More widely known as the Midwinter Solstice, today is the shortest day of the year (that is, the day with the least amount of sunlight and the longest night time*). Tomorrow, the days will start getting longer again, slowly but surely. Before we know it, springtime will be here again.
But it’s not here yet. Oh no. In fact, today we find ourselves in the deepest depths of winter. It is a dark time, quite literally. Sure, we are assured that warmth and light is on its way, but we still have to bear a couple more months of dismal winter skies. The midwinter solstice festival therefore symbolizes peace and comfort in times of darkness, as well as hope for the light to come. Peace, comfort, and hope are certainly needed by many during this time.
On the Wheel of the Year, as presented by the Wildwood Tarot, we find ourselves halfway through the time of Stones. The Wanderer continues to guide us. And on this day, it is none other than the Hooded Man, the Hermit, who greets us. He holds his lantern and his staff, lighting the way and offering support. He invites us to stay a while in his abode, to rest and warm our bones for a spell before venturing back out into the cold. He tells us that now is a time for reflection and recuperation. It is time for rest. We can do nothing else until the sun rises again.
In a grander sense, the Great Bear has a similar lesson for us. This large beast crouches atop a burial mound, guarding it. We are facing North, the quadrant associated with winter, as is evident by the constellation Ursa Major and the aurora borealis shining bright in the sky.
The Great Bear is the 20th card of the Major Arcana, which means in more traditional decks this card would be called Judgement. Certainly the open entrance to the tomb here is reminiscent of the open graves on the Judgement card. Past this, though, it’s difficult to see how these cards are connected.
At this time, the time of rest, we can do nothing. The year is over; our seeds have been sown; our harvest has been reaped. Perhaps this is not what many think of when they hear the word “judgement”, but that is indeed what’s going on here. It is time to own up to who you are, to face the terrible polar bear with an honest heart, for good or for ill. It is time to learn from the year behind, and prepare for the year ahead. There is no turning back.
The Hooded Man offers comfort and rest, but the Great Bear reminds us that we can’t sleep forever. It’ll soon be time to wake up from winter’s reprieve.
*Assuming, of course, that you and I share a hemisphere.
My Tarot library includes three books about Mr. Crowley’s Thoth Tarot (CHT). One of these is Crowley’s own Book of Thoth. The second, Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, the subject of this recent review, is a phenomenal study of the cards and their occult workings, and makes a wonderful companion to the intimidating Book of Thoth. It aids significantly in the understanding of both the cards and the book as their creator intended them to be understood. The third is called Tarot: Mirror of the Soul, by Gerd Ziegler, and it is a different sort of book than both the BoT and the considerably more approachable UACTT.
I suspect Mr. Crowley would be very displeased with this book; I, however, really like it, and I’ve found it to be a welcome alternative to the theory-laden books above.
The way I see it, there are probably two sorts of folks who would benefit from this book. The first are the people who would like to work with the CHT, but who are neither interested in the complex occult mambo-jumbo underlying it or the devious man who created it. This book shows that the CHT can work as well as any other Tarot for divination, meditation, or otherwise. Tarot is Tarot is Tarot, and its tough to deny the power of the artwork of this particular one. I can totally understand wanting to use this deck without getting bogged down in the esoteric jargon. At the end of the day, none of that stuff really matters.
The second is the category into which I fall: the occult is fascinating, Crowley’s brand of it is intriguing, and the cards really do mean so much more when you get that stuff, regardless of what I say above. But this is dense subject matter, and sometimes, I just want a break. Sometimes, I’m in the mood to use the CHT, but not in the mood to decipher the Secrets Of The Universe According To Aleister.
This book is perfect for those days.
The main focus of this book is the use of Tarot for introspective guidance (hence the subtitle, Mirror of the Soul). As a general approach to the cards and why they work, this is one of my favorites. It is vaguely mystical in its explanations, but it didn’t strike me as bullshit (a fine line, for sure). There is no history, and no attempt to explain anything about Mr. Crowley or his theories. Just the cards and your self.
