Forward to Paul Marteau’s LE TAROT DE MARSEILLE

[by Eugène Caslant]

ROUGH DRAFT (A very rough draft, in fact)

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            If one were to attempt to show a man of science the value and the divinatory properties of the Tarot, it is likely that the demonstration would be met with skepticism, if not irony, since the Tarot would provoke in him the memory of card readers, fortune tellers, and he would regard it entirely as a product of superstition and a means of exploiting human credulity.

            Perhaps he would change his mind by considering that it necessary to challenge one’s preconceived notions, that more often a remnant of the past as enduring as Tarot conceals an original and profound meaning which may have been obscured by the notions of the present. Possibly, when remembering that the Tarot has engendered the cards, that is, one of the principal instruments of passions of gaming, would he seek out the cause for the role which they play in humanity, and would he want to know why people would submit themselves to risks of their own devising, with the hope of obtaining from them their fortune, whereas too often they only reap disappointments? And wouldn’t he be inclined to wonder whether this attraction of the cards for people came from profound sources?

            People will receive a response if they take the trouble to examine how they arrive at knowledge; then they will recollect that the logical modes which they employ in the search for knowledge are primarily reasoning based on identification and reasoning based on analogy. The former serves as the basis for the modern sciences, from which are derived mathematics and most branches which are taught in our schools. The second is used by Nature; this one ignores our so-called exact sciences, which in reality are nothing but abstract methods, born from our heads, chosen by us because their mechanism is easily adapted to the imperfection of our faculties.  Nature does not accept rigorous reasoning, whose lack of flexibility would paralyze its efforts, since it never creates two things which are identical; it only knows qualities and, to organize these qualities among themselves, it is based on analogies and proceeds by affinity.

            Also, to understand the laws and principles of Nature, it would be necessary to determine the analogical links which connect everything. But this operation, by the immensity and complexity of the elements which it encompasses, beyond the reach of human understanding, so that it can only be realized by limiting it to the study of the simplest and most accessible connections to our spirit. However, those who meet these conditions must enter the framework of tangible things and, therefore, take the aspect of the forms which are familiar to us. They then serve as a basis and allow a glimpse of other levels through their similarity. This is how people have been driven to resort to symbolism, which is to say to the transference of cosmic laws to the physical world, by making them concrete, in the form of pictorial scenes. Such are the causes which have led people in times past to conceive of the images of the Tarot.

            What knowledge do we have about the origins of the Tarot and the vicissitudes of form and interpretation which it has undergone across the ages?

            A chronicle of Giovanni de Juzzo de Caveluzo, preserved in the archives of Viterbe, fixes the time when the cards appear in Europe in the following passage:

            “In the year 1379 was introduced to Viterbe the game of cards which came from the land of the Saracens and which is called “Naïb” among them.”

            This shows that the cards have a very foreign origin. If we put historical writings aside and look to the oral tradition and to certain books such as those of Paravey[1], or Moreau de Dammartin[2], the Tarot goes back to the Egyptians who themselves may have borrowed it from anterior races. We may suppose that the elite of these peoples, in contemplation of the heavens, perceived in the groupings of stars and the movement of the planets, the manifestation of cosmic laws, which their sense of symbolism expressed in a series of images. Each of these, through the arrangement of their colors, objects, and figures, highlighted, with their implications, the principles which their authors had recognized. Their number and their sequence was determined by the rules of analogy, and their organization, to which was given the name of Tarot, constituted a synthesis, which offered a summation of the evolution of the universe. According to the authors whom we have cited, these images, schematized to the furthest extent, have been the origin of hieroglyphic writings. Moreau de Dammartin, in support of these ideas, combines many constellations and draws them in such a way so as to represent “The Bateleur” in the sky and some other Lames of Tarot along with the alphabetic signs which correspond to them.

            Anyway, according to oral tradition, the Lames of the Tarot constitute a pictorial representation of the history of the world and their combinations express the undulating and various play of universal forces. This is why those who wielded these Lames felt that their combination, if it were done in affinity with the mental or emotional projection of the querent, would be able to detect the cosmic law in play and revel, up to a certain point, his or her destiny.

            The consequence of these origins was to present the Tarot in three aspects: one symbolic, another divinatory, and the third related to various combinations. From these result three currents: the initial one, accessible only to analogical minds, represents the Tarot proper; the second, called fortune telling, used by cartomancers, is translated by the figures derived and degraded from the original Tarot; the third, which is only concerned with selection and creating combinations, constitutes playing cards.

