The lesson which the images teach is the medieval notion of the universe as a "great chain of Being," in which every component part is assigned its rightful place in the hierarchy. Without further comment, the collection of fragments which follow, gathering from the resources at my disposal, confirm  that first observation by Seznac is at the heart of the metaphysical structure of the Tarocchi of Mantegna as well as the Egyptian Tarot, which emerged much later in the 19th century.


Turin, Tuesday, 19 October 2004


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       In his great masterpiece, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, Jean Seznac, describing the so-called Tarocchi of Mantegna [ca. 1460]  with the following       words:


Placed edge to edge, they form, as it were, a symbolic ladder leading from Heaven to earth. From the summit of this ladder God, the Prima Causa, governs the world - not directly, but stepwise, ex gradibus, by means of a succession of intermediaries. The divine power is thus transmitted down to the lowest level of humanity, to the humble beggar. But the ladder can likewise be read from bottom to top; seen in this way it ‘teaches that man may gradually raise himself in the spiritual order, reaching at last the heights of the Bonum, the Veram, and the Nobile - and that science and virtue bring him closer to God. [1]


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Lest we be satisfied to consult only those of our own faith and tradition, let us also have recourse to the patriarch, Jacob, whose likeness, carved on the throne of glory, shines out  before us. This wisest of the Fathers who though sleeping in the lower world, still has his eyes fixed on the world above, will admonish us. He will admonish, however, in a figure,  for all things appeared in figures to the men of those times: a ladder rises by many rungs from earth to the height of heaven and at its summit sits the Lord, while over its rungs  the contemplative angels move, alternately ascending and descending. If this is what we, who wish to imitate the angelic life, must do in our turn, who, I ask, would dare set  muddied feet or soiled hands to the ladder of the Lord? It is forbidden, as the mysteries teach, for the impure to touch what is pure.


 Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man


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The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkruetz

The Sixth Day


Presently come certain youths bringing with them some ladders, ropes, and large wings, which they laid down before us, and departed. Then the old man began thus: "My dear sons, one of these three things must each of you this day constantly bear about with him. Now it is free for you either to make a choice of one of them, or to cast lots about it." We replied, we would choose. "Nay, said he, "let it rather go by lot." Hereupon he made three little schedules. On one he writ Ladder, on the second Rope, on the third Wings. These he laid in a hat, and each man must draw, and whatever he happened upon, that was to be his. Those who got the ropes, imagined themselves to be in the best case, but I chanced on a ladder, which hugely afflicted me, for it was twelve-foot long, and pretty weighty, and I must be forced to carry it, whereas the others could handsomely coil their ropes about them. And as for the wings, the old man joined them so nearly on to the third sort, as if they had grown upon them.


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After a preliminary trial at Thebes, where the neophyte had to pass through many trials, called the "Twelve Tortures," he was commanded to govern his passions and never lose for a moment the idea of his God. Then as a symbol of the wanderings of the unpurified soul, he had to ascend several ladders and wander in darkness in a cave with many doors, all of which were locked.

Crata Repoa
H.P. Blavatsky, ISIS UNVEILED, Vol. 2, Page, 364


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Why the dialectical rhythm of the One and the Many should be invested with such fearful ritualistic emotions was explained quite clearly and sensibly by Proclus. These fables, he said, serve the purpose ' that we may not only exercise the intellectual part of the soul through contending reasons, but that the divine [intuitive] part of the soul may more perfectly receive the knowledge of beings through its sympathy with more mystic concerns. For, from other [rational] discourses we appear similar to those who are [soberly] compelled to the reception of truth; but from fables we suffer in an effable manner . . . venerating the mystic information which they contain. 19 Pico also made it a practice thus to twist abruptly a seemingly rational figure of speech into a violent myth, as when he compared 'the art of discourse or reasoning' first to the steps of a ladder, and then added that on those steps 'we shall sometimes descend, with titanic force rending the unity like Osiris into many parts, and we shall sometimes ascend, with the force of Phoebus collecting the parts like the limbs of Osiris into a unity'.20 The static image of a ladder, incongruously combined with the agony and resurrection of Osiris, produces that ambiguous state of understanding in which reason becomes charged with ritual.


Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, Chapter VIII, The Birth of Venus, p. 134.


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The strange aphorism, borrowed from Pico della Mirandola, "None can drink with Bacchus without first copulating with the Muses", refers to the ladder of states of being, or of deities, which must be traversed by the soul in search of its final goal of deification. The Muses are the souls or intelligences of the celestial spheres, and one must contemplate with love the things subject to them before attaining Bacchus, the "intellect of the Solar Numen". 24 In outlining the various cosmic systems, Kircher explains that these multiple levels and their gods are equivalent to the sidereal and angelic worlds. The nine divisions of Iamblichus' intellectual world are the nine orders of angels, and the Hebrews and Arabs are also cited as having traditions of angelic choirs reaching from heaven to earth. 25


Athanasius Kircher An Introduction to his life, by Joscelyn Godwin


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Others have claimed that the stone from Lucifer’s crown was actually a meteorite, perhaps the one revered by the Muslims at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, a sacred black stone which they believe fell from Heaven as well. In fact, the Koran says that Muhammad stood upon this stone when he was taken to Heaven on a "ladder of light" by the Angel Gabriel.


The Eternal Symbol of the Holy Grail.


