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The Tarot de Marseille - A Short Historical Introduction


The first tarot cards, originally called ‘Trionfi,’ possibly a play on the name for a Roman Triumph, were created in Italy in the fifteenth century for artistic decoration, game play and the commemoration of family events.  At some point, for reasons unknown, the name ‘Trionfi’ transitioned to ‘Tarrochi’ and the number of unique picture cards, now commonly known as the ‘major arcana,’ became standardized to twenty-two.    

In seventeenth-century France, a new visual template for tarot arose that built upon, but significantly altered, the images of the earlier Italian decks.   The new template introduced evocative titles for the twenty-two major arcana, and a slew of other puzzling design innovations.  The unique template of the French tradition is now known as the Tarot de Marseille and is renowned for being the primary source of artistic inspiration for the famous Rider-Waite-Smith deck published in 1909.  Today when someone imagines a tarot card, they will most likely visualize an image from the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, of which an estimated 100 million copies are in circulation worldwide. 

Three generations of the Magician Card: Visconti (L), Noblet (M) and the RWS (R). 

The Noblet Tarot de Marseille reinvented the earlier Visconti cards for a different purpose.  




The intended meaning of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot is not a mystery.  The New York City Tarot reader Enrique Enriquez has described it as a ‘spiritual lasagna,’ a mishmash of astrological, pagan, neo-platonic, Kabbalistic, alchemic, hermetic, gnostic, and Biblical imagery intended to resonate with as wide a swath of esoteric traditions as possible. Attempting to decipher the intended meaning of the much older Tarot de Marseille, however, is a deeper topic of investigation, speculation, and debate.


Nowadays, new tarot decks generally include a small white booklet explaining the artist’s vision behind her creation.  Among contemporary tarot collectors a deck’s booklet is often referred to as its LWB, an acronym for ‘Little White Booklet.’  In 17th century France, new tarot decks were not packaged with an accompanying LWB, or at least none have survived intact. Phrased differently, an insurmountable challenge in the historical study of the Tarot de Marseille is that there are absolutely zero primary sources from the original artists explaining the intended meaning of their creation.  In attempting to deduce its intended meaning, all anyone can do is look, ponder, and guess. 


More than a century after its creation, the French writer and Freemason, Antoine Court de Gebelin, writing in 1781, was the first to propose that the Tarot de Marseille was a vessel for ancient wisdom that could be revealed through careful analysis of its images.  In an essay included in a collection entitled "The Primeval World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World," Gebelin presented the provocative thesis that the Tarot de Marseille was a visual summary of the Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth.  Gebelin is not remembered as an art historian, but he and his contemporaries did succeed in infusing the Tarot de Marseille with a new mystique of magic and mysticism, which was instrumental in the subsequent reinvention of the playing cards as a popular tool for fortune telling.  


Since Gebelin many other theorists offered up wildly divergent interpretations of the intended meaning of the Tarot de Marseille.   Volumes have been written claiming the Tarot de Marseille is a vehicle for Neo-Platonism, Catharism, alchemy, Gnosticism, Kabbalah, Catholic eschatology, astrology, all of the above, and so forth.   No explanatory theory for its meaning has proven decisively convincing which may be why it endures as an object of fascination.  The cards are filled with images of obvious intentionality, that promise a coherent story, but that ultimately leave the viewer confused as to their true meaning.


An iconic characteristic of the Tarot de Marseille that especially invites speculative theories is that the count of its twenty-two major arcana matches the number of letters of the Hebrew Alphabet.  The numeric alignment between the two, however, creates as many interpretive questions as it answers, for the simple reason that the symbolic meaning and cultural ownership of the Hebrew letters is also a topic of debate.


More than a hundred years prior to the creation of the Tarot de Marseille, Christian Kabbalists had propagated an alternative understanding of the Hebrew letters and Kabbalistic texts that was a stark departure from their original symbolic framework of traditional Judaism.  The hope of the early Christian Kabbalists, such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Johann Reuchlin, was to reveal an unrecognized harmony between Kabbalah and Catholicism, and thus enable a long-awaited mass conversion of Europe’s Jews.   Within the theological and academic circles of Christendom, Christian Kabbalah entirely eclipsed traditional Jewish Kabbalah.   


