The Spirit of the Tarot
The Search for God's Picturebook


Tarot cards evolved in Europe during the 14th century as a game. There is some evidence that similar cards were used earlier. A few researchers note that the images for the Trumps are more typical of the 11th or 12th century than later. While unclear who selected the images, the iconography is drawn from the Church, the Court, and common stories at the time.

Playing cards arrived in Europe from China and the Middle East. Before printing was established, the cards were individually painted, as with the Visconti Sforza deck from the 15th century.  These cards tend to follow an emerging convention of standard images, although not always.

The Visconti Sforza deck is one of the oldest packs, with different cards held by different museums. Below is an early image of The Magician.  According to Michael Pearce, he is dressed as an Italian scholar wearing red apparel and has the typical writing tools of the day spread across the table. Michael Dummett describes him as le bateleur, a mountebank or juggler, with his wares on the table (The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards, 1986, p 102). The similarities between the Visconti Sforza card and the later Jean Noblet Magician card are obvious.

As playing cards became increasingly popular, a standard set of cards still in use today emerged in Europe, with Marseilles in southern France becoming  a significant  center for their production.  The cards were printed using woodblocks (pear, apple, pine), cut to size,  then if colored,  stencils were used. The process followed how holy cards depicting saints were printed.

The Tarot deck combines two sets of cards: the 22 “trump” cards  and one card, a Fool; and the “playing” cards, consisting of 4 sets of  “pip” cards (1 – 10) and court cards  (king, queen, knight, page), for a total of 78 cards. These were used to play a card game like Bridge called tarrochio.

When condemned by authorities, their use as a game  were lumped together with other games (bowling, for example) or gambling related activities, beginning in the 14th century.

A study that provides an endorsement by a Catholic leader is Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. First published as anonymous, the author’s name emerged after his death: the Estonian- Russian Christian mystic Valentin Tomberg. (1900-1973). The work ends with a commentary by Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar supporting the work on the Tarot and Hermetic Christianity. 

Wilfried Houdouin, French graphic designer and author, writes: “the so-called Marseille Tarot does not impose or require in the first place any specific cultural prerequisite, not even a particular type of education. By virtue of its archetypal nature, it addresses what is at the heart of each of us: our very evolutionary code, which proceeds from archetypal, noumenal powers, which transcend the material, phenomenal manifestation, but which are underlying all facets of humanity, and of the Great Cosmic Jewel (keeping in mind the “Jewel Theory” of Nima Arkani-Hamed who geometrically reformulates the quantum fields’ theory) sparkling with its infinite nuances, playing with the fluidity of shadows and lights on the great cosmic tapestry.” (Tarot of Marseilles – The Fundamentals: The Fundamentals of History, Symbolism, and Practice of the Philosopher’s Tarot, 2021.)

The images that came to be considered archetypes have broad and specific associations. Extensive study of the Marseille Tarot in the 20th and 21st century has led a greater understanding of the cards evolution and  to a variety of interpretations of their origin.


Ace of Cups and Ace of Swords, from Tarot of Marseilles Millennium Edition, Wilfried Houdouin, 2022. Houdouin applies extensive research and the practice of sacred geometry to create beautiful cards in the Marseille tradition. Copyright Wilfried Houdouin.  Used with permission.  An excellent version of the deck has recently been published. 

Below, a modern interpretation of  XI Strength, by surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, Tarot of Leonora Carrington, Fulgur Press, 2020. © 2023 Estate of Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

  • Paul Marteau’s Le Tarot de Marseille is published by Arts et Metiers Graphiques in 1949, a year after the author’s death. This straight forward work by a Grand Master Cardmaker of France  laid the foundation for subsequent research into the Tarot of Marseilles. From the introduction: “The tarot is a set of images, that symbolically expresses the work, man needs to undergo in his evolution. In other words, to his purpose, what is inscribed in his destiny. An evolution that will require struggles, efforts, joys and sufferings according to whether or not, he agrees with the universal laws.” (English translation by Marius Hognesen, 2021. p 25)
  •  Wilifried Houdouin created the Millennium Edition Tarot based on intensive study and applying sacred geometry to their design.  He finds far reaching meaning to the discovery, linking the philosophy and artistic technique to centuries old traditions. To contribute to further and accurate study of the Tarot, he and Yves Reynaud  have published a number of heritage decks.
  • Alejandro Jodorowsky, one of the many colorful personalities taken with Tarot, came to believe that the only real form of Tarot was created in Marseilles. All deviations are “inglorious bastards.” He spent many years recreating a near perfect deck. The film director is quoted as saying, “The tarot is sacred. It’s all a game.” Jodorowsky and Marianne Costa provide the insight from their years of study to the use of the cards in their book The Way of Tarot: The Spiritual Teacher in the Cards, along with a Tarot deck based on their research.
  • The crayfish (lobster) that appears on the Moon card is identical to the image of the zodiac that is on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Raylene Abbott in The Hidden Magdalene in the Tarot de Marseille (2019) points out other images that correspond to the traditions of Mary Magdalene in the South of France, the Knights Templars, and the Gnostic teachings of the Cathars. Hermetic Christianity was influential.
  • A 21st century Torah scholar, Stav Appel, found stories from the Torah in the Major Arcana, providing a convincing interpretation  that crypto Jews had been involved in the design, creating the Torah in the Tarot. Each card matches a  story from Jewish tradition. For example, Le Pendu, the Hanged Man, illustrates the story of Purim, with Haman, first minister of Persia,  hanged on the tree he prepared for Mordechai. 
  • Leonora Carrington’s paintings of the Major Arcana  of the Tarot were first shown at a retrospective exhibition in Mexico City in 2018. Carrington often used images that reflected the Tarot in her work according to  Susan Aberth and Tere Arcq in  The Tarot of Leonora Carrington, Fulgur Press, p 63. Her cards, created over a period of years, essentially follow and adapt the Marseille tradition. Members of the surrealist movement, attracted to magic, the occult, and the unconscious, especially as coordinated by Andre Breton,  created Tarot cards or used them as a theme. Other surrealists who created Tarot cards include Roberto Matto,  Ithell Colquhoun, and Salvador Dali.
MagicianVisconti Sforza Tarocchi Deck

Pierpoint Morgan Visconti Sforza Tarocchi Deck, U.S. Games Systems, 1975-2007. Tarot images used with permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902.  c. by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.  All rights reserved.

The Torah in the Tarot, Stav Appel, Forgotten Secrets, 2019 (Major Arcana, reproduction of Jean Noblet’s cards). Copyright Stav Appel.  Used with permission.

Jean Noblet Tarot de Marseille, Recreation of one of the oldest Tarot decks by Jean Noblet around 1650. William Rader and Krisztin Kondor,  Artisan Tarot, 2022. ( Used with permission.

Jean Noblet Tarot de Marseille, Recreation of one of the oldest Tarot decks by Jean Noblet around 1650. William Rader and Krisztin Kondor,  Artisan Tarot, 2022.( Used with permission.

“If you have experienced the tarot, you know that it moves you, it moves you in the same sense that if you get into a church or a cathedral, you feel moved. Even if you were not religious, even if you don’t believe in God. So my suspicion is that the wisdom that is being passed on in the tarot is craftsmanship.”

Enrique Enriquez in Chris Deleo’s Tarology, 2012, minute 103. Not a believer in occult or spiritual meanings to the cards.