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A very different approach is seen in an influential system of correspondences constructed by the Sufi Master, Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, who was born in Murcia, in the Arab Spain of Al-Andalus, in 1165 and died in Damascus in 1240 CE (almost exactly 700 years before Yeats). Ibn ‘Arabi’s exposition is one of mystical symbolism rather than practical astrology, using the Mansions to organise a chain of being from the uncreated first cause through levels of celestial manifestation and the elemental world to man and the process of hierarchy itself. The cosmos expounded gives a theoretical explanation of the tropical system of the Zodiac, placing the Towers of the Zodiac in the Sphere of the Starless Sky, above that of the Sphere of the Fixed Stars, and below the Sphere of the Divine Pedestal and the Sphere of the Divine Throne. Effectively he, therefore, gives the equinoxes precedence over the precession of the stars, and ties the First Point of Aries to the Vernal Equinox, which is seen as closer to the first movers than the ‘fixed’ stars.

The Mansions of the Moon


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Like the lapis philosophorum and the Black Stone, the Grail was an object of supernatural origin and activity involving the prolonging of life, the birth of a divine child, the quest for wisdom and knowledge, and direct communication with God. That the stone was perfectly capable of supporting such a wide spectrum of interpretations is further demonstrated  by the way it is used in Biblical sources. In the story of Jacob, for example, who falls asleep with his head pillowed on a stone and dreams of a ladder leading directly to Heaven, it is clear; and in the Book of Revelation (2:17) is written 'To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden Manna, and I will give him a white stone [calculum candidum], with a new name written on the stone which no-one knows except him who receives it.'


John Matthews, The Grail. Quest for the Eternal, Thames & Hudson, London,  1981, p.20.


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T. Just as these particular souls according to the diverse degrees of their ascent and descent are diversely affected in their behavior and inclinations, so they manifest a diversity of matter and degree of frenzy, love and sensitivity; and there is this diversity not only in the ladder of nature according to the order of the diverse lives the soul assumes in diverse bodies as expressly held by the Pythagoreans, the Saducees and others and implicitly by Plato and those who have more profoundly penetrated his meaning, but also in the ladder of human affections which has as many degrees as the ladder of nature, inasmuch as man in all his potencies represents every species of being.

C. For that reason souls can be known to ascend or descend by their affections, to come from above or from below, to be on the way of becoming beasts or gods, according to their specific natures, as the Pythagoreans understood it. Or one may understand it simply by the similitude of the affections held by common opinion; for the human soul need not have the power to become the soul of a brute, as Plotinus and other Platonists justly maintain, following the lesson of their master.


Giordano Bruno, FIRST PART OF THE HEROIC FRENZIES, Translation by Paulo Eugene Memmo, Jr., 1964, Fourth Dialogue


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See: The Cyclic Ladder, in:

Burgoyne, Thomas H. . The light of Egypt; or, The science of the soul and the stars
Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library


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In recognizing God within all things, the theosophies of the Western monotheisms did not assert the divinity of all things. However closely a theosophical analysis of the world might agree with a theory of natural magic or occult forces, theosophers seek communion with a transcendent, unknowable God whose manifestation within all things expresses His will, and not the will of the theosopher. As does any world-renouncing mystic of the West, a theosopher hopes to be taken to God by God until human will is enabled by grace to conform with the divine will. It is through grace that a Sufi proceeds from station to station and that a kabbalist may climb the rungs of Jacob's ladder, acting in this world in consciousness of its manifestation of God's positive attributes.

Dan Merkur, Reflections on the Meaning Of theosophy Theosophical History 7/1 (1998), p.30

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The hierarchy of the Created Universe, and all the hierarchies, are "scales of perfection" [Latin scala = "ladder"], with the higher "grades" [Latin gradus = "rung of a ladder, step"] being inherently "nobler", "more worthy" -- that is, better -- than the lower ones. God is highest/noblest/best, of course. Then come the "angels" [Greek angeleuo, "to announce" or "to be a messenger"] and, usually, any other "spiritual" beings. God has no beginning and no end. Angels and other spiritual beings have no end -- they are immortal -- but, created by God, they do have a beginning.

The Created Universe Understood by Analogy


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Diagrams from Lully's Book of the Ascent and Descent of the Mind showing the ladder by which the intellect descends from, or rises to, God.


See: The Ladder Encyclopaedia and extensive use of the symbolism of the Ladder in:

Yates, F.A. ‘The Art of Ramon Lull: an Approach to it through Lull’s Theory of the Elements’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 17, 1954, 115-173.  For example, Plate 14:

a – The Ladder of Ascent and Descent, From Lull, Liber de ascensu et desensu, Valencia, 1512 (p.143)


b – Lull with Ladders, From the Karlsruhe Miniatures (p.143)




The Lullian artist as Lull saw him had not only mastered a universal science; he had learned an ethical and contemplative method through which he might mount on the ladder of creation to the highest heights.


Frances A. Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, Routledge & Kegan Paul,  London, 1983. p. 13.


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"Dispersal and gathering, ontological categories of total reality, are at the same time action-patterns of each soul's potential experience, and unification within is union with the One. Thus emerges the Neo-platonic scheme of the inner ascent from the Many to the One that is ethical on the first rungs of the ladder, then theoretical, and at the culminating stage mystical."

Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, p.61.


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And Jacob . . . went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he look of the stones of the place, and put them for his pillow and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven, and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed.

      And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Beth-el.


[1] Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, pp. 138 - 139.