I've been a subscriber to your list for some time. I've come
to really love the rich symbolism of the Rider-Waite deck,
but I've also wanted to learn the Marseille's Eteilla
symbolism and meanings. While I'm happy to listen to the
cards for new meanings each time I read, my head gets a
little jumbled automatically imposing the RWS meanings on
cards whose images don't support those meanings.
If you had one tip for someone moving from the RWS system
to the Marseille's system, what would it be? And while I know
each deck has its aesthetic, if you had to describe the
difference in ethos between the RWS system and Marseille's
system, how would you do it?
P.S. - I don't read professionally, but I do use both decks daily.
A description of the Marseille tarot's "ethos" may be tricky
as the literature describing it amounts to a succession of
the personal, subjective projections of its authors. How not
to fall into the same trap?
I wouldn't say there is a Marseille tarot "method." I rather
see it as a "tradition."
That tradition can be seen as having two distinctive moments.
First there was a time when the image-makers were active,
printing tarots. So far, we only have retrieved enough pieces
of that puzzle to outline the passing on, generation after
generation, of a set of images that have remained somehow
consistent, from Jean Noblet (1650) to, perhaps, Nicolas
Conver (1760). Sadly, no commentary about the images
survived. We know nothing about what these image-makers
were thinking when they printed these tarots. We only know
the images are preserved with minimal alterations.
The commentary came later. In fact, I would say the second
distinctive moment within the Marseille tradition came about
in the 1930s, after Paul Marteau "rebranded" these French
tarots sharing a similar pattern as "tarots de Marseille".
With Marteau, the Marseille tarot became aware of itself.
Most people agree that the first appearance of the
"Marseille tarot" notion can be found in Papus, who was
then referring to these decks either produced in the city of
Marseille or exported to the world through the port of
Marseille; but for all practical purposes it was Paul Marteau,
head of the Grimaud printing house, who in the 1930s "coined"
the "Tarot de Marseille" brand and made the deck available
for sale. It is said that Marteau was reacting to the increasing
popularity of the RWS deck.
In the last ten years we have seen what could perhaps be a
third act in this narrative with the edition of decks that
hope to "restore" the Marseille tarot images. Most notably
we have Chris Haddar, Philippe Camoin and Alejandro
Jodorowsky, Jean-Claude and Roxanne Flornoy, Yoav Ben-Dov
and Wilfried Houdoin. While the theories and speculations of
all these authors may diverge, the point that remains consistent
is the preservation of the images. We still see minor additions
or alterations, just as we observed among Noblet, Dodal,
Chosson, etc. But the images remain the same.
If we observe what happened after the RWS became popular
and we contrast it with what has happened to the Marseille
tarot, that difference of ethos starts to emerge. For example,
the post-RWS "star" is a symbol that stands for something
other than a heavenly body. Once we are there, any star will do.
Year after year, we see a proliferation of new decks in which
the star-as-symbol takes new and different visual incarnations
without stopping to clearly describe what The Star card symbolizes.
Within the Marseille tradition, The Star is that precise
image of a naked woman pouring water "à la belle etoile"
(under the night's sky). If we were to modify the image we
would be stepping outside the lexicon of the Marseille
tarot. I am using here the word "lexicon" with a precise
intention, as the main characteristic of the Marseille tarot
ethos, the only one on which all the commentators agree, is
that we are in the presence of a visual language. It could
be argued that all tarots are a visual language, but here we
are talking about a language that requires no (symbolic)
interpretation, as it manifests through direct comprehension,
pretty much like street signs.
For example, we often hear or read how The Star card
represents "hope". But hope is an abstract notion. In the
Marseille tarot, Lestoile give us the experience of being
naked (exposed) kneeling down (surrendered) pouring water
(releasing, dropping, giving). The whole image amounts to a
feeling of abandonment that we feel in our bodies, not with
our heads, and therefore is physical, not intellectual.
If we were to modify the image we see in Arcane 17,
switching it for whatever tickles our fancy, we won't
experience these feelings. More important, once the image
has been modified we won't be able to map its similarities
with Temperance, an image in which a (winged) woman stands,
holding the same vases we see in The Star. If we were to
choose a different image for Temperance, we wouldn't be able
to see these vases she is holding in the two twins embracing
under The Sun. These twins can be mapped into the dogs we
see in The Moon, the two minions in The Devil, the two
persons falling from The Tower, or the two acolytes kneeling
before The Pope.
If we change one image, the language collapses.
The commentators of the Marseille tradition (Marteau, Unger,
Flornoy, Camoin, Jodorowsky, et. al) agree in a few directions:
- Regard the trumps as a whole, not as a series of individual images.
- Pay attention to the characters' gestures and glances.
In the Marseille tarot the gestures of the characters we see
in the cards aren't independent occurrences. We see these
gestures, details and elements, repeated from card to card
in consistent patterns. The Marseille tarot is a tool for
experience. In a sense, we could speak here of a kind of
visual magic, based on two traditional strategies:
- Visual similarity
- Visual proximity
The Marseille tarot "spells" ideas by presenting us with the
recurrence of signs. Elements that look the same are thought
to be conceptually related. Elements that occupy the same
position in the cards are thought to be conceptually related.
An additional direction which I personally find worth
exploring but that has received very little attention is
wordplay. Tchalai Unger writes about it with some detail,
showing us how LE MAT (another name for The Fool) is a
word that suggests "fool" but also "mast", "matte" and death
(as in "check mate"). Jodorowsky also points out how some of
the trumps names are actual puns, like LE PENDU, which in
French can be heard equally as "the hanged one" or "hard bread."
Once we consider wordplay, we open a door to a rich French
tradition of both verbal and visual punning that would take
us far back, to Rabelais, Rene Marot, medieval heraldry and
all of their successive heirs: Gerard de Nerval, Jean-Pierre
Brisset, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Roussel, the Surrealists, the
Oulipians, and also esoteric writers like Grasset de Orcet,
Rene Guenon and the mythical Fulcanelli. All of them were
very much aware of the nature of wordplay as an engine for
meditation and thought. Understood within that lineage, the
Marseille tarot becomes a tool to unlock the mind to the
multiversality of signs.
All my Best,
enrique enriquez/hieroglyphic terrorism