The Thoth Minor Arcana and the Tarot de Marseille

I’ve worked with the Aleister Crowley/Frieda Harris Thoth tarot deck since 1972 and have been consistently impressed by how emotionally evocative the Minor Arcana are, mainly through their use of color and mood along with Crowley’s Golden-Dawn-derived titles and brief explanations in The Book of Thoth. I never felt any need for scenic illustrations and their “canned” narrative vignettes (in fact I barely knew they existed) when performing divination with the tarot, and didn’t seriously contemplate the Thoth’s apparent lack of such visual hand-holding until joining the on-line tarot community in 2011 and getting my hands on a Waite-Smith (aka “RWS”) deck. Even now, some of the RWS imagery that so many readers find compelling from an intuitive, free-association standpoint leaves me unconvinced, so I don’t use that interpretive foundation and instead substitute Thoth and Golden Dawn meanings where they make more sense.

In the introductory “Bibliographical Note” to the Book of Thoth, Crowley (masquerading as “S.H. Soror I.W.E”) stated: “His original idea had been to execute a pack after the tradition of the Medieval Editors,” so he clearly had this close correlation in mind. For this reason, I consider the largely non-scenic minor cards of the Thoth to be “glorified pips.” Although I usually limit my interpretive toolbox for TdM reading to suit/element and number-theory correspondences and ignore more esoteric inputs, the Thoth Minor Arcana appear to be an ideal middle ground between the TdM and RWS models that can offer useful insights when reading with the former.

A while back I did a card-by-card comparison of the Thoth minors to the related “pip” cards of the Tarot de Marseille and noticed strong correspondences in the design of the suit-symbol arrays between the two (with the notable exception of the Swords suit). Unless Crowley chose to interrupt the sequence with his esoteric motifs (inverted pentagrams, Tree of Life glyphs, solar circles and such), there is nearly a one-for-one match between the two decks, after accounting for the Synthetic Projective Geometry conventions of the Thoth artwork.

I would argue that anyone who can work successfully with the Thoth has “earned their stripes” (or at least paid their entry dues) as far as approaching the rarefied state of TdM mastery. All it takes to “get over the hump” is bringing the same flexible appreciation for design-as-content to one’s “disambiguation” of the TdM pips. When I bought my first TdM deck, I immediately realized that I had already served my non-scenic “pip-card apprenticeship” and was ready to draw some of my own conclusions from them (given that there was precious little in the way of written guidance available in English at that time).

There is something (well, actually 40 “somethings”) about the Tarot de Marseill that eludes a facile approach to divination. Even those like me who were weaned on the Thoth Tarot with its semi-scenic minor cards, thus having a leg up on stripped-down analysis, find ourselves hard-pressed to squeeze meaning out of spartan displays of suit-emblem “pips” and cryptic vegetation. There is a powerful temptation to simply import our learned knowledge from working with what I call the “narrative vignettes” of more lavishly illustrated decks and be on our merry way. The more thoughtful among us may limit our infusion of extraneous material to a blending of suit, number and color theory, but the plain truth, as I see it, is that the suit cards of the TdM (and of playing cards before it) comprise a system of gaming that was never intended for fortune-telling. Approaching it with that in mind is a challenging exercise in enforced minimalism, and diluting its essence with external embellishments seems wrong-headed. Despite the rather shrill modernist mantra “Just use whatever works,” it is really best taken on its own terms, slowly and methodically. James Ricklef is my inspiration here: “Let it simmer in the consciousness, it will eventually make sense.”

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no expert with the TdM, or even a journeyman for that matter. I’ve read the same few English-language books that everyone else has, visited the same web sites, and thought quite a bit about it, but in practice I find myself perpetually falling back on the “suit-and-number” crutch that seems like the only solid rock in a sea of ambiguity. It works after a fashion, but it doesn’t seen very elegant. On the other hand, attempts by some writers to parse the quantity, quality, orientation, state of maturity and relative health of the flowers, leaves and branches that ornament many of the TdM pip cards into valid interpretive fodder aren’t very convincing either. A lot of it falls into incredulous “gimme a break” territory and goes overboard in its earnest fascination with minutiae. There has to be a middle ground somewhere.

I think the most insightful advice I’ve received so far came from Sherryl Smith’s Tarot Heritage blog: read the TdM cards the way you would the Lenormand. Once you decide on the core meaning of a single card, wring out its permutations and ramifications in combination with other cards. This seems like a more productive road to a comfortable working relationship with the TdM than relentlessly piling on keywords in the hope that something will click and make it all crystal-clear. Patience and a judicious economy of terms will eventually yield a slender harvest of meaning that is the antithesis of the “Big Mac” school of overblown intuitive excess. For traditionalists (don’t look at me, I’m an omnivore), the charm of the Tarot de Marseille lies is in its relative austerity and simplicity, not in its “ready-to-wear” convenience. Maybe someday I will even be (almost) blase about reading for other people with it.

I’ve attached photographs of the four comparative layouts for your information and use. The TdM deck is Kris Hadar’s Le Veritable Tarot de Marseille.

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Copyright Editions de Mortagne and US Games Systems, Stamford, CT
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Copyright Editions de Mortagne and US Games Systems, Stamford, CT
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Copyright Editions de Mortagne and US Games Systems, Stamford, CT
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Copyright Editions de Mortagne and US Games Systems, Stamford, CT

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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