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).

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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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Part VII, Lantern v. Hourglass.

Read part VI about the Wildwood and Shadowscapes Hermits here.

Many sources on the Tarot describe the Hermit with an anecdote about Diogenes, the classical Greek philosopher and eccentric who was said to walk among throngs of people with a lantern in broad daylight. When asked why he carried the lamp, he responded that he was searching for an honest man. It is not surprising that the Hermit might be inspired by this Diogenes, who lived in self-imposed poverty, openly questioned societal norms, and walked around with a lantern as a means of making social commentary. In this case, the lantern suggests a cynical attitude towards humanity, which a hermit may very well possess, but it also assumes the ability to symbolically reveal the inner character of a person. Of course, with the Hermit, I have worked under the impression until now that the lantern is symbolic of his own soul, but it can be more universal than that: the lantern’s primary function is illumination, and as the Hermit shines with enlightenment from within, so too can he illuminate the souls of people without.

There have been several variations from Hermit to Hermit that we’ve encountered so far, some subtle and some not so much, but in spite of these there are overarching themes bridging them all. These common factors amount to what I consider to be the fundamental meaning of this card, while the variables contribute to the depth of this meaning by providing different shades of interpretation, some of which can seem contrary on the surface. However, the fundamental meaning of this card, as I have hitherto attempted to show, revolves around a reconciliation of opposites, and so rather than detract, these contrary details actually enhance this meaning. The Hermit is indicative of a wise worldview in which everything is a part of one, cohesive whole. Of course, in order to arrive at this view, the Hermit lives a life of solitude wrought with midnight wanderings about the wilderness, ultimately brought on as a result of his rejection of society. Along with these lonely wanderings, only the Hermit’s lantern remains constant throughout. No matter what else is going on in a particular card, the Hermit always boils down to a lantern-wielding anti-social after the fashion of Diogenes.

The lantern is an attention-grabbing symbolic element that I think serves as the key to really understanding the card. In fact, without the lantern, a lot of this talk about illumination and enlightenment, seeking and discovering, would fly right out the window.

So what does it mean when you come across a Hermit that doesn’t carry one? What if he’s carrying an hourglass, instead?

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The Visconti-Sforza Hermit, one of the oldest in existence.

The original Hermits did carry lanterns, and the hourglass was the variation, albeit a very early one that we don’t see too often anymore.* The initial effect on the viewer isn’t a very great one; after all, an hourglass is more or less the same shape and size as a lantern. Nonetheless the hourglass is a completely different device than the lantern, with an entire set of symbolic associations that are all its own. The lantern is an instrument of sight, of comprehending space. The hourglass, on the other hand, is an instrument of time. The hourglass is symbolic of a different dimension altogether, one which rules our lives, yet which we only pretend to understand.

I’ve already discussed how Mr. Crowley’s interpretation of the Hermit and Harris’ rendition of it remind that this old man is really an archetype and not necessarily a physical person. That archetype is of course the Wise Old Sage character, embodied by Thoth and Mercury in ancient mythologies. When the lantern is replaced by an hourglass, the archetype suggested becomes different, much older, and more primal. In classical Roman myth (where our lantern-carrying Hermit is Mercury), he becomes Saturn. Many know him best as Father Time.

That’s right. When the Hermit holds an hourglass, he can be considered Time itself, usually with the divinatory implication that the querent should take some time to him or herself to reflect. For divination, this is not very different at all from a typical interpretation of the Hermit with the lantern. However, the symbolism used to get to this end is very different, and it raises some questions about the basic meaning of this card’s symbolism. Why can the lantern be replaced by an hourglass? What logic is there in this?

The idea that the Hermit is the master of past, present, and future was hinted at in Scapini’s version of the card, in which the Hermit carries a lantern that is deliberately shaped like an hourglass. Mr. Crowley’s Hermit is followed by Cerberus, whose three heads are split with two facing forward and one facing back. This could possibly suggest looking to both the future (forward) and the past (back). So there are examples of the Hermit’s connection with time, but these are isolated and not incredibly important contributors to the overall meanings of the cards. Of course, the Hermit’s beard implies time, but not in exactly the same way as an hourglass.

