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Pictures vs. Symbols on the Pips

Thread originally posted on the Aeclectic Tarot Forum on 16 Jan 2003, and now archived in the Forum Library.

Ophiel  16 Jan 2003 
Over coffee this morning, I got to thinking about Tarot and had a rather interesting thought regarding the differences in approach between the pictured pip cards (like WRS) and the more traditional symbols of a deck like the Marseilles.

If someone is strictly reading off the cards, the pictures tell stories, draw out associations, and in general work with the subconscious mind to bring out meanings in a spread. However, if one is more inclined to a system with the cards based on elements (suits) and numerical symbology (as in Pythagorean philosophy of numbers, as is used by many occult minds), then the symbol pips would make sense. Let's say you started off reading the cards by memorizing one or a few key words for each card. That seems to lend itself easily to the what I refer to as the symbol cards. However, if someone was deeply schooled, even the symbols and suits would speak.

What do you think? 

Thirteen  16 Jan 2003 
Well...I think it's more fun to have pictures--and I love looking at different decks and the stories each artist/creator decides to tell with their particular pictures. It's fascinating to see new spins and takes on a card, which just symbols don't manage to do nearly as well. And there's certainly a great deal of inspiration a reader can get from such cards.

On the other hand, there is a wonderful nutrality in the traditional emblems, devoid of outside interpetation. A picture on a card is going to influence the reading. Lay out a reading top-heavy with swords with the RW deck, then lay out the same reading with the Marseilles (or Thoth) and you'll see what I mean. The pictures assert their interpetation even if you feel like giving them a completely different read. The symbol cards allow for more freedom--or uninfluenced interpetation, if you will.

Just my casual view on the subject. 

Macavity  16 Jan 2003 
I think what you (Ophiel) say is true. I do wonder - Unless someone is born totally isolated from ANY illustrated pip deck (RW), it must be difficult NOT to use that influence in some (unconcious) way, having seen/heard a traditional interpretation even once? I have been intrigued by elemental dignity/card counting techniques of Thoth/GD methods, but even there it seems undeniable that at SOME stage one is going to have to add some layer of subjective interpretation - even at the topmost level? (This seems the subject of some minor denial? ;)) But leaving aside Astrology(?), where do those ideas come from? Some pre-Marseille Tradition? Something someone "devised" at an early stage? Hmmm - Where did pip meanings come from intially? :)

Fwiw, I have a GOOD memory. I have a mind full of keywords - even for the minors! The images help a great deal. But frankly I'm still lousy at lateral thinking. Someone here joked about the Empress's possible pregnancy symbolising lack of "family planning" LOL! To me that is NOT a joke. :D But above and beyond that, I have a further obstacle - that of connecting the cards into a story. To my mind THAT is the skill in Tarot? Pip decks, I suspect I can eventually deal with via brute force of memory, numerology, symbolism etc.? On the other hand, with the arrival of my first Camoin Marseille deck today, I was unable to stifle a slight as I looked at that vast expanse of... uhm "symbolism" and (initially) not a lot else! })

Hoping for (eventual) inspiration :D


ihcoyc  16 Jan 2003 
I learned the minors by associating the pip cards of my Swiss 1JJ deck with the pictures of the RWS in my Eden Gray book. I eventually moved on to a more numerological interpretation of the minors, which is what I prefer now, especially with the Swords and Wands.

I prefer to read with unillustrated pips, largely because I do find the pictures to be forcing. I have become less and less dependent on the images as I go along, largely because I find some flaws with them. For instance, the 3 of swords is a thoughtful idea, or a good plan, not heartbreak --- that's Cups business anyways. OTOH, I take the conflict of 5 Wands more seriously than the RWS picture suggests. The defeat in the 5 of Swords is going to leave you perplexed, at a loss for words, subject to a tonguelashing. The defeat in the 5 of Wands is likelier to leave you with a black eye.

Still, the RWS pictures convey what now are the traditional and received meanings of the pips, and being traditional they should not be lightly cast aside. My varying interpretations are more like a second opinion, there to consult if the first one is hard to fit into the context of what they say. 

truthsayer  16 Jan 2003 
i have long been interested in the differences b/t right and left brain ppl (spatial vs. linear thinkers). i have a theory about which groups are attracted to are interested in pictures vs. symbols. as a right brain person, i tend to see the world in pictures instead of symbols. i can see the world in symbols aka words but it doesn't come as naturally as imagery to me. being required to be verbal instead of doing things with my hands can be frustrating to me. sometimes i have to draw out what i want to say before i can say it out loud. i find it easier to type or write out what i want to say instead of saying it out loud. i find numerology highly frustrating as i generally find numbers in general frustrating b/c i can't connect images or stories with them. however with astrology, i can connect the symbols to imagery and stories.

i suspect that more creative spatial thinkers are more likely to enjoy illustrated pips. linear logical sequential thinkers tend to be better able to link numbers to a sequence of meaning. this is just a theory. this theory is not set in stone! it may only apply to me. ;) 

zorya  16 Jan 2003 
lay out the same spread side by side with an illustrated and non-illustrated pip deck. the first thing you will notice is that the majors will really stand out in the unillustrated deck. i feel this gives the majors the importance they deserve in a reading.

... also the unillustrated come without preconceived notions of good or bad. yeah, yeah, 10 swords in the back doesn't have to mean pain and suffering.... but look at it!! tell it to your brain that is processing the image. take a 10 of swords unillustrated card, and the possibilities broaden. hmmmm.... maybe it is just the end of an old way of thinking.

when i feel i may have trouble with objectivity during a reading, i always turn to an unillustrated pip deck.

truthsayer, interesting theory... but i don't fit it. i've always been a very 'visual' learner. i was even a fine arts major. the non- illustrated pips leave my mind open enough to allow the 'images' to come to me from outside of myself.

maybe having begun on the 1jj swiss deck..... 

Baneemy  16 Jan 2003 
I started with the RWS and could just never get the pictures on most of the minors to speak to me in any meaningful way. One of the shortcomings of that deck, IMHO, is that Waite wants to have it both ways with the minors--a meaningful illustration AND the appropriate number of suit symbols. For me, trying to cram 10 swords into a picture makes it too cluttered to read easily and detracts from whatever archetypal power it might have had otherwise. It's inelegant.

I've recently switched to the Camoin Marseilles deck, and the difference is like night and day. I'm a right-brained visual learner, and all that sort of thing, but I still prefer the abstract images of the Marseilles to Waite's illustrations.

Maybe if I started using a deck with ONLY pictures for the minors (without bothering to include five cups or ten swords or whatever), I'd find that I like that even better. It's not the idea of pictures that I object to, it's the kind of pictures Waite uses. You just don't tell an artist, "Paint me a picture of desolation--oh, and be sure to include exactly ten swords in the picture." That's one hell of a constraint to work with, and will likely result in a mediocre image.

Just my opinion, of course.


Khatruman  16 Jan 2003 
Originally posted by Thirteen
there is a wonderful nutrality in the traditional emblems, devoid of outside interpetation. A picture on a card is going to influence the reading. Lay out a reading top-heavy with swords with the RW deck, then lay out the same reading with the Marseilles (or Thoth) and you'll see what I mean. The pictures assert their interpetation even if you feel like giving them a completely different read.
Wonderful observation, Thirteen! I hadn't thought of that, and I tend to have a bias towards picture pips. Now this gives me a motivation to reassess the pip decks I have. Seems to me that it could be like one learns "reading" in general. When we are young readers, we are highly dependent on pictures when we read, as we mature, picture become secondary and simply words unfold into picturesque visions.. I think it is time for me to get into the "big boy books" :D 

Diana  17 Jan 2003 
Many of the so-called unillustrated minors tell stories too. The only deck I have that doesn't tell me stories with the minors is allibee's favourite: The Prediction Tarot. Lovely deck, by the way. But one does need a good grounding in Tarot before reading with it and a great deal of intuition.

The other Marseilles decks (my favourites), like the Camoin, Hadar, Grimaud, for instance, tell lots and lots of stories. There is so much detail. Honest. They have flowers. Flowers belong to nature and nature will speak to us if we listen carefully. Some of the flowers are open, some are closed. Why? They have different colours. Why? The stems are different. Why? Why are the flowers placed where they are?

So if anyone ever tells me that the Marseilles decks have unillustrated minors, they will receive a sharp rap on the knuckles with my Grimaud deck! })

It's true that it helps to have a basic idea of numerology and what the elements are. But I think that that is useful for any Tarot deck, even when there are illustrations. Otherwise what's the point of having even four elements and numbers on the cards? Just draw 78 different pictures. All of the miniors in Tarot are based on Element/Number. Our intuition can only be enhanced if one understands these. 

