Never the Twain? Wen and Elias -- Book Review(s)



I bought Holistic Tarot by Benebell Wen in July, right after the TABI Conference. I have more or less pored over it ever since. It is a massive tome of 874 pages of tarot scholarship. I thought I may have found the definitive tarot source book, and without doubt it is on its way to the status of a classic introduction to various esoteric traditions and  the contemporary approach. It's certainly a compendium of all sorts of esoteric and occult traditions, a comprehensive introduction with much to offer experienced readers as well. But over the last week, I've read Camelia Elias's Marseille Tarot: Toward the Art of Reading. A slim book of 197 pages, as a guide to reading the cards,  it knocks Holistic Tarot into a cocked hat. While the carefully researched tables of information in Holistic Tarot appeal to my Virgo side, the philosophy of reading espoused in Marseille Tarot thrilled me to the tips of my ten toes. While reading this book, I have laughed out loud, frowned in consternation, and felt my eyebrows shoot up in shock. I've underlined, drawn arrows, and written in the margins on nearly every page! Wen's book is a tremendous resource. Elias's book I simply love. And you couldn't get two more diametrically opposed approaches. Here are a few of the more glaring examples:

What is a tarot reading?

Wen - "I do not support fortune telling and I do not believe in future telling. The signs and symbols of the cards facilitate retrieval of information from the unconscious and move it to the forefront of the conscious plane of the mind."

Elias - (Refers to self throughout as a fortune teller) "In classic cartomancy, we don't read the cards according to esoteric principles. We read the cards according to common sense. The cards are like a language rather than a symbol. [Tarot] is most efficient precisely in the moment when we give up symbolism and esoteric knowledge."

How is a reading delivered?

Wen -- Presents an elaborate 8 step process which includes the First Operation and involves explaining individual card meanings at least 10 times (see pages 478-479 of Holistic Tarot). Here is a sample reading from Wen:



(It's worth noting that this is a general enquiry, no question asked.) 



Elias -- "I often say that I'm not an 'intuitive reader' --whatever that means -- but rather a reader who has trained herself in the art of 1) distilling the primary meanings of the cards, 2)essentializing these meanings to a core understanding and ultimately 3) synthesizing these primary meanings into one relevant shot. In Romania where I grew up, most card readers I've seen have been versed in delivering the one sentence reading without needing 30 minutes for a tarot session."  From Elias (question in middle of page on left, entire reading is at top of page on right):



(Take note that there is a question here. Elias doesn't do general readings. "I never read the cards without a question. The question is crucial for the level of precision that we end up delivering when we read the cards. ...If the cards address the querent's issues in a very direct manner, then they do so because there is a question to begin with.")

What about ethics?

Wen -- "The purpose of the tarot is to empower the Seeker, never to harm. ...Generally, tarot practitioners should never agree to do readings for Seekers who are asking specific questions about illness, financial troubles, legal troubles, or abuse of any kind. That is unacceptable. ...The ethical reader will not facilitate such situations. The tarot should only be used to complement current professional care."

Elias -- "The querent has ultimate agency, and my work is always based on fundamental trust. If a person comes to me for advice, I trust the person to be able to reflect on what we're talking about. ...The reader is not responsible for people's feelings, for what people make of a reading, or for what they get out of it. The reader is responsible for delivering a useful statement, and for staying on track and true to the cards."

In summary

These two books present a fascinating view of different personalities, different traditions and different approaches to tarot reading. Wen is deeply immersed in esoteric details and gives page after page of charts, diagrams and tables from astrology, numerology, and the writings of occultists. She espouses tarot reading as a sort of coaching or active listening, with strict ethical rules of the boundaries and responsibilities of the tarot reader. Elias comes from a fortune teller tradition and approaches reading by following patterns appearing in the pictures on the cards and weaving the images into a story. She assigns 'ultimate agency' to the querent and accepts no responsibility for their reactions to the reading or their resulting action (or inaction). Being true to the story she sees in the card trumps other considerations.

Both writers agree that the purpose of a tarot reading is to help the querent to see their situation more clearly and make their own decisions about next steps to take.

I have certainly enjoyed reading both books...but a fire wasn't lit under me until I read Elias. So thanks for that, Camelia.

(Please note quotations from the books are sentences compiled from different pages; breaks are noted by an ellipsis.)

Benebell Wen's website benebellwen.com offers plenty of free resources and  blog. 
Camelia Elias's site Taroflexions is also filled with information and blog.
Both are well worth a visit!