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Sunday, 24 February 2013

Divination vs Devotion

I've noticed for the last several months that I get out a tarot deck, look through it, put it away and pull out one of my 'real' tarot decks. For months and months it was a Rider Waite Smith. I have collected several over the years: Original Rider Waite-Smith, the yellow boxed Rider Deck, the Giant RWS, the Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative. Then I have those that deviate a bit more: Universal Waite (my first tarot deck--I don't count the debacle with Osho Zen!), Radiant Rider, Diamond Tarot. Beyond that I have all those RWS-based decks: Druidcraft, Morgan Greer...but for the last year or so, I tend to get out an old favourite like Druidcraft, look through it, throw it back in the box and use a 'real' RWS to do the actual reading. Perhaps it's because I have been reading so much Rachel Pollack, and she refers so much to RWS decks. But also, I found myself getting more and more interested in the esoteric and occult symbolism inherent in the RWS, which is often lacking in RWS-based decks, and sometimes purposely removed (such as in the Anna K Tarot).

Arthur Edward Waite
I still maintain that Golden Dawn and other occultists added on the qabalistic, astrological and other esoteric correspondences to the tarot deck after the fact. It seems clear to me that the earliest tarot decks  were merely a set of renaissance images based on Christianity, plus pips, and that divination occurred as an offshoot, a novel use of this gaming tool. The occultists of the 19th century seem to be responsible for bolting esoteric meanings onto this card deck. Also, I believe that one doesn't need to know ANYTHING about these esoteric add-ons in order to use tarot cards for divination. It is pretty well-known that the creators of the two most prominent Golden Dawn decks, Arthur Edward Waite and Aleister Crowley, thought divination was a vulgar use of the cards, possibly even a misuse of them. I suppose you would think that of a set of images that you had bolted your entire universal paradigm of beliefs upon.

Aleister Crowley
I suppose these 'purist' leanings (for lack of a better term) are what have led me to at last examine the Thoth Tarot. I am finding the 'add-ons' quite fascinating, and the Lon Milo DuQuette book very helpful, in a frustrating kind of way. (I can't help but thinking he sugar-coats the truth about Crowley, and even the deck, quite a little bit. But I believe a lot of contemporary followers of Themela and the OTO do that). I find the images, symbols and references in this deck fascinating, confounding and sometimes disturbing. But when I look through it (and I have spent a lot of time in the last several weeks just handling the deck and looking through it) I can see why some people fall for it to the virtual exclusion of other decks. I don't think anyone has ever got their head completely around this deck. I don't think even Aleister Crowley ever did. He would probably say the same, I bet. And I have a feeling that Harris wished she could have done more to convey what she was driving at...even though this is probably one of the best tarot decks ever painted.

Freida Harris
I bring all this up because I have been looking at images of other tarot decks online, as I always do, and I keep thinking that so many of them are so lacking. Sure, they may have artwork on them that hearkens back to traditional divinatory meanings, or even riffs on them a bit, but then there's nothing else there. One will search in vain for 'other stuff'. Right now that other stuff is what I find attractive, what I find fascinating, what I find missing. Right now my definition of a tarot