Weirdly darkly; The Barbara Walker Tarot

I have been thinking about this deck quite a lot recently. I have been thinking about those perennially in-print decks (this one stretches back to 1986) that nobody talks about or seems to use on a regular basis.  The Barbara Walker Tarot was first printed in Belgium by U.S Games, then in Italy and now – the latest edition – in China. I came across a copy of this latest edition in a local tobacconist’s and being a bit of a completionist, was curious to compare editions so took it home with me.  This is the deck from which even the most seasoned tarotists are known to recoil. That Queen of Swords (Kali gobbling entrails), that Princess of Wands (those breasts with eyes); this deck has a reputation for being a little unsavoury to say the least. Coincidentally I had taken my older printing (pictured above) down from the shelf the other week just to remind myself of the palpable eeriness of its imagery, the peculiar, witchcraft B-movie, dated 1950s colouring which seems slightly inappropriate and yet weirdly compelling. I had an urge to read with it and was struck by its stark language. Nobody I know uses this deck, nobody I know refers to this deck and still it is worthy of a new edition which (acccording to the LWB) is the 8th printing, so there is obviously a demand for it. Yet who is Barbara Walker and is this deck actually quietly seminal? Walker the woman is a knitting guru deeply influenced by feminine spirituality according to the potted biography in the LWB (“her ten books on knitting design, published between 1968 and 1976, are still considered classics”). In fact, she is a very accomplished writer with an extensive bibliography. Knitting is just one of her specialities alongside anthropology, ritualism, and (according to Wikipedia) “pre-Indo- European neolithic matriarchies.” I have heard people say that they can’t connect with her style of feminism. I have to confess though, I don’t get a strictly feminist vibe from this deck at all, but maybe I’m not looking hard enough and she would be horrified. I’m not sure what vibe I get from this deck to be honest, except that there is something slightly diabolical about it; scenes of subjugation and humiliation, with a pervading atmosphere of menace about to materialise. 

Latest printing of the Barbara Walker Tarot

I don’t imagine that the name helps sell the deck though. Something so dark and yet the name sounds so ordinary to the uninitiated. I was wondering this afternoon how this deck might be regarded if it were called the Kali Tarot or Tarot of Nightmares and whether the dark crowd, those who now want their decks spooky and perverse, might have elevated it to cult status. The name, as it stands, really doesn’t help, and yet the sinister mood of most cards, the unmitigated sense of foreboding, the unsettling excess of space and emptiness in certain cards, all contrive to make it feel in tune with contemporary tastes for the dark and also the retro. Still nobody mentions it.  Yet I am intrigued. Much of the imagery is classic Rider Waite Smith (most of the Majors, the two of Swords, three of Cups, five of Pentacles). Some feels slightly Oswald Wirth, nodding to the Marseilles (Death and The Emperor). Some – like the two of Pentacles, the four of Pentacles – feel a little Thoth-inspired. Others (mainly the courts) are just a little too out there.  The images at the very bottom of this post show the juxaposition from left to right; explicitly Rider Waite Smith, Thoth-inspired then very much Barbara’s own preclassical thing. I also wonder whether this is the first deck that really tried to reattribute the courts? It seems so commonplace now, but the courts of each suit in the Barbara Walker Tarot have very distinct cultural and mythical references which may have been a first in the 80s. Some of them remind me of the Haindl courts (1990); each suit self-contained with distinct attributes for easier understanding and dramatic effect. Nobody could confuse the earthy Queen of Pentacles (“Erda”) with the Queen of Wands (“Hel”).  Nor could anyone confuse the guzzling Queen of Swords (“Kali”) with the bouyant mermaid Princess of Wands (“Atargatis”). Court cards can be a bit of an issue for many readers and nobody could accuse these courts of being samey. In this sense they are easier to read than many.

