Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Concerning "1582 Gosselin Jean"

The meaning of the ancient Pythagorean game of cards


Essay by Alain Bougearel






One of the oldest French literary reference known of a Pythagorean reading of the Deck of Ordinary Cards?


I. A Pythagorean reading?

II. In accordance with the Platonic theory of the elements presented in the Timaeus?


Intellectual property rights:


BOUGEAREL, Alain Jacques, of the Société des Gens de Lettres de France (SGDL) – author, prefacer, translator, member of the Société Française des Interêts des Auteurs de l'Ecrit (SOFIA)




The essay by Jean Gosselin, Keeper of the King's Library from 1560 to 1604, was published in 1582 (1).


The essay devoted to the Pythagorean game of cards consists of around thirty pages (2). Careful reading of the book is certainly not made easier at first because it is written in classical French of the second half of the 16th century, with punctuation for oral purposes, not yet fixed as in modern French, by the linguistic unity of the sentence, with its initial capital and its final punctuation. However, with a little attention, the written language used by Gosselin becomes intelligible.


Does it really come from a pompous pseudo-“Pythagorean” patina with only a correspondence of the four suits with the four elements, a characteristic in accord with Western thought generally?


PART ONE: A Pythagorean reading?


Gosselin's essay is based on a Pythagorean reading of the deck of 52 ordinary cards with French suit-signs - specifically of the game called Trente et Un, Thirty-One. The date of appearance of this popular game in 15th century Europe is difficult to ascertain. However, we know with certainty that Rabelais mentions it, in the “Games of Gargantua”, under the name: "A Trente et Ung". Rabelais lists some two hundred and fourteen games in vogue in his time, including the card game “A Trente et ung” (Rabelais, Gargantua, Book I, chapter XXII). De Marey, cited in Note 15, supposes that “It is apparently. …the Game that we call Thirty and Forty, where the one who has thirty-one, or the one who comes closest to it, has won.” (3).


The reading that Gosselin gives to the game of "Trente et Ung” is one of the oldest known French literary references to a Pythagorean approach to card games. But is it genuinely Pythagorean? On this point Michael S. Howard writes:


“An explicitly Pythagorean analysis of the ordinary deck was given by Jean Gosselin in 1582, in a book whose title begins ‘’La signification de l 'ancien jeu des chartes pythagorique... [The meaning of the ancient Pythagorean game of cards”]. Having presented the rudiments of Pythagorean musical theory, Gosselin introduces the section by saying (pp. 30-31):


“After having explained, as clearly as has been possible for us, the proportions of numbers and the consonances and Harmonies that arise from them, it is appropriate to declare the secrets hidden in this game of cards - which was invented and put into use by a few men learned in Pythagorean Philosophy: Considering that the Pythagoreans say that there are very great secrets of nature hidden in numbers; And also that the greatest victory in the game of cards consists in the number thirty-one, which by its parts contains a most excellent Harmony, as we demonstrate presently.’


“Then comes his application of Pythagoreanism to the cards, and in particular to a game called Trente et Un, i.e. Thirty-One. Here I will summarize his presentation (pp. 30-40 of the original text) and add in parentheses what I think are the Pythagorean principles involved.


“1. Gosselin observes (pp. 33-34, 35) that no card, including the court cards, exceeds in points the number 10, which is 1+2+3+4. (This relationship between 4, the number of suits, and 10 is the famous Pythagorean Tetratkys.)


“2. The four suits of the cards correspond to the four elements (p. 31). (That there are four elements is an assumption of Pythagorean and most other ancient philosophies. But in general, Pythagoreans looked for relationships and commonalities between the members of different natural groups of the same number. An oft-repeated story about Pythagoras was that in listening to blacksmiths’ hammers, he noted that the tones varied according to the weights of hammers producing them, and that the same tones produced by strings varied according to the same ratios in weights applying tension to those strings (Nichomachus, Manual of Harmonics, Ch. 6; Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras, Ch. 26; Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, II.1.8-12). Accordingly, Pythagoras was depicted listening to hammers, e.g. by Luca della Robbia, 1437-1439, on the campanile of Florence cathedral (author’s photo below, taken at the Museo del Duomo, with the museum’s placard). Identifying which ratios were harmonious was part of Pythagorean musical theory. In general, Pythagoreans saw number as the key to understanding numerous phenomena.)








