This is one of those rare occasions when I feel very pleased that a mass market publisher didn’t pick up on this spectacular tarot deck by Christine Payne-Towler and Michael Dowers. Although they have written much about tarot and esotericism on their home page, and she is the author of the acclaimed book “The Underground Stream”, there isn’t yet a specific book to go with this deck though there are plans in the future for two different books to accompany the deck. For the moment all we have is the deck itself and the 10 page (double-sided) LWB. I don’t quite know where to even start explaining the theory behind the deck, (nor do I profess to entirely understand it) except that it was born out of their love for what they call “Continental” decks (i.e Etteilla and before) and is created out of antique esoteric and alchemical engravings to stunning effect. I say how glad I am that a mass market publisher didn’t pick up on this deck simply because I feel it is a deck which was created by two people who had a very clear concept of the deck they wanted to bring into being, and sheer passion has made it look the way it does. It is very much a deck created out of their particular vision, honed by their love, their philosophy of tarot, their delight in the aesthetics of these obscure hermetic and astrological engravings. A publisher would probably have insisted on keywords, on less wildly psychedelic and vibrant colours, on less busy composition and on smaller images and large white borders to top it all. There would have been no nudity, certainly no penises, a general toning – or dumbing – down of the frenetic, kaleidoscopic baroqueness. In short I feel sure that it would have been stripped of all its passion, mood and vibrancy. I hope that in the future – for their sakes – the deck has a wider distribution, reaches a wider audience, but for the moment, I am glad I have this first edition, with the cards looking exactly as the creators Payne-Towler & Dowers intended them to look.
This deck makes me feel dizzy and intoxicated. I go through the deck looking at the cards and I feel slightly drugged. I cannot remember when a newly released deck entranced me this much. Upon unwrapping The Tarot of the Holy Light this week, it quite simply took my breath away with its strange beauty, rich imagery and fabulously crazed graphics. There is no other tarot deck quite like it. “Welcome to the world of the 1600s” proclaims the LWB, “when art and literature proliferated with naturalistic metaphors for spiritual processes, a time when both psychology and science were clothed in terms of myth and religion.” The basis of the deck is Etteilla, his cartomantic system, and those decks which inspired and preceded him, stretching right back to the very early years of the tarot, the “Continentals” as they repeatedly refer to them, and yet visually, despite the extravagantly aesthetic quality of the archetypes, the juxtaposition of images has something of pop art and surrealist collages, fiercely coloured for maximum dramatic impact. Suffice it to say that the full force of the colours doesn’t come across in scans.
I must admit that I feel the lack of a book acutely at the moment (having only the LWB to guide me) because there is a strong astrological element which I don’t quite understand (astrology is something which, however hard I try, defeats me every time). And yet I try to overlook this and simply respond to the images. Although the LWB is indeed very little , there are some concise, contemporary and very useable meanings (with reversals) in there which, if you are used to any system (even the Rider Waite Smith system), will vaguely ring a few bells. For example, the 6 of Cups; “Playful, joyful learning, self-discovery, garden of childhood, memories, nostalgia. Reverse; accepting correction, taming excess emotion, receptive to training.” The Majors are more esoteric in tone, but still fascinating to consider. For example, card 21, The World; “The heavenly Sophia, god’s light, co-redeemer of matter and time/space, victory, the iminent presence of spirit, mother earth. Reversed; lack of evolution, failure to resurrect, addiction, back on the wheel of incarnation again, the wrathful and consuming force of the old testament Jehova, father of nature, the magical fire-eye of ardent wrath/love, God’s wrath. This is the devouring and possessive graspings of matter and the senses, source of endless appetites which test the soul’s commitment to awakening.”
How breathless all this sounds. Yet it is nothing when compared to the images which seem to expand outwards in all directions, beyond the confines of the thin white card borders, with motifs echoing throughout the deck. So many moons, so many suns, light, energy, volcanoes and white alchemical heat. I love how there are no people in the Minor Arcana, only processes, reactions, mythical beasts, disembodied hands from clouds, from the earth, triumphal archways, columns, combustion, fountains and exotic vegetation. There are esoteric (alchemical?) diagrams (which I don’t understand, I confess), gorgeous like mandalas, framed with the ouroborus. I like how many of the Minors have what look like botanical illustrations, flowers and vines ceeping up – and down – the sides of the card images, reminding me of the floral curlicues in Marseilles deck pips, coiling round Cups and Coins.
Nothing about this deck disappoints. Unless you happen to like minimalism in your tarot images. It is great to see a small independent publisher getting such a high quality product out there, going against the grain of much current tarot publishing, and the tendency towards what is easy, intuitive, in a vacuum, devoid of pre-1910 tarot history, either scenic or (god forbid) non-scenic, all obvious polarities, and then along comes a deck like this – on superb cardstock, with excellent print quality – which is really very difficult to fit into any category. I delight in not even trying.