Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot


The Feast of Sol Invictus


Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, June 2013

December 25 .... a date necessary for the birth of a new God. The Christians knew very well that it would not be possible to spread the new doctrine while changing what had gone through time in the religious mentality of those centuries, and they made reference to this in spreading the new confession.


The Sun, in its annual elliptical motion attains around December 21 to 22 its lowest declination at the southernmost point on the eastern horizon, which culminates at noon at its minimum height. It is at that time that it manifests a minimum duration of light, approximately eight hours and 50-55 minutes, reaching the southernmost point of its orbit and recording the shortest day of the year. From that point on, it resumes its upward path. The Sun expresses its maximum duration of light on June21 pr 22. These two periods are called Solstices, a word derived from the Latin solstitium (stat sol = the sun stands still sistere + = to stop) which means "stopping (stationary) of the Sun", indicating the two days of each year in which the star reaches the maximum or minimum point of the ecliptic. At those times the sun appears for a moment to stop, arresting its course.


Divine epiphany


The two Solstices for thousands of years have been charged with deep symbolic significance, but it is the Winter Solstice that will take the value of renewal, of something new being born, a divine epiphany in the Cosmos. A new light came to irradiate the world so as to bring people a renewed awareness. The Winter Solstice in this sense becomes a very important part of the spirituality of many religions of the world.


Alberto Mariantoni writes in his essay Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (1) "Do not forget that this event began to be celebrated by our ancestors, for example at the megalithic constructions of Stonehenge in Great Britain, of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth in Ireland, or around the rock carvings of Bohuslan, Iran, and Val Camonica, Italy, already in prehistoric and proto-historic times. It also inspired fragment 66 in the work of Heraclitus of Ephesus (560/480 b.c.) and was allegorically sung by Homer (Odyssey 133, 137) and Virgil (Aeneid book VI). The same phenomenon was invariably expected and magnified by all the Indo-European populations: the Gallo-Celts named it 'Alban Arthuan' (rebirth of the Sun god); the Germans 'yule' (the wheel of the year); the Scandinavians 'Jul' (sun wheel); the Fins 'July' (snowstorm); the Lapps 'Juvla';  the Russians 'Karatciun' (the shortest day)".


December 25 is the birthday of many deities, such as the Aztec god Huitzilopoctli, while the Scandinavians celebrated the birth of the god Freyr. In Greece, besides Apollo was born Bacchus, his brother, and Adonis in Syria. In Egypt the birth of Osiris and his son Horus was remembered. Babylon celebrated the goddess Ishtar, the queen of heaven, and a symbol of fertility, represented with a child in her arms and with a halo of twelve stars around her head: the icon of the mother with her newborn son goes back to ancient times and has always symbolized Mother Earth who bears fruit. In Mexico id celebrated the birth of the god Quetzalcoatl and in the Yucatan the god Bacab. And again, in the East, Buddha, in India Krishna, and in China Scing-Shin.


December 25 is also the day of Christ's birth (Figure 1 - Nativity, Book of Hours of Anne of Brittany, ca. 1503-1508).


Furius Dionysus Philocalus in 354 A.D. composed a Chronograph that bore a fragment of the Christian liturgical calendar dating from approximately the beginning of that century. The script contains the following statement: "VIII Kal. IanuariiChristus est natus in Bethlehem Judaeae." A thesis which is somewhat at variance with the Gospel of Luke, which states that "There were in the same country shepherds abiding at night guarding their flocks". A declaration stating that Christ was born during the spring and autumn, when pasturing sheep was and still is practiced in that land.


Obviously, the date indicated in the Chronograph is to be understood in a symbolic sense, relating to the cult of Sol Invictus, to which Imperial Rome dedicated a big festival.


Sol Invictus was a solar deity from Emesa [in Syria] introduced in Rome by Emperor Aurelian (270-275), who also built a temple in his honor on the Campus Agrippae, today's Piazza San Silvestro. But the worship of the sun was already present in Rome through the identification of Apollo with Helios, and followed the progressive expansion of the Mithraic religion in military circles, as we shall see later. 


