[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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When Things Go South

When browsing through the tarot-sphere one stumbles upon quite a diverse range of subjects. Whether it be tarot decks, explanatory tips on how to read cards, spreads, the history of the cards, philosophy, pataphysics, there is practically nothing you can’t find on the web. But when you want to learn about why a reading fails, well… things get a little more complicated. For sure, there are a few posts out there, always reachable within a click or two, but that’s it. I guess that people don’t really want to talk about it online (outside of forums and courses, where there’s always someone asking about this or maybe some advice about how a certain reading can go wrong).

Why people won’t openly talk about that would be an excellent question. Indeed, a question for the cards. But the reasons for that might be so varied that we would probably get lost. It’s usual to see readings presented as successful readings, for obvious matters. As tarot readers, we want to engage people, to bring them in. To show them that cards do work. This is why talking about the failures that we, as a person, might commit isn’t exactly the best of strategies. On the other side, boosting a high percentage of confirmed / successful / on point readings might do exactly that. Statistics are reassuring. A high percentage of good readings will lead people to believe that the reading they’re going to have will also be a good one. Which is one of the best publicities that a tarot reader might have.

It really isn’t about the statistics

And yet, no matter who good our statistics are, every single reading we do still places us face-to-face to someone. Do it wrong and you will still loose face before your client, and what good will those statistics be then? If that reading really goes south, it might make you second-guess yourself, which is something most people aren’t used to do. But something that is truly humbling.

I’m writing all of this because a few days ago I had one of those experiences. I was doing an online reading with no background whatsoever. Just three questions that were put on the table for answer. I drew some cards for them and started describing what I saw and, somehow it all went down the hill without me noticing it. By the end of the reading, the whole thing looked like one of those second-rate drama soaps. The kind you don’t really want to watch, because it’s just “oh! so bad!!”. But again, the reading made sense with the cards, and that was all that mattered. When the feedback came, I was faced with this spectacular shit-hits-the-fan-blow-in-your-face failure, and all of a sudden, a nice deep hole in the ground seemed like a very good idea.

Well, maybe it wasn’t really that bad. But it sure looked like it, probably all the more as I’m not used to these types of situations (ah… the power of statistics… how feeble its assurance really is…). And yet, here it was, as it was want to happen sooner of later.

The cards were wrong!

Because they are the ones that are telling us things, right? After all, our job here is just to interpret them and talk about them. So, if they are wrong, how can we say anything right? But if they are right, the merit is entirely ours, for we were the ones that actually decoded them successfully.

Yes, exactly! Blame it on the cards!

Admitting that the cards can be wrong only opens another shitload of problems, because then not only do we need to make sense of what they are trying to show us, we actually have to figure out when they are right and when they are not. And how do you propose to do that? Ask them in a parallel drawing? Invoking whatever help you deem necessary to assure that they are right? And why are you reading cards anyway, if you can’t even figure out that the cards are wrong in the first place? Better stick to some infallible divination system. God knows how many are out there!

On the other hand, if we admit that the cards are always right, then the problem lies entirely with how the reader choose to interpret what s/he saw. This means that not only you are not dependent on the whims of a few pieces of paper, it also allows you to identify and correct your mistakes, thereby becoming a better reader. Even if, in the process, you do have to admit to being wrong. And really, what is that going to hurt except our own sense of worth? The ego might be a useful thing, but we really shouldn’t have it keeping us from seeing what is right in front of us. That is, after all, what we proposed to do by becoming tarot readers.

So what went wrong?

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Moon card, from the Tarot of Xul Solar

Maybe the querent was in denial or just out for some bad ride. Maybe I was in a bad day. Or there was one of those combinations of little things that made this happen. When stuff like this happens, we’re in Lunar territory, so the first thing to do is really to calm down and try to find our way in the middle of all of this

Which was what I did, just as soon as I dug myself out of that imaginary hole. I picked up the same deck that had so “miserably” failed me and asked it that very question

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THE PAGE OF COINS / 10 OF CUPS / THE CHARIOT

The reading was simple:

“Because you were too eager to get to the pot, you got yourself involved in your own theories so much, you didn’t step back to take a look at what you had.”

