The Tarot de Marseille at a Glance: Four of the Major Arcana

The Tarot de Marseille first appeared in Southern Europe in the fifteenth century as a simple card game, though its origins are sacred.

Mar 6, 2021By Thomas Ellison
tarot de marseille
Four of the major arcana of the Tarot de Marseille by Alejandro Jodorowsky & Philippe Camoin, 1471-1997, via camoin.com

 

The Tarot de Marseille, or simply, the Tarot, is a deck of seventy-eight cards composed of major and minor arcana. The cards speak an optical language and can be used as a therapeutic and psychological tool for self-knowledge. Four cards of the twenty-two major arcana will be presented: The Fool, The Lover (VI), The Sun (XIX) & The World (XXI).

 

The Origins Of The Tarot De Marseille

ace of cups tarot de marseille
The Ace of Cups, Tarot de Marseille by Alejandro Jodorowsky & Philippe Camoin, 1471-1997, via camoin.com

 

It is not known who created the Tarot or when it first came into existence. Besides the Tarot de Marseille, there are innumerable versions of the Tarot, each stylized differently according to the cultural period in which it was produced and the person’s tastes who created it. In The Way of Tarot, Alejandro Jodorowsky explains how he and Philippe Camoin restored the Tarot de Marseille. Jodorowsky states that it is the authentic Tarot because it conforms to a cohesive, original design that is free of its creator’s whims. The Tarot de Marseille contains an intricate symbolism that has roots in ancient cultures and monotheistic traditions, including Egyptian and Greek cultures, Christianity, Alchemy, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam. 

 

The Tarot is not an isolated work of art that simply appeared out of nowhere since it draws on ancient systems of thought and belief without adhering to a single system. What’s more, the Tarot is not merely a work of art to be admired and observed, but a kind of spiritual map and a mirror of an individual’s soul. The Tarot operates as a complete entity, with the major and minor arcana forming a unified whole.

 

The Major Arcana Of The Tarot De Marseille

 

The Fool

the fool tarot de marseille
Le Mat (The Fool), Tarot de Marseille by Alejandro Jodorowsky & Philippe Camoin, 1471-1997, via camoin.com

 

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Of the twenty-two major arcana, The Fool, or “Le Mat” in French, is the first card. It is the only card without a number. The Fool carries a red walking stick and a blue bindle over his shoulder with a beige bag. An animal resembling a dog is behind him, seeming to push him forward. According to The Way of Tarot, The Fool represents a beginning, a journey, total freedom, madness, and a great energy supply. The Fool liberates himself by moving forward and the ground on which he walks is spiritualized, which is indicated by the light blue color. He carries all he needs for his journey: a bindle, which perhaps contains all of his belongings and provisions, the stick itself, which terminates in a kind of long spoon, a walking stick, and the animal, who accompanies him on his adventure. 

 

le fou j berger
Le Fou, Besançon tarot by J. Jerger, 1810, via Sotheby’s

 

The Fool suggests a certain character, much like the hobo of North American subculture. The card depicts a traveler, a beggar, a nomad, or in a spiritual sense, a visionary or prophet. He is a figure without a fixed home who wanders the Earth but who is in danger of wandering around in circles. His costume has bells attached, which suggests that he is a jester or musical figure. His gaze is fixed upwards into the clouds. He is perhaps a dreamer who advances towards the realization of his dreams. He reminds us that the beginning of any journey always involves some kind of advance into the unknown, whereby one must “play the fool” before attaining wisdom and knowledge.   

 

The Lover (VI)

l amoureux the lover tarot de marseille
L’amoureux (The Lover), Tarot de Marseille by Alejandro Jodorowsky & Philippe Camoin, 1471-1997, via camoin.com

 

The Lover is card number six in the major arcana, which is designated by the Roman numeral VI. The card depicts four figures: an angel resembling Cupid, two women, and a man. The woman on the viewer’s left is often interpreted as the mother and the other woman as the spouse. The Lover is perhaps the central figure, though this is open for interpretation. 

 

Like The Fool, the man wears red shoes and his tunic is red and green with a yellow hem and belt. The Fool has advanced here on his journey. It is a relational and ambiguous card that suggests union. There is a choice to be made or perhaps a conflict. The Lover is making a choice, perhaps between two lovers, or he is seeking counsel regarding love. In a therapeutic sense, the card can be interpreted more broadly, not just in the sense of romantic or erotic love, but also love for oneself, the love of one’s work or divine love. 

