Friday, May 12, 2017

Booknote: The Marseille Tarot Revealed

Yoav Ben-Dov, The Marseille Tarot Revealed. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, 2017.  ISBN: 978-0-7387-5228-0.

Worldcat Record.
Publisher website record.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: Tarot, divination, cartomancy, reference
Format: e-book galley
Source: NetGalley

Yoav Ben-Dov has been involved with Tarot for over 30 years, and he even wrote the first Tarot book to be published in Hebrew. He also published his own Marseille deck: the CBD Tarot de Marseille. He passed away in 2016, making this as far as I know his last book.

When I searched for a good book on Marseille Tarot, Ben-Dov's name often came up. I admit to having mixed feelings about Marseille decks. On the one hand, the cards remind me of Spanish cards we used to play briscas when we were kids. That is a pleasant memory and connection to the Tarot de Marseille. On the other hand, I am not a fan of its old medieval art style, and the non-illustrated pips-only Minor Arcana is turn off for me. However, I started learning Tarot with a Marseille deck that I received as a gift. Since then, I have moved away from that deck to use Rider Waite Smith-style decks. I  will I do not use original Rider Waite Smith; Pamela Smith's place in Tarot history may be assured, but her art is just not my thing. I tend to prefer modern decks, including ones that draw on the RWS tradition. Yet folks keep giving me Marseille decks as gifts. I recently got  a very nice Spanish language edition of a Marseilles deck. At that  point, I figured the universe must be trying to tell me something, so I should at least give Marseille-style Tarot a fair chance. So I started looking for a good book I could use to learn, and I managed to get my hands on Ben-Dov's book for review. Things are falling into place.

I will say that for me a Marseille-style deck does not offer much. I tend to favor modern decks with  more colorful and lively imagery that gives my intuition and imagination some working material. Ten coins on  a card, for example, do not do much for me intuitively. What I have discovered is that users of Marseille decks do a few different things. Some only use and read from the Major Arcana cards, completely ignoring the Minor Arcana. Others rely on sources and materials like the study of specific symbols, positions of figures and elements in a card, and numerology among other things. It can be a lot to remember, but that is where a book like Ben-Dov's can help.

Ben-Dov's book combines a guide book and how-to manual with a scholarly treatise on Tarot and its history. The book can be quite dense at times, so it may not be the best choice for beginners. However, if you are willing to study Marseilles Tarot and learn it, this book is a good resource. It will take effort, but you will learn quite a bit from the book. I read through the book once to write this review, but it really is a book to read in parts, do some practice and reflection, and then move on to the next part.

According to the author, the book looks at the history of the Tarot de Marseille and gives insights and advice for reading with the deck. Some of the topics covered include:

  • classic and new Marseille decks
  • the French versus English schools of Tarot
  • card meanings
  • symbolic language
  • how to read the cards
 The book is arranged into 12 chapters covering the topics listed above and more. Book illustrations use images from the CBD (Conver Ben-Dov) Marseille Tarot.

Overall, this book is a very good resource for learning to use a Marseille deck. It is a dense book at times, so expect to spend a significant amount of time studying it and the cards in order to learn. It reads a bit more like an academic treatise than a popular book. Ben-Dov really goes in-depth. I'll add that Tarot enthusiasts who may or not be interested in learning the Marseille way may still find the history parts interesting. That history overview of Tarot and how the author developed  his deck are are actually pretty interesting reading if you like a bit of trivia and history. For me, learning the system is a glimpse into Tarot's past and roots. As historians often say, you need to know where you came from to know where you are going. In the end, I am a bit more confident about learning Marseilles thanks to this book.

For libraries that may collect books on Tarot and divination, this book would be a good choice.

4 out of 5 stars.

Update note (right after I wrote this review): According to a couple of other Tarot reviewer, including The Queen's Sword (apologies for using a Facebook link, but that was where it first came to my attention), it seems this book is a repackaging/slight remodel of Ben-Dov's Tarot: The Open Reading (link to a review on The problem is not with the book. The book is perfectly fine, and I would still recommend it. The problem is that the publisher is giving the impression this is a brand new book when that does not appear to be the case. Personally, I have not read the previous book, so I cannot fully comment. Still, finding this out makes me feel a little cheated or at least uncomfortable. I read the galley in good faith, and if it was the case this was simply a new edition or a modified edition, the publisher should have said so. As of this post, this is still ongoing. If I hear more, I will update again.

So, let me bottom line it. If you bought the previous book already, you can probably skip this one. If you do not have the previous one, this newer book may be better given better graphics, so on.

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Additional reading notes. I took a lot of notes in my personal journal as I was reading the book, things that caught my attention, thought were interesting, so on. I am jotting down here a few of those things:

One of the lessons from the book is Ben-Dov's open reading method, which he claims is based on looking at the card illustrations rather than learning fixed interpretations. This may sound simple, but keep in mind he also advises seeing everything, and I mean everything, as a possible sign; he also advocates having knowledge of psychology, going so far as to suggest even having therapy experience (as in having been to therapy). However, I find he is being a bit modest in this; in reality, he can be a bit hardcore at times. The open reading is not just about looking at the card illustrations. You do need some additional knowledge of things like symbols and numerology, which is also why this book helps since it covers some of that.

