Saturday, May 18, 2013

Decks of a Different Color

Of the relatively small number of Tarot decks that I own (there are folks who own dozens and dozens, but I’m not one of them), there isn’t a one that I actively dislike: rather, there are decks that just don’t connect with me on some level, and decks that are, for different reasons, more difficult to work with than some. I’m glad to have them (or I wouldn’t have them), but they won’t become tools to use on a daily basis anytime soon. 

Chief among the decks that I don’t really “connect with” is the Swiss IJJ deck, which I’ve written about elsewhere on the blog. Its Major Arcana is pretty much wonderful — but that’s where it ends. Another deck that falls into this category is the ominously named Initiatory Tarot of the Golden Dawn. I like the idea behind the deck better than the deck itself: the publishers had a notion that they would take the card descriptions set down by the mystical order of the Golden Dawn in their Liber T and give them to an artist with a modern style who was not familiar with Tarot.

The result looks rather like a Marvel Comic, really; more Stan Lee than Liber T. The deck does make for a fresh and very modern take on the old symbols, and allows for some dynamic compositions that are not at all typical in Tarot cards. In a way, it’s a good learning deck, especially when taken together with some vintage ones, like Crowley’s Thoth with its vibrant impressionistic approach to the same symbols — much like studying a modern language side-by-side with Latin. But the figures all look alarmingly like Superheroes out of their leotards: I keep expecting Bashful Benjamin Grimm to appear, and holler “It’s CLOBBERIN’ time!” before throwing a knuckle sandwich that knocks The Devil clear over The Tower and into Judgement. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

A wonderful deck that I do connect with — although I find it difficult to use in a way that isn’t likely to change anytime soon — is the Jolanda Tarot, a.k.a. the tarot of the Swedish Witch. Yes, folks, its designer (although not its artist: in Tarot these are often two different things, in the same way as in the comics that neither Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would have made a success working on their own) is a genuine practicing Swedish Witch, Jolanda Den Tredjes by name. 

For me, the Swedish Witch tarot is one of the more exciting and fascinating decks out there. Being of Swedish descent myself, I had to have it from the moment I learned of its existence. It is gorgeous in a light-hearted, cartoony way; it is vibrant, and it is something that many decks are not: fun. But it draws upon a completely different symbology, and many of the cards do not even have the same meaning as in your typical Waite-Smith-derived deck. A female Magician with an elephant’s head for a shield — what are we to make of that? What it amounts to is yet another language, and although I find it entrancing it is not a cakewalk. An in-depth reading with this deck could take hours and hours — and I’m still learning RWS!

For different reasons, the same thing is true of Esmeralda M. Rupp-Spangle’s Silent Tarot. This handmade artist’s deck is a striking creation that just percolates with style and vitality. Old photographs and prints are combined with all kinds of mixed-media elements, resulting in a deck that feels both vintage and modern at the same time.

But — but — but… the artist is frank in admitting that she did not know the meanings of many of the cards when she began the project, and learned as she went along. In the minor arcana especially, many of the cards are little more than really good-looking pip cards with no real symbolism attached at all. Combine that with a recalcitrant artist’s sensibility (in which, among other things, the Lovers card becomes alarmingly negative in its meaning), and you have a deck that is in No Way practical for beginning readers (which would be me). Still, I really enjoy it as a deck.

And isn’t that part of what makes Tarot so fascinating? From a modern rendition of specific arcane symbols to a largely sub-conscious and subjective vision, and encompassing everything in between, Tarot is the language of all human experience. Not just wands and cups, but spirit and heart, and the invisible forces that bubble just below the surface of reality. 

— Freder.

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