The Ancient Origins of the Marseille Tarot
The Marseille Tarot is the result of one or more attempts to copy imagery in Sumerian and Babylonian cylinder seals and other artefacts from that civilization. Theosophical Society founder Helena Blavatsky said as much in her correspondence -- although she didn't specify the Marseille deck, probably because, in nineteenth century Paris, she didn't think she needed to.
The seals themselves are mostly illustrations of myths.
Newcomers to the Tarot seek information about it in the same, all too familiar, places: the countless books and, of course, more recently, online sources that purport to explain it and, very often, instruct in how to use it intuitively or psychically. They read the same tired facts -- including the non sequitur that the Marseille can't be the original design because the oldest surviving Tarot deck specimens so far discovered are examples of artistically more sophisticated variations -- and the same, just-exotic-enough-sounding, names recited: Visconti Sforza, Court de Gebelin, Eliphas Levi, and so on.
If inclined they will pursue the ostensibly magical side of it, elaborating on writings of the nineteenth century French occult revival and its descendants, and find asserted connections to Egypt. They may find this material intriguing enough to keep them happy for a lifetime. (None of this is to argue against such pursuits, if that's all you want.) The reductionism of others will land them in the tarocchi camp, the denizens of which are sure it was just a card game.
It is easy to understand the reluctance of someone who has invested so much in this one riddle, and finds it so rewarding, to accept evidence that much of it has been solved, although it might be more positive to see it as liberating, if only considering how many other genuine mysteries are yet to be plumbed. At the other extreme, the last mentioned faction, the reductive gamers, overlook the limitation of Occam's Razor: that notions of simplicity are themselves culturally imposed. The Tarot's ultimate origins are far older than they seem able to cope with, and the reasons for its survival at all into our era are a matter of the meanings of the myths, which some think valuable.
Imagine yourself in some country in sixteenth or, perhaps, seventeenth century Europe that will probably never be identified. You, a peasant, and some of your friends have been going through the garbage of a baron who is said to be a member of a mystical secret society. Amid the gnawed hedgehog and quail bones and spoiled frumenty, you find a drawing that looks a lot like this:
Detail of a cylinder seal, 990-660 BCE, showing a priest of the god Adad (Akkadian; Sumerian Ishkur) dancing ecstatically. Currently in the British Museum.
What is it? You have no idea, but you suspect it is important. You believe that you too have a soul, and you want to know what the baron and his mystical friends know. You're going to take all this stuff home, and try to make sense of it.
Some of it is in writing. You can't read, of course, but there's this monk you know who is having an affair with a woman who sells fish in the market, and you threaten to expose him to his prior unless he tells you what it says. He tells you that it includes a lot of stories -- weird, scary, stories of heathen gods. One is about a pair of angels in Babylon, Harut and Marut, who mocked humans for their frailty, and were sent to Earth to find out what it's like. Bad things happened, leading them to do worse; finally, they had to choose a punishment: eternal later, or temporary now. Being pragmatic angels, they chose the latter.
Their sentence? To hang, upside down, inside a well until the end of time.
With this scenario in mind, you go back to the picture. At least now, you think, you know which is the top and which is the bottom. And you make a copy for your friends:
The Hanged Man from the Marseille Tarot.
Unlike the Sumero-Babylonian stories of the Tower of Babel and the Flood, the Harut and Marut tale didn't make it into the Hebrew Bible. It was, however, preserved in the Islamic tradition.
One of the most famous cylinder seals shows the sun god Shamash (Sumerian Utu) rising, with other deities nearby.
An Arabic word for sun is sahar. A different word, but from the same root, suhara, means "magician".
The Magician from the Marseille Tarot.
How a representation of the sun coming up came to be called The Magician may be explained by a study of how words in one language can be misunderstood when they are either (a) received intact but considered out of context by speakers of another language, or (b) mutilated in transmission: what is sometimes called "Chinese whispers". Much of my book, Mirror of the Free (O-Books, 2011), which also contains many more illustrations like the ones just given, is about likely instances of words intelligible in their original context becoming the names of the Tarot cards.
The link between the Mesopotamian sources and the material in Arabic and Hebrew is partly in what some linguists hypothesize was those languages' common Protosemitic origin. It is widely accepted that many ancient literatures contain concealed meanings, which are, nevertheless, penetrable if you know the code. Sometimes the most obvious level amounts to punning.
I realize there are always some who roll their eyes at any suggestion of what they disparagingly call "hidden meanings". To them I reply, simply, that all meanings are hidden – until they aren't.
Many, at least, of the myths depicted on the cylinder seals seem to be allegorical expressions of teachings that today would be considered within the realm of Sufism and the Fourth Way, as well as of modern scientific discoveries about the mind. Sufi literature in Arabic and Persian (the Persians having adopted the Arabic script, and absorbed countless Arabic words) also uses more complex methods, one of which depends on the fact that the consonantal roots of Arabic produce clusters of meanings, and yet further clusters when the consonants are rearranged.
To the best of my knowledge, I am the first to have the idea of applying the same method to passages in the Hebrew Bible, which I did on the premise that meanings in Hebrew have been altered by exposure to foreign cultures. Until the spread of Islam, the Arabs were relatively isolated, so if classical Arabic preserved the correspondences in Protosemitic, the same method ought to yield coherent results when applied to the old Hebrew stories. To be clear, then, and as outrageous as it may sound, I treat the key words in the Bible passages as if they are not Hebrew, but Arabic. Mirror of the Free tells what I found, in addition to showing how the cylinder seals became the cards, and exploring the meanings behind the stories behind the seals behind the cards. It looks at puzzling passages in Gurdjieff's writing, and addresses the sefiroth of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. In view of all the other evidence, it seems, for instance, unlikely to be a coincidence that the permeating power there is called Da'ath (knowledge), and that the Arabic for "essence", what is meant by the triangle in the Sufi enneagram, is dhat.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, to go even further, when decoded using these methods turns out to be an allegory of the stages of transformation of the self, according to Sufism. In his wildness, Gilgamesh's friend Enkidu, in fact, represents something very close to the meaning of Jacob's brother Esau in Genesis.
Featured Image: An Akkad period (2250 BCE) cylinder seal showing Shamash rising [centre], with other deities.