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.
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 letter form, showing at a glance the parallels in either category. These meanings of the Hebrew letter names can all be found in Jastrow’s Dictionary
sources contemporaneous to the early Tarot
(1) See, for example, the Jastrow Dictionary.
(2) Many of the letters have additional meanings which are not included here; only those meanings relevant to the trumps are listed.
· 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