Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

Jean Chaboseau: The Minor Arcana

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Translator’s Introduction

One of the authors cited previously in connection with the study of the Minor Arcana was Jean Chaboseau (1903-1978), son and successor of the French occultist Augustin Chaboseau (1868-1946), co-founder and head of the Martinist order. Chaboseau’s work on Tarot – Le Tarot : essai d’interprétation selon les principes de l’hermétisme – is noteworthy in a number of respects, but we shall here limit ourselves to those parts such as deal with the Minor Arcana.

The following text, like that of Van Rijnberk, was pieced together from the two chapters dealing with the Minor Arcana in his book, the second of which also contains a Buddhist exegesis of the Minor Arcana. Although this connection is unconvincing in the last analysis, it is far from being fanciful: Chaboseau Senior himself had penned a book on Buddhist philosophy (later illustrated by his son), and it would appear that both Chaboseau père et fils identified as Buddhists. This may well be the true reason, incidentally, for Jean Chaboseau’s departure from Martinism later in life, decrying its lack of true affiliation in a controversial letter which may be read here (in French). All things considered, despite the Chaboseaus’ criticism of the appropriation of Buddhist ideas by the Theosophists and associated movements, it must be said that their vision of Buddhism is still somewhat incomplete, if not unorthodox, although these considerations lie far beyond the scope of the present piece.

This book on the Tarot, published in 1946 and long out of print and difficult to find, includes reproductions of the cards of the entire deck on a higher grade of paper. A digital facsimile has recently been published. The deck itself was also published separately as Le Tarot Traditionnel in 1948, and further images may be seen here and here. One will note the resemblance of the Minors to those of the deck designed by Eudes Picard. Chaboseau’s other works include books dealing with mind training and thought control, as well as what is known in French as “voyance” – that is, the “sight.”

The Minor Arcana

Jean Chaboseau

The examination of the Minor Arcana has never been undertaken in any depth, and in general, authors attribute to them an exclusively divinatory meaning. I wish in no way to minimise this aspect, which I consider as being somewhat outside the scope of the present work, but it appears to me that the Tarot cannot be divided into two, that it forms a whole susceptible to a general interpretation, and that, since it is a Riddle, it must be deciphered as a whole and not truncated into two to consider only its head.

The correspondence of the four elements with the four suits: cups, staffs, swords, coins, is always given according to a certain norm, and it seems that on this subject, everyone merely copies his predecessor. Picard [1] is the only one to give a different analogy, and if he assigns air to cups, that is the only correspondence that is in accordance with the other authors; he has fire correspond to the staffs, water to the swords, and the earth to the coins. Nonetheless, the tradition, or at the very least, the custom, has it that the staffs are a sign of earth, the swords a sign of fire, the cups a sign of air, and the coins a sign of water. The concordance between the elements and the suits of the Minor Arcana is justified in most of the books by these considerations: the active principle symbolised by the staff is the earth, and the passive principle, air, is represented by the cup. The union of these two principles gives birth to fire, whose symbol is the swords, and the product of this union, water, is depicted by the coin. If, in this process, we were to begin with the primordial Ether, we would obtain a first differentiation symbolised by air, a differentiation which polarises into an active element, fire, and a passive element, water, whereas the action of this element on the passive element gives birth to the earth. The correspondences differ thus according to the points of view, but the second consideration is interesting insofar as it is, if I may be permitted the term, “archeometric.”

Yet if we reflect on the hermetic knowledge, we will be authorised to interpret the relationship between the symbolism of the Minor Arcana and the four elements differently. In the hermetic language, the emanation of the Ain Soph, the Archetype, the origin of the three other elements is Fire. From this primordial element the gaseous states are engendered, the air element, whence emanates all liquid substance, but also all movement, according to the assimilation of water to the fusible waters of Plato. Finally, the generic expression of all solid matter appears, earth. Lucretius [2] expresses this idea thusly:

“[The changeful elements this sect requires
Are all derive’d from heaven and from heav’n’s fires:]
First, airy Blasts are products of their heat;
Next, falling Rain the airy Blasts beget;
And Earth is fashion’d of the falling Rain;
Then all from Earth trace back their course again:
Water, and Air and Fire are duly found
To interchange in one successive round;
From Heav’n to Earth, from Earth to Heav’n they go
Up to those Stars which light the World below.”

