A cute take on a timeless tradition
Header image
You’ll not be surprised that I am a fan of contemporary illustrated tarots decks, though you might be surprised by how many of them there are. There has been a strong current of contemporary illustrators taking on the challenge of illustrating tarot cards in the last few years and the results are, for the most part, stunning, the variety of interpretations brings a wonderful, modern vibrancy to the tarot, always a reminder that it is a useful tool even outside the realm of diviniation. While not all of these decks are easy or useful to read with the sheer imagination that many of the artists bring to a single illustration is worth checking them out. Often the ability to draw a single card instead of an entire deck can produce beautiful results.

The Super Punch Tarot

contemporaryTarotDecks-superPunch

6 of Cups by Jerrod Maruyama

This is probably the first contemporary illustrated tarot I ever saw. While I was already working on the Chibi Tarot the existence and expansion of a modern illustrated tarot really heartened me. The cards themselves are from a mind-bending variety of styles. The sheer ecclectism of the deck makes it a wonderful artifact, but I can’t imagine reading with it. The Super Punch tarot was produced for an art show at the Bear and Bird gallery in Florida, but was never produced as an actual deck since the variety of sizes and styles made that nearly impossible. I actually own one of the pieces that was in the show, Jerrod Maruyama’s 6 of Cups, for what I hope are obvious reasons.

The Light Grey Tarot

08_Strength_MaikePlenzke_13x19

Strength by Maike Plenzke

The Light Grey Tarot was “[c]urated by Light Grey Art Lab as a part of the Tarot, Mystics and Occult Exhibition.” This deck brings together a group of 78 artists to reinterperet the tarot in a much more cohesive fashion than the Super Punch tarot did. While the styles still vary wildly, there seems to be more focus on the conjuration of the occult. Where the Super Punch illustrators seemed to bring tarot ideas into the realm of pop culture (the King of Cups, for example), the illustrators in the Light Grey Tarot seemed much more focused on bringing a powerful syncretic and mystical energy into the deck. So while the the illustrations feel fresh and lively, the connection to the tarot’s rich history of symbolism and illustration shines through here.

It was produced as an actual deck with a booklet and is one that I own and have read with. It is not the most resonant deck for me, as not all the illustrations seem to be focused on the symbolism of the cards (the six of swords is particularly mute for me), but so many of the illustrations are so evocative that reading with it can be a real pleasure, and the deck is still for sale.

contemporaryTarotDecks-woodenTarotThe Wooden Tarot

An oversized majors only deck funded on Kickstarter, the Wooden Tarot is the work of Andy Swartz, who’s style “is typified by dream-like, faintly creepy and macabre fantasy wildlife.” The deck is a work of art on every level, beautifully designed, illustrated and executed. The wooden part of the tarot stems from her canvasses: 6×8″ wooden panels painted on with a mixed media of acrylic paints and colored pencils.The illustrations are simultaneously delicate and lush, capturing the rich color of animals, plants and minerals she depicts with lovely accuracy while simultaneously conveying the mystical allure of the shadows flickering just beyond the edge of the firelight.

The Wooden Tarot major arcana is completely sold out, but Andy completed another Kickstarter in March of this year and is currently producing a full 78 card deck, which you can preorder here. The Minor Arcana carries over both the beauty and the sparse style of her artwork, while adding and interesting new organic layer to the deck by renaming the suits Bones, Plumes, Stones and Blooms.

The Collective Tarot

There’s no question that traditional tarot decks carry with them a boatload of white male privilege. For starters, there’s the court that reinforces medieval gender roles and power disparities. Then there’s the decks themselves: despite being illustrated by powerfully talented women, Pamela “Pixie” Smith and Lady Frieda Harris, the two most influential tarot decks of the last 100 years are both more familiar to the public by the names of their male “creators”: The Rider Waite deck and Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. The Collective Tarot addresses much of this cis-gendered white male privilege through their radical revisioning of the tarot. Describing itself as “a collaboratively created, radically-politicked, queerly-revisioned Tarot deck” the Collective Tarot is an extreme departure from the traditional western occult symbols embodied in the tarot to the point that it becomes nearly unrecognizable, which may well be the point.

