The “Functional” Tarot de Marseille

I have long held that the elaborate set of esoteric correspondences for the tarot developed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn has no place in divination with the Tarot de Marseille apart from classical suit-and-number theory (elemental and numerological associations that in their present form date back, respectively, to the Greek philosophers Empedocles and Pythagoras). I try to avoid falling back on astrology, qabalah, occult color symbolism, ceremonial magic and other arcane accretions as an interpretive crutch to fill the void left by lack of a comprehensive historical system for divining with the TdM “pip” cards.  With that in mind, and given my general dissatisfaction with published English-language source material on that score, I made a concerted effort to extract meaning from the non-scenic pips by taking a long, hard look at their visual structure without getting too hung up on parsing the decorative embellishments (flowers, leaves, branches and such). I’m satisfied that I arrived at a defensible “middle ground” for their practical use. Even though the pragmatists of my acquaintance say “Just use whatever works when reading the cards and don’t get too anal about it,” I felt compelled to go the extra mile. (You can find my results in a previous series of posts under “TdM Material.”)

However, two recent on-line conversations, one with author Andy Boroveshengra and another with Paul H. Richard, have convinced me to step away from my microscope and take a measured look at the “functional” purposes of the suit emblems as a way to bring additional nuance to the meaning of the pips. Andy didn’t elaborate on his approach to suit function, but Paul provided some interesting food for thought in developing my own views on the subject. Bear with me here as I may be stretching a bit to get my head around his reasoning.

In essence, Batons represent wood as one of the earliest building materials, so they carry the connotation of creating and constructing, ideas that aren’t foreign to the conventional notion of “ambition” for the Wands (they also represent bashing weapons as crude “levers” to enforce one’s will); Cups convey the idea of “interacting” in the sense that they can serve as vessels for celebrating, dedicating and consecrating, concepts that are emblematic of shared experience and that in modern usage appear as emotional convergence on a romantic (as in “utopian,” not amorous) ideal; the Coins relate to “monetizing” our lives in any number of ways that place concrete value on our mundane circumstances, and as such are closely aligned with current usage.

I deliberately left the Swords for last because the ideas of violent “attack and defense” that they bring to mind are really too narrow to fit into our modern world-view (at least as daily occurrences) unless we abstract a bit from the original intemperate assumptions. The emergence of argument and rebuttal as more civilized means for resolving conflicts is one way to look at it (diplomacy and compromise belong in the realm of Cups). Therefore, the symbolic “pen” (especially when wielded by a lawyer) may be a relevant emblem to represent the common mode of adjudicating present-day disputes. After all, Edward Bulwer-Lytton said “The pen is mightier than the sword,” even when used only for coercive “saber-rattling.” Obviously, knives brandished with hostile intent hark back to the “old ways,” but surgical instruments like scalpels also fit the paradigm and their domain is healing, not eviscerating. Perhaps “intervention and rectification” are useful slants on “attack and defense” to summarize the action of Swords in most modern situations (or at least those that don’t involve “backstabbing”), whether as a way to emphatically press a point or to constructively redress grievances. (I’m reminded of John Belushi’s whimsical series of “samurai” sketches in which he resolved every situation with a decisive swipe of his big blade.)

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