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


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.


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.

A Cock & Bull Tarot: The Minchiate Etruria

I love Italy a lot. At least I love a lot of Italian things: the food (divine), the art (frighteningly brilliant), antiquities (just such a lot of it), opera (because FEELINGS), the men (well they ARE very well-groomed & know how to drive a Vespa), faux-antique tea trays (yes, they’re a Thing & JUST LEAVE ME ALONE), and above all, Italian cards. Come to think of it, I hardly use any other decks anymore: the Soprafino tarot, the Vera Sibilla oracle (about which I will tell you more in the future), and pretty much my first big tarot love: the Minchiate Etruria (say Ming-kee-AH-tay. Which looks surprisingly like Chinese but it isn’t. Honest!). Although it never really went away from my practice I’m getting reacquainted with it at present, and so I reckoned you might feel like joining me for a light Italian summer snack.

I found my beloved Etruria about nine years ago in a cheap bookstore amid a batch of Lo Scarabeo leftovers, a print from 1996. The original deck itself saw the light in 1725 in Florence, Italy. It was my first non-RWS deck, and it was quite a departure. But I loved everything about it: the baroque art, the bewildering amount of strange majors (or trionfi), the sporadically illustrated pips. Even the LWB that gave meanings so unlike the high-flown esoteric reading style I was used to. Although at first I struggled to make sense of it, when I found The Minchiate Tarot by the late Brian Williams I fell in love even more. This brilliant book (which I will use as the main source for the discussion below) not only explores in great detail the iconographic context & history of these cards, but it also emphasizes its earthy, self-assured, even cocky nature. The book also comes with a modern Minchiate deck illustrated by the author. Recommended!
The name Minchiate seems to have been derived from a (lost) gaming term, as originally it was played as a game, a variant of tarocchi . But it also sounds the same as an obscene expletive, or disparaging term for trifles or nonsense. In Dutch we would probably say gelul, talking out of your dick. In English ‘cock & bull’ would be the nearest expression. Not inappropriate for a worldly, chatty, confident & proudly Florentine deck! So let’s take a closer look.
The Minchiate Fiorentina is but one of many tarot variants strewn along the path of what we now know as the traditional tarot deck, of which Marseille-type decks are probably the best-known (I will go with the term traditional deck or tarot for clarity’s sake when comparing the Minchiate). The Minchiate deck did not evolve slowly over time like other regional patterns, but it was invented all at once somewhere early in the 16th century. It continued to flourish throughout the 17th & 18th centuries (hence the Etruria edition), and remained a living game until the 1900s. As there is a lot of excellent information about the Minchiate to be found for the enthusiastic student such as this excellent article by Benebell Wen whom we should all adore), I will limit myself here to the trumps & their most glaring divergences from the mainstream tradition.
Firstly, the sheer number of trionfi: there are 41 instead of the usual 22. Because of this it is more or less traditional to read trumps & pips separately. I myself hardly bother with the pips when reading this deck. So what are the extras? Well, in addition to the three ecclesiastical Virtues present in the traditional decks (Temperance, Strength, Justice), we also have the four cardinal Virtues as first described by Aristotle: Hope, Prudence, Faith, Charity. This alone firmly makes the Minchiate a product of the Renaissance with its renewed interest in the Classics. Another series of added cards are the twelve signs of the Zodiac, although no one knows how to explain the random order in which they appear. Furthermore we have the Four Elements. 
Cards that iconographically diverge from the Marseille-type, but not from Italian pre-Marseille cards, are Wheel of Fortune, Chariot, Time, Hanged Man, Death, Devil, Tower. Time replaces the Hermit, and depicts an elderly male figure on crutches, surrounded by Saturnine symbolism such as the hourglass & kneeling stag. The Tower is traditionally called the House of the Devil (or God, whichever you prefer), and depicts a nude woman running out of a burning building.
Curiously the first five trumps (after the Fool) are called I Papi (the Popes), even though there is no Pope to be found! Instead we have two Emperors: the Western & Eastern Emperor. The Popess seems to have been replaced by the Grand Duke, of which both the name & nature are uncertain. It seems that he started out as a Popess or Empress-like figure, but morphed into an androgynous-looking young male. I therefore read him as an ambiguous, mutable figure, capable of change & growth, but also deception. 
There is no Empress either, but before anyone complains about the gender balance in this deck: the Chariot depicts a nude Victory instead of the usual Martian male, the angel in Fame (Judgement, about which more in a minute) is distinctly female, and the four cardinal Virtues are of course all ladies as well. Moreover, the pip suits of Coins & Cups have Fantine (maidens) instead of Pages. So there.
