Why is it So: The Character for the King of Coins in its Historical Setting by Daana Mindon

In 1375, at exactly the time when card-play is first mentioned in Europe, a world-map was created in the maritime centre of Majorca. Majorca had long been held by Muslims and still had a large population of Muslims, Jews, Berbers, Spaniards and others. The world-map is part of a compendium of useful matter composed by a Jewish illuminator of books named Cresques, who gives his credentials as ‘Master of Bussola (wind/magnetic Rose) and Compass (sidereal Rose).’ At this time, in the Mediterranean, though the magnetic needle was in use, it was used with the old wind-rose card of direction. The ‘compass’ referred, still, to the Rose whose points were named for stars: one form was used by Egyptian mariners and another by mariners of the eastern seas. But though these navigational stars informed our Atout /Major Arcana cards, in this article we are concerned only with the King of Coins.

On the Atlas’ worldmap, across North Africa, four Moorish governors appear. They bear, as heraldic emblems, devices used as suit-signs in early tarot packs. The presence of these ‘suit-sign’ devices is given added importance by the fact that a number of early European references to cards or card games speak of them as Saracen or Moorish quarters, or they speak of the card-play as a ‘joc’ – a term which then had very specific connotations in the south-western Mediterranean. It referred to a form of verbal exercise, a display of learning and memory, which was begun from a set quaestio (as question or ‘quest’ which the player then had to answer – usually in verse).

In his Tractatus moribus…, a Dominican named John spoke of a ludus cartarum in which status mundi nunc modernis temporibus describitur that is, in which the levels of [our] universe until the present time may be described. ‘Mundi’ could mean of the world, in a geographic sense, but it also meant of the created ‘world’ in the sense that the term was then used, to include all things of heaven and earth (including certain forms of prognostication) lawfully permitted humankind to know.

As they appear on the Atlas Catala, the four Moorish governors bear the signs of: rod, sword, coin, and whip. By reference to near eastern traditions which were also in operation in Muslim North Africa - these can be recognized as allusions to: Orion - rod; Ursa minor - sword; Qut b. suhail [southern celestial pole] - pressed gold; and Pleiades -cup/whip. That pattern [E, N, S, W] for the Moorish quarters, informs us, in turn, that the deputy rulers symbolize the cardinal directions. They are arranged by reference to Orion which, in the near east, was known as ‘the Central One’ (al Jawzah) and was identified as the star of old Pharaonic Egypt. Though when we look up to the sky, the Pleiades appear to the right of Orion, but in those days it was a common practice to envisage the stars as looking down upon the earth and to reverse the east-west line when depicting the constellations and their relative positions. This put the Pleiades to the ‘west’ of Orion but more importantly, Arabs saw the westering of the Pleiades [after Orion had sunk under the earth] as meaning the time of increase for the Arabs.

As primary indicators for the quarters of direction, the four emblems may be understood, too, to refer to the quartering of the year by its seasons: Orion with its flourishing rod for spring; Ursa minor as the sword of the bitter north wind for winter; Qut b. Suhail [the Pole of the South] for summer and the Pleiades (westering) for autumn - the time of harvest. (That original pattern of geographic and temporal direction was sometimes altered, deliberately, by the Christian west, but the alteration affects only the hearts/Pleiades suit and we need not deal with it here.)

The four Moorish governors are not, however, ‘archetypal’ figures in the sense we use that term today; they are more like proverbial or ‘typical’ of their region and the communities they governed. The four governors are persons contemporary or nearly contemporary with the creation of the Atlas Catala, and Cresques’ giving all four emblems of the quarters to these four suggests that in these divisions are to be found tout le monde.

Cresques’ assignment of the emblems to his historical figures is perfectly appropriate to their implied ‘humours’ and the nature which medieval people believed was proper to each quarter of time and season. The King of Gold was a man of the dark or reddish complexion befitting a person of the far, sun-burned south and he was heavy with the weight of wealth also associated with that region:

The King [Naib] of Gold:

Of this figure, the associated short fragment of text says:

"This Black Lord is called Musa Mali, Lord of the Negroes of Guinea. So abundant is the gold which is found in his country that he is the richest and most noble king in all the land."

