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André Derain: Criterium of the Aces

Translator’s Introduction

“The only matter in painting is light.” — André Derain

The creative and intellectual ferment of the first decades of the twentieth century gave rise to some of the more daring and thought-provoking theories of the Tarot, speculative, to be sure, but otherly engaging than the occultist elucubrations of the preceding century. At the centre of the interlocking circles of mysticism, avant-garde literature, and the arts, to give but one example, we find the person of André Derain. Derain is best known as an artist, one of the chief representatives of Fauvism, before becoming an exponent of classicism and of a ‘Return to Order.

Derain, like many of his contemporaries, had an abiding interest in things esoteric, notably the Tarot, and this interest extended beyond the confines of text and the printed page to the card- and Tarot-inspired prints he produced for an edition of Rabelais’ Pantagruel, to the costumes he designed for the ballet La boutique fantasque (the subject of an exhibition held in recent years in the Musée Français de la Carte à Jouer in Issy-les-Moulineaux next to Paris), and indeed, to actual cartomancy and fortune-telling, according to anecdotes related by André Breton, among others.

Breton recalls: “I place highly the memory of those hours spent alone with him in his workshop on the rue Bonaparte where, in between two soliloquies on medieval art and thought, he read the tarot for me.” (« C’est à vous de parler, jeune voyant des choses… », XXe Siècle, n° 3, June 1952, p. 29.) (In passing, the relations between the Surrealists, for instance, and the occult are well-documented and need not detain us here.)

As one art historian notes, “Derain’s notebooks and letters reveal that he had studied the Cabala, astrology, Pythagoras, Buddhism, the Tarot, Charles Henry’s mathematical theories, numerology, Wagner’s operas, Nietzsche and Plotinus (neo-platonism was one of the few constants in Derain’s ideology). […] Derain had the advantage of perceiving how philosophical theories and mystical beliefs of the most diverse kind could be woven into a personal aesthetic, just as antithetical styles could be welded into a pictorial synthesis.” (John Richardson, A Life of Picasso. Vol. II: 1907-1917: The Painter of Modern Life, Pimlico, 1997, p 74.)

One will find a more extensive examination of some of Derain’s arcane influences, and his own thoughts, in the detailed article by Rosanna Warren, A Metaphysic of Painting: The Notes of Andre Derain. According to Warren, “Derain made the dynamic relation between the individual soul and the world spirit the central metaphor of his life.” (op. cit. p. 98) Nowhere is this ‘dynamic relation’ more apparent than in the ‘divinatory support’ or medium, of which the Tarot is the pre-eminent example.

This article, Critérium des As, was published in the Surrealist journal Minotaure, n° 3-4, December 1933, Éditions Albert Skira, supposedly at the request of André Breton. The title of the article is a reference to a famous French bicycle race, the Critérium des As (Race of the Aces), which was held from 1921 to 1990. The word ‘criterium’ denotes a bicycle race of a specified number of laps on a closed circuit. In French, As, no more than the English ‘Ace’, also means a very skilled person. In addition, Derain also designed the Tarot-inspired cover of the issue in question.

This piece allegedly “made a lot of noise at the time,” although we have been unable to find any evidence for this assertion by Jean Laude (in La Peinture française (1905-1914) et l’art nègre, Klincksieck, 1968, p. 149, n. 86). It has also been labelled “a little treatise on the Tarot,” and in spite of its brevity and its airs of modernist blank verse, that is precisely what it is. One specialist, Simone Perks, has described it as “a highly recondite reading of four ancient playing cards […] which reads as a delirious poetic extemporization.” Patrick Lepetit calls it “a poetic text with highly esoteric connotations.” Looking carefully at the text and images, it appears to us that beneath this poetry lies a meticulously crafted piece with a rigorous underlying logic.

In effect, rather than reflecting an essentialist conception of the four immutable elements of classical antiquity, Derain’s view of the four Aces is to be put in parallel with the Chinese cosmological theory of the five phases and their sequences of mutual generation and destruction. It is not known whether this is what Derain had in mind, but his taste for collecting Chinese artwork is well known and it is possible he may have read something on the subject. (The monumental work on the subject in French, La pensée chinoise by Marcel Granet, was only published the following year, in 1934, although there were plenty of outlines of Chinese thought available prior to that.) A similar idea would later be proposed, for instance, in the article ‘The Tarot, the Seasons and the Five Chinese Elements’ by Swami Prem Sudheer, published in the Hermetic Journal, n° 10, Winter 1980, pp. 39-42. On the other hand, one could argue that the four Aces, rather than representing the four elements in a pure, abstract state, represent instead manifest, tangible and therefore mixed forms, and are thus subject to the Aristotelean scheme of generation and corruption, thereby undergoing the evolutionary cycle.

Whatever his ultimate sources, Derain’s notion of the transformative potential of the Aces of the four suits is to be related to a view of the elements-phases that may best be described as operative. As Rosanna Warren says, “Derain’s world is one of Baudelairean correspondences. Every thing becomes meaningful through its perceived relationship to other things and to other realms of experiences.” (op. cit. p. 96)

The idea that the implements on the Juggler’s table and the wand held in his hand are the representations of the emblems of the four suits is a staple of the occultist view of the Tarot, one that dates back to the writings of Éliphas Lévi (Dogme et rituel de la haute magie, 1861) and his erstwhile disciple Paul Christian (L’homme rouge des Tuileries, 1863). Moreover, Lévi’s influential work Dogme et rituel de la haute magie contains an allusion to the symbolic slaying of the bull in the tauroctony of the Mithraic Mysteries, correlating the ace of Swords with the element of earth onto which the bull’s blood is spilt. This may provide the connection between Derain’s cover art (and the title of the journal) and the content of his article. Given the foregoing, it is safe to assume that Lévi, Christian, or their followers were Derain’s inspiration in this regard. More hazardous is the tentative idea that Derain’s text contains systematic and meaningful allusions to the other trump cards themselves, although we mention it here in passing, without proposing a hypothesis, for those who love enigmas…

Derain’s cover design has also given rise to some speculation; the Italian art historian Arturo Schwarz suggests that the four cards represent “perhaps an allusion to the four natures of the mythical animal” (‘Minotaure,’ FMR, n°31, 1988, p. 20), without saying what these four natures are: the Minotaur is generally considered as having two natures: man and bull (cf. Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 15.1, citing Euripides). Without pursuing the matter too deeply, it may be the case that the four cards in question represent the combat of Theseus against the Minotaur, an interpretation made possible by following the sequence of the cards in the same order as that of the four Aces: the intrepid Theseus (I) enters the labyrinth (XII), kills the Minotaur (XI), then escapes (XXII). This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that Derain himself added the number XXII to the Fool card, thereby giving it the expression of finality.

One will note, in addition to the Biblical references to King Solomon and to Aaron’s rod, the references to the constructive symbolism of both Compagnonnage and Freemasonry, and their initiatory allegories such as the Hiram legend. Less obviously, there are references to alchemical symbolism and the Grail myth. Although Derain does not appear to have been a Freemason, his interest in the writings of Martinez de Pasqually is well attested.

Derain’s piece appears to have gone largely unnoticed, although it has been mentioned on a few rare occasions and translations of brief excerpts appear in The Esoteric Secrets of Surrealism: Origins, Magic, and Secret Societies by Patrick Lepetit, which provides a comprehensive overview of the wider context, and in the dissertation From Ancient Greece to Surrealism: The Changing Faces of the Minotaur by Brenton Pahl (pp. 24-25).

The original punctuation (or lack thereof) and typography of the piece has been preserved insofar as possible, and we have endeavoured to adapt Derain’s free-flowing syntax to the genius of the English language. The original text may be found here on page 8. Due to the limitations of the blog formatting, we have been unable to replicate the particular layout of the piece, with the four cards in the corners and the text in the shape of a cross (see below). The Tarot deck used to illustrate the cover of the journal and Derain’s piece is a Besançon Tarot by Jean Jerger, printed between 1820 and 1845, and the illustrations we have used come from a very similar (if not identical) deck held in the Bibliothèque nationale. The smile on the face of the Juggler on the cover was added by Derain himself, as was the number XXII on the card of the Fool. (The image of the Juggler did not appear within the article itself.)

Minotaure n° 3-4, December 1933, cover by André Derain

* * *

Criterium of the Aces

André Derain

a word to the Wise!

Make way for the unrepentant Juggler, orator painter whose mouth shall be sewn up with strong leather laces, like a shoe, the shoe of the Hanged Man, “twelfth card.”

Here neither Good nor Evil nor Time nor Space nothing but the Eternal Present, privilege of the Image

Image that animates the one who desires it.

Anxious souls concerned with the Future, the Aces will reassure you.

There is no Future, let us predict it !! and let us defy the Devil who deals us the cards.

Table of the Juggler
here then are the four ACES


Flowering branch picked in the springtime of the World!
Magician’s Wand or sorcerer’s lightning-bolt rod you make water spring from the rock you strike.
Beautiful flowering stick of the devouring journeyman in which he will carve his Rule, a Rule which will lead his work to perfection. Forgotten one evening of exhaustion his apprentice will seize it and strike the Master, great Architect of the TEMPLE and kill him.
Sprig of acacia you will flower his grave.
Insignia of command you make Tears spring from the thief you punish as with the Rock and spur on the THE steed you lash.
Companion of the lost traveller, you protect him at night
Finally support of the exhausted old man you are thrown in the Fire when he dies.
You thus rekindle the flames of the burning hearth which will smelt the precious Metal, substance of the coin.


The fire of the Wand smelts the Metal become stream the light Metal fixed in the hollow of the abysses which the fire resuscitates makes supple agile and brilliant your lost drops take as they cool the shape of the Stars and like them at Night are the reflection of the Day.
Chief, powerful and wealthy in artifice you manage human societies, you sustain passion. You are instability even indifference and dispersion.
Alone, in the universe, without vice and without virtue you confer them according to your will to the most disparate beings and objects. making the strong stronger you annihilate the weak.
Great Master of Chance, you go, you come, you disappear without a trace.
Thanks to the flowering Wand the still burning Fire of a tougher metal will melt us.


The Flame fixed in the Steel, the flame that burns flesh with its sharp point. gives its shape to the Sword which pierces provoking Wound and Pain.
The flame crosses THE NIGHT.
In the splendour of the Day. the solar ray Sword of the World transpierces the clouds.
Instrument of anger and of Hatred it engenders Murder and suffering.
It delivers the frightened Hero and arms the hand of the criminal with the same fervour.
Indistinctly it is the support of outraged honour or else the dark tool of crime
It cuts the flowers transpierces the Trees
Scores the Earth cleaves Stones chops Wood.
It finally pierces the Heart whose tearful blood will spread on the ground.
Blood eager to rejoin the Vase which will hold it, a new Wound that desires it. it is


new heart desiring to retain and to keep, thirsty for the liquid passionate for whom abandon is death.
You once were the Bronze vase built by the hands of Hiram to measure those things contained and Measurable concern for Equity obsession of Solomon.
Cup of Dew you are the Red Rose. Mirror of the Sun
You spread yourself over the Fire you quench
You slake the thirst of man till the Drunkenness that brings him closer to his God.
Emblem of the oath and of lasting friendships.
Finally spilt in the Earth you make the flowered Branch reborn New ACE which will open up to us the doors of the next Cycle if the painter does not decide to remain hung between the two Trees.
Head down sleeping the sleep of the bat clutched on to the ceiling of the caverns
The image of the FOOL advises Prudence for the dog cruelly bites the legs of the half-savant.

Let us rest on this Cloud.

* * *

Derain’s original piece

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Monique Streiff Moretti: The Isis of the Tarot, or the Birth of a Myth

Translator’s Introduction

A subterranean current is awakened by the growing prestige of an unknown civilisation to become a genuine obsession. Begun in a mixture of folk and classical traditions, the Egyptian tale takes shape and develops beneath the sign of erudition. All the ancient and modern writings, unknown authors, are all gathered and methodically commented, to which are added exegeses and scholia. An archaeology and an iconography of monuments, whether authentic, imaginary or false, linguistic, ethnological and scientific systems are all set to the task. It is a baroque architecture in the making to the glory of a fantastic Egypt. The legend of a myth, which was itself a work of poetry and a novel, often reaches the domains of the absurd, and evolves in the impossible. This is why the mythographers of our time have generally excluded it from the fields of their preoccupations, or neglected it.” – Jurgis Baltrušaitis, La Quête d’Isis, Flammarion, p.13.

Statue of Isis

The phenomenon known as “Egyptomania” is the subject of a growing body of literature, from various points of view, from among which the interested reader may consult the following general works: Bob Brier, Egyptomania: Our Three Thousand Year Obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs, St. Martin’s Press, 2013; Ronald H. Fritze, Egyptomania: A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy, Reaktion Books, 2016; James Stevens Curl, Egyptomania: The Egyptian Revival, a Recurring Theme in the History of Taste, Manchester University Press, 1994; or the following articles: Claudia Gyss, “The Roots of Egyptomania and Orientalism: From The Renaissance to the Nineteenth Century,” in Desmond Hosford et Chong J. Wojtkowski eds., French Orientalism: Culture, Politics, and the Imagined Other, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010 [pp.106-123]; Jean-Marcel Humbert, “Egyptomania”, in Michel Delon (ed.), Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, vol. 1: A-L, Routledge, 2001, or Antoine Faivre’s entry in the Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism, s.v. ‘Egyptomany,’ Brill, 2005. On the subject of the hieroglyphs and their study, one may profitably consult The Myth of Egypt and Its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition by Erik Iversen, Princeton University Press, 1993. More directly relevant to our subject is Erik Hornung’s The Secret Lore of Egypt, Cornell University Press, 2001. For a scholarly translation and analysis of the myth of Isis and Osiris, see the works Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride (1970) and The Origins of Osiris and his Cult (1980) by J. Gwyn Griffiths. Incidentally, Isis Studies is a growing academic discipline in its own right, with a concomitant body of literature.

The study of the influence of this Egyptomania on the Tarot, its iconography and its historiography, has not escaped the attention of scholars, and there are now a number of works dealing with this aspect of Tarot history and myth in some depth. A Cultural History of Tarot by Helen Farley is one such example. Unfortunately, this work is very uneven and marred by all manner of mistakes. One example, not to labour the point, is that the crude illustrations in volume 8 of Court de Gébelin’s Le Monde Primitif are attributable – “probably” – to … Jean-Marie Lhôte! No one would be more surprised to learn this than the man himself, still among us, at over 94 years of age, although he would no doubt be delighted at this circular turn of events, he himself being responsible for identifying the artist, one Mademoiselle Linote. The article Out of Africa: Tarot‟s Fascination With Egypt by the same author is little more than a descriptive and uncritical list of dates, names and books, without any serious analysis, although it may be useful as a reference timeline.

For an in-depth examination of the origins and development of the so-called “occult Tarot,” one must turn to A Wicked Pack of Cards. The Origins of the Occult Tarot, by Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett, Duckworth, 2002; and for a fairly comprehensive overview of the general background and later fortune of this “occult Tarot”, A History of the Occult Tarot by Michael Dummett and Ronald Decker, Duckworth, 2002. These two books, along with Dummett’s groundbreaking The Game of Tarot, may be considered the fundamental works on the subject in English, although they very much focus on the personalities behind the writings on the occult Tarot rather than on the milieu that gave rise to them. Typically, works on the subject tend to focus on the Renaissance and the hermeticising or neo-Platonic circles of the time, rather than on the more pertinent developments of the Enlightenment, most notably Freemasonry.

The book by the Egyptologist, Erik Hornung, The Secret Lore of Egypt, Cornell University Press, 2001, is perhaps the work that comes closest to providing the most comprehensive examination of the Egyptian question from the point of view of cultural and intellectual history. However, despite containing one chapter devoted to Freemasonry and another to the Tarot, only one line in each mentions the subject of the present article: Court de Gébelin’s singular and seminal contribution, the two essays on the Tarot found in the eight volume of his Monde primitif analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne [“The Primeval World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World”], published in 1781. The chapter on Freemasonry provides insight into the early Egyptian-inspired Masonic rites and regimes, but otherwise focuses on the figure of Cagliostro, while the chapter on Tarot focuses on later periods, from the Parisian occultists of the Belle Époque and the Theosophical Society to more recent developments. This is all the more regrettable in that Baltrušaitis’ earlier work, cited in epigraph, also lacks a chapter on the subject, as the author of the following piece notes.

