Those Holy Grail Decks


Greenwood. Ironwing. Magna Veritas. Granny Jones. The names have developed that ring of luxury brands – they are the decks (one could add more; Pam A, Dusserre Dodal, Thomson Leng, Bohemian Gothic Silver) which are the stuff of tarot fan dreams. The decks which will transform you as a reader. They are the decks which will unlock your intuition like never before, take you to reading heights that a simple mass market deck simply won’t reach.

Not true of course. I find myself reflecting on this subject as one who has, over the years, ended up owning (or accumulating, depends on your point of view) quite a few decks including probably all of the rare ones which, for variable periods of time, eluded me. A recent blog post of mine which contained the deck illustrated above elicited a great many messages – oh my god what is that deck? – and it is of course the elusive Magna Veritas Tarot deck. A deck I searched for – missed the boat at the time (disappointed with the cardstock of the first decks, the Boltcutter Dark and Light decks – see below – so let the Magna Veritas slip by) and only ended up finding a copy relatively recently. Do I read with it? Has it changed my life? Not really, although as a thing of beauty it was worth it.

Very few of us dare to admit we were carried along by the hype because we are of course above all of that. We desire it for altogether different reasons. By chance the deck we yearn for happens to be rare. It’s nothing short of a terrible, unfortunate coincidence. An affliction if you will. To be doomed to only ever be able to read well with the Greenwood or Ironwing which we have only seen on screen. Sometimes, as in the case of the Nasuntara, a second edition is published to great elation and the magic withers. I admit, I have bought decks because of infectious murmurings which have proved impossible to resist. Fortunately, for the most part, I have bought decks as and when they came out and so have been spared the frustration of coming to tarot after all the best decks have been published (I wonder if it feels like that to a newcomer?) I have seen how the least likely decks become desirable. And that you can’t make something desirable, though many try. I want to avoid using the word collectible – it makes them sound like something that languishes on a shelf as a trophy which, in many sad cases, they are. My 1st edition Nusantra is. It is a Rider Waite Smith with South East Asian curvaceousness. Something perhaps pounced on for its exoticism. Yet some of these desirable decks blow you away with their originality. The Greenwood and the Ironwing deserve to be mythical. They are quite unlike anything else. But that doesn’t mean you or I can read with them. However, the money required up front to try them and see is probably more than most people’s monthly tarot budget. But still they hover and tantalise, while some try to fabricate desirability, limited editions, special editions. Only a good reading deck makes it – but don’t they say you can read with anything?


One reader who posted on my blog asking the name of the Magna Veritas deck, subsequently deleted their post as soon as I replied with the name. So my answer hung there like a random comma, making no sense until I deleted it too. Were they embarrassed by their yearnings? Or did they want nobody else to know the name and beat them to it? I tend not to make my yearnings public, just because it’s good to affirm that what we have is enough. Being seen gasping for more is never a good look, though we are all guilty I suppose. I know life isn’t going to change with a new deck. We have to remind ourselves again and again that what we most want is what we have. For those who read best with the perennially available standards – the Rider Waite Smith and the Thoth or, best of all, a deck of playing cards – are very blessed. For the rest of us, there is always the belief that we might lose our favourite deck and not be able to get a replacement, or that the deck we read best with is already three figures on ebay so we will have to give readings that are slightly below the standard of what we could really be giving if that desired decks were ours. The universe will have failed us. It’s all nonsense of course. The decks may be beautiful, but it isn’t a beautiful deck that gives a beautiful reading. Something worth remembering. And repeating instead of Namaste.


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The Burning Serpent Oracle.


I received this deck only a few days ago. I had been sort of following the funding campaign, but I am the world’s worst funding follower. I sort of vaguely grasp the concept during the brief lapses of my fevered deck shopping but am never an active participant. Unforgivable I know, but I’m of the “let me know when it’s out” school of deck purchasers. Plus there have been stories of people funding decks by lesser known creators which then disappear into the ether, leaving the backers sans money and sans deck. Does one really have to pay money up front before it is published? I’m never quite sure. I can’t imagine myself doing that, but then I have never read the small print. I don’t do preordering either. I’m happy to get on with life and buy the deck when it is in circulation. However, I must add, there was never any doubt that this deck would be published in my mind and I open myself to criticism in my reluctance to jump on board funding campaigns such as this while later gorging on the results. But here it is. Out and available. So I shall compensate by being vocal in my love of it. I read on Place and Pollock’s website for the project that the deck would be printed in Germany and the book in China, then last week I spotted some amazon marketplace sellers from Germany who had the deck in stock, so I assume the two facts are connected and that the deck arrived hot off the German press as it were.

