A New Game of Hope

IMG_0036 New year, new edition of an old favourite. I’d hate to think I’m repeating myself here but there’s comfort to be had in reflecting on old favourites, undistracted by shinier, themed novelties. And heaven knows there are enough variations on a Lenormand theme coming out right now to entrap the unwary newbie or seasoned reader looking for something bright and gimmicky. You can’t really go wrong with this, or any, reproduction of Hechtel’s 1799 Game of Hope deck. So as one who much prefers duplicate copies of firm favourites rather than new-theme-for-the-sake-of-it releases, I decided to review it again. It’s a different edition, so a different deck, right? I first became aware of the Game of Hope Lenormand deck a few years ago via the Tarot Association’s edition in partnership with Ciro Marchetti which I reviewed here and whose green hue seems to throb darker with each passing year, but for which I nevertheless retain a fond affection. I also have Lauren Forestell’s edition and her mini version is one of my staple favourites for any Grand Tableau laid out in limited spaces. This latest version, by Alexander Glück (he of the lovely Wahrsagen à la Lenormand deck, reviewed here) is published by Konigsfurt /AGM Urania  – “by kind permission of the British Museum, London” – and belongs to that category which is slowly creeping in now of larger sized Lenormands. First there was the Lo Scarabeo Lenormand Oracle deck which feels very big indeed, then a few others have since come out published in a larger format, something I’m not always too keen on. Leave size to the Thoth, I say. But this one is a decent, useable size. Perhaps not ideal for a Grand Tableau on anything less than a dining table, but for those 3-card, 5-card, 7 and 9-card spreads which many do, including myself, this deck feels quite comfortable to work with. It feels, prior to actually measuring it, more or less the same size as a standard playing card deck, perhaps a little wider. It shuffles easily in the hand. In fact, for my hand size, I would say it is the perfect shuffleable size; 11 cm by 8 cm, that’s just under 4.5″ by just over 3″. That’s actually quite a bit bigger than a standard playing card deck; a Bicycle playing card box is slightly smaller than the card image. Then of course there are the borders. I have a wild theory that we might correlate ease of card shuffling and hand span with shoe size. There must be some connection and it would help in reviews if one could prove it. If I tell you my shoe size is 11 (U.S), 45 (Europe) and I can’t shuffle the Rohrig but can just about shuffle a large Thoth and that this deck (albeit with fewer cards) is very easy to shuffle, does that mean anything? Probably not. IMG_0045The cardstock is in the heavenly category – firm, with just enough “give” and it seems durable (though I don’t riffle shuffle; I’m not flashy by nature) and with the lightest of laminations, silky sheen rather than reflective gloss. Some might feel the size inappropriate – too big perhaps for the traditionalists, plus there is now the ingrained cult of the mini, so a deck produced this size feels as if it is going against the grain slightly. I have a selection of Lauren Forestell’s mini historical decks and quite frankly I cannot imagine better minis than these ones, and am happy with the ones I have so I’m quite open to a new size – ok, I’ll admit it, I’m a traditionalist and the more I shuffle this edition of The Game of Hope, the more I like it. The card backs feature a duplicated clover and scrollwork as can be seen below right.IMG_0041The deck comes in a sturdy two part box with a lightly linen surface texture (one feels it could perhaps have been 1 cm more compact as inside the box the cards rattle slightly) which is graphically stylish, depicting the Rider card and – with the gothick lettering and sepia wash – you know that this is old school Lenormand before you even open it. And while we’re on the subject, isn’t the Rider card from this deck superb? A crack of the whip then exit stage left. In the historic Lenormand decks, most symbols are two dimensional and frontal. The Rider here shoots off at an angle on a foreshortened horse – it really brings home the sense of speed and urgency. It would be a shame not to use the box as it is so beautifully produced. There is a LWB included; 59 pages but in English, French and German, so that must be an average of 19.666 recurring pages per language. The LWB tells the story behind the deck (and the history of its publication) largely from the gaming perspective, yet there is invariably something ambiguous for me in the leap from parlour game to divination. Not through any fault of the author, but the connection – in any of the literature – never feels fully convincing. Mary Greer’s theory of the Coffee Card symbols may well be the missing link but there is no mention of it here. I’m not sure what I think about the idea that some cards like these (or perhaps even these actual ones, as is implied) were found among Mme Lenormand’s possessions after her death. I have no contrary evidence to doubt this, but doubt it I do. The LWB then goes on to talk about the upsurge in the popularity of Lenormand cards since the year 2000 and includes a translation of the original instructions for how to play the Game of Hope “with a new figures’ card [sic] in illuminated 36 sheets”. The last four pages contain brief information about divination with the cards; a short introduction and card meanings. No details are given regarding the Grand Tableau or any other spread. I don’t know why this deck has not long been fast-tracked to undisputedly classic, indispensible status. This is the deck to which all other Lenormand decks are indebted. This is the starting point, the Visconti-Sforza of Lenormands, or as the cover of the LWB proclaims, The Primal Lenormand. All other Lenormands are variations of this grandfather deck – or rather, grandmother deck because Lenormand cartomancy always seems to be in the feminine. I think that part of the Lenormand craze is a sort of relief that we have found a female deck to counterbalance the old men of tarot, the Waites and Mathers and Crowleys. And yet this deck is sturdier, less frilly and rouged, than a lot of the other historic Lenormands. For whatever reason, there seems to be a subtle side-stepping of this deck in the Lenormand community which I don’t quite understand. The delicate, feminine, slightly grannified decks like the Piatnik seem more in line with the style we have come to expect from this branch of cartomancy and perhaps there’s something a trifle robust about the Game of Hope deck. This is all idle speculation – I really have no theories as to why this deck isn’t more championed or loved.  Editions of it come out, which we admire and know are important, then readers go back to the familiar Blue Owl. Yet there is so much charm, whimsy and sensitivity in this deck, but few seem to profess to publicly love it. I guess there are just too many other themes out there vying for attention. Readers might feel a duty to rate and respect these historical decks but in practice prefer something collaged and contemporary. These historic decks may just be considered too stark and dry for modern readers’ tastes. I’ll be honest, I think a deck such as this has much more character than a deck such as the Piatnik.IMG_0049I think this is a deck where the issue of card inserts is very admirably solved. You feel that some deck creators don’t quite know how to deal with something this asymmetrical – where can one put a single floating playing card? Here there are two card inserts on each card; the standard spades and clubs etc (French pattern? English pattern?) on the right-hand side and the German suits (acorns, bells etc) on the left-hand side, with the card number between the two. As a result, the upper part of the card balances well with the symbol in the lower part of the card and there isn’t that odd blankness, that cloudless sky with the single card insert floating like a hot air balloon. Instead, the inserts feel like little boxes, distinct divisions in the upper corners of the card. When you get two courts on a card they are like the harmonised figures in a cuckoo clock, waiting for the chimes in their respective compartments. I am intrigued by the compositional solutions found in this deck; some things enter into the sacred space between the playing card inserts – the Gentleman’s tricorn, the Lady’s tottering peruke, the flag of the ship – and yet others which could (like the top of the Cross, the top of the Anchor, the turret of the Tower) do not. No idea why I find myself reflecting on this, but it’s something I keep thinking about; the pictorial aspect of where things fit in these cards. This version of the Game of Hope is a truly beautiful deck in every single aspect; colouring, printing quality, durability, retained staining. Mr Glück has done an excellent job with this edition. I have nothing but praise and admiration.