A more recent work, Napoleon’s Sorcerers, by art historian Darius Spieth, sheds light on the murky world of the Sophisians, an obscure sect of para-Masonic origin, who had concrete links to Egypt by way of Napoleon’s military campaign in that country. Although that work does not mention the Tarot, and the society in question in fact very slightly post-dates Court de Gébelin’s work, it provides extensive insight into the origins, members, activities and goals of a contemporaneous secret society entirely taken by the myth of Egyptian wisdom. One must bear in mind, in this respect, that the theory of the supposed Egyptian origins of the Tarot is coterminous to that which imputes the same origins to Freemasonry, as well as to the elaboration of the first rites of so-called Egyptian Masonry by the adventurer known as Cagliostro, which we may date to 1781. (Leaving aside putative predecessors, information on which is scarce and subject to caution, and which will be the subject of a future essay.) Florence Quentin summarises the issue by saying: “The egyptomania of the 18th century and the beginnings of Masonry were contemporaneous, they mingled all the more easily in that the role of religion and its institutions were then being debated.” (Isis l’Eternelle) On the links between Freemasonry and Egypt, whether real or imaginary, one will consult the book by Barbara De Poli, Freemasonry and the Orient: Esotericisms between the East and the West, 2019, especially chapters 1-3.

This is by no means an exhaustive, or even a critical bibliography. One of the most fundamental works on the subject remains unavailable in English translation, La Quête d’Isis by the Lithuanian art historian Jurgis Baltrušaitis. Similarly, a serious and scholarly edition of Court de Gébelin’s 40-odd pages on the Tarot in English is as yet a major desideratum, despite an annotated edition by one of the leading scholars being available in French for four decades. The translations of the essays by Court and de Mellet by the polemicist Jess Karlin (pseudonym of Glenn F. Wright) in his Rhapsodies of the Bizarre, and the very recent publication of Donald Tyson’s Essential Tarot Writings, go some way to address this lacuna, and generous excerpts are provided in the works by Dummett et al. listed above. We have already noted that a period manuscript translation has also been recently digitised. This is to say that, despite this profusion of works on the subject, there is very little to definitively give the lie to Baltrušaitis as quoted above.

The context provided by works such as those listed above, and especially, those by Lhôte , Hornung, Spieth, and Baltrušaitis, to which we may also add the 2 volumes of Auguste Viatte’s Les sources occultes du romantisme, sheds much-needed light on the manner in which what may now appear as merely “bad history,” conjectural speculation tarted up as fact, or even deliberate mystification, managed to mask itself to later generations of researchers and historians, with the predictable result that it would be first assigned – faute de mieux – to history, and later, written off by serious scholars as pertaining to the domain of fiction – rather than being dealt with, as it behoves, as an attempt at historiography, or a fortiori, mythography.

Knowledge of this context is crucial in order to arrive at a critical understanding of the accumulated elucubrations of almost two and half centuries of Tarot literature, which is the point of the following article, the signal importance of which consists in, not in the mere lining up of a series of facts and conjectures, but in interpreting the facts such as they are known, with close reference to the primary text, the sources upon which the author drew for its elaboration, its presiding ideas and thrust, as well as the uses to which it was put. That is to say that it conclusively demonstrates Court de Gébelin’s writings as being the articulation of the founding myth of the occult Tarot.

Portrait of Court de Gébelin

One serious flaw in the existing Tarot literature, whether popular or scholarly, has been to neglect to examine Court’s writings on the Tarot within the context of his greater body of work, a most unfortunate omission. Added to this, taking his speculations on the Tarot at face value, or by the same token, rejecting them outright, has also resulted in some equally unfortunate misunderstandings. The purpose of publishing this translation is to present a more nuanced view of the origins of the so-called occult Tarot, and to provide further indications which the interested reader may choose to pursue.

Bucking the trend, mention must be made, once again, of Dummett, Decker and Depaulis, who call Le Monde Primitif “a monument to misdirected erudition” (op. cit. p. 56), an assessment that is harsh but fair, though, as we shall see, it is perhaps the latter who are misdirected as to the true intent of the work. In any event, A Wicked Pack of Cards (pp. 56-57) gives a very brief overview of the work and its content. For a comprehensive summary of the thought of Court de Gébelin in English, one must consult F. E. Manuel’s ’The Great Order of Court de Gébelin’ in the work The Eighteenth-Century Confronts the Gods, Harvard University Press, 1959. Ronald Grimsley’s From Montesquieu to Laclos: Studies on the French Enlightenment (Droz, 1974, pp. 23-26) provides a good summary of Court’s ideas, although citations are left untranslated. We have adapted his opening summary and translated the citations into English.

“Convinced of the universality of language, he proposed to seek “the analogy of all languages,” which were ultimately to be reduced to a single form – “the primitive language bestowed by nature.” More especially, he insisted on the idea of a universal order and harmony in which every particular element had its appointed place. Language therefore, was not the result of mere chance but followed the universal rule that “everything has a cause and a reason.” Moreover, since the spoken word is given by nature herself, “nature alone can guide us in the search for all she has produced, and alone can explain the wonders of speech.” Gébelin believed that with “nature” and “primitive religion” as his guide, he could make an illuminating philological study of ancient religion, mythology and history.”

Another reason Court’s work has been systematically overlooked in the Tarot world is the fact that, by and large, the only serious attention it has received has been in largely unpublished doctoral theses, unavailable to the general reader, and treating of philology, linguistics and seemingly unrelated specialised subjects. Let us cite a couple, for the enterprising reader: Joseph George Reish, Antoine Court de Gébelin, Eighteenth-Century Thinker and Linguist. An Appraisal, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1972; William Henry Alexander, Antoine Court de Gébelin and his Monde Primitive, Stanford, 1974. For more in-depth analyses of this dense work, one must consult Gérard Genette’s ‘Generalized Hieroglyphics’ in Mimologics, University of Nebraska Press, 1995; and especially, Anne-Marie Mercier-Faivre’s important body of work, notably, ‘Le Monde primitif d’Antoine Court de Gébelin, ou le rêve d’une encyclopédie solitaire,’ ‘Antoine Court de Gébelin et le mythe des origines,’ in Porset and Révauger, Franc-maçonnerie et religions dans l’Europe des Lumières, Champion, 1988; ‘Le Langage d’Images de Court de Gébelin’ in Politica Hermetica vol. 11, 1997; Un supplément à « l’Encyclopédie » : le «Monde Primitif» d ‘Antoine Court de Gébelin, suivi d’une édition du « Génie allégorique et symbolique de l’Antiquité », extrait du «Monde Primitif» (1773), Champion, 1999; and, in English, her biographical entry on Court in the Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Brill, 2005.

The idea that secular Masonic ideals sought to replace Christian values is one dear to Catholic apologists, repentant (or unabashed) Freemasons and conspiracy theorists of all stripes, beginning with Barruel’s Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme in 1797-1798, Cadet de Gassicourt’s Le Tombeau de Jacques de Molay, ou Histoire secrète et abrégée des initiés anciens et modernes, templiers, francs-maçons, illuminés, 1796-1797, and John Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free-Masons, Illuminati and Reading Societies, 1798, to name but a few. Although this theory of the Masonic origins of the French Revolution has been disproved in its particulars, there is nonetheless a certain commonality of purpose among these movements and societies that must be examined, pace Albert Soboul and his La franc-maçonnerie et la Révolution française, as shown by Charles Porset in his Hiram Sans‑Culotte ? Franc-maçonnerie, Lumières et Révolution (Honoré Champion, 1998). This is equally true of what may be called the “myth of Egypt” and its contribution to Enlightenment or revolutionary ideals, a contribution detailed in the article by Michel Malaise, La révolution française et l’Égypte ancienne.

This is also the view of mainstream scholars, such as Claudia Gyss, who writes that: “Concurrent with the evolution of views on Egypt from the fantastic to the scientific and Orientalism, Egyptian art also served political functions. […] Egyptian art became an instrument of propaganda, and antiquity became the object of a true cult.” (op. cit., p. 116.) Similarly, Florence Quentin notes that: “All these fables (which relate, as we have see, to egyptomania) will fuel a revolutionary movement which will seek to emancipate itself from Christian authority by attempting to establish a syncretism which would unify all the cults of humanity. … In its effort to struggle against Christianity all the while opening up other symbolic and religious (in the sense of religare, “to bind”) fields, the Revolution will in its turn make use of Isis.” (Isis l’Eternelle) Dame Frances Yates notes that, “The cult of a Supreme Being, using Egyptian symbols, was the religion of the Revolution.”  Baltrušaitis, for his part, states that: “The Revolution combatted the Church by reanimating the Egyptian divinities” (op. cit. p. 46); “Egyptian theogony became a instrument of atheism, and at the same time, a temptation, and a secret belief” (p. 79); and “Egypt is no longer a myth that rubs shoulders with the Old Testament and which is elevated by the vision of the Gospels, which it prefigures. The Egyptian myth now serves to dismantle Christianity, reduced to the category of a primitive religion. […] Every anti-religious struggle ends in religion. It is less the destruction of one cult than its replacement by another. Christianity being, for the theoreticians of sidereal dogmas, a later, disfigured form of the first theogony of man, the truth is reestablished in a return to the origins. […] A Freemasonic fantasy? Perhaps… but beneath the signs of the times, for all the promoters of these intellectual systems, from Court de Gébelin to Lenoir were Freemasons.” (pp. 307-308.) As far as Court is concerned, as Baltrušaitis says, “by his encyclopaedic spirit and his liberalism, he belongs to the line of philosophers and economists who prepared the Revolution.” (op. cit. p. 28.) Frances Yates will not say otherwise: “Gébelin died before the outbreak of the Revolution but he held an important position in the intellectual world of liberals and philosophes which was moving toward it.” (op. cit.)

The peculiarly mythographic type of subversive undertaking was further developed by Charles-François Dupuis in his ambitious Origine de tous les Cultes, ou la Réligion Universelle, published in 1795 to Masonic acclaim. Incidentally, Dupuis’ work also allegedly contributed to spark Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign – yet another Egyptian connection, although the political, military and commercial reasons for the campaign remain much more prosaic. (On the Egyptian Campaign, see Napoleon in Egypt by Paul Strathern, Napoleon’s Egypt by Juan Cole, Bonaparte in Egypt by J. Christopher Herold, and Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt by Nina Burleigh. On Freemasonry and the Egyptian expedition, see Les francs-maçons de l’Expédition d’Egypte by Alain Quéruel.) Dupuis, writing in the Revolutionary era, was able to go further than Court had in his critical interpretation of religion and myth. Dupuis, “disciple of the astronomer and Freemason Lalande and successor of Court de Gébelin, is frequently quoted with approval in the freemasonic writings. He also thinks that the base of all religions is exactly the same. It is simply sun-worship, or the worship of nature or the generative forces, born in Egypt. The various fables and myths, including Christianity, are but astronomical allegories, of which the most recent are the most bizarre. In effect, the dominant idea of his Origin of All Religious Worship is that Christianity is but a fiction or an error, a sequence of allegories copied on the sacred fictions of the Orientals. Even more critical than Court de Gébelin, Dupuis describes religions as diseases to be eliminated.” (Helena Rosenblatt, ‘Nouvelles perspectives sur De la religion: Benjamin Constant et la Franc-maçonnerie’, Annales Benjamin Constant, N° 23-24, 2000, p. 146.) F. E. Manuel sums up the nature of their works accurately when he states that, “The writings of Court de Gébelin and Dupuis … are memorable more for their influence – like the revolutionary oratory they resemble – than for their intrinsic worth …” (op. cit. p. 249) Dupuis’ lasting contribution to religious studies, in one way or another, will have been the elaboration of the controversial ‘Christ Myth‘ theory.

Another eminent Freemason and Egyptianising savant, Alexandre Lenoir, would also follow more or less directly in the Court’s footsteps, elevating the myth of Egypt to ever more dizzying heights in his work La franche-maçonnerie rendue à sa véritable origine, and in his numerous other works of Egyptology. The works of Freemasons such as Nicolas de Bonneville, Lenoir, Ragon, and the other successors of Court explicitly outline the perceived elective affinities between the hieratic initiatory institutions of ancient Egypt, on the one hand, and the progressive and equally initiatory Masonic values on the other. Rosenblatt (op. cit., pp. 148-149) provides entire pages of relevant – and highly telling – quotations, which only serve to highlight the fundamental  and inherent contradiction between the elitist, esoteric, nature of Freemasonry, and its professed egalitarianism and rationalism. This paradox forms the basis for the detailed article by Michel Malaise, La révolution française et l’Égypte ancienne.  Another contradiction, symbolic this time, is further underlined by Hornung when he notes that the orientation of the modern Masonic myth of Egypt “is not toward the “Beautiful West” of the ancient Egyptian afterlife but rather toward the “Eternal East.”” (op. cit., p. 127.)

Je suis toujours la grande Isis! Nul n’a encore soulevé mon voile! – Odilon Redon, 1896.

As Dame Frances Yates noted in her review of Sir Michael Dummett’s book, “The role of Freemasonry, with its Hermetic-Egyptian rituals, is a force very much to be reckoned with in all this movement.” (In the Cards, New York Review of Books, February 19, 1981.) Further examining the matter, Jean-Marcel Humbert says that, “The ties uniting Freemasonry – which officially drew its vital strength from the sources of ancient Egypt – to Isis are of course very close, as with Egyptomania in general.” (Jean-Marcel Humbert, ‘Les nouveaux mystères d’Isis, ou les avatars d’un mythe du XVIe au XXe siècle,’ in L. Bricault ed. De Memphis à Rome, 2000, p. 171) And as the Masonic historian Gérard Galtier states, “There exists, thus […] a revolutionary element in the Egyptian Rites which is their spiritual reference and their desire for an attachment to a non-Christian tradition. Note that during the Revolution itself, the Egyptian influence affected the revolutionary cults, such as that devoted to the goddess Reason.” (Gérard Galtier, ‘L’époque révolutionnaire et le retour aux Mystères antiques : la naissance des rites égyptiens de la maçonnerie,’ in Politica Hermetica n°3, « Gnostiques et mystiques autour de la Révolution française », 1989, p. 124)

The question then arises as to how and why the Freemasons of the late 18th century became associated in such an enterprise, namely, the reanimation of an Egyptian deity, to use Baltrušaitis’s terms, when many of them were in fact devout Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, and in some cases, churchmen themselves. One must bear in mind that the anti-clericalism associated with French Freemasonry only took off in earnest from the mid-nineteenth century. The schism within Freemasonry, resulting in the so-called Anglo-Saxon and Continental traditions, dates to 1869, then 1877, when the split was fully consummated on account of the French Grand Orient removing the need for candidates to profess a theistic belief. This answer to this question lies both at the periphery, and paradoxically, at the heart of the matter.

One may surmise that perceived deeper affinities between religions of antiquity and the Christian faith led to a certain Masonic form of perennialism, following which the outward religious form was considered but a simulacrum; changeable, replaceable, and ultimately disposable. This notion of elective affinities between Freemasonry and the reanimated goddess, so to speak, or so-called Goddess worship, has even led some to think that the phenomenon was a conscious and deliberate one. See, for example, the decidedly unscholarly but nonetheless interesting work by William Bond, Freemasonry And The Hidden Goddess, which elaborates considerably on this point. Florence Quentin, for her part, will state that: “In Masonry, the goddess always appears beneath the surface, as though it were impossible to get rid of the feminine from every initiation or authentic spiritual path, were they “reserved” to circles of men… […] It is difficult, as we see, in a period in which the Convention has overthrown the dominant religion, to escape symbolisation (which has been definitively shown to structure society), especially if it takes the shape of the universal Great Mother…” (Isis l’Eternelle) The article by Jean-Marcel Humbert, ‘Les nouveaux mystères d’Isis, ou les avatars d’un mythe du XVIe au XXe siècle,’ (in L. Bricault ed. De Memphis à Rome, 2000, pp. 163-188) provides a thorough academic overview of the process of this “reanimation” and its various avatars.