Dhaofollower  17 Jan 2003 
Originally posted by Macavity
But above and beyond that, I have a further obstacle - that of connecting the cards into a story. To my mind THAT is the skill in Tarot? Macavity

Oh Macavity, it's not just me then!!!!

If you have advice about this 'problem', or if anyone else does, please share.

Sorry this is a bit off thread......or does it need one of its own?



Laurel  21 Jan 2003 
Diana brings up some awesome points.

I still find more use in decks with pictures, when I'm reading for other people. There are so many other forces going on, that using pictures makes it "easier" to explain to the sitter.. the pictures help ideas, especially analogies, spring right into my head.


juice  22 Jan 2003 
Many of the marsaille decks have varied decorations. These decorations often seem to be at random to the meaning of the cards themselves to me. Any symbol that is associated with a set of meanings so varied as a tarot card will be limiting. Whether it is a particular vine of flowers or a scene from some play makes no difference in that respect to my mind. Diana my work off the tilt, shape, type or color of a flower while someone else could work off of bare feet, space between armor and flesh, tilt of a hat, kind of plants growning in the background, or any other detail that might have had no intended meaning by the artist when drawing the illustration.

It all comes down to what distracts you too much and what image brings up enough associations that your mind can wander if it needs to go beyond the picture. When I see a picture, I think up all the number and suit associations too. If pictures are such a bad thing, then why is nobody arguing for unillustrated majors? Huh? Why not just have a large Roman numeral with flowering vines and decorative bits all over it just like illuminated script in the middle ages? Why? Because the human mind works in stories. I doubt tarot would have been handed down for all those centuries if their were no pictures. The pips developed without pictures of their own because the meaning is hanging off of a version of the related major which has a picture. The pictures are the reminder of the story. 200 years ago alot of people couldn't read. 200 years before that few could. Now most can read and can study volume after volume of text. Where tarot goes from here can take a new path.

I think I'll take a break before this post gets any larger. Besides I'm afraid I may be arguing from too many directions at once and failing to make my point or any point.

Best wishes and remember to have fun. 

Sulis  22 Jan 2003 
Originally posted by Laurel

I still find more use in decks with pictures, when I'm reading for other people. There are so many other forces going on, that using pictures makes it "easier" to explain to the sitter.. the pictures help ideas, especially analogies, spring right into my head.


My thoughts exactly.

Crystalmynx xx 

Macavity  22 Jan 2003 
Interpreting unillustrated minors? I think that some of it may be about creating "initiates"? (gently teasing! :)) Fwiw, I am quite willing to become one, but I feel that the problem may be in FINDING much of this information - Though I admit I haven't YET looked through all my suggested books on the Marseille... Mea culpa, coming soon! })

I suspect, if e.g. you're REALLY into GD techniques, it IS quite possible to dispense with illustrated cards (almost?) completely. If you like such ideas, see PHB's site? Fwiw, I'm working with a (simple computerised!) flash card system that DOES only have elements and numbers. I might (manually) add meaning as the LAST stage, after the relationship between cards and weightings have been derived from Elemental Dignities etc. But imo ANY method which brings a certain "deck independence" at a time where we seem to be drowning in a SEA of "meanings" assigned (rather arbitrarily?) to modern decks surely gets my vote! ;)

Another thing, to my mind is... STANDARDS - Eeek sounds like my workplace! But, isn't it great if someone across the world can come up with a broadly similar interpretation of the "Ten of Swords"? If not a picture, then how? This also allows fun discussion that transcend nationality, language and sometimes culture. Hmmm One dead guy looks pretty much the same to all? Otherwise I could claim it meant... ANYTHING! I'm right neener neener - End of discussion? :(

And another thing... keywords. Each time I buy a new deck, I get yet another set of the B******S. :D Fwiw, I recently bought the lovely LS Classical Tarot. IMO it is the best (well prettiest) version of the Della Rocca Gump, BUT with a set of "keywords" written on the minors. Fair enough It may become de rigeur? No, I'm not saying they are wrong, but I would simply like to know WHERE they're getting them from! (Or Can they be stopped? LOL) But seriously folks - ARE these some "Marseille" system? Hmmm: Three of swords "Analysis" (sic) I can begin to imagine how THAT might eventually be needed...


