21 Jul Christophe Poncet
Investigating Early Esoteric Uses of the Tarot de Marseille: Serious Game, Oracle, and Talisman
When Court de Gébelin, Etteilla and other savants re-discovered the occult tarot at the end of the 18th century, they referred to the deck known today as the “Tarot de Marseille”, claiming that its design originated from ancient Egypt and that its mysterious trump cards were “hieroglyphs” embedding treasures of sacred wisdom. These claims were subsequently rejected by historians and the dominant theory nowadays is that the tarot was never used, before the 18th century, for anything else than card-playing. This lecture will explore the dissident thesis proposed in 1980 by the great Renaissance scholar Frances A. Yates. For her, the tarot trumps were “hieroglyphs” indeed, but in the sense of the Renaissance, when the tarot flourished and acquired its specific “de Marseille” design. At that time, the Egyptian characters’ meanings were lost since long and Champollion had not yet deciphered the Rosetta stone. Thus, the Egyptian culture was known chiefly through the writings of the mythical Hermes Trismegistus, the famous Corpus hermeticum, a collection of texts mixing philosophy, astrology, alchemy, and magic. Unfortunately, Frances Yates died before she could explore the Tarot de Marseille images. However, our investigation into the twenty-two trump cards, which we expose in various articles and in two book published by Scarlet Imprint (forthcoming in 2023, The Esoteric Tarot – with Peter Mark Adams and César Pedreros – and The Tarot of Marsilio), reveals that indeed, these cards are not mere illustrations of the Renaissance everyday life, as the academic consensus dictates, but work as multilayered enigmas that constitute a progression into the revelation of profound ideas. Would such “hieroglyphs” have been used only to play cards? Our research, documented by numerous texts and images of the Renaissance, leads to three possible concurrent ways of using these cards, which we will successively explore: first, as a serious game to teach philosophy; second, as an oracle to tell the future; third, as a talisman to focus celestial energies.
Hinging between occult and human sciences, Christophe Poncet’s research on the Tarot de Marseille sets the theatre of an initiatory quest.
It started as a fantasy tale: on his 19th birthday his girlfriend offered him a Tarot de Marseille deck. Intrigued by the density of the symbols sedimented in the images, he discovered a strange language. Thus began the allegorical adventure: just like the Fool, Poncet gets off the beaten track of the abundant lore on the origins of the deck and starts afresh from a rigorous iconographical investigation. This leads him to a precise dating and localization of the Tarot de Marseille’s origins: Florence circa 1470, the cradle of the Italian Renaissance.
In parallel with this inquiry, Poncet realized that several arcana stage Platonic myths, like the chariot of the soul or the allegory of the cave.
Looking at the intersection between Renaissance Italy and Platonism, Poncet discovered an unexpected protagonist: Marsilio Ficino, philosopher, mage, and astrologist, the first translator of Plato’s complete works, and the savant who probably lent his first name to the Tarot de Marseille: the Tarot of Marsilio.
Poncet’s research deploys a multi-layered ars combinatoria: at first, it investigates the original texts that inspired the artists’ images; then the philosophical vision awakens the iconic and magical dimension of performative images. This dimension opens the question of the esoteric uses of the deck, originally in the Renaissance and today.
Poncet’s research has led him to produce a documentary film, The Mysteries of the Tarot of Marseille, and to publish articles in academic journals. Forthcoming is the publication of two books by Scarlet Imprint, “The Esoteric Tarot” (with Peter Mark Adams and César Pedreros) and “The Tarot of Marsilio”.
“The Mysteries of the Tarot de Marseille” on YouTube: