Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

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Jean Vassel: Some Remarks on the Tarot

Translator’s Introduction

We have previously published the two book reviews by René Guénon on the subject of the Tarot, and some relevant remarks on related topics, and we have noted the paucity of so-called “traditionalist” interpretations of the Tarot, a lacuna which is all the more surprising if we consider the importance attached to the study of symbolism in that school of thought, as evidenced by the numerous works on the subject by its leading proponent. We have equally noted one important exception, that of the study by Jean Vassel, a student of René Guénon, and a contributor to the journal edited by the latter, the Études Traditionnelles.

Concerning this discrete author, biographical and bibliographical details are sorely lacking; all that we have been able to discover is that he was the nephew of the Count Pallu du Bellay, an historian who was a friend of both Guénon and Louis Charbonneau-Lassay, author of an important work on Christian iconography and symbolism. Vassel appears to have been one of the Guénonians most concerned with Christian esotericism.  This is borne out by the dozen articles on subjects connected to Christianity, Antiquity, or to heraldry he wrote for the Études Traditionnelles, though we are unsure if he is also the author of the volume of poetry entitled Reflets et résonances listed in the catalogue of the BNF. Vassel is also listed in André Breton’s survey on magical art, as “a specialist of traditional art.”

The only reference to Vassel’s work in the tarotic literature is, to the best of our knowledge, to be found in Daniel Giraud’s landmark article, Connaissance du Tarot, when he writes that: “The merit of Jean Vassel’s text is that of being Traditional, which is to say impersonal, and having nothing to do with bourgeois traditionalism or outmoded, naïve spiritualism. This very Guénonian rigour offers no hold to the cartomancers or occultist hack-writers in need of mystery and mystification.”

Ostensibly a book review of Gérard van Rijnberk’s Le Tarot, Histoire, iconographie, ésotérisme, the format provides an opportune springboard for Vassel to develop deeper considerations of a structural nature. This remarkable study on the Tarot, in fact, two separate studies, was published in three parts, beginning in the Études Traditionnelles n° 278 of 1949, and is composed of the introductory piece Some Remarks on the Tarot, and the lengthier Historic and “Prophetic” Aspect of the Tarot, which was published in two parts in the following issues. It is the first part which we present here.

Danse Macabre of the chapel of Kermaria an Iskuit, Côtes-d’Armor, Brittany.

Some Remarks on the Tarot

Jean Vassel

In a work published in 1947[1], Gérard Van Rijnberk has undertaken a very thorough study of the Tarot, from the threefold historical, iconographic and “esoteric” points of view. This work, which compiles together a large amount of documentation, is a useful working tool; but to tell the truth, it is very far from having resolved all the questions posed by the very existence of the Tarot. It has, at least, the merit of having demonstrated the fragility or ill-foundedness of a certain number of hypotheses relative to the origins of playing cards and of the Tarot in particular. If it is not at all certain that the packs of playing cards are of exclusively western origin, nothing proves that they are of oriental origin either, and on the contrary, it even appears that the Tarot presents a very characteristic medieval character; which does not mean, naturally, that the traditional realities symbolised by the twenty-two major arcana do not have an origin that is much more ancient. On the contrary, this seems to be indisputable, precisely because of the traditional character of these realities. This explains, moreover, why the “appearance” of the packs of playing cards in western Europe occurred precisely towards the year 1300, that is, at the end of the traditional (and not “historical,” such as is meant by classical education) medieval age; these games constituting effectively a popular and convenient means of transmission of initiatory, or at the very least reserved, knowledge, which otherwise risked being lost; in the same way as folklore, for instance. And one must acknowledge that the medium was the right one since the Tarot has come down to us over six centuries of incomprehension, without notable modification apparently, or rather, with an truly remarkable immutability, and in the manner of a dead language.