Further considerations of this type lie beyond the scope of the present introduction, suffice to say that the use of myth, in this respect, could be examined more closely in the Sorelian perspective, to name but one, in addition to that of Lévi-Strauss.

The ultimately socio-political nature of Court de Gébelin’s enterprise is further underscored by Sophia Rosenfeld, who writes that:

“many of the initial members of the Loge des Neuf Soeurs […] manifested a profound interest in prescriptive language planning and semiotic experimentation, moving away from “usage” or “custom” toward an historic notion of “nature” or “reason” as a guideline. Furthermore, the members of this latter group tended to see their plans for improved communication as efforts on behalf of the good of the public as a whole. Indeed, some even argued that rational language reform would ultimately be instrumental in bringing about cognitive and, consequently, social and moral transformations in the future.

Especially important in this regard was the work of Antoine Court de Gébelin, whose home has become the meeting place for the lodge beginning in 1778. Throughout the decade of the 1770s, in a series of massive volumes entitled Le Monde primitif analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne, Court de Gébelin had set about trying to rediscover and to catalogue the original, universal mother tongue, the collection of radical sounds and images he took to be given by and representative of nature – or, in Genette’s terms, “mimological” – rather than arbitrary. […] But it is important note that what drove Court de Gébelin in this quest was not simply antiquarianism or a fascination with the burgeoning field of comparative linguistics. The physiocratic philosopher believed that the discovery and reconstruction of this original idiom, or protolanguage, would allow modern men nothing less than a chance to uncover the timeless, natural laws governing human happiness, and thereby to restore peace and prosperity on earth. For Court de Gébelin insisted that this lost knowledge, both visual and aural, would provide the key to the construction of a superior, modern language, one which would aid in restoring the purity and perfection of an earlier golden age in which people communicated without impediment and easily realised their common bonds.” (Sophia Rosenfeld, A Revolution in Language: The Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France, Stanford University Press, 2001, pp. 113-116)

Baltrušaitis’s concluding remarks are worth reproducing: Egypt, he states, “remains always a composite of singularities, of paradoxes, of rigid reasonings and of poetic falsifications… […] The legend of the Egyptian myth is not only the nostalgia of a Paradise Lost. It is also the implacable logic that rubs shoulders with unreason, and an erudition placed in the service of dreams. The whole belongs to a chapter of the history of human thought gone astray.” (op. cit., p. 321.)

These dreams, as Anne-Marie Mercier-Faivre has demonstrated in her article, ‘Le Langage d’Images de Court de Gébelin’ in Politica Hermetica vol. 11, are “a dream of return to a (mythical) past which would become a reality. For Court de Gébelin, it is not only a matter of giving a reading of the symbolism and language of the ancient world, but also of reforming the modern world. … It is not a matter of doing archaeological research by deciphering symbols, but of changing the relationship of modern man to his language, and thereby to the world and to time.” (p. 53)

This essay was first published as « L’Isis des Tarots ou la naissance d’un mythe » in “Isis, Narcisse, Psyché entre Lumières et romantisme. Mythe et écritures, écritures du mythe,” edited by Pascale Auraix-Jonchière and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Presses universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2000, pp. 35-48. The author, Monique Streiff Moretti, was a professor of French literature at the University of Perugia, and is the author of works on Nerval and Artaud, among others, in both French and Italian, as well as some articles on the Tarot in the works of Artaud and Robbe-Grillet. Our notes or additions are within square brackets or marked with an asterisk. We have been unable to contact the author to obtain her approval of our translation of this article.

* * *

Statue of Isis

The Isis of the Tarot, or the Birth of a Myth

Monique Streiff Moretti 


If we accept, on a synchronic level, the definition of myth as “belief of the other” (*), it is possible to affirm that the Tarot cards present an example of a well and truly living myth of Western culture. The oldest known decks date back to the 15th century and are Italian. In France, Rabelais mentions the “taraux” for the first time in the history of literature. But it is the Egyptomania of the 18th century that is responsible for them becoming extremely productive at very different levels of culture. (**)

The Tarot deck (whose composition has varied over the centuries, but which, in general, consists of twenty-two allegorical cards, in addition to the cards of an ordinary deck) may in effect be used as a popular instrument of divination as it can be as a support for meditation on the symbol. It is sometimes proposed nowadays as a model of the path of initiation, but it has also been used as a strategy for writing, and this since the 16th century, with Pietro Aretino who, in 1521, published a collection of sonnets in which the cardinals gathered in a conclave are ironically designated by the names of each of the cards (then known as Triumphs). (1) In the 20th century, it has also been systematically used by authors as different as Pierre-Jean Jouve or Louis Guilloux, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Michel Tournier, Paule Constant (to which we could add Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco in Italy), without, of course, forgetting the renowned Arcanum 17 of André Breton, where the central figure of Isis is interpreted as an allegory of the eternal feminine.(1*)

By virtue of a tradition which, like all traditions, is periodically reinvented, the Tarot thus saw itself attributed an Egyptian origin at the end of the 18th century. From Court de Gébelin onwards (1781), lovers of mystery have dwelt on the unbound pages of the Book of Toth in which they see a symbolic representation of the Universe, one which would have survived the shipwreck of civilisations and would have been handed down to us in the shape of a game. They divulge, for the wider public, a revelation which they claim is reserved for a few initiates and teach how to read the future in “the most ancient book in the world.” Over the course of the years, the symbolic signs continued to sediment onto the drawings of the cards and voluminous manuals are printed, more often than not compilations of compilations, of which some nonetheless deserve to be studied as independent works. Osiris continues to be unanimously identified as the Sun in card XIX, the allegory is facile, whereas the attribution of Isis to one card in particular is a cause for hesitancy, which here confirms the multiplicity of aspects beneath which the Great Goddess presents herself. (1**) In effect, she is identified, in turn, with the cards of the Moon, the Star, the Popess, or the Empress, or even with the feminine figure which is depicted in the centre of the card of the World.

A myth being, if we limit ourselves to the definition of Lévi-Strauss, made up of the set of all its variants (1***), I propose to examine here the figure of Isis in some significant variants of the myth of the Tarot, from its first appearance in Le Monde Primitif [The Primeval World] by Court de Gébelin, until the birth of the great occultist movement which led to the elaboration of complex astrological systems by Éliphas Lévi (1855) and Paul Christian (1863). (2)

As Jean-Marie Lhôte, who republished, in 1983, the passages of Le Monde Primitif concerning the Tarot, noted, these 45 pages – of which 15 or so are borrowed – will have been enough to ensure its author, renowned in his day for his vast erudition, an influence which will have lasted two full centuries. (3) Antoine Court, who added “de Gébelin” to his commoner’s name to facilitate his social ascension  (3*), was born in Switzerland towards 1728 (3**), of a Protestant father exiled from France by the Catholic persecution. He obtained Swiss nationality, before settling in France, around the age of 40 years old. His first work was a book on the Calas affair. (4) Ambitious, gifted with remarkable interpersonal skills (4*), he becomes a pastor (without ministry),  tasked with representing Protestants in France. In Paris, he joins Freemasonry. (4**) He is first a member of the lodge of Les Amis Réunis – the Reunited Friends, then becomes secretary of the lodge of Les Neuf Sœurs – the Nine Sisters, the most famous of the time, where he will welcome Voltaire in 1778. (4***) He leaves it to take charge of the presidency of the new Société Apollonienne – the Apollonian Society, which will later become the Musée de Paris – the Museum of Paris, of which Court is, at the time of his death in 1784, the perpetual honorary president.

Court’s signature on a Masonic document.

This Masonic affiliation of the first known author of the Egyptian theory of the Tarot brings us to the heart of the dispute between the partisans of Tradition and those of Invention: does Court owe his knowledge of the symbolism of the Tarot to an initiation bestowed upon him by a Master? Or is it simply a purely personal, and manifestly false, intuition? In the first case (Initiation), this would confirm that the Tarot belongs to a Tradition transmitted from generation to generation by societies of initiates. In the second case (Invention), we are witnessing the birth of a myth. Lhôte tends, with enough plausibility, towards the second hypothesis, but the issue for him, as we shall we see, is but displaced:

“In the first instance, it does not appear that the Art of the Tarot had been truly taught before [Court]. On the other hand, if [he] had gathered this knowledge as the heritage of a long occult tradition, we cannot clearly see why he would have taken it upon himself to divulge a secret so closely guarded until then. We may above all think that the writing of this text would have been very different: instead of a succession of diverse and diverging notes, we would have had a more coherent text, or even a genuine treatise. Nothing of the sort, and this fact is made all the more obvious by comparing the two parts of this chapter on the Tarot, the first being by Court de Gébelin himself, but the second being by a different author, who, for his part, seems on the contrary to have received a tradition.” (5)

Here, we find ourselves back at square one (we shall return to this second commentator). Court effectively seems to have discovered the game of Tarot in the years 1775-1776, at the very moment when he became affiliated to Freemasonry. But his interest in symbols goes back much further and the dissertations on the Tarot contained in volume VIII are perfectly integrated into the ambitious synoptic outline constituted, ten years earlier, by the gambit of Le Monde Primitif. From 1771, the very year in which the last volume of the Encyclopédie was published, Court launched a subscription for a grand undertaking whose goal was diametrically opposed to the analytic and rationalist approach of the Encyclopaedists. A title like Le Monde Primitif already indicates a spiritualist approach or neo-Platonic inspiration: man’s becoming is inscribed within his origin.

The work is based on the postulate of universal harmony and on the homology of the parts to the whole. His methodology is therefore a search for symbolic significations and correspondences, beginning with the symbolism of numbers and letters (corollary to the hypothesis of a primitive natural language, born of the universal needs of men), to continue with the allegorising interpretation of mythology and by a study of the allegories of heraldic coats of arms, which immediately precedes the chapter on the deck of Tarot cards. (5*)

If it is not likely that the author of Le Monde Primitif was initiated into the symbolism of the Tarot by a Master, the influence may have been effected in the reverse direction. Court de Gébelin, in effect, would have been an eminent member of the l’Ordre des Philalèthes – the Order of the Philalèthes, or the Friends of Truth, which had been constituted in 1775 and was derived from the lodge of the Reunited Friends, which he had joined at the same time. The Philalèthes had also called upon esotericists from elsewhere to help further their goal, which was to seek within the Masonic catechism the traces of a forgotten knowledge. (6) It is likely that Court, as author of Le Monde Primitif, then in course of publication, had been coopted to participate in this research. (7)(7*) This would explain how the considerations on the Tarot, which had not been mentioned in the synoptic outline of 1771, were published in 1781, in the eighth volume, at the same time as a fairly explicit homage to the ideals of Freemasonry. (8)(8*) And, as such,  the myth of the Tarot remains a myth of essentially Masonic inspiration. (8**)

Let us say from the outset that the cards reproduced in Le Monde Primitif provide no new elements. It is the cards from the deck later called the “Ancient Tarot of Marseilles” in the 20th century which are depicted, very clumsily traced. In a prefatory note, Court announces that he intends to prove that the Tarot deck (9) is “an Egyptian book in which that people has transmitted its civil, political, religious ideas to us, that it is an emblem of life, and that it became the origin of our playing cards […]” (10) A book representing “the entire Universe, and the various Stages of life to which Man is subject” (11), a book composed of loose leaves, which may be read in ascending or descending order, and which is presented in the form of pictures to be deciphered.

Court tells how he examined the Tarot deck for the first time at the home of Madame Helvétius (12) and that he undertook its symbolic deciphering on the spot: “within a quarter of an hour, the deck was perused, explained, declared Egyptian […]” (13) The author of Le Monde Primitif attributes to his knowledge alone of the symbolic language the merit of this illumination: “[…] the shape, the layout, arrangement of this Deck and the figures it presents are so manifestly allegorical, and these allegories are so in conformity with the civil, philosophical and religious doctrine of the ancient Egyptians that we cannot but recognise that this is the work of that people of Sages […]” (14)

Examining the cards in an approximately ascending order, Court expresses the opinion that the names of the Pope and Popess were due to a Christian interpretation of the original characters by Italian or German card makers. He therefore replaces the ridiculous name of Popess by the Great Priestess, whereas the Pope becomes the Head of the Hierophants or the Great Priest. They form a priestly couple because, he says, “we know that for the Egyptians, the Head Priests were married.” (15) Some symbolic signs, which would have been preserved in spite of the transformations due to the card makers, allow him to retrace the ancient origins of the cards and to confirm his identification of the Popess with an Isiaic priestess: “The Great Priestess […] has a double crown with two horns, as had Isis.” (16)

Priest of Isis

The assimilation of the Moon to Isis is notably found in Plutarch, who specifies that the horns which are to be found in certain images of the goddess represent the moon in its waxing phase. (17) It was the Florentine neo-Platonists of the 15th century who rediscovered Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride. Starting with the translation of the Corpus Hermeticum by Marsilio Ficino and on the basis of his works as well as those of Pico della Mirandola and of Giles of Viterbo, began, in the 15th century the process of restoration of the prisca theologia, the primitive religion which would have been revealed to the Egyptians by the god Thot and from which all later religions would have been derived. (18)

Equally, one ought to find – according to Court de Gébelin – beneath the Western drawing of the card of the Pope, a priesthood consecrated to the cult of Osiris: “As to the Sceptre with the triple cross, it is an absolutely Egyptian monument; we see it on the Table of Isis, beneath the letter TT; a precious Monument which we have already had engraved in full to present some day before the Public. (19) It is related to the triple Phallus which was paraded in the famous feast of the Pamylia in which they rejoiced at having found Osiris, and where it was the symbol of the regeneration of Plants and of Nature as a whole.” (20)

The Bembine Tablet, or Table of Isis

The seventh card is the Chariot, also called the Triumph or the Victor. It depicts a king on a chariot drawn by horses. It was already a classical representation of Apollo. The commentator sees there an allegory of the resurrection of Osiris in Spring, after the symbolic death of Winter, and he names it Osiris Triumphant (Jean-Marie Lhôte remarks in this respect that the appearance of Egyptian symbolism in the iconography of the Tarot goes back at least to 1660, date printed on the famous Viévil Tarot – which Court apparently did not know about – where the horses are replaced by sphinxes). (20*)

The Chariot, Vieville deck; The Pope, Anonymous Parisian Tarot.

Court’s reading is a syncretic reading, the Egyptian interpretation coexisting, among others, with the four cardinal virtues. We find Osiris once more in the cards of the Sun (XIX) and the Moon (XVIII). Let us note that the author inverts the order of the cards in such a way as to give the priority to the male figure. Citing Pausanias, he sees in the coloured droplets depicted on the card of the Moon a sign of the flooding of the Nile, represented by the pond in which a crayfish swims:

“Pausanias tells us in his Description of Phocis that according to the Egyptians, it was the tears of Isis that swelled the waters of the Nile and thus made the land of Egypt fertile. The accounts of that Country also tell of a Drop or a Tear, which falls from the Moon at the moment when the waters of the Nile will swell.” (21)

The card of the Moon is interpreted as a zodiacal allegory:

“At the bottom of the picture, we see a Crayfish or Cancer, either to mark the retrograde progression of the Moon, or to indicate that it is at the moment that the Sun and the Moon leave Cancer that the flood caused by their tears occurs, at the rising of the Dog Star which we see in the following picture.” (22)

Here, Court advances the hypothesis which enables us to see the installation of the process of symbolic accumulation which will become a characteristic of the design of the Tarot. On the other hand, this symbolic overdetermination is justified in the name of the magical determinism which all esotericism presupposes. Court thus expresses the opinion that the Crayfish or the crab (Cancer in the vocabulary of astrology) could represent at the same time the retrograde progression of the Moon as well as the sign of the imminent flooding of the Nile: “We could even unite both reasons together; is it not very common to be persuaded by a host of consequences which form a mass which would be quite bothersome to sort out?” (23)

The Moon, Charles VI Tarot.

