Marseille Tarot. Boring or Indispensable?

Updated: Aug 31

In the last couple of years, I couldn't help but notice that the Marseille Tarot seems to be less and less popular in the English speaking Tarot community.

I have read online that the Marseille Tarot was “boring as heck”. Some call it "rigid". I've seen that on Amazon reviews of other decks and on Tarot forums. Often when readers and amateurs are praising the amazing design of this or that other deck. This or that deck 99% of the time being some adaptation of the Rider Waite Smith.

It feels like the Marseille deck is the least favourite of all in the English speaking Tarot community at the moment.

But what strikes me (okay, bothers me a tad) is the reason why: apparently it is boring. And I understand: compared to many fantasy inspired decks, fairy decks, artsy decks and the one that stole the throne in the early 20th century (yes, the Rider Waite Smith), the Marseille deck is indeed, well, minimalistic.

It is not bursting with colours and pop imagery. But is that what a Tarot deck should be? Is it actually bad or should it be considered obsolete? Let's have a look at the pros, cons and differences between the mother of all decks and its competition.

The problem with the Marseille Tarot is the Rider Waite Smith Deck

The Marseille Tarot has been supplanted, commercially and culturally, by the Rider Waite Smith deck in the entire English speaking world and outside of France and Italy, where it still largely prevails along with classic Italian versions.

And the reason is both really very simple and a little more surprising.

The Rider Waite Smith Tarot seems about a hundred times easier to read if you're a beginner. Especially the minor arcana. That's a fact. And that sounds like a good thing.

But the problem with the RWS deck is that it seems like it requires less study, less work and less experience. Of course, this is just an impression and a good reader of the RWS will know that study and years of learning are necessary. Yet it could send out the wrong message.

The other interesting thing is how this old continental European deck (developed in Italy and France when both countries where at the center of the Western World) was replaced by an Anglo-Saxon adaptation after passing the Channel and crossing the Atlantic.

Sounds familiar? Like many popular items, Tarot was revolutionized in the 20th Century as the Anglo-Saxon world - and especially America - took over the West, leaving Europe to be a secondary pole of influence: the boring old continent.

Another important fact explaining today's massive use of the Rider Waite deck, especially online, holds in two words: public domain. The images on the this deck belong to no one. You could start printing this deck and sell it without infringing any copyright law. For book publishers and online readers, this is big.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Rider Waite Smith Tarot, I own it. I use it a lot for both personal and professional readings. It speaks wonderfully.

My point is not too belittle the RWS Tarot. It is a fantastic deck and a classic for good reasons (just not the ones mentioned above ;) ). But it is good to always keep in mind where the RWS itself, came from.

If most Tarot decks published today and in the last 50 years are adaptations of the Rider Waite deck, we gotta keep in mind that the RWS is nothing but a revisited Marseille.

Mastering the Marseille deck is like mastering music theory

I understand that when so many wonderful decks are available, it’s just natural to pick one that is inviting. Pretty. Or even entertaining. But when you start reading the cards, you should make it challenging. Because your future readings will be too. Especially if you aim to do it professionally.

Starting with decks that don’t give you an immediate answer in the illustration will force you to develop your instinct and study more. It will require you to learn the symbols, meaning of the numbers and primary colours, often neglected by modern and ‘pop’ Tarot decks.

See, if you want to become a musician today, it’s quite easy to buy yourself a keyboard. Or a guitar. Something affordable but cool and inviting. Then you can learn some basic notes and chords with charts online. And soon you can roughly play a pop song. But if that’s all you do, you’ll always be stuck right below that glass ceiling that would magically - okay through hard work - disappear if you’d taken some music theory lessons.

The Marseille deck is your theory. If you can learn to read its minor arcana, you’ll immediately move from beginner to, at least, intermediate reader. Soon, you could be well advanced.

And you could also decide that the Marseille deck will not be your go to set of cards. But at least, you will know it. Just like many great pop artists know their Chopin, but have more fun with 90’s classic hits.

Batons or Wands of the Marseille Tarot - pure as it gets

The Coins of the Marseille deck - very far from the RWS

The Cups in the Marseille Tarot - can you tell a positive from a negative card?

Swords in the Marseille Tarot - no more drama, straight to the point.

A Piece of Tarot History