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.

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).

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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.

New Books.

I went on an amazon spree recently. I purchased three new books (and a new deck, but that will be dealt with in another post).

The first of these new books is called Designing Your Own Tarot Spreads by Teresa Michelson, and was published by Llewellyn in 2003 as part of their special topics in Tarot series. I keep a collection of spreads in my Tarot Journal, which come from books, LWBs, or various websites (most notably aeclectic). The number of spreads continues to grow, but for my personal readings, I often find them lacking. I decided to purchase this book so I could learn on a fundamental level what goes into a Tarot spread, with the goal of customizing my readings to elicit better success. So far, I am finding the book helpful.

The second is called Tarot and Astrology by Corrine Kenner (published by Llewellyn in 2011) and is intended as an introduction to astrological principles for students of the Tarot. I’ve never personally put much stock in astrology, but the deeper I go down the rabbit hole of the Tarot, the more I find that astrology plays a significant role in many decks. Because my current understanding is less than elementary, I figured I should learn more about it, and what better way than with a book that discusses it in the context of the Tarot.

The last book is considered a classic in the field, and after reading many glowing reviews, I caved and finally ordered myself a copy of 78 Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack (published by Weiser in 2007; originally published in two volumes in 1980). I’ve only read a couple of chapters so far, but I am not disappointed. This book is intended as a guide to the Tarot in general, and is specifically geared towards the RWS. Every card in the deck is examined in-depth. I was pleased to find many of my own ideas reflected back at me in the opening chapters of this book, such as mythic archetypes and binary opposites, and I look forward to reading more.

My Tarot Library will be updated soon to accommodate these new additions. I haven’t yet read more than a couple of chapters from any of these new books, but so far I am pleased to add them to my collection (I admit, I always like getting new books, no matter what the subject matter is). They are promising to be helpful and informative.