In the nineteenth century the French esotericist Alphonse Louise Constant, writing under the Hebrew pen name Eliphas Levi, surpassed the precedent of the Christian Kabbalists by introducing his own ‘magical’ interpretation of the Hebrew letters and Kabbalah.   In the twenty-two chapters of his book Dogma and Ritual of High Magic, Constant initiated the use of the word Kabbalah as a term of reference for a universal symbolic language that, he claimed, was the true esoteric root of all mystic traditions.  By fully divorcing Kabbalah from Judaism, Constant created what would eventually become known as Occult Kabbalah.   A central component of Constant’s new school of magic was to associate each of the twenty-two major arcana of the Tarot de Marseille with a specific letter of the Hebrew Alphabet.


Illustrations from Dogma and Ritual of High Magic. 

Alphonse Constant popularized the usage of Hebrew letters and

Judaic iconography as symbols of the Occult.

Following in Constant’s footsteps, in 1889 the Swiss occultist Oswald Wirth published an original edition of the twenty-two major arcana of the Tarot de Marseille with a Hebrew letter prominently placed on each card.  In the decades that followed occult theorists, Aleister Crowley, Arthur Waite, and others, created their own original and often conflicting systems associating each card of the tarot with a specific Hebrew letter.  For the many other occultists, fortune tellers, spiritualists, theosophists and so on who proceeded to associate Hebrew letters with the cards, their  presence was always and entirely a vestige of the tarot’s supposedly esoteric and magical origins.   Knowingly or not, the occultists capitalized on the mystique and cultural otherness of Judaism as a theatrical guise for their original creative project.

Oswald Wirth placed a Hebrew letter on each of the major arcana of his edition of the

Tarot de Marseille which he entitled “The 22 Arcana of the Kabbalistic Tarot.”

The occult theorists’ usurpation of the symbols and nomenclature of Kabbalah created a cloud of confusion far beyond their tarot explorations.  To this day, when reading the word ‘Kabbalah’ one needs to rely on the context to determine if the writer means the Kabbalah of traditional Judaism or the creative inventions of modern occult theorists. Gershom Scholem, the foundational scholar of the modern academic study of Kabbalah, wrote in the Encyclopedia Judaica:

"The many books written on the subject [Kabbalah] in the 19th and 20th centuries by various theosophists and mystics lacked any basic knowledge of the sources and very rarely contributed to the field, while at times they even hindered the development of a historical approach. Similarly, the activities of French and English occultists contributed nothing and only served to create considerable confusion between the teachings of the Kabbalah and their own totally unrelated inventions, such as the alleged kabbalistic origins of Tarot-cards. To this category of supreme charlatanism belong the many and widely read books of Eliphas Lévi (actually Alphonse Louis Constant; 1810–1875), Papus (Gérard Encausse; 1868–1919), and Frater Perdurabo (Aleister Crowley; 1875–1946), all of whom had an infinitesimal knowledge of Kabbalah that did not prevent them from drawing freely on their imaginations instead."  [Emphasis added]

As shown in the quote above, for Scholem, and many others, the occultists cultural ownership of the tarot reduced the entire subject to a point of passing ridicule.   For scholars of traditional Judaic Kabbalah, the occultists touting of a connection between the Tarot de Marseille and Kabbalah was ample evidence alone that the topic was an historical absurdity.

In the twentieth century, a more sober crop of tarot historians arrived who penned volumes debunking the fanciful inventions of the occult tarot theorists.  In the 1980 landmark book The Game of Tarot, the  British Philosopher Sir Michael Dummett provided a detailed history of the many ways in which tarot cards were used for playing games, centuries before they were repurposed as tools for fortune telling or as vessels for esoteric secrets.  Dummett had harsh words for the occultists proclivity for blurring the distinction between historical truths and creative invention.  “The gap between the occultist and the serious historian is unbridgeable, because the occultist theories rest upon a whole spurious pseudo-history of the Tarot pack.”[i]  He explicitly dismissed the possibility of any connection between the Hebrew letters and the cards as just one of many occult fantasies. Dummett’s core thesis was that the original Tarot de Marseille does not have any secret meaning whatsoever, that it was used exclusively for game playing, and that it contains an entirely standard set of common medieval artistic images.   


Despite Dummett’s adamant dismissal, the occult insistence of a connection between the twenty-two Hebrew letters and the twenty-two major arcana of the Tarot de Marseille was not exclusively rooted in a numeric coincidence.  If one peruses with a knowing eye, you can indeed find numerous visual allusions to the Hebrew letters hidden in the cards.  The letters are visible enough to beckon those intimately familiar with their shape, but also obscure enough to go unnoticed by those who aren’t.  The Hebraic presence that the tarot occultists misinterpreted through their invented prism of magical Kabbalah, the modern tarot historians simply dismissed as an ahistorical impossibility. 