Now, Father Time is often pictured as an old bearded man, sometimes with a cane, not unlike the Hermit. But this alone doesn’t strike me as a reason to change the archetypal identity of the card. I wonder if perhaps folks during the Renaissance figured that, considering the supposed divinatory meaning of the card, the old man with the hourglass just made more sense than the old man with the lantern. We’ll probably never know for sure.

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Huson’s Hermit, inspired by Medieval and Renaissance imagery – DFW

So, what can I make of all this? Does the hourglass negate the enlightenment of the lantern and thus the esoteric meaning of the card, despite agreeing with the divinatory meaning? I’m going to say no, not really, although it does complicate things a little. After all, the other elements that define the Hermit are still there. He’s outside, aged, and dressed in robes. Granted, in Paul Huson’s Hermit, there is no staff, but his robes are colored with the familiar red, blue and yellow. Is this a tribute to Wirth? Huson doesn’t specify, but I think the color symbolism is intentional, whichever system it was derived from. His cloak is also lined with green, which suggests growth, as we’ve seen. He still exudes wisdom as he contemplates the hourglass. It may not light his way in a literal sense, but that’s no reason to assume this Hermit isn’t still an enlightened guy. As he gazes upon the falling sands, he’s comprehending a great mystery: Time.

What is time, anyway, but an illusion? As beings, we are stuck in time, experiencing the world around us on a moment by moment basis. This is analogous to perceiving space only an inch at a time. Could you imagine? All this does is perpetuate an illusion of separateness in our lives. If we could see time as a whole, what would it be like?

This is some fourth-dimensional, nonlinear thinking, and it’s a little mind-bending, to say the least. But bear with me. If we understood Time as we do Space, we would see ourselves everywhere we have been and will be at once. The future is the past; the creation of the Universe is its destruction, and everything is present. Everything is One. Sound familiar?

Indeed, the Hermit’s enlightenment comes largely from the recognition that opposition is only an illusion, and everything in the Universe is part of a singular whole. In a roundabout way, the hourglass symbolizes this by virtue of its being a timepiece. Now, I realize I may be stretching a bit to come to a conclusion, but am I wrong? I don’t think so. I mean, how much wiser and more enlightened can one be than if he or she truly understood time?

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So which is it? Lantern or hourglass?

Personally, I prefer the lantern. Most Tarot designers today do, as well. The hourglass is outdated, a little confusing, and probably wasn’t in the hands of the original Hermits, anyway. And from an artistic perspective, a man wandering the wilderness with a lantern just makes more sense than one with an hourglass. The lantern can be taken to mean many things, while the hourglass is relatively limited. But that’s not to say the hourglass is wrong. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking twist at the very least. And the association with Saturn opens an entirely new discussion on possible mythic implications that are absent from the connections with Mercury (like the lantern, I prefer Mercury to Saturn, but to each his own, I say).

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Sun and Moon Tarot

And despite having fallen into relative disfavor, the hourglass is not completely absent from modern Tarots. Paul Huson’s Hermit carries one, of course, but then again, his isn’t really meant to be modern. A better example is Vanessa Decort’s Hermit from the Sun and Moon Tarot. This card takes a culturally different view of the Hermit, placing him against a Hindu backdrop. He appears to be in a temple with writing on the walls, all of which is surmounted by a large “om” symbol. The presence of this symbol really drives home the idea of Universal unity that has been a common theme of this series.

The accompanying instruction booklet mentions both a lantern and an hourglass, but the hourglass is far the more prominent (I wouldn’t have thought a lantern was there at all if the booklet hadn’t told me so). Other details of this card are fascinating: in place of the usual Wand, this Hermit carries the Trident of Shiva, its three prongs representing past, present, and future.**

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I’m trying to recall a witty tale of an old man accosting people with an hourglass, but I’m drawing a blank. I’m left to wonder what Diogenes would have done with an hourglass in his possession, instead of a lantern. Probably make some sardonic remark about how other people live their lives.

