history of the Tarot largely derives from the 1781 work of the French author Antoine Court de Gebelin. His creative speculations then influenced the creation of what we might call the first modern Tarot deck by the French occultist Etteilla in 1789. The work of Court de Gebelin and Etteilla combined to form the standard story offered by the famous French occultist Eliphas Levi in the 1850s in which the Tarot originates from the ancient wisdom of Egypt, with its twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana corresponding to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, and the entire meaning of the cards deriving from Hermetic and Qabalistic teachings along with further elemental and astrological correspondences.

The British Order of the Golden Dawn extensively adopted the ideas of Levi, Etteilla, and Gebelin in its teachings in the late 19th and early 20th century which, in turn, led to the creation of the Smith-Waite Tarot of 1910 (both Smith and Waite having been members of the Golden Dawn). The Smith-Waite Tarot forms the basis of almost all decks constructed after it with most of the exceptions to this rule being decks derived, instead, directly from the Golden Dawn’s original designs and teachings (Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot deck and his text The Book of Thoth, for example, would be a major alternative influence on modern decks except that Crowley is largely presenting the Golden Dawn understanding of the Tarot – upon which Waite too draws – with a few key alterations that, within the Qabalistic framework, are very important but within the larger history of Tarot are rather minor).

As interesting, and useful, as the mythological history derived from 18th Century France and the meanings of the cards which derive from this history is, it is almost entirely false. Most scholars agree that the Tarot originates from sometime between 1410-1430 in Northern Italy with the first deck likely being that designed by the astrologer Marziano de Tortona for Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan. This deck would later be the basis of the surviving fifteen fragmentary decks all formed in the 1450s that constitute what is called the Visconti-Sforza deck.

Playing cards long predate these and similar decks, and the main distinction that scholars make between any deck of cards and a deck of Tarot is the inclusion of a fifth suit over and beyond the four suits we commonly find in playing cards to this day. The four standard suits came to be called the Minor Arcana much later, and the added suit to be called the Major Arcana, but originally the added suit was made up of cards called “Triumphs” or “Trumps”. Indeed, the deck designed by Marziano de Tortona was first called carte da trionfi or “deck of cards with triumphs (i.e. trumps) added”.

When asking about the origin of Tarot, then, we can put aside the so-called Minor Arcana which derive from the standard complicated and fascinating history of playing cards come down to use from both Asian and Arabic origins. Instead, we must ask about the origin of the fifth suit, the Triumphs or Trumps of the so-called Major Arcana. There are useful proposals for the origins of the Trumps, for example there is likely some influence (though rather minor) from Alchemical diagrams (we see this a bit in the Sola-Busca in particular but it is largely missing from most other decks of the time) and perhaps some heritage derived from Church passion plays. But the clearest origin for the Trumps ties into their name. During the Renaissance there was a popular type of parade, called a Triumph, in which each character appearing in the parade triumphs, or beats, the next. These were largely organized in terms of a hierarchy of powers, from worldly power in the hands of the Emperor and Empress, religio-worldly power of the Papess and Pope, to Cosmic power found in such figures as Death, Fame, Fate, and Eternity. Such a parade is presented, for example, in the poem “I Trionfi” by Petrarch in the 14th Century. Sometimes the figures mentioned also include various virtues, or are organized according to the traditional two tier distinction within the seven virtues common in Catholic theology (the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity and the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Courage).

Death Tarot
The “Death” card in the Visconti-Sforza deck, my own picture from the MET Cloisters.

To summarize the points I just made, the unique aspect that makes a deck a Tarot deck likely derives from Catholic cultural and literary influences meant to teach both various virtues and the basic social and metaphysical hierarchy of the Catholic worldview. There is nothing of Egypt here, and very little if anything of Hermeticism, Qabalah, Astrology, or even Alchemy. The Catholic poetry of Petrarch and Dante are better guides to these early decks than more esoteric works. Early decks also contained, at times, more or less than the twenty-two cards so important for the Qabalistic interpretation of the Major Arcana and the order of the Triumphs was very changeable from one deck to the next. Historically, then, we have neither a standard order or number, nor a standard collection of Triumphs or Trumps.

The Exception

9 of disks
“9 of Disks” Sola-Busca Tarot

The mythological history I have worked hard to deflate above is, interestingly, rather more useful when we consider the Sola-Busca deck. Indeed, what is true of most Tarot decks throughout history is not true of the Sola-Busca deck. There is no overt Christian or Catholic symbolism in the deck. There are, however, references to ancient religious and occult practices, as well as alchemy. There are no Trumps that share the names of what would later become the standard Trumps. Instead the names capture historical and literary references such as those to Alexander the Great and his family, the Roman Emperor Nero, and the famous Biblical Nebuchadnezzar. These references are not usually the of the noble nature one would expect. Ultimately, Adams’ points out, “in its depiction of the heroic past the Sola-Busca excels in assembling a cast containing some of the most despicable tyrants and traitors known to classical scholarship.” (p. 19)

Even in imagery we can likely, at best, only find two or three cards that resemble later standard Trumps. We have, perhaps, something like the Tower:

Sola-Busca Trump 20, “Nenbroto”

and, perhaps, something like the Hermit:

Sola-Busca Trump 17, “Ipeo”

and, finally, the Fool as Trump 0:

Sola-Busca 0
Sola-Busca Trump 0, “Mato”

Other than these cards, however, both the Minor Arcana and the Trumps are far more mysterious and identified with unlike historical and literary references. Take, for example, the King of Swords who is identified as “Alexandro M.” or Alexander the Great:

Sola-Busca King of Swords, “Alexandro M.”