The pieces themselves are intense and raw. There is an unfinished quality to the art, an intentional crudeness reminiscent of punk show flyers and ‘zine covers. The aesthetic reinvigorates the art in a modern, urban way queering the traditional occult symbolism in ways that I often find offensive, which I think is the point: taking the sacred and profaning it, not simply for the sake of profaning it but to stretch it in ways that it certainly never envisioned for itself in order to include those it never attempted to envision. In doing so the Collective Tarot has created something less like a tarot deck and more like its own unique oracle. While it adheres to the traditional structure of five suits with 78 cards with many cards that overlap with traditional tarot trumps I find it more fruitful to approach this deck from a completely fresh perspective rather than attempting to find similarities between what I’ve known and what they’ve created.

contemporaryTarotDecks-Pictarot-ArtPictarot

Without question the Pictarot is the least occult of the decks listed here. Created and published by PictoPlasma, a German/New York based organization focused on the development and promotion of character design, that’s exactly what this deck promotes: characters. While there is carry over and dialogue between the characters and the ideas that they represent the focus here is clearly on the development of the character at the expense of the idea. None of the cards have any background or environment to support or complicate them, the figures are the complete focus of attention. Still, the characters are inventive, creative and entertaining and character design is a big part of why I love the tarot, so I am personally enchanted by this deck, which you can still buy online.

As an added bonus, if you’re not ready to commit to the deck without seeing all the cards (and you have an iOS device) you can check out the entire deck through the Pictarot app. Heavy on the theatre, and without much flexibility about how you use the cards (they have a one, two, four and seven card spreads) the app is just $.99 at the app store and can be an amusing way to pass 30 minutes without actually breaking out your cards.

The Ostara Tarot

contemporaryTarotDecks-Ostara-5W

The 5 of Wands by Julia Iredale

The Ostara Tarot is the most recent member of this group. I recently stumbled across is on the reddit pagan forum. The product of four artists working together, the results thus far vary stylistically, but are united by a desire to explore the spirituality and the mysticism of the cards themselves and the deck as a whole. The deck is strongly nature based, but speaks to the human intersections with nature, especially the power of making and artifacts, drawing out the intricacy and beauty of the crafted object and the way that it can interact with the natural world, as well as the way the natural world is transformed into artifacts as a raw material for human expression.

The level of mysticism ranges a spectrum across the artists’ styles, from the psychedelic dreamscapes of Julia Iredale whose smoky-colored branch-pierced snakes echo strains of a voodoo saint Sebastian, to Molly Applejohn whose adorably anthropomorphic animals are deeply reminiscent of Brian Jacques’ Redwall and David Peterson’s MouseGuard.

As of this writing there are 20 cards available. I’ll be following up this post with an interview with artist Molly Applejohn who will hopefully provide more detail about the plans for the deck and whether they’d on publishing or not.

What are some of your favorite contemporary decks? Did I leave any off the list?

maryEl-hangedmanIt’s hard for me to say how much I like Marie White’s Hanged Man from the Mary-El tarot deck. When the deck was still in its infancy I made a bookmark out of the image along with a small description and laminated it, which I still have (the Star was on the reverse). The Hanged Man is a beautiful card that beautifully conveys the motionless power of powerlessness.

Marie’s hanged person has neither breasts nor cock, and is suspended in dark liquid by thick, ropy roots that run along the top of the card (perhaps the roots of the tree we’re accustomed to seeing the man hung from in more traditional decks). The body of the figure is superficially human, but in White’s customary dreamlike transformation the hands of figure have become the diaphanous wings of an insect, scintillating with the crystalline purples and greens. The fleshy stalks where human hands might once have been are marked by two deep red wounds, reminders of the hanged man’s holy kin, martyred on the cross and on the tree. (more…)

  • Carte_bergamasche- Tarot, as a system that attracts intuitive, artistic people, is understandably most critical of the element that represnts the power of rational thought and the home of reason: Air and its suit, Swords. Redeeming the power of air is key to balancing the elements and utilizing what the rational mind has to offer.
  • - Understanding the pips, it’s important for me to return to the visual source. The Marseilles desk does an amazing job of representing the actual nature of the numbers, a visual representation of the idea embodied in the Arabic numeral. Learning the pips and delving deeply into the spiritual significance of the ideas embodied in the concepts zero through ten, I will start with the Marseilles deck’s tightly integrated visual (if abstract) representation of the pips, because I think there’s a fundamental magic there that our (now) traditionally illustrated minor arcana misses out on.

