I have been thinking recently about the use of decks which do not relate to our familiar universe. By that I mean decks which have as their content a world to which we do not strictly belong. How confidently buddhist does one have to be in order to use Robert Place’s Buddha Tarot? How shamanistic does one need to be in order to read with the Greenwood? Is it condescending to think of these as themed decks? And does it matter? I mean, of course, anyone can use any deck they like and feel that they get a great deal out of it, but I always find myself wondering – when on the verge of wanting to explore a deck which requires a certain amount of study – just how far I am going to get. I sometimes feel I am the only person in the world who cannot just reject everything and be entirely intuitive. I feel I owe a duty to the deck (and its creater) to understand it. It has always seemed to me slightly tacky to think that the use of a tarot deck will allow quick access into a philosophy or science which has been cultivated over hundreds or thousands of years (I-Ching Tarot? Alchemical Tarot?). There is a lot to be said for a deck being a universe unto itself – like the Deviant Moon Tarot or Navigators Tarot of the Mystic SEA – with minimal references beyond its own confines. It was with these questions in mind that I was compelled last week to take down my copy of The New Orleans Voodoo Tarot, wondering how much of it I am ever going to be able to inwardly digest. It strikes me that tarot reading is a bit like when an actor has to deeply internalise a character in order to play a role. The portrayal is only going to work if the immersion is total. I can try, I can be fascinated, but I wonder whether the universe it depicts will ever truly mean anything to me and – more to the point – does it have to?
Much has been written about Louis Martinié and Sallie Ann Glassman’s deck set. It was published in 1992 and to be honest I only bought it as I thought it might be a deck that would have quite limited appeal and perhaps go out of print sometime soon. Others have spoken of the unease they sense from the deck and I wonder just how many non-Voodoo readers use it. I reflect on what made me take it down from the shelf last week. A need for something less obviously narrative perhaps, as so many of these cards seem to show states of consciousness rather than acts. Even though the deck is scenic, there is very little detail on the card images themselves (they feel quite daubed and swirly), very little to latch onto. They genuinely feel more like states of mind than illustrated scenes. I like this aspect. I also like the cardstock (I should add), which is nicely sturdy and the size is a good one for easy shuffling, even if your hands are small.
And of course I must emphasise at the oustet that I know absolutely nothing about Voodoo (or Vodou). All I know is that the popular image we have of Voodoo is all silly propaganda, which plays up the importance of sacrifices, zombies and scary voodoo dollies and which makes it sound more like a superstition than the religion it is.. This deck features the Voodoo of New Orleans which is not the Voodoo of Haiti. It tells of the loa who are (by my understanding) the spirits. Anyone who believes that spirits walk alongside us, circle us, accompany us in our daily lives, will understand where this tarot deck is coming from. The deck consists of 79 cards, the standard Major and Minor Arcana plus a wild card, The Barons, the spirit of death itself. Think of those urbane gentlemen in top hat and tails carrying canes in a carnival voodoo procession and these are The Barons.
The deck uses the structure of the Tree of Life for its organization, with sephiroths correlating to pip cards and Aces, which feels like an artificially superimposed layer but – being familiar with the Thoth deck – doesn’t add any extra demands for me when reading about the deck. Some of the given keywords for the cards remind me of Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, with card number 20 as Aeon (and Ra-Hoor-Khuit holding his finger to his lips, no less). The suits for the Minors have been renamed but still relate to familiar elements; Petro (taken from the “La Flambeau” rites) represents Fire/ the heat of Carnival. The Congo suit represents Water (“Streams that well up from the earth are sacred places where the voice of loa or spirits can be heard”). The suit Rada (a branch of Voodoo) corresponds to Air, and Santeria – a sister religion to Voodoo, widespread in the so-called New World – corresponds to Earth (“Solidity, strength and the ability to take hold of the conditions at hand and grow are the elements of earth.”). The structure of the deck is familiar, all that is required is to read the book and get familiar with the names. I noticed how vivid the images were and, once I had read the card descriptions, I could see very easily what the intended meaning of the card was, and there are some extremely thought provoking takes on traditional tarot imagery, like The Moon as The Magic Mirror, with mirrors traditionally being a point of contact betwen the two worlds (I remembered Orpheus moving via a mirror between the world of the living and the world of the dead in Jean Cocteau’s film of the same name). Cards like this can really stir up our imagination regardless of how deeply we identify with the spiritual thrust of the deck. I like how the traditional magician is Dr John, a Voodoo drummer; for its meaning, the card focuses on the ability of the drummer to lose himself, channel power and fuel the rites. There is some sinister and mysterious symbology in this deck which really does provoke new ways of thinking about the archetypes. In the Death card (or rather “The Dead”), the hands of the living reach down and try to make contact with the souls of the dead.
