Marseille Tarot

Guide to Marseille Tarot |

The Marseille Tarot was the first standardized model for a deck of Tarot cards. It does not refer to a specific deck, but rather to a style of cards. The name can also be written Tarot of Marseille or Tarot de Marseille, as it is a French Tarot deck.

History of The Marseille Tarot Deck

The Chariot Marseilles Tarot |
Le Charior (The Chariot)
Marseille deck by Jean Dodal (c.1715)
Image: Public Domain

The Marseille Tarot deck is a standard pack of 78 Tarot cards, which contains 22 Major Arcana cards and 56 Minor Arcana, which are further subdivided into four Tarot suits. While we think of this model as the standard today, it was not always so.

The name ‘Marseille Tarot’ came about in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the city of Marseille in France became the leading center of Tarot card production. This was because the printers agreed to adopt a standardized model for the cards. The commercial success of these cards, due also in part to improvements in printing techniques which meant more cards could be produced at a lower cost, resulted in the Marseille system spreading rapidly throughout Europe.

However, despite its name, the Marseille model probably originated in Milan before spreading to France and Switzerland. Card makers in Italy, had been making Tarot cards from at least the early 15th century. Many of these early decks, such as the Visconti-Sforza from the 1450s, and Sola Busca in 1491, even had a very similar structure to the Marseille Tarot.

However, the Marseille model gave Tarot a more mature form. It standardized the number of court cards, pip cards (renamed Minor Arcana by occultists) and trump cards (Major Arcana). The decks created by different printers over the year varied in color and detail, but the main iconographic themes and elements remained the same.

The Marseille Tarot was eventually adopted by modern occultists in France and England, helping to transform the Tarot from a simple card game into a form of divination and cartomancy.

What is a Marseille Tarot Deck? Cards Overview

How many cards are in the Marseille Tarot Deck?

There are 78 cards in total.

Marseille Tarot Suits

Bâtons (Batons)
Épées (Swords)
Coupes (Cups)
Deniers (Coins)

Two of Cups Marseille Tarot
Two of Cups Marseille Tarot
Image: Public Domain

Marseille Pip Cards

These count from Ace to 10.

Marseille Court Cards

Valet (Page)
Cavalier (Knight)
Reyne (Queen)
Roy (King)

Marseille Trump Cards

1 LE BATELEUR (The Magician)
2 LA PAPESSE (The Popess)
3 L’IMPÉRATRICE ( The Empress)
4 L’EMPEREUR (The Emperor)
5 LE PAPE (The Pope)
6 L’AMOUREUX (The Lover)
7 LE CHARIOT (The Chariot)
8 LA JUSTICE (The Justice)
9 L’ERMITE (The Hermit)
10 LA ROUE DE FORTUNE (The Wheel Of Fortune)
11 LE PENDU (The Hanged Man)
12 LA FORCE (The Strength)
13 L’ARCANE SANS NOM (Arcane With No Name)
14 TEMPÉRANCE (Temperance)
15 LE DIABLE (The Devil)
16 LA MAISON DIEU (The House of God)
17 L’ETOILE (The Star)
18 LA LUNE (The Moon)
19 LE SOLEIL (The Sun)
20 LE JUGEMENT (The Judgement)
21 LE MONDE (The World)
22 LE FOL or LE MAT (The Fool)

The Fool Card in Marseilles Deck |
Le Fol (The Fool)
Marseille deck by Jean Dodal (c.1715)
Image: Public Domain

The Fool, which is unnumbered in the Marseille Tarot, is viewed as separate and additional to the other twenty-one numbered trumps. This is because it cannot usually win a trick in a card game, and the cards were originally designed for card playing.

Card Design and Famous Marseille Tarot Printers

In the Marseille tradition, the printing of cards began with engraving work. The engraver stenciled images of the cards onto sheets of copper or hardwood. Using this stencil, the figures were printed in black. Once the sheets were dry, a screen was placed on top, and then colors were added one at a time. Generally, the four colors were red, blue, green and brown. The sheets were then cut into cards and covered with a wrapping for sale.

These printers were artisans and passed their stencils and the secrets of their trade from one generation to the next.

Here are some of the most famous printers of the Marseille Tarot:

  • Arnoux (Marseille, 1790-1829)
  • Benoit (Strasbourg, 1751-1803)
  • Nicholas Conver (Marseille, 1760-1890)
  • Joseph Fautrier (Marseille, 1753-1793)
  • Grimaud (Paris, 1748-1950)
  • Madeni (Dijon, 1700-1795)
  • Tourcaty (Marseille, 1701-1809)

Swiss printers include:

  • Rochias (Neuchatel, 1770s-1850)
  • Shaer (Mumliswil, 1730s-1896)

On a traditional Marseille deck, the printer put their signature and date of print on the Two of Pentacles and Two of Cups cards.

By the second half of the 19th century, the shift to mechanical printing processes meant that the card images had lost detail and variety of color. The precious stencils of masters were no longer in demand, and their expertise was lost to time.

