Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

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Paul Marteau: Editions of Le Tarot de Marseille and the Ancien Tarot de Marseille

Translator’s Introduction

Of the many works published on the Tarot in French, perhaps none has had quite the influence or fortune enjoyed by that of Paul Marteau, Le Tarot de Marseille, begun in 1928 and published in 1949, almost twenty years after the first edition of his well-known Ancien Tarot de Marseille in 1930. That this work received the reception hinted at by the book reviews we have published is due to a number of factors, not all of which are those commonly advanced by critics and amateurs, enlightened or otherwise.

First of all, the fact that the book was written by the designer-publisher of what was to become the most common, if not standard, Marseille-type Tarot deck, played no small part in this popularity. After all, who better than the creator himself – and one, moreover, descended from a family with a century of experience in the cardmaking trade – to introduce and explain his own work?

Secondly, the complete, self-contained nature of the book, clearly and methodically laid out, also presents a positive development with respect to most of the preceding works on the subject. Unlike most other works (with the notable exception of those by Eudes Picard and Joseph Maxwell), Marteau treats of the entire pack of 78 cards in turn and in detail. The self-contained – hermetic, in the common sense of the word – nature of Marteau’s work is appealing: it contains no history (and therefore, neither myth nor bad history), no references to other systems of thought, mystical, divinatory or otherwise, with the exception of brief digressions on number and colour symbolism, for, after all, there are both colours and numbers in the Tarot. In a word, it is seemingly definitive and unassailable.

Lastly, one must not neglect its aesthetic value, a point oft overlooked by uninformed critics: published by Arts et Métiers Graphiques, a prestigious graphic design firm, with full-size, full-colour reproductions of the 78 cards, impeccable typography and a pleasing layout, Le Tarot de Marseille forms an attractive tome for collectors, amateurs and the merely curious alike.

Yet the style and tone of Marteau’s writing are polarising: one either admires his dense, precise prose, or one deplores its authoritative voice and stentorian formulations. Marteau himself apologises to the reader for its “ponderous phraseology”; Jean-Michel Mathonière says it is “well written and a pleasant read”; Tchalaï Unger calls it an example of “remarkable verbiage.”

The lack of a historical overview renders his book impervious to historical criticism, since it provides no foothold for critique, but the lack of a history of the deck he used as the basis of his work (aside from a single footnote singling out the deck printed by Nicolas Conver in 1761) makes it eminently suspect in the eyes of the historically-minded. Naturally, those interested in cartomancy or in the Tarot as a system of personal development have little concern for such things, but in the final analysis, the broad appeal exerted by Marteau’s book has also made it vulnerable to a multitude of criticisms, should one venture beyond the narrow confines of its particular scope and perspective. Writing of Marteau’s deck, the Tarot specialist Jean-Marie Lhôte correctly notes that it is “a deck whose origin is impossible to place; which is paradoxical coming from an erudite collector of his calibre.” (La Tour de feu, n° 121, p. 24)

In effect, the sole historical indication, the footnote alluded to above, reads as follows:

“This Tarot is the one published in 1761 by Nicolas Conver, master cardmaker in Marseilles, who had held onto the woodblocks and colour schemes of his distant predecessors. This Tarot is presently published by B. P. Grimaud, who have acquired the Conver estate and in this way could continue to print the traditional Tarot in its original form.” (Paul Marteau, Le Tarot de Marseille, Arts et Métiers Graphiques, 1949, p. 1)

As we shall see, unpacking this statement leads to a mystery that has still not been completely explained, namely the genesis and rationale of Marteau’s deck. Indeed, the early history of the Conver deck is also unexplored territory.

If we have insisted on this body of work, both deck and book, it has been in order to highlight the singular nature of Marteau’s undertaking, one which will be spelt out more fully in forthcoming articles. To reduce Marteau’s contribution to the world of Tarot to a commercial monopoly is a sign of ignorance at best, or a symptom of bad faith at worst.

These desultory notes provide some measure of context for the following series of articles which we intend to publish; the first by Paul Marteau himself, On Four Arcana of the Tarot, which provides insight into his view of the origins of the Tarot and on the genesis of his deck; and Paul Marteau, Author and Publisher of the Ancient Tarot of Marseilles (1930) by Gwenael Beuchet, which provides the only substantial overview of Marteau’s life and work; and finally, the introduction to the booklet which accompanied the 1990 Dusserre reprint of Marteau’s deck by Jean-Marie Lhôte, which provides an insightful examination of Marteau’s deck and legacy.

Before doing so, however, we have seen fit to draw up an outline and bibliography of the various editions of Marteau’s works, namely, his book, his deck and its booklet, in order to clarify some of the issues they pose. In effect, there have been a number of editions of both Marteau’s deck and book, and these editions present some subtle and interesting differences which are instructive to note.

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Editions of Paul Marteau’s

Le Tarot de Marseille and the Ancien Tarot de Marseille

Box of the Ancien Tarot de Marseille, B. P. Grimaud, Paris, 1930. (Courtesy of Adam West-Watson)

Ancien Tarot de Marseille


Paul Marteau, as heir to the Grimaud card company, not only inherited the technical knowledge and commercial savvy of his forebears, but also their collections of historical decks, and as such had access to a veritable treasure trove of card-related material. Grimaud, notably, had purchased the rights to a deck produced by Lequart, founded in 1872. As the Tarot historian Thierry Depaulis has noted, “Although Lequart is better known for its ‘Besançon’-like tarot, which Grimaud took over in 1891 and continued until 1930, it seems Paul Marteau has used an early edition of Lequart & Thuillier’s Italian-suited tarot with Popess and Pope.”[1] Wishing to secure commercial rights over a new deck specifically for the purpose of divination, Marteau produced a Tarot deck based on the line drawings of this Lequart deck and on the colour scheme of the 1890 Camoin reprint of the 1760 Conver deck, better suited to mechanical reproduction, and to which Grimaud had acquired the rights in the late nineteenth century.[2]

Yet it turns out that the genesis of this deck, through a tangled history of mergers and acquisitions, extends even further back in time. The 1748 date given on the ribbon of the II of Coins of both the Lequart and Grimaud editions refers to the then earliest known date for the Parisian cardmaker Arnoult, bought out by Grimaud in 1858.[3] Therefore this 1748 date may be considered arbitrary and motivated by commercial concerns, in order to claim historical precedence over the Camoin reprint of the 1760 deck.

Thierry Depaulis states that, “In fact, it is very similar to the Nicolas Conver tarot, which Camoin was still printing in the second half of the 19th century (from very worn woodblocks). […] It is very likely that Camoin’s Conver tarot formed the basis of Lequart’s own, since even the ‘royal’ coat of arms with fleurs-de-lis on the two of Cups has been copied.”[4] The Tarot specialist Wilfried Houdouin has also noted that the Lequart deck was in all likelihood carved in the workshop of the Parisian cardmaker Antoine Lefer (1752-1813) a century earlier: “This deck effectively presents all the hallmarks of a Tarot deck produced between 1750 and 1800, as its resemblance to the 1760 Tarot of Nicolas Conver and its characteristic engravings show.”[5] According to the same author, this deck “most probably dates from 1778.”[6]

Marteau’s deck, slightly modified with respect to the originals on which it was based, was first produced in 1930, subsequently reprinted with different back designs, and would later be modified again in 1948. Some of the more notable differences between these two ‘editions’ include the removal of the royal fleur-de-lis from the IIII of Coins, replaced by a more politically-neutral tulip, and the addition of a pair of dice to the Juggler’s table. (Dice are also to be found on the Juggler card of the earlier Tarot by Jean Noblet, produced ca. 1650.) Some minor changes to the colouration were also effected. This colour scheme has also given rise to some controversy, but in fact, it would appear that Marteau, having sought out the older Antoine Camoin to make enquiries on this very subject, was inspired to adopt the colours of the earlier Camoin reprint when he came across the original stencils, still bearing the traces of these colours.[7]

Although the history of this deck and its ancestors as well as the rationale for Marteau’s editorial decisions remain to be fully elucidated, it is very possible that Marteau sought to base himself on an established standard, both in terms of the line drawings and the colour scheme, and in this way, lay claim to publish the Conver deck – “the traditional Tarot in its original form” – thus establishing himself as part of a chain of Tarot cardmakers.[8] Until such a time as Marteau’s unpublished letters and diaries might be examined, the matter must remain speculative and unresolved.