Court therefore interprets the card of the Moon in an astrological sense. (24) It is in this way that he sees the two crenellated towers as being an allusion to the two pillars of Hercules “below and beyond which those two great luminaries never pass” (25) (the Sun and the Moon). As to the two dogs which, between the two pillars, “seem to bark at the Moon and to guard it,” he affirms that these are “perfectly Egyptian ideas.” And here is his interpretation: “This people, unique for allegories, compared the Tropics to two Palaces, each guarded by a dog which, like a faithful Gatekeeper, held back the Heavenly Bodies in the middle of the Sky without allowing them to slide towards one or the other Pole.”

At the moment when the explanation may appear extravagant to the contemporary reader, Court names his source, which is none other than the Stromata of Clement of Alexandria:

“These are not the visions of Commentators whose names end in –us. (26) Clement, he himself Egyptian, since he was from Alexandria, and in consequence ought to have known something about it, assures us in his Tapestries [i.e. Stromata] that the Egyptians depicted the Tropics in the form of two Dogs, who, like Gatekeepers or faithful Guardians, prevented the Sun and the Moon from going any further, and to go as far as the Poles.” (27)

Clement of Alexandria owes his name to the fact that he lived for a long time in Alexandria (he was probably born in Athens, towards 150 AD). His Stromata are a genuine monument of Christian antiquity. Chapter 7 of Book V is dedicated to the symbolic language of the Egyptians. Court translates almost faithfully a text of which he must have had first-hand knowledge, but he effects a condensation which enables him to insert into the sentence he cites the name of the moon, which Clement only mentions in the following phrase. The author of the Stromata, after having affirmed that the Egyptians carried four golden statues depicting two dogs, a sparrow hawk and an ibis, gives the following interpretation of these symbols:

“[…] the dogs are the symbols of the two hemispheres, like the guardians and the overseers, the sparrow hawk is that of the sun, because it has the nature of the destroying fire. As to the ibis, it is the symbol of the moon. […] There are those who maintain, however, that the dogs indicate the tropics, because, precisely, they oversee and guard the doors of the passage of the sun towards the south and the north; whereas the equator, high and ardent, would be indicated by the sparrow hawk, the same way as the ibis indicates the ecliptic. […]” (28)

For the card of the Star, Court recalls Plutarch more directly (whom he does not take the bother to cite). He names this card: The Dog Star. Here is the description he gives:

“Here, we have before our eyes a Picture no less allegorical, and absolutely Egyptian; it is called the Star. We see, in effect, a bright Star, around which seven other smaller stars are gathered. The bottom of the Picture is occupied by a woman leaning on one knee, holding two upturned vases, from which two Streams of water flow. Next to the woman is a butterfly on a flower.

It is pure Egyptianism.

This star is pre-eminently the Dog Star or Sirius: the Star which rises when the Sun leaves the sign of Cancer, which ends the preceding Picture, and which this Star immediately follows.

The seven Stars around it, and which seem like its court, are the Planets: it is in a way their Queen, since it fixes, in that moment, the beginning of the year; they seem to come to receive their orders and to regulate their course on it.

The Lady who is below, and who is very attentive at that moment to pour the water from her vases, is the sovereign of the Heavens, Isis, to whose benevolence they attributed the flooding of the Nile, which began at the rising of the Dog Star; thus this rising was also the herald of the floods. It is for this reason that the Dog Star was dedicated to Isis, of which it was pre-eminently her symbol.”

And as the year is also opened by the rising of this Star, it was called Soth-is, the opening of the year; and it is under this name that it was dedicated to Isis.

Finally, the Flower and the Butterfly it supports, were the emblem of regeneration and of resurrection: they indicated at the same time that, due to the benevolence of Isis, at the rising of the Dog Star, the Egyptian countryside, which was absolutely barren, would become covered with new crops…” (29)

Plutarch effectively relates the poetic belief according to which the demigods go take their place among the stars after their death. It is in this way that the “soul of Isis, for example, was called Dog by the Greeks and Sothis by the Egyptians.” (30) During the Alexandrian period, Isis-Sothis was depicted as a woman seated upon a dog (Sirius, the chief star of the constellation of the Greater Dog, Canis Major), with a star above her head and bearing the horn of plenty and the ear of corn, or the sistrum and the patera, or again, the sceptre.

The Popess, Tarot de Marseille, Grimaud; The Moon, Tarot Italien, Lequart; The Star, Tarot Italien, Grimaud.

To sum up, Court de Gébelin saw an Isiaic symbolism in the three cards of the Popess, the Moon, and the Star. He furthermore identifies the figure on the card the Devil with Typhon, “Brother of Osiris and Isis, the evil Principle, the great Demon of Hell,” which confirms to us that his essential source is indeed Plutarch. This dualist interpretation of the universe does not, effectively, come from the Egyptian religious traditions, for which Seth-Typhon was a figure hostile towards the superior divinities, always vanquished and always reborn. It is in Plutarch that Seth becomes the principle of evil opposed to that of good. (31)

Court concludes that “this Game, entirely allegorical, can be but the work of the Egyptians alone.” (32) The myth is therefore, from its first appearance, an attempt at a response to the search for a system of values antagonist to the dominant values. What is left unsaid in the myth of the Egyptian Tarot is the will to overcome Christian values. (32*)

The Devil: Vieville, Noblet, Anonymous Parisian, Falconnier.

As to the anonymous author of the second part of the chapter devoted to the Tarot in Le Monde Primitif (33), considering that the Egyptian writing was read from left to right, he gives a reading of the cards in descending order, which he arranges into three groups, to have them correspond to the Golden Age, the Silver Age and the Bronze Age. (34) He begins with the twenty-first card (which would then be the first), the World, which he calls the Universe, and in which he sees “the Goddess Isis in an oval, or an egg, with the four seasons in the four corners […]” (35) This reading of the card of the World, which makes Isis the hieroglyph of the Universe, is in conformity with the interpretations of Fludd and Kircher (36), following a tradition which goes back to Servius and to the Saturnalia of Macrobius, and which enjoyed great popularity until the end of the Renaissance.

The card of the Judgment would have indicated, for this second commentator, “the Creation of Man through the painting of Osiris” (37), before the card makers, who could not have known the Egyptian wisdom, turned it into a picture of the Resurrection. On the other hand, if the Devil is Typhon, for him too, our author establishes no correlation between Isis and the cards of the Moon, the Star or the Popess. And only the fact that the Emperor is identified by him with Osiris allows one to infer that he also saw in the card of the Empress a representation of the goddess.

For the rest, as to the hypothesis (formulated by J.-M. Lhôte) of an oral tradition, the knowledge of the anonymous collaborator of Court de Gébelin seems to me to pertain more to that of an experienced fortune-teller than that of speculation on the symbol. (37*) Among the minor cards examined, and which do not belong to the game of Tarot but to the Spanish game of Aluette (37**), we find a few allusions to Isis. It is the Three of Cups, called the Lady (“Madame”), which is “dedicated to the Queen of Heaven” (38), in the same way that the Two of Cups or the Cow is “dedicated to Apis or to Isis” (39). The erudition of the commentator shows itself somewhat hesitant here; we know that Serapis was identified with the ox Apis, whereas Isis was sometimes identified with the heifer Io (the mythographers of the Middle Ages had insisted particularly on this aspect of the myth). (39*) Let us finally note the mention of the “mystical Belt of Isis” (40) concerning the Two of Coins, ornamented in almost every deck with a phylactery in which the name of the card maker is inscribed.

2 of Cups (the Cow), 3 of Cups (Madame), Aluette, Arnoult.

Leaving aside the common postulate on the Egyptian origin of the game, the two readings of the Tarot, proposed by Le Monde Primitif, attribute, as we have seen, an Isiaic symbolism to different cards. Neither of the two authors seems to have been bothered about these divergences, which confirms that both of them felt that they were in the domain of free research, and not in that of the transmission of initiatory knowledge. (40*) The essential difference appears to me to consist in the fact that Court de Gébelin’s collaborator has a much more pragmatic attitude and subordinates the noting of some mythological correspondences to the elaboration of an immediately applicable taxonomy for divinatory purposes.

Two of Coins, Noblet.

The theories expounded in Le Monde Primitif would go on to be popularised by Etteilla. The latter had already published, in 1770, a volume on playing cards in which the Tarot cards were only mentioned at the end, among the methods of soothsaying. (41) From 1783 to 1785, he published three Cahiers [i.e. Notes or Notebooks] on the Manner on How to Entertain Oneself with the Game of Cards Called Tarot. (41*) Taking up the convenient hypothesis that the cards had undergone some deformations over the centuries, he recreated them in his own way, adding an obelisk here, a crocodile there, or the T of the god Thoth… In 1787, another step was taken: Etteilla would now only speak as an Initiate of the Book of Thot. (42) These are but credentials of nobility destined to facilitate the commercial exploitation of popular credulity, and Etteilla shows no curiosity at all whatsoever towards this tradition for which he professes a reverential admiration. (42*)

We nevertheless find an Isis hieroglyph of the Universe, in the centre of the fifth card of the so-called Etteilla deck. It is the re-elaboration of the card of the World of the Marseilles deck, a card which Etteilla calls the Gospel. On the inside of the circle formed by the serpent Ouroboros is a naked woman bearing a belt of roses. She is sallow, her long hair is loose, a veil falls from her shoulders, and she holds an ear of corn in her right hand. Two little pyramids are found to her left and right. The card reads, prosaically: “Travel, or rural Property” (43) …

The World, 4 of Coins, Grand Etteilla.

We are here at the commercial turning point of the myth. With Etteilla, the game of Tarot sees a true launch, in which the Egyptian origin functions like a brand name. The Tarot fashion will take off and will become affirmed by the Sibyls of the Romantic period who, on their side, add a stamp of quality to the traditional figure of the fortune-teller.

I wish to pause for a moment on one of the most well-known of such characters, Marie-Anne Adélaïde Lenormand, to note a significant eclipse of the myth. Mademoiselle Lenormand would have lived at the Court of France before becoming the private cartomancer to Napoleon. She had recourse to Greek mythology, to genies, to different forms of divination, but rebuffs all allusions to ancient Egypt, now inseparable from the attempt at dechristianisation of the revolutionary period. In her Oracles Sibyllins published in 1817, she delivers a Legitimist peroration:

“May the true friends of the King rely on his profound wisdom. May our republicans of good faith abjure the cult of the good Goddess. They must have already found that licence is always the painful companion of, inseparable from unlimited liberty, and that a loose people often and very easily gives in to extreme parties.” (44)

The Book of Thot survives the Restoration. During the Second Empire, beginning with the work by Éliphas Lévi entitled Dogma and Ritual of High Magic (45), a great current of occultist interpretation will begin to affirm itself, one which has lasted until today, and which will result in the purely Egyptian drawings of the Divinatory Tarot of Papus. (46) This new design of the cards will be inspired by the descriptions found in the fictionalised occultist manual by Paul Christian, L’Homme Rouge des Tuileries [The Red Man of the Tuileries], of which the main characters are Napoleon I and his Mage. The book is placed under the patronage of the author of Séraphita (1835) [i.e. Balzac]. The Red Man, that is to say, the Master of the Light, consults therein the “sacred rites of ancient Egypt,” which is none other than reading the cards of the Tarot. (47)

Paul Christian introduces, not only the terms lame and arcana to denote the cards (47*), but also astrological correspondences and an Egyptian transliteration of all the cards. Thus, the Juggler becomes the Mage (“the initiate of the Mysteries of Isis”), the card of the Popess is indicated as being the Door to the occult Sanctuary, in front of which an Isis, veiled for the first time, awaits the initiate; the Empress becomes Isis-Urania, the unveiled Isis who personifies fertility and universal generation; the Emperor takes on a Masonic name: the Cubic Stone, and depicts a “dominator” who holds in one hand the sceptre of Isis-Urania, that is, the “sceptre of nature”; the Chariot is the Chariot of Osiris drawn by sphinxes; the Wheel of Fortune, which is a traditional symbol of fate, is now named the Sphinx, “Throne of Isis, genie of the constellation of Virgo.” The conceptions of Paul Christian are foreign to dualism; the Devil or Typhon is no longer for him the symbol of evil, but that of Fate. On the other hand, his commentaries on the cards of the Star, the Moon, the Sun and the World contain, contrary to all expectation, no allusion to Isis. (47**)

The Tarot will know a great many other avatars, for it is a book offered to the freedom of each of its interpreters. Image of the universe if one wishes, enzyme of the imagination certainly, we could define it, along with Michel Butor, as “the stuff of dreams.”

* * *


*. According to the anthropologist Jean-Louis Siran in his polemical work, L’Illusion Mythique, Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond, 1998.- Translator

**. This statement, and the following arguments put forward in its favour, ought to be enough to put paid to the oft repeated and entirely spurious legend concocted by Court that the preservation and dissemination of the Tarot was effected by means of vice, namely, gambling, as opposed to virtue – understood as the moral virtue of Freemasonry, when the reverse, as we shall see, is much closer to the truth as far as the so-called “occult Tarot” is concerned. – Translator

1. P. Aretino, Pasquinate per l’elezione di Adriano VI.

1*. In order to give the minimum of context to this list of authors, we provide the titles of the works in question, with English editions in square brackets where applicable: Pierre-Jean Jouve, ‘Les Rois Russes’, in Histoires Sanglantes; Louis Guilloux, Le Sang Noir [Bitter Victory/Blood Dark]; Alain Robbe-Grillet, Les Gommes [The Erasers]; Michel Butor, Passage de Milan, L’Emploi du Temps [Passing Time]; Michel Tournier, Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique [Friday, or, The Other Island], Les Météores [Gemini]; Paule Constant, White Spirit [White Spirit]; Italo Calvino, Il castello dei destini incrociati [The Castle of Crossed Destinies]; Umberto Eco, [presumably Foucault’s Pendulum], André Breton, Arcane 17 [Arcanum 17]. – Translator

1**. The attributes of feminine deities are multiple and protean given that the feminine divinities are manifestations of the materia prima, and that matter is multiplicity, a point which seems to have not escaped the author on some level. With respect to Court himself, as Gérard Genette aptly remarks, “Innocently, Gébelin caresses a dream, with somewhat incestuous resonances, of a return to the womb (maternal, of course) of “earliest” indifferentiation.” (‘Generalized hieroglyphics’ in Mimologics, University of Nebraska Press, 1995, p. 114.) – Translator

1***. Claude Lévi-Strauss, ’The Structural Study of Myth’, Journal of American Folklore, vol. 78, n° 270, 1955, p. 435. The interested reader will wish to peruse this seminal essay in order to better grasp the structural underpinnings of the present piece. – Translator

2. A few names of importance for the affirmation of the myth: Etteilla (1787), Éliphas Lévi (1855), Paul Christian (1863), Westcott (1855), Papus (1889), Falconnier (1896), Crowley (1912), Waite (1918), Wirth (1924), etc.

3. Court de Gébelin, Le Tarot, presenté et commenté par J.-M. Lhôte, Paris, Berg International éditeurs, 1983, p. 10. My citations refer to this edition (facsimile). Lhôte remarks, and with reason, that Jurgis Baltrušaitis’s fundamental work La Quête d’Isis lacks a chapter on the Tarot (J. Baltrušaitis, La Quête d’Isis : essai sur la légende d’un myth. Introduction à l’Égyptomanie, Paris, Olivier Perrin, coll. “Jeu Savant,” 1967, republished, Paris, Flammarion, 1985.)

3*. Gébelin being the surname of his paternal grandmother. – Translator

3**. The recorded date of his birth varies from 1719, 1724, 1725, and 1728, as does the place of his birth between Nîmes and Geneva. See Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, A Wicked Pack of Cards, chapter 3, for more on this convoluted genealogy. Nîmes and 1725 would appear to be the correct place and date. – Translator

4. Les Lettres Toulousaines, 1763.

4*. That is to say, he was an inveterate social climber. In spite of this, all accounts concord in saying he led a very modest lifestyle. – Translator

4**. The dates of his initiation into Freemasonry also vary; 1771 says one source, 1776 or shortly thereafter is suggested by another. In Gustave Bord’s exhaustive study of Freemasonry in France, a footnote states that Court’s name does not figure on the first rolls of the Reunited Friends lodge in 1774. According to Jean Bossu, he would have joined in 1778. Curiously, in the biography of Court in the Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Anne-Marie Mercier-Faivre states that “From 1763 on, Court de Gébelin played a major role in the Masonic lodges in Paris.” This date corresponds with his arrival in Paris. – Translator

4***. Additionally, Court was allegedly a member of a third lodge, that of Saint-Jean d’Écosse du Contrat Social, or the mother lodge of the Scottish rite of the Social Contract, where he gave a series of lectures on the allegorical meanings of the Masonic degrees in 1777, according to Louis Amiable. A number of the officers of that lodge would later go on to found the Sacred Order of the Sophisians on their return from Egypt in 1801. Gérard Van Rijnberk, for his part, goes so far as to affirm that Court was a member of the Élus Coëns founded by Martinès de Pasqually, was a disciple and friend of Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, and was the master of Fabre d’Olivet. In his work on the early Martinists, Un Thaumaturge au XVIIIe Siècle, Martinès de Pasqually. Sa Vie, son Œuvre, son Ordre, he states that Court become a Martinist in 1781, as does Robert Amadou. According to Amadou, Court met Saint-Martin around 1775 or shortly thereafter. However, A.-M. Mercier-Faivre disputes this membership. – Translator

5. J.-M. Lhôte, preface to Court de Gébelin, Le Tarot, p. 60.

5*. On Court’s concept of language, sign and symbolism, see Anne-Marie Mercier-Faivre’s article, ‘Le Langage d’Images de Court de Gebelin’ in Politica Hermetica vol. 11, 1997, and Gérard Genette’s ‘Generalized hieroglyphics’ in Mimologics, University of Nebraska Press, 1995. – Translator

6. Cf. R. Le Forestier, La Franc-Maçonnerie templière et occultiste au XVIIIe et XIXe siècles, Paris, 1987, I, p. 530 and II, p. 7 (cited in G. Berti, “Il Libro di Thot, ovvero l’interpretazione esoterica del Tarocco” in G. Berti – A. Vitali, Le Carte di corte, I tarocchi, Gioco et Magia alla corte degli Estensi, catalogue of the exposition of Ferrara, Bologna, Nuova Alfa editoriale, 19877, p. 184-190).

7. Baltrušaitis notes that the first Masonic general assembly, in 1777, had been opened by a conference by Court de Gébelin on the esoteric allegories of the order. Alexandre Lenoir later inaugurated a cycle of analogous meetings on the occasion of the general assembly of 1812. (Baltrušaitis, La Quête d’Isis, chapter 2, note 16.)

7*. This would appear to be contradicted by the statement that “he had been one of the principal founders of the regime or rite of the Philalèthes,” cited in A. Atger, “Court de Gébelin Franc-Maçon” in Bulletin historique et littéraire (Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français), Vol. 51, No. 11 (15 November 1902), p. 600. Unless, of course, Court, already by then a Mason, had been recruited precisely to help found this research lodge. – Translator

8. “We have had the advantage of being helped by a philosopher full of sense and of reason, whom we have fortunately encountered on our path […] The most simple enunciation of this sublime philosophy was for us a divine torch, a shining source of truth: the complement to our research and our work […] an admirable system, tending towards the same goal, and discovered by an entirely different route. This system and ours have thus been reunited like the two halves of a whole; we have considered it as our own; we have appropriated all that was suitable […]” A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, “Vue Générale,” [i.e. “General Overview”] p. IX.

8*. Decker, Depaulis & Dummett further state that Volume V, published in 1778, contains an entry in which the old-fashioned form of the word Tarraux is listed, in addition to being already labelled an “Egyptian game.” Therefore, Court must have formed his ideas about the Tarot sometime between the publication of volumes I and V in 1773 and 1778 respectively. – Translator

8**. A point which cannot be stressed enough, given the absence of any serious analysis of the matter. – Translator

9. Court only uses the word in the plural. He advances the following etymology: “The name of this Game is pure Egyptian: it is composed of the word Tar, which means way, path; and the word Ro, Ros, Roc, which means King, Royal. It is, word for word, the Royal path of life.” (Le Tarot, p. 380).

10. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 6.

11. ibid. p. 367.

12. “Madame la C. d’H.” See the note by Lhôte in Le Tarot, p. 86.

13. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 363.

14. ibid. p. 366.

15. ibid. p. 370.

16. ibid.

17. Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 53.

18. Cf. F.A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, London-Chicago, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.

19. The Table of Isis [Bembine Tablet] is currently found in the Museo Egizio [Egyptian Museum] in Turin. It was reproduced life-sized (128 x 75 cm) in 1559, from which an engraving was produced and disseminated in Venice in 1600. The study by L. Pignoria (Mensa Isiaca, Amsterdam, 1670) made it famous. It was reproduced in the work by B. de Montfaucon (L’Antiquité Expliquée, 1719) which is probably the reference work which Court de Gébelin used. As to the triple phallus, this would be an interpretation of the tale by Caylus and Jablonski, concerning the ankh held by Horus, on a statue preserved in the Capitoline museum. (Cf. Baltrušaitis, La Quête d’Isis, chap. 2)

20. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 370.

20*. In a related iconographic tradition, a sphinx is similarly found in the Pope card of the anonymous Tarot de Paris, which dates from the first half of the 17th century. – Translator

21. ibid. p. 373.

22. ibid.

23. ibid. p. 374.

24. In the so-called Charles VI Tarot, this card depicts two astrologers consulting the starry sky. It is reproduced on the cover of the catalogue of the exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale (Tarot, Jeu et Magie, 1984).

25. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 374.

26. That is to say, those pedants who latinised their name.

27. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 374. (We now know that those dogs were jackals.)

28. The Greek text is to be found in Clemens Alexandrinus, Zweiter Band, Stromata, Buch I-VI, herausgegeben von Otto Stählin, herausgegeben von Ludwig Früchtel, 4. Auflage mit nachträgen von Ursula Treu, Berlin, Akademie Verlag, “Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten Jahrhunderte,” 1985, p. 354-355 (my translation).

29. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 374-375.

30. Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 21. See L. Monte, “Iside in Astrologia e new Tarocchi,” in Iside, Il Mito, il Mistero, la Magia, catalogue of the exhibition of the Royal Palace of Milan, Milan, Electa, 1997, p. 620-621.

31. Cf. notably the digression on Zoroaster (De Iside et Osiride, § 46).

32. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 379.

32*. Cf. Baltrušaitis, op. cit., pp. 46, 79, 307-308. – Translator

33. Recherches sur les tarots et sur la divination par les cartes des tarots, by M. le C. de M.*** (M. le Comte de Mellet, according to Lhôte.)

34. This second commentator gives a different explanation of the word “tarot”: “This Book appears to have been named A-Rosh; from A, Doctrine, Knowledge; and from Rosh (note: Rosch is the Egyptian name of Mercury and of the Feast which was celebrated on the first day of the year), Mercury who, joined with the letter T, means Table of the Doctrine of Mercury; but as Rosch also means Beginning, this word Ta-Rosch was particularly devoted to Cosmogony […]”

35. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 396.

36. R. Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi Historia, Oppenheim, 1617; A. Kircher, Œdipus Ægyptiacus, Rome, 16544.

37. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 397.

37*. Curiously, this uncharitable assessment echoes the statement by Alliette saying that de Mellet had merely learned some card reading from his kitchen maid. (Cited in Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, A Wicked Pack of Cards, p. 97.) – Translator

37**. According to Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, Aluette “has never been known in Spain, but is exclusively French.” (A Wicked Pack of Cards, p. 63.) On Aluette more generally, see the monograph by Alain Borvo, Anatomie d’un Jeu de Cartes: L’Aluette ou le Jeu de Vache, Yves Vachon, 1997. – Translator

38. Eratosthenes had already identified Isis with the zodiacal sign of Virgo. Cf. P. Castello, “Iside Venerate nel labirinto del sapere tra Medioevo e Rinascimento,” in Iside…, catalogue of the exhibition of Turin, p. 598-609.

39. A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, vol. VIII, p. 401.

39*. 150 years later, René-Louis Doyon could still write that: “No one can deny the connection between the current Cow, lying below the 2 of Cups, and the Ox Apis or the zodiacal Taurus. It is undeniable that the cards are inspired by Astrology: their esoteric origin is nowhere in doubt.” ‘Les Jeux de Cartes en France,’ Gazette Dunlop, n° 202, 1937, p. 23. – Translator

40. ibid. p. 402.

40*. This is all the more evident if we refer to the solemn engagement demanded of members of the very strict lodge of the Nine Sisters, namely, “to never reveal what would be entrusted to them.” (Louis Amiable, Une loge maçonnique d’avant 1789 : la loge des Neuf Sœurs, p. 35.) Moreover, as R. W. Weisberger observes, “In deciding against taking notes, Gébelin and other Secretaries of the Nine Sisters evidently wished to preserve the secret character of the lodge and unfortunately have provided historians with no information about the inner organizational workings and the cultural operations of this Masonic learned society.” (‘Parisian Masonry, the Lodge of the Nine Sisters, & the French Enlightenment’, Heredom, Volume 10, 2002, p. 171.) This militates against the idea that Court was deliberately and openly spreading esoteric knowledge previously kept secret. – Translator

41. [Etteilla, pseudonym of Alliette], Etteilla, ou Manière de se récréer avec un jeu de cartes, by Mr. ***, Paris, Lesclapart, 1770.

41*. In fact, Etteilla published four Cahiers. Ronald Decker suggests, somewhat gratuitously, that Court, as royal censor, would have been in a position to censor Alliette’s works, one of which was effectively denied publication in 1782. (See Decker, The Esoteric Tarot, chapter 8, Etteilla’s Career.) There is nothing to support such a claim, according to the earlier work by Decker, Depaulis & Dummett, A Wicked Pack of Cards, p. 84, and no new information is presented to that end in Decker’s more recent book. – Translator

42. [Etteilla, pseudonym of Alliette], Science. Leçons théoriques et pratiques du livre de Thot [Theoretical and Practical Lessons of the Book of Toth]. The Book of Thot, treating of the High Sciences, 78 pages illustrated with Hieroglyphs 4,000 years ago, and its partial Translation, 1,200 pages, with many illustrations…, 1787. (facsimile of the frontispiece in Le Tarot, Lhôte ed, p. 170). The known copies, as yet still in print, of the so-called Etteilla Tarot, are later.

42*. On the ties between Alliette and Freemasonry, see the article by Jean Bossu and our appendix (forthcoming). – Translator

43. A minor card of little importance (the Four of Coins, no. 74) bears a little feminine silhouette crowned with a crescent; she is naked, draws a veil over her breast with her right hand, and holds a flaming torch in her left hand.

44. Les Oracles sibylline ou la suite des souvenirs prophétiques, with illustrations, by Mlle M.-A. Lenormand, author of La Sibyl au Tombeau de Louis XVI, Paris, published by the author, 1817.

45. É. Lévi [Alphonse-Louis Constant], Dogme et Ritual de la Haute Magie, 2 vols., Paris, Germer-Baillère, 1856 [translated into English by Arthur Edward Waite as Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual, Redway, London, 1896]. Only two “keys” of the Tarot are illustrated: the Devil, depicted as the Sabbath Goat, and the Chariot of Hermes, drawn by two sphinxes (Court de Gébelin, along with Plutarch, identified the Egyptian god of writing with the Greek Hermes and the Roman Mercury). Following Lévi’s description, which here follows that of Court, the Popess “bears the horns of the Moon, or of Isis,” and has a veil tied around her head. The veil is therefore still behind the head and not in front of the face.

46. Papus [Gérard Encausse], Le Tarot Divinatoire, [1889], reprint Éditions Dangles, 1982 [translated into English as The Divinatory Tarot by Beryl Stockman, Aeon Books, 2008]. In 1896 René Falconnier will, in turn, create an Egyptian Tarot, designed by the illustrator Maurice Otto Wegener. (Les XXII Lames Hermetiques du Tarot Divinatoire, Paris, Librairie de l’Art Indépendent, reprint, Nice, Bélisane, 1976).

47. P. Christian [J.-B. Pitois], L’Homme Rouge des Tuileries, illustrated with twenty-two kabbalistic figures, [1863], reprint Guy Trédaniel éditeur, 1977, p. 6.

47*. The term lame, literally ‘blade’ or ‘strip of metal,’ is in fact predicated on Alliette’s asseveration that the original Egyptian Tarot was engraved on sheets of gold (Third Cahier). Arcane, or arcanum, singular of arcana, is a term denoting a mysterious and secret hermetic operation. – Translator

47**. After fictionalising his occult treatise as a novel, Pitois later attempted to dress it up as a serious historical and philosophical work, entitled Histoire de la magie, du monde surnaturel et de la fatalité à travers les temps et les peuples, 1870, translated into English as The History and Practice of Magic, Citadel Press, 1969. See chapter 9 of A Wicked Pack of Cards or the blog Egypt in the Tarot for further details. – Translator

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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.

* * *

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…

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The Game of Tarot

Translator’s Introduction

Despite the abundance of books on the Tarot in English, the aspect of the Tarot most commonly known in Europe – the card game – is almost unknown in the English literature and in Tarot circles beyond Europe. To date, in English, the most notable work to deal with the ludic aspect of the Tarot has been A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack in 2 volumes written and compiled by the late Sir Michael Dummett and John McLeod*. Unfortunately, the prohibitive price of these volumes does little to incite the casual reader to gambling, and is perhaps one reason why these games have remained neglected in the English-speaking world so far. Yet, beyond the simple idea that winning at cards is a sign of election, and therefore a good omen, there are other connections between the game system and the divinatory and symbolic aspects of the Tarot, and knowledge of these connections may further enrich and deepen one’s understanding of the structure of the deck and of the function of its constituent elements. The following piece seeks to address this issue.

The aim of this piece, synthesised from a number of different French texts, is to present, in a clear and readable manner, the relations between the Tarot as game and the Tarot as mantic system, a subject which, to the best of our knowledge, has not yet been made available in English. These observations will further one’s understanding of the structure of the pack, the difference between the trumps and numeral cards, and shed some light on the nature of three of the most important cards: those that begin and finish the deck, and which are also known as oudlers. The game is typically played with the Tarot Nouveau, published by Grimaud. although, as we shall see, there has been some attempt to replace this deck with the traditional Tarot of Marseilles.

The following piece reproduces parts of pages 48-52 of a document in French, itself a synthesis, which is available online here, as well as some additions and excerpts, notably the last paragraph, from the lovingly illustrated calligraphic book, Le Jeu du Tarot Par l’Image by Jacques Massacrier.

* See McLeod’s informative website for further information on the rules of the game of Tarot.

The Card Players by Cézanne

The Game of Tarot

If, as popular legend has it, the Tarot hides a millennial wisdom behind simple images destined for playing games, it is rather logical to think that, proceeding from this aspect, we might have a chance to discover something. The first clue, effectively, is that the game of Tarot cards goes back to a historically verified period, and that its relatively complex rules have not undergone any major modifications over the course of the centuries.

The most important variations only concern the design of the cards, properly speaking. The four traditional suits of coins, staffs, cups and swords have been replaced by the “modern” French suits of clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades. In the same way, the images of the 22 major arcana have been replaced by reversible scenes of nineteenth-century urban and rural life. The only card to preserve a design close to the traditional design is the Mate, the arcanum without a number, who is called the Excuse or the Fool. In the beginning of the industrial age, the symbols of the major arcana, judged too esoteric, were replaced by banal scenes of daily life, which is why we find a picnic on the 11th card, Force, a photographer and a landscape artist on the 15th, which is none other than that of the Devil, ice-skaters on the 19th, which is the card of the Sun, and, for the 12th card, the card of the Hanged Man, we have the choice between a soirée or a garden party, etc.

As far as the structure goes, it remains unchanged:

Four series of 14 cards (the so-called minor arcana), having preserved the knight or horseman, who has since disappeared from other decks of cards, placed hierarchically between the Valet and the Queen; the point values of each card, in decreasing order, from the king (5 points) to the valet (2 points), the numeral cards being worth nothing.