Is There an Original Marseille Tarot Deck?

In response to the losses of the 19th century, several attempts were made in the 20th century to restore the color and image detail of the original Marseille cards. But this led to the question, what exactly is the original Marseille model? Many decks had been printed throughout the centuries, and while they all follow the same basic model, there is great variation in fine detail. What model was closest to ‘the real thing’?

Over time, a consensus has formed that the most authentic version is a deck printed in 1760 in Marseille by a printmaker named Nicolas Conver. Many influential books from the late 19th century declare his cards to be the best and most faithful representation of tarot symbols.

Essentially Conver’s deck was the product of four centuries of Tarot development before him.

Which Modern Deck is Most Similar to The Original Marseille Tarot?

Decks of Marseille Tarot can be divided into the following three categories:

Philological Reproductions

These are faithful reprintings of the original older decks. They are photocopies of the original Conver cards which are preserved in libraries and private collections. Their colors are faded, and details are missing, in line with the original cards at this stage. The main market for philological reproductions is for study, research or as a collector’s item. They are of too poor quality for use in a Tarot reading. An example is a photo-reproduction of the complete Conver deck held in the Bibliothèque Nationale, by the French company Héron.

Restored Editions

These decks attempt to restore the 1700s Marseille decks as they were or would have appeared if modern printing techniques had been around. The most popular of these are:

  • The Ancient Tarot de Marseille, published in 1930 by Paul Marteau and the Grimeau Company.
  • The Restored Tarot published in the 1990s by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Philippe Camoin.
  • Tarot of Marseille by Lo Scarabeo, with a reconstructed card missing from the original deck.

These newer decks have fresher colors and clearer lines but are still not completely faithful to Conver’s original.

New Realizations

These are decks based on the Marseille model but containing modifications to colors and images. The creators often include details, according to their own personal ideas. Some argue that the original tarot was conceived by a group of occult secret initiates hundreds of years ago, and that occasional mistakes had crept in. In this vision, later decks such as Conver’s are just degraded copies of the originals, and therefore should be restored to the original symbolic tarot.
One example is The Oswald Wirth Marseille deck, which followed the designs of the Tarot de Marseille closely but introduced several alterations, including occult symbolism, astrology and freemason symbols.

Who Produced The First Marseille Deck?

While Conver’s design is considered the ‘original Marseille’, some historians argue that the first Marseille deck was produced by Francois Chasson who worked in Marseille between 1734 and 1736. The name of the printer and the production date can be seen on the Two of Pentacles. The confusion here, is that the date is written 1C72, which we have to assume must be 1672. The monogram GS also appears on the Chariot and 2 of Pentacles. GS may stand for master printer Guillaume Sellon who worked in Marseille between 1676 and 1715. One theory is that Chasson used the stencil created by Sellon, to produce his deck in 1734.


Influence of Marseille Tarot on English Tarot Design

In the English speaking world, there was no tradition of using Tarot cards as playing cards. Tarot decks only became known and used in the 19th century in England, through the efforts of occultists influenced by French mystics and readers such as Etteilla, and later Eliphas Lévi.

Occultists in England, soon began to produce their own esoteric decks, which reflected their own ideas on the history of Tarot. The primary inspiration for the new style of English decks came from the Golden Dawn, several of its members created tarot decks of their own. Among them was Arthur Edward Waite who created the Rider Waite deck, which became the bestselling tarot deck in the world outside of France.

Waite commissioned an artist named Pamela Colman Smith, to create the artwork for his deck, which was published in 1909. The Rider Waite deck remains close to the structure of the Marseille deck, but also draws symbolism from Egyptian magic, Kabbalah, Christian mysticism, Enochian magic, hermeticism, Celtic revival, alchemy and freemasonry.

In a break with tradition from the Marseille, however, it also added characters to the pip cards. Marseille cards only show a suit surrounded by floral decorations, but Smith drew human figures in landscapes and specific situations.

How To Read The Marseille Tarot Cards

In France, many traditional fortune tellers and cartomancers only use the Major Arcana cards for divination. This is because they find the detail is sufficient for intuitive reading.

However, we have to assume that the Minor Suit has survived all these hundreds of years for a reason. They must contain some useful symbolic insights!

The minor suits in the Marseille deck are very similar to the Rider Waite: coin (pentacle), baton (wand), cup and sword.

Coins represent money, physical and practical concerns.
Batons represent passion, creative pursuits and action
Cups represent emotions and spiritual life
Swords represent the mind, intellect, communication and ideas

When it comes to reading the Marseille deck, there are books available with specific interpretations, such as The Marseille Tarot, A Complete Guide to Symbolism, Meanings and Methods by Yoav Ben-Dov. That said, you can also apply the standard Rider Waite meanings to each card, and that would work just as well. See my list of tarot card meanings for further guidance. Also, how to read tarot cards, a quick starter guide.

Share This Article

Tarot Guide

Karina, author of Tarot in 5 Minutes.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap