Introduction: The Search for an Authentic TdM

In order to better fathom the Jodorowsky-Camoin Tarot de Marseille (1997), we require an understanding of what Alejandro Jodorowsky intended when he and Phillipe Camoin devised their deck.  In his book, which is part autobiography and part guide,[1] Jodorowsky relates that he first came into contact with the tarot as a child of seven when he discovered among his mother’s possessions a copy of arcanum VII The Chariot: “Something told me I was about to receive an important revelation.”  He goes on to write that the card was a marvel: his grandfather always carried it with him “in a pocket of his shirt, close to his heart” until he died in a fire, burned alive; somehow the card survived the blaze, though it was mysteriously altered when tongues of fire colored red and yellow appeared in the illustration, though no one drew them.  As an adult, Jodorowsky realized that someone must have added the flames to the card afterward; however, he had no doubt that his mother genuinely believed the story of a miraculous transformation, and in his innocence, he did as well for many years.

Jodorowsky’s childhood was a lonely one: being a Jewish boy in Santiago, Chile, he was isolated and bullied by his classmates.  In one instance, an older boy spit upon a card and stuck it to Jodorowsky’s forehead: it was The Hermit from a Tarot de Marseille deck.

L’Ermite from Heron’s reproduction of 1760 Nicolas Conver deck

I saw in it my infamous portrait: an individual with no territory, alone, numb with cold, feet injured, walking for an eternity in search of … what?  Something, anything at all, that would give him an identity, a place in the world, a reason to live.

However, the image became a beacon of hope for lonely boy.  He saw in the hermit and his tiny light an archetypal figure with whom he could relate, and the possibility that he was not alone occurred to him:

Could this lamp be my consciousness?  And what if I was not a vacant body, a mass inhabited only by anguish, but a strange light that traveled through time, borrowing various vehicles of flesh in search of that unthinkable being my grandparents called God?

In the 9th arcanum, Jodorowsky was awakened, called to a higher order, and he began his quest in earnest.

Something like a pleasant explosion broke through the barriers imprisoning my mind.  My sorrow was swept away like dust.  With the anxiety of a shipwreck survivor, I set off in search of a port where young poets got together.

In his twenties, Jodorowsky met a tarot reader and was inspired to collect decks.  He moved around a lot as a young man, ultimately ending up in Europe, and everywhere he went, he looked for esoteric bookstores where he could buy tarot cards.  He writes that during this period, he collected over a thousand different decks.  He was fascinated by the imagery, and finding a new tarot filled him with joy.  He goes on to say that he was really looking for that “one Tarot that would transmit to me what I was so anxiously searching for: the secret of eternal life.”

And at one point, he thought he had found just that in a deck designed by occultists A. E. Waite and Pamela Colman-Smith, and this became his favorite until one fateful day when he met André Breton, a French poet, writer, theorist-leader of the surrealist movement, and a man Jodorowsky very much admired.  He handed Breton his Waite-Smith and eagerly awaited the great man’s verdict:

The poet examined the cards of the Arcana attentively with a smile that gradually transformed into a grimace of disgust.  “This is a ridiculous deck of cards.  Its symbols are lamentably obvious.  There is nothing profound in it.  The sole valid Tarot is that of Marseille.  Its cards are intriguing and moving, but they never surrender their intrinsic secret.”

Jodorowsky was crushed, but he also realized the truth of Breton’s pronouncement: very few tarots are works of genuine inspiration; most are the result of conscious design, and when the rational mind attempts to create things, it proceeds along linear (and familiar) pathways.  This is not a criticism; it is the kind of thinking responsible for advances in science and technology that have led to the world of wonders in which we currently live: we have air-conditioning, vaccines, an internet that provides us with access to people all over the planet, rocket ships and satellites to inform our GPS systems, big-screen HD televisions, and literally hundreds of flavors of ice cream.  However, what the rational mind cannot create is art, for it is only able to plumb the depths of that which is already known to it (or that which is unknown but which can be discovered through systematic calculation: one discovery leads to the next – that sort of thing – in a more-or-less straight-line progression).

Robert Bly puts it this way:

In ancient times, in the “time of inspiration,” the poet flew from one world to another, “riding on dragons,” as the Chinese said.  Isaiah rode on those dragons, so did Li Po and Pindar.  They dragged behind them long tails of dragon smoke….  This dragon smoke means that a leap has taken place in the poem….  That leap can be described as a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known….  Sometime in the thirteenth century poetry in Europe began to show a distinct decline in the ability to associate powerfully….  There are very few images of the Snake, or the Dragon, or the Great Mother…. 

He goes on to say that the poetry produced during this period was plodding and obvious, “a de-mythologized intelligence, that moves in a straight line made of tiny bright links, an intelligence dominated by linked facts rather than ‘irrational’ feelings,” the kind of thinking that is prized in industrial societies but which has “a crippling effect upon the psychic life.”

Surrealism was a reaction against this.  Arthur Edward Waite, Pamela Colman-Smith, Oswald Wirth, Aleister Crowley and many others also felt the need to break out of the prison of this kind of regimented thought; they were members of secret societies devoted to occult studies.  However, they were also people possessing powerful intellects, and in their art, they were never able to free themselves from conscious (and linear) progressions; we see this in the materials they produced to accompany their works.  Waite, for instance, does not talk about his tarot the way Pablo Picasso would talk about one of his paintings; he talks about it the way an art teacher would talk about Picasso’s “Weeping Woman” or “Guernica.”   

Pablo Picasso “Girl in a Mirror,” “Weeping Woman” and “Guernica” (bottom)

When Waite writes of his Magician, for instance:

Above his head is the mysterious sign of the Holy Spirit, the sign of life, like an endless cord, forming the figure 8 in a horizontal position.  About his waist is a serpent-cincture, the serpent appearing to devour its own tail.  This is familiar to most as a conventional symbol of eternity, but here it indicates more especially the eternity of attainment in the spirit.  In the Magician’s right hand is a wand raised towards heaven, while the left hand is pointing to the earth.  This dual sign is known in very high grades of the Instituted Mysteries; it shews the descent of grace, virtue and light, drawn from things above and derived to things below.  The suggestion throughout is therefore the possession and communication of the Powers and Gifts of the Spirit.  On the table in front of the Magician are the symbols of the four Tarot suits, signifying the elements of natural life, which lie like counters before the adept, and he adapts them as he wills.  Beneath are roses and lilies, the flos campi and lilium convallium, changed into garden flowers, to shew the culture of aspiration.  This card signifies the divine motive in man, reflecting God, the will in the liberation of its union with that which is above.  It is also the unity of individual being on all planes, and in a very high sense it is thought, in the fixation thereof. 

We get the sense that he knows everything there is to know about this figure; every detail was carefully (and consciously) chosen for a specific effect.  There is nothing of the unknown (to Waite) in this image; in Bly’s terminology: there is no dragon smoke, no leaping from the known to the unknown and back.  Waite had, as I stated, an amazing mind drawn to the fathomless depths of spiritual mysteries, but in his art, he was entirely intentional, using his vast knowledge of occult wisdom to mimic genuine inspiration.  He never leaves the realm of light.  We get the sense that he could fill volumes with discourse on this one image, but we also get the sense that if we asked him to point out a single detail that he does not himself understand or know how it came to be in his card, he would be silent.