Yes, I love it. I giddily started a thread over at the Forum. Silence. I have no idea why. Not pure Lenormand? But then the creators stated this from the start. To be honest, I expected something even less Lenormand after all that I had read, but when it arrived I flicked through the cards and knew that I would find it eminently readable. And that is from someone who likes their Lenormand decks stark and (since this quality is getting harder to find), largely historical. While I like my tarot decks florid and layered, I generally like my Lenormands with lots of white background. A bit like my notions of interior design. I can forego the brocade wallpaper, the different coloured walls and textures; I like to exhibit all my favourite objects against whiteness, so that their beauty appears more concentrated. While tarot for me might be the cluttered collector’s cabinet and museum storeroom, with its iconography going back centuries – I like my Lenormands to be capable of a single line of simple symbolism not unlike the line of exhibits on the white walls of a contemporary commercial gallery.

And yet despite this, I love the fact that this deck has had layers added. First impressions were of a deck which has intensified the traditional Lenormand imagination, just turned up the symbolic volume. The images are mostly recognisable – although I initially confused the Dead Tree with The Tree but it actually replaces the coffin. I thought The Girl & Boy was a new card (it reminded me of The Sun tarot card) but then realised that it was the Child. If I knew my numbering better, I might have been more on the ball. Within a few minutes I had oriented myself. The Burning Serpent has taken the Lenormand deck and made it more mystical, more spiritual and – in certain cards – more mythological (“a Lenormand of the soul” is its subheading). The Rider is Hermes aloft Pegasus, Hecate stands at the Crossroads. I thought the Sun card depicted Apollo, but it is actually Helios, according to the LWB. The changes are – for me – unintrusive. I surprise myself in embracing this new reworking of the Lenormand deck, its shift in focus. I have a sense that the Lenormand arena is now ready for a deck like this, and it doesn’t try to take anything away from the tradition or change reading styles. Nor does it believe itself to be “restoring” anything as those “true” Marseilles decks do.


I think that Robert Place’s eternally crisp and sharp lines ensure that this deck would never have the appearance of an overwrought, overdone deck in terms of its symbolism and readability. In lesser hands this deck might have fallen flat but we have two tarot luminaries working together here to create something harmonious, something that readers can really use. There is a 26 minute video on their site for the deck, showing Rachel Pollock doing a wonderfully languid reading which I found captivating to watch. You don’t have any sense of an authority at work here – in fact from the outset you have a sense of someone exploring a relatively new universe – and there is this over-riding feeling of experimentation and discovery, of seeing where the cards take you. As ever in Place’s work, I like the clarity and boldness of the images, the thick outlines and accomplished draughtsmanship. There are two Man and Woman cards which can face each other for gay relationship readings (I recognise the portrait in the Man card but cannot for the life of me identify it – somebody late Victorian or Edwardian, a writer perhaps. I’ve seen it before. It isn’t H.G Wells but it is somebody from that period.) The deck also comes with two extra cards – Isis and Osiris whose poses are based on the original Man and Woman cards. I have taken out the traditional Man and Woman cards and intend to use these additional Isis and Osiris cards in their place as I like their exoticism set against the other mythological touches.