            This triple current has given birth to innumerable images varying by particular details, by the nature of the figures, by meanings philosophical, ritualistic, or humorous which we have wanted to attribute to them, but relating with some degree of fidelity and fantasy to the principles of Tarot. Thus, besides playing cards, we find either a multitude of decks representing scenes and historical, political or satirical figures, or groups of symbolic images suitable for facilitating divination, such as those of Mademoiselle Lenormand who, it is said, had predicted to Bonaparte his destiny; or finally, drawings intended to reconstruct the original Tarot, as much from personal inspiration as from the data of ancient works, such as those of Etteila, Eliphas Levi, Papus, Stanislas de Guaita, or Oswald Wirth, composed in the previous century and at the beginning of this one.

            What must one think about this mass of images, which of them are the most interesting? Does there exist one of them which stands out among the others and which deserves particular attention? It was up to Paul Marteau to answer that question.

            Paul Marteau, grand master cartier of France, is one of the directors of the House of Grimaud whose renown for the manufacture of decks of cards is worldwide. He ignores nothing of what has been said or done with respect to cards. Merely to walk into his office, lined with decks of every kind and from all periods, is sufficient to attest to his competence in such a field. He recognizes their value, he knows how to describe all their particulars with humor. But in his eyes no deck is comparable to the ancient Tarot called “Marseilles,” because, according to him, it conforms most to the tradition and is the richest in analogical meanings. As its design is mystifying and the profundity of its symbols, which can only be appreciated through minute analysis, has resulted in its neglect, Paul Marteau has thought it advisable to call attention to it and to present his interpretation of it to the public.

            This is why he first re-edited it with such care, then composed the present book in which he is eager to show to the reader that nothing in this Tarot has been left to chance, that the designs have been conceived in such a way so as to give a meaning to the smallest details, that the colors are always appropriate for the master idea of each Lame, and that the whole thing reveals a transcending philosophy. His work does not cover, therefore, either the history of the cards or even any critical commentary about the conception of the Tarot of Marseille. He treats solely of its symbolism.

            A delicate operation, which is easily made apparent when considering the difficulties of the problem. Few are the things which one can use as a starting point or for support. As a point of departure, there are some rules of symbolism: it is known, for example, that in general yellow signifies intelligence or spiritual things, blue psychism or a mystic state, red the passions or the appetites. In support of this, there are commentaries published on similar Tarots, but besides that most of them are only concerned with the 22 Majors and leave the 56 Minor Arcana in the dark, they scarcely go beyond the philosophy of their authors and their designs are incomplete or distorted, since they have neglected to represent that which they have misunderstood. On the other hand, little is known about the origins of the Tarot of Marseille. Certain characteristics of design, the form of costume and of the faces lead one to suppose that it goes back to the middle of the 16th century and that it has been traced to Germany. According to the occult tradition, it would a reproduction, adapted to the clothing of the present epoque, of a more ancient Tarot belonging to the Greeks in Phocee—the ancient Marseille—who themselves had taken it from the Egyptians.

            Faced with such meager information, it was necessary to proceed often with a minute analysis, often through synthesis,  in order to interpret the minor nuances of the images and organize them in a way so that the results form a coherent and rational whole. This arduous work still remains insufficient if we consider that the Tarot, in order to make flexible all the laws of nature and of the Cosmos which it purposes to reflect, had to adapt the elements of its design, its colors, shapes and presentations, to the specific meaning of each Lame, without however deviating from their principle meaning. The white, for example, a synthesis of all colors, indicates among other nuances, the abstract, nothingness, or repose; the abstract, if the card envisages it as a symbol of the universal; nothingness or a negation, if it is considered from a material and tangible point of view where there is no abstraction; repose, if it is attached to some idea of action or inertia. The red signifies, sometimes, the stagnation of the soul in matter, and sometimes, in a more concrete sense, the impulsivity of the instincts and animal passions. This results in a multitude of nuances which are not only difficult to appreciate, but also are beyond the means of expression of the French language, rich as it is.

            Another difficult lurks in the extent of the meanings which a single symbol may indicate. For to interpret a symbol is to discover by analogy the idea which is attached to this or that pose, this or that contour; more exactly, it is to establish the passage from the concrete to the abstract; but this is a passage from the most down-to-earth meaning to that which derives from the highest metaphysics, and it travels from one extreme to the other through an indefinite series of levels. Consider, for example, the first four Lames of the Tarot which form an ensemble: the Bateleur, the Papesse, the Impératrice, the Empereur, and let’s consider them first in their higher sense.

