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Patrice Boussel: On the Tarot of Marseilles

Translator’s Introduction

Paul Marteau‘s seminal work on the Tarot of Marseilles received widespread praise and a number of positive book reviews, some of which have been presented on this site. They show not only the ‘reach’ which Marteau and his publisher may have had, but above all, the interest which the Tarot aroused, and this from all angles. Effectively, the book was reviewed by art critics, playing card historians, literary figures and critics of all stripes rather than by occultists and fortune-tellers. One extensive, insightful and engaging review, by a critic well-qualified to do so, provides an in-depth view of the reception of this important work, and raises a number of important points in so doing.

The author, Patrice Boussel (1916-1985), was a senior librarian and a specialist on the history of medicine. Boussel was a prolific author, writing with wit and erudition on a great range of subjects; his illustrated histories of medicine, surgery and pharmacy “are considered classics and their rich iconography is often a revelation that bears witness to his curiosity and his artistic sensibility.”

Boussel further wrote works on all manner of subjects, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Beaumarchais, the cult of relics, eroticism and gallantry in the 19th century, and guides to the battlefields of France and to the D-Day landing beaches of WWII. Closer to our subject matter, Boussel also penned a series of guides to the local legends and secret histories of a number of regions of France; Burgundy, Brittany, Normandy, are all examined in this perspective; and closer still, Boussel wrote a guide to the fortune-tellers of Paris. Finally, in 1963 Boussel published a Manuel de Superstition, to which we shall have occasion to return.

These numerous and varied publications express the man’s cultured background and wide learning; having graduated in both philosophy and law, Boussel became interested in mathematics and geology, and after marrying a pharmacist, became interested in the medical sciences. He later became the curator of the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris. A fuller biography of the man may be read here (in French).

Æsculape (pub. 1911-1974), the journal in which this article was published, was a monthly illustrated journal “on literature and the arts in their relations with the sciences and medicine,” founded by Benjamin Bord and later edited by Jean Avalon. The journal, although ostensibly aimed at the medical practitioner (“and his wife and his patients…”), had a much wider readership on account of the variety of its topics, its readability and the wealth of illustrations it contained. The iconographic collection built up by Avalon was highly considered, and the journal quickly became the official journal of the International Society for the History of Medicine. Out of print since 1974, copies have become sought-after items by amateurs of the weird and wonderful.

Æsculape, n° 1, 1950.

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On the Tarot of Marseilles

Patrice Boussel

Georges Courteline, in a masterpiece, Boubouroche, Marcel Pagnol, in another masterpiece, Marius, brought to life men possessed by the demon of cards, and because they were writing comedies, they were able, without concession, without abstract discourses, to show just how serious a thing the game of manille is. They raised laughs, they raise laughs, and they shall raise laughs at their characters, for these fellows are real, reasonable, and tragic, if you like, and yet they do not know it; for they naturally engage in one of the most natural and important acts of man, they gamble. Gambling is a serious matter, much like marriage or death, which explains the involuntary but definitely comical aspect of a gambler, of a cuckold, or of an undertaker.

Reading a medical treatise, a marriage contract, a manual of contract bridge, on the contrary, only very rarely engenders hilarity. The frivolousness of their authors saddens us rather: not only do they take themselves seriously but they wish to be taken as such… and they manage to do so. The reader, forgetful of his human condition, fretfully wonders about the consequences of a bad dose of tuberculosis, of the marital community property regime, or a four no-trump bid, as though, master of his destiny, he considered himself immortal, happy in his domestic life, and unbeatable at cards. He no longer has any desire at all whatsoever to laugh.

The Moon, from the set of so-called Charles VI Tarot cards. This card, as well as the following ones, belong to a series of seventeen conserved in the Cabinet des Estampes of the Bibliothèque Nationale. These cards were, it is thought, executed in 1392 by an artist from the rue de la Verrerie in Paris, Jacques Gringonneur. These figurines are obviously from the 14th century, but nothing proves that they were part of the games created for the mad king and which the head of finances mentions in his accounts. The two astrologers we see here were replaced by two baying hounds in the later decks of the 15th century.

The book which Mr Paul Marteau has just published with Arts et Métiers Graphiques, on the Tarot of Marseilles, is not a joyful book, but it is a handsome book, and even a good book for many reasons, not all of which are those given by Mr Jean Paulhan in the preface he has provided, nor Eugène Caslant in his preliminary exposé.

Le Tarot de Marseille may be considered as being a promotional work, since the cards, published in 1761 by Nicolas Conver, master cardmaker in Marseilles, are currently being republished by B. P. Grimaud, and that “Paul Marteau, master cardmaker of France, is one of the directors of the Grimaud firm, globally renowned for its manufacture of playing cards.”

Le Tarot de Marseille is not a work of erudition, a “scientific” work, since it includes no bibliography, and we find almost none of those footnotes, respected by readers to the point of not reading them.

Le Tarot de Marseille is not a history book. The author says nothing of the origin of the cards, nor of the various hypotheses which have been proposed, he even says nothing of the historical position of this Marseilles Tarot.

Le Tarot de Marseille is not the work of an astrologer, for if the author uses the houses for the astrological spread, which is classic, he makes no allusion to the planetary influences, which could be deemed essential.

Finally, Le Tarot de Marseille is not a treatise of arithmosophy, to employ the term coined by Dr Allendy, author of the Symbolisme des Nombres. Mr Paul Marteau’s symbolism seems to be fairly summary: he opposes the Material to the Spiritual, instinct to religious sentiment, activity to passivity…

For all of this, may Mr Paul Marteau be praised.

The Hanged Man, from the so-called Charles VI deck. The Tarot deck is composed of 78 cards: 22 trumps, of which 21 are numbered, and four suits, consisting each of 14 cards. The names of the suits are: sword, cup, staff, and coin. Each suit has a king, a queen, a horseman, a valet, and ten cards numbered from 1 to 10. Of the 22 trumps, one is unnumbered: it is the fool, called Le Mat. The others are numbered from 1 to 21. The first five: the Juggler, the Popess, the Empress, the Emperor, and the Pope, constitute the lesser trumps. The last five, called the greater trumps, are the Star, the Moon, the Sun, the Judgment, and the World. The Hanged Man shown here is the twelfth card of the pack.

In his preface, Mr Jean Paulhan deals with occult matters and writes:

“The least that can be said of the specialists of occultism is that they also go awry, even more quickly than their sciences. I dare not even think of those who wind up in misery, or vile disease: neither Court de Gébelin, nor Éliphas Lévi – nor the Gypsies either, whose mysterious function, it would appear, was to spread the Tarot throughout the world, derived any profit from the riches they kindly promise us. There is worse, and the occultists best-known to us – those of the Enlightenment: Saint Germain, Cagliostro, Mesmer, Casanova, Etteilla a little later – end up in general by living at the expense of naïve elderly ladies seeking immortality. In brief, as happens one day, sooner or later, for the famous mediums, they cheat. When they do not adopt the trade that resembles most that of soothsayer: secret agents, informers; or else spies, turning for the benefit of the State which pays them the trenches they have dug out of the laudable concern of finding hidden treasure.”

The author of Le Tarot de Marseille must not “go awry.” He knows the existence of occult matters, but he wields them with prudence, and above all, with health. The superficial critic could say:

— But it’s a manual – a luxurious one – for beginning cartomancers!

No doubt seasoned professionals already have their own personal keys and have no need for the interpretation proposed by Mr Paul Marteau. This would bother them rather, for they might notice contradictions with what they hold to be true, which would inevitably sow some doubt in their souls, particularly avid for certainty.

