Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

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Jean-Michel Mathonière: Preface to Graal et Tarot by Yves Desmares

Translator’s Introduction

There have been almost as many attempts to elucidate the structure of the Tarot as there have been writers on the Tarot. Beyond the linear numerical sequence of the cards, various authors have sought a more complex underlying structure beneath the trumps, notably. These structures are typically based on some 3×7 arrangement, or less frequently, on a twin decimal sequence, but only rarely on the full set of 22 trumps. In French, some noteworthy efforts to present and to justify these structures include those of Jean Vassel, Armand Barbault, Jean Carteret, Gérard Van Rijnberk, and more recently, Alain Bougearel, or Jean-Michel Mathonière, whose work we present here.

Mr Mathonière is a specialist on the guilds of Stonemasonry, or the Compagnonnage, in French, and has written a number of works on these and connected subjects, such as printer’s or mason’s marks. One of his earlier books concerns the geometrical arrangement of the cards of the Tarot. In effect, Mathonière’s book, L’arcane des arcanes du Tarot, published by Trédaniel in 1985, deals with a proposed circular structure underlying the Tarot, and the manner in which all sorts of interesting connections between the cards may be drawn from this geometrical arrangement.

On the subject of the Tarot, Mr Mathonière has published, in addition to the foregoing book and a number of articles, a short but stimulating booklet by Yves Desmares, Graal et Tarot [Grail and Tarot] in 2001 (éd. La Nef de Salomon), of which we present his preface. Mr Mathonière has also produced, in conjunction with Hugues Gartner, the Tarot des tailleurs de pierre [the Tarot of the Stonemasons], published in 2011 by Trédaniel.

This preface, as well as the article it refers to, are noteworthy in that they represent a departure from the two dominant – and typically mutually exclusive – forms of writings on the Tarot, the historicist approach, and the more speculative genres, and demonstrate that it is possible to posit or to accept both an esoteric significance to the arcana of the Tarot as well as a historical grounding, without abandoning all reason.

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Preface to Graal et Tarot by Yves Desmares

Jean-Michel Mathonière

Published with the kind permission of the author.

Since 1781, the year in which Court de Gébelin published the first book devoted to the arcana of the Tarot, thousands of books and articles have appeared in an attempt to decipher “the” occult message. Only a few authors have dealt with the question from the sole angle of iconography, generally considering the esoteric aspect as being fantasies good only for attracting dreamers.

If I myself have devoted a short book, some sixteen years ago, to the geometric structure of the arcana and to certain aspects of an esoteric order, my later research, whether on the Tarot or other subjects, has led me to take a lot of distance with respect to the occult dimension that is accorded to the game. Little over a year ago, I took up my pen once again to produce a short article in La Chaîne d’Union, in which I denounced the incoherence of certain received ideas as to the antiquity of the Tarot and certain interpretations – all the while drawing the attention of researchers to the neglected importance of the Art of Memory in the constitution of the iconography of the arcana and the structure of the deck.

That is not to say that, beneath its appearance of a game, the Tarot does not vehicle other hidden meanings, on the contrary. But it seems to me that the plurality – of the hidden meanings – must predominate over a deceptive singular one – a hidden meaning – which induces the idea that it is not only a matter of a unique meaning, but especially, of a fully coherent meaning. The study of the history of the Tarot and of the evolution of its iconography indeed quite evidently shows that, regardless of the intentions of its creators, the deck which has come down to us – notably in the shape of the so-called Tarot “of Marseilles” – has undergone, as with every created thing, transformations. If some may be considered as being losses with respect to the comprehension which the imager-makers had of the primary sense of the symbols, others are in reality attempts at “over-symbolisation” which result from the fads of the moment where esoteric doctrines are concerned.

Two particularly clear examples of this manipulation of the arcana of the Tarot in order to have them convey an esoteric message are interesting.

The first, which still largely conditions the majority of studies devoted to the subject, is that of “kabbalisation”: the major arcana being, from a partially erroneous point of view, twenty-two in number, the occultists of the 19th century assigned to each of them one of the twenty-two numbers of the Hebrew alphabet, which serves as a support to an important part of the Kabbalah, one of the forms of Jewish esotericism. Now, the kabbalistic doctrines are not limited to the problematic of the permutations and numerical values of the letters, and the latter fundamentally depend on the ten sephiroth which form the basis of Jewish cosmology. Moreover, if it is probably fitting to search within the Kabbalah for the explanation of certain symbolic aspects of the Tarot, it is necessary to take into account the fact that the latter did not evolve among Jewish Kabbalists – who are divided into different schools – but among Christian hermeticists who were interested in the subject with a view towards better understanding certain aspects of the … Christian tradition. The texts they had at their disposal, from the end of the 16th century on, either in the form of translations of Jewish kabbalistic writings, or, more frequently, in the form of writings speculating on the subject, are often fairly removed from the “purist” vision we can nowadays encounter in the learned works devoted to the… Jewish kabbalistic doctrines!

The second example of manipulation is of that of the colours and of certain details. In 1949, when Paul Marteau published his classic work on the Tarot of Marseilles, he based the greater part of his interpretations on the colours assigned to some detail or other of the arcana. The idea is an attractive one, forasmuch as the book is well written and a pleasant read. Moreover, this Tarot claims to be the faithful copy of the classic edition of “the” Tarot of Marseilles, that of 1761 produced by Nicolas Conver… But it is enough to check some copies of that edition to observe that not only do the colours of the Marteau/Grimaud not match, but that, as was the case for the majority of the old decks coloured by stencil, the colours may vary from one printing to another! Conclusion: Paul Marteau “over-symbolises” the arcana of the Tarot by means of the colours, according to his own conceptions. Another particularly revealing detail of the manipulation is that of the two dice present on the Juggler’s table: the mathematical combinations of two dice are 21 in number, which coincides, by one of those “revelatory” random chances, with the number of numbered major arcana! But seek out the dice on the 1761 edition…

These few limits to the exercise of decoding being set, there is nothing to prevent one from still seeking the traces of hidden meanings in the Tarot. I myself have shown, in Les Arcanes des Arcanes, the very clear existence of geometric structures in the series of major trumps which enable one to arrange them according to “mandalas.” Considering the arcana then not only one by one, but also according to their connections, many aspects (as in astrology) are revealed and which clarify their meanings. The necessary point of departure for this type of attempt is to take into account a set of twenty-one major arcana, and not twenty-two: the Mate is not numbered and does not really belong, as the practice of the Tarot as a game proves, to the series of trumps. Furthermore, the twenty-first major arcana, the World, is manifestly a centre, point of departure and point of return. There remain thus twenty cards with which to form geometric figures bearing significance. And twenty is a geometrically interesting number because, unlike twenty-two and twenty-one, it is divisible by the traditional use of the compass and the square – and we will highlight that the division of the circle into twenty is effected by tracing a cross bearing a five-petalled rose…

Yves Desmares has here taken up the quest I had voluntarily left uncompleted – the aim of a book is not so much to exhaust a subject as to give the reader the desire to pursue the path for himself – and offers us here some other revealing arrangements, notably according to the structure of the sephirothic tree. He invites us to an exploration of the arcana in their relations with Eastern and Western traditions, in particular with what concerns one of the most fascinating expressions of the nourishing and salvific Word, the Grail. It is a stimulating little book, inasmuch as it is less a deliberately exhaustive and ordered discourse than some notes jotted down during the course of a stroll in the mysterious garden of the arcana. The questions and the doubts which some of his interpretations may raise, as well as all that is not dealt with, or that is passed over in silence, are, in the end, so many incitations to pursue the path for oneself.

And, in order to end the “tale,” I present here for your meditation another mandala of the arcana…

From the Bibliography:

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