Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Tharocus Bacchus est

From the myth of the God of Orgies the origin of the word Tarot


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, Feb. 2012

In our two previous essays About the etymology of  the word Tarot and Rochi and Tarochi we investigated the etymology of the word "Tarot", summing up what has already been proposed and at the same time bringing in new contributions.

Our further investigation has led us to formulate a possible derivation of the name from the myth of Bacchus. The word TAROT could derive from the person who first received the information about Bacchus on the rite of initiation, the famous orgies, a character who, by assimilation with Bacchus, like the disciples who followed, merges with the god himself under the common denominator of madness.

First of all we must know the reasons for the communion that unites Bacchus to his followers. In this respect, concerning Dionysus, Walter Burkert writes: "Dionysus can seemingly be defined in a simple way as the God of wine and of ecstasy due to drunkenness. The drunkenness of wine, as a change in consciousness, is understood as the irruption of something divine, but the Dionysian experience goes well beyond that of alcohol and can be completely independent of it: the "madness" becomes an end in itself. Mania, the corresponding Greek word,  according to its origin, and in its similarity with ménos, means "frenzy", but not as the confusion of 'illusion", but as increase of "spiritual power" personally lived. However, the Dionysian ecstasy is not the creation of a unique isolated individual, but is a mass phenomenon, which spreads almost infectiously. Told in mythic terms, this means that God is always surrounded by his swarm of votaries prey to the frenzy. Anyone who indulges in this god must risk losing his own civic identity and "being crazy": both a divine and a healthy thing. An outward sign and instrument of transformation caused by the god is the mask. During this metamorphosis the votary and the god merge with each other, an absolutely extraordinary event in Greek religion: God and votary are both called "Bacchus" (1). The god alone is called "Dionysus"; bakcheia denotes the "frenzy" (2). 

The story in the myth of Bacchus involving the personnage we have identified is that which pits the god against Lycurgus, king of Thrace. Based on the Bibliotheca Historica by Diodorus Siculus (3), a major source of knowledge of the myth of Bacchus, we briefly summarize the story: Bacchus, on his return from Asia, went with his Bacchantes to Thrace, where king Lycurgus, Driante’s son, pretending friendship, welcomed him to his court. In fact, during the night, the king ordered the killing of Bacchus and the Maenads. A certain Tharope (Tharops), a person of the place, was able to warn the god of the imminent danger. Lycurgus attacked the maenads killing all them. Bacchus, who had left the bulk of his army on the opposite shore, with a sudden move ferried his men and defeated Lycurgus, crucifying him after putting his eyes out. To Tharope, who had helped him at the time, he gave the kingdom of Thrace, and taught him the rites of initiation, the so-called orgies. Tharope in turn transmitted the teachings of the ceremonies and mysteries to his son Eagro (Oiagros), who communicated them to his son Orpheus, who thanks to his "illustrious knowledge " changed various aspects of these rituals, giving rise to the Orphic Mysteries.

The "ceremonies" of Bacchus (Orgia), of trieteric character, being celebrated every third year, were conducted by colleges, associations of worship, minor groups acting as moments of celebration together with the four types of state festivals celebrated in honor of the Greek Dionysus: the Anthesteria, the Agrionie, the rural Dionysia, the Great Dionysia.

The orgies (órgia) had also the name of Sabazia feasts, a term derived from "Sabatius", an additional attribute of Bacchus. Sabatius, a Thracian god, was identified with the Sun and depicted together with Mithras in a Mithraic bas-relief, with the epithet "invincible": “Sol Deus invincibilis Mitra et Nama Sabatius(4). The title "Sabatius" was later given to Bacchus - according to ancient glosses, the term saboi  (or sabaioi) was the equivalent, in the Phrygian language, of the Greek bacckhos (5) -  that second Bacchus with whom people wanted to assimilate, who was credited with the invention of plowing in which the plow was yoked to oxen. Painters and sculptors portrayed him armed with horns in order to better characterize him as a son of Persephone, who was born with the appearance of a bull, to recall the benefit he rendered to agriculture with the invention of the plow. At the same time, with the identification of the god as Sol Invincibilis people wanted to allude to the benefits caused to agriculture by the heat of his rays.

