When I teach tarot, I encourage my students to wait until after the first lesson before choosing a particular tarot deck to learn from. My first lesson is in helping them figure out what deck will probably work best with their own sensibilities after introducing them to several deck examples and the philosophies behind them. Despite this suggestion, most students are eager to get started and typically always arrive with a deck in hand. Interestingly, they rarely show up with a TdM (Milan or Marseille) styled deck. The decks they have chosen may have been inherited from a family member who passed on, may have been found in a thrift store bin by chance, or simply purchased on a whim. Though there are advantages to purchasing a first deck after the first lesson, the positive aspects of students arriving with a deck in tow is that it is probably is that very same deck that piqued their interest in learning tarot in the first place. This is the first lesson in demonstrating that learning tarot in an organic way is beneficial. We aren't inclined to use decks that we aren't attracted to.
After that first lesson if my students haven't already chosen a deck, I will suggest that they consider buying a TdM styled deck because it will be a deck less likely to have been inundated by occult divinatory symbolism. Of course there will be symbolism and some of it will be unfamiliar, but these are the card images that sparked the creative imaginations of the occultists in the first place. They are the earliest tarot decks after all, which inspired the use of tarot for divinatory and cartomancy purposes by later occultists, so their symbolism will launch you as it did those who have come before you. The cast of characters of these earliest decks is pretty much the same as modern day with a few variations which are easy to discern, and the suits basically remain the same. I think of them more or less, as a pure state of tarot. I'd suggest a Visconti Tarot (Lo Scarabeo publishes one commercially for very little money) or a generic Marseille style deck which they also publish at little cost. Ancient Italian Tarot is an exceptionally beautiful TdM style deck also published by Lo Scarabeo for little cost. I do not have any monetary links to Lo Scarabeo so these are purely my own aesthetic opinion and not one motivated by self-benefit. U.S. Games Systems, Inc also have excellent options. There are a great many restoration or reproduction pre occult tarot decks available for purchase by a number of publishers. I just cited a few good mass-produced decks which may be purchased at little cost. If you are a very clever and ambitious person, you may consider printing out your own TdM style tarot deck in a manner that I describe in this previous blog post for next to little or no cost.
My first deck was the 1JJ Swiss Tarot Deck, a (more or less) TdM styled deck. It was the first deck that I ever laid eyes on at ten or eleven years old along with the rest of America when it first appeared on American TV on the Dark Shadows Gothic serial in 1968 or '69. I was a kid, but I knew there was something that I now understand as occult about them, but at that time I would have been limited to thinking of them as mysterious, maybe a little bit dangerous, and certainly not of the realm of normal daily suburban life. The idea that these cards existed got stored in the back burner of my mind. (After your finish this article, you can read about that experience here and here.)
Those articles describe my learning experiences with tarot. One of the advantages of being self taught is that one is at liberty to make associations between the cards in a way that make sense to us as individuals. You can shave years off the process with a great teacher. One of the benefits of having a great teacher or mentor is that she or he will guide you to see and learn, but not tell you what to think.
Being self-taught is probably a rarity today with so many 'Learn Tarot' type classes online and tarot information being so readily available, including this very blog. There are also so many tarot decks to peruse and so many modern day Etteilla's and Levi's trying to leave their mark on the tarot industry and maybe even tarot history. Information about tarot is everywhere you look for it. In some ways I feel sorry for beginner readers who have been deprived of learning tarot the hard way, but of course, it is very nice to read about others' experiences and to have access to all those great thinkers who went before us. If it weren't for the availability of online research of tarot knowledge and keeping up with books on the topic, I readily admit that my natural understanding would only have progressed so far. But there is pressure too, in having so much information available because it deprives an aspiring reader of the 'permission' to come to her or his own conclusions.
Having said that, in learning about the big thinkers of tarot of yesteryear; the occultists who first started organizing their ideas, one will see that some of their research was really stuff they either misunderstood, or even made up to give lineage and mystique to their new found interests and agendas. This lent authority to them in promoting their new careers as card readers and fortune tellers. That may sound like sacrilege, but it's largely true. Subsequent occult organizations have adopted the tarot and manipulated it to establish their own esoteric line of thinking and often created their own decks to reflect their own beliefs and lend credibility to their own particular style of tarot reading. Since they were all human after all, just as we are, their systems and logic are no more valid than our own, but since their decks reflect their own philosophies and agendas, we are often beholden to read their decks with their philosophies in mind. It is possible to ignore some images, glyphs, or symbols in a tarot deck if it disagrees with our views, but we cannot ignore it when we say it means one thing but the card image describes something completely different.
