The Complete Book of…

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted here, so I thought I’d publish a quick book review for the sake of keeping this site somewhat active.

First thing’s first: the title of this book is beyond stupid – Complete Book of Tarot Spreads. Not only is this a lie (I’m aware of many spreads that are not in this book), it’s the type of title that smacks of phony marketing ploys which would normally drive me away.* This is compounded by the subtitle “Includes 122 Layouts (!)”. I haven’t counted them, but if everything in this book is included in that number, then it’s a bit of a stretch, because there are several “spreads” that are really only one card, and several more that are better classified as “exercises” than proper spreads for divination. This title is meant to draw in suckers.

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I actually really like this book.

However, when I saw this in the bookstore, I flipped through it out of skeptical curiosity, and found that, in spite of the title, the content of the book seemed honest and practical enough to be genuinely useful to me. It helps to know (for me, at least) that this book was originally published in German with the title of Tarot Praxis, which translates to “Tarot Study” or “Tarot Practice.” It seems that it’s only in America that publishers feel the need to try and dupe people into buying things, as if we consumers weren’t intelligent enough to make a decision without a radical promise of some sort of exponential pay-off (I realize I may be overreacting slightly to this title, but I so resent the commercialism in this country – stop talking at me like I’m a fucking jackass!).

And it’s true, this book does offer more than just spreads – it offers practice, as well. It’s comprised of three sections, only one of which focuses on actual layouts.

The first section is called “Practicing Tarot”, and it consists of all kinds of handy and helpful advice for the modern Tarot reader, laid out in quick and easy chapters. There’s no history or exposition about the occult or the “woo” factor. The deck pictured on the cover is the RWS, but the book itself does not focus on any single version of the cards. It also tries to dispel many antiquated myths about Tarot reading, such as the idea that one cannot and should not read for him or herself. This book is cut-and-dry practical Tarot and nothing more. The language is somewhat terse, but it gets the job done, like a no-nonsense book should do (it is good, but by no means is it “complete”).

The second section is entirely about the layouts. There is little by way of explanation here; just pages upon pages of various spreads. This section is also divided into chapters, categorizing the spreads within to better facilitate easy look-up for any given situation. There are a few large and complex spreads here, but for the most part they are fairly simple, even to the point of being a bit generic at points. I’ve played with many of these spreads so far, and for the most part, I like them. As with the first section, they get the job done, and if they don’t for some reason, at least they provide basic templates for spread shapes and questions that can easily be tweaked by the individual. While not at all “complete” (yeah, I’m going to keep harping on that), this section is decently comprehensive, so that most of your everyday sorts of issues (and even some that go beyond the everyday) can be sorted out with its help, no problem.

The final section is called “Tarot & Astrology”, and is the shortest section by far. That’s pretty self-explanatory, I think, and most of this section is made up of various charts for astrological correspondences (the basic template used here is that of the Golden Dawn). It’s very convenient for quick reference, and this is the only section of the book that talks about anything that’s not strictly Tarot cards. Considering that, of all the systems applied over the years to the cards, astrology is probably by far the most common, this was a thoughtful addition to the book on the part of the authors.

I’ve been using this book a lot lately, and overall, I think it’s very good. It can probably be used with success by beginners and advanced Tarot readers alike.** In Germany, another use of the word “praxis” is to denote a rigorous practice test designed to help students pass the Abitur, which is essentially the equivalent of the SATs here in the US (albeit much more academically intense than our sad excuse for a college aptitude test – man, do I sound condescending. I guess I’m still fired up from my commercialism rant. It’s true, though, what I say about the SATs). With that in mind, this book is basically just a Tarot study guide, and as such, it is very well done.

But doggone-it, it is not complete.

* Anything that’s labelled “complete”, or “ultimate”, or worse yet, “the only (insert subject here) book you’ll need” always raises doubt in my mind. As a guitar player, I’ve seen many, many “ultimate” guides and “complete” books of tricks that promise virtuosity overnight. It’s total bullshit, and I’d never spend my money on it. Tarot cards are admittedly a bit different than musical instruments, and it seems that, although the literature available is overflowing with these sorts of titles, they do often have content in them worth reading. I just wish the publishers would dispense with these titles that are nothing more than empty promises. As good as some of these books really are, none of them could ever truly be “complete.”

