Why, you might well ask, after spending almost 40 years studying and divining with the Crowley-Harris Thoth Tarot and The Book of Thoth, and then nine more years striving to master the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (RWS), would someone want to take on the task of trying to fathom the Tarot de Marseille (TdM) and its non-scenic “pip” cards? That someone is me, and the TdM has been a source of fascination for a long time; my wife had a Tarot Classic deck when I met her in 1977, and it – or at least its spiritual legacy – has been calling to me ever since although I only took up the challenge seriously around four years ago with the Fournier Tarot de Marseille. The simple answer is that I find cultural history compelling, and the TdM forms the foundation for almost every traditional tarot deck in use today.
The 22 trump cards (aka Major Arcana) and the 16 “royals” (or court cards) of the tarot have retained a relatively constant structure and appearance for centuries with little variation in the images, even after the Occult Revival at the end of the 19th Century. The Minor Arcana – or “pip” cards – are another matter. Except for those of the Italian Sola Busca deck of the late 15th Century and Etteilla’s “semi-scenic” 1785 Book of Thoth Tarot (not to be confused with Crowley’s much later version), the “small” cards of the tarot have historically displayed little more than an orderly array of suit emblems (Batons, Cups, Swords and Coins) appropriate to the the numbers on the cards, framed by a motif of “arabesques” consisting mostly of flower, leaves and vines. The visual free-association that often takes place with more modern “scenic” decks like the RWS as a way to glean intuitive impressions from the prosaic scenes and fashion context-specific narrative details from them is nearly impossible with the TdM, at least not without considerable intellectual extemporizing to tease lucid meaning from the semi-abstract designs. Without this kind of diligent cerebral stretching, interpretation is mainly limited to suit-and-number correspondences.
While early Italian decks created in the 15th Century were hand-painted for noble families and were few in number, the 17th-Century and later TdM cards were printed from carved wood-blocks, which allowed for a measure of mass production. They were undeniably crude since it was difficult to achieve much definition in the human faces, which often looked deformed, but still had their artistic charms. Modern interpreters like Jean-Claude Flornoy and Joav Ben-Dov sharpened the line-work and spruced up the colors for the modern eye, while restorers like Yves Renaud have kept everything just as it was. I appreciate the restored originals for their historical value but for reading I prefer the brighter, clearer reproductions.
I consider myself fortunate to have spent so much time with Crowley’s Thoth deck because its Minor Arcana are essentially “glorified pip cards” that draw much of their inspiration from the TdM designs. The color palette is more evocative since it attempts to convey the mood of each card in accordance with Crowley’s title, and certain aspects of the artwork could be described as “semi-scenic,” but the pattern of suit emblems in many of the cards precisely mirrors the arrangement of its TdM counterpart. Only when Crowley interjects his occult symbolism (pentagrams, Tree of Life sigils, geomantic figures, etc.) do the compositions depart from the original model. Since I have been accustomed to extracting story-telling insights from these cryptic images for so many years, I’ve had little trouble transferring that experience to the TdM. However, I haven’t applied Crowley’s qabalistic assumptions and instead created my own set of unique keywords for divination.