[Review] The Marseille Tarot Revealed by Yoav Ben-Dov

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Yoav Ben-Dov was an asset to the tarot community who passed away nearly a year ago, in December 2016, at age 59. He studied physics and the philosophy of science in Tel Aviv, was a student of Chilean-French cartomancer (and film director and polymath) Alejandro Jodorowsky, and held a doctorate in the philosophy of quantum mechanics.

He worked on a restored version of the Marseille based on the deck published by Nicholas Conver in 1760 and titled his restored deck the CBT (Conver/Ben-Doav Tarot) Marseille.

He developed his own method of reading the Marseille, which he called the “Open Reading” and which he detailed in a book of the same name.

In 2017, Llewellyn published his comprehensive book on the Marseille tarot, titled The Marseille Tarot Revealed: A Complete Guide to Symbolism, Meanings & Methods.

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I first ran across this book at my local library this summer and wanted to have a look before I bought it. It had been on my radar since it was published but I hadn’t had a chance (or time) to get my hands on it. It wasn’t long before I had decided I wanted to make this volume a permanent part of my essential tarot library.

Ben-Dov said he had three principle aims in this book: a general introduction to the tarot and the reading process, a guide to his “open reading” method, and a handbook to reading the Marseille specifically.

A few things set this work apart from the many others out there on the market, especially given the resurgence in popularity and “trendiness” in recent years of the Tarot de Marseille and the French school of cartomancy.

The Open Reading Method

First of these is Ben-Dov’s method, which departs from a vast majority of readers (including myself) who insist that the question is of vital importance. (It should be noted that when he refers to a reading, he is working in person and face-to-face with the querent, which gives him a lot more to work with in terms of body language and psychological input than is possible when doing telephone or email readings.)

Regarding questions, he states:

“As I see it, even if the querent comes to the reading with a clear and precise question, we should regard it only as a starting point. People are not always self-aware enough to know what exactly it is that troubles them.”

Open reading relies much on the skill and experience of the reader to help the querent uncover what’s “really” important in terms of the reading session. He says that taking a querent’s question “at face value and giving them a definite answer is usually not productive.”

Right or wrong, an optimistic prediction may lower the motivation of the querent to make an effort, as they may believe that success is guaranteed. A pessimistic one could also lower their motivation, this time because they may think all is lost anyway.

I absolutely agree with Ben-Dov’s observations here and he succinctly states the reason why I also avoid making “predictions” for clients and prefer to view the reading session as a process of coming to clarity and insight for proactive decision making.

Ben-Dov’s way of assigning meaning to the cards in the open reading method is something I found particularly challenging. It caused me to stretch my thinking in terms of card reading. I had already worked on elements that loosely resemble the open reading in my work with Enrique Enriquez, namely the idea that cards have no fixed meaning, nor do their positions. This will challenge many readers who used “cookbook” style texts to learn the cards, especially non-Marseille decks. However, it’s a worthwhile exercise and challenge for any reader who wants to develop a more holistic approach to card reading.

We don’t start by interpreting each card separately; instead, we first try to see the whole picture that the cards form together.

Everything Is a Sign

Ben-Dov relies on another concept that may not appeal to all readers, but which plays an important role in his way of reading: “everything is a sign.”

Generally speaking I tend to agree with him on this (ex: cards jumping the deck during shuffling, spontaneous mental images or phrases I may receive prior to shuffling or during a reading session), but personally he goes a little too far for my own taste, truly including everything as a potential sign, down to the querent’s choice of clothing, accessories, and hand movements while shuffling.

I don’t disagree with him that everything can be read as a sign. However, I think each reader has to draw in for him or herself how much he or she wants to accept to read as a sign. I would be overwhelmed if I felt I had to systematically consider absolutely everything down to the last detail in the reading session and surrounding environment as a sign. But the principle here—that meaning can come from any stimulus that arises during the reading session—is absolutely valid and worthwhile.

He includes several practical examples with actual spreads in which his interpretation draws on his own intuitions and experiences. He describes how “usually” cards are interpreted as such but in a particular reading he “felt” it meant something different, based on “something in the querent’s presence.” This could be too ambiguous for a beginning reader who’s looking for hard and fast maxims to grab onto.

His method will also present a challenge for readers who insist that a question provides the necessary context for interpretation. When he provides a three-card combination without providing a question and begins offering possible interpretations (“may be” and “could represent”), it could sound to some like random speculation with no anchor point.

What’s refreshing, however, is that this method opens up new possibilities to readers who have self-taught with mass market books.

Reference for Individual Meanings and Divination

The book will prove useful as a reference manual. Each card of the major arcana is delineated with a large photo and several “functions” of the card. This gives structure with enough flexibility to leave room for individual interpretation based on the open method.

Many readers struggle with reading the pips in the Marseille because they have very little symbolic content, and here Ben-Dov has an entire chapter on how to read them, including a quick reference section of brief interpretations for each of the “number cards.” The court cards have their own chapter as well.

This is a thorough manual that does a great job of multitasking. It teaches accurate tarot history, examining the French and English schools past and present; the particulars of the Marseille deck; Ben-Dov’s own reading method; reference information for each card in the deck; as well as symbolic meanings in terms of colors, numbers, figures, and body parts.

In addition, Ben-Dov’s background in Hebrew (he wrote the first tarot book to be published in Hebrew) allows him to comment on Cabbala and possible uses for Hebrew letter correspondences. There’s also a handy reference table.

The book is printed on a lovely stock, in full color on a satisfyingly shiny and heavier-weight white paper than you normally find in paperback books. At $15 for either paperback or Kindle version, the price is also very affordable. I’m a Kindle fan, but I recommend you purchase this volume in paperback because the tactile quality is worth it.

Did you like this post? Read more of Shelley Ruelle’s writing on the tarot here at Maelstrom Tarot or at her tarot blog, Sparrow Tarot.

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