The historians – equally professional – will consider this book with neither bibliography nor soothing references useful only for its beautiful reproductions of ancient images. They will not say that they are beautiful, but that they are precise, for beauty can be but foreign or unwelcome for the true historian. They will praise Mr Paul Marteau the technician, “the great master cardmaker of France,” and will only blame him for having had these ideas, and above all – o scandal! – for having presented them without any scientific apparatus.

Death, from the so-called Charles VI deck. Death is the thirteenth card of the pack. If they still play “tarot” in Burgundy and in Franche-Comté, the cards of the deck serve especially for the prediction of the future. The explanation of the “arcana” is, in essence, the aim of cartomancy. The interpretation of the combinations which they may present, of the influence exerted on this interpretation by the neighbouring minor cards, is a more complex matter than the summary explanations given by certain professionals would have one believe. The “science” of the Tarot demands knowledge of the kabbalah, of astrology, and of hermetic philosophy.

The author has “striven to show the reader that nothing in this Tarot has been placed at random, that the drawings have been conceived in such a way as to give significance to the slightest details, that the colours are always suited to the presiding idea of each card, and that the entire set reveals a transcendental philosophy.”

To explain the existence of soothsayers, of somnambulists, of fortune-tellers, one must accept that there exists, within every man, something secret, which guards itself and which refuses to be drawn out. The coffee grounds, the crystal ball… and in a more detailed and more precise fashion, the Tarot, enable one to evoke this something by stimulating the psyche of the seer, or of the cartomancer. No doubt the interpretation will always depend on this psyche, regardless of the instrument employed, but if we accept as much, how could we not accept that the perfection of the instrument may facilitate this interpretation? Now, the Tarot seems to be, and by far, the best of the lot.

3 of the major arcana plus the Mate, of the Tarot of Marseilles (Grimaud edition). The 22 arcana, of which the first, the Mate, is unnumbered, date back, according to the occultists, to the 22 major arcana of priestly magic.

“The Tarot is a universal vibrating instrument and becomes a source of energy by the fluidic projection of our thought.”

The Tarot provides “the symbolic keys of the universal laws which preside over the destinies of man.” Believe it – or not, the essential is that men would have thought in this way, and they would have summarised their philosophy in a collection of 78 images.

Court de Gébelin began his study on the Tarot pack with this striking phrase:

“If one were to announce that there still exists a work of the ancient Egyptians, one of their books that escaped the flames that devoured their superb libraries, and which contains their purest doctrine on interesting subjects, everyone would undoubtedly hasten to become acquainted with such an extraordinary book.”

Rather than making a general, and necessarily superficial, study of all the Tarot decks, Mr Paul Marteau has preferred to take as his subject the one he considers as being the best. From these 78 images, he has derived a philosophy, he has shed light on what one may imagine, by means of the Tarot of Marseilles, “of the universal laws which preside over the destinies of men,” he has therefore accomplished the task which he had set himself, and it must be admitted that those who would think otherwise would be bad jokers.

4 of the major arcana of the Tarot of Marseilles (Grimaud edition). The last trump, the World, marked with the highest number, takes all the others. These tarot cards are the faithful reproduction of a deck printed in Lyons in the 18th century.

“It would be imprudent to treat it as a handbook of physics or of geometry,” says Mr Jean Paulhan. “On the contrary. It must not be learned by heart. Nor shown – despite being, in my mind, very accurate and very beautiful – to all one’s friends. It must be read, of course, but to be immediately forgotten, and later read once more (without ever being reread). In brief, to relegate it to that secret part of ourselves, to which the Tarot as a whole is but a constant allusion.”

Le Tarot de Marseille presents itself as “a sort of dictionary, or even an encyclopaedia,” it is as serious as a book on law, a dictionary of philosophy, or a treatise on the game of chess might be, but it is by no means boring; the simplicity, the naïvety of the the engravings is moving, and moreover, the subject of the book – functionality and user’s guide to an instrument to know the unknowable – is entirely alive. To believe that we are about to know what we believe – at the same time – we cannot know, is that not human, “too human,” just as surely as considering oneself to be in love, cuckolded, or mortal?

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Follow the links for further details on: Marcel Pagnol; Marius; Georges Courteline; Boubouroche, Dr René Allendy; Le Symbolisme des Nombres.


Images of the “Charles VI” Tarot and Grimaud Ancien Tarot de Marseille courtesy of the BNF.
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Book Reviews: Le Tarot de Marseille by Paul Marteau

Translator’s Introduction

Continuing in our series of reviews of Paul Marteau’s seminal work on the Tarot of Marseilles, we present two further instalments, the first, from the journal of the Vieux Papier, an association still in existence, and which aims to study daily life through written and printed documents and iconography, including, incidentally, Tarot cards. It will come as no surprise, then, to discover that the historian Thierry Depaulis, whose works have often been mentioned in these pages, is the current president of the association. Indeed, Paul Marteau himself published a couple of articles in this journal in the 1930s.

This review, presumably by René Thiebaut, appeared on page 118 of the January 1951 issue of the Bulletin de la Société archéologique, historique & artistique le Vieux papier, tome 20, fascicle 154, and the original may be read here. Our few additions are within square brackets.

The second, from the Mercure de France, by the unknown collaborator who signed his [?] articles ‘S. P.’, was published on 1 October, 1949, and may be found on the Retronews website.

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Book Reviews: Le Tarot de Marseille, by Mr Paul Marteau

Mr Marteau has, for a long time, taken pleasure in collecting beautiful modern works, both for the harmony of the texts and the variety of illustrations, but he remains deeply attached to his profession and, if we were to ask him to choose between bibliophile and cardmaker for his business card, we can be assured that he would choose the second title.

His uncle, Mr Georges Marteau, formerly a member of our society, has left to the Cabinet des Estampes [of the BNF] his very beautiful collection of playing cards, which Mr [Jean] Adhémar showed to us in the Reserve.

He himself had begun another collection, and his ambition, he told us one day, would be to see in France the creation of a museum of playing cards, like in Altenburg [the Castle and Playing Card Museum]. In his office, everything is devoted to the glory of the cardmaker: books, regulations, images, decks from every country and from every era, curios, popular objects depicting figures. That is an appropriate ambience for the writing of this learned and beautiful work on the Tarot of Marseille, completed after 20 years of research and study.

Published by Arts et Métiers Graphiques, whose very handsome and unfortunately discontinued journal has not been forgotten, this 300-page volume is enriched with 78 colour reproductions of the cards explained in detail. Each one is provided with a definition of the symbolism, the colours, the character, the attributes, the number, etc. … A preface by Jean Paulhan, an exposé by Caslant summarise, for the general reader, the elements which enable one to guide oneself through so many diverse sciences. Then, Mr Marteau analyses each figure, with great sagacity: first, the number, then the general significance, the abstract significance, the analogical particularities, the orientation of the figures, the practical significances on the mental, animic [psychic] and physical planes.

We humbly admit that our lack of knowledge does not allow us to describe this learned work as would be fitting, but those colleagues more advanced in symbolism will appreciate, we are certain, its solidity and clarity.

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Le Tarot de Marseille, by Paul Marteau, preface by Jean Paulhan, introduction by Eugène Caslant; 19 x 27.5 cm; 300 pp.; colour reproduction of the 78 arcana; 2,900 copies; 2,500 francs. (Arts et Métiers Graphiques).

A very curious work, and a very handsome book. The preface is Paulhan at his finest, and goes far. The introduction and the text explain the use of the Tarot, and expand on its symbolism. It is an essay, and it is a treatise. A curiosity? Without doubt, but one of those “curiosities” that have both significance and reach.

—  S. P.