It may sound counter-intuitive to say this, but the major trump cards are less problematic to learn because their prototypes had been established hundreds of years before people began reading the pip cards, and even though some deck creators may change the major trump names names a bit, we all know who the key players of the major arcana are in a tarot deck.
Because there are so many decks based on so many philosophies, tarot decks do not share one universal divinatory or system of interpretation. A tarot newbie might just be getting used to one deck when she/he purchases a 2nd deck that has a different foundation philosophy. It can make the newbie wonder what is going on? Which is right? I will add my own two cents here by suggesting that some deck creators have jumped on the tarot card bandwagon opportunity without really having any real tarot background. So largely, yeah, they made stuff up as they went along. Other creators who have done research and have been reading for years also ascribe their own sensibilities and meanings to the cards. So yes, although more informed they too have created a deck that reflects their own ideas. That is probably why they created a deck in the first place, to have one that matches their philosophy of tarot. See where I'm getting at? When you really like a tarot deck, it's probably because by and large, we accept that particular philosophy. Every time we use a deck our readings are influenced by that particular deck.
Once you get your TdM deck, isolate the twenty-two major trump cards from the pips numbered ace through ten. You will see that the major trumps each have an illustration depicting a mythic or classical source. I encourage you to do your research and make it your business to learn what they reference. Excellent sources will be Paul Huson, Robert M Place, Christine Payne Towler and Ronald Decker who are among my favorite. You can thank me later. These authors will help you understand the original symbolism which in turn will help you understand the basic concepts at play. You may argue with me here and say, 'Wouldn't it be more organic for me to simply meditate on each card and allow a flow of consciousness unveil their meanings?' Yes, you could do that, and you should because you may come up with some fascinating meanings of your own. But I think too, that you will cheat yourself of the fascinating subtleties of tarot that will promote a central core of understanding. Medieval and Renaissance audiences knew the story, moral, or lesson inherent in each of the major trump cards, much like we could readily call to mind the story, and lessons of Pinocchio if we see an image of a wooden puppet with an elongated wooden or tree branched nose. True, without knowing the story of Pinocchio we might be able to come up with a compelling explanation for the image, but think of all the nuances of meaning we'd be depriving ourselves of.
Learning about the major trumps will be a fascinating learning experience for you. Unlike the pips, their inherent meanings are kind of set in flexible stone. Similar to learning the multiplication tables, once you invest in learning them you can expand on them to create some truly remarkable equations. By all means, also study the majors intuitively to come to terms with the ideas or concepts they represent to you. But yeah, it is incumbent upon the serious tarot practicioner to learn the classic identities of these twenty-two cards. They are the images that started the ball rolling in the tarot world and a combination of serious study along with intuition will be a terrific elixir for learning them.
The images would have been readily recognizable to a 15th century audience, who would have known exactly what lesson or story was being portrayed. These early cards are like a font, a source of information and glimpse into the ancient myths, stories and morals that helped civilization along the way. Truths that would have been evident to the people of their day and by virtue of time, that we may have forgotten. There are only twenty-two cards to learn this way and your solid understanding of them will enhance your ability to relate them to the numbered suit cards.
Despite not having illustrations depicting scenes, the pip cards, ace through ten, might actually be easier to form a more natural learning relationship with if they do not have illustrated scenes on them. Isolate each suit. Study the ace, the two through ten cards and the courts. Do this for each suit. What do you think of when you think of coins, batons, swords, or chalices? Do they call to mind any organic associations for you? Write them down. Do the sword courts remind you of any of the cast of characters in the major trumps? What about the rest of the suits? Jot your thoughts down, you are now beginning your first tarot journal.
Think of ace to ten as a progressive sequence, and it can be in either direction. Do the coins suggest material wealth or something else? Would you rather have one coin or ten? You might not feel that way about the other suits, you might prefer fewer swords if they feel threatening to you. Ask yourself these types of questions for each suit.
I have always associated the batons (or rods, staves, wands) and the swords with masculine energy since it was easier for me to think of them as masculine since they reminded me of phallic symbols. By default then, the coins and cups became the more feminine suits for me in tarot. Identifying the suits in this way will help you establish personality types, or even careers or social strata.
