Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot


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Alain Bocher: The Tarot of Marseilles or the Arcana of Wisdom

Translator’s Introduction

One contemporary French Tarologist whom we must mention is the late Alain Bocher (1935-2014). Bocher’s contribution to recent French Tarology is immense, and a look at his publications will confirm as much. In effect, we find his influential Cahiers du Tarot in 6 volumes, a series of compilations dealing not only with the Tarot, but also including reflections on subjects as varied as colour symbolism, analogy, geometry, number symbolism, astrology, as well as, more unusually, medicine, herbalism and anatomy. (While the first four volumes were printed, the last two volumes only appear to have been sold by the author himself as e-books.) Finally, his more recent Le Tarot : mode d’emploi and the accompanying booklet, Le Tarot-Mémoire (available online courtesy of the publisher) form comprehensive introductions to the study and use of the Tarot of Marseilles, and more particularly, that of Nicolas Conver (1760).

In effect, Bocher, like a number of others, was of the view that the Conver Tarot was the most perfect Tarot, the work of an initiate, and therefore the one which conveyed the deepest spiritual truths in unadulterated form. The fact that it was not the oldest Tarot on record did not matter; it represented the purest strand of the Tarot tradition and the summit of the engraver’s art regardless. Having said that, Bocher’s Cahiers show a tremendous knowledge of all the tributary streams of the Tarological current. Moreover, he himself was an accomplished artist, and the creator of the charming Tarot de la Réa (1982), pictured below.

Here we present an article which shows, among other things, some similarities to that minute and holistic approach typical of Tchalaï, a deep knowledge of the phonetic and anagrammatic aspect of the card titles, and a concern with the type of visual cryptography that characterises the work of authors as varied as Philippe Camoin, Marc Olivier Rainville (“ROM”), and some others in French and French-inspired Tarot circles.

Due to the close reference to the orthography of the titles of the cards, we have left them in the original French and in upper-case letters, as per the cards themselves. This article was first published as “Le tarot de Marseille ou les arcanes de la sagesse” in the magazine Le chant de la licorne n° 26, 1989. The original French may be read here. In French, the late author’s personal website may be found here; an obituary may be read here; and a tribute to the man by the eminent Tarologist Kris Hadar may be read here.

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The Tarot of Marseilles or the Arcana of Wisdom

Alain Bocher

The Tarot is the book of books, the support for all the Knowledge of the universe, and this book is made solely of images… the text is not legible and appears to remain in the consciousness of the one who uses it.

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And what if the Tarot of Marseilles were not divinatory?

Have you ever purchased 250 grammes of divinatory powder at your local greengrocers? Have you ever picked up, along the foam line of a beach, a handful of divinatory objects?

No? And yet, you have, at some point, once bought a packet of ground coffee! Yet, you have already picked up a handful of pink or yellow seashells on a beach, last summer! Perhaps you even had the idea of reading or attempting to read your future in the bottom of your cup, or again, of throwing that handful of empty seashells in order to discover a secret geomancy…

When you buy a deck of playing cards for playing bridge or canasta, you do not see the words “Divinatory Game” printed on the box. Yet some fortune-tellers use them to that end. And we often see the following phrase on the boxes of the Tarot of Marseilles: “This pack of tarot cards enables you to predict certain events by the association of currents.”

That is, alas, to reduce to very little a veritable monument of our Western civilisation, and to truly underestimate the riches of what we may call a Sacred Book. It is true that some people open the Bible to a random page, in the hope of finding some answer to a question they have, or even an answer to their anxiety in the face of the future, and justify themselves by explaining that all answers are within that Book, and that they are true since spoken by God! Did they go to their usual bookseller to buy the Divinatory Books?…

Why see the Tarot of Marseille as an object designed for divination alone? And what if the Tarot of Marseille were something else entirely?

Elisabeth Leichelbeck, writing in La Lettre de Sophon, tells us: “A Conceptual Tool is a tool to see… It is a means to direct the steps of the spirit… Like any other technical instrument, it is an extension of the body of man to increase his power, by amplifying his natural aptitudes.”

This definition is exactly what could be said of the Tarot of Marseille. It is a conceptual tool, and we could go so far as to say that it is the pre-eminent Conceptual Tool, since it enables us to broaden the mind in domains as varied as mathematics or astronomy, cosmology or paraphysics, the psychic or biological sciences. Nothing appears to be foreign to it.