Cicero, treating in De Natura deorum (6) on the paternity of Dionysus, writes: “Dionysos multus habemus: primum Iove et Proserpina natum; secundum Nilo, qui Nysam dicitur, interemisse; tertium Cabiro patre, eumque regem Asiae praefuisse dicunt, cui Sabatia sunt instituta; quartum Jove et Luna, cui sacra Orphica putantur confici; quintum Nyso natum et Tyone, a quo triterides constitutae putantur” (We have many Dionysi: the first is the son of Jove and Proserpine, the second is of the Nile and of him it is said that he would kill Nysa, the third would have Cabirus as a father, he would reign over Asia and in his honor the Sabazia would be instituted, the fourth is son of Jupiter and Luna, and to him it is believed the Orphic rites are dedicated, the fifth is born of Nysus and Tyone and is thought to have established the Trieterides).

To understand the origin of the Sabatia feasts we need to know the myth of Dionysus, the Greek Bacchus, a myth whose epiphany is due to Thrace. Born from the ashes of his mother Semele and brought to Olympus by his father Zeus, due to the jealousy of Hera, wife of Zeus, from which he was in danger of going mad, Dionysus left Olympus wandering in Africa and Asia followed by satyrs and maenads. During this wandering he met Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus, and married her. Finally he arrived in Phrygia, where Cybele initiated him into her Mysteries. According to another version Hera commissioned the Titans to kill him and, though Dionysus turned himself into a bull, the task was completed. The boy was eaten, but his remains were collected by Apollo, who placed them in his temple at Delphi. Once dead, Dionysus descended into hell in search of his mother Semele, who returns with her back to earth and then to Olympus. The Titans themselves were struck down by Zeus.


In this "crime" we can recognize an ancient initiatory scenario: the Titans behaved like Masters of initiation, since killing the novice, they 're-birth' him to a higher form of existence, giving to the child Dionysus divinity and immortality. But in a religion which proclaimed the supremacy of Zues, the Titans could only play a demonic role – and therefore  were electrocuted.

Dionysus is a god who dies and is then reborn according to the tradition of the solar gods, as were Mithras and Christ himself (7). The assumption of their blood and bodies by the adepts is conceived as a rebirth since such assimilation allows the complete merger with the God. His dismemberment by the Bacchantes was for this reason.

The Sabatia feast manifests itself as a Dionysian orgy marked by an ecstatic madness, an inebriation to be understood as a mystical exaltation, an ecstasy considered as a sort of prelude to the participation of the faithful to the divine spirit. The worshipers were convinced that "the madman" was possessed by the god, as the verb enthusiasmein implied, meaning "to be possessed by God." Madness is the essential aspect of orgies, a madness caused by the god who makes his followers and their actions mad. Herodotus (8) relates the adventure of the Scythian king Skylas who gets himself initiated "into the rites of Dionysus Baccheios" in Olbia on the Borysthenes (Dnieper). During the ceremony (Telete), possessed by the god, made the "Bacchante and the fool". Most likely it was a procession in which the initiates, "under the dominion of the God" let themselves be carried away by a frenzy that the onlookers and the possessed himself considered as 'madness' (mania).


Mircea Eliade writes: "The Mystery consisted in the participation of the Bacchantes in the total epiphany of Dionysus. The rites are celebrated at night, far from cities, in the mountains and forests. Through the sacrifice of the victim by tearing it to pieces (sparagmos) and the consumption of the raw flesh (omophagia), communion with the god is realized. For the animals that are torn apart and devoured are epiphanies, or incarnations, of Dionysus. All the other experiences – exceptional physical strength, invulnerability to fire and weapons, the prodigies (water, wine, milk, springing from the ground), 'familiarity' with snakes and the young of wild beasts - are made possible by enthusiasm, by identification with the god. The Dionysiac ecstasy means, above all, surpassing the human condition, the discovery of total deliverance, obtaining a freedom and spontaneity inaccessible to human beings. That among these freedoms there also figured deliverance from prohibitions, rules and conventions of an ethical and social order appears to be certain - which explains, in part, the mass adherence of women. But the Dionysiac experience touched the deepest levels. The bacchantes who devoured raw meat reintegrated a behavior that had been repressed for tens of thousands of years; such frenzies revealed a communion with vital and cosmic forces that could be interpreted only as a divine possession. That the possession was confused with 'madness', mania, was to be expected. Dionysus himself had experienced 'madness', and the bacchante only shared the ordeals and passion of the god; in the last analysis, it was one of the surest methods of communicating with him" (9).

A 'madness' which somehow was the proof of the 'deification' (Entheos) of the aspirant. The experience was certainly memorable, because the adepts participated in the creative spontaneity and heady freedom, of the superhuman strength and invulnerability of Dionysus.

A further element of Dionysian ritual consisted in the phallophoria (phallus-bearing), manifested by a phallus carried by the high priest who presided over the worship. At  the "Rural Dionysia", the village feasts which were held in December, women carried in procession a phallus of great size. accompanied with songs. The reason for this presence goes back to the dismemberment of Dionysus by the Titans where the heart, the only organ remaining of the body of God according to myth, must be understood in a metaphorical sense to indicate his most important part, i.e. the phallus, real symbol of the indestructibility of life. In fact, in the classical world and Greek-Roman culture the phallus, as a generator of the seed, was considered the origin of life.

As we have seen, the attribute Sabatius for Dionysus-Bacchus comes from Thrace, birthplace of the great Greek-Roman gods, as Apollo becomes Phoebus for the Hellenes, Mars-Ares, Mercury, Artemis-Bendis-Diana and Dionysus-Bacchus. The term Sabatius, as attribute of the god and of the feasts promoted in his honor, was widespread, so that in Italy there are many places that derive their name from it. Paul Fiumalbo Bondi writes in this regard: "It was the custom of the ancient idolatrous people routinely to give to places, the countryside, cities, lakes, the name of the false and deceptive deity worshiped in those places, such as Marta Lake, from Mars, as Homer reports; the city of Sabazia, of which we have already spoken at length in the aforesaid remembrances regarding Trevigiano, the surrounding countryside, the vast Sabatino Lake and the very fertile Baccano valley, derive their names from Bacchus and Saturn, who was also called Sabazius. "Sabatius enim Bacchus dictus est, et loca ipsi dicata Sabatia, ut scholiastes Aristophanis vetustissimus in Avibus testator” (10). But there are other places that are derived from the term Sabatius such as Sabbioncello in the municipality of Merate (from Sabatius - sacellum: temple of Bacchus).

The figures of Bacchus, the god of madness, his mysteries, and the Bacchantes are reflected in  the Renaissance in numerous works, both literary and philosophical,  like Orfeo by Poliziano, and La Follia (The Madness), a poem by an anonymous author (11), reprinted several times between 1540 and 1560, where, along with other gods, Bacchus is taken as an example of the beauty of those who follow the madness: "Then you must know that those who are close friends of Madness aren’t the most beautiful or the most graceful or the most cheerful among the gods in the whole sky. Then why do you think that Bacchus is always young and beautiful? For no other reason than because he always is in the company of Madness, lives in continual feasts, in dances, games and parties". For Erasmus himself, author of the celebrated Praise of Folly (1509), the virtue of insanity is not limited to men, to mortals, but also extended to the gods, especially to men's favorites, who were the most carefree, i.e. Bacchus, Pan, Cupid and Flora, all gods which, in accord with madness, live carefree and help people to do the same.

Even in games the myth of Bacchus acquires an important role: in fact toys were the implements that the Titans used to attract the young Bacchus into their net, infantile objects that the priests of the god carried in procession on the occasion of ritual feasts celebrated in his honor.

In the Renaissance, the epithet of "mad" attributed to those who depended on the game of cards or dice came from different realities. Thus Erasmus writes in his Praise (XXXIX): "It's definitely a spectacle of hilarious madness sometimes to see people so enslaved by the game as to feel palpitations when the noise of dice reaches their ears". But above all, the Church was to hold in contempt the folly of players, sure of the earthly and unearthly miserable end of those who so dedicated themselves (12). If Aretino in Le Carti Parlanti (The speaking cards) considers the card of the Fool as a representation of the foolishness of those who are in despair for fear of being deprived of all their goods, concluding with the words "it is madness" (13), Garzoni in his L’Hospidale de’ pazzi incurabili (The Hospital of Incurable Madman)  in Discourse XIII, entitled "About spiteful or tarot [da tarocco] madmen" suggests the commonality between madness and tarot cards: " Some people have such a spirit inserted in their brain that when they think they are offended by someone, they start to contend with him with a mad willfulness; and if the offender multiplies the offenses, so on his part grow hatred  and continual spiteful acts; whence the thing reduces him to such that, getting his brain taroccando  in a bestial manner, he gets the name of Spiteful & da tarocco [of tarot] Madman" (14).