In discussing the French School of Tarot, Ben-Dov mentions French scholar and mystic Antoine Court de Gébelin and his multivolume work The Primeval World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World. The eighth volume of this multivolume work was published in 1781. Ben-Dov states this work is mostly fictional, but it does feature the first written record of Tarot cards used for fortune-telling as well as gaming. It sounds like it could be an amusing book to read (on the good news, you can read it online via Internet Archive here. The not so good news for some of us is that it is in  French, and  I have not found a translation of the whole book, but there is a translation of the Tarot essay here done by Donald Tyson). Ben-Dov writes,

"In de Gébelin's view, Tarot cards were a sophisticated device created by the ancient Egyptian sages, experts in magic and the occult. In order to preserve their secret knowledge for later generations they  translated it into a language of symbolic illustrations. To hide the powerful knowledge from unworthy eyes in the most effective way they decided to put it in plain sight, but under the guise of a seemingly innocuous game of chance. This way people would propagate the illustrations from one generation to another, without being aware of their deep significance" (8). 

Naturally, those ideas are not considered serious today, but they were very popular at the time as use of the cards for telling fortunes got fashionable in France.

On  the significance of  the Convers deck:

"Over the years, a general consensus has emerged among followers of the French school: the most authentic version of the traditional Tarot is a deck printed in 1760 by a Marseille card-maker named Nicolas Conver. Not much is known  about Conver himself. But many influential Tarot books from the later part of the nineteenth century onwards declare his deck, time and again, to be the most faithful and accurate representation of the ancient Tarot symbols. No other traditional deck has been held in such high esteem" (17).

Reading Tarot for others can be like a librarian  doing a reference interview:

"But as I see it, even  if the querent comes to the reading with a clear and precise question, we should regard it only as a starting point. People are not always self-aware enough to know what exactly it is that troubles them. And even if they are, they don't always feel free to reveal it right away during the first few minutes of a meeting with a total stranger. In other words, the question  that the querent presents at the beginning of the reading is not always the real question which we are supposed to answer in order to help him" (38).

What makes for a successful and productive reading, according to Ben-Dov:

"Thus, the criterion for a successful and productive reading is not whether the querent comes out of it with an immediate feeling of satisfaction. Rather, it is whether in retrospect he considers it as having been a positive and helpful experience" (40).

I did not include this in the original review, but I figured it was worth sharing. This is how the author summarizes his Open Reading Method, which I did comment on in the review above:

"The following three points can summarize the open reading approach and the way in which it differs from more conventional methods. First, a Tarot card does not have fixed meaning, which can be learned in advance. Rather the meaning emerges from what we can see in the card during the reading. Second, the function of each position in a spread is also not fixed. Rather, it depends on the combination of cards that actually appear. Third, we don't start by  interpreting each card separately. Instead, we first try to see the whole picture that the cards form together" (41). 

Keep in mind the book also does provide card meanings; I suppose you can learn those, or at least study them and keep them handy. However, what I struggle with as a Tarot learner is the "what we can see" part of the author's process. As I've said before, four gold coins in a card with nothing else does not say much to me other than four coins unless you have some other knowledge to bring in. I am not against studying, but at least admit that it is needed. This is also why I prefer for now fully illustrated decks like RWS-based ones; you at least get an image to work from. Yet I do get an appreciate the idea of coming to a reading with an open mind and seeing the reading as you get it, without preconceptions.

On newer decks having the advantage of more reference books and other study materials:

"New decks from the twentieth century often based on symbolic language which can be learned from books or other written sources. For example, when Waite or Crowley designed their Tarot decks, they also published books explaining the significance of various symbols in the the cards. But the Tarot de Marseille evolved for many centuries in the hands of many people who left no written records about its meaning. Therefore, we don't have direct access to its original symbolic language. We have to figure it out for ourselves" (65).

The author does say there are sources we can use and consider to construct the TdM symbolic language. These include:

  • Art works from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
  • Meanings of symbols from various spiritual and cultural traditions (colors, numbers, animal figures, etc.).
  • Tarot interpretations of other authors. 
  • Reader's intuition and feelings. 
A small detail to tell the difference between French and English Tarot school decks:

"In the Tarot de Marseille and in other traditional decks Justice is number 8 and The Force is number 11. But in new decks from the English school, The Force is 8 and Justice is 11"  (94).

There is some history behind that, which the author goes over in  the book.

At the end, the book includes a quick reference section for interpretations that can be useful for quick look-ups.

On a final side note, if I ever acquire another TdM, the one I want, really want, is Ciro Marchetti's new Tarot Decoratif that he recently announced as of this post. This deck seriously updates and brings TdM back to life while combining it with some RWS elements. As he describes it, it  is a "contemporary homage to Tarot imagery of the past."

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Book qualifies for these 2017 Reading Challenges:

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