Ophiel  22 Jan 2003 
David Allen Hulse published a few LARGE books on the mysteries, one each for Eastern and Western. The Western book has quite a bit on the Tarot, going through the GD system with the cards. He suggests memorizing 1-3 keywords for each card, and to actually learn how to read the cards by name only (3-Pentacles, 8 Swords, etc.) before starting in with the WRS deck. Of course, these definitions are aligned more with kabalistic significance than free-style reading.

I wonder if such an approach would create reading problems if one strayed far from the more esoteric decks where the artist's vision came before esoteric validity. As all of us who collect decks know, some of the images are far removed from those of the WRS and other earlier decks. 

Diana  22 Jan 2003 
Originally posted by Macavity
I suspect, if e.g. you're REALLY into GD techniques, it IS quite possible to dispense with illustrated cards (almost?) completely.

Minors (as well as "ordinary playing cards") were being interpreted long before the Golden Dawn developed their techniques and started drawing illustrated minors. How was that done? Easy - elements and numbers, to start with at least.

Juice: I'm not sure whether your comment as to why no-one is arguing for unillustrated majors, is said sort of flippantly as a kind of a joke, or whether it is really something you wish to address. So I'll just sort of slip in the words "archetype", "myth" and "history of mankind" and then I'll fade away.

Of course, if you think that the decorations on the Marseilles decks are random or accidental, then I cannot persuade you otherwise. All I can say is that they are not.

*Diana goes off to do a reading with her Marseilles deck and its illustrated minors* 

Lee  22 Jan 2003 
Hi Diana, you've raised something which is intriguing... are you saying that the flowers and embellishments on the Marseilles pip cards were actually designed by the original artist with divinatory meaning in mind related to number and element? That's an interesting idea, although I must say it seems unlikely to me.

-- Lee 

Diana  22 Jan 2003 
Ah Lee! I thought you'd be around at some stage or other on this thread! Nice to see you! :)

I do not believe that the minors were made for divinatory purposes to start with. (But then the majors were not either. They most likely had a far more sacred purpose than that.)

But ever since the minors have been used for divination, indeed, I do believe that the flowers, colours and things, were designed in order to gain greater access to the divinatory process. They are no longer just for decoration.

Proof I have none. I just have my Tarot decks to look at. But I will definitely put this on my list of questions that I will be asking soon to some of the creators of the more recent Marseilles Tarot decks. 

Osher  22 Jan 2003 
I have tried, and do sometimes, read with pips. Yet, I find that I keep having the images from the illustrated decks coming in. I know that some have said on this thread that having pictures blinkers your mind to following the picture. Is the flip also true, that having symbolic pictures can help you see more?

As an example, I remember a reading where I can visualise a 'river' running through the Cups, helped by the images of water in each one. This helped me give a good reading.

OK, we will all agree that each to their own, but I wonder if there is anyway, to 'test' to see which is better?

Oh, a final word on keywords. AHHHHH Oh I dislike them, they really push you to a certain conclusion, and readees think they understand tarot because they can read a single word, then ask you why you mean something different, and what is so hard about tarot as it all written for you. Just a pity the Rohrig is spoiled with them. Oh well! 

Macavity  22 Jan 2003 
Originally posted by Happiness
As an example, I remember a reading where I can visualise a 'river' running through the Cups, helped by the images of water in each one.

I think sometimes that is simply ALL the "sceptics" need - ONE clear illustration of HOW pip readings are done? Then we'll... be quiet? :) I think my confusion might be over exactly WHAT the pips suggest. Do they suggest an "image" or (as I suspect) more directly lead to the meaning? I remain hopeful that this is documented somewhere...

I suppose what surprises me is the huge amount of information on the web devoted to interpreting... uhm fully illustrated minors and a (seeming) LACK of this corresponding information for "pip" decks. Given the number of pip decks (and presumably pip readers) around, one might simply have anticipated MORE people willing to give us the benefit of their... whatever? ;) Maybe it is the language thing with the Marseille decks? Maybe all good documentation is paper only? Mind you, even given the alleged (nay measured!) popularity of the Crowley Thoth deck, there's actually rather little information on the "standard" Book of Thoth methods of divination either...


P.S. Diana: There's this wonderful "anomaly" of a single red cup stem on the VIII of cups on my Camoin Marseille. I'm banking on that meaning something after the pleasure of finding it! :D 

Diana  23 Jan 2003 
Macavity: I'm not quite sure what you mean when you mention a single red cup stem. I'm probably being dense here. But perhaps I can just mention briefly here that stems, as they do in nature, help the energy to circulate, so a red stem would be a sign that the Cups energy is circulating particularly actively wherever that stem you're talking about is placed (red is the colour of action and fire, right?).

