I always have this ridiculous idea that – being short of time – I shall write a short, succinct review here (like other people do), talking about card size, spreads included in the companion book, the history behind the deck and all that. But I digress (as my history teacher always used to say) and I end up rambling somewhat and anyway, these concrete, indisputable facts about a deck tend to bore me slightly so let me start off here with my rambling, unapologetic digression at the outset. Because I have been thinking about oracles a lot recently and – marvellously on cue – one arrived a couple of days ago; John Matthews’ and Wil Kinghan’s Oracle of Dr John Dee (more of that later). But I am ambivalent about oracles. I am ambivalent abpout the perjorative tone sometimes used to talk about them, even some of the better ones. The sense of distaste (not 78 cards? Hardly any of them do have 78 cards). And thus they are relegated to another category, a lower circle. They don’t have the history, the sheer pomp of tarot cards, and all this regardless of the fact that I do think it is healthy to think of the scenic tarot cards we know and love to be quite a recent phenomenon. But with oracles, I am ambivalent about the girliness. I am ambivalent about how they have been hijacked by gentleness. I am ambivalent about the fact that cerebral oracles, ones that really have a watertight and very clever system, are few and far between. I am ambivalent about the fact that certain individuals seem to be a bottomless pit of oracle themes, gorging on loveliness, peddling delusions for the weak and unstable. My idea of hell is lying in a ditch with a “whimsical” oracle deck, having to ask “does he love me?” for all eternity. I am ambivalent about just how plain silly some of them are. There is also the sense that once you have understood tarot you can flit like a hummingbird, suckling the best of the nectar from each deck as it seems to blossom at just the right time in your life. Dedicate your best years to the Thoth or the Ironwing or (Ok, one I don’t use) The Tarot of Ceremonial Magick and you have a deck that will carry on giving as you deepen your knowledge and for which there is going to be so much more beyond the actual cards. But with many oracles there are the cards and the book and they are created in a kind of Never Never land vacuum and when reading with them I feel as if I am pressed up against a brick wall. In many cases it is the author’s invention and it simply doesn’t have the layers to scrape away since it has no real basis, and your life is not my life, which is why I’d rather go for a more universal theme. I read from images but I like to feel that there is something real beyond the cards that will open out for me should I dare to go there. Not just an empty map invented by someone with whom I have no affinity. I have written here before about a hardly mentioned deck (I prefer that to “underrated”), The Fallen Angels Oracle. Admittedly, the artwork is not particularly great and it probably won’t age well, but it’s a case in point. I know that the poetic realm of fallen angels and Johann Weyer’s Liber Officiorum Spirituum is waiting for me the day I choose to take myself beyond the cards. Same with another favourite, John Matthews’ and Wil Kinghan’s Shamans Oracle. My love of prehistoric art is what keeps me coming back to this one and the more I learn, the more it fascinates me. I have recently been reading Graham Hancock’s Supernatural; Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind – nothing whatsoever to do with card reading – and again those images from Lascaux, Pech Merle and the Sorcerer of Trois Frères came up in a different context. I find something liberating in oracles, for all my ambivalence. But I need references beyond the actual cards and for this reason they require work, though it really shouldn’t feel like it. With so many new books and sets being published now and that ongoing giddiness of the next deck being The One (risible I know), it is easy to see how things fall by the wayside and never really get given the chance they deserve to flower before the next one comes along. Same with tarot I suppose. Same with life, people, lovers, jobs, whatever.
But back to what I set out to discuss. Elizabethan Jack-of-all-trades Dr Dee has long fascinated me. Ever since I was a child. I remember in the 1970s my mother bought an Encyclopedia of Magic and Superstition from a book club and there was a reproduction of that famous engraving of Dr Dee and Edward Kelly summoning a spirit (see above). Then years later, living in Bloomsbury behind the British Library I used to go and study every day in the old Reading Room of the British Museum before it moved to St Pancras and I would go through the back entrance and take a different route every day, sometimes via the antique Tibetan artefacts, others times through the Egyptology rooms and other times past that cabinet which contains Dr Dee’s scrying “shewstone”, crystal ball and Enochian tablets. Hearing a while back that a deck was about to be published on a theme of Dr Dee I got very excited, especially as it was by the same creators as the Shamans Oracle. It arrived the day before yesterday and I have to confess that although I have started reading the companion book, I ask you to think of this as a first impression review – rather like those youtube video reviews that show deck lovers taking the shrinkwrap off their deck sets “live” on film, fanning out and sniffing the cards in public. The book will accompany me whilst commuting this next week but I might as well note here my first impressions since I am determined to give this deck my full attention over the next few weeks.
The deck comes only as a boxed set, a book/deck/spreadsheet kit, published by Connections. There are 28 cards, seven groups of 4 cards and each of these subsets runs in colour coded order; green, red, gold, silver (i.e the alchemical process), distinguished by the colours in the top and bottom card borders alongside letters from the Enochian alphabet found in Dee’s diary. Each of these seven themes is an aspect of Dee, e.g Astrologer, Magus, Historian, Geographer, Alchemist, Physician and Astronomer. Within these groups are different personalities, key influences on his life (plus Dee himself), so we find Marco Polo within Geography, William Lilly in Astrology, Herodotus in History, Galen and Paracelsus within the Physician category and so forth. What each of these figures denotes is only one part of the oracle, since the most important aspect is the position in which they fall during a reading.
