Guest Review: Major Tom’s Tarot of Marseilles

Major Tom’s Tarot of Marseilles
Tom Schick
Schiffer
ISBN 978-0-7643-2760-5

by .Nisaba Merrieweather

I first became aware of this Tarot deck recently on the Aeclectic Tarot forum when Tom Schick posted the URL leading to a local newspaper item where he was photographed holding an interesting deck of Tarot cards fanned out in the picture showing only portions of the images. I asked him what the deck was as I am a bit of a collector and I didn’t think I’d seen it before, and one thing led to another and, well, now I own my very own brand-spanking-new copy signed by the author with a personal inscription to me in the last double-page of the accompanying book. In that inscription he suggests that once I am familiar with the deck I might like to trim the borders off. Tom doesn’t realise I enjoy borders – I see them as metaphorical corridors leading into the cards. They are, however, relatively broad cards, and people with smaller hands might like to do exactly that to make them easier to shuffle.

The deck and miniature accompanying book are presented in an attractive butterscotch-yellow cigar-style box, glossy and well-made, that is held closed by hidden magnets and is “dressed” with both a hinge and an opening-lip of red ribbon, preventing finger-damage to the packaging. It is shrink-wrapped externally, but internally the cards are not shrink-wrapped which suits me well, I’m not a big fan of superfluous packaging. Very classy.

Within this are found the 78-card deck plus the accompanying booklet, in a lighter canary-yellow. The cards are slightly smaller than the booklet and box, necessitating an inset of plain cardboard to stop them rattling around, but even so, the sturdiness, convenience and intelligence of the packaging-design means that this deck and its book are less likely to be split from each other than most other sets. In fact, of my nearly-fifty decks, I have only one other that was as well-packaged with packaging lending itself to keeping the accompanying book with the deck, so well done Tom.

I am a Tarot reader by profession as well as by preference, and on the day that I received this deck I took it to work with me not to read with as I wasn’t yet familiar with it, but to look through and get familiar with between clients. As it happened I had a quiet shift so I was able to spend quite a bit of time with it, and I formed a number of opinions that other potential buyers may be interested in.

There are a number of things I look for in a Tarot deck, especially an older-style deck. My first stop was at the Major Arcana, to see if 11 and 8, Justice and Strength, were in the older order or the post-Rider-Waite order. To my relief, Justice was 8, and Strength 11. In addition, the Major Arcana began with 1, The Conjurer (or Magician, in other decks). I was very happy with that, as card 0, the Fool, should rightly occur between XX Judgement (which Tom knew had two “e”s in it unlike a lot of other deck designers) and XXI The World. Unfortunately it didn’t fall there as it does in earlier decks, but it wasn’t far out, falling after the World, so by and large I was pleased.

Moving from the Major Arcana to the Minor Arcana, I was pleased at Tom’s having arranged it not in suits but in number-order, ie, then first four cards were the Aces, the second four were the Twos and so on right through to the Court Cards. In my mind, this enabled the owner of this deck to work on a progressive level, and see the comparisons between the different elements (suits) and how numerical principles operate in them, before moving onto the next ones.

So much for initial impressions. Now we get to the nitty-gritty, and to some areas where I have slightly more mixed feelings. For a start, this deck calls itself a Tarot of Marseilles, implying to me that it was designed a couple of hundred years ago in a specific region of France. The two or three original remnants of Tarots de Marseilles have been heavily influential and instrumental decks, and Tom has been heavily influenced by their artistic style, so I can see why he uses the name, but in my opinion, and my opinion only, it would be more accurate to have called it a Marseilles-style deck. After all, what Tarot de Marseilles would have baseball caps scattered liberally through the deck, or women of influence with bare midriffs and legs carelessly open? So there are some anachronisms that will offend purists, but strangely, they didn’t offend me even though I’m pretty pure as they come. I was okay with the deck, but I was of the personal opinion that it was inaccurately named: I would have preferred it called something like “Major Tom’s Marseilles-Style Tarot”. {Note: after writing that, he did in fact tell me that a title similar to that had in fact been considered).

One thing I do like about Marseilles and Bologna-style early decks, is the sense of roughness that comes from them being bulk printed with the only technology available in the day: woodcuts. It gives them a streaky, coarse feeling with crude cross-hatching rather than shading and a two-dimensionality that, all taken together as a visual style, removes the user from the sense of the ordinary, day-to-day world, into a more mythic landscape of the mind. In addition the men and especially the women in these style of decks are not attractive by any stretch of the imagination, and as most human beings, beautiful or not, feel less appealing on the inside, this makes them great tools for accessing people’s inner realities. I like that Tom has respected this tradition and not tried to pretty them up as other deck-designers have.