The Tarot historian Stanley Kaplan, the author of the Encyclopedia of Tarot, seems to have been of two minds on this topic.  He wrote that ‘one cannot dismiss the congruence’ between the major arcana and the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet but elsewhere in the same work he admits that a connection between the two is ‘doubtful.’ Among the many tarot historians and the tarot occultists, nobody paused to wonder who, specifically in 17th century France, might have had a motivation to conceal Hebrew letters in a deck of playing cards.


The Jews of Europe – A Short Introduction

For nine centuries the Jewish people resided in the Land of Israel and offered prayers and sacrifices in Jerusalem’s House of God.  The great cataclysm of Judaism occurred in the year 3830, the 70th year of the Common Era, when the armies of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and cast the nation into exile.   Despite being cast in the role of Christ’s eternal foe, Judaism took root in the alien soil of Europe, especially in the Kingdom of France.  In the early Middle Ages, France was home to some of the greatest Yeshivot, schools of religious learning, in the history of Judaism.   Kabbalah, Judaism’s mystical literary tradition, blossomed in Southern France and was known among Jewish scholars as ‘the wisdom of the French sages.’ One of Judaism’s most treasured luminaries, the 11th century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzaki, widely known as Rashi, lived, and taught in France. 


Dire changes occurred to Jewish life in France when the Catholic Church pursued absolute authority regarding the interpretation of holy scripture.  In 1240, at the request of Pope Gregory IX,  the monarchy of France conducted a public trial against the Talmud - Judaism’s tome of traditional law and legend - for thirty-five specific accusations of blasphemy, perversion, and insults against Catholicism.  At the lengthy disputation France’s most prominent Rabbis were tasked with publicly defending the Talmud before an assembly of the kingdom’s Catholic elite comprised of King Louis IX, his wife Queen Margaret, the Queen Mother, the chancellor of the University of Paris, as well various archbishops, bishops, and other church leaders.    The Talmud was found unequivocally guilty of all charges, and in 1242 all known copies in France, twenty-four wagons filled with thousands of hand-scribed volumes, were brought to Paris, and burned in a public square.[ii]   The public condemnation and burning of the Talmud became somewhat of a cultural institution as it was carried out again in 1247, 1248, 1254, 1284, 1290, 1299, 1319, and 1321.[iii]


Regarding the trial King Louis IX stated that “Only skilled clerics could conduct a disputation with Jews, but that laymen should plunge a sword into those who speak ill of the Christ.”  In this spirit, the French crown grew increasingly unsatisfied with the burning of Jewish books, and over time sought to purge France of any Jewish presence whatsoever.  From the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, French monarchs enacted six orders of expulsion, requiring all Jewish residents to either convert to Catholicism or to surrender their assets and leave the Kingdom of France.  After the expulsion declared by King Charles IV in 1394, Jews were not able to officially live in France again until 1675, when King Louis XIV granted a letter of protection to those living in the newly annexed provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. 

One frequent destination for Jews accepting exile from France was the Iberian Peninsula, where the centuries long conflict between the Catholic and the Muslim kingdoms had created a relatively hospitable environment for a growing Jewish population.  By the fifteenth century Spain was home to the largest and most prosperous Jewish community in the world.  


In 1492 Queen Isabella of Castille and King Ferdinand of Aragorn finally conquered the Muslim Kingdom of Granada, and for the first time in nearly 800 years the Iberian Peninsula was entirely under Catholic dominion.  Convinced of their divine mission as champions of the cross, the monarchs issued the Alhambra Decree, which required the Jews of Spain to either convert to Catholicism or to surrender their assets and leave all territories under Spanish rule.  The thriving Jewish community of Spain, an estimated 300,000 souls, whose roots traced back centuries to the arrival of refugees fleeing the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, was thus commanded into destruction.  The Alhambra Decree proved as effective as it was cruel; the churches of Spain were rapidly filled with Jews seeking to publicly embrace the cross.  Scholars estimate that only a third of “Jerusalem in Spain,” as the Jews were called, choose exile.   


For those faithful to Judaism, the Alhambra Decree meant choosing between horrific suffering in this world, or condemnation of their souls in the world to come.  Those accepting exile drew the attention of slave traders, pirates, thieves, tax officials, border guards and all sorts of other malevolent actors who targeted the wandering Jews for monetary gain.   Faced with an impossible decision, some, an unknown number, choose a third option of accepting Catholicism publicly, while maintaining at least a thread of Judaic observance in the guarded privacy of their homes.


Aware that a portion of the ‘New Christians’ - the term of reference for recent converts - were not sincere in their profession of Catholic faith, the Spanish Monarchs granted broad powers to the Vatican’s Holy Office of the Inquisition, which was tasked with finding those observing Judaism in secret. The Inquisitors, experts in detecting theological dissent, proceeded with a thoughtful strategy for success.  The Christian faithful were told of the tell-tale signs of covert Judaic observance and exhorted to report any suspicious behavior.  Refraining from eating pig, changing bed linen at the end of the week, lighting candles on Friday night, frequent hand washing, speaking positively of the laws of Moses, eating unleavened bread, and a long list of other behaviors were touted as warning signs warranting investigation. 

Individuals accused of being secret Jews endured extended periods of imprisonment, months or possibly even years in duration, as well as torture until the Inquisitors felt that they had arrived at a satisfying judicial conclusion.  The Inquisitors would publicly announce their final judgements at an elaborately ritualized and theatrical Auto-da-fé - an ‘Act of Faith’ - for which each prisoner was adorned in a distinctive tunic and conical hat, ‘a costume of infamy,’ to visibly convey their specific crime and punishment to the spectating crowd.   If the condemned confessed and publicly repented for their apostasy, they would be granted the mercy of being quickly strangled to death prior to the burning of their dead body.  Those who refused to admit any wrongdoing endured the most severe punishment of being burned alive.

A depiction of the torture methods used by the Inquisitors of the

Vatican's "Holy Office of the Inquisition" to extract confessions from suspected heretics.

The terrors of the Spanish Inquisition drove many New Christians to flee to other European countries, to the Ottoman Empire and even to the colonies of the New World.  New Christians who left Spain, but who remained within the realm of Christendom, could not revert to openly observing Judaism, but they could at least escape the sweeping investigative powers of the Spanish Inquisitors.  Ironically, given that the exile of Jews from France predated the Alhambra Decree by almost a hundred years, France became a place of refuge for New Christians fleeing Spain.


In the generations that followed New Christians who wished to maintain some connection to their ancestor’s faith developed clandestine forms of Judaic observance now collectively known as crypto-Judaism. ‘Crypto’ from the Greek word kruptos, which means ‘hidden’.  Crypto-Jews created unique recipes that disguised kosher meat as pork.  They lit Shabbat candles underneath tables and behind closed windows.  In the spring they ate flat bread and annually held a joyous party for ‘The Feast of Saint Esther.’ A newborn son would be publicly baptized one day and then secretly circumcised the next.[iv]   In one famous story, a shofar was disguised as a symphonic instrument so a concert audience could safely hear it being blown in public on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  Given the horrific punishments inflicted on those found guilty of ‘Judaizing’ the traditions of crypto-Judaism were guarded with extreme secrecy. Eventually, across generations of transmission, even many descendants of the crypto-Jews themselves became unaware of the Judaic origins of their family’s puzzling traditions.   


The Catholic Church was not of one mind as to how to manage the ongoing refusal of Europe’s remaining Jews to convert to Catholicism.  Many believed that the Spanish and French model of attempting to eliminate Judaism entirely was the best approach.   Others argued that the remaining Jews should be allowed to survive, but in a state of perpetual suffering, to serve as living evidence of supersessionism; the doctrine that the Church’s new divine covenant had rendered the old Judaic covenant null and void.    Italy’s city states followed this approach in forcing its Jewish population to work in demeaning professions, to wear humiliating costumes and to reside in crowded and impoverished walled-in ghettos. 


In the long and troubled history of the Jewish people, the year 1650 was a moment of exceptional despair.  The presence of Jews remained entirely forbidden in Spain, France, England, Portugal, Switzerland, Sweden, Bavaria, the New World, and numerous other territories and city-states.  The surviving remnant of Italian Jewish life was entirely imprisoned in ghettos.  In Eastern Europe, Ukrainian Cossacks were inflicting massacres and slaughter on Poland’s emerging Ashkenazi Jewish population.   The Holy Office of the Inquisition continued to hunt down and publicly execute New Christians discovered practicing Judaism in secret.   A widely discussed prophecy of divine redemption hinted at in the Zohar for the year 1648 proved entirely empty.  Many began to openly question whether the Jewish faith would continue to exist at all.

It was approximately in the year 1650 that an artist in Paris created the Jean Noblet Tarot de Marseille.


[i] The Game of Tarot, Michael Dummett

[ii] The Trial of the Talmud, Paris, 1240

[iii] Beautiful Death, Page 75

[iv] Semi-Clandestine Judaism in Early Modern France: European Horizons and Local Varieties of a Domestic Devotion by Carsten L. Wilke

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