Actually I started creating a tarot deck last year from photos I’ve taken over the years. I had the Major Arcana down pretty easily but the Minors were another thing. That’s a lot of photos. And I didn’t want to resort to “that’s a picture of heather in Ireland and heather looks warm and fiery so this is a wands card.” I wanted images that really spoke to the meaning of the card without being actual posed models of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck.
There are some decks I really admire for their creativity and simultaneous alignment and departure from the RWS images. My favorite decks are those that make me think twice, that have multiple layers of meaning and that are a little ambiguous. Life, after all, doesn’t come with an instruction book.
I love Beth Seilonen’s decks, as I mentioned before; there is something dark and scary under the gentle whimsy that makes me take her work very seriously, even if the decks feature Nestor the Jester or Balthazar the Frog. Her Isabel Snail Tower is one of the most eye-popping “something big is about to happen” cards I’ve ever seen. Another recent purchase is Bethalynne Bajema’s Sepia Stains A Tarot Deck, a delicious mixture of sensuality and bug-creepy. I adore (and have multiple copies of) Patrick Valenza’s Deviant Moon, a sort of carnival out of control. And I love more traditional images, like Kat Black’s stunning Touchstone Tarot and Golden Tarot. Then there are some decks I have for reasons I don’t understand other than I connect with them somehow, like the many copies of the Maddonni Tarot I have squirreled away. I don’t want to discount the other decks I read with on a regular basis, too, like the RWS, the Hanson-Roberts and James Ricklef’s Tarot of the Masters. They are beautiful and they work for me.
So why, if I have too many tarot decks as it is, create one of my own? Well, partly because I couldn’t help myself. I see photos, images, ads, TV commercials any visual medium and think, OMG, that would make a GREAT Page of Wands, or whatever. OK, I don’t think “O-M-G,” I just see those letters in a crawl line on the marquee of my personal theatre.
While I was busy thinking I was creating a deck with my own photos, which in fact I probably still am doing but the distance between concept and fulfillment is rather wide, I stumbled across images that I could not resist. Piling up in my favorite things to view were picture postcards from 1900-1909. Postcards during that time were the Facebook, email, Twitter and cell phone of their day, a snapshot of human perspective. And the perspective came with pictures! I started accumulating them, then pursuing them. I quickly realized I had a deck of tarot cards, no, actually more than one deck. I began to organize them, crop them for ideal focus and give them some standard naming pattern so I could find them again. And the project grew.
I realized I had more than a slide show of fun images. They started to gel into a vision of what a deck like that might look like.
The backs would be, say, like the back of an unused postcard, the old-fashioned kind true to the time of the images where there was room only for the addressee’s name and address. Early postcards required that the back be used only for the address. The message had to be written on the front somewhere. I’m picky about the backs of tarot decks. I don’t want visual cues in advance whether the card I’m turning is reversed or upright, so I like symmetrical back images. So I figured out how to make my postcard back symmetrical.
My images were a mix of photos and artwork, color and monotone. So I sorted them into two groups, photos and artwork. I started, randomly, to work on the photos. Just by picking out pictures from postcards that I liked, I had about 60 of the 78 cards already, so the hunt was on to complete the deck. The hardest one was The Hanged Man.
I love The Hanged Man as a card. When I first started with tarot, I had trouble with it. “Sacrifice,” most little white books say. OK, so if you get him right side up, it means you give up something for something more important, or maybe you’re a sap. But the guy’s got a halo in RWS so it’s noble sacrifice, something like Dickens Tale of Two Cities, “’Tis a far, far better thing I do…,” and all. So does that mean that reversed, you didn’t have to give anything up? It was problematic for me. As I studied tarot more, a richer picture of The Hanged Man has come to me. For instance, in my first blog post, I used to hang by my feet from the swingset trapeze and jungle gym just to view the world from a different perspective. My little yellow bird is a representation of The Hanged Man, the idea of looking at things from another point of view. Rachel Pollack gave a wonderful talk on The Hanged Man at the 2009 BATS, explaining that hanging people by their feet was a punishment for traitors. It seems you can look at The Hanged Man from an objective point of view with sympathy for his plight or scorn for his crime or you can look at him as a reflection of yourself. And that goes deeper. The Hanged Man has a halo because he has chosen a path, a stance, a point of view which does not conform to that of others and for that he is separated, even persecuted. But he has remained true to himself. Reversed, he has given up his own values and ideals and sublimated his will to society, choosing to fit in rather than to be himself. That puts the idea of sacrifice in a more thoughtful light for me.
Well, now, how do you find a photo from 1900-1909 that says all that? The first one I found was of a real hanging, an execution of a Chinese man at the hands of Russians during their conflict at that time. The hanged man’s face in the photo was overexposed, almost white-hot, which was like the idea of the halo in some ways and like the anonymity and depersonalization of being executed because you were “one of them” instead of “one of us.” But it was ghastly. It took a long time to find an image that was a little lighter, a little less political, a little less horrifying. But that first image will stay with me for a long time.
Late in the process it occurred to me that other people might think this was a fun thing too, so I contacted people I knew who might be interested in sharing the cost of printing and got a fantastic response. My very first tarot deck is at the printer now waiting patiently in line with its little white book to be printed as a numbered and signed limited edition of 50. Just 50 decks of 78 cards are all I intend there to be in the whole world.
Like the 9 of Swords, sometimes when you wake up from your dreams, you’re just so glad it wasn’t real and you’re back to normal again, whatever that is. I think my husband will be glad in some ways when this is done because of the intensity of my attention to it. I’m just hoping that it doesn’t turn out to be a flop, a disappointment, kind of like my 9 of Swords guy who woke up from his dream to find out that he really did have a bed full of fish!
As one of the lucky 50, can't wait to get this wonderfully creative deck in hand.
All I can say is, "So long and thanks for all the fish!"
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