I realize that it may be presumptuous of me to think I can come up with a valid interpretive guideline for the Tarot de Marseille “pip” cards when the vast majority of my cartomantic experience over the last four-plus decades has been with the esoteric Thoth deck and more recently with the Waite-Smith tarot and the Lenormand cards. But the fact that there is no centuries-old divinatory tradition underlying the TdM encourages me to try. Much of what passes for credible commentary in this regard (at least in English) has emerged since the end of the 19th-Century “Occult Revival,” perhaps as backlash against the convoluted (and often contrived) excesses of esotericism, and it is still very much a work-in-progress. Human beings can’t abide an idle paradigm in much the same way that nature abhors a vacuum; we just love to scratch our transcendental itches, and the TdM stands as a worthy target for revisionist (or is that recidivist?) thinking, much like the revival of classical astrology that is presently underway. The difference is that astrology has a revered gallery of august proponents, both philosophers and accomplished laymen, while the TdM pips began life as a common pack of playing cards.
The pips are decidedly silent from a narrative standpoint, unlike the RWS with its vivid story-telling vignettes and the Thoth’s evocative semi-scenic Minor Arcana, leaving us to meditate on what they might mean. I’m not exactly working with “whole cloth” in this endeavor; current thinking is that suit-and-number theory goes a long way toward yielding a workable model for interpretation. That’s all well and good for the suit emblems, but it leaves us (sorry for the unintended pun) with the floral and foliage embellishments to puzzle over. In all honesty, the impression I get is that in the eyes of their creators they were entirely decorative additions and not at all pregnant with concealed wisdom. But it’s exciting to push my imagination to full throttle and have a go at deciphering them in useful ways.
It has been brought to my attention, rightly so, that any effort to create a catalogue of divinatory meanings for the pips is necessarily subjective, and only potentially universal. It involves absorbing the visual hints in the images and trying to fashion a coherent line of reasoning that fits both the context of the suit and the numerical progression of the cards, while also allowing room for some speculative free-association from the designs. In that sense, one person’s viewpoint is no more defensible than any other’s, but some opinions may be informed by the precepts of similar theoretical models and thus have a leg up on those that fall more into the “wild-eyed – or hare-brained – guess” category. I like to describe what I do with my intuition as more of a SWAG (scientific wild-ass guess) assault on the problem than a purely visionary “run-and-gun” attack.
I set myself a three-pronged challenge in tackling this subject. Although I’ve read many of the important English-language books on the Tarot de Marseille, I’ve tried to steer clear of using any of them directly as source material (no look-ups, no references, no quotes, etc.); any spill-over from my reading is subconscious and therefore incidental. Similarly, I’m trying to avoid importing any of the RWS canon into my writing; to the extent that I’m drawing from the same metaphysical well, that may not be entirely realistic but it’s nonetheless my goal. Finally, I’m committed to resisting any desire to fall back on esoteric symbolism; in that pursuit, my years of working with the Lenormand cards has served as a valuable apprenticeship. As something of a pragmatist myself, I respond well to their austere, literal spirit. Besides, I’m a sucker for a good rigorous analytical workout.