“3. Between the French suit of Tiles (Carreaux, Diamonds in English) and Earth there is the commonality of supporting heavy things. Between Pikes (Piques, Spades in English) and Fire there is the commonality of penetrating and being the most penetrating of its group. Hearts (Coeurs), in our bodies are in a relationship of dependence on Air. Clover (Trèfle, Clubs in English) is in a relationship of dependence on much Water. (pp. 31-32.) (This is a process of analogy between one thing and another familiar in medieval allegory. For example, snakes were a sign of Prudence because Jesus said, as the Vulgate rendered Matthew 10:16, “estote ergo prudentes sicut serpentes (“therefore be as prudent as serpents”). The analogy is facilitated by the commonality of “four” between suits and elements. Moreover, the four suits in card games play a similar role to the four elements in ancient physics: just as particular things were combinations of elements in different proportions, so the hands dealt the players contained the suits in different proportions, as Gosselin explains on pp. 38-40.)


“4. Regarding the ‘most excellent harmony’ (p. 31) in the game, Gosselin observes that in music ‘by the adding of diapasons (octaves), one above the other, the result is always a perfect consonance – which does not happen in other consonances of music’ (p. 37). A diapason exists when two sounds vibrate in a ratio of 2:1. It is a ‘perfect” consonance in that two notes an octave apart sound like the same note, just higher or lower in pitch. Thus a series of four diapasons, starting from unity, is 1 to 2, 2 to 4, 4 to 8, and 8 to 16. (p. 37). (This is an application of Pythagorean musical theory to the ‘4’ of the game. The ratio ‘2’ represents the octave, 4 the second octave, 8 third octave, and 16 the fourth.)


“5. Adding these ratios together, starting from unity, is the sum of 1+2+4+8+16 = 31, which is also the perfect number of points in the game of Trente et Un, Thirty-One (p. 36). The sum of a note plus its four octaves is their combination into one harmonious whole. (This is an application of the geometric proportions expressed in the four ‘perfect consonances’ of Pythagorean music theory to the game of Thirty-One.)


“6. Thus the game of Thirty-One, by making 31 its best hand (‘the one who gains 31 points or comes closest to it claims victory’), has it correspond to a ‘great and admirable harmony, because just as there are certain temperaments between the qualities of the four Elements in all natural things, there exists among the numbers of thirty-one great harmony’ (p. 36). (This correspondence between 31 and the ‘great harmony’ and ‘perfect consonance’ of the four corresponding octaves is Pythagorean in nature. Here we might ask why the series to be added up should stop at 4 octaves, as opposed to 5, 6, or an indefinite number. It may simply be related to the number 4 of the elements and suits: the corresponding numbers for 4 octaves adds up to 31. On the other hand, a passage in Macrobius suggests another answer. In the course of explaining the basics of Pythagorean harmony, he says (section II.i.24, Stahl et al translation p. 189):


‘And so the consonant chords are five in number, the fourth, the fifth, the octave, the octave and fifth, and the double octave. This number of consonant chords has to do only with the music that the human breath can produce or the human ear can catch; beyond this there is still the range of celestial harmony, which reaches even four times the octave and fifth.’