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The Alice Tarot

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Limited Edition (left) with Standard Version (right)

What I have always loved about Magic Realist Press decks is how they always manage to create an unanchored, imaginative universe whose atmosphere bends effortlessly to whatever reading style you have. This is the sensation I always have with all of their decks. People either love them or are indifferent to them. They give me a sense of a floating universe – Victorian, Gothic, Menagerie, Baroque, Romantic – which the reader can slip into and make their own. So it was with a little trepidation (I have to admit) that I followed the seemingly unending progress of The Alice Tarot. I had reservations. I knew what my reservations were. It was singular actually. A reservation. Here was something with a narrative, a basis, an anchor. This would not be a deck with an imaginary universe. It had well-known features, established characters, a beginning, middle and end. It wouldn’t be quite as adrift as their other decks. It was a deck that would require a substantial knowledge of a literary text. No flights of fancy because there was a story and you would need to know the story to be able to fit the 78 vignettes into some semblance of order, logic and relevance.

Let me confess at the outset that I am not an expert on the Alice books. I read them shortly after university (over twenty years ago now). I had an understanding of where they fitted into the literary timeline – what comes before, what comes after, that sort of thing – nonsense verse and Dodgson’s eccentricities, as well as the more familiar episodes and characters – but they are not books which I feel I have a complete grasp of. For all their intoxicating strangeness, Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have never really been favourite books of mine in the literary canon, even though I admire them for their imaginative, hallucinatory power and allegory. When decks come out with a theme, I always feel that I really need to know the inspiration behind them very well indeed in order to do them justice. There will be readers (I’m sure of it) who will have never read the Alice books and will ride along on the crest of intuitiveness, proudly “tossing” the Little White Book and I wonder – I really do – where this deck will take them, what they will get out of it. Whichever way you look at it, you need to know the book at least a bit. With my insecurity about whether I would know the text in sufficient detail, I ordered the companion book (after having ordered the deck) to jog my memory. I am so glad I did. Is the book absolutely necessary (I know you will ask)? No, but it opens up the deck in a way that not even just reading the Lewis Carroll books would, because the book not only helps you with the story and its respective tarot slices but gives insight into the whole approach by Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov and elucidates Carroll’s book as seen in the context of a tarot deck, through a tarot prism, Carroll’s book in the context of esotericism, reading the book versus reading cards. There are fascinating chapters on Alice and Psychoanalysis and Alice The Esoteric and The Mythic. Plus the last sixty pages have an abridged retelling of the stories, with fragments of the original text and the corresponding cards in the margin so that you can see where they are taken from in the narrative. This in itself is invaluable. There is always the underlying feeling with a deck such as this that the links might be a little tenuous but the more you deepen your understanding of the deck, the more you feel this is definitely not the case.