The bulk of the book is, not surprisingly, an examination of each card and its symbolism. After a description of the card, there are questions, suggestions, and affirmations, all of which (I think) are helpful when using the cards. The author may or may not know about Crowley’s intentions for these cards – in any case, there are details in some of the cards which he interprets differently than Crowley meant them to be interpreted. Nothing extreme or blasphemous, and the core meanings of each card remain as they should be. It is something I noticed, though, and I figured it warrants mentioning. This book is certainly not intended for a Thoth purist. Another thing I noticed was that every card is given a positive spin, which is not always the case in Crowley’s and DuQuette’s writings. Some cards are nothing but gloom and doom to Crowley, which is incredibly unhelpful for a person in times of spiritual or emotional crisis. The bleak cards are still bleak to Ziegler, but at least he made the effort to line those clouds with silver.
This book also contains a section of Tarot spreads, some of which I use fairly often. There are several layouts in this section, of various designs and degrees of complexity (although there are no crazy-complex spreads here). I don’t know if they are of the author’s invention or if he got them from elsewhere, but I really like most of them either way. Good stuff.
I’ve been sitting on this one for a while, playing with it in secret. It is the most recent addition to my Tarot collection, and I’ve been savoring getting to know it. It’s name, the Mystical Tarot (MT), is certainly a bit generic, and yet I think it’s an apt enough title for this deck of cards.
These cards are basically an artistically-enhanced RWS Tarot.
I like PC Smith’s artwork, which graces the original RWS. I don’t know. It’s nothing fancy, but it works. Tarot wouldn’t be what it is today without this classic rendition to set the tone. The Mystical Tarot, in its turn, pays homage to this landmark. When I look at Smith’s cards, I am looking at drawings of an idealized medieval-Renaissance-esque world. They could serve as illustrations for a quintessential fantasy story, with hints of magic and the divine seeping through.
When I look at the Mystical Tarot, I feel like I’m actually looking into the world that Smith was trying to capture with her cards. Well, I don’t know what was in her mind’s eye when she produced her iconic drawings. But I like to imagine.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, the Mystical Tarot strikes me as an especially imaginative RWS Tarot. It’s detailed and embellished in a way that goes beyond the original, and it transcends time and place. Sure, it evokes a romanticized past, as does its predecessor, but simultaneously, it exudes an aura of futurism. It’s a stark contrast that is expertly blended, and the result is a surreal, otherworldly vibe. It’s familiar and totally new all at once. I like it.
These cards are strange, sometimes, but I found that the quirks grew on me as I continued to use them. All in all, I really enjoy this Tarot. It works as a utilitarian Tarot, easy to read with its RWS symbolism and structure, but it’s also incredibly beautiful as an art piece. Each card is a world unto itself. It’s a good one for the collection.
The Tarot is pretty cool. Not only is it a great tool for metaphysical tinkerings and all that, but every deck is a work of art. I have always loved art, and I think that, even if the Tarot was good for nothing else, it is worth appreciating for art’s sake.
This post is almost not fair, because in fact I like the artwork in all of my decks, and in so many more that I don’t even have – and, whether I like a particular deck or not, I have nothing but respect and awe for the artist who can accomplish such a feat. I can’t help but look with fondness upon any Tarot I stumble across, no matter how lowly its place on my subjective personal hierarchy.
But while every deck is an incredible work of art, there are certain decks that, to me, are simply exceptional. I’ve selected six of my favorites for this post.
So, without further ado (and in no particular order):
The Wildwood Tarot (art by Will Worthington). The detail in these images is amazing. They depict creatures and characters in a great, sprawling, mythical forest set in prehistoric Europe. The forest itself feels alive and sentient, and the primitive humans living on its fringes seem to live in harmony with nature, with a healthy respect/fear of it. The art is not photo-realistic by any stretch, and yet it is totally convincing. This Tarot is different from any others – it is completely original.* I don’t really mind when a Tarot breaks from tradition, but if it’s going to, and I’m going to get it, it needs to be very good, and a big part of that for me is the artwork. These cards fit the bill (and then some), and when I use them, I walk through the forest in my imagination, and that’s thanks in no small part to the artist.