The cards themselves measure 11 cm by 7 cm. The cardstock is exemplary – very light lamination and with a certain stiffness. When stacked, this 36 card deck is virtually the same height as a regular playing card deck so you can imagine that the thickness of the cardstock is a little more than the usual Lenormand deck. However, it isn’t stiff in an unwieldy sense, although would people really try and riffle shuffle a Lenormand deck anyway? It is comfortable to shuffle normally for me – the usual 36 card Lenormand decks can sometimes be a little too thin to shuffle if you’re used to tarot. Plus these cards are bigger and so essentially it feels just like shuffling a normal pack of playing cards. The backs are exquisite; Hermes framed in elaborate Kelmscott-style scroll work. The deck comes with a 14 page booklet which gives a short introduction and explanation for what the deck is proposing in the context of Lenormand card reading. There are also 5 pages of divinatory meanings – no great breaks with tradition here, pretty much all the classic meanings. There is then an introduction to reading with the Lenormand and an explanation of how to do the Grand Tableau as well as tips on the advantages of shorter three, five or seven card spreads. There then follows a section called “The Special Qualities of the Burning Serpent” – how to read with this particular deck, ignoring tradition, responding to the pictures, as well as the spiritual and mythological dimensions to a reading. It covers itself well – it doesn’t say you should ignore the Lenormand tradition – it reminds us that when there was a great boom in Lenormand decks (late 19th Century), we shouldn’t forget that this was also a time of great esoteric thinking and ideas alongside a fascination with the Egyptian and Greek civilizations. The booklet then ends with a list of which cards within the deck have had mythological touches added to them for you to bring those archetypes – if desired – into your reading.


Reservations? Surprisingly few. If you hold the cards in your hand you can feel how easy it would be to go either way – down the traditional Lenormand route, or bringing to the forefront some of the more mystical connotations of the cards. I like this dimension and feel that it could encroach upon a reading effortlessly and not be an issue or detract. The days you want a “purer” Lenormand reading – for want of a better word – you simply reach for the Dondorf. There are some tiny, entirely iconographic details which caught my attention, although I won’t go as far as to say that they bother me. I miss the multiplicity in the Stars card – there are no stars scattered across the sky. It depicts Archangel Michael. The “chattiness” of the Birds card is lost – we have an owl swooping with prey – it feels more in line with the notion of delivery/messages which I personally get from the Lenormand Rider cards. The point of the scythe is out of the picture frame – a tiny detail but I like to see sharpness. For the rest, I like the deck very much – it feels very cerebral – and look foward to getting my hands on Rachel Pollock’s book to bring added depth to my readings.

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On Being Read to

ColinCampbellCooperFortune Teller1921
I have a hard time understanding card readers who have never been to an unknown card reader (that is, someone who knows nothing whatsoever about us) in order to sate their curiosity. I sometimes read for people but don’t charge – so I’m off the hook as far as value for money goes. But those who charge and have never experienced a real live reading, where – I feel compelled to ask – is your curiosity? It’s like being a butcher and never having watched a butcher at work. It’s like being an actor and never having watched a film or been to the theatre. As I write this, I ask myself, I may well have got it all completely wrong; surely all card readers must at some stage have done this – gone along, paid, sat silently, listened, analysed and picked up tips? Watching YouTube videos doesn’t count (too generic). Nor does having a friend read for you (too much vested interest or hidden agenda; your best friend may well want that relationship to flounder. They often do.) I am referring to silver crossing the palm of the reader who knows nothing whatsoever about you.

I love having anonymous readings. For all kinds of reasons – and least of all is the plan to catch someone out. It’s not about that. I first got interested in tarot at the age of 13. By 15, I had had my first reading from a psychic who read with playing cards. This was the early 1980s when life was still fun and nobody had anxiety attacks over a 15 year old going to a stranger’s house for a tarot card reading, least of all my parents. The psychic in question also used to do palmistry at school fetes and saw murder and suicide and (understandably) didn’t utter a word. For my first reading, she dealt a cheap pack of poker cards onto a teak coffee table (no spread cloths, no amethysts), gaze into the mid-distance and words just tumbled out. I’m not sure she even looked at the cards. There was an element of the superb about her; she seemed to go into a sort of trance. There was certainly no numerology or elemental associations. Stuff just came out. I shall never be able to read like that, I concluded listlessly, back home, contemplating my Grimaud Etteilla and its elaborate pairings and keywords (“Tartar Horseman”, “Cup of Balthazar”) which meant nothing in my 16th year. Perhaps only card number 1, “Chaos” in the “hormone” position might have made some sense to me.

Then, years later, after I had got back into tarot with a vengeance, I had another reading. I was on my way home and stumbled across a small metaphysical fair with a few tents that had readers in them plying their wares. I went into a tent to ask the price – general reading, 10 euros – and with time to spare and curiosity getting the better of me, I sat down. Mostly it’s other readers’ tools that fascinate me; he used a Majors only plaid-backed Rider Waite Smith deck with French titles (though he wasn’t French). He got me to shuffle, then he fanned the deck out, I had to choose seven cards which he arranged in a horse shoe, some reversed. There were some very non-specific observations; nothing that made any sense to me particularly. Or rather, it could have been a reading for anyone. I nodded politely, because I’m like that. Then he got out a pendulum, dangled it over each and every card and came out with some very concise home truths. After three or four minutes, the reading was over and it was enough. No endless reiterating, rewording or needless verbosity.