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Charles Estienne: Assessment of a Year of Painting: Book Review: Paul Marteau: Le Tarot de Marseille

Translator’s Introduction

Paul Marteau (1885–1966), heir and director of the Grimaud card manufacturing company, is best known for the deck of Tarot cards he produced in 1930, and the accompanying book he published in 1949. This deck, still in production, is the most widespread and best-known of the Tarot de Marseille type decks. Leaving aside the purely commercial aspect, the extent of his influence on the world of Tarot is as yet still little understood, through lack of research; if not badly understood or even misrepresented at times.

In an attempt to correct the record, and provide further indications in English, we have published a number of reviews of his work, and the perceptive reader will have noted the variety of horizons from which the reviewers hail; occultists, card historians, art critics, writers, poets; the influence of his work extended far beyond the confines of the insular worlds of cartomancy or card specialists, but instead brought the Tarot out into the open, as a cultural object in its own right.

Continuing in the series of book reviews, we present this piece by the noted art critic Charles Estienne (1908-1966). An important and influential critic and writer, Estienne was one of the main promoters of abstract and figurative art in the post-war period, and the author of numerous books on the subject. Close to André Breton for a time, it is therefore no surprise that he turned his attention to the Tarot, and especially, to the novel idea expressed by both Paul Marteau and Jean Paulhan, namely, that the Tarot be approached as an optical language in its own right, and conversely, applying the tarological exegesis to figurative art.

On that subject, it is not uninteresting to note the illustration by the artist Auguste Herbin which accompanied Estienne’s piece, which we have been unable to find, but which we have exchanged for a suitable replacement. The sculptor Jacques Villeglé later remarked that: “Charles Estienne had judiciously illustrated his article on the release of another book, this time dedicated to the Tarot of Marseilles and prefaced by Paulhan, by an Herbin, which, just like an arcana, was composed of simple forms with flat tones, o how resplendent!” (Jacques Villeglé, Cheminements, 1943-1959, 1999, p. 35.)

The following piece was originally published as “L’Art n’est-il qu’un jeu ? Bilan d’une année de peinture (1)” in the journal Combat, 14 September, 1949. It was followed by a second piece on recent exhibitions a week later, further expanding on the author’s views of expressionism and realism in art, but without reference to either the Tarot or to Marteau’s book. The original may be read on the French news archive here.

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Assessment of a Year of Painting

Book Review: Paul Marteau: Le Tarot de Marseille

Charles Estienne

A curious painting by Herbin. (This is not the exact artwork as reproduced in the original article, which we have been unable to find.Trans.)

Is Art But A Game? – An Assessment of One Year of Painting (1)

Before submitting “my” list of the chief exhibitions of the last season to my readers, I would like to tell a little story that may somehow contribute to articulate its meaning.

Over the course of a conversation on abstract art with the “figurative” artist [Maurice] Bianchon and his wife Marguerite Louppe, also an artist, Léon Degand recalled his reply to [Léon] Gischia during a similar discussion:

“No one, said Gischia, would have had the idea of changing the rules of the game of whist. The same goes for painting…”

— “Well, replied Degand, but what if I wish to play bridge?”

On the moment, Marguerite Louppe could only declare herself in favour of the artist’s “freedom of the game”. But the next day, she declared: “I was thinking that we were not talking about the same thing: because you are no longer playing cards, you are reading them, you abstract types…”

The “Tarot of Marseille”

That this little anecdote might go much further then its superficial sense was confirmed to me recently as I leafed through the very curious work dedicated to the Tarot of Marseille published by Arts et Métiers Graphiques, and enriched, as they used to say, with a malicious and profound preface by Jean Paulhan, an exposé by Eugène Caslant (of the École Polytéchnique, as the publisher notes), and finally with the 78 cards of the Tarot pack, reproduced in colour, the main text being by Paul Marteau, director of the Grimaud firm, specialised, as we know, in the manufacture of playing cards.

Now the “Tarot” is also a pack of cards, but of a particular type, since the figures and the suits which it consists of have a precise symbolic significance, and that the “combinations” which its cards may give rise to are supposed to “express the flowing and varying play of the universal forces.” This is why, continues Eugène Caslant, the one who handled these cards considered that their shuffling, if it were done in affinity with the mental and passional prospection of the querent, could discern the cosmic law at work, and reveal, to a certain extent, fate.


Of course, I am not ignoring the fact that broaching the grave and hackneyed subject of the “fate of art” will have me labelled an obscurantist. And yet, close to a very ancient popular practice, the Tarot, of which our current decks of cards are but the degenerate descendants — and without danger, since we no longer play at “fate” — it has been difficult not to make some very simple observations by way of hypotheses or indications…

1. That abstract art presently finds itself reproached for being flat, technically speaking, as playing cards were. The reproach was already classic, in their day, with respect to Manet, Gauguin, those ancestors of abstraction. But an Herbin today, the flat forms and shades he employs, do they not correspond, to his mind, to an alphabet, that is, to a precise symbolism? And is this symbolism not fairly close, in the end, to that of the Tarot, and which gives that strangeness and mystery to some Herbin pieces, for example, the one exhibited recently at the [Salon des] Réalités Nouvelles?

Second observation: Does current figurative art not increasingly appear to you as a “game without danger”, where the rule is to stop at the appearances of the world to avoid burning oneself by seeking what is behind it?

The Secret of the World

It is therefore not absolutely absurd to reproach the so-called abstract painters of violating, to a certain degree, the “rule” of a certain pictorial tradition, for in fact, they are no longer playing at only reproducing appearances; and this in order to “participate in the secrets of the world, — short of understanding them,” as Paulhan remarks. They do not reason by identities, but proceed by analogies: which is the very principle of the Tarot (and of poetry…).

And, still following the same comparison, a non-figurative composition of forms and of colours, if painted by an authentic artist, one in deep “affinity” with his “mental and passional projection,” this “combination” is in greater accord with the “cosmic laws”, and reveals more of the presence of Nature than the repetition or the imitation of forms outside it. In this way, new art, probably unwittingly, reconnects with an even more ancient tradition than that of the Renaissance, and in its own way, it no longer plays cards, it reads them… or it plays something else, that is truly its fate, fused with that of the artist-man.

One will note, I hope, that such principles demand just as much, if not more, from so-called abstract art than from its contrary…

(To be continued)

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Book Review: Paul Arnold on Paul Marteau: Le Tarot de Marseille

Translator’s Introduction

Paul Arnold (1909-1992), writer, traveller, founder of the European Buddhist Union, and Supreme Court judge, played a role somewhat analogous to that of Christmas Humphreys where Buddhism was concerned in France. As a writer, he was a specialist on the history of theatre, and penned a number of serious books treating of the esoteric aspect of the works of Shakespeare and Baudelaire, as well as two scholarly works on Rosicrucianism and the origins of Freemasonry. As a native of Alsace, Arnold spoke German perfectly, and produced translations of the poetical works of Nietzsche as well as Goethe’s Faust. He also wrote a number of novels and translated the entire body of Shakespeare’s works in 20 volumes, confirming his status as accomplished man of letters.

Later in life, Arnold devoted himself to the study of Buddhism, travelling extensively in Asia, especially Japan, producing a number of influential works on Buddhism in the process, both on Japanese Zen and Tibetan Tantra. Further biographical details may be found here (in English) and here (in French). As far as the Tarot is concerned, Arnold provided Jean-Marie Lhôte with insights into the esotericism of Shakespeare for his catalogue-monograph Shakespeare Dans Les Tarots, (Bizarre, issues 43-44, J.-J. Pauvert, 1967) and was thus well-qualified to review Paul Marteau’s book. One will note the transparent references to the Tarot-inspired works of André Breton and Gérard de Nerval. This review appeared in the Cahiers du Sud, 1 July 1949. The original may be read on the French news archive here.

