WRITTEN BY: Magenta
Magenta takes us through an interesting and detailed look at the comparisons between two titans in tarot deck history
When you first became interested in the Tarot what did you see? Cards with images like playing cards or perhaps cards with pictures on all of them?
Today the majority of the 800 plus decks available are generally known as either Tarot de Marseille or Rider Waite influenced.
For many centuries the only types of Tarot cards available were based on the French Tarot de Marseilles deck dating back to the 16th century. These were, however, thought to be influenced by earlier Italian decks and the oldest known dates back to the Visconti-Sforza cards of around 1390. The Tarot de Marseilles deck, thought to have started as two separate decks originally, had pictorial images on the Major Arcana with names like Le Diable (Devil) and so on, but had just symbols for the four suits like playing cards, on the Minor Arcana.
Then in 1911, Dr A E Waite and Pamela Coleman Smith, both influential members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, designed the Rider Waite deck, taking the name from Rider the publishers and Waite from Dr Waite of course.
These cards were revolutionary at the time as now all 78 cards had pictorial images on them. Pamela Coleman Smith worked closely with Dr Waite to design images that he felt truly represented the meaning of the cards.
Early editions of the Rider Waite would have only been available to the ‘Upper Class’, such as members of the Order of the Golden Dawn or the College of Psychic Studies in London. Traditional Tarot card readers, like the Romany gypsies, would still have used Tarot de Marseille decks. In an episode of the BBC drama ‘Call the Midwife’ there is a story line about a Russian family living in the East End of London around 1960. One sister reads the cards for the other sister and uses a Rider Waite deck. Although her interpretations of the cards were correct (someone at the BBC did their homework!), it is more likely that an old Russian version of a Tarot de Marseille deck would have been used.
Over the years, many more decks became available; most notably the Thoth deck designed by Aleister Crowley and printed in 1947 and the Sheridan Douglas deck published in 1972.
Crowley’s deck takes its influences from many beliefs. There are changes to some of the names of the cards too; The World is known as The Universe and Strength is known as Lust for instance. The Minor Arcana are in symbolic form, such as 4 Chalices (Cups) or 8 Disks (Pentacles) but Crowley has added more images to give further depth of meaning. These additional images include colour and astrological correspondences.
The Sheridan Douglas deck, although classed as Rider Waite influenced, contains images that are colourful yet simplistic and very apt for the 1970’s. The deck, sadly now long out of print, gained fame when the cards were used in the James Bond film, ‘Live and Let Die’.
But how would these changes in design affect the use of the cards?
It is thought that the symbolism used in the Tarot would have been used in such a way that only the ‘initiated’ would understand the symbols. The origins of the Tarot have been lost over the centuries, and so the original use or meanings for that matter, are not known.
As mentioned before, Romany gypsies became very adept at using Tarot and playing cards for ‘fortune telling’. Tarot cards are now used in a more in depth, counselling way and to enhance our creativity and problem-solving capabilities. In a nut-shell, they are there to make us think about the situation and to some extent, to put it into perspective.
Looking at the Minor or Pip cards in a Tarot de Marseille (TdeM) deck, you are faced with four, sometimes confusing, symbols for each suit. Batons, also known as Rods and Wands in Rider Waite (RW) decks are straight, and Epees (Swords) are curved. Some have a recognisable image of a Baton or Epee in the middle of the card, especially on odd numbered cards. Coppes (Cups or Chalices) and Denier (Coins, Disks or Pentacles) are familiar images in both types of decks.
Like playing cards, each suit is numbered Ace through to 10, then with four Court Cards, generally Page, Knight, Queen & King, although there are variations to these too.
With each of the Minor cards in a RW deck having pictorial images on them, this gives an immediate impression of the meaning of the card, although this of course depends on the influence of the surrounding cards and the interpretation by the Tarot reader.
Each number has an overall meaning and each suit governs an area or topic in life and here lies the basic interpretation of the TdeM cards.
Very briefly, Aces are beginnings & new starts, 2’s are balance, 3’s are the initial result, 4’s are the stability, 5’s are the conflicts, 6’s are the harmony, 7’s are choices or decisions, 8’s are the movement, 9’s are the coming to the end and 10’s are completion or final result. The Court cards are generally seen as people in the Querent’s life.
The fours suits: Batons are the action, activity & work, Epees are quarrels, conflict, mental activity, Coppes are emotions, feelings & love and Deniers are finances, well being and money.
So as an example 3 of Batons (TdeM) could mean an initial result, dealing with activity or 6 of Deniers, (TdeM) harmony dealing with money, a gift or financial improvement. Compare these to the RW 3 of Wands and 6 Pentacles interpretations.
I personally now use an Italian TdeM deck, called the Ancient Italian Deck (as no-one knows who designed it!) and a new deck called the Favole Tarot deck, which is Spanish and has different suits, like Butterflies and Masks. To me, these decks are pieces of beautiful artwork and I love working with them.
So do an Internet search for Tarot de Marseille images, have a go comparing other cards and see what you think and feel!