An Inquiry into the Origins of the Tarot of Marseille

A three volume book by Christophe Poncet to be published by Scarlet Imprint (first volume in 2023)



Une enquête sur les origines du tarot de Marseille

Un livre de Christophe Poncet en trois volumes à paraître chez Scarlet Imprint (1er volume en 2023, en anglais)



During the 18th century, a particular type of tarot deck spread widely in Europe. Having gained popularity, it was called the tarot of Marseille, which fed the belief that it originated from that French city on the Mediterranean Sea.[1] However, this late denomination is misleading because, as we shall see, its origins are Italian.[2] Although it was mainly used for playing cards, the tarot of Marseille’s reputation must be credited to other practices. At the end of the 18th century, the French author Antoine Court de Gébelin (1725-1784) wrote Le Monde primitif analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne (“The Primeval World, Analyzed and compared to the Modern World”), in which – among many other things – he expounds on the tarot and formulates a hypothesis on its origins. His observations are illustrated by plates representing cards corresponding to the so-called “Marseille” type . He affirms that the game originated in Egypt:

This Egyptian book, the sole remains of their superb libraries, exists nowadays: It is even so common that no savant condescended to deal with it, nobody before us having suspected its illustrious origin. […] In one word, this book is the GAME OF TAROT, unknown in Paris, to be true, but well-known in Italy, in Germany and even in Provence, and peculiar by the figures offered by each card inasmuch as by their multitude.[3]

Gébelin affirms that beyond the strangeness of its figures, this “Work of the ancient Egyptians” contains a treasure trove of wisdom from Antiquity, written in allegorical language, and wonders why nobody ever conceived of deciphering its leaves:

If it were to be announced that a work of the ancient Egyptians still exists, one of their books that escaped from the flames that devoured their libraries, containing their purest doctrine on interesting objects, there is no doubt that everybody would be eager to know about such a precious book. If we added that this book is widespread in a great part of Europe, that it has been for centuries in the hands of everybody, the surprise would certainly grow. Would it not be at its height if we assured that no one ever suspected it to be Egyptian, that it is possessed without possessing it, that nobody ever tried to decipher only one of its leaves, that this fruit of an exquisite wisdom is considered a heap of extravagant figures that mean nothing by themselves? Wouldn’t you believe the announcer is amusing himself and playing with the gullibility of his audience?[4]

From there, this idea that the tarot cards comprise the occult repository of an ancient wisdom was popularized. Simultaneously, the deck with the “Marseille” figures became a favorite instrument among fortune tellers. From 1770–1780, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, better known under his pseudonym of Etteila, practiced divination with these cards and adapted their very figures to create his own tarot.

The fascination that this deck exerted on occultists and cartomancers probably lies in its images’ numerous allegorical and symbolical figures from apparently heterogeneous traditions: Christianity is present, with the Pope, but the Popess is bewildering; the biblical Tetramorph appears at the four corners of a mandorla, but in the center stands, in lieu of Christ, an unclothed androgyne; and astrological and alchemical symbols abound, as well as images from mythology and Antique philosophy. Such a profusion, prone to blurring the lines, complicated the identification of the tarot’s origins, along with its interpretation, for a long time. Were occultists and cartomancers correct in seeing in these fantasies the precious vestiges of an ancient and secret knowledge? Not everybody took it for granted.

In 1981, Michael Dummett’s book, The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City,[5] gave rise to a critical review that shook the columns of the influential New York Review of Books. The article was signed by Frances Yates, the great British historian and specialist in Hermeticism and the art of memory in the Renaissance. Her review fiercely criticized the book’s postulate, according to which the sole use of the tarot, before the publication of Gébelin’s Monde Primitif, was to play cards:

It seems to be the basic aim behind Professor Dummett’s fanatical pursuit of the Tarot game, in all its forms, to prove that throughout its history it was only a game, and nothing else […] His main argument, that the fact that the Tarot cards were used as “real card games” proves that their images did not have any occult significances, is unconvincing. If Professor Dummett had expended one-tenth of the time and industry that he has devoted to chasing obscure card games to examining more carefully the volumes of Court de Gébelin, he would have had to ask himself who “Orapollo” was and in what sense Gébelin used the word “hieroglyph.” Such researches would have led him to ask other questions of his material besides the one which he has chosen to explore.[6]

Yates contends that the word “hieroglyph” should not have been interpreted based on its current meaning, after Champollion’s works, but rather in the sense of the Renaissance, i.e., as a “picture-language, more profound than any discursive description.” This consideration had been brought out, just one year before the controversy, in Patrizia Castelli’s penetrating study The Hieroglyphs and the Myth of Egypt in the Italian Renaissance:

In the Renaissance acceptation, truth has multiple levels; from one level to the other, as affirms Nicholas of Cusa, there is a connection. The savant, through a process of signs, calls back to memory the Ideas and concepts. The complex lexicon of signs, as already in the ars memorandi, evokes a sequence of images and concepts; and this, basically, is the task that the hieroglyphs must carry out. Every symbol, laden with hard to explain concepts, makes up a message that only a few can understand.[7]

In this sense, the game of cards, with its combinatorial nature, might well form a mnemonic system, comparable with those examined by Yates in her book The Art of Memory.[8] In a subsequent issue of the New York Review of Books, Dummett responded with virulence, rejecting all critics, and reasserting his credo that the tarot deck was never used, before Gébelin’s writings, for purposes other than playing cards:

Dame Frances evidently thinks that the occultists were on to something genuine in their interpretations of the Tarot pack; but more substantial reasons than she offers are required for such a conclusion. She does not challenge, though she does not mention, the evidence I brought forward, based on a multitude of documentary references, that no occult significance was attached to the cards, nor any use made of them save for playing games, until the intervention of Court de Gébelin in 1781.[9]

The polemics ended there. Yates died four months later. In her review of Dummett’s book, she regretted that no “serious iconographical attempt had been made on the French tarot tradition to which the Court de Gébelin images belong.” Obviously, she was referring to the so-called “Marseille” tradition of the tarot.

