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The tarot’s origin is almost as mysterious as the way cards acquire divinatory faculties during a spread. Archeological finds show that Egyptians were already gathering the wisdom of Major Arcana in hieroglyphs, an ancestral knowledge that nowadays is concentrated in tarot decks.

On the contrary, other scholars have talked about the remarkable similarities between the Marseille deck, and ancient sets of oriental cards. The most accepted version of the tarot’s origin dates back to the Middle Ages, where the creation of the first Marseille Tarot decks is registered, in which most of the Major Arcana appear. However, it’s not entirely clear if these first decks incorporated the minor arcana cards suits, as their function is to point the hero's path.

From its origins the tarot has evolved incredibly, as not only have several symbolic narratives emerged but they have also opened the way for the creation of tailored-suit decks. These are designed according to the personal taste of each tarot reader, with the images and finishes of their choosing.

When commencing the study of tarot reading, there are two obvious deck options to begin with: Marseille’s Tarot, and Rider-Waite/Collman-Smith. But what is so special about these two decks?

The Marseille Tarot:

The commercial and intellectual exchange with the East through the Silk Road resulted in the arrival of the first cards decks to Europe. An Islamic game named “Mamluk” was initially formed by four suits, which are considered the predecessors of the minor trumps.

Later, during the fifteenth century Marseilles makes its first appearance. It included a fifth suit: the Major Arcana Trumps. These cards differed from the first four suits because they contain images and drawings representing figures such as the Fool, Justice, even the Hanged Man. It is believed that these handmade decks were the same 22 Major Arcana that we know today, but The Devil and The Tower of Destruction curiously disappear; the only ones missing from the original.

All of these findings suggest that the Marseille deck is the essence that gave origin to all the newest designs. Rider-Waite, The Thoth Tarot, Jorodosky's, were all based on the ancient Marseilles model in which we can find traditional symbols from Jewish, Muslim, Egyptian and Christian heritage.

This richness of the tarot’s content and divinatory power caught the attention not only of those who were seeking to discover their future, but also of those who are looking for keys in their past to solve their present problems: psychologists. Carl Jung, the most famous disciple of Freud, was a great tarot enthusiast and explored the human mind through cards. He believed the tarot’s symbolic value lay in the repeated imagery constant throughout the history of all cultures, with shared concepts such as Death, Devil or Angels.

Tarot Rider-Waite:

Currently, the Rider-Waite Tarot is perhaps the best seller and imitated deck in the world. It represents all of the western divinatory tradition, merging Christian mysticism with the Hebrew Kabbalah, alchemy, numerology and astrology.

This deck was created around 1910 by Arthur Edward Waite, a former member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Waite remains known to this day for being one of the most important exponents of the Anglo-Saxon occult tradition with a vast legacy in alchemy, occultism, and spiritualism. With the disappearance of the Golden-Dawn, new orders emerged, giving way to design new models inspired by the tarot of Marseille. Find more information about Rider-Waite Tarot here.

Differences between the Marseille Tarot and the Rider-Waite:

To analyze the differences between the Rider Tarot and the Marseille deck, start by taking a quick look of the cards. Not only are the characteristics and drawing styles different but also both models offer different interpretative possibilities. While the Tarot of Marseille provides a more global meaning, the Rider is much more precise with each card’s intention.

  • The first difference between the Rider-Waite and Marseilles Tarot is that the Rider’s images of the Minor Arcana are full of symbolism. This includes very expressive images in different circumstances with a similar style to the Renaissance Tarots rather than being merely cups and numbers as in the Tarot of Marseille. In addition, Rider’s have a more explicit symbolic richness in the Major Arcana suit.
  • This symbolical richness makes the Rider a perfect tool to learn card reading and interpretation, since it’s more accessible than the Marseille deck. The style also means that the process of memorizing the meaning of each Minor Trump becomes easier.
  • Another difference is that instead of coins, as in Marseille and the Spanish deck, the Rider has pentacles, with all the implications of its esoteric and magical significance.
  • Lastly, a major difference between the two decks is the number of the Major Trump “Justice". In the Marseille Tarot Justice is card VII but it is number XI in the Rider, a change made to maintain the same astrological order and match justice with Libra.

The Crowley Tarot:

The third best-known tarot is Crowley’s, also known as Thoth, composed of fifty-six cards inspired by the Egyptian deck with the intention of creating images that work as a "soul mirror”. Known for his interest in dark magic, Aleister Crowley, also a Golden Dawn member, reflected his mysterious and cryptic nature in these cards whose imagery is abstract and profound. His beautiful illustrations are based on the symbolism of ancient Egypt, Celtic mythology, astrology, and magic. 

Finally:

In any case, both Marseille and Thoth contain a tremendous symbolic value but, at the same time a depth that can baffle tarot reading novices. If you have started to learn cartomancy, a traditional Rider-Waite may be preferable. Later in life, you will have the time to evaluate which style of deck help you to establish a better connection during a spread.

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