This is my second fairy-fantasy deck (Shadowscapes being the first). I don’t even really know why I bought these, other than the packaging intrigued me, and I’d been going through new-deck withdrawal.
This is a weird deck. Don’t get me wrong – I like it. But it’s weird.
What’s most fascinating about it is that the 78 cards are made from 39 paintings. That is, Lucia Mattioli – the creator of this deck – painted 39 pictures, and then chopped ’em all in half to make 78 cards. There was nothing printed on the tuckbox to suggest this – if it weren’t for my search through aeclectic’s forum archives, I might never have known (well, the LWB suggests as much, but it’s not elaborated upon) – and I can’t make rhyme or reason out of many of the pairings. I suspect that the Mattioli might have drawn two cards at random, and then made the paintings. Whatever the case, the result is a thought-provoking exercise in card pairings (I cheated, by the way, and looked up the matches. I didn’t do the work of actually sorting the cards out and puzzling them together).
The result, in my opinion, is a sort of mixed bag. Some of the pairs sit side-by-side to make truly enchanting art. Some, on the other hand, feel somewhat forced. Either way, though, it’s a brilliant and novel idea. On an individual basis, each card is surreal and beautifully rendered. Some are stranger than I really like, but hey, who am I to say what is and isn’t strange in the Otherworld of the Fae.
I haven’t read too much with these cards yet, but the few I’ve done have been good. The physical cards are typical Lo Scarabeo cards in size and stock, decently made but nothing exceptional. As I mentioned, I was drawn to the tuckbox, which pictures 7 of Wands on the front and 7 of Cups (I think?) on the back, but outside of my own peculiar tastes, there’s nothing special about the packaging, either. The pips are all illustrated, and you can detect some RWS influence here and there, but overall they are original. In some cases, the picture seems to suggest something totally different than the traditional RWS, and often the suit symbols are absent, so you must rely on the numbers and words on the borders to know which cards you’re looking at. The box does specify that these are “intuitive” cards, so evocative art that is not tied to any tradition is kind of the point.
Truthfully, it’s not really a surprise that fairy decks attract me. Of course, the fluffy pretty girls with butterfly wings playing on flowers isn’t really what I’m talking about. Sure, the Shadowscapes appears on the surface to be something like that, but it’s much deeper once you get to know it (and anyways, the art in that deck is so truly spectacular that I don’t even care). I wouldn’t call the Shadowscapes dark, though. The Fairy Lights, on the other hand, can be pretty dark (in particular, compare the Hanged Man from each deck, and you’ll see what I mean). While it isn’t necessarily how I would picture Faerie and its inhabitants, it certainly can’t be said that this deck skimps on the more PG side of fairydom.
Fairy lore from any culture fascinates me, and the piece of me that believes in magic also believes that maybe fairies are lurking on planes just outside my field of vision. I believe in the existence of Faerie as a realm. So yes, I do kind of like to see how some artists capture this place, and this folk, on Tarot cards. There are a lot of fairy Tarots out there, but when the rare one comes along that really catches my eye, I have a hard time resisting the temptation.
Sorry about the lack of photos in this post. I’m in a transitional stage in my life now which has prevented me from connecting my camera to a computer in a long while, but if (hopefully when) I can take and upload some pictures, I’ll update this post with them. I figured my output in recent months has been so sparse that I ought to publish with or without photos.
It’s a question that I think every Tarot enthusiast ponders. I also think it’s elusive answer is why so many of us fall into the collector’s trap. As for me, I’ve come to believe that the only Tarot that is truly perfect will be the deck I make for myself (someday…).
In the meantime, though, I do have my favorite reading decks. I keep a copy of the RWS in my guitar case at all times, because this deck is the easiest for me to read on the fly, for myself or for others. I also tend to keep a set of Wirth majors close by, as well, in case I want to consult an abridged deck for bigger-picture type queries.
At home, though, I recently decided that my favorite reading deck – the deck I keep out on the shelf for easy access – is one I would have least expected when I bought it a couple years ago: the Deviant Moon Tarot.
I don’t know. I’ve come to greatly appreciate the twisted juxtaposition of originality with tradition that these cards represent. I’ve said it before: this Tarot grows on me more every time I use it. The lavish companion text is a huge factor in its favor, as well (at least for home use – I wouldn’t drag this tome with me on vacation). The insight this book offers when I consult it in conjunction with the cards is incredible.