The eight of Cups has always interested me. Why on this card are the cups not just divided simply into pairs, or else four plus four equal eight? Or four times two? Here it is three plus two plus three equal eight. Why? Doesn't it strike you as a little odd? The middle two Cups are the key here - see how they are enveloped by those open flowers? There's even one in the middle that shows its heart. What do the three cups at the top and the three cups at the bottom have to do in order to reach the same plenitude as the middle two Cups?

What is an eight? (The Justice card (VIII) gives us an indication if one has holes in one's head like I do.) Does an eight like the Cups element?

That flower in the middle is possibly a big part of the solution.

Am I being clear here? 

Aoife  23 Jan 2003 
Absolutely!!......absolutely clear to me. Such elegant simplicity! Please say more...more, more! I don't want this to slip from away from me....I feel I've got a tentative understanding of something big.

Macavity  23 Jan 2003 
Originally posted by Diana
...if one has holes in one's head like I do.

Better than (my) Rocks? But seriously though, thanks a MILLION or the mini walkthrough - it's for *that* I was perhaps still persisting? })

Aside: My observation on the Eight of Cups was that indeed there is one cup (specifically: middle row, right of center) that does have a different stem (from the others) on my new Jodorowsky/Camoin. My observation from a sometime interest in Heraldry is that this stem is not merely "coloured differently", but also the associated "ring" at the base of the stem is "counterchanged" (sic) in colour to match with it. Curiouser and Curiouser? Sadly, I can't find any online images and don't have another reference Marseille deck. I can't e.g. tell whether it is "significant" or simply a manifestation of minor criticism Camion et. al. sometimes invite regarding their reading TOO much into ancient lines, simple errors, dirt of ages etc. :)

But I digress... Perhaps such matters are a possibility for the "other" forum - when/if you have time? I'd certainly be interested as I'm sure (from immediate evidence!) would many others...

Fwiw, I (NOW) see the whole Eight's structure as a... figure of eight? Perhaps shaped like an hourglass? (As Justice herself? LOL) So maybe there is then some implied restriction of flow from the top to the bottom? But no, I haven't yet figured out HOW or by WHAT that might be relieved! :D Sadly, Justice has so far (for me anyway) kept her own council on that one...

In the meantime, Sincere Thanks...


Diana  23 Jan 2003 
Aoife, Macavity and all other (un)illustrated Marseilles minor enthusiasts and future enthusiasts, as well as those that are just curious, and also my good friend Lee if he wants to come and have a nice argument with me and also if he doesn't want to argue :P ,

'Twould be interesting to get more into this 8 of Cups with you all (or any other minor). I would be fascinated to hear what you guys have to say, as you haven't been nurtured by French Tarot literature about it. Kind of what comes to your minds spontaneously. And I could share with you what I have been taught.

It is terrible that there is so little information on the Marseilles decks in English. I think it is time for me to get in contact with some publishers and get some books translated (could bring me in a bit of money as well, which would be very useful indeed.)

I unfortunately don't have time, in the next few days, to join you in this discussion properly. I will be discussing Tarot with Kaz, Maan, tarotlady and Jenny-Li in Holland for a couple of days (a mini Aeclectic meeting! :) ) and then ten days later I have an exam.

But let's definitely start discussing these minors, and we will show the world that Marseilles pips are a piece of cake! (Chocolate, of course. :D ). 

juice  24 Jan 2003 
Knowing that the person I always end up irritating the most is Diana and that she will be absent from this thread for a few days, I still have comments to make and discussion desired. I'll make a bare few comments, my work is taking extra time for the next few days too.

1. I was being part stubborn when I kept referring to the Marseilles pips as unillustrated. I do know that the decorations can though not always do have hints intendionally placed for the reader. Part of the problem I have with them is that these symbols rely on the assumption of universal symbols. One needs to have extensive training on their meaning. A yellow rose is a very nice gift in Texas and would be rude in other parts of the world. That red stem ya'll were discussing might make me think of either new growth or a diseased stem.

Besides some of those decorations were put there just to be pretty just as some details in full scenery are there just to complete the real world look. Even things placed randomly might have a useful significance when viewed later.

Sufficiently complex images helps random thought.

