Study Group Post #1, Introduction to Mary-el Tarot

Below I am posting an introduction to the structure and ideas as found in the Mary-el Tarot.  This will be the first in a series for the Mary-el Tarot study group.  I will try to update several times a week with new exercises and essays.  Feel free to comment and question as much as you like!  Hopefully this will grow into a decent resource on the Mary-el Tarot and tarot philosophy in general.


The idea for the phrase “Landscapes of the Abyss” came to me when I was working on the Fool card.  I couldn’t get the composition just right and I felt like I was missing something important that was just outside my reach.  Finally one night I had a dream in which I was standing beneath a giant pyramid-shaped mountain.   There was a river that came from the mountain and flowed straight toward me , across a flat plain and became a waterfall as it fell off a cliff into some unknown depth.

On one shore of the river was a tall luminescent tower that looked like it was made of pearl.  On the other shore was a red dragon who’s tail was curled up on the land but the rest of him stood high up in their air as if he was on guard.

Somewhere over my head was a person flying and I could see his slippered feet, just like in The Fool card.

I thought of the spire, the dragon, and the mountain, as the supernal triad of the tree of life, and the Fool was jumping off the same cliff the waterfall was tumbling over – into the abyss that exists in that space between what is ideal and what is real.

I remember thinking at that time that all of these images and symbols we find in tarot, and maybe in our lives, are the landscapes in the abyss, this space or void that was made – into which everything can be created, manifest.

So that’s why I titled the book, Landscapes of the Abyss.

The Mary-el Tarot was created over about a 13 year period.   All of the cards except the Knight of Cups, measure 11.5 inches by 7 inches and they are on either illustration board or masonite which is a type of pressed wood.  The reason I used that instead of canvas, which I usually prefer, is because I didn’t want there to be any obvious canvas marks in the final card images.

They are painted with oil paints in an old method called grisaille which literally translates to “grey” in French.  Traditionally, a painting is completed in shades of grey only, then you lay on a thin wash of a neutral color called an imprimatura, Italian for “first paint layer”, which lends a nice middle toned ground  upon which to start layering on thin glazes of transparent color until the painting is complete.


The main pattern or structure of the Mary-el tarot is based on the Tarot de Marseille.  It has 22 Major Arcana, including the unnumbered Fool, and 56 Minor Arcana.  The card order is that of the Tarot de Marseille (and the Crowley Thoth) with Justice 8 and Strength 11.

The Minor Arcana are completely illustrated and are based on the numerology as set forth in the Major Arcana.  So, the Aces are based on the Magician, split within the 4 elements, the Two’s on the High Priestess, the Threes the Empress and so on.  The Court Cards are fairly traditional; they are titled Page, Knight, Queen and King, and I also associate those with Major Arcana, so the Pages which follow the 10s get associated with Strength, 11.  The Knights with 12 The Hanged Man, The Queens with 13 Death and the Kings with 14 Temperance.

The Suit symbols are Wands, Swords, Cups, and Disks.  Wands are Fire, Swords are Air, Cups are Water, and Disks are Earth.   I see the order those are in as being very subjective, and they can appear different depending on where you stand, but for the sake of keeping things in some sort of simple order I usually describe them in the order of Fire, Air, Water Earth because that is the elements from the lightest to the densest, and also if you can imagine moving down our bodies, Fire being somewhere up here, Air being in our heads, water being here in our hearts and earth being down here.

Below is a brief chart, and we will go further into the elemental correlations later because it is a very important part of this deck.

Element Fire Air Water Earth
Suit Wands Swords Cups Disks
States of MatterIn order of density Plasma Gas Liquid Solid
Sun Atmosphere Bodies of Water Ground/Rock

So, even though the traditional structure of tarot is there, and something I highly value, this  deck is not a clone of The Rider Waite, or the Thoth, or the Marseille, or all 3, or any other deck. Rather I wanted to learn where the underlying symbolism came from and illustrate that.  I believe that all of these decks as well as any kind of symbolism humans tend to record, are based on a much older and basic truth, one that exists within us as archetypes.


A lot of people ask what the theme of the Mary-el is.