During all this time, of course I would read for myself but I valued others’ objectivity. I’m also curious as to how they fill the time. How long is a reading? How long is a piece of string? Will they venture into gentle, soothing platitudes and ask me to draw an Angel card at the end thus render everything risible that came before? And I love looking at the tools and accessories; the deck (do I recognise it? Do I yearn for it?), the bag, reading cloth and how cumbersome their rituals are. I have had to clutch at someone’s wrist while they drag a pendulum over fanned cards. Another reading which I experienced had the cards laid out upon a brown doormat on the table. In another more memorable reading I was asked to think of a question to which I promptly replied “yes, where did you get your spreadcloth from?” I love the fact they have no idea that I have three decades of experience with tarot. In a more recent reading, I was shuffling the Majors and the reader scrutinised my shuffling and asked me if I was experienced at this. I said no – just years of playing cards. Then later, after the reading, I admitted I knew a little. Because one can never resist doing one’s own synopsis of the cards. And I have found that it is this which we invariably take away from the reading. We may sit patiently through another reader’s interpretation, but later, back home, the dust having settled, the cards are seen (for me anyway), with hindsight as what we ourselves think of them. Therefore, I suppose ultimately I have to question the value of someone else reading for us. I drew the 10 of Swords as a clarification card at the end of a reading recently; don’t even try to give it a positive spin for me. I know what it means in the context of my life. I know why the High Priestess has come up twice in the same Celtic Cross position in the last two readings. But it’s all fascinating and helps us learn. If I ever decided to read for other people and charge (don’t see that happening, I’m fine with the day job) I think I would have a pretty good idea of what not to do, what not to say. I have seen baroque card-drawing rituals kill a substantial amount of valuable reading time. I have also had a reading with all the cards face up and me having to choose cards to represent my past, present and future and verbalise why. If it had been tarot, it would have been a hopeless exercise as the cards are so engrained in my thinking, but it was an unfamiliar oracle deck and a fascinating exercise. This wasn’t a reading as such (I had a Celtic Cross afterwards), just a fun psychological exercise.There will be more occasions when I willing offer myself up as querent and there is always so much to get us thinking. Anyone who hasn’t played at being the shuffling, ill-at-ease client (who really knows nothing) in front of strangers, doesn’t know what they are missing.

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The Tyldwick Tarot; is there anybody there?

??????????????????????I have felt myself pulling away of late, tired of tarot, tired of novelty, tired of saturation, a need to be alone and not to have to put words to things. Plus life of course and no overwhelming urge to aquire many new deck releases. But the Tyldwick, a deck I received very soon after it was released, has been beckoning me. I watched its development closely, swooned over its romantic atmospheres and forsaken, echoing corridors, even though it seemed as if it would never ever be concluded. Like a ruin in reverse; it appeared to take forever to come to fruition. But I sat by patiently and once it was released (I think I balked at the price a little) I bought it. After receiving it and admiring it, I put it to one side and forget what happened next – perhaps dull reality or Lenormand took over. So often my love of decks works on what I call (to myself) the bloated corpse theory. I receive a deck, it goes on the shelf with a determined vow and then other things take over and it seems to sink from trace. Then, later, usually much later, it rises to the surface like a bloated corpse from the depths of the river bed. Often I have all but forgotten about it and it rises unexpectedly and I find that I love it. This has happened many times now; I have received decks and positively disliked them, then months later, something has made me sit bolt upright and think of them and I have subsequently embarked upon a long term love. Some decks, it has to be said, never rise, just as some corpses are never discovered. For a while I struggled to understand this, but I now see it as me having to understand and come to terms with things in my own little vacuum. I have to wait until the chatter dies down. I need a sort of silence, far from giddy threads, to work out exactly what I think of things.


