Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot

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Théophile Briant: The Image

Translator’s Note

The following piece, by the French writer-publisher Théophile Briant, contains a brief mention of Paul Marteau’s work on the Tarot of Marseilles, which we have mentioned elsewhere. Far from being a critical review of Marteau’s book, Briant uses the occasion of the book’s publication to develop some of his own considerations on the nature and role of the image in this engaging and enlightening piece, which we may consider as representing a mode of thought best termed “imagism.”

A brief overview of Briant’s life and work (in French) may be found here. Le Goéland was a literary journal founded in 1936, through which Briant promoted local and contemporary poetry, as well as attempting to revive something of the spirit of the Symbolists of the end of the previous century. It also included texts of a decidedly mystical bent, usually written by Briant himself, or by some of his esotericist friends with literary inclinations, such as the astrologer Conrad Moricand, notoriously depicted by Henry Miller in A Devil in Paradise. Despite being a provincial publication, Briant’s journal had a definite impact, and indeed played a certain role in the Breton revival movement of the 1930s and 40s. This article was first published as  ‘L’Image’ in Le Goéland, n° 93, August-September-October, 1949.

Briant in front of his windmill home, La Tour du Vent, in Paramé, near Saint-Malo.

The Image

Théophile Briant

Colitur pro Jove forma Jovis… (1)


There undoubtedly exist predestined words whose original substance remains very mysterious. Among them, the word image is one of the most striking by the arrangement of the letters which compose it and give it its typographic structure. The sole prerogative, so to say, of children and poets, the image is a direct manifestation of the cosmic genius of humanity, and it is not without surprise that we notice that it is enough to change one of its letters to obtain, by anagram, the word magic [Fr: magie].

Now, the image is a relic of primitive magic. We might even affirm that it is magic itself.

We know that there are two modes of access to Knowledge: the rational way and the affective way. The first is that of the philosophers, of blinkered thinkers, and in general, of all of Descartes’ offspring. It analyses, it “defines,” it never reaches the object other than in its illusory reality. On the other hand, the affective way, of which we have often declared the supremacy, enables one to grasp the object in its tangible reality. And it is by means of the image that we may fixate it.

The singular value of the image resides in the fact that it always goes beyond the known and the delimitations. It may be that the accompanying “caption” adds even more to its magic spell. It is no less, and above all, a sort of projection outside ourselves of the subconscious, that is to say, of the secret which dwells within us.

Edouard Schuré said one day: “There where the savant stops, where the philosopher despairs, that is where the poet begins.”

Nothing could be more true. For the poets give us a greater perception of reality, one that is wider, richer in resonance. They know that the Truth can never appear but in between the lines – thus, as an image. And that is why they ceaselessly return, with the sure instinct of mediums, to the great law of analogy of the occultists, where one no longer proceeds by the confrontation of ideas, but by the confrontation of symbols.

* * *

At the origins of this “epic of the soul,” which represents the apprenticeship of the evolution of humanity, Lotus de Païni (2), studying the apparition of totems in the earliest tribes (3) shows us how the creature, uniquely receptive and fascinated to the core by the prodigious spectacle of the universe, sought to identify itself with the forces of the three natural kingdoms (4), adding human values to the order of established things. “And it was, she says, this advent of the Image in the creature, which, in overwhelming its constitution, then engendered the metamorphosis…”

The sphinx-animal with a human mask, whose meaning escapes us today, is one of the most striking effigies of those heroic times, where beasts, men, and gods incessantly transformed in the cycle of metamorphoses. Moreover, by opening this great book of images where humanity of old told of itself, in turn, on wood, on papyrus, or in stone, we find many testimonies of that primitive soul which could not sum up the complexity of its “inner story” but through the diagram of a symbol.

“The first annals commemorating the principal events that occurred during the life of a collective, writes Maxwell (5), were concrete figurations of events. The writing of certain native American tribes is a well-known example.”

“It appears that the Egyptian hieroglyphs (whose invention is attributed to Thoth-Hermes) would, primitively, have been symbols of a similar type; perhaps similarly so for Chinese writing, in which each character expresses a word or an idea. Closer to us, the heraldic emblems, the knowledge of which constitutes the science of heraldry, are also symbols.”

