Tarot de Marseille: Built for Comfort, Not for Speed

“Some folk rip and roar, some folk b’lieve in signs
But if you want me, you got to take your time
Because I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed”

Built for Comfort (Willie Dixon/Howling Wolf)

There is something (well, actually 40 “somethings”) about the Tarot de Marseill that eludes a facile approach to divination. Even those like me who were weaned on the Thoth Tarot with its semi-scenic minor cards, thus having a leg up on stripped-down analysis, find ourselves hard-pressed to squeeze meaning out of spartan displays of suit-emblem “pips” and cryptic vegetation. There is a powerful temptation to simply import our learned knowledge from working with what I call the “narrative vignettes” of more lavishly illustrated decks and be on our merry way. The more thoughtful among us may limit our infusion of extraneous material to a blending of suit, number and color theory, but the plain truth, as I see it, is that the suit cards of the TdM (and of playing cards before it) comprise a system of gaming that was never intended for fortune-telling. Approaching it with that in mind is a challenging exercise in enforced minimalism, and diluting its essence with external embellishments seems wrong-headed. Despite the rather shrill modernist mantra “Just use whatever works,” it is really best taken on its own terms, slowly and methodically. James Ricklef is my inspiration here: “Let it simmer in the consciousness, it will eventually make sense.”

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no expert with the TdM, or even a journeyman for that matter. I’ve read the same few English-language books that everyone else has, visited the same web sites, and thought quite a bit about it, but in practice I find myself perpetually falling back on the “suit-and-number” crutch that seems like the only solid rock in a sea of ambiguity. It works after a fashion, but it doesn’t seen very elegant. On the other hand, attempts by some writers to parse the quantity, quality, orientation, state of maturity and relative health of the flowers, leaves and branches that ornament many of the TdM pip cards into valid interpretive fodder aren’t very convincing either. A lot of it falls into incredulous “gimme a break” territory and goes overboard in its earnest fascination with minutiae. There has to be a middle ground somewhere.

I think the most insightful advice I’ve received so far came from Sherryl Smith’s Tarot Heritage blog: read the TdM cards the way you would the Lenormand. Once you decide on the core meaning of a single card, wring out its permutations and ramifications in combination with other cards. This seems like a more productive road to a comfortable working relationship with the TdM than relentlessly piling on keywords in the hope that something will click and make it all crystal-clear. Patience and a judicious economy of terms will eventually yield a slender harvest of meaning that is the antithesis of the “Big Mac” school of overblown intuitive excess. For traditionalists (don’t look at me, I’m an omnivore), the charm of the Tarot de Marseille lies is in its relative austerity and simplicity, not in its “ready-to-wear” convenience. Maybe someday I will even be (almost) blase about reading for other people with it.

4 thoughts on “Tarot de Marseille: Built for Comfort, Not for Speed

  1. I have to admit to glazing over at the unadorned pips of most historical decks. I have just never been able to figure out what to do with the information on the cards. And as you say, trying to shoehorn in meanings from more modern decks with the “vignettes” never worked for me either. It just felt too forced.

    Seeing subtle differences and assigning a meaning to them seems to require a very vast imagination, which I think I have but still this task has always been too tedious for me. I have always opted for the majors and court cards only approach with these decks but never without feeling a little guilty about it.

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    • I’ve been applying Joseph Maxwell’s mystical/numerological ideas to the pips, but that’s a very deep well all by itself. I find that getting my hands on the USG reissue of the CBD deck after reading The Open Reading twice has helped bring the TdM to life for me. But I’m thinking of going the other way and doing trumps-only readings. Sherryl’s mention of reading in a Lenormand style has me thinking that the idea of a spread similar to the Grand Tableau that uses all 22 trumps (but different from Cherry Gilchrist’s approach) has some merit, and I believe I’m up to the task. More to come after I consider it some more.

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  2. The insistence of some (French) authors – following the lead of Paul Marteau (and Joseph Maxwell to a lesser degree), on the floral symbolism of the pips also seemed rather disproportionate to me initially. However the subject has not been convincingly dealt with, or even at all, in English. Tchalai provided the analysis of these patterns, forming different cycles, so to speak, within the different suits. I think it is an operative concept, especially if it can be harmonised with the elemental/numerical attributes.

    The ‘clicking point’ for me was this quote, from a work on the Renaissance interpretation of ancient hieroglyphics: “… the fourth-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus writes that hieroglyphs stood not only for whole concepts but also for nouns and verbs, and Filippo Beroaldo in his commentary to Apuleius’s Golden Ass added that the ribbons and tendrils winding about the hieroglyphs Apuleius describes in a book carried by a priest of Isis moreover functioned as adverbs and conjunctions.”

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    • Interesting idea. I have Jean-Michel David’s course material and have to get back to it; initially the Christian slant turned me off but that’s not really foreign to the early decks so I need to get over it. I also have to look at the pip cards as a visual sequence and see if any ornamental motifs carry over between them that might offer interpretive insights. I already laid them out that way, but for another purpose.

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