This is what has happened with the Tyldwick Tarot. I think I might have been disappointed with the size of the cards at first, perhaps I expected a sharper clarity of image. Plus there was work and a house move. Over the last few weeks I have been passionate about the Tyldwick Tarot and I begin to think of it as one of the most original tarot decks to be released in a very long time. There is no other deck quite like it; I see it as the antithesis of the noisy, colourful, special effect decks that we have seen so much of. Decks whose colours “pop” and who clamour for attention. So many tarot aficionados talk about “chatty”, blunt decks that “tell it like it is.” The Tyldwick is not one of these. It is not prone to chat. It has a peculiar depth, a mournful magic and is perhaps the only deck I know which seems to communicate through silence. I love this. The flaking walls and abandoned salons, the personality of the courts conveyed through symmetrical fireplace settings and obscuring mirrors. It is an uncomfortable deck. People have just left the room and we are not sure what is left behind to confront. I think it is as hard a nut to crack as some of the more up-front cerebral decks like the Haindl. But the advantage we have is that nobody writes about it. There is no instruction manual. It comes to us in silence (though if you listen carefully you might hear the trickle of a courtyard fountain). You have to sit in silence, contemplate it in silence and see what emanates. The creator himself seems largely silent. I respect this enormously. It has been sent out into the world and we have to decode its language ourselves and perhaps not quite get there. I also think that one of the reasons I love it so much is that it reminds me of a number of English stately homes I visited in my childhood, the faded chintz and chinoiserie, the ongoing struggle of families to maintain 18th Century furnishings in the austerity of the 1970s. I remember once visiting a dilapitated house that was still inhabited by one of the last surviving descendents of Lady Jane Grey’s family, and who died shortly afterwards. The stairwells, sculleries, plant pots behind the stables, hot houses and mosaic floors, the walled gardens, chipped statuary and abandonment to death duties – this is the world that the Tyldwick Tarot depicts. It is a strictly uninhabited world, apart from the nightmare vision of the 9 of Swords where a naked man squats with his head in his hands. This is one of only two cards with a tangible human presence (the other being the Hanged Man) and I feel that I have been craving a deck like this, free of human ego and foibles, where all that is left is the wreckage.


I winced last week when I read negative coments about this deck – and bit my tongue – because what many people object to in this deck is precisely what I love in it; its coldness, its deadness, the feeling of things crumbling, the impossibility of laying your hands on things and saying (as so many people want to when they come for a tarot reading) – this is solid, this is true. Nothing is solid, nothing is true, it is all fading away, all heading towards irrelevance and obscurity. I love the artful symmetry, the sense of layers flaking. Many people seem to find it a difficult deck to read, but I love the lack of explicit narrative; except perhaps if you squint you can see a number of faded tapestries in the background which might add a touch of narrative to the meanings. But don’t expect to see somebody weighed down with ten Wands. Nobody juggles two Pentacles; instead we have a potted plant hoisted by two connecting pulleys. The Seven of Swords doesn’t depict “craftiness”or “sneakiness”, it reminds me more of the Thoth Seven of Swords, a manuscript with calculations (and beetle scuttling); the idea of Science. As I get older, I find that I prefer slabs of atmosphere in cards rather than things happening. There isn’t a single card in the Tyldwick which doesn’t work for me and there are many which I find truly inspired. I love The World card – Shiva, goddess of destruction, enclosed in a garland between ionic columns and assumpting (isn’t that what goddesses do?) over geometric shapes. The Lovers depicts a statue of moon mistress Artemis over the mantlepiece, flanked by two portraits, lovers confined in their frames. Mirrors blur reflections, faces look at us from beyond. The cardstock – for those who want to know about practical matters – is exemplary. Perfection with gilt edges. Of course if the cards were bigger, you’d be able to see more, but it’s like having to sweep cobwebs away, all part of the atmosphere. You have to look closely to see how the muted colouring is set off by juxtaposition of textures, stone against sky, marble against wallpaper. The Tyldwick is unique amongst tarot decks; it is a deck that haunts us and which we the reader feel we haunt. Its wordlessness should be celebrated, its silence treasured.

