I have an urge to use a deck I am almost too frightened to shuffle. I have been in possession of The Ironwing Tarot for a few years, bought it quite expensive but probably not as expensive as it would cost me now. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen one come up for sale for a while, nor do I see it mentioned as much as it used to be. I’m sure it has its hardcore fans who are still silently entranced by its compelling power yet not feeling the urge to shout about it from the rooftops. I keep mine in a beautiful baba bag, of which only six were made, confectioned out of a boy’s vintage kimono. I like to remember this detail, enhancing the rarity and delicacy of the deck within, a far cry from the rough hessian sack it was issued in (but which is also fitting in its way). However, there is only so much rarity and delicacy a man can take before the object in question becomes untouchable. I have other decks which are easier to use by dint of being used and slightly – or very – grubby (like that Greenwood I posted about), but when a deck is rare and new, it makes you think twice. I hate that. I must overcome this compulsion to try and keep decks pristine. Pristine for what? I have calculated – roughly, of course – how many more years are probably left for me before death comes a-snatching and I’m sure I’ll have enough time to enjoy it before it gives up the ghost on me and crumbles into dust. Certainly not this deck, which is excellently produced on high quality cardstock. But something still pulls me back, something still makes me want to keep it “for best”. Yet slowly, stealthily, the feeling has come creeping; I really want to try working with The Ironwing. I have printed off another copy of the book (the deck comes with a spiral bound copy) which I can scribble my annotations in, and I have been wondering, over the last few days, just how best to approach studying this deck. My main concern is that the deck is very much a deck that deals with female spirituality (I am not female), shamanism (I’m not a shaman, though I suppose I could study and get a basic grasp of the shaman’s universe), metalworking (I made a keyring at school a long time ago, not really forging), faun and flora of Arizona (which I have no idea about). Perhaps the only aspect of the deck I have a basic affinity with is that which deals with the metaphysical properties of stones and rocks. “Hematite and meteorite specimens are appropriate for the entire deck” writes Lorena Babcock Moore in her introduction. Now there is something which chimes with me. Two of my favourite stones. I also associate the darkness of this deck and its scrying potential with obsidian, another favourite stone.
I am drawn to the non-tarot remoteness of this deck. Metalworking as analogous to the shaping of the self; bending, twisting, malleability, hardness, melding, linking, making connections. Earthy transformation as opposed to the usual alchemical variety found in much tarot imagery. Also, if only 200 copies of the deck exist then I might as well honour it by at least trying to fathom it, though this is very much a deck into which a lifetime of artistic, spiritual, molten love has been poured. We can try, but it is not strictly our personal vision. It is a very particular vision. All we can do is make it our own and, in that sense, all users are equal, male, female, blacksmith or not. Like all decks, it is ours to shape. However, looking at it card by card, I do not immediately feel intuition kicking in. The references are highly specific. To an outsider, the metal shapes, bells and pods mean very little to me but I have learnt – I think we all have – that some decks read effortlessly when laid out on the table, whilst others are for a much more private, inner journey. The Ironwing is definitely of this latter category. Some may read well for others with it but there’s no harm in simply allowing it to take us somewhere deeply personal, somewhere beyond the polarities of male and female. To put it bluntly, I feel an urge to have this deck accompany me as a vessel in which to find a deeper spirituality which the hardness of daily life, the mindless chatter of other people – and their sometimes needy, toxic energies – cannot penetrate. A void apart, somewhere to lose myself because nothing there is very recognisable. Plus I am on holiday now, feeling precious days slip away, knowing that soon there’ll be that deluge of “other people” to face, which can pollute our peace. Then summer will end, winter will approach and something monochrome to contemplate will feel appropriate. This is the tug I feel right now. This is the deck that seems to invite enhanced introspection. There is something liberating about saying to ourselves, “No, I don’t plan to read for anyone with this one.” It takes the pressure off. It becomes less a process of having to learn, to somehow “perfect”, and more a question of A Journey. Because that’s what this deck is all about, journeying, in whatever capacity; either shamanistic (if that’s where you are) or of just processing the imagery of the deck (I’m thinking of a bucket lowered down a well) to see what is illuminated.
I thought I would never find a copy of the 78 card version and so bought the majors only edition when it was available. I then had the opportunity to buy the complete deck, though I agree with what many have said about the majors being the most powerful part of the deck. Both versions can be seen above, 78 card deck on the left, majors only on the right. Both are the same format and cardstock, the only difference is that the Majors come with uncut corners. Incredible now as it seems, I visited her site around this time and saw that she had the original drawings of the spirit guide (court) cards for sale and on a whim I bought the suit of Spikes. The creator, Lorena Babcock Moore, told me that she was thrilled to discover that each suit which had been sold had gone to a different continent; one set is in the USA, one in Europe, one in Australia and one in Asia. There is something satisfying about feeling the elements of this deck flung far in these four directions. I apologise for the picture below, as I only realise after I had photographed the drawings that the Apprentice of Spikes (bottom left) was upside down! Each drawing, ink on hardboard, measures just over 12.5 cm by 17.5 cm.
The Ironwing is a very unpretentious and yet abstract deck, which has been wrongly accused of being arty. It is a deck which – for me – has a very loose connection with the standard 78-card Rider Waite Smith system. Those looking for scenic pips had better look elsewhere. Many of the cards – including the traditional court cards – are renamed and the suits are reattributed. The Spikes are fire and refer to thorns, spines, twigs and resins. The Coils are water and refer to shells, flowers and (love this!) beach finds. The Blades are air and refer to feathers, leaves, herbs and paper, while Bells are earth and refer to roots, gnarled wood, fungi and seeds. It is a very deep deck but I love how understated its power feels. I suppose any deck (or book or painting) which is this intense, this personal, becomes deep and emotionally captivating simply by default. Whenever we take a glimpse into another’s inner vision, it cannot but be deep and complex, as we are all deep and complex beings. This deck does not try to be clever or “tidy”, you don’t feel that some traditional, superior tarot system is providing a template here to keep things familiar. You either dive in and lose yourself or stand aside. As for the fear of using and somehow spoiling the deck, let us look to the message of the Seven of Bells, depicting cone bells, which only work when gathered onto a steel ring. “If they are not gathered onto a ring and claimed for their intended use, they will make no sound,” writes Babcock Moore, “and will scatter and become lost. The effort and materials in them will go to waste [...] In order to honour the materials and creative energy in a sacred object or tool, it must be put to the work that gives it power, even if it becomes worn out or damaged. It has no meaning if it is merely admired.” This I must remember and so get to work.