I don’t actually own a Marseilles deck at the moment, but I own a Bologna and I have owned a Marseilles in the past. A characteristic of them is a limited colour-palette. In my Bologna, it is a couple of shades of pale brown (by doubling up layers for a darker effect) and touches of pale red and blue as highlights. In my old Marseilles, from memory, the backgrounds were all white, with black outline and cross-hatching, and printed areas of primary blue and red. A very simple palette.

This Tom has in no way tried to emulate. Yes, he has strong, strident colours, and yes he has flat-colour making his figures float in two dimensions which is an appealing effect in its own right. But he has quite a broad colour palette, and strong background-colours in most cards, that does have fading and shading. This is not a deck for someone who likes muted colouration and sublety – this is a deck for a colour-addict who loves richness.

A lot of the character’s faces and many of their bodies seem, at first, to be quite badly-drawn, with asymmetrical features, different-sized eyes, bodies whose centres of gravity are at stressful odds with reality. At second glance, most of them have an almost Thurber-ish quirkiness, humour and pathos to them, the little person lost in a big world, something Thurber was excellent with in words and sketches and Michael Leunig does extraordinarily well now especially in his duck-and-teapot work. This doesn’t stop them being big archetypes – it just makes them immediately accessible despite their superficial oddness to modern minds, most of whom also feel adrift in the universe.

The Minor Arcana, in the tradition of pre-20th century decks, have illustrated court cards but unillustrated pip (numbered) cards. This actually works for me, especially in this deck. Tom has given lucid explanations of what the suits and the numbers represent, which develops in the mind of someone reading his system a cogent and workable system without the need of illustrations, letting the intuition run riot and pull up whatever images the reading calls for.

His background colours are a bit of a worry: Yellow, the traditional Magickal colour for Air (Swords) is the background for coins, which are earth and therefore traditionally green; Swords instead of being on a yellow Airy ground are on a Fiery red ground; Batons or Wands are on an Earthy green instead of a fiery red ground, and Cups, instead of being on a Watery blue, are on an Etheric purple. {Note: Tom Schick tells me, also, that to his eye and mind the background colour is a blue. It is quite possible my eyesight is deteriorating or my colour-perception is changing.] Magical purists such as myself will have to take a minute to adjust, but it is perfectly possible to work the colours and suits that way. The Major Arcana is much more likely to evoke strong positive or negative responses than the pip cards.

The Major Arcana cards I liked the least were the Papess, whom I saw as a bit of a middle-aged mutton-dressed-as-lamb slag rather than as a holy creature of instinct and intuition, the Empress who could have done with a bit of regal dignity (but the wings of whose throne were intriguingly like angel’s wings to me), and the House of God (Tower) which was wonderful – except for its horrible baseball cap. Oh, and I wasn’t much gone on Tom’s idea that the Kings all had baseball caps because we see out leaders of today wearing them: I don’t know what planet he lives on, but I haven’t seen a single politician or truly influential entrepreneur who would be caught dead in one, only the occasional sports-star-turned-advertising-millionaire. That might work for the King Batons (Wands), but the others, I felt, were all a bit demeaned by this.

Cards I particularly liked were the Chariot, which a hugely heavy structure that two cat-sized horses couldn’t hope to pull even if its wheels weren’t in right angles to the direction of travel; Justice wearing an Australian barrister’s wig and wide, aware eyes (so preferable to a blindfold!); the Wheel of Fortune at a most irregular angle that an engineer couldn’t possibly condone; the Hanged Man falling into a chasm and with his hair pulled out from his head by an electrical field; Death having severed his own foot by accident, and screaming as he looks back at us; and the Fool being savaged not by the traditional dog, but by what looks like a slightly overfed and spoilt Russian Blue cat. This is somehow very appropriate: cats are at once much closer to the spirit world in their daily lives than dogs are, and much less friendly to humans as a whole (although often insanely attached to their own humans).

My overall impressions are favourable. In the coming months I’ll be using this deck with others for my clients and my own purposes, but I expect it will trial very well. If you are looking to buy an authentic older-style Tarot of Marseilles, this is probably not the deck for you. If you are looking to buy a deck for the modern world with good old-fashioned Tarot symbolism, kooky antique-feel artwork with odd modernistic effects breaking in, and a lavish use of buoyantly cheerful colour, this deck will appeal. And the packaging is superb – if you don’t buy it for any other reason, buy it for the box!

Arwen says: This review is from .Nisaba Merrieweather who hails from Australia. Please leave her a comment if you are so moved.

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