Wednesday, October 1, 2008

1. Matteo Boiardo's poem compared to Pico on Hermes and Tractate XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum

You read this blog like a book, or better, a scroll,  from the top down.  This essay was revised in May 2012.

Matteo Boiardo, older cousin of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, wrote a poem that seems to describe, or perhaps propose, a tarot deck with four suits plus 22 triumph cards. Particularly challenging are Boiardo's 22 verses at the end, each of which describes a person from the Bible or from Greco-Roman myth or history, relating him or her to a particular virtue or vice.

Tarot researchers at once attempted to link these verses with the TenSephiroth of Kabbalah, although this attempt has now been removed from the site (see Tarotpedia has posted the poem as a whole, both original and translation (  I will quote the relevant 22 stanzas from the poem later in this post. (Trionfi also once had a mapping of the virtues and evils onto the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, at, but that link no longer works)

Here I will identify another possible source for Boiardo's pairings of virtues and evils in his poem, developing a suggestion by Trionfi on their website. This source, we shall see, is none other than Pico's 900 Theses, but not in its Kabbalistic theses but rather in its Hermetic ones.

But first back to Trionfi's suggestion (now removed from their site). Trionfi mentioned a division between 10 "good Sephiroth" and 10 "bad kelipoi." These appear to be the Kabbalist equivalent of virtues and vices, the virtues as aspects of God in the celestial realm and the kelipoi as demonic husks or shells in this world. One must metaphorically peel off the shell to get to the spiritual kernel.

The interpretative problem is how to relate the specific pairings that Boiardo uses to these kelipoi and sephiroth: Pico does not give an account of the kelipoi at all, saying that it is "secret" (see below); as for the sephiroth, the descriptions Pico gives in his sections on Kabbalah aren't very helpful for generating the pairings that Boiardo uses.

My hypothesis is that Boiardo's pairings actually derive, with some poetic license, from Pico's 9th and 10th theses on Hermes Trismegistus. These refer to a list of “punishers” in Tractate XIII of the Corpus Hermeticum, a very widely read ancient text reputed to be by the sage Hermes Trimegistus. Pico attempts to relate this list to the “evil order of ten in the Cabala and its leaders." In Tractate XiII there is also a corresponding list of virtues, which are said to drive out the torments. These two lists, I believe, provide the structure for Boiardo's poem.

Pico's 900 Theses were published on either 8 November (Grofton Black, Pico's Heptaplus and Biblical Hermeneutics 2006, p. 7) or 7 December (Farmer, Syncretism in the West 1998, p. 3). Trionfi estimates that Bairdo's poem was written shortly before a wedding in Ferrara in January of 1487. I hope to show that it is quite likely that Boiardo's poem, whenever it was written, was inspired by Pico's book.

What Pico wrote in his section on "Hermes the Egyptian" is as follows:
 27.9. Within each thing there exist ten punishers: ignorance, sorrow, inconstancy, greed, injustice, lustfulness, envy, fraud, anger, malice.
27.10. A profound contemplator will see that the ten punishers, of which the preceding conclusion spoke according to Mercury, correspond to the evil order of ten in the Cabala and its leaders, of whom I have proposed nothing in my Cabalistic conclusions, because it is secret.(Farmer, Syncretism in the West, p. 343).
Pico's source in Thesis 27.9 is to Corpus Hermeticum Tractate XIII.7-8. (An old translation, not the one I will be using, is at It is a dialogue between a student, Tat, and his teacher Hermes Trismegistus:
Do I have tormenters within me?”
“More than a few, my child; they are many and frightful.”
“I am ignorant of them, father.”
“This ignorance, my child, is the first torment; the second is grief; the third is incontinence; the fourth, lust; the fifth, injustice; the sixth, greed; the seventh, deceit; the eighth, envy; the ninth, treachery; the tenth, anger; the eleventh, recklessness; the twelfth, malice. These are twelve in number, but under them are many more besides, my child, and they use the prison of the body to torture the inward person with the sufferings of sense." (Hermetica, Copenhaver translation, p. 51)
Here Hermes lists 12 “torments." What Pico has done is to reduce the 12 of the Tractate to 10, so as to correspond to the 10 punishers he has read about in Kabbalah. Farmer says this reduction is "forced." Yet there is a justification for such a reduction later in the Tractate. For Hermes Trismegistus goes on to say:
...To mankind’s confusion, there are disjunctions among the twelve, my child, though they are unified when they act. (Recklessness is not separable from anger; they are indistinguishable.) Strictly speaking, then, it is likely that the twelve retreat when the ten powers (the decad, that is) drive them away. (Hermetica, Copenhaver translation, p. 52)
So at least some of the powers appear as "disjunctions," meaning "either this or that." So recklessness and anger are two expressions of the same power, which can be driven out by the same good power. No other examples are given. Pico probably assumed that two other of the last four evil powers also make up one disjunction, treachery and malice being inseparable. Thus 12 in one system, considered 12 because of the zodiac, can be considered 10 as well. Another pair of similar powers are Incontinence and Lust; but instead of removing one, Pico interprets the tractate’s Incontinence as Inconstancy, with the corresponding virtue not Continence but Constancy.