Ouch! Talk about being sharp! The good thing, though, is that “a-ha! I could still read that damned cards!” Well, it might not be much, but it sure is a positive thing. I mean, nothing like some self-validation to raise the morals, right? But there’s a whole lot to unpack from this snappy sentence. So let’s see where this leads.

“You got yourself involved in your theories so much, you didn’t step back to take a look at what you had”

This is basically what the Page of Coins is saying. There he is, coin in hand showing what he got from his work, while also pointing at another coin that just isn’t there!”

So what happened here? There I was looking at the cards searching for a point of entry to the story before me. As usually happens, the images trigger some ideas, and you go with these ideas trying to figure out how they fit the cards. In a way, I was spinning theories and then looking for evidence in the cards to prove it. There’s nothing wrong with this. But again, one needs to be aware that theories are dangerous things to have, as they can lead us down in the wrong direction and thus, distracting us from what is really going on.

The best thing, then, is to avoid the whole thing altogether. To just stick to the spread lying there on the table and take it all in. To not just look for an answer, but rather to let it come to us. This takes time, obviously. In a good day, it might be as little as 30 seconds. Or it might be significantly more in a bad day. Obviously, when we have a face-to-face reading every second counts, as there’s someone right there in front of us waiting for an answer. But that was not the case with this reading, as it was to be delivered in written form.

This leads nicely into the second part of the the reading,

“You were too eager to get to the pot”

Again, we all want to deliver that snappy sentence that will answer the one in front of us. That is, after all, what we all work for. And, with enough time to think about what is right there in front of us, most of us get there. The problem arises when we convince ourselves that we need to do this fast, for that is when shortcuts are usually taken. Shortcuts like not giving the answer enough time to get to us, as said above. Or shortcuts like not checking our facts, which is one of the most essential things we can do in a card reading.

There are many ways to check the facts. The simplest one was already given: “step back and look at things from a distance”. If, however, one is not able to do this for whatever reason, one can always draw some more cards to see how things got to the point where they are now.

This means looking at past events and trying to figure out what happened. To get the narrative behind the question. Which is all the more important when we don’t have any background or context besides what is given by the question itself. The easiest way to do this is with a past / present / future spread, but there are other ways / spreads that can bring something to the table. And no matter which spread you end up using, the more data you have, the better your conclusions are. Something I was just talking about a few days before, but actually forgot to do it this time around.

Building up the narrative has other advantages, like making the querent realize how things played out; something that s/he might not even be aware of (most of the times, they aren’t). And it has the added advantage of empowering us before the querent: if the querent can check what we say against what he already knows of the situation, well… we just made our work easier. On the downside, if we fail to do that, well… there goes our face again.

It really isn’t about saving face either.

Because, at the end of the day, even with all precautions taken, shit just happens. And we will get a reading wrong now and them. We are, after all, humans, succeeding as humans and failing as humans. And a bad reading is actually the best thing that can happen to us, since it makes us stop and really look at what we are doing. Because, let’s face it: we all have a system to read the cards. A system that was built according to what we learned about card reading from books, talks, blogs, actual readings and tips from extraneous sources. If it’s a bad system, it will regularly fail; if it’s a good system, it will fail less. A really excellent system, is worth its knowledge in gold and you can start marketing it with great success!

But the only way to test this system is to read the cards. So what a bad reading really does is to point us exactly which things need to be addressed and corrected.

In a way, a bad reading is the best thing that could happen to us as a card reader, because it allows us to grow. To grow in understanding and in depth. To address what we got wrong and find a better way to deal with the cards. The cost we have to pay is a lesson in humility. Our ego will get stabbed, for sure. But the ego… ah!!! there’s so many things to say about the ego, and we really don’t have the time. There’s work to be done on accurately reading those pesky cards!

The Elemental Roulette

[Being the fifth part in our four-part special series on the nature of the tarot card suits For the previous parts, do check out Isabel’s Much at Stake: Vampires on Fire, Paulinnhhoo’s On Coins, Miguel’s To a Queen of Swords and Shelley’s The Fool’s Journey Through the Tarot Suit of Cups.]

