The Tarot of Marseilles

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The Tarot of Marseilles (or Tarot of Marseille), also widely known by the French designation Tarot de Marseille, is one of the standard patterns for the design of tarot cards. It is a pattern from which many subsequent tarot decks derive.

Michael Dummett’s research led him to conclude that – based on the lack of earlier documentary evidence – the Tarot deck was probably invented in northern Italy in the 15th century and introduced into southern France when the French conquered Milan and the Piedmont in 1499. The antecedents of the Tarot de Marseille would then have been introduced into southern France at around that time. The game of tarot died out in Italy but survived in France and Switzerland. When the game was reintroduced into northern Italy, the Marseille designs of the cards were also reintroduced to that region.

The name Tarot de Marseille is not of particularly ancient vintage; it was coined at least as early as 1889 by the French occultist Papus (Gérard Encausse) in Chapter XI of his book le Tarot des bohémiens (Tarot of the Bohemians), and was popularized in the 1930s by the French cartomancer Paul Marteau, who used this collective name to refer to a variety of closely related designs that were being made in the city of Marseille in the south of France, a city that was a centre of playing card manufacture, and were (in earlier, contemporaneous, and later times) also made in other cities in France. The Tarot de Marseille is one of the standards from which many tarot decks of the 19th century and later are derived.

In the English-speaking world, where there is little or no tradition of using tarots as playing cards, tarot decks only became known through the efforts of occultists influenced by French tarotists such as Etteilla, and later, Eliphas Lévi. These occultists later produced esoteric decks that reflected their own ideas, and these decks were widely circulated in the anglophone world. Various esoteric decks such as the Rider-Waite-Colman Smith deck (conceived by A. E. Waite and rendered by Pamela Colman Smith), and the Thoth Tarot deck (conceived by Aleister Crowley and rendered by Lady Frieda Harris) — and tarot decks inspired by those two decks—are most typically used. Waite, Colman Smith, Crowley and Harris were all former members of the influential, Victorian-era Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at different respective points in time; and the Golden Dawn, in turn, was influenced by Lévi and other French occult revivalists. Although there were various other respective influences (e.g., Etteilla’s pip card meanings in the case of Waite/Colman Smith), Waite/Colman Smith’s and Crowley/Harris’ decks were greatly inspired by the Golden Dawn’s member-use tarot deck and the Golden Dawn’s tarot curriculum. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was essentially the first in the Anglophone world to venture into esoteric tarot. Francophone occultists such as Court de Gebelin, Etteilla, Eliphas Lévi, Oswald Wirth and Papus were influential in fashioning esoteric tarot in the French-speaking world; the influence of these Francophone occultists has come to bear even on interpretation of the Tarot de Marseille cards themselves. Even though the Tarot de Marseille decks are not ‘occult’ “per se”, the imagery of the Tarot de Marseille decks arguably shows Hermetic influences (e.g., alchemy, astronomy, etc.).

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