Finally, the physical deck itself is a perfect specimen of what I think a Tarot should feel like in my hands. They are large but not overly so, and are smooth for easy shuffling without being slippery or glossy.
Of course, my favorite cards are liable to change at any given moment, but I’ve given the matter of my go-to deck a great deal of thought, and I kept returning to the Deviant Moon. For now, at least, it feels right.
It’s been probably about half a year since I’ve obtained a new Tarot deck. That’s insane, considering how many decks I’d racked up in the two years prior (it averaged out at about two decks per month, which is insane in itself considering how much trepidation I experienced when I first started massing a proper collection).
There are a couple reasons for this. First and foremost is the simple fact that my expendable income has become much less expendable, and I’ve had to exercise prudence when making fiscal decisions. I love Tarot cards, but there are more pressing matters, and, well, what can you do. Such is life.
But, to be honest, my collection has filled out nicely, and it really doesn’t need any more. With the most recent addition of the Sola-Busca, I felt like I had reached a new level, if you will, and my desire for expansion sort of plateaued. I have not since had the thought that I needed a deck to fill a spot in my collection. Every now and then I come across a deck that I think would round things out nicely, and I do have a casual wishlist in the back of my mind* – and some days, I think about buying a new deck just because I kind of miss the excitement of cracking open a fresh pack of cards – but overall I feel satisfied with my Tarot library.
As it turns out, collecting is as much an aspect of my Tarot hobby as reading and writing about the cards.** I do not collect randomly. I had a general scheme from the moment my first Tarot deck became three (because my second and third were purchased simultaneously) – Rider (1), Marseilles (2), and Thoth (3). These three are considered the “classics” in the greater Tarot community, and they formed the pillars that hold up the structure of my collection. With the addition of my next deck, the Wildwood, I completed the four-sided foundation upon which my entire collection would be constructed.
My four pillars remain the same, but I’ve taken to considering them in broader terms than the specific decks which started them. There is plenty of overlap, and many of my Tarot decks span multiple categories. I like this, and the result is that my collection takes on the shape of a spiderweb in my mind, spun across the four pillars. There are many sub-categories (like fantasy-themed or art decks, for example) that tie the original pillars together in interesting ways.
I wrote a post a while back on the (very) broad categorizations I’d come up with for methods of divination with Tarot cards. These methods actually mirror the pillars of my collection.
What started with the Rider has pretty much remained the Rider. Because this deck is so prevalent today, it is basically its own category. Rider clones and Rider-inspired decks all go here. Most prominent are the Radiant and Universal Waite decks, and of course the Mini Rider. Least is the Hobbit Tarot, which is only a Rider in structure (With Strength as 8 and Justice as 11) and in divinatory definitions. The spectrum in between includes the Mystical Tarot, the Aquarian, and the Shadowscapes. I generally will also include any packs with illustrated small cards in this category, as well, and decks that are best divined with “intuitively,” as I defined it in the above-linked post (I generally link “intuitive” reading with illustrated small cards). In this case, decks like the Sun and Moon, the Deviant Moon, the Medieval Scapini, Dame Fortune’s Wheel, the Mary-El, the Wildwood, and the Sola Busca all fit the bill, although for many of these, this isn’t the primary category.
The broadened version of the Marseille category includes Pip cards and historical decks, used mainly for what I like to call “cartomantic” divinatory approaches.*** The Universal Burdel and the Conver Ben-Dov, as well as the miniature pack of Conver Majors, are the standards for this category. Other decks which fit easily here are the Book of Thoth Etteilla and the Visconti-Sforza. Though the pips are illustrated and it was created in modern times, Dame Fortune’s Wheel fits best in this section, as does the Medieval Scapini. Structure-wise, the Deviant Moon fits here more than in the previous category, too, although its imagery defies categorization (I struggle with placing the Deviant Moon more than any other Tarot). Oswald Wirth‘s deck did not include a Minor Arcana, but it is so clearly based on the Marseille that I would also place both versions of his cards here in a pinch. Finally, as a historical deck, the Sola-Busca can go here, too.