**For the record, on the scale of Beginner – Intermediate – Advanced, I consider myself at the time of this writing to be somewhere in between Beginner and Intermediate as far as skill with card reading is concerned. So no, I can’t actually say with certainty that advanced readers would get something from this book, but I think it’s pretty good all the same.

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Tarot Journals.

Ask anybody in the online Tarot community, and they will undoubtedly extol the benefits of keeping a trusty Tarot Journal. In many cases, this is the very second thing to be recommended to the Tarot newbie, only after the Tarot deck itself.

If this isn’t your first rodeo, chances are you’ve already got a notebook (or several) set aside for your own Tarot musings, and if not, it’s probably because you just can’t seem to keep up the habit of a journal, and not because it just never occurred to you. Judging from the books and forum threads and blogs I’ve read, it’s a fairly widespread practice.

Is journaling really all it’s cracked up to be?

Well, I can’t deny that it helped me when I was learning what the cards mean. It makes sense. Writing helps to reinforce what you’ve learned, which is why we take notes during a class. It also gives you a hard copy of what you’ve learned, so you can go back over it later on and further reinforce your memory.

Writing in general is a helpful way to organize your thoughts, work them out, and put them into words, which is something many people actually struggle with more than they’d probably admit (or perhaps even realize). Again, you also have the added benefit of being able to go back over what you’ve written afterwards, allowing for editing and revision to make sure everything’s coherent. I am a huge proponent of the written word as means of communication.

Yes, the ability to write is something we can blissfully take for granted in this day and age, and when it comes to something as complex and abstract as the Tarot, writing your thoughts down can be all the difference between an ever-deepening understanding of the cards and a stagnant repertoire of cookie-cutter definitions.

~~~

I remember when I first embarked on the quest to learn the Tarot (really not all that long ago). I was armed with only my Radiant Rider-Waite deck, its accompanying instructions booklet, and my copy of S.L.M. Mathers’ treatise on the cards. Little did I know what I was getting into at the time.

I was content to just wing it for a while, but as I started to really begin to understand what I was doing, it dawned on me that it was going to be tough to keep things straight in my mind. I used a small Moleskine notebook a relative had given me, and began to copy down the meanings of each card. It really did not take long at all until this little notebook was filled up with meanings, thoughts, spreads, and various other little tidbits of personalized Tarot stuff; before I knew it, my collection of both books and cards had expanded and I needed a new place to write my thoughts down, preferably one a bit larger than the Moleskine.

So I started over with a much larger (and cheaper than Moleskine) notebook. That one remains largely empty, however, and it’s only occasionally that I’ll add to it.

So that’s it? All this in favor of journals, and I don’t even keep up with my own?

Yes, and no. For one thing, I must admit that I am horrible at keeping journals. I love writing, but my journals rarely seem to stick. I’ve got many more partially full notebooks than I’ve got totally full ones. But in this particular instance, I stopped regularly writing in the notebook in favor of writing here. This site is my Tarot journal now, and it has been for a year.

I get far fewer hand cramps this way.

But even though I no longer keep a physical notebook as a repository for my musings, I do keep a couple of Tarot notebooks on hand that serve different purposes.

The one I use the most regularly is very similar to a typical journal in that I date the entries, but instead of recording my nebulous thoughts, I record my readings. I write the spread name, deck used, question asked, and any other relevant preliminary information (such as a runecast or helpful ritual), and then proceed to copy down the cards as they appeared in the spread, as well as any particular insights I have at the time. This allows me to go back and revisit readings I’ve done in the past. If I’m traveling with a Tarot deck, this is the notebook that will accompany me.

I also keep a notebook in which I copy down spreads that I’ve come across in my studies and liked. Most come from books, but some come from Tarot forums or other blogs, and I’ve got a couple in there that were made up by myself or my friends. Spreads are the only things that are written in this journal, and it sits on my shelf as a personalized index for me to peruse when I want to do a reading, but am not sure exactly which spread I feel like using.

Finally, I also keep a Tarot calendar, upon which I expounded in a previous post. This notebook is specific to only a couple decks, and works more as a home-made reference tool than as a journal, but I keep it with the others and so figured I’d mention it here, too.