It happens. You’re reading a book on the tarot. Or just going through some threads on some online tarot forum. Or maybe you pick this up in a course on tarot. Sooner or later, there comes a time where you will find a mention on how the four elements correspond to the four suits of the minor arcana. If you’re like me, the first time you read anything about the subject, this will seem like a huuuuge breakthrough, as it will open the door to a new understanding on the blasted minors and, perhaps, an easier way to deal with the damn cards. This will open the door to all kinds of esoteric subjects: kaballah, alchemy, mysticism, philosophy, and everything but the kitchen sink. Out of nowhere, there are huge amounts of knowledge that needs to be studied, perceived and assimilated in order to read the cards. Or at least to understand what the hell everyone is talking about.

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As if that wasn’t enough, not everyone seems to follow the same system. Cups are the easy ones. Everyone more or less agrees that they are associated with Water. The other suits, however are mined field. Are batons Fire or Air or Earth? And what about spades and coins? And why can’t anyone agree on something like this? Are we to follow the western esoteric tradition and assign Fire to batons, Earth to coins and Air to spades? Or should we take the cunning folk tradition and see Fire associated with coins, spades associated with the Earth and batons associated with the element of Air? Or maybe some other combination?

And, again, why don’t people agree just with any of this???

Well, you can blame the ancient Greeks for this whole mess. They’re the ones that had the idea that the whole Universe could be explained as a combination of four elements, namely Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Granted, other cultures has similar concepts. The number of elements might vary, or even the substances considered elemental, but older civilizations like the Egyptian, the Babylonians, the Hindu or the Japanese all had similar concepts. More recently, science has taken a spin on the concept, with the notion of states of matter. According to scientists, matter can not be described by a particular combination of the four elements — since there are some things called atoms (about 120 different kinds of atoms, just to complicate things) —, but they can appear in one of the following states: solid, liquid, gas and plasma. These scientists then entertained themselves with trying to find other possible states of matter, most of which occur at extreme conditions of temperature or pressure. Still, for the most part, under normal conditions the only observable states are solid, liquid, gas and plasma. These states are due to similar behavior of different types of matter at similar energy levels, and not due to having a certain type of some substance.

Or, to put it in another way, the states were assigned by observation. Just like in the old days, the elements were defined by observation. Aristotle, for example, related each element to two of four possible qualities. Fire is both dry and hot; Water is both wet and cold; Air is both wet and hot; Earth, both dry and cold. However, there were people who would not agree. For Proclius, a neoplatonist,  Fire is sharp, subtle and mobile, while Earth is blunt, dense and immobile. Air is blunt, subtle and mobile, and Water is blunt, dense, and mobile.

So, as you can see, right there at the beginning, people also didn’t see eye to eye with this. And things really haven’t gotten better since.

As most of the western culture comes from ancient Greece — with Plato and Aristotle being the two main pillars on which everything else got build, if these two currents can’t agree, we’re in for some deep trouble. And again, if the correspondence is to make any sense, there should be something in both the element and the suit that can be related. Which means, that we need to observe the same qualities in both the material element and the object that lends its name to the suit in question.

Since the last four posts have been devoted to the suits, we will start with the elements. So let’s take a look at all of this and see where it gets us.

FIRE
Fire is warm and bright. When controlled it can be used as a source of heat and energy as well as a transformation tool, enabling us to cook thinks and manipulate matter, whether it be glass making or metal crafting, amongst other; however, when uncontrolled, it can easily destroy everything in its path. Fire is then a source of creation and destruction. But the most interesting thing about the element is that it is both the strongest and the weakest element, due to a very interesting characteristic: it is the only element that cannot sustain itself. It constantly needs feeding in order to survive. Take out the source of nourishment and it will easily be put out. But can just as easily be brought back or rekindled with the right spark. This gives fire something that no other element has: the capacity of regeneration. In a sense, it lives to consume and be consumed, only to rise again from its ashes when the time is right. It is also the only element that is constantly changing, its flames constantly dancing in accordance to its own volition.

Associating Fire with the batons is easy enough: not only does wood burn, but if you rub two sticks together, you will create fire. Wood (and thus batons) can then be seen as a seed of fire but also as the carrier of fire. Which is why most people make this association. But that is not the only one.

For coins warm our palms just like fire. Also like fire, money doesn’t like to be still, but instead to spread as fast as possible. In a way, money is just as nervous as fire. And just as restless.