A number of trumps have quite distinct iconographies as compared to traditional decks. However, I’m picking my two favourites here: the World & Fame, which replaces Judgement. The World does not depict a simpering world soul enshrined in a floating bower, but a fully nude Amor triumphantly standing on the Globe, bearing his arrow & a crown. This harks back to the Love card, in which a kneeling lover receives a crown from either the object of his adoration or the Goddess of Love herself (and who is to say those two are different beings?), while being shot at by Amor. Love makes the World go round is what these cards are saying, and what a glorious, perilous affair it is. 
However, to the Florentine mind this is not even the highest ideal yet: the final trump is Fama, Fame, also called the Angel or the Trumpets. In the Etruria deck this angel is a woman blowing on two trumpets, floating above a recognizable Florence, and sporting the De’Medici family crest. So still better than Love is Fame, when the whole city (which is the whole world you need anyway, at least when you live in Florence) talks about you. Even if it’s only cock & bull. No such thing as bad publicity, right?
My love for the worldly message of this deck has NO BOUNDS, people: no Pope or Popess, Amor ruling the world, and what your neighbours say about you completely negates the Judgement at the End of Days. 
And that’s before even trying to read them! 
So let’s look at an example. This is a reading I recently did for a client. As you can see I added charms to this reading, which are very well received by the baroque images of the Etruria. This is the ‘traditional’ spread from the LWB: three trumps for the main story, more or less past-present-future, but to be read loosely as a story. Four pips around it, past, present, future developments or challenges, and outcome.
The client felt at a loss about where her life should be going: to leave her situation including her relationship, or not? To me, World at the centre with Amor on top of a crossroads of sorts, reflects this conundrum. The figure is holding the Cross & the Heart charms, meaning a choice between shouldering the burden & following your heart. Amor being at the heart of this reading is significant in itself of course. The Mask covering his face indicates that the querent does not feel the love anymore, and she feels fake & insincere. 
Taurus to the left, looking wistfully at the Chariot that I pulled as a sight card, shows that the querent has found stability that they now find stifling (Elephant, Cloud), and would rather move along (Star charm). Also, the Chariot explains why the querent is reluctant to move from a secure spot, after some abrupt movement earlier on. However, from the cards to the right it is clear that she will eventually make the dreaded move: House of the Devil shows a woman running from a dire situation, with the Man charm covering the figure pulling her back in.
The woman figure got the Oyster & Pearl charm, showing that deep down she already knows that she needs to leave. The Water card shows the Ship, meaning a new adventure, and also a literal journey. So she will definitely move away. The Ship also got the Compass, meaning a new direction. With the Roman numeral X at the heart of the Chariot, the World crossroads, and the Compass, this means three Crossroads in a row. Obviously there is a lot of emphasis on choosing a new path.
Looking at the pips, we see the painful situation that the querent has left behind, before she found her present stability that has now turned stagnant: Three of Swords, with Dragon covering the wolf that suckles the children. This situation was toxic, not nurturing, and she did well to leave it behind (Skull, Dagger). In the present we find the Seven of Cups, with four accompanying charms. The Cups show an illusory relationship, and the Lion staring at the Moon & Ring but ignoring the Apple that would actually nurture him tells us that the querent is using her Strength to keep herself in an unhealthy situation. 
We already saw that she will likely move away, and if she does so she will receive a gift, as illustrated by the Three of Coins. She will be dealt a lucky Hand, and find a nurturing & prosperous situation (Peacock/Empress). Moreover, with the Seer’s Eye & the Hand of Cards, the Three indicates that she will be able to expand her card reading business some more. 
The outcome looks very good indeed: the Eight of Coins shows her happy & secure amid a warm community. With Butterfly & Raven it is clear that her ancestral spirits are fully on board with this transformation. Locket & Witch Plant show gifts & growth yet to be revealed, and confirm that loss & stagnation are diminishing factors, even though the querent will need to continue her internal work.
So that is a clear, concise reading that you can make as detailed as you want, with just this simple spread! However, I mainly use the trumps in freestyle storytelling readings, or sometimes in a Grand Tableau, using all the charms as well. Endless possibilities! If you take the trouble to get to know these intriguing cards, you will be well rewarded.
Want your own Minchiate reading? You can choose between several in my shop!

