Calling Cards – Part 5


In Part 3 of our series, we went over Peter Mark Adams’ analysis of one card from the Sola-Busca deck, to give a flavor of its structure and content. 

As for the rest of the cards, I can only summarize the major points of the analysis that Adams details in his book The Game of Saturn. Here are some patterns that he highlights:


We saw with the Catone card that the title could mean Cato the Elder or his grandson, Cato the Younger.

Probably the former, but why not make it clear? And why the slight change of name? There are many similar ambiguities in the characters and their names.

Another example is the Postumio card: this person was but a historical footnote, known more for his gruesome treatment of his corpse than anything else. The name Postumio, too, is ambiguous, as it was a common name in Roman history.

The skull and the Carthagenian shield on the card hint at the intended character’s unfortunate posthumous fate (pun intended) as a drinking goblet during the Second Punic War. Adams argues that this general approach is ideal for hiding the deeper meaning of the cards in plain sight.

Last time we talked about the notion of syncretism, the joining of different myths and religious traditions.

By the 1490s, gods and heroes from countless periods and regions could be linked together due to syncretic overlap. And this too adds to the ambiguity of the references used in the Sola-Busca, a feature that the designers likely embraced.


I mentioned last post that the prominent philosophers of this time tended to view their cherished mystical pagan works through a thoroughly Christian lens.

That cannot be said for the Sola-Busca cards. There are hardly any references to Judeo-Christian figures or concepts to be found. In fact, only three qualify as possibilities, and they are all villainous tyrants in Judeo-Christian lore:

Nimrod the King of Babel,
Nebuchadnezzar the Destroyer of Jerusalem, and Nero the Persecutor of Christians. 

But there are plenty of references to pagan myths, as well as to homoerotic imagery.

The Ganymede symbolism of Five of Disks is a perfect example of both. 

Pagan myths abounded in popular Renaissance Italian culture, but their use in the absence of any real Christian lessons, virtues, or icons is extremely odd. Taken together, the imagery here suggests a private veneration among wealthy Italian families of older pagan traditions that were declared as heresy by the Roman Church.

Mithras Cult:

Mithraism was an ancient Roman mystery religion, very loosely derived from older Zoroastrian traditions (it was about as Persian as American Mega-church Christianity is Jewish).

It emerged in the Roman empire around the same time as Christianity, and the two religions competed with one another, particularly since Christians did not embrace the assimilationist views of the pagans. Christianity eventually won out, though some Roman senators and nobles still regarded Mithraism as part of their heritage.

There’s much we don’t know about Mithraism due to their secret practices and their lack of written scriptures, but we do know that it was popular among Roman soldiers from the very beginning. We also know it was heavily rooted in astral magical beliefs and practices.

The famous carvings of Mithras slaying a bull correspond to the nearby constellations Perseus and Taurus just below it. 

Yup, the Mithras character is syncretically linked to the Greek hero Perseus, who we met in the Catone trump card.

Adams notes that most of the prominent elements of Mithraic iconography are referenced in the Sola-Busca cards: Mithras/Perseus, a bull, a serpent, and two torchbearers: one with torch up; the other down. 

In Mithraic art, there is also a version of Mithras as a hypercosmic creator deity: often with a lion head and a body with a serpent coiled around it.

Such a depiction bears strong resemblance to the creator god of Orphic mystery cults and Christian gnosticism.

In some of the earliest Orphic mystery writings, this lion-serpent god was linked to the titan Kronos, or Saturn.

Keep that in mind for later. 

Adams contends that the references to Mithraism may be more than simple pining for the gool ol’ pagan days of the Roman empire, as the followers of Mithraism sought to summon the lion-headed serpent Mithras through ceremonial rites, and channel his power.