~~~

I do think a journal is a valuable tool to the Tarot-er, beginner or otherwise, and if I never started this blog, I’d surely have gone a long way in filling up that second notebook by now. I wrote this post because I think that this topic is an important component of my Tarot practice, right next to the books I read and the cards I use. It’s not a subject that warrants regular updates, but for the sake of completeness, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to share a little about how I approach Tarot journaling.

Do you keep a Tarot journal? More than one? Is it really as widespread as books and blogs and forums would have the novice believe? Do you agree that it is a good habit to get into? Let me know with a comment, if you feel so inclined.

A Perpetual Calendar.

The Book of Days is a hard-bound calendar that I picked up recently. It’s very nice, with thick pages that withstand lots of ink, and it’s decorated with full-color and captioned images from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. This book is different than your average one-and-done calendar in another way, too: the days of each month are numbered, but are not assigned a weekday. This means that this particular calendar is not meant for a single year, but rather to keep track of yearly events regardless of what year it actually is. It’s marketed as a perpetual calendar to keep track of all the birthdays, anniversaries, and various other momentous occasions that take place from year to year, but I don’t care about any of that. I got it because I had in mind a better use for it: the Tarot.

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I was looking for something like this to replace the crummy old datebook in which I’d previously recorded the suggested dates for each Wildwood Tarot card (if you’re unfamiliar with the Wheel of the Year and how the Wildwood relates, you can check out my post about it here). Using green ink, I went through each page of the calendar and wrote down each card from the WWT on its respective date.

It occurred to me partway through this endeavor that I have at least one other deck with cards that can correspond with dates on a calendar: the Thoth Tarot. Using the astrological attributions for the court and small cards given in DuQuette’s book Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot (which is far more user-friendly than Crowley’s own book and includes handy charts with exactly the information I needed for this project), I sat down and wrote the cards into their respective dates alongside the Wildwood (using black ink this time to more easily differentiate between the two in my calendar). I’ve yet to tackle the issue of the Major Arcana, although I plan on working through them shortly.

The result is now I have a perpetual Tarot calendar, simultaneously keeping track of the Earthly Wheel of the Year and the Heavenly Wheel of the Zodiac, and there’s still plenty of room left over should I find another Tarot that can similarly relate to a calendar.

Now it’s a simple matter for me to look up the date and find the cards of the day. It’s a fantastic way to get to know my cards on a more intimate level, or to focus my thoughts for each day. With the Wildwood, I’ve experienced great spiritual insight already by using it like a calendar, albeit sporadically, and this will only better facilitate that. I’m interested to begin to use the Thoth in this fashion, as well. And I haven’t tried this yet, but I think it would be interesting to draw a card from a third deck at random (a daily draw) and see how it relates to the WWT and the CHT cards of its day.

Anyway, I just thought I’d share this on here in case anyone else found the idea of a Tarot calendar interesting. Fair warning, though: it’s meticulous work, and it can be somewhat tedious flipping through pages and writing down each card on its date. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing, because it’s very easy to screw up. Trust me, I know from experience.

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I found masking tape to be an adequate solution for my blunders. There’s enough showing through to remind the jackass writing to PAY ATTENTION to what he’s doing in the future.

 

The Tarot: A Short Treatise…

In 1888, S.L. MacGregor Mathers, one of the soon-to-be founders of the famous Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, penned a pamphlet entitled The Tarot: A Short Treatise on Reading Cards. As it happens, this slim volume was also the very first book on the Tarot I ever owned, prior even to my first pack of cards.

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At the time, I was only aware of the Tarot insofar as Jimmy Page used it to illustrate Led Zeppelin IV. My curiosity had been piqued, yet many months passed before I began to actually learn anything about it. I took my first conscious step towards the Tarot one day when I found the above book in a local metaphysical shop in which I was browsing. Knowing next to nothing about the Tarot (or, for that matter, just how many books on the Tarot actually exist), I bought it, thinking it would be a good primer.

