Friday, November 23, 2012

Turn of the Card

TOP: Rosetta by MM Meleen. BOTTOM: Golden Light by Payne-Towler and Dowers. 

My youthful fascination with the Tarot gave way over time to other obsessions, in large degree because I didn’t receive any encouragement from without or within. I owned two decks, the French Grand Etteilla and the Swiss IJJ deck (so named, I learn all these years later, because it quite nicely substituted the figures of the Pope and Popess, later referred to as the High Priest and High Priestess, with Jupiter and Juno respectively).

Both are beautiful historical decks in their own way, and I did like them. The Major Arcana of the IJJ deck are particularly expressive and attractive... the IJJ’s Death and Hanged Man cards are pretty tough to beat. Little did I understand, however, in my Beginners Way, that both decks are Really Kind of Lousy as places for Beginners to, well, Begin. The IJJ deck’s Minor Arcana are non-illustrative pip cards depicting only cups, coins, wands and swords in their various denominations; with no symbolism attached it’s literally impossible to determine any meaning from them, and even when you look up a meaning it’s hard to see how the diviners arrived at their conclusions.  The Grand Eteilla comes from a completely different Tarot tradition altogether, with a somewhat different set of symbology, and is no more forgiving to novices. My sense of aesthetics was good, but it had led me down a rough road.

As well, I discovered quickly that I disliked doing readings for others. With my largely meaningless IJJ deck I was forced to read definitions out of a book, and where’s the fun in that? You just come off looking like a nob. Even insofar as the Major Arcana were concerned, I found -- and this is probably to do with my lifelong difficulty at verbal communication -- that although I could comprehend the cards on a visceral level, translating them into the spoken word was too difficult for me.

But the readings themselves could be terribly problematic. Without knowing the querant’s question, I could always sense when the reading was not going in the direction that they wanted it to be going, and I desperately hated disappointing people. I did not have the interpersonal tools to cope with being a reader.

And so the Tarot and I parted ways. I kept my decks, and took them out now and again to enjoy the images, but that was as far as it went. 

Thanks now to the damn App Store I’ve got the bug again. They’ve got an App for that? They have many, and some are pretty good. I won’t name names, but a door was opened again for me, and I stepped through. I started researching the topic. Very soon I realized that I’d been working with the wrong decks when I was young, that I should have been working with the deck that I had actually wanted from the start, the classic Rider/Waite/Smith deck that has been aped and imitated and reworked by countless other artists, but never improved upon. 

A.E. Waite, who conceived the deck and devised its symbology, is an unreadable, obfuscating old dullard whose texts actually attempt to conceal more than they reveal. But the marvelous drawings by Pamela Coleman Smith (who died penniless, never seeing any benefit from designs that have made other people rich) are so expressive that at last I feel that the Tarot and I are in accord. When in doubt, there are plenty of places to track down meanings these days, and you know what? I’m usually pretty close to the mark. Chalk it up to a combination of that little bit of long-ago experience, a lot of intuition, and finally being paired with the right Dance Partner.

Of course I’m never content just to eat the icing off the cake, so to speak, so for the last few weeks I’ve been crawling right into the pan. Tarot is fascinating, of many and varied uses, and has a lot to offer anyone whether you believe in divination or not. I personally do not hold much with using cards to “foretell the future,” but when it comes to clarifying my thoughts, feelings, and the forces at work around me in my life, I am finding my recent tarot readings to be uncannily effective and close to the mark.

And I’m drawn to the Tarot on a different level as well, as a designer and artist. There are about a bazillion decks out there, and to my mind it amounts to an entire sub-genre of art and design. Some of the decks are gorgeous and amazing. Some are merely clever ideas. Still others are just wrong, wrong, wrong. The vast majority are nothing more or less than insipid, inferior clones of Rider/Waite/Smith.

Of the small number of decks that really stood out for me on a recent troll through, home to all things tarot, a handful clicked with me strongly enough that I had to plunk down my credit card and bring them Home to Poppa. Of these, two really deserve your attention, even if you’re only vaguely interested in the subject.

Tarot of the Holy Light, by Christine Payne-Towler and Michael Dowers, combines Tarot with Astrological, Alchemical and Esoteric imagery and lore to smashing effect, while M.M. Meleen’s Rosetta Tarot seeks to decode and make accessible (among its other goals) the Thoth system of Tarot -- a very different animal from Rider/Waite/Smith. Is it a coincidence that after a hundred years of carbon-copy decks that offered no new insights, suddenly there should appear two completely fresh and inventive works such as these, coming as it were from opposite directions? Both are amazing as works of scholarship (and you’re going to want the apps that complement the decks, for these come with expanded texts that illuminate the decks in mind-opening ways), but of the two, the Meleen deck is the more successful as a personal work, a work of art, and, yes, an act of magic.

Both decks are a little pricey; they are well worth it. You will spend many hours absorbing their imagery (samples are pictured up there above). Neither are mass produced, and the Rosetta Tarot is limited to an edition of 777 copies. How often in this mass-produced age can you say that you’ve come into possession of a tool created for you by a genuine mystic?

OK, I also bought The Halloween Tarot and The Steampunk Tarot. But those were just for fun, just because they tickled me. The Holy Light and Rosetta decks are an education all by themselves, and you’ll be lost in beauty the whole time you are learning the secrets of the Universe itself.

-- Freder.

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