“What is of interest is the ‘range of celestial harmony.’ According the translators’ note to this sentence, Macrobius’s number four here was “Because twenty-seven was the largest number in the construction of the World-Soul (see above,, and note), and because, according to his statement in the next paragraph, there would be four octaves and a fifth in twenty-seven and a half tones.’ Section is Macrobius’s discussion of the so-called Platonic Lambda, where the World-Soul is constructed, starting from unity, by the numbers 2, 4, and 8 on one side and 3, 9 and 27 on the other. Section II.i.25 says that an octave has six tones, and the ratio known as the fifth has 3.5 tones, making 27.5 tones for 4 octaves and a fifth, or, divided by 6, 4.7 octaves. So just as the universe has 4 elements, four octaves is the extent of the range of its’“perfect consonances.’ 


“I conclude that specifically Pythagorean considerations, and not just the theory of the four elements, clearly did play a major role in Gosselin’s argument (in at least steps 1, 4, 5 and 6 above). That is not to say that his argument is convincing. First, that there are four suits may be for different reasons: the four sides of the cards, for example, or what makes for the most interesting games. Second, the inventors of French suit-signs may have had other reasons for choosing the signs they did. Current thinking is that the French signs were adaptations, for ease of stenciling, of German suit signs (Dummett, Game of Tarot, pp. 22-23). But the French signs of Tiles and Clovers are not just simplified Bells and Acorns, and the German names (for Leaves, Acorns, Bells, and Hearts) are quite different, except for Hearts. Could the four elements have been a consideration? I do not have a better theory. Third, the inventors of the game of Trente et Un may have had other reasons for choosing the number 31, having to do with what makes a good game. But again, I do not have a better theory. Fourth, as to why the court cards were given the point value of 10, it makes for easier addition of points. But Pythagoreanism is not ruled out.” (4)


This careful analysis by Dr. Michael Howard establishes in a fair and argued manner that the little book of Jean Gosselin clearly falls within an authentically Pythagorean setting: “a Pythagorean framework.”


SECOND PART: a Pythagorean analysis in conformity with the Platonic theory of the elements presented in the Timaeus?


Gosselin's analysis unfolds in a Pythagorean setting, as Michael S HOWARD writes in his conclusion (above).

Is the reference to antiquity limited to Pythagoras or is it broader: is there an unquestionably Platonic connotation? And if so, what?


However, a link not highlighted by the specialists is suggested by pseudo-Iamblichus in the Theologoumena Arithmeticae, who says, “Speusippus, the son of Plato's sister Potone and head of the Academy before Xenocrates, compiled a polished little book from the Pythagorean writings which were particularly valued over time, and especially from the writings of Philolaus - he entitled the book On Pythagorean Numbers. In the first half of the book, he elegantly expounds linear numbers, polygonal numbers and all sorts of plane numbers, solid numbers, and the five figures which are assigned to the elements of the universe, discussing both their individual attributes and their shared features, and their proportionality and reciprocity.” (5)




The order of the elements offered by Gosselin in Pythagorean Cards is not fortuitous; this order turns out to be in perfect conformity with that described by Plato in the Timaeus. This is not a vague enumeration of the Elements, but a specific order of succession: not just any but that of the Timaeus.


That Plato was not the originator of this theory probably inherited from Empedocles is not the issue here. What matters is its expression in the Timaeus and the knowledge of it or not by Gosselin.


Of course, some minds will think that the explanation given by Gosselin of the hierarchy of the elements between them is not a reading of Plato but common sense: Earth being below Water with Air above and finally Fire. Why not?


However, Gosselin throughout his little Treatise does not engage in a presentation of ordinary cards according to common sense, does he? He reads it as Pythagorean. And to explain the suits/elements correspondences, he resorts not to any hierarchy but to the same hierarchy presented by Plato in the Timaeus. Now, it is also possible to envisage that he had recourse to other ancient sources.


As a man of letters and Librarian of the King, he most probably had access to the ancient manuscripts accessible in his time ... Are these the works of those Ancients of which he speaks in his Epistle in the following order:


1. “Plato” 2. “Aristotle” 3. “some Pythagorean philosophers”


My hypothesis, in the current state, remains unchanged: the correspondence that Gosselin establishes between the 4 elements and the 4 Suits is in conformity with the presentation given by Plato in the Timaeus that Gosselin has to have read and meditated on. The discovery of Gosselin's possible sources of inspiration will invalidate or confirm, modify or even refine this hypothesis.


“First, it should be considered that in a game of common cards, there are four manners of characters, which are tiles, clovers, hearts and pikes. Which represent to us the four Elements of which all natural things are composed. These Elements are located and arranged in the world in the following order. The Earth is the heaviest of all and in the midst of the other three Elements, supports on itself and in itself, all things heavy; Water is less heavy than Earth and is spread around the Earth in several places. Air is lighter than Water - that's why it surrounds Water and Earth. And the Fire, which is the lightest of all, is over the Air - which it surrounds on all sides and touches the heaven of the Moon.


“The tiles which are painted on the cards signify the Earth: because just as the Earth supports all heavy things, tiles are also capable of supporting the heavy things we put on them. The clovers that are painted on the cards represent Water for us because clover is a grass that grows in a humid environment and feeds on the water which sprinkles it. The hearts that are painted on the cards mean Air for us - that is, our hearts cannot live without air. The pikes that are painted on the cards represent Fire for us because Fire is the most penetrating of the four Elements like pikes which are very penetrating instruments of war.


“And from each of the characters mentioned are marked thirteen cards in a deck which equal, in all, fifty-two cards.”  (6)


What is the origin of the Theory of the Elements? It is found in Empedocles, but with a different hierarchy.


“The foundation text can be found in Empédocles (around 460 BC):


"’Firstly know the quadruple root of all things: Zeus with luminous fires, Hera mother of life, and then Aidoneus, Nestis finally, whose tears mortals drink.’"


“This text can be interpreted in two different ways: one can think that Zeus, god of the celestial light, indicates Fire; Hera, his wife, Air; Aidoneus (Hades), god of hell, Earth; and Nestis (Poseidon) Water. But Stobaeus associates to Hera, Earth (feminine principle) and to Aidoneus, Air (masculine principle). Empedocles adds two spiritual forces to the four material elements. Diogenes Laërtes says this about Empedocles: ‘His theories were as follows: there are four elements, fire, water, earth and air. Friendship brings them together and Hatred separates them’ (VIII, 76). The order or hierarchy of elements is also subject to interpretation. According to the first interpretation presented above, Empedocles names the elements in the following order, without explaining why: Fire, Air, Earth and Water.” (7)


Aristotle confirms the order Fire Air Water Earth, as Plato presented it to him in the Timaeus. “Aristotle, basing himself on the idea that heat rises and that there is always earth under water, establishes the series: Fire, Air, Water and Earth.” (8)


The correspondence established by Gosselin is identical to that of the origin of the Body of the Cosmos by the Demiurge: “First of all, that Fire, Earth, Water and Air are bodies, this is undoubtedly obvious to anyone. .... The Demiurge placed Air and Water between Fire and Earth. These elements, four in number, formed the body of the Cosmos. Harmonized proportionally, this is Friendship." (PLATO, Timaeus 53c, 32c)


The hierarchy of elements is therefore: Earth / Water / Air / Fire.


This order of the 4 elements is indeed that on which Gosselin based himself to establish the correspondences with the 4 suits of the deck of ordinary cards. The correlation established by Gosselin is therefore perfectly in agreement with the order of the elements given by Plato in the Timaeus.


On the other hand, if the explanation he offers to justify these correspondences of the elements with the suits - the respective gravity of the elements (from the most “heavy,” Earth, to the least “heavy,” Fire), put into a hierarchy, from the most stable (Earth) to the lightest (Fire), we sense a vertical ascent linked to the density of the elements,

the analogies he proposes between elements and suits seem to be his invention.