Next time, I will examine a version of the Hermit that defies virtually everything I’ve discussed up to this point. And you thought the hourglass variation was a wringer…

*I’m making this assertion based on Paul Huson’s Mystical Origins of the Tarot, page 105. Many people actually seem to believe that the hourglass predated the lantern in the Tarot, and therefore the hourglass is more original to the Hermit, but Huson doesn’t seem to think this is the case, and I take the research behind his book a bit more seriously than I do the opinions of laypeople on internet Tarot forums. That being said, however, I do suppose it’s possible considering how little we actually know for certain about the early stages of the development of the Tarot. All I can say is where I get my information, not whether it’s 100% correct. It is interesting to note that, despite his writing, Huson chose to include the hourglass in his own rendition of the Hermit, pictured above.

**Shiva also appears in the SaM as the World Dancer in card 21, the Universe. This calls to mind the possible connection between cards 9 and 21 from the Wildwood Tarot, discussed in the previous post. Coincidence? Maybe, but if I discount coincidence in Tarot, things start to fall apart.

New Deck: the Sun and Moon Tarot

Well. I finally broke from my five-deck mentality. I don’t know how I feel about that. I don’t wish to amass a huge collection of Tarot decks. As of now, though, all of my decks still fit within a small box, but there is room for no more.

I had no intention of getting any more decks, but I stumbled across a picture from the Sun and Moon Tarot (SaM) by Vanessa Decort (published by U.S. Games, 2010). I was mesmerized by the artwork. I wanted it. I’ve been mesmerized by Tarot art before, but I’ve never been compelled to buy a deck because of it. There’s something different about this deck that I can’t quite put words to yet.

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

This deck is a hybrid of CHT and RWS symbolism, with the creator’s own twists here and there. It is the only deck I have that was clearly influenced by Mr. Crowley (aside from his own deck, of course). Decort’s artistic experience comes from illustrating children’s books. With this in mind, it can be easy to think of this deck as childish, but I don’t think it really is at all. Almost all of the figures pictured within appear to be pretty young (the only exception that immediately comes to my mind being the Hermit), and while I do feel like this gives the deck a youthful energy, I do not think it works to alienate older people (but then again, I’m still pretty young myself, so what do I know).

I feel as though this deck has a stronger feminine energy than most, with an emphasis on the Moon in “Sun and Moon”, but I think both genders are fairly equally represented among the human figures. Also significant about the people are their skin tones. This deck is openly multi-cultural, both with its symbolism and with its depictions of people. As much as I like my European heritage, I find this very refreshing. They are mostly dressed in contemporary styles of clothing, which, when combined with everything else about these people, results in a very modern vibe. All that being said, however, the SaM never loses sight of its traditional Tarot roots.

The last thing I have to say about the people is that they do not have faces. Some find this odd, but it actually appeals to me, although I can’t say why. The body language is sufficient to evoke the necessary emotions in these cards, and the blank faces leave some room for interpretation.

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This is arguably my favorite rendition of the Star yet – SaM

These figures are small. In most Tarot decks, the people take up the majority of the space in a card, but that is not the case here. These cards are dominated by open, almost surreal landscapes. It makes me feel like I’m looking into a dream. I love it.

I’m not sure how I’ll be using this deck yet. I tried a couple of readings last night, and kept turning up the 8 of Swords, called “Interference” (keywords from the CHT are used on the small cards, and illustrations are inspired by the RWS). It seems to be sensitive to my inner turmoil. I get the feeling this deck is best used in a relaxed, calm, almost meditative state. That is the energy the cards exude, at any rate, and I think they may work best when that energy is reciprocated. Unfortunately, I’m not quite there at the moment.

Overall, I really, really like the SaM, and while I feel uneasy about expanding my collection,* I feel like this one is here for a reason. It seems comfortable in its spot among my other Tarot decks.

 

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Left to right, top to bottom: RWS, TdM, rws, GE, WWT, CHT, SaM.

 

*Actually, if I consider the mini rws, I have a total of seven decks. That is a number that pleases me, as it is significant in many spiritual systems around the world. I realize that my occupation with the number of decks in my collection is strange. I don’t care. As I explained in my discussion of the WWT, I do not want too many Tarot decks. It just doesn’t sit well with me.