So, why do some Tarot decks have scenic illustrations for the Minor Arcana cards and some just suit symbols to count up?
Well, we started with playing cards using fancy illustrated trump cards in Renaissance Europe. The only deck that we know of with scenic numbered cards is the Sola Busca Tarot (which may have been an inspiration for Pamela Colman Smith in the Rider Waite Smith deck). In the 18th century, a number of deck designs with simpler symbolic illustrations were popular for fortune-telling, and the Marseille style was one of those.
Learning the Tarot de Marseille
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 resurrected in the 20th century by Smith. But it’s hard to make the mental shift. I think both methods have merit, the “stripped down” card-relationship reading and the visual/intuitive method of most contemporary 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.
Tips for Interpreting the Pips
One thing that Bursten brought up in looking for symbolism to interpret the minor arcana is 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 think the 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 staves/coins/swords/cups, then add in just the essentials (numbers, traditional suit associations) and 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 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 cartomancers. And these were really just playing cards in the 15th and 16th centuries, so who knows where the “traditional” set meanings came from (the Sola Busca)?
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.
For much more on the history of Tarot, do check out the Tarot History group on Facebook. And let me know in the comments how you feel about Minor Arcana cards with pictures vs. just symbols. I’d love to know!