Considering the eventual influence the Golden Dawn’s occult attributions would come to have over the Tarot as we know it today, the content of this book is incredibly plain. There is very little in the way of hints that Mathers was on the verge of kickstarting a revolutionary wave of Tarot study. In fact, from what I can figure, most of this pamphlet is actually very derivative. The section on the history of the cards seems to be taken mostly from Court de Gebelin (*cough*egyptianmystics*cough*), and the sections on reading with the cards seem to have come mostly from Etteilla. There isn’t really anything wrong with this, except that neither of these sections are entirely accurate; nor even are they all that interesting to read, which is largely due, I think, to the haughty writing style of late nineteenth-century English occultists (you know what I mean if you’ve ever cracked the spines of Waite’s or Crowley’s books).

Indeed, Mathers had a lot going on behind the scenes that he hid quite well in this book (I had absolutely no idea whom I was reading when I got it, and was taken by surprise much later when I first began to learn about the Golden Dawn and Mathers’ role in it). This book is aimed at the general populace, the unenlightened masses, not the would-be initiates of secret Hermetic orders. This is made clear by the inclusion of trick-taking game rules side by side with rules for traditional Tarot cartomancy, as well as the fact that common Marseille-pattern cards are used to illustrate. Oh, there is a brief chapter that mentions the possibilities of occult connections, but it obscures rather than elaborates upon them. I sure as shit didn’t know what he was going on about when I first read it, anyway.

Would I recommend this book?

To the general Tarot enthusiast? Probably not. To the occult Tarot enthusiast? Again, not really. To the historical Tarot enthusiast? Maybe, although there isn’t much in this small book that can’t be learned elsewhere. To the beginner, like I was when I first found it? HA! Fat chance I’d recommend it to past me, now that I’ve got the benefit of hindsight.

And yet, despite the off-putting nature of this book, it did not deter me from continuing to study the cards. If anything, it left me dissatisfied but with enough of a kernel of curiosity remaining that I was actually all the more intrigued by the cards after reading this relic. It’s not a bad book, just unnecessary and a little outdated given all that’s currently available on the subject.

I certainly will never get rid of it. It’s so small and unobtrusive that my bookshelf has no problem accommodating it, not to mention the nostalgia factor of it being my first-ever Tarot book. And it can be handy as a quick reference of TdM keywords, for both Major and Minor Arcana. It’s a book I wouldn’t buy if I didn’t already own it, but since I do own it, I appreciate it for what it is. This unassuming little volume came at a crossroads in the history of the Tarot, the cusp of the swell that would come to bring the likes of the RWS and CHT to the shores of Etteilla and the TdM. And I think that’s kinda cool.

Deviant Moon Companion.

In my second post on this blog, I began a catalogue of the Tarot books on my shelf. Every time a new book is added to the collection, I update the post to include it. The function of the post is essentially that of an annotated bibliography, and it contains every literary influence on this blog that is directly related to the cards.

I make it a point when I obtain a new Tarot deck to at some point write a few brief thoughts on that deck, but I’ve come to realize that my relationship with the Tarot is as much affected by the books I read as by the cards I use; however, my writings on these books are comparatively sparse. So I’ve decided to go through my list and give some thoughts that are a little more in-depth than those comments I’ve provided in the above link. And I’m going to start with the newest addition to my library: The Deviant Moon companion book by Patrick Valenza.

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The Cards and the Book.

This is easily the most beautiful book in my Tarot library. Others have said that this book sets a new precedent for companion texts, and I have to agree with them, although I do hope the amazing production quality doesn’t become the new norm.

Wait, what? Hope that amazing production quality doesn’t become the norm?

Well, here’s the thing about this book: In my opinion, one of the best things about it is also the most off-putting. Allow me to explain my paradoxical opinion.

This book has over 300 very nice, glossy pages with many large, full-color images. Its got a very beautiful embossed hard cover featuring the figure from the 6 of Wands. And the book is huge, weighing in at roughly 3 pounds. My god, I’ve never seen or held such an immaculately produced book on the Tarot! U.S. Games has really outdone themselves with this one.

Indeed, I appreciate all this, but I have to be honest: it’s all a bit much when what I really only wanted was a simpler companion text to fill in some of the blanks left by the LWB. I like the portability of my paperback copy of the Shadowscapes Companion or Waite’s Pictorial Key. These are books that I leaf through fairly often, that I don’t feel bad about cracking the spine or dog-earing the pages if I have to, and to drag out the hefty Deviant Moon book when I want to check up on the cards just isn’t as convenient. And I certainly can’t toss it in a bag to take with me for some light reading on the go.