The Shadowscapes Tarot (art by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law). If the Wildwood glimpses into an ancient Fanghorn-type forest, the Shadowscapes crosses the divide and depicts the Otherworld, the Realm of Faerie itself. These cards are straight up fantasy, and the artwork is unbelievable. I only wish the cards were larger so I could better lose myself in them for a while. When I first wrote about these cards, I had little to say except that the artwork is stunning, and in the time since, I still can’t seem to come up with words to match it.
The Mary-El Tarot (art by Marie White). I could take just about any one of the cards from this deck and blow it up, frame it, and hang it on the wall, and it would seem perfectly natural as an art piece, and the normies out there would be none the wiser about its esoteric source. Furthermore, I could put up several, and I doubt anyone would realize at first look that they not only came from a pack of cards, but that all came from the same artist (assuming her signature on each piece was overlooked). The artist, quite simply, displays a mastery of her craft – that is, painting (oils? I’m not sure what exactly she used, or even if she used the same paints for every card, but it’s all hand-painted nonetheless) – showing proficiency in a very broad range of styles. The art is mythic and highly symbolic, with subtle references to Tarot tradition beautifully rendered in stunning colors.
The Mystical Tarot (art by Giuliano Costa). I haven’t yet posted anything else about this deck (although I did sneak in a photograph of the Six of Swords in my post about the suit of Swords). A review is forthcoming, so I’ll save the bulk of my gushing for that, but suffice it to say that the artwork is, well – it’s a lot of things. Beautiful, for sure, but also surreal, even trippy (yet subtly so), and sometimes just plain weird. The crazy thing is, when something weird catches my eye, I can’t help but focus on it, and at first, I’m a little put off (such weirdness includes the creepy seahorse-creature-things that pervade the suit of Cups – I’m not sure how I feel about them). Yet, the longer I gaze at the card, the less weird it becomes. I can’t really explain it. I get the sense that, while strange to me, such things are perfectly natural in the world depicted, and I find myself sucked right in. I can’t help but like it, although it certainly wouldn’t have the same entrancing effect on me if the art was poorly executed.
Now, I never get a Tarot unless the art agrees with my sense of aesthetics. However, the Mystical Tarot is one of only two decks that I bought solely because I just loved the artwork, the second deck being…
The Sun and Moon Tarot (art by Vanessa Decort). Compared to everything else in this post, the Sun and Moon Tarot might appear very simplistic – I’ve even heard it called childish in some reviews and forums. If you think this, I have two things to say: 1) look again, because there is way more to these cards than meets the eye, and 2) since when is simple so wrong? Sometimes less is more, and even though this Tarot lacks the immaculate detailing of all the others on this list, it is easily one of my favorites in the art category. These images are like dreams. All of the things I’ve read complaints about – the small figures against large landscapes, the faceless characters – are things that I am inexplicably drawn to. Of course, we each have our own tastes, which is great, but I certainly wouldn’t write this one off as a childish or low-brow deck. It is playful, for sure, but that’s deceptive, because underneath is a Tarot with serious implications. But that’s all beside the point of this post, isn’t it, so I’ll just leave it at this: the artwork in these cards is sublime.
The Thoth Tarot (art by Lady Frieda Harris). And so we come to the Thoth. I can’t not include it. I always enjoyed the art of the RWS, and was fascinated by that of the TdM, but the Thoth was the first Tarot with artwork that truly blew me away. You’ll notice that neither the Rider or the Marseilles is on this list. I’ve found a few RWS and TdM derivatives with artwork that transcends the originals. No re-imagining beats the Thoth in this regard. It was unprecedented when it was first published, and it set the bar pretty high for everything that followed. The crazy thing is that these “crowded” pictures are not composed of filler – every line, shape, and color is intentional, with very specific purpose, following a very intricate structure – and the fact that these cards are genuine works of art and not just a muddled hodgepodge of esoteric symbolism is nothing short of amazing.
