Saturday, 24 October 2015

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 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! 


  1. For me, there's a tough line between honouring the clients ultimate agency, and abdicating responsibility for my own agency. We co-create reality, we are interdependent beings, and how I am and what I say will have an influence on the other, and that is my responsibility. So, somewhere in between the two??

    1. All I can say is, reading the conventional style had me writing in a journal a lot. Two days of reading in this traditional style actually got me to the phone shop to see about that phone and on my feet and working out for the first time since April.

    2. "I listen to the question and I look at the cards. That's all. I never deviate from that. For me, the art of reading is not to ventriloquize 'meanings' but to see embodiment in the context of the question. I have sharp ears, sharp eyes, and a sharp tongue. I stab. But as they say about cuts, sometimes that's exactly the thing needed to get things moving. Most people enjoy my cutting through it, cutting through them, and I often witness some beautiful work of transformation.

      "When some decide that I've ruined their lives, and then they do something drastic, I just make a note of it. A note that confirms why I'm right. Why I'm right in insisting. Drastic measures don't impress me. They merely disclose how deeply disturbed some people are. I'm a tower of condensed coolness when I read the cards. I'm like death that doesn't warm. I'm your worst nightmare. But guess what. It's precisely this coldness that I get to see clearly. I don't get hot tempered. I'm not interested in winning anything. That's what I get my money for: Seeing things clearly, not standing in people's corners, making decisions and plans on their behalf that they end up neither following nor honoring. I hold the business of reading cards in the highest regard. This practice of old is not a frilly thing made of elastic. I'm not politically correct. I'm not 'nice'. I read the cards."

      --Camelia Elias, Marseille Tarot, pages 190-191

  2. Brilliant review, Carla... I'm about 3/4 of the way through Camelia Elias's book and like you, I feel a fire lit. The same fire was fuelled again when I watched Enrique Enriquez's Tarology video for the first time the other day. Funny thing, actually, since I've had the video for two years but only got around to watching it thanks to reading Camelia's book. I feel like I'm standing on my head gaining a completely new perspective... priceless! Ethically, I have to agree with Chloe though... so perhaps both approaches can meet in me? Plus, I use both what I see AND the occult knowledge I have when I read for my clients... It's hard to abandon what you have hardwired to your brain... nor do I wish to - it's all useful, and in the end that's all that matters.

    1. It is a tremendous discipline to consciously abandon all that background knowledge and weave a simple story from the images in response to a specific question. Before I try to marry the two, I want to immerse myself in the one. :)

  3. Carla, I thought you might like to read some of the thoughts that were provoked by this post and reading the book by Camelia...

    1. Thanks for that, Lisa. We have completely different histories and experiences with the cards, and this whole reading game. :) I will try to compose my own thoughts in response to yours and post soon. x

  4. Okay, you've convinced me - I am getting this book! It sounds right up my alley!

  5. Hello again, Amazon wish list.

  6. Hell, yes. I love this thorough and very fair review. Thank you so much. It means a lot to know when we're doing something right, and what we're appreciated for in our work. Clockwork precision. That's what I go for. That's what excites me about the tarot, not some imagined abstract states that, well, while fascinating, turn out to be not very useful. Thank you for engaging with my book in such a lively way.

    1. Hey, lady! Thanks for visiting here. You rock and so does your book. :) Thanks for writing it.

  7. Anonymous26.10.15

    This is really interesting! You made me think. ;) Well, you and Lisa (I followed her link from her post about this).

    See, I read the tarot cards by looking at them. I literally READ but without text, just images in front of me. But on the other hand, I almost separate myself as a tarot reader, from myself as a tarot student. The student in me loves guidebooks, big books with lots of information (like Benebell's! I love her "logical" approach to tarot while also frowning every now and then when she speaks of "every tarot reader should be familiar with this spread" ´cause I don't agree...), and exploring symbolism, numerology etc. While the reader in me doesn't need those things, the reader in me only needs a deck of cards! I don't need an hour to do a reading, going into astrological correspondences, the kabbalistic tree of life, blockages of the chakras etc etc... I just need to read the cards and when I'm done I'm basically done. It might be fun/interesting to know that The Chariot links to the sign of cancer. But does that benefit me when doing readings?! Nope, not in any way. Sometimes those add-ons are a little too much IMO... But it's funny because I definitely do not see myself as a fortune-teller, nooo way lol ;) You've got me thinking why I'm so oppossed to that... Hmm. Thakn you for sharing this post! I'm gonna go purchase the book by Elias now lol...

    Best wishes,
    Ania / Swedish Tarot Girl

    1. Thank you, Ania, for sharing your thoughts. I hope you enjoy the book -- know you will! :D


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