Got involved in a discussion some time ago over on Facebook started by the wonderful Chloë McCracken, who does the blog for TABI, here, about illustrated vs. stripped-down minor arcana cards and the challenges of reading the more traditional pip cards without the scenic illustrations that were introduced by A. E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith in their deck (RWS).
I learned from Lee Bursten’s Universal Tarot of Marseille, as well as my study of the Lenormand oracle system, to read without the fancy pictures. But it’s hard to make the mental shift. I think both methods have merit, the “stripped down” card-relationship reading of the ancient Tarot de Marseille and Lenormand and the visual/intuitive method of post-Golden Dawn (20th century and beyond) decks. There are just so many different ways to connect with the cosmic energies that influence the cards, both inner (Jungian, psychological, archetypal, thematic) and outer (mundane event and emotional energies outside the self). I like them all.
And David Thornton (Reiki master and Tarot reader from England) brought up something over on FB that was also repeated by Bursten; that numbers, as well as suits, can give a lot of information to read with when one doesn’t have scenic artwork to provide a guide. I found this method of reliance on numbers, suits, to be useful in providing material for an interpretation that does not have to rely on one artist’s or philosopher’s view of the cards. I think the difficult trick is to let go of your associations with the scenic pip card pictures and essentially start over mentally with just the simple pictures of wands/coins/swords/cups, then add in just the essentials (numbers, traditional suit associations) and then fill in with the actual relationships among the cards, rather than relying on any one card’s message by itself. As with the Lenormand system, make a “sentence” out of the whole reading.
I have to admit now that in a way, relying on the RWS story pictures can be a little restrictive, although it does regularize interpretations vs. the way it seems to have been prior to the early 20th century. A. E. Waite himself, in his Key to the Tarot, complains about often contradictory interpretations of the cards by traditional cartomantes. And these were really just playing cards in the 15th and 16th centuries.
According to Bursten, the Trumps (Major Arcana) were originally the only cards meant to have archetypal significance, and their original meanings from a 15th-century point of view were much more Christianized and mundane than the archetypal spiritual journey of Jungian consciousness that many Tarot readers take them on these days. The Minor Arcana (pip numbered cards in suits) have sort of taken over the mundane day-to-day divination duties while the Majors have been expanded to include virtually all mythological hero journeys and symbolism, particularly pagan ones. A lovely irony, in my opinion. 😉 And great material for great artwork.
And the Major arcana are not so different among the decks, really, although I’ve found some interesting new-old shifts in perspective on the Fool and the Magician between Tarot de Marseille and RWS, and strange commonalities between the old Tarot de Marseille and Thoth (a very complex post-Golden Dawn deck), of all things. The Magus/Magicians in both decks have quite a lot in common in terms of the Trickster god archetype.
I love finding common threads among different mythological and symbolic systems, so I’m excited to learn more and make more connections as I go along. But I really think that the mental work involved in reading the cards as a traditional cartomantic/fortune-telling exercise is quite a shift from the
psychological/spiritual/intuitive method used for most Tarot reading. I love the challenge of working in both “modes” and plan to honor the tradition of each deck and its philosophy to get the most out of reading with them. I think I will be one of those who will happily read from several decks rather than having just one or two that I really resonate with.
Just wonderful stuff, all of this, harkening back to my childhood love of myth and symbolism. Let me know what you think about unillustrated pip cards and the traditional vs. newer ways of interpreting the cards. I’d love to hear about your experiences, favorites, etc.
Outposts in My Tarot Universe
Speaking of keeping it simple (and yet complex) in divination, check out Andy Boroveshengra’s book on the Lenormand system, which uses simple card images to connect to daily mundane events in life and is really closer to the historical unillustrated Tarot than it is to our more familiar fancy pictures. It’s also a very different way of reading than Tarot has become. Fascinating method.