In praise of the rich, evocative imagery of ancient decks in tarot card reading.
If you read tarot cards and live in the US or England, or if you’ve had a tarot card reading outside of continental Europe, chances are the cards laid down in front of you were from the ubiquitous Rider-Waite deck or one of its many variants and clones. Occasionally, you might run into a reader who uses the Aleister Crowley–designed Thoth tarot. But the majority of readers use the Rider-Waite and its imitators.
Three of Swords from the Rider-Waite (left) and CBD Tarot de Marseille (right).
Part of the reason is the ease of use. The Rider-Waite (sometimes called the Rider-Waite-Smith, or RWS, to honor the artist, Pamela Colman Smith), unlike older tarots, has pictorial scenes on every card — a revolution when it was introduced in 1909. In pre-20th-century decks, all of which came out of continental Europe, only the trumps — the so-called 22 major arcana, comprised of the Fool through the World — featured the rich, evocative images we associate with tarot card reading. The other 56 “minor” cards feature only the suit’s symbols (or pips), just like our modern playing cards. For example, the Rider-Waite Three of Swords features three swords piercing a heart against a drab, gray background. The 17th-century Tarot de Marseilles, on the other hand, features three stylized swords and some floral decorative elements. The Rider-Waite Two of Cups features a man and woman holding their cups to each other — a pleasant image of young, tentative love — whereas the Two of Cups in the Marseilles features, well, two fancy cups.
As the first modern deck to illustrate the 56 minor cards, the Rider-Waite forever changed tarot. Grab almost any deck off the shelves of a big-box bookstore and it is likely to contain a variant of Pamela Colman Smith’s iconic scenes, albeit with fairies, witches, druids, Egyptian gods or cats. (Yes, there are cat tarots. And Gummi Bear tarots. Don’t get me started.)
Tarot is now largely defined by a relatively modern development and one standardized set of imagery — a development I find very unfortunate. Because despite this modern trend, the tarot in its original form goes back before the 20th century — all the way back, in fact, to 15th-century Italy (though not back to ancient Egypt, as many of its ill-informed proponents suggest). Tarot cards were originally used to play Tarocchi, a trick-taking game similar to Bridge. Far from beginning as a symbolically rich, mystical oracle, as many would prefer to believe, the cards arose as a betting game among the wealthy elites who could afford one-of-a-kind, hand-painted decks.
The Wheel of Fortune and The Tower from the Minchiate Fiorentine (c. 1820). © Il Meneghello.
Along the way, however, the tarot was co-opted by 18th-century esotericists and occultists, many of them French Freemasons, who claimed the cards were an encoded book of ancient wisdom. This pack of symbol-drunk mystics linked the tarot to the kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, hermeticism and (as was fashionable at the time) ancient Egypt. But it was in the late 19th century that the tarot became inseparably linked to the occult. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret British occult lodge, built a large part of their magical philosophy on the scaffolding of the tarot. The Golden Dawn system was incredibly complex, incorporating kabbalah, Hermeticism, alchemy, angelology, ritual magic and guided meditation, among other practices and philosophies. But tarot, as a divinatory device and a system of wisdom, was baked into the system at its core, and each initiate was expected to create his or her own tarot deck. (You can see drawings of Irish poet William Butler Yeats’s Golden Dawn notebook here.)
Out of the Golden Dawn tradition (and its offshoots) came initiates Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith. If you look at the Rider-Waite through the lens of the Golden Dawn’s complex system, you’ll see its teachings displayed throughout. For example, the original Pope card was changed to the Heirophant (Greek for a priest of the mysteries) and the Papesse (a female pope) into the High Priestess, and the coins on the 10 of Pentacles are arranged in the shape of the kabbalistic Tree of Life. The elemental associations of the suits, now used by the majority of readers — wands to fire, cups to water, swords to air, and pentacles (coins) to earth — became canon.
Judgment and The Devil. Golden Tarot of the Renaissance, based upon the Estensi deck (c. 1470). © Lo Scarabeo.
It is very likely that without the Golden Dawn’s influence and the publishing of the Rider-Waite by two of its former members, tarot card reading may have never become the cultural force that it is today. And that influence, I suggest, has led to a number of problems — and it’s the primary reason I gave up using modern decks and started reading with ancient tarots.
If you live in Europe and have had your cards read, it is very likely that the reader used a variant of the 17th-century Tarot de Marseilles (TdM to its aficionados), or perhaps one of its later Italian variations. Very often, the reader will use only the 22 trumps — a practice that often shocks those who use modern, fully illustrated decks. How could a reader using only 22 cards hope to capture all the possibilities and richness of a reading with the full 78 cards?
The Star from the Ancient Italian Tarot (c. 1880). © Lo Scarabeo.
To which the European reader might reply, “We’ve been doing it for centuries.”
After I began working with ancient decks — primarily of the Marseilles tradition — Pamela Colman Smith’s art began to seem a little, well, cartoonish. While the style of ancient decks might be cruder (because the printing processes were less refined), the art itself is much more evocative and, to many, more aesthetically pleasing. There is an undeniable feeling of timelessness when working with decks that are hundreds of years old, especially the photographic reproductions that capture all the oddities and imperfections of rare decks currently in museum collections. You are literally holding ancient history in your hands.
The ancient decks are also free of the esoteric associations that have now become dogma among many readers. “The Hermit is associated with the Hebrew letter Yod, the planet Mercury, and the 20th path on the Tree of Life.” No, it isn’t. Unless you want to immerse yourself in the Golden Dawn system or Crowley’s religion of Thelema, you can do what readers without an inkling of occult training have done for centuries: look at the pictures on the cards and tell stories about what you see in front of you.
The Moon from the Tarot de Marseilles de François Chosson (1736). This beautiful facsimile reproduction deck shows all the printing misalignments, ink smudges and fading of the paper. © Yves Reynaud.
That esoteric cruft began to bother me when I started teaching tarot card reading. I found that my students got hung up on all the heavy esoteric symbolism of the Rider-Waite majors, fixating on details (what does the Fool’s white rose symbolize? What do the letters B and J on the pillars behind the High Priestess mean?) instead of looking at the cards’ larger, general meanings and developing their own associations — which are the keys to becoming a good reader.
One can also include the minor “pip” cards of ancient decks in a tarot card reading, despite their lack of pictorial scenes. Many readers use systems based on Pythagorean or other forms of numerology. But as European readers would say (and I can attest), one can give a deep, insightful tarot card reading with only the 22 trumps.
The current wave of interest in ancient decks has been fueled by a number of excellent books (see list below), including filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s seminal The Way of Tarot: The Spiritual Teacher in the Cards. In it, Jodorowsky tells the story of how he showed his Rider-Waite deck to surrealist André Breton. The artist was not impressed. “This is a ridiculous deck of cards,” he told Jodorowsky. “Its symbols are lamentably obvious. There is nothing profound in it. The sole valid tarot is that of Marseille. Its cards are intriguing and moving, but they never surrender their intrinsic secret.” Jodorowsky then threw away over a thousand decks he had collected and began working exclusively with the Marseilles.
So consider putting your Rider-Waite deck on the shelf and picking up any one of the growing number of ancient decks on the market. If your experience is anything like mine, you will find the worlds these cards unlock to be revelatory. You may discover that tarot card reading with historical decks enhances your overall skill as a reader, as many have attested, by freeing up your intuition and liberating you from the constraints of Pamela Colman Smith’s literal art. But even if you don’t end up reading with them, you will possess a beautiful historical relic.
The Aeclectic Tarot website has a good list of historical reproduction tarots.
Tarot de Marseilles Heritage sells some exquisite facsimile reproductions.
Israeli tarot scholar and author Yoav Ben-Dov has published a reproduction of the 1760 Tarot de Marseilles of Nicholas Conver.
The Mantegna Tarot is a 50-card deck with gorgeous silver-foil embossing.
Divine Light and Jupiter from the Mantegna Tarot (c. 1460). © Lo Scarabeo.
The Ancient Italian tarot, from the 19th century, is one of my favorite decks.
The Way of Tarot: The Spiritual Teacher in the Cards by Alejandro Jodorowsky is a must-have if you use the TdM. Deep, philosophical, yet practical.
Tarot — The Open Reading by Yoav-Ben Dov is another must-have if you decide to explore the Tarot de Marseille. Also useful for free-form spreads and readings “outside the box” with any deck. Ben Dov’s “open reading” style is very similar to the process I teach.
Reading the Marseille Tarot by Jean-Michel David is a self-paced course utilizing the Jean Noblet (1650) deck. Heavy on the history with some very interesting insights and speculation.
The Facebook group Tarosophy de Marseilles includes many of the world’s experts on this style of tarot.
Sherryl E. Smith’s Tarot Heritage website is dedicated to the appreciation of tarot decks created between the 15th and early 19th centuries and is an excellent resource.
“Peeking through the Bars of Tarot’s Occult Prison” is an excellent article about freeing tarot from all of its occult trappings.