The Tyldwick Tarot; is there anybody there?

??????????????????????I have felt myself pulling away of late, tired of tarot, tired of novelty, tired of saturation, a need to be alone and not to have to put words to things. Plus life of course and no overwhelming urge to aquire many new deck releases. But the Tyldwick, a deck I received very soon after it was released, has been beckoning me. I watched its development closely, swooned over its romantic atmospheres and forsaken, echoing corridors, even though it seemed as if it would never ever be concluded. Like a ruin in reverse; it appeared to take forever to come to fruition. But I sat by patiently and once it was released (I think I balked at the price a little) I bought it. After receiving it and admiring it, I put it to one side and forget what happened next – perhaps dull reality or Lenormand took over. So often my love of decks works on what I call (to myself) the bloated corpse theory. I receive a deck, it goes on the shelf with a determined vow and then other things take over and it seems to sink from trace. Then, later, usually much later, it rises to the surface like a bloated corpse from the depths of the river bed. Often I have all but forgotten about it and it rises unexpectedly and I find that I love it. This has happened many times now; I have received decks and positively disliked them, then months later, something has made me sit bolt upright and think of them and I have subsequently embarked upon a long term love. Some decks, it has to be said, never rise, just as some corpses are never discovered. For a while I struggled to understand this, but I now see it as me having to understand and come to terms with things in my own little vacuum. I have to wait until the chatter dies down. I need a sort of silence, far from giddy threads, to work out exactly what I think of things.

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This is what has happened with the Tyldwick Tarot. I think I might have been disappointed with the size of the cards at first, perhaps I expected a sharper clarity of image. Plus there was work and a house move. Over the last few weeks I have been passionate about the Tyldwick Tarot and I begin to think of it as one of the most original tarot decks to be released in a very long time. There is no other deck quite like it; I see it as the antithesis of the noisy, colourful, special effect decks that we have seen so much of. Decks whose colours “pop” and who clamour for attention. So many tarot aficionados talk about “chatty”, blunt decks that “tell it like it is.” The Tyldwick is not one of these. It is not prone to chat. It has a peculiar depth, a mournful magic and is perhaps the only deck I know which seems to communicate through silence. I love this. The flaking walls and abandoned salons, the personality of the courts conveyed through symmetrical fireplace settings and obscuring mirrors. It is an uncomfortable deck. People have just left the room and we are not sure what is left behind to confront. I think it is as hard a nut to crack as some of the more up-front cerebral decks like the Haindl. But the advantage we have is that nobody writes about it. There is no instruction manual. It comes to us in silence (though if you listen carefully you might hear the trickle of a courtyard fountain). You have to sit in silence, contemplate it in silence and see what emanates. The creator himself seems largely silent. I respect this enormously. It has been sent out into the world and we have to decode its language ourselves and perhaps not quite get there. I also think that one of the reasons I love it so much is that it reminds me of a number of English stately homes I visited in my childhood, the faded chintz and chinoiserie, the ongoing struggle of families to maintain 18th Century furnishings in the austerity of the 1970s. I remember once visiting a dilapitated house that was still inhabited by one of the last surviving descendents of Lady Jane Grey’s family, and who died shortly afterwards. The stairwells, sculleries, plant pots behind the stables, hot houses and mosaic floors, the walled gardens, chipped statuary and abandonment to death duties – this is the world that the Tyldwick Tarot depicts. It is a strictly uninhabited world, apart from the nightmare vision of the 9 of Swords where a naked man squats with his head in his hands. This is one of only two cards with a tangible human presence (the other being the Hanged Man) and I feel that I have been craving a deck like this, free of human ego and foibles, where all that is left is the wreckage.