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Card Backs; Limited Edition (left), Standard Version (right)

But enough of the book (though I recommend it unhesitatingly), it was the deck I meant to write about. And it is a very meticulous, intelligent, beautifully thorough and substantial deck to work with. There is a depth of understanding and passion on the part of the creators that really comes through when you hold the deck in your hand and read with it. This is a deck that has fermented (you can tell) by dint of having been worked on, pondered and rethought over five years. It is also a deck which, given the unity of characters and settings, lends itself very well to simply laying the cards out and reading a a narrative, as a story. I know we are often told to read tarot in this way and I hear people asking for decks that are good for “storytelling.” This is such a deck. I don’t always read in this way but with this deck, it’s almost irresistable. I have the Limited Edition, the Standard Edition, the book (and also the silk and “overlaid in gold” paisley bag which features The Caterpillar Hierophant smoking his hookah) but would like to focus on the standard deck for review purposes here. The first thing that struck me was the delicacy and richness of colouring. I don’t know if this is the quality of the printing or whether this was something which was heavily worked at the creation stage (or probably both). Each time I take it out I am amazed at the richness and variety of the colouring. The photographic work has certain – what would you call them? Passages? Details? –  that look like painting. The backgrounds and skies are breathtaking, the juxtaposition of fabrics and textures (this of course is the result of five years of research and perfectionism) at times make me think of the Pre-Raphaelites (see the background of The Star, for example). And the light! There are cards like the Four of Wands whose background light reminds me of the finest details of Ford Maddox Brown landscapes.

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I assume that the aim of this deck was to create a sense of magic and strangeness. In any case, this is what the deck most conveys to me. Yet for all its work and rework, there are some startlingly raw and emotional images here; it isn’t just a deck with staged tableaus. The Mock Turtle as the Hermit, tears streaming down his face – such a beautiful and moving image – is perhaps my favourite card alongside the Four of Wands. You wouldn’t need to know the story in depth to see in this image all the pain of exclusion and isolation. Much has already been written about the metallic sheen on the cards which truly does give an otherworldly shimmer – but I think it is on the Hermit card (and Four of Wands) that it looks its best. The cardstock has a pleasingly tactile matt, slightly rough finish to it which is unlike any of their other decks.

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Of course there are so many cards which I love and cannot mention them all here, but I think what is important to stress with this deck is that my initial misgivings about it being chained to a narrative (so somehow less able to give free rein to the imagination) were unfounded. Anyone who feels the link between tarot and transformation will feel the power of this deck and make it their own. And there are two Lovers cards (always a treat). My favourite is the one with the elegant and sensual flamingos, necks in the form of a heart, on the Queen’s croquet lawn.  Are they male and female, I wonder, after this week reading in the newspaper about two male flamingos at Edinburgh Zoo who adopted a chick that had fallen out of its nest and been subsequently rejected by its mother. This card could be a same sex Lovers card with a difference. You see, even beyond the literary world of Alice, there are unusual surprises to be had in the real world. It isn’t just a story. We all inhabit our own Wonderland.

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The Limited Edition deck comes in a wooden box

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Le Tarot Noir, Imagerie Médiévale Populaire; Small Review of a Large Deck

Noir3This deck by Justine Ternel & Matthieu Hackière (Éditions Véga) could easily have passed me by. I almost didn’t order it. I had read a little bit about it, admired it, meant to order it, promptly forgot, then came back to it again and, with a glut of interesting new decks coming out this year, it subsquently got put onto the back burner. I remembered it again last week, placed my order directly with the artist and it arrived swiftly within a matter of days. At the time of writing, it can be ordered here (or here), but I was in direct contact with the artist via his web page here  (and he has an excellent command of English so don’t let not knowing French put you off). Proof of how little I actually knew about this deck is that I assumed I was getting a Majors only deck. This in part because the deck is priced at €29.90 which is extraordinarily good value considering that you get a stunning 78 card deck edged in gold with book (in French with excellent reproductions of the cards and printed on high quality paper) all enclosed in an exquisitely designed, graphically seductive presentation box. This was such a good buy, I have nothing much to include here except a hearty recommendation. The only reason not to buy this deck is if you’re a Rider Waite Smith or Thoth only reader. However, I must add that as I opened up the book in order to take photographs for this review – no abnormal forcing of spine, just laying it open – the binding cracked and the pages came loose; you can see the beginnings of it in the photograph further down. Not really a problem for me as I don’t read French, wasn’t planning on using the book and only bought it for the deck (it doesn’t come as a stand-alone, deck only set.) But worth mentioning. Still excellent value for money whichever way you look at it.