So those are my favorite examples of Tarot art. The runners up were the Medieval Scapini Tarot and the Aquarian Tarot. The MST was very close, but I had to cut this post off somewhere, or I’d end up just doing all of my cards. The AT, on the other hand, actually contains some of my favorite artwork. Unfortunately, some of my least favorite is in there, too, and I wanted to emphasize both the art of the individual cards and of the deck as a whole, and in my opinion, the AT does not fit the latter criteria; at least, not well enough to make the top tier.
What are your favorites? Feel free to share.
*It’s actually a reboot of the Greenwood Tarot, now out of print and highly sought after by serious collectors. I personally think the Wildwood artwork is the more compelling of the two by a long shot (no disrespect to the Greenwood’s artist).
Here’s a little anecdote about synchronicity, if you’re interested.
Above is a photo of the Sentinel reading I performed on my birthday last week. Notice the Death candle between my rune-bowl and the tree-lantern. I’ve taken to calling it “Candle XIII.”
Candle XIII was a gift from a close friend of mine, received towards the end of the summer. I did not light it; Death is associated with Scorpio, my sign, and I resolved to burn it for the first time on Halloween, my birthday, as I laid down a personal year-end spread. I liked it as a symbol of clearing the old to make way for the new, and as a memento mori on my celebration day – a reminder of the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Not to mention, it has a certain aesthetic as a Halloween decoration.
When the time came, and the sun had set, and I had a proper birthday-buzz going, I prepared my reading table, selected my significator (the Prince of Cups, again based on zodiacal attribution), and shuffled my cards. I lit the tree-lantern,* Candle XIII, and a third stumpy little candle stub, and turned off all other lights, opting to read only by the eerie glow. I counted out twenty cards and set the rest of the pack to the side. I turned over and placed the cards according to the design of the spread, down to the last one, which was to be the conclusion.
As I was about to turn that card, I was seized by an inexplicable hesitation – something told me this card wasn’t right. I gazed into the flame of Candle XIII, scrying for a pointer.
I don’t normally scry, although I have done it a few times before (usually to natural phenomena rather than a crystal ball or something like that). Scrying is a different class of divination than cartomancy or sortilege, and I tend towards the latter. The same instinct that told me not to turn the card led my eyes to the Death candle’s flame, and I couldn’t have planned or explained it. The air was very still in my darkened room, and the flame was tall and motionless. As I watched, the tip of the flame appeared to fork, like a snake’s tongue, without inducing so much as the slightest flutter. In a motion, I cut the deck and removed a new card for my conclusion.
I guess that’s just the Universe’s way of saying,
*The tree-lantern is my usual card-reading lamp, which I always burn during my ritual weekly readings to help set the mood. I consider it a symbol of my patron, the Hermit, and the tree represents the World Tree at the heart of the cosmos.
A little while ago, I shared my revised version of the Sentinel’s Spread. What I’d wanted to do with that post was to begin a series, in which I’d examine the constituent parts of the spread through a sample reading. I ran out of steam after a few installments, for a couple reasons. For one, life simply got in the way, and for a time I just didn’t write very often, and so I lost the drive to finish what I’d started.
I realized that my purely hypothetical sample had no relevance, and the further I progressed with it, the farther I had to stretch to reach any sort of meaning or coherence, and I gave up on it, feeling as though I was only succeeding in beating a horse that was already dead.
But when I lay down the Sentinel’s Spread, I always walk away with such profound insights from the cards; and even if I can’t adequately express these sorts of things with sample readings, I don’t want to leave an incomplete, forced and lifeless example as the last word on my blog.
I think the Sentinel’s Spread works because of its combination of shapes, allowing for multiple significant patterns to emerge from the reading.
While the final layout is meant to be read as a unit, there are five distinct components, each of which is made of a significant number and shape itself. If the process of laying the cards is reduced to an equation, it would be this:
with 21 being the total number of cards in the layout. In terms of shapes, it begins with a single point, followed by the line, then the cross or square, then the circle or dodecagon, and brought to completion with a return to the point. The five parts are summarized as follows:
1. The Sentinel (significator): The first card is selected to represent the reader at the time of the reading (or querent, if reading for someone else). I normally select the sentinel and set it aside prior to shuffling and laying out the rest of the cards.