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I winced last week when I read negative coments about this deck – and bit my tongue – because what many people object to in this deck is precisely what I love in it; its coldness, its deadness, the feeling of things crumbling, the impossibility of laying your hands on things and saying (as so many people want to when they come for a tarot reading) – this is solid, this is true. Nothing is solid, nothing is true, it is all fading away, all heading towards irrelevance and obscurity. I love the artful symmetry, the sense of layers flaking. Many people seem to find it a difficult deck to read, but I love the lack of explicit narrative; except perhaps if you squint you can see a number of faded tapestries in the background which might add a touch of narrative to the meanings. But don’t expect to see somebody weighed down with ten Wands. Nobody juggles two Pentacles; instead we have a potted plant hoisted by two connecting pulleys. The Seven of Swords doesn’t depict “craftiness”or “sneakiness”, it reminds me more of the Thoth Seven of Swords, a manuscript with calculations (and beetle scuttling); the idea of Science. As I get older, I find that I prefer slabs of atmosphere in cards rather than things happening. There isn’t a single card in the Tyldwick which doesn’t work for me and there are many which I find truly inspired. I love The World card – Shiva, goddess of destruction, enclosed in a garland between ionic columns and assumpting (isn’t that what goddesses do?) over geometric shapes. The Lovers depicts a statue of moon mistress Artemis over the mantlepiece, flanked by two portraits, lovers confined in their frames. Mirrors blur reflections, faces look at us from beyond. The cardstock – for those who want to know about practical matters – is exemplary. Perfection with gilt edges. Of course if the cards were bigger, you’d be able to see more, but it’s like having to sweep cobwebs away, all part of the atmosphere. You have to look closely to see how the muted colouring is set off by juxtaposition of textures, stone against sky, marble against wallpaper. The Tyldwick is unique amongst tarot decks; it is a deck that haunts us and which we the reader feel we haunt. Its wordlessness should be celebrated, its silence treasured.

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The Destroyed Dondorf

Lenny 4 - Copy

When I first spotted this for sale, I thought of it as The Scrawled Dondorf. It haunted my dreams, crept into my thinking when I had other more important things to attend to. The urge to own something so unuseable and unshuffleable. If any deck cries out for retirement (couched in plush velvet), this is it. How exhausted, how drained of all magic, how wrung dry and sated it looks. And that is why I love it. Will it grant us one last gasp, I wonder? And if so, what can it tell? Such a change from the usual decks we come across shrouded in shrink-wrap, clean and pasteurised. Of course it’s the grubbiness I love; something battered and decrepid, filthy, taped-up and limping, corners broken like butterfly wings, an overturned inkwell having spilt onto The Tower card and dyed it blue. Did somebody place a cup of tea on The Mountain card? Yet what I love most of all is that it bears messages. By all accounts, this is a Dondorf from the late 19th Century, maybe 1880 (it is the earlier “export” edition that has Frankfurt spelt Francfort) and someone took it upon themselves to write divinatory meanings on the cards. The deck turned up in Budapest but the writing on it is in German. And it is old writing, old German. I do not read German but it appears from those who have seen just a few cards that the writing may be a version of already existing rhymes and not something entirely random or made up “intuitively” by the reader. The Dondorf is without a doubt – as I have said before to anyone who will listen – my favourite Lenormand. I don’t really feel the need for any other pattern. The Dondorf is enough. It has all the graciousness required of 19th Century cartomancy and none of the naive folkishness. The quality of the engraving is good enough to grace the drawing room. It doesn’t embarrass itself with awkwardness. The cards have a unity, a homogeneity that many other decks of the period lack. No scrawny Child card here or prehistoric, mechanical Birds (I am thinking of the Wüst here). There is something languid and charming and utterly well-rounded about the Dondorf. The perspective stands up to scrutiny. The Dondorf company used to market it as the one true Lenormand. I believe them.

But that writing. Why does it mesmerise me so much?  As one who has always had a morbid love of old documents –  diaries, old love letters, anything that allows curlicue words to communicate with us beyond the grave, to speak to us directly across the centuries – this deck captivated me from the start. But there didn’t seem to be anyone else interested (nobody bid) so maybe it’s only me (I thought). It was one of those cases of – Shall I? Shalln’t I? –  almost bought it then almost didn’t. I was stalking the deck for a couple of weeks before I recognised that I simply had to have it. And the fact that Lauren Forestell, sharing my excitement, spoke of the possibility of maybe tidying the cards up a bit and pushed me over the edge; I could have a working version but also be able to look at the originals up close. She wouldn’t restore them as such, certainly not clean them, just give a little cosmetic retouching, replacing broken corners, smoothing the frayed edges. As the deck stands, it is too fragile to use. Having a useable version to be able to read with was something that the two of us discussed, but then there must be others who are interested in using a deck like this. What was (in my mind) the Scrawled Dondorf became for Lauren the Destroyed Dondorf as she started working on scans.

