Untold Tarot by Caitlín Matthews – Book Review
This book is destined to become a classic, along with books on the same topic by the likes of Jodorowsky and Ben Dov (to whom the book is dedicated). Three kinds of people need this book:
- People who are curious about reading with the Tarot de Marseille (TdM) or other historic decks, but are put off by the thought of reading cards that don’t have fully illustrated scenes.
- People who dove into intuitive reading feet-first and now feel the need for grounding in systematic study.
- People like me who have been immersed in historic decks for years and think they know just about everything. The book gives lots of new techniques to try as well as fresh insights into the cards.
Two features of this book put it head and shoulders above other books in its category. Every how-to-read book I can think of is illustrated with just one Tarot de Marseille deck and doesn’t acknowledge other types like the Visconti-Sforza or Vieville. This book is illustrated with ten historic decks ranging from the Budapest sheet of 1500 to Ben Dov’s 21st-century recreation of the TdM. When discussing the trump cards, Matthews tells us when certain cards, like the Star, have radically different imagery in various decks.
The forty number cards (pips) can be the scariest part of a historic deck for novice readers. But I’ve always loved these cards the most, perhaps because they’re treated like the ugly stepchildren of the deck. I’m thrilled to see Matthews dedicate so much of her book to understanding the pips and to working with them as an integral part of a reading. Before being pushed off the diving board into doing readings, Matthews walks us through the structure of historic tarot decks. We’re introduced to the pip symbols, told how to read Roman numerals, and how to translate foreign card titles like deniers and cavalier that can be alienating.
Matthews’ goal is to reclaim the reading skills that were lost one hundred years ago when the English-speaking world turned to the Waite Smith deck and its avalanche of spin-offs with fully-illustrated scenes on all cards. There’s a strata of centuries-old cartomantic folklore which Lenormand and playing card readers have kept alive, like laying the cards in a tableau, using significators, and seeing the spades as pain and difficulties. Incorporating this old wisdom into our tarot practice keeps us rooted in folk cartomantic practices that were lost to taromancy when occultists hijacked tarot in the late 18th century.
Matthews doesn’t spoon feed us her preferred method for dealing with the pips. We’re given extensive instructions on several methods for discovering their meanings: free-associating on the image, combining number with keywords for the suit; or interpreting them in light of the trump card with the same number. The court cards receive the same thorough treatment, giving the novice reader a complete grounding in the cards before beginning to read with them.
Please, read her keywords and card interpretations with your deck in front of you; and read critically. Ask yourself if her interpretation is illustrated in the corresponding card in your deck. If a card interpretation isn’t rooted in the visual image, then toss it out. Keywords aren’t eternal truths that can be applied to any deck.
We’re walked through several spreads ranging from three to ten cards, including some new twists on old favorites. Then the last sixty pages of the book contains more reading tips and spreads accompanied by sample readings. The spreads are rooted in old-time cartomancy, which means lots of tableaux with 20+ cards.
The crown jewel of the book is Matthews’ own Mapping the Landscape spread comprised of 22 cards in 5 interlocking crosses of 5 cards each. She suggests we put our personal questions in a larger, more global context. In that spirit, she illustrates her spread with an analysis of how Brexit will affect the U.K.
This sturdy 224-page paperback features color photos of historic decks on nearly every page. Heavy, glossy paper brings out the rich colors and details. Kudos to Schiffer for this high-quality production.
Bottom line: If you have any interest in reading with the TdM or other historic decks you need this book. Read it twice. Read it three times if you’re a novice TdM reader. After reading with historic decks for nearly two decades, I’ve fallen into a comfortable rut. This book has fired me up with enthusiasm and I’m looking forward to experimenting with all the tantalizing techniques and spreads in this marvelous book.
Matthews, Caitlín. Untold Tarot: The Lost Art of Reading Ancient Tarots. Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Pennsylvania, 2018.
- Lovers – Playing Marseille, Ryan Edward. Inset.cards.com
- Three of Swords – Tarocchi Vergnano, Torino @1830. Restored by Giordano Berti, RinascimentoItalianArtAnglish.wordpress.com
- Empress and Three of Coins – Tarot de Marseille Pierre Madenié 1709, restored by Yves Reynaud, Tarot-de-Marseille-Heritage.com
- Ace of Coins – Tarocchi Fine Dalla Torre in Bologna, 17th Century. Museo Internazionale dei Tarocchi, 2016