As a kid, the first deck of tarot I ever saw was in 1968, the 1JJSwiss deck. (Visit my first blog posting titled, Forty Seven Years Later...) I mention it again because to my knowledge, it was the only deck available in the U.S. until 1971 when US Games reproduced the Rider Waite deck for American consumption.
In 1976 a high school friend came upon a copy of the Rider Waite deck (which I will from this point onward refer to the RWS). They were called tarot, just as the cards I was familiar with from Dark Shadows, but they looked so different. I was seven years older in 1976 then I was when I first saw tarot through a child's eyes, and this time, I was ready to learn more.
I high tailed my fanny to the local bookstore and bought my first deck of tarot cards, the 1JJSwiss. Actually, it was probably more accurately the novelty store known as Spains which had unusual items that were sometimes even a bit risque. Certainly tarot was not mainstream at this time and Spains is just the store that would have carried it at this time. Remember that tarot did not become mainstream in the states for several more years. The 1JJSwiss is more or less in the tradition of the Marseille Tarot. (The Popess and Pope being replaced with Juno and Jupiter.) Within a year or two, I also bought the only other deck available in the U.S, at that time and the only other tarot deck I had ever laid eyes on, the RWS.
Like the Marseilles deck, the 1JJSwiss did not have illustrated pips to make immediate sense of their meaning. I learned quickly that 'immediate' is not necessarily a word to use while learning tarot. Today I can say that I've been reading the cards as long as most people alive have been reading them, and I am still learning. It is a fascinating and never ending journey. But at that time, as a 17 year old, I wanted answers regarding my new fascination and there was not a lot of information available to a mainstreamed kid in suburban Philadelphia. In the time between owning my 1JJSwiss deck and then my RWS deck, I had studied as much as I could and I assigned meaning to the cards based on study as well as my own observations.
As a neophyte, and also because I was an artist, it was natural for me to start with the Major Arcana cards. They had a picture and a story to tell. It was a happy coincidence that I had recently been accepted into the Tyler School of Art of Temple University in Philadelphia at the same time and since art was my life, the art of tarot sucked me in. I bought a few books, I don't remember which ones since I now have so many books I don't remember the first. But I do remember that finding a book for the 1JJSwiss was a futile pursuit, at least in my realm of reality. Bear in mind that this was long before the internet and mall bookstores had a very limited selection of esoteric knowledge if any at all. I was learning enough to know that in the pips, the numbers and suits mattered. I assimilated meanings for each pip that jibed with what I was learning in my tarot studies and I came up with number associations. The decorative cues were minimal on the Marseille pips, but assigning them meaning was kind of easy for me because as a kid, I gave certain numbers meanings and color associations. This predated any knowledge of tarot of course, but it became useful when I started coming up with meanings for the cards with no pictures. I soon had a meaning for each pip card of each suit one through ten.
Naturally, once I bought the RWS deck, each card had a picture, and since the meanings sometimes differed from the meanings I had assigned my Marseille styled pips, I equated the two styles of tarot with learning a second language. I was bilingual as a young person due to my Spanish heritage and having lived in Spain, and so I was pretty adept at viewing the different deck styles as being slightly different languages. I never saw one or the other tarot language as superior or more pure. I saw them as different languages with more commonalities than differences and appreciated both for their intrinsic beauty. Number combinations, suit combinations and the appearance of both the arcanas give new and subtle meanings to the cards in a spread.
It wasn't until the eighties that I began to see more decks being made available in the bookstores. We couldn't open the decks to see them, in those days you had to purchase the deck to see what was inside. It was an exciting outing. You never knew what you were going to find when you got home. Still, if the packaging said tarot, you knew there were going to be 78 cards and you knew the cast of characters.
Nowadays, with so many decks available, reading each deck is an exercise in learning a new dialect of an old language. No deck, fully illustrated pips or not, speaks the exact same language even if based on one of the primary systems: Marseille, RWS, or Thoth. Each tarot artist (and I use that term to describe decks designed by artists who are actually tarot readers), adds something, a new perspective, dimension or vibe to their respective decks. But, the cards do have meanings. I am often dismayed to read some of the interpretations I come across online. My bullshit meter goes apeshit. Some people say they are reading intuitively, which I agree is part of reading well, but I sometimes fear that what is being called 'intuitive reading' has become code for lazy learning.
I also don't understand the schism that seems to be building primarily between the Marseilles and RWS camps. I don't mean that people should not have a preference. We all have our go-to-decks. But it confuses me and concerns me that increasingly, the attitude among some who proclaim allegiance to the Marseille camp is a bit snobbish. It's an immature attitude that makes me fear that the art is becoming trivialized by becoming too accessible and over exposed. Considering that the Marseilles tarot may have been heretical and created in rebellion of elitist society, it would be a pity if it succumbed to the vices it conceivably rebelled against.
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