Fish example

But that writing. It is the writing that makes the deck. I have been reading a book about Borley Rectory, the most haunted house in England, now no longer in existence (burnt down in 1939) and in my mind the deck and the haunting became curiously linked. Spirit writing appeared on the walls at Borley during the tenancy of the unstable Marianne Foyster, eerie scribblings on the stair wall ; “Light mass prayers… Please help get”…. My mind involuntarily associated the beautiful handwriting on this deck with the spirit writing and haunting at Borley, something cursive from beyond the grave. And even before the deck arrives I find myself convinced that this deck comes with a ghost. Don’t they always, these old, well-used decks? Haunted by the vibrations of fevered shuffles, querents hands cupped in anguish. Something is trying to speak to us. How odd the way our mind merges things.

As it wings its way in this direction, I have time to let my imagination run away a little. Keep an eye open here on the Game of Hope site. It should be available some time soon. And I shall post here once the original has arrived and I have had time to inhale a little of its spookiness.

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Press Pause

Les-tarots-Delaporte

For some time now I have been feeling less of a compulsion to write here. I have been feeling something akin to obligation. This bothers me. I receive a new deck and wonder whether I ought to put words to what I think and write a review here. Or maybe just enjoy it in silence. I do readings for myself and find that I’d rather keep it private. How odd in the age of facebook. Something I have been reflecting on recently is how my relationship with tarot, Lenormand or just cards has changed. I think about how much it used to thrill me when I first discovered card-reading. It still thrills me, but in different ways. I first got interested in tarot in the very early 1980s and the information that I absorbed at this time was very much a product of that late 70s, early 80s scene which was dominated by Kaplan and the decks of the period, 1JJ Swiss, Royal Fez Moroccan, plus The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Volume I (and no others). There were no study groups that I knew of. I learnt tarot alone. I studied meanings alone. There was no internet, no forums, no networking groups and all the other elements which have given a sense of community to card-reading over the last few years. Being an essentially solitary person, I feel an urge to return to the introspection which I think is such a instrinsic part of my relationship with tarot and which has been obfuscated by watching (and inadvertently hearing) others learn in groups. I have nothing against it and I am not criticising anyone who does it. We all learn in different ways. But I feel a need for silence right now. I feel a need to continue my journey in a vacuum for a while, to block out the noise, the crackle of interference and let tarot and card-reading speak to me on more intimate terms. In short, I want to be alone for a while. I’m sure it is just for a while, in order to loosen that uncomfortable grip of perpetually  feeling that I really ought to write a post. I received a deck last week – a wonderful deck – a deck that excited me and (rubbing my hands) thought that, over the weekend, I would dutifully write a review. Then I received a new tarot book the day after, which got me thinking in different directions. Maybe I could write a review of that? Or maybe I could just keep quiet and inwardly digest, overcome the urge to say what I think and just read and come to my conclusions in silence, pull away like a boat from the shore. Oh but I see the Magic Realist Press are about to issue the third edition of the Bohemian Gothic Tarot which I love so much. Surely I won’t be able to contain myself when that one comes out? Well if I do feel I want to shout from the rooftops, I suppose I will do. But I think a period of silence and isolation is what attracts me right now. This has come about in part (OK, I shall be honest) from my own reaction to much of the Lenormand learning I see around me – disparate voices, disparate interpretations, a sense of clambouring – and some advice I have said to newbies again and again; learn in a vacuum. If you keep listening to all those voices out there, you’ll find yourself in a muddle. But like I say, people learn in different ways and who am I to stipulate what works best? I know how I learn and I want to do what’s best for me to keep my love of card-reading intact. This almost sounds like a retirement. It isn’t meant to. It’s a brief pause for breath from which I shall bounce back. Or not. I have a full life and I don’t to waste unnecessary effort on galloping to try and keep up with myself. Plus I have enough obligations. And life is too short for obligations. Above all, I want silence. And a rest. I want to bolt the door and look awhile at my cards without the disorting mirror of very public appreciation. I think I learn better that way. I shall be back I’m sure.

