The Tarot of Marseille

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A card reading with the Tarot of Marseille

In the 18th century, a very special type of tarot deck spread widely in France. Having gained popularity, it was called the Tarot of Marseille, which fed the belief that it originated from that French harbor on the Mediterranean Sea.[1] In reality, this late designation is misleading because, as we shall see, this deck was conceived in another city out of France.[2] Although it was mainly used as a game, the Tarot of Marseille’s reputation must be credited to other practices. The 22 trump cards that characterize it have indeed aroused the interest of game hobbyists. Since the end of the 18th century, some savants have questioned these images and put forward various hypotheses regarding their origin, crediting Egyptians, Arabs, Indians, Bohemians, the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages, the Cathar heretics — the list goes on. Whoever it was, some have conjectured that they constitute the occult recipients of some ancient wisdom. At the same time, this very deck became the privileged instrument of fortune-tellers. The fascination that the trump cards exerted on occultists and psychics is due to the presence, in these images, of numerous allegorical and symbolic figures. Christianity is represented, with the Pope, but the Papess is somewhat perplexing. One recognizes, at the four angles of a mandorla, the biblical Tetramorph, but in its center stands, instead of the Christ, a naked androgynous person. Astrological and alchemical symbols abound, as well as allusions to antique myths and philosophy. This confusion-inducing proliferation has, for a long time, made it very challenging to trace the origins of the Tarot of Marseille. In fact, as we shall see, it was the key to its identification.

[1] In this site, I use the Conver deck, engraved in 1760, whose design is much more faithful to the lost original model. For an overview of different samples of the Tarot of Marseille, see Daniel Grütter, Walter Haas, Max 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 the fundamental studies by Sylvia Mann and Michael Dummett, it is generally accepted that the Marseille type of tarots originates from Renaissance Italy. Cf. Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, from Ferrara to Salt Lake City, London, Duckworth, 1980, p. 407-417 ; Idem, Il mondo e l’angelo. I tarocchi e la loro storia, London, Bibliopolis, 1993, p. 307-417. See also Thierry Depaulis, Tarot, Jeu et Magie, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, 1984, p. 71-73 ; Idem, «Le tarot de Marseille», in Cartes à jouer et tarots de Marseille. La donation Camoin, Marseille, Alors hors du Temps, 2004, p. 125-133. Idem, Le Tarot révélé. Une histoire du tarot d’après les documents, Freibourg im Breisgau, Musée Suisse du Jeu, 2013, p.39.

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