The randomness I was referring to was not that the decorations were put there devoid of intended or applicable meaning. It's more like the meaning applied to them is not set by any universal laws and that symbol system is just as arbitrarily and pseudo-randomly chosen as all other symbol systems. And more so than scenery based system in my opinion.

2. I was not flippant about majors. If a red stem in the middle on the right is significant of something, some leaf has an extra curly on it and many other examples you've given are perfectly adiquate to convey the meaning without limiting the mind, then the majors could or possibly even should have been designed in the same way.

I never intended to say there was anything wrong with decorations that have meanings that might not be all that appearant. In fact I happen to like the addition of such detail work to scenery. I just think that scenery allows for extra context that just objects or details don't always quite cover. Both require a trainer wheather it is a teacher or a book. Pictures can speak more. My proof is the reports of querants claiming they can see more with scenery than with a card of details related most by some esoteric symbol system.

Saying the pictures in the majors are archtypes in my mind is the same as saying that archtypal pictures can be found for the minors as well. The same goes for myth and history of mankind key phrases.

3. The attempted solution to the narrowness of scenery is to have several scenes just as you would have several details to indicate the many aspects of a card. Some decks that attempt this are often hated because of the information overload. Too few scenes can leave us with that stupid guy with 10 swords in his back type cards. }) I have a theory on that card. I have a theory about that card that needs maybe put back in the 10 of swords thread. For now "overkill".

4. keywords are worth their own thread. In short I loved them at first. I use key words to answer questions Are they fighting or dancing? Is this vibrant energy or a blood bath? I however do not think that key words are a great idea for a deck you are using to read for the uninitiated with. Uninitiated is not an insult, it just referrs to anyone who hasn't spent a lot of time learning the esoteric meanings of Tarot cards. Death anyone? You've decided to use a more obscure meaning to this card this time in this spread and your querant won't get that other concept out of their head to possibly their detriment. Yes I noticed that I just argued for obscuring esoteric knowledge from the vulgar. (sigh) Maybe we should be aiming for semi-ambiguous pictures. (Not mister jellyfish.) Well dualistic in meaning then?

I have vague memories of other comments but have other things to tend just now.

Love the discussion. :) 

Diana  24 Jan 2003 
Originally posted by juice
Knowing that the person I always end up irritating the most is Diana and that she will be absent from this thread for a few days, I still have comments to make and discussion desired.

Hey, you don't irritate me! I have many ideas about the Marseilles decks, some good, and some bad, and it's wonderful if someone comes along and gives them a good bash on the head. By my insisting that Marseilles pips are illustrated, I was deliberately "provoking", because it was the only way I could get across that these pips are not as mysterious as they look.

Your last post is being printed, and I'll read it later. Indeed, this is a great discussion.

(And please go and post about the 10 of Swords in the thread that was once started on it - the 10 of Swords is a great topic!) 

Lee  24 Jan 2003 
Originally posted by juice
I do know that the decorations can though not always do have hints intendionally placed for the reader.
I don't think we should take this for granted. It's accepted among most Tarot scholars that divination with Tarot cards did not begin until hundreds of years after the first Marseilles decks. I think most people would agree that the decorations on the Marseilles pips were meant to be exactly that, decorations. Obviously there's nothing wrong with people reading meaning into them, but the theory that they were designed with meaning in mind is complete speculation with no evidence whatsoever to support it. (If someone says, "I know there's meaning because I see it there," that's not evidence. One can see meaning in anything if one looks hard enough.) That doesn't mean it can't be true, just that it's highly unlikely.

-- Lee 

Laurel  24 Jan 2003 
Originally posted by Lee
I don't think we should take this for granted. It's accepted among most Tarot scholars that divination with Tarot cards did not begin until hundreds of years after the first Marseilles decks. I think most people would agree that the decorations on the Marseilles pips were meant to be exactly that, decorations. -- Lee

The first Marseilles decks, however, did not begin hundreds of years before medieval artists, scholars and occultists (notably, the alchemists) began to use simple engraved images to articulate complex ideas. Using seemingly minor details (colors, types of plants, shapes, animals) to provide enormous context for those educated folk who'd understand the symbolism was very much in effect at the time the first Marseilles decks came to be. Heraldry, for example, has tomes and tomes of doccumentation on what certain decorations were supposed to symbolize or mean during that time period. There were copious amounts of traditions on how decorations, colors, ect., could be used together. Into this sort of environment were the first tarot decks born. So I'm not going to assume that the decorations on the Marseilles pips weren't much more relevant then, than they might be to a modern point of view.