What fascinates me about this deck is how stark and unflinching its iconography is. I have noticed how many people are currently enjoying Lenormand cards for (what they call) their directness, their old-fashioned “to the point” fortune-telling precision. They can be read in a linear, unambiguous way. Maybe we have made tarot too ambiguous these last few decades, too clouded by sheer amplitude of meaning. The meanings, as a result, may have become too convoluted. Anything goes. I think this is especially true of all the Rider Waite Smith-based decks and more recent forays into Marseilles deck readings (less so with the Thoth). Add reversals and that’s anything goes multiplied by two. Yet maybe people are afraid of allowing the cards to predict and daren’t ask the cards for anything remotely resembling a “yes” or “no” issue. Yet they lay down their Lenormand cards (two card readings, three card readings, we’re not talking about the Grand Tableau) and want them to concisely answer the questions that they used to ask tarot. Perhaps we have unwittingly stripped tarot of its capacity to be direct, and yet the Barbara Walker Tarot seems to me quite terrifyingly to-the-point. If I ask a yes or no question with these tarot cards, there is never much room for ambiguity. They are quite pared down in a way contemporary tarot rarely is, though that is not to say the deck lacks depth. Tarot as a system has had so many layers placed over it that it is hardly surprising people are craving Lenormands, and there is now the natural human urge to collage, convolute and overlay this system too. The Barbara Walker Tarot belongs to another era and this is probably why it fascinates me and goes unmentioned by others (it gets lost in the avalanche). It is the kind of deck that I like to read with using one card draws; shuffle and think of one aspect of an issue, cut and read the uppermost card. Then ask another question, shuffle, cut, read. I enjoy having conversations like this with a deck.  There are no ambivalent cards in this deck; all the Minor Arcana seem either forceful or diminishing in influence and are quite easy to read as a result (for me anyway) despite the unfamiliar mythological archetypes. The size also helps to make it an easy deck to work with. It is only slightly bigger than the pocket Thoth and thus very comfortable for shuffling, though it would be nice to see the artwork a tiny bit bigger, the borders a tiny bit smaller. The world is full of decks that want to make us feel good about ourselves (perhaps so we’ll buy the follow-up), decks that want to delude us, distract us with their prettiness, give us the answers we secretly think we want. Not this one. The Barbara Walker Tarot is uncompromising in its strangeness. Asking it for answers can feel at first like tapping the hardened, barren, cruel earth for answers. There is something heartless and savage about it on first impressions, but looking at it now makes me reflect on the path tarot has taken over the last 25 years; it has lost some of its weirdness and now tries to manufacture it again with the trend for dark decks, though we need look no further than the Barbara Walker Tarot; they don’t come much darker than this.

About Le Fanu

Tarot collector in a far off land; loves ghost stories, magick, tarot, wistfulness, spookiness, Victorian spiritism, ectoplasm...
This entry was posted in Tarot Cards and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Weirdly darkly; The Barbara Walker Tarot

  1. SolSionnach says:

    Thanks for posting the pics from this deck, now I know that I never want it in my collection!
    I know what you mean about the allure of the lenormand, and how tarot has gotten all mushy, feel-goodey, and seemingly unable to give direct answers to anything.

    However, if you want direct yes/no answers, try Melanchollic’s Tirage en Croix spread, found here: http://www.tarotforum.net/showthread.php?t=95259

    I recently did a “what will happen if I do X” reading using his methods, and whooeee. Gave me a very direct answer that is spot on. Shorter: I was signified by the Lovers undignified. IOW, nothing will happen, because I haven’t decided to apply for the job! And guess what? I sent in my resume and have been invited to audition, but haven’t filled out their application, or even gotten out the music to start practicing!

    • Le Fanu says:

      Sounds good. I think I know his take on it. I vaguely remember that thread. I saw someone reading cards recently and was amazed; in response to all yes or no questions she just dealt out about 20 cards of the RWS and gave a very direct yes or no. I have no idea how she did it or if she was winging it!

  2. woley says:

    The fellow who introduced me to tarot used to use this deck. Not for me. The intensity of “dark” decks reminds me of people trying to get attention by dressing as goths–sort of gimmicky. Real power doesn’t need gimmicks I expect.

    However, I have Barbara Walker’s Treasury of Knitting Patterns and also the Second Treasury of Knitting patterns–bought them in the 1980s and was recently looking through them again. I had NO IDEA that it was the same Barbara Walker–thanks for the enlightenment. Amazing isn’t it?

    • Le Fanu says:

      Funny, but I think of this deck as a category apart from the later attention-seeking dark decks. I have always found this deck to have a disturbing feel to it and I don’t think it’s intentional. I could be wrong though I don’t think that this one set out to try and be “weird”. I wonder is she’s still around? She was born in 1930 so that would make her 82 now. I haven’t heard otherwise…

      • Chiriku says:

        You are correct; the tone of this deck is much more “discordant sense of dis-ease” than all the vampires and zombies of today’s intentionally “dark” decks. Just look at the Magician on that new box cover: vaguely shiver-inducing, and all the more for not being able to pinpoint WHY. Maleficence oozes from him. Ominous.

        Yet, I have considered this deck many times.

        I am often mystified as to what remains continuously in print. Here is my stab at why this one does: you’ll notice that it has multiple language titles. This is not common in US Games decks. I believe this deck is one of those that’s often, improbably to our minds, sitting on a shelf somewhere in a non-Anglophone country. It may be one of only a handful of decks on the local shelves, and people buy it accordingly. Multiple language titles are not required for a deck to achieve such status, but they likely do help.