Chibi Nation! It’s been a bit on the quiet side for awhile (tho I am posting updates on the Kickstarter site), but I come with good news: The Decks have arrived!

It’s been a thrilling ride and one I will never forget. You’ve all been so patient with me and I hope your patience is rewarded with this wonderful deck. Here are the pix of the boxes and the decks.

Tonight I’ll be doing a ritual with the decks to infuse them with awesome energy before I start shipping these out this weekend.

You can also still buy the decks in the shop.

chibiTarot-01   chibiTarot02

Photograph of chess pieces on a chess boardI’ve played chess as long as I can remember. Not well, mind you. I thought I played well until my friend Ethan beat me in roughly 7 moves when we started playing in Mrs. Hoffman’s 4th grade class. My father taught me the rules early, over a variety of chess boards, though the one I most strongly remember was a heavy stone chess board with dark and light marbled squares and heavy, crudely carved pieces. The knight in particular stand out in my mind, a certain rough primitiveness that was echoed in the weight of the pieces and the board, that even then appealed to me. Tarot, for all its beauty, lacks a certain visceral quality that a nicely weighted chess piece can convey, especially in the act of capturing a queen.

This week I took chess up again and was once again struck by some of the similarities between the ancient game and tarot. Both, for instance, are very old. Chess dates back to roughly the 6th century, beginning in India, spreading to Persia and the Arab world and then into southern Europe. Tarot began roughly 800 years later in Italy and spread throughout Europe and there’s no doubt in my mind that chess influenced the tarot, given its popularity in Europe at the time of the development of the tarot. According to Wikipedia, “The popularity of chess in the Western courtly society peaked between the 12th and the 15th centuries,” the exact moment that the tarot is being created and disseminated on the continent. Both tarot and chess share a fascination with the structures of worldly power. While the tarot transcends that to go beyond temporal power, chess hints at it too, as we’ll see later.

Personally, chess gave me one of my earliest insights into the tarot, and that’s a realignment of the High Priestess. Most if not all of the tarot literature that I’ve read regarding tarot always compares and contrasts the Magician and the High Priestess. It’s an understandable comparison, and a valid one, but not the only one. The female High Priestess forms the primary triumverate with the male Magician and the asexual or hermaphroditic Fool. Numerically they symbolize the fundamental process of creation: existence, creation, reflection.

Squares are less sexy…unless you’re a chess player in which case they’re the foundation of the world; a whole little universe packed into the nearly infinite possibilities of 64 squares. The High Priestess doesn’t just belong to the triangle club, she also belongs to the square club, a grouping that I didn’t see until I starte comparing the Major Arcana to the chess board. The correlations that jumped out at me immediately were the Empress and the Emperor who clearly represent the king and queen. After that I saw that the High Priestess and Hierophant are both religious figures, as are the bishops on the chess board. Thus you can see the four temporal rulers in the tarot as a the fundamental unit of the back row of a chess game.

Contented with that insight I never took the idea further, expanding the chess metaphor into the first 16 cards of the Major Arcana. This morning I did, and we’ll explore that more in Part II. For now, do you buy my chess/tarot comparison? What are some surprising tarot correlations you’ve developed in your own practice?

The Chibi Tarot Major Arcana is coming to a close, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve finished the Chariot and started work on the World Card. The last two remaining cards, the Star and the Sun, should be very straightforward, as I’ve already completed the major pieces for each of those cards. I’ve been doing more in-depth sketches of the characters from the World card, which I’ve shared with you below. The Angel is not included simply because I used a harder lead on his sketch that did not scan well. I’m very happy with the way these sketches came out. I view them as the evolved forms of the elements we saw in The Wheel of Fortune. As Wikipedia tells us, these four symbols originally intimated the four evangelists, but work just as well for the four fixed signs of astrology, and thereby the four elements.

