“It’s Alive!”

Aleister Crowley went to some trouble in The Book of Thoth to characterize the cards of the tarot as living beings. Much like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein (who was rewarded after a fashion when his creature began making “yummy sounds” in the basement), I’ve been on a similar quest to coax heart-and-soul out of the pip cards of the Tarot de Marseille. The trump and court cards are already bursting with personality in their quaint medieval way, but the numbered cards – with the arguable exception of the Aces – have always seemed more like furniture to me, or perhaps “mannequins” is a better analogy. We can dress them up as much as we want in the trappings of other symbolic systems, but it’s devilishly hard to get them to walk and talk on their own.

Some writers have made valiant attempts to animate the obstinate pips. In my admittedly limited experience, Enrique Enriquez has come the closest to what I’m after. Rather than simply deconstructing the graphic features of the pips in the same was as Yoav Ben-Dov, he seems to have put his finger on their pulse in a more dynamic sense. He employs a type of visual free-association that stays firmly grounded in the architecture of the cards, without spinning off wildly into the kind of breathless hyperbole that derails so much modern interpretation with other tarot systems. (lore-averse, freestyle RWS readers, I’m looking at you.) I don’t really like the term “woo-woo” since it seems too patently dismissive, but it does nail what I’m talking about here.

Alejandro Jodorowsky comes closer than many other post-Occult-Revival writers as well, but he strays into the weirdly surrealistic a bit too often for me. If you’ve ever seen his film El Topo, you’ll understand why I say that. I had high hopes for Caitlin Matthews’ TdM book, but in my estimation she comes across more as a wise master technician than as a consummate out-of-the-box thinker. She has her moments, but they are scarce. I really need to dive more deeply into Jean-Michel David’s course material, since I choked on the early religious assumptions he presents, although I realize now that he was most likely just trying to explain the historical underpinnings of the trump cards. I’ve read Yoav Ben-Dov’s The Open Reading twice now but it still doesn’t inspire me in memorable ways (that is, in ways worthy of internalizing).

What I’m up to now is akin to staring at ink-blot images. I’m trying to synthesize the hard and the soft, the formal and natural features of the pips in ways that will set them forth in three dimensions. As they stand, the artistic devices in the cards remain uniformly flat, casting no shadows; I want to introduce a kind of figurative bas relief that lets some features stand out from and take on more cogent meaning than others, thereby providing grist for the interpretive mill. At present I see it mainly as a study in contrasts hinting at useful insights that go beyond mere decorative embellishment. In all honesty, the artists who conceived the designs may never have had such intentions, but they certainly left tantalizing clues to a deeper system of thought. I think it’s obvious that this must be the case if I can only find a convincing “master key.” TdM author Lee Bursten was kind enough to point me at the translated writing of Philippe Camoin, so that’s where I’m going next. If I could only read French, my horizons would be so much broader.


I’m not sure I buy the idea of a “secret code” in the cards since the connections between them lie very near the surface if we only have eyes to see and the imagination to put them together in sensible ways. For me, it’s not so much about visual free-association as it is running my mental fingers through the warp and woof of the fabric, picking out dominant threads. If I can find a harmonious pattern in all of it, maybe I can stir some life in the old pasteboard yet.

6 thoughts on ““It’s Alive!”

  1. “Breathless hyperventilation”…really?

    I’ve been following this blog for quite some time now, and although I don’t always find myself in agreement with opinions you’ve offered here I do generally respect the thought process which led you to those opinions. I’ve never felt the need to comment on anything you’ve expressed in such a snippy, condescending way as that with which you’ve repudiated a large segment of the tarot community (“RWS readers”).

    You obviously have strong biases both for and against various tarot “systems,” and I won’t argue those. You’re perfectly entitled to your own preferences, of course. But the snotty dismissal of RWS readers is utterly beneath you. You should be ashamed.


    • Ha! I’ve been one of those on occasion but learned the error of my ways! Trying to come to grips with the Tarot de Marseille is a sobering and humbling experience that all those years with the Thoth didn’t assuage. And having spent eight years on the tarot forums, some of it as a moderator, I know woo when I see it. Scenic narrative vignettes, whether or not they agree with the author’s original vision, encourage some curiously fanciful flights of imagination. Actually, I have nothing against the Waite-Smith deck; I read with it in public all the time, but I don’t let free-association run away with me.

      If you really want to get your hackles up, read this one:


      Or any number of my early “Cheap Shots” posts. I’ve mellowed considerably since then.


  2. Ok…but in that case, would it really have hurt you to simply caution against letting “free association run away” rather than making a disparaging remark directed to RWS readers in general?

    And I don’t necessarily see anything wrong, by the way, with “curiously fanciful flights of imagination” for their own sake. It all depends on where they lead.


    • That last part is certainly true. What’s often lacking is the discrimination to know where to draw the line. It can also be a matter of having the intentions of a “serious diviner” but the skills of an “entertainer.” Nothing wrong with either one, but there is a difference between an experienced reader reading for fun and a neophyte over their head in a counseling scenario. I’ve always found intuition to be a poor substitute for seasoned wisdom when used all by itself, if we intend to do more than amuse and dazzle our friends. As far as RWS readers, as a group I guess they’re an easy target since the Waite-Smith deck lends itself to excess where the others generally don’t. Thoth readers are usually trying to delve deeply beneath the surface of the images, the TdM doesn’t offer much purchase for visual improvisation (although I’m trying to do just that in my series of “pips” posts), Lenormand readers are a literal bunch, and playing card readers never really face the challenge.

      In retrospect, I probably should have tailored my remarks toward “purely intuitive” RWS readers who shun knowledge-based approaches as I did in previous posts, since that’s my main bone of contention.


  3. I just love you barleywine . 😉 I watched Benebel’s sitesee the tarot on Paul Case and that helped quite a bit with rws readings. When I am able to get into readings (not very depressed) I use seasoned wisdom and intuition. I have to use both my brain requires I use both. The empath in me requires that I sometimes elaborate on the cards (this can be a problem with some fokes, but i can’t help it). But I am not a RWS fan, but the deck Radiant RWS really helped me out a bit for the basics. I don’t like pips, I prefer the minor arcana be scenic (for want of better word) but one of my favorite visual decks does have pips. I forget the name…its an alchemy deck with skulls and roses.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve always been something of a fence-sitter on scenic minor cards. Long association with the Thoth gave me an appreciation for color and mood without force-feeding me too much narrative pabulum. I have something of a love/hate relationship with the RWS, primarily because it invites abuse if not handled with great care. Probably a third of the cards leave me unconvinced that Pixie really grasped Waite’s intent, or maybe she just invoked her own Golden Dawn muse. Some, like the 6 of Pentacles, seem way off the mark (See my 6 of Coins essay). But I do like it for public readings. I’m going after the pips because it’s kind of the “last frontier.”


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