As for the suit of Spades, Swords are quick and destructive. In fact, they’re the most destructive suit of the pips, just like fire is the most destructive of the elements. As Proclius also pointed out, fire can sting, just like a sharp needle, which again brings it closer to Spades.

AIR
Air doesn’t have a particular shape or a definite volume. It can freely flow and expand or contract according to need. It’s main quality is thus movement. It contains oxygen, which is vital to human needs, but also carbon dioxide, which can be poisonous. It is what we breath in and what we breath out, so in a way, what connects us to the outside world; a bridge if you like. But at the same time, and much like Fire, it is a vital force. Even though we can not see it, we can feel its effects. With the breaths we take, but also in the wind and hurricanes and how it seems to bend things to its will, sometimes going as far as ripping them off the ground and just carry them away. As a carrier, there really isn’t a better medium, since air can carry both physical things as well as sound. It carries words, thoughts, ideas and it is what allows us to communicate with one another, no matter how far we are. In a nutshell, it is the element of interaction.

Esoterically speaking, the element of Air is attributed to Swords. This might seem like a strange attribution, but just think of the previous sentence: it is how words and ideas travel from one place to the other. How rational thoughts get spread. If you want a more down-to-earth approach, cold air cuts just like a sword does. Which, granted, is not the most elegant idea, but practical enough.

The attribution to coins isn’t a better one. It requires that we see money as a spirit, as fickle as air. Money comes, money goes. Like air, money is both a way to carry things forward and something as insubstantial as air.

As for batons, trees grow upwards. They take what they need from air and give it the oxygen other living beings require for sustenance. Batons are related to air because wood was once alive as trees. But not only that. As the suit of batons are related to the concept of will, it is also easy to relate  them to air. Just think of how the same breath that can nurture a flame can also extinguish it if we so will it. We just put our intention on the act, and just like magic! — well, there is also a scientific explanation to this, but onwards — the flame either puffs up or blows out.

WATER
Water is fluid. It doesn’t have a particular shape, even though it has a definite volume. It can flow from place to place. Sometimes it is crystal clear; other times, murky, thick and opaque. It can be still and peaceful, as the water in a pond or fierce and strong as in a tempest. And beware of undercurrents. They’re always there, even when they are not felt. An interesting property of water is that it will hit you back with the same strength that you hit it with. If you want, try this as an exercise. fill a bowl big enough to fit your hand with water. First, place your hand as softly as you can and gently push it underwater. You will find that it offers no resistance. Next, take the hand out and repeat the exercise, but faster. If you don’t feel any pain, gradually increase the speed you hit the water with until it does. You will find that the faster you hit the water with your hand, the harder it will hit you back. Physicists know this as the Law of Action/Reaction, which basically states that the higher the force you apply in an object, the higher the force that object will apply on you.

But that is not all about water, as water is at the root of life. Our whole bodies are made of water. Every cell that exists is made of water. And water is necessary for most of the chemical processes that occur in our bodies. Simply put, without water, there’s no life. Water was there at the beginning when life first appeared and not only provided the base material for life, it also provided shelter from the harsh conditions outside — the sea becoming a barrier from all the nastiness that was happening, while supporting and nurturing the life within.

From all the four suits, Cups seems the most obvious. Cups are a container, a vessel and that’s what we need to hold water (as otherwise it will flow away). If we look at how water and cups are related in the same way as blood and the heart, things become even more obvious. And more obvious still if we replace the word water with feelings, which traditionally are related to the heart. So much so, that the other suits aren’t even considered. And yet… water can hit just as hard as a baton and ice can cut just as sharply as a sword, so maybe there is something here?

EARTH
Earth has a definite form and volume. It is the most stable and inert of all the four elements. It is hard and cold and at first sight doesn’t seem to be of much use. After all, it is just there. But appearances can be deceiving. Everything that we get comes from the earth. All our food; all our metals and shiny things; all the materials we need to build and create stuff come from the earth. In a way, it is at the root of everything we do. It is the base material for things like glass, concrete, clay, and others. It is where trees and plants root themselves and the provider of all the minerals and nutrients they need to be able to grow. It is also where things break down and become available to re-enter the cycle of life. Or, perhaps just remain there until they are extracted for fuel. So where all the riches come from. Like water, it can also provide shelter from the elements, and even though we stopped using caves, we still build our own particular holes to live in.

