Next on my list would have to be The Navigators Tarot of the Mystic SEA. I have already written of my love for this deck here on my blog and it is a love which shows no signs of abating. This is a deck which, like the best of them, benefits from being laid aside and then looked at afresh once the sediment of all its complex symbolism has had time to settle again. My dream is to see the deck reissued one day in a larger size in order to give Julia A. Turk’s artwork room to expand and shine, but for the moment I should be glad that I have various back up copies of the deck in the standard, generously bordered but compact size. The odd, heavily symbolic landscapes and genderlessness never cease to facinate me and via this deck I have discovered that what I most like to see in tarot cards is an excess of weirdly juxtaposed symbolism that can leap out and mean different things at different times.
Take The Emperor card for example, (“Propulsion”), a boomerang tossed against a background of what look like outsized geometry instruments, a cheetah on a leash (restraint?), strutting rooster with a key in its mouth, a seive with unidentified grains spilling out (separating “the wheat from the chaff” perhaps?), sprouting roses, orderly canals or dams stretching into the mid-distance, nature divided up, a tiny figure emerging from the earth pulling a catapult taut (aim, focus, and definite propulsion). All of this without looking at the companion book or LWB.
I love how the court cards in this deck get progressively more naked; the pages with their capes and fussy pantaloons, then the airy Knights begin to shed their armour as they leap over the abyss towards enlightenment and each suit culminates in a naked King. A great deck for me is a deck that creates its own watertight universe so completely, so thoroughly, that we don’t even try looking for outside yardstocks to measure it against, and in this I think The Navigators Tarot of the Mystic SEA succeeds. It has its Thoth elements but I never compare it to the Thoth. It is a world unto itself. Julia A. Turk has mapped out this world so meticulously that it never crosses my mind to question whether or not it is all mad nonsense. Because she is an artist and this is a product of the artist’s imagination, the symbolism feels less dogmatic, more liberating. Esoterica takes a back seat to flights of fancy. I feel that it is art I interpret and not Golden Dawn symbolism and immediately feel that the pressure is off. I genuinely think that this is one of the most under-rated decks of all time, and also one of the most dense in terms of content. So much going on in each card, but I trust my intuition to seperate that wheat from the chaff during a reading. This is also one of the few decks in which keywords work with the image rather than distract from it.
Another favourite which has slowly, over the years, worked its way up into my favourites is the cumbersomely titled Royal Fez Moroccan Tarot, illustrated by Micheal Hobnell. Everyone mentions Roland Berrill of MENSA fame, but we shouldn’t forget the artist too. The name, while exotic sounding, refers to a half-baked myth which seems to have no basis in fact, that tarot originated in the mystical underworld of ancient Fez in Morocco and the deck aims to reproduce scenes of 12th Century life there. Quite where the Royal feature came from is never explained but it makes for a regal sounding tarot; regal, arabic and with gypsy connotations thrown in, making for a heady concoction. It was first commercially published, to my knowledge, by U.S Games in 1975 and I bought it shortly afterwards, shrinkwrapped in a tight orange box.
At first I was disppointed with it and found it curiously featureless and unfinished but as I grew progressively more tired of reading with the standard Rider Waite Smith deck, this was the deck I moved onto. I love the lack of lamination, the psychedelic backs and what I once thought of as unfinished, now feels delicately sketched. I like how the figures loom out of the craggy black and white backgrounds, reminding me of fairy tale illustrations. Unlaminated tarot decks are few and far between and I treasure the Royal Fez Moroccan – in part – for this, but it is the dated vintage feel which I most love and the fact that it hardly deviates from the Rider Waite Smith model for when I feel like something in this vein but find Coleman Smith’s line a bit blotched and heavy. These illustrations feel much more nimble.
The years pass and I do begin to find it genuinely mysterious and – despite the name – satisfyingly neutral, alongside so many decks on the market jostling with their overt themes. There are no titles, only numbers in the yellow frames of the Major Arcana and nothing whatosever in the Minors. Reviews often comment on the artwork not being particularly accomplished but I have seen far worse in the last three decades since and I think for a deck that was originally created in the 1950s (in a limited edition of 500) it hasn’t fared badly. I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly why I like this deck so much but I think we should never underestimate (and I wish publishers wouldn’t) what unlaminated cardstock and untitled cards feel like for the reader. I think it might well be this that ultimately draws me back to the deck again and again; the feel of real card against the palm of the hand, the fact that the cards are pure illustrations. Words – like subtitles at the cinema – distract me now from the action, though I know I needed them to learn with, and it is hard (at least I find it hard) detecting nuances of expressions when I want to know if the subtitles have been well translated or not. I feel this sometimes with card titles; try as we might, we can never really not give them a glance, whereas here you can lose yourself more in the images.