  3. Le Fanu says:

    Very true. Good point. I also think – bizarrely – that with its keywords and vivid images it’s actually very easy to read. Much easier to read than (let me think of other U.S Games decks) Tarot of the Trance, Tapestry Tarot, Transformational, Egyptian…

  4. Carla says:

    I’ve looked at images of this deck before, and I think you’re right in everything you say. It’s not an attention-seeking dark deck, it’s just full on. And I believe it would be better known if it was called Tarot of Nightmares, as you say! It may be direct, but it would certainly give me nightmares. It is too disturbing for me. (But then I’m actually sat here with a three-card spread from the Gaian in front of me on my desk)….me and darkness. We no likey. On the other hand, I’m becoming less and less a fan of obfuscatory decks, which is why I think I’ve become so attached to my pips only Celtic Tarot. And my recent dabblings with Lenormand has had an impact on the way I view tarot cards, which to me is a very good thing. I did a 3-card tarot draw the other day and they were all pips, and I strung them together into a sentence that answered my question without batting an eye. That’s a big step for me.

    Anyway, wow, that Barbara Walker Tarot is intense. I won’t be getting one of those. Scary!

    • Le Fanu says:

      Congratulations on your pip reading. I know what a big step that is, really. And yes to what you say about obfuscatory decks. Of all types, angels OR demons!

  5. Wintergreen says:

    I like this one. It’s low on my want list, but I find the images interesting to say the least. Sometimes things that happen in life are intense, terrible and weird. It must be interesting to do a reading with this one, especially for specific questions.

  6. Chiriku says:

    Although I wonder if indeed it is still in print. Amazon.com don’t have it listed except by third party sellers (for quite-high costs).

  7. Melissa says:

    “Tarot as a system has had so many layers placed over it that it is hardly surprising people are craving Lenormands, and there is now the natural human urge to collage, convolute and overlay this system too.”

    Absolutely brilliant! I agree completely. I couldn’t read with this deck though…🙂

  8. Hey! You say…no one you know reads with this deck….well I do!! I’ve had this strange, magnetic relationship with this deck going on a good decade. I LOOOVE this deck. I have hundreds as you know but this is my most eldritch, mysterious and powerhouse deck…that truly and completely IS what those words conjure up for me. Once I saw those stark, powerful, surreal images I was hooked. It encompasses everything I love in life….I only want it BIGGER. Then tho, about 5 years ago I discovered the book for this deck. WOW. I know I know…so many untrue historical facts….tho a lot true too. The book imo is just as weirdly offbeat …total quirky goodness..arcane mystery at it’s finest….take for example the page on Ace of Swords…omg love it! The card itself as Doom with that mirror and all the ghosts swirling around….the skull goblet *sigh* Then to read in the book…the goddess is Morgan, Morg-ana, Morgan le Fay, Morgan the Fairy, Morgue la Faye etcetc. And Walker writes about her magic mirror, stealing souls….a German story (speaks to me of dark fairytales lurking in the Black Forest) set in the Valley of the Shadow of Death with an enchanted hall of mirrors…where the goddess kept souls in her magic glass. They called it Wisperthal (Valley of Whispers) due to an old belief that ghosts lose their vocal chords and could speak only in whispers. And that is JUST the entry for the Ace of Swords!! Yes this deck is a powerhouse IMO, in every aspect. Its fascination has been endless to me. I was so very enthralled with your post and quite thrilled to see that someone out there has such a similar reaction to it I have! = ) I know that the masses and most….this deck is just too MUCH, I truly understand why as well. I don’t care, I love it, it’s completely “me” and I will always have mine within reach. I so rarely talk about it because whenever I’d try, no one ever liked it or only had such negative crap to say about it. So it’s been my secret favourite deck for years now….

    The courts are another feat of magic I think….such unique depth!! 6 of Cups….perfection. I could go on and on. I, too, am quite taken aback this deck always get renewed to be re-printed when so many others get thrown on the OOP pile. I really wonder WHY, I always see this deck mentioned (if it is at all) in a very negative dismissive way. Don’t you agree? Someone must be buying it! I have only the Belgium printing….do you think I should splurge and get the China version? What about the Italy print,,,,does the glossiness make the rich colours pop more?

    Thank you from my twisted heart for posting about this eerie, macarbe but imo one of the very REAL tarot’s out there on the market….you made me day!! ♥

    • Le Fanu says:

      Share, I’m so glad to hear you read with this deck. It has a magic (and by that I mean magic in the old mythical sense of the word) very much its own. I forgot to mention in the above post the differences in printing. The China one is fine in terms of colour but the cardstock is quite thin compared to the Belgium one. I don’t have the Printed in Italy one. The Printed in China one can serve as a carry-around deck, to toss in the bag. It is quite a deck though and I was fascinted to read what you wrote about the book and – based on the little you cited – I think I shall buy it. I’m sure it is available cheaply from amazons sellers. I have also been rereading the LWB and even that – compact as it is – has its share of weirdness. But there’s real depth there… D you know if she is alive and well?

  9. Marina says:

    Thank you for this very good review, Le Fanu! I have always been curious about this deck, but I don’t really like ‘dark’ decks (be it intentional darkness or not) so I never really thought about getting it. I do have a soft spot for ‘intense’ imagery though, which is what kept my curiosity about the Barbara Walker alive. The fact I dislike some of the imagery makes me think that this is a deck I’d love to read with… because it’d disturb me in a deeper level, and probably evoke stronger responses. I never read well with decks I find too pretty, lol!

    I completely agree with you that Tarot has become a rather convoluted language, in which each card has such a broad universe of meanings and facets that it becomes nearly impossible to know exactly what the message is. It seems to me that there’s a reluctance in giving the cards more absolute values of positive/negative/neutral…. which aid in giving the cars an hierarchy within the reading.I wonder if this is why ‘darker’ decks are so ‘in’ nowadays… since the cards have lost their darker aspects, now the imagery has to rub it on your face so you can perceive the ‘shadows of the world’.

    It seems to me now everyone is migrating to Lenormands and Playing Cards seeking the simplicity of these languages, but I wonder how long they’ll remain free of occult-pseudo-psychological babble….

    I really enjoyed this post. I enjoy reading your reviews!

    • Le Fanu says:

      Thank you Marina, but you know I love reading your reviews too! I’m increasingly intrigued by what is happening to Lenormands. I feel like I’m watching it from afar, unsure of what path it is going to take, although I think that within a few years the market will be saturated with books telling us how to read them which have very little historical basis as there is very little historical basis to draw upon. The increasingly tarotistic way of reading them saddens me but you can’t really argue with everyone’s appraoch; people will read how they choose to read, but I am reminded that “you always kill the thing you love.” But yes – Barbara Walker – much scarier than a lot of decks out there!

  10. O. I am so happy my bit of gushing about the book has caused you to perhaps purchase it! PLEASE do! I know you won’t be disappointed, it has some amazing and strange stories, references and interpretations for the cards! And yes, it can get be bought for very cheap. I need to get a back up book, mine is beat to hell lol. Its quite a large book too.

    I keep my copy of the Barbara Walker in my Halloween Tarot mini tin! It fits PERFECTLY, like it was made for the deck, the LWB fits as well in there, so even tho it’s usually banging around my purse, my Belgium copy has held up magnificently over the years, I love any deck printed on that stock, USG’s best imo. If I see a China/Italy copy I will pick it up, I am insanely curious to see what the glossy stock would do to the colours and images, but it’s so hard to try and get the right “printed in” deck you want off of Amazon etc!

    I totally agree with what you and Marina (hi Marina!!) are saying about the Lenormand, it’s a system I have been fascinated with for years and years, but have NEVER come across a reliable good traditional system/book…its all in German or whatever. The one english book….well, it just doesn’t work for me. I took have been watching with some trepidation the waxing popularity of it and wondering where it’s headed. I see so many trying to read it like Tarot….ummm WHY? Just read another oracle or Tarot! I want to read it like it was read traditionally, it’s simple elegance is why I fell in love with it. What kinda irks me is the cost of them rising and rising : (. I loved collecting them because for the most part they were so cheap! Now I see some gorgeous ones, self-published and going for $40 or $30….I mean come on…42 cards less than the Tarot yet costing SO much?? I think some are just cashing in on the mania! Not cool. I SO SO wanted that Lilac Lenormand and no way I could afford that. Than Chronata has done one and I was SO excited only to find she had sold out in less than a DAY? Good grief. I have everything she has ever produced, deck and otherwise (3 sets of her Crow Stones, I love those),,,,,and a Chronata Lenormand would have been a dream, talk about a massive letdown. But because I had to wait 2 wks for my paycheck…well, I never expected they would sell out in a day.

    Wow, meant to say a few lines and here I’m writing a novel….! I look forward to what you think on the book if you ever do get it : ). BTW…..I simply LOVE your blog!!

