Tarot Of Marseille: Its Best-Kept Secrets Revealed

Last updated by Amy Thomas

From a simple card game, medieval historical object to a divination support, the Tarot awakens many curiosities and polemics. From card fans to historians, many people have tried to find out where this set of motif cards comes from. Are you interested in finding out the truth? Then discover here, the secrets behind the Tarot of Marseille.

What is the Tarot of Marseille?

Tarot fans generally agree that ancient Egypt already knew about divinatory card games. The gypsies coming from India would also have made divinatory cards travel to European regions without archaeological excavations, however they have never revealed any tangible clue to support these two theories.

Historians, for their part, have indeed found ancient traces of divination games dating back to antiquity. From Cicero; who in his literature condemned the oracles obtained from randomly drawn tablets, to the illuminated tarot cards of Visconti and Charles VI. This proves the evidence of the existence of divinatory tarot games punctuated history until the appearance of fortune-telling in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Since then, recent theses have linked the Tarot to an ancient Roman iconography associated with the cults of Bacchus, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Dionysus, and to his initiation rituals or to the philosophy of the medieval Cathars.

Regardless of its actual origin, the Tarot has evolved over the centuries adopting various uses. Initially used as an initiatory game, it guides its reader through life. Later, adopted by the Church, it relates the history of religion to the faithful. Then the Tarot becomes a divination tool in its own right, whose blades and colors allow its reader to predict the turn of events in his life.

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Learning about the Tarot of Marseille: What are its origins?

It was in 1375 that the first card games called Naibi appeared in Florence (Italy). Directly imported from China, they were soon banned, as well as all games of chance and money. But in the 15th century, the Tarot reappeared in the form of large cards painted by hand, certainly under the skillful brush of Bonifacio Bembo, who worked for the Visconti and Sforza families, whose arms and mottos can be found on the cards.

Visconti Tarot card

Visconti Tarot card

© wikipédia

Gradually, new maps were added to the initial game that crosses borders. The Tarot cards have a strong symbolic value, certainly originating from Pharaonic Egypt and Freemasonic ideology. It is already sensed as a divinatory oracle while, at the same time, the Tarot is also adopted for a more prosaic use that is the game.

History of Tarot cards: Where do they come from?

Despite what one often hears, the iconography of the Tarot of Marseille cards owes absolutely nothing to India or Egypt. These engravings actually stem from European Christianity, dating back to the Middle Ages.

Originally, tarot cards appeared in Italy in the 15th century. It was a century later that the word tarocchi or tarot appeared in French. The oldest cards were painted for the Visconti family. As for the tarot of Marseille, it has the particularity of having cards with Latin colors and 22 cards with specific allegorical images. From the point of view of the themes found on the cards, the tarot of Visconti-Sforza and those of Marseilles are related.

The symbolism of each blade is strong and full of meaning, they represent characters (The Pope), stars (The Sun) or virtues (Justice). It should be noted that there is also a mixture of Christian religious figures but also pagan, political or mystical figures. As a tool of divination, the tarot known as of Marseilles is thus a mixture of all these figures; Christian, pagan, terrestrial and celestial.

Finally, it is in Rabelais' Gargantua, in 1534, that a reference to the Tarot appears for the first time in France. But it is in 1672 that the oldest tarot, close to the divinatory tarot that we know today, was published by François Chosson.

The Major Arcana

There are 22 assets. Just like in the Middle Ages, they are numbered in Roman numerals. Only the Mast is not. It is, however, associated with Shin, the twenty-first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The Minor Arcana

Four colors structure the minor arcana:

  • Stick
  • Cup
  • Sword
  • Denier

It is these same colors that gave birth to the traditional Tile, Heart, Spades and Clubs that we know today in the more classic games. The use of these arcanas can make the game more difficult to play and even more difficult to read. However, the minor arcana are excellent indicators when it comes to specifying events.


Originally, the Tarot cards had the colors green, red, blue, black, flesh, yellow, orange and gold. With the emergence of printing, the cards were made on an industrial basis and green disappeared from the palette. However, this did not affect the highly symbolic character of the Tarot cards, where red represents action, blue expresses passivity, black symbolizes evil and the unconscious, the flesh color reveals life and matter, yellow evokes the mind and creativity, orange announces concretization, and gold appeals to the divine and the light of the spirit.

There you have it, now you know all about the origins and the history of the Tarot of Marseille.

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Article presented by Amy Thomas

Tarot expert - I’ve been passionate about Tarot ever since I was a teenager and my love for Tarot hasn’t ever gone away. Reading people’s cards and revealing what lies ahead for them is an absolute joy for me.

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