Wheels Within Wheels: Tarot de Marseille Patterns

In his Tarot de Marseille course material (later published in book form as Reading the Marseille Tarot), Jean-Michel David proposed laying out the pip cards in novel patterns to see what visual hints to their interpretation might be gained from the various combinations. Over the last few years I’ve made a handful of serious attempts at doing this, three of which I’m presenting in this essay.

The most recent effort comes from my current re-reading of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Way of Tarot, in which he recommends using the World card as an interpretive template for understanding the entire deck (he calls it an “orientation model”). He describes the four “holy living creatures” at the corners of the card as showing the four archetypal pillars of the physical Universe — Lion (Fire and the suit of Batons); Angel (Water and the suit of Cups); Eagle (Air and the suit of Swords); Bull (Earth and the suit of Coins) — with the naked woman at the center of the mandorla (almond-shaped aureola) standing for the fifth element, aether or Spirit, and also for the human factor within the matrix of impersonal forces. His view is that the World depicts the fullness of manifestation, with the Fool as the initiating spark and the intervening trump cards as the “way of becoming” (my term, not his) leading from the sublime abstraction to the mundane realization. In this model, Jodorowsky assigns the four sets of pip and court cards to the four elemental archetypes but doesn’t similarly align the trump cards because he doesn’t buy into the elemental and astrological correspondences tacked onto them by esoteric revisionists (something I usually steer clear of myself when using the TdM).

However, I think something of value can be gained by expanding the reach of this concept using the Ptolemaic elemental, zodiacal and planetary symbolism ascribed to the trumps by later scribes to correlate them to the four “root” principles. (Note that I don’t entirely agree with all of these arcane assumptions, but that’s a subject for another essay.) In this paradigm, the classical Primary Elements of Fire, Water and Air are represented by Judgement (which also doubles as Spirit), the Hanged Man and the Fool, respectively, while Earth is considered an impure amalgam of the other three that is attributed by some to the World (paralleling its more common connection to Saturn). The twelve signs are arranged as follows: Fire signs Aries, Leo and Sagittarius are given to the Emperor, Fortitude and Temperance; Water signs Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces belong to the Chariot, the “Nameless Arcanum” (Death ) and the Moon; Air signs Gemini, Libra and Aquarius are matched to The Lover, Justice and the Star; Earth signs Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn accrue to the Pope, the Hermit and the Devil. The seven traditional planets Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn underlie the Sun, the Priestess (Papesse), the Juggler, the Empress, the Tower, the Wheel of Fortune and the World, in that order. The photograph below captures my first shot at creating a coherent display.

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Copyright, US Games Systems, Stamford, CT

At first glance, the pattern seems asymmetrical and unbalanced, with two “arms” (Air and Earth) containing four cards, one (Water) holding five cards and a fourth (Fire) having seven cards. The Fool and the World dwell in the center of the configuration as the Alpha and Omega of the philosophical architecture, together with the four extremities suggesting the five-fold range of human experience. Upon close examination, we see that the Fool also has a correspondence to elemental Air, giving that sequence a larval fifth card, and the World further denotes Earth, providing an embryonic fifth component to that progression. The seven-card Fire arm has a surplus of energetic planetary influences (Sun, Mars and Jupiter), but Mars relates strongly to the Emperor and the Sun to Fortitude so I have subordinated them, leaving a five-card progression with “qualifiers.” I spread out the four court cards for each arm but left the pip cards stacked with the Ace on top due to lack of space.

Now it gets really interesting. The first four numbered trump cards (the Fool is historically unnumbered) act as “portals” to each of the elemental arms in a counterclockwise rotation: the Juggler as Gemini opening outward from the Eagle of intellect; the Papesse as the Moon conveying the inspiration of the Angel into the realm of feeling; the Empress as Venus invoking the Bull of sensation on the physical plane; and the Emperor as Mars (extrapolated from Aries) delivering the potency of the Lion to the domain of ambition and desire. (King Richard I [“the Lionheart”] of England comes to mind.)

We might make a “story” of each branch of the layout. The Juggler(dogged by the Fool) evolves into the Lover, Justice and the Star, implying that the immature, fickle and indecisive “lover-boy,” after some serious deliberation and perhaps more than a little soul-searching, will ultimately make an inspired choice. The Papesse unfolds into the Chariot, the Hanged Man, Death and the Moon, hinting at a high-minded campaign that falters, then collapses in failure and obscurity (the “higher” and “lower” vibrations of the Moon bookend the sequence). The Empress (shadowed by the World) unpacks into the Pope, the Hermit and the Devil, bringing to mind the aphorism “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” as she is led astray by conventional values. The Emperor, goaded by martial ambitions, kicks off a “crapshoot” with the Wheel of Fortune, Fortitude, Temperance and Judgement, making me think he will take a strategic “leap of faith” but rashly overreach in his arrogance and wind up having to “pay the piper” by agreeing to an accord that leaves him with little room to maneuver. (I call Judgement the “offer you can’t refuse” card.) You can undoubtedly make up your own stories, and this is by no means the only way to arrange the trumps on Jodorowsky’s framework.