This great Hermetic law adapts itself to the Minor Arcana, symbolic depictions of the four elements, and we shall see a striking example in the depiction of the Hindu Goddess Adda-Nari [3]. Symbol of nature, she is depicted with four arms, each arm wielding the attribute of one of the four elements: the earth, a flowering branch with three chevrons, it is the staff of the Tarot and the club of the ordinary playing cards as Marc Haven has shown; water is represented by a vase; air is represented by a ring, which clumsy copyists have made into a disc, which later became a coin; fire is a sword, in conformity with the universal symbolism. These four elements are arranged in a circle around the goddess, a circle which begins with fire, and ends at earth. I shall not deal with the symbolism of this goddess here, referring the reader to the works of Ernest Bosc, Éliphas Lévi, and to Desbarolles, who have all given the same interpretation of this figure. And if it is objected that the attribution of air to the cup is the one that conforms most to the usual depiction and which must be followed, I will recall that the cup is an allusion to the Grail, and that the attribution of the water element, symbolised by the Angel to this depiction, perfectly expresses this idea, if we consider that the contents of the Grail is the blood of Christ, and that it is an Angel who snatches the lid to carry it off to heaven…

Image from La Science Pittoresque, n° 21, 24 May 1866.

* * *

I shall limit myself to these preliminary considerations, hoping to have sufficiently demonstrated the validity of a hermetic interpretation, but am under no illusions that it is possible to find an infinity of different interpretations for the Tarot. The one under consideration here has at least the merit of having been but very little studied, even though it is undoubtedly the one which presided over the elaboration of the symbolism manifested by the hieroglyphics in question.

We shall find the development of these general ideas in the study of each arcana, studies in which I have striven to show certain particular aspects in relation with hermetic symbolism.

* * *

The Minor Arcana

The Major Arcana thus represent the domain of the principles, the causes, and we shall see that the Minor Arcana rule the effects. How could it be otherwise, since, regardless of the mode of classification under consideration, the group of the Major Arcana forms a complete whole?
What is the connection, or the link, between the causes and the effects, between the Major and the Minor Arcana? No card from the former seem to indicate a development of the 56 others, and it has been maintained that the latter are perhaps from a later date. Nonetheless, the costumes of the characters in the entire deck are visibly from the same period, and that if the antiquity of the Majors were proven, one would have to conclude that, during the creation of the Minors, the Majors were also recopied – but from which originals? – on the same occasion. At this undetermined time, there would therefore have been the necessity to formulate in analogous hieroglyphs a suit, a development, of the ideas manifested by the 22 initial cards. Towards what goal and to what end? This question is like that of the very origin of the Tarot, of which we can only affirm that it was transmitted by the Gypsies, who have always used it as they still do, as a money-spinner, and without occupying themselves with arguments of origins.
Let us thus do as they do, and look at the set such as it has been transmitted down to us, without forgetting that it is a Message we have to decipher: let us therefore keep its traditional separation into two chapters.

The link between the first and the second chapter of this book, if we consider the four groups of fourteen cards of the Minors, must be the Juggler: effectively, in front of him are arranged the symbols of the three elements, while he holds the fourth in his hand. These fundamental elements are represented by symbols usual in hermeticism, we find the proof of this in many treatises by the Adepts. It is necessary to apply this division of the Minor Arcana, already grouped into four suits, if we wish to understand the hidden sense of the set. This classification imposes itself, by the way, as soon as one is used to seeing the sword correspond to the element of Fire. The three other elements will each refer to another symbol, according to the figure of Adda-Nari, and the diverse considerations already mentioned. What gesture does the Mage make? He raises his wand because he is about to effect a material and also spiritual operation, a genuine “operation” like those which the Adepts proposed as “daily work.” This action, which will concretise itself, is indeed the sense attributed to the staffs, sign of Earth. By this gesture, and by the words he will pronounce (always this importance of the “sound”), the abstract will become Concrete, the idea will take form, the fact will appear. In this sense, we see that the Juggler is in his place, almost at the head of the deck.
This operation is effected by means of the three elements Fire, Air, Water, a generative factor, a receptive factor, and the result of this union, their incarnation. How will these considerations adapt themselves to the Minor Arcana?

Each of the four families of fourteen cards is divided into two parts; in the first, we find four figures, King, Queen, Knight and Valet, and the second succinctly enumerates ten staffs, ten coins, ten cups, and ten swords, according to the suit under consideration. We are thus in the presence of the Quaternary united to the Denary, and the hermetic symbolism, by the appropriate definitions of these two numbers, proposes the same separation between the figures and the objects of each suit as that between the Majors and the Minors: the quaternary of the figures thus corresponds to the elements composing the domain of the Principles, the Denary to the modalities of application of those Principles in the world of facts.
The number 4 is, if we are to believe the best authors, the number of the Earth, and the Quaternary has as its graphic representation a cross drawn within a circle, dividing it into four equal parts; it is enough to turn the cross in the centre of the circumference to obtain the symbol of the Denary: and this is thus how we say that the Quaternary engenders the Denary. Applying this principle, we consider that the existence of terrestrial being goes from pure intellect to descend into matter.
Taking up the idea of the Message, we could say that its profound meaning is the study and perception by introspection (descent-ascent within the Self) of the Sage, until the identification with the Principle: this is the search for Unity proper, but this can only be effected after knowledge of the constitutive elements of the being, according to apposite expression of Frithjof Schuon, it is the “integration of the psychic elements in the process of identification with the Principle.”
This knowledge of the constitutive elements of the “ascent,” the hermetic hieroglyphs of the Tarot will schematise for us:
The first principle, masculine and generative, the ardent and vital Sulphur, the “Principle and the seed of the metals,” corresponds to Fire, to the set of Swords, and in each suit, to the King.
The second, feminine and receptive, the humid Mercury, the “Matrix of the Metals,” corresponds to Water, to the set of Cups, and to the four Queens.
The third, incarnation of the first two, equilibrium and result of the union of the preceding, the “Mercury of the Sages,” matter of metallic generation, corresponds to Air, to the set of Coins, and to the Valets of the four suits.
The fourth, finally, rigid and compact, the form of this matter and its development according to the primordial laws, corresponds to Earth, to the set of Staffs, and to the Knight of each of the four suits.
In another sense, this definition corresponds to the Being, the first principle of Manifestation, to the Universal Spirit, to the universal Soul, and to the primordial Hyle.

In possession of this knowledge, and being able to make use of these elements, the Philosopher has before him a path with ten successive stages, which may be ten degrees to victoriously overcome, or ten phases to go through, in which he will free himself of individual obstacles.
This ladder of Renunciation, which adapts itself perfectly to the hermetic interpretation of the Minor Arcana, is not without analogy to the Ten Fetters of Buddhism [samyojana], from which one must divest oneself in order to attain the Enlightenment of the Perfect One. This analogy is also to be found in the Ten Heavens found in the Poimandres, and will form the basis of the following argument.
The development of the ten Minor Arcana, considered as a whole, interpreted in terms of this idea of a return to the Principle and to Unity, will thus present itself as follows:

10. Union of beings. Attraction of magnetisms. The World in its entirety, from which the principles and the metals must be extracted. The two opposed and equal Pentagrams, symbolising the chaos which must be put into order, for it contains all possibilities.

9. Individual creation, knowledge of the content of Matter, the Pentagram, intellectual sign above the Square. The four elements recognised in matter by reflection and concentration. The number 9 is the number of matter and the number of evil par excellence, whence the fundamental oppositions encountered from the beginning of the work undertaken.

8. The equilibrium of opposites by the unions of polarity. The neutralisation of oppositions regardless of the point of view under consideration: temporary immobility of the initial action, by stagnation and calm of the resistances.

7. Repartition after the trial of the Weights. The harmony of the mineral and organic forms. The action develops according to its normal process: the four elements and the three principles are known, ordered and classified.

6. The slow and painstaking work of the classification of the principles by progressive series which, combining between each other, pass through metamorphoses and mutations, which are the effects of initiative and of harmony. The two triangles, opposed in appearance only, must be reunited to form the perfect Hexagram. This is another aspect of the struggle between contrary influences.