So, like the Renaissance masterworks studied by Warburg and his followers, the tarot could be the object of an iconological inquiry. At the crossroads of art history, semiotics, anthropology, and aesthetics, this approach, envisioning images both as the products of complex evolutionary processes and as active potencies, could be applied to a deck of cards. This is the path that I have followed since the turn of the millennium: What are the graphical and intellectual traditions to which the figures of the tarot of Marseille belong? Where do its images stand within the maze of pictorial, cultural, and literary references to which they relate? What could be its uses and effects? Following the different threads, little by little, the deck’s formal and intellectual coherence emerged and, from there, it regained its precise place in history – as a work of art, the expression of thought, the product of a peculiar human context, and an active instrument.

The philosopher and psychologist John Dewey explored inquiry and its methods as a means of reaching knowledge about a given situation.[10] He points to two pitfalls that should be avoided in any research: The first is “to amass facts tirelessly and yet the observed ‘facts’ lead nowhere”, and the second is “to have the work of observation so controlled by a conceptual framework fixed in advance” that “everything is forced into the predetermined conceptual and theoretical scheme.” Thus, he concluded that “the way, and the only way, to escape these two evils is sensitivity to the quality of a situation as a whole.”[11]

Thus, Dewey defines inquiry as “the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the original situation into a unified whole.”[12] Therefore, each thread of the investigation contributes to the construction of a globally coherent resultant situation. With its corpus of 22 trump cards, the tarot of Marseille forms a closed collection that fits well with such an approach. The inquiry put forth in the present book was conducted in this manner. I put myself on this path without preconceived notions and, clue by clue, I progressively constructed the hypothesis presented in the following pages, which results, as we shall see, in a situation determined in all its aspects.

The book comprises three parts, each forming a separate volume.

The first, “Down Here,” traces the initial steps of the inquiry that led to the identification of the savant Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) as the likely creator of the tarot of Marseille, while emphasizing that the game’s recreational nature does not preclude esoteric uses and concentrating the interpretation on eight trump cards: the Chariot; the Devil; the Lovers; Strength; the Hermit; the House of God; Arcanum XIII; and the Fool.

The second volume, “Higher,” leads the inquiry into an examination of the remaining 14 trump cards: the World; the Pope; the Popess; the Empress; the Emperor; the Magician; Justice; Temperance; the Wheel of Fortune; the Star; the Sun; the Moon; the Hanged Man; and the Judgment.

Finally, the third volume, “Three Times Seven,” proceeds from a deciphering of an enigmatic text by Ficino to reveal the tarot of Marseille’s occult structure, thereby resuming examination, within this framework, of all 22 trump cards.

[1] Many producers printed and sold this type, with slight variations. In this book, I mainly shall use the model signed by Nicolas Conver, dated 1760. For an overview of different samples of the tarot of Marseille tradition, see D. Grütter, W. Haas, M. Ruh, Schweizer Spielkarten 2. Das Tarockspiel in der Schweiz. Tarocke des 18. und 19. Jarhunderts, Schaffhausen, Sturzenegger Stiftung Schaffhausen / Museum zu Allerheiligen Schaffhausen, 2004, pp. 118-139, 146-179.

[2] Since Sylvia Mann and Michael Dummett’s works, there is no doubt that the “Marseille” type belongs to a family of tarots originating from Renaissance Italy. Cf. M. Dummett, The Game of Tarot, from Ferrara to Salt Lake City, London, Duckworth, 1980, pp. 407-417. See also T. Depaulis, Tarot, Jeu et Magie, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, 1984, pp. 71-73; Idem, Le tarot de Marseille, in Cartes à jouer et tarots de Marseille. La donation Camoin, Marseille, Alors Hors du Temps, 2004, pp. 125­-133. Idem, Le Tarot révélé. Une histoire du tarot d’après les documents, Freibourg im Breisgau, Musée Suisse du Jeu, 2013, p. 39.

[3] A. Court de Gébelin, Le Monde primitif, analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne, vol. 8, t. 1, Paris, 1781, p. 365.

[4] Ibidem.

[5] M. Dummett, The Game of Tarot, from Ferrara to Salt Lake City, cit.

[6] F. A. Yates, In the Cards, “New York Review of Books,’’ xxviii, 2 (February 19, 1981).

[7] P. Castelli, I geroglifici e il mito dell’Egitto nel Rinascimento, Florence, Edam, 1979, p. 27.

[8] F. A. Yates, The Art of Memory, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966.

[9] M. Dummett, Origins of Tarot, “New York Review of Books”, xxviii, 8 (May 14, 1981).

[10] J. Dewey, Logic. The Theory of Inquiry, New York, Henry Holt, 1938.

[11] Ibidem, p. 70.

[12] Ibid., p. 104.