Returning to Erasmus, the player embodies, together with husbands, builders and hunters, "one of the desirable forms of insanity; he is one who lives for the day and is carried away by beneficial illusions bestowed by stultitia, which frees the mind from all anxieties and worries of everyday life. But it is a kind of dangerous madness, because it can easily degenerate, entering into the jurisdiction of the Underworld and the avenging Furies" (15).

Bacchus and madness, players and madness: an inseparable pair who open a new chapter in deciphering the history of the word Tarot. If the tavern is the Kingdom of Bacchus, for the Church a Satan, the god expresses himself with his followers gathered there through wine and the excitement that comes from it and from the game. Bacchus is the fool par excellence, as fools are his adherents-players, which as we noted at the beginning of the essay, are one with the God.

The name of the person who first received the information on the rituals of the Bacchic ceremonies, with the task of transmitting them to his descendants and those to generations to come, is commonly cited as Tharops (Tharope) or Charops (Charope) (16), although in the modern critics' repertories on Greek literature, Tharops is almost completely supplanted by Charops. François L’Honoré (1651-1709), in the Opera Philosophica di Cicerone [Philosophical Works of Cicero], which he commented upon and interpreted (1689), in a note referring to the De Natura Deorum on the feast of Sabatia. called Charops by the term Tharoco.

The name Tharocus is cited by l'Honoré in a footnote to a passage from Cicero's
De Natura Deorum, where in regard to the Sabatia feast is written: “Sabazia:Festa in quibus Bacchum laetis clamoribus, ac praesertim hac voce Evoë, Bacchantes prosequebantur: a Sabázien, vociferari. Hinc Bacchus, apud Aristoph. in Avibus Sabàzios appellatus. Sacra vero Orphica, quae quarto Dionyso celebrabantur, erant ipsa Bacchi orgia, de quibus nos saepe alibi. Bacchus Tharoco cuidam, a quo Thraciae Imperium accepit, modum tradidit celebrandi orgia: quibus cum nonnulla Orpheus addidisset, Orphica dici coepere” (Sabbatia. Feast in which Bacchantes followed Bacchus with glad shouts, and in particular with the following cry Evoe: from Sabázien, noise. Bacchus, in Aristophanes' The Birds, is called Sabàsios. In fact, the sacred Orphica, which the fourth Dionysus celebrated, were the same orgies of Bacchus that were often talked about elsewhere. Bacchus communicates, to a certain Tharocus from whom he had received the Thracian government, the way to celebrate the orgies: the orgies, when Orpheus added something, began to be called Orphica) (17).

About the attribution of the name Tharocus (Tharoco in the text, as dative) by l'Honoré we can  posit two solutions: either he derived that term from the oldest editions of Diodorus or  other ancient works on Greek mythology, or, although knowing the name of Charope, wanted to call the first connoisseur and popularizer of the orgia with that term representing the emblem of its madness.

then becomes a substantive adjective  to describe Charope, and as every disciple of Bacchus is in communion with him, the disciple becomes Bacchus himself. The term, that of Tharocus, must be put in relation to the orgiastic madness of the god, from which every disciple is loved and revered so much as to become one with him.


So then we readily understand the Tarochus and Taroch etymons found by Ross Caldwell and the writer in the literature of the late fifteenth century, a time when the Ludus Triumphorum assumed the name of Ludus Tarochorum, to be interpreted not so much with the meaning "idiot, silly" but surely that of "fool" (18). A term that was known to one person or many, who derived it and transformed it into Tarocho, Taroco or Tarroco, was used to give the name to that game through the card that in the procession of the Triumphs represented the quality of the god of drunkenness and madness: the card of the FOOL (19).

From the philosophical point of view, if transcending into madness on the part of the disciples identifies them with the god himself, making them one with the divinity, in Christian thought the identification of the Fool (the unbeliever) in the God of Abraham is the end and the last conversion of his existence.


Enlightened by what is described here, it is only natural that players called that deck of cards by the name of the god of madness. A god to whom people had devoted an extraordinary array of music and songs set and sung in the taverns and portrayed by the Este court in a  Triumph card, perhaps without thinking of his myth, with the exposed phallus (20). 

It was not unusual for a specific card to give its name to a game: from the oldest known treatise on the game of Minchiate that we found (21) we have come to know that the additional name Ganellino, given to the Tuscan tarot, comes from the name given, in this case, to the Magician.

Obviously we should not think those who played Ludus Tarochorum knew the true origin of the name, with the exception of those who initially used the term. As we have documented in our other essays, such a source has remained totally unknown since its first appearance. Beyond the judgment of men and women of culture, all opposed to one another, players in taverns that put the question surely would have supposed it to be derived from expressions of a popular character inherent to the game, as we indicated in the essay Ronchi and Tarochi, or by an attribution of the Church intended to stigmatize as "fools" those who were lost in the pleasure of the cards (22). Like a tree born of a single seed throwing down many roots, so did the word Tarot [Tarocco].


Concluding, and returning to Bacchus, the god appears portrayed in the tarot in an XVIIIth century deck, the work of Vandemborre, a Belgian printer: the god, who replaces the figure of the Pope, is depicted astride a barrel in the act of drinking from a bottle (23). No longer the Pope of the Catholic tradition, but the Pope and the madness of his "foolish" players (24).

See additional data in four web-pages by Michael S. Howard at "Dionysus and the Historical Tarot I"  


1 - Walter Burkert, La religione greca di epoca arcaica e classica (The Greek Religion of the archaic and classical epoch), Milan, 2003, pp. 318-319 (pp. 161-162 of The Greek Religion, its English translation).  Original title: Greichische Religion des archaischen und klassischen Epoche, Stuttgart, Berlin, Köln, 1977 (pp. 251-252).
2 - Note 3 to the text, Walter Burkert, op. cit., p. 319 (p. 412 of English trans, p. 252 of the original German edition), adding: On the name of Bacchus see: O. Kern, Orphicorum Fragmenta 5 (It. trans. Frammenti Orfici, edited byG. Arrighetti, Milan, 1989, fr. 4); Euripides Bacchai, 491. On the God’s name:  Sophocles. Oedipus.Tyrannus 211; Euripides, Hippolytus 560; H. Jeanmarie, Dionysos: histoire du culte de Bacchus, p. 58; M.L. West, «Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik» 18 (1975) p.234; S.G. Cole, «Greek Roman and Byzantine Studies» 21, (1980) p. 226-231.
3 - III, 64 f.
4 - The Mithraic bas-relief is cited by Francesco Inghirami, Monumenti Etruschi o di Etrusco Nome, Volume Three, Fiesole, 1825, p. 132.
5 - Cf: Henri Jeanmaire, Dionysos. Histoire du culte de Bacchus, Paris, 1951, pp. 95-97.  
6 - III, 58.
7 - On this regard see our essay Nativitas
- Historìai (Histories), IV, 78-80.
9 - Mircea Eliade,Storia delle credenze e delle idee religiose, Vol. I: “Dall'età della pietra ai Misteri Eleusini”, Italian translation, Florence 1979, pp. 395-396. (English translation used here is Eliade's own, pp. 365-366 of A History of Religious Ideas, Vol. 1)
10 - Paolo Bondi da Fiumalbo, Memorie Storiche sulla Città Sabatia ora Lago Sabatino, Florence, 1836, p. 124. For the author, a monk, the Sabatius attribute, as well as that of Bacchus, was also given to Saturn.
11 - The most recent studies trace it back to Claudio Tolomei. See: Paola Malaguti, edited by, La Pazzia, Databank "New Renaissance". Text online:
12 - On this topic are dedicated various articles among which: Playing Cards and Gambling; Wise Madness, Pleasant Madness; The Hospital of Incurable Madmen; The Theatre of Brains.
13 - See here the article The Theatre of Brains.
14 - See here the article The Hospital of Incurable Madmen.
15 - Antonella Gallo, “Follia, Follie”, in Follia e gioco d’azzardonel Seicento spagnolo: un ritratto semiserio del “Tahúr”barocco, tra censura e divertimento, Maria Grazia Profeti, ed, , Florence, 2006, p. 107. On players and gambling in seventeenth-century Spain see: Francisco Luque Fajardo, Fiel desengaño contra la ociosidad y los juegos, Madrid, 1603 and Francisco Navarrete y Ribera, La casa del Juego, Madrid, 1644.
16 - The name Tarophs, among others, is cited by Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica (Βιβλιοθήκη ἱστορική), III, 64 f, and Christian August Lobeck, Agloaphamus Sive de Theologiae Mysticae Graecorum Causis Libri Tres, Darmstadt, 1829. 
17 - Franciscus l’Honoré e Soc. Jesu, Ciceronis Opera Philosophica. Interpretatione ac notis illustravit, Jussu Christianissimi Regis in uso Serenissimi Delphini, Tomus Primus [Vol. One], Parisiis [Paris], Apud Viduam Claudii Thiboust et Petrum Esclassan, 1689, note 5, p. 142. Our first survey attributed the note in question to the celebrated eighteenth-century scholar Johann August Ernesti (1707-1781), deducing the volumeM. Tullii Ciceroni,Opera Philosophica, Ex Editione Jo. Aug. Ernesti cum notis et interpretazione in usum Delphini, variis lectionibus, notis variorum, recensu editionum et codicum et indicibus locuplentissimis accurate recensita, Vol. 3, London, 1830, p. 1033. Liber III, XXIII-58. Note t. We thank Ross Caldwell for letting us know the correct assignment. In the 1830 title, saying that Erenesti’s edition has notes and intepretations “in uso Serenissimi Delphini” was a conventional way of designating l”Honoré’s edition, as Ross observes. because it was dedicated to the Dauphin of France, and hence “for the use of the Dauphin”.
18 - The meaning of "fool" looks more fitting than the other, that of “idiot”, in relation to the term Tarochus as found in a Maccheronea passage by Bassano Mantovano and that of Taroch, interpreted as “foolish”, present in the Frotula de le done by Giovan Giorgio Alione, a troubadour from Asti (both from the end of the XVth century). We quote both passages, deferring for more detailed information to our essays About the etymology of Tarot and Taroch-1494.

Bassano Mantovano

Erat mecum mea socrus unde putana
Quod foret una sibi pensebat ille tarochus
Et cito ni solvam mihi menazare comenzat.

My mother-in-law was with me, and this fool thought he could get some money out of her, so he started threatening me.

Giovan Giorgio Alione

Marì ne san dè au recioch
Secundum el Melchisedech
Lour fan hic. Preve hic et hec
Ma i frà, hic et hec et hoc
Ancôr gli è – d'i taroch
Chi dan zù da Ferragù

Ancôr gli è – d'i taroch = there are still some fools

It should be remembered that the Italian word tarato, in the sense of a person missing some intelligence, is well suited to fools, because they have no logical reasoning. See the article About the etymology of Tarot.
19 - On the meaning of the word bachiach, see also our point of wiew in the essay Taroch: nulla latina ratione.
20 -  The Fool card of the Ercole I d’ Este Tarot.
21 - See our discussion in the article Treatise on the Game of Minchiate.
22 - Veber Gulinelli in his work Delle carte da gioco italiane (Italian Playing Cards), Carpi, 2011, p. 77, suggests a derivation from the medieval literary Latin binomial "Tartarus oculis", which in the vulgar tongue was "hell, eyes", or rather Tarot [Tarocchi], to underline, according to Catholic morality, that these cards were the eyes of hell or of the devil, in order  to damn those who used them.
23 - Bacchus is depicted, together with other gods, also in the deck of philosophical-moralizing cards commissioned by Filippo Maria Visconti to Marziano da Tortona, who had it painted by Michelino of Besozzo. See the article Bologna and the origin of Triumphs. In modern decks, Bacchus is portrayed in the Fool card in the Neo-Pythagorean Tarot produced by Dr. John Opsopaus, historian on Greek myth and Neo-Pythagorean culture.
24 -  Michael S. Howard has written a supplement to this our essay. See  Dionysus and the Historical Tarot: 15th - 18th Century Cultural Contexts in the "Host Essays" Section.