The World Card - Guardian Spirit - Bull The World Card - Guardian Spirit - Eagle The World Card - Guardian Spirit - Lion

A few months ago my 4-year-old son took to the page and drew three of the tarot’s major arcana: the Sun, the Emperor and the Hanged Man. The results are below. Here’s what he had to say about the cards:
Those are beautiful cards. Them mean the truth and prosperity.
(You can see the originals here: The Hanged Man and the Emperor).
The Hanged Man as drawn by my son

The Hanged Man as drawn by my son

Tarot Major Arcana - The Sun as drawn by my son

The Sun as drawn by my son

Tarot Major Arcana - The Sun as drawn by my son

The Emperor as drawn by my son

13.01.09-Tarocchi-players-borromeo

Artist unknown. (Scanned from Michael Dummett’s The Game of Tarot.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s just get this out of the way: You shouldn’t need a book to read the tarot. All the information that we need to read the tarot is already inside of us. All the stories, lessons and wisdom we’ll ever need are already at our fingertips. The key to learning to read the tarot is not mastering the arcane and mystical symbols that are so often embedded in the strange illustrations that populate the cards, but in learning to trust ourselves and our own understanding of what we see there and what that evokes in us. But that’s not what most people are going to tell you about the tarot, and it’s not what most decks want you to believe.

The tarot has a reputation as a difficult and complicated symbol system, a well earned reputation for confusing characters and secret symbols. In reality it is a simple system about asking questions and telling stories about the answers we receive. But since the 19th century the deck has been subverted to serve the ends of a particular group of people. Granted, that group of people, the Victorian occultists, brought a level of sophistication to an otherwise simple deck of cards and for that I’m grateful. But the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of secrecy and mysticism, culminating perhaps in the Thoth Tarot, so laden with symbols and mystical apocrypha that its images, though intensely powerful, are all but indecipherable to anyone but the hardiest of students (despite the best attempts of Lon Milo DuQuette), and Crowley’s book of the same name is an exercise in self-aggrandizing incomprehensibility.

The tarot is a product of medieval pop culture, featuring the stars of the day. Kings, queens, popes, and mythic heroes and heroines that were immediately recognizable to everyone who played the game. It was not an arcane system of cryptic symbols but a series of illustrations that immediately spoke to the players on a number of levels. Nor was the tarot a finalized set of glyphs that everyone agreed upon, but a fluctuating series of illustrations that captured different ways of playing the game as well as different versions and stories behind the cards themselves.

The illustrations in the major arcana were designed to be transparent, not opaque, to communicate clearly and efficiently their values and meanings. That polarity has been completely reversed in the 700 years since the tarot’s inception, both because of the unnecessary layer mystical mumbo jumbo that it’s acquired along the way, and because of the way that the glyphs have petrified, becoming ancient symbols of a bygone era requiring a level of translation that makes immediate reactions nearly impossible. The tarot’s developed into a highly arcane art, to be attempted only by the most learned of sages, who have spent years working with the cards to unravel their most ancient and sacred mysteries, and I think that’s a bunch of baloney.

The cards should be immediately recognizable. Whether you subscribe the theory of Jungian archetypes or not, the cards should be accessible and readable to almost anyone in the culture creating the deck, and that’s not the case today. Needing a book in order to sort through the various symbols and signs reneges on the promise of art: that we can immediately enjoy it and take something away from it. Traditional decks have become so laden with a stiff layers of alchemical significance that reading the cards is no longer a joy; the juice has been sucked out by the Serious Work that the artists and writers have embedded into their images. There is a need for fun and the Chibi Tarot is a direct response to that need for fun and joy that the tarot, it seems, has lacked for so long.