Towards the Art of Reading: a Review

A few days ago, i received in the mail a package from Camelia Elias. Inside, there was a copy of her newest book, “Towards the Art of Reading”. By chance, or simply because the Universe works in mysterious ways, that same day I also received a book containing a selection of texts by noted poet and Falconer Khushal Khan Kattak.


The coincidence didn’t pass unnoticed. Tarot, poetry and falcons. In common, the act of seeing.
The all-seeing eye of Horus claiming for attention, and reminding me that we should not only look outwards, but also inwards. That the Tarot is ultimately about gaining awareness about ourselves and our surroundings.


God has given me a mind,
that all clear … I always find.
Secrets of earth and heavens
in my heart God has defined.
God’s shown me everything
in my heart: I am, not blind!
In others are the black night:
Kushal makes dawn, a find!

When dealing with the Tarot, the first question we have to answer is “What do we see?” Sure… Some images are laid upon the table. There’s a story there, waiting to be told. This story is never trivial. Quite on the contrary, it’s supposed to shed light on a matter / question / doubt. And we are asked to take the images before us and give them meaning. And no matter how much one argues, divination is about answering questions.
To accomplish this, we only need two things: to be able to see, and to relate what we see to the question at hand.
Camelia’s book starts in a very powerful way: with an explained reading. Where she goes step by step through the mental process which she uses to arrive at an answer. The book then goes on to explain her process and how she sees each of the major trumps. There’s some meanings conveniently placed at the end of each card, but that’s not even the important part. It’s the invitation she extends to us all to look at each card. To really look at each card and describe it. Think about it. Actually interact with it.
Only by this reason alone, this book is worth the price of admission alone. We’re being asked not to memorize a somewhat useless list of meanings and definitions but to truly see what’s before us and ask ourselves, at each and every step, “Why is this relevant to the issue at hand?”
In a way, this is a book about the author. And her particular method of card reading. Then again, if reading the cards was just about putting lists of names and verbs in the head, we would really only need one or two books on the Tarot.
On the other hand, if we understand the process through which a reading is made, well then… We can start constructing our own connections, our own particular way of seeing. And our skills will evolve faster and will develop to its fullest. To really learn a trade, we need to see and understand how its done. To see others do it, and try first to imitate them, and then to surpass them.

Like an arrow is requiring an archer to make it fly,
poetry needs a skill that only in magician does lie.
To weight words properly heart must be balanced,
That one too many words is uneven, too hard a try!
On an ink-black horse Truth’s bride is mounted…
as over face, the veil of metaphor, she does apply.

This is a book to keep at hand at all times. To read it once, from cover to cover, and try to pick up all that you can. And then leave it for a while, while its teachings sink into your mind and are properly digested. This is a book to be read slowly, little by little. As if you were savouring a nice port. Even though it is written in a practical, direct manner, it is packed with information, and somethings will become clear with successive readings. It is profundly illustrated, so you know what is being discussed. The images, photographed from the Carolus Zoya’s version of the Marseille deck are alluring and inviting.
Even if you’re not a Marseille adept, the combination of the images with Canelia’s prose will seriously make you consider using it. It’s a good thing, then, that the book came with a copy of the trumps. That way, you won’t have to mutilate your book in order to use them. And who knows… Maybe if we’re lucky enough we’ll get to see the full deck printed out. But even if we don’t, try to see them as an invitation to experience a Marseille deck. And to find out why it’s still one of the most well regarded decks out there.

The wise one’s the one who says his say but once:
wise everywhere know, that wit’s soul is brevity.

(All poems taken from “Khushal Khan Khattak: the Great Warrior-Poet of Afghanistan”, Bookhaven, 2012; Falcon image taken from the movie “Disharming Falcons“, directed by Wendy Johnson and Annie Nocenti.

For more about Camelia Elias, please visit her blog Taroflexions)

Idea Delivery Through Tarot and Comics -3

This is part 3 of a three part post about my presentation at this year’s Tarot Con – U.K.. If you’ve missed part 1 and 2, you can find it here and here.

After seeing how comics and tarot have interacted with each other throughout the years and how comics could be a fertile field to mine for ideas, in today’s post I’m going to focus on what’s probably the most important reason to read and / or study comics: its structure.

In comics, we combine pictures and words to tell a story. Sometimes the story is carried by words, other times, it is the images that carry the story. With the tarot, we use the pictures to find out the story which will then be told to the querent. In common with comic books, we have printed images with captions. However, unlike comic books, the text doesn’t accompany the images. A typical tarot card will look something like this:


Typically, we have a card which is filled with an image and one or two  captions above and/or underneath. So, the first question would be if more than 95% of the tarot card is filled with an image, why do we keep going back to the keywords? If keywords are really that important, maybe we would have have cards like this one:


where we would just have the card’s name and some keywords written on it. We could even have customized decks where each reader could write its own keywords. Instead, we have images, with just a few words to make each card understandable and easy to identify and relate to. We have thousands of decks, each providing us with an alternative take on the card’s meaning.

So the images in the cards, are important. And it’s the images that we should first look at. And, sure, keywords also have a part to play in the reading. In the midst of thousands of possible meanings each card has, if we didn’t have a way to navigate through that, we would have a pretty troubled journey. So keywords are also useful. But we should not depend exclusively on them.

Steve Englehart, a comic book writer, that had some of its work featured yesterday, when asked for a quote about tarot and comics had this to write:

As a comics reader, I always liked what I was looking at, but it wasn’t until an artist named Gil Kane (GREEN LANTERN, SPIDER-MAN, et al) sat me down one day showed me how he led your eye through each page that I fully understood it. It is an art, within the art, and I would say the same for Tarot reading. The first step is to know what each card means. The next step is to string those meanings together to get a complete story. Everyone begins with the “cook book” approach, where you’re more concerned with adding the flour and the sugar and not yet seeing the pie, but a good cook will soon come to understand how it all folds together. When I was learning Tarot, I was given a number of exercises where three cards were grouped together and I was asked to read those three as one story. Then we moved onto five cards… Bottom line, it (simply) requires the reader to see the big picture while working his way through all the little ones.

When learning the trade, we’re often taught that the images in the tarot cards function as triggers, as sort of key that can unlock our imagination and have us access new ideas and concepts. David Mack, in his Kabuki: The Alchemy book (available here) presented a similar view on comics:

Kabuki - The Alchemy, by David Mack
Kabuki – The Alchemy, by David Mack

Comics as a book of doors. As a device capable to open your mind and and see what is between the images. Which is exactly what we, as tarot readers do. Or should aim to do.

We write our stories by placing tarot cards next to tarot cards. And then finding something that will link them together into a cohesive whole. So, for example, while this would be a typical 3-card spread,


A few speech balloons are really all that separate us from transforming the above set of cards into a comic strip.

Strip by Luis Aguillar for Tarotvignettes. You can reach him out at the above address.

Mike Carey, another of the comic book writers featured in yesterday’s post, when asked for a quote had this to say:

I think a large component of the way we respond to images is highly subjective and inferential. Pictures create associations for us that are personal and emotionally charged. Other sensory stimuli do this too, but the triggers work with different intensities. When reading words – or at least, words arranged into sentences – the rational and logical parts of our minds are fully engaged and there’s limited space for the irrational, associative parts of our minds to go galloping away on tangents. Poetry, though, affects us differently and often (not always) sets out deliberately to increase that interpretative space.

Comics can be more like sequential prose or more like poetry, depending on the artist. And of course it has as much to do with the relationships between images as it does to the images themselves. Each new picture creates multiplying possibilities for interpretation – or else closes them down by making an ambivalent meaning explicit.

In that sense a comic page can be like a tarot spread. The panels, like the cards in a tarot reading, are not read in isolation. They combine to form an interpretative space that can be either loose and open or tight and clearly defined. The mind moves between them and makes the connections. Meaning – seldom definitive – arises as a result of that activity.

As exemplified in the sequence below, what we get from each image is a frozen moment in time and space. The images don’t move. They are just there and movement is made apparent by spotting the differences between each image.

