Tarot Triumphs: Using the Marseilles Tarot Trumps for Divination and Inspiration

Tarot Triumphs: Using the Marseilles Tarot Trumps for Divination and Inspiration

Newburyport, Mass.: Weiser, 2016. 295 pp., paper, $18.95

Searching Amazon.com recently for Tarot books, I counted more than seventy titles, not including those with their own sets of cards. In a market so crowded, any new book on Tarot needs to earn its place, and to present the Tarot as more than just a system for crude fortune-telling.

To have spiritual value, any type of divination must offer a deep mirror to the enquirer, telling us what might be called the “unknown knowns”—those things we knew, but didn’t know that we knew. Cherry Gilchrist is well aware of this, and brings to her task several essential assets. With a lifetime’s experience of reading the cards, a clear and readable style, and a balanced sense of that indefinable thing, the esoteric, she combines a realistic sense of the Tarot’s history and an unusual willingness to share her own personal history and experience.

The result is a thoroughly engaging book. Tarot Triumphs opens by immediately evoking our creativity, inviting us to visualize the twenty-two Trumps or Triumphs of the Tarot deck as moving tableaux rolling through the streets during a medieval Italian civic carnival. Well-based historically and delightful to read, the exercise sets the Trumps free: they step off the cards and into three living dimensions.

Equally valuable is Gilchrist’s openness about her own Tarot experiences, sketching her encounters with three “Tarot masters”: people who used Tarot in a way that showed her something profound that stayed with her, even (especially?) if it couldn’t quite be put into words. The nervy young 1960s American under threat of being drafted for Vietnam; the enigmatic, slightly sinister man in Cambridge, England; and the plump, bearded Welshman, an esoteric teacher in London: each shook her a little, showing her a new angle on the cards.

The stories are fascinating, and their message is that Tarot requires personal involvement and that it can become part of one’s life. And, showing that Tarot is anything but a male-dominated tradition, the author records watching an old lady reading Tarot—all seventy-eight cards!—for a young couple in an Italian marketplace in 1972. Indeed, Tarot Triumphs is permeated with a sense of Tarot as a living tradition rather than a New Age fad.

Naturally Tarot Triumphs includes discussion of the individual cards—first, brief “keynote interpretations,” and, later, in-depth, reflective discussions, which always avoid dogmatism. Each card is seen as an emblem for reflection and contemplation. There’s advice on the practicalities and ethics of giving readings, exercises with different spreads, and suggestions about the overall structure of the Trumps, which Gilchrist suggests can be seen as three subsets of seven: cards of being, of interaction, and of higher energy—with the Fool as a wild card. There are fruitful suggestions for practice, including study, visualization and creativity.

Methods are offered for three-, four-, and seven-card readings , including the well-known Celtic Cross layout. And—the book’s most valuable gift—there are instructions for the Fool’s Mirror, a layout of unknown origin taught by Gilchrist’s last Tarot master, Glyn the Welshman.

Having experimented with it several times since first seeing this book, I can testify that the Fool’s Mirror is a particularly rich and rewarding layout. In fact, having tried it, I’m not sure I shall ever want to use any other. Its virtues are many. First, there are safeguards: the Fool in certain positions indicates that a reading should be abandoned; also, since the layout uses all twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana, cards like Death or the Hanged Man are expected, and so are less alarming. Secondly, it has drama: the layout is rhythmic and satisfying, and three cards are laid face downward until the main reading is complete: the reading has a touch of suspense, and feels open-ended. And it has completeness. Different areas of the layout, indicating past, present, and future, and outer and inner worlds, intersect. It is particularly effective in inducing an intuitive feel for the situation before detailed reading even starts.

I have only two small quibbles. I would have liked an index: in this richly structured book certain topics can be hard to locate. And I hope the subtitle won’t deter readers who don’t happen to possess the Marseilles Tarot. Users of any authentic Tarot deck would benefit from this book. Indeed, if there’s any Justice (and the lady on that particular card does have her eyes wide open!), Tarot Triumphs is destined to become a classic.

Grevel Lindop

Grevel Lindop is a poet, travel writer, and biographer. His recent books include Luna Park (Carcanet Press) and Charles Williams: The Third Inkling (Oxford University Press). You can read his blog at www.grevel.co.uk.