I don’t want the tarot to become a kind of esperanto, a broken language so simple that no one would ever want to use it, but I don’t want it to be Klingon either: Incomprehensible and threatening. The tarot should be approachable and infused with the spirit of the culture, a reflection of the people reading the cards. If the deck is an antique whose desiccated symbols require a history lesson to understand and absorb them then the power of the tool has waned. I’m not saying that mystical study isn’t valuable for the initiate who is looking to unlock those secrets and deepen their metaphysical understanding, but to insist on creating purposely opaque veil to obscure the mighty secrets of the tarot from the people in order to protect them from the harm they may do themselves, to play the wizard of Oz and shout in a mighty voice that “We Know Best!” is silly. The tarot is for everyone, it should be approachable and immediately accessible to almost anyone who picks up a deck, the way it was when it began.

I’m certainly not the first to say this. I think Mary Greer has been working tirelessly to encourage and support readers wherever they’re at, to give them the tools to recognize that they already have the information they need, they just need to look long at the cards and trust what they see there, whatever it is. Enrique Enriquez is basically saying the same thing. His naive approach to the cards, to simply lay them down and tell the story he sees there implies that no learning is necessary. Throughout ‘Tarology’ the documentary that follows Enriquez throught New York city as he expounds on the simplicty of the tarot, he consistently implies that we in the tarot world are all making much ado about nothing, that the cards have a simple message for those of us who want to take the time to hear it, and reading a bunch of books on the esoteric history of the tarot might teach you a lot of things, but it won’t help you read the cards better. Only reading the cards will do that.

The truth is that all of us are storytellers; it is our birthright as human beings. Our life is the narrative that we are always weaving together, for good and for ill, for truth and for illusion. Beyond the tale of our own life, we create stories without even thinking, offhandedly deciding things about people we don’t even know based only on the way they look, act and move through the world. Our desire for narrative, for backstory and conclusion is both what makes us great as a people and what can make us petty as people. Harnessing the power of story in conjunction with a series of images loosely tied to mythological archetypes can be a powerful tool for insight into the nature of ourselves and the world around us, one that more people could use in their day to day existence, and one that has been largely obstructed due to the incidental secrecy that wedded itself to the tarot 150 or so years ago.

The tarot is a flexible and multifaceted oracle that was originally built on a premise of instantaneous understanding of symbols involved, and it no longer seems to speak to that. Returning to a simplicity of image and symbol, and bringing the tarot out of the shadows in which it has been comfortable encased is why the Chibi Tarot is here; to return the tarot to the people, the way it started, the way it was meant to be.

Vieville1650-TheStarI struggle a lot with the use of the tarot. I am not naturally a tarot reader, at least, if I am I haven’t discovered the way that works best for me. I struggle with the phrasing of the question and the structure of the answer that the tarot provides. I struggle with structuring the cards into the shape of a narrative that’s meaningful to the querent, whether that’s me or someone else. The Celtic Cross, that sham of a structure that’s so often foisted on beginners, is clumsy and awkward, a poor way to read, and an even worse way to begin. And yet, I have not found something to take its place. Even the simplicity of 3 card readings escapes me. There is something missing for me still in regards to reading the tarot for others, and despite my limited knowledge of minors and court cards (which makes me uneasy, I’ll admit) there is something else to it.

This morning that I had an insight into the importance of the tarot for our lives, whether it’s something as simple as a card a day or something more complex like an in-depth reading (or creating your own tarot deck and companion book!). The tarot, like so many of the humanity’s storytelling tools, is a lens that allows us to refocus on and reenergize the mythic and heroic aspects of our lives. Reading, drawing or meditating on the tarot allows us access to the millennia-old stories that we have created and collected as cultures, and gives us access to the energy and wisdom that they contain through an instantly accessible visual medium. Reframing our struggle in a mythical/magical context can shift our perspective immeasurably and provide us with answers that we never realized were applicable.

It is so easy to be overcome by the mundane aspects of day to day living that we forget the spiritual, heroic parts of ourselves. The tarot allows us to tell our own story, populating it with legendary characters from all of mythology, and can allow us access, if we allow it to, the powerful magical matrix that surrounds us everyday. It helps remind us that we are heirs to a long and powerful mythic history, full of beauty, tragedy and power that can inspire and guide us as we walk through our seemingly mundane lives, can remind us of the power that we have to shape and influence the lives we lead and the way that we lead them.

