Introduction: Why the Tarot de Marseille

In the olden time, when wishing was having, there lived a King, whose daughters were all beautiful; but the youngest was so exceedingly beautiful that the Sun himself, although he saw her very often, was surprised whenever she came out into the sunshine.

So begins the well-known, well-loved tale, “The Frog Prince,” collected by the brothers Grimm at the beginning of the 1800s.  How long the story was told prior to then, no one can say for certain, but we all know how it ends: the youngest princess, despite her initial revulsion, finally accepts the Frog for all his faults and bestows upon him a kiss; he turns into a handsome prince, and they fall in love, marry, and go off together to his kingdom to rule side by side in wisdom and compassion to the end of their days.

What a marvelous tale!  And it is so practical as well, for it teaches a wonderful lesson to children and helps to prepare them for the realities of adult life, for this is how marriages must be: two people accept each other for who they are, willingly see past the blemishes, and grow to love one another.  No one is without flaw, and it is not only the most perfect among us who are deserving of love.  The princess (or little girl) who will only accept her fairytale prince is destined to remain forever unhappy, while the girl who is able to see beyond superficialities just might find her soul mate in a boy that everyone else judges to be a frog.  The alchemist, after all, seeks to extract the supreme substance, the Philosopher’s Stone, from the prima materia, first matter, the most common substance, reviled by the ignorant and deemed to be utterly worthless.

And yet, this is not how the tale unfolds in the Grimm brothers’ collection.  The princess does not accept the Frog; she despises him throughout the tale, and the Frog, for his part, delights in pushing her buttons.  He first shows up when the princess loses her favorite toy, a golden sun-ball, in the depths of his stream, which is so deep, no one can see the bottom.  She is in tears, and he offers to help … for a price.  The Frog is no altruist; he is quite prepared to take full advantage of the situation and tells the unhappy princess he will retrieve her ball for her if she will consent to take him with her as her constant companion, to eat from the same golden plate as she eats, to drink from her very own cup, and to share her nice clean bed as well.

For her part, the princess has no intention of honoring such an agreement, thinking to herself, “What is the silly Frog chattering about?  Let him remain in the water with his equals; he cannot mix in society.”  Yet she also knows that she will only get her ball back if she promises to accede to all his stipulations.  In a sense, these two deserve each other, for upon first meeting, each is intent upon manipulating the other.  So the princess readily agrees to everything; the Frog dives into the depths, and brings the golden ball back.  The princess then snatches it from him and runs off, leaving him and (she thinks) her promise behind.

She has all but forgotten the unpleasant business of the morning and is seated at the table for dinner when the Frog shows up and petitions the King to hear his grievance, and the King, to his credit, adjudicates the matter fairly, rebuking his daughter, “What you have promised, that you must perform.”

The princess is horrified; this was probably the first time she had ever been chastised and held accountable for her words and actions.  The Frog turns out to be relentless in pressing home his advantage.  First he demands the princess set him upon her golden plate, so that he can share her meal; this she reluctantly does (what choice did she have with her father watching?), and though she chokes on every bite of her dinner (and sheds more than a few tears), the Frog savors his repast and relishes the control he has over the princess.  When the meal is concluded, he demands she take him with her to her bed chamber and then place him upon her soft, clean pillow, warning her that if she refuses, he will blab to her father.  This last demand pushes the princess into a murderous rage; she hurls the Frog at a wall with all her strength, shouting at him to shut up.  It is this violent outburst, provoked by the Frog, that redeems the handsome prince from the spell that has plundered his life.

What follows is pretty standard stuff: the two fall in love, marry, and the tale ends with them departing for the prince’s kingdom where they will live happily ever after, along with the prince’s faithful servant, Henry, who only appears in the final paragraphs, because with the lifting of the evil enchantment that transformed his master into an odious frog, he has also gained freedom from his terrible sadness.

You may be wondering right about now what a fairytale has to do with the tarot, and it is a fair question.  My response is that the two endings of this particular fairytale provide the introduction and illustration which will enable me to get to the subject of this series of posts, which concerns the interference of the conscious mind in the creative process.