I just agree that I don't think the purpose of this relevancy and careful application of symbols was divinatory. But serendipitously, it sure wouldn't hurt the divination process either. :)


Lee  24 Jan 2003 
Laurel makes a good point. But there's still no evidence that people of the time considered the pip cards to be anything other than markers used to play a game, and so there would have been no reason to use the decorations to articulate complex ideas. I think this correlates with the fact that pip cards in decks subsequent to the Marseilles didn't duplicate the specific pip designs, while they did duplicate the Trump symbolism for the most part. One would think if the designers and users of the deck had specific associations in mind, then the designs would have been used in such subsequent decks.

I'm sure that "decorative" designs were, as Laurel suggests, used often in that period to articulate ideas. But I also think it likely that sometimes a decoration was just a decoration, and I think a deck of cards would be a likely candidate for such use. As Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. :P

-- Lee 

jmd  24 Jan 2003 
... I'm such a latecomer to this thread - I just don't know how I missed it, given its clear title!

Commenting on the latest posts first, I do agree with both Lee and Laurel that, on the one hand, there was an undoubted developed tradition of Heraldry, but that it was unlikely that the decorations upon the pips was consciously any more than merely that. Also, it should be remembered that heraldic floral designs were not as fixed as we may suppose, and that a rose, in one context, representation and area, may have a different implied meaning to one in another. After all, if a person elligible to have a heraldic emblem was very taken by dolphins, then s/he would probably insist that such be included!

As I occasionally mention, however, I do also think that the cards are not created in a vacuum, and that there are certain spiritual forces at play in the creation of each deck. How an illustrated card (and of course the Marseilles decks are illustrated, otherwise, we wouldn't know if they have eight cups or ten swords!) may include specific ornamentation will undoubtedly be a reflection of these forces at play.

Very early in the thread, Macavity mentions (and the comment is wonderfully picked up in different ways by both ihcoyc and Baneemy) that it would be difficult for someone to be uninfluenced by Colman-Smith's depictions if that is what one is first exposed to. I agree - hence, for me, the strong argument to avoid such depictions as one learns. Using illustrated pips without scenic representations (such as the Marseille) becomes, then, an even more important consideration. Later the person will be able to compare and assess Waite's otherwise wonderful contribution to the history of Tarot. Assessment cannot be done, however, if one presumes that the RWS is somehow the standard against which others are to be judged. Similar comments may of course be made against any deck, but I just don't think it holds in the same way on the Marseilles (and I'm not saying this because of personal preference, but rather that the RWS, along with most others, derives from this fundamental deck).

Of course, we tend to have a preference for scenic illustrations - they are, it is claimed, 'easier' to connect with. But do they lead to greater insights? Also, just because something is easier in its apparent connection, questions must asked as to whether the achievable depth of connection which can be achieved is similar. Maybe it is...

Using 'simply' illustrated pips ( la Marseille) is more, however, than just using an elaborate abstracted system such as the Golden Dawn's. It should be remembered that the GD's system arose from considering the Tarot, the four elements, astrology, Kabbalah, and myriad other bits and pieces, and then seeking for their syncretic unification. Working from their syncretic synthesis to the Tarot is, in my opinion, putting the cart before the horse.

Let's recognise the wonderful impact that the RWS deck has made on Tarot's acceptance and popularity. Let's also recognise Waite and Colman-Smith's wonderful personal deck and its depth of symbolic content... and then use its rather crude woodcut antecedent impulse, containing, as it does, the kernel - and tree - of Tarot.

Just some non-controversial points ;) 

Keslynn  25 Jan 2003 
As far as the discussion about whether the designs on the Marseilles were intended to be heraldic/symbolic. I do agree that they were probably not made to be such, but that shouldn't preclude their use as help in divination. Remember, the "magic" is within the reader so I do believe that the message will get itself across whether it's through looking at a little piece of a fully illustrated RWS minor or by intuiting from the red stem of a cup in a Marseille deck. Heck, you can even read with toothpicks, as Umbrae has pointed out many times. So of course, layered meanings are obtainable from the "illustrations" in a pip deck.

I'm really enjoying this discussion and thinking I need to get a Marseilles.

:) Kes 

Lee  25 Jan 2003 
Thanks Keslynn for pointing this out, I do absolutely agree that people should feel free to intuit meanings from ornamentation on non-scenic pips.