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The Destroyed Dondorf

Lenny 4 - Copy

When I first spotted this for sale, I thought of it as The Scrawled Dondorf. It haunted my dreams, crept into my thinking when I had other more important things to attend to. The urge to own something so unuseable and unshuffleable. If any deck cries out for retirement (couched in plush velvet), this is it. How exhausted, how drained of all magic, how wrung dry and sated it looks. And that is why I love it. Will it grant us one last gasp, I wonder? And if so, what can it tell? Such a change from the usual decks we come across shrouded in shrink-wrap, clean and pasteurised. Of course it’s the grubbiness I love; something battered and decrepid, filthy, taped-up and limping, corners broken like butterfly wings, an overturned inkwell having spilt onto The Tower card and dyed it blue. Did somebody place a cup of tea on The Mountain card? Yet what I love most of all is that it bears messages. By all accounts, this is a Dondorf from the late 19th Century, maybe 1880 (it is the earlier “export” edition that has Frankfurt spelt Francfort) and someone took it upon themselves to write divinatory meanings on the cards. The deck turned up in Budapest but the writing on it is in German. And it is old writing, old German. I do not read German but it appears from those who have seen just a few cards that the writing may be a version of already existing rhymes and not something entirely random or made up “intuitively” by the reader. The Dondorf is without a doubt – as I have said before to anyone who will listen – my favourite Lenormand. I don’t really feel the need for any other pattern. The Dondorf is enough. It has all the graciousness required of 19th Century cartomancy and none of the naive folkishness. The quality of the engraving is good enough to grace the drawing room. It doesn’t embarrass itself with awkwardness. The cards have a unity, a homogeneity that many other decks of the period lack. No scrawny Child card here or prehistoric, mechanical Birds (I am thinking of the Wüst here). There is something languid and charming and utterly well-rounded about the Dondorf. The perspective stands up to scrutiny. The Dondorf company used to market it as the one true Lenormand. I believe them.

But that writing. Why does it mesmerise me so much?  As one who has always had a morbid love of old documents –  diaries, old love letters, anything that allows curlicue words to communicate with us beyond the grave, to speak to us directly across the centuries – this deck captivated me from the start. But there didn’t seem to be anyone else interested (nobody bid) so maybe it’s only me (I thought). It was one of those cases of – Shall I? Shalln’t I? –  almost bought it then almost didn’t. I was stalking the deck for a couple of weeks before I recognised that I simply had to have it. And the fact that Lauren Forestell, sharing my excitement, spoke of the possibility of maybe tidying the cards up a bit and pushed me over the edge; I could have a working version but also be able to look at the originals up close. She wouldn’t restore them as such, certainly not clean them, just give a little cosmetic retouching, replacing broken corners, smoothing the frayed edges. As the deck stands, it is too fragile to use. Having a useable version to be able to read with was something that the two of us discussed, but then there must be others who are interested in using a deck like this. What was (in my mind) the Scrawled Dondorf became for Lauren the Destroyed Dondorf as she started working on scans.

Fish example

But that writing. It is the writing that makes the deck. I have been reading a book about Borley Rectory, the most haunted house in England, now no longer in existence (burnt down in 1939) and in my mind the deck and the haunting became curiously linked. Spirit writing appeared on the walls at Borley during the tenancy of the unstable Marianne Foyster, eerie scribblings on the stair wall ; “Light mass prayers… Please help get”…. My mind involuntarily associated the beautiful handwriting on this deck with the spirit writing and haunting at Borley, something cursive from beyond the grave. And even before the deck arrives I find myself convinced that this deck comes with a ghost. Don’t they always, these old, well-used decks? Haunted by the vibrations of fevered shuffles, querents hands cupped in anguish. Something is trying to speak to us. How odd the way our mind merges things.

As it wings its way in this direction, I have time to let my imagination run away a little. Keep an eye open here on the Game of Hope site. It should be available some time soon. And I shall post here once the original has arrived and I have had time to inhale a little of its spookiness.