    • Le Fanu says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Share. Talking of amazon not knowing what they are selling; this week I asked them this week if a listing was book only or kit with cards or cards only (I even sent them the ISBN). They wrote back and said “apologies”, but it’s in a warehouse and so it is very difficult for us to check stock. “Hope that helps.” But yes, Lenormands. I think we’re going to see more and more; I also think that many people who are not very good artists see Melissa’s wonderful deck, think Lenormand symbols are easy and think “I could do that!” Of course they can’t. We are going to see an avalance of clip art Lenormands. But I’m not swayed and I think it is inevitable that they will go up in price. The frenzy rather bothers me and I hear what you say about the traditional way of reading (if we could ever locate instructions. ) I’d love to know how it is read but I guess within 5 years how people are reading them will have changed beyond all recognition.

  11. vee says:

    Very belated reply to say that I saw this deck cheap on Ebay a few weeks ago and bought it because of this post…and…I really love it. Totalllly did not expect that, I just thought I’d enjoy looking it over and thinking about it, but minus those horrible borders (which don’t really bother me as much as I thought), I think it’s fabulous. I love the art, the feel, the small size, the strangeness, the distance, everything, really. At least so far.

  12. Joan Pantesco says:

    Have been unable to find the new edition you mention anywhere! I have the older one and, like you, use it very rarely. But there is something about it…

  13. Le Fanu says:

    I’m a bit miffed that while shuffling I unwittingly bent the Kali card. Not good. This Printed in China cardstock is very inflexible. But since posting this I have found that, like you say, there’s something about it. Its’s still by the bed among the favourites!

  14. Trudi Louise says:

    I have used this deck exclusively for the past 15 years and I really don’t understand what there is to be frightened of. They deal in human nature and human nature often isn’t pretty. The aspirational stuff is great and I know that many decks are ihcredibly beautful, if a little unfathomable. But as shamanism points out, dealing with conceptual stuff in isolation from reality gets you nowhere. On the big tree of life,you have to deal with your ;roots’ as well as admiring your ‘blossom’.

  15. I bought this deck in 1997, I also have her book. The book is very way out, and I love her slant, her interpretation , she knows how awful the world can be. I have found this tarot, very helpful, in my readings, It takes into the awful world of how some men treat woman. Into their minds. I help woman break away from their relationships when, it’s really the only way out for them, It can get scary, because it is scary. That’s what needed, reality. I only pull out this deck, when I need to.

  16. Denise says:

    Just in case Barbara reads any of this review, which is a good one, and the accompanyin g comments, I’m more than happy to say: Thank you Barbara. As far as I see, were talking about TAROT…. and as a feminist womyn, all I can say is hers is the ONLY deck I can relate to, and Im a fairly light headed cosmic airhead Librian. The intensity and depth is just right for the medium. I’m also amazed by her other writings in anthropology. She has opened up a whole world of thought for feminist the world over, yet- try to find any feminist who have read her volumes.

  17. Jacky V. says:

    This is the first (and only) tarot deck I have ever had. I bought it in my early 20s for the first time. In all transparency, I don’t actually have much tarot reading experience but I loved having this deck around. I used to just look through it and meditate on certain cards. At one point, my ex loaned it to someone and I never got it back. So a few weeks ago I looked for it online and got a nearly new deck on ebay. 1986 printing, printed in Switzerland. I’m enjoying it – glad it’s back in my life.

    Yes, it’s a bit creepy but that is one of the things I love about it. Not creepy for the sake of creepy though. I guess maybe raw would be a better word – it evokes some very raw feelings. Anyway, thanks for this review, it helped me think about why I wanted this deck back in my life.

  18. Colleen Mullins says:

    This was my first Tarot deck. Funnily, I was never frightened of the images. I love her book and the explanations behind each card. full of mythology from many religions and cultures. I could imagine how some people would fear some of the images, the darkness and savagery implied. There is dark and light in all things.. A beast within. I think this deck spoilt me for future decks. I find them too wishy washy.. I also use the Merlin Tarot. If I do readings for others I use the Mythic Tarot.

    • Le Fanu says:

      I can really see that. After the Barbara Walker deck what else is there? It’s really quite full on, so I can imagine everything feeling a bit wishy-washy. Whatever people say, it’s a deck that has stood the test of time. I had it out only yesterday again.

  19. Don says:

    I found this deck of cards today. Can anyone tell me if they are not safe to have? Who ever had them before me scratched a cross into the front of the box. Interested in learning more about this specific box of cards. Seems to be the original first print from what I can tell. Hope someone sees this post since it’s been years since anyone commented.

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