-- Lee 

Macavity  25 Jan 2003 
I guess the general concensus might be that the TRUE psychic doesn't need toothpicks and (presumably) the "meaning" will still be FIXED? ;) But I'm also wondering whether there is a continuum between toothpicks and the Rider-Waite on which the Marseille is somewhere along the way? Or are there discrete groups: pipped and pip...less? })

But, to me, the central question remains: Are we prompting for a "psychic" response or merely to trigger a MEMORY of some preset and well established divinition scheme? I suspect some of us (like me!) will always(?) have to rely on this latter. I'm hoping that *will* work with my Marseille? Otherwise, I'm well and truly (insert mild expletive of choice!) Right? :D


Hoping this makes sense and isn't getting too repetative ;) 

Dhaofollower  25 Jan 2003 
But, to me, the central question remains: Are we prompting for a "psychic" response or merely to trigger a MEMORY of some preset and well established divinition scheme? I suspect some of us (like me!) will always(?) have to rely on this latter. I'm hoping that *will* work with my Marseille? Otherwise, I'm well and truly (insert mild expletive of choice!) Right?


Forgive me for fumbling around in the dark, but just a half-penneth.....not enough content to be called a two-penneth.

My, albeit limited, understanding is that there is a dividing line, but it is in level of 'psychicness' involved rather than pictured pips or not.

I 'feel' that whether I use a pipped or pictured set which cards turn up for a reading will turn up dependent on my interpretation of them. Call this syncronicity, or spirit, or intuition......what you will, but I need (at this stage of my journey) to read the cards with mainly memory with a little intuition thrown in. As I develop I hope that the balance will shift but the cards that turn out will still depend on how I would interpret them at that time, in that placement.

If I'm missing the point here somewhere feel free to enlighten me lol.

Regards to one and all

juice  27 Jan 2003 
Thsi thread is still like trying to get a sip from a fire hydrant...

DhaoFollower, I believe that you should sit comfortably in your stated position. I work with the simular assumption that any card that comes up will be the one to help me trigger in on the needed meaning at that time. Some reverse the logic, in that whatever card comes up will be used by the psychic as a stepping stone in right direction. The second way is a valid approach for many and indeed anyone can use it, but it is too much like reading the breeze as it ruffles leaves without assigning any meanings to patterns for what I want to see as Tarot. ditwifrty

I've got to go do a project for work but mya sqeeze in time to touch on mr jellyfish 10 of swords. I will come back to this thread. 

Trogon  27 Jan 2003 
Originally posted by juice
Thsi thread is still like trying to get a sip from a fire hydrant...

ROFLMAO!!! :D It seems like this perfectly describes all of Aeclectic Tarot at one time or another. So much information... so little time!

But, to get back to the topic at hand, my personal feeling on this is that you will get out of the cards just what you need to get out of them. For some of us, unillustrated Minors is the way to go. The numbers, the associated element, these are what trigger the intuition and allows the reader to get the message. For others we use the pictures to trigger that same response.

Do we rely on traditional meanings learned by rote? Do we strictly use intuition without any previous "book learning" of the meanings? I can't speak for anyone else, but for me it is actually some of both. The thing is, at some point I think that most of us (if not all) have had to learn some of the things we know about the Tarot (card meanings for example) from some outside source, whether it be from a book or from a teacher. I seem to recall another thread wherin some of the LWB burners even (finally) admitted that they had to learn from a book at some point. I imagine there are a very few people around who would have the ability to pick up a Tarot deck, without ever having been exposed to it before, having never been told what the cards mean, and be able to give full and accurate readings... but I don't imagine there would be very many of those very special people around.

Personally, I much prefer the fully illustrated Minor arcana for several reasons. First and foremost, I find them much easier to read with, I can recall and feel things about the card which I never could with the Tarot of Marseilles which I tried to start with. Secondly, I very much enjoy the artwork... I sometimes just enjoy looking at them for the art itself. The other thing is that, with different decks, the variations in the artwork give me differences (sometimes very slight) in the way I interpret a given card. I don't know if I'd get this with unillustrated pip cards.

This is not to say that I'll never own a deck with unillustrated pips. Heck, I didn't think I'd buy a Majors only deck... but I did, just last week. Who knows what the future holds? 

The Pictures vs. Symbols on the Pips thread was originally posted on 16 Jan 2003 in the Using Tarot Cards board, and is now archived in the Forum Library. Read the active threads in Using Tarot Cards, or read more archived threads.


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