My recent post entitled “frick” notwithstanding, it’s been three months (to the day) since I last posted here.
The frustrating thing is that I said I’d be studying the occult aspects of the Tarot in the meantime, and I just haven’t been.
Instead, I figured I’d study that other occult tradition – Music Theory – and, well, I’ve also been less than productive in that area.*
But I won’t bore you with that.** Instead, I’ll bore you with something else…
I used to think I could keep up a regular series about the Wheel of the Year, and I started that series at Samhain. You might know this day as Halloween. I really don’t need to get into the significance of Halloween here, since I’ve written about it before,*** but suffice it to say that it’s important to me.
Well, it’s nearly Samhain again, and I thought I’d share what’s on my mind, for old times’ sake.
No Wildwood today, but I did get a new deck a few weeks back, and I’ve been using it exclusively for the month of October. It’s called the Halloween Tarot, by Kipling West.
I do intend on reviewing it (someday), but long story short, I love it. It’s essentially a Rider deck, but Halloween themed, and it’s resonated with me, even when my readings make no sense.****
Honestly, the only reason I’m posting now is that I’d intended on writing a review about this deck in time for Halloween while simultaneously revisiting my old Samhain/Wheel of the Year posts, but I just don’t think I can do it in time. These things take thought, and they take a bit of work, and even though I feel like I’m failing to work hard enough as a musician, I still am working too hard at that to write frickin blog posts about the Tarot, so I wanted to drop this train-of-thought, run-on-sentence sort of post to at least let all of you few who read this know that I actually am thinking about the cards. Even though I can’t write regularly.
Let my own birthday existential crisis commence: for all the rest of you, happy Halloween.
*Alright, to be fair to my own ego, I’m still a damn good guitarist and musician, and have been consistently working to better myself on that front. But I am also painfully aware of how much more I could (should?) be doing each day.
**Full disclosure: this blog has inadvertently become a musician’s blog under the guise of a Tarotist’s blog. But more on that another day.
***Good God, has it really been three years since I first posted about Samhain? I’m starting to freak out.
****Incidentally, the World has haunted my past three readings with this deck. I’m starting to wonder what that might mean for me. That card is not an everyday card, after all.
A few days or so after I wrote my most recent blog post (which was a while ago now), I went out and bought a new Tarot (whoops). Upon opening and browsing through the cards, I realized that my post was not entirely accurate.
The last several posts I’ve written have been about the major patterns of Tarot decks – namely the Tarot de Marseille, the Rider-Waite-Smith, and the Thoth. To sum up, the vast majority of decks produced today are derived from one of these three “classics.” The post in question today was my treatment of the Thoth pattern, in which I laid out some rather specific criteria which must be met in order for a deck to be considered one.
Surely Mr. Crowley would agree with these criteria, and yet there exist certain new-age Tarots that don’t meet them.
Unfortunately for my analytical side (the side which brought you these posts), these new-age Tarots don’t fit any of the other patterns, either.
I’ll write a review of my new deck at another time.* The point today is that, while it is not an “occult” deck of cards, it fits the Thoth template better than any other.
This is strange, because at first glance, it might look like it came from the Rider tradition. After all, there is no overt occultism – although there is liberal use of symbolism – the pictures are rather intuitive, and the small cards are illustrated with scenic imagery. But Strength is not 8, it is 11.
So it’s clearly not a Rider, because that is one of the defining characteristics of the RWS. Furthermore, the pictures don’t even really call the Rider to mind. Rather, it’s imagery is too divergent to be a Rider, and the entire thing is far too non-traditional in every other respect to be a Marseille, either. Upon closer examination, I realized that the small cards, though illustrated, are closer to pips than to actual scenes. They are incredibly artistic, and they certainly don’t have astrological glyphs on them, but they nonetheless appear to have been inspired by the artwork which first appeared on the Thoth Tarot.
To use examples of this idea from my other posts on the subject, a Marseille Tarot would be something like the CBD-TdM, while a Marseille-inspired would be something like the Deviant Moon. The Mystical Tarot is a Rider, while the Shadowscapes is Rider-inspired. It’s a question of how close to the original the imagery of a given deck is, and in the case of seemingly original imagery, which underlying pattern does it most closely match?
So I’m here to clear the confusion up. I only have one deck of cards that truly fits the criteria for the Thoth, and that’s the Thoth. But I do have two or three decks that fit the Thoth pattern, at least, more than any other pattern of which I’m aware.
*The Vision Quest Tarot. Not a Thoth by any stretch, but you can tell that the creators were inspired by Mr. Crowley’s cards more than they were by Waite’s or anyone else’s.
I first wrote about Mr. Crowley’s Thoth Tarot here, and considering the fact that this post is an example of one of my earliest entries on this blog, I’m actually still quite pleased with it (this is probably because I’d read Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot prior to writing the post, so for once I actually kind of knew what I was talking about).
The Thoth represents the third major “Tarot Tradition” – the classics that form the bedrock of my collection alongside the RWS and TdM. However, because the criteria for what fits the Thoth-pattern are comparatively nit-picky, I can’t really say that I have anything other than the Thoth itself in my collection that truly fits it.
I’m going to leave out all the parts that have to do with Mr. Crowley being an abominable character – you can go ahead and take that for granted. Frankly, it doesn’t bother me one bit, at least, not insofar as my appreciation for his cards and their companion text The Book of Thoth are concerned. They stand on their own merits, and these are actually quite compelling. Truthfully, I find the Thoth to be more powerful than either the RWS or the TdM, and that is a result of both Crowley’s intellectual genius and encyclopedic knowledge of all things esoteric (like him or not, he was what he was) and the downright mind-melting quality of the artwork, courtesy of Freida Harris (my abbreviation for this deck is CHT, by the way, for Crowley-Harris-Thoth).
First published in 1969 (after the deaths of both Crowley and Harris) the Thoth Tarot was born from a creative process that took five years, from 1938 to 1943. It is a treasure trove of occultism condensed into a neat deck of 78 very colorful cards. Like Waite and Smith, Crowley was a member of the Golden Dawn (and not a very popular one – his promotion through the ranks of the order was the cause of such contention that it was a major contributing factor to the order’s eventual dissolution), and the influence of their teachings is unashamedly blatant in the cards (as opposed to Waite’s comparatively veiled symbolism). The flamboyant Crowley obviously did not take his oaths as seriously as his fellows.
Aside from the astonishing artwork, the most visible change Mr. Crowley and Lady Harris made to the Tarot were some title changes to the Major Arcana. As I discussed in the above-linked post about the Thoth, this is largely an attempt to adapt his cards to the changing times (the Procession of the Equinoxes, to put it in astrology-speak) and usher in a new era, or aeon, for humankind, of which the Beast himself was supposedly the prophet (in a way, he did prefigure what we call today the New-Age movement, although new-agers tend to hold somewhat of a watered-down (to put it mildly) view of things compared to Crowley – although, really, who doesn’t). He maintained the astrological attributions that led Waite and the Golden Dawn to switch the order of Justice and Strength, but in the deck he reverted them back to their original numerical order (that is, Justice as 8 and Strength as 11). He did switch the Kabbalistic attributions for two cards from that which were held by the Golden Dawn, but again, he did not let this affect the numerical order of the cards. This switch is a subtle, below-the-surface change, but it is one of the defining characteristics of the Thoth, and is often one of the criteria that prevents a would-be Thoth derivative from truly fitting the Thoth pattern (because his Tarot is so overtly occult, a higher significance is placed on such attributions than it would be on, say, a RWS deck, meaning there is greater leeway in what counts as a RWS compared to what counts as a CHT). But I’ll discuss the change a little more in-depth later. For now, onto the more apparent differences.
It is, I should hardly have to say, a given that the visual design of each card is often very different from its precursors in the TdM tradition (although most of the original symbolism that defines each trump remains relatively intact).
I – The Juggler/Magician becomes the Magus
II – The Popess/High Priestess becomes simply the Priestess
V – retains the title of Hierophant (not really a change from the RWS, but it’s worth noting that the card did not revert to its TdM designation)
VI – retains the title of Lovers, although the imagery recalls the TdM much more closely than does Waite’s
VIII – Justice regains her original position and is renamed Adjustment
X – The Wheel of Fortune is simply called Fortune
XI – Force/Strength becomes Lust
XIV – Temperance becomes Art
XX – Judgement becomes the Aeon, and the imagery is radically changed (this is often the other major criteria that isn’t met with would-be CHT derivatives – the card is usually called the Aeon, but does not include the required image update)
XIX – The World becomes the Universe
Some of these title changes seem to me to be simply based on Crowley’s preference, such as the Magus and the Priestess. Most of them, however, are the result of Crowley’s aforementioned “updates,” made in preparation for the new aeon. Contributing factors include alchemical and Kabbalistic correspondences, which were evidently not clear enough for Crowley in the more traditional models. These changes are fascinating, but I believe they each deserve their own posts (and someday when I’m further along in my study of The Book of Thoth, I’ll be sure to write them).
Now before I move on to the Minor Arcana, I’ll describe the Kabbalistic change mentioned earlier, as promised.
Each trump is assigned a Hebrew letter, which gives it Kabbalistic significance. The English schools of occultism place the letters in their proper order, beginning with the Fool as Aleph (this is different from the French schools, which start the sequence with the Juggler – who they never got around to renaming). This means that the Emperor receives Heh as his letter, and the Star receives Tzaddi as hers. Mr. Crowley, at the behest of his Holy Guardian Angel (a subject for yet another post – in the meantime, just suspend your disbelief as best you can), switched them.
I’ll admit, for a very long time, I neither understood nor cared about such esoteric minutae. It was only very recently that it started to make some semblance of sense to me. Mr. Crowley gives his own explanation in the book, but to me, it’s actually quite simple: Heh is the letter of the Divine Feminine element of the Tetragrammation – why on earth should this letter be assigned to the most masculine of the cards? The Star, on the other hand, seems a much better fit. This in and of itself might not mean much, but in the first few pages of the Book of Thoth, Crowley provides a nifty little diagram of the belt of the zodiac along with the Hebrew correspondences. Previously there was a loop around Virgo (the Hermit and the letter Yod) where Justice and Strength were placed, which left the circle unbalanced and led the Golden Dawn to switch the cards around. With Crowley’s new attributions, there is an additional loop around Pisces (the Moon and letter Qoph), on either side of which are placed Aries (the Emperor) and Aquarius (the Star). It brings a pleasing symmetry back to the belt (and, might I add, draws new attention to the connection between the Hermit and the Moon, which delights me but otherwise seems unimportant). The cards can be left in their traditional Marseille order, and these loops just implied.
This is all a bit on the technical side, I suppose, but it is an important part of what sets the Thoth Tarot apart from the rest.
Anyways. On to the Minor Arcana.
The small cards are basically just jazzed-up versions of pips, with stylized suit symbols set in vibrantly symbolic color and geometric schemes and adorned with the appropriate astrological signs. They did get suggestive titles (these based on the Golden Dawn’s titles), such as “Peace” (Two of Swords) and “Ruin” (Ten of Swords). Like Waite, Crowley opted to change the name of the suit of Coins, calling them Disks. Wands, Cups and Swords are still Wands, Cups and Swords.
The court cards are where things really get interesting again (and confusing, so bear with me). Instead of the traditional King, Queen, Knight, and Page, what we have here are the Knight (elemental equivalent of the King, but, as Duquette put it, much sexier on his horse and therefore better suited to seduce his Queen*), Queen on her throne, Prince (elemental equivalent of the traditional Knight) in his chariot, and Princess (equivalent of the Page). These elemental equivalencies are again based on the Golden Dawn, and are actually also reflected in the RWS, although Waite chose to keep the traditional titles derived from the TdM. This will be the subject of yet another post, I think, so suffice it to say that, in the CHT, Knights=Kings and Princes=Knights, and yes, it is a headache.
So, I think that might be it for the basic pattern of the Thoth Tarot. In some ways, this is the most radical departure from the tradition of the Marseille Tarots yet; in others, though, the Thoth remains truer to the tradition than the Rider does (especially in the order of the Major Arcana and the small cards reminiscent of pips). Again, I really don’t have any Thoth clones in my collection. The closest thing is probably the Sun and Moon Tarot by Vanessa Decort or the Hermetic Tarot by Godfrey Dowson, although these cards fail to meet both of the aforementioned criteria (that is, Tzaddi as the Emperor and the redefined imagery for the Aeon).
Because this deck is such a distinctive powerhouse in the world of Tarot, I think I’ll slowly chip away at it with a post for each card (which will undoubtedly take an extremely long time to accomplish, so let it be said now that I’m not going to try to rush myself through it).
Having discussed the Marseilles Tarots in a previous post, I will now move on to the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (abbreviated RWS).* My personal collection contains more of these than any other type of Tarot.
Unlike the Marseilles, which in its time saw numerous variations of the same basic template, the Rider was a unique deck of cards for many years. It is considered among the “traditions” alongside the TdM now though, because several decades following its publication (starting roughly in the 1970s), it inspired countless knock-offs, “clones,” and derivatives. Today it is the most recognizable pattern in the world, with hundreds upon hundreds of “original” decks based on it.
Arthur Edward Waite was a one-time member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as a prolific scholar on occultism. The RWS is the result of his efforts to produce a “rectified” pack of cards.**
Pamela Coleman Smith was a talented artist and also a member of the Golden Dawn. She was commissioned by Waite to help realize his vision for the new Tarot.
Once completed, the cards were first published in 1909 by the Rider company in London, hence the “Rider-Waite-Smith” designation. The same company published Waite’s companion text to the cards, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, the following year.
There are two main reasons why this deck was so revolutionary for its time. The first was the publication of the Pictorial Key. This was the first time the creator of a Tarot deck published a companion text for his cards. Wild speculations surrounded the Marseille Tarot, and until modern historical research came into play, no one could prove or disprove any of it. In the 1790s, who could deny Court de Gebelin’s claim that the Tarot descended from the Egyptian High Priests? There was no book from the designer to explain what was meant by the cards or what inspired them. Hell, there wasn’t even a single designer who could lay claim to the cards’ creation.
The Marseille Tarot is just a deck of playing cards at the end of the day. The Rider Tarot, by contrast, is not. We know what the creator intended them to represent, because he wrote a book about it.***
The second thing that sets this deck apart from its predecessors is Smith’s illustrated Minor Arcana. Instead of the simple pips that grace the TdM, she designed scenic interpretations of all 40 small cards. This is an artistic feat in itself, and is all the more impressive considering it was virtually unheard of at the time.****
These scenes are supposed to depict the meanings of the cards as they are used in divination, based on sources such as Etteilla and the Golden Dawn’s occult correspondences. There are criticisms about the validity or accuracy of these pictures, but that is a subject for a different post.*****
Today, the Rider Tarot surpasses the TdM as the most widely copied template for Tarot decks. The most obvious indication that a deck is a RWS or one of its derivatives is the illustrated Minor Arcana. Just because a Tarot has an illustrated Minor Arcana does not mean it’s an RWS, although odds are it was at least inspired in part by it. Smith’s drawings are fairly distinctive. Her version of the Ten of Swords, for example, depicts a man dead and facedown on the ground with ten swords plunged into his back. A deck inspired by the Rider will stay more or less consistent with Smith’s work, although the style may reflect a particular artist or theme. The Rider pack shows an idealized medieval world. A Rider derivative with a cat theme (which does exist) would show similar scenery and circumstances, except instead of people in tunics and armor and funny hats, there would be cats (having not seen these Cat Tarots except on the shelf at the store, I can’t attest to whether or not the Ten of Swords is as violent as Smith’s depiction. I’d wager that it probably isn’t). Some RWS derivatives are more clever in their interpretations of Smith’s work than others.
The suits are the same as the traditional Italian with the exception of Coins, which Waite opted to rename “Pentacles” to reflect his occult leanings. The Pentacles are, of course, still coins, except each is inscribed with a pentagram instead of the trefoil or fleur-de-lis designs found on the TdM Coins. The court cards are essentially the same as the TdM, as well, except of course for Smith’s art in place of the woodblock prints.
The Ace of Coins from a TdM.
The Ace of Pentacles from an RWS.
While the Minor Arcana is more wildly different than that of the Marseille with its pips, Waite did dictate some significant changes to the Major Arcana, as well. Many of these changes actually had their basis in the Golden Dawn’s Tarot. What almost certainly started as a Tarot based on the TdM was redesigned to accommodate their occult correspondences, but it was the RWS that brought these changes to the mainstream:
Above are the most noticeable changes Waite made, although each card of the Major Arcana was adjusted from the TdM (some more than others). Furthermore, they were designed with specific occult doctrines in mind, and this informed much of the artistic liberties taken with the Rider Tarot. In the TdM, the Chariot is just that – a chariot drawn by a pair of horses and driven by a crowned warrior wielding a scepter. In the RWS, the Chariot is drawn by a pair of sphinxes, one black and one white, and the charioteer is adorned with all manner of symbolic accoutrements, from his head to his waist.
It is important to understand that the Rider Tarot didn’t just appear from the ether. It, like the TdM before it, was the culmination of many, many years of artistic tradition. And, unlike the TdM, it was also the culmination of many, many years of occult tradition, as well. Once de Gebelin and Etteilla opened their can of worms, the Tarot and the occult would forever be intertwined, like the snakes around the caduceus. Integral to the design of the RWS is the (often veiled) Kabbalistic, astrological, and alchemical symbolism of the Golden Dawn, as well as motifs culled from Waite’s personal fascination with Christian mysticism and the Grail Legends. Much of this goes unnoticed by the modern novice fortune-teller, but it’s all there.
To the trained eye, the French and Italian roots are still discernible in the RWS, but by 1910 the Tarot had taken on a life of its own. After 1910, the Tarot would branch out even more. Just do a google search on the Tarot, and you’ll see what I mean. No longer confined to the stuffy lodges of occult secret societies or the gambling tables of smoky taverns, the Tarot is now a worldwide popular phenomenon, and this is largely thanks to Waite, Smith, and the Rider company of London (although as a stuffy member of some of those stuffy lodges, it’s unlikely that Waite ever foresaw his esoteric Tarot exploding into popular culture like it did).
In conclusion, a Tarot is of the RWS pattern if it meets all or most of these criteria: illustrated small cards (especially if the illustrations are directly inspired by Smith’s work), Pentacles instead of Coins, Strength as 8 and Justice as 11, and the Magician instead of the Juggler (as well as the other trumps having less of a Renaissance morality drama vibe and more of a secret Hermetic society vibe).
*Besides Rider-Waite-Smith, these cards are also often called Smith-Waite, Waite-Smith, Rider-Waite, or simply Rider (or, less often, simply Waite or Smith). I prefer either the full RWS or just Rider.
**Waite was not even remotely the first to rectify the symbolism of the Tarot, although he was probably the most successful in creating a lasting change in the popular imagination.
***The Pictorial Key is anything but clear – in many instances, Waite deliberately obscured the truth behind his designs. This is somewhat understandable, however, when one considers the oaths of secrecy required by organizations such as the Golden Dawn. His book nonetheless exists, which was a novelty for its time, and can still be pointed to as evidence for Waite’s intentions.
****There does exist a very early Tarot called the Sola Busca, which also has illustrated small cards. In fact, a handful of them appear to have been a direct inspiration for Smith, a connection which seems all the more plausible when one considers that the Sola Busca was on display at a museum in London while Smith and Waite were working on the cards. The Sola Busca remains, however, an anomaly and a curiosity relegated to the fringes of the Tarot world. While Smith almost certainly drew inspiration from these very strange cards, she still revolutionized the Tarot with her illustrations. It is, after all, the RWS, and not the Sola Busca, that is ingrained in the popular imagination.