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Matthieu Hackière is a professional artist and as far as I know this is his first tarot deck. It is a deck which will obviously appeal more to those who are interested in the Marseilles decks and reading with pip cards. It is a reworking of the French tarot tradition, full of character and melancholy strangeness. The colour palette is very limited – brown, dark green, rich burgundy – and it feels like everyone is wearing rich velvet. The figures stand on what appear to be freshly ploughed undulating fields (some arid, some sprouting shoots) and look out at the viewer with doleful, slightly baleful eyes. It reminds me a little of that 1980s classic Grimaud deck The Maddonni Tarot (that I have seen giddy newbies titter at and I always feel like the older generation when defending it) – the same disembodied feeling, the same blankness  – though in this deck not white, more a gentle beige – exaggerated distortion and improbable drapery (see the Papesse). It is worth stating that I cannot reproduce in photographs the real colour tone of these images – the backgrounds look white (which they’re not) and none of the richness of the other colours comes through. In terms of imagery, it’s one of those decks that doesn’t feel chatty; it feels introspective and slightly disquieting. It guards its secrets well, as tarot was supposed to do before all those infinite permutations of beginner kits flooded the market. The artwork is genuinely endearing and it has very richly adorned, quietly sumptuous court cards. The backs feature a mournful, mustard-coloured flower on black (see image at top of post.) I hesitate to say that it copies the Marseilles, but the Minors especially follow it very closely – especially the pip cards – although that doesn’t mean to say that the deck has no character of its own. It has a great deal of character but still manages to feel antiquated and remote. The eyes are sunken and dark, yet look alert and questioning. Perspective is distorted but in a knowing not medieval way so there is something about its sinuous lines and disproportionate bodies that feels very contemporary. It has a little of the naivety and charm of Meneghello’s Le Corte dei Tarocchi, yet a little less sweet (which is how I like it). The more I look at this deck, the more I admire the artist’s work and what he has done with tradition; the more I hold the deck in my hand, the more I warm to its production values .

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The Devil card is one of the cards that stands out for me; see how he flounces pot-bellied over yonder fields with what appear to be two tadpoles bizarrely paraded on a leash. I love The Moon card – always a deciding card if the artist gets it right – and here we have tiny, meticulous waves together with squashed perspective of the dogs heads so that at a glance they look like Cerberus. I love how some cards, like the Queen of Swords, Queen and Valet of Batons, Temperance and a few others have such mad, glaring eyes (like “an hare” to quote Chaucer) so that they look a little deranged. I love the Two of Cups; the customary flower has been uprooted. It made me think of a mandrake root torn screaming from the earth. I love the Vieville reference in the Sun card; gaunt, standard- bearing child on horseback, waving his flag. As in the Vieville, the sun looks grouchy and sulky rather than beneficent.

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The cards are big. They are the same size (lengthways) as the giant Thoth deck but about half a centimetre wider. Likewise, the same length as the Druidcraft but maybe 1 centimetre wider. They are actually the same size as the MAAT Tarot. However, the cardstock is thicker so the deck is more cumbersome when stacked. I have big hands and can shuffle all decks except the Rohrig (which I have to hold vertically to shuffle) and admittedly this is a chunky deck but I can do it and I like the weightiness in the palm of my hand, that rich gilt edging, the unusually wide format that makes the images feel more painterly and majestic rather than conventionally oblong (like cards). It is a minimal size difference but one that you feel when shuffling. The cards are glossy but not excessively so; not that hi-gloss lacquer of (some post-2004) U.S Games decks and Modiano playing cards. They simply feel protected and sturdy. As I said above; I really have very little to say beyond fully recommending it. A very beautiful and unusual deck. It was my intention to say so in far fewer words.

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The Deck of the Dead; Antithesis of a Gentle Tarot

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Whenever that perennial question comes up among seasoned tarotists – you know; “which tarot deck do you wish existed?” – and everyone rhapsodises over nerdy Science Fiction illustrators that I have never heard of – in my mind’s eye this is the deck I think I always visualised. In fact, I think I have already said elsewhere that a deck with 17th Century Netherlandish (or did I say Flemish?) engravings is what I have always wished for. And here – gadzbodikins – (to be authentically 17th Century) it is. In a sense, my search for the perfect tarot deck has actually come to an end now, but I shalln’t let it stop me. Other decks will charm and seduce me and press upon me the urge to be bought – but this is the one I have always secretly wished for. Because I always knew that there was something about engravings such as Hendrik Goltzius´ and his school – which would lend itself, with great panache, to the rich and emblematic iconography of tarot.

