I do some of my best work over a morning cup of strong black French Roast coffee. Today I took the opportunity to finish reading the last few pages of Caitlin Matthews’ book, Untold Tarot, in preparation for writing this review. The book is beautifully produced, with an intelligent structure and numerous full-color illustrations, and it is a treasure to own for those who love high-quality paper rather than digital media. But it is not so much a reference work as a thoughtful meditation on the use of traditional tarot decks in a modern setting. I wasn’t too impressed with the first half of the book. Her interpretive guidance for the individual cards seemed curiously compressed and her examples not very compelling. Anyone looking for a robust manual of keyword meanings, card combinations and well-tuned examples won’t find it here. But it clearly wasn’t her goal to present a comprehensive “cookbook” of how-to material, as she keeps nudging the reader to fill in any gaps with personal observations and experience. (I’m reminded of Aleister Crowley’s breezy dismissal in The Book of Thoth, after opening a narrow window into his view of the court cards: “It is very important as a mental exercise to work out for oneself these correspondences.”) While her writing is as accomplished as ever, I can’t help but think that the delivery comes across as a little flat, especially when compared to her thorough, informative treatment of the Lenormand cards in The Complete Lenormand Oracle Handbook. But to be fair, she didn’t have nearly as rich an historical framework to work with, so I sense some scrambling here.
The central themes in the first half of the book seem to be that 1) suit-and-number combinations are the most reliable way to read the pip cards, and 2) directional reading of the court cards (that is, the facing, gaze or “regard” of the figures on the cards) yields the most useful information by examining what they’re looking at (the adjacent card in that direction). That said, despite her zeal to escape the iron grip of entrenched Waite-Smith sensibilities that inform so much modern reading, she doesn’t really come up with examples that provide a convincing alternative. I found myself frequently scratching my head and groping for the inspiration behind some of her statements. Although I’m not perfectly fluent in ancient tarots, I have spent time with the work of a number of other authors (Yoav Ben-Dov, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Joseph Maxwell, Camelia Elias. Jean-Michel David, Enrique Enriquez and Cherry Gilchrist, to mention a few) and I have some awareness of the challenges involved in trying to illuminate what is a rather austere model of the Universe. On a positive note, I like many of her self-designed spreads (especially the “House of Triumphs” layout, which has similarities to the Lenormand Grand Tableau); they remind me of my own approach to spread creation.
As I discovered long ago, there is no well-established, long-standing tradition for reading the Tarot de Marseille (although those who can read French have it a little better); the closest we can come to a source of ancient divinatory material appears to be the incomplete set of meanings associated with 45 of the 62 cards of the Tarocchino Bolognese. The TdM trumps and courts draw some of their content from their medieval origins, but the 40 pip cards are largely a “silent majority.” Matthews’ handling of the trump cards didn’t leave much of a lasting impression on me, nor did her discussion of the seven virtues, but her coverage of the pips and courts is more persuasive. The book really comes into its own with Chapter 5, “Divining Skills from Earlier Eras,” which I submit was her real reason for writing it. Another insight for me is the suggested practice of laying an additional card next to a court card in the direction of its gaze when that spot is vacant, as a way to expand upon its testimony. I’m suspicious of adding cards to a spread, as my previous posts on the use of “clarifiers” amply demonstrate, but this is one instance where it makes sense.
In “When the Cards Speak,” Matthews summarizes by saying “There is a point in historic tarot use, as with language learning, when arduous learning melts into fluency. When the cards start to speak to you, you will be using your reading skills, your common sense and your instinct as well as your vision.” I feel that I’ve gained inspiration from this book that will jump-start my languishing enthusiasm for the Tarot de Marseille and similar traditional decks. I will definitely re-read it, especially from Chapter 5 on, and try a few of her spreads. On balance, Untold Tarot is a worthy addition to my tarot library.