But in order to use a tool, one must first of all know it perfectly, otherwise one runs the risk of spoiling one’s work, or injuring oneself, or even putting those around us in danger. One must also learn how to maintain it, sharpen it, adjust it, that is to say, to submit oneself to its function. The same goes for the Tarot of Marseilles. It will become necessary to study it in its slightest details in order to know it perfectly, and in consequence, to know how to use it. It is necessary to undergo the apprenticeship of a tool. It is also necessary to undergo the apprenticeship of the multi-purpose tool that is the Tarot.

It is true that we sometimes see someone pick up an unknown tool for the very first time and to create a work of art using it. This happens, but it is even rarer still to see this work of art repeated! And when this is the case, it seems to be the work of a true genius, something which has always been extremely rare in the history of humanity. We may also ask ourselves what would this work have been like had its creator had a perfect knowledge of the tool. It would probably have been even more beautiful still.

It seems obvious that to write a novel or a historical treatise, one must previously have learned to read and write. In other words, to learn the Class 101 of the language in which one wishes to expresses oneself. This is very precisely the sole means of effectively expressing one’s thoughts.

A Hieroglyphic Alphabet

The Tarot of Marseilles is the graphic structure of a language, just as is the Latin alphabet or the set of Chinese ideograms. One must therefore proceed to Tarot of Marseilles 101 before using it. And before learning the basics, it will be necessary to perfectly understand the absolute basics, for the Tarot of Marseilles is none other than a fantastic hieroglyphic alphabet rich of 78 letters divided into 22 principal letters and 56 secondary letters, which we may relate to vowels (that is, to letters used for vocalisation, for the pronunciation and the expression of the consonants). Moreover, it is an extraordinary numerical system, based on a counterpoint of different systems; the decimal and septimal systems being the easiest to grasp immediately.

These hieroglyphs, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs, draw upon a symbolism whose basis is extremely simple, but whose reading becomes complex by the play of the analyses on different planes of consciousness. Thus, arcanum III, “LIMPÉRATRICE” (“The Empress.”) It is obvious that, at first glance, this arcanum (we ought to say “arcanum” and not card for the Tarot of Marseille) represents an empress seated in majesty. Yet, by deepening the examination of this image, we note that there is no apostrophe between the “L” and the “I”, and attentive and thoughtful observation will enable us to understand that this omission is deliberate and that it enables the expression of the idea of purity which this arcanum III must contain (in Latin, limpiare means to purify). Moreover, the thin blue serpent uncoiling itself around her feet is there to signify the purity of the subterranean waters. But this little serpent may immediately make us think of the Great Serpent of Genesis, on which Mary-the-Pure, Mary of the Christians, placed her foot. This Virgin-Mother leads us to think of the Virgin-Mothers of Antiquity, which LIMPÉRATRICE also symbolises. There is therefore a relationship between LIMPÉRATRICE and the Virgin, and in consequence, we shall pursue our inquiry by assimilating it to the constellation of Virgo. Continuing our investigation, we note the rectangular jewel she wears on a necklace, and in the midst of which we find a triangle. A minute analysis shows that it one of the constructions of the number Phi, that is, the Golden Number! Similarly, the study of the colours gives us a hint of the alchemical symbolism and gives us some solid information as to the Mercury of the Wise.

A Secret Code

We thus see that each hieroglyph contains a number of interpretative levels, and that it is only after a long apprenticeship that we will know how to handle this set of the Sacred Alphabet. But the reader should not be discouraged, for if the very beginning is somewhat disarming, the spirit lends itself very quickly to this gymnastic which becomes a game. And this game is the source of increasingly intense joy. It would be a pity to become discouraged before having even begun its study. It is then that one will discover even more surprising secrets than this system of games of ideas; for example, the principle of the Barcodes, well known to retailers nowadays, was already well underway in this Tarot in the 18th century!