Ostensibly a dark deck for Samhain moods – because it’s almost that time of year again –  this deck by Seven Stars seems to me so timeless, so eternally artful, that the season in which we use it should be the least of our concerns. When you hold it in your hand, it drips with richness, history and gloomy refinement. A sort of macabre, contemplative, elegiac litany of 78 unhinged vignettes. To get the facts out of the way – it is currently available in three sizes; Bridge (2.25″ X 3.5″), Tarot (2.75″ X 4.75″) and Large ( 3.5″ X 5.75″). I opted for Large because I am greedy for as much visual feasting as possible and knew I would want to gorge on this one. There are also padded “Mausoleum Pouches” for the deck (see bottom of post), which have a zip-up fastener and (as expected) a mausoleum print front and back. When I first spoke to Seven Stars about this deck, she spoke about it being a sort of crazy mish mash (perhaps those were not her exact words) of styles and so I expected something a bit more jagged and roughly hewn, but despite the variety of styles (because the deck is not entirely 17th Century), it all hangs together incredibly well. There are, as mentioned above, some 17th Century Netherlandish engravings, as well as a few “Dance of Death” woodcuts, Jacobean and Rococo portraits, Victorian sentimentality, turbanned exoticism, anatomical engravings, Biblical and Dantean (Doré?) scenes and is that a Blake nymph levitating in the 4 of Swords? There is so much to pick out and yet what I love is that most of these images (for me at least) are relatively uncommon in terms of art reproduction. It’s a pet hate of mine – taking images that have already been reproduced to high heaven, inserting a mitre, turning them into a hierophant and hoping we won’t notice. These are all relatively unfamiliar images. Either that or they are blended so skillfully (as is the case with the 4 of Swords, below left, to name but one) that they create a striking new image.

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The collaging is expertly accomplished. I feel this is perhaps Seven Stars’ best deck yet. I recognise a few favourite artists in here – Lucas van Leyden is used (Young Man with Skull) for the Page of Swords, a Dürer for the Ace of Cups and I recognise The Devil aloft from one of those fabulous “Witches’ Sabbath” engravings (probably anonymous), while Goya’s Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters features in the 5 of Cups. King James I of England and VI of Scotland appears on the King of Cups – he was emotionally weak on a grand scale when it came to handsome courtiers but he was the King who most heavy handedly persecuted witches (thus linking him nicely to The Devil card). Empress Josephine is the Queen of Swords and I am sure that Goltzius himself is the hand responsible for the cherub in the Ace of Wands, leaning on a skull, golden curls aflutter in the breeze. I may be wrong but I think the straining muscles carrying 10 wands might well be by Master Rubens himself, the exuberant virtuoso of 17th Century Netherlandish painting. I recognise so many of these posturing, manneristic fragments from my art studies and cannot always put names to them. I like that though. They worked their way into my visual store bank many years ago and now return as divination.

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I must make special mention of the Court Cards which are all taken from portrait paintings – some are earlier woodcuts from the 16th Century, while others are more in the 18th Century state portrait vein. Court Cards can be a bit of a deal-breaker for a deck if they don’t have enough attributes or evident, forceful character (and god knows there are enough bland courts out there ruining otherwise good decks). I absolutely love these ones – but then I have always had a penchant for historic portraits with their hidden symbolism and languid finesse. But beware; these ones have been tweaked with subtle ghastliness; a yawning skeleton looms behind the ermin-clad periwigged King of Wands, a grinning skeleton shadows the (undoubtedly French) King of Swords. I love the Queen of Cups, slumbering – because Queens of Cups must be dreamy – amongst the folds of her drapery. There is simply so much in this deck which haunts and thrills. Seven Stars has taken high art and made it readable (where some other collage decks have floundered). Each image is held within an elaborate, intricate, oval gothic vignette with hourglasses, crossbones and pentagrams fading into grimy sepia. Obvious point perhaps but this deck has no colour. Everything is depicted in varying shades of sepia (although the card backs – a kaleidoscope of damned souls, also available as a reading mat – have red blotches). Maybe it’s this which unifies it and gives it such a distinct atmosphere. If it were excessively coloured it wouldn’t have that feeling of 78 frontispieces from magickal tomes – with a hint of tombstone slabs – which it has. As I have the large size they feel more like pages to be turned. I am especially taken with the extra (not title) card which is included – see top of post, right hand side –  which is the only card with colour; skulls with ribbons of texts, a Christ figure alongside a resurrected, worm-eaten skeleton entwined in gothic vaulting and with Seven Stars’ insignia. It is such a beautiful card and I have left it in the deck. At first I thought of it as a Significator card of sorts, but now I use it as a sort of lid. I have developed this habit of late – placing any extra cards like a lid, face down on a deck to close it. This particular card works well for this – like a coffin lid – keeping the anarchic, loose spirits of the deck in check. Or like those screaming skulls that have to be bricked up in the alcoves of haunted houses so as not to torment us. The Deck of the Dead needs to be closed and silenced after use.

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To the touch, the deck uses (copied from the site) Premium 310gsm casino quality French cardstock which is plastic coated (linen finish) and which I like very much (although waterproof cardstock is available on request). It feels durable, slightly slippery, flexible and yet the deck as a whole feels comfortingly heavy (but remember that I have the large size). The deck does not come with a Little White Book and packaging is minimal. I’m perfectly happy with this – it’s like “cut the crap, just give me the decks I want”. Seven Stars has excelled herself. A mass market publisher just wouldn’t even dare.

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Those Holy Grail Decks

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Greenwood. Ironwing. Magna Veritas. Granny Jones. The names have developed that ring of luxury brands – they are the decks (one could add more; Pam A, Dusserre Dodal, Thomson Leng, Bohemian Gothic Silver) which are the stuff of tarot fan dreams. The decks which will transform you as a reader. They are the decks which will unlock your intuition like never before, take you to reading heights that a simple mass market deck simply won’t reach.