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Musings on The Moon Card

allegoryofinconstancyAbrahamJanssens1617We go through phases of favourite cards, but there is always one that anchors us to the tarot; the card we identify with, the card whose various facets – whether upright or reversed – speak to us on any given day at any given time. There is something about the Moon card in the tarot which never fails to pulls me in, as indeed it should because that is what moons do; pull us in and subject us to tides, to cycles and rhythms. And it is nothing to do with my zodiac sign. Moons captivate (in a way that Temperance never can) and have done throughout history. So for all the talk of lunacy, there is some comfort in life to be found in the rhythms and cycles. Then there is the crayfish. What exactly is it doing there, between watch towers, between howling dogs? I’ve heard all the explanations – hard outside, soft ego inside – but still something is found wanting. I also remember reading years ago about how the crayfish moves between land and water – as we ourselves shift between states of consciousness. Then today, quite unexpectedly, I came across the above painting, An Allegory of Inconstancy (1617) by the Flemish artist Abraham Janssens, which gave me a tarot flash across the centuries. How strange to see the figure holding a moon in one hand, a crayfish in the other. How very tarot. So the crayfish must, by extension, be a symbol of fickleness and whim. It makes sense. In César Rippa’s description of inconstancy in Iconologia, he refers to the crab (not crayfish) as “an animal that walks forwards and backwards with the same inclination as those who are irresolute and love contemplation.” So do Crayfish walk backwards like crabs?

moon

All this made me reflect on how I have seen card meanings and symbology change over the last few decades. I think of meanings I used to see in books in the 1970s, (like “false friends” for the Moon), meanings you don’t hear mentioned much nowadays. Plus the moon itself has been hijacked somewhat as a feminine force in contemporary tarot decks and I see it drifting increasingly, permanently in that direction. The fact that the figure in this allegorical painting is female is probably an extension of the age-old stereotype that women are fickle and inconstant and therefore not to be trusted with important things like politics and landowning. So maybe we should question the moon’s traditionally feminine qualities. There might be a little bit of misogyny in there somewhere. We should also remember that in some cultures, the sun is in fact feminine and the moon is masculine. In the Aryan of India, in Ancient Egyptian, Arabian, Slavonian, Latin, Lithuanian, Gothic, Teutonic, Swedish and the South American cultures, the moon was a male deity. In the English language, influenced by classical models, the moon has become more feminine so we have come to accept this as one of its chief symbolic characteristics. But it wasn’t always like this. In a Serbian song we hear a girl exclaim “O brilliant sun! I am fairer than thou, than thy brother, the bright moon” In a Slav song, we hear “‘My mother is the beauteous Sun, and my father the bright Moon.” But the moon has become associated with femininity in more modern times (and decks) perhaps because of its 28 day cycles. Whatever the reason, this painting by Abraham Janssens made me stop in my tracks and reflect a little more on the symbolism of the Moon card, how almost every Moon card from the historic decks, up to and including the Rider Waite Smith deck, has a crayfish prominantly displayed. The Vacchetta (an exception) doesn’t and has the Sun as Apollo and the Moon as Diana. The Cosmic crayfish (see below, together with The 1jj Swiss on the right and the Lasenikův on the left) is one of my favourites – the crayfish to end all crayfish. Never has a more Jurassic crayfish risen to the Moon’s spellbinding charms.

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But the crayfish in the Janssens’ painting is intriguing – who is this figure sitting on billowing “inconstant” drapery (that holds no shape) and how does holding the moon in one hand and a crayfish in the other denote inconstancy? The word for crayfish in Latin is the same as crab (apparently) which links it to the moon in the zodiac. But then The Moon is linked to Pisces. I have also read that etymology links it to the scarab beetle. The word may well have the same root. I didn’t think that crayfish shed their outer casing, but certain sources say they do so they are also (invariably) a symbol of renewal. However, there is a danger of being led in more and more different directions and understanding the image less and less.

