The Lost Tarot of Nostradamus brings together tarot divination and the 16th century prophetic writings of Michel de Nostradamus (1503 – 1566). The better known work by Nostradamus is Centuries, which began appearing around 1555 and has remained steadfastly popular, inspiring thousands of published commentaries and hundreds of translations.
In 1558, Nostradamus published a third edition of Centuries and posthumously, a last volume of the work was published as The Prophecies in 1568. Purportedly, 58 additional quatrains exist, but couldn’t be found after his death.
In 1994, a volume was discovered in the Central National Library of Rome and found an illustrated codex titled The Prophecies of Nostradamus, consisting of 80 watercolor images. A postscript in the back of the book noted that the images were designed by Nostradamus, but painted by his son, Cesar de Nostredame, who later sent the book to Rome as a gift. Below is a closer view of above page.
The above illustration from the original Lost Book of Nostradamus became Key V: The Hierophant card in the Matthews-Kinghan Lost Tarot of Nostradamus. The historical name for this card is The Pope, and thus he balances out Key II: The Popess. Antoine Court de Gebelin changed the name to The High Priest, or The Hierophant in the 18th century.
A letter written by the son dated that same year seems to corroborate the postscript, where Cesar described how he had completed a collection of miniature paintings along with a booklet, destined to be gifted to King Louis XIII.
The guidebook connects each Key to a couplet from one of Nostradamus’s quatrains. The Empress reads: “From under the holy earth, the soul’s voice faintly sounds. The human flame shines as if it were divine.” That prophecy has been interpreted to have predicted the French Revolution, when secular principles were valued over the sacred.
For The Emperor: “He will raise up the humble and harry the rebels. No one on earth will be his equal.” Is that Napoleon? Or perhaps Abraham Lincoln? Both have been associated with that particular prophecy.
That illustrated codex is now known as The Lost Book of Nostradamus [VE 307 Vaticinia Michaelis Nostradami, or Vaticinia Nostradami], and what John and Caitlin Matthews found most notable was how remarkably similar the illustrations were to the tarot Major Arcana keys, like the Wheel of Fortune, the Burning Tower, and so on.
Let’s read the prophetic couplet linked to Fortune’s Wheel: “When two unicorns are seen, One will be raised up, the other will bow low.” What do you believe that predicts? One theory: the two unicorns represent the U.S. and Great Britain. Hmm… I have a different guess, and I believe this one hasn’t happened yet, but will. Soon. =X
This is one of the brilliant features of this deck. When the team revisited the quatrains from the earlier work The Prophecies, they realized many of the prophecies mirrored the imagery of the tarot. They put two and two together, Matthews got to work doing the translations, and now you have a cartomancy + bibliomancy divination set.
The Burning Tower: “In the Garden of the World near the New City On the road of the hollow mountains…” And what’s your guess? Folks say that’s a reference to 9/11.
Additionally, the illustrations included mysterious imagery of popes wielding different symbols and a bestiary of creatures, from doves, eagles, snakes, lions, and sheep to the mythical, unicorns and dragons.
In the IV of Stars (the second card from the left, above), we see a pope about to be pierced by a unicorn. The unicorn is a symbol for the Grail. The prophetic couplet for this card, corresponding with the tarot Four of Swords: “Evil to he who opens the newly found tomb, And does not immediately close it.”
There are images of a popes being attacked by a unicorn, or a gryphon wielding a priest’s staff. And finally, the illustrations were rich with astronomical and astrological imagery. Take a look at the bottom right corner in the above photo– the VIII of Moons.
And there’s where the Eight of Moons imagery came from. The two floating heads you see in the page spread above are featured in the Two of Suns.
However, Matthews and Kinghan had to recreate most of the Minor Arcana, and while the 80 illuminated watercolor paintings are rich with tarot symbolism, as a functioning tarot deck, the manuscript remained incomplete.
“It’s clear that if Nostradamus intended to create a tarot of his own,” writes Matthews, “these were his ideas and his reinterpretations of already recognized tarot forms, which he didn’t extend to every card.”
Whenever The World card (Key XXI: The Completed World) comes up in readings with this deck, I keep thinking “Ace of Cups.” Nonetheless, it works in the context of this deck’s premise. Pictured here is a chalice standing upon the earth, representative of the Grail, signifying the ending of a long quest for perfection.
The couplet associated with The Completed World: “When the sun reaches its zenith– Then will my deep prophecies be accomplished.” That couplet kind of reminds me of The Sun card, and feels like it matches the painting featured on The Sun card in this deck. Let’s take a look at the actual prophetic couplet for Key 19: “Mercury will be put out to graze by Vulcan: The sun will be clear, sparking and fair.”
Something about these cards, though, with these particular illustrations, lend themselves quite well to those training in their art and craft of seership. Let’s take to heart some words of advice Nostradamus gave to his son, the painter of these illustrations:
“You can easily, despite your young brain, understand that events can be foretold naturally by the heavenly bodies and by the spirit of prophecy. I do not wish to ascribe to myself the title and role of prophet, but emphasize inspiration revealed to a mortal man whose perception is no further from heaven than the feet are from earth.”
Here are a few more snapshots of the actual illustrations from the Lost Book of Nostradamus. Do I believe these were painted with the intention of being tarot cards? Hmm. I dunno. I’m more inclined to see these as illustrations that were generically popular allegories of the time, which is why it’s in the tarot of that time.
Compare Kinghan’s reconstructed Magician card with the above actual illustration. I like the concept here– The Magician possesses the power to change his own form; hence, he appears here as a long-necked creature with a man’s head.