That reminder is deeply valuable, and we can find it in many places. The resurgence of fantasy in pop culture, from Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings to the Twilight Saga is, to my mind, a culture struggling to regain its connection the powerful magical traditions that have for so long informed it, but lived outside the walls of acceptable Christian myth. The tarot is a piece of this resurgence and is uniquely placed, because it doesn’t tell a single story, it tells every story. And for those that embrace the tarot’s power and heed its lessons can always return to it for all the wisdom and reassurance that our shared mythic history can provide.

Little_Red_Riding_Hood_-_J._W._Smith

By Jessie Willcox Smith (1863 – 1935) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As I wrote about in my last post, I’ve been immersing myself in Joseph Campbell’s seminal text, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Being plunged so purely into the essence of mythology is revivifying. Being bathed in the the totems and talismans of cultures from across the world and watching as they’re woven into a living trellis pulsating with the power of humanity in all its various forms, macabre to magnificent. It is inspiring and invigorating to feel, again, so close to the source of things, so close to the careful understanding of the symbols and rites of human culture, the tools we have developed to usher ourselves more safely, more sanely along this long strange road we walk together.

For me, the link between tarot and mythology has been tenuous at best. I know this is a strange thing to say. The mythology of the tarot is just beneath the surface of cards like the Lovers, the Tower and the Last Judgement, but tarot as I’ve learned it exists in a tenuous place outside of traditional myth, in a kind of bubble of its own mythology, immersed in a cheap mystique of strip mall psychics, gothy high school art chicks. Add to that its historical association with characters like Aleister Crowley (“the wickedest man in the world” ) and its own dubious history and syncretic melding of an Italian card game with an obscure Jewish mystical sect at the hands of some loopy British spiritualists and it’s certainly difficult to speak on the tarot and be taken seriously.

It is a piece of neither the academic study of mythology and folklore nor an essential piece of any practice of craft traditions. This, combined with our cultural ambivalence towards its use as an oracle (along with our revulsion at the inclusion of such unsavory characters as the devil and the high priestess) has shunted the tarot into a strange place, being neither one thing nor another: It is a step-sister of the occult, too often thoughtlessly tossed in with its cousin the Ouija board as a parlour game not serious enough to be believed, nor artistically stringent enough to be enjoyed aesthetically. Certainly things are changing. There are more tarot decks and practitioners now than ever before, and pop tarot decks like the Super Punch Tarot, the Light Grey Tarot and dare I say the Chibi Tarot show a renewed artistic interest in the power of the tarot’s symbols and the way in which they can converse with pop culture.

But given where the the tarot’s come from, it’s clear why it exists on the fringes of serious mythological study, why Campbell and Jung  mention the cards only briefly, as asides, if at all, despite the fact that the cards fit almost perfectly into their systems and reflect clearly the symbols that they deal with in such depth in the rest of their work.

So, because of the lack of existing ties between the tarot and popular mythology, it occurred to me to start creating my own. It was inevitable, I think, writing and drawing my own tarot deck and reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces simultaneously. So I did, but not in an academic way, which would tire me out quickly, but in the form of a simple game that can be played two ways, which I did with my wife on our walk around Capitol Lake yesterday.

The first way to play is to take any number of cards and put them together, then intuit what myth they represent. I’m currently only playing with major arcana, both because my knowledge of the minors and court cards is so limited and because majors represent larger, more common themes (though playing with someone like my wife who’s much more familiar with the minors and court is a great way to learn them). My first attempt that this by myself was the Tower and Judgement, which immediately spoke to me of Joshua and the battle of Jericho.

Playing with my wife on our walk we did the Empress and the Devil (Beauty and the Beast), the Chariot and the Moon (Peter Pan), and the Hermit and the World (every Christian monk story ever). The second way to play is to reverse engineer the first way: start with the story, then divine the cards. For Goldilocks and the 3 Bears I chose the five of coins. Little Red Riding Hood was the Empress, Strength/Devil and the Emperor.

It’s an interesting and stimulating way to combine the tarot and mythology in a way that’s accessible and immediate, and doesn’t require anything beyond our own store of stories and our knowledge of the tarot.

So what combinations come up for you? What stories to you always see tarot cards in?

e cigarette batteries . paper writing help