One group of 22 cards called “tarots” (or trumps or triumphs in other regions), or atout. Contrary to other games, in which the trumps are chosen by a conventional system of declarations and bids, in the Tarot, the trump is a fixed given, outside of the domain of the classic suits.

The points are always counted in pairs, each honour or court card being accompanied by a numeral card which then does not represent any point: a king accompanied by the two of clubs is worth five points. On the other hand, two numeral cards together are worth one point: the six of diamonds and the eight of spades are worth one point.

In order to assess the strength of one’s hand, as with any game, one must have the greatest number of points, taking into consideration the number of “ends” [Fr: bout] in one’s possession. What is an “end”?

This is the chief originality of the game of Tarot with respect to other card games: it consists of three of the tarots: the One, called the “Little One” [Fr: le Petit], the Twenty-One, and the Excuse. Each is worth five points, and the more ends one has in one’s hand, the less the number of points are needed to take the trick.

The Three Oudlers

The characteristics of the ends are the following: the One takes all the other suit cards, and is taken by all the other tarots, except for the Excuse. The Twenty-One takes all cards indistinctly, except for the Excuse. The Excuse takes no card, and is taken by none, except if it is played as the last card in a round; in which case it is taken by any other card. With the exception of the three ends, the tarots are worth only a half point in the final count of the points.

It is effectively in the game of cards that the Tarot is revealed in all its complexity. Contrary to other games such as Bridge which marks out the contracts with an accuracy due to the rigorous formalism of the conventional declarations whose aim to reduce the element of chance, in the Tarot one might start off with an apparently unproblematic hand, only to end up ruined without being able to do anything about it in the slightest. For this, it is enough, to give an example, that your opponents manage to take the One, the Little One, from you, this Little One which is the secret obsession of every Tarot player, and that the lovely hand you had set up corresponds to the hand of your opponent who has the greater number of tarots in hand…

Let us rewind a little. One must deal the cards to the players, who may number 3, 4, or 5, preferably 4. First, the players choose a card, face down, and the one who chooses the lowest card is the Dealer. The deck is then shuffled by the player opposite the Dealer, cut by the player to his left, and the player to his right will begin the game. The cards are dealt in threes, counterclockwise, and between each round a card is placed in the centre of the table, face down. In a round for four players, each thus receives 18 cards, and 6 cards are in the centre. These cards are then called the “dog” [Fr: chien].

Each player assesses his hand and one of the players declares he will “push.” He will then play alone against the three others, and to compensate this disadvantage, he will take the other six cards set aside, turns them over to show his opponents, then incorporates them into his hand, from which he removes six cards of his choosing, which he will then place onto the table and which will remain his, come what may.

Now, you may of course content yourself with playing your hand, your 36, 41, 51, or 56 points, according to whether you have 3, 2, 1, or no end at all (in which case you must either be a total novice or a dangerous madman…) But the essential lies elsewhere. The goal of the game of Tarot is to “hunt the Little One” if one does not have it, or to “bring it to the end” if one does, that is, to place it on the table as the final crowning piece. The 21 is the atomic bomb: nothing can resist it, and how many Little Ones has it saved when it was well played, right behind the hunter? An easy win in this case, but oh how random if it is not in the right place!

And this Excuse, what use is it? Every player will tell you that it is the most difficult card to play, whether you are the “pusher,” or playing against the pusher.

We have decided to restrict ourselves here to the study of the major arcana of the Tarot of Marseilles, and we have enough material to follow our path. What have these observations drawn from the popular game – and not unprovable metaphysical considerations – taught us?

  1. That the major arcana form an entire whole, distinct from the rest of the deck, and to which all possible configurations of the game are subject.
  2. That one of the arcana, the Mate, the Fool (or Excuse), is not involved in the game as such, all the while being one of the 3 most important cards.
  3. That arcanum 21, the World, even if it is the most powerful card, does not have absolute power.
  4. That arcanum I, the Juggler, is the host of the game, the one around which everything revolves.

If we relate these observations to the arcana of the Tarot of Marseilles, we will immediately notice, for example, that the animal biting the Mate on the thigh is indeed a dog, since it is the name given to the cards that are out of play. Some authors quite seriously ask themselves what kind of animal it might well be: in my opinion, they must never have “played” the Tarot in the back room of a bar while skipping maths or philosophy class…

But the most important point for the rest of this study is the confirmation of the fact that the Mate “does not play”: this allows us not to count him, to place him win the centre of the circle and to let the 21 other cards turn around him, thereby giving the ternary structure 3 x 7 to the remaining cards. This also defines the profound nature of the Mate, as we shall see.

The World is generally presented as being guaranteed success, the apotheosis, the accomplishment, and it is very logical in appearance, since it bears the highest number. The very existence of the Mate, which does not contest this power, relativises it, and indicates that the Tarot of Marseilles is not limited to an Aristotelian logic of the excluded middle.

The Juggler is also confirmed by what we have observed as being the pivot of the game, the point of departure, and the end of the game, since the supreme reward for the player is to bring the Little One all the way to the end. In other words, and in a more initiatory language, the Juggler is the new initiate, the neophyte, who will have to pass “through” all the other arcana in order to reach his goal.

When we wish to fathom the intangible Universe, to decode the cosmic messages, in order to gain some insight into the circumstances or omens, we can use a deck of Tarot cards. But the same deck of cards can also be used to play the game of Tarot. The game of Tarot is a game without divinatory pretensions. It is a noble exercise in psychology, reflection and intelligence, where the chance factor has but little incidence. To play this game with the traditional images of the Tarot of Marseilles is to reconnect with the essence of the tradition, which gives a symbolic character to the major arcana or trumps once again.  In this way, the game regains the magical and mysterious aspect of the divinatory cards, without upsetting the rules of the game or the legibility of the cards.

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Roger Caillois: Preface to Le Tarot des Imagiers du Moyen-Âge by Oswald Wirth

Translator’s Introduction

The literature on the Tarot is vast, but it is, for the most part, wholly negligible as far as its intellectual value is concerned. Since the earliest writings of the Chinese literati on the Book of Changes, of Cicero on divination, or of Plutarch on the decline of the oracles, countless writers and thinkers have opined and expatiated on the nature and workings of the divinatory phenomenon from all manner of angles, and the Tarot is no exception. Few, on the other hand, have delved into that other perennial object of human fascination, games and play. One writer who examined both, and in their most intimate details, was Roger Caillois, whose writings on the subject are some of the most penetrating and insightful, bar none.

Throughout his variegated career, Caillois remained fascinated by games, and much of his written output reflects this interest. In English, it is perhaps his book Man, Play and Games which is best known. Yet Caillois also had an abiding interest in the Tarot, first reflected in his scathing review of Joseph Maxwell’s book in 1936, which we have published here, as well as in the incisive and quite brilliant preface he wrote thirty years later for the 1966 Tchou reprint of Oswald Wirth’s classic work, Le Tarot des imagiers du Moyen Âge. This preface, like that of his friend and contemporary, Jean Paulhan, seeks to explicit the mechanisms of divination and of interpretation according to an implacable yet poetically expressed logic. One year later, Caillois would devote 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.)

Many of the key ideas encapsulated in this essay are thoughtfully considered and presented in the overall context of Caillois’ work in the lengthy introduction to The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader, edited by Claudine Frank, Duke University Press, 2003, a work in which, moreover, the interested reader will find the related and complementary essay ‘The Image,’ which expands on this notion of “accurate imagination.” Indeed, with respect to the last sentence of this piece and its crucial notion of “accurate imagination” (imagination juste), the translator of the Roger Caillois Reader notes that the French word justesse “has the additional connotations of “soundness, “rightness,” and truth,” (op. cit. p. ix), and later provides some further insight into the roots of this idea, stating, “Deliberately or not, Caillois’s postwar attempt to theorize the norms of adequation proper to an accurate imagination (imagination juste) was revisiting Reverdy’s 1918 theory of conscious poetic creation, founded on the claim that, “an image is not strong because it is brutal or fantastic — but because the association of ideas spans a great distance and is accurate [juste].” (op. cit. p. 315.) (The essay by Pierre Reverdy, also entitled ’L’Image,’ is to be found in Neil Matheson’s The sources of surrealism : art in context, Lund Humphries, 2006.)

Furthermore, that introduction equally underscores the dynamic tension between Caillois and Paulhan, who, let us recall, also penned an influential preface to a work on Tarot, notably their views on language, analogy, signs, ideograms, and the image, and the introduction to the essay ‘The Image’ itself is also highly instructive. In fact, we find that the essay ‘The Image’ may be considered as a dialogue with Paulhan (op. cit. p. 316), and it appears to us that the prefaces both men wrote to these highly influential books on the Tarot must also be considered as forming an integral part of this dialogue.

In order to correct another glaring omission from the English-language Tarot literature, we present this remarkable preface, omitted from the English edition of Wirth’s book.

* * *

Preface to Le Tarot des Imagiers du Moyen-Âge by Oswald Wirth

Roger Caillois

That a game may be used for divination is almost contradictory. In effect, every game, and most particularly, a pack of cards, necessarily presents itself as a totality: a series of constant elements from which it is neither possible to subtract nor to add anything, and which it is not possible to modify either. A game, that is to say, the sum of information to manipulate, must be fixed and complete, otherwise the game, that is to say, the sequence of operations which mixes this information, is falsified from the outset. Conversely, all divination bears on an unlimited domain, since it includes all possible events, which are infinite in number, and which fork at every opportunity in an unpredictable manner (or predictable perhaps, which is practically the same since certainty remains excluded). To this infinity must normally correspond another infinity, which is that from whence the soothsayer draws his oracle: the splashes of lead, the reflections that pass through a crystal ball, the entrails of victims, or the smoke from incense, the oil spreading over some water, or ink stains, the simulacra of dreams, the drawings of coffee-grounds. Here and there, nothing is repeated, completely identical to itself, just as in life, where the same vicissitudes occur, the same misfortunes, the same chances, but never completely superimposable.

The originality, the advantage, and at the same time, the paradox of applying a pack of cards to divination consist of the fact that the unlimited, the possible accidents, then find themselves dependant on the visible presence and the inexhaustible combinations of a small number of traditional symbols, whose significations are furthermore consigned in all manner of widespread glossaries. To be sure, the soothsayer claims the right to clairvoyance and does not hesitate to declare that therein lies the essential. Nonetheless, for the consultants, the cards constitute a guarantee: they enable them to control the enigmatic sentence of fate, such that their own hand picks it from the deck. It but remains to the prophet to interpret it according to a code that is so well-established that the mage hurries to explain the reasons for his disagreement should he diverge from it. Now, this double restriction resolves itself to his advantage. The interpreter, in effect, finds himself hindered rather than helped by an infinity of different signals. For he must reduce (I have explained this with respect to oneiromancy) their multitude to a small number of events which must occur to everyone with more or less certainty: an encounter, a journey, love, betrayal, illness, failure, success, riches or ruin, and inevitable death. Every divinatory science, I was saying, is constrained to pass through this narrow door: to reduce the innumerable amount of information to the dozen or so random events that man must almost necessarily encounter over the course of his short life.

It is therefore not absolutely unfortunate that the repertoire of signs be impoverished, but it is important that they may be combined amongst themselves in many ways, like the planets and houses of the heavens in the immovable firmament, like the rows of cards laid out on the pythoness’ card table.

Only totalities are apt to contain the infinity of human situations. The planets, which are seven or nine in number, and the signs of the zodiac which are twelve, the coloured rectangles which are thirty-two or seventy-eight (or whichever number one wishes so long as they express a closed set) constitute similar totalities which summarise and enclose the universe. Nothing occurs, nor will occur, which does not find itself reflected beforehand by some configuration or other of the inflexible stars, distant, eternal, or through the arrangement of some symbols, chosen and ordered, faces mute, by a blind hand which, beneath the appearance of chance, leads the irrefutable Fate.

The hypothesis is extravagant, and, as such, unassailable. An act of faith in the pre-eminently improbable, it defies all argument. It amounts to affirming that every aspect of a given totality corresponds to a precise state that exists in the past, the present, or the future of another set, mysteriously linked to the first. To slide from one system to another, it is then only necessary to know, I wish to say to invent, the necessary correlations. But let us come to the game of cards.

In China, an unfortunately late text without authority relates that 32 ivory tablets were presented to the Emperor by an officer of the court towards the year 1120. Some were relative to Heaven, others to the Earth, and others yet to man, while the greater number concerned abstract notions such as chance, or the duties of a citizen. The sovereign would have had them reproduced and spread throughout the Empire. This game, called “One Thousand times Ten Thousand,” a total number if ever there was one, in reality only counted 30 cards: 3 series of 9 cards each and 3 trumps, which are the cards names “a thousand times ten thousand,” “the white flower,” and “the red flower.” On the cosmic cards are drawn four red marks corresponding to the cardinal points, and on the human cards, sixteen marks corresponding to the cardinal virtues, so-called by analogy (benevolence, justice, order, and wisdom), each expressed four times. The sum of the marks of the game sums up the number of stars. The game is thus a microcosm, an alphabet of emblems, which covers the universe. This encyclopaedic tendency appears no less clearly in the Indian games, just as systematic, but more closely derived from theology. At the end of the 16th century, fifty years or so after the mention of the games sent by Baber to Shah Hassan, Abu’l-Fazl Allami described a game of 144 cards, 12 series of 12 cards. Abkar would reduce it to 96 cards, that is, to 8 series.

It is accepted that the game of 96 cards in an Islamic adaptation of an Indian game of 120 cards, divided into 10 series of 12 cards, corresponding to the 10 incarnations or avatars of Vishnu and illustrated with their symbols. The iconography varies with the centres of production. This game is called Dasavatara. It is still played today in India. Each series consists of two figures, the king and the vizir, and 10 point cards, numbered from 1 to 10. In the first five series, the order of the numeral cards is ascendant, from 1 to 10, the 1 being the lowest. In the latter five series, the order is inverted, and the 1 becomes the highest. Usually, the strongest card of the game is, during the day, the one that represents the incarnation of the god as Rama or as Narasimha. After the sun has set, it is the one which bears the figure of Krishna, at least, when it is present in the game.

The numeral cards contain the emblem of the Avatar which gives them its name, as many times as their value indicates. These emblems are generally the following: fish, tortoises, seashells, discs (one may as well say coins), lotuses, jugs (almost cups), axes, bows, staffs and sabres. But, elephants, monkeys, oxen, horses, lions, nagas, or women are no less employed. Some games represent scenes in which 1 to 10 characters are found, according to the value of the card: a solitary smoker, two men having a conversation, a lady and her maid visiting a sadhu, two men performing a rope trick, with two others helping out, a young girl dancing before the king and three courtiers, etc.

The first card games known in the West are closer to the rational and civic Chinese symbolism than to the luxurious mythology of India. The Naibi, cards known in Italy since the 14th century, are a type of mnemonic device of useful knowledge. They are composed of 50 images distributed in 5 series of 10 cards. The series correspond to the stages of Life, to the Muses, to the Sciences, to the Virtues, and finally, to the Planets. The Estates of Life range from the most humble condition to the supreme power, temporal and spiritual. They are the beggar, the servant, the craftsman, the merchant, the gentleman, the knight, the doctor, the king, and finally, the Emperor and the Pope. To complete the second series, Apollo is added to the nine Muses. To the cards depicting the seven planets are added the cards symbolising the Eighth Sphere, the Prime Mover and the First Cause. For the Sciences and the Virtues, there was plenty of choice. The game was entirely didactic. The Tarot was in all likelihood born of the combination of the Naibi and the point cards. The latter, from 1 to 10, consisted of the four series we find in Spanish playing cards: cups, swords, coins and staffs. These suits supposedly allude to the clergy (the cup is a chalice), to the nobility, to the merchants, and to the peasants respectively. A Venetian treatise from 1545 proposes another explanation: “the swords evoke the death of those whom gambling has driven to despair; the staffs indicate the chastisement deserved by those who cheat; the coins depict money, fuel of the game; and finally, the cups recall the drink with which all the players’ quarrels are appeased.” The Naibi seem to have provided the major arcana, numbering 21, without counting the Mate, which is unnumbered.

