Marseille tarot

Recently I’ve been reading Sallie Nichols book Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey. The idea behind the book is simple: the Major Arcana of the Tarot present to us archetypal images, and so we can bring a Jungian understanding to bear on them. The book is the fruit of a lifetime’s work and is both a substantial and an enjoyable read.

In her book, Sally Nichols uses not the Rider-Waite deck so prevalent today, but a much older deck, the Marseille deck.

Very little is known about the origin and evolution of the Tarot cards. One of the oldest surviving decks is a 15th century Italian deck made for the Sforza family in Milan. The elegant cards of this deck were never intended for playing a game of cards!

After this period, many of the surviving decks come from the south of France and these are referred to as Marseilles decks, using the English spelling. Today, a theory is gaining ground that the Tarot cards arise from the Cathars or Albigensians, a gnostic Christian sect who flourished in the Languedoc region of the South of France in the 12th and 13th centuries (until they were eliminated by the Pope in a crusade which took a million lives), and that the symolism of the Major Arcana encodes their teachings of spiritual evolution.

Le Bateleur (The Magician)Whatever the truth of the origin of the cards, it’s safe to say that the cards had symbolic value to their creators, and that the creators of the older decks would have been closer to this symbolism than those who came after them. Here at left we see card number one, Le Bateleur. In the Rider Waite deck (first published in 1909), he is the Magician, but Le Bateleur means the mountebank – a confidence trickster – and in modern French means the juggler. The brim of his hat draws the shape of a figure 8 lying on its side, the lemniscate; or infinity symbol. Unlike the all-good magician of the Rider Waite deck with his all white wand, this magician could clearly trick us. All of this is simply lost in the modern cards. Being more personal creations, they lose some of their capacity to carry archetypal meaning.

The card at left is from the exact deck that Sally Nichols uses in her book, which is a deck by the French publisher Grimaud in 1970. This was the first Marseilles deck to be widely available, but the colouring tells us that this is not an early deck.

The oldest known deck in the Marseille style is that of Jean Noblet, published in Paris in 1650. This deck, unavailable for hundreds of years, has now been republished by Jean Claude Flornoy who hand colours the cards with stencils. As well as the complete deck, for which Flornoy had to re-create the 6 through 10 of swords, which are missing, it is also possible to purchase just the Trumps.

The Noblet deck has some interesting characteristics. In the unnumbered trump of the fool, you can see that the fool has his bottom uncovered, revealing what it is the cat is jumping at: the fool’s genitalia. Shown on the right is Flornoy’s restored card, which is rather less charming. This deck is also the only one to name Arcanum XIII, Death. In all the other Marseilles decks, he remains anonymous.

More popular than the Noblet deck is the tarot of Jean Dodal, published in Lyon some time between 1700 and 1715. This deck is so similar to the tarot of Jean-Pierre Payen (Lyon 1713) that experts conclude that they must have been drawn by the same engraver. The French publisher Editions Dusserre made a reproduction of these cards, but it is now unobtainable (they still have other decks such as Paul Marteau’s 1930 deck). Flornoy has published restored, hand-coloured versions of the Trumps from this deck.

A third possibility is the 1751 deck of Claude Burdel, which was published in Switzerland by Schaffhouse. Lo Scarabeo of Italy have two versions of this deck. Tarot of Marseilles presents the original colours ( have the mini version in stock, although “enhanced”, whilst Universal Tarot of Marseille presents a recoloured version of the cards. The blurb says: beautifully restored – giving new energy to the ancient images and amplifying their symbolic meaning. The new images are pretty, especially the coloured backgrounds, but does the restorer really understand the symbolism of the colours in Tarot?

According to Jean-Claude Flornoy, there are seven colours in Tarot, with the following meanings:

  • white, the color of emotional saturation;
  • black, representing the earth;
  • red, representing blood and suffering;
  • blue, representing blows to the body and soul;
  • yellow, representing perseverance;
  • green, representing hope;
  • light blue, representing awareness;
  • the additional flesh colour

The significance of the colours is thus completely lost in many modern re-colourings of the Marseille decks, many of which, for instance, use only a single shade of blue.

Another important Marseilles deck is the Tarot of Nicolas Conver, engraved in 1760. Two unrestored reproductions of this deck are available: one by Heron, and one by Lo Scarabeo.
Heron have now, like both Grimaud and Dusserre, been absorbed by France Cartes.
The Lo Scarabeo deck is available under the title Ancient Tarot of Marseilles. This deck is out of stock at Amazon, but you can get it at the Lo Scarabeo store or from other tarot shops

The Conver deck has some slight differences to the tarots of Noblet and Dodal. For instance, the hanged man’s hands are now hidden.

Conver had his own printing house which became by marriage the Camoin House, which continues to this day! The Camoin house has been printing the Conver deck since that time till the present day. Around 1860, industrial printing presses were introduced which could print in different colours. Camoin switched to these in 1880, but only four colours could be used, and the old colours were lost. From this time forward, the colours used in tarot decks have largely lost their symbolic meaning.

Camoin first attempt to produce something more authentic was their retouched version of the Conver 1760 deck, published in 1968. Aware of the shortcomings of the modern decks, the present heir Philippe Camoin, published a restoration of the Conver tarot in 1998. You can see the Trumps on his site, and there’s also a shop. Also of interest is a discussion of various Marseilles decks, including those of François Tourcaty (1734-53) and François Chosson (1672). Phillipe Camoin has been the champion of this deck, which appears to have been ignored by other researchers. You can see the trumps on his site – the images have a watermark on them, but are still useful for study.

Apart from the sites linked above, two other useful tarot sites are:

A final note: the term Tarot de Marseille (TdM) was never used historically. It was coined by Paul Marteau in 1930, when he published his Ancien Tarot de Marseille – a copy of an 1898 tarot from the French publisher Grimaud, itself a copy of the 1748 tarot of Lequart, whom Grimaud had taken over. These decks have the pope and popess replaced by the less contentious Juno and Jupiter, and are today referred to as Tarot de Besançon.

Where to buy tarot decks:

Manufacturers / cartiers


~ by scalambra on April 24, 2008.

2 Responses to “Marseille tarot”

  1. I have been trying to find out when the Heron version you mention was actually published. None of the sites I checked list a pub date despite their description of the deck as “limited edition” and “unnumbered.” Do you happen to know?

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