Or Trump 4, “Mario”:

Sola-Busca Trump 4, “Mario”

Or the strange religious and, at times, disturbing imagery of Trumps 15, 8, and 21, “Metelo”, “Nerone”, and “Nabuchodenasor”:

Sola-Busca Trump 15, “Metelo”, and 8, “Nerone”


Sola-Busca 21
Sola-Busca Trump 21, “Nabuchodenasor”

The Story of the Sola-Busca

We should, at this point, have a sense of what the Sola-Busca Deck is, and a bit of what it is like. We don’t, however, have any clue as to what it means and why it takes the form it does. We don’t have the traditional meanings to appeal to, we don’t have the underlying structure of the Triumph parades, we are adrift in learning what stories these cards have to tell us. It is, for this reason, well past time to dwell more fully on Adams’ excellent investigation.

Without external props to support our interpretation of the cards themselves, such as those provided by what would become the Tarot tradition, we are left needing to draw upon the literary and historical references contained in the names of the cards, the details and symbolic clues of the images depicted, and a careful evaluation of the social and historical context out of which the cards appear. Who, for example, made this deck and for whom was it made? To what purpose was it made?

Adams’ proposed answer is that the deck was made by the ruling aristocratic d’Este family of the city of Ferrara for a secretly gay bibliophile, Marin Sanudo, in the city of Venice following a disastrous defeat of Ferrara at the hands of Venice. Sanudo was in a position to influence negotiations which the rulers of Ferrara hoped would help them re-establish their power following their defeat. The deck itself was likely commissioned by the rulers of Ferrara for both the use of the d’Este family themselves and for their secret ally, Sanudo. The man likely hired to do this work was the family’s court astrologer, archivist, and librarian Pellegrino Prisciani. All of these historical conclusions are powerfully and convincingly argued for by Adams’.

These historical details are interesting and important, but far more fascinating is the challenging question of the deck’s meaning and what this tells us about the aristocratic families of Italy in general and Ferrara specifically – to say nothing of the further aristocratic families to which the deck made its way in France and England.

There are several keys granting access to the meaning of the deck. First is understanding the role of a Neo-pagan and Platonic revival that was occurring in both Italy and Constantinople at the time. Central to this revival was Gemistus Plethon, a Byzantine philosopher whose mission was the use of Platonic philosophy to restructure political and social organization and, more dramatically, to instantiate a return to paganism within the aristocratic classes. Plethon himself, though unnamed, is clearly depicted within the deck in the Ten of Cups.

Plethon, depicted on the wall of the Chapel of the Magi in Florence.

Plethon’s thinking largely offers Neoplatonic gnosticism, and fits neatly into pre-existing traditions of gnosticism and Platonic Theurgy that Adams’ covers well. But while this will provide the general context for the creation of the deck, the actual religious and occult insights captured in the deck represent a striking inversion of the Platonic Theurgical theology.

The inversion Adams’ uncovers represents a rejection of the gnostic dream of escape from a “fallen” material realm and ascension to a higher level of truth and divinity. Where various forms of gnosticism and theurgy aim at rising to the level of the true highest non-worldly divinity while rejecting the world around us and the deceptive lesser divine demiurge that masquerades as its god, Adams shows that the Sola-Busca deck instead identifies itself with the demiurge and represents something of a pact with this lower divinity in rebellion against the transcendental highest god.

The demiurge – variously identified with Baal-Hammon (the patron god of Carthage which was Rome’s ancient enemy), Kronos-Saturn, and the Serpent-Dragon –  is the source of worldly riches and power in contrast to the higher goal of transcendence beyond worldly concerns. Conjoined with the Neo-Platonic belief in reincarnation, the pact with the Demiurge the d’Este family maintained seeks continued reincarnation in ever stronger and richer social positions from generation to generation. Rather than escape the world of matter so despised by most gnosticism, the pact with Saturn aims instead at continued existence and power within the world. It is a choice for power rather than transcendent salvation.

This counter-theology and hidden cult of Saturn is well attested to in the symbols, forms, and figures within the deck. Consider, for example, the strange image of the “hermit” in the Ipeo card presented earlier. There we have a praying figure in monkish robes but with bat or dragon-like wings wearing a crown of worldly power. We need not even mention the strangely sinister angel-like head to which the monk prays.

