This week I received a stash of tarot goodies from artist/illustrator Chris Butler, one of which is a copy, or rather, a version, of The Son Tarot. I say version as this deck has gone through quite a few forms to date. It first saw the light of day in a very limited edition (of only three copies) in 2005, then was issued in a Majors Only version (of 100 copies) and available through Adam McLean’s website. A few more proof copies were made in 2007 and then it was reworked for a proposed Kunati release (the short-lived publishing house which released Kat Black’s Touchstone‘s and the 1st edition of the Chris’ & Kay Stopforth’s Quantum Tarot in 2008). The Kunati release never happened and it is this proof copy which I received this week. However, the grand apotheosis of this is that in 2012 Schiffer will be publishing a mass market version which is very good news. From what I see of the deck in my possession, the version that Chris is still tweaking to perfection and Schiffer’s other publications, this will be a very significant tarot release.
I first came across the Majors Only Son Tarot on Adam McLean’s website when it had already sold out, and – though he may not remember – I wrote to ask him what the chances were of a 78 card version being made available. This must have been in 2008, probably before the proposed Kunati version. I was drawn to this deck for a variety of reasons; it is one of the first gays decks of its kind – that is, photographic. There was the Brotherhood Tarot which seems to belong now to another era with its clunky collaging, from a time before working with photographic techniques became as seamless as it is today. Plus it has a feeling of a clique deck, a deck with limited circulation for a limited number of men somewhere in California. Then there was Lee Bursten’s Gay Tarot, a very welcome mass market release (but not photographic) and focusing more on the everyday-ness of gay life.
Then we have the Son Tarot which, with its nebulous imagery, mists, flashes and dreaminess, conjours up a very different atmosphere and simply by dint of the juxtapositions and superimpositions, it links this deck – for me anyway – more with the subconscious mind. It is a world where you feel there are no barriers and images merge into one another and reach out and echo each other in different cards. There are some images (such as the 9 and 10 of Swords, I think, and the eyes from the 7 of Swords) with elements borrowed from the Quantum so there are added galactic connotations for me, as the Quantum is a deck I love too. The Son Tarot is a deck of same sex love (you don’t have to call it gay), a deck for men fascinated by maleness, a deck to redress the balance of the excessive femaleness of decks in the tarot stratosphere, but I love how we have the classic tarot vignettes set into a very otherworldy (decidedly not everyday) landscape. In fact, I would say if Bursten’s Gay Tarot is the gay quotidian life, the Son Tarot feels like it is a deck for the inner life, and that is probably why I like it so much; a deck with primeval dreamlike forests, ancient symbols (see the Fox in the 7 of Swords), flashes (of either inspiration or lust), fogs, stagnant pools, scattering flocks of birds, galvinistic shocks and kaleidoscopic cloud formations.I’m sure one of the most frequent questions will be (invariably) is there nudity? People worry about their clients, you understand. The men are unclothed, but there is no explicit nudity. Nor is there any surreptitiously placed bit of fluttering fig-leaf fabric – which draws attention rather than conceals – but the fact that the men are not dressed is more in line here with the idea of men being candid and laying bare, and I have to say, upon looking through the deck for the first time, nudity/what was visible was simply not an issue. Maybe it is for others, but not for me.
The other key question of course, which everyone loves to ask; is the system Thoth or Rider Waite Smith? Again, I have no clear answer as we have cards such as the Four of Pentacles (that, rather than Disks would be Rider Waite Smith) with the four Pentacles arranged like the towers of the fortress in the Thoth deck, echoing the man’s crossed-arm pose and suggesting “power”, which to me is more Thoth than Rider Waite Smith.
Also, the Tower card has an eye opening at the top, something unique to the Thoth Tarot (Eye of Horus? Eye of Shiva?). Yet the fox in the Seven of Swords, surely suggests craftiness, which is more Rider Waite Smith than the “Futility” card of the Thoth deck? We have a boat in the Six of Swords, now that’s definitely Rider Waite Smith. However, the best approach is always to see what is unique to the deck, and its readability beyond the confines of structure. One of the most notable differences between this deck and other tarot decks is that there is no Empress card. Instead we have The Bountiful, with the image of a man crowned with stars. Some may not like this change but I have seen increasingly how the fertility aspect of the Empress has come to mean a more generic fertility in many recent decks, not strictly female fertility; fertility of ideas, fertility of spirit, of giving, of love. I particularly love the flamingos in The Fool card. I have never seen flamingos in tarot before, so they must mean something. Migration? Journey? That would make sense. In dream interpretation they can signify new experiences and situations. I like that. Plus, I suppose, with their plummage, they’re such eye-catching birds, you could read this as “make a splash with elegance and beauty wherever you go.” I like that more. The way they are poised, the way they flank the painted fool (what a sexy glint he has in his eye! What a taste for adventure this man has!), seems so right for the Fool card. It makes me feel as though they have always been a part of the symbolism for the card which I most think of as “launching” a deck. And that spiral, isn’t it rather like the spiral which uncoils from the heart of the bouyant grinning Thoth Fool?
I cannot wait to see the final mass market incarnation of the Son Tarot, and there will be many differences between the copy I have and the final Schiffer version. As always, we should try to take it on its own terms (though it is curiously satisfying to recognise familiar symbols). It is very much a first in its way and I am glad to see Schiffer already – like flamingos! – making a splash in tarot publication with their quality products, by deciding to make this deck available to a wider audience. Only another year or so to wait.
© All card images courtesy of Chris Butler