There were many reprints of the Grimaud deck throughout the 20th century, and a large number of them have been catalogued here. Both editions of Marteau’s deck were accompanied by his 80-page booklet entitled “Ancien Tarot de Marseille, explication des Arcanes Majeurs et Mineurs, avec de nombreux exemples de positions respectives de lames, précédée de nouvelles méthodes de Divination par le Tarot Traditionnel.” This booklet contains some material not present in Marteau’s later book, most notably divinatory meanings, as well as so-called “encounters” (Fr. rencontres) between cards, i.e. 2-card combinations and their combined meaning. Incidentally, the 1969/1970 English edition of Marteau’s deck, published by J.M. Simon, contains an approximate translation of this booklet.

One noteworthy non-Grimaud reprint is the one published by Dusserre in 1990, who printed a facsimile of the original 1930 deck, accompanied by a booklet by Jean-Marie Lhôte, who himself had been in contact with Marteau shortly before his death in 1966.

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Le Tarot de Marseille

The editorial genesis of Marteau’s magnum opus, Le Tarot de Marseille, has also given rise to some speculation due to the differences between the 1930 and 1948 decks and the descriptions in the book, but also due to some differences between the various editions, which are noted below. All editions were published by Arts et Métiers Graphiques, Paris.

  • 1949: The first edition, limited to 2,900 copies numbered on the colophon page, was printed as a softcover In-8 volume. The cards of Marteau’s 1948 deck are pasted directly onto the pages of the book.
  • 1970: This second edition is identical to the first, with the notable exception of the cards, also pasted into the book, which are those of the 1960 Camoin ‘bicentennial’ reprint of the Conver deck. Although the colour scheme more or less matches the descriptions in the book, since Marteau mostly followed the precursor of this deck for his own, the line drawings are a little different. It is very possible that this deck was used instead of the original 1930 Grimaud deck due to copyright issues following the takeover of Grimaud by J.M. Simon in 1962, and Marteau’s death in 1966.
  • 1977, 1981: Identical in format to the foregoing editions, with the exception of the cards, printed directly into the book this time, reproducing the 1948 edition of Marteau’s deck.
  • 1984: Same as the foregoing, except it is presented in hardback format, with a black dust-jacket over a yellow clothbound volume, with the Juggler on the front cover, and the Ace of Cups on the back.
  • 1983: Marteau’s book was also translated into Spanish and published as El Tarot de Marsella by EDAF from 1983, with a number of reprints.

* * *

The literary reception of Marteau’s book, hinted at by the various book reviews we have published, fails to give a complete picture of the influence his work has had, an influence disproportionate to the limited print run of its first edition. Yet many of the notions laid out in Le Tarot de Marseille are now part and parcel of what may be called French Tarology, at least, that of the 20th century; reading the Tarot as an analogical, optical language; interpreting the floral ornaments; and paying close attention to the incidental details. The systems of more recent authors, such as Alejandro Jodorowsky, Tchalaï Unger, Marie-Thérèse des Longchamps or Claude de Milleville, are all, to a certain extent, inspired by this approach.

Paul Marteau’s article, book and booklet, taken as a whole, and respectively referring to the origin, theory and application of the Tarot, must be considered as representing the totality of his tarological system, and it is to be hoped that a complete and comprehensive edition and English translation of these texts be published at some point in the future.


[1] Thierry Depaulis, ‘The Tarot de Marseille – Facts and Fallacies, Part I,’ The Playing-Card, volume 42 (2013-2014), Number 1, pp. 23-25.

[2] See Gwenael Beuchet, ‘Paul Marteau, auteur et éditeur de l’Ancien Tarot de Marseille (1930),’ in Thierry Depaulis (ed.), Actes du Colloque ‘Papiers, Images, Collections,’ 28, 29, 30 avril 2000, Le Vieux Papier n° 358 (October 2000), pp. 31-40.

[3] Thierry Depaulis, Tarot, Jeu et Magie, Bibliothèque nationale, 1984, p. 121. See also the detailed pages on the history of the Grimaud firm here.

[4] Thierry Depaulis, ‘The Tarot de Marseille – Facts and Fallacies, Part I,’ The Playing-Card, volume 42 (2013-2014), Number 1, pp. 23-25.