Is the trade-off worth it? Well, yes and no. On one hand, the quality of the book does outweigh its inconvenient size. I took my sweet time deciding whether or not to buy it because of the size, but now that it’s on my shelf, I absolutely do not regret my decision. But what about the quality of its contents?

Unlike every other companion book I’ve read, this book not only describes each card’s image and meaning (it includes upright and reversed), it also talks about the artistic process, inspiration, and evolution of the deck as a whole, with many anecdotes about specific cards (although not all of them). It’s valuable to an artist as much as to a Tarotist. This is incredibly interesting and visually stunning, and it gives us an intimate look into the author’s (very active) imagination.

Valenza gives us lots of stories about nightmares and visions he experienced as a child that helped to inspire the cards (my favorite is “the Man”, because it reminds me of the Nightman that plagues Charlie’s dreams in the TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and I can’t help but smile at that. Embedded within this story about the Man, however, is a very poignant lesson about the nature of fear, and it gives an important spin on how to view this sometimes frightening pack of cards).

I admit, I like this personalized perspective a lot, and find many of the childhood stories endearing, but it’s not exactly what I was looking for. I feel like some of the explanations of the cards themselves, while greatly expanded from the LWB, may not be as comprehensive as they could’ve been, because they weren’t the only focus of the book.

Then again, perhaps this isn’t the problem that I originally thought it was.

I mean, every Tarot book I’ve ever read always leaves me wanting more information. I think students of Tarot are doomed to be forever unsatisfied no matter how much they read – such is the enduring nature of the mysterious Tarot, alas! We’ve all climbed willingly down the rabbit hole before we realized that there is no bottom! And the personal perspectives of the artist give unique insight into the meanings of the cards that isn’t available just from the descriptions of the symbolism. It’s one of those things that isn’t obvious at first; we get a rare glimpse into the mind that made them, and that is sometimes more telling than whatever superficial stuff can be gleaned just by looking at them.

Alright, I admit it: I’m really just frustrated (still) by the Hermit. This book has done very little to answer my itching questions about this card’s odd symbolism, and complete lack of traditional symbolism. And for all the background stories in this book, there is nothing about why he chose this route. The author does recount a fascinating and haunting dream he once had about the character depicted in the card, but why did he choose this character to represent the Hermit?

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It is true, his interpretation of the Hermit is not exactly traditional. This Hermit is not wise, just an outcast. Other cards have been re-interpreted, as well. Valenza apparently doesn’t have a very high opinion of the Hierophant, for example, and it shows in his written interpretation. I can see that, deep down, a kernel of tradition is present in every card’s meaning, but sometimes that’s all there is. Not that this is a bad thing.

For a modern, post-RWS Tarot, the Deviant Moon is very original, and this book has only helped me to realize that. There are many nods to tradition throughout, but they are in the structure rather than the actual depictions. Death is untitled, and Justice and Strength retain their pre-Waite positions (yet none of these three use particularly traditional imagery, nor do many of the others). For the Minor Arcana, there is no attempt whatsoever to superimpose any sort of non-Tarot esoteric systems on the cards – not even so much as to mention what elements are associated with each suit (except water with Cups, for some reason). In fact, the only thing Waite’s work even contributes to the DMT, as far as I can tell, is the Pentacles, as opposed to the more traditional Coins. But Valenza explains this decision at the end of the section on this suit. In essence, this Tarot is a very non-traditional rendering of the most traditional pattern there is.

For every single card in the deck, this book includes one page-size image of the card, and at least one full page of text (many cards include another page or two of pictures and text, but not all of them). There is also a multi-part introduction that details the creative process of the artist. The book is structured thus: Introduction – Major Arcana – Minor Arcana. It ends rather abruptly after the last thought on the suit of Pentacles, but that didn’t really bother me (although I do like to read some closing thoughts, it seems like many Tarot books don’t bother with them, so what can you do).

