I’d been watching the development of Lisa Hunt’s new deck for a long time. It seemed for a while as if it would never be released. Even after it had been released, it seemed to be a painfully long time reaching the shores of Europe but I was patient – hugged her Fantastical Creatures Tarot up close reacquainting myself in anticipation – and this week it finally arrived on the same day as my Zombie Tarot. If this year is like other years, I find I crave these spooky, supernatural and sometime dark-themed decks as midsummer glare reaches its height. I have always found this odd; craving darkness under the midday sun but it just goes to show, it’s probably too much a part of my soul that no end of light and happy summeriness can keep it in check. However, I have to say, Ghosts & Spirits is not - to my mind - a dark deck. It is a deck with a supernatural theme, an otherworldly theme but it isn’t dark as we understand dark. When I first received it and went through the cards there were many I found that instantly recognisable but then if you’re a ghost aficionado like me (I spent my childhood reading about ghosts and hauntings; they must be true, mind) you’ll know many of the more familiar ones.
First of all, I should say what I was expecting was slightly different to what I got (and perhaps what you are expecting and why you consult reviews.) I thought this would be a deck which had very specific hauntings tied up to traditional tarot meanings. For example, maybe the ghost of Anne Boleyn who haunts Blickling Hall or the Tower of London could have been one of the Queens. The phantom drummer of Tedworth could have been a Page. Or maybe the ghosts of Borley Rectory could have featured somewhere (the famous nun ghost as the High Priestess?). But it isn’t this kind of deck. It is not a miscellany of favourite, famous “true” ghosts. The ghosts are more generic (Arcana V, The High Priest= apparition, The Hanged Man = a vampire, 8 of Wands = ghosts that appear at battlefields, Ace of Swords = poltergeists). Or if they’re not generic, they are fictional (Major XV = Chains = Marley from a Christmas Carol, The Tower =Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, Two of Swords = Banquo from Macbeth) or ghosts and spirits from World Folklore (Justice = the Japanese Snow Ghost, The Star = the Pueblo Indian’s Shiwana spirits that brought rain, Knight of Wands = the story of Hawaiian demigod Miku). It is best to appraoch this deck as a deck which has mostly traditional core tarot meanings with a layer of a legend cast over it that you can adjust, via the illustration, and expect fluid, more experimental readings. As a beginner’s deck, the spin given to tarot meanings might be a bit difficult to grasp at first. I personally think it works best when one is conscious of core tarot meanings and then to see how the image differs and what the image brings to what you already know. Maybe this is not the best way to appraoch the deck and I might be doing it a disservice but that is how it seems to me. Take the Fool for example. It still depicts the Fool. The main character in the card is not a ghost or spirit. It is a man with his staff and dog wandering on his journey into unfamiliar territory. The spirits are in the background, peering out of the forest and tree roots (the dog’s ears sticking up; dogs they say can sense the presence of the supernatural). It is very much a fool embarking on his journey but passing through the supernatural leg of it; it is The Fool in a ghostly setting not the Fool as a ghost or spirit. The High Priestess is the Greco-Roman Oracle Sibyl, and I think it helps to know the High Priestess meaning of secrets and the closed book in the light of this reworking of the card.
Many people were expecting a companion book to come with this deck. There isn’t a companion book available and to my knowledge, no plans to publish one, yet the LWB is quite substantial (60 pages in English) and explains in sufficient detail all you need to know about the respective ghost or spirit. Plus there is so much information on the internet that any difficult cards can be analysed in more depth with a few quick searches. The LWB includes a Realm of the Spirits Five-card Spread, and - surprise, surprise – no Celtic Cross Spread. It seems to be a spread specifically invented for this deck, dealing with fear, ghosts of the past, the sprit of the future etc, and looks to be a well thought out spread which I should confess I have yet to try.
Now for the deck itself; I have to say, I love it. I think that her decks just get better and better, more refined, more magical, richer, stranger but still with the consistant, familiar themes. To date, I think I love the Fantastical Creatures Tarot the most and the artwork here in the Ghosts & Spirits Tarot is of course reminiscent of her other decks, especially the Fantastical Creatures; similar merging of forms, creepy forests, the gnarled tree roots I spoke of in my review of the Fantastical Creatures that I love so much. The same themes fascinate; shapeshifting is never far away (see images above), and there is that wonderful blue that she uses, and the busy, dense foliage surrounding the scenes. I don’t think the intention was to create a spooky, unsettling deck here; we are not dealing with scarey ghost stories, simply some of the entities that inhabit the spirit world, nearer to us than we might care to imagine during our busy working days. They are close to us but their intention is not (always) to harm or threaten us. The cards are standard U.S Games size, with a glossy finish (printed in Italy, not printed in China as many recent decks have been) and beige borders which are much less intrusive than white borders. The titles are in a stylised cursive script. Of course, in a deck like this, there are always going to be immediately likeable and memorable cards and those which we have to work harder at getting. With many unfamiliar legends and ghosts, the Court cards might prove to be a bit of a challenge but then I think they always are. Maybe that’s just me. If a court card portrays an unfamiliar myth, it can make it doubly difficult; the Queen of Cups is Groa, mother of Svipdag, summoned by her son from the underworld who asked her sage advice. This is not a Nordic myth I am familiar with but the information in the LWB is useful and concise hence there’s no chance of feeling overwhelmed (an advantage of a LWB over a companion book; psychologically it all feels more within your grasp.) However, we expect to be stretched with Lisa Hunt’s decks; there are always those peculiarities and unfamiliar references to chew over. This is one reason why I like them so much (cont…)
Much is often made of so called “switched elements” in her decks and I have to confess, I don’t see explicit evidence of that here. No mention is made in the LWB of which suit refers to which element and the Minor Arcana cards seem eminently readable to me regardless (though I have only done one or three card draws and no larger spreads). At a casual glance, all suits seem to contain more or less equal depictions of earth, water, air and hardly any fire. This is not a firey deck; earth, water and air dominate. There are 79 cards including an unnamed card which would serve well as a Significator or could have any meaning attached to it of your choosing. Favourite cards for me include Death; we get a good ol’ unapologetic Grim Reaper in all his sinister glory. I also think Marley/Christmas Past as “Chains” is inspired (she gave Arcana XV in Fantastical Creatures the same name); some unspeakable anguish, weighed down with locks and padlocks, which pulls us back. I was delighted to see Erlkönig as the 5 of Swords. I knew this spirit from the pitiful Goethe poem adapted masterfully by Schubert for piano and voice into a dramatic tour de force and I identified the image as soon as I saw it. A father and his young son are riding on horseback through the forest and the small boy keeps saying how he sees the “Elf King” and wondering why his father doesn’t see him, “oh it’s just fog” his father reassures him, than later, “it’s the rustling of the leaves”, then a “shimmering willow” but the Elf King temptingly promises to take the boy to a better place with dancing and singing, and as the child moans that the spirit is grabbing him, the father hurries up back to the farm and on arrival finds his child dead. Like the best fairy stories, ghost stories and legends, it is unapologetic in its macabre details and shamelessly unhappy ending. The divinatory meaning takes the father’s perspective; loss of control, rough ride, the ground is crumbling. I can only really think of the Schubert song which reflects something menacing and utterly hopeless. In this case, the 5 of Swords feels worse than the 3 of Swords. First impressions of this deck are favourable. I think this deck would work well with any kind of reading, but feels like it would be good for more psychological subjects (that’s merely my hunch), things buried deep, patterns of behaviour we cannot break out of, things which quite literally haunt us, things that grasp at us – like Erlkönig - as we try to hurry through the forest, through the night, to get to where we want to be.