5. Human intelligence is, or will be, the artisan of triumph, the Pentagram has taken the place of the Hexagram – the symbol of the Star of the Magi or of Revelation, replaces the Seal of Solomon of the Old Covenant, whose activities become obsolete.

4. Will and individual strength given to the artisan by Revelation and the Manifestation of the Vital Principle, impose the domination of man onto matter. It is the cubic Stone on which the victor sits as conqueror.

3. The radical transformation which results from this domination. Only the knowledge of the three principles and their action on all levels remains. The Spirit stays afloat atop the Waters.

2. The antagonism of the individualities in the very composition of the result of the Work: the action of the Binary, but also the partial result since it is under a double appearance. It is the birth of the Androgyne, but they are also the two Magisteria – the Magisterium of the Sun, and the Universal Medicine.

Ace. The goal is attained, all commentary is superfluous. It is the return to unity, the Stone obtained. The transmutation is accomplished, the triumph is total and definitive.

This progressive ascent, alluded to earlier, this “re-ascending” of the individual, going from the Me to reach the Eternal Self, we have seen, is not without relation to the Buddhist Ten Fetters, or to the Heavens successively attained throughout the process of stripping away which the Adept of Hermeticism undergoes, understood as a method of transcendental development.

Let us attempt this analogy, to conclude this study:
After the exact perception of the principles which constitute his very individuality – principles represented by the four suits, or rather, more precisely, by the four groups of the four figures;

10. The Sage renounces the illusion of the existence of an immortal individuality, in the chaotic midst of the world, in the Ocean of Samsara;

9. He renounces Evil, because he has reached beyond the very notions of Good and Evil, and because he doubts that morality is the Path to Deliverance;

8. He renounces desires, by the notion of serene equilibrium between the oppositions of the passions. In the same way, he abandons the belief in the use of Prayers, Rites and Ceremonies, these having only for principal effect this neutralisation;

7. He renounces the thirst for command, because he knows the impossibility of satisfying it where he is. Even the domination of the principles over the elements becomes useless, all being empty and illusory;

6. He renounces the combat of equal forces and which are opposed only in appearance, since these very forces are they themselves but illusions woven around a central point, itself symbol of the universal vacuity;

5. He renounces the attachment to riches, and the attachment to existence itself;

4. He renounces the lie of the domination over matter, that is, the wish of a future existence, of some rebirth or other;

3. Stripped of all that constituted what he thought to be “Him,” radically transformed, only knowledge in understanding abides within him: he then thrones in the Domain called “the Fixed Heavens”;

2. In which he perceives the harmony of the spheres, the song of the supra-celestial Powers, a harmony and song produced by the manifestation of the only two forces of which he may yet perceive the action in this region of pure abstraction;

1. Then, the Sage reaches the knowledge through participation. He is in the very centre, where no movement might be produced, where no forces act, since they have all been overcome, they themselves being but illusions.

This centre of the Being is, in proper terms, the goal of all traditional knowledge, let us say it, of all Initiation.
Thus, Hermeticism goes beyond the domain of exoteric Western religions, these proposing nothing beyond the individual world, since, as we have already remarked, they pose as intangible principle the real existence of the Manifest and the Forms. Hermeticism allows the Adept to reach the perception of the Non-manifested, and there is only to cross the ultimate stage, which no hieroglyph could represent, a stage which is total Deliverance, the unconditioned state itself, for which no mode of verbal manifestation is suited, insofar as it is the supreme Identity itself.

* * *


1. Eudes Picard, Manuel synthétique et pratique du Tarot, Daragon, 1909.

2. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, translation taken from the 1799 translation, available here. – Translator

3. Against this identification, in a review of Chaboseau’s book, René Guénon argues that “it would be good to stop using the figure of Adda-Nari (that is, Ardha-Nari, androgynous figure of Shiva and of Parvati), which has no relation to the Tarot, except in the bizarre parody Éliphas Lévi has subjected it to.” Van Rijnberk states that while credit must given to Lévi for discovering this image, this interpretation, “as intuitive as it is, is fanciful and inaccurate. … One would need to exert the imagination excessively in order to find the symbols of the Tarot in the attributes of Ardhanari.” – Translator
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