Storytelling decks. Everyone should have one. That’s what we keep being told in companion books; or rather, we should all be able to read decks in a storytelling way. I see this more and more in tarot literature nowadays; you shuffle and deal the cards, lay them out in a spread and – whether beginner or advanced – imagine them as a story, weave them into a narrative. I have never been able to do this, I have to confess. There are decks with themes such as fairy tales or Camelot which are supposed to encourage the weaving of our tarot narratives, ignite a story that we should somehow be able to transform into a reading for another person. Let me take fairy tales as the most obvious example. Fairy tale decks are a bit of a problem for me for precisely that reason. I see 78 “stills” from fairy stories – some well-known and others usually drawn from Russian or Oriental folklore – and I have to read the companion book to see which scene the card is depicting. The problem is, everytime I try to read with these decks I feel forever anchored in the narrative. I cannot work with them in divinatory mode – however much I may enjoy the imagery – as they are simply a slice of a story in aspic which has no real meanings for me beyond that slice. I cannot detach that moment from the narrative and abstract it into something useful for cartomancy. Plus I feel the unseen rest of the story – like a ball & chain – hampering my reading. I can never get anywhere with them.
However, there is one deck – ostensibly one of these storytelling decks – which I absolutely love and which reads effortlessly for me; The Tarot of the Thousand and One Nights by Lo Scarabeo (2005) created using illustrations by Léon Carré taken from an edition of Sir Richard Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights that was published between 1926-32.
I have seen the deck criticised in various quarters; the usual complaints; big borders, multi-lingual titles, images too small etc. I have also noticed that people criticise the pitifully limited assistance which the LWB offers. I have seen editions of the Arabian Nights with Carré’s illustrations but exorbitantly priced. The problem is, you’d really need that exact edition as the images tie up with moments in very specific stories. There would be no point acquiring a copy of the Arabian Nights with illustrations by another artist (and there have been many; Batten, Doré, Dulac to name just my favourites) as it would tell you nothing. In most cases they would have chosen to illustrate another moment altogether. It would have to be the complete Leon Carré edition which will invariably set you back a small fortune. The LWB does not tell you which story the images are from so you can’t even get a cheaper paperback version and try to identify which moment – out of approximately 200 tales – is being depicted.
However, I have to say, I realise a while ago that this is exactly why I like this deck so much. I do not feel hampered by a specific narrative. I use and love this deck and read (I believe) well with it and I have no idea which slice of which story I am looking at. But it doesn’t matter. The cards are so rich in drama, tension and something (I never know what) unfolding that they draw me in and I find myself unwittingly focusing on precisely these qualities in my readings. More and more I find that different decks serve different reading styles and this is my (mostly) non-Rider Waite Smith, up-in-the-air, otherworldy, exotic drama deck, which focuses on compelling, decisive moments in the ongoing narrative of life.
The deck has also been criticised for having shrunk the illustrations and made them difficult to see in detail. I look at this from a different perspective. Imagine if this deck were called the “Exotic Persian Art Deco Mini” deck, what a success it would be! This is how I see it; I think of it as a triumph of delicate, miniaturist illustration, 1920s Orientalism mixed with a certain “Ballet Russe” exoticism for western eyes and general fascination with the East. Ancient storytelling and myth merge with the latest trends circa 1926, fashionable broaches, plumed hats and pearls, billowing harem pantaloons and elegant slippers. I find that the more removed the setting for a deck is – historically and culturally – the freer I feel when reading it and the more I can tune into it. I cannot think of anything less conducive to readings than a tarot deck with contemporary people doing contemporary things whilst wearing contemporary clothes. I want to be taken to far off lands and worlds I do not normally inhabit, interpreting lives I don’t live. Like literature, it should be universal.
The colouring of The Tarot of the Thousand and One Nights is gorgeous and Lo Scarabeo’s usual high standard of printing and cardstock make this a quality product. Yet the deck has been slated, forgotten about, now languishes unmentioned, swept away in the tide of shinier decks, deck honed by whichever zeitgeist is currently pulling the crowds. No book, therefore useless, they say. But this is a deck which has been edging its way up my favourites list over the last few years and I have had no help, compulsive researcher that I am. You would trim at your peril (I have to add), for those who really can’t stand the borders. I can’t imagine that anyone would truly be able to memorise which cards are which in a deck that takes so many (to my mind, wonderful) liberties with “traditional” – i.e RWS – meanings. For example, take a look at the 8 of Cups below. I drew this card in my daily draw a while back. Think about what the 8 of Cups normally means (however, you look at it). To my mind, most of the meanings I know of the 8 of Cups are not explicit in this image. However, the next day, a problem blew up at work. I feared being pulled into it, but no – I saw waves crash and complicated fallout on someone else’s shore while I stayed safe and untouched on my own little island. Exactly what this card depicts. This image was the perfect metaphor for what I experienced that day and I only really saw it after the event. I now have “tumult seen from afar” added to my divinatory meanings.
It’s a wonderful deck, a definite firm favourite. These illustrations are masterpieces and I think it is good to know that instead of the images remaining forever pressed between the pages of an unaffordable deluxe edition of the tales, they have been given a new lease of life and so can be shuffled and rearranged for a different purpose. They are eminently readable despite being bereft of their original context. I sort of secretly hope I don’t come across the Carré edition of the Arabian Nights as I can’t help thinking that if I start getting sucked into the narrative to try and find out which scenes are on which cards, I might feel unduly distracted and lose my ability to read in the way I do now.
Out of interest, I researched some of his other work and I see he also did quite a few travel posters from the golden age of travel (invariably exotic locations, see above. It must have been his speciality). He also designed some Algerian bank notes (see below) which were issued in 1942, the year of his death, but it is this deck for me which, having been removed from what originally breathed life into it, namely the stories of Scheherezade, now has a life of its own and with which I read in a way that I cannot read with other so-called narrative decks.