Not true of course. I find myself reflecting on this subject as one who has, over the years, ended up owning (or accumulating, depends on your point of view) quite a few decks including probably all of the rare ones which, for variable periods of time, eluded me. A recent blog post of mine which contained the deck illustrated above elicited a great many messages – oh my god what is that deck? – and it is of course the elusive Magna Veritas Tarot deck. A deck I searched for – missed the boat at the time (disappointed with the cardstock of the first decks, the Boltcutter Dark and Light decks – see below – so let the Magna Veritas slip by) and only ended up finding a copy relatively recently. Do I read with it? Has it changed my life? Not really, although as a thing of beauty it was worth it.

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Very few of us dare to admit we were carried along by the hype because we are of course above all of that. We desire it for altogether different reasons. By chance the deck we yearn for happens to be rare. It’s nothing short of a terrible, unfortunate coincidence. An affliction if you will. To be doomed to only ever be able to read well with the Greenwood or Ironwing which we have only seen on screen. Sometimes, as in the case of the Nasuntara, a second edition is published to great elation and the magic withers. I admit, I have bought decks because of infectious murmurings which have proved impossible to resist. Fortunately, for the most part, I have bought decks as and when they came out and so have been spared the frustration of coming to tarot after all the best decks have been published (I wonder if it feels like that to a newcomer?) I have seen how the least likely decks become desirable. And that you can’t make something desirable, though many try. I want to avoid using the word collectible – it makes them sound like something that languishes on a shelf as a trophy which, in many sad cases, they are. My 1st edition Nusantra is. It is a Rider Waite Smith with South East Asian curvaceousness. Something perhaps pounced on for its exoticism. Yet some of these desirable decks blow you away with their originality. The Greenwood and the Ironwing deserve to be mythical. They are quite unlike anything else. But that doesn’t mean you or I can read with them. However, the money required up front to try them and see is probably more than most people’s monthly tarot budget. But still they hover and tantalise, while some try to fabricate desirability, limited editions, special editions. Only a good reading deck makes it – but don’t they say you can read with anything?

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One reader who posted on my blog asking the name of the Magna Veritas deck, subsequently deleted their post as soon as I replied with the name. So my answer hung there like a random comma, making no sense until I deleted it too. Were they embarrassed by their yearnings? Or did they want nobody else to know the name and beat them to it? I tend not to make my yearnings public, just because it’s good to affirm that what we have is enough. Being seen gasping for more is never a good look, though we are all guilty I suppose. I know life isn’t going to change with a new deck. We have to remind ourselves again and again that what we most want is what we have. For those who read best with the perennially available standards – the Rider Waite Smith and the Thoth or, best of all, a deck of playing cards – are very blessed. For the rest of us, there is always the belief that we might lose our favourite deck and not be able to get a replacement, or that the deck we read best with is already three figures on ebay so we will have to give readings that are slightly below the standard of what we could really be giving if that desired decks were ours. The universe will have failed us. It’s all nonsense of course. The decks may be beautiful, but it isn’t a beautiful deck that gives a beautiful reading. Something worth remembering. And repeating instead of Namaste.

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The Burning Serpent Oracle.

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I received this deck only a few days ago. I had been sort of following the funding campaign, but I am the world’s worst funding follower. I sort of vaguely grasp the concept during the brief lapses of my fevered deck shopping but am never an active participant. Unforgivable I know, but I’m of the “let me know when it’s out” school of deck purchasers. Plus there have been stories of people funding decks by lesser known creators which then disappear into the ether, leaving the backers sans money and sans deck. Does one really have to pay money up front before it is published? I’m never quite sure. I can’t imagine myself doing that, but then I have never read the small print. I don’t do preordering either. I’m happy to get on with life and buy the deck when it is in circulation. However, I must add, there was never any doubt that this deck would be published in my mind and I open myself to criticism in my reluctance to jump on board funding campaigns such as this while later gorging on the results. But here it is. Out and available. So I shall compensate by being vocal in my love of it. I read on Place and Pollock’s website for the project that the deck would be printed in Germany and the book in China, then last week I spotted some amazon marketplace sellers from Germany who had the deck in stock, so I assume the two facts are connected and that the deck arrived hot off the German press as it were.

Yes, I love it. I giddily started a thread over at the Forum. Silence. I have no idea why. Not pure Lenormand? But then the creators stated this from the start. To be honest, I expected something even less Lenormand after all that I had read, but when it arrived I flicked through the cards and knew that I would find it eminently readable. And that is from someone who likes their Lenormand decks stark and (since this quality is getting harder to find), largely historical. While I like my tarot decks florid and layered, I generally like my Lenormands with lots of white background. A bit like my notions of interior design. I can forego the brocade wallpaper, the different coloured walls and textures; I like to exhibit all my favourite objects against whiteness, so that their beauty appears more concentrated. While tarot for me might be the cluttered collector’s cabinet and museum storeroom, with its iconography going back centuries – I like my Lenormands to be capable of a single line of simple symbolism not unlike the line of exhibits on the white walls of a contemporary commercial gallery.