From what was said, the Element of Earth could be attributed to the suit of coins. It is a place of riches after all. It could also be attributed to spades. The metal thing won’t helps us here, as it is also a reason to associate this element with coins (coins being made of gold or silver or some other metal). But because it is the place where things get broken down; divided into such tiny pieces they can then be of use to other living beings. And cutting things down is what swords are known to do; cutting things to the bone. Just like the earth.

So what do we make of all of this?

Well, the first thing we make is that logic can’t really help us here, as there’s always a logical reason for every attribution that we can think of. As we just saw, for each set of attributions, there are some very strong reasons. And again, for each set, some very weak ones. In a way, as Robert Anton Wilson said, “what the thinker thinks, the prover proves”. So if there’s a way to make this happen, it will happen. (For more on R.A.W. and the tarot, see our previous post here).

So if logic won’t help us, it all comes down to how we see each element: how do we perceive it; what functions does it serve and how can we best fit it with the way we perceive each of the suits. And the truth is, for most readings you won’t even need to bring the elements into play. Again, just go back to out previous posts on the suits and see how, even though they’re slightly mentioned, for the most part we didn’t even mentioned it.

Does this mean that they aren’t useful, then?

Not exactly. They do serve a function. Specially in health readings and to describe personalities, as the elements can be associated with temperaments and health functions. But that’s it. So the best thing to do is to find the set of correspondences you relate the most and work with it. Just stick to a system. This way, the cards will always communicate with you in the same language.

As for what system to use, well, I personally tend to favor the esoteric system, simply because that’s the one closest to heart for me — meaning the one that best worked with the Thoth deck, which was my main deck for close to twenty years. As I moved to the Marseille, I’ve found out that the esoteric system still held, but wasn’t as precise as the cunning folk one. So grudgingly, I ended up switching to the cunning folk whenever I read the Marseille [I mean, who am I to argue with hundreds of years of use of a system? If it really didn’t work, it would have been discarded by now, right?]. 

Thankfully, and as I said previously, the elements really aren’t that necessary in a reading. Just looking at the suits and its functions will get you there most of the time, as I’ve personally found out by comparing my Marseille readings with the ones given by more traditional readers.

So, look into it, see what system catches your fancy and stick with it. Don’t complicate stuff and, specially, don’t start shooting in every direction. Card readings should be precise and accurate. And for the most part, we actually don’t need the elements thrown in there. Even if it can help. So keep it simple.

To a Queen of Swords…

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Queen of Swords by Martha Pawlowna Sachidowitz. Part of a playing card set drawn for Pushkin’s Queen of Spades story. 

A friend of mine, let’s call her C., often complains that she doesn’t understand the suit of swords. I find this interesting, as most of the times that I talk to her, she is behaving like a sword, always analyzing things and trying to find her balance in the midst of a hectic day. Even if it is not the dominant element, swords are there and definitely play a big part in her life. It is there in her decision making when she cuts to the chase (which she often does). It is there in the way she handles her disease (she has an autoimmune disease which can leave her quite impaired when it flares up), by carefully weighting her options and evaluating how her treatments are improving – or not – her condition. It is there in the delicate balance that exists between her own limitations and her life, both professionally and personal. In fact, her medical condition has such an impact in her life that if it wasn’t for her ability to correctly use swords, things would have turned out quite differently.

So, what does the suit of swords mean when we’re dealing with the tarot?

We start with the word. Swords are long, sharp blades capable of cutting things down. Since there are also other objects that can cut things – like daggers, knifes, sharp glass, razors, scissors, hatches, axes, paper or cold air – we can also place these under the suit of swords. Swords then indicate things with sharp edges, and indeed, sharpness is one of the first things that comes to my mind when there is a sword at play. However, there are other objects that are also sharp. Things like nails, needles and pins might not be able to cut, but they prickle. They can also open wounds just like a sword can. They don’t have a sharp edge, but possess a sharp point, which means that these two can also be grouped under the suit of swords. We can then say that this suit represents anything with either a sharp edge or point; anything that can open a wound, no matter how superficial or small. And, while most tarot decks do focus on swords, some do look beyond them, addressing this very concept of sharpness.

