Tarot of Marseilles

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The Major Arcana of the Tarot of Marseilles

The Tarot of Marseilles or Tarot de Marseilles is a standard pattern of Italian-suited Tarot pack with 78 cards that was very popular in France in the 17th and 18th centuries for playing tarot card games and is still produced today. It was probably created in Milan before spreading to much of France, Switzerland and Northern Italy. It is a pattern from which many subsequent tarot packs derive. The name is sometimes spelt Tarot of Marseille, but the name recommended by the International Playing-Card Society is Tarot de Marseille, although it accepts the two English names as alternatives. It was the pack on which the occult use of tarot cards was originally based, although today bespoke cards are produced for this purpose.


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. Some scholars believe The Cary Sheet is a direct ancestor of the Tarot of Marseilles. The antecedents of the Tarot de Marseille would then have been introduced into southern France at around that time. The 78-card version of the game of Tarot died out in Italy but survived in France and Switzerland.

When the game was reintroduced into northern Italy, the Marseilles designs of the cards were reintroduced with it. All Italian-suited tarot decks outside of Italy are descended from the Milan–Marseilles type with the exception of some early French and Belgian packs which show mixed influence from Bolognese tarot. The earliest surviving cards of the Marseilles pattern were produced by Jean Noblet of Paris around 1650.


Two of Pentacles from the Tarot of Marseilles

In the Tarot de Marseille, as is standard among Italian suited playing cards, the pip cards in the suit of Swords are drawn as abstract symbols in curved lines, forming a shape reminiscent of a mandorla. On the even numbered cards, the abstract curved lines are all that is present. On the odd numbered cards, a single fully rendered sword is rendered inside the abstract designs. The suit of batons is drawn as straight objects that cross to form a lattice in the higher numbers; on odd numbered baton cards, a single vertical baton runs through the middle of the lattice. On the tens of both swords and batons, two fully rendered objects appear imposed on the abstract designs. The straight lined batons and the curved swords continue the tradition of Mamluk playing cards, in which the swords represented scimitars and the batons polo mallets.

There is also a suit of twenty-two atouts (trump cards). The Fool, which is unnumbered in the Tarot de Marseille, is viewed as separate and additional to the other twenty-one numbered trumps because it usually cannot win a trick. Occultists call these twenty-two cards les lames majeures de figures (the major figure cards) or the Major Arcana.

The labelling of cards is a practice of French origin, Italians remembered their names by heart. The XIII card is generally left unlabelled in the various old and modern versions of the Tarot de Marseille, but it is worth noting that in Noblet's deck (circa 1650), the card was named LAMORT (Death). In at least some printings of the French/English bilingual version of Grimaud's pack, the XIII card is named "La Mort" in French and named "Death" in English.

Other patterns

In the early eighteenth century the Marseilles Tarot was introduced in Northern Italy starting from the Kingdom of Sardinia, which also included the Savoy (now in France) and Piedmont, where the card manufacturing industry collapsed following a severe economic depression. The Piedmontese players did not have difficulties to accept the Marseilles Tarot, because the images were similar and even the French language captioning was widespread in many areas of Piedmont.

Around 1820 some manufacturers active in Turin, capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia, began to produce tarot decks in Marseille's pattern, but after few years they introduced captions in Italian and small variations in certain figures. For example, the Fool was not chased by a wild animal but had a butterfly in front of him. In a few decades, variation after variation, was consolidated the iconography of the Piedmontese Tarot, which therefore must be considered as a derivation of the Tarot of Marseilles. It is currently the most widely used tarot deck in Italy.

Around 1835, Carlo Della Rocca of Milan engraved an elaborate interpretation of the Marseilles pattern. It became popular throughout Lombardy for the duration of the 19th century. It spread to Piedmont where a double-ended version was adapted to local tastes and was popular until the 1950s.

A few early French decks exhibit certain curiosities. The 1557 luxury tarot deck by Catelin Geoffrey of Lyon, the early 17th century Tarot de Paris, and Jacques Viéville's Parisian deck (c.1650) share many things in common with each other and the Marseilles pattern but also have designs that seem to be derived from the Bologna-Florence tradition as seen in the Tarocco Bolognese and the Minchiate.

Later history

All cards were originally printed from woodcuts; the cards were later coloured either by hand or by the use of stencils. Tarot was recorded as being very popular card game throughout France during the 16th and early 17th century but later fell into obscurity with the exception of eastern France and Switzerland. Very few Marseilles pattern cards from the 17th century have survived, chiefly among them are Noblet's. In contrast, dozens of decks from the 18th century have made it to the present. From eastern France and Switzerland, the game spread north to Sweden and east to Russia starting from the middle of the 18th century, making it one of the most popular card games of that era until being overtaken by Whist in the 19th century.

One well-known artisan producing tarot cards in the Marseilles pattern was Nicolas Conver (circa 1760). It was the Conver deck, or a deck very similar to it, that came to the attention of Antoine Court de Gébelin in the late 18th century. Court de Gébelin's writings, which contained much by way of speculation as to the supposed Egyptian origin of the cards and their symbols, called the attention of occultists to tarot decks. As such, Conver's deck became the model for most subsequent esoteric decks, starting with the deck designed by Etteilla forward. Cartomancy with the Tarot was definitely being practised throughout France by the end of the 18th century; Alexis-Vincent-Charles Berbiguier reported an encounter with two "sibyls" who divined with Tarot cards in the last decade of the century at Avignon.

From the mid-18th to early 19th centuries, Marseilles and Besançon tarots were replaced by the French-suited animal tarots throughout most of Europe. These were then superseded by genre art tarots like the Industrie und Glück. French players ignored animal tarots but during the 20th century, they switched over to the genre art Tarot Nouveau. French truck drivers were still using the Marseilles pattern for French tarot as late as the 1970s.

In 1997 Alejandro Jodorowsky and Phillipe Camoin completed their reconstructed version of the Tarot of Marseille. Since then Jodorowky, in collaboration with Marianne Costa, published a Tarot book based around this reconstructed version of the Marseille deck.

Updated versions of the deck have been published by U.S. Games Systems.

Tarot Topics
Major Arcana The FoolThe MagicianThe High PriestessThe EmpressThe EmperorThe HierophantThe LoversThe ChariotStrengthThe HermitWheel of FortuneJusticeThe Hanged ManDeathTemperanceThe DevilThe TowerThe StarThe MoonThe SunJudgementThe World
Minor Arcana Pentacles AceTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEightNineTenPageKnightQueenKing
Wands AceTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEightNineTenPageKnightQueenKing
Cups AceTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEightNineTenPageKnightQueenKing
Swords AceTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEightNineTenPageKnightQueenKing
Decks Visconti-Sforza TarotTarot of MarseillesRider-Waite TarotThoth TarotOccult TarotAngel TarotVlad Dracula TarotHieronymus Bosch Tarot