The Trumps and the Hebrew Alphabet
by Mark Filipas

The Tarot of Marseilles bears a demonstrable parallel to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, in that its allegorical subjects can be found in alphabetical order within the medieval Hebrew lexicon(1):

Trump I — Jugglery, Magic tricks (AChYZTh OYNYM) — aleph
Trump II — Sibyl
(BDQ, BOLH, BOL HZYH) — bet
Trump III — Queen
(GBYRH) — gimel
Trump IV — Duke
(DKS, DVS) — dalet
Trump V — Pontiff
(HGMVN) — he
Trump VI — Love
(VDO) — vav
Trump VII — Triumph
(ZKH, ZKY) — zayin
Trump VIII — Judgment
(ChYThVK) — chet
Trump IX — Time
(TMPV) — tet
(3)
Trump X — Iynx, or
Oracle Wheel (YNQS) — yud
Trump XI — Strength
(KCh, KChCh) — kaph
Trump XII — Traitor
(LYTYRYN) — lamed
Trump XIII — Death
(MVTh, MYThH) — mem
Trump XIV — Temperance
(NThChSM, NZYRVTh) — nun
Trump XV — Satan
(STN) — samech
Trump XVI — Flash of light
(ODY
(2)) — ayin
Trump XVII — Pleiades
(PLYDVTh), Paradise (PRDS) — peh
Trump XVIII – Conjunction
(TzRVP) — tzaddi
Trump XIX — Summer
(QYTz) — qoph
Trump XX — Sounding of the trumpet
(RVO, RAOThA) — resh
(4)
Trump XXI — Portal of Heaven
(ShOR HShMYM) , Heaven (ShMYM) – shin
The unnumbered card — Folly
(ThHLH, ThPLH) — tav

(The Hebrew words above are transliterated in parenthesis, followed by the name of their initial Hebrew letter.)

Trumps from Nicholas Conver’s Marseilles Tarot, 1760 (Heron reprint).

An even closer look at the lexicon reveals that virtually all of the iconographic details of a given card can be found beginning with the same corresponding letter.

The first Hebrew letter aleph, for example, begins the words for magician (Hebrew: AMGVSh, AShP), to juggle, to perform magic tricks (AChZ OYNYM), bench (ATzTBH), coin (AGVRH), cup (ANBG), balls (ASQRYTY), dagger (AVGRTh, ARRN), pouch or money bag (ARNQ), thin hollow tube (ABVB), hat (APYLYVTh), festive suit (ASTLYTh), and young shoot of a plant (AB). The eighth letter chet begins the words for lawgiver (ChQQ), verdict (ChYThVK), sword (ChRB), scales (ChRSPYThYN), sun (ChMH, the symbol on Justice’s headdress), solar columns (ChMNYM), screen partition (ChYTz), and rope around the neck (ChNQA).

The thirteenth letter mem begins the words for reaper (MQTzRH), corpse (MTh), scythe (MGL), head (MVCh), crown (MKLLThA), and king (MLK). The eighteenth letter tzaddi begins the words for heavenly bodies (TzBA HShMYM; early iconography shows the Sun and Moon conjunct), hyenas (TzBVOYM), thirst (TzYCh, TzHH, TzMA), droplets (TzChTzVCh), pincers (TzBTh), water (TzNYNYM), and the Castle or Rook (TzRYCh) in the game of chess. In like manner, virtually every pictorial element of the Marseilles can be found in alphabetical order within the lexicon, as demonstrated here.

Like a visual encyclopedia, the Marseilles designs incorporate a variety of influences, such as Biblical and literary allusion, mythological figures, alchemical imagery, and even the game of Chess—all in alphabetical sequence. Each chess piece, for instance, can be found on the card which corresponds to the initial of its Hebrew name:

Trump III — the Queen (GBYRH)
Trump IV — the
King (no apparent match)
Trump V — the 2
Bishops (HGMVN)
Trump VII — the 2
War Horses (ZRZYR MThNYM)
Trump XII — the
Checkmate or Capture (LKD)
Trump XVI — 2
Pawns (ORBVN)
Trump XVIII — the 2
Rooks (TzRYCh)

The game of Tarot thus depicts the popular allegories of its time arranged in a sequence which is both hierarchic and alphabetic.

——

Was the Marseilles pattern based intentionally upon the lexicon? The following evidence requires us to examine this possibility in detail:

A) The Marseilles subjects can be found in alphabetical order within the Hebrew lexicon, yet cannot be found in such order when the letters and trumps are correlated arbitrarily. This body of correspondences argues against (but does not rule out) coincidence.

B) Virtually every element in the designs can be found in alphabetical order, yet cannot be found in such order when the letters and trumps are correlated arbitrarily. This singular body of links is presented here as well as in An Alphabetic Masquerade.

C) The majority of Marseilles trumps show visual similarities to the shape of its corresponding Hebrew letter, yet a majority of similarities does not appear when the letters and trumps are correlated arbitrarily.

D) The majority of Marseilles trumps illustrate the literal meaning of its corresponding Hebrew letter. These meanings are not those presented in any Tarot books to date but can be found only in medieval Hebrew sources, as presented here.

There are also points of historical context which support the thesis that the trumps were designed as alphabetic images, two of the most important being: E) the interest in Hebrew lexicography at the time of the Tarot’s appearance, and F) widespread traditions of alphabetic imagery at that time. These pursuits (explored in the following pages) existed right alongside those of cardmaking within the print shops and art studios of early Renaissance Europe.

——

Just as significant are the details added by the Italian artist Carlo Dellarocca into his 1835 Tarot designs. Whereas the Marseilles’ iconography appears crude to modern eyes, the Tarocchino Milanese is more intricately engraved and its pictorial elements therefore more easily identifiable within the lexicon. Dellarocca’s designs are also distinguished by their inclusion of many unique objects. I submit that these objects are the key to the Tarocchino Milanese. Why? Because both their abundance and their singular position within the Hebrew lexicon argues convincingly that they are alphabetic allusions.

Dellarocca’s La Luna, for example, depicts a banquet dish (TzOH, TzLChTh), a plate of fried fish (TzChNH), baying at the moon (TzOQ HY VQYM), the landmark or pillar (TzYVN) on the far shore, its conical roof (TzRYP), and the ship (TzY, TzYM) in the distance. The entire list of Dellarocca correspondences can be found here.

Trumps from Carlo Dellarocca’s Tarocchino Milanese, 1835 (Il Meneghello reprint).

It is possible that the Tarocchino Milanese represents the clarification of an earlier alphabetic tradition among cardmakers. Or, it may simply represent Dellarocca’s own alphabetic creativity. It should also be noted that his 1835 designs appeared after the earliest known account (by the esotericist Court de Gebelin in 1781) asserting a link between the Tarot and the Hebrew alphabet (although de Gebelin’s correspondeces are not those evident in Dellarocca’s trumps). It is therefore possible that the writings of de Gebelin were known to Dellarocca. In any case, Dellarocca was presumably following the traditions of Italian artists who had long been incorporating alphabetic allusion into their designs.

In the following pages, we will show that the Tarot emerged from a culture well-versed in alphabetic imagery.

——

 

Continue to Art as Linguistic Allusion - Part 1
examples of Latin and Italian linguistic imagery

 

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(1) These words are found primarily in the Jastrow dictionary; see also the bibliographical sources below.

(2) Jastrow’s entry for the medieval Hebrew ODY suggests “lightning flash” but I have not yet ascertained from other sources this specific use of the word.

(3) I am positing here that the Latin Tmpv or Tempus, which was one of the earliest titles for this trump, is to be found as a Hebrew transliteration within contemporaneous sources. Such a transliteration, however, is not present within the sources cited below and I have not yet searched further.

It should be noted that, at the time of the early Tarot, Hebrew had absorbed into itself much of the Latin and Greek lexicon contemporaneous to it. Jastrow points out that “The intercourse between the Jews of the Talmudic ages with Greek and Latin speaking gentiles was not only that of trade and government, but also of thought and ideas. . . Instances of intimate association of prominent Jewish teachers with emperors, kings, philosophers, and scholars and their families are related in the Talmudic records in numbers large enough to account for the adoption of words like philosophy, astrology, epilogue, etc. not to speak of such terms as were borrowed by the Jews together with the objects or ideas which they represent. A footstool was called hypopodion, a tablet pinax. . .”

(4) I posit that the Latin Resurrectio, being the subject depicted on this trump, is to be found as a Hebrew transliteration within conteporaneous sources. Such a transliteration, however, is not present within the sources cited below and I have not yet searched further.

Bibliography:

Alcalay, Reuben. The Complete English-Hebrew Dictionary, Massada, 1981.

Alcalay, Reuben. The Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary, Massada, 1981.

Jastrow, Marcus, Ph.D. Litt.D. A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and the Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, The Judaica Press, 1992 (first published in 1903).

Yehuda, Ehud Ben. English-Hebrew-English Dictionary, Pocket Books, 1961.

Copyright 2002 Mark Filipas – 3/17/02