The fact that Gosselin was the inventor of these correspondences in no way diminishes his legitimacy, in the context of a Pythagorean reading, in doing so. Indeed, Gosselin is legitimately located in a Pythagorean tradition historically attested to link the four elements together. As such, the proposals were multiple and diverse (9)


If it is true that Gosselin is not a historian of cards, and that his belief that the game would have been created by some minds learned in Pythagoreanism is in no way confirmed by contemporary research, his Pythagorean Game of Cards remains a rare testimony, perhaps unique in the history of cards, of an undeniably Pythagorean reading, with implicit references to the genesis of the elements in perfect conformity with the Timaeus of Plato.




In my opinion, this little book of Jean Gosselin has not been appreciated at its fair value.


The work, which follows the revival of Pythagorean and Platonic ideas in France, does indeed have a Pythagorean framework and its symbolism of the four suits is to be found in the Platonic hierarchy of the four elements.


In addition, the specific expression "“jeu pythagorique” ["Pythagorean game"] seems to be straight from Le très excellent et ancien jeu pythagorique dict Rhythmomachie [The very excellent and ancient Pythagorean game called Rhythmomachia] by Claude de Boissière, published in 1556 (10)


It will be remembered moreover that:


-    The use of Pythagorean proportions of numbers for a winning strategy was part of the tradition of “philosophers games” (Anne E. MOYER, The Philosophers' Game, Rithmomachia in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, University of Michigan Press, 2001).


-    The scholar Lefevre D'Etaples wrote (1496. 1514) the Rithmimachiae ludus qui et pugna numerorum appellatur


The remaining question would be the following: whether or not this scholarly Librarian of the King had access to Platonic, Aristotelian and Pythagorean texts ... and if so, which ones?


Did not Gosselin claim as sources of his inspiration: Plato, Aristotle and “some Pythagorean philosophers”?


One thing is certain.


Somehow, his Pythagorean card game is a result of the revival of Pythagoreanism in France.

We may cite Trithemius, Reuchlin, Lefèvre d'Etaples, Champier, Bouelles, Bude, Amy, Lefebvre de la Beauderie.


Lefèvre d'Etaples alone published, with comments:

-         l'Arithmétique de Boèce [The Arithmetic of Boethius] (1503, 1510, 1522), - that of Nemorarius (1514) - De cubitione spherae, De quadratura circuli (1503)


Concerning those who propagated in France the Platonic ideas of Marsilio Ficino, I would highlight the figures of D'Etaples (11) (and his disciple Champier:


In 1483 D'Etaples is in Florence, meets Ficino and Pico della Mirandola and decides to translate the Pimander: Mercurii Trismegisti liber de potestate et sapientia Dei.

Lazzarelli Septempedano, converted to Christian hermetism by reading the writings of Hermes, composes the Crater Hermetis, which will be integrated with the Hermetic corpus published by D'Etaples on April 1, 1505 at the [publishing] house of H Etienne.

D'Etaples therefore joins Lazzarelli's dialogue to the translation of the Pimander by Ficino and that of the Asclepius by pseudo-Apuleius.

The two great works of Hermes Trismegistus are reunited in one book, with commentary by chapter.


Michael Howard notes, to good effect, among other indications on this subject, regarding the connections between Lazzarelli and Champier, that the intermediary was, according to Prof. Hanegraaff, a certain "Mercurio" who Lazzarelli met in Rome in 1481.


Champier published in 1507 the Definitiones Asclepii translated by Lazzarelli, unknown to D'Etaples.


In 1508, a Theologia Trismegista


How did he discover these texts, when Lazzarelli died in 1500?


According to K Ohly, Lazzarelli's master Giovanni Mercurio da Correggio went to France to do this. (12).




Speculative hypothesis relating to the correspondence elements/suits: “invented” by Gosselin.


If Gosselin is indeed at the origin of these correspondences, as one can reasonably suppose, what correlations could have inspired him?