Having enumerated the 12 tormentors, Hermes describes how they may be driven out by 10 powers of God:
“To us has come knowledge of god, and when it comes, my child, ignorance has been dispelled. To us has come knowledge of joy, and when it arrives, grief will fly off to those who give way to it. The power than I summon after joy is continence. O sweetest power! Let us receive her too, most gladly, child. As soon as she arrives, how she has repulsed incontinence! Now in fourth place I summon perseverance, the power opposed to lust. This next level, my child, is the seat of justice. See how she has expelled injustice, without a judgment. With injustice gone, my child, we have been made just. The sixth power that I summon to us is the one opposed to greed – liberality. And when greed has departed, I summon another, truth, who puts deceit to flight. And truth arrives. See how the good has been fulfilled, my child, when truth arrives. For envy has withdrawn from us, but the good, together with life and light, has followed after truth, and no torment any longer attacks from the darkness. Vanquished, they have flown away in a flapping of wings.” (Hermetica, Copenhaver translation, pp. 51-52.)
The ten good powers are knowledge of god, knowledge of joy, continence, perseverance, justice, liberality, truth, the good, life, and light.

Now we can investigate the correspondences. between Corpus Hermeticum XIII and Boiardo's poem, regarding their pairs of virtues and torments. I will go through the poem stanza by stanza, suggesting what in the Tractate corresponds to each. The translation here is Taorpedia's (
(1) Lazyness kept Sardanapolis idle between feathers, 
Lustful concubines and banquet,
For so long that he lost the habit of reigning.

Hyppolita endured such efforts, that she is the only [one]
Of the amazons who is crowned by merit: 
And her name still flies in Scythia and in Greece.
 Boiardo's Efforts—or Endurance--driving out Laziness might conceivably correspond to Constancy driving out Inconstancy in Pico. In Tractate XIII Continence and Incontinence might fit, too. So let us move on to the second pair.
    (2) Actheon was inflamed by desire of an heavenly
    Person, so much that he was transformed into a deer:
    So a man should not put his desire too high.

    Reason made Laura triumph over the perverted
    Child Cupid, because she neither moved
    Her eye from virtue nor ever put a foot wrong.
Boiardo's Reason driving out Desire corresponds, in Tractate XIII, to Perserverence driving out Lust. There is also Continence driving out Incontinence. Pico has Lustfulness as one of the tormentors.
    (3) Antiochus was so secret, that he almost
    Died for his love for Stratonica.
    But the kind physician helped him effectively.

    Grace does not go by chance, but with reason,
    To the discreet and wise, for in love can be proud
    He that hides his strongest passion.
Boiardo's Grace driving out Secrecy corresponds to Hermes' Knowledge of Joy driving out Sorrow. In the poem Secrecy is a source of Sorrow.  Sorrow is also one of the tormentors in Pico’s list
    (4) Anger filled king Herod so much
    That he ordered to kill Mariamne, then
    He calls her, and crying suffers with love.     
    Psyche was patient in what happened to her,
    And because of that she found help in her troubles,
    And in the end she was made a Goddess,
      to be an example for us.
Boiardo's Patience driving out Anger corresponds to Hermes' Light driving out Recklessness/Anger. Herod is certainly an example of reckless anger. Psyche, who surreptitiously viewed Cupid at night, is a symbol of Hermetic Light. The 1st stanza, starting in the 2nd line, would read better as "...That he ordered the killing of Mariamne; then /He calls to her..." (Che fatta occider Marianna, poi /La chiama").Anger is also one of the vices in Pico’s list.
    (5) An error made Jacob a slave for seven years,
    Because he did not speak of Rachel to Laban;
    But time repaired all his damage.