Many of the historical characters used for the trump cards are known for their military victories or misdeeds in the Punic Wars. In other words, they are associated with Carthage, the ancient city located in what is now Tunisia, formerly colonized by the Phoenicians, and then the Romans. Other characters sport helmets or armor that looks like ram’s horns, which are associated with the Carthaginian god Ba’al Ammon. No ammonite fossils in cards, unfortunately.

Across the centuries and due to cross-cultural syncretism, Ba’al Ammon was linked to similar deities including Zeus Ammon, Amun of Egypt, Chronos (god of time), Kronos (child eater), and his Roman variant Saturn.

Rams horns were used to signify all of them, at least in Ferrarese art of the time. 

Across the cards there is a steady linking of the ram’s horns to references to Carthage, to Saturnalia, and to the planet Saturn. Adams argues that the deck’s designers knowingly conceived of Saturn as Ba’al Ammon, the ancient Carthaginian god known in the Bible as “Moloch,” due to his demand for child sacrifices.

Ceremonial Magic & Transformation:

Several cards depict figures in various ceremonial positions, often pagan in nature, with many of them having been documented by the Neo-pagan mystic Georgios Gemistos Plethon. Adams argues that Plethon himself makes a cameo in the Ten of Cups card.

While I think this could instead be a depiction of Adam Kadmon from Kabbalistic lore, or perhaps a fusion of them both, any of these explanations would highlight the importance of ceremonial ritual for the sake of transformation. Transformation itself is a theme among several cards, with alchemical processes being the most commonly observed. 

While I think this could instead be a depiction of Adam Kadmon from Kabbalistic lore, or perhaps a fusion of them both, any of these explanations would highlight the importance of ceremonial ritual for the sake of transformation.

Transformation itself is a theme among several cards, with alchemical processes being the most commonly observed. 

Perhaps linked to this theme is the dragon imagery. Dragons are featured in a few cards, but many more have characters sporting subtle dragon-like traits.

Adams didn’t point this example out, but look back to the winged boot of the Catone card, and note that it seems much more like a dragon wing than Perseus’ boots are typically depicted.

Finally, there is the Ipeo card, which shows a man in a ceremonial stance, with prominent dragon wings.

This card directly links ceremonial practice with the dragon imagery.

Taken together, and woven into a larger explication of the Ferrarese nobility—most of all the ducal house of Este, where the cards were likely commissioned—Peter Mark Adams formulated his thesis about the Sola-Busca deck. 

Simply put, Adams suspects that the deck either served as a pictoral grimoire for ceremonial purposes, or as something like a talisman.

He thinks the intent of the deck was to summon a malefic possessing spirit for domination and revenge. Specifically, to channel and embody the god Saturn – knowingly invoking his cruelest, most violent aspects as the Afro-Levantine god Ba’al Ammon, or Moloch – for power and dominion over all rivals.

We’ll try to unpack that next time as we close out the series.

to be continued…

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Phylum of Alexandria

Committed music junkie. Recovering academic. Nerd for life.

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January 12, 2023 1:47 pm

Phylum, what’s your take on the YouTube tarot card readers? Do you follow Ellie Down Under or any of the others?

JJ Live At Leeds
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January 12, 2023 2:35 pm

I grew up near Hadrian’s Wall – not sure how well known that is in the US, it is exactly what the name suggests a wall built on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian. It runs 73 miles from coast to coast across the thin bit at the top of England marking the edge of the Roman Empire and keeping the Picts out on the other side.

By the wall there is a Temple of Mithras, the remains of which can still be seen. I’d not really considered the wider relevance of Mithras so thanks for the history lesson and some more context around Mithraism. Popularity with Roman soldiers definitely checks out in context of the heavily fortified wall.


There’s also a Temple Of Mithras in the centre of London, now the site of the Bloomsburg Group headquarters.


JJ Live At Leeds
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January 12, 2023 4:16 pm

One thing we’re not lacking for is history – I highly recommend a visit. Who knows, by next year we might have a working economy and infrastructure again with all the striking doctors, nurses, train drivers, border security, postmen, etc back at work to make it easier and safer to get around!

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January 13, 2023 8:35 pm

One of the first historical sites in England I toured on my visits was Dover Castle. Mind was blown at hearing the first fortress there dated from like 50 AD Roman Times (I think that’s the lighthouse ruins there?), while the castle itself dated from around the year 1000 (I’m too lazy to cross check myself at the moment!)

Then, if that wasn’t crazy enough on the historical scale for a dumb American tourist, the Castle had just opened up a new exhibit for touring – the massive WWII military complex that existed in secret in the cliffs under the castle complex where they had a hospital and staged the entire Dunkirk campaign from. This was in ’96, ages before the Dunkirk movie made it a bit more well known to Americans. I distinctly remember being absolutely gobsmacked hearing about this massive campaign and how revered in English lore it has become, and I’m on this tour with British War vets and other elder Brits watching their reactions to what the tour guide was saying….

And I actually got a bit angry how this was all new to me. I seem to recall saying it out loud, either to just my Brit friend or maybe the entire group, that I couldn’t believe how casually dismissive American schools are in their studies of events Americans weren’t involved in. I never learned about anything in WWII pre Pearl Harbor, and I felt robbed of valuable knowledge and historical context.

That, combined with a trip I’d taken to the Norfolk Navy Base in Virginia a few years prior totally woke me up to how there is no such thing as an unbiased history lesson. I spent the first five minutes in the Navy Museum why all the placards about the Civil War read odd to me – until it dawned on me I was in the South, and it was their point of view. And I’d been raised of just the Northern’s point of view of the Civil War. What a slap upside the head to teenage me of how I’d been manipulated in only considering one side of the story.

JJ Live At Leeds
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January 14, 2023 3:38 am
Reply to  dutchg8r

You’re one up on me with visiting Dover Castle and the tunnels under the cliffs. For most Brits Dover is just the place you drive through to get on the ferry to France – thats my experience of it! If I’m ever down there again sounds like I need to make an effort to pay the castle a visit.

Remembering my history lessons from school we did cover off some non British stuff but in the main it was focused on history that directly affected us. I guess a big difference is that our history takes in a whole load of different eras and civilizations. Think I recall starting off in the Bronze Age and then due to the fact we were invaded by Romans, Vikings, Saxons and Normans followed by wars with every major European nation and beyond and being involved in both World Wars from the start means there’s a whole lot of history directly relevant to us to get through.

Having just written that it makes me wonder how we had time to cover it all! Even then, just like your civil war comment, its pretty much the case that we only ever considered it from our point of view. Probably means that we got different viewpoints on the War of Independence. Think there has been a change in recent years though, particularly when it comes to our colonial past and considering what impact our actions had.

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January 12, 2023 8:00 pm

Child Eater Quartet?

Is that why one of their albums is called Black Angels?

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January 13, 2023 8:00 pm

I totally want a Netflix limited series documentary about the history of tarot cards now after reading through your limited series, phylum.

Also, talking about dragons got me thinking on something I’ve often wondered about – what culture originally developed the dragon imagery? It’s so prevalent across soooo many cultures in various styles, yet its not really based on anything remotely realistic. It’s just been around forever.

Oh! Maybe those were the smarty-pants ancient aliens!!!

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January 17, 2023 4:07 am

Speculative fiction.

Margaret Atwood didn’t want to be considered for the Nebula. She insisted that The Handmaid’s Tale was speculative, not science fiction. (Just learned right now that she was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke.) I guess Atwood didn’t want to be lumped together with “pew-pew-pew-pew.” And heavy breathing.

I took a science fiction class. I was blown away by China Mieville’s King Rat. He told the class “this is the guy.”

My main takeaway: Anything that can’t happen in the physical word is science fiction.

So, I guess, magical realism is right on the edge. I guess it’s not science fiction if only one person sees it.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x