by Mark Filipas ®
The Tarot first appeared in northern Italy, during the birth of Europe’s cultural revolution. Those original decks were probably designed between 1420 and 1440, although the earliest extant cards date from later in the 1400s.
The Marseilles pattern – so named because it characterizes the decks traditionally produced in Marseilles, France – is only one of several early variations. Nonetheless, it represents one candidate for the earliest sequence of trumps, and many of its images echo the earliest designs from the 1400s. Its pattern can be traced back at least to the 1660s with the Tarot by Jean Noblet, and to 1672 with the Tarot of François Chosson. Other well-known examples of this pattern are the 1748 Tarot by Grimaud and the 1760 Tarot by Nicolas Conver [each still in print].
Since these creators left no manual for their decks, we must look for explanatory clues in the details of the designs themselves. We can also look to the cultural context in which these cards first appeared. Yet while the designs show a variety of influences – such as social hierarchy, the Virtues, Biblical and classical allusions, astrology and perhaps even alchemy – these do not adequately explain why the Tarot’s early designers settled upon this specific set of designs, or why they arranged the designs in this particular sequence.
Did the Hebrew alphabet influence the early Tarot’s design?
This question has been hotly debated now for more than a century. At one end of the spectrum are those who argue that the letters were fundamentally associated with the trumps from the beginning. At the other end are those who argue that there is no evidence to conclude any link between the early Tarot and the Hebrew alphabet.
Various pages on my website introduce new research showing a demonstrable correspondence between the Hebrew letters and the Marseilles Tarot. That correspondence lies within the medieval Hebrew lexicon, which contains an alphabetical sequence of words corresponding to the 22 allegorical subjects. Each trump, in effect, illustrates one Hebrew letter in much the same way as a child’s English primer echoes ‘A is for apple’ and ‘B is for boy’. Not only can the allegorical subjects be found in alphabetical sequence, but virtually every item on each trump can be found with the same initial letter, suggesting the Tarot of Marseilles to be a ‘visual abecedarium’ of the Hebrew alphabet.
Trump I – Magician (AT, AShP) – aleph
Trump II – Sibyl, Seer (BDQ, BOLH, BOL HZYH) – bet
Trump III – Queen (GBYRH) – gimel
Trump IV – Duke (DKS, DVS) – dalet
Trump V – Pontiff (HGMVN) – he
Trump VI – Love (VDO) – vav
Trump VII – Triumph (ZKH, ZKY) – zayin
Trump VIII – Judgement (ChYThVK) – chet
Trump IX – Time (TMPV), Wisdom (TOM) – tet
Trump X – Iynx, or Wheel of Fortune (YNQS) – yud
Trump XI – Strength (KCh, KChCh) – kaph
Trump XII – Informant (LYTYRYN), Thief (LYSTA) – lamed
Trump XIII – Death (MVTh, MYThH) – mem
Trump XIV – Temperance (NThChSM, NZYRVTh) – nun
Trump XV – Satan (STN) – samech
Trump XVI – Flash of light (ODY) – ayin
Trump XVII – Pleiades (PLYDVTh), Paradise (PRDS) – peh
Trump XVIII Conjunction (TzRVP) – tzaddi
Trump XIX – Summer (QYTz) – qoph
Trump XX – Sounding the trumpet (RVO, RAOThA) – resh (1)
Trump XXI – Portal of Heaven (ShOR HShMYM) , Heaven (ShMYM) – shin
The unnumbered card – Folly (ThHLH, ThPLH) – tav
An even closer look at the lexicon reveals that virtually all of the iconographic details of a given card can be found beginning with the same corresponding letter.
The first Hebrew letter aleph, for example, begins the words for magician (AMGVSh, AShP), to juggle, to perform magic tricks (AChZ OYNYM), festive suit (ASTLYTh), coin (AGVRH), cup (ANBG), balls (ASQRYMYN), dagger (ARRN), knife (AYZML), thin hollow tube (ABVB), purse or money bag (ARNQ), and young shoot of a plant (AB). The eighth letter chet begins the words for lawgiver (ChQQ), verdict (ChYThVK), sword (ChRB), scales (ChRSPYThYN), sun (ChMH, the symbol on Justice’s headdress), solar columns (ChMNYM), screen partition (ChYTz), and rope around the neck (ChNQA).
