Here I go – off again into strange byways of Tarot lore:

The late 15th century Sola Busca Tarot is most famous for having inspired several of the Minor Arcana images in the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. It is also the oldest deck to have all 78 cards. The trumps and court cards feature historical and mythical people – with many of their names printed on the cards. Not all of the referents have been identified.

The Sola-Busca deck is now available in a glorious full-color edition along with a book explaining all the figures and symbolism. This is a limited edition so get it while you can HERE.

In 1907 a B&W photographed version of the deck was sent to the British Museum by the Sola Busca family who then owned them. I believe the originals, as well as the family, have since disappeared. Waite, who spent much time studying tarot decks and books at the British Museum, was probably informed of this deck as soon as it arrived, so it may have sparked the idea itself of creating an illustrated Minor Arcana. Lo Scarabeo published a version of the deck known as the Ancient Enlightened Tarot (currently out-of-print). You can also learn more about the figures in this deck at Tea Hilander’s website, at Taropedia (specifically here for the Q of Cups), and at Michael J. Hurst’s website.

The Queen of Cups is labeled Polisena (also spelled, Polyxena). What stands out in the image is a snake emerging from the cup she holds. I have a feeling that the card refers not to the Trojan Polyxena (next) but to a later Christian Polyxena (see her story at bottom). Here’s the info I’ve managed to find:

First, the Trojan Polisena:
“Polyxena was the youngest daughter of Hecuba and King Priam of Troy. Homer never mentions Polyxena. Achilles fell in love with Polyxena whom he may have met when Polyxena and her brother Troilus went out to the fountatin where Achilles slew Troilus. One story has Polyxena pretending to fall in love with Achilles, learning about his heel, and betraying him to her brother Paris, who then shot and killed Achilles. Before he died, Achilles asked his followers to sacrifice Polyxena to him. Neoptolemus stabbed Polyxena to death.

There were Medieval and Renaissance versions of the story that may have contained a snake. Plus there’s a snake in a version of the story on a vase from ca. 500 B.C. – 490 B.C.:

Achilles and Polyxena at the fountain: Polyxena is walking right to a lion’s-head spout above a rock that contains the fountain. A hydria is set under the spout to catch the water gushing out. It splashes onto Polyxena’s hand before entering the container. On top of the fountain a crow is sitting, while a snake is lying alongside it. Behind the fountain rises a tree with leaves spreading left above the lion’s head spout, and right above the head of crouching Achilles. Ready to ambush, he is largely hidden by his shield, with his right leg extended beyond it.” Jane Ellen Harrison claimed that the snake in this story represented the Erinys.

However, the card could be another Polyxena – one who figures in a story about Paul and the early Christian converts as recounted in the Medieval Sourcebook: Acts of Xanthippe, Polyxena, and Rebecca.

“And as Polyxena lay upon the couch she saw this dream, that a dragon, hideous in appearance, came and signified to her to come to him, and when she did not obey him to go to him, he came running and swallowed her. From fear of this the girl leapt up trembling, and Xanthippe running to her said, What has happened to you, dearest, that you have leapt up thus suddenly? She for a long time was unable to speak; then coming to herself she said, Alas, my sister Xanthippe, what danger or tribulation awaits me, I know not; for I saw in my dream that a hideous dragon came and signed to me to go to him, and, when I would not go, he came running and swallowed me, beginning at my feet. While I was terrified at this, there suddenly spoke out of the air, in the light of the sun, a beautiful youth, whom I thought to be the brother of Paul, saying, Verily, you have no power. Who also took me by the hand and straightway drew me out of him, and straightway the dragon disappeared. And behold his hand was full of sweet odour as of balsam or anything else for fragrance. Xanthippe said to her, Truly you must be greatly troubled, my sister Polyxena, but God has you dear, seeing that he has shown you strange and marvellous things. Therefore arise quickly in the morning and receive the holy baptism, and ask in the baptism to be delivered from the snares of the dragon.”

Ultimately Polyxena becomes Christian and protects her virginity from the evil idolaters who try to despoil her. She goes through many such tribulations including being thrown to wild beasts and into the sea but is always saved by God. The story ends with her returning repentant to Paul, and “From that time forward she left not at all the blessed Paul in her fear of temptations.”

The serpent/dragon could, of course, signify those temptations and tribulations from which God has saved her – including, of course, idolatry. A more complex view might suggest that the snake is that ‘strange and marvelous thing’ called Wisdom, which Polyxena certainly must have gained in all her travels and from facing her many trials.

One interesting synchronicity is that Polyxena Sforza, illegitimate daughter of Francesco Sforza of Milan (for whom the Visconti-Sforza Tarot was made), married Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta in 1442, two years after we know that he was given a deck of Triumphs as a gift. According to a story put about by a Pope who hated him, the cultured but brutal condottiero Sigismondo murdered both his former wife and second wife, Polyxena (who had as the family heraldry a serpent). Could there have been an oblique reference to her?

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