It doesn’t have a theme as we usually think of them in modern tarot decks, but there has been an overall prevalent idea of balance and symmetry.  When I started I had the perception that  tarot was lacking a certain balance between male and female energies, yin and yang, with most decks being one or the other predominantly.  Also I believed there was a disparity between depth and quality of art as opposed to the internal quality of the symbolism.  We all know about the art decks out there that are symbolically shallow, or even energetically shallow and the great decks tend to be lacking artistically. Now over time I have come to think of the art in some of the great old decks as fantastic and brilliant and I love it!  I love Pamela Colman Smith’s art! I love Frieda Harris’ art!  I love the old woodblocks and medieval art!  BUT when I first began I sensed a lack of quality art.  Maybe what I sensed was a lack of quality modern art, modern style, and I wanted to do that.  Remember this was like 15 years ago now so many beautiful, and symbolically rich decks have come out since then.

Throughout the journey of creating this deck It taught me about itself, slooowwwwlllyyy.  In the end I think it is the language of the subconscious, the same language of dreams,art, and creativity. I believe very much in archetypes and the work of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, that there is a symbolic language we all possess and know, if not consciously, then subconsciously.  It is constantly the foundation of our actions and decisions, and it communicates with us through thoughts and emotions, intuition, gut instincts, etc.  It basically underlies and colors everything we do and perceive. I think dreams are like stars, they are always in the sky, it’s just we can only see them when the sun goes down.  The same way I think that dreams , that flow of symbolism, is always there 24 hours a day.

There is an idea about a tiger and a monkey.  The tiger is the subconscious and the monkey is the waking conscious.  The monkey riding on this tiger’s back really thinks he is in control but the whole idea is completely ridiculous as you can imagine.

I think one of the things you learn through study of that internal language is free will, which happens in the 7s.  And what you learn is not to control the tiger, but to work with the tiger because the monkey is smart, we can harness and use the power of the tiger, we can be aware of the tiger and direct our life to a meaningful end.

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20 Responses to Study Group Post #1, Introduction to Mary-el Tarot

  1. LisaM. says:

    Thanks Marie~

    With how you explained your number system with the relationship between the Major and Minor Arcana makes a lot of sense to me.

    Something occurred to me while thinking about this relationship…would you say that the Majors and Minors up to card 14 Temperance/the Kings deal with our everyday lives and card 16 up to 21 of the Majors deal with the spiritual/Mystical aspects of our lives?

    And to add a little bit more confusion…the cards 11 Strength/Pages through 14 Temperance/Kings could be the area where “As Above, So Below” meet-a transition place/point if you will.

    If anything, this set up makes a pretty mandala with the Mary-El cards.


    • Marie White says:

      Yes I would say that’s a good interpretation of 16-21, especially since The Tower being struck by lightning frees you from earthly things and then you go into all of the celestial symbols.

      You can divide the tarot into 5 elements basically, the 4 elements of the minor arcana and then the 5th element of spirit in the major arcana. I think its interesting that the minor arcana are divided into 2 sets of 7 each, a duality, and the major arcana is 3 sets of 7, a trinity, which is how we often describe mystical things.

      Not to make it more confusing, lol, but I can also see the major arcana as the first 3 elements, Fire, Air and Water, and the 4th element of earth as the minor arcana, which is 4-fold. Then you have a 4 fold earth/microcosm and a 3-fold spirit/macrocosm. the 3 and the 4 together are 7 the Chariot. It’s all about the 7s.

      Yes, I absolutely see the court cards as a meeting place between here and there! I actually kind of think of people as angels, fallen, half physical, half spirit (just symbolic of course!)

      • LisaM. says:

        Interesting about the sevens…my birth card is the Chariot. A journey of seeking and diving deep.

        I really do like the Chariot and sevens…

        • Marie White says:

          It’s my birth card too.

          • Morgana Dee says:

            This responses are very interesting and somehow I totally missed this first post #1, so I am just getting caught up now. Like Lisa and you Marie my birth card is 7 or 16. I prefer the Chariot over the Tower, LOL. I am really enjoying reading everyone’s input.

            • LisaM. says:

              I double checked my addition and I get 34 as grand total which comes down to 7…does that mean my card is just the Chariot? I added up my hubby’s and his came to 22 and 4…I read somewhere that 22 is the Fool’s place as well as zero-did I remember correctly? I love playing with numbers!