[5] Wilfried Houdouin, Le code sacré du Tarot, Éditions Trajectoire, 2011, Chapter III, note 1.

[6] Wilfried Houdouin, The Tarot of Marseilles – The Fundamentals, Books on Demand, 2021, p. 222.

[7] Gwenael Beuchet, op. cit., p. 36.

[8] Paul Marteau, Le Tarot de Marseille, Arts et Métiers Graphiques, 1949, p. 1.

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André Salmon: Cartomancy (excerpts)

Translator’s Introduction

In literature, the Tarot as a narrative machine or as a plot device dates back to Pietro Aretino’s Pasquinate of 1521 at least, and has been put to work in all manner of ways, from formative and conceptual engine as in the work of Italo Calvino, explicit inspiration for William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, an aid to character development in the work of Paul Adam, and as cliché in all manner of recent horror or fantasy novels. Less obviously, it has been an inspiration for poetry, although Aretino’s verses mark the first recorded instance of this particular usage, and Gérard de Nerval’s poems have been thoroughly studied in this perspective (by Georges Le Breton and Jean Richer, notably).

One undeservedly neglected figure whose work makes use of cards as both subject and inspiration for a series of poems is that of André Salmon (1881-1969), a once well-known French poet, close to Picasso, Apollinaire, Max Jacob and modernist artists and authors, and whose work was also well known in English at one point.

Portrait of Salmon by Josette Bournet, c.1947

Salmon’s series of 10 (or 12) brief poems inspired by the semi-historical, semi-legendary figures depicted on the court cards of the pack of ordinary playing cards is entitled Cartomancie, and was published in the ephemeral literary journal Action in 1921, illustrated with woodcuts. An offprint was also produced and one such copy appears in the collection of books, cards and papers donated to the Bibliothèque Nationale by Paul Marteau, director of Grimaud. These poems do not appear to have been republished since, nor compiled in Salmon’s other works, to the best of our knowledge. Moreover, the last stanza of the last poem, Valet of Heart, appears to be missing at least one line. The originals may be read here:

The engravings are also worthy of note in that they were produced by Lluís Bracons (1892-1961), an eminent engraver and lacquerer, founder of the Bracons-Duplessis engraving workshop. Further information on the characters depicted on the cards may be found here, and which are more comprehensively dealt with in chapter XII of W. Gurney Benham’s Playing cards : history of the pack and explanations of its many secrets.

Lest we conclude that cards and cartomancy were only a passing and wholly expedient interest, it should be noted that Salmon devoted a regular column in the newspaper Le Petit Parisien to recounting his investigative experiences among the soothsayers and fortune-tellers of Paris in the 1930s, which pieces were eventually compiled and published as Voyages au pays des voyantes (1932), a book which has been recently republished as Visites aux diseuses de bonne aventure, and which provides a unique insight into the world of early twentieth-century fortune-telling and cartomancy from the point of view of the interested but somewhat sceptical layman. In fact, credit for this type of investigative journalism and social history must go to Salmon, whose command of the French language, superior to the usual journalistic prose, coupled to an acute sense of observation, made him the perfect chronicler of this neglected but enduring aspect of human activity. Furthermore, his erudite historical and literary remarks complete the picture by connecting the divinatory practices and literature of the 18th and 19th centuries with those of his age, giving his work a certain documentary and anthropological value.

Further information on Salmon, his life and works, may be found on the following websites and blogs:

Nowhere is the Italian expression that to translate is to betray no more evident than when it comes to translating poetry, and as one renowned translator has said: to translate a poem, one must write a poem. Without in the slightest claiming to be a poet, nor even a poetaster, we here present fairly literal renditions of a few of these brief and charming pieces. The entire journal containing the pieces may be read here. Further examples of Salmon’s poetry, in both French and English, may be read here. Another English translation of Cartomancy, published by Olchar E. Lindsann, is available here.

* * *



André Salmon

Rachel, Caesar

Queen of Diamonds

Fear the queen with the roses
Dragging you onto her square,
You’ll become her neuroses,
Which she will spread everywhere.

Alexander, Argine

Queen of Clubs

Tobacconist or money exchange?
Gold and banknotes, wines and spirits?
The Queen of Clubs has got heart!
Argine appears if your good angel wills it,
Like a crossed cheque with but one payee.

