Favourite decks; Part VI

The Tarot of the Thousand and One Nights. Card back.

Storytelling decks. Everyone should have one. That’s what we keep being told in companion books; or rather, we should all be able to read decks in a storytelling way. I see this more and more in tarot literature nowadays; you shuffle and deal the cards, lay them out in a spread and – whether beginner or advanced – imagine them as a story, weave them into a narrative. I have never been able to do this, I have to confess. There are decks with themes such as fairy tales or Camelot which are supposed to encourage the weaving of our tarot narratives, ignite a story that we should somehow be able to transform into a reading for another person. Let me take fairy tales as the most obvious example. Fairy tale decks are a bit of a problem for me for precisely that reason. I see 78 “stills” from fairy stories – some well-known and others usually drawn from Russian or Oriental folklore –  and I have to read the companion book to see which scene the card is depicting. The problem is, everytime I try to read with these decks I feel forever anchored in the narrative. I cannot work with them in divinatory mode – however much I may enjoy the imagery – as they are simply a slice of a story in aspic which has no real meanings for me beyond that slice. I cannot detach that moment from the narrative and abstract it into something useful for cartomancy. Plus I feel the unseen rest of the story – like a ball & chain – hampering my reading. I can never get anywhere with them.

However, there is one deck – ostensibly one of these storytelling decks – which I absolutely love and which reads effortlessly for me; The Tarot of the Thousand and One Nights by Lo Scarabeo (2005) created using illustrations by Léon Carré taken from an edition of Sir Richard Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights that was published between 1926-32.

Carré Illustration from the Book, “Tales of a Thousand and One Nights”

I have seen the deck criticised in various quarters; the usual complaints; big borders, multi-lingual titles, images too small etc. I have also noticed that people criticise the pitifully limited assistance which the LWB offers. I have seen editions of the Arabian Nights with Carré’s illustrations but exorbitantly priced. The problem is, you’d really need that exact edition as the images tie up with moments in very specific stories. There would be no point  acquiring a copy of the Arabian Nights with illustrations by another artist (and there have been many; Batten, Doré, Dulac to name just my favourites) as it would tell you nothing. In most cases they would have chosen to illustrate another moment altogether. It would have to be the complete Leon Carré edition which will invariably set you back a small fortune. The LWB does not tell you which story the images are from so you can’t even get a cheaper paperback version and try to identify which moment – out of approximately 200 tales –  is being depicted.

Original format of the Illustrations

However, I have to say, I realise a while ago that this is exactly why I like this deck so much. I do not feel hampered by a specific narrative. I use and love this deck and read (I believe) well with it and I have no idea which slice of which story I am looking at. But it doesn’t matter. The cards are so rich in drama, tension and something (I never know what) unfolding that they draw me in and I find myself unwittingly focusing on precisely these qualities in my readings. More and more I find that different decks serve different reading styles and this is my (mostly) non-Rider Waite Smith, up-in-the-air, otherworldy, exotic drama deck, which focuses on compelling, decisive moments in the ongoing narrative of life.

The deck has also been criticised for having shrunk the illustrations and made them difficult to see in detail. I look at this from a different perspective. Imagine if this deck were called the “Exotic Persian Art Deco Mini” deck, what a success it would be! This is how I see it; I think of it as a triumph of delicate, miniaturist illustration, 1920s Orientalism mixed with a certain “Ballet Russe” exoticism for western eyes and general fascination with the East. Ancient storytelling and myth merge with the latest trends circa 1926, fashionable broaches, plumed hats and pearls, billowing harem pantaloons and elegant slippers. I find that the more removed the setting for a deck is – historically and culturally –  the freer I feel when reading it and the more I can tune into it. I cannot think of anything less conducive to readings than a tarot deck with contemporary people doing contemporary things whilst wearing contemporary clothes. I want to be taken to far off lands and worlds I do not normally inhabit, interpreting lives I don’t live. Like literature, it should be universal.

The colouring of The Tarot of the Thousand and One Nights is gorgeous and Lo Scarabeo’s usual high standard of printing and cardstock make this a quality product. Yet the deck has been slated, forgotten about, now languishes unmentioned, swept away in the tide of shinier decks, deck honed by whichever zeitgeist is currently pulling the crowds. No book, therefore useless, they say. But this is a deck which has been edging its way up my favourites list over the last few years and I have had no help, compulsive researcher that I am. You would trim at your peril (I have to add), for those who really can’t stand the borders. I can’t imagine that anyone would truly be able to memorise which cards are which in a deck that takes so many (to my mind, wonderful) liberties with “traditional”  – i.e RWS – meanings. For example, take a look at the 8 of Cups below. I drew this card in my daily draw a while back. Think about what the 8 of Cups normally means (however, you look at it). To my mind, most of the meanings I know of the 8 of Cups are not explicit in this image. However, the next day, a problem blew up at work. I feared being pulled into it, but no – I saw waves crash and complicated fallout on someone else’s shore while I stayed safe and untouched on my own little island. Exactly what this card depicts. This image was the perfect metaphor for what I experienced that day and I only really saw it after the event. I now have “tumult seen from afar” added to my divinatory meanings.

