If there’s one thing I have learnt when unwrapping a new tarot deck it’s that my first impression is very rarely the lasting one. I require a period of distance and detachament, time for the publication hype (or lack of) to settle, time for other people to forget, so that – far from the squealing – I can take the deck on my own terms. Having said that, I remember my first reaction to Lo Scarabeo’s recent Tarot of Fire release and I was favourably, quietly impressed right out of the box, but then probably had to put it aside and do something more important. I suppose what I’m talking about really is my own decision as to whether a deck will be useable in the long term and how best to approach it to get the most out of it. I have noticed on quite a number of occasions now that I have had to come back to a deck a few month after its release, found a way in and only then ended up loving it.
I am hoping that will happen with this deck. It is the deck I have chosen to take with me on my annual retreat up the coast (now that I have more time) to see what I can make of it without all my other decks clamouring for attention.
The blurb is fairly predictable; “78 Arcana to become one with the energy of the world”, fire as the element “that granted man the opportunity to rise above other animals in dignity and thought.” The mythical first spark, the quest for civilization, burning as creating, burning as destroying, bigotted burning during the Inquisition, hellfire, hearth fire, illuminating the darkness and so forth. It’s an interesting starting point but what has preyed on my mind since I first heard of this deck is whether there is going to be a ”Tarot of Water”, a “Tarot of Earth” and a “Tarot of Air”, whether I can look forward to a glorious 312 card deck with all the elements equally represented. Because I find myself wondering whether just having a Tarot of Fire with the emphasis on that particular element isn’t a bit restrictive, elementally speaking. I hope to discover if that is indeed the case by spending more time with it.
At this stage, all I can really do is respond to it as a new tarot deck (newish for me; I bought it a couple of months ago as soon as it came out). The artwork by Franco Rivolli, I have to say, is stunning. I remember looking at it for the first time and finding the artwork very striking. It feels rich and exotic, mysterious and starkly symbolic. Some images, such as The Chariot and the haunting Four of Cups (depicting a fire ritual from the Celtic festival Imbolc) remind me of antique colonial art from the New World, with intriguing references from faraway places and I feel like a settler, historian or archeologist wondering what on earth is happening in these images and wanting to try and unravel their secrets. Many belief systems are represented; Hindu, Oriental, Christian, Celtic, indigenous Indian, legends from Russia, Mexico and many other places.
The images fascinate me (and the LWB gives only the very basics, but it will be interesting to research further). Apart from my concern that the deck might be elementally limiting I also want to resist the urge to have to study, out of duty, and get bogged down with myths and legends and be paralysed from reading with it. There is an elegant simplicity in some of the images, no unnecessary clutter; ample use of flames, gods, sunrises, bolts and fireballs, but the images are never repetitive and the (appropriately) burnt sienna borders work beautifully. The backs show a reversible phoenix made up of flames. Those who are getting a little tired of the topless comic book females in some Lo Scarabeo decks will find in the Tarot of Fire a very different aesthetic. There are no topless, supine ladies. In fact, most of the nudity is male (not total nudity as you and I understand it), with the emphasis on strength and prowess and it feels very in line with the imagery. In the 8 of Pentacles, for example, Hephaestus is depicted creating thunderbolts for Zeus and is shown with muscles rippling from having worked at the anvil. The naked athletes in the 6 of Pentacles are in the context of victory and the Olympic flame (funny, but I find that I think of this card as the 6 of Wands; it seems more relevant for the Rider Waite Smith meaning of the 6 of Wands, but I’m sure the artist knew what he was doing). Prometheus, chained to the rock for having stolen fire from the gods, is going to need his muscles to writhe and try to escape his eternal punishment.
The overall feel of the deck is exotic, sensual, full of explosions, tongues of fire, surges and sparks. The meanings in the LWB are minimal. For example; the mysterious man in the Chariot card (not actually a Chariot but a raft) is described as embarking upon ”The initiative journey of Kaydara (myth of the Fulbe, an African people). The raft is a symbol of a voyage that the soul must take to purify itself.” For the Magician we see Hermes Trismegistus and the Emerald Tablets with alchemical references; “through fire, all will be reborn in its entirety”.
There is a great deal of storytelling material in this deck, and it would require quite a lot of learning but I find that if the art chimes then it invariably feels worth it and it is, without a doubt, a deck which has great depth and scope for interpretation, maybe appealing to those born under fire signs. However, I wonder whether the symbolism and vocabulary of the fire theme is limited; vengeful gods, possessive gods, fire as energy, life force, passion, seduction, anger. There’s only one way to tell. The more I look at the Tarot of Fire the more I want to give it a chance and see where it takes me. Of all recent Lo Scarabeo releases this is the deck that pulls me back the most, a very coherent deck, a deck that gives me that feeling which I so love when faced with art and (certain!) tarot cards; there are secrets here to be sifted through, deciphered, violent myths at work to show eternal allegories. There is strangeness and sensuality and all manner of fantastical things here which I want to get to the bottom of!