Do the Pips Roar or Squeak?

That’s more than an amusing rhetorical question. One of the most daunting challenges facing those who would divine with historical decks like the Tarot de Mareille (TdM) is how to coax useful meaning from their sparely illustrated, non-scenic minor – or “pip” – cards. There is no body of traditional literature explaining how the stereotypical pip deck may have been used for divination. After all, it originated as an Italian card game.

A number of modern writers (but not nearly enough, in my opinion) have attempted to illuminate the  dim corridors of the TdM and its ilk. Yoav Ben-Doav, Camelia Elias, Jean Michel David, Enrique Enriquez, Joseph Maxwell, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Lee Bursten have all stuck an oar in the water, and word on the street is that Caitlin Matthews and Donnaleigh de la Rose will soon have their own entries in the field. If one can read French, the range of available options grows. Hopefully, someone will come up with a fresh perspective.

But I’ve yet to find an approach that is truly satisfying. The closest I’ve come was during a series of stimulating conversations with tarot author Lee Bursten on the Aeclectic Tarot forum, and through my work with the complex numerological theories of Joseph Maxwell in his book The Tarot, translated from the original French by Ivor Powell in 1975. The only reliable assumption I’ve arrived at so far is that standard suit/element and number symbolism work at a basic level of interpretation. The more elaborate systems of occult correspondence, such as astrological and qabalistic, and the body of folkloric meaning that has grown up around the narrative vignettes of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck seem a little too foreign  to the spirit of the TdM.

The Thoth deck, with its “glorified pip” Minor Arcana, is arguably the “heir apparent” to the traditional pip decks. When comparing more than a few of the Thoth small cards side-by-side to the TdM pips, it becomes obvious that the designs are structurally derivative of, if not identical to, the earlier versions, just “prettier.” Only in those instances where Crowley imposed his qabalistic innovations (inverted pentagrams, Tree of Life motifs, etc.) is there a dramatic difference that Harris’s artistry wasn’t able to fully integrate. Crowley did say, in the Bibliographical Note to the Book of Thoth, that his original intent was to “execute a pack after the Medieval Editors.” I would argue that he got part-way there.

Far and away the greatest influence on my own approach has been the contribution of Maxwell to the numerological tarot, augmented by the geometrical definitions of J.E. Cirlot in the “Graphics” section of his A Dictionary of Symbols, translated from the Spanish in 1962. If you’ve exhausted the conventional wisdom and aren’t averse to a little “deep delving,” this is a good place to pursue it. If you can read French, so much the better; according to the French tarotists I’ve talked to about Maxwell, the original is even more insightful and difficult. I hope to be publishing a monograph on my work in the near future.

 

 

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