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Divinatory Meanings for the Tarot de Marseille

Four Swords cards from Tarot de Marseille

At the bottom of an old carton, I recently found a file folder stuffed with divinatory meanings (DMs) for the Tarot de Marseille (TdM) pip cards. When I began reading with historic decks about 20 years ago, I bought European TdM books, snapped up English language books when they became available, and downloaded lists of card meanings online. Then I took copious notes and made charts comparing various authors’ meanings.

I pulled the 4 of Swords out of a deck at random and listed the DMs for that card given by the eleven authors in my folder:

Etteilla 1785: upright: solitude, retreat, hermitage, banishment, remote, the tomb

Reversed: economy, good management, foresight, discretion, precautions

Arthur Edward Waite 1911: upright: retreat, solitude, the tomb

Reversed: circumspection, economy, wise administration

Paul Marteau 1949: Mysticism, a growing understanding of the ideal, slow flowering of realization, beginning of a plan

Antonia Matiuzzi 1987: closed off, excessive defensiveness, isolation, the tomb

Colette Silvestre-Haeberle 1998: perseverance, overcoming difficulties, perfect balance

Alejandro Jodorowsky 2004: upright: rationality, practical mind, scientific intelligence

Reversed: excessive rationality that excludes intuition and poetry, rigid mind

Diego Meldi 2007: solitude, a period of waiting, feeling oppressed or alone and wanting to escape

Judith Charles 2008: with positive cards: triumph over problems, stabilizing relationships

With negative cards: solitude, misunderstood, mental troubles

Claude Darche 2008: rigid, dogmatic, stuck in a problem you can’t overcome. You must extricate yourself

Yoav Ben Dov 2013: upright: A situation that is stable but limited, pushing against boundaries, constraints

Reversed: limited, confined, giving up trying to break out of your oppressive situation accessed 2016: upright: solitude which is creative and productive

Reversed: unfortunate events in work or professional life

Some random thoughts on this list of card meanings:

  • In more ways than one, Etteilla is the founding father of modern tarot reading. His divinatory meanings have had a huge influence on subsequent tarotists.
  • Etteilla is the reason A. E. Waite, occultist and creator of the Waite Smith tarot, is included in an article about the Tarot de Marseille. Several years ago, James Revak calculated that 49% of Waite’s divinatory meanings were derived from Etteilla. Many of the illustrations on the WS pip cards illustrate Etteilla. As you can see, Etteilla’s DMs have been taken up by many authors.
  • Etteilla’s upright and reversed meanings often have no relationship to each other. He started his career reading with French-suited cards, and claimed to have been trained by Italian cartomancers. So his card meanings may come from an old oral tradition.
  • People ask if there’s a “tradition” for TdM reading. Etteilla’s DMs infuse modern interpretations of the cards. If you read enough books, you get the feeling there’s a loose consensus among card readers, and you can easily spot the authors who are outside the mainstream, or who base their card meanings on occult correspondences. The best mainstream book in English is Tarot: The Open Reading by Yoav Ben-Dov.
  • Paul Marteau may have popularized the term Tarot de Marseille and made it the standard European tarot deck, but otherwise he seems to be off on his own metaphysical cloud.
  • I did a happy dance whenever an author connected card meanings to the actual image. They mentioned how the flower in the Four of Swords seems constricted behind a thick a wall, and how the card’s symmetry feels static.
  • Which leads me to my number one rule for card meanings: if you can’t support your meanings with the imagery, then they’re just abstract concepts you have to memorize.
    Cards are a visual language!

When I give a reading, do I remember any of these DMs? Not consciously.

Did I waste my time reading all those books and taking such extensive notes? I hope not!

I like to imagine all that book learning sifting down to my subconscious, like autumn leaves settling on a forest floor and turning to mulch.

Ask if you want the names of any of the books I used. It would be tedious to list them all here, and few of them are in English.

Cards illustrated at top, clockwise from top left:

Marshmallow Marseille by Wandering Oracle (Based on a 1790 deck)
Rosenwald deck (@1500) restored by Tarot Sheet Revival (Sullivan Hismans)
Tarocco Milanese 1850 by Il Meneghello
Tarocco Soprafino 1835 by Il Meneghello

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very interesting, Sherryl, and further evidence of your investigatory and thoroughgoing personal nature. Thanks for this.

    August 10, 2018
  2. Hi, Sherryl;

    Your path with the Tarot de Marseille is quite similar to mine with Lenormand: grab all the books I could find in English (I can’t read French or German); haunt the blogs and download lots of stuff; make tabbed binders for reference. I’m not much of a note-taker and rely on a copious and highly syncretic memory instead. I’ve been stumbling some with the TdM since the path isn’t so well-worn in the English-speaking world. At least I’m successfully fending off my love of esoteric correspondences. I’ve read Yoav’s book twice and bought his deck; I’ve read Camelia Elias (not much memorable there, except that she considers the Lovers a “nasty” card, which I can’t argue with); I have Jean-Michel David’s course material; and I’m presently reading Jodorowsky (talk about a cloud of one’s own, but not as far-out as I expected). I have high hopes for Caitlin Matthews’ new book. For the most part, I’ve fallen back quite regularly on Joseph Maxwell’s numerological material, which makes me look at the geometrical patterns in the pips.

    August 17, 2018
  3. You’ve done an impressive amount of studying! Bravo! It definitely pays off.

    August 19, 2018
  4. I love your “number one rule for card meanings.” If you can’t support your meanings with the imagary, then are you really ‘reading’ cards or just regurgitating wrote learning?

    August 30, 2018
    • I have my students give readings where every time they make a statement they have to tap on the part of the card that illustrates the statement. (I think Enrique Enriquez teaches this too). It keeps the reading grounded in reality.

      August 30, 2018
  5. “if you can’t support your meanings with the imagery, then they’re just abstract concepts you have to memorize.”

    If you are familiar with (traditional) Lenormand, is this not exactly what it does? Where the imagery matter less than the symbol/abstract concept itself.

    September 11, 2019
    • Your statement is correct concerning Lenormand decks. The images, like Snake or Letter, are placeholders for the associated keywords. You don’t free associate on the images themselves. Tarot can also be read that way – having a fixed set of meanings for each card that you apply no matter what deck you are using. But I don’t read that way. I belong to the free-association, intuitive school of reading where I let the card image tell me what it wants to say. And I certainly wouldn’t apply Waite Smith card meanings to the Tarot de Marseille, or a Thoth or Etteilla deck, because they are very different languages and you can’t translate literally from one to another.

      September 11, 2019
  6. For me 4 swords is about meditation, retreat, being alone, focusing on oneself, think thoroughly, not the right time yet. But with Tarot de Marseille everything seems harder. I am talking about my perspective, of course. I have to relate the card to the Rider and then ok, I can doanything. I guess it is just a perspective of practice. Before I dived into RW Tarot, I was doing classic playing cards, (20 years ago) and if I would pick them up now, I am sure I would be lost.

    May 7, 2023
    • If you can read with classic playing cards, then I’m sure you would have no problem with the Tarot de Marseille. But if you feel compelled to apply Waite Smith card meanings to the TdM, then perhaps there is no point reading with the TdM. A lot of us find reading with the TdM a freeing experience. If it’s not a positive experience, if it feels like a struggle, then perhaps it’s not worth it.

      May 13, 2023
  7. And this “Did I waste my time reading all those books and taking such extensive notes? ” LOL. Absolutely not!!!

    May 7, 2023

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