I couldn’t resist this one, though I know I really have no need of yet another Rider-Waite Smith Tarot deck. I have so many versions and so many editions, multiple copies, different printings, but this one attracted me like no other. Simply because I don’t think I have ever seen a deck so well-used, so violently thumbed, so tatty, so frayed; shuffled- you might say – within an inch of its life and riffled to high heaven. The item description said “quite worn and well used” which is something of an understatement. It came without a box, with no other information, no history, no bag, no silk scarf or provenance. Just dropped into my loving, appreciative lap on the eve of what would have been Pamela Colman Smith’s 135th birthday.
What is this fascination for heavily used, dog-eared old decks? Do decks gain a certain gravitas and status through sheer overuse? It is as if this deck (and only this deck) gave good answers, so it was forced to go on giving good answers, forced to earn its keep as a repository of ancient wisdom. Or rather, as I suspect, this is a relic from a time when there weren’t new, shiny self-published decks coming out every other week. You acquired a deck and then you used it. Who knows, maybe other decks were tried but gave garbled or erroneous messages? Maybe the owner did try other decks and then gave up, returning to the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs.
It is something of a fantasy among certain tarotists to want to use ancient, wizened decks, something which drives them to extreme measures, artifically ageing their decks, scraping them along the edges of tables, scuffing them, sanding them, subjecting them to merciless batterings, maybe (who knows) burying them in the garden for a few weeks before exhuming them. All perhaps to give their decks authority, to give them – as readers – authority (“now here’s someone who has been reading for years”). Even U.S Games went for the antique deck look with their tea-stained Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Edition deck. But the deck which arrived this week is the real deal. I can now look at the Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative deck and see that the Rider-Waite Smith deck simply does not age like that, the cards doesn’t go that colour. I defy anyone to customise their glossy, mass-produced newly published tarot deck into something like this. It has aged so authentically – by use alone – that it is now a fragile shadow of its former self. It is the standard Rider & Co so-called “British Blue Box” copyright free Rider-Waite Smith deck - the one that presumably had The World dancer on the cover of the now lost two part box. It could be late 1960s, but for someone who knew nothing about tarot, they could be forgiven for thinking it was over 100 years old. If I hadn’t seen the plaid backs, I think I would have reached the same conclusion.
It has been shuffled and dealt to within an inch of its life. In fact it has been so brutally shuffled that many – if not most - of the cards have a vaguely hourglass shape to them. Decades and decades of pressure has been applied to the sides of the cards during shuffling (or firm grasping while the question is formulated) that they have worn away. The narrow white border that acts as a sort of buffer has eroded away and the edge sometimes encroaches on the actual image. Decades of dirt and artful stains cover each card, some card corners are bent and may soon break off. There are blots of varying colour, some cards (such as The Lovers) have what look like red wine splashed across them. The overall effect gives this deck a deeply endearing character. There is a fine line between a compelling, ancient, heavily used deck and one that provokes disgust, as I discovered myself only this morning at the flea market when I came across (and didn’t buy) a second hand copy of the Balbi Tarot encrusted with grime and which I could hardly bring myself to touch.
I feel that this is a deck which was treasured, used and kept safe. Considering the state of the deck, it is a miracle that it is complete. But it is. And a miracle that it hasn’t been taped or glued with the best intentions. Seventy eight stained and scuffed cards and no disastrous attempts at repair. I wonder just how many times each card has been read. Must surely run into the hundreds. I feel an urge to handle it carefully, as if one more shuffle would see the whole pack crumble like seventy eight clay tablets lifted from an archeological dig. I purchased it from a charitable organisation that helps neglected animals with money from sales (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), a cause dear to my heart. Not wanting to demean the plight of what animals suffer at the hands of human beings, this deck made me think of those racehorses put out to grass. It has reached the end of its useful life, has given all it can and is now retired, past glories evaporated . But who is to say it doesn’t have much more still to give (if shuffled very gently, of course)? And I think of those who abandon pets when they get old, when the vet bills start getting expensive, and it breaks my heart. This is only an inanimate object and not in the same league at all. It deserves to be absorbed into a loving collection, kept complete, handled with a little reverence for all the answers and consolation it has given over the years. But it has, in effect, been abandoned (unless, I suppose, the owner died). We must hope that there is always someone ready to take these rejected things with open arms (and me with my love of the old and the grubby and overlooked couldn’t resist this one), as I wish that every time an animal is abandoned, the right next owner will find it and love it and carry it onwards. Sadly this is so often not the case. I applaud the work this charity does, yet humbly feel my purchase is a meagre drop in the ocean. This deck feels magic to me, with decades of compressed stories and secrets layered between its seventy eight parts. I look at it and I cannot help feeling the profound sadness of abandonment. But at least this is only a deck.