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.
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.