Arnold’s work on Shakespearean esotericism.

Book Review: Paul Arnold on Paul Marteau: Le Tarot de Marseille

Le Tarot de Marseille, Paul Marteau, Arts et Métiers Graphiques, 1949.

One of the great cardmakers of France, Mr Paul Marteau has given us a rational key to one of the oldest and most powerful instruments of the occult sciences, the game of Tarot – particularly the Tarot of Marseille whose 1761 edition, no doubt reproducing traditional figures, serves as the basis for the present study – is not a game of chance, but a form of knowledge of the particular destiny of man in the cosmos. Some of its arcana are famous. Who has not heard tell of Arcanum 17, “the Star” of the Spirit? Who does not know that Nerval was in conjunction with Arcanum 13, “Death,” – resurrection?

Each of the 78 cards which make up the Tarot of Marseille is here described in minute detail; each of its elements (line, figure, objects, colours, orientations) is explained according to the traditional interpretations. And we are indebted to Mr Marteau for having completed this tradition, often incomplete or obscure, with a lot of prudence. Enlivened by the colour reproductions of the cards under consideration, these examinations explain in succession the symbolism of the number inscribed according to the esoteric tradition, the general significance, the analogical particularities, the concrete significance in the three planes: mental, animic [psychic], and physical. A summary of the principles of reading the cards completes the study. A more complete or clearer user’s manual could not be wished for.

We are now suddenly headlong in a dangerous, enchanting world which, according to a solid tradition, allows one to cruelly reveal the consultant’s destiny, less on the plane of his immediate concerns, which are nonetheless not neglected, rather, on the plane of the evolution of the soul in the cosmos, the result of Wrestling with the Angel which we are perhaps unwittingly engaging in. Whatever the objections that the recourse to this ancient method of introspection and divination may raise for our positive minds, Jean Paulhan, who introduces the volume, is right to recall that “there exist occult facts. And the least that can be said is that these facts do not allow themselves to be dominated, nor allow themselves to be wholly known.”

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René Guénon: Two Book Reviews: Van Rijnberk and Chaboseau on the Tarot

Translator’s Note

The previous two posts contained excerpts from two important twentieth-century works on the Tarot, namely, those by Jean Chaboseau and Gérard Van Rijnberk respectively, and it is not without interest to consider the reception these works have had. One author who wrote incisive and insightful reviews of both books in question was the French writer René Guénon. Guénon’s work, generally and somewhat erroneously labelled as “Traditionalism,” a label he himself rejected, is profound, multifaceted, and controversial if not polemical. Interested readers may pursue this line of inquiry by further reading, referring preferably to the works of the man himself.

It is not without interest to note that one of the subjects dealt with by Guénon in his works is that of sacred symbolism, a topic to which he devoted a large number of articles, compiled into works such as Symbols of Sacred Science. It is therefore all the more surprising that he never dealt with the Tarot in extenso, with the notable exception of the two following book reviews, aside from some brief, scattered allusions throughout his works. Nor do we find, in the works of his followers or emulators anything of the sort either, with one obscure but important exception, to which we shall return in due course.

We thus present these two book reviews, following which we have included a number of excerpts from other works or correspondence further elucidating Guénon’s views on the nature of the Tarot, and on that of a related topic, namely, folklore. The original French texts may be found here. Similar endeavours have been undertaken in Italian, as well as in Spanish, and a list of relevant quotations has likewise been compiled in English. Excerpts from the works of van Rijnberk and Chaboseau have also been published on this blog.

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Two Book Reviews on the Tarot

René Guénon

Gérard van Rijnberk. Le Tarot. Histoire, iconographie, ésotérisme (Paul Derain, Lyon)

This large volume is the result of long and painstaking research on everything that concerns the Tarot, whether closely or remotely, and it behoves us, before all else, to praise the author for all the conscientiousness and impartiality he has brought to the task, and for the care he has taken, contrary to what more often than not happens, to avoid being influenced by the unfounded assertions of the occultists and by the multiple fables they have spread on the subject.

In the first part, he has gathered everything it is possible to find in the books and archival documents on the origins of the Tarot and of playing cards and on the era of their apparition in the different countries of Europe, and it must be said, he has not been able to arrive at a definite conclusion; he has, in a way, cleared the ground by putting paid to certain fantasies, but in sum, the enigma remains intact, and, as it seems improbable that any important documents in this regard have escaped his attention, there is in all likelihood but little hope of ever being able to resolve it, at least on the purely historical terrain.

All that we may affirm is that playing cards became known towards the end of the 13th century, especially in the Mediterranean countries, and that the word “Tarot,” whose etymology is moreover impossible to discover, only began to be employed in the 15th century, even though the the thing itself is surely more ancient still. The hypothesis of an oriental origin, on which some have strongly insisted, is nowhere proven; and we shall add that, in any case, even if it were true that the Arabs here played the role of “transmitters,” it is no less inconceivable, for more reasons than one, that the cards originated in an Islamic milieu, in such a way that the difficulty is simply put off.

In that regard, we do not understand why so many more or less strange explanations for the Arabic word nâib are sought for, when it is perfectly well-known and means nothing more than “replacement,” “substitute,” or “deputy”; whatever the reasons may have been for adopting it to designate a card, it has absolutely nothing in common with nabî, no more than it is derived from a root “indicating a magical or divinatory action.” Let us also note, while we are on the subject of remarks of this order, that the Arabic name for “games of chance” is not qamar, “moon,” but qimâr, and that pagad is certainly not an Arabic word, but that, in Hebrew, bagôd means “deceitful,” which may well be applied to a mountebank.

Furthermore, the introduction of the cards by Gypsies is no more certain than all the rest, and it would appear that, on the contrary, it was in Europe that they learned its use; moreover, contrary to the assertions of Valliant, the Tarot was known in western Europe before the Gypsies arrived there; and in this way, all the occultist “legends” vanish as soon as they are subjected to a serious examination!

In the second part, the author examines everything in the writings and works of art of classical antiquity which seem to him to present some relation to the ideas expressed by the symbolism of the arcana of the Tarot: some similarities are rather clear, but there are others which are less so, or only remotely so. Naturally, these parallels are in any case only very fragmentary, and bear only on certain points in particular; moreover, one must not forget that the use of these symbols never constitutes proof of a historical connection. We will admit to not understanding why, on the subject of these parallels and the ideas to which they refer, Mr Van Rijnberk speaks of the “exotericism of the Tarot,” nor to what exactly he means thereby, and what difference he sees with what he designates on the contrary as his “esotericism of the Tarot.”

The third part, in effect, which he presents as “the result of personal meditations and inspirations,” and to which he attributes an “esoteric” character, contains in reality nothing of a deeper order than what has preceded it, and let us say it frankly, this part is indeed not the best part of the book. As a title to the considerations relating to each of the major arcana, he has placed a sort of motto formed of two Latin words, which has no doubt the pretension to more or less resume the general meaning; and what is rather amusing is that he visibly striven to find, in as many cases as he could, words having for initials the two letters S. I.!* But let us not insist any more on this fantasy of no consequence; and let us note instead the extent of the bibliography and the interest of the reproductions of ancient documents contained in the plates which end the book, and let us add that, despite its erudition, this book is not at all boring and is even a pleasant read.