As a highly hypothetical speculation ...


Knowing - he is a scholar in charge of the Royal Library and must have read Empedocles - that he quotes in the Epistle of the game of Pythagorean Cards, among his references Plato, Aristotle, and some Pythagorean philosophers and also alludes to Cicero in his Jeu de Paume, a small booklet following his Jeu des chartes pythagoriques - it is not forbidden to imagine: - that he first positioned the Earth and the Fire as recommended by Plato. “The Demiurge placed Air and Water between Fire and Earth.”


Platonic solids play a decisive role in the philosophy of Plato, from whom they were named. Plato, in the dialogue Timeaus (approx. 358 BC), associated each of the four elements (Earth, Air, Water and Fire) with a regular solid. Earth was associated with the cube (Timaeus, 55d), Air with the octahedron, Water with the icosahedron and Fire with the tetrahedron. There existed a justification for these associations: the heat of Fire seems sharp and like a dagger (like a little tetrahedron). Air consists of the octahedron; its tiny components are so soft you can barely smell them. Water, the icosahedron, escapes from the hand when it is grasped, as if it were made up of tiny little balls. The most stable solid, the hexahedron (cube), represents the Earth. These small solids make dust when crumbled and break when grabbed, a big difference from the gentle flow of water.


Pikes related to the element of Fire, “whose heat seems sharp and like a dagger (like a little Tetrahedron)” and Tiles to Earth (idea of gravity and density), as tiles from the Latin quadrus meaning square, the element constituting the Cube?


The other two elements would fall under an implicit reference to the Ancients. Did he remember the Stoic philosophy of the Roman Cicero? The Stoics located the Heart between the seat of thoughts (the brain) and the seat of appetites (the stomach): it is there in the chest that the Heart, also identified with the Breath, sits. Gosselin, a scholar, also knew that the etymology of the word heart in Latin, cordis, also referred to this meaning: Heart/Anima/Breath, therefore Air ... The remaining sign, Clover, could therefore only correspond to the element of Water. Gosselin here again could not ignore that Empedocles invokes Nestis, i.e. Poseidon, as the deity of the Element of Water. The Three points of the Neptunian Trident and the three leaves of the Clover? In addition, the only symbol of the plant world succeeding the mineral world? Nothing proves it ... but one can imagine it.


GOSSELIN TEXT: transcriptions and translations


1. Free transcriptions of the classical French document into modern French, by Alain BOUGEAREL:


Dedication and Epistle pp 1-10


Preface pp. 11-16


First part pp 17-20


Second Part pp 21-30


Third part pp 30-40


2. Free translations from modern French to modern English


Title page, Dedication and Epistle (by Michael S. HOWARD)


Preface and First Part, Getting to know the meaning of the game of cards (by Steve MANGAN)


Second part, To demonstrate how consonances and harmonies are born of the proportions belonging to music (by Steve MANGAN)


Third part, the meaning of the images and the characters of the game of cards: and how the said game represents the composition of each natural thing (by Steve MANGAN)




1 - The reader can consult this work in its original edition at:

2  There are around 30 pages in the Opuscule of Jean Gosselin .The book has exactly 29 pages with the other final essay  - counting from the initial first page. The essay on the Pythagorean game of cards has 21 pages and counting  from the first page, 22.


3 - Rabelais:

4 Cf: Michael S HOWARD

5 Theologoumena Arithmeticae, translated by Robin Waterfield, Phanes Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1988, pp. 111-112, online at

6 Modernized French transcription:



9 CAIAZZO Irene, The form and qualities of the elements: medieval readings of Timaeus,


11  Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples

12 See Michael Howard:


Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Ruud M. Bouthoornn, Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447-1500): The Hermetic Writings and Related Documents, Volume 281 of Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, Publisher, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005. (Original from the University of Michigan 2005 Digitized Oct 2, 2008 ISBN 0866983244, 9780866983242.