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The fact is, the Moon card is perhaps the most mysterious in the tarot deck. For me it has always had connotations of weirdness and the crayfish only adds to it (especially when on a dinner plate such as in the Ancient Italian/1880 Serravalle Sesia Tarot and Soprafino decks – see image above). I rather like the meanings that nobody gives it anymore – lunacy, deceit, illusions and, of course, false friends, none of which are probably inferred by the crayfish. We have now tamed it to mean anything to do with the unconscious. But it seems in most cases to be the “safe”, gentle unconscious,  not the unconscious of compulsion and derangement and murder. New ageness wants it to mean intuition, not dangerous urges. When I first started buying tarot cards, this was the card that summed up everything mysterious about tarot cards. In the Soprafino decks it has – for me – the perfect amount of twilight eeriness. Something wrong. For me, that’s what a good moon card should have. Something is wrong in the half light. The Lasenikův is more explicitly spookier but then the whole deck is. The 1jj Swiss Moon card is another peculiar one; the man serenading (must be lunacy – why else would you possibly love?) but then there is the peculiar composition. Why is the crayfish set apart in a different picture plane? There is no water in this image, no towers, so why the need of a crayish? It isn’t moving between water and land. It is framed like something on the wall of a collector’s cabinet. It must be the inconstancy theme again. The inconstancy of the lover.

Looking at Janssens’ allegorical painting, I wonder why it wasn’t used in Kat Black’s Touchstone Tarot since it is from the same period as most of the other images as well as having all the required symbolism and being consistent with the overall atmosphere. I love the Moon card so much that it is rare for me to find a Moon card which I get nothing from. There is so much in it that speaks to me, so many layers that some of its symbolism will always be covered. It is the card with which I never draw a blank during readings. And yet, the Moon card in the Lenormand deck always leaves me a little stumped in comparison. I have to repress my tarot meaning for it. I have to force myself to think differently about it; it is reputation, it is work (why?) But in the tarot it is all the magic and strangeness and danger I desire in a deck compressed into one single image. I feel comforted when this card comes up in readings. A brief, illuminating flash of all that inner self to explore. It can be a prism for weirdness, shorthand for urges, compulsions, things we know are wrong but do them anyway; anarchy, irrationality. Surely there is still space in our overworked, regimented, hurried lives for just a little of this?

New Moon By Albert Aublet

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Migrating

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At this time of the year – I associate it with the light as it slants late afternoon – I always seem to reach for The Greenwood Tarot. I think maybe I identify this deck more with the change of seasons, changes in perspective, than with the seasons themselves. It is as if something pulsates in me; I want to go through this deck, card by card, and lose myself in that slightly unhinged shimmer which it has, the showers of light, the dissipating energies, exchanging impressions from last year to this.

It comforts me to have it on my reading table and to choose an image to look at before I go to sleep, thinking it may provoke intense dreaming and journeying. Work drains me but I look at this deck and feel revived. It is odd how the last few days I keep drawing the same card – the King of Cups.

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I often draw this card (this and the King of Wands) in other decks. They must be opposite ends of my spectrum. The real me must lie somewhere in between. But this King of Cups is not like the King of Cups in other decks. It isn’t merely an emotional, sensitive man on a throne with a cup. We have two Reindeer about to kiss through smoke that curls up from the roof of a prehistoric shelter. I drew it repeatedly earlier this week and was rather bemused. I would shuffle well and out it would pop again. From Chesca’s own notes (which have now been sadly removed from the internet) she describes the reindeer as the animal which stands on the cusp where the elements and earth meet, thus “water becomes ice”. Is it a coldness I feel, myself solidifying? Becoming removed from myself, my element transforming?

“[Reindeer] inhabited Europe in the Ice Ages, and were considered guides, pathfinders – as the tribes followed the migrating herds, creating tracks through the landscapes. These gentle reindeer stand before a prehistoric tent made of woolly mammoth bones, tusks and fur. At this time of year reindeer eat the fly agaric mushrooms, whole herds keeling over “drunk”. These mushrooms are toxic to humans.”

I remembered this last night drinking vodkas and pondered briefly for a moment. But it’s the feeling of migrating that comes through now. I am also drawn to another card in the deck. Can’t stop looking at it. I don’t draw it but it is the card I want to “seal” the deck with when I put it away (by that I mean the card I want to leave uppermost), The Ancestor; perhaps my favourite card in the Greenwood Tarot. This is the image that Chesca says was her very first vision from many years ago. It shows a reindeer figure. More human than the ones in the King of Cups. She holds a frame drum and is beating the heart of the frozen land alive. I love the silver birch gateway, the fire in the heart, the cascade of light and, in the distance, the forest into which she beckons us (judging by the hoofprints leading the way).