Following his meeting with Breton, Jodorowsky threw his collection away and committed himself to the study of the Tarot de Marseille.  In addition to the various TdM decks, Jodorowsky began to read voraciously.  He started with Court de Gébelin’s Monde Primitif [Primitive World], but disagreed with the premise that the Tarot originated in Egypt and charged that de Gébelin not only used “a poor copy of the Marseille Tarot” in his book, but that he altered or eliminated certain details to support his conclusions, including attaching the Arabic number 0 to Le Mat and naming the figure “The Fool” and fundamentally changing his character, putting Osiris Triumphant in the Chariot, turning La Papesse into The High Priestess, naming the unnamed arcanum XIII “Death,” turning The Hanged Man right-side up and calling the card “Prudence,” and too many others to enumerate here.  He acknowledges that de Gébelin proved to be extremely influential among occultists of the ensuing decades who then strove to outdo each other “discovering” hidden links between tarot and other mystical systems they fancied, attempting

to graft all sorts of esoteric systems onto the Tarot, thousands of books based on a nonexistent “tradition” were written seeking to prove that the Tarot was the creation of the Egyptians, the Chaldeans, the Hebrews, the Arabs, the Hindus, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Maya, or extraterrestrials.  Some even mentioned Atlantis and Adam, to whom was attributed the sketching of the first cards under the instructions of an angel.  

He goes on to write:

Each new deck of cards contains the subjectivity of its authors, their vision of the world, their moral prejudices, their limited level of awareness….  As in the story of Cinderella, in which each of her half-sisters is prepared to cut off one end of her foot so she can wear the glass slipper, every occultist alters the original structure.

To make the Tarot conform to the twenty-two paths of the Tree of Life that join the ten Sephirot of kabbalistic tradition, A. E. Waite exchanged the number 8 of Justice for the number 11 of Strength, transformed The Lover into The Lovers, and so forth, thereby falsifying the meaning of all the Arcana.  Aleister Crowley, an occultist belonging to the Order of the Temple of the Orient (OTO), also changed the numbers and the drawings (and thus the meaning), as well as the order of the cards.  Justice became Adjustment; Temperance, Art; and Judgment, Aeon.  He eliminated the Knights and the Pages and replaced them with Princes and Princesses.  Oswald Wirth, a Swiss occultist, Freemason, and member of the Theosophical Society, drew his own Tarot, into which he introduced not only medieval costumes, Egyptian sphinxes, Arab numbers and Hebrew letters in the place of the Roman numerals, Taoist symbols, and the alchemical version of The Devil invented by Eliphas Levi, but also drew inspiration from the clumsy version of Court de Gébelin (see his Tower, his Temperance, his Justice, his Pope, his Lover), appearing to assert that the Tarot of Marseille was a folk – or, in other words, common – version of Gébelin’s Tarot.

He writes his ultimate conclusion this way:

A sacred work is by essence perfect; the disciple should adopt it in its entirety without attempting to add or subtract anything whatsoever….  Simply creating new versions of the Tarot of Marseille, anonymous like all sacred monuments, by imagining it is enough to change the drawings or the names of the cards to achieve a great work, is pure vanity.

He could not be any clearer, and it is by this statement that we should judge his TdM.  Jodorowsky’s idea is that no one individual could have created the Marseille imagery.  It is collective.

However, it is puzzling when Jodorowsky writes,

J. Maxwell, in Le Tarot, le symbol, les arcans, la divination, is the first author to have gone back to the Tarot’s origins, recognizing that the Tarot of Marseille (the one by Nicolas Conver) is an optical language and needs to be looked at in order to be understood.  

He seems suggest that Conver’s TdM is closest to the origins; but he does not offer support for this notion, and it desperately needs to be explained, for Nicolas Conver was a master card-marker in the mid-18th century: Tarot de Marseille imagery was already well over one hundred years old by the time he was born.  I am not disagreeing with the assessment, for Jodorowsky provides no basis whatsoever upon which anyone can properly evaluate it, and this is really the problem we encounter throughout his work: he makes statements that we are meant to simply accept as fact.  Yet how can we after he spends ten pages accusing others of being responsible for “three centuries of dreams and mystification!”  This includes Paul Marteau, the creator of the TdM he initially devoted himself to studying, though he also accuses Marteau of two “mistakes”:

On one hand, the deck he uses is only one variation of the original.  His drawings are exact copies of the Tarot of Besançon published by Grimaud at the end of the nineteenth century; Grimaud was only reproducing another Tarot of Besançon published by Lequart and signed “Arnoult 1748.”  Marteau also permitted himself to alter certain details, as this made it possible for him to commercialize the deck and receive royalties from it as the author.  On the other hand, he kept the four basic colors imposed by the printing machines, instead of respecting the old and more varied colors of the hand-painted decks.