The set includes a gold paper “talisman template” spreadsheet for laying out the cards. It is a simplified version of the Talisman of the Golden Table created by Dee in 1584 as received by his medium (maybe charlatan) sidekick Edward Kelly, dictated by an angel with whom they had contact over a period of five years. It has a central position (“harmony, general, personal”) – which represents you/the querent in a reading – and four towers, north, south, east and west. These four tower positions in a spread represent (respectively), Work/Influences, Intentions/Directions, Health/Well-Being and Love/Inspiration.
My immediate reaction is to feel hemmed in by this. I so rarely ask about Health/Well-Being. In fact, if I am doing a reading, I prefer to know in depth one of these categories and would rather have a spread focusing on one of these themes rather than a bit of everything. Of course we are always free to make up our own spreads. A problem I had with Matthews’ previous oracle the Camelot Oracle was that – while beautiful – I felt so oppressed by the card positions and pathways and need for the spreadsheet that I simply don’t use it. At least with this one, once you have memorised the four positions you can do it anywhere. The whole ambling pathway aspect of the Camelot oracle made it unusuable for me. With the Shaman’s Oracle, I don’t use the 5-card “hand” spread laid out on the enclosed spreadsheet. I do one (occasionally three) card draws, “what do I need to invoke today?” And that is the way I would prefer to work with this oracle set. I think that because of the nature of the personalities – indeed the whole theme of necromantically “invoking” the spirit of dead men – it ties in nicely with the fact that the oracle is dedicated to Dr Dee. How interesting to see the act of reading a deck of dead men in the light of the above engraving. We do indeed summon. There is much that can be done to free up the way the creators imagine this oracle being used. A small detail – and something I personally don’t need as I go my own way anyway – but it might be a good idea if the book reminded us, as an aside, that we don’t have to read the cards in the way stipulated (or maybe we do!) Other, more obedient souls might lose out on the joys of making a deck their own. On reflection I suppose I feel I can do this because I have some familiarity with the world of Dr Dee but as I am less well versed in Arthur and Camelot I never passed “go” with that oracle. From what I have read so far of the book that comes with this Oracle of Dr Dee, it is a fascinating read and contains a short history of Dee’s extraordinary life. Anyone who has the slightest interest in history, magic or scrying or just the adventures of a man and his companion gallivanting across Europe in a key period of its history, meeting many of the key crowned heads of state, gaining access to some of the most incredible courts ever known, will find this deck of interest.
The cards are monochrome apart from the coloured bands previously mentioned. The illustrations are (I think) pen and ink and seem to mimic the line of 16th and 17th Century engravings. As most of the images are portraits, it is a very appropriate style for the deck. I have always loved engraved portraits of this time and type so please bear in mind that my penchant for the artwork may weigh heavily in my own liking of the deck. I like how it emulates those books published of “Great Men” (never women) with engraved portraits to reflect on and to serve as an inspiration. These monochrome images are printed on a delicately marbled sepia background. The brown card backs (not brown in my photo for some reason) contain a single gold symbol known as the Hieroglyphic monad, devised by Dee in 1564 to represent the unity of the cosmos and containing the sun, moon and elements, acting as a key (albeit not always a very decipherable one) to his work.
I consider these cards to be very beautiful but then I love Kinghan’s art style and the references being made here. The artwork for me is very simple and traditional, illustrative in style, like antique book frontispieces, accomplished with painstaking attention to detail and no 21st Century digital gimmicks. Cardstock is like the other Matthews decks (Wildwood, Camelot, Lost Tarot of Nostradamus, not the glossy finish on the first edition of the Shamans Oracle which I surprise myself in liking), pleasantly card-ish, easily shuffleable. This deck feels magical and scientific to me, its theme and references hang together well with a set of cards that is to be laid out and have its message interpreted, finding meaning through the pulling together of an alphabet of sorts. Oh and didn’t I say I’d include the conventional review information about card size? These cards measure 12cm x 7.5 cm (that’s 4.7 inches x 3 inches). This is a deck which will interest those looking for an oracle deck with a very firm system. However, I think it would require regular referencing from the book. I was thinking yesterday about those old fashioned parlour book oracles where you would open pages at random and have your fortune told. No pictures, no interpretation, just read the words. So little mention is made nowadays of the texts that come with oracles, everyone is too proud of “tossing” the LWB, but of course the interpreting of oracles, casting lots, interpreting the random fall of cards has a lot in common with the random opening of pages and, by extension, with the antique book frontispiece feel that many of these images have. I think we should use books in our oracle readings and be proud of it. This deck, which has a number of bibliographic references once more brings the importance of the book/text into the forefront of a card reading. It would be a shame (and quite difficult) to read only the images here as you need to have a certain amount of historical knowledge to think of what these figures as archetypes might represent. But for those of us who are fascinated by the history of spiritism (even though the term only started being used in the 19th Century), English magic and scrying, a deck on the theme of Dr Dee will go on satisfying and intriguing for a long, long time.