Everyone knows that the Tarot is composed of two distinct categories of cards, or “arcana”[2], the minor arcana and the major arcana. The former are composed of four series of cards: Cups, Swords, Coins and Staffs, entirely more suggestive than the four suits which have replaced them in the modern pack of fifty-two playing cards. The relationship of the Cups, the Swords, the Coins and the Staffs with the three orders of medieval society and the “out-castes” is particularly evident. Their circular form, and the rectilinear form of the other two, is no less remarkable, as is the resulting double opposition and double complementarity… Each series is composed of fourteen cards; the ten first bearing from one to ten cups, swords, coins, and staffs; the four others, called the “honours,” are, in each series, the valet, the horseman, the queen and the king, the choice of which does not seem to be arbitrary. One must note here that, in the pack of playing cards derived from the Tarot, each series is composed of thirteen cards only, the horseman having disappeared. In the game of chess, on the other hand, which, even if it does not derive directly from the Tarot, seems nevertheless to have a common origin[3], it is the valet who has disappeared. Furthermore, in the pack of modern playing cards, the Ace plays an exceptional role: it is identified with the honours; and the same is often true of the Ten. Finally, the game of checkers is analogous to a game of cards or of chess without the initial honours.

The second category, composed of twenty-two major arcana, clearly distinct from the fifty-six minor arcana, in a way, forms an autonomous sequence, one that would have been added to the four others. It makes one invincibly think of the “quintessence” of the alchemists and of the celestial or supra-human “nut” of which the minor arcana would constitute the “shell” or the terrestrial support, and it must be examined separately. In this regard, we will note that there are no packs composed of major arcana alone, by definition, in a way, whereas the disappearance of the major arcana is, on the contrary, the chief characteristic of the modern and “profane” packs of fifty-two playing cards. Moreover, this absence appears compensated by the notion of “trumps” which play, to a certain extent, the role of the absent major arcana. In chess, on the contrary, two of the major arcana remain unchanged, mixed with the honours: the Tower or God-House (arcanum XVI) and the Fool (card XXII or O); their presence or their preservation is very characteristic of the feudal conceptions of the high middle ages.[4]

In the second part of his book, entitled “Exoteric Iconography of the Tarot,” Gérard Van Rijnberk examines the literary and emblematic expressions of the twenty-two tarotic images from antiquity. But this painstaking study does not allow him, as might have been expected, to reach any truly interesting conclusions; if only that we do not find many religious, or rather, exclusively Christian, symbols in the Tarot.

In the third part of the work, entitled “Esotericism in the Tarot,” we find a great amount of documents on the significance of the twenty-two major arcana. Unfortunately, this documentation is almost solely of “occultist” origin, which is to say that it is both “mixed” and “suspect” at the same time; here too, the occultists have exerted a de facto “monopoly”, and only interpret according to preconceived ideas. As one might have expected here too, no positive result is reached, and the reader finds himself almost as confused at the end of the work as he was at the beginning. Without doubt, he remains convinced that there is something more or less mysterious at the bottom of this, but the exact nature of this “something” escapes him, just as it escaped Gérard Van Rijnberk, who finally admits as much. If the author had had information or knowledge of a traditional order, notably with respect to the significance of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, hermeticism or alchemy, no doubt he would have been able to shed some light on the issue; but as he only knows esotericism through the deformation imposed upon it by the occultists, his explanations remain necessarily confused or erroneous; and the classification of the cards, such as he then proposes, seems arbitrary and highly debatable.

This last question is nevertheless not without interest, far from it. It is not due to chance, in effect, that the twenty-two tarotic cards succeed each other in an apparently singular sequence, nor that this order, carefully indicated by Roman numerals (except for the Fool), seems to have remained strictly unvaried since its origins. Like others before him, Gérard Van Rijnberk bases the classification he proposes on the following observation: 22 = (7 x 3) + 1, which is true in itself, if not rigorously applicable here; but instead of placing the Fool (arcanum XXII or 0, or more accurately, unnumbered) outside of the three septenaries made possible by its elimination, it is Justice (arcanum VIII) which he plays outside and above the three columns thus determined: to wit, a “positive” column (VII to I, and not I to VII), a “negative” column (IX to XV), and a “neutral” intermediary column (XVI to XXI + 0). It does not seem to us, with all due respect to the author, that this rather arbitrary arrangement of the twenty-two arcana yields a more interesting result than the triple septenaries or the seven triads imagined by others… unless “the dubious position of the last two arcana, and in general, that of a number of other arcanum whose ordinal number in the series is arbitrary, were revised,” according to the suggestion of Gérard Van Rijnberk, a suggestion which he prudently avoids putting into practice.[5]

Perhaps, on the contrary, we may arrive at a more interesting result by means of an entirely different, more natural, classification, one we have nowhere seen indicated. We can, in effect, make three preliminary observations by examining the series of the twenty-two arcana:

  1. The first card, the Juggler (I), and the last, the Fool (0), constitute the beginning and the accomplishment of the “work,” of which the other cards characterise the various stages: the Juggler (I) obviously corresponds to the initial implementation, and the Fool (0) is an evident symbol of the being liberated from all ties to the World (XXI) through the accomplishment of the “work.” The one and the other are therefore, in a manner of speaking, both “out of the series,” though in different ways.[6]
  2. Death (XIII) (which here is not the first death, but the initiatory “second death” which precedes the spiritual “third birth”), constitutes a “break” in the series, and it is manifest that the cards which follow it have a more “celestial” character than the preceding ones.[7]
  3. Cards II, III, IIII and V form a rather singular set, a set which displays a certain symmetry. This symmetry is even suggestive enough to enable us to establish the following arrangement on its basis:

I. The Juggler


II. The Popess                  | III. The Empress | IIII. The Emperor          | V. The Pope

VI. The Lover                    | VII. The Chariot  | VIII. Justice                   | IX. The Hermit

X. The Wheel of Fortune | XI. Force             | XII. The Hanged Man   | XIII. Death


XIV. Temperance              | XV. The Devil      | XVI The God-House    | XVII. The Star

XVIII. The Moon                | XVIIII. The Sun    | XX. The Judgment      | XXI. The World


0 or XII. The Fool


Examining this table, we cannot but make the following remarks:

  1. The set of the twenty-two major arcana is divided into seven levels or degrees, of which the first and the last are represented by a unique figure, whereas the five others are composed of four cards.
  2. The four cards of each of the five intermediary degrees are arranged two by two around the invisible “axis” which unites the Juggler to the Fool through them.
  3. In each of these five intermediary degrees, there is a clear relation, of both complementarity and of opposition, between the cards of the first and the fourth columns on the one hand, and of those of the second and the third columns on the other: Pope and Popess, Empress and Emperor, Lover and Hermit, Chariot and Justice, Wheel of Fortune and Death, etc.[8] Perhaps the relation between Temperance and the Star may seem less evident: undoubtedly, this is why we find, beneath the Star, a woman holding two vases in her hands, like Temperance. The reader will have no difficulty in establishing for himself the significance of these various correspondences.
  4. The five cards which constitute each of the four columns are not without relations between themselves either, even though these connections are less evident.
  5. Death (XIII) truly constitutes a “break” in the sense that it constitutes the accomplishment of the first three degrees (four, counting the Juggler and the first twelve arcana (thirteen, counting Death). After Death, we find two further higher degrees (three, counting the Fool), represented by eight arcana (nine, counting the Fool). Here too, the reader will be able to draw for himself the necessary deductions. He will notably remark that Death (XIII) corresponds to the accomplishment of the “Lesser Mysteries,” of which the Hanged Man (XII) implies the realisation. He will also note that the Fool (XXII or 0) represents the accomplishment of the “Greater Mysteries,” of which the domination of the created World or the chain of worlds implies the realisation, beyond the Judgment (XX).

It seems unnecessary to insist any further

We do not claim, of course, that the arrangement indicated above is the only one possible; we are even convinced of the contrary. Nevertheless, it has seemed worthy of interest to us, and capable of serving as a point of departure for useful meditations. This is why we have written these notes on a subject as inexhaustible as the truths which our medieval ancestors asked them to bear unto us.


[1] Le Tarot. Histoire, iconographie, ésotérisme, Paul Derain, Lyon, 1947.

[2] The use of this term is worth noting.

[3] Regardless of their “external” respective antiquity, it is clear that the Tarot is more “complete” than the game of chess.

[4] Does the Tower not make one think of the “Castle Adventurous” of the Grail? And the Fool of the “knight errant” or the “celestial knight” predestined to accomplish the Grail Quest, in opposition to the Horseman, representing “earthly” chivalry?

[5] Op. cit. p .218.

[6] Perhaps this is to be put in parallel with the particularity noted above, of the Ace and the Ten considered as honours in the modern packs of fifty-two cards.

[7] In the Tarot of Marseille, Death is the only arcanum whose name is not inscribed on the card; no doubt this is not due to chance.

[8] In each degree, the numerical sum of the two dyads thus determined is the same.

Photographic Credit: Danse Macabre of the chapel of Kermaria an Iskuit, Plouha, Côtes-d’Armor, Brittany. © Paolo Ramponi
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