This rich and strange tarot – The Magickal Tarot by Anthony Clark – belongs to that hallowed group of decks that so few others are fortune enough to enter. A very select and sacred club, now sadly forever closed; my treasured eighties decks. Those decks I bought when the fascination for tarot first gripped me circa 1983-1986. This was probably one of the last tarot decks of the eighties that I actually bought. I had ostensibly stopped buying decks by the time this was released by the Aquarian Press and only came across it because I happened to be working in a bookshop at the time. An eccentric little family affair, the owner of which was a distinguished elderly lady who tested racing cards in her free time and stocked a very well-informed selection of tarot decks. It was thanks to her (as a customer, even before I started working there) that I built up my meagre early eighties collection with my carefully counted pocket money. One day, during the time I worked there – it may have been around 1986 or 1987 – this deck arrived on the shelf.
The box intrigued me, but my passion for tarot had largely waned by then so I resisted the lure for a while. Yet still it intrigued me. I kept returning to it whilst working on the shop floor and – with my 10% staff discount – eventually decided to purchase it. What is extraordinary is that I didn’t own a Thoth deck during this first phase of my tarot collecting. Even though I had about ten decks, the Thoth Tarot was not one of them. I have no idea how I managed not to buy one. I’m not sure I can even remember seeing one for sale, though I’m sure I must have. Certainly if I had had a passing familiarity with the Thoth deck then this deck would have made more sense to me. As it was, the Magickal went completely over my head and, after the initial novelty had worn off, seemed to me little more than a showcase for some very impressive calligraphy. It was not really a favourite but I held onto it for sentimental reasons. Plus the fact that it always looked so mysterious. It slumbered for two decades, untouched in a box somewhere, forlorn and misunderstood until I came back to it after having worked hard at the Thoth, read the Book of Thoth, and ended up really rather liking the Thoth.
I am constantly bemused by the fact that Thoth-based decks never seem to overtake the Thoth itself in the way that the Rider Waite Smith Tarot is regularly overtaken by Rider Waite Smith-based decks. There are many, many tarotists who have found a Rider Waite Smith-based deck which they feel is better than the original Rider Waite Smith Tarot. I know very few readers who prefer one of the many Thoth-based decks out there to Crowley’s original Thoth. The only function they seem to serve is to make you scurry back to the original and discover how much better it is than its successors in more ways that one. That doesn’t seem to happen with the Rider Waite Smith as much.
It has taken me a long time to find a way into Clark’s Magickal Tarot and I cannot profess to completely understand it now. Much of the esoteric symbolism and hebrew squiggles are lost on me as only recently did I come across the kit version which comes with the companion book and been able to make a start on actually deciphering it. Before then I had been using the deck only version, my first copy, with what I know of the Thoth deck. Yet the fact that this deck looks like no other decks out there means that I was always going to find it endlessly intriguing (“Its artwork is somewhat unappealing” I read in another review. Not the case at all. Don’t listen.). It’s a “difficult” deck and I have always been partial to difficult decks. Plus – as I said – it being an eighties deck – I tend to read some of my nostalgia for that decade into its angular graphics and cheekbones. The blusher, the frilly ruff on Lust (or “Lust for Life” as it is called), the androgyny and excess. Yet it is, whichever way you look at it, a very beautiful and evocative deck, relatively easy to find but not always cheap. A deck that makes me wonder why nobody has reissued it as it seems to me to be one of the few Thoth-based decks that can actually look the Thoth in the eyes and be a contender. It shows painstaking attention to detail, has all the right references, though some may find the layout of the cards a bit repetitive, especially in those cards where there are no figures present, such as the ”pip” cards (or as the author calls them, “spot” cards). These cards tend to all show a sort of central spinning circle with the symbol of the element, Elizabethan calligraphy pompously declaiming – as if through a megaphone – the Golden Dawn-based titles “Lord of Perfected Work” or “Lord of Established Strength”, an encapsulation of the cards’ material energies, and this format tends to be the same throughout; calligraphy up top, hebrew down below, keywords below that and sometimes these very atmospheric little vignettes that show us a scene that the Thoth never did and which goes quite a long way to evoking meaning. Take the Ten of Wands, for example, “Lord of Oppression” which shows a burning lakeside ruin, starry night, light reflected in the water. A number of the courts also contain the Nug Soth alphabet from Lovecraft’s Necronomicon (see Princess of Wands; below, second left) so there really are lots of bits of everything in this deck to unearth as you gain familiarity.
I have found when reading with this deck that it has a knack of tossing up tiny, pertinent details which tie in with the many keywords found through the deck (I who always disliked keywords but with this deck see them as a sort of welcome crutch when reading as the deck is so complex in other aspects). I have had some uncanny readings with the Magickal Tarot - a combination of textual pointers (of which there are many) and details in the vignettes, moods or brooding skies. I find that I like this deck more and more as the years pass. A lesson; never get rid of decks; you may require twenty years to learn to love a deck or grow into it but it will be well worth the wait. The companion book by Tony Willis (published later as part of the kit, the first edition was deck only), while a little dry, dense and serious in the actual card descriptions, is an excellent companion guide to the deck and explains all the symbolism necessary. It really comes into its own in the introduction, setting up background contextualisation and has an excellent section on “Magick” and making the deck your own. Magick for the author is cited as “the art of causing willed changes in consciousness”, a definition I like (taken from Dion Fortune) as it seems to bring the concept within reach of us all. The Quabalah and Tarot Symbolism” chapter is one of the best, most accessible introductions of its kind that I have read.
Once you’re into the individual cards, each description contains a black and white image with subheadings; ”Mystical Titles” of the card e.g The Emperor is Son of the Morning, Chief among the Mighty Ones. There then follows the “Quabalistic Description”, e.g “sphere of the Zodiac acting through Aries on The Sun initiating new growth” Next, the Angelic Ruler which, in the case of The Emperor, is Malchidael. There are then three different types of card meanings; Moral Level, Mental Level and Material Level and then the same again, but this time Ill-dignified. This is for the Majors only, small/Minor/”spot” and Court cards have only dignified and ill-dignified meanings. The concepts of Moral, Mental and Material meanings are defined respectively as “stored wisdom”, “states of mind” and “the everyday” and they correspond to spirit, soul and body or “higher intelligence,” Psyche, Soma. Overall, this companion book contains all you need and I cannot imagine using the deck without it. I really would describe it as essential for those who want to use this as a reading deck. I like how he comes down on the side of “fortune tellers” and doesn’t see this as a lowly or lesser use of the cards. For a deck such as this which is so replete with symbolism and highbrow mysticism it is refreshing to see this point of view and this in fact influenced me to see the deck as a very open, welcoming deck, capable of responding to whatever we bring to it. At first glance it seems icey and intimidating but it has taken me years to discover its surprising warmth as a reading deck. Sad though that nobody ever really mentions it.