Monday, June 30, 2008

my tarot collection

Those of you that know me well understand that I am a strict materialist with little patience for new age mysticism. Nevertheless, I can appreciate the intricate and often sensuous trappings of religious and spiritual belief, and feel that it is foolish to ignore human faith in the otherworldy. As a child, I was particularly drawn to fortune-telling. At first, I suspect this had to do with my burgeoning interest in astronomy - as I memorized more of the constellations, I began to wonder why so many adults infused them with deeper meaning. My mother is a Sagittarius, for example. For many years, I assumed that this meant that on the day she was born, the constellation Sagittarius was prominent in the sky (of the northern hemisphere?). But consider this from Wikipedia:

"The majority of Western astrologers base their work on the tropical zodiac which divides the sky into twelve equal segments of 30 degrees each, beginning with the first point of Aries, the point where the line of the earth's celestial equator and the ecliptic (the Sun's path through the sky) meet at the northern hemisphere spring equinox. Due to the precession of the equinoxes, the slow changing of the way Earth rotates in space, the zodiacal signs in this system bear no relation to the constellations of the same name but stay aligned to the months and seasons."

I can understand why ancient peoples imbued meaning into the movement of heavenly objects. The notion of a universe ticking away without a divine Watchmaker is modern and non-intuitive. Babylonians mapped the heavens and could predict the occurrence of eclipses. But they also believed those events were dictated by supernatural forces and the machinations of higher deities, and used that information to forecast the fortunes of country and king.

Modern astrology, however, falls solidly in the camp of "nonsense that I can make fun of." I mean, let's be clear about this. Astrology prescribes that the location of the earth, relative to the sun, on the day that you're born somehow impacts your genetic makeup, which in turn determines aspects of your personality. Perhaps if scientists discover someday that gravitational force can affect mutation rates (in non-random ways), then I'll buy into this system. Good luck with that.

Then there's palmistry, which I have a little more patience for - probably because people seem to take it less seriously. I own, in fact, a particularly good book on the topic. And I can confirm that it is indeed, a decent way to make initial physical contact with a cute girl (don't tell Aili I said that... oh, wait). Plus, it is amusing to tell people that they're destined to live a short but passionate life and see them nod vigorously - as if anyone wanted to live a long, tedious existence.

But above all else, I love the tarot reading. When I was still in junior high, my mother bought me my first tarot deck and asked me to learn how to read her future. I was intrigued. My mother was not speaking tongue-in-cheek. The cards were interesting and each image was heavily imbued with symbolic meaning. As I practiced on my mother, my high school girlfriend, and later, some of my college roommates, I eventually saw tarot in a different light. It was not about future-prediction - it was fundamentally about story-telling. The cards are laid out in a specific temporal pattern, the images identify characters and major plot twists, and it's simply your role to link the revealed narrative to what you know about the person sitting in front of you. Place them at the heart of the adventure. Regardless of what you say, as long as the story is interesting and relevant - and it will be, since tarot symbolism is universal and archetypal - your querent will be satisfied.

Over the years, I've picked up a number of tarot decks for my small collection. I no longer do readings, I guess I just don't find the process interesting anymore - but I take great pleasure in looking at the artwork and interpreting the symbolism. Here are my four favorite tarot decks that I currently own:

Tarot of Marseille (Spanish version)

(The Fool, The Sun, Death)

My most traditional deck. The original Marseille tarot decks first appeared in the 17th century, and various artisans within France, Spain, Italy, and Germany began to print their own regional version. Each card was originally printed from a woodcut, and the cards were later colored either by hand or the use of stencils. There are 22 Major Arcana cards (attributed to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet), and 56 Minor Arcana (40 "pips" and 16 "courts") in the traditional suits of Swords, Coins, Cups, and Batons. The examples from my deck above show some interesting details. The Fool is the only major arcana left unnumbered (and note the dog nipping at him, representing the call of the "real world"). Death (#13) is unnamed. The Sun is a joyful card that you hope to see in any reading. I picked up this deck during my first visit to Spain.

The Thoth Tarot (Crowley & Harris)

(Lust, The Tower)

Every tarot collector has a copy of this one, and for good reason. Harris' artwork is unique and evocative. Closer inspection of The Tower, for example, reveals a cubist approach that is meant to evoke feelings of chaos and ruin. Crowley referred to this deck as The Book of Thoth, and also wrote a book of that title as an interpretive guide (which you can read, in its entirety, here - thank you google books!). Several of its Major Arcana deviated from the traditional Rider-Waite script:

Rider-Waite/Thoth equivalent

I: The Magician/The Magus
II: The High Priestess/The Priestess
VIII: Strength/Adjustment
XI: Justice/Lust
X: Wheel of Fortune/Fortune
XIV: Temperance/Art
XX: Judgement/The Æon
XXI: The World/The Universe

The substitution of Lust for Justice is particularly notable. I have never actually used this deck for reading, as the symbolism and imagery are a little too esoteric for my taste. If you want a feel for how the deck works, visit this site for a sample "reading" (although you'll have to do all the narrative processing).

Tarot of the 1001 Nights (Léon Carré)

(The Magician, The Devil, The Sun)

The newest addition to my collection, Aili bought this for me as a Christmas present. Leon Carre originally painted these exquisite miniatures for an edition of Sir Richard Burton's late nineteenth century translation of the 1001 Nights that was published in twelve volumes in the late 1920s. The artwork is correspondingly intricate and detailed (click on the image for a larger version) and each card is worth extensive examination. The Devil as Djinn is wonderful. Compare The Sun card here, showing a rising sun over a beautiful port town, with the Marseille one above.

The New Orleans Voodoo Tarot (Louis Martinez)

(click for larger image)

My favorite deck. Absolutely breath-taking art and symbolism. Composed of 22 Major Arcana (+ a wild card), 40 spirits (instead of pips), and 16 temples (instead of court cards), organized into four elemental suits of fire, water, air, and earth. This deck came with a detailed book that provides a symbolic explanation for each card; however, use of this deck for actual readings is rather unwieldy. Pictured here are the following cards:

Les Barons (The Barons): th
e wild card; the guedeh barons; voodoo spirits of death; suave, debonair, live happy and live well, for even the most rich and talented, or the most poor and resourceful people are not spared the ultimate universal experience of death

Hounsis: shows a woman providing a spirit entrance to the safe abode of a govi, an earthen vessel used to house “loa,” or spirits of the dead

Damballah Wedo: the Great Serpent, hanging from the branches of the Sacred Tree; the falling eggs represent the potential for action

Yemaya: as she gives birth, she fills the sea


  1. I feel the same way about religion, but I too am fascinated by the trappings in particular crucifixes. I only have a small collection though, if you see a good one, grab it for me, I'll pay you back.

  2. Hi,
    my name is Giordano Berti, writer and art historian.

    Maybe you can have some interest to the SOLA-BUSCA TAROT, a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance art, today kept in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan?

    I own a deck of Wolfang Mayer reprinted in Germany in 1998.
    This is the only EXISTING COMPLETE VERSION of ALL 78 cards and faithful to the original size and colors produced in Italy in 1491.

    Wolfgang Mayer produced just 700 COPIES numbered and SIGNED by hand by himself in a warranty card attached to the bouquet.

    You can find details on the web page

    Best regards
    Giordano Berti