This summer we stayed in a beach house which backed onto a forest and the relationship between this forest and the composition of the card reminds me of the relationship between our house and the forest which led towards the sea. The view is not dissimilar with the expanse of sky and the same distance from the brow. I would wander there at night listening to the sounds and looking up at the stars thinking “I shall remember this place when in the depths of winter”. And I already remember it, rather wistfully (not yet in the depths of winter). Because this card also speaks of migrating. Because I think that’s where I am now, work oppresses, pins me down, but the heart yearns, the spirit wants to migrate. Somewhere. Into the dark forest, following something strange and shrill which calls to us to the sound of a steady beat. And I saw some photographs taken by a friend of a distant place I know well, love and miss.

The Greenwood, when you look below the surface always seems more in tune with where the heart wants to be than other decks. It may be my imagination. It seems to pinpoint my yearnings. There are cards I draw at random and there are cards I feel I need to contemplate. The Ancestor is one such card. It is like the pied piper of the deck. “The first trackways were made by the repeated travelling of tribes along the migratory routes of the reindeer who followed the same paths for thousands of years.” Where does the heart want to migrate to? Maybe it isn’t a place at all, maybe it is a state of mind. Venus rises, the guiding star.  It is odd how our bodies can tune into the migrating urge, something we perhaps thought we had lost. Then to feel the pulsations and to feel that life – with its commitments, expectations, pettiness – forces us to ignore it. At our peril.

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Vampire Decks; Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here

welcome

Why do I find most vampire decks so laughable? Maybe it’s just me. But it’s that time of year again and I feel myself wanting to dig out the best of the dark decks (picture me thrusting my hands into a large pile of rotting autumn leaves and grappling around feverishly) to carry me through into the darker months. Yet I always feel more than a bit disappointed, because most dark decks are vampire decks and I don’t think I can take them seriously. With one notable exception, I have abandoned all hope of vampires being done well in tarot. Furthermore, I don’t include the Bohemian Gothic in this equation – I should add at the outset –  because it is way too multi-layered to be a vampire deck, although the second edition did bring vampirism a bit more to the fore with the reworked Queen of Swords. I could have done without the fangs to be honest, but I still love the deck. Ask fellow tarotists to recommend a dark deck for Samhain and they’ll recommend a vampire deck yet I’m afraid they just don’t do it for me. Maybe it’s because vampirism, once genuinely sinister, has been hijacked and overdone by popular culture, and the true death blow or nail in the coffin  – or whatever metaphor you want to extend – was when it was given that sickly, mainstream teen and celebrity sheen from the Twilight series. How can something so airbrushed and waxily synthetic ever be scarey? But even before this, I remember always finding even the classic vampire films risible. I think the last time I saw a vampire film – vowing never again – was quite a while back now, when I was a student. I went to a midnight screening of a film (can’t remember the name) in a cinema which had the cachet of being the last cinema in England to still have fully functioning gas lighting (I know, bizarre). How appropriate for something spooky. Or it would have been if the film had been spooky. But it wasn’t. Just silly, as vampires now are. All a far cry from how it all started.

Varney the Vampire

If I try hard enough, I think I can muster up a sense that when vampires first began making an appearance in art they might have been genuinely unsettling, but it’s never enough to chill me as I like to be chilled and I find that I have to intellectualise it. I remember a book I had as a child which had illustrations from Varney the Vampire, the 1845-47 Penny Dreadful serialisation by James Malcolm Rymer. Now here was a proper vampire – mainstream in his own way I suppose – and the first of the truly great literary vampires, spread across a record-breaking 220 chapters. It wasn’t new then and I’m not sure it was new when Polidori created his fragment of a story in summer 1819 on Lake Geneva.

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It was certainly a well-trodden path by the time Bram Stoker got there. But somehow it has lost its way between then and now. Whilst once it was curious, now it seems vaguely ridiculous. We have become less repressed and the vampire genre only really worked when we were very much in denial; maidens thrasing around on four poster beds while gossamer curtains billow, uptight reverends with meaty necks exposed, the window latch off – night sweats, delirium, something unearthly squatting on us in the dark (desire perhaps) like that fabulous image which inspired Fuseli and others, something making us yearn for unwholesome encounters. Usually at night.