Other details include references to the “toys of Dionysus”, the human sacrifice practiced in worship of Baal-Hammon in Carthage, “Hekate’s Top,” and other ritual technologies and procedures. Ultimately, Adams’ convincingly reveals that the deck is a grimoire for a secret cult of Saturn – a grimoire for the achievement and maintenance of worldly power through an alliance with the gods of the world rather than those of spiritual escape:

“The heavily encrypted cosmology, theurgical and ritual practices that constitute the Sola-Busca tarocchi form a veritable grimoire of elite magical praxis. At the core of the deck’s heretical cosmology stands the demiurge in his most archaic and violent form, that of the hypercosmic Ammon-Saturn, the lord of time and the cycles of creation and destruction… The inevitable consequence of this chain of logic was that ‘true religion’ involved the worship of the hypercosmic demiurge in his most archaic – and thus purest – guise: as the sun behind the sun, the hypercosmic Saturn – whether known as Mithras Helios, Sol Invictus, Phanes, Lucifer, or Ammon.” (p. 250)

Why review this book?

Sola-Busca ace
Sola-Busca Ace of Swords

In some quarters I was met with surprise when expressing an interest in reviewing this book for Gods and Radicals. The surprise is not, in fact, at all surprising. The story of the Sola-Busca Tarot is of a wealthy, elite, privileged, politically powerful and ruthless family using pagan worship and magical operations to maintain their own social, economic, and political dominance. While this understanding of the deck is historically accurate, it fails to fully appreciate the promise of the deck and the decks’ cosmology and anti-theurgical practice.

Allow me to re-present, in an undoubtedly selective manner, the nature of the deck and the magical practice it contains. At a time when the Roman Catholic Church dominated with repressive force and opposition to any pagan survivals we find a Tarot deck identifying with the anti-Roman power of pagan Carthage, the pagan Greek empire of Alexander the Great, and the most heretical of Rome’s own emperors. This deck includes homosexual implications and was intended for a gay man whose own path to power was largely blocked by religio-political opposition to his sexuality. Essentially, even if its aristocratic audience failed to appreciate it, the deck embodies a revolutionary force opposed to key figures of political tyranny and repression.

There is a deeper level at which the Sola-Busca is a useful and promisingly revolutionary force, one contained in its refreshingly worldly and anti-transcendental theology. I must confess to having worked rather a lot with the Greek Kronos and related forms of Saturn. One reason I am drawn to these divinities is because they represent an existing force that naturally opposes currently established physical and metaphysical hierarchies. Zeus, the cosmic king of the Greeks, achieved his throne by overthrowing Kronos, his father. As ancient occult practices attest, worldly change was often provoked through magicians threatening to form, or actually forming, alliances with Kronos against Zeus and the worldly kings and political structures Zeus blessed and maintained.

More than this, however, Platonism and Theurgy tend to embrace both a singular source for all political and metaphysical power (i.e. cosmic tyrannies underlying worldly ones) and rejections of the world that were to inform the Christian rejection of the body and the earth in general. The seemingly diabolical pact with the demiurge, when taken seriously rather than just as an inversion of a pre-existing Platonism, instead represents a rejection of the world-denying body-hating transcendence that has plagued Western culture for millennia. If we reject the existence of the transcendental god, we arrive at a pluralism of demiurges – a truly pagan and polytheist perspective that actually pre-exists Platonism – that this deck can be united with. Given the choice, I will side with an embrace of this world and an attempt to achieve change here and now over the rejection of the world in favor of some transcendental world-hating “gnosis” every time. Ultimately, I would argue, the Sola-Busca deck holds the potential to undermine the very elitism and class from which it arose.

Whether or not you are convinced by my gestures towards a revolutionary theological and political interpretation of the Sola-Busca Tarot deck, the historical work performed by Peter Mark Adams in The Game of Saturn is fascinating, enjoyable, and remains important for pagans. This is not least of all because the Sola-Busca is a sincerely pagan Tarot deck – undoubtedly the first such and still possibly the best such deck. The clarity with which Adams allows us to see this, and the depth with which we can appreciate it following reading his amazing and beautiful book, reveals an importantly pagan foundation for the tradition of Tarot generally.

To clarify this point, consider that though the official interpretation and theories that underly the Smith-Waite Tarot deck derive from Waite’s Golden Dawn understanding of Tarot, nonetheless Pamela Smith closely studied the Sola-Busca deck in order to inform her illustrations of the previously simple Minor Arcana pip cards. The Minor Arcana of the Smith-Waite Tarot, and the countless decks that have since derived from it, is fully “infected” by the Sola-Busca to its great benefit.

Please consider checking out The Game of Saturn at Scarlet Imprint. Scarlet Imprint is also planning to release their own edition of the Sola-Busca Tarot Deck which I anxiously await and cannot wait to have.


Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on Facebook or twitter at @starandsystem.

30 June is the last day for the pre-sale of Dr. Bones’ new book. Get it here.