Tarot de Marseille

This is a deck that I strongly encourage every Tarot enthusiast to familiarize themselves with. Tarot de Marseille (TdM) is an umbrella term that applies to a style of decks produced in the French city of Marseille. The appearance of this style sometime in the late 1400s – early 1500s is the first time the Tarot, as we know it in its modern form, existed. Almost every deck of Tarot cards produced afterwards is based on the structure of the TdM. This is the closest we will get to a complete “original” Tarot.

Of course, there are several varieties of the TdM. The version in my collection is the Universal Tarot of Marseille based on Burdel’s rendition; this is not the only option, or even necessarily the best, but it works well enough and is easily recognizable as a Marseille deck. The use of colors and shading in this specific deck is atypical of a TdM, but I find it to be attractive and useful for quick sorting.

HPIM0214
An example of the Major Arcana, a court card, and a small card from the Universal TdM.

This type of deck has many advantages. It is the only deck in my collection designed without a specific method of interpretation in mind (or so we have to assume, considering we don’t know who really “invented” this deck). While I believe that a flexible approach is the best way to work with any deck of Tarot cards, all of the other decks certainly were designed around a specific method of interpretation by its creator. The CHT, for example, has a very complex system of correspondences and symbolism that is taken from many influences from around the world. While you don’t necessarily need to understand any of it to use the CHT, it definitely helps. The TdM is by comparison a blank slate. You have the pictures in front of you and whatever preconceptions you bring to the table. Now, there are popular meanings assigned to the cards by various Tarot masters over the years, but these aren’t by any means set in stone. For some, this makes for difficult reading, especially because the small cards are marked with nothing but pip symbols, a number, and some decorative plant-like scroll work. In this instance, some general knowledge of numerology and the elemental qualities of the suits goes a long way, although there are some schools of thought that suggest your initial emotional reaction to seeing a card is the best way to interpret it, regardless of any other meaning. This can sometimes be difficult to gauge when all you see is a group of wands or coins, but if that’s the way you wish to use your deck, it releases you from needing any outside knowledge. It’s as valid as any other method of reading the cards.

At first, I found the relative plainness and crude quality of the woodcuts compared to the artwork of some other decks a little off-putting, but I have long since gotten over that. This deck has become, after much use, one of my favorites. It is very often my go-to deck for readings, and when I’m studying another deck in my collection, the TdM is never far from reach, because I find using it as a base for comparisons to be very helpful.

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I don’t know what more to say about it right now. This deck is historically a very important deck, and having used it many, many times with success, I am not surprised that the general structure of the Tarot has evolved relatively little since its first appearance several centuries ago. To sum up, this deck is the workhorse of my collection, totally untethered by outside influences, yet not unwilling to accept them, and is the progenitor of all my other decks. If I had to choose only one deck to use for the rest of my life (a decision I’m thankful to not have to actually act on), I’d choose the TdM.

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