the card that didn't exist
Several years ago in Marseille, a city I visited often in my twenties, a cousin of a cousin gave me a tarot reading. Valérie’s building stood on a seam of rock close to Notre Dame de la Garde, a white basilica on a limestone outcrop. It was nighttime. The basilica’s gilt Madonna bathed in a cone of light. Below us, the city drew in the dark sea through the rectangle of the Vieux Port, where we’d met earlier at a bar. Valérie, a primary-school teacher, was new to Marseille. She’d arrived at the bar, which was soviet-themed, with a death metal hoodie pulled over her work dress; and told me, as we drank Pastis, that she’d lately been frequenting an esoteric cult who believed that the twenty-two Major Arcana of the Marseille Tarot were based upon a series of predictions made by Mary Magdalen, who, according to popular legend, had come to Marseille after the crucifixion. I’d never heard this. My uncle (unrelated to Valérie), whom I came to Marseille to visit the most, made reference to tarot not as a divinatory tool steeped in Christian mysticism but as a card game: le tarot. But he was a communist atheist, so what did he know? I knew very little about tarot myself; with no awareness then that there existed many different decks, of which the Marseille pattern is among the oldest, with secretive provenance and meaning.
After an uphill walk, during which we paused against a security grille still warm from the day to smoke hash, Valérie guided me to lay a simple spread of cards on the floor of her apartment. When I flipped the one meant to symbolize my future it was almost entirely black. It was “Le Néant” — Nothingness. She hesitated, then tried to spin it positively, saying that it constituted a screen upon which infinite desires could be projected. But at every breakup or jobless rut in the years since it’s come to mind. Then someone I loved died, and after surprising myself by speaking about the card in grief counselling I searched for it online. I couldn’t find it. There is no Néant in the deck of the Marseille Tarot.
Last month I emailed Valérie. When she didn’t write back, I searched for her cult. I googled tarot marseille marie madeleine in English and French. I used my university library platform, and found what looked like a readable book about the Marseille Tarot by the filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. I searched old emails and found the name of the group she’d mentioned: Parousia. From entries on their blog I pieced together their story of the tarot’s origins.
According to Parousia, upon Jesus’ crucifixion, which took place at the dawn of the Age of Pisces, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalen and John the Divine wept shamelessly together at Golgotha. After the resurrection, which Magdalen witnessed, the three converged upon a conviction to spread the message of Christ. Each carried this out in their own fashion: the virgin with sporadic appearances on earth, St. John by dictating the Book of Revelation from Patmos, and Magdalen, known in medieval times as the apostle of apostles, by evangelizing southern Gaul.
Magdalen’s journey to Marseille is a tale of providence. At Palestine, amid the first wave of Christian persecutions, Magdalen, along with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus, Joseph of Arimathea, who carried the chalice, Maximin, one of the seventy-two disciples, and a servant girl named Marcella was forced into a dinghy with neither rudder, sail, nor oars, and cast adrift in the Mediterranean. Miraculously, the boat washed ashore at Marseille, then called Massalia, a trading port colonized by Phocaea in 600 BC. The city’s inhabitants worshipped Artemis of Ephesus, but Magdalen and her cohort preached the resurrection and converted many before travelling inland. Magdalen’s last thirty years were spent in solitude on the outskirts of Saint-Maximin la Sainte Baume, a Provençale village, where she sat in a cave and wept at man’s lack of deference toward God.
Parousia, the cult, goes on to link Magdalen to the Marseille Tarot via the Roman anchorite John Cassian, who came to Provence after travels in Palestine and Egypt. Cassian is known for founding Marseille’s Abbaye Saint-Victor in 415, and in so doing, for introducing the practice of Eastern monasticism to the West. According to Parousia, Cassian was fascinated with Magdalen and committed himself to carving a flight of steps to her mountain cave as a pathway for the faithful. Hearing of twenty-two prophetic homilies that Magdalen spoke while in Marseille, Cassian—who’d learnt of a mysterious card game while meditating in the desert—set about representing these pictorially, eventuating in the Tarot of Marseille’s twenty-two Major Arcana.
Intrigued to know more about tarot, I watched some YouTube videos linked to Parousia’s blog. I started to realize that the energetic man giving the presentations, a self-described physicist from Marseille, was probably the sole content writer. Illustrated by simple pictograms, his lectures, mostly on esotericism, concocted complex imbrications of Neoplatonism, numerology, Pythagorean decimals, Hesiod’s Ages of Man, the Book of Revelation, religious caste systems, helicoidal time-space models, and astrology; animated by favorable views of the Gauls, Celtic chivalry and social hierarchies; belief in the lost city of Atlantis; and fierce critiques of banking and finance (associated with the number 666), democracy, journalism, the “Sino-American empire”, capitalism, the European Renaissance, protestants, antifa, the gilets jaunes, leftists of all stripes, and Marxists. Footage from a conference he attended in London showed panels of men in black tails, chandeliers visible in the reflection of tarnished mirrors. The other speakers were Alain de Benoist, a figure of the French “New Right” that emerged in reaction to May ‘68, and Aleksandr Dugin, an advisor to Putin known for his “Eurasian” ideology. I remembered Valérie, laughing bizarrely at the bar in Marseille, flippantly assuring me that the cult was not facho. It looked like it was, in fact, facho. My Marseille mystery was over. That’s what you get, I told myself, when you begin from an irrational point; when you chase a tarot card that doesn’t even exist. The mystic promise of it—the idea that there could be more than what there appears to be—turns up nothing but a collection of fascists.
But was the stuff about Mary Magdalen and the Tarot true?
Parousia’s Magdalen-in-Marseille story recovers Magdalen as she was known in the Middle Ages—as a venerated Saint. More precisely, it conforms to a narrative popularized during the eleventh century, which historian Katharine Ludwig Jansen names the “vita apostolica-eremitica” for its splicing of two post-conversion accounts of Magdalen’s life: active/apostolic and contemplative/hermitic respectively. Jansen, who explores late medieval devotion to Mary Magdalen, describes her popularity in Provence at the time as so rife that the up-and-coming Angevin dynasty intentionally adhered itself to her: in 1279, Saint Mary Magdalen’s relics were “discovered” in a sarcophagus found at the church at Saint-Maximin; an exhumation presided over by Charles, Prince of Salerno, future King of Naples. Charles’ quest to find Magdalen’s remains was motivated by his insight that to ally an already-beloved local saint to his parvenu house, the Angevins, would reinforce their claim to rule.
Magdalen’s position in the church has fluctuated over the years. A series of assaults on her legacy, beginning with a theological tract by Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples in 1517, led to the piecemeal downgrade of her status. Jansen points out that once the humanist practice of textual criticism developed in the early modern period—a technique that bolstered Protestant determination to unseat the cult of the saints—the cobbled-together legends that had composed Mary Magdalen into an apostolic figure no longer held up. Last century, in 1969, the Roman calendar was reformed, after which it was decided that Magdalen would be demoted to “disciple” only. In 2016, however, with an eye to appeasing female congregants in the proto #MeToo era, Pope Francis re-elevated Magdalen’s July 22 Saint’s day to a Feast, on par with festivities accorded each apostle.
Jansen’s scholarly book on Magdalen doesn’t mention the Marseille Tarot. The filmmaker Jodorowsky’s book on tarot doesn’t mention Mary Magdalen. On a blog called Perfettoletizia, Italian for “perfect joy”, I read this: “There is a very harmful supposition, which should be discounted, that [tarot] originated in ancient Egypt and was taken up by Mary Magdalene and her Gnostic followers, to be subsequently introduced into Europe by St John Cassian”. Reading further, I came to see that the origins of the Marseille Tarot constitute an aporia from which proliferates a mesh of inconsistent narratives. The name itself allows multiple etymologies: “The word Tarot would be Egyptian (tar: way; ro, rog: royal); Indo-Tartar (tan-tara: zodiac); Hebrew (torah: law); Latin (rota: wheel; orat: speak); Sanskrit (tat: the whole; tar-o: fixed star); Chinese (Tao: the indefinable principle); and so forth,” Jodorowsky says. Yoav Ben-Dov, who published the first study of tarot in Hebrew, suggests a link between tarot and sixteenth-century Italian for “fool”, taroccho, for its double significance: the folly of fortunetelling or gambling, and the “The Fool” as the only unnumbered Arcanum. Perfettoletizia (the “harmful supposition” blog) embraces wilder ideas: tarot could derive from the Greek taricho or Latin tarichus, meaning “to salt meat”, and suggest the preservation of knowledge from the non-initiated; taroccare in modern Italian is to bewilder or counterfeit; tarare is to decorate cards; in Latin altecari is to quarrel (as occurs during card games); tariq is an Arab word for path or way; taraqqi is advancement in Arabic, progress in Hindi.