    In Penelopes
[Penelope] there was such perseverance,
    That, by weaving and undoing her web,
    She deserved to rejoin her beloved Ulysses.
Boiardo's Perseverence driving out Error corresponds to an unspecified virtue in Pico, certainly Constancy, driving out Inconstancy. Penelope's suitors' Error was in thinking Ulysses dead. Jacob and Penelope did not succumb to Error, but overcame it by remaining Constant and Persevering. In Tractate XIII, all we have is Perserverence driving out Lust; This fits Penelope better than Jacob. It is not really a second time for that pair, if we use Continence vs. Incontinence in (2).
    (6) Egeus made for himself a cruel doubt,
    So that he was quick to seek death in the sea,
    As soon as he saw Theseus come back with black sails.
    Sophonisba was faithful to Massinissa
    Beyond doubt, because she promised to drink poison
    If she were forced to follow the triumph.
Boiardo's Faith driving out Doubt corresponds to Hermes' Knowledge of God driving out Ignorance. Boiardo can't really talk about Hermetic “Knowledge,” knowledge by direct experience of the divine, as that would smack of heresy and presumption. He can only speak of good Christian Faith. Ignorance is in Pico’s list.
    (7) Nesso deceived when he said to Deanira:
    Give this cloth with blood to Hercules,
    If it ever happens that you have to fight for love.

    In Hipermestra, as in a cunning snake,
    There was wisdom because wearing the clothes of a woman
    She saved her husband who was bloodless with fear.
Boiardo's Wisdom driving out Deception corresponds to Hermes' Truth driving out Deceit.
    (8) Chance fell on Pompeyus, that for many years
    Had seated at the top of the wheel,
    But in the end fortune submerged him with troubles.
    Emilia, the faithful wife of Scipio, showed
    Modesty; because when she found him with a maid,
    She did not talk of his sin not to make it public.
Boiardo's Modesty driving out Chance, i.e.. misfortune, corresponds to Hermes' Generosity driving out Greed. Aemelia meets her misfortune, and Scipio's greedy taking of  his opportunity, with a modest, silent Generosity. In the last line,.Greed is one of the tormentors on Pico’s list.
    (9) A spark brings danger of a big fire:
    See how Caesar was killed in the senate
    By only two people; after he survived the anger of Sulla.
    Experience was in Rhea, who after hiding
    Jove in mount Ida, ordered to make noise
    So that he could not be found because of his crying.
Boiardo's Experience driving out Danger corresponds, in the context of his examples, to Hermes' Life driving out Treachery/Malice, because the danger to Caesar was one of treachery. Malice is one of the tormentors listed by Pico.
    (10) Time, you that hurry men to death,
    You saved Nestor, and if in the end he came to an end,
    It seems impossible to think of such a life.

    Oblivion, you are the end and boundary
    Of all, you took to Lethe Elice and Dido,
    And among your ruins you have fame and time.
Boiardo's Oblivion driving out Time does not correspond to anything in Hermes that I can see. Here is the list of punishers again: ignorance, sorrow, inconstancy, greed, injustice, lustfulness, envy, fraud, anger, malice. Sorrow certainly fits the situations of Nestor (witnessing the end of the Trojan War) and Dido (desertion by Aeneas), but it isn’t knowledge of Joy that drives it out, but merely Lethe, forgetting. (I don’t know how Lethe would have come to Elice, or why; in Greek myth, Helice was turned into a bear and made a constellation in the sky.).

Likewise, Hermes' Good driving out Envy doesn't correspond to anything in Boiardo.

Then in Boiardo there is an 11th torment and virtue at the beginning and end of the section: Fortitude, Boiardo's last virtue, may or may not drive out the World, his first torment.

Here is Boiardo:
World, you are vainly loved by the mad,
And a fool thinks he can bring you on his donkey,
Because the stupid only trust your state.

Inner strength made happy the death of
Lucretia: to clean her fame
She killed herself, and she prepared for the offender a dark net, 
Giving an example to those who love their own name and honour.
Possibly Inner Strength driving out Love of the World corresponds to Justice driving out Injustice. At least in Lucretia’s case, it fits. Here is the list of punishers again: ignorance, sorrow, inconstancy, greed, injustice, lustfulness, envy, fraud, anger, malice. The only other one that might fit is sorrow; but the Hermetic virtue that drives out sorrow is knowledge of joy. Since inner strength “made happy” the death of Lucrezia, that might work, too. But it has already been used; and anyway, justice is what made Lucretia happy.

So what we have is roughly 9 out of 11 good correspondences between Boiardo’s poem and the list of virtues/vices in Corpus Hermeticum Tractate XIII, and Pico’s Thesis 27.9, allowing for the difference between Hermetic virtues and Christian ones and also for Boiardo’s device of using Biblical or Graeco-Roman stories to make his points. Boiardo is adapting Hermes to the Christian setting of his particular time and place.

From Pico’s hints, it is possible that Boiardo was also intending an allusion to Kabbalah. There are 10 Sephiroth plus the En Sof, exactly half the number of tarot trumps.  Trionfi assigns stanzas to sephiroth at http://www.geocities.con/autorbis/boiardo.htm. They do not give any rationale for that being Boiardo’s own assignment. Their assignments looks to me totally ad hoc: there are 22 stanzas and 22 tarot trumps; so they just match them up in order. But did Boiardo have such correspondences in mind?

The trouble is that we don’t know how Boiardo conceived of the Sephiroth, much less how he would have assigned virtues to them.  Perhaps we can assume that Boiardo’s conception was the same as Pico’s. If so, maybe something can be developed. That is a subject for another post.

Friday, August 29, 2008

2. The Boiardo Poem and Pico's Theses on Kabbalah

In this post I will investigate possible correlations between Boiards's poem and Pico's characterizations of the ten sephiroth in his 900 Theses of 1486, to see to what degree it can be said that Boiardo was influenced by Pico's understanding of Kabbalah. I will go through the sephiroth in order, saying first how Pico characterizes them, with the page references for these characterizations, from the English translation in Farmer's Syncretism in the West, Then I give the Boiardo pair for that number in the order, then the Corpus Hermitcum Tractate 13 pair (which I contract to "Hermes"), or the applicable Pico "punisher", from my previous post in this blog; and finally my comments on the extent of any correlation between Boiardo's stanzas and Pico's characterization of hte serifirorh.

I want to emphasize that the only tarot I  am correlateing to at this point is the literary one of Boiardo's tarocchi poem. Any resemblance to any actual ddeck is coincidental. And I will say in advance that the investigation is inconclusive. But perhaps others will see more than I do.

The 1st is Crown, Father, Ehyweh (Syncretism 523), Empyrian (541), and the indwelling (545). Boiardo: Laziness/Endurance, Pico: Inconstancy/Constancy.
My comment: There is a possible correlation beween the Empyrean and both Enduranc and laziness, since the Empyrean is unmoved.

The 2nd is Wisdom, Christ, Intellect, Bereshit, procession, and the primum mobile (Syn. 349, 356, 536f, 541). Boiardo: Desire/Reason; Hermes: Lust/Perserverence;
My comment: Intellect = Reason. Desire is what makes the Aristotelian First Moved move: the desire to attain God's perfection, the archetypes, the attaining of which, through perseverence,  is wisdom.

The 3rd is Intelligence, repentance (Syn 355, 533), Reason (549), the firmament (541), the “great north wind” (348f), the “great jubilee” (351, a reference to the apocalypse per Farmer), “mother of the world” (351), "green line" (532), and the "upper woman" (353), who unites with 6, Tiferet, and by whom the realms below are created. Boiardo: Secrecy/Sorrow vs. Grace. Pico/Hermes: Grief vs. Joy.
My comment: The sphere of the Firmament is also called the Ogdoad, the Eighth. It is the place we strive to attain in order to see the invisible divine beyond. It is the place of Paradise, hence of Joy. Binah is a feminine sephira in Pico; so are Grace and Joy (Voluptas).

