Over Under Sideways Down: Decoding the Marseille Tarot

NOTE: This essay preceded my earlier post on the subject by almost a year and provides slightly different insights.

In 1966, the English rock band The Yardbirds released the song that was the inspiration for the title of this post. The image it conveys reminds me strongly of something I picked up from the Enrique Enriquez documentary, “Tarology,” regarding the structural patterns that are evident in the “pip” cards of the Tarot de Marseille. If memory serves (and if it doesn’t, it could have been in Yoav Ben-Dov’s book that I saw this), he explained both “open” and “closed” arrays, with the layout of the Swords having a decidedly sheltering or protective appearance while the Batons seem to be thrusting aggressively outward in all directions, and the Cups and Coins for the most part exhibit a static cluster of artifacts linked by leafy, vine-like tendrils tipped with flower blossoms and buds that spring up organically from the center and reach for the edges of the frame (a kind of “inside-out” progression inviting the idea that they are agents for synthesis — and in some cases articulation — of the obvious divisions in the symbolic architecture). I decided to take these observations a step or two further and separate the nine pip cards of each suit (the Aces are a uniquely different animal) into sub-sets according to their similarities. In this way I hoped to make more sense of the images for the purposes of divination. I should mention that I’ve read what other writers have to say about interpreting the decorative flower-and-leaf embellishments and did not find it enormously helpful in practical terms. I used Kris Hadar’s Conver-based Le Veritable Tarot de Marseille in this exercise; other decks may have a different arrangement of the salient features.

If you’re a TdM literalist who takes it with all seriousness, my somewhat free-form rendering of the visual cues in the images may baffle, offend or even outrage you. I’ve been intending to do this for years because past efforts to decode the divinational meaning in the pip cards by examining their artistic devices have seemed entirely too anal for my taste, with what Monty Python would have called “minute and tedious detail” and insufficient imagination (the storyteller’s best friend). Suit and number theory will take you only so far and, although they may have simply been ornamental afterthoughts to the decks’ artists, the botanical designs cry out for a more vivid accounting.

Because they offer the most consistent and least complicated impression, I decided to tackle the Swords first. All of the cards display what looks like a vesica pisces formed by two or more opposing curved swords. The most obvious difference is that all of the even-numbered cards have a floral device at the center of the oval, while the odd-numbered cards all present a raised sword. The first case is analogous to the sequestered germination and gestation of a creative impulse, the private domain of the artist, while the latter implies the external (and therefore public) birth of an idea, since all of the swords penetrate the perimeter of the enclosure, and it therefore conveys the utilitarian artifice of the craftsman. The higher the number, the more complex the objective and the less flexible the agenda. The Ten is a special case in that it has two diagonal swords penetrating the oval from the outside but not actually disrupting the composure of the central flower; to me they are injecting external advice or criticism that one can take or leave. In all of these cards, the swords suggest applied use of the urge to create something meaningful, the flowers according to their inherent nature and the swords in tune with the will of the swordsman. All nine cards have severed flower buds lying in the field outside of the protected space (four in most, two in the Ten mirroring the sword hilts), looking like “seed-ideas” that have been broadcast in the hope that they will propagate “in the wild.”

In the suit of Batons, the Two, the Four and the Six have flowers and leaves that emanate from both the ends and the sides of the bundle of staves, implying an equilibrium of natural forces that signifies both breadth and depth of creative expression working in harness with the more directed outward focus of the staves themselves. This suggests self-sustaining energy that expands evenly over a wide range, with no wasted motion and no friction. (As an aside, I’d like to note that the directionality of the natural elements aligns with the cardinal points of the compass, while the fabricated staves are aimed more obliquely at the ordinal positions, the implication being that nature is more puissant than artifice in the realm of Batons.)

The Eight has flowers projecting only from the top and bottom of the bundle, showing that it possesses the power of penetration but not much inclination to maneuver to either side. All of the odd-numbered cards, along with the Ten, exhibit leafy foliage emerging from the sides of the bundle (the Nine has only vestigial nubs) but none from the top and bottom, indicating that they have the potential to develop laterally (think “ground cover”) but there isn’t much going on along the vertical axis of the single and double central staves. In slightly fanciful combat terms, the odd-numbered cards remind me of infantry troops creeping tenaciously forward over the contested terrain, the Eight could reflect an aerial attack locked onto its target, and the rest of the even-numbered cards (other than the Ten) might reasonably portray the omnidirectional versatility and nimble responsiveness of the cavalry (tanks, in modern warfare) as well as the purview of the rear-echelon strategists who see the big picture and can react promptly and appropriately. The Ten with its two golden crowns astride the foliage suggests the Field Marshal overseeing the entire theater of battle, whose objective is to gain ground and hold it.