I much enjoyed retracing the artist’s design inspiration and finding the paintings in the pages of The Lost Book of Nostradamus to then connect to which cards in The Lost Tarot of Nostradamus they became. See the imagery above for The Devil card? It’s the second one from the left.
Here’s that same image from the manuscript pages of The Lost Book (Vaticinia Nostradami). Did they have hallucinogenic drugs back in the 16th century? Probably, right? Because explain to me the pontiff in full papal regalia with the torso of a… two-footed… what is that… wild boar?– wielding a sword pointed at the throat of a wild boar.
Anyway, now we move on to the Minor Arcana. The Minor Arcana here are intended to reflect Nostradamus’s visionary gifts through references to astronomy, astrology, and alchemy. The details here are taken from The Lost Book, augmented by principles credited to the Renaissance philosopher Johannes Kepler. You’ll see throughout the cards, especially in the suit of Spheres, imagery evocative of the Platonic Solids.
The above layout of cards from the Suit of Suns corresponds with the Suit of Wands. Also, another unique feature of this deck: The people depicted in the court cards are historical figures who were Nostradamus’s contemporaries. And each suit’s set of court cards bear different labels, reflective of different classes of occupations. In the Suns, the court cards are monarchs, so these titles remain fairly recognizable from a tarot court perspective– Page, Knight, Lady, and Prince.
Using blue as the color of designation for the eight-pointed Suns tripped me up a bit, since upon first glance, I kept thinking Stars when I saw those blue eight-pointed, well, starry looking symbols. Especially since there is a suit of Stars in this deck.
The four suit names– Suns, Moons, Stars, and Spheres– are a nod to astrology and astronomy, as Nostradamus himself was a court astrologer. The background images layered behind the foreground paintings are well-known woodcut engravings and other public domain imagery. I think I recognize the one in the Suit of Stars– is that from the Cosmographia (1524) by Peter Apian?
An additional layer of symbolism is the five alchemical metals for color-coding the suits. Gold stands for the Major Arcana, Mercury for the Stars, Copper for the Suns, Silver for the Moons, and Lead for the Spheres. Each of these are represented by the color of the arches that frame the images.
The Suit of Stars corresponds with the suit of Swords. The Eight of Stars (Eight of Swords) illustration from The Lost Book shows a fortress defended by a throng of guards with their weapons pointed skyward. It’s intended to be reminiscent of an 18th century prison, inspired by the etchings of Giovanni Piranesi (1720 – 1778).
The Seven of Stars represents hope– a hand holding a flower beneath the welcoming shade of a papal crown. The couplet: “Seven conspirators at the feast will shine– Against the three of iron from the ship.”
The court cards in the suit of Stars are religious figures– Postulant, Cardinal, Abbess, and Pope. There were a few times while reading with this deck I pulled the Pope card, which is the King of Stars, and my brain just on default went to Key 5: The Hierophant. Argh.
So if you’re already pre-set into an experienced system of reading the tarot, there may be some re-programming that you need to do on yourself before the Lost Tarot is fluently operable.
The suit of Moons corresponds with the suit of Cups. The court cards here are occultists and philosophers who were contemporaries during Nostradamus’s time. Here, their court titles are the Neophyte, Initiate, Prophetess, and Master. The alchemical metal associated with this suit is Silver, for emotional energy. This suit corresponds with the alchemical phase albedo, the point at which the base substance is purified.
Compare the above original painting in the book to the Five of Moons in the deck. Scroll back up to the preceding photograph of cards from the suit of Moons– it’s the third one from the right in the bottom row.
And for the suit of Spheres (suit of Pentacles), the court cards are alchemists and scientists, with the corresponding titles of Apprentice, Astrologer, Astronomer, and Alchemist. Here is where you see the Platonic Solids unfolding across three-dimensional space, where sacred geometry is the cornerstone of both mathematics and art.
In terms of the production, the publishers went with that divided deck plastic tray situation for the packaging design, which I don’t love. The cards are matte with a papery finish that leaves you with a wonderful tactile experience.
I was gifted this deck back in 2013, or around that time, but only now have gotten around to reviewing the cards again and writing up this walk-through. I confess that I never quite learned this system to a level of fluency where I no longer relied on the guidebook, and I’m kind of okay with that. I love that I can use this set as a tarot plus bibliomancy two-step divination experience.
If you can remember which renamed suits in this deck correspond to what in the more familiar tarot, then you’ll probably be fine. My personal obstacle was that I just kept tripping up. Suns– Wands, sure. Easy. Except that the focal points on all the Sun cards are blue stars, so I kept thinking Stars, and for Stars I kept thinking Air – Swords.
And then, like certain cards from the Minors have iconography that remind me of the Majors (confusing a Minor Arcana card for Key 17: The Star, or Key 19: The Sun, or Key 5: The Hierophant, several cards could easily be The Tower card, and several could easily be The Magician, The High Priestess, etc.)
So instead, what I found to be a far more meaningful experience with this deck is to light a candle, burn frankincense and myrrh, envision myself invoking the spirit of Nostradamus like an ascended master, and draw just a single card to answer a single question. I may even draw two cards to answer one question– whatever I’m in the mood for at that moment.
I’ll connect with the imagery and lean in to my first impressions from what I’m seeing. I’ll hear the messages in my mind, clairaudiently. And then I’ll reach for the guidebook to look up the cards.
Now here’s the best part– the couplet associated with a single card or the quatrain (sum of two couplets) for the two-card reading from The Prophecies will be part of the divination. And that my friends, is what makes this deck ah-mazing. Therein lies the true value of this deck.