The original ending to “The Frog Prince” is baffling, to say the least.  It leaves us with more questions than answers, such as “Why is redemption brought about by an act of violence rather than an act of compassion?”  “Why would the princess, who remains a spoiled brat throughout (she gets no points for falling in love with the handsome prince at the end, for what fairytale princess would not?) be rewarded with a marriage and throne after her dreadful behavior?”  The ending not only offends our sense of logic but our sensibilities as civilized people as well.   So in accordance with rational thinking and an infallible sense of propriety, someone decided to “fix” it, that someone possessing the name of Edgar Taylor, who “translated” the Grimm brothers’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812) into English as German Popular Stories in 1826; we have to use quotation marks here because his idea of translation included liberally redrafting the parts Taylor did not believe were suitable for children,[1] so in his new and improved version, the Frog was not dashed against the wall, decapitated, or anything of the like;[2] instead Taylor had the Frog sleep in the princess’s bed (very chastely, of course) for three consecutive nights, and when she awoke after the third, “she was astonished to see, instead of the frog, a handsome prince gazing on her with the most beautiful eyes that ever were seen…”  But Taylor did not include a kiss; in fact, we do not know who came up with that or why, but it is this “correction” that became the most popular, leading generations of girls to head out into swamps to find their fairytale princes; and if being smooched has been no great joy for frogs down the centuries, they can at least be thankful that the original ending has been replaced.

We might imagine that the individual who came up with the idea of a kiss considered the optics of a princess sleeping in her bed with a handsome prince after his transformation (and without the benefit of marriage) would be inappropriate for children and thus rewrote the rewritten tale by Taylor to make it even more innocent.  We simply do not know what his or her motivation was, but I posit this possibility because it typifies how the conscious mind asserts itself in the relentless endeavor to bring creative pursuits under its aegis. 

When I first began studying fairytales as an adult, I noticed a significant difference between the stories gathered by the Grimm brothers, Alexander Afanasev, Jeremiah Curtain, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen, Jørgen Moe, to name just a few, and the fables penned by Aesop, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault, Madame D’Aulnoy, and others.  While the latter are frequently well-written and engaging, they are also structured and predictable, more the products of rational thought than serendipitous inspiration, i.e., they are planned and purposive (usually featuring a moral or presenting some nugget of wisdom); they traverse a fairly linear course following a definite train of thought, concluding with a well-planned dénouement, and lack the dynamic spontaneity and mercurial nature that characterize so many of what I refer to as “authentic” fairytales (for lack of a better term) – tales passed down from storyteller to storyteller for generations time out of mind.  In every fable written by Hans Christian Andersen, for instance, the ending follows logically from the events that led to it; every detail contributes absolutely to Andersen’s unity of vision; all the strands are drawn together; everything is explained (or at least resolved); and the purpose for having written it is made clear (the little mermaid, through her goodness, procures for herself an immortal soul and ascends into heaven, the foolish emperor is exposed, and the steadfast tin soldier is united with his dancer for all eternity in the shape of a heart).   Andersen wrote some terrific stories, but there is very little in any of them that we would deem “surprising.”  The ugly duckling might be transformed into a beautiful swan, or he might have remained for the rest of his life an outcast attempting to find acceptance in a group to which he did not really belong (an experience to which, unfortunately, many children and adults can relate) – either ending would have been logically if not emotionally satisfying; however, one thing is certain, the duckling was never going to ride upon the back of a griffin to an underground kingdom where he is revealed to be the long-lost prince who must then conquer the whirlwind who kidnapped his mother, the Queen, shortly after he was born, with the aid of a man who is shorter than short and taller than tall.  If this happened, we would lose a wonderfully teachable moment for our children, though we would gain a far more interesting tale!

Authentic fairytales come from a completely different place and in structure sometimes have more in common with dreams than literature.  When we dream, very frequently we find ourselves engaged in a narrative, but the narrator seldom seems bound to a script.  Rather, he appears to be making it all up as he goes along, and he pays scant attention to such things as chronological (or any other kind of logical) order or adhering to a specific direction.  In a dream, I might be walking alongside a friend one moment, driving a car the next, then take a left-hand turn and find myself running from a snake through an abandoned city.  After this, I might meet the friend I started out walking with before any of the other stuff occurred.  And dreams, at least my dreams, are filled with all sorts of details that seem to have no purpose other than add to the overall confusion.  Thus, if you believe, like the Jungians, that dreams are an attempt by the unconscious mind to communicate information critical to our development as fully individuated human beings, you will pay closest attention to the most peculiar of the details, for they often turn out to be the keys that lead to, if not understanding, at least insight; these are the details that force us off the beaten path into directions that would not otherwise occur to us: in short, their purpose is to stimulate our continuing growth as individuals; if, on the other hand, you believe that dreams can be generally meaningful but that not every aspect of them has substance or that some dreams are significant while others pointless, you might dismiss much of what you do not understand as nonsensical minutia, “stuff that was on your mind throughout the day” (one person I know describes dreams as “sweeping out the basement”); and if you believe dreams are ultimately meaningless, you probably will not pay any attention to the tarot either, so none of this matters.

Though the dream, as it occurs, seems to have no coherent structure, we tend to format it as we recall it; oftentimes we do this without even realizing it.  I suppose the process of imposing an extrinsic arrangement is inevitable given that we translate the imagery into language, which is systematic, external, and communally-oriented.  This also brings the dream into the domain of the rational mind, where it can be processed, explained, categorized, and finally stored away in full confidence that it has been thoroughly understood, for this is the paramount goal of consciousness, and it serves us well when we venture out of ourselves and into the world we want to recreate to suit our needs; however, it does extract a heavy toll on the journey inward.