2. The Watchtower (cards 2 – 4): The next three cards are positioned from bottom to top to create a vertical line, meant to evoke a tower. I think of them as three parts of a watchtower: the foundation, in which everything else is grounded; the body of the tower, built upon the foundation and which comprises most of the tower’s actual height; and the top, upon which the Sentinel is posted, which provides the point of perspective. These are metaphors for various inward aspects of the reader at the time of the reading (think body, mind, spirit or subconscious, conscious, super-conscious). The significator is then placed on top, putting the reader in the frame of mind to continue.
3. The Cardinal Directions (cards 5 – 8): These four cards are placed around the watchtower after the pattern of the compass, beginning with the East and the rising sun and concluding with the North. They are also associated with the four elements and the suits of the Tarot: East is Fire and Wands (passion or drive); South is Air and Swords (intellect); West is Water and Cups (emotion); and North is Earth and Coins (the material realm). The elements are arranged so that Air is opposite Earth, and Fire is opposite Water, and they descend from energy (Fire) into solid matter (Earth) when read clockwise. I view these cards as immediately relevant to the reader, connecting the inward-being of the watchtower with the external world of the following cards. For this reason, I often consider these cards to be akin to walls or gates of a fortification built around the watchtower, or roads leading out from the center.
4. The Horizons (cards 9- 20): The twelve cards of the horizons encircle the eight cards already laid down, equaling the watchtower (3 cards) multiplied by the compass points (4 cards). Once placed, they can be read in any number of ways. This is the point when I start to really see patterns, both among the horizon cards themselves, or in relation to any of the cards already out. The significator represents the center, the point of origin or perspective – the “You Are Here” on the map, and the rest of the reading is the map, if you will, sprawling outward from the center, with the horizon cards showing the farthest reaches visible from the watchtower.
There is no singular way to read all of these cards, and I often find multiple layers of meaning as I approach the spread from different angles. Usually, though, I do like to look at each horizon card in relation to the cards on either side of it. The 12 cards divide nicely into four groups of three cards each, with each of the four cards from the previous section allotted a group. I look at each trio as a beginning-middle-end or past-present-future (or any other of the numerous three-card patterns out there) related to its respective element card, and this helps me process the cards in digestible segments while I wait for any larger patterns to coalesce in my mind.
5. “Sound the Alarm!” (conclusion): One final card is pulled to tie the entire reading together. I usually spend a few minutes with the spread before I pull this card, allowing for a dramatic moment of complete surprise at the end as a counterpoint to the moment of complete control that comes with the conscious selection of the sentinel at the start; but I always pull it before I put the cards away and extinguish any “reading time” candles. I call it the bell or horn or alarm, there for the sentinel to sound if anything urgent is revealed during his watch. It serves as a sort of fail-safe, a general conclusion, or something to ponder, an important detail not to be overlooked, or a final piece of closing advice.
So that’s it. I think I did a pretty good job of summing up the essence of the spread this time, and I’ll probably leave it alone now, except for the occasional possible reading or anecdote in the future. I welcome the questions or input of anyone who decides to give it a try.
The title of this book by Paul Huson is kind of odd. It suggests to me some sort of BS pseudo-historical narrative along the lines of Court de Gebelin’s theory about how the Tarot was created by ancient Egyptian priests trying to preserve the secrets of the Universe. This is odd, because the book itself is a work of legitimate historical research – there is nothing “mystical” about the origins of the Tarot, and Huson never tries to make it seem so beyond the title page. I suspect it’s tongue-in-cheek, like his earlier work on the Tarot called The Devil’s Picturebook (I have not read that one, but am assured there is nothing but wry humor behind its provocative title).
The subtitle, “From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage,” is perhaps a better indication of the content. Ancient to modern is quite a chunk of time to cover, but Mystical Origins does it, tracing the evolution of the Tarot as we know it today from its mysterious beginnings (which, while long ago, are not exactly ancient, at least not as ancient as the Egyptian priests).