Note: * The letters ‘S.I.’ refer to Supèrieur Inconnu – Unknown Superior, the alleged ‘hidden’ leaders of the Masonic Rite of Strict Observance, and later, the third of the four degrees of the Martinist Order. – Translator

* * *

Jean Chaboseau. Le Tarot. Essai d’interprétation selon les principes de l’hermétisme (Éditions Niclaus, Paris)

This other book on the Tarot is written from an entirely different point of view than the preceding book, and, although much less voluminous, it has apparently great pretensions, despite its modest qualification of “essay.” We will not contest, moreover, that it may be valid to seek an astrological interpretation, and others yet, on condition to not present any one of them as being exclusive; but is this condition met if we consider hermeticism as “the proper basis of the symbolism of the Tarot”? It is true that we would first of all need to agree on the sense of the words; the author seems to wish to unduly expand the one he assigns to hermeticism, to the extent of englobing almost all the rest, including Kabbalah; and if he marks the relations and differences of hermeticism and of alchemy clearly enough, it is no less true that there is a strong exaggeration to claim, as he does, to identify the former with “Total Knowledge”!

In fact, his commentaries on the cards of the Tarot are moreover not strictly limited to hermeticism, since, all the while taking it as a point of departure, he gives fairly numerous parallels with information drawn from very different traditions; it is not us who will reproach him for it, far from it, but perhaps he did not check sufficiently to ensure if all of them were justified, and in the way in which all this is presented, we sense a little too much the persistence of the “occultist” spirit. It would be best, for example, 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.

The intentions of the author are moreover not always as clearly expressed as one might wish, and notably, when he cites our writings, we are not at all certain, given the context, that he understands them in the same way we meant them ourselves…

Mr Chaboseau has also attempted, following a number of others, to “reconstitute” in his own way the figures of the Tarot; naturally, there is no reason to consider one or the other of these “reconstitutions” as being more valid than another; we think it surer to refer simply to the ordinary depictions, which, even if they have become somewhat deformed over time, have nonetheless a greater chance of having, as a whole, kept the original symbolism more faithfully.

In the end, the transmission of the Tarot is something quite comparable to that of “folklore,” even if it does not constitute a simple case in particular of the latter, and the preservation of symbols is assured there in the same way; in such a domain, any innovation due to individual initiative is always dangerous, and like all literary retellings of so-called “folk” tales, it can only distract or obscure the meaning by mixing in more or less fanciful and in any case superfluous “embellishments.” These last remarks, of course, are not aimed at Mr Chaboseau more particularly than his predecessors, and we will willingly concede that the “medieval” style he has adopted for his drawings does not have the unlikeliness of a so-called Egyptian or Hindu Tarot, but this is but a question of degree.

Again, we shall only place ourselves from the point of view of the symbolic value; on a more “practical” order of considerations, do we believe that the psychic influences which are undoubtedly attached to the cards of the Tarot, regardless of their origin and quality, might still find an effective support in all these arbitrary modifications of the traditional figures?

Études Traditionnelles, 1948.

* * *

Excerpts on the Tarot & on Folklore

As to the Tarot, I think that its use is not to be recommended, and that it is even preferable to abstain from it because it seems to easily serve as a vehicle for psychic influences which are not always of the best quality. There are those who wish to find all sorts of things in it, but that is certainly to exaggerate its importance; in any case, it is wholly unknown outside of Europe. Its origin is moreover very obscure, and its connection with the Gypsies is not exactly a recommendation, for they seem to have but an initiation of an inferior order (limited to the domain of certain traditional sciences), and lending themselves thereby to many deviations.

– Letter to Vasile Lovinescu, 6th June, 1936.

As to the Tarot, I will willing admit that it may give valid results in the sense that you speak of; only, its handling is perhaps not devoid of all danger, due to the psychic influences it certainly puts into play. I could say the same of certain other methods, such as geomancy, for instance; but in the case of the Tarot, the matter is further complicated due to the question of its particularly dubious origin… And I have no idea in the slightest as to where one might find out further details, unless from the Gypsies, for it has to be said that, outside of Europe, the Tarot is something that is completely unknown; besides, its symbolism has a specifically Western form.

– Letter to Louis Caudron, 9th March, 1936.

There would be much to say in this respect, in particular on the use of the Tarot where the remains of an undeniable traditional science are to be found, whatever its true origin, but which also has very dark aspects to it; by this, we do not mean to allude to the numerous occultist reveries which it has given rise to and which are negligible for the most part, but to something much more effective which makes its handling genuinely dangerous for whomsoever is not sufficiently secured against the actions of “underground” forces.

– Le Règne de la Quantité et les Signes des Temps, chapter XXXVII.

Another interesting chapter is the that devoted to the symbols of the Tarot, not only because the occultist inventions which this question has given rise to are therein appreciated to their just value, but also because there are allusions to a certain rather dark aspect of the subject, which no one else seems to have noted, and which quite certainly exists in effect; the author, without unduly insisting on the matter, speaks clearly of an “inverted tradition”, which shows that he has at the very least sensed certain truths concerning the “counter-initiation.”

– Review of: Arthur Edward Waite. Shadows of Life and Thought. A retrospective review in the form of memoirs (Selwyn and Blount, London). Études Traditionnelles, 1940.

In that respect, we should say that the very concept of “folklore” such as it is most habitually understood in our time, rests on a radically false idea, the idea that there are “popular creations,” spontaneous products of the popular masses. It is obvious that this conception is closely linked to certain modern prejudices and we shall not repeat what we have already said on other occasions. In reality, when it is a matter of traditional elements in the truest sense of the word, as it almost always is, no matter how deformed, reduced or fragmentary they may be, and of things having a truly symbolic value, even though disguised under a more or less “magical” or “fairylike” appearance, all this is very far from being of popular origin, and is certainly not even of human origin, since tradition is defined exactly, in its very essence, by its supra-human character. What may be popular is only the fact of its “survival,” when these elements belong to disappeared traditional forms, and in this regard, the term “folklore” takes on a meaning fairly close to that of “paganism,” taking into account only the etymology of the latter term, without the polemical and pejorative intention. The people thus preserve without understanding the debris of ancient traditions, going back to a past so remote that it would be impossible to determine exactly when, and which we content ourselves for this reason, to relate to the obscure domain of “prehistory”; it fulfils in this way the function of a sort of more or less “subconscious” collective memory, whose content has manifestly come from elsewhere. What may appear astounding is that, when we reach the bottom of things, we note that what has been preserved contains above all, under a more or less veiled form, a considerable amount of information of a properly esoteric order, which is to say what is precisely the least popular by nature. To this fact there is but one plausible explanation: when a traditional form is on the brink of disappearing, its last representatives may very well willingly commit to this collective memory of which we have spoken, what would otherwise be lost forever; it is, in sum, the only means of saving what might be saved to a certain extent; and, at the same time, the natural incomprehension of the masses is sufficient guarantee that what possessed an esoteric character will not be despoiled of it, but will remain only, as a sort of testimony to the past, for those who, in later times, will be capable of understanding it.

– L’Ésotérisme du Graal, 1951.

There remains to make another important remark: among the very diverse things the “collective unconscious” is supposed to explain, “folklore” must also naturally be counted, and it is one of those cases where the theory may present the semblance of truth. To be more precise, as regards the latter, one should speak of a sort of “collective memory,” which is like a mirror or a reflection, in the human domain, of this “cosmic memory” which corresponds to one of the aspects of the symbolism of the moon. Only, to wish to deduce the very origins of the tradition from the nature of “folklore” is to commit an error similar to the one, common nowadays, which considers as “primitive” what is but the product of a degenerescence. It is obvious, in effect, that “folklore,” being essentially constituted by elements belonging to extinct traditions, inevitably represents a state of degenerescence with respect to the former, but this is moreover the only means by which something might be saved. One must also ask the question as to in which conditions the preservation of these elements was committed to the “collective memory”; as we have already had occasion to mention, we cannot but see the perfectly conscious action of the last representatives of ancient traditional forms on the point of disappearing. What is assuredly certain, is that the collective mentality, forasmuch as there exists something that may be labelled as such, may be properly reduced to a memory, which is expressed, in astrological terms, by saying that it has a lunar nature. In other words, it may fulfil a certain role of preservation, which constitutes “folklore” precisely, but which is totally incapable of producing or elaborating anything at all whatsoever, and especially, anything of a transcendental nature, as anything traditional is by definition.