These seem to me to be much more than mistakes.  Jodorowsky calls Marteau out as a scholar and then charges him with fraud, changing details for the purposes of declaring himself the author of the product and thereby making himself eligible to receive royalties.  This is an acceptable business model to be sure, but it is an unworthy reason to tinker with “a sacred work.”

Jodorowsky–Camoin Tarot de Marseille

In 1993, Jodorowsky was contacted by Phillipe Camoin, a “direct descendent of the Marseilles family that had been printing Nicolas Conver’s Tarot since 1760,” and together they undertook the project of restoring the Tarot de Marseille. 

At this time, I was under the impression that this task would simply involve eliminating the small details added by Paul Marteau, and perhaps refining some of the drawings that, over time, copy after copy, had eventually been passed down in a confused fashion.  

The project turned out to be far more complicated than the men initially thought.  They traveled to various museums and obtained slides of cards from historical decks.  Phillipe’s mother, Madame Camoin, provided them with “an important collection of printing plates dating from the eighteenth century.” 

It was not a question of changing a few details or giving a few lines greater precision; it required the entire restoration of the Tarot by giving it back its original colors, painted by hand, and the drawings that generations of copyists had erased.  Fortunately, while only fragmentary portions survived on some copies, parts that supplied the missing pieces appeared on others, allowing the entire image to be completed.  We had to work with powerful computers, thanks to which we were able to compare the countless versions by placing one image on top of the other, versions that included those of Nicolas Conver, Dodal, Francois Tourcaty, Fautrier, Jean-Pierre Payen, Suzanne Bernardin, Lequart, and so on.

During the commission of this work, Jodorowsky realized that the Conver tarot would not have been a pure product either, that it would have contained errors and omissions as well, so the task became no longer restoring an original Conver but discovering through a multitude of sources the purest form of the Tarot de Marseille.

The difficulty of this restoration work resided in the fact that the Tarot of Marseille is made up of symbols that are closely intertwined and connected to one another; if a single line is altered, the entire work is adulterated.  A large number of printers of the Tarot of Marseille existed during the seventeenth century.  Eighteenth-century Tarot decks were copies of the earlier ones.  We therefore cannot accept that any eighteenth-century Tarot could be the original.  It is extremely likely that Nicolas Conver’s version from 1760 contains errors and omissions.  While the drawings were hand-painted originally, the number of colors the industrial machines used by eighteenth-century printers could produce was limited.  Depending on the printer, the lines and colors were reproduced with varying degrees of fidelity.  Those who were not initiates simplified the symbols tremendously.  Those copying them added errors to errors.  On the other hand, we observed that some Tarots have identical and superimposable drawings, and yet each contains symbols that do not appear on the others.  We deduced that they had been copied from the same Tarot, an older version that is now missing.  It is this original Tarot that we wanted to restore.

This is the mythology underlying the creation of the Jodorowsky-Camoin tarot.  We will never know how much of it is true and how much of it, like the flames appearing on Jodorowsky’s grandfather’s The Chariot following the poor man’s death, were added afterward to support a good story. 

[1]       Jodorowsky, Alejandro with Marianne Costa. The Way of Tarot: The Spiritual Teacher in the Cards.  Translated by Jon E. Graham.  Destiny Books: Rochester, Vermont • Toronto, Canada, 2009.

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