And yet despite this, I love the fact that this deck has had layers added. First impressions were of a deck which has intensified the traditional Lenormand imagination, just turned up the symbolic volume. The images are mostly recognisable – although I initially confused the Dead Tree with The Tree but it actually replaces the coffin. I thought The Girl & Boy was a new card (it reminded me of The Sun tarot card) but then realised that it was the Child. If I knew my numbering better, I might have been more on the ball. Within a few minutes I had oriented myself. The Burning Serpent has taken the Lenormand deck and made it more mystical, more spiritual and – in certain cards – more mythological (“a Lenormand of the soul” is its subheading). The Rider is Hermes aloft Pegasus, Hecate stands at the Crossroads. I thought the Sun card depicted Apollo, but it is actually Helios, according to the LWB. The changes are – for me – unintrusive. I surprise myself in embracing this new reworking of the Lenormand deck, its shift in focus. I have a sense that the Lenormand arena is now ready for a deck like this, and it doesn’t try to take anything away from the tradition or change reading styles. Nor does it believe itself to be “restoring” anything as those “true” Marseilles decks do.

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I think that Robert Place’s eternally crisp and sharp lines ensure that this deck would never have the appearance of an overwrought, overdone deck in terms of its symbolism and readability. In lesser hands this deck might have fallen flat but we have two tarot luminaries working together here to create something harmonious, something that readers can really use. There is a 26 minute video on their site for the deck, showing Rachel Pollock doing a wonderfully languid reading which I found captivating to watch. You don’t have any sense of an authority at work here – in fact from the outset you have a sense of someone exploring a relatively new universe – and there is this over-riding feeling of experimentation and discovery, of seeing where the cards take you. As ever in Place’s work, I like the clarity and boldness of the images, the thick outlines and accomplished draughtsmanship. There are two Man and Woman cards which can face each other for gay relationship readings (I recognise the portrait in the Man card but cannot for the life of me identify it – somebody late Victorian or Edwardian, a writer perhaps. I’ve seen it before. It isn’t H.G Wells but it is somebody from that period.) The deck also comes with two extra cards – Isis and Osiris whose poses are based on the original Man and Woman cards. I have taken out the traditional Man and Woman cards and intend to use these additional Isis and Osiris cards in their place as I like their exoticism set against the other mythological touches.

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The cards themselves measure 11 cm by 7 cm. The cardstock is exemplary – very light lamination and with a certain stiffness. When stacked, this 36 card deck is virtually the same height as a regular playing card deck so you can imagine that the thickness of the cardstock is a little more than the usual Lenormand deck. However, it isn’t stiff in an unwieldy sense, although would people really try and riffle shuffle a Lenormand deck anyway? It is comfortable to shuffle normally for me – the usual 36 card Lenormand decks can sometimes be a little too thin to shuffle if you’re used to tarot. Plus these cards are bigger and so essentially it feels just like shuffling a normal pack of playing cards. The backs are exquisite; Hermes framed in elaborate Kelmscott-style scroll work. The deck comes with a 14 page booklet which gives a short introduction and explanation for what the deck is proposing in the context of Lenormand card reading. There are also 5 pages of divinatory meanings – no great breaks with tradition here, pretty much all the classic meanings. There is then an introduction to reading with the Lenormand and an explanation of how to do the Grand Tableau as well as tips on the advantages of shorter three, five or seven card spreads. There then follows a section called “The Special Qualities of the Burning Serpent” – how to read with this particular deck, ignoring tradition, responding to the pictures, as well as the spiritual and mythological dimensions to a reading. It covers itself well – it doesn’t say you should ignore the Lenormand tradition – it reminds us that when there was a great boom in Lenormand decks (late 19th Century), we shouldn’t forget that this was also a time of great esoteric thinking and ideas alongside a fascination with the Egyptian and Greek civilizations. The booklet then ends with a list of which cards within the deck have had mythological touches added to them for you to bring those archetypes – if desired – into your reading.

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Reservations? Surprisingly few. If you hold the cards in your hand you can feel how easy it would be to go either way – down the traditional Lenormand route, or bringing to the forefront some of the more mystical connotations of the cards. I like this dimension and feel that it could encroach upon a reading effortlessly and not be an issue or detract. The days you want a “purer” Lenormand reading – for want of a better word – you simply reach for the Dondorf. There are some tiny, entirely iconographic details which caught my attention, although I won’t go as far as to say that they bother me. I miss the multiplicity in the Stars card – there are no stars scattered across the sky. It depicts Archangel Michael. The “chattiness” of the Birds card is lost – we have an owl swooping with prey – it feels more in line with the notion of delivery/messages which I personally get from the Lenormand Rider cards. The point of the scythe is out of the picture frame – a tiny detail but I like to see sharpness. For the rest, I like the deck very much – it feels very cerebral – and look foward to getting my hands on Rachel Pollock’s book to bring added depth to my readings.