Symboles de la Science sacrée, chapter V.

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Jean-Michel Gardair: The Animated Tarots of Calvino

Translator’s Introduction

Of the many works of fiction which, in one way or another, incorporate the Tarot into their plot, none has done so as thoroughly, or as fundamentally, as Italo Calvino’s seminal Castle of Crossed Destinies. Not only is the structure of the narrative of the book based on the interpretation of the interweaving stories told by laying out the cards of the Tarot deck, but the work itself is illustrated with the cards themselves, providing an immediate visual signifier and point of reference.

Naturally, Calvino’s meta-fictions have attracted a great deal of critical commentary from academic authors. One such example is presented here, The Animated Tarots of Calvino, by Jean-Michel Gardair. Gardair (1942-2013) was a French Italianist and semiotician.

Quotations have been taken from the English translation by William Weaver, with one exception. It should be noted that the Author’s Note which accompanied the French and Italian editions is rather different to that which appeared in the English edition: it is more extensive and, effectively, Calvino explicitly references the academic literature on the subject and alludes to the vast body of symbolic and occultist work on the Tarot. He states that: “As to the vast literature on cartomancy and the symbolic interpretation of the Tarot, even though I obviously delved into it, I do not think it had had much of an influence on my work. Above all, I endeavoured to look at the Tarot cards with attention, like someone who does not know what they represent, and to draw out suggestions and associations, to interpret according to an imaginary iconology.”


The Animated Tarots of Calvino

Jean-Michel Gardair

Reader, beware, this book is a trap. Its pages distill insomnia. Madness stalks you in the heart of its labyrinth. The author himself admits having only published it to escape his own trap and to sleep the sleep denied to his reader. A truly diabolical trap, if it is true that the writer has made a deal with the devil: “is not the raw material of writing all a rising to the surface of hairy claws, cur-like scratching, goat’s goring, repressed violences that grope in the darkness?”
And yet it is but a game: one lines up the Tarot cards and one invents stories at random based on the illustrated sequences composed by the cards spread out on the table. The “comic book” side advantageously balances out its old-fashioned side, without considering that the semioticians have recently decked out the combinations of the Tarot cards in the combined glamour of science and fashion. Calvino, fittingly, is not unaware of these learned works, which have for him especially a value of excitation and of incitation; similarly, he has delved into the “vast literature on cartomancy and the symbolic interpretation of the Tarot.” But his business is neither theory nor divination, but to tell stories, and what first of all fascinated him in the Tarot is the “narrative machine.”
The stricter and more constrictive the rules, and the more the art of the story is child’s play. Calvino proves this in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, to wit, in the first (*) of the two texts which make up this volume published by Le Seuil, the second being called The Tavern of Crossed Destinies. It is a topical work commissioned by Franco Maria Ricci in 1969 to accompany a sumptuous edition of the Visconti Tarot, one of the masterpieces of Italian miniatures, painted by Bonifacio Bembo towards the middle of the 15th century, reproduced by Ricci in their original colours and dimensions. Having given himself the rule to borrow his intrigues from the sole repertoire of Orlando Furioso, whose chivalric universe, even though posterior by about a century to the work of the painter, takes part in the same imaginary, Calvino makes a wager to “saturate” the grid of his Tarot cards, laid out flat according to a regular figure, with the help of “interlocking stories” whose interweaving is even more ingenious than that of crosswords since they may not only be read vertically and horizontally, but also from left to right and from right to left, from top to bottom or from bottom to top.
Now, this tour de force, he tells us, only took him a week, but he does not count the sleepless nights that the sequel cost him; and almost at a pure loss: The Tavern of Crossed Destinies is but a bunch of driftwood salvaged from the shipwreck his mind almost succumbed to.
What happened? What spell dispossessed him of his mastery? By abandoning the miniatures of Bonifacio Bembo for the Tarot of Marseille, had Calvino not chosen to invert to his advantage the preceding hierarchy which subordinated writing to the image? No longer a matter of writing the caption to an illustration or to embellish it with stories, but to relegate the figures to the margins of his text, or even to integrate their images into the arabesques of his own writing. To question, on the other hand, these modern hieroglyphs, Calvino could hope to extract some stories concerning him (us) closer than the chivalric fables.
Modernity, undoubtedly: there lies the trap. The closer one approaches it and the less we are assured of the rules on which the (literary) game is based as such. Modernity is neither an ideology nor a rhetoric, but the point of intersection of all languages and all codes, the utopian place where all systems exchange, dovetail, and amount to the same; in sum, a pure principle of disorder. Transformed into a machine to simultaneously read all the stories of the world (every story being in every other story, and vice versa), the “narrative machine” quickly goes awry, and its operator along with it. We can understand the dizziness which made him prefer failure to madness, and which made him leave that accursed Tavern just in time. Leaving those mad enough free to venture into the futuristic hell Calvino contents himself with imagining: The Motel of Crossed Destinies:

“Some people who have survived a mysterious catastrophe find refuge in a half-destroyed motel, where only a scorched newspaper page is left, the comics page. The survivors, who have become dumb in their fright, tell their stories by pointing to the drawings, but without following the order of each strip, moving from one strip to another in vertical or diagonal rows. I went no further than the formulation of the idea as I have just described it. My theoretical and expressive interests had moved off in other directions. I always feel the need to alternate one type of writing with another, completely different, to begin writing again as if I had never written anything before.”

Having given up on rules, Calvino, as to him, regains his balance – literally – out of play [i.e. away from the card game]. Tired of wandering from card to card (which he has speak, in turn, the language of Hamlet and of Parsifal, of Lucrece and of Stendhal, and of Freud and de Sade), he asks himself over the course of a meandering meditation on the very vocation of scribe and of interpreter. If he still allows himself to be fascinated by fabulous unseen Tarots: the painted canvasses which make up his imaginary museum (Carpaccio, Dürer, Rembrandt, Altdorfer, Botticelli, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Pisanello, Uccello, Antonello da Messina, and yet again Carpaccio), it is less to draw out new stories than perhaps the moral of the story. The one which, from painting to painting, is suggested to him by his two favourite heroes, Saint Jerome and Saint George, the one flanked by a lion (peacock, wolf cub, or small Maltese dog), and the other by his dragon. Superposing not only these two figures but the entire space arranged around them, we obtain Calvino’s self-portrait, the imaginary figure of his mental space:

“Along the walls of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, in Venice, the stories of Saint George and Saint Jerome follow one another, as if they were a single story. And perhaps they really are one story, the life of the same man: youth, maturity, old age, and death. I have only to find the thread that links the chivalrous enterprise with the conquest of wisdom. But just now, had I not managed to turn Saint Jerome toward the outside and Saint George toward the inside? […]
The dragon menaces the city; the lion, solitude. We can consider them a single animal: the fierce beast we encounter both outside and inside ourselves, in public and in private. There is a guilty way of inhabiting the city: accepting the conditions of the fierce beast, giving him our children to eat. There is a guilty way of inhabiting solitude: believing we are serene because the fierce beast has been made harmless by a thorn in his paw. The hero of the story is he who in the city aims the point of his lance at the dragon’s throat, and in solitude keeps the lion with him in all its strength, accepting it as guard and domestic genie, but without hiding from himself its animal nature.”

