Recently I was prepping to teach a tarot class at a corporate event for a large internet retailer here in northern California. I’d taught the same class for this company last year, so I decided to freshen up my presentation a bit.
When I’m teaching how to read tarot intuitively, I like to pick a particular card and discuss how it is depicted in different decks. As I was poking around the internet, looking for visual inspo, I came across the Sola-Busca deck. I have no idea how this historic gem has escaped my (compulsive) tarot deck hunt. It’s a truly beautiful and remarkable thing.
Printed in 1491, the Sola Busca is the earliest known 78-card tarot deck in which every card is illustrated — all the majors and all the minors.
The Weird & Wonderful 500-Year-Old Tarot Deck
Much of the Sola Busca deck is odd and cryptic — the illustrations are often dreamlike, and sometimes nightmarish. The Knight of Cups has wings on his back (rather than on his helmet and shoes as in the Rider-Waite deck). The Two of Wands seems oblivious to the fact that he is naked or that his genitals hang down to his mid thigh.
Pamela Colman Smith’s Inspiration?
There’s some speculation that the art heavily influenced Pamela Colman Smith’s work in my go-to deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot. In some cases, this is evident, in others not so much. The Three of Swords in both decks shows a very similar heart pierced by three swords at nearly identical angles.
In most cases, however, there was little resemblance between like cards in the two decks. The vibe or message might be the same between pairs, but the illustrations are usually quite different.
The Four of Pentacles: Comparison & Interpretation
As I searched through digital images of this ancient Italian deck, I fell in love with the richness, and yes the weirdness, of artwork. Of all the cards in the Sola Busca, the Four of Pentacles resonated with me the most, and so I decided to hold it up against its Rider Waite counterpart.
There are obvious differences and some subtle (but very relevant) similarities. The most immediately evident differences are that one is a woman, the other a man. One is naked, the other clothed. One is in the countryside, the other outside a city.
But, let’s talk about the similarities between these two cards. Pentacles are about wealth, stability, practicality, and material things – they are alternately called “coins” after all. Traditionally, keywords for the 4 of Pentacles include: possessiveness, control, and blocked change… I get that from the Rider Waite card, but not the Sola Busca. Personally, I often read this card as being about hoarding (material or emotional), withholding, greed, and being owned by our “stuff” – and that’s how I’m going to approach this comparison.
First, let’s look at the Sola Busca 4 of Pentacles. The woman is heavy (which I pretty much love, btw) but then again, many of the figures in this deck are. That said, I wouldn’t discount her size – it may be referring to indulgence, greed/gluttony, or a love of luxury. What interests me about this scene much, much more is that she is clearly burdened by her wealth. She is literally buckling under the weight of it. Notice how she’s resting her left hand on her hip — is that because her back aches or because she’s trying to balance the heavy vessel of treasure on her shoulder? Her legs are spread wide to steady herself and her face reflects the strain she is experiencing. You can almost imagine her limbs trembling, and sweat dripping from her brow. All this “stuff” is too much, yet she refuses to let go. And, if something better (or more valuable) comes along, she’s screwed. Nothing new can be received while she’s clinging to previously won “treasures.”
Next, let’s look at the Rider Waite 4 of Pentacles. Though he seems less physically pained by his wealth than his Sola Busca counterpart, his relationship with his wealth is clearly a problem. He is so owned by the coins that he’s incapacitated. He’s balancing one coin on his head, clutching another with both hands, and keeping the last two safe from theft or loss by trapping them under his feet. He literally cannot move because of his stuff — And, like the Sola Busca 4 of Penticles, he can’t receive anything else because he’s tied up with guarding what he already has.
Reading the Four of Pentacles
If I were reading this card for someone, my interpretation is probably going to have to do with being tied down by things (or people, or beliefs). Of course the meaning of any card is influenced by the querant’s question, the position and relationship to other cards in the spread. For example, if this were in the #2 position of a Celtic Cross spread (i.e. “What Crosses You”) it would indicate that the querant is holding on to something too stubbornly or greedily, that they are stuck and have closed themselves off to receiving anything else.
The Sola Busca is Getting a Reboot!
In my research on the Sola Busca, I learned that a new affordable printing is now available. The deluxe “museum-quality” kit includes the 78-card deck and a 144-page book in a box. I’ll be doing a review on the deck once I’ve had some time to interact with it. I’ve included an Amazon affiliate link below if you’d like to order a copy for yourself. Full disclosure: If you order from that link, I will receive a small affiliate commission.