Sequence from David Mack's Kabuki - The Alchemy
Sequence from David Mack’s Kabuki – The Alchemy

Just like in a reading, we look at the images shown in the cards and try to figure out what’s there and what is missing. We try to figure out what details jump out to us, what elements are repeated and what changed. In a nutshell, when reading a spread, as in all other areas of life, we go after what picks our mind’s interest. This is what’s behind such common image reading skills as pin-pointing and bridging. This is also what we do in our everyday lives with the information we gather from our senses. We sort it out between what matters and what doesn’t matter and quickly eliminate everything that doesn’t matter.

Will Eisner, one of the most influent comic book artists once said this at an interview (published in Will Eisner: Conversations. M. Thomas Inge (ed.)):

Now, when people ask me what I do, to answer it as quickly as I can, I say “I’m a writer. I write with pictures. This is my medium and I think there’s an advantage to sequential art, because, first of all, it communicates more rapidly than text alone. Text cannot be dismissed, because text is capable of revealing the great depth that single images or static images cannot do. And that’s one of the challenges of this medium.

So we write our stories by placing tarot cards next to tarot cards. Panel after panel. We need to have a start point, something that informs us where we are. In the same way, we need to have a finishing point: a card that will tell us how the story ends or, at least, where it is headed. Between these two cards, we place a finite number of cards. Just enough to have the essential plot points, the main happenings that will allow us to figure out what we have before us.

Most spreads follow this simple rule: from past (our establishing panel) to the future or the resolution (the end panel) and between, all the necessary cards needed to give meaning. Each card a fundamental part of the Story before us. And, as Scott McCloud reminds us,

Panel from Making Comics, by Scott McCloud
Panel from Making Comics, by Scott McCloud

So, taking the time to read comic books and look at them, at how they are made can also gives hints as to how to build spreads. How to arrange the information we have with us into a spread that is functional and is easily readable. Taking, for example, the following page,

Page from Hawkeye #2. Art by David Aja; Written by Matt Fraction, with art by David Aja. Published by Marvel Comics
Page from Hawkeye #2. Written by Matt Fraction, with art by David Aja. Published by Marvel Comics

we can see the main panel, in which we see two persons diving in what looks like a pool, trying to escape what seems like a hail of projectiles, most probably bullets. And then, we have a series of short panels around this main panel; each of these little panels tell us something about what we are seeing: The innocent bystanders that get shot; that indeed those projectiles we saw in the main panel are bullets; the bullet cases that continuously drop from the gun.

Taking this as an example for a spread, we would have something like this:


If you’re reading about relationships, then you can figure out if the other party is going to laugh at your jokes; if the sex will be good; if you will be able to talk or easily put up with one another. Or maybe it’s a job related question. Then you could find, for example, what type of boss you will have; if the work is too demanding or not; if you will be have any problems or not. Etc, etc…

As a final example, I would like to present this page, again from David Mack’s Kabuki: The Alchemy

K4 p19

This ended up as the base of a spread I called “Self Portrait”. The spread is very simple and you can use it to train your image association skills. So,

  1. TAKE A CARD FROM THE DECK – this is your outline

So, if for example you’re using the Rider-Waite Smith deck and you’ve drawn the Hermit, and saw the Lantern, you could associate it with the Sun; or the Ace of Pentacles. Or maybe you saw the staff and thought of the Ace of Wands; or the Magician. Or the hooded figure reminded you of the veil of the High Priestess. Just play with your imagination and see where it will lead you. It is, after all, your potential 🙂


Idea Delivery Through Comics and Tarot -2

This is part 2 of a three part post about my presentation at this year’s Tarot Con – U.K.. If you’ve missed part 1, you can find it here.

In this part I will present some work I chanced upon throughout the years. Books that for one reason or another made me stop and ponder a while, and from which I took ideas that later on would coalesce and build up into my personal view of the tarot. It was not a neat journey as it would appear by reading this post, and sometimes, comics that I will present side by side have reached out to me throughout the years.

This is also the part that mostly deviates from the presentation I gave at Keswick, so if you did attend it, just follow through and you’ll see how everything ties together.