– Jean-Michel Gardair

‘Les tarots animés de Calvino’, Critique, n° 355, 1976.

* On this text, see the article [‘Le destin des récits entrecroisés’] by Gérard Genot, in Critique n° 303-304 (August-September 1972).
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Théophile Briant: The Image

Translator’s Note

The following piece, by the French writer-publisher Théophile Briant, contains a brief mention of Paul Marteau’s work on the Tarot of Marseilles, which we have mentioned elsewhere. Far from being a critical review of Marteau’s book, Briant uses the occasion of the book’s publication to develop some of his own considerations on the nature and role of the image in this engaging and enlightening piece, which we may consider as representing a mode of thought best termed “imagism.”

A brief overview of Briant’s life and work (in French) may be found here. Le Goéland was a literary journal founded in 1936, through which Briant promoted local and contemporary poetry, as well as attempting to revive something of the spirit of the Symbolists of the end of the previous century. It also included texts of a decidedly mystical bent, usually written by Briant himself, or by some of his esotericist friends with literary inclinations, such as the astrologer Conrad Moricand, notoriously depicted by Henry Miller in A Devil in Paradise. Despite being a provincial publication, Briant’s journal had a definite impact, and indeed played a certain role in the Breton revival movement of the 1930s and 40s. This article was first published as  ‘L’Image’ in Le Goéland, n° 93, August-September-October, 1949.

Briant in front of his windmill home, La Tour du Vent, in Paramé, near Saint-Malo.

The Image

Théophile Briant

Colitur pro Jove forma Jovis… (1)


There undoubtedly exist predestined words whose original substance remains very mysterious. Among them, the word image is one of the most striking by the arrangement of the letters which compose it and give it its typographic structure. The sole prerogative, so to say, of children and poets, the image is a direct manifestation of the cosmic genius of humanity, and it is not without surprise that we notice that it is enough to change one of its letters to obtain, by anagram, the word magic [Fr: magie].

Now, the image is a relic of primitive magic. We might even affirm that it is magic itself.

We know that there are two modes of access to Knowledge: the rational way and the affective way. The first is that of the philosophers, of blinkered thinkers, and in general, of all of Descartes’ offspring. It analyses, it “defines,” it never reaches the object other than in its illusory reality. On the other hand, the affective way, of which we have often declared the supremacy, enables one to grasp the object in its tangible reality. And it is by means of the image that we may fixate it.

The singular value of the image resides in the fact that it always goes beyond the known and the delimitations. It may be that the accompanying “caption” adds even more to its magic spell. It is no less, and above all, a sort of projection outside ourselves of the subconscious, that is to say, of the secret which dwells within us.

Edouard Schuré said one day: “There where the savant stops, where the philosopher despairs, that is where the poet begins.”

Nothing could be more true. For the poets give us a greater perception of reality, one that is wider, richer in resonance. They know that the Truth can never appear but in between the lines – thus, as an image. And that is why they ceaselessly return, with the sure instinct of mediums, to the great law of analogy of the occultists, where one no longer proceeds by the confrontation of ideas, but by the confrontation of symbols.

* * *

At the origins of this “epic of the soul,” which represents the apprenticeship of the evolution of humanity, Lotus de Païni (2), studying the apparition of totems in the earliest tribes (3) shows us how the creature, uniquely receptive and fascinated to the core by the prodigious spectacle of the universe, sought to identify itself with the forces of the three natural kingdoms (4), adding human values to the order of established things. “And it was, she says, this advent of the Image in the creature, which, in overwhelming its constitution, then engendered the metamorphosis…”

The sphinx-animal with a human mask, whose meaning escapes us today, is one of the most striking effigies of those heroic times, where beasts, men, and gods incessantly transformed in the cycle of metamorphoses. Moreover, by opening this great book of images where humanity of old told of itself, in turn, on wood, on papyrus, or in stone, we find many testimonies of that primitive soul which could not sum up the complexity of its “inner story” but through the diagram of a symbol.

“The first annals commemorating the principal events that occurred during the life of a collective, writes Maxwell (5), were concrete figurations of events. The writing of certain native American tribes is a well-known example.”

“It appears that the Egyptian hieroglyphs (whose invention is attributed to Thoth-Hermes) would, primitively, have been symbols of a similar type; perhaps similarly so for Chinese writing, in which each character expresses a word or an idea. Closer to us, the heraldic emblems, the knowledge of which constitutes the science of heraldry, are also symbols.”

Through the sacred iconography throughout the ages, we can see the use which the founders of religions made of images to symbolically depict the mysteries, to which the priestly elites were the only ones to hold the key. The planisphere of Denderah, the ceiling of the tomb of king Seti in Luxor, have preserved the first images of the Zodiac – that illustrated breviary of mythology – which is the most vast and most ancient religious and civil cosmogony, and which the hierophants of Egypt were entrusted with from the pharaohs by divine right. From the winged bull of Assur to the dragons of Chinese temples, this same symbolism abounds, often borrowed from the animal kingdom, and which is found in the Christian religion with the fish of the Catacombs, the Paschal lamb, and the dove of the Paraclete.

* * *

Among all these collections of images, one of the most mysterious of all is that pack of 78 arcana called the Book of the Tarot. A lot of ink has been spilled over the centuries on the meaning of these “pictograms” whose origin is lost in the mists of time, and whom some savants attribute to Atlantis. Yet, for those who are still interested – it is matter of saying so now or never – in the “underside of the cards” [i.e. the “inside story”], we note the recent publication of a luxurious work on the the Tarot of Marseilles (6), wherein the author, Paul Marteau, resuming the works of his predecessors, himself provides us with an extremely remarkable exegesis on the question. Enriched with colour reproductions of the 78 cards of the Tarot (22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana), this beautiful book contains a luminous exposé by Eugène Caslant, where the learned esotericist shows us how man, in front of the immensity of of the problems posed by Nature, and the impossibility of connecting all the links by the rational method alone, was led to have recourse to symbolism (the analogical method), ”that is to say, to the transposition of cosmic laws into the physical world, by concretising them in the shape of scenic images.” According to Eugène Caslant, the Tarot represents a synthesis which “summarises the evolution of the universe,” and the combination of the cards of the Tarot “express the undulating and varying game of the universal forces.”

It is with the greatest interest that one will read the description and interpretation of each of the Major Arcana given by Paul Marteau, beginning with the Juggler (card n° 1), capped with the sign of Infinity, which symbolises the creative power of Man, “constrained by his circumstances to continually focus his attention on the phenomena of the tangible World,” and ending with the Mate (card n° 22), etymologically “locked” into his destiny as the king in the game of chess, who represents the Man-who-walks, and who struggles, with more or less nonchalance, bearing his “karma” on his shoulders, until the day he finds that “point of equilibrium” of which the Druids spoke, and realises, in the Light, the end of his terrestrial evolution.

And this is how the Book of the Tarot, whose traditional figures, more or less altered, hangs around in dives and in the hands of Gypsies and fortune-tellers, finds itself to be a “work engendered by human wisdom throughout the ages,” – a work that totalises a very mysterious assembly of scenes and figures symbolically expressing, as Paul Marteau says, “the work of man to realise his evolution, that is to say, to arrive at the ends inscribed within his destiny.”

* * *

We have not finished marvelling before this millennial treasury of images, constantly enriched by artists and poets, and which comes to enliven the greyness of our mortal days. Every man has need of images to better express himself, and the only proof I need is that of the French language, which is a continual swarm of catachresis and of metaphors. The magical mirror of the symbol informs us better than a syllogism on the supernatural presences that lead us, and there is scarcely an image that does not postulate the existence of God – or of the Other.