The Sun, the symbol of Youth


The ancients attributed to the Sun the meaning of youth. In fact, they depicted Apollo and Bacchus together as children, as emblems of the sun and of youth. Bacchus was in fact considered to be "the same as the Sun": “Questo (il Sole) fecero gli antichi giovine in viso senza barba, onde volendo l’Alciato ne’suoi emblemi porre la giovinezza, dipinse Apollo e Bacco, come a questi due più, che a gli altri, sia tocco di essere giovani sempre, onde Tibullo dice che Bacco e Febo eternamente Giovani sono, e hanno il capo armato ambi di bella chioma risplendente”. (The ancients made this (the Sun) a young man without a beard on his face; Alciati so depicted Apollo and Bacchus, wanting to make them emblems of youth, as these two, more than others, dealt with eternal youth; thus Tibullus says that Bacchus and Phoebus are eternally young, and have their heads equipped attractively with beautiful shining hair)  (2)

The illustration (Figure 2) of Emblem C. "In Iuventam" of Alciati’s work (3) shows the two together as children "natus uterque Jovis tener atque imberbis uterque, quem Latona tulit, quem tulit et Semele, salvete, eterna simul et florete iuventa, numine sit vestro qua diuturna mihi” (Both sons of Jupiter, both young and beardless, one carried in the womb of Latona, the other - also - from Semele saved for you, flowering set of eternal youth and this is for me, by your will, as long as possible).


This concept of the youth of the sun is also expressed in the work Antiquae Tabulae Marmoreae Solis Effige by Hieronimo Aleandro (4) from which I quote some passages: "Sol semper juvenis ... quia occidendo (inquit Fulgentius first Mythol.) et renascendo semper est iunior, sive quod nunquam in sua virtute deficiat ... at nil facilius Mythologi affirmant, quam unum, enodunque, cum Sole esse Apollinem, quem ideo adolescentulum fingi Solitum dixerunt, quod Sol (inquit Isidor. Orig VII) quotidie oriatur et nova luce nascatur" (O Sole forever young which setting - says Fulgentius in the First Book of his Mythology - and rising, is always young, or rather, never lessens in its efficacy ... on the other hand the mythologists say nothing with confidence about the fact that Apollo is one and the same with the Sun, and for this reason argued that he was usually represented as a young man, in fact the Sun - Isidore says in the seventh Book of Origen - rises every day and comes with new light). In this regard Cartari writes "Whose youth (that of the sun) gives us to understand that his virtue, and that Heat which gives life to created things, is always the same and never gets old, even if it becomes weak".


The great Gods are not born exactly on the day of the Winter Solstice, but on December 25, since it is on that day that his journey resumes strong and vigorous, is the most efficacious for his state of youth, capable of best illuminating the earth physically with renewed strength.


The early Christians were aware that their rites were permeated with pagan symbols and for this reason were not induced to doctrinal confusion. St. Augustine in fact insisted  in his teachings on ensuring that believers  understand very clearly the difference between the Pagan and Christian births, identifying the first with the birth of the light and the second with the Creator of the light itself, as the Bishop of Tabaste exhorted as well.


A deity who took the name of Sol Invictus, also born on December 25, was Mithras, whose cult was introduced to Rome after the military campaigns in Persia. The same way of representing the energy of the Sun, always the same and young, is seen in the depiction of this god. Strabo, the geographer, stated that the Persians worshiped Helios under the name of Mithras, and that the word Mirh in the Persian language meant precisely Sun. In the Hymn of Avesta dedicated to Mithras, white horses draw the chariot of the God , which has a wheel of gold, symbol of the Chariot of the Sun A relief carved on a rock at the time of the Sassanid Ardashir II, of the fourth century a.d.,, depicts Mithras with a halo of rays. In his Annotations to the Imagini of Cartari, Lorenzo Pignoria says he saw at the Capitol in Rome in the year 1606 a marble depicting pecisely Mithras with the words "Deo Sol invict ... Mitrhe" and that among other things, "there were two figures in stone, one on each side, but ruined" (5).


Those two figures were Caute and Cautopates, the two child tedophori, i.e. torch bearers, who can be found in complete representations of the God. One of these,  very famous, is located in Rome in the Mithraic cave under the Church of St. Clemente.


This occurrence underlines that such depictions of the Deity are configured as an early trinitarian form pre-existing Christianity. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite speaks of Mithras "Triplasios" (Epist. 7.2), i.e. of the triple form, a statement of the substantial identity of the two torch-bearers of the Deity as a representation of the rising Sun, the noon Sun and the setting sun. Caute, the child who is to the left of God, is depicted with a torch raised to represent the birth of the Sun, Mithras. The noon Sun is depicted in the act of killing a bull (representation of the victory of the spirit over the earthly essence). The child to the right of God, Cautopates, holds the torch down to signify the setting of the celestial body. (Figure 3 - Mitra Triplasios, Bologna, Museo Civico).


A Trinitarian vision of God is also found in the tarot card of the Sun. In the Cary sheet of the XVIth century, the first testimony to Neoplatonic insertions in the iconography of these cards (for example, the image of the Stars - as we shall see later in this discussion - and that of the World. which reflects the figure of the Anima Mundi) appears in an iconographic variant, compared to the images of Sun in the cards of the XVth century: although the sheet is mutilated at the place of this card, what is visible shows us an iconography that will stabilize in all subsequent production of tarot cards including those of Marseilles (Figure 4 - The Sun, Tarot of Marseilles "B. Suzanne", woodcut painted with stencil, 1840, Collection Le Tarot), i.e. the presence of two children under the disk of the sun, signifying precisely the trinity of God and his Youths as expressed above.


In representations of the complete God, sometimes Caute appears next to a rooster and here Cartari says, citing Pausanias, that in Greece "... the cock was revered as the bird of Apollo, because its singing in the morning announces the return of the Sun" (6). Cautopates has sometimes nearby an owl, a bird that shows itself just after sunset. Caute and Cautopates respectively became representations of Lucifer, the star that appears in the morning, and Hesperus, the evening star. And with the same meaning it is necessary to interpret the presence of the comet at the birth of Christ, as the "morning star" to signify the new era of light that was about to begin.


In Christian iconography Mithras was depicted many times as a symbol of animal sacrifice (Mithras Tauroctonous, that is, slayer of the bull). In this sense it is found on one of the capitals in the cloister of Monreale Cathedral, dating between 1172 and 1189.

Mithraism represented the greatest challenge to Christianity, which, however, won out over his worship. There were in fact notable similarities that associated the two religions. Some esoteric authors have pointed out that: Mitra and Jesus are both born December 25th of a virgin, both in a cave and their birth was accompanied by shepherds who brought gifts. Both were considered great teachers as well as itinerant teachers. Their companions or disciples were 12 and Jesus and Mithras promised immortality to them. Miracles were common to both. As the "great bull of the Sun", Mithras sacrificed himself for the peace of the world, was buried, and resurrected after three days. His resurrection was celebrated every year. He was called "the Good Shepherd" and identified with both the Lamb and the Lion. He was considered "the Way, the Truth and the Light", and the "Logos", "Redeemer", "Savior" and "Messiah".  His sacred day was Sunday, the "Lord's Day", hundreds of years before the appearance of Christ. His main festivities took place in that period that would later be merged into the Christian Easter/ The Mithraic religion provided for a Eucharist or "Lord's Supper". On this occasion the god said that "He who shall not eat my body nor drink of my blood so that he can become one with me and I with him, will not be saved." Also Mithas died at age 33.


It is not surprising that Christianity drew from this and from other religions that can be defined by universal values. This became necessary because sudden changes would have made it difficult to understand the new doctrine. This is also why the dogma of the Virginity of Our Lady (established 400 years after the death of Christ) was taken by Christians from pagan tradition: think of the Assyrian-Babylonian goddess Astarte, Queen of Heaven, who knew the hostility of the Biblical prophets; of Artemis, the eternally virgin goddess who at Ephesus had her grand sanctuary, stigmatized by Paul according to the Acts of the Apostles; of Rhea-Cybele, Magna Mater, who was worshiped in Phrygia and Greece. In this regard, Justin, in his First Apology, turns to the Gentiles in these terms: "We say that [Jesus Christ] was born of a virgin, in common with your Perseus".


The Cave, Symbol of the Cosmos


Of the place where Jesus was born, a cave or stable, the Gospel of Luke tells the Nativity in this way: "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus ordering a census of all the earth. This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone went to give their name, each in their own city. Joseph also from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, into Judea went to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to give his name with Mary, his espoused wife, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to give birth, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn" (Luke 2: 1-7).


The narratives of the canonical Gospels and, even more, of the Apocrypha, which in many cases expand more fully on the birth and childhood of Christ (such as the Gospel of James, Pseudo-Matthew, the Book of the Infancy of the  Savior, etc.), compared to the summary indications of the text of Luke (the stable, the manger), indicate a grotto or a cave, more or less illuminated by a supernatural light.


In reference to this, not only according to the texts mentioned above, but also in view of the relationship of Mithraism and Christianity, it is more than obvious that Jesus Christ had to be born in a cave symbolically, like Mithras. To understand how the universe was in fact then conceived as a cave with two doors, connecting this aspect to the concept of the birth of the astral soul, we will take as a point of reference the De Antro Nympharum, a work composed by the Neoplatonist Porphyry in the third century after Christ, whose writings were the subject of great interest in the Middle Ages .The close relationship of the soul with heaven, the point of origin and return of the soul, was the general belief of  "Ionian Physics" (V-VIth century b.c.), but the doctrine of the astral soul took its decisive shape departing from the myths of Plato described in the Phaedrus and Timaeus.


Michael Psellus (eleventh century) drew up a summary of the interpretation of the Porphyrian De Antro, but the rediscovery of Porphyry happened only through the work of the Florentine Platonists Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola; and it was in the XVIth century, on the occasion of the flowering of printed editions of Greek texts of Platonism, enriched by the works attributed to the ancient theologians - Orpheus, Pythagoras, Zoroaster, the Chaldean Oracles, the Hermetic texts - the first printed edition of this book was published  edited by Lascaris and published in Rome in 1518. Pico della Mirandola in the 'Oratio de hominis dignitate’ praised the richness of Porphyry and his “Multiiuga religio” (Many-faceted religion) while Poliziano admired the Life of Plotinus, as a combination of history and oratory. Porphyry interprets the antrum [cave] of Ithaca, described in the verses of Homer, in the light of a fundamental theme of Platonic thought: the descent of the soul into the world and its return to God. Homer's verses are as follows: "At the head of the harbor there is an olive tree with large leaves: close by is a lovely dark cavern, sacred to the Nymphs called Naiads; therein are craters [bowls] and amphorae [urns] of stone, storing there the honey of bees. And there are long looms of stone, where the nymphs weave purple mantles, a wonder to behold; here flows perpetual waters, there two gates are; one, aimed at Boreas [god of the north wind], is for men’s descent, the other, however, that turns to Notus [god of the south wind], is for the gods, and humans do not enter, but it is the road of the immortals" (§1).


For Porphyry the cave becomes a representation of the cosmos and in this sense shows many similarities with the Mithraic cult: the Nymphs and the bees are souls, the purple mantles woven by the Nymphs represent the formation of the body around the bones, while the two doors of the antrum are the ways of descent and ascent, the cosmic path of the soul. But we read about it, what Porphyry writes: "The theologians placed in caverns the symbol of the cosmos and the cosmic powers and intelligible essence ... (§ 9). By Naiads-Nymphs are indicted in a specific sense the powers that preside over the waters, but the theologians designated by it all the souls descending into generation in general. In fact, they believed that all souls possess water which, as in Numenius, is divinely inspired, and he says that for this reason also the prophet said: "The divine breath of God moved over the water" (§ 10). Numenius, a teacher of Porphyry, mentions in these verses the prophet Moses, whom he compared to Plato, who was "Moses speaking Attic." This refers to the verse "...the spirit of Elohim moved upon the face of the waters" taken from Genesis' (1, 2).

The Gates of Heaven: Cancer and Capricorn

In the Stars card of the Tarot of the XVIth century is a Naiad-Nymph, a Platonic symbol of the descent of the soul into generation (Figure 5 - The Stars, the so-called Cary Sheet, Italy, XVIth century). A wonderful depiction in art of a Neoplatonic Naiad is located in Mantua, Palazzo Te, in the Hall of Cupid and Psyche, by Giulio Romano (Figure 6).


Porphyry writes about the formation of the limbs around the bones: "The craters of stone and amphorae are many symbols adapted to the nymphs who preside over the water welling from the rock, and as a symbol, what would be more relevant to the souls of those that go down into generation, leading to the creation of the body?” Therefore the poet dared to say that on these looms they ‘weave purple mantles, a wonder to behold.’ For the flesh on the bones is formed around them, in living beings the bones are the stone, because they are similar to stone, so it is said that the looms are made of stone and not of other material; the purple mantles, then, would obviously be the flesh, i.e., the tissue that is formed from blood" (§14).


Porphyry explains also why the jars are not full of water, but of honey: "Theologians use honey in many disparate symbols, because it is a substance with many properties, as it has both the power to purify and the power to preserve ... (§ 15). Therefore, honey is used to purify, to preserve against rot and as a symbol of the seductive power of pleasure which causes generation; for this also it is appropriate to the nymphs of the water, as a symbol of the pristine purity of the water - where the nymphs preside  - their purifying virtue and their cooperation to the generative process: water, in fact, cooperates in the generation" (§17). Bees, like the Nymphs-Naiads, become for Porphyry representation of souls: "Springs and streams are proper to water nymphs and even more to the nymphs-souls specifically of what the ancients called bees, because they are architects of pleasure. So Sophocles uses an appropriate expression when referring to souls, saying, "Hums the swarm of the dead coming to light" (§18). The relationship souls - bees is also found in Plato (Phaedrus, 82 b), who compares temperate and fair souls to bees, wasps and ants as a civilized species in which men may reincarnate.


In respect to reincarnation, it should be noted that Jesus belonged to the tribe of the Essenes, and we know that the Essenes believed in reincarnation. The Gospels tell us that at the birth of Christ there were shepherds who watched their flocks. We know that it was practically impossible for the date of December 25 because, as we have seen, by ancient tradition, herding always takes place in Israel in the spring and not in winter. On the contrary, their presence must be interpreted, like everything else, in a symbolic key: the shepherds represent, by their migratory character, souls that migrate from one body to another after the deaths of the body. In fact, the invocation of the Gospel of being alert addressed to the shepherds (vigilate pastores) indicates the need for the soul to be watchful about making mistakes, "now that on earth the Christ is born."


The two doors of the antrum of Ithaca are identified by Porphyry as the two constellations from which the soul descends into generation making its return: "Considering the antrum the image and symbol of the cosmos, Numenius and his follower Cronius say that there are two extremities in the sky: one of them is more to the south of the winter tropic, the other is north of the summer Tropic. The summer tropic is at Cancer, the winter one at Capricorn. And because Cancer is the closest to us it was logically attributed to the Moon, which is the closest to the earth; Capricorn, because the south pole is invisible, was signified by the planet that is the highest and most distant of all" (§ 21). And again, "The theologians, therefore, considered as gates these two signs, Cancer and Capricorn - which Plato called entrances - and said that of these two Cancer is the gate through which souls descend, Capricorn that by which they ascend. Cancer is the northern descent route; the southern, Capricorn, is the road of ascent. The northern regions belong to the souls descending into generation, and rightly so, since the door of the cave to the north is accessible to men; the southern regions are not the place of the gods, but of those who return to the gods, and that is why the poet said that path is not of the gods, but "the Immortals", an expression that fits souls well, because they are immortal or themselves or in their essence (§22-23).




1 - Identità, 2004.

2 - Vincenzo Cartari, Imagini de gli Dei de gli Antichi [Images of the Gods of the Ancients], p. 38, 1609 ed. The first edition of the work was printed in 1556.

3 - p. 418, 1621 ed.

4 - pp. 17-18, 1616 ed.

5 - p. 293 - 1647 ed.

6 - p. 43.



For a bibliography of that above concerning the Ancients’ concept of  "Sun, symbol of Youth" and "Grotto, symbol of the Cosmos" refer to the iconographical studies of the tarot by the writer concerning, respectively, The Sun and The Stars.


Concerning the cult of Mithras, the study of Reinhold Merkelbach, Mitra [Mithras], 1984, is fundamental, a work translated into Italian by ECIG in Genoa in 1988; and for the relationship between this doctrine and astrology, the work: Mitra: un antico culto misterico tra religione e astrologia [Mithras: an ancient mystery cult between religion and astrology], by Alexander von Prónay (Convivio, 1991).


Other works to which to refer to explore the myth of the god in an esoteric key are: The Book Your Church Does not Want You to Read, by Tim Leedon, The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors by Kersey Graves; Pagan Christs by J. M. Robertson, Gnostic and Historic Christianity by Gerald Massey and  Buddhism in Christendom by Arthur Lillie. For the critical edition of De Antro Nympharum by Porfirio, refer to the edition edited by Laura Simonini (Adelphi, 1986).


On the esoteric interpretations of the cult of Mithras and its relationship to Christianity, as established by the various writers mentioned above and of which I have reported some of their considerations in the text, I would like to emphasize that the maxim "the truth lies in the middle" in my opinion has to always be taken into consideration, especially in this case.


On the relationship Mithras-Christ, with a view of their equivalence, emphasizing the point of view of Christian orthodoxy, the work of Ruggero Iorio on Mithras is essential Mitra. Il mito della forza invincibile [Mithras, the myth of invincible force], published by Marsilio]. Father Ruggero Iorio, a historian of the ancient era, teaches Christian archeology in Assisi and contributes to various scientific journals. In an interview he said: "Christians did not at all copy Mithras. If anything, the opposite occurred. In the second or third century, at the height of the Mithraic cult in Rome, Christianity was already well entrenched, while Mithraism was always a question of minorities. If they really had copied the latter, Christianity itself would have taken care to distinguish and refute the Mithraic heresy on a large scale. Instead, in the patristics (which - coincidentally - is the most reliable historical source and diffuse on the western Mithraism) are only hints of the problem, and Mithras is united to the many Eastern mystery cults, without emphasis". A book not to be missed.

 Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  © All rights reserved 1991