Lancelot, Ogier


Trifling temporary troubles —
Tears in the night — bereavement and prison
Delays at sea, O passenger
The dark star is above the house.

Plots in the town,
Formed against whom?
A closed circle
Wherein the Ace of Hearts shines.

Bothers, changes, disputes
— The cards never lie;
The black lily of uncertainty
Has corrupted my handsome valet.

Hector, La Hire

Valet of Heart

Gentle, faithful, honest, timid
And among all, the most fatal!
What to do with this heart so candid
O La Hire, so sentimental!
Argine appears if your good angel wills it.

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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.

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Preface to Graal et Tarot by Yves Desmares

Jean-Michel Mathonière

Published with the kind permission of the author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Bibliography:

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

Translator’s Introduction

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

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

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

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

* * *

The Tarot of Marseilles or the Arcana of Wisdom

Alain Bocher

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

* * *

And what if the Tarot of Marseilles were not divinatory?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Hieroglyphic Alphabet

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

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

A Secret Code

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

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

A Mine of Knowledge

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

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

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

Approximate Copies

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Translator’s Introduction

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

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

Arnold’s work on Shakespearean esotericism.

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Eudes Picard: Synthetic and Practical Manual of the Tarot (Excerpts)

Translator’s Introduction

The work of Eudes Picard has been evoked a number of times on this website, and we have translated one of his articles, published prior to his book, though we have been unable to track down some of his other articles on the subject, published in obscure Masonic journals and the like. However, a substantial excerpt appeared in Le Journal du Dimanche (26 June, 1910), which we duly present. The original text  is available courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale. The images are courtesy of Adam West-Watson.

First French edition of Picard’s Manuel synthétique et pratique du Tarot, 1909.

Synthetic and Practical Manual of the Tarot


Eudes Picard

The publisher of occultist works, Mr H. Daragon, has recently given us the most serious study on the famous Tarot cards which fascinated the Middle Ages and which still interest a host of people who strongly wish to read the future. We have borrowed from that curious work the history of the Tarot and some of its illustrations, in which the author has drawn inspiration from the Tarot decks kept in the Bibliothèque nationale.

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What is the Tarot?

The Tarot is a pack of cards, to be sure, but a pack with which we do not play. It teaches, it does not entertain. Its practical aim is to unveil the future. This is not its sole character. Considered from a higher point of view, it summarises the system of the Universe, it reveals to us the world of Ideas and Principles, enables us to grasp some laws of the evolution of phenomena. In this capacity, the Tarot constitutes one of the most marvellous methods of Divination.

But to analyse the phenomenon, it is not enough to note it. One must trace back its origins, know its cause, follow its development. The Tarot provides us with these mysterious coordinates which connect, by deduction, the cause to the effect.

At first glance, the Tarot surprises. The oddness of its symbols, the naïve outline and the dryness of its pictures leave an impression. Of it, one says, “It is so curious.” One could smile: but no, one does not laugh. Surprise suppresses all criticism. We understand nothing at the beginning, but we instinctually feel that we are in front of a monument, and then we begin to ask ourselves if there is not something more than the work of the imagination behind these arcana, crude in appearance. The more we look closely at this extraordinary book, the more the mystery clears up. The card transforms itself into a mirror in which the play of numbers, colours and symbols is reflected. The whole harmonises itself little by little, becomes filed away in one’s mind, becomes clearer; in a word, we begin to decipher the multiple meanings of the cards.

A man between Vice and Virtue. Above him shines the Sun of Truth, and in that Sun, Love drawing its bowstring and threatening Vice with its arrow.

The history of the Tarot is unclear. Different versions of its genesis exist. For want of proof from texts or monuments, we are reduced to having to accept the various opinions which set out its majors stages through the different races and ages. In reality, we do not know exactly where it comes from. It is not very likely that a human genius was qualified enough to compose it. The ideas it contains are universal and immovable. They go back to the earliest needs of the observer tormented by the desire to note his brilliant reveries on the universal mechanism by means of form, number and symbol. The Tarot would thus be a collective work, sketched out by the first seers and consecrated by a mysterious tradition.