As anyone who has read my original thoughts about this deck knows, I was very hesitant to add it to my collection. I found many of the images (especially that darn Hermit) discomforting at first, and wasn’t sure if it was right for me. Also, any time someone brought up this deck on an online forum, there was always such a positive, almost fanatical response (this is true of the book, as well), and that sort of one-sided reaction makes me wary. But I did get it, and it continues to grow on me every day. This book certainly adds to my ever-increasing appreciation for these cards, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a deeper understanding of them (assuming there’s room for it on the shelf, that is).

~~~

Dame Fortune and Her Wheel.

This isn’t a post about the Wheel of Fortune card. Dame Fortune’s Wheel (DFW) is the name given by Paul Huson to the pack of Tarot cards that he designed (the most recent addition to my collection), and it is that which I will discuss today (someday I’ll get around to a post about Key X of the Major Arcana; it’s been mentioned many times before on this blog).

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An example of the Major Arcana, Court, and Small cards – DFW

Before I delve into the cards, though, I’d like to take a moment or two to talk about Huson’s book, called Mystical Origins of the Tarot.

If you’re into history (like me), this book is an incredibly valuable resource. I have other books that do a great job treating Tarot history in my library (such as Tyson’s book on Tarot magic or Decker’s book on the Medieval Scapini Tarot), but none can match this one. It is both a history of Tarot cards as objects, as well as of the various symbols used in the cards. Some of the information is surprising, but it all makes sense in Huson’s presentation of it.

It seems to me that this book is primarily marketed as a history of the Tarot, and a history of Tarot it is. But that’s not all it does. There are in-depth explanations of every card in the deck, discussing meanings as well as history, and complete with lists of interpretations from all the major names in Tarot (like Etteilla, Levi, Mathers, the Golden Dawn, and Waite, to name a few of the more familiar ones). These sections are followed by a manual for divination with the cards by several methods, ranging from simple to very complex. The entire thing is wrapped up with multiple useful appendices for further research and an extensive bibliography. Overall, this book is an excellent general-purpose Tarot book, aimed at understanding the cards in their historical context, from their inception to the present.

The book is also illustrated by the author, who happens to be something of an artist, as well. That skill proved useful when he tried his hand at creating a deck. Mystical Origins of the Tarot is not a companion to the DFW, at least, not really. But Huson definitely designed the cards with his research for the book in mind (the book predates the cards by a couple of years), and as such, the book goes well with the cards.

The cards are striking in their appearance, with bold lines and colors that evoke stained-glass windows (I heard that analogy somewhere and really liked it). The imagery of the Major Arcana can be understood and traced back to its historical origins with the aid of the book, although I do not think the book is completely necessary to enjoy the cards (I do strongly recommend it, however). Some of these cards are easily recognizable in their Marseille counterparts; some of them are very different. Mostly, though, it is subtle differences that make this deck unique. It is familiar and new all at once.

The Minor Arcana are illustrated with original artwork by Huson. Again, he made use of his research when designing these cards, synthesizing a meaning for each from multiple historic sources (none of which are as old as those of the Major Arcana, though). The images are lighthearted and playful overall, set in an idealized medieval world, not unlike Smith’s renderings for Waite’s famous Tarot. It should be noted that the style and specific content of the Minor Arcana do not mirror Smith’s at all; just the pseudo-medieval setting and playful tone. These cards are not rip-offs of the RWS in the slightest. Any overlap in design is a result of the source material (Etteilla’s minor arcana designations influenced both decks significantly, for example).

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The Significator, adorned with the signs of the Zodiac.

In addition to the Major and Minor Arcana, Huson includes in his deck a 79th card, labelled “Significator.” This is a practice first introduced by Etteilla, and while most deck designers abstain from including such a card, and while I generally choose my own significators from the court cards without any trepidation, I really like that Huson did this.

I like Dame Fortune’s Wheel very much. It is refreshingly original, and yet remains true to historical Tarots (assuming you put stock in Huson’s book, which I do). I could easily imagine these cards existing during the time that Tarot was a new phenomenon. Not only that, but the artwork truly is compelling. However, I do have one gripe about these cards.

I’ve read many Tarot reviews of cards I own that complain about the quality of the cardstock, but have never had any issues myself with any of them. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the DFW. The cards feel thin and flimsy, and they are so slippery that shuffling them requires great attention and care lest half the pack goes flying. For this reason, I don’t use these cards nearly as much as I suspect I would otherwise, which is a darn shame considering how awesome they are in every other way.

~~~

More New Books.

Two more books for my Tarot Library. I’m beginning to delve into some heavier reading.