The Thoth category has expanded to include all occult decks, most especially those based in the tradition of the Golden Dawn. The Thoth (and the pocket version thereof) is of course the basis of this category. The Hermetic Tarot and the Sun and Moon fit nicely here, as well. Technically, I would consider placing the strictest renditions of the Rider-Waite (that is, the Universal and the Mini) decks here, because Waite and Smith were one-time members of the Golden Dawn, and their Tarot incorporates some of the GD’s teachings, but because those have their own category, I hesitate to do so. Oswald Wirth and Etteilla decks are occult, too, so they also can be considered in this section (I’m more inclined to place Wirth here and leave Etteilla in the previous section, personally). And lastly, because of the myriad occult details so deftly executed by the artist (including, but not limited to, symbols from the GD, Wirth, and Etteilla), the Medieval Scapini fits here, as well.
What began with the Wildwood has become “Un-categorizable” or “Non-traditional.” I’m pretty sure everything in this section has been mentioned in the previous sections, but if it shows up here, this is where I truly consider it to belong (excepting Etteilla, who I believe might go better in category #2). This category includes the Mary-El, the Sola Busca, the Deviant Moon, the Etteilla, and the Hobbit Tarot. I would almost place the Medieval Scapini here, but don’t because rather than defy categorization, it actually spans all three of the others more or less equally (the artist behind the Mary-El, on the other hand, claims to have been influenced by the Thoth, Marseilles, and Rider, but her cards are so incredibly original that they absolutely belong here). The decks here do not fit a mainstream tradition, and many of them are modern enough to have not yet stood the test of time like the Thoth or the Rider have. But I like having all of them in my collection, and I like having a “catch-all” category to round things out. Though I am a traditionalist at heart, if my collection focused only on the Big Three many beautiful and important cards would be left out.
I acknowledge that all this is quite a lot of reading without much in the way of substantial Tarot content, and for that I apologize. I’m trying my damnedest to keep this blog active, though, and while it largely consists of the fluff of a collector showing off, this post does serve the purpose of illustrating just how I actually think about the collecting aspect of my hobby. I don’t know if anyone cares, but I figured I’d share, anyway.
In case you do care to know what exactly is in my collection, and the above list is as confusing to you as it looks to me (like I said, it’s a spiderweb), as of this writing I have 24 Tarot decks (technically, I have 21 complete packs, and three Majors-only packs). You can find a more straightforward list of them here, and each is linked to my initial thoughts upon obtaining (many of those thoughts are a bit outdated for me now, but I haven’t yet mustered the motivation to revise my reviews).
To wrap this post up, I want to say this: I collect the Tarot with intent. I do indeed focus on the Big Three as the foundation, but it would perhaps be more accurate to sum my aims in collecting thus: I want my collection to be useful from a scholarly perspective, and so have collected primarily renditions of Tarots that are historically significant or influential (as an amateur with limited funds, these are all reproductions from mainstream brand names, of course). At the same time, however, my collection is personalized to suit my tastes, and the cards I select appeal to my aesthetics and my philosophies. Therefore, I think it is safe to say that my collection is a well-rounded blend of established Tarot tradition,**** with a bit of my own peculiar interests as a student of this tradition. It is a collection designed around both the theory and practice of Tarot, spanning past and present, with an eye for the future.
*Right now, I’ve got the Liber T: Tarot of Stars Eternal on my mind, as well as an Egyptian Tarot and a Marseilles that isn’t based on Conver or Burdel’s cards (Probably a Jean Noblet). I don’t doubt that eventually some of these cards will end up being reviewed on this blog.
**I’m hesitant to call divination and other spiritual work a “hobby”, but I certainly do that stuff, too. A hobby to me is confined to a more mundane realm of consciousness than divination, and so collecting, reading books, and writing this blog are all aspects of that. Of course, casual parlor-trick “fortune-telling” treads the divination line, but remains more or less in the realm of hobby to me, because it’s more of an entertainment than spiritual exercise. But now I’m just getting nit-picky.
***Though they are not Tarots, I consider my decks of regular playing cards (of which I have four or five) as a part of this category, as well. I might talk a bit about them if I ever get bored enough. Consider yourself warned.
****A healthy dose of Tarot tradition should be a part any serious collection (IMHO).
I began this series about two years ago. It’s almost as old as the blog itself, and I have to say, it’s kind of odd to be wrapping it up after all this time. It is also a relief, because to be honest, this series presented more than its fair share of problems, and was incredibly tough to work through at times. The time has finally come to set it to rest.
At the start, my goal was to compare and contrast my pack of Etteilla cards (the Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot from Lo Scarabeo) with the vastly more popular Rider-Waite-Smith pack. The reason was simple: I didn’t know a thing about Etteilla or his cards, which was a problem because the cards are very different from anything else I had used. This problem was compounded by the fact that I could not (and still can’t) find any written material that elaborated on the intended meanings or patterns of these cards. On the other hand, I knew much more about Waite’s cards, and I figured that I could perhaps suss out some underlying structural cohesion through comparison.
As I progressed, I realized that this method also had its problems. First of all, anything I came up with would not necessarily be true. Everything was based on my interpretations of the art, and nothing more. Now, I knew this going in, but it seemed that the further I went, the more I had to stretch, and at the end I have to admit that I still know almost nothing objectively about these cards, despite having come up with a neat story to tell with them.
That story is the mythic structure of Creation, Preservation, and Destruction (or the “Creation Myth” for brevity), which is a nice counterpoint to the Hero’s Journey myth of the RWS. I like this very much, but I have nothing in the way of written evidence supporting this theory.
The other problem didn’t become apparent to me until I learned a bit more about the deck itself. As I mentioned, this pack is called the Book of Thoth, and it is in fact quite far removed from Etteilla’s original cards. It is based on (how closely, I don’t know) what is known as the Grande Etteilla III, which was not created by Etteilla but by one of his students in 1800s, a few years after Etteilla’s death. The Grande Etteilla II remains an absolute enigma, while Etteilla’s own Tarot cards, the Grande Etteilla I, are available to purchase only by those with a larger purse than I currently possess. Pictures of this deck are hard to come by, so I can’t say one way or the other how faithful my cards are to Etteilla’s original plan (the Major Arcana especially; the Minors are different at least in that Etteilla’s had astrological symbolism on them, which these lack). So for all intents and purposes, my series did little, if anything, towards deciphering Etteilla’s mysteries; it was rather an exercise in familiarizing myself with an odd pack of cards that may or may not be much like his. I just don’t know.
During the course of composing this series, I did learn quite a bit about Waite’s cards and their historical context, but overall my personal interpretations (that is, the Hero’s Journey) remain more or less the same.* Waite’s ideas in this regard were never recorded, so insofar as the pictures of either deck depict mythic themes, I suppose my interpretations of Etteilla are as valid as Waite. In this sense, it doesn’t really matter what Etteilla intended for his cards.
I have learned a bit about Etteilla’s role in the history of the Tarot’s development, as well, but I think that may have to wait for its own post, because it ultimately has no bearing on this series.
Because it did take me so long to compose, this series probably seems disjointed in some places or redundant in others to a passing reader. I did my best to read through previous posts as I wrote new ones, but my thinking changed over time as I learned more, and sometimes it was difficult to keep things straight. When I started, I was only writing what I wished I could read when learning about these cards.** It evolved from basic comparison to a rather more in-depth look at what the pictures on these cards were telling me. I never lost sight of my goal for comparison, though, and every single card I examined came with a counterpart from another deck (usually the RWS, but not always). The counterparts were not always easy to select. In doing so, however, I made some interesting discoveries about many of the cards from traditional decks that I probably would not have encountered had I not tried to match them with Etteilla’s cards.
It is the unexpected revelations about traditional cards and the interesting story that I think the Etteilla cards tell that I found to be the most valuable things I took away from this series. The Book of Thoth Etteilla deck itself did not end up making much more sense to me in terms of divination, like I’d hoped. I do continue to find these cards fascinating, but they are more of a curiosity for my collection than anything I would regularly use.
I think that’s all I have to say in conclusion for the Etteilla v. Waite series. Before I sign off, though, I’ll put an index here for convenient navigation for anyone who’s interested in going back through. Despite the issues I’ve run into along the way, I hope this series was interesting and informative to anyone who, like me, is confounded by these strange cards.
And finally, for a real throwback, my initial thoughts upon first using these cards can be found here.
*These are largely based on Tarot and the Journey of the Hero, an excellent book by Hajo Banzhaf, and one I can’t recommend heartily enough to those whose interest in the Tarot stems from an interest in mythology or Jungian psychology.
**This is actually the motivation behind much of what I write on this blog.
I’ve gushed about Oswald Wirth before. The truth is, I find his brand of the occult positively fascinating. His book is one of my absolute favorites on esoteric Tarot, and his cards have a certain aesthetic appeal to me – they appear traditional, almost like Marseille cards, yet they are intentionally imbued with occult symbolism. I love the juxtaposition (this is a huge draw for the Medieval Scapini Tarot, as well, which incidentally uses Wirth’s as a basis for some of the underlying symbolism).
My introduction to Wirth came in the form of his book Tarot of the Magicians (which is an English translation – the book was originally published in French in 1927). The book came complete with a set of his cards printed on heavy cardstock pages in the back. These cards were the early version – from 1889 – but when Wirth published his book, he updated the cards, too, and the latter version is what was actually used to illustrate the book.
Well, after a long time, I decided to get myself an edition of Wirth’s updated cards. They are a huge improvement over the cut-out cards from the back of the book.
Was it entirely necessary for me to get these cards? Probably not, to be honest, but I have no regrets. This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten a slightly different version of cards I already own (I’ve got 3 separate Rider packs, not to mention the several RWS-inspired decks, and a couple TdM and Thoth decks, as well). These cards are so much nicer than the cut-outs, and considering how much I admire Wirth’s work, I thought a proper edition of his deck belonged in my collection.
These cards are large, which I like, and are overlaid with a glittery-golden foil that changes in the light when you look at them from various angles. Way cool. These cards are worthy companions with which to work through the exercises set forth in the book. Of course, this is a Majors-only deck, which means I’m hesitant to actually call it a “Tarot”, but it is fantastic for what it is. Wirth’s method only calls for the Major Arcana, after all, and sometimes that’s all a reading calls for, as well. It’s much more convenient to have a Majors-only deck lying around for such occasions than having to sort through a complete pack.
All in all, these cards are ideal for studying and contemplation of the occult, and they work as well as any traditional Major Arcana for divination. They’re beautiful and good-quality cards, and they occupy an important place in Tarot lore.
While I’m here, I’d like to revise a couple things I’ve said in previous posts about Wirth and his cards. First of all, I’ve made it seem like Wirth is solely responsible for all this. While he did draw the cards, and he did write the book, he worked very closely with his mentor Stanislaus de Guaita prior to its publication, who was a huge influence on everything produced by Wirth. Wirth did not plagiarize by any stretch – a great deal of the introduction to his book is spent giving credit to de Guaita, who he held in very high esteem. It was my own misrepresentation in earlier posts, rather, that may have made Wirth seem like he was acting alone.
Furthermore, Wirth and de Guaita were not exactly creating an original Tarot. Their work is largely inspired by descriptions from French occultist Eliphas Levi, whose treatises on the occult were among the most influential works in the history of occult Tarot, particularly in terms of Kabbalah. There would be no Wirth Tarot if there had not first been Levi.
That’s all I’ll say about that for now; at some point I’ll review Tarot of the Magicians, in which I’ll go more in depth about Wirth’s occult background.
Technically, all Tarot divination falls under the umbrella term “cartomancy,” which refers to divination or fortune-telling with playing cards. According to wikipedia, Tarot reading is actually the most common form of cartomancy today, at least in the English-speaking world. But throughout history, and in other parts of the world, it was/is as common or even more so to use regular playing cards for these purposes.
When I hear the word “cartomancy,” I picture regular playing cards with French suits (that is, Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs/Trefoils, and Spades). It’s kind of odd if you think about it, since Tarot is what I do. But long before I was aware of the existence of the Tarot cards, I was familiar with the concept of cartomancy, and so naturally the word is associated in my mind with the only sort of playing cards I knew about at the time. Not that I could perform any kind of cartomancy in those days. But the possibility of reading playing cards always intrigued me, and even as a youth I would sometimes flip through my deck of Bicycle cards, my imagination running wild while I wondered what secrets they would reveal to me, if only I knew how to decipher them.
The strange thing is, I almost never participate in card games. I know the basic rules to games like Blackjack and Poker, and I’m usually fairly quick to pick up on trick-taking games if I play along. I’ll play solitaire on the computer at work if I get bored enough, and I know a few card-based drinking games from my college days.
But when asked to play a card game, with our without alcohol, my initial instinct is to decline. I honestly don’t know why, aside from general social anxiety. I’ve always been fascinated with cards, yet never really cared to play games with them (not that I wouldn’t have fun when I did). Once I started learning to read Tarot, my inexplicable attraction to cards began to make a little more sense. They’re not a game at all, but a book to be read, and that’s what I liked about them.
So I learned to read the Tarot cards. It took me some time, but I think, all things considered, I learned fairly quickly. I learned first with the help of the illustrated pips from the RWS, but eventually I internalized enough of the essence of each card that I could read the simple TdM pips as well. I struck me one day that I could therefore read regular playing cards, too.
This was when I honestly felt like a “cartomancer” for the first time, even though I’d been practicing cartomancy all along. Because of my longtime association of the word with the French suits, I tend to consider “cartomancy” in narrower terms than it’s actually defined (hence my use of the word to designate “traditional” methods of fortune-telling, best suited for TdM-type decks, in this post).
There are many traditional methods of cartomancy with standard cards. I don’t know any of them. When I read playing cards, I’m pulling from the Tarot for my interpretations. Of course, reading from the 52-card deck isn’t exactly the same as reading from the 78-card Tarot. But I’ll discuss that next time.
The Tarot’s history is certainly steeped in mystique. Strange as it all sounds today, though, with a little digging it turns out that they really are just a pack of playing cards. Not so strange, after all.
We strive to define our past with neat and tidy narratives. It’s human nature to think this way; it is how we can make sense of a chaotic and nonsensical existence. Whether the history is verifiable (that the cards as we know them evolved from a card game conceived in Italy during the renaissance) or not (that the cards were created by ancient Egyptian mystics and disseminated through the generations by Gypsies), it provides a story, a context, and that is greatly comforting to us.
But of course, reality isn’t quite as simple as the histories would have us believe. There are new discoveries every day, new interpretations of things we thought we knew, and sometimes these really shake things up. And new discoveries or no, we can never truly know how things were experienced by folks of bygone eras. We weren’t there, and even with the benefit of hindsight, there’s always a piece of the picture missing. It’s a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it’s enough to make a researcher want to tear his hair out. It’s more than frustrating; it’s disconcerting to have your neat and tidy narrative splinter at the slightest touch of contrary evidence (and there is always contrary evidence). On the other hand, it’s exhilarating to find something that forces new perspectives. Even if a complete understanding is impossible, we can always inch our way closer, and there is joy in the unending process of learning.
This is a long and rather dramatic preamble, I know. And it’s really only about a new Tarot deck in my collection: the Tarocchi Sola-Busca. These cards threw a wrench in the Tarot narrative as I understood it. I know next to nothing about this Tarot, but I don’t doubt there are sources out there somewhere that examine it. The Sola-Busca is not remotely a new discovery in the world of the Tarot, but it is new to me, and it’s raised a couple questions about my notions of the Tarot’s history.* But before I get into that, I think I’ll talk a bit about the deck itself.
I bought this one purely as a collector’s item. This is the first time I’ve spent money on my collection for its own sake. I’d fully intended on using every other deck I obtained at the time of purchase, even if some of them did end up as curiosities for study rather than actual use (I’m looking at you, Etteilla). I don’t know if I’ll ever divine with these.
Actually, I will probably give it a try at some point. But this deck is even marketed as a collector’s item rather than a reading deck. It is very nice. It’s so nice, that one of the extra publisher’s cards in the pack was complete with a disclaimer advising against shuffling the cards, because they’re “untreated” and prone to damage with use. That irks me a bit, because I don’t care if they are the most collectible cards in the world, a deck that’s too delicate to shuffle just defeats the purpose. It almost seems pretentious to me.
That’s just a minor annoyance, though, since I never had plans to make this my workhorse deck; and anyways, it’s not like the cards are actually fragile. The cardstock is decent enough, there’s just no finish of any kind to protect the images. I’m pretty sure my Shadowscapes deck is similarly untreated, and they’re holding up fine so far (and I do use those).
So what makes the Sola-Busca so collectible?
For one thing, they are very old. The actual deck I have is a 19th century reproduction (very faithful, according to the LWB) of the original cards, which date to sometime between 1491 and 1523. Even at its earliest, this is not as old as the Visconti-Sforza Tarots, but it is pretty darn close. Like the Visconti, these cards were commissioned by Italian nobility (remaining in the possession of the Sola-Busca family of Milan until only about a decade ago), presumably for gameplay.
But were they really intended for games? The second reason these cards are so collectible is because they are astonishingly atypical of traditional packs. It should be borne in mind that Tarot “tradition” as we know it was not yet fully formed when these cards were produced, but all the same: why are these cards so divergent from their contemporaries? The Visconti cards were certainly for games; surely these can be used for games as well, but what else is going on here?