The 4th is Piety, Love, Abraham, water (all Syn. 538), the southern water (355), and Jupiter (541). Boiardo: Anger vs. Patience. Hermes: Anger vs. Light .  
My comment: In Boiardo the story is of Psyche’s love for Cupid. Also Love and Mercy are characteristics of Jupiter. Anger is best represented in Mars, but it is also Jupiter's lightning-bolt.

The 5th is Judgment, North Wind, Magical Power, Mars, superior anger, northern fire, and also demons like Satan and Lilith, who come when judgment is too harsh or a Cabalist errs in his work (Syn. 354f, 525, 539, 541). Boiardo: Error vs. Perseverence. Pico/Hermes: Inconstancy vs. Constancy.
My comment: In reference to Mars, we might speak of the harshness of Leban against Jacob. Perserverence is a soldier’s virtue, inconstancy his vice. Boiardo’s error relates to the creation of demons.

The 6th is the Ineffable Name, clemency, Christ in the inferior world, Beauty, the Sun, the shining mirror, free choice, procession, Heaven, and the combining of water and fire (Syn. 347, 541, 542, 545, 539, 549). Boairdo: Doubt vs. Faith. Hermes: Ignorance vs. Knowledge of God.. The Sun as a symbol of God correlates with Hermes' Knowledge of God and Boiardo's Faith, as well as Clemency. Beauty is an attribute of Apollo, the sun god, as well as Tifereth.

The 7th is the North, to whom is addressed petitions to be granted (Syn. 541; for Wirszubski, p. 146f, this echoes Isaiah 43:6). It is also Endurance, Eternity and Saturn; it effects the conversion to superior things (Syn. 541, 549). Boiardo: Deceit vs. Wisdom. Pico/Hermes: Fraud vs. Truth. Saturn.
My comment: Deceit is a quality of Saturn, as is Wisdom. Endurance is  one of Boiardo’s virtues, although not in relation to this sephira. Conversion to higher things may =  wisdom.

The 8th is the South, to whom petitions are addressed not to prohibit something; it is also Majesty, Venus, and the conversion to inferior things. (Syn. 541, 549) Boiardo: Chance vs. Modesty. Hermes: Greed vs. Generosity. Venus.
My comment: Boiardo's second story deals with the opportunity to satisfy lust, and the wife's generosity, It is in the sphere of Venus. Generosity is an attribute of a rich person's Majesty.

The 9th is Mercury, which is a mixture of inferior and superior. It is also Foundation, the organ of generation by which souls enter the world (Syn. 358), the “gathering of the waters” (357), and the “just,” the redeemer "sold for silver" and "carrying his cross" (529). Boiardo: Danger vs. Experience. Hermes: Treachery vs. Life.
My comment: Hermes is a god of deceit, as in the story of his theft of Apollo's cattle when still an infant. That is close to treachery  The 9th as sacrificed redeemer corresponds somewhat to Julius Caesar.

The 10th is Kingdom, Kingdom of David (Syn. 357), the Keneset Israel, the Moon, Adonai, the Holy Spirit (523), "universalized bride," (Syn. 358f), night (354), "lower woman" (353), the “daughter of the voice” (362), and the “sea to which all rivers run,” the Shekhinah (357f). It is also the "unshining mirror" (355), cut off from the other sephiroth by Adam’s sin (347), whose goal is mystical unity with the 6th sephiroth, Christ, the “shining mirror” (542f). The moon. Boiardo: Time vs. Oblivion. Hermes: nothing.
My comment: The "sea to which all rivers run" could be considered Oblivion. The Shekhinah's state, cut off from her lover, corresponds to that of Boiardo's Dido and probably also Elice, as a beloved of Jupiter.

So as you can see, there is some correlation in each case. Possibly Boiardo was in part inspired by Pico's characterizations of the sephiroth, but it is not at all clear.