Nachtmahr_(Abildgaard)

The roots of vampirism are fascinating, but to me they seem so irrelevant now – and yet you wouldn’t think so with all the vampire tarot decks to choose from, so somebody somewhere finds them relevant. The tone is hard to get right – you can feel how, as a tarot theme, it feels itself torn in wildly disparate directions, pulled by wild Fuselian horses; do you go for Japanese comic style? Video games? Gory? Literary (and hope it doesn’t feel fusty)? Or maybe just go the way of all popular culture and try to make it sexy, so lots of gyrating and leaping in black leggings. But it never really works for me, however you package it. Vampirism has to have an element of repression which we simply don’t have anymore. I always prefered werewolves myself but I remember one prominent deck designer saying that trying to stretch werewolves over 78 images is really hard work. However, vampire deck designers seem unfazed by doing the same with vampires so it must have something that helps keep momentum up. Maybe they think that since vampires are sexier there’s definitely more mileage, but it’s no good for me. It never seems to work. Except perhaps in one deck, the deck I automatically reached for last night when I started thinking about vampire decks; Robert Place’s Vampire Tarot.

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I quite like this one but then it has The Alchemical in its DNA (see The World card). It also has a cold, remote, asexual atmosphere and is the deck which gets nearest to the repressed and cerebral mood I think I want in my vampire decks. I think Robert Place’s artwork is perfect for a deck on this theme; so controlled, polished and urbane. I love how its images loom out of the blackness, like the vampire coming across the fens, the latch off. I love how the five-pointed flowers make it look almost pretty until you realise that they are garlic flowers and why they are there.  I love the stiff, glossy cardstock, the etched black lines. I love the architectural backs, like an art deco keystone. I love the suit of swords meticulously laid out with all their different blades. I love, of course, how Le Fanu makes an appearance as the Knight of Holy Water. I love how it doesn’t try to be sexy; it is the buttoned up, academic vampire deck par excellence, the vampire deck of Byron and Polidori.

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The personality court cards, depicting (mostly) real people who are related to the history of fictional vampires, remind you that it is very much a vampire deck with a foot in the romantic past, the vampires of the literary imagination. I can understand why some would find the court cards difficult. I think I do sometimes but if I relax, I sense I know these personalities such as Pamela Colman Smith and Samuel Taylor Coleridge well (“Tis the middle of the night by the castle clock, and the owls have awakened the crowing cock”…) The deck has very white borders which feel like a crisp vicar’s collar against the darkness of the images, as well as sharp-edged corners. I have two copies of the deck; one with the corners rounded and another one (the one I use; see images) which has had all traces of borders removed. There is something satisfying about the stubby chunkiness of my trimmed version and it is a deck I love using.

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The book of course is excellent – Robert Place’s books are always superbly written and informative and contain everything you could possibly need to understand the deck and much more besides. If you haven’t read Stoker’s Dracula, no need to worry as it is summarised step by step with all the major themes elucidated. It’s a fine line to tread; how best to honour something traditionally sinister while resisting or acknowledging our contemporary ironizing tendencies. I’m not sure which is the best approach. Because vampires are presumably supposed to scare us – even better excite us – and yet the pomposity inevitably makes them fall short. Place’s Vampire Tarot cuts out the humour; perhaps that’s why it works for me. It isn’t wry or knowing or computerised. It is rather sombre in fact, rather humourless and stark. And yes, cold. It really is the only one that has an element of vampirism as I want to experience it, and which the damp nights of autumn brings me back to. Like last year and (I think) the year before that.

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The Joy of Spreadcloths

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Spreadcloths, reading cloths, altar cloths – who cares what we call them – I can never resist acquiring them, despite (I admit) finding them fundamentally unnecessary. I am easily dazzled. They are what I buy when I run out of decks to buy. I am never quite switched off to the possibility of finding one. Or two. Or maybe a whole set. Because almost anything can be a spreadcloth and I pick them up all over the place; brocade napkins in the sales, velvet cushion covers sans cushion,  silk scarves, head scarves (washed of course), outsized handkerchieves, random scraps in need of only a hem. In fact, any fabric that takes my fancy will do, as long as it accommodates a standard-sized spread and  – most importantly – does not have a distracting background pattern. All manner of loose odds and ends have been absorbed into my cloth collection over the years and kept in the special drawer set aside for the purpose. Card reading wouldn’t be the same without them. I find that I have more spreadcloths now than I really have use of. But they are so beautiful. Silk, velvet, brocade, vintage leather, suede; I always think that they are an essential part of my travelling tarot kit should I ever sit down to do a reading on a table with lunch leftovers or breadcrumbs, but the fact of the matter is that the more elaborate, opulent and eye-catching my arsenal of spreadcloths becomes, the less likely I am to deign to lay them down on a less than immaculate surface. But I cannot resist them. It’s all part of establishing my impromptu sacred space, a place where the outside world doesn’t intrude, of keeping encroaching clutter at bay.

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This subject of interest came to me partly because last week I came across a wonderful piece of fabric as I was on my way to a lunch party at the house of a friend. It was on Saturday and I caught a taxi and realised I could hop out a little earlier and make my way via the flea market and see if there were any goodies, while still not be too late for lunch. I saw a large piece of cotton fabric flapping in the sun, with four baroque engravings stamped on it. I fell in love with it, bartered and took it on my way.

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All four engravings – and no, the backgrounds don’t distract me, no idea why – represent a season. They seem to have been taken from 17th Century engravings, (judging by the dress) from France (judging by the titles; Le Printemps,  L’été, L’automne, L´hiver.)

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As soon as I saw the fabric, I imagined it quartered and made into four distinct reading clothes. Or an altar cloth for each season. Except I don’t have an altar, although it is on my to do list. Then I remembered the great swathes of grey silk I had at the back of the wardrobe waiting to be used and which would be perfect for the lining. I have an old friend who suddenly started suffering from a dust allergy a decade or so ago and he had these beautiful drapes in his house all lined with gorgeous silk which the doctor ordered him to remove; in fact he had to remove all fabrics, all things that might trap dust (I wonder if we’ll laugh at this 300 years hence in the same way we laugh at the idea that noxious smells could cause illness 300 years ago?) So down the drapes came and I kindly offered to relieve him of the burden of metres and metres of silk, different types and in different colours. My seamstress from Dubai – who is male, so probably a seamster –  told me that this was very high quality silk and every now and then I remember it and hack off a bit more for spreadcloth lining. I think it may well last forever. And last week I went to pick up my four new spreadcloths he had made for me and I am thoroughly delighted with them.

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More delighted in fact than I have been with many recent tarot decks (and each cloth is virtually the size of a standard 9 x 4 Lenormand Grand Tableau).

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Thinking of decks, I have to confess, it is getting harder and harder to muster enthusiasm to buy. I begin to speculate on what might be wrong with me, whether I am switching my attention to nice spreadcloths simply because tarot decks – decks in general –  are inspiring me so little of late, whether I have reached saturation point. I plan to buy decks and then often don’t get round to it and find that it doesn’t really matter in the great scheme of things anyway. Lying on the beach this summer, I made a mental list in my head of the decks I read well with, the decks I never tire of, decks that have given me consistantly good readings whilst reading for others. When I got home, I gathered all these decks in one place (by the bed) and had the sudden sensation of dust settling, a curious feeling of completion, of not really needing anything else. Up until this point there had been all these disorganised piles of decks, bookshelves with no coherent cataloguing system, forgotten decks, decks whose system I keep vowing to master. All a bit of a mess really. But lay a spreadcloth down, deal out a favourite decks and it really is enough. It all comes in cycles I suppose. You need to feel that nothing is going to surprise you in order to be knocked sideways. But I have my favourite decks and I have them all in favourite bags, but there is no limit to spreadcloths. With a flick of the wrist they herald something special. They set the tone (I have a very psychedelic one for the Hoi Polloi, a rather woozy one for Herzer’s Illuminated Rider Waite Smith), they establish territory, they clash with colours and stoke intuition. So even if new decks are not giving me much pleasure right now, at least my spreadcloths are.

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