*****The Rider deserves at least an entire post of its own detailing its actual occult background – and perhaps some more in-depth biographical info about its creators – but as this is meant to be a post about the pattern which is the basis of many other decks having little or nothing to do with said background, I figured I’d better wait (no pun intended) for such a lengthy digression. Footnotes abound as it is.
I mentioned in a recent post that I intend on re-reviewing the Tarot decks in my collection. I would like to do each deck on an individual basis, but before I embark on this undertaking, I think it would be appropriate to first discuss a couple “patterns” of decks. These are considered by most to represent the mainstream traditions of Tarot cards, and my collection contains a few examples of each.
In a nutshell, I want to talk a bit about these traditions before delving into specific versions, which will serve the dual purpose of covering what might otherwise be redundant information in each review, as well as glossing over some basics that I think everyone who has more than a passing interest in the Tarot should know.
To begin, I’ll chat about the Marseille Tarots, but first, I’ll rewind a touch and set the stage for them by briefly mentioning Tarot as it existed previously.
The first decks of cards that can accurately be called “Tarots” first appeared in Italy sometime in the 1400s, ostensibly derived from simpler packs of playing cards with four suits. Historical records suggest that, like their ancestors, these were intended for gaming, although the allegorical images which graced the trumps may certainly have held some kind of deeper significance, educational, commemorative, religious or otherwise.* These cards (at least, those which have survived to the present) are quite lavish and were commissioned by nobles.
Among these early packs, there appears to have been a general consensus about the structure, although differences abound. For example, the number and order of the trumps, as well as their pictorial content, was not constant, nor even was the number of the court cards. It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that a more or less standard pattern emerged.
This standardization was the result of two things: one, the printing press had made mass production possible – and perhaps more importantly, economically preferable – and cards for the laity produced by woodcuts with colored stencils became the norm. Two, for some reason or another, the French city of Marseille became the center of production for Tarot cards (although there were certainly packs being produced elsewhere).
The Marseille Tarot (or TdM, as I like to abbreviate them on this blog, for Tarot de Marseille) thus emerged as the standard pattern which persists even to this day. There are several variations of the basic Marseilles template. Each master card maker had his own particular rendition, but the only real differences between them are in the minute details.
The TdM occupies a vital place in the history of the Tarot. On one hand, it represents the culmination of a couple centuries of artistic evolution; on the other, it represents the point of departure for future development of the Tarot.
It was Marseille cards that, in the mid-to-late 1700s, were in the hands of Court de Gebelin and Etteilla, and which served to inspire them in their occult theorizing and pseudo-historical pontificating about the Tarot’s supposed origins. All of the Tarots subsequently designed are therefore derived from the TdM. It is, in the words of the late Yoav Ben-Dov, “accepted … as the genuine model of the traditional cards.”**
There are several features which are characteristic of Marseille cards. Perhaps most obviously in this post-RWS day and age are the Minor Arcana (that is, the suits of the small cards), which are illustrated only with pips, or symbols of the suits. The Ten of Coins, for example, features ten coins and some decorative foliage, and nothing else. They are rather plain and clearly reminiscent of their precursors in regular playing cards. The suit symbols themselves are Wands, Swords, Cups, and Coins. These symbols are the Italian versions of the suits, a reminder of their peninsular origins. Other countries have since developed their own suit symbols (the French symbols being most common in playing cards today, especially in America), but the Marseille Tarots have always maintained the Italian.
The artistic style of the TdM is also instantly recognizable. As previously mentioned, the cards were produced by woodcuts, with heavy black lines and lots of white space, and the color palate was relatively limited. Red, yellow, blue, green and a fleshy-pink tone are usually all there is. To modern sensibilities, the TdM may appear simplistic, even somewhat crude, but is no less beautiful for it. Even TdM-based cards produced today tend to maintain this aesthetic.
There are four court or face cards in each suit (16 altogether), and these are designated Page, Knight, Queen and King. Pages are pictured standing, Knights on horseback, and Queens and Kings seated on thrones. Each holds the emblem of his or her suit (except the Knight of Coins, which usually depicts the Coin floating over his head, while he holds some sort of cudgel).
The Major Arcana, or the extra suit of trumps, numbers 22. These are numbered and titled as follows:
I – The Juggler
II – The Popess
III – The Empress
IIII – The Emperor
V – The Pope
VI – The Lover
VII – The Chariot
VIII – Justice
VIIII – The Hermit
X – The Wheel of Fortune
XI – Fortitude or Force
XII – The Hanged Man
XIII – (Untitled)
XIIII – Temperance
XV – The Devil
XVI – The Tower
XVII – The Star
XVIII – The Moon
XVIIII – The Sun
XX – The Last Judgement
XXI – The World
(Unnumbered) – The Fool
(This is all certainly common knowledge for most readers of my blog, but I want to be thorough)
Two cards in particular stand out in the Marseille tradition: The Fool, because it is without a numerical designation (in the TdM, the Fool is not labeled “0” as it is in other packs), and card XIII, because it is without a title (it is usually called “Death” in other packs).
All of these figures are clearly derived from earlier models, especially the Visconti-Sforza Tarot (which is the oldest extant deck of cards that can be dated with certainty). There are, however, subtle differences in much of the imagery, and the Visconti cards had neither titles or numbers.*** Though it was antiquated by the 1700s, this imagery was current when the Tarot first appeared, and like the suit signs, is left over from its early days as a courtly pastime during the Italian Renaissance. Though it seemed strange and otherworldly to the occultists who inherited the Tarot tradition (and indeed, still does today), there is really nothing out of the ordinary given its historical context.****
The total number of cards in a Marseille-pattern Tarot is thus 78, and it is a rare pack indeed that was produced afterward with a different number. It is the structure (four small suits and one trump suit) with its characteristic imagery combined with a distinctive artistic style that defines a Marseille-pattern Tarot. As the progenitor of “modern” packs, it should come as no surprise that much which makes a Marseille is also inherent in other, less traditional packs. It is usually the artwork and the order/names of the trumps, therefore, that sets the TdM apart from other packs which are otherwise structured the same.
That, I think, is it for my general overview of the Tarot de Marseille. A lot of the information presented here was already covered in various posts found here, but again, I want to be as thorough as possible. The next mainstream Tarot tradition that I will cover will be the Rider-Waite-Smith.
*Such significance, however tempting it may be to suggest otherwise, is entirely speculative.
**Ben-Dov, Tarot: The Open Reading, page 18.
***Not to mention, the Visconti is also missing two of its trumps: the Devil and the Tower. This is almost certainly the result of loss or destruction since the 1400s, rather than a deliberate omission, although who really knows.
****There are a couple of exceptions, however. Particularly perplexing are the Popess (a position which never existed in the church) and the Hanged Man.
I did a quick reading recently that I think I’ll share here.
Without going into any kind of personal detail, I was asking for advice about a decision I was struggling to make. I used only the Major Arcana from a RWS, and drew three cards.
The High Priestess
What I got was the Magician in the center (representing me), the Empress to the right (representing one choice), and the High Priestess to the left (representing the other).
This is a common and quick spread for me, and I interpret the cards on either side differently depending on who shows up in the middle. In the case of the Magician, it’s pretty obvious, I think: On the right is Above, and on the left is Below.
Now, at this point, I was like, “yeah, ok, ha ha, you’re so clever Tarot, I get it…” Because, as those of you who have read my post about the High Priestess might remember, I consider them to be the two sides of the archetypal Woman, and, you guessed it, the Empress is the Heavenly Mother, and the Priestess is the Queen of the Underworld.
And of course, what is above is also below, to paraphrase the Hermetic principle associated with the Magician. In other words, all women (read: people) are the same, with both their good days and bad days. I don’t get to pick one or the other – of course it’s never that simple – I have to take it all, or nothing.
But the Tarot wasn’t done being clever with me.
When the numbers of these three cards are added together, you get six, which is the number of the Lover. Which, of course, is the card of having to make a choice.
This is how the Tarot tends to operate in situations like these. That is, it throws my question back at me as if to say “are you really asking me this? Make up you’re own damn mind!” and then proceeds to club me over the head to make sure I get it (well, it is sound advice, after all, and in a way, it’s actually quite empowering).