Jean-Marie de Saint-Ideuc
[Théophile Briant]
6 November 1949


  1.  “It is Jove whom we adore in the image of Jove.”
  2.  Pseudonym of Elvezia Gazzotti (1862-1953), an Italian noblewoman who wrote on artistic and esoteric matters in French, and who was “rediscovered” in the twilight years of her life by Briant.
  3.  Lotus de Païni, Les Trois Totémisations, essai sur le sentir visuel des très vieilles races, Chacornac, 1924.
  4.  Mineral, vegetable, animal.
  5.  Likely to be Joseph Maxwell, author of The Tarot.
  6.  Paul Marteau, Le Tarot de Marseille, Arts et Métiers Graphiques, 1949.

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Book Review: Roger Caillois on Joseph Maxwell: The Tarot

Translator’s Introduction

The publication in 1933 of Le Tarot: le symbole, les arcanes, la divination by Joseph Maxwell (pub. Félix Alcan) occasioned a number of reviews, both laudatory and critical from the occultist milieu. Maxwell (1858-1938) had a dual background as both a medical doctor as well as a lawyer, interested in what what was then known as metapsychic(al) phenomena, or what is now known as parapsychology. One such subject was that of the Tarot, to which he devoted over three decades of research, the fruit of which is contained in this book. Prior to its publication, Maxwell published one article on the Tarot in the special issue of the occultist journal Le Voile d’Isis in 1928 dedicated precisely to that topic, “Le symbolisme des arcanes majeurs”. His book was reprinted in 1984 by Archè. It was also translated into English by Ivor Powell and published a number of times as The Tarot (Neville Spearman, 1975; Samuel Weiser, 1977; C.W. Daniel Company Ltd, 1988).*

Although a later author such as Piek Anéma considered Maxwell’s method to be rational, analytic or empirical, another author, this time with an academic background in sociology – Roger Caillois – thought otherwise, and wrote a critical but thought-provoking review of the book in 1936. Caillois himself was no stranger to the Tarot; interested in gaming systems in general, he would also go on to write a preface to the Tchou reprint edition of Oswald Wirth’s classic “Le Tarot des imagiers du Moyen Âge in 1966,* and later devoted a lengthy entry to the Tarot in his encyclopaedia of games (s.v. Les Cartes, in Jeux et Sports, Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, 23:961) which has been described as “a small encyclopaedia of Renaissance esoteric and semiotic systems.” (Michel Beaujour, Poetics of the Literary Self-Portrait, NYU Press, 1992)

By way of contrast with the former assessment of Maxwell’s work, and in the interest of shedding some light on the singular clash between esoterically-minded intellectuals and more historically-oriented thinkers in 20th-century France, we present this short book review in its entirety. The original was published in Les Cahiers du Sud, 1 July 1936, and may be read on the French news archive here.

Notes: * The English edition of Maxwell’s book does not contain the appendix criticised by Caillois, and the English edition of Wirth’s book (“The Tarot of the Magicians,” Weiser Books, 1990/2012) does not contain Caillois’ preface either.

1984 French edition

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The Tarot, by J. Maxwell (F. Alcan)

Roger Caillois

When faced with the Tarot, two attitudes are possible: the à priori interpretation of the 78 enigmatic cards, or the critical study of their origin and history. Mr Maxwell has chosen the first and has deliberately focused on the explanation of the arcana by drawing on all the symbolisms which it was materially possible to use: numbers, colours, traditional attributes, astrosophic signs, etc…. His ingeniosity is admirable, but too many prejudicial questions are posed that we cannot accept this free exercise without reservations. There is effectively no guarantee that the Tarot is a series of cryptogrammes, and much less that these figures represent, in a veiled way, the sort of Neo-Platonic philosophy that Mr Maxwell has found with his eyes shut. On the contrary, everything leads to believe that the present Tarot is a combination, going back to the end of the 14th century, of the game of numeral cards of Spanish suits, and for the major arcana, of a sort of encyclopaedia of images destined to instruct children in a pleasant manner. Such is, at least, the hypothesis very convincingly proposed by Henry-René d’Allemagne in his monumental work (1) on playing cards, which Mr Maxwell cites in his bibliography, without seemingly having consulted it very much. Moreover, it must be admitted that this explanation leaves the mystery of certain cards intact: thus, for the Juggler, the Hanged Man, the Wheel of Fortune, the Fool. As to the symbolism of the series, it is difficult to see with the author a figuration of the elements: air, water, earth, fire. A work published in Venice in 1545 (2) saw, with much more humour but no less arbitrariness, the swords as the death of those whom playing has driven to despair; the staffs as the chastisement of those who cheat; the cups, the drink that appeases all quarrels; and finally, the coins as the very fuel of the game. In fact, it is probably a transparent representation of social classes: soldiers (swords); clergy (cups, that is, chalices); traders (coins); and peasants (staffs).
Mr Maxwell sees only the means of divination in the Tarot. Yet, the use of this game in cartomancy is not attested once before the end of the 18th century, that is to say, before the barbour-boy Alliette used the reveries of Court de Gébelin to try his fortune at the expense of public credulity in known circumstances, and where the coarsest charlatanism is manifest. This should have incited Mr Maxwell to greater prudence, all the more so as he concludes his work with an analysis of the psychology of conjectural divination which devotes the greater part to the professional skills of the diviner. We regret that in these conditions he should have gone so far astray in the interpretation of these figures, which, despite undoubtedly not being the bearers of any philosophical system, are no less worthy of an in-depth exegesis. But it is fitting to change method and to rely more, in these matters, on historical information rather than on the metaphysics of numbers.

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  1.  Les cartes à jouer du XIV au XX siècle. Volume 1. Volume 2.
  2.  An allusion to Le carte parlanti by Pietro Aretino, first published in 1543. (Thanks to Ross Caldwell.)

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Book Review: Marcel Lecomte on Paul Marteau: Le Tarot de Marseille

Paul Marteau, Le Tarot de Marseille, 1949.

Translator’s Introduction

Following on from a first piece on the Tarot by Marcel Lecomte, Tarot Vertigo, we present his book review of Paul Marteau’s classic work, Le Tarot de Marseille, published a couple of years after the first article. A third article, Exegetes of the Tarot, is published here. One will note the repeated insistence on the importance of Jean Paulhan’s preface, which likewise has been translated here.

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Paul Marteau: Le Tarot de Marseille,

préface de Jean Paulhan, Arts et Métiers Graphiques, 1949.

Marcel Lecomte

What makes the problem of the Tarot fascinating is incontestably the link that is established, through the interpretation of the cards, with a Reality that appears to deliver up to us its secret dialectic. It seems that, thanks to the cards, this Reality must open itself up to us in its true unfolding. These cards are a sort of grid, placed onto the world, which responds to the stimulation of the grid. Thus it is no longer a question of knowing if the cards tell the truth, but rather, to what extent they tell that truth.

Jean Paulhan has written a preface for this book in which he adopts a point of view on the Tarot that is outside all esotericism. He wishes to treat of the Tarot in much the same way, more or less, as he would of a language. But he devises these traps and these tricks wherein we find his Taroist position, this bias of attention and distraction by which the mind gives itself its penetration, its surprise.

The Tarot signifies for those who observe Reality. Moreover, it would seem that the singular error of the Marxists, at least those of today, is precisely to not know, or to fail to acknowledge, that everything always exists, that the dialectic they continually put forward never prevents it from integrating into its movement such facts, such structures, as are connected to “lost and recreated secrets”, and on which, for their part, they refuse to meditate, to return to, but these secrets catch up with them, sometimes quite curiously, in the heart of History.

M. L.

84, n° 14, September 1950.

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