Swords then are things that can cut. That can open wounds and, if the cut is too deep, kill. No wonder that they are seen as the most negative suit of the tarot. They bring to mind such ideas as pain, trouble, tears and death. And yet…since nothing “is” only negative or only positive, there is another side to this suit. Cutting things down can be, in the right context, a positive things. A common example is a problem so big that it needs to be addressed in parts; it needs to be cut down in smaller pieces so that each piece can be addressed separately. This is known as reductionism and is probably one of the sharpest tools of reason. Another example is the “cutting of illusions” that while destroying a dream also gives us the ability to be pragmatic and rational; to look at things as they are and not as we wished them to be.

We also cut things down when we need to divide something – a cake, for example – into small portions so that everyone can have its fill. Think about sharing with friends and family, about things like charity (where we take a part of our possessions and give them to those in need) or even about the process of reproduction. Cells replicate by continuously dividing themselves and even in the phenomenon of birth, where the baby gets separated from its mother. In a way, it is as if the mother gives up a part of her body in order for it to have a separate existence. All divisions and all events under the suit of swords.

And then there is concept of equilibrium. If you’ve ever tried to handle a sword, even if just for a swing, you’ve noticed that that is not an easy thing to do. Swords are heavy things, but they should move as if they were weightless. The arm and the sword need to be in sinc if the swing is to have any effect. Sword practitioners spend years trying to perfect that balance between their arm and the sword that’s being held, all to get the clean, swift, graceful swing that can effortlessly cut things down. If you haven’t, go watch some youtube videos of samurais or sword practice and focus on the lightness and the fluidity of the movement. Here’s a nice video of Yoshio Sugino, 10th Dan Master of Katori Shinto Ryu.

 

Balance is also required to make a sword. The metal needs to be heated, hammered and bent, its proportions, curvature and bevels shaped into being, sharpened, treated with clays or other substances, quenched, tempered, sharpened and polished. The blade needs to be balanced in order to properly swing. The edge has to be sharp and hard, in order to cut through effortlessly, while the back of the blade has to be softer in order to absorve the shock of blows meted out by opponents. This means that the blade has to be both flexible and hard. For more on sword making, watch this video below:

 

 

So what does all this has to do with reading cards?

It’s easy to see how the ideas of flexibility, hardship, cutting down, and balance can be reflected in cards with the trumps most associated with swords, namely Justice and Death. It is when we get to the pips that things might become more problematic. And here we need to distinguish between the esoteric decks – like the Waite-Smith and the Thoth  – and the Marseille style decks with its more down-to-earth approach.

With the esoteric decks, those concepts are present in both the drawings and the theory that goes with the card. If you can understand how an energy, for a lack of a better word, whose main purpose is to divide and to cut down, thus restoring balance where it is needed, changes along the suit, you’re all ready to go.

For the Marseille decks, however, a different approach is needed, since these type of decks are best read by looking at what they show us that to any cabalistic / magical / psychological / whatever theory. And what they show us is swords entwined in one another, forming oval structures which might contain – or not – something inside. When Swords appear in a reading, the first thing one needs to think is there’s something that needs cutting down and fast. Why fast? Because not only it’s the fastest weapon of the four suits, but also because once something is cut down that’s it. Problem solved. So, the higher the number of swords, the more urgent / pressing / complex / demanding / oppressive / painful your problem is. Or, to put it in another way, the more imbalanced the situation is and the faster you need to act and strike down everything that’s causing the mess in front of you. But it also means that the less options you have, because well, it’s the night of the long blades and something has to be done NOW! if one is to survive this.

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Tarot de Marseille by Jean Noblet, as restored by Jean-Claude Flornoy

This is backed by the cards, as when the numbers increase, that circle of swords grows and grows, expanding towards the centre and the flower that was inside wanes and wanes into oblivion. Besides, as the number of swords increase, so does that sharp cocoon thickens. What this means is that as the number of swords increase, so do things become tougher and uglier. There’s no more Mr. Nice Guy here; only the need of swift action and to hell with the consequences. If, however, the swords decrease, things become less pressing and more malleable. It’s easier to sort things out, to balance things out.