 

There are numerous details that suggest that the union is between the man and the woman on his left, though the general tone of the card is ambiguous. The woman on the man’s left has her hand over his heart, suggesting that the bond of love is between those two. Also, if we follow the trajectory of the angel’s arrow, it would strike directly between these two figures. What’s more, the arm with the blue sleeve between them can be seen as a kind of “shared” arm, which could belong to either of them (The Way of Tarot).   

 

lucas cranach cupid complaining to venus
Cupid Complaining To Venus by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525, via The National Gallery, London

 

The angel in the Lover card reminds us of Cupid from Classical mythology, who is the son of Venus and the god of love. He is usually depicted as a winged child with a bow and a quiver of arrows.  

 

The Sun (XIX)

le soleil tarot de marseille
Le Soleil (The Sun), Tarot de Marseille by Alejandro Jodorowsky & Philippe Camoin, 1471-1997, via camoin.com

 

The Sun is card nineteen (XIX) in the major arcana and depicts two children underneath a glowing sun with red and yellow rays. The children can be identified as male, and the sun is typically interpreted as a paternal symbol. The children stand in front of a low wall, and one of the children seems to have just crossed a light blue river. The other child is standing on a white patch of ground and appears to be helping and welcoming the other in mutual aid and affection. They are depicted as twins. The one who has crossed has a small tail, and they both have light blue bands girdling their waists.

 

le soleil swiss tarot
Le Soleil, Rochus Schär tarot, or Swiss Tarot, 1750, via Tarot de Marseille Heritage Online 

 

There are similarities between The Sun and The Lover as both depict a central star, or sun, in the sky. We can also see that the twins, like the Lover card figures, have a red band around their necks. The Sun is typically interpreted as a highly positive card that suggests unconditional love, solidarity, and joy, though, like all of the major arcana, it can be interpreted negatively. An excess of sunlight causes aridity, and plant life is unable to grow. We can see a small yellow plant growing by the river in the Tarot de Marseille card, but that is all.     

 

The World (XXI)

Le Monde (The World), Tarot de Marseille by Alejandro Jodorowsky & Philippe Camoin, 1471-1997, via camoin.com

 

The World is numbered twenty-one (XXI) and is the final card in the major arcana. It depicts a dancing woman carrying a wand and a flask, dressed only in a red and blue scarf. She appears inside a blue oval or mandorla. She is surrounded by four symbols: an angel, an eagle, a bull, and a lion. The World card represents a complete realization, the soul of the world dancing in ecstasy while looking back at the journey she has undertaken. Although it is a woman inside the oval, the card suggests the union of energies, between activity and passivity, and between emotional, intellectual, bodily, and creative energies. Between The Fool and The World, all of the other major arcana are contained.

 

four evangelists tost baldachin
Four Evangelists, Ethiopian psalter, 18th Century, via University of St Andrews; with Tost Baldachin, 13th Century, via Museu Nacional d’art de Catalunya

 

The World card contains four symbols outside the oval, as well as the central figure. This design is also found in much religious art. The figure in the center is depicted as a prophet, god, or saint. The four symbols, sometimes called a tetramorph, surround the central, fifth element. In Christian art, the four symbols represent the four evangelists: Luke (the bull), Mark (the lion), John (the eagle), and Matthew (the angel). The bull is a symbol of sacrifice through the act of sublimating animal nature to attain spiritual harmony. The lion is a symbol of creative strength, communication, and heroism. The eagle symbolizes the intellect and refers to the realm of ideas, thought, and abstractions. The angel refers to emotional life, divine love, and serenity.

 

The Spiritual Journey Of The Tarot De Marseille

besancon tarot guillaume mann
Besançon tarot by Guillame Mann, 1795, via Sotheby’s

 

From The Fool and The World, the Tarot de Marseille’s major arcana are presented as a spiritual journey. From the Fool’s first steps towards the realization of dreams to the soul of The World dancing in fullness and ecstasy. The Tarot invites the seeker to begin this journey and to move through the major arcana.    



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By Thomas EllisonThomas works as a writer and lives in Leeds UK. He has a BA and an MPhil in Literature with a focus on poetry. In his spare time, he makes music and has interests in the Tarot, the I Ching, and visual art.