Among orthodox sources there is general agreement that the Marseille Tarot was likely to have been created in the fifteenth century—not the fifth as Parousia has it—and its prototype was likely to have descended to Marseille from Milan or Ferrara. Michael Dummett’s entry for “Tarot” in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy states that there is nothing prior to 1781—when the Freemason Antoine Court de Gébelin advanced the first theory of tarot’s esoteric character—that records tarot cards being used for anything other than game-playing. However, historians have no definitive answer as to why the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana became merged with the cards in four suits—equivalents of which existed in ancient China and India, and among Malmuk Muslims. But these latter decks don’t contain an equivalent of the Major Arcana, which appears to be singular to Europe, with imagery suggestive of the late medieval or early Renaissance period—its significance a mystery. Seditious characteristics of certain cards, like The Popess (a female pope, sometimes translated as the High Priestess); and The Wheel of Fortune, which seems to depict a precarious monarch, incite notions that the tarot was created as a secret repository of heretical knowledge.
From Amazon’s trove of self-published books on tarot I bought a kindle version of The Hidden Magdalene in The Tarot de Marseille (2019) by Raylene Abbott, who decodes the “Magdalene Heresy” veiled in the cards’ symbols. Abbott claims her capacity to decipher the cards owes to biology: “my ancestral lineage traces back to the Merovingian bloodline of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ … These memories are buried in my DNA”. “May the truth set us free,” she writes on her dedication page; citing as an influence Margaret Starbird, an American author whose ideas inspired The Da Vinci Code. Another author, Robert Swirnyn, proposes that the Marseille Tarot conceals the heretical teachings of the Cathars of Languedoc, a sect of Christian Gnostics persecuted in the Albigensian Crusades of the thirteenth century at the urging of Pope Innocent III. Swirnyn, who openly admits to being influenced by Dan Brown as well as the non-fiction bestseller Holy Blood, Holy Grail, describes the excitement of his process: “Surely, I thought, these associations couldn’t be completely coincidental. The anticipation of finding additional clues made me feel like an amateur detective on a historical case.”
In effect, it may be symptomatic of an engagement with tarot—whose enigmatic Arcana invite interpretation—that one is driven to shape meaningful patterns from perplexing material. Tarot’s little coloured allegories constitute a set of symbols open enough to be associated with multiple narratives and counter-narratives that swarm together as Christian history. While Ben-Dov suggests that it’s more than likely tarot evolved as a game; or should be thought of as a “collective artwork evolving in marginal and half-legitimate popular circles, rather than as a sublime teaching kept in a secret temple of wisdom and spirituality,” the fact that the cards have been periodically denounced by the Church lends cred to theories of their subversive power. A 1337 decree from Marseille’s Abbaye Saint-Victor that forbade monks from playing tarot is cited by Parousia in support of their Magdalen and St. Cassian theory. In the early fifteenth century St. Bernadino of Siena preached against cards and dice, setting alight several large piles. Recently—in a 2018 homily—Pope Francis criticized tarot as obscurantist idolatry, preventing constituents from total devotion to God. There is a warning in Deuteronomy: “There must never be anyone among you … who practices divination, who is soothsayer, augur, or sorcerer, who uses charms, consults ghosts or spirits, or calls up the dead. For the man who does these things is detestable to Yahweh your God”.
Rather than seeing in the cards a capacity to predict the future, Jodorowsky, a Chilean-born Paris-based filmmaker who is also a psychotherapist and “tarologist,” suggests fidelity to an idea akin to Jung’s theory of “synchronicity”: essentially a belief in meaningful coincidences; a principle that accounts for spurious correlations or linkages manifesting at traverse to a rational causal chain. How a person would be drawn to select and turn over certain cards in a spread of tarot, and how the archetypal signs exposed would mingle with the subjective flow of their unconscious—or in triangulation with that of their tarot reader’s—in a manner meaningful to the client is explainable by synchronicity; the workings of an system existing beyond observable causality.
In the introduction of his book The Way of Tarot: the Spiritual Teacher in the Cards (2009 ) Jodorowsky relates that in 1993 he received a postcard from a man identifying himself as Philippe Camoin, direct descendent of the Marseille printing-house that had reproduced the Tarot since 1760. Devastated at his father’s death in a road accident, Camoin had isolated himself for ten years in the town of Forcalquier with only a television and one hundred satellite channels for company. One night, having become accustomed to asking the television questions and receiving “answers” from whatever channel he randomly flicked to, Camoin asked the TV “What should I do to continue the family tradition interrupted by the death of my father?”, changed channels, and saw Jodorowsky being interviewed. He repeated the question, flicked to another channel, and saw Jodorowsky’s face again. The third time it happened he decided to get in touch.
Upon meeting Camoin, who was still grieving his father, Jodorowsky “decided to undertake a therapeutic initiative using psychomagic,” and suggested that the two of them restore the original Marseille Tarot; Jodorowsky being persuaded that the deck upon which Camoin’s family had based their reproductions was likely to have been corrupted by printing-press limitations as most eighteenth-century decks were.
When I googled Camoin I found that he, if not Jodorowsky, invests in the Mary Magdalen theory. On his blog I read the following:
"Warning: Philippe Camoin’s book, 'Le Tarot de Sainte Marie-Madeleine', will shortly be released. Other documents and books written on the theme of tarot as the legacy of Mary Magdalen that you can find commercially or online and that want to appropriate this theory are the work of ignorant people who have plagiarized Philippe Camoin. This theory comes from Phillipe Camoin and not from them. Do not waste your time and money with these rotten plagiarisms filled with errors and wait only a few more weeks." (My translation).
Was he talking about Parousia? Did he know them? Both were Marseillais. It’s hard to tell when the post was written, but it doesn’t look like recently. The book remains unreleased.
My tarot reading with Valérie was in 2012. On subsequent trips to Marseille I noticed how the city was being gentrified. My uncle moored a small sailboat on the archipelago of Frioul, accessible by ferry from the Vieux Port. As we chugged out to sea he would point out signs of Euroméditerranée, the mayor’s massive project for reforming waterfront land. Rue de la Republique, a Hausmann-era avenue, sold to Lehmann Brothers. A portside hospital transformed to luxury apartments. Estates of public housing demolished, precarious residents relocated to outskirts. In 2013, Marseille would be named European Capital of Culture and unveil a new museum, a cube enclosed in concrete latticework extending to the sea. A year after that a dockside hangar would reopen as Les Terraces du Port, four stories of chain stores topped with awninged cafés overlooking France’s largest commercial port, La Joliette. In 2016, Netflix dramatized the mutating city with a series, Marseille, whose cast of characters molded to the reduction typical of contemporary media—corrupt functionaries, the extreme right, and a naïve female journalist. Sometimes these changes, which dismantled human clutter for the clean bouncing spaces of mono-liberalism, would evoke for me the predicted nothingness of the card. The city whose hot messiness I’d exalted in was being sanitized for the few.
In my uncle’s home there is a painting that presents a map of the Mediterranean basin turned “sideways”, so that instead of the sea appearing to divide northern and southern landmasses it expands through the middle like a pale-blue galaxy, pulling together the coastal cities of Europe, Africa, Turkey, and the Middle East. Mare Nostrum is written across the Gulf of Syria. So simply and so rationally, the painting overturns traditional hierarchies, offering us a chance to think afresh. A tarot card is like a map. It can be looked at another way. The card that activated my repressed fatalism—Le Néant, the card that didn’t exist—could be a chance to overthrow what I think I think, and begin again.
Hassett, Maurice. "John Cassian." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 28 Oct. 2020 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03404a.htm>.
Jansen, Katherine Ludwig. The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages. Princeton University Press, 2000.
Ben-Dov, Yoav. The Marseille Tarot Revealed: A Complete Guide to Symbolism, Meanings and Methods. Woodbury: Llewellyn Worldwide, 2017.
Abbot, Raylene. The Hidden Magdalene in The Tarot de Marseille. Self-published. Available through Ingram Press, 2019.
Swiryn, Robert. The Secret of the Tarot: How the Story of the Cathars was Concealed in the Tarot of Marseilles. Kapaa, Hawaiï: Pau Hana Publishing, 2010.
Deut. 18:10-12, in The Jerusalem Bible: Reader’s Edition. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966, p.207.
*Valérie's name was changed for this story.
ELOÏSE MIGNON currently lives in Melbourne, where she is a casual teacher and PhD candidate in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. She has published scholarly writing in Performance Research and nonfiction in the journals Meanjin and Antithesis, the latter for which she was academic editor in 2020. She has worked as an actor across television, film and theatre in Australia and also in France, and as such has performed in many beautiful theatres across Europe and Asia.
(Image credit: a spread from Le Tarot de Marsailles, Jean Noblet, Paris c.1650 (Jean-Claude Flornoy restoration). This spread was drawn in London by the owner of these cards after reading this essay. From left top - 5 of coins, 6 of swords, the pope, 4 of cups, queen of coins, 7 of wands, the stars, the fool, 9 of coins, 8 of swords, 10 of swords, King of swords.