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 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 flowers, leaves, vines and the occasional heraldic shield. 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. (See the tabulation at the end of this essay.)
I realize that it may be presumptuous of me to think I can come up with a valid interpretive guideline for the Tarot de Marseille “pip” cards when the vast majority of my cartomantic experience over the last four-plus decades has been with the esoteric Thoth deck and more recently with the Waite-Smith tarot and the Lenormand cards. But the fact that there is no centuries-old divinatory tradition underlying the TdM encourages me to try. Much of what passes for credible commentary in this regard (at least in English) has emerged since the end of the 19th Century, perhaps as backlash against the convoluted (and often contrived) excesses of esotericism, and it is still very much a work-in-progress. Human beings can’t abide an idle paradigm in much the same way that nature abhors a vacuum; we just love to scratch our transcendental itches, and the TdM stands as a worthy target for revisionist (or is that recidivist?) thinking, much like the revival of classical astrology that is presently underway. The difference is that astrology has a revered gallery of august proponents, both philosophers and accomplished laymen, while the TdM pips began life as a common pack of playing cards.
The pips are decidedly silent from a narrative standpoint, unlike the RWS with its vivid story-telling vignettes and the Thoth’s evocative, impressionistic Minor Arcana, leaving us to meditate on what they might mean. I’m not exactly working with “whole cloth” in this endeavor; current thinking is that suit-and-number theory goes a long way toward yielding a workable model for interpretation. That’s all well and good for the suit emblems, but it leaves us (sorry for the unintended pun) with the floral and foliage embellishments to puzzle over. In all honesty, the impression I get is that in the eyes of their creators they were entirely decorative additions and not at all pregnant with concealed wisdom. But it’s exciting to push my imagination to full throttle and have a go at deciphering them in useful ways.
It has been brought to my attention, rightly so, that any effort to create a catalogue of divinatory meanings for the pips is necessarily subjective, and only potentially universal. It involves absorbing the visual hints in the images and trying to fashion a coherent line of reasoning that fits both the context of the suit and the numerical progression of the cards, while also allowing room for some speculative free-association from the designs. In that sense, one person’s viewpoint is no more defensible than any other’s, but some opinions may be informed by the precepts of similar theoretical models and thus have a leg up on those that fall more into the “wild-eyed — or hare-brained — guess” category. I like to describe what I do with my intuition as more of a SWAG (scientific wild-ass guess) assault on the problem than a purely visionary “run-and-gun” attack.
I set myself a three-pronged challenge in tackling this subject. Although I’ve read many of the important English-language books on the Tarot de Marseille, I’ve tried to steer clear of using any of them directly as source material (no look-ups, no references, no quotes, etc.); any spill-over from my reading is subconscious and therefore incidental. Similarly, I’m trying to avoid importing any of the RWS canon into my writing; to the extent that I’m drawing from the same metaphysical well, that may not be entirely realistic but it’s nonetheless my goal. Finally, I’m committed to resisting any desire to fall back on esoteric symbolism; in that pursuit, my years of working with the Lenormand cards has served as a valuable apprenticeship. As something of a pragmatist myself, I respond well to their austere, literal spirit. Besides, I’m a sucker for a good rigorous analytical workout.
Batons: Key Concepts for Divination
the Ace shows the simple urge to act according to one’s instincts, unmindful of obstacles or consequences.
the Two suggests reciprocal action in the service of mutual self-interest: “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”
the Three reflects the frictionless momentum arising from perfectly balanced and coordinated action; it invokes the vision of a child’s top spinning effortlessly on a table.
the Four indicates the opportunity for purposeful, well-chosen and timely action; “strike while the iron is hot.”
the Five conveys the misfortune of poorly coordinated, uninspired or ill-timed action that is likely to incite stiff opposition .
the Six depicts action for the simple joy of acting; the “green light” or “all systems go” card signaling no need for hesitation, “just do it.”
the Seven implies having one’s hand forced by circumstances; it shows acting in spite of serious doubts about that course of action.
the Eight displays precipitous action with no backup plan or safety net; a “seat-of-the-pants” scenario that, due to a lack of groundwork (no foliage), can signify retreat as easily as advance..
the Nine advises pulling in one’s horns and waiting for a better opportunity.
the Ten foresees a hard-won victory after “pulling out all the stops.”
Cups: Key Concepts for Divination
the Ace indicates a surge of emotion, a momentary rapture that can evaporate as soon as it peaks
the Two shows a nascent willingness to engage emotionally, more a besotted promise than a binding pledge
the Three is passionate and ready to jump in with both feet
the Four brings a serene but spiritless sense of gratification
the Five seems pinched and duty-bound; we might say that “duty is the death of love”
the Six is wallowing in self-love and doesn’t care who knows it
the Seven needs a crowbar to pry open its feelings
the Eight is ambivalent and unsure how to feel, if at all
the Nine has “too many fish to fry” and doesn’t know where to begin; it also acts as the “busybody” card
the Ten resembles a series of waves about to hit a breakwater; it could mean “running interference” for a major emotional breakthrough, although stubborn resistance to any such development is more likely — feelings are running high but the dam will most likely hold back the flood; in more positive terms, it can show the need to maintain a “stiff upper lip” in the face of an incoming emotional tsunami
Swords: Key Concepts for Divination
the Ace is the “bright idea” card showing a thought process that is completely fluid at that point, unconstrained by practical considerations (the concept of “brainstorming” begins here).
the Two with its robust central flower implies a strategic outreach or offer (one-on-one communication such as a visit, phone call, message or letter);
the Three suggests a painful realization that accord is unlikely;
the Four speaks of a bridge-building “good faith” follow-up to the Two, bringing good will and a spirit of compromise to the bargaining table, with each party negotiating from a position of strength;
the Five sows argument and discord;
the Six shows the benefits of taking a strong-willed stance,“sticking to your guns” after examining all sides of an issue;
the Seven alludes to a departure from the norm (highly original or visionary thinking);
the Eight advises a well-reasoned equanimity, favoring the “benefit of the doubt” over adamant opposition; discretion is paramount (note the overbearing swords, the shrunken maneuvering room and the demure blossom shorn of its leaves);
the Nine imparts a sense of staving off oppression;
the Ten implies the interjection of critical thinking from unexpected quarters (the flower is untouched and the intruding sword-points remain within the core, suggesting that their input will be “taken under advisement”).
Coins: Key Concepts for Divination
the Ace signifies a gambit, the first move in any deal-making scenario; it rewards self-reliance and grit of the “dirt-under-the-fingernails” ilk
the Two involves a trade-off of some kind; it could also mean a juggling act, such as “balancing the books”
the Three symbolizes the need to “plan the work” and the ability to convert that plan into reality
the Four implies stability in all material things, but also the associated risk of succumbing to inertia
the Five conveys poor judgment and wasted effort with little to show for it; in the worst case it could mean dishonesty, such as “cooking the books;” alternatively, breaking out of the financial doldrums without regard for consequences could be indicated (i.e. impulsively taking or quitting a job)
the Six shows the pursuit of success for its own sake, not for what can be accomplished with the proceeds; thus, a purely mercenary undertaking is indicated
the Seven suggests leveraging one’s assets rather than simply hoarding them; unfinished business that needs to be concluded is another likely scenario
the Eight inspires cautious optimism about monetary matters; also, the possible need for a competent financial advisor or agent to assist with one’s affairs
the Nine emphasizes gain from the disciplined pursuit of one’s goals; undeserved entitlement is not “in the cards”
the Ten is a card of well-earned rest from labor, but also of humdrum domesticity
More details on the derivation of these meanings can be found here: