Etteilla v. Waite, Concluded.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Part I: Introduction
Part II: The First Eight Cards
Part III: Cards Nine through Fifteen
Part IV: Sixteen through Twenty-One and the Fool
Part V: Chaos, Light, and Plants
Part VI: Sky, Man & Beast, and Stars
Part VII: Birds & Fish, and Rest
Part VIII: Justice, Temperance, Force, and Prudence
Part IX: High Priest, Devil, and Magician
Part X: Last Judgement, Death, Monk, and Struck Temple
Part XI: Wheel of Fortune, African Despot, and the Fool

And finally, for a real throwback, my initial thoughts upon first using these cards can be found here.

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*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.

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Golden Wirth Tarot.

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).

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1889 Hermit

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.

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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.

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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.

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Cartomancy.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Sola-Busca: One for the Collection.

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.

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An example of the Major Arcana, a small card, and a court card – SBT.

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.

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It pleases me that, though the Hermit is absent, Carbone takes up the staff and torch for a moonlit stroll on card 12.

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?

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Deo Tauro sits in place of the Chariot.

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.

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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.

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Some of Pamela Smith’s inspiration.

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.

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*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.

The Mystical Tarot.

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.

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An example of the Major Arcana, a small card, and a court card – MT

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.

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My Favorite Tarot Art.

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):

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While these cards were not randomly selected for photos, it should be borne in mind that I have many, many more than three favorites in each of these decks.

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.

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My photos do not do anything in this post justice.

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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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*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).

Some Magicians:

HPIM0609 The Magician from the Sun and Moon Tarot is one of my all-time favorites, because the whimsical artwork portrays a musician at the beach without forsaking any of the traditional symbols of the card. He is in the presence of all four of the elements: the vast night sky above him, the ocean behind him, the sand beneath him, and the bonfire before him. The corresponding suit symbols are pictured in the air over his head. They are the centerpiece of an ethereal sigil, conjured from the smoke by the beat of his djembe. I like to imagine the star shape on the drumhead is this very same emblem. The four extremities created by the Wand and the Sword constitute four corners of a hexagram. The remaining two corners are occupied by the infinity symbol and the yin-yang symbol. The twelve zodiac signs form a perimeter around the star, and the entire thing is encircled by a serpent Ouroboros. Thus the entire cosmos with all its disparate pieces is symbolically tied up into a single, self-sustaining parcel, moved and affected by the rhythms of the Magician. A monkey observes from the foreground.

One of the reasons why I like the SaM Tarot so much is because I can so easily get lost in the soft imagery. On many cards, I can often imagine myself as part of the scene. This is especially true of the Magician. I can hear the crashing of the rolling waves and the crackling of the roaring flame. I don’t even notice the sounds of the drum at first, but it’s there, and I can’t remember it starting. It dances with and around the natural rhythm of the ocean and the sparks from the fire are moving upwards to its beats. Sometimes the Magician hums and sings along, and I am entranced.

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If the artwork from the SaM is soothing, the art of the Shadowscapes Tarot is stunning. The trees and rocks are as alive in these cards as the figures among them. This Magician is lithe and full of youth, with a golden sun tattooed on his shoulder. He balances effortlessly upon his toes, perched atop a stone pillar. He is certainly not human; his ears have an elvish point and, oh yeah, huge feathered wings extend from his bare back. His wings are poised motionless behind him, and a pair of birds have settled on them. From red ribbons are suspended the four elements, this time in the forms of a lantern, a seashell, a feather, and a leaf. Are these gifts from the friendly birds, or has the Magician been carrying them all along? He pays them no attention, at any rate, and all of his concentration is fixed on the green orb floating between his hands. On the surface, this Magician strikes me as especially Mercurial, a tricky traveller above all else; but here in his moment of tranquility, he also reminds me of the demiurge. The globe with which he plays could be an entire world, could it not?

That this Magician might not be exactly what he appears to be is suggested by the horned headpiece he wears, and his face paint is eerily clownish. There are three symbols of infinity on this card: a faint lemniscate over his head, and two tail-biting snakes, one around his waist, and one around a second green orb that is embedded in the rock near his feet.

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HPIM0611Here is a particularly non-traditional rendition of the Magician from the Mary-El Tarot. This cloaked and faceless figure looks more like the Hermit than any Magician I’ve ever seen. Perhaps this is part of the reason why I’m so drawn to him. Coming towards us from an impressionist backdrop, he walks on the surface of the water. In fact, there is no land in sight. There is almost no sense of perspective, and he may or may not be as tall as the pair of bare trees he stands between, also growing out of the waters. These trees are peculiar because they are more characteristic of duality and the High Priestess than they are of him. Clearly this Magician is less of a trickster and more of a god of wisdom. Well, maybe he is still very tricky. I certainly wouldn’t put it past him.

He presents us with the “Metatron’s Cube” or “Phoenix Egg”. The Metatron is a (non-canonical) archangel of the highest status, formerly a man named Enoch, who attained the immortal position as the Scribe of God. He is unique, because he is the only angel not bound to God’s Will. The “Egg” is a geometric pattern of overlapping circles, a very popular decorative motif in spiritual and religious traditions around the world. In the Magician’s hands it appears simultaneously to be a bunch of circles, a hexagram, and a cube. It seems to be made of light, and is supposed to represent a person’s infinite soul. The Magician hands it to you.

And of course, speaking of infinity, the lemniscate oscillates ever above his head, which is level with the sun.

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