Through the sacred iconography throughout the ages, we can see the use which the founders of religions made of images to symbolically depict the mysteries, to which the priestly elites were the only ones to hold the key. The planisphere of Denderah, the ceiling of the tomb of king Seti in Luxor, have preserved the first images of the Zodiac – that illustrated breviary of mythology – which is the most vast and most ancient religious and civil cosmogony, and which the hierophants of Egypt were entrusted with from the pharaohs by divine right. From the winged bull of Assur to the dragons of Chinese temples, this same symbolism abounds, often borrowed from the animal kingdom, and which is found in the Christian religion with the fish of the Catacombs, the Paschal lamb, and the dove of the Paraclete.

* * *

Among all these collections of images, one of the most mysterious of all is that pack of 78 arcana called the Book of the Tarot. A lot of ink has been spilled over the centuries on the meaning of these “pictograms” whose origin is lost in the mists of time, and whom some savants attribute to Atlantis. Yet, for those who are still interested – it is matter of saying so now or never – in the “underside of the cards” [i.e. the “inside story”], we note the recent publication of a luxurious work on the the Tarot of Marseilles (6), wherein the author, Paul Marteau, resuming the works of his predecessors, himself provides us with an extremely remarkable exegesis on the question. Enriched with colour reproductions of the 78 cards of the Tarot (22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana), this beautiful book contains a luminous exposé by Eugène Caslant, where the learned esotericist shows us how man, in front of the immensity of of the problems posed by Nature, and the impossibility of connecting all the links by the rational method alone, was led to have recourse to symbolism (the analogical method), ”that is to say, to the transposition of cosmic laws into the physical world, by concretising them in the shape of scenic images.” According to Eugène Caslant, the Tarot represents a synthesis which “summarises the evolution of the universe,” and the combination of the cards of the Tarot “express the undulating and varying game of the universal forces.”

It is with the greatest interest that one will read the description and interpretation of each of the Major Arcana given by Paul Marteau, beginning with the Juggler (card n° 1), capped with the sign of Infinity, which symbolises the creative power of Man, “constrained by his circumstances to continually focus his attention on the phenomena of the tangible World,” and ending with the Mate (card n° 22), etymologically “locked” into his destiny as the king in the game of chess, who represents the Man-who-walks, and who struggles, with more or less nonchalance, bearing his “karma” on his shoulders, until the day he finds that “point of equilibrium” of which the Druids spoke, and realises, in the Light, the end of his terrestrial evolution.

And this is how the Book of the Tarot, whose traditional figures, more or less altered, hangs around in dives and in the hands of Gypsies and fortune-tellers, finds itself to be a “work engendered by human wisdom throughout the ages,” – a work that totalises a very mysterious assembly of scenes and figures symbolically expressing, as Paul Marteau says, “the work of man to realise his evolution, that is to say, to arrive at the ends inscribed within his destiny.”

* * *

We have not finished marvelling before this millennial treasury of images, constantly enriched by artists and poets, and which comes to enliven the greyness of our mortal days. Every man has need of images to better express himself, and the only proof I need is that of the French language, which is a continual swarm of catachresis and of metaphors. The magical mirror of the symbol informs us better than a syllogism on the supernatural presences that lead us, and there is scarcely an image that does not postulate the existence of God – or of the Other.

Jean-Marie de Saint-Ideuc
[Théophile Briant]
6 November 1949


  1.  “It is Jove whom we adore in the image of Jove.”
  2.  Pseudonym of Elvezia Gazzotti (1862-1953), an Italian noblewoman who wrote on artistic and esoteric matters in French, and who was “rediscovered” in the twilight years of her life by Briant.
  3.  Lotus de Païni, Les Trois Totémisations, essai sur le sentir visuel des très vieilles races, Chacornac, 1924.
  4.  Mineral, vegetable, animal.
  5.  Likely to be Joseph Maxwell, author of The Tarot.
  6.  Paul Marteau, Le Tarot de Marseille, Arts et Métiers Graphiques, 1949.

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