Three sceptres in the shape of a triangle. In the centre, a caduceus; on top, a hound’s head. Hazel tree saplings run all around the 3 sceptres. This arcanum, placed under the dominion of Mercury and which recalls its attributes (caduceus, dog, hazel tree), relates to the beginning of the development of the activity represented by the preceding arcanum.

Like the Iliad, it has had its epic poets who would have transmitted, without commentary, a sort of celestial epic. A characteristic trait of the Tarot and which specifies the definitive side of its conception, is to see how little its substance has changed over the course of the centuries. Within the ancient and modern Tarot packs, we find an identical narrative.

The modifications concern the details of form and betray the fantasy of the artists. We may convince ourselves of the reality of this observation by examining the collection of Tarot cards at the Bibliothèque nationale.

A radiant sun, and two naked children holding hands in a fortified enclosure.

In consequence, we may say of the Tarot that it has been transmitted to us more modified than deformed; and if it eludes purely historical investigation, it presents plenty of clarity in the domain of esotericism. It is therefore the symbolic and esoteric side onto which we ought to bring our attention to bear and to direct our research.

Let us not forget that the ancients, faithful to magical rituals, maintained silence concerning their mysteries. The initiate alone took part in the cultic ceremonies and knew the unveiled Truth.

We lay out the 78 cards and immediately note that 22 of them distinguish themselves from the 56 others by an inscription evoking a general idea or characterising an individuality.

Once this first distinction established, we have before our eyes two series of arcana which form, so to say, two sets of Tarot cards. The first 22 cards are called major arcana, and the 56 others, minor arcana.

In principle, the Tarot was only composed of 22 cards. The addition of the 56 minors, from whence come our ordinary playing cards, dates, it would seem, from the Middle Ages. Their introduction would be due to the Gypsies who, allegedly, would have transmitted them to us.

This is an important point, because this hypothesis would tend to have one believe that the 56 minor arcana are anterior to Charles VI, and that, instead of having been spontaneously created for the entertainment of a king, they had already long been in existence. This is said in order to rehabilitate the 56 minors, highly neglected and generally considered as being foreign to the Tarot. We shall see later how these cards form the logical continuation to the greater trumps. For the time being, we are authorised to say that the Tarot does indeed include 78 cards and not 22; but that the nature of these two groups is different and that they constitute two great planes: a higher or celestial plane, represented by the 22 majors, and a lower or terrestrial plane, represented by 56 minors.

Both of these complete each other. They are connected in an intimate fashion and correspond to each other in the same proportions as effect to cause or the absolute to the relative.

A young man standing upright. He has a youthful figure, curly hair like Apollo or Mercury; he has a smile of assurance on his lips. He wears a halo in the shape of the symbol of life and of the universal spirit on his head. In front of him he has some sort of cups and pentacles. He holds a wand in the hand raised towards the sky, and a cup in the one lowered towards his table.

Let us take a random example: card VI, entitled the Lover. It is an adolescent in between two women. — The arcanum evokes the myth of Hercules between Vice and Virtue. The young man hesitates. He does not which of the two women he should follow. Note his feet turned out, in consequence, in the opposite directions; first confirmation of doubt in the choice of direction and applied to the pre-eminent organ of movement. The soles of the feet are firmly on the ground, no movement is announced, the adolescent seems affixed to the earth. His arms are invisible, as though, in showing them, the slightest gesture would betray a movement of his will. He turns his gaze towards Vice, the sole indication of attention on his behalf. He looks simply, without effort, without desire.

Let us now note the details of the ornaments which adorn the flowers. What do we see? Leaves, flowers and fruits. It is not by random chance that the artist has sown the plants everywhere. No doubt, he thought that the product which best attests to terrestrial vitality is the plant. The choice of vegetal life is also made with discernment.

The phases of growth: bud, leaf, flower, fruits, are applied to the cards, signifying the beginning, evolution, result and consequences of a thing.

Death cutting down heads and hands in a field.

Here too, one must examine each card very closely. A difficulty arises nonetheless; and that is to distinguish where the symbol of the plants ends to become ornament. We sense that, next to the symbol, the fantasy has sometimes gotten ahead.

Be that as it may, this primary indication has seemed so precious to us that it has served us as a guide for the execution of our drawings, conceived in a more methodic manner, and concerning which we owe our reader some explanations.

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