http://www.burningserpent.com

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On Being Read to

ColinCampbellCooperFortune Teller1921
I have a hard time understanding card readers who have never been to an unknown card reader (that is, someone who knows nothing whatsoever about us) in order to sate their curiosity. I sometimes read for people but don’t charge – so I’m off the hook as far as value for money goes. But those who charge and have never experienced a real live reading, where – I feel compelled to ask – is your curiosity? It’s like being a butcher and never having watched a butcher at work. It’s like being an actor and never having watched a film or been to the theatre. As I write this, I ask myself, I may well have got it all completely wrong; surely all card readers must at some stage have done this – gone along, paid, sat silently, listened, analysed and picked up tips? Watching YouTube videos doesn’t count (too generic). Nor does having a friend read for you (too much vested interest or hidden agenda; your best friend may well want that relationship to flounder. They often do.) I am referring to silver crossing the palm of the reader who knows nothing whatsoever about you.

I love having anonymous readings. For all kinds of reasons – and least of all is the plan to catch someone out. It’s not about that. I first got interested in tarot at the age of 13. By 15, I had had my first reading from a psychic who read with playing cards. This was the early 1980s when life was still fun and nobody had anxiety attacks over a 15 year old going to a stranger’s house for a tarot card reading, least of all my parents. The psychic in question also used to do palmistry at school fetes and saw murder and suicide and (understandably) didn’t utter a word. For my first reading, she dealt a cheap pack of poker cards onto a teak coffee table (no spread cloths, no amethysts), gaze into the mid-distance and words just tumbled out. I’m not sure she even looked at the cards. There was an element of the superb about her; she seemed to go into a sort of trance. There was certainly no numerology or elemental associations. Stuff just came out. I shall never be able to read like that, I concluded listlessly, back home, contemplating my Grimaud Etteilla and its elaborate pairings and keywords (“Tartar Horseman”, “Cup of Balthazar”) which meant nothing in my 16th year. Perhaps only card number 1, “Chaos” in the “hormone” position might have made some sense to me.

Then, years later, after I had got back into tarot with a vengeance, I had another reading. I was on my way home and stumbled across a small metaphysical fair with a few tents that had readers in them plying their wares. I went into a tent to ask the price – general reading, 10 euros – and with time to spare and curiosity getting the better of me, I sat down. Mostly it’s other readers’ tools that fascinate me; he used a Majors only plaid-backed Rider Waite Smith deck with French titles (though he wasn’t French). He got me to shuffle, then he fanned the deck out, I had to choose seven cards which he arranged in a horse shoe, some reversed. There were some very non-specific observations; nothing that made any sense to me particularly. Or rather, it could have been a reading for anyone. I nodded politely, because I’m like that. Then he got out a pendulum, dangled it over each and every card and came out with some very concise home truths. After three or four minutes, the reading was over and it was enough. No endless reiterating, rewording or needless verbosity.

During all this time, of course I would read for myself but I valued others’ objectivity. I’m also curious as to how they fill the time. How long is a reading? How long is a piece of string? Will they venture into gentle, soothing platitudes and ask me to draw an Angel card at the end thus render everything risible that came before? And I love looking at the tools and accessories; the deck (do I recognise it? Do I yearn for it?), the bag, reading cloth and how cumbersome their rituals are. I have had to clutch at someone’s wrist while they drag a pendulum over fanned cards. Another reading which I experienced had the cards laid out upon a brown doormat on the table. In another more memorable reading I was asked to think of a question to which I promptly replied “yes, where did you get your spreadcloth from?” I love the fact they have no idea that I have three decades of experience with tarot. In a more recent reading, I was shuffling the Majors and the reader scrutinised my shuffling and asked me if I was experienced at this. I said no – just years of playing cards. Then later, after the reading, I admitted I knew a little. Because one can never resist doing one’s own synopsis of the cards. And I have found that it is this which we invariably take away from the reading. We may sit patiently through another reader’s interpretation, but later, back home, the dust having settled, the cards are seen (for me anyway), with hindsight as what we ourselves think of them. Therefore, I suppose ultimately I have to question the value of someone else reading for us. I drew the 10 of Swords as a clarification card at the end of a reading recently; don’t even try to give it a positive spin for me. I know what it means in the context of my life. I know why the High Priestess has come up twice in the same Celtic Cross position in the last two readings. But it’s all fascinating and helps us learn. If I ever decided to read for other people and charge (don’t see that happening, I’m fine with the day job) I think I would have a pretty good idea of what not to do, what not to say. I have seen baroque card-drawing rituals kill a substantial amount of valuable reading time. I have also had a reading with all the cards face up and me having to choose cards to represent my past, present and future and verbalise why. If it had been tarot, it would have been a hopeless exercise as the cards are so engrained in my thinking, but it was an unfamiliar oracle deck and a fascinating exercise. This wasn’t a reading as such (I had a Celtic Cross afterwards), just a fun psychological exercise.There will be more occasions when I willing offer myself up as querent and there is always so much to get us thinking. Anyone who hasn’t played at being the shuffling, ill-at-ease client (who really knows nothing) in front of strangers, doesn’t know what they are missing.
Magna2

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