[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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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.
Buon’appetito!
 
Want your own Minchiate reading? You can choose between several in my shop!
 
 
 
 

A Reading of Bones

Once, on a beach, I found a bird skeleton. This was the first time I found some animal bones. For a moment, it felt like being in an adventure movie, suddenly finding some lost treasure. Excited, I picked up the whole thing and happily brought it home with me, regularly checking on the bones to make sure that it was real. My adventure, however, ended badly, as I soon developed an acute rash in the skin and had to be brought to the hospital for a cortisone shot. The lesson was simple: treasures might be cursed and bones found in the wild are to be left alone, lest they bring some pestilence with them.

I never thought of going back to bones. In fact, I quite forgot the whole thing until today, when it came back to mind as I was writing this text about the newest tarot deck to grace my doorstep. A deck with one of the most interesting concepts I’ve seen in quite some time. A Tarot of Bones. As a recent Marseille convert, the idea of “reading to the bones” has become increasingly familiar, and in some cases, a mantra. How then would a set of cards which depicted only bones do, when one wanted a tarot reading?

Enter Lupa, a Neo-Pagan author who has been working with animal parts for some years now and published some work on the subject. For this deck, she has amassed an incredible amount of animal parts (both real and replicas) and assembled them into artistic installations that incorporated tarot symbolism. For the deck, skulls, rib bones, vertebrae, teeth and jaws and long bones from the legs and feet have been amassed, each particular sort of  bone attributed to either the Major Arcana cards or one of the suits of the Minor Arcana. Hence, we find Skulls in the trumps, while rib bones were used for the suit of cups, long bones for wands, vertebrae for disks and teeth for swords. For the court cards, skulls and the bone that was attributed to a particular suit are present, so for example, the Knight of wands shows us the skull and the wing bone of an American Turkey.

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Assorted cards from the Tarot of the Bones. Artwork and conception by Lupa

Browsing through the deck, each card is both unique – with a particular background that agrees with the image depicted – and easy to identify, the name of the card plainly visible in the cards. The pictures are pleasing to the eye and invite us to return to a more natural world or, at least, a more nature-friendly world. This is, I think, one of the strengths of this deck. To let go of usual images that populate our human mind, with all the symbols and images that we use to stand apart from Nature and open the door to the natural world which lies all around us and let it in. I’ve been taking this deck with me for walks in beaches and parks and lying random cards on the ground to look at and meditate. They connect well with the natural world and, in fact, they seem stronger with this little exercise, speaking with a louder and clearer voice.

As for reading, well… skulls and bones don’t make for an easy reading if you, like me, can’t tell a hyena skull from a wolf skull. When I first opened the deck, and started looking at the cards my first thought was “how in hell am I going to read this?”. My problem was that I never got used to rely on keywords and when you’re used to work with images, it helps to actually be able to tell what you’re looking at. This is where Lupa’s companion book comes in handy (since there is no LWB accompanying the deck), by giving us both a description of the card and a peek behind the making of each assemblage as well as the reasons for a certain animal being selected. The book also tells us how the Waite-Smith system was used as the inspiration of the deck so expect to find some Waite-Smith inspired imagery.

But there is another way to read with it, and one that I found to be more fulfilling, which is to forget about everything you know about the tarot or, indeed, about the animals represented here and just let the images soak you. To let them come forth and freely enter your mind to tell you their story. My first question to the deck was “How can I work with you?” After laying three cards on the table, I got:

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10 OF WANDS / 7 OF PENTACLES / 3 OF CUPS
“What is tied needs to be let loose. Spread us around your space and watch the ripples as they unfold.” Oh! This was easy, I thought. To forget about meanings and  traditional depictions and reading systems. To forget about bones and animals and everything related to them and just let it flow. But then, what was I to expect from a deck that prompt us to reconnect with the rhythms of nature? To just let go of everything and go with the flow. If you want a reading to the bones, strip out all the meat and fat to focus on focus on what’s necessary.

All good and dandy then. Time to go to the next question, I thought. “What do you have to tell me?”

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9 OF SWORDS / 4 OF PENTACLES / ACE OF WANDS.
This one took me a bit longer than the previous one. Which, to be quite honest, I liked, as it tells me that there’s things to explore in here. Mysteries to be discovered. So I went with the theme: 9 sets of bone shards are spread all around the tableaux. They might be teeth but spread out this way they will hardly cut anything. What good then, does to be sharp, if you can’t exercise that sharpness? In the next card, the four of pentacles, four vertebrae are joined together in a cross. It almost seems as if all those shards came together to form these larger structures. Where previously there was chaos and entropy, now there’s stability; there’s a sense of order. And then, as we look at the ace of wands, we can easily see how each branch of the bone cross rose and melded to form the long bone visible in the last card. My snappy sentence would then be “What is separated needs to be put together. Do this in steps, looking first for stability and then for unity.”

The progression from Swords to Pentacles to Batons tells me that there are advantages to this approach. Swords turn into coins, loosing their sharp edges and bringing in rewards which can then be used to build a wand. Batons being associated with work and might, this tells me that by bringing focus to my work, things will be able to grow faster and stronger (notice how the size and the volume of the bones increase from card to card).

Looking up to the first reading I can see how they complement each other. One telling me to let go and become looser, the other, to concentrate and focus. If anything, I’m again recalled of the rhythms of nature. Of things expanding and contracting and how important it is to stay in the flow of things. Nature has seasons, after all, and these seasons teach us that there is a time for everything. It’s back to the basics then, remaining open and aware of what lies in front of us. 

The Tarot of Bones can be ordered from the author here. Be sure to pass by her site and check all the cards of the deck as well as the sculptures that were made for each card. There’s great work there. For more about Lupa and her work, just visit her site.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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)