Art as Letterform (Part 2)
by Mark Filipas

Reminiscent of similar examples contemporaneous to it, the Marseilles designs appear to allude visually to the Hebrew letterforms themselves. In some cases the letterform seems to have inspired the overall design of the card; in other cases it seems to have been incorporated into the design in the form of a pictorial element. These letterform parallels would be irrelevant to a historical study of the Marseilles Tarot except for the fact that—as with the linguistic links—a similar body of parallels does not present itself when the letters and trumps are arbitrarily paired.

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

There is one more set of parallels to consider.

Most of the Hebrew letter names have a literal meaning in the language; some of the letters have several meanings. These meanings, however, have long been incorrectly represented in non-Jewish sources (such as books on Tarot cards). Reference to actual Hebrew dictionaries (particularly those which reflect medieval Hebrew(1)) shows that many of these meanings bear a striking parallel to the 22 allegorical subjects.

The following list outlines these parallels as they appear in the Marseilles trumps. The purple text denotes similarities of literal meaning(2), and the orange text denotes similarities of letterform, showing at a glance the parallels in either category. These meanings of the Hebrew letter names can all be found in Jastrow’s Dictionary.

The name of the letter aleph (ALP) is found in medeival lexicons as meaning to train oneself; to practice.

The position of the magician’s body and arms is reminscent of the first letterform aleph (ALP).

The name of the letter bet (BYTh) was frequently used to denote Temple (Hullin Talmud; Midrash Shir hash-Shirim), suggesting a parallel to the card of The Pappesse. BYTh was also used as a euphamism for sexual intercourse (Palestinean Talmud, IX, 12; Mikvaoth, VIII, 4; Niddah Talmud, 5), indicating a possible allusion to the medieval legend of Pope Joan. The most common translation of BYTh is house.

The name of the letter gimel (GML, GYML) forms the medieval word meaning pointed pole or little yoke (GYMVL), a possible connection to the third Marseilles figure’s staff and/or to the pointed shapes around her neck and waist. GML also means camel, camel driver, bridge, to wean, and to ripen.

The name of the letter daleth (DLTh) forms the root of the word DLThVThA, meaning conquered land and possession (Targanum, Proverbs XIX, 14, variant editions), possibly suggesting a Duke (DKS) or Emperor’s domain. DLTh also means door.

The name of the fifth letter he (HA) forms the root of a word for faith (HAMNH: Yalkut, Isaiah 296; Yalkut, Hosea 519; Tosefta, Baba Bathra Talmud, V, 8, variant editions), corresponding to the allegorical image of a Pontiff (HGMVN). It also translates to the exclamation Behold! He (HA) does not mean window as is usually claimed.

The sixth letter vav (VV) literally means hook (VV), suggesting a connection to the arrowhead on Trump VI.

The name of the letter zayin (ZYN) means armor (ZYN) and implements of war (ZYN), objects depicted literally on Trump VII.

The letterform suggests the scepter held by The Charioteer.

The eighth letter chet (ChYTh) is the root of the medieval word ChYThVK meaning judgement, verdict, corresponding to the allegorical figure of Justice. Chet does not mean field as is usually claimed.

The letterform is reflected in Justice’s scales of balance.

The name of the ninth letter tet (TYTh) has no literal meaning; it does not mean staff or snake as is sometimes claimed.

The letterform visually suggests the “flame” held aloft on the left by a “bearded figure” on the right.

The name of the tenth letter yud (YD) literally means axle and handle, objects which are depicted literally on Trump X. It also means power, authority, possesion, suggesting the enthroned figure with crown and sword. Yud also means hand.

YD forms the word YDVO, which Maimonides translated as bird and which Rashi translates as beast (Targum Y’rushalmi, Lev.XIX, 31; Sanhedrin Talmud, 65b), objects possibly relating to the creatures seen on the rim of Fortune’s wheel. It is also the root of the word YDD, meaning to cast lots, and YDVD, meaning cauldron, concepts depicted literally in the trump design by Dellarocca.

The name of the eleventh letter kaph (KP) literally means palm, hand, and the power to subdue, meanings which correspond to the image of Trump XI. It is also the root of the word KPP, meaning to force, to conquer.

The letterform suggests the gaping mouth of a beast, and some of the earliest decks (such as the Jean Noblet Tarot c. 1660) depict the lion’s mouth facing in the same direction as the letterform.

The name of the twelfth letter lamed (LMD) literally means to be affixed to, corresponding to the image of the hanged man. It also means to teach a lesson, one idea implied by this allegory. It does not mean oxgoad as is usually claimed.

The Hanged Man’s pose mimicks the letterform of the lamed.

The name of the thirteenth letter mem (MM) begins the Hebrew word MMVThA, meaning death.

Its letterform suggests the ‘spine and head’ and ‘sythe blade’ of the thirteenth Trump figure. Many of the early Marseilles designs depict the reaper’s blade facing in the same direction as the letterform’s base.

The fourteenth letter nun (NVN) suggests the image of liquid being poured between two vessels. This visual implication seems particularly reflected in the trump designs of Jacques Vieville and Adam Haute.

The name of the fifteenth letter samech (SMK) means prop or support, corresponding to the object on which Satan (STN) stands. It also means to join together, suggesting a connection to the figures chained to the ring.

The letterform corresponds to the ring placed prominently on the Devil’s support.

The word ayin (OYN), the name of the sixteenth letter, was used to denote the evil eye (Baba M’tsi‘a Talmud, 30; 107b; N’darim Talmud, 50), suggesting destruction from an unseen source.

The letterform corresponds to the pose of the falling figure.

The name of the seventeenth letter peh (PH) literally means open vessels (Tosefta T’rumoth V, II).

It also means mouth and orifice, and was used as a euphemism for orifice of the womb (Sanhedrin Talmud, 100a) suggesting a possible connection to the vessel placed between the maiden’s legs.

The formation of eight stars closely mimicks the shape of the letterform when rotated 90 degrees clockwise.

The name of the eighteenth letter tzaddi (TzDY) literally means to make desolate, a meaning which perhaps suggested the total Solar eclipse which seems depicted on so many Marseilles versions of this card. Tzaddi does not mean fish-hook as is usually claimed.

The letterform suggests the pincer arms of the crayfish.

The name of the nineteenth letter qoph (QVP) is the root of the word for wall (QVPYA), depicted literally on the card. Qoph also means turn of the year.

Insofar as one linguistic tradition holds the letter’s meaning to be back of the head, it is interesting to note where one child is touching the other.

The twentieth letter resh (RYSh) suggests the shape of a flag or banner, corresponding to the flag on the Angel’s trumpet.

The name of the letter shin (ShN) means tooth, as well as claw, horn, and hoof, suggesting the creatures depicted on Trump XXI.

Only three of the four beasts wear halos, an enigmatic detail possibly alluding to the three “flames” which rise from the base of the letter shin.

The Fool corresponds to the remaining letter tav (TYV), whose name begins a medieval Hebrew word for wandering (TYVBA).

The letterform is similar to the overall design of the unnumbered card: a vertical staff on the right, a horizontal staff over the shoulders, and the letter’s “tail” on the left suggesting the fox or dog at the Fool’s heel.

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Continue to Early Hebrew Lexicography
sources contemporaneous to the early Tarot

 

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(1) See, for example, the Jastrow Dictionary.

(2) Many of the letters have additional meanings which are not included here; only those meanings relavent to the trumps are listed.

Bibliography:

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).

Copyright 2002 Mark Filipas – 3/17/02