My Newest Project: The Alchemical Tarot of Marseille

The Tarot of Marseille is not the name of an individual deck of cards. The name refers to a style of Tarot decks that originated in France. The earliest existing example is The Jean Noblet Tarot. published in Paris, circa 1650. Tarot historian, Giordano Berti, tells us that the name was officially given to the deck in the 1930s, but we find that French occultists, Like Éliphas Lévi, were already using this title to refer to the French Tarot in the 19th century. These decks have a Fool, twenty-one numbered trumps, with titles in French on each, and four minor suits, each consisting of ten pips and four royals, and featuring the Italian suit symbols. 

Il Bateleur from the Jean Dodal Tarot

Decks that are called the Tarot of Marseille are not necessarily from Marseille. They are not even always from France. Some are published in Switzerland or northern Italy, complete with French titles, and the Tarot of Marseille is not the only modern variation of the Tarot. The Tarot did not originate in France. It originated in northern Italy in the 15th century and, was only introduced to France at the end of that century. Consequently let us look at how the Tarot first came to exist.  

In the 14th century, playing cards were introduced to the European Christian culture through contact with the Islamic culture in Spain. The deck that was first introduced is known as the Mamluk deck. It had four suits: coins, cups, scimitars, and polo sticks, each with ten pips and three all-male royals. The first European decks were created in Spain and Italy. They were based on this model, but the suits became coins, cups, swords, and batons or staffs, and the royals became a knave, a knight, and a king. Cards were mainly designed to play card games, but from the beginning, there is evidence that they could also be used for divination. 

In northern Italy in the early 15th century, a new deck was created with a fifth suit depicting enigmatic symbolic figures on each card. The cards in this fifth suit were called trionfi. Trionfi was the name of a type of parade in which each character in the procession was more important than the previous one. This Italian term is the origin of the English term trump, and we can see that in this parade each figure trumped the one that came before. This deck was designed to play a game that is the ancestor of bridge. A queen was also added to the royal cards. 

At first there seems to have been several variations of the trumps. The oldest known deck to have them was conceived in approximately 1420 by Marziano and created for the duke of Milan. It has sixteen trumps, each depicting a classical god. There were also decks that had only one trump, the Emperor. These were called imperatori. Some time between 1460 and 1494, Count Matteo Maria Boiardo of Ferrara created a deck called Triumph of the Vain World. This deck had a Fool and twenty-one trumps in the fifth suit, but most modern readers would not recognize the list of trumps, which included figures like: Leisure, Fatigue, Desire, Secret, Doubt, Danger, and others. Each card also included a three-line poem expressing a divinatory meaning. The Sola Busca Tarot, created during the same period had twenty-one trumps that consisted of mythical and historic heroes. Even The Cary Yale Visconti Tarot, created for the duke of Milan, circa 1445, and which contains many of the trumps that are now found in the Tarot of Marseille, also included the three Christian virtues, which are not found in the Tarot of Marseille..

Giove (Jupiter) from my recreation of the Marziano Tarot

The latest evidence indicates that the series of twenty-one trumps that are found in the Tarot of Marseille originated in Florence in the first half of the 15th century. In fact the oldest mention of the term trionfi is found in an account written in Florence in 1440. By the end of the century, the name of the deck in most of Italy changed from carte da trionfi to Tarocchi. In Florence the name changed to Minchiate, which means something like the Fool’s game. A new version of the deck with forty trumps was created in Florence in the early 16th century and the name Minchiate came to become associated with this version of the Tarot. By the 18th century the Minchiate was more popular in Italy than the original twenty-one trump Tarot. 

Sagittarius from an 18th century Minchiate

In the 15th century, however, the original Florentine deck spread to Rome in the south, and Bologna, Ferrara, and Milan in the north. There were no titles or numbers on the earliest cards, and three distinct orders for the twenty-one trumps developed (with some minor variations). The Florentine order was adopted in Bologna and Rome, another variation developed in Ferrara and influenced decks in Venice, and a third variation developed in Milan. In 1499 Louis XII of France invaded Milan and this region was part of France from 1499 to 1535. It is believed that the Tarot was introduced to France during this occupation, and it was the Milanese order of trumps that was adopted. We also find that the few remaining examples of early printed Tarot cards published in Milam are similar in design to the Tarot of Marseille trumps, particularly the Moon with the two dogs and the World with the four evangelists in the corners. The French added numbers and titles to the trumps and shortened the name of the deck to Tarot.    

An early World trump found in Sforza Castle in Milan

The modern association of the Tarot with the occult began with the French occultist, Court de Gebélin, who discovered the Tarot one day when he was visiting the Paris apartment of a German countess. Naturally the deck he saw was the Tarot of Marseille. Observing that the trumps in this deck seemed to express Hermetic philosophy, de Gebélin assumed that the deck, like this philosophy, must have originated in ancient Egypt. In 1781, he included an essay on the Tarot in the eighth volume of his occult encyclopedia, Monde Primitif. In this essay he was the first author to express many of the modern misconceptions about the Tarot, including that the Tarot of Marseilles, is actually an occult hieroglyphic text created in ancient Egypt. 

To support his theory, de Gebélin interpreted many of the trumps as having been derived from Egyptian figures. He said that the Papesse was originally a high Priestess, the Chariot stemmed from an image of the god Osiris, that the Devil was originally an image of Osiris’s evil brother Typhon, and the goddess Isis was depicted on the Star card. At that time it was also believed that the Hebrew alphabet was related to Egyptian hieroglyphs and de Gebélin speculated that the Tarot’s Fool and twenty-one trumps could be correlated with the twenty-two Hebrew letters. Because he believed that the trumps described the creation of the world in reverse order from the World card to the Fool, who represented its modern fallen state, he assigned the first letter aleph to the World and worked backwards through the cards, assigning the last letter, tau, to the Fool.  

After de Gebélin, numerous occultists became interested in the Tarot of Marseille, and speculated on its mysteries. In 1791 the French occultist, Etteilla, published the first intentionally occult reinterpretation of the deck. This was The Grande Etteilla, and it became the most popular Tarot deck used for divination in the 19thcentury. The trumps in this deck were neoclassical engravings that Etteilla believed captured the original Egyptian style of the Tarot, and he totally reorganized the order of the trumps because he believed that this would better express a connection with the Hermetica, the ancient collection of books on Hermetic philosophy that were attributed to the mythical author and sage Hermes Trismegistus.    

In the 1850s another French occultist, Éliphas Lévi, became involved with the Tarot of Marseille and theorized that it was an ancient Kabbalistic text. Lévi developed a more detailed theory about the relationship between the Hebrew alphabet and the twenty-two cards in the fifth suit. He started by assigning aleph to the Magician and worked his way through the trumps in order, but he placed the Fool between Judgement and the World so that it became the next to last letter, shin, and the World became the last letter, tau. In the Kabbalah each letter is correlated with an element, a planet, or a zodiac constellation, and now the tarot cards would share these connections. The twenty-two cards could also be assigned to the twenty-two pathways on the Kabbalistic diagram representing mystical emanation, called the Tree of Life. 

Lévi’s illustration for the Chariot

Lévi’s ideas influenced other occultists including the members of the occult society founded in London in 1888, called the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn taught its members that the Tarot was an ancient mystical text. They adopted Lévi’s theory about the connection between Hebrew letters and the fifth suit, which they called the Major Arcana. However, they started by assigning aleph to the Fool and working forward from there. Therefore, the only card that retained the same association as it had in Lévi’s system was the World, which was still correlated with tau. To be able to assign Strength with its lion to the letter teth and the constellation Leo, and to have Justice with her scales assigned to the letter lamed and the constellation Libra, they had to switch the positions of these two cards from the way they are presented in the Tarot of Marseille, so that Strength became number eight and Justice number eleven. 

Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith were both members of the Golden Dawn. In 1909 Waite hired Smith, who was a talented artist, to design a modern version of the Tarot. This deck, which was published in December of 1909, is known as The Waite Smith Tarot or The Ryder Waite Tarot. The deck was based on the Tarot of Marseille, but Smith was attempting to illustrate Waite’s insights on the mystical nature of the Marseille trumps, insights that were heavily influenced by Lévi. She maintained the Golden Dawn’s order of the trumps, but did not follow the descriptions as they appear in the Golden Dawn’s teachings. On the pips in the minor suits in the Tarot of Marseille there is only a repetition of the suit symbol and some decorative details, but smith included allegorical images on all of the pips in which the figures interacted with the suit symbols. This device was heavily influenced by the 15th century Sola Busca Tarot, mentioned above, which embraced the same approach. Over the course of the 20th century, The Waite Smith Tarot became the most famous Tarot in the world and helped to reinforce the modern association of the Tarot with divination in the minds of the public.  

The Waite Smith Chariot from 1910

When I became involved with the Tarot in the 1980s, the first deck that I owned was the version of the Tarot of Marseille that was published in 1970 by Grimaud, The second deck was The Waite Smith Tarot. I soon began reading books on the Tarot, but because of my knowledge of art and art history I realized that most of the assertions made about the history of the Tarot in the majority of the available books at that time were false. There is no evidence to support the theory of the Egyptian origin of the Tarot. Cards themselves were first created in China in the 10th century, long after the ancient Egyptian culture had been supplanted by Christian and Islamic culture, and they were only introduced to the West in the 14th century. 

The earliest evidence indicates that artists living in the Italy in the 15th century were the first to create Tarot cards. These artists would have been working for printers, who also published illustrated books and cards depicting saints. They were certainly Catholics, as there were no Protestants at that time and Jews living in Italy at that time were prohibited from making the type of imagery found in the Tarot, which was strongly influenced by Christian iconography. The idea that the trumps are a secret Kabbalistic text related to Hebrew letters and signs of the zodiac, planets, or elements only works if you deny the actual meaning of the pictures on the cards and think of them as a secret code. There is no evidence to support this theory, and the Minchiate deck created in Florence in the 16th century increased the number of trumps by adding images for the twelve signs of the zodiac, as well as the four elements, indicating that Italian Renaissance artists had no need to hide these figures in a secret code. 

From the beginning of my involvement with the Tarot, I have wanted to know what the artists who first created these cards were thinking about their creation. Once we accept that the Tarot was created in 15th century northern Italy, we can see that all of the images in the deck do relate to other works of art created in that same time and place, and I began to reconstruct the philosophy that is expressed in the actual pictures on the earliest cards. In August, 1987, I was studying an alchemical image that symbolized the Philosopher’s Stone, the mystical goal of the alchemical work, and, not unlike Court de Gebélin, I had a flash of insight. I saw how it was symbolically linked to the Tarot’s World trump. It seemed that this image had unlocked a secret door in my mind and in an instant I saw that the alchemical Great Work and the story told in the Tarot’s trumps were all interchangeable. I immediately picked up my copy of Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy and began to make notes in the margins next to the alchemical images comparing them to Tarot cards. This was the beginning of a process that would take several years. The fruit of this insight and labor was The Alchemical Tarot, which was first published by Thorsons, in 1995, and that now has five additional editions that I have published. 

Based on alchemical engravings, The Alchemical Tarot demonstrates that although the Tarot was not meant to be an alchemical text, the Fool and the trumps can relate to an alchemical material or process, which is part of the Magnum Opus (great work) of alchemy that leads to the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, a mystical catalyst that transforms what it touches into its highest form. Composed of the mysterious 5th element, it can cure any illness, turn lead into gold, and turn an ordinary person into an enlightened sage. In the latest editions of the deck I have added a symbol representing its alchemical process on each trump. The Philosopher’s Stone itself is represented by the World card and the four minor suits are related to the four alchemical elements: Earth to coins, Water to cups, Air to swords, and Fire to staffs. 