In many cards, spirits reach out and try to be heard by the living. I remember in Brazil (where one aspect of Santeria, Umbanda, is very widespread) I used to see offerings on street corners, plates of food, candles, keys, wax effigies and someone once told me how when walking past them, they often felt spirits walking alongside them, hands brushing against theirs. This proximity of the two worlds is very present in the deck, the deceased trying to whisper in the ear of the living, or coming to them in trances. The deck fascinates me for this reason. I also like how the artwork, whilst not outwardly beautiful, has a potency which plays on our fascination for the otherworldy. There are trances, mists and astral lights. This is very much a supernatural deck and such is its power that I have not yet had the courage to read with it, but something attracts me about it. I certainly think it is one of the most memorable decks I have by dint of its intensity. I also get a sense from reading the excellent companion book how inclusive Voodoo is, how as a faith – with its rituals and view of the Self – it seems very inclusive, accepting and unifying (cont…)
I am, as I have said, a layperson regarding this but I think the book and images give just enough to question our own stereotypes and notions of what spirituality should be. I certainly felt this. Returning to my original question, I shall most likely never seek initiation into Voodoo and yet I still wonder how much these spiritually based tarot decks bring us, or how much we can expect from their imagery. Do we insult the true depth of belief by packaging up a mere fraction of its true meaning as a divination deck, or should we be grateful that tarot opens us up in this way and allows a chink of light, however weak, from other belief systems into our lives? I tend to opt for the latter, but I am cursed by wanting to understand everything about a subject before I will read with a deck that has been supposedly inspired by it. I cannot “toss the book” as so many do and dive into the sea of total intuition. I like to feel as though I have some foundation on which to base the responses that will guide my divinatory meanings. And so we should, I think. Look at card number 9, traditionally The Hermit. Here we have some people in a darkened room, the card is called Couché. Is it really just people lying in a darkened room? It is in fact the “ritual seclusion undergone by prospective initiates.” It is a card of ritual gestation and birth, of sanctuary and the need for private inner space and reflection in order to grow. Like a period of rest after the frenzy of card number 8, “Possession”. I shall never look at The Hermit card in the same way again given this twist. Or the woman in card number 2, traditionally the High Priestess. Here we have Marie Laveau (1782-1881) whose name meant nothing to me, ignorant as I am of Voodoo practitioners, but with a bit of research I discovered she is a fascinating woman who has become known as the Voodoo queen or Voodoo Priestess, and she mixed Catholicism with African spirituality, magic and divination and presided over significant Voodoo rites with her snake Zombi and maybe even ran her own brothel. There is something of the bordello atmosphere in this card in which she parts the shell curtain (her priestess veil?) made up of cowrie shells which are traditionally used in African divination. There is a lot to learn in order to get into the mindset and identify the characters of this deck, and I wonder whether all we can ever really hope for with something so complex is to get into the atmosphere. If we can get into the atmosphere we are doing well, I think. Perhaps this is true for many other tarot decks. Do we flatter ourselves into thinking that we fully understand the context of a deck such as this or do we just take the tiny morsels that mean something to us, that stimulate our imagination and be grateful that we have an extra little something in our reading ability that we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t even tried with the deck. I may not read long-term with The New Orleans Voodoo Tarot since I find that I like my decks to be (what I call to myself) “neutral”. But when a deck such as this adds another layer to our ever expanding sense of what tarot is – though I’m not sure I can remember all the loas and deities of the Minors – it can only be a good thing and can only make us grow.