Oddly enough, this journey starts not with a comic book, but with a TV series: Jim Henson’s The Storyteller was one of those TV series that retold several European folk tales using a mixture of live actors and puppets. In one of the episodes, right at the end, the dog questions the storyteller about a detail in the story that supposedly didn’t make any sense. The storyteller’s answer was very simple:

“Ah…, you see? But that’s the thing. You should always trust the story, for the story always tells the truth. But you should never, ever, trust the storyteller”.

This little line forever changed the way I related to stories. To what I saw or read. No longer were they these little pieces of fiction without consequences, but rather strange new worlds that would somehow touch our own world. It didn’t matter that they lived in the minds of people, its only actual physical presence the inks and papers they depended on… they existed here with us and would tell us everything we ever wanted to know about life, the universe and everything. So when a story presented us something that made us stop, well then… we should really stop and hear what it has to say, for its of the upmost importance. And even today I find echoes of that distant past. One of the most rewarding ones has been Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ series The Unwritten, about a Harry Potter look-alike character who possesses an immense knowledge about literary geography and who might or might not be a fictional character that actually crossed the line between fiction and reality. It’s a really wonderful series and you can find it here.

Anyway… comic books and tarot…

When we start learning the various meanings of cards, we get a list of keywords. An immense list of keywords and some of them are contradictory. For example, for Strength, we might find “Pleasure” and “Fight”; for The Star, we might see “Hope” and “Illusion”, etc., etc. We are told that cards can have positive meanings and negative meanings and that the actual meaning will depend upon the context of the reading. Opposites coexisting side by side, from which we get to pick the correct meaning for each situation depending on factors like intuition, logic, and pure dumb luck.

For a long time, my vision was exactly like that. Until I chanced upon a comic written by Steve Englehart that depicted a fight between two characters, Galactus and the In-Betweener, where the first defined itself as “the absence of opposites” and the second as “the meeting of opposites”. The comic was The Silver Surfer #18, part of a series of stories that explored how to deal with opposite concepts.


Silver Surfer #18. Written by Steve Englehart, with art by Ron Lim and Joe Rubinstein. Published by Marvel Comics

In the comic, Galactus (or the absence of opposites) ends up winning the fight, simply because he doesn’t have to jump from one state to the other; from positive to negative; from life to death; from pleasure to pain. He could be both of them at the same time and that enabled him to become something else… A balanced being.

Other issues would follow on this idea and try to figure out how to bridge two opposing concepts. And, at the end of the run (in Silver Surfer #31), we get these two pages that tell us that between every two concepts, every two opposing ideas there is a third one, a concept/idea that links both sides and as such is made from both sides of the coin, but is its own thing. And then, I started to look at the Tarot, and each Major Arcana was defined as the path that linked two Sephirahs… Each card was not meant to be just “Yes” or “No”; “Positive” and “Negative”, but something that contained both aspects and everything in between.


From Silver Surfer #31. Written by Steve Englehart; Art by Ron Lim, Tom Christopher and Rob Williams. Published by Marvel Comics


This led me to something else I saw years before in a Hulk comic. Now, the Hulk had been this rage-fuelled monster that existed inside the body of Bruce Banner, a scientist. His dark, primitive side. And for more than 30 years, that was all that he was. Until a writer, by the name of Peter David came along and had the idea of integrating both the puny, cerebral human side of Bruce Banner and the primeval monstrous side of the Hulk into a single entity:

The Hulk personas finally gets joins its human side, in this sequence from The Incredible Hulk #377, by Peter David, with art by Dale Keown and Bob McLeod. Published by Marvel Comics

And I remembered an Alan Moore comic published more than 10 years ago, Swamp Thing #50 (reprinted here and here)

The climax o
The climax of Swamp Thing #50, where Light and Darkness reach out and literally join hands, to give us the Tao. Art by Steve Bissette and John Totleben. Published by DC Comics.

And something made a click: cards do not show us a positive or negative meaning, they show us a way to integrate whatever we have with whatever we might be missing.

Looking at the Hero’s Journey, and how it relates to the Major Arcana, we can establish three different sets of cards, as depicted bellow:


Applying what was said above, we can again see the same principle: a first set of cards, between The Magician and The Chariot, which I usually call “The Path of Innocence”, in honour of the William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” and a third path, from Atu XV – The Devil to Atu XXI – The Universe, or “The Path of Experience”. And it’s easy to see how the each card in the middle row relates to the one that is directly above it and below it. How it takes elements of both end-cards and builds something else.

This all seemed nice and clear until a few years ago I stumbled upon this particular page, taken from Firestorm #96, which had this most interesting caption: “From awareness grew the knowledge of impulse and reason (…) that guide our decisions”

"Fury of Firestorm". Written by John Ostrander, with art by Tom Mandrake. Published by DC Comics
“Fury of Firestorm”. Written by John Ostrander, with art by Tom Mandrake. Published by DC Comics

Going back to the Major Arcana, one easily recognizes the “Impulse” and “Reason” as keywords to as The Wheel of Fortune and the Justice cards. And that’s all that one needs to make a decision. Placing the Major Arcanas in two rows, we get other interesting pairs:


Pairs like The Hermit (Scientific knowledge) and “The Hanged Man (Intuitive knowledge); Strength (Life) and Death, and so on. But more interesting still, is the combination of The Hierophant with The Tower, where we see portrayed the influence of God upon Man (The Hierophant) and Man’s attempt to reach out to God’s level. Or, to put it in another way, where duality first appears, and where it is resolved. And, in this aspect, The Star assumes an added importance: it’s hope, yes, because it’s a return to Unity; A new birth where everything shines in a new light. Or, as Alan Moore stated, again, in Swamp Thing #50,


Swamp Thing #50. Written by Alan Moore; Art by Steve Bissette and John Totleben


So, where does this leaves the Minor Arcana?

Well, the Minor Arcana are related to the Alchemical elements. Fire, Water, Swords and Pentacles. Or Will, Love, Reason and Material Resources. In the Rider Waite deck, these cards depict also depict journeys. Not the mythical journey, but the day-to-day struggles. If we want to turn to stories, we should not look at the concepts, at the ideas, but at the actual paths the characters make. We should look at biographies. Sure, there’s still plenty of ideas and concepts one can milk stories from, as we can see from these examples:

FF322_20a FF322_20b

Panels from Fantastic Four #322. Written by Steve Englehart. Art by Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott. Published by Marvel Comics
Panels from Fantastic Four #322. Written by Steve Englehart. Art by Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott. Published by Marvel Comics





Pages from Crossing Midnight #6. Written by Mike Carey. Art by Jim Fern and Mark Pennington. Published by Vertigo/DC Comics


But we’re probably better served when looking at a character’s evolution. To understand Fire, we need to understand Will, determination, creative energy. How to fuel this determination and channel it to our objectives.  Mike Carey’s series Lucifer (which you can find here) tells us the story of how Lucifer pretended to escape his creator’s role by creating a new Universe that might better correspond his point of view. What it takes to bring something forward and defend it, sustain it and, ultimately, make it stand.

For swords, we could turn to the stories of the samurais. Swords are about reason, but they are also about balance, fluidity and adjustment. In order to live by the sword, one must be centered, fluid, and disciplined. Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond (available here) brings us the fictionalized account of Miyamoto Musashi, considered the greatest samurai that ever lived. How he learned his trade. How he incorporated the zen teachings he chanced upon, and how he developed his own style of fighting, a style that made impossible for any opponent to get near him, het alone cut him down.

Pentacles is an easy one. If you want to learn about resources, social networks and money, you need to look no further than Uncle Scrooge. Of particular interest is Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck (available here), where he tell us the story of how Scrooge got rich, in ten chapters that closely correspond to the suit of Pentacles. Also of interest are Carl Bark’s stories featuring Uncle Scrooge. Carl Barks was the creator of Uncle Scrooge and the one that got to define his personality and charm. And it’s interesting to see that for all the pettiness and the eye for business, he also gave Scrooge a heart that shone even more brightly than any gold coin he might find.

Which leaves us with Hearts. Love, feelings and relationships. The bonds that allows us to nurture ourselves and grow. The bonds that ultimately will define where we came from and who we are. David Mack’s Kabuki series (available here) is all this and more. A love letter to his mother, and then to himself it shows us how everything around us and everyone around us can fuel us, drive us forward and ultimately help us on our path.

And thus ends part two… a personal journey through comics and tarot that I hope might open some new avenues for you. But comics have more to teach us than just stories. Join us tomorrow for part 3, where we look at what else can comics bring us that’s of interest to tarot readers. In the meanwhile, do browse our archives for some other goodies