Whether one is using a Marseille-styled deck or an esoteric deck, swords take no prisoners. Taking the way of the sword is to take the warrior’s path. It is to fight every day with determination and calm; to meet any situation without strains and without being reckless. As I said earlier, my friend C. has a great deal of swords in her. It’s not her dominant element, as there’s also a lot of fire in there, which brings a certain recklessness, unpredictability and a kind of lust for life that no Sword could give. But swords are there, sharp and ready for whatever the day will bring.

Schooled by the Cards: On Unnecessary Clarification

Well, I’m probably just asking for it. When you get out the Noblet Marseille to ask about l’amour, somebody is going to get a spanking. Humiliating as this is, I thought I’d share this example with you because it illustrates beautifully the use of sight cards for clarification. Among other things.

What are sight cards? When you read a line or string of cards, or even a spread of single cards, one important aspect to observe is the interactions between the cards. Who is looking at whom, who is moving towards or away from what, etc. When you have outward facing cards not looking at anyone in particular, you can draw a sight card to see what your marginal figure is ogling. This can be very illuminating, and the fascinating thing is that it often happens (at least to me) that the original ensemble would not have been complete without them & takes on new depth & meaning. Not in this case however, as I shall now relate.

The situation is as follows. I’m in a very Delicate Phase with a Certain Someone. The cards have already told me several times to let the Someone take the lead. However, this is not my style of doing things at all. For all my nice manners I’m a bossy Aries type who likes to barge in & start giving orders. So I have this idea that I can get the Someone to get crackin’ by giving him a present. (Let’s not go into what it actually is. Best to avoid emotional scarring & the expensive lawsuits that might ensue for the nice people at Maelstrom Tarot.) In my view this is a pretty delicate way of enforcing enticing him to do the right thing. What I think is right, anyway.

Best check with the cards first though, no? Allright: Dear cards, is it a good idea to give the Certain Someone my present?

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Pffff… Men. Such ninnies.

Temperance – The Lovers – The Devil. Dear oh dear. Prevarication, hesitation, being in a bind. No bueno. Yes but but, what if I’m being too negative? There’s no such thing as a bad card, right? (By the same logic there’s no good cards either, but let’s roll with it). So what’s that dilly-dallying Temperance looking at while trying not to spill a drop? The Tower. Ah. So there is sense in moderation: any meddling will see the whole thing tumbling down. No wonder Lovers & Devil look eerily similar. Fear rules him more than Love.

But, but, what if we see this as a symmetrical reading, with the Lovers representing a choice between moderation & brutal PASSION? Moderation inspired by fear, Passion fueled by? The Devil is looking straight at us, but whatevs. Clarification card: the Chariot. Another duo in a bind, for one thing. And try as I might, Devil & Chariot doesn’t feel positive at all to me. The poor Someone will feel put upon, rushed & overwhelmed if I ram my gift down his throat. What a ninny.

Luckily there’s still a way out: the To Do or Advice card! Which produces the Emperor. HA I KNEW IT I AM TO TAKE ACTION AFTER ALL. Ooh goody there’s even room for a sight card to prove how right I am: Justice! See? I need to take action (Emperor) & make the decisions here (Justice). But no, even to me in my fevered state that makes no sense, quite apart from the main cards I’m already forgetting to take into account. The Emperor is obviously the Someone, I even have gotten this card for him before. And he looks at Justice because he needs to be the one to decide, for whatever reasons he has.

This Aries has trouble swallowing this. But after chewing on this most unsatisfactory answer, I draw the outcome card. Usually I don’t bother with a Do Not card as that is mostly just the opposite of the To Do, and we can figure that out for ourselves. What will happen if I go with the proposed course of action (or non-action in this case)? The Star: you will get your wish. You will be the one receiving the gift. But, looking at how the Star’s patient pouring of her vessels reflects Temperance’s perpetual flow, it may be a while. Patience is needed, or it will all be water down the drain.

But, but! The Star is looking into the distance! What does she see? Quick, draw a sight card! RESCUE BECKONS!

Nah. I have learned my lesson. The Star shines her light clear enough. She is the sight card.

So that is how I got schooled by the cards. Morale: know when to stop asking for clarification or you will get a spanking.

Also, dating is FAR MORE EXASPERATING than I remembered.

Do you use sight cards for clarification? Or what other tricks do you have? Dating tips? Share in the comments!

Need a spanking reading too? Visit my shop!