The Tarot de Marseille is not a rational, linear construct, and this is precisely what distinguishes it from so many of the modern decks that have appeared over the past several decades, following in what I call the Waite-Smith tradition.  When I say “Waite-Smith tradition,” I am not specifically referring to the vast array of decks that are rooted in the imagery devised by A. E. Waite and Pamela Colman-Smith, rather I am alluding to a mindset that pervades the tarot world today that individuals can design their own decks either updating traditional imagery or concocting unique images, and these productions are valid in the same way as historical decks such as the Tarot de Marseille (TdM).  As I write this, I realize I am treading on seriously dangerous ground, for the Waite-Smith Tarot is the most popular deck ever crafted, and the adherents of the Waite-Smith tradition will no doubt cry out (and with good reason) that the antiquity of an image should not be the determining factor in its validity; we should not consider a TdM as more authentic than a deck produced a year ago merely because it is older.  After all, in three hundred years, all these decks will have achieved an age (if not venerability) equal to the TdM decks of today – excluding TdMs of recent conception, beginning with the “authentic” Tarot de Marseille imagery in Paul Marteau’s deck published by Grimaud in the 1930s, which I plan to discuss in ensuing posts. 

The problem with modern decks, as I see it, is twofold: 1st, because they are created by individuals they have inherent in them all the limitations, preconceptions, and neuroses that are a part of every one of us.  The same argument can be made about all creative expressions, of course: when we admire a painting of Picasso’s, a poem of Rilke’s, a sculpture of Michelangelo’s, a symphony of Beethoven’s, we are admiring works of art that came from the geniuses of individual men and which present the inspiration as they experienced it, with all their limitations, preconceptions, and neuroses: we do not depreciate their achievements on these grounds.  However, neither do we utilize Picasso’s paintings, Rilke’s poems, Michelangelo’s sculptures, or Beethoven’s symphonies to gain insights into our psychological landscapes and better understand ourselves, as we do with tarot readings.  2nd, because modern decks are created by individuals, they have been designed with a purpose, meaning that the imagery of the cards is intended to conduct us along predetermined routes.  This is not something we get with the Tarot de Marseille because, like fairytales, the imagery has passed through so many hands over the centuries that it has become collective; this also means there are no authorities: I will interpret the cards in ways that make sense to me (and hopefully will make convincing arguments), others will do the same, but since there is no single designer, there is no one who can settle the matter once and for all.  Further, it seems clear that these cards were not drafted with a conscious objective or to promote an agenda, and this is especially clear in the number cards of the four suits.

For instance, when we encounter the Ten of Swords from a TdM deck of antiquity, we are presented with an emotionally neutral image.  We are not led toward any conclusions, or, to put it more bluntly, the work has not been done for us.  When we consult a TdM deck, we must make a commitment to the process; it is a bit like the difference between cooking a meal and popping a prepackaged dinner into the microwave.

Ten of Swords from the Conver-Ben-Dov deck

I chose the Ten of Swords because it is probably the most iconic of the minor keys in the Waite-Smith Tarot: we see a man, face down below a blackened sky with ten swords plunged into his back.  (Tough day, right?)  It is nightmarish, though we might find a modicum of comfort in Waite’s remark that “It is not especially a card of violent death.”  Be that as it may, the Waite-Smith design was certainly not as bloody as it might have been: enter Lloyd Morgan and Bill Greer who were able to rectify that shortcoming in their 1979 deck in which they placed the corpse in the snow (blood shows up so much better in snow!), spaced the swords out a bit, including one blade pinning the victim’s shoulder to the ground, and enlarged the image so we could better appreciate the horror of it.  Though even that might not have been quite horrible enough for Robin Wood who, in his 1991 offering, drew the figure in such a way to suggest that after all these swords were plunged into his back, he might still have been alive and crawling along the ground.  He also redesigned the grips and pommels, including one in the configuration of a god-like man in a victor’s pose over the corpse.  There is nothing subtle in the way the authors of these cards manipulate the emotions of readers and querents: the cards (depending upon the questions, of course) do not herald anything good, and I would not blame a querent for running out the moment one turns up in his spread.