It’s a wonderful deck, a definite firm favourite. These illustrations are masterpieces and I think it is good to know that instead of the images remaining forever pressed between the pages of an unaffordable deluxe edition of the tales, they have been given a new lease of life and so can be shuffled and rearranged for a different purpose. They are eminently readable despite being bereft of their original context. I sort of secretly hope I don’t come across the Carré edition of the Arabian Nights as I can’t help thinking that if I start getting sucked into the narrative to try and find out which scenes are on which cards, I might feel unduly distracted and lose my ability to read in the way I do now.

Out of interest, I researched some of his other work and I see he also did quite a few travel posters from the golden age of travel (invariably exotic locations, see above. It must have been his speciality). He also designed some Algerian bank notes (see below) which were issued in 1942, the year of his death, but it is this deck for me which, having been removed from what originally breathed life into it, namely the stories of Scheherezade, now has a life of its own and with which I read in a way that I cannot read with other so-called narrative decks.

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About Le Fanu

Tarot collector in a far off land; loves ghost stories, magick, tarot, wistfulness, spookiness, Victorian spiritism, ectoplasm...
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10 Responses to Favourite decks; Part VI

  1. Whenever i see/hear this deck mentioned – i think of you! Of all the collectors and readers i know, i think you are the one who got the most out of this deck! I also wouldn’t mind not knowing what exactly some scene depicts and as per the borders i think it’s some kind of mass-hysteria among collectors (to which, sadly, i succumbed as well…) Anyway, it’s always great to read a love story between a deck and its reader – more so, one with the happy ending! ;)

  2. sapienza says:

    I loved reading about this deck. It is one of my favourites too for many of the same reasons you mention. I did always wish that I knew which story belonged to each illustration but I am SO glad to have read this post, because I now realise that it would indeed take away from the deck rather than add to it. I love the sense of mystery this set of images has. They are like an alternate reality, another world in which one can get lost, and then find oneself. Great post!

  3. Leelahel says:

    Everyone has at least one very special deck that speaks to them, and I feel this is one such deck that speaks to you. However, your collection is one of the largest that I have read about, and I think that there is probably a line of decks that have this effect on you. Do you use different decks for different types of readings? (Aspect of love, career, friends, etc, etc)

    You have made me love this tarot deck.

    Cheers,

    • Le Fanu says:

      Leelahel, thank you for your comments. No I don’t use special decks for special issues (though I do like the Golden Klimt for romance and love), I just reach for whichever one grabs me at that moment!

  4. Lifeisabutterfly says:

    I had this deck when it came out but sadly sold it because I found the images too small. But revisiting it again via your post…I do believe I fell in love with it! Just as I was thinking about trimming the borders you mentioned it yourself…i do have a remedy for temporary amnesia–my trusty gold extra fine tipped Pilot glittery pen. I write the name of the card on the bottom and voila! A remedy for the forgetful. My scribblings are barely visible but a joy just to know their feeble shimmering is there to remind me of who is what.
    These cards are truly lovely. I do believe it’s possible to evolve in tarot and in sensibilities…you enabler you!

  5. Thank you for articulating why it’s difficult to read with fairy tale decks: “a slice of story in aspic”. You’ve reassured me that it’s not because I’m woefully lacking in imagination. I rarely buy decks these days since I’ve gone off on a history tangent, but you’ve persuaded me to make an exception for this beautiful deck. I might remove the borders – the imagery is so stunning that knowing the suit and number of each card seems irrelevant.

    • Le Fanu says:

      Those borders are very tempting for the trimmers amongst us. Curiously I’ve never been tempted with this one but I can see that, really, in this case there’s an argument that you just don’t need to know which card is which. However, personally speaking, I’d say that there is a vague system (not quite RWS) worth preserving here. This rich storytelling is well worth a shuffle; of course I’d recommend this deck to anyone. It’s definitely worth giving a deck a 2nd or 3rd chance a few years on. It’s amazing how much we can change in our tastes, often without us realising it!

  6. submerina says:

    Damn you, Le Fanu.
    Damn you and your decks and your eloquence and your asgajgldagldgf;a;
    ;)
    Needless to say, I have it on order as of… now. Thank you for highlighting underappreciated decks, despite what it does to my CC balance!

  7. Pingback: Character Goal, Motivation & Conflict Spread | the princess and the sea

  8. I’ve just ordered this deck after one year of wanting it (it was not available on the site that I always order decks). I am attracted to Oriental things and I like those decks that depict different cultures. Many reviewers admit it’s a wonderful deck but too small. I was wondering if they mean the card size or the image size. From this post, I understand that it’s the image that it’s small because of the borders. I actually like big borders because none of the Arabic or Indian art comes without them. It’s like looking at the ancient vase or the walls of Taj Mahal – hundreds of designs are being framed within borders. 1001 night tarot borders are just amazing on their own. The other reason why I am not worried about borders is that I have “Tarot Lenorman” which I read like playing cards mostly. But I would use the literal meaning of “Thief” and “Key” if I see them depicted on the card. Nobody recommended me getting “Tarot Lenormand” but it’s my second most worn out deck by now. It also has those emerald borders and that creates a very good mood for me. Like some old marble kitch Roman Empire fountain statue that has become “greenish” with time. That’s why, I think, “The 1001″ would be nice deck. By the way love your blog and deck reviews, thanks for writing and please keep writing!

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