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Press Pause


For some time now I have been feeling less of a compulsion to write here. I have been feeling something akin to obligation. This bothers me. I receive a new deck and wonder whether I ought to put words to what I think and write a review here. Or maybe just enjoy it in silence. I do readings for myself and find that I’d rather keep it private. How odd in the age of facebook. Something I have been reflecting on recently is how my relationship with tarot, Lenormand or just cards has changed. I think about how much it used to thrill me when I first discovered card-reading. It still thrills me, but in different ways. I first got interested in tarot in the very early 1980s and the information that I absorbed at this time was very much a product of that late 70s, early 80s scene which was dominated by Kaplan and the decks of the period, 1JJ Swiss, Royal Fez Moroccan, plus The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Volume I (and no others). There were no study groups that I knew of. I learnt tarot alone. I studied meanings alone. There was no internet, no forums, no networking groups and all the other elements which have given a sense of community to card-reading over the last few years. Being an essentially solitary person, I feel an urge to return to the introspection which I think is such a instrinsic part of my relationship with tarot and which has been obfuscated by watching (and inadvertently hearing) others learn in groups. I have nothing against it and I am not criticising anyone who does it. We all learn in different ways. But I feel a need for silence right now. I feel a need to continue my journey in a vacuum for a while, to block out the noise, the crackle of interference and let tarot and card-reading speak to me on more intimate terms. In short, I want to be alone for a while. I’m sure it is just for a while, in order to loosen that uncomfortable grip of perpetually  feeling that I really ought to write a post. I received a deck last week – a wonderful deck – a deck that excited me and (rubbing my hands) thought that, over the weekend, I would dutifully write a review. Then I received a new tarot book the day after, which got me thinking in different directions. Maybe I could write a review of that? Or maybe I could just keep quiet and inwardly digest, overcome the urge to say what I think and just read and come to my conclusions in silence, pull away like a boat from the shore. Oh but I see the Magic Realist Press are about to issue the third edition of the Bohemian Gothic Tarot which I love so much. Surely I won’t be able to contain myself when that one comes out? Well if I do feel I want to shout from the rooftops, I suppose I will do. But I think a period of silence and isolation is what attracts me right now. This has come about in part (OK, I shall be honest) from my own reaction to much of the Lenormand learning I see around me – disparate voices, disparate interpretations, a sense of clambouring – and some advice I have said to newbies again and again; learn in a vacuum. If you keep listening to all those voices out there, you’ll find yourself in a muddle. But like I say, people learn in different ways and who am I to stipulate what works best? I know how I learn and I want to do what’s best for me to keep my love of card-reading intact. This almost sounds like a retirement. It isn’t meant to. It’s a brief pause for breath from which I shall bounce back. Or not. I have a full life and I don’t to waste unnecessary effort on galloping to try and keep up with myself. Plus I have enough obligations. And life is too short for obligations. Above all, I want silence. And a rest. I want to bolt the door and look awhile at my cards without the disorting mirror of very public appreciation. I think I learn better that way. I shall be back I’m sure.


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Musings on The Moon Card

allegoryofinconstancyAbrahamJanssens1617We go through phases of favourite cards, but there is always one that anchors us to the tarot; the card we identify with, the card whose various facets – whether upright or reversed – speak to us on any given day at any given time. There is something about the Moon card in the tarot which never fails to pulls me in, as indeed it should because that is what moons do; pull us in and subject us to tides, to cycles and rhythms. And it is nothing to do with my zodiac sign. Moons captivate (in a way that Temperance never can) and have done throughout history. So for all the talk of lunacy, there is some comfort in life to be found in the rhythms and cycles. Then there is the crayfish. What exactly is it doing there, between watch towers, between howling dogs? I’ve heard all the explanations – hard outside, soft ego inside – but still something is found wanting. I also remember reading years ago about how the crayfish moves between land and water – as we ourselves shift between states of consciousness. Then today, quite unexpectedly, I came across the above painting, An Allegory of Inconstancy (1617) by the Flemish artist Abraham Janssens, which gave me a tarot flash across the centuries. How strange to see the figure holding a moon in one hand, a crayfish in the other. How very tarot. So the crayfish must, by extension, be a symbol of fickleness and whim. It makes sense. In César Rippa’s description of inconstancy in Iconologia, he refers to the crab (not crayfish) as “an animal that walks forwards and backwards with the same inclination as those who are irresolute and love contemplation.” So do Crayfish walk backwards like crabs?


All this made me reflect on how I have seen card meanings and symbology change over the last few decades. I think of meanings I used to see in books in the 1970s, (like “false friends” for the Moon), meanings you don’t hear mentioned much nowadays. Plus the moon itself has been hijacked somewhat as a feminine force in contemporary tarot decks and I see it drifting increasingly, permanently in that direction. The fact that the figure in this allegorical painting is female is probably an extension of the age-old stereotype that women are fickle and inconstant and therefore not to be trusted with important things like politics and landowning. So maybe we should question the moon’s traditionally feminine qualities. There might be a little bit of misogyny in there somewhere. We should also remember that in some cultures, the sun is in fact feminine and the moon is masculine. In the Aryan of India, in Ancient Egyptian, Arabian, Slavonian, Latin, Lithuanian, Gothic, Teutonic, Swedish and the South American cultures, the moon was a male deity. In the English language, influenced by classical models, the moon has become more feminine so we have come to accept this as one of its chief symbolic characteristics. But it wasn’t always like this. In a Serbian song we hear a girl exclaim “O brilliant sun! I am fairer than thou, than thy brother, the bright moon” In a Slav song, we hear “‘My mother is the beauteous Sun, and my father the bright Moon.” But the moon has become associated with femininity in more modern times (and decks) perhaps because of its 28 day cycles. Whatever the reason, this painting by Abraham Janssens made me stop in my tracks and reflect a little more on the symbolism of the Moon card, how almost every Moon card from the historic decks, up to and including the Rider Waite Smith deck, has a crayfish prominantly displayed. The Vacchetta (an exception) doesn’t and has the Sun as Apollo and the Moon as Diana. The Cosmic crayfish (see below, together with The 1jj Swiss on the right and the Lasenikův on the left) is one of my favourites – the crayfish to end all crayfish. Never has a more Jurassic crayfish risen to the Moon’s spellbinding charms.


But the crayfish in the Janssens’ painting is intriguing – who is this figure sitting on billowing “inconstant” drapery (that holds no shape) and how does holding the moon in one hand and a crayfish in the other denote inconstancy? The word for crayfish in Latin is the same as crab (apparently) which links it to the moon in the zodiac. But then The Moon is linked to Pisces. I have also read that etymology links it to the scarab beetle. The word may well have the same root. I didn’t think that crayfish shed their outer casing, but certain sources say they do so they are also (invariably) a symbol of renewal. However, there is a danger of being led in more and more different directions and understanding the image less and less.


The fact is, the Moon card is perhaps the most mysterious in the tarot deck. For me it has always had connotations of weirdness and the crayfish only adds to it (especially when on a dinner plate such as in the Ancient Italian/1880 Serravalle Sesia Tarot and Soprafino decks – see image above). I rather like the meanings that nobody gives it anymore – lunacy, deceit, illusions and, of course, false friends, none of which are probably inferred by the crayfish. We have now tamed it to mean anything to do with the unconscious. But it seems in most cases to be the “safe”, gentle unconscious,  not the unconscious of compulsion and derangement and murder. New ageness wants it to mean intuition, not dangerous urges. When I first started buying tarot cards, this was the card that summed up everything mysterious about tarot cards. In the Soprafino decks it has – for me – the perfect amount of twilight eeriness. Something wrong. For me, that’s what a good moon card should have. Something is wrong in the half light. The Lasenikův is more explicitly spookier but then the whole deck is. The 1jj Swiss Moon card is another peculiar one; the man serenading (must be lunacy – why else would you possibly love?) but then there is the peculiar composition. Why is the crayfish set apart in a different picture plane? There is no water in this image, no towers, so why the need of a crayish? It isn’t moving between water and land. It is framed like something on the wall of a collector’s cabinet. It must be the inconstancy theme again. The inconstancy of the lover.

Looking at Janssens’ allegorical painting, I wonder why it wasn’t used in Kat Black’s Touchstone Tarot since it is from the same period as most of the other images as well as having all the required symbolism and being consistent with the overall atmosphere. I love the Moon card so much that it is rare for me to find a Moon card which I get nothing from. There is so much in it that speaks to me, so many layers that some of its symbolism will always be covered. It is the card with which I never draw a blank during readings. And yet, the Moon card in the Lenormand deck always leaves me a little stumped in comparison. I have to repress my tarot meaning for it. I have to force myself to think differently about it; it is reputation, it is work (why?) But in the tarot it is all the magic and strangeness and danger I desire in a deck compressed into one single image. I feel comforted when this card comes up in readings. A brief, illuminating flash of all that inner self to explore. It can be a prism for weirdness, shorthand for urges, compulsions, things we know are wrong but do them anyway; anarchy, irrationality. Surely there is still space in our overworked, regimented, hurried lives for just a little of this?

New Moon By Albert Aublet

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