Cups really made sense to me as a feminine energy if we think of the feminine gender as being the vessel for potential life and the coins as a material and earthbound suit. But that is me, do the batons with their sprouting leaves remind you of birth and new life instead? Who's to say you'd be wrong if you chose them as female energy? It may not be the popular opinion, but if it makes sense to you it will stick with you.
My associations seem to be in alignment with some readers, but not all, just as yours will. You can determine things like directions, seasons of the year, etc. Later, you may subscribe to a deck with an affinity with astrology or other philosophy, but if you don't have an affinity for those philosophies going in, you can still learn to read tarot perfectly well by virtue of understanding the symbolism of the concept of the card. Astrological notations or additional markings can help you remember their meanings, but their meanings are already embedded within the classical image.
I figured out my directional assignments based on my own experience with the earth. I associated batons with fire (wood burns being my logic) and fire is hot. In my naivete forty plus years ago, batons made sense in the south where life is hotter. Cups for me was a no brainer for east, because cups are vessels that usually contain liquid. My birth origin and where I've lived most of my life is on the east coast of the United States, completely bordered by ocean on that side, so it was natural for me to associate cups with an eastern direction. By default then, swords and coins needed a direction and since I like things to be even Steven, Coins ended up being the feminine northern direction to compliment the masculine batons I assigned to the south and Swords became the western masculine energy to counter-balance the feminine cups I associated with the east. Having coins to the north also made sense to me because if it represented the physical world, there was more land to my north than to my south. Also, most of the winds that come to my region come from the west. So from my perspective these directional assignments made sense. My perspective would be different depending on where I lived, mightn't it as they had when western Europeans, began assigning their own directions (water with the west, where the water source was in relation to their location perhaps). You see, it's all about perspectives, isn't it? your perspective might be quite different, so go for it. If it doesn't make sense to you, it probably won't stick.
Eventually, I began to see the suits in terms of seasons of the year, not for predictive purposes, but for being able to tell what stage a situation might be in. If you think of winter as an end stage and spring as a birth stage, you might associate seeing higher numbered cards of a suit as being toward the end stage of a situation and lower numbered cards of a particular suit as the beginning stages. You can see how making associations between the suits and the seasons might be helpful to this end. Look at the pip suits, what feeling do you get from them in regards to weather? Think of your own geographical location as inspiration. Do you live in summer-like tropics all year? Which of the suits remind you of your own landscape? Maybe not the swords, but maybe the blossoming batons or over-flowing cups? (And if you would pick swords, you'd be in good company. Learn about Eudes Picard who associated swords with water in his Great Esoteric Tarot.) What about things like personality traits, professions, and the arts? What about science, literature, music and painting? Who are the people who have swords, or what do swords conjure up in our minds? Justice maybe, law and order, or something else? What about cups, batons and coins? Do this kind of meditation with each of the suits until you come up with logical associations in a variety of categories for them.
Most TdM style pips, especially the older ones I've mentioned, seem not to have too many associations with seasons or directions and for this reason lend themselves to allowing a reader to come to her or his own conclusions. Once a reader has their own understanding down pat, it becomes easier to switch to a different deck even if the deck's creator has different associations or embellishes the decks with symbols or glyphs that the reader doesn't recognize. That is part of the organic learning process. If you like the deck you will learn about the additional symbolism which you may adopt as your own or you may not ending up agreeing with it at all. But the point being that you have the faculties to either embrace or reject concepts based on your own genuine understanding and relationship with the cards. In some decks the addition of glyphs and other symbols might help you remember some aspect of the meaning of that card that eludes you. Perhaps the astrological references in some decks help you remember aspects of a card meaning if you already have an understanding of astrology or it may prompt you to learn. In other words, learning with a TdM deck allows you great flexibility in being able to learn a different style of tarot once you become proficient.
Starting to learn tarot from one of the illustrated decks such as a RWS style might have obvious advantages, you don't really have to think too much, the image is right there;
But (you knew there would be a but) it becomes less fluid to then try to read from a TdM style deck when your mind's eye is trying to conjure up individuals in a particular scene. See what I'm getting at? I tend to think that learning tarot with a TdM style deck allows easier transitions when learning other styled decks. If you can read TdM in other words, you can read anything and it's probably the easiest deck to learn, if you learn it in a natural way.
At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
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