The suit of Cups is a mixed bag. The Two, Four and Six all have a vertical bisecting “spine” of leaves and flowers that keeps the chalices strictly aligned and segregated, implying that there is little opportunity for creative intermingling of their contents. This conveys the idea of prescribed solutions rather than fluidly spontaneous ones. The Three and the Eight have an elaborate floral device at the center from which rambling tendrils gather up the influence of the chalices; emotional integration and sensitivity are implied, although the Eight is much more convoluted (and potentially more corruptible) than the unambiguous Three.

The Five, Seven and Nine all have an interior chalice around which the tendrils twine on their way to fruition; the sense I get is that of nurturing and sustaining the vulnerable middle ground, thus preserving a delicate symmetry at the heart of incipient chaos. It suggests “the one against the many,” with the “one” gaining the upper hand by way of beguiling the “many.” The Ten is in a class by itself, showing an ungainly large chalice squatting sideways atop an orderly 3×3 array of nine smaller vessels. The feeling is one of heaviness and oppression, since there are no flowers, leaves or sinuous tendrils to lighten the mood and no liquid balm flowing out of the overturned cup. I see this as the most barren of the Cups cards, suggestive of emotional blockage.

In the suit of Coins, the Two, Four, Six, Eight and Ten show the suit emblems partially wreathed in leafy tendrils that in most cases also bear flowers. All but the Two have a floral device at the center, while that of the Four is fashioned in the shape of a shield that intervenes to turn back the incursion of the pair of tendrils at the top and bottom, discouraging any attempts at cross-pollination (preservation of the status quo rather than robust growth seems to be its strong suit). These pivotal flowers represent the life-force that works through the physical realm to further the aims of evolution.

The Three is a hybrid, with two incomplete loops embracing the lower emblems and a more fully-realized array encapsulating the uppermost one, which seems to be in a state of incubation; something worthwhile is sure to hatch out of the distended orifice of that lush “womb.” In all cases (with the exception of the third emblem of the Three and the tightly-wound pips of the Two), the suit emblems are only loosely bound by the foliage, which obeys the primal urge for release of the fecund potential of this suit through the open channels provided; their combination suggests swollen seed-pods that are about to burst, but only the Two, Three, Four and Eight seem to be adequately served by the verdant network that doubles as a series of launch-pads. The Six and the Ten have multiple “pods” jostling for a spot in the departure queue, and the overloaded “launchers” may not be able to muster escape velocity (already they seem to have distorted into a relaxed state compared to the tautness of the rest). In even more whimsical (do I hear “wacky?”) terms, they have me thinking I’m looking into the business end of a loaded slingshot, which imparts a subtle aura of danger; perhaps this suit isn’t as benign as we’ve come to believe.

The Five, Seven and Nine all contain a central suit emblem that is completely encircled by foliage, resembling a pearl at the heart of a tightly-closed oyster. The Five and Nine show this emblem in complete isolation, resisting the possibility of corruption but also precluding fertilization, while the Seven echoes the Three in that the symbol suggests incubation following insemination. The remaining emblems of the Five are loosely held pending release as before, but those of the Seven and Nine seem to have already escaped the corral and are more-or-less in free-fall. I’m reminded of atomic free radicals seeking an external bond, or perhaps of the detritus expelled by a mollusk as it sieves its food. The central emblem is clearly the most important feature in these cards, and it appears to be safeguarded from exposure to risk in a way that emphasizes physical security while the rest of the world goes about its business.

Well, that was certainly fun, although I’m convinced it didn’t make too much sense to more than a few of my readers. I believe I may have gleaned a few serviceable notions out of all the wordplay that went down here, and I’ll continue to approach the pip cards of the TdM in the same out-of-the-box manner by seeking to invest the structural architecture with storytelling flair in novel and hopefully inspired ways.

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at www.parsifalswheeldivination.com.

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