The 78 cards of the Tarot remain the preeminent instrument – preferred and prestigious – of the cartomancers. Following the method of the draw adopted, one uses either the major arcana alone, or the entire deck. Ordinarily, the seer spreads before the client the 22 major arcana, face down, and has him choose 12 which she then lays out, keeping their order, in 12 positions called “houses.” She then mixes the remaining arcana with the point cards and begins the procedure anew. Each House is thus provided with 2 cards. The first is supposed to reveal the principle that directs the House, the second any possible reactions and the events to come. The 12 Houses are respectively the domiciles of life, of goods, of one’s entourage, of paternal heredity, of children, of servitude, which is to say of servants and domestic (not mounted) animals, of the spouse, of death, of religion, of honours, of friends, of afflictions. Each corresponds, moreover, to a part of the body. The set englobes all that may befall over the course of existence. The astrological origin of this frame is evident. The 12 Houses are moreover modelled on the zodiacal influences.

As to the cards themselves, particularly for the major arcana, they have been the object of the most varied and subtle exegeses. The emblems of the point cards are identified with the four elements: the swords to air (for the sword swirls in the air), the staffs to fire (they stem from wood, which is flammable), the cups to water (they contain liquids), the coins to the earth (they are made from the metals it bears). This is not enough: the swords symbolise moreover willpower and power; the staffs, work and the duties of one’s condition, material energy and fertility; the cups, love and mysticism, the intimate elaboration of the spiritual riches; the coins, finally, the knowledge and art of combinations, every creative industry which arranges the external world.

We would never end enumerating the superimposed teachings which the 22 major figures are supposed to bear. There is no conjectural science nor esoteric doctrine (astrology, arithmosophy, alchemy, etc.) which has not been called upon to enlighten (or thicken) the mystery.

A lot of ink has been spilt over this disparate series. Some discovered the universal hieroglyphic language therein. Court de Gébelin deciphered the treasures of traditional wisdom. The Egyptomania of the first half of the 19th century claimed to identify the symbols by means of the Zodiac of Denderah. The modern occultists, Éliphas Lévi, Papus, Stanislas de Guaïta, Oswald Wirth, finally, each interpreted every detail and the colour of every detail. Everything takes on a hidden and initiatory significance.

In fact, it would appear to be a composite set in which images of biblical origin (the last Judgment, the God-House, which strongly resembles the Tower of Babel, the Devil), the virtues advocated by the Church (Justice, Force, Temperance), certain celestial bodies accompanied by signs of the zodiac (the Moon with Cancer, the Sun with Gemini, the Star above Aquarius), the two great powers of the time, the Pope and the Emperor, with the Eagle or the Tiara, and each flanked by a spouse (fantasy, irreverence, or need for symmetry?), all neighbour each other. On the arcanum depicting the World, we recognise the symbols of the four Evangelists. The allegories of Love and of Death are classical. The Hanged Man and the Wheel of Fortune are frequently encountered in medieval imagery. The Hermit with his lantern evokes Diogenes, no doubt. I would willingly recognise Alexander as the crowned victor wearing armour who thrones on the Chariot. The vogue for Alexander was in fact considerable at the time. With Diogenes, he forms a legendary pair, in which disdainful poverty and earthly grandeur oppose each other.

The first card, the Juggler, which brings to mind the famous painting by H. Bosch, The Conjurer, also belongs to the repertoire of the allegories of the time. It dominates the entire game. On the mountebank’s table, the accessories he has taken out of his satchel, joined with the wand he wields, refer, it would seem, to the four suits of the point cards: money for the coins, goblets for the cups, a knife for the swords, the wand for the staffs. In the centre, the dice, lest the player or the consultant forget that the distribution of the cards depends on Fate.

The last arcanum, the Mate or the Fool, a sort of vagabond with a mastiff at his heels, often compared with another painting by H. Bosch, The Prodigal Son, is not a part of the series. It is a free card, it too a vagabond, and versatile. One could no doubt add it to whichever combination one wished to develop: a sort of Joker before its time, the ultimate concession or extra triumph, chance within chance itself, and subsidiary Unknown which corrects the known unknown.

The number of cards varies with the games. An ancient Florentine Tarot consists of 35 numbered cards, and six cards out of series. We recognise the three theological virtues, the four elements, the twelve signs of the zodiac, etc. In a word, regardless of their number and composition, the sequence of symbols is constituted by means of the most widespread speaking images. The symbols are indifferently of secular or ecclesiastical origin, pagan or Christian, learned or popular. The essential, indeed, appears to be to obtain a “totality” which encloses the universe.

The “totality” represented by the cards interferes during the draw, with the “totality” covered by the Houses. All combinations are possible, and there is no conceivable event which does not enter into the double grid. The keyboard is infinite. Furthermore, as I have said, the desired verdict is there, verifiable, legible, obscure, no doubt, but obvious. To be sure, the interested party lacks the gift, or often the knowledge, which would enable him to interpret it effectively. But he knows the principle, he identifies the symbols, he rectifies if needs be the unfortunate hypothesis of the officiant. He puts him back on the right track and thereby takes part in the fascinating reading of his own destiny. Such is, I believe, the reason for the persistent preference for the Tarot, and more generally, for divination by cards. They present themselves as a mysterious language, but one with a strict vocabulary and with a demanding syntax. The consultant himself extracts, in the form of precise images, the elements which concern him. He follows the narrative of the Master, who adapts the general signification to his particular case. The seer no longer appears as a vaticinating mage, who invents perhaps, from changing curls of smoke, from indecisive and almost imperceptible reflections, from splashes of cooling metal; these unstable forms, never identical to themselves, leave the door open to uncertainty, to error, and to deception. This time, the vocabulary has been given once and for all. The hieroglyphs are immutable and limited in number. Fate only intervenes but to indicate those that contain the future of the consultant. It remains but to decipher them, which seems to be a labour of science or of perspicacity. Thus the doctor elaborates his diagnosis by interpreting the symptoms he is qualified to identify.

Oswald Wirth concludes his Introduction to the Study of the Tarot in the following manner: “Games are training. Those of the mind develop precious faculties. Use the 22 arcana of the Tarot to play at divination.” Thus he recommended this game on a game as excellent training to imagine accurately. I have often asked myself, and well before knowing this suggestion, what accurate imagination might be: it is to reunite, insofar as possible, the conditions of a felicitous conjecture.

* * *

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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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Jean Chaboseau: The Minor Arcana

Translator’s Introduction

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

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

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

The Minor Arcana

Jean Chaboseau

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

The Minor Arcana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *


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

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

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

Translator’s Introduction

As readers of this blog will have noticed, very little of the vast Tarological literature in French has been made available to an English-reading audience, and nowhere is this lacuna more visible than in considering some of the pioneering reference works on the subject. Of these, the book Le Tarot – Histoire, Iconographie, Ésotérisme [The Tarot: History, Iconography, Esotericism] (Derain, 1947, repub. Trédaniel, 1981, Dervy, 2019) by the Dutch author Gérard Van Rijnberk stands out. Published in 1947, it contains not only one of the most comprehensive historical overviews published up until then, but it also contains one of the most thorough iconographic analyses ever undertaken on the topic, one which has not been surpassed in any language to the best of our knowledge. While some new historical data has inevitably come to light in the intervening 70-odd years since its initial publication, the timely reprint of this volume is most welcome, as is the digital facsimile, if only for the wealth of classical allusions and examinations of symbolism it contains as well as the thought-provoking questions it raises. The numerous plates also contain many illustrations of great interest. The “esoteric” section proper will be of interest to those who wish to discover a Martinist interpretation of the Tarot. Gérard van Rijnberk (1875-1953), a doctor by profession, was effectively a Martinist, and his other book on Martinès de Pasqually reflects his interest in and knowledge of that current.

We inaugurate a series on the Minor Arcana by first presenting the following text, which has been pieced together from the different entries in Van Rijnberk’s book. (A corresponding English section has been added to the table of terms in different languages.) The reason for this is the comparative neglect with which the subject has been dealt. It is one of those truisms that, in the Tarological literature, the Minor Arcana are almost always either overlooked, or if they are dealt with at all, it is only in the most perfunctory manner, for the sake of completion. Typically, the French literature elides over the matter, to the extent that, in the current cartomantic methodologies, many if not most readers use solely the trumps.

Eudes Picard was one of the first authors to give the Minor Arcana any serious consideration, but, in this regard, it is worth bearing in mind that he redrew the deck to suit his own ideas, which therefore may not be as immediately applicable to the cards of the ‘classic’ Marseilles type. Following his lead, a number of other authors devoted some thought to the matter, for instance, P. S. Darc, Joseph Maxwell, Jean Chaboseau, and Paul Marteau, to name but a few.

In his work, Van Rijnberk mentions the connection certain authors have drawn between the four suits and the four elements, the four estates of medieval society, or the four humours of classical medicine. The priest Ménestrier (in 1704) was the first to propose the idea that the four suits represented the four estates, but his logic is tenuous and unconvincing, and he correlates the clergy to hearts, the military to the spades, the bourgeoisie to the diamonds, and the peasants to the clubs. Nonetheless, the idea persists, in various forms and with varying attributions. The same can be said of the attributions of the four elements.

Note: It is necessary to understand that the word couleur in French, in the context of card games, means ‘suit’ in English, hence Van Rijnberk’s exhaustive analysis of the actual colours used in the pigmentation of the cards, the comparative table of which has not been reproduced in the following excerpt. We have also omitted the table of correspondences between the Minor Arcana and the suits of ordinary playing cards.


Van Rijnberk 2019 edition

The Minor Arcana

Gérard van Rijnberk

The Minor Arcana include four series of fourteen cards, of which ten are numbered from One (Ace) to Ten, called pips, and four courtly figures or minor trumps: valet, queen, horseman and king. The four series are characterised and distinguished between each other by a sign. In all the known Tarot decks, these four signs are the same and are called:




French (and Belgian)





coupes or calices

cups or chalices




deniers or pentagrams

coins or pentacles









bâtons or sceptres

wands, staffs or sceptres

On the numbered cards, or rather, those which each have a particular numeral value, the distinctive sign is repeated as many times as necessary to form their ordinal number, or rather, to indicate their value. For the coins and the cups, this is easily achieved: on each card we find two, three, and so on, up to ten times the single sign. For the staffs and swords, narrow, coloured, and interlocking bands have been used: those corresponding to the staffs are straight, those that represent the swords are curved. Some thought to have found obvious reminders of the Orient in these two signs: the Oriental scimitar is curved, and the staff is a domestic utensil in much greater use there than in the West.

Some have also wished to see in the four series of the same sign four little armies, each led by a King seated on a throne and holding in his hand the distinctive sign of his side (this sign is often placed by itself, near the King’s head). He is accompanied by the Queen, by his Marshal and by his Valet, who each have the same sign as their lord and king. His 54 soldiers, grouped by two, three, four, etc., form his entourage. The standard-bearer is not lacking either: it is represented by the distinctive sign of the little army, reproduced to a greater size on the last, or if you wish, on the first card of the series: the Ace.

The series having the same sign are also called couleurs [i.e. suits], but in reality, as we have already said, the four series are not characterised by a colour proper, nor even by a principal colour either. In the coins and the cups, the colour yellow predominates; in the swords and staffs, it is black. Nothing more.

If we now compare the Minor Arcana of the Italian Tarot with those of the Tarot of Marseilles, the differences are not many. The colours are capriciously distributed. The ace of cups is a gigantic real cup, whereas the Tarot of Marseilles bears a large golden chalice. The Knight of the four series is called Horseman, and the Queen, Dame. The numbers of the numeral cards are in Arabic numerals!

This last detail may have a certain importance, because, if we accept that the Tarot was brought into Europe by the Arabs, one would expect to find Arabic numerals. From there to find them on the Italian Tarot, in fact, the opinion that the Tarot was originally imported into Italy in the beginning, and from there was transmitted to France, where it acquired French captions and Roman numerals, is strengthened. But all this is but castles in the sky.

* * *

A lot of fantasy has been deployed on the subject of the possible exoteric symbolism of the four series of playing cards. Some wish to see an allusion to the four estates of medieval society: Clergy (cups), Military (swords), Nobility (coins), the People (staffs). This distinction would have its origins in the four estates of ancient Hindu society, Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Some have also wished to see in the Cups, Faith; in the Coins, Charity; in the Swords, Justice; and in the Clubs (staffs), Strength.

Gallotti, in his Doctrina Promiscua*, written in 1488, supposes that the denarii (coins) were originally rural-style round loaves of bread, and that the cups were an allusion to wine; these two series would then recall the mystery of Transubstantiation!

The humorous moralist of the Carte Parlanti†, published in Venice in 1545, maintains that “the swords evoke the death of those given to gambling; that the staff indicates the chastisement deserved by those who cheat; the coins depict money, fuel of the game; and finally, the cups recall the drink with which all the players’ quarrels are appeased.”

It has also been noted that one form of the game of chess was played with four players, and that the game itself was called Chaturanj in India, that is, the Four Kings. Moreover, the figures of chess also evoke the game of cards in another way: in the game of chess, there is a King, a Queen, a Horseman (or more precisely the Vizir), the Valet (the Fool, according to French terminology), and the mere soldiers or pawns. The only figure of the game of chess that is missing from the four series of the game of cards, the Tower, is to be found among the Greater Trumps, under the name of n° XVI (la Maison Dieu or the Tower Struck by Lightning).

Another analogy: in the game of chess, there really are two different predominant colours, just as in the game of cards, there are only two in reality, and not four.

* * *

I wish to place here some observations on the esotericism of the Minor Arcana, a subject to which I shall not return in the course of this study. Here too, a multitude of remarks arise. Why the choice of four suits or series? They call to mind the four Elements and appear to have a well-determined significance: the Staffs make one think of the Coagula and the Earth Element; the Swords of the Fire Element and the Solve of the Alchemists; the Juggler does he not raise one arm towards Heaven, and point the other towards the Earth? And the Coins, those circular golden discs: they make one think of the radiant, fertilising, Sun, masculine and active principle of the Air; whereas the Cups, those feminine wombs, evidently represent the negative, attracting, and dissolving, passive principle of Water. All this is very possible, probable even, but it seems difficult to do as many occultists do, to attribute to each of the 56 ordinary cards a profound esoteric significance. This in no way means that the Minor Arcana cannot serve in an eminent role as an auxiliary divinatory instrument.


* A treatise dealing with medical astrology, astronomy, herbs, and medicines, by Galeottus Martius, also known as Galeotto Marzio. – Translator

† An allusion to Le carte parlanti by Pietro Aretino, first published in 1543. – Translator

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Daniel Giraud: Jean Carteret and the Architecture of the Tarot

Translator’s Introduction

In order to provide further insights into the arrangement of the Tarot proposed by Jean Carteret here and here, we present the translation of the following piece by his student, the astrologer-poet Daniel Giraud, one of whose articles on the Tarot has been published here. This piece forms the third chapter of Giraud’s monograph on Carteret and his work, Jean Carteret : Alchimiste du Verbe, Table d’Emeraude, 1990.

Most of the quotations from Carteret’s work refer back to the foregoing two articles already translated and published on this site, and the other references are taken from Le Tarot comme Langage. We have not seen fit to signal these each time, and have only included those notes which add to the text.


Jean Carteret in his Parisian home with the Kabbalist Adolphe Grad and Daniel Giraud. Photograph by Patrick Moulié.

The Tarot

Daniel Giraud

It would seem that the Tarot first appeared in central Europe towards the fifteenth century. It is composed of seventy-eight cards made up of twenty-two major arcana and fifty-six minor arcana. The first known Tarot set is that of Charles VI (1430) but some of its cards have not come down to us. The first complete Tarot deck is that of Visconti (1450), imbued with Christian symbolism, followed by the famous “Tarot of Marseilles” which contains many astro-alchemical symbols. Later on, we witness the decadence of this means of divination, with everyone wishing to create their own increasingly popularised Tarot.

Different authors have studied and proposed different particular structures of the twenty-two major arcana. From Gérard Van Rijnberk to Jean Carteret, I shall retain those of Jean Vassel, Aleister Crowley, and of Armand Barbault, but here, naturally, the only thing which concerns us is the vision of Jean Carteret.

For Carteret, the Tarot is a fairytale which bears witness to the arrangement of the Logos… “Every arrangement of the Word is a temple. To open the doors of the temple, to open the doors of the Tarot, is to open the doors of language.”

Jean notes this arrangement of the creation with respect to the creature thusly: “The Arcana of the Tarot form a panorama of the set of all possible formulas of the Word. It is a book of Creation.”

This revelation of the principles is a temple… The construction of a temple (value of state) is a structure, but the circulation within this qualifying space is a dialectic (dynamic value). Jean Carteret developed the values of the dialectic pairs of the cards of the Tarot of Marseilles.

The circle is the representation of the Word, the expression of the Principle. This “first figure of unity” is seen thusly: “The circle is a visible figure which is the transcendence of an invisible figure, which is to say that the circle as visible figure is the expression of a principle which itself is invisible. This is why we speak of the principle which is said to be the empty point which is transcended by the circle.” What, then is the meaning of this central point? The empty point is to the circle as that which abides is to that which changes. The empty point unfolds and expresses itself by the circle which is a perfect figure, regular and continuous.”

The circle as divided into 360 degrees by the Sumerians introduces the becoming into the beyond-time, and the 360 degrees of the circle determine the 22 arcana. The number of regular polygons (of whole degrees) which may be inscribed within a circle is 22…

“The triangle is the first polygon wherein the Word will articulate itself, it is the initiator of the series of the 21 others. The second will be the square, then the pentagon, then the hexagon, but, first rupture in the series: 360 is not divisible by 7, there is no regular polygon of seven sides… (This brings us back to a valorisation of the number 6, of the six days of creation: if there is no regular polygon of seven sides, it is because “God” rested on the seventh day… First break in the circle.) Then, we will have an 8-sided polygon, followed by 9, 10, 12, 15, 18, 20, 24, 30, 36, 40, 45, 60, 72, 90, 180, and 360-sided polygons.”

These 22 polygons are articulations representing the “alphabet of the apprenticeship of all the possibilities of the Word. The twenty-second non-numbered arcana, the Mate, embodies, as the zero, all the possibilities of the 22 regular polygons, zero being the “total non-conditioning.”

In his dialectics of the name and the number, Jean Carteret stated: “Crowned with the number and supported by the name, the card plays with the image represented and the idea that it expresses. The name is existence, it corresponds to what I think (to think is to name), whereas the number, the essence, indicates what thinks me (what constitutes me).” And, he adds, “In the image itself, the name dominates the number. In the idea, the number dominates the name. In the name, the image dominates the idea. In the number, the idea dominates the image. The name is sound and heat, the number is light. The sublimation of the name and of sound will be its ascent into the idea, and the incarnation of the number and of the light will be its descent into the image.”

In the observation of the “images” of the Tarot, it is also necessary to interpret the colours which are obviously not randomly chosen. Let us recall the value of colours according to traditional symbolism… White indicates the purity of the eternal, divine Light (light has no colour). Yellow expresses the revolution or the revealed Light (golden yellow: constancy; pale yellow: treachery). Red is of course the colour of love, fire, and sacrificial blood. Pink (flesh colour) indicates love (red) of the divine (white). Blue represents wisdom, nobility and truth. Green is a symbol of creation and of hope.

This is what Carteret had to say: “Yellow is the colour of tradition; pink is the colour of revolution. Red is the colour of activity, blue is the colour of passivity – but activity or passivity of the state, if it involves the trunk of the body for the state, capable of being active or passive, but activity or passivity of the action, if it involves the limbs of the body. Green is the colour of becoming, of being – what we call its first origin, or its end.”

In the astrological correspondence of the arcana of the Tarot, Jean Carteret saw Justice as being to the head of the Black Sun as the Hermit is to the tail of this Black Sun. Temperance is the head of the Dragon (ascending lunar Node) as “Death” is to the tail of this Dragon (descending lunar Node). Whereas the Devil is analogous to the set of this axis of lunar Nodes. The Mate represents the relation between the solar ecliptic and the circle of the celestial equator and corresponds astrologically to the sign of Gemini.

Before moving on to the particular symbolism of each arcanum, let us observe the arrangement of the 22 major arcana according to Carteret: “Thus, the first six arcana will express the six poles of the the state where the vertical dominates over the horizontal, the following six arcana (from VII to XII) will express the six poles of the action where the horizontal dominates over the vertical. Then, we will have a third group of six arcana (from XVI to XXI) which will express the global and simultaneous confrontation of the first two groups.”

Between the second and third senary, one must pass through “the triple threshold of Arcana XIIII, XIV, and XV, which express the double inversion the first two senaries must undergo before the establishment of the the last.” As to the 22nd arcanum, the Mate, who does not bear a number, it expresses “the degree zero of the as-yet unstructured sphere and its ultimate globality, below and beyond the weddings.”

Jean Carteret enables us to grasp that the Tarot is not a simple folkloric type of divination, but that it is “the architecture of a poem of the world” because “it was conceived of by people who were in contact with the world, and who, thus, had no need to explain it.”

One must first of all distinguish between the 56 minor arcana (from which the ordinary game of playing cards is derived) and the 22 major arcana: the principles dominate the major arcana and “the spirit dominates life”; whereas, on the contrary, it is life that dominates the spirit and the elements which prevail in the minor arcana.”

In Carteret’s metaphysical perspective, the spirit that comes from emptiness is to the immutable as life, which comes from fullness, is to the mobile. On the vertical plane, the spirit spreads in the three alchemical principles: Sulphur, Mercury and Salt, in analogy with the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, whereas life dominates in the four elements (Fire; Water; Air; Earth) on the horizontal plane.

The major arcana are thus based on the trinity: three times six arcana. “The first six arcana represent the state and analogically the radical sulphur as well as the fixed mercury; for if the radical sulphur is in essence the fixed, and the radical mercury the volatile, in life everything is overcoming and the fixed must become volatile, and the volatile fixed.” [1]

The first six arcana are the places of formation (of a state which ends in a situation) and the next six arcana are the passage from formation to transformation. The first arcana (cards I to VI) form a “senary of state” where the three principles are fixated in the four elements. The second senary (cards VII to XII) is that “of action”: the four elements are volatilised by the three principles. In the third senary, (cards XVI to XXI) is situated the “work” of the “androgyny of the action and of the state.”

The twin transcendence of the senaries of the state and of action are indicated by the two passages of cards XIII (volatilisation of the fixed of the second senary) and XIV (fixation of the volatile of the first senary) and by the double passage of arcanum XV representing “the two thresholds in simultaneity.” Jean studied the symbolism of the Mate separately. In a vision referring to the Mysteries of Eleusis, he concluded: “The first twelve cards represent the Lesser Mystery: that of being; separated by the three cards of the threshold; then come arcana XVI to XXI, which represent the Greater Mystery: that of consciousness.”

In a radio programme, Jean Carteret opened by saying: “The Tarot is utterly useless,” and he continued, quoting an ancient Taoist expression: “Everyone knows the utility of what is useful, few know the utility of what is useless.” And the Tarot is indeed the usefulness of what is useless.

Let us examine the details of the structure of the Tarot according to carteret through various dialectic correspondences. The first card “opens all relations” and represents the articulation of the problem. The Juggler symbolises the values of the inside which exteriorises itself towards the outside with respect to the Lover (VI), which represents an engagement towards the inside. [2] “He is the passage of all which has preceded as origin to the end, and he will emphasise this end. He is indeed complementary to the Juggler, who, for his part, emphasises the origin. And while the Juggler is the passage from the private to the public, the Lover who is at the end will be the passage from the public to the private. So much so that the Juggler articulates the problem whereas the Lover engages it.

Between the cards II the Popess and V the Pope, on the one hand, and the cards III the Empress and IV the Emperor on the other, ”the dialectic is obvious.” … The Popess is an integrity in relation with the invisible, her book bears witness to sacred writing whereas the Pope speaks. Thus, the Popess symbolises the “introverted word” with respect to the Pope, “extroverted word.” The Popess is a metaphysical value without physical reality and the Pope is united to the metaphysical by his relation with the Popess, “he is, in sum, the incarnation of the metaphysical and of the physical, and he bears witness to this vertical relation through speech; whereas the Popess, who does not exist but who is, cannot speak. The Popess is thus the silence filled by writing, that is to say, a collective where the invisible contains the visible. Analogically, the Popess is the Church, whereas the speech of the Pope is the emphasis brought from becoming over being.” [3]

In the image of the third card, that of the Empress, is depicted an eagle gazing to the left, and thus introverted with respect to the arcanum of the Emperor where there is an extroverted eagle looking to the right. The eagle of the Emperor rises towards the light whereas the eagle of the Empress is kept in the heat (according to the terms used by Carteret) and his inclined sceptre corresponds to the “setting sun” with respect to the “rising sun” of the cross erected on the sceptre of the Empress.

Still in the “Lesser Mystery” of the twelve first arcana, let us develop the second senary, that of action. The seventh card, the Chariot represents the “accelerator” with respect to the Wheel of Fortune (X) which corresponds to the brake… The Chariot is providence which, by the “two horses of the principle” is situated in becoming. The Wheel of the Chariot is discontinuous whereas it is continuous in the Wheel of Fortune, inverted with respect to the Chariot.

With Justice (VIII) we see the “seated fatness” paired with the “standing thinness” of the Hermit. In Justice there is a plenitude by heat, whereas in the Hermit we find the quest by light, which is the reduction and intensification of Justice. “The true is to existence what the just is to life; now, what the Hermit seeks is the passage from life to existence. As the town is what exists and the country is what lives, the Hermit lives in the country to find the passage to the town, whereas arcanum VIII, as the Justice of the Peace, lives in the centre of the town: the Town Hall.”

We reach, at present, the “Greater Mystery” (cards XVI to XXI) of the last senary. The God-House (XVI) symbolises “the fall of heaven on earth,” it is the House of the decrowned principle, stricken by the storm (the revelation of the principle) which has just split the unity into two, whence the two falling characters.

If, in the God-House, the vertical wall of the Tower without a door (God has no need of a door) is demolished, we observe in the Sun (XIX) a rebuilt horizontal wall, and the two children fallen from the God-House find themselves standing upright and reunited. With the Sun, it is peace regained after the collapse represented by the sixteenth card.

We arrive at Arcanum XVII dear to André Breton and the Surrealists, the Star, who symbolises for Carteret “the deconditioning of the Earth and Heaven to the benefit of the natural influences” (Water element), whereas in the preceding card, there was a rupture (Fire element) in the relation between Heaven and Earth. The Star is indeed the incarnation of poetry, “the grace of the foregoing fall, or more accurately, the pleasure of the fall become Grace…”

If the God-House “was a descent towards the base, the collapse of Heaven on Earth, since Revelation is the fall, as the shattering shows, on the contrary, the Moon is the exaltation in the sense of an ascent towards the summit. Whereas the God-House is the passage from the invisible to the visible, the Moon is the passage from the visible to the invisible.

If, with Justice, “Heaven grasps the Earth,” it is with Force that the Earth grasps Heaven. Force (XI) is an “antecedent vertical” and is paired with the Hanged Man (XII), “consequential horizontal.” We do not see the hands of the Hanged Man, legs crossed, as we do not see the feet (the birth) of Force, hands crossed. “In arcanum XII, we may say that “all that falls, happens.” And the Hanged Man’s rope, which comes from Heaven, brings happiness.”

We now arrive at the three cards of the Threshold: “the work of Thrice-Greatest Hermes… The thirteenth card without a name which depicts a skeleton bearing a scythe is called “Death,” it is the door through which one leaves.” The severed right foot of the skeleton hinders the action of this passage from action to reaction. Thus, this arcanum symbolises “the action which tends towards the state by the brake” whereas the following card, Temperance, is “the passage of the state towards action by the accelerator.” If “Death” sees the past depart, Temperance is turned towards the future; it is also “the door through one enters.” On the alchemical plane, there is “fixation” with Death, and “volatilisation” with Temperance, where the fluidic waters, the impalpable wave, volatilises the fixed.

Finally, the third card of the Threshold, the Devil (XV), represents the synthesis of cards XIII and XIV: it is at the same time the door through which one enters as well as that through which one leaves, the door with two batwing doors, “the simultaneity of two movements.” The androgynous Devil is the “Dragon of Virtue,” guardian of the Threshold, “the capital value which allows the awakening of consciousness in existence.”

This lunar illumination sees the drops rise (the downwards-pointing tips of the droplets symbolise the Water element) towards a Capricornian summit (with respect to the crayfish of that card indicating the zodiacal sign of Cancer, opposite Capricorn). On the other hand, in the arcanum of the Sun, the tips of the droplets are turned upwards, thus symbolising the Fire element. [4]

The Judgment (XX) [5] represents the conclusion of the four preceding arcana. In this confrontation, “the movement occurs from the top to the bottom, and from the bottom to the top, so much so that the top judges the bottom, as the bottom judges the top.” The Judgment is analogous to the engagement, but not to the wedding represented by the World (XXI) for there is yet separation between the Top and the Bottom. We see in the arcanum the World “the belt of the life of the world,” laurel garland, and the poetry that surrounds the androgyne while the four evangelists correspond to the four “fixed” zodiacal signs (the middle of the seasons). [6]

There remains the Mate, card without number… [7] Carteret found that the exact position of this “nomad” was situated between the Judgment (XX) and the World (XXI). [8] He always discoursed at length on this “simple in spirit” who passes everywhere and whom “no rules stop.” Analogous to the Monkey-Pilgrim, he is also “at the same time permanent Revolution and the Golden Fleece.” It is liberty to the extent that this last, like Nirvana, is “the extinction of differences.” As “zero, the Mate is all passages, whereas as 22, he is the passage to the impossible.”

Jean ended his radio programme by observing that: “The Tarot is the coat of arms of the essences of creation within the creature, that is to say, within man.”

Let us conclude with another of his remarks: “All that is crossed must represent a potentiality.” [9]* Speaking of the Emperor, he used to say that only kings had the right to cross their legs. [10] Crossed legs represented “the power of the action” brought back to “the power of the state.” To have one’s legs crossed is to pass from the virtue of the action to the virtue of the state.

At the end of his life, Jean crossed and uncrossed his legs constantly…


1. In the alchemical Tradition, the “green Lion” volatilises the Fixed, and the “red Lion” fixates the Volatile. Note, moreover, that the third principle, the Salt, is a later notion developed following Paracelsus.

2. The Juggler and the Lover “are the two crossroads of the senary of state.”

3. Raymond Abellio notes that the Popess represents “the invisible Church of which the Pope is but the worldly emergence. In kabbalistic terms: the emanated light and the created light.”

4. Jean paired the God-House and the Sun, on the one hand, and the Star and the Moon on the other. These latter relations between cards XVII and XVIII seem less obvious and less developed to me. Raymond Abellio proposed a different and relevant pairing: horizontally, the Sun and the Moon, on the one hand, and the Star and the World on the other. Vertically, the God-House and the Judgment correspond to the dark face and the light face of the apocalypses.

5. “Judgment – in itself – is just and true. To judge is eventually to convert. Arcanum XX is alchemical. Arcanum XXI is the reinsertion into the original state of being and of non-being, but with the absolute consciousness of the relative consciousness and the global being.”

6. Saint Mark: the Lion [Leo]; Saint John: the Scorpion [Scorpio]; Saint Matthew: the Water-Bearer [Aquarius]; and Saint Luke: the Bull [Taurus].

7. The name (in relation with life) is to the number (in relation with the spirit) what the idea is to the image.

8. Personally, it would seem to me to be more appropriate to place the Mate before the Juggler (I) and after the World (XXI) since Jean used to say that he is at the same time the zero (the source) below the difference, and the twenty-two (the mouth) which goes beyond all differences. This position is it not obvious in a circular representation of the Tarot, where the Mate, between the first and the last cards, connects the initiatory circle?

9. He used to say this of certain figures of the Tarot.

10. Does “Carte-ret” not mean “the king of the cards”, as Arnold Waldstein remarked?

* The word puissance in French means both ‘potential’ as well as ‘power’. – Translator
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