            The Bateleur signifies the first emanation, and, consequently, it represents the nebulous laws which preside over its development. The Papesse symbolizes the universal matrix, and with the book which she holds on her knees and which describes all the cosmic combinations, she draws the ideograms, which she projects in space and they become the germs of worlds. The Impératrice is the universal Fate and she weaves the threads of cosmic destinies with which the Empereur constructs worlds.

            In their lower and concrete meaning corresponding to human undertakings, the Bateleur is no more than just the beginning of something, whose outcome is indicated by the cards which surround him, the Papesse becomes the appearance of something unexpected, the Imperatrice is a gestation, an unknown factor which one must await to emerge, and the Empereur is domination over the unstable, an ephemeral power, a momentary plan.

            We can arrive at another interpretation of the Lames, then, purely abstract, when interpreting by analogy the significance of the numbers inscribed at the top of each card. The I (Le Bateleur) signifies the beginning of all things, the primordial principle, the action taken in its essence; the 2 (La Papesse) constitutes, on the contrary, the essence of passivity, because the two things united which comprise it, from a qualifying point of view, are taken in an inverse sense, they are opposed to each other.  They engender, through their collision, a movement in place, a dynamic stabilization, which symbolizes any substance with the mysteries which she contains and which she owes to the effect of her receptivity to universal forces.  The 3 (L’Impératrice), which characterizes the notion of “succession” (1 + 1 + 1), symbolizes the evolutionary passage from one plane to another; there is, in the Trinity, the current which goes from the Father to the Son and from the Son to the Father through the Holy Spiri. The 4 (L’Empereur), or 2 opposed to 2, indicates a double polarity which, depending on whether or not they oppose or conciliate each other, are represented by the square and the cross, expressing matter with its four elements (fire, air, water, earth), or the balance of forces in constructive action.

            Between these extremes there are multiple transitions. Paul Marteau could not think of touching on all of them; he had to make a choice and stick to an arena accessible to the public and likely to be of interest. He stopped at the psychic level, as the Tarot had led him to it, that is to say, at the oscillations of the human soul between the embracing of matter and the call of the Divine.

            Added to this limitation is another: the Tarot subordinates its philosophy to that of numbers, that is to say, to their analogic laws. Logic would have liked for Paul Marteau, in order to make his deductions comprehensible, to offer a preliminary presentation on the symbolism of numbers. By doing so, he would have satisfied readers eager to see the interpretations resting on a logical base. Besides the fact that this would have been a tedious task because of its abstraction, it would have required a supplementary volume; so he had to reduce his examination of numbers to that which was strictly necessary for the understanding of the Tarot.

            Besides, criticism is easy in a field which does not include the rational form of our contemporary sciences. This is why, we repeat, Paul Marteau did not want to conduct a reasoned study of Tarot in general, nor criticize what may be good or defective, complete or incomplete, in the Tarot of Marseille; he has sought out the meaning and has revealed it to the reader so that he may appreciate for himself a work which human wisdom has given birth to over the centuries.


L’Ecole Polytechnique


[1] (Le Chevalier Charles -Hippolyte de Paravey, orienataliste français, 1787-1871. —Différents ouvrages:  overview of the manuscripts which were still handwritten, about the origin of the globe, the age of the Zodiacs, etc., Paris, 1835. — Confirmation of the Bible and the Egyptian and Greek traditions, by the hieroglyphic books discovered in China, Paris, 1838. — Astronomical knowledge of the ancient peoples of Egypt and Asia about the satellites of Jupier and the rings of Saturn, etc., Paris, 1835— Hieoryglyph documents seized by Assyria and preserved in China and in America about the first Flood of Noah, etc., Paris, 1839. — Essays on the unique origin and the hieroglyphics of numbers and letters of all peoples, preceded by a quick glance at the History of the World, between the age of the Creation and the Age of Nabonassar, and about certain ideas about the Formation of the First of all writings, which existed before the Deluge, and which was the Hieroglyphic system. Paris, Treuttel nad Wurtz, 1826.— Illustrations of Hieroglyphic Astronomy and the Planispheres and Zodiacs discovered n Egypt, in Chaldea, in India and from Japon, Paris, Delabaye, 1835. —A new consideration about the Planisphere of Dendera, etc., Paris, Treuttel et Wutz, 1835. — On the Sphere and the Constellations of the ancient Hieroglyphic Astronomy, etc., Paris, 1835.

[2] Origin of the shape of the alphabetic characters of all nations, the Chinese keys, the Egyptian Hieroglyphics, etc., by Moreau de Dammartin, member of the Historic Institute, Paris, 1839.

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