Structurally, they are the same. 40 small cards, 16 court cards, 21 trump cards, and one unnumbered Fool card. 78 in total. But aside from the Fool, the Major Arcana of the Sola-Busca are not the classic allegorical images to which we are accustomed. Instead, they depict mostly figures from Roman history, and two from the Bible. These include characters from the history of Christianity, Literature, Numismatics, and Alchemy (again according to the LWB – I must admit the majority of the names on these cards are obscure to me). This suggests a possible educational utility, with some hints of what we would call “occultism” today. Other packs of cards that apparently served this dual purpose of gaming and education do exist, like the Minchiate. Why not the Tarot, too?
This blows a hole through the argument that Etteilla and Court de Gebelin were the first people to suggest esoteric uses for the Tarot, even if the Tarots they were using were not derived from the Sola-Busca. Now, the occultism attributed by these men to the cards is not the same thing as anything depicted in the Sola-Busca, and they were still wrong about the origins of the Tarot; but it raises an interesting question about the apparently mundane and frivolous uses of the earliest cards. We know they were used for gambling, but was that all? Is it possible that there was an aura of mysticism about them, even at the beginning? This is a valid question to ask of the Visconti as it is of the Sola-Busca. It is more than probable that the artist who rendered the Sola-Busca cards was familiar with packs like the Visconti. They are from the same country and the same approximate time period. Moreover, for all its differences, there are familiar motifs to be found throughout the Sola-Busca. For example, Deo Tauro, who graces card number seven, could be riding a chariot, and card thirteen shows Catone standing over a severed-and-impaled head. There are subtle similarities throughout. Perhaps the Visconti was only created for games, but if decks like the Sola-Busca were floating around, it’s certainly possible that owners of the Visconti also saw a certain educational and mystical potential in their cards. After all, we only think so because the Tarot’s pictures are so suggestive, and they would only have been more so during the renaissance, a time that these images were current. It’s easy to forget that the line between the sacred and the profane – that is, the spiritual and the mundane, or the intuitive and the rational – was not always as clear as it’s often perceived today.
It wouldn’t have been associated with the divination and occultism that we know, not by a long shot, but the very existence of this deck suggests that Etteilla and de Gebelin’s revelations about the esoteric significance of the Tarot may actually have been the fruits of seeds planted long before them.
And that’s just the Major Arcana. If anything, the Minor Arcana are actually more fascinating.** The suits are typical – Swords, Wands, Cups, and Coins – but the pip cards are all illustrated. Whoever designed these cards were centuries ahead of their times. Nowadays we take illustrated pips for granted, but it was only in 1910 with the publication of the Rider pack that they really became popular. Smith’s illustrations were revolutionary for the Tarot, but they were not really her innovation. Photos of the Sola-Busca were available for public viewing in a museum in London while Waite and Smith were working on their cards, and it is fairly certain that these photos served as inspiration for Smith’s iconic drawings. A handful of her Minor Arcana even have direct counterparts in the Sola-Busca.
I won’t go so far as to speculate that the Sola-Busca may have been used for intuitive divination, but it is an awfully elaborate pack of cards for game play. It makes the lavish Visconti cards seem almost plebeian by comparison. These are illustrations, not flowery embellishment. Creativity went into this. Is it an extension of the educational element from the Major Arcana? What are these images supposed to convey? Or are these cards a product of people simply reveling in the artistic extravagance of 15th century Italy?
Maybe we’ll never know. Maybe we already do, and I’m just uninformed. I want to stress again that I actually know very little about this deck. It is foreign to me, and it makes me re-think the Tarot in interesting ways. If nothing else, these cards provide me with new avenues for study and musing, should I ever feel so inclined. And as a collector’s item, it fills a satisfying niche in my collection, bringing together its hitherto disparate ends. The wildly non-traditional modern decks, such as the Mary-El or the Wildwood, now have a historical precedent in breaking from convention. The Sola-Busca brings it all back to the beginning. It is very different, yes, but its differences are a reminder that the Tarot is living, evolving alongside the people who use it, and it always has been.
*The Sola-Busca has been in my periphery for quite some time now, in fact, but I never gave it much thought until I decided my collection ought to have one.
**There are actually many motifs from the traditional Major Arcana peppered throughout the Sola-Busca’s Minor Arcana. I thought that was very interesting. One example is a Cups card which shows a goofy-looking man holding a cudgel on his shoulder while a small dog tears down his pants. This card looks very much like the Marseille Fool, only without the jester cap.