The second, slightly older application of David’s suggestion is even more complex. Before anyone flees for the exit, this 78-card extravaganza is NOT a spread for divination, it’s a systematic way to assign interpretive meaning to the suit cards of the Tarot de Marseille (TdM) by “borrowing” it from the “trump” cards of the same number (up to a point).

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Le Veritable Tarot de Marseille, Copyright Kris Hadar, Editions de Mortagne

Finding meaning in the numbered small (or “pip”) cards of the TdM, with their nondescript suit symbols and formulaic ornamentation, is a daunting task for those weaned on the suggestive scenic minors of the Waite-Smith deck, or even the semi-scenic suit cards of the Thoth deck. While it is possible to import aspects of the elemental and numerical symbolism developed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn to alleviate this situation, experienced TdM practitioners — when they aren’t trying to impart significance to the quantity and condition of the leaves, flowers and tendrils in the ornamentation — have hit upon the idea of relating the nature of the 22 trump cards to the pips of their corresponding number, sometimes referred to as the “Pips-as-Trumps” method. For example, the Magician (the first numbered trump) has a meaningful relationship to all of the Aces, the first cards of their respective suits, since both convey the idea of “drawing power from above” with the goal of manifesting it. This innovation works well as far as it goes — which is up to the tenth trump, the Wheel of Fortune — after which it breaks down (unless one subscribes to Jodorowsky’s “decimal equivalents”).

With the “Pips-as-Trumps” model in mind, I started by laying out all the trumps in two lines (Magician through Wheel of Fortune above and Hanged Man through World below), with Fortitude centered between the two lines as a kind of “fulcrum” for the cards above and a “sky hook” for those below. This brings Trump XI into high focus. It sits at the divide between the Pope (V) and the Lover (VI) above, and the Tower (XVI) and the Star (XVII) below. I noticed that 5+6=11, while 16–11=5 and 17–11=6; this creates a numerological resonance between these five cards, centered on the pivotal number Eleven. Furthermore, the balanced pairs on either side add to 11: Emperor + Chariot; Empress + Justice; Papesse + Hermit and Magician + Wheel of Fortune. But the most interesting revelation was that subtracting 11 from all of the trumps below (Hanged Man through World) yields the number of the trump card immediately above in the upper row (12–11=1, 13–11=2, 14–11=3, 15–11 =4, etc). This brings the cards in the lower tier into the fold by giving them a secondary correspondence to the numbers One through Ten.

Fortitude becomes a kind of “conductor” or “translator” linking the energies of the first ten trumps to the last ten. If the Magician is, in Aleister Crowley’s words, an expression of “Energy sent forth” into the realm of the four elements, and the “electric charge which is the first manifestation of the ring of ten indefinable ideas” (the ten “emanations” which underlie the meaning of the Minor Arcana), the Hanged Man reflects a submergence/emergence cycle from which a new direction arises (similar to the transition from the Ten of one suit to the Ace of the next as a “new beginning”). The image suggests a “cocoon” suspended from a branch, awaiting metamorphosis, or in Jodorowsky’s analogy, a fetus descending into the birth canal. Esoterically, Crowley considered this a card of initiatory redemption rather than sacrifice, a state of darkness in which “the serpent of new life begins to stir.”

To continue in a less lofty vein, I then lined up all the pip cards (Ace through 10) with the two rows of trumps, placing the active, assertive, “hard” suits above and the passive, receptive, “soft” suits below.

The upper pips (Batons and Swords) line up directly with the “Pips-as-Trumps” model, and the lower pips (Cups and Coins) can be related to the same model by subtracting 11 from the second-line trumps directly above them. In use, I would relate two trump cards to each of the ten pips: the Aces would echo some of the qualities of both the Magician and the Hanged Man; the Twos would align with the Papesse and Death; the Threes correspond to the Empress and Temperance; and so forth. All of this gave me a new appreciation for the significance of Trump XI (or at least the number 11, although Agrippa certainly didn’t think much of it, saying “this number hath no communion with divine or celestial things, nor any attraction, or scale tending to things above; nor hath it any reward;” fortunately I discount most “divine” implications in numerology so I’m not fazed in the least). I have yet to work out all of the connections in practical terms, since they are less intuitive than the numerological approach of the original model. At this point, I’ll resort to Crowley’s clever escape and just say “work out for oneself the correspondences” between the symbolism of the paired trumps and the associated pips.

Next, for no other reason than completeness and not as an elaboration of the “Pips-as-Trumps” paradigm, I put the more active court cards, Valets and Cavaliers, to the left at the low-numbered end of the pip sequences, thereby acknowledging that the Aces are the most energetically potent expression of each suit’s elemental force, and the Queens and Kings at the other end, with the understanding that the Tens represent the most established manifestation of that same power. This perception is reinforced by the fact that the Valets and Knights are standing and mounted, respectively, while the Queens and Kings are both seated on thrones.

Finally, I placed the Fool off to the left and centered between the “above” and “below,” envisioning it as a kind of precursor or “mentor” for Trump XI. It’s a little imaginative, but it’s giving me good food for thought. Right now I’m thinking I might swap Batons and Swords so the descending series would flow as “head, hands, heart” and . . . umm, “hoof?” (suggesting animal instincts).

What I’m doing here has a certain numerological integrity and structural elegance, but it’s far off the beaten path. It may ultimately amount to nothing more than an engaging curiosity, but I’m of the belief that there are no coincidences when it comes to tarot. As the late, lamented Yoav Ben-Dov was fond of saying ,“Everything is a sign.”

The third expression of David’s idea is much simpler and probably of less practical use but it does demonstrate another inventive way to “skin the cat.” Recently, I was reading an informative article about the meaning of the Masonic “square and compass(es)” that explains them as being symbolic of Euclid’s 47th problem, “Squaring the Circle,” and the associated idea of synthesizing the spiritual and physical natures. The circle is produced by the compasses and represents the soul, while the tetragon signifying the body is created with the carpenter’s framing square; bringing the two together yields the “squared circle.”


In pondering how these ideas might be put to use in tarot terms, I decided to lay out the TdM court and pip cards into a “wedge” pattern that is built upon the shape of the Masonic square, following a “zig-zag” progression from the Ace at the point to the court cards along the outer edge. I repeated this four times, once for each suit.

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All images copyright U.S. Games Systems, Inc, Stamford, CT

I have no clue what I’m going to do with this array in a practical sense, but the numerology provides interesting food for thought. The Ace represents the Monad and stands alone. The first diagonal rank outward contains the Two and Three, which add to Five, suggestive of the Pope/Hierophant; the second diagonal rank includes the Four, Five and Six, which add to Fifteen, the Devil and reduce to Six, the Lover(s); the third diagonal rank holds the Seven, Eight, Nine and Ten, which add to Thirty-four and reduce to Seven, the Chariot. The final diagonal rank is populated by the unnumbered court cards, which were included for completeness.

The ten pip cards add to Fifty-five and reduce to Ten, offering the Wheel of Fortune as the “last word” on the extension of the series (whose number, as Pythagoras noted, embodies the Four by addition). This card implies the encompassing “circle” (with the Ace of the suit as its “trigger” or “lever”) surrounding the Five, Six and Seven, which themselves can be construed as signifying the “fixed” decans of the Chaldean astrological sequence (in other words, the mundane “square within the circle”). It’s also worth noting that Five, Six and Seven add to Eighteen, the number of the Moon and another expression of the circle. Adding the Ace (+1) to the sum yields the Sun, the angular diameter of which is nearly identical to that of the Moon; bracketing the Wheel of Fortune with the Sun and Moon cards suggests the elongated rotational movement of the cosmic lemniscate.

I can make a fanciful story out of these five “quintessence” cards: the Pope piously marries the two Lovers “after a time or a few times” (as Monty Python once described the courtship of “Princess Mitzi” and “Prince Walter,” clearly the salacious purview of the Devil). Then they head out on their honeymoon (the Chariot) cheered on by the wedding guests (the court cards). Upon returning, they enter their marital adventure with a “spin of the Wheel” (of Fortune). Perhaps, depending on the type of encounter being contemplated (creative, romantic, intellectual or commercial), I could turn each of these patterns into a form of four-tiered relationship development spread that projects the likelihood of the venture coming successfully to fruition.

Although I’m not convinced that I have arrived at anywhere particularly useful with these visual exercises, the journey was certainly enjoyable and compelling, and it bears out David’s assumption that apparently random arrangements of the cards can reveal unexpected insights into their reciprocal significance when encountered in a reading (perhaps best illustrated by the story-telling “side-trips” in the foregoing narrative). What remains is to actually employ these maps in the service of divination to see where they take me. I suspect they will not be the last of my initiatives in this direction.

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at www.parsifalswheeldivination.com.

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