The passage is not supposed to be the sum total of all that is attached to this figure; it is intended as a memory-aid [mnemonic] cue. In those days it was usual for students and scholars to memorize their books word for word. Collections of verbal memory-prompts were called ‘florilegia’ [flower-gatherings] or miroirs or tresors. The ‘tresor,’ whose loss the Cathars lamented was more likely to have been the ‘key’ to their system of belief than money, which most disdained.

The mirroir, treasure, or florilegium was supposed to help one remember the larger work from which the fragments of text were taken. The fragment of text and the image, together, assisted in recall of written matter. In a way this is still how the cards are read.

From the text to which the inscription directs us, we learn about this ‘Muss Mali’. What follows is a commentary, however, not quotation from the medieval work itself.

A Generous Governor

The quarter of south from which Mansa of Mali emerged through the Atlas Mountains on his way to Mecca in 1324 had long been associated with wealth, death and evil. That reputation for the South had permeated the old Egyptian domain, that is, Egypt itself, northern Africa, much of the Levant and as far as the Black Sea. The hidden stars of the south were considered, in near eastern and classical tradition, to rule a barren underworld or the endless stretches of a heated, all- encompassing sea. Christianity had inherited something of the same idea, placing hell or purgatory to the south, in the realm of darkness..

According to the ancient authors, the southern boundary of the world was marked by Aethiopia which, in that scheme, stretched from Africa’s east coast to the far west, then known as Libya. Though Ptolemy thought better of the older geographies, he too set the edge of the world just beyond Ethiopia. As late as the fourteenth century a most learned Muslim called Ibn Khaldun continued to endorse the opinion of such classical writers. In his universal historical geography, the Muqaddimah he wrote:

"The philosophers concluded …that the region at the equator and beyond was empty…"

and, despite observation and continuous traditions to the contrary, he then adds…

This is so.. [because] the power of generation must to a large degree be destroyed because of excessive heat .. the element of water covers the face of the earth in the south, where the corresponding area in the North admits of generation.

The Lord of the South, for all his wealth [Pluto is often called ‘Plautus’: the wealthy in classical texts] is believed to rule over a realm in which no life can be sustained. However, during his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, Mansa Musa, by reason of his wealth, but more by his idealism, piety and open-handed generosity, had managed to overcome, single-handedly, the prejudice of millennia– at least in North Africa. (According to one historian, Mansa was reddish rather than black.)

On the world-map of the Atlas Catala, he holds no weapons but is given the gold token upheld in his right hand. Triple-point fleur de lys surmount his crown and his sceptre, which is held in his left hand. Both the trident form of the sceptre and its ‘lily’ ornamentation embodies a pun on the classical names for Sicily and its seat of Lilybaeum. For that reason, the crown and the sceptre had been adopted by the Norman kings and, through them, had become the royal insignia of France. For reasons which cannot be gone into here, the Normans were believed by Rome to have been closely associated with the ‘southerners’.

Emperor Frederick II of Sicily, called the ‘baptised Saracen,’ bears the fleur-de-lys crown and sceptre in a portrait-frontispiece that was made for his book on hunting birds, a textbook on the raptors which remains "one of the best bird-books ever written."

By providing Mans Muss with these well-known French royal insignia, Cresques was suggesting a parallel between the Sicilian court and the wealth and piety of Mansa Musa’s Islamic one. To a Christian, however-- and it must be remembered that not only the members of religious orders but the whole of Europe was considered (rightly or wrongly) part of Christendom--the combination of southern gold with that fleur-de-lys more particularly suggests the passage in Matthew’s Gospel where Christ enjoins his followers not to be anxious about wealth: ‘Consider the lilies of the field’ he said [Fr: fleur de lys] ‘they do not spin, neither do they toil, but Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."

The gold which Mansa holds on the map is true gold. He was staggeringly wealthy even by modern standards, for he ruled the southern gold-mines which had provided the Egyptian Pharaohs, Carthaginians and Romans with much of their supply. When Mansa passed through North Africa and Egypt, the spectacle of his pilgrimage-procession, led by fifty retainers bearing gold [not golden] staves, each 500 mithqals in weight, together with 3,000 pounds of gold distributed in a train of 80 or 100 camel loads, so impressed the Muslim world that Mansa Musa and his retinue were remembered for centuries. A decade later the value of gold was still depressed in Cairo. Mansa conformed well to the ideal of the eastern pilgrim-naib [‘governor’] dispensing religious benefit in combination with physical benefits. As a deputy-king, subject to the Caliph, he was not permitted to mint his own gold coins; the symbol is thus properly a nugget, or jetton (a trader’s token or calculating token) made of gold.

After its completion, the Atlas Catala was given to Don Juan of Catalonia otherwise known as al Cazador, ‘The Huntsman,’ and he in turn presented it to Charles V of France, in whose inventories it appears in 1379/80.

It is about this time that we first find mention in Europe of the ‘joc’ or a ‘gioco’ of the cartes. It is known in the important Italian papal seat of Viterbo as a gioco called ‘in the Saracenic regions – nayb’. That term, and the arrival of the gioco is recorded in the town chronicles for 1379.

Properly speaking, Mansa Musa, lord of Mali in Ghana was a king in his own right, but in Muslim thought he was a deputy-king by reason of his adherence to the Prophet, and thus to the Caliphate. Any appointed ruler or governor may be described by the term "na’ib."

Mansa Musa’s reputation passed to the west in folklore, geographical lessons and, one may suppose, by explanations of the cards’ imagery. Map-makers continued to represent him in this form, and to make him the symbol of the south for a hundred and fifty years after his death. His figure, still with the device of the unit of gold, and with similar inscriptions, appears on a fifteenth-century Majorcan planisphere and a Venetian seaman’s portolan of the following century.

Verbal gioci of sixteenth-century Italy continually play upon the ideas of ‘a-Maur’ ‘a-Moor’ and ‘Amor’ and the famous Dream of Dante within his Vitae Nuova already employed imagery of the south-pointing compass.

Any ‘regiment’ or ‘array of [memorized] points’ for South seems normally to have included allusion to the dark king’s palace. The building associated with Mansa Musa on the world-map is properly a mosque, the first brick building in his kingdom. It had been constructed for the king by an Andalusian poet called as-Sahedi whom Mansa met in the course of his pilgrimage. It is clear, however, from other evidence including later sets of cards, that in Europe the structure was generally regarded as the palace of the southern king. When a building is shown for the ‘south’ in the star-cards of the Atouts [Major Arcana] it is normally to be identified identified as the Southerner’s home.

It was the normal way, in the Mediterranean at this time, to associated the cardinal directions (symbolized by the four Kings) with their subsidiary winds, with the winds of the Mediterranean Rose, with the four humours and so on. The similar habit among readers of the cards is not inappropriate to the time when cards first appear in Europe.

In medieval works, history is usually tied to these matters of time, direction and season, so that a wind named for ‘Africus’ is linked with the character of the African, as well as with the region’s produce, its supposed innate character and so on. The very important difference between medieval ‘readings’ for such images as those on our cards was that they did not think about ‘Jungian’- style archetypes, but of individuals who were proverbially typical of a certain type of person e.g. rich as Croesus, wise as Nestor - and those individuals had specific histories contained in classical, Biblical, religious or other written texts. The figure of the King of Coins may represent idealism, wealth, generosity, the ability to dispel bigotry and so on, but only these things are written down as pertaining to that character. With any of the old card-packs: find your text – the one on which the cards were based – and you find your meaning for each card.

The vast majority of early hand-painted Atouts are based on astronomical texts employed in education during the late fourteenth or early fifteenth centuries.


I have chosen the most readable and wide-ranging works in preference to others which are more recent but perhaps less accessible.

History of playing-cards:

Dummett, Michael, The Game of Tarot: from Ferrara to Salt Lake City, London: Duckworth, 1980.

Valuable for its thorough and careful treatment, especially of the primary sources in late-fourteenth and early fifteenth-century Europe. I do not agree, however, with a number of conclusion contained in that work, though they are increasingly being adopted by later authors: viz. that the Atouts were invented in Italy; that the Atouts were added to a ‘plain’ four-suited deck which had come from the Muslim world; that no cards similar to Atouts could have been included among those delivered by Gringonneur to Charles V.  However, I believe that Sir Michael has since revised an opinion expressed in this work concerning the random choice of imagery for Atout sets.

Ways of seeing, measuring and dividing the regions of heaven and earth at different periods:

Taylor, E.G.R., The Haven-finding Art: a history of navigation from Odysseus to Captain Cook.

Atlas Catala see:

Mappamundi. The Catalan Atlas of the year 1375 edited and with commentary by George Grosjean. Dietkon-Zurich: Urs Graf: Abaris Books 1978

The editor puts great stress on the idea that Cresques, who produced the Atlas, had no qualifications other than than of book-illuminator. Cresques, however, says otherwise of himself – and so speaks the Atlas. Note, in addition to the world-map, the charts and diagrams which complement it, e.g. phases of the moon in relation to tides, the list of lunar mansions and their ‘geomantic’ notation and so on.

Connection of geography, moralia and the ‘encyclopaedic style’ in Dominican works see (e.g.):


in Taylor, Haven-finding Art and in

Seznec, Survival of the Pagan Gods.

Illustrations of moralised maps and -schema of the world are to be seen on the world wide web. Search e.g. ‘Opicinus’ or ‘T-O’ maps.

Common Mathematics of geography, cartography and astronomy see (e.g):

Smith, D.E., History of Mathematics (2 vols). Vol.1 pp.108ff. Reprint available in Dover publications.

Medieval north Africa and the southern gold:

Bovill, E.W., The Golden Trade of the Moors, London: OUP 1958.

Though slightly out-of date the book brings together material that is otherwise scattered. Bovill incidentally also includes the image of Mansa Musa from the Atlas Catala as his fronticepiece.

Continuing effects of Christendom’s rejection of southern ‘darkness’ see:

Bernal, Martin, Black Athena: the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization, London: Vintage, 1987.

Works on Tarot:

These are always a personal choice. I like:

*Krystina Arkati, Tarot for Beginners, London, Hodder & Stoughton (Headway), 1993.

for its simplicity and orthodox interpretations, as well as for its very accurate Minor Arcana figures [IJJ pack]. Compare, for example, its Queen of Coins with the ‘Queen of Sheba’ on the Atlas Catala.


*Rachel Pollack, The Haindl Tarot, North Holywood: Newcastle Publishing Inc., 1990. (2 vols.)

This two volume set is a very good example of late twentieth-century style in (i) the way the books are created for the card-deck and not vice versa; (ii) the way the set is centered upon the painter as auteur, (iii) the way commentary on the cards accepts the painter’s right to freely associated across all periods and cultures, regardless of historical contact and (iv) the way it assumes Jungian archetypes as the basis of imagery. For me, the quintessential modern book-and-deck.

Those interested in the pack’s purported Egyptian origins might find pleasure in:

Seznec, Jean, The Survival of the Pagan Gods: the mythological tradition and its place in renaissance humanism and art, Bollingen Series, XXXVIII, New York, Princeton University Press, 1953.

See especially in Index: ‘Picatrix’; ‘Peter of Abano’; ‘Hieroglyphica of Horapollo’.

The focus of Seznec’s work is firmly upon the classical tradition. While he gives a fair picture of fifteenth- to seventeenth-century European interest in Egyptian religion and its iconography, his own knowledge of such matter is scanty. The reader must determinedly overlook his remarks (for example) on the ‘barbarous’ nature of eastern stellar forms and gods, or his assumption that only the sixth century b.c.e., did intelligence descend into the world and then (like a gift of the paraclete) it settled exclusively upon speakers of Greek. His assumption that the Greeks invented myth is of course very wide of the mark. But he does point out that the Egyptian decanal stars are painted on the upper register of the walls of Il Salone, and the similarity of that fresco’s lower register to e.g,. figures in the Rosenwald tarot cards is worthy of note. Peter of Abano, a Dominican known as the ‘great Lombard’ is reputed to have provided the ideas and information for the fresco. [The Rosenwald cards are illustrated in Kaplan, Stuart R., The Encyclopaedia of Tarot, Stamford, US Games, 1978, Vol. 1 pp.130-131.]

NOTE: This is an edited version of a forthcoming article in The Playing Card: Journal of the International Playing-Card Society.

Article © 2001 Daana Mindon
Page © 2001 Diane Wilkes










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