Here’s the first one:

Wirth, Oswald. Tarot of the Magicians: The Occult Symbols of the Major Arcana that Inspired Modern Tarot. Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC., 2012. First published in French in 1927 as Le Tarot, des Imagiers du Moyen Age.

I’m already well into this one. It’s fascinating and a very historically important look at the occult functions of a Tarot deck. Oswald Wirth was working with the Tarot at the same time the Golden Dawn was using its now famous occult Tarot methods. Wirth’s methods are different. They deal with much of the same stuff (astrology, Cabbalah, etc.), but Wirth had a different idea of how these ideas fit into the Tarot. He reworked the Marseilles-style Major Arcana to better fit with his ideas.

Wirth was much more straightforward in his writing than his contemporary occultists Aleister Crowley and Arthur Waite. Granted, Waite still felt bound by his oath of secrecy despite Crowley having already published the Golden Dawn’s secrets, and Crowley was just the kind of guy who seemed to like the way his own convoluted voice sounded, but the both of them are confusingly verbose in their prose. I enjoy reading them, but it’s like reading a puzzle at times, and it’s refreshing to me that Wirth doesn’t really mince words. That’s not to say he doesn’t delve into deep and complex esoteric matters; he does, but rather than making it even more complex to discourage the uninitiated, he has the goal of education, and tries to facilitate that with his writing.

Of course, the trade-off here is that Wirth is sometimes just plain dry. I don’t really mind it personally, but I know that can be a bore to some.* It should also be kept in mind that this book was originally published in the late 1920s by a man who was already well along in age by that time. It’s just not going to grab modern readers who find themselves discouraged by language which seems archaic to their sensibilities.

Anyway, without going into too much detail of the specific contents, I will say that this book appears to be organized into three basic sections. First is the introductory material in which Wirth explains where and how he came to use the symbols he uses. This includes a brief description of alchemical, astrological, and cabbalistic principles, theories of occult initiation, as well as basic things like shape, number, and color symbolism. Of course, as I’ve already noted, none of these things are used in quite the same way that the Golden Dawn used them. This is a totally different system for using the Tarot that just happens to draw from the same sources.

Second is a card-by-card description of each card of the Major Arcana as Wirth redesigned it. That’s pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t talk anymore about it here. Last is a section which includes methods of using the cards for divination. There is more than that, but I am still currently working my way through the second section, so I don’t really know what the last section is really all about aside from divination. I look forward to getting there, though, because unlike other haughty occultists, Wirth does not appear to look down on divination but rather seems to have a certain respect for it.

Overall, I really enjoy this book so far, and I find it very useful in terms of adding another dimension of understanding to the Tarot. I do not have a Wirth deck, but his influence can be felt in some of my other decks (most notably the Medieval Scapini). And being interested in history as I am, I find this book to be an important installment in the historical chronicle of the Tarot.

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The other book I haven’t yet begun to read, but it promises to be interesting, if nothing else.

Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. Tarcher/Penguin, 1985 (originally published in French in 1980).

At over 650 pages, this anonymously written work is the longest book I have on this subject. I have not yet cracked its spine, so I can’t really give much of a review. From what I can gather, it is one religious (Christian) man’s thoughts and meditations on each of the 22 Major Arcana from a Marseilles-pattern deck. It’s arranged in 22 letters addressed to his “dear unknown friend,” us the readers. After briefly flipping through the pages, it appears to go very in-depth into each card. The title suggests an angle of Hermeticism tinged with Christianity; it was penned in 1980, which is fairly modern, and I expect this to have an impact on the contents. I am eager to begin reading this one, but have decided to wait until I’ve finished reading Wirth’s book first, so I can give it my full attention. I have a feeling it will require it.

Perhaps once I’ve read it, I’ll provide an actual review.

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Both of these titles will be added to my library shortly.

*Then again, if we’re comparing Wirth’s style with Waite’s and Crowley’s, I don’t know if I can really say it is any more dry than the others, especially Waite’s. The only real difference here that I can see is that Wirth is aware of the dryness of his work and doesn’t really care to try and cover it up. He even directly addresses the reader on several occasions, one of which he encourages him or her to strive to continue on in spite of the dryness of his work, because that is the way it must be to prepare one for the study required to really learn the Tarot, or to “make it speak”, as he says.