The thirteenth letter mem begins the words for reaper (MQTzRH), corpse (MTh), scythe (MGL), head (MVCh), crown (MKLLThA), king (MLK), and queen (MLKH). The eighteenth letter tzaddi begins the words for heavenly bodies (TzBA HShMYM; early iconography shows the Sun and Moon conjunct), hyenas (TzBVOYM), thirst (TzYCh, TzHH, TzMA), droplets (TzChTzVCh), pincers (TzBTh), water (TzNYNYM), and the Castle or Rook (TzRYCh) in the game of chess. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg, as virtually every pictorial element of the trumps can be found in alphabetical order within the lexicon.
Like a visual encyclopedia, the Marseilles designs incorporate a variety of influences, such as Biblical and literary allusion, mythological figures, alchemical imagery, and even the game of Chess-all in alphabetical sequence.
Was the Marseilles pattern based intentionally upon the lexicon?
The following facts require us to examine this possibility in detail:
The Marseilles subjects can be found in alphabetical order within the Hebrew lexicon, yet cannot be found in such order when the letters and trumps are correlated arbitrarily. This body of correspondences argues against (but does not rule out) coincidence.
Virtually every element in the designs can be found in alphabetical order, yet cannot be found in such order when the letters and trumps are correlated arbitrarily. This singular body of links is presented here as well as in An Alphabetic Masquerade.
The majority of Marseilles trumps show visual similarities to the shape of its corresponding Hebrew letter, yet a majority of similarities does not appear when the letters and trumps are correlated arbitrarily.
The majority of Marseilles trumps illustrate the literal meaning of its corresponding Hebrew letter. These meanings are not those presented in any Tarot books to date but can be found only in medieval Hebrew sources, as presented here.
There are also points of historical context which support the thesis that the trumps were designed as alphabetic images, two of the most important being:
The interest in Hebrew lexicography at the time of the Tarot’s appearance, and
Widespread traditions of alphabetic imagery at that time. These pursuits (explored in the following pages) existed right alongside those of cardmaking within the print shops and art studios of the time.
Just as surprising are the details added by the Italian artist Carlo Dellarocca into his 1835 Tarot designs. Whereas the Marseilles’ iconography appears crude to modern eyes, the Tarocchino Milanese is more intricately engraved and its pictorial elements therefore more easily identifiable within the lexicon. Dellarocca’s designs are also distinguished by their inclusion of many unique objects. I submit that these objects are the key to the Tarocchino Milanese. Why? Because both their abundance and their singular position within the Hebrew lexicon argues convincingly that they are alphabetic allusions.
Dellarocca’s La Luna, for example, depicts a banquet dish (TzOH, TzLChTh), a plate of fried fish (TzChNH), baying at the moon (TzOQ HY VQYM), the landmark or pillar (TzYVN) on the far shore, its conical roof (TzRYP), and the ship (TzY, TzYM) in the distance. The entire list of Dellarocca correspondences can be found on the site.
It is possible that the Tarocchino Milanese represents the clarification of an earlier alphabetic tradition among cardmakers. Or, it may simply represent Dellarocca’s own alphabetic creativity. It should also be noted that his 1835 designs appeared after the earliest known account (by the esotericist Court de Gebelin in 1781) asserting a link between the Tarot and the Hebrew alphabet (although de Gebelin’s correspondences are not those evident in Dellarocca’s trumps). It is therefore possible that the writings of de Gebelin were known to Dellarocca. In any case, Dellarocca was presumably following the traditions of Italian artists who had long been incorporating alphabetic allusion into their designs.
In other pages on my site, we will show that the Tarot emerged from a culture well-versed in alphabetic imagery.
(1) The Latin word Ressurectio, being the subject of this trump, is very likely to be found transliterated into Hebrew in medieval sources, since the Hebrew language of this period incorporated many of Latin’s most significant words.
– Alcalay, Reuben. The Complete English-Hebrew Dictionary, Massada, 1981.
– Alcalay, Reuben. The Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary, Massada, 1981.
– Jastrow, Marcus, Ph.D. Litt.D. A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and the Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, The Judaica Press, 1992 (first published in 1903).
– Yehuda, Ehud Ben. English-Hebrew-English Dictionary, Pocket Books, 1961
Thank you Mark for permission to republish this extract which first appeared on his site: Exploring the Alphabetic Tarot.