Other modern card makers have contributed their own twists.  In his Legacy of the Divine Tarot, Ciro Marchetti decides to bring us into the moment the swords plunge into the man’s back, so we can experience his pain with him by seeing him face to face; and in the Gilded Tarot, Marchetti provides us with a glimpse of the moment before the swords strike and moves Bambi into the kill zone just to give animal lovers something more to agonize over.  (That is, of course, a flippant remark; Marchetti more likely inserted Bambi in order to juxtapose innocent nature with the terror that man, the destroyer, wreaks, even upon himself.)  Finally, we have the Old English Tarot (1997), which is touted as “inspiring a peaceful atmosphere for readings and meditation” [3] – so the deck even advertises that its intention is to influence readings and interpretations in a specific way! – perhaps Maggie Kneen, the deck’s creator, felt that the death of a single man was simultaneously too graphic and not quite tragic enough; thus she decided that an entire ship full of sailors being plunged to their watery deaths beneath a lattice of swords would escalate the idea nicely while allowing readers and querents of more delicate sensibilities to maintain the “peaceful atmosphere” that is, apparently this deck’s strongest selling point.  Once again, Kneen does all the work for us; all we need to do is register the appropriate shock and dismay and not think about it too much! 

Then there are decks which do not appear to entirely trust the image to take the readers and querents exactly where the authors determine they should go, so they provide linguistic cues, such as we find in Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck in which every number card is assigned a name, “Ruin,” for example.  There is no chance of misinterpretation there!  Hermann Haindl follows along, providing a more interesting picture and adding a hexagram from the Yi Jing for good measure; in this instance Haindl chooses the 29th, named The Abysmal by Richard Wilhelm.  Finally, I want to give a brief nod to Nigel Jackson’s 2009 Rumi Tarot, which is kind of like a cross between Crowley’s Thoth deck and a fortune cookie, providing this sparkling gem: “Under the ruin, there is a royal treasure.”

Of course taking the image out of context proves nothing: life is full of iniquities, both real and imagined; thus it cannot be considered anything but fair game for decks to address this darker side of our individual and collective experiences.  The problem is the Waite-Smith Tarot (and those that follow in the wake of its imagery) are caught in an interpretive rut: putting aside any commentaries Waite might have written to accompany Smith’s designs, when we consider the illustrations, we are led to a single, overwhelmingly negative conclusion concerning the suit of swords, for every image hits within the very limited range from unnerving to appalling.  Yet sword symbolism is not so one-sided: swords also symbolize strength, authority, courage, integrity, and protection.  King Arthur proves his worthiness by pulling Excalibur from a stone and with it he defends his kingdom from Saxon invaders; in a later tale, Sir Galahad proves himself to be the most perfect knight by pulling a sword from another stone and then goes on to achieve the Holy Grail and become the Grail Knight.  Lady Justice holds a sword to symbolize swift and final judgment, which of necessity includes (just) punishment for transgressions but also implies her ability to slice through distractions and deceit, much as Alexander used his sword to slice through the perpetual confusion of the Gordian knot.  Swords represent the discriminating competency of the mind; thus, they are integral to the emergence of consciousness.  Arthur Edward Waite knew all of this far better than I do, yet none of it makes it into his tarot; rather, by making his cards specific to his own neurotic condition,[4] he makes them simultaneously less suitable for us.  Since the Tarot de Marseille lacks the specificity of the modern decks, it is available to a far greater range of possibilities, allowing the querent to follow a path relevant to his condition and not the one pre-selected by an individual unknown to him and, more importantly, allows the querent to make his own discoveries, which might take him very far from where the authors of modern decks envision or want to lead him.

[1]         I should note that the Grimm brothers did make some adjustments to the tales they collected; they did not merely publish them verbatim from the storytellers they used as sources.  However, they considered their work to be of historical significance and kept records of whatever tinkering they did in footnotes or elsewhere. 

[2]         Violence in these kinds of tales was pretty common.  In a related Scottish fairytale called “The Well at the World’s End,” a hapless girl is sent on an impossible errand to the Well at the World’s End by her wicked stepmother: she is given a sieve and told to fill it with the precious water from that well.  However, she meets a Frog who tells her how to line the sieve with clay and moss so the water will not run out, and in exchange he asks her to bring him back home with her.  The rest of the story is pretty similar: the stepmother is not pleased to see the girl, but is delighted to force her to do everything the Frog demands of her (“Girls must keep their promises”), and the final thing he asks is that she chop his head off, which she does, releasing him from his enchantment.  I am indebted to Heidi Anne Heiner for a lot of the historical background on fairytales which she includes in her wonderful SurLaLune series of books on Fairytales – well worth purchasing and reading through for anyone interested.

[3]        Since this summarization matches word-for-word in both the Amazon and Google books descriptions, I assume it came from the publisher of the deck, if not the author herself.

[4]       Though I am not formally trained in psychological evaluation and probably ought to avoid assigning diagnoses to people, I would challenge anyone who believes I have mischaracterized Waite’s creation to examine the number cards of the Swords suit and then offer a more appropriate adjective.

    Leave a comment

    Your email address will not be published.