Thus, some arcana bear, on either side of the title, small bars which are easy to count and which refer the reader to other arcana bearing the same number in their header. So, by examining arcanum VIII, named LA JUSTICE, we can count nine bars to the left of the title, and eleven to the right, which refers us to arcanum VIIII (and not IX, nothing can be negative!). This ninth arcanum is called L’HERMITE, and symbolises, among other things, reflection, retreat from the profane world, the inner flame, the slowing down of time, and in consequence, a certain wisdom. On the other hand, the eleven bars refer us to LA FORCE; which, beyond its signification of force, teaches us silence (the one one voluntarily maintains) and also self-mastery. It then seems obvious that this system of bars has not been fortuitously placed here since it expresses well that in order to render Justice, one must have some reflection, silence and self-mastery. It is then that justice may be rendered. Now if we add these two arcanum together, we obtain twenty, which refers us to arcanum XX, which is called LE JUGEMENT!

A Mine of Knowledge

A great deal of other marvels are, more or less deeply buried, within the bosom of this Tarot. One need but study each arcanum, simply, and with one’s eyes and mind wide open, to discover them. Thus, after what we have seen by solely observing five arcana of the Major Arcana (the 22 principle arcana, which many use by systematically excluding the other so-called Minor Arcana), we may be the same token discover just as much, if not more, amidst the Minor Arcana. For instance, we can see that the REYNE D’EPEE knows how to divide the circle into thirteen equal parts, her horseman divides this circle into seven equal parts, and the VALET into five! Without speaking of the ROY DE BATON who gives us the inclination of the earth, and his VALET who plants Pythagoras’ theorem into the ground…

Mathematics are not the only thing present in these arcana; biology and botany are not forgotten either, no more than astronomy or philosophy or medicine. The Tarot of Marseilles is much more than a mere alphabet, it is a very complete encyclopaedia of the knowledge of the age. Nevertheless, it is important to consider it above all as a very efficient language system, a language which enables us to communicate in a universal fashion, regardless of the mother tongue of one’s interlocutor. To be sure, the Tarot of Marseilles is a game elaborated in French, and it is certain that the word play and play of ideas are more easily perceptible for someone who has perfectly mastered that language. Nonetheless, the quality of the drawing and the various narratives hiding beneath it allow for a very broad grasp of its concepts.

How then might we use it as a language? Exactly in the same way as with any other alphabet. The four letters “O,” “M,” “R,” “A,” enable us to write the words ROMA, AMOR, OMAR, MARO, the first two being Latin, the third in Arabic, and the last one in Breton. In the same way, the assembly of the arcana in one position or another will show one idea or another, and experienced in this reading by a deep study of the basic schemas, we will easily understand the signification of this or that sequence, the first thing to do being to place oneself on a level perfectly defined in advance.

Approximate Copies

Now I can already see you taking a magnifying glass and not finding the little bars in the title header of your deck. They no longer exist in the recently-manufactured decks, as the illustrators who have succeeded each other to transmit this marvel down to us did not always know to look attentively, and often, did not understand that what they took to be printing errors or scribal errors were in reality perfectly deliberate. It is then that the barcodes vanished, that LE TOULE, that natural and beneficial basin of fresh water,* became L’ETOILE, when it was not “Les Étoiles,” or even “The Stars”!

Thankfully, the Bibliothèque Nationale has preserved a number of ancient decks, such as that by Nicolas Conver dating from 1760, and a publisher had the good idea to republish it in its original format (Tarot de Marseille, Héron Boechat). This is currently the only Tarot of Marseilles that is usable for deeply studying the Sacred Book that is the Tarot.

It is obvious that the other tarots, created over the course of centuries by artists in love with these images, all have a great value, not only artistic, but symbolic and initiatory. Furthermore, they have an undeniable function: that of bringing new adepts to the practice and to the reading of the Tarot of Marseille! There are twelve doors to the Temple of the Celestial Jerusalem! Each must be able to choose his own, just as each must be able to choose his own way in order to penetrate the consciousness of the Tarot of Marseilles. For the ones, it will be pure meditation, considering each arcanum as a mandala, for the others, each arcanum will be the reflection of his own mind, or the mind of his interlocutor. Some will even see nothing but a game to win a few dirty coppers, and others yet will find nothing but the means to sate their collector’s passion, but all these uses are a good thing.

In this way, the Tarot of Marseilles has crossed the centuries to come down to us, and we can, at the end of the twentieth century, take it in hand, study it deeply and in profound sympathy, in order to grasp the inexpressible, as Bergson might have said.

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* Note: Le Toule, allegedly a Provençal term meaning ‘spring,’ or ‘small pond,’ although we have been been unable to substantiate this etymology. Typically, this interpretation is used to bolster the theory of a French origin for the Tarot. – Trans.
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