The High Priestess from The Alchemical Tarot: Renewed 5th Edition

As stated above, the mystical story told in the trumps can be correlated with the Opus, but it is not actually meant to be an alchemical text. I was able to correlate the Opus with the trumps because alchemy is an expression of Hermetic philosophy and the Tarot is based on Hermetic philosophy, a philosophy that stems from Alexandra Egypt in the first centuries after Christ, and was revived in 15th century Italy, where it became a major influence on the arts at that time. As mentioned earlier, the central text of Hermeticism is the Hermetica, a set of books that originally included twenty texts. Although they were written by several unidentified authors, these authors attributed their work to the mythical sage Hermes Trismegistus. Hermes was said to be a man, who had lived centuries before, and through his wisdom he attained gnosis or enlightenment and became like a god. The Hermetica describes this process, and it may be considered a textbook on enlightenment.  

At this time, besides six versions of The Alchemical Tarot. (The latest being a distilled simplified version with gold edges, called The Tarot of the Alchemical Magnum Opus.) I have designed eight other Tarot decks. I was able to relate the Tarot to angels, saints and Jewish myths. I was able to correlate the story in the trumps with Buddha’s enlightenment and the novel Dracula. I have attempted to recreate the oldest known Tarot from Marziano’s descriptions, and to create a restored set of the 15th century woodcut deck from Ferrara, a deck that I lecture on the Metropolitan Museum. And I worked for ten years on The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery in which I attempted to bridge the mystical philosophy that I uncovered in the oldest decks with the occult revelations of modern decks. But from the beginning, my inspirations sprang from the Tarot of Marseille. 

Now I feel it is time to return to my roots, and I reinterpreting in my own style the Tarot of Marseille. I also want to show that these images are clearly related to Hermetic philosophy and can without being totally redesigned be correlated with the alchemical Opus. The trumps in this deck are based directly on the traditional French cards with the French titles. The original cards are examples of naive folk art, and I have redrawn the figures in a more sophisticated style but one that that is still influenced by Renaissance prints. Each trump displays the same alchemical symbol that I used for the latest editions of The Alchemical Tarot. But the major innovation is that each trump displays a quote from the ancient Hermetica (as translated by Walter Scott in 1924), and that these quotes clarify the meaning of the imagery on the card in a way that demonstrates the underlining Hermetic philosophy.

Although the pip cards in the Tarot of Marseille do not contain much imagery other than the repetition of the suit symbol, this was not the norm for all early decks. From the beginning German decks of playing cards often included scenes of people and animals on the pips along with the suit symbols. Also Minchiate decks made use of this same approach.  For this deck I will follow this example and include imagery on the trumps that is based on the divinatory meanings that I have worked out for The Alchemical Tarot. The deck will have gold edges and a two part cloth covered box, Like the one I have used for my other recent decks.

 The five of swords from an 1810 Florentine Minchiate that is in my collection.

Below are the twenty-two trump cards for

The Alchemical Tarot of Marseille

This is what I have finished so far.

I will set up a page and continue to post the cards as I finish them.

Please check in from time to time to see haw the deck is progressing.

About robertmplace

I am an illustrator and author best known for creating the Alchemical Tarot and the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and writing The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination.
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6 Responses to My Newest Project: The Alchemical Tarot of Marseille

  1. These look amazing. I love all your work. I will be ordering some decks from you soon!😊

    Like

  2. Truth5seeker says:

    Hello Robert,
    I enjoyed your literary presentation on the Tarot. I am glad that you have mentioned the hermetic traditions which birthed forth the writings and teachings of Aleister Crowley and his Thoth Deck. His lovely wife did the artistry for those cards and incorporated sacred geometry into the illustrations. The naming of the cards themselves stay true to the Hermetic ideology. Thank you for this educational and historical account of a tradition that is still very much alive today but needs the truth unveiled in writings such as yours. Happy Holidays!

    Like

  3. Jaime Kelly says:

    I very much look forward to the completion of this deck. I seriously want to hold it in my hands.

    Like

  4. Arcturas says:

    I am looking forward to this deck. Once again you have outdone yourself.

    Like

  5. courtenay says:

    i am *dying* for you to finish this deck.

    Like

  6. Papageno says:

    Thanks! What a great idea! You are a fantastic master! We are looking forward to your new job. Good luck!

    Like

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