  2. For my personal circumstances this is the First Tarot Deck aside from the Thoth that I actually work with.

    The feeling in the images leaves more open to the i mage in action and they feel more intuitively spiritual. To the point that they helped me grasp the meaning of crossing the Abyss and also the Grade of Magus.

    To find ones connection upon Chockmah and the realisation that there is a requirement like never before for equilibrium and practical working between the divine feminine and masculine.

    • Marie White says:

      Thank you Jonathan, it sounds like you really get what this deck is about, the need for balance in all things.

      Regarding it being intuitively spiritual, yes, absolutely. I didn’t make up these symbols, I learned them from what was there, this is stuff we already know inside us so it should be intuitively familiar. I think that is why some people react strongly to tarot and also to this deck, it touches that deep place which then reacts.

  3. Debi Ann says:

    Thank you Marie for creating this study group and giving us a place to go deeper with comfort. I resonate with the relationship of the minors to the majors as it extends the ability to see all sides and potential. I don’t think of other decks when working with the Mary-El as it takes me straight into intuition and imagination which was my expectation when I obtained it. Your Art draws on the subconscious as you stated and brings insights into myself I would have never faced. Peace within balance is what I am working on. I have only been working with Tarot for about 6 years, so I can’t provide profound insights and am greatful for everyone’s sharing. With the Butterfly slippers on the feet of the Fool tells me I have to walk in the experience shoes to reach transformation.

    • Marie White says:

      Hi Debi Ann,
      Thank you very much! It does me well to hear that you have been experiencing it as I envisioned.
      BTW I don’t think you have to have a lot of experience to provide powerful insights.

  4. LisaM. says:

    I just had a neat realization after reading what Debi Ann and Johnathan wrote…combining Chockma and the Butterfly slippers-we too can Walk in Beauty. I also haven’t been studying Tarot for that long…but Marie’s art and words have reached and touched something deep inside of me that is awe inspiring. For that (and so much more) I am very grateful.

    • Debi Ann says:

      Ditto Lisa! I waited years for this to be published, watching card by card and has become my guide. I don’t leave home with out it. I pull a card on the way to work to give me guidance so I don’t freak out over the politics I have to swim in. Keeps me grounded and enhances my imagination.

      I placed the Fool down and under it drew 3 cards asking what symbolically the Spire, Dragon and Mountain is communicating to me and received the 4 of Cups, 6 of Swords and 8 of Cups. Need to contemplate.

      • LisaM. says:

        Very interesting cards you drew…have you figured out their message yet? What does Spire, Dragon and Mountain mean/stand for?

        • Debi Ann says:

          I used the words Marie described as the supernal triad of the Tree Of Life in Post #1.  Below are my first personal thoughts.

          Spire/4 Cups – In the midst of chaos at work and family health issues which I am handling well, my heart and soul is stuck in the sand at the bottom of the spire.  I need to take control (4 Emperor) and make time to nourishment and execute some self care.

          Dragon/6 Swords –   Ask the Devine for help and be present to receive it. (6 Lovers).  The reaching out to the Dog in the image reminds me I have unconditional love everyday (my two Greyhounds).

          Mountain/8 Cups – In the image, the child looks so calm and wrapped in strength.   Pass by the things I can’t control and leave them for the Devine to sort out (8 Justice).  Trying to control these things builds walls and hardens my heart.   Keep my heart open to all possibilities and truth will be known and the path will be shown.  Stay open but don’t be a door mat.

  5. LisaM. says:

    I pulled three cards for the supernal triad like Debi Ann did…working with the Mary-El is my Leap of Faith…discovering who I am…this is what I came up with:

    Spire~The World
    Dragon~6 of Wands
    Mountain~4 of Cups

    My leap of faith is to listen to my guide(s) and take care of my home and myself-no excuses!

    It’s interesting to include (like Debi Ann did) the majors with the minors…the Lovers/Sixes brings up the matter of choice and the Emperor/Fours strongly suggests coming up with a structured plan to follow.

    Cups-Water-Feminine *Balance*-something I desperately need

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