Books like this one are necessary precisely because the origin of the Tarot is so mysterious. In the 1800s theories like de Gebelin’s could catch on, not only because they seemed to make enough sense on the surface and because occultists wanted to believe them, but because we really didn’t know any better until fairly recently. Many Tarot books perpetuate false or only partially true “histories”. These books are perfectly fine in other respects, but they simply are not good resources for historically-verifiable information.
Now, this is the Tarot we’re talking about here, not recently declassified government documents or freshly-discovered tablets of Linear A or anything like that. Whether they’re used for gambling or fortune-telling, cards are not exactly the sort of thing generally taken seriously by academic types, historians or otherwise.* As such, books about the Tarot are not usually concerned with meeting academic criteria. Shoddy history is to be expected, and anyway, why does it even matter?
Well, it does and it doesn’t matter. The Tarot does not require a history lesson to be used or enjoyed. Furthermore, the aura of mystery surrounding the Tarot is a major attraction for many folks, myself included, and mystical histories only add to that aura. I’ve said it before, these legends add to the flavor of the cards, illustrating their hold on the imagination. The mythic connections are very real, despite not being based in empirical fact.
However, I believe that myth and history are not mutually exclusive, and just as myth enriches our metaphysical experiences with the cards, history enriches the experience on a much more practical level. Context is key in understanding any spread, and history is just a lesson in context on a grand scale. Through historical research, we can better understand the cards themselves, what they were, where they came from, who made them, and how they became what they are now. This information may not be immediately applicable when using the cards, but it strikes me as foolish to invest in the Tarot as I have without understanding what it really is. It pleases me that Huson’s book, and others like it, are available as a counterbalance to all the “woo” out there.
But I digress. Mystical Origins isn’t the only book backed by historical research, and it may not be the best out there, but of what I’ve read, it provides the most thorough history, and on the whole I think his interpretations of it stand on sound reasoning. He asserts that the historical mystery of the Tarot can be boiled down to three questions:
1. What is the source of the suit symbols?
2. What is the source of the trumps?
3. When and why did people begin to use the Tarot for divination?
The first chapters attempt to answer these questions. The suits are thought to have been derived from the Persian Mamluk cards after they were introduced to Europeans in the 14th century. At the time, these were primarily used for trick-taking games. The playing cards became the Tarot in the following century, when the trump cards were added to the pack. The imagery of the trumps is medieval in origin, drawing from many sources, most notably from religious dramas of the time. The earliest ones were hand-painted for nobles, but they remained devices for gaming. It wasn’t until a long time afterward, in the 18th century, that the Tarot was established as a tool for divination and the occult by Etteilla and his contemporaries. By this time, the Persian and medieval European sources of the cards had been forgotten, and so it was hypothesized that they originated in Egypt.
Mystical Origins is often touted as a Tarot history book, and it certainly is. The first few chapters make up the historical overview beginning with the Mamluk and concluding with the occult developments of the late 1800s – early 1900s. This isn’t the whole book, though; in fact, it’s barely a third of it. The remainder of the book focuses on the actual cards of both the Major and Minor Arcana and on reading techniques, all of which builds upon the previous material.
Each card is briefly discussed in terms of its historical symbolism, followed by its divinatory interpretations by Tarot masters throughout the ages, with a final suggested interpretation from the author. The chapter on reading is especially interesting. We get Huson’s personal advice on card reading, and although he expresses some opinions that I’m sure are disagreeable to some, I thought much of it was quite wise. Then he provides several spreads and methods, from very simple to very advanced, all taken from historical sources. The entire book is illustrated with line drawings by the author, and in them one can recognize the roots of much of Huson’s own Tarot, Dame Fortune’s Wheel, which was published a few years after Mystical Origins.
In conclusion, this book is not only a fascinating history of the Tarot, but it is a thorough and excellent handbook for cartomancy with the Tarot, and a good divinatory reference for historical and occult packs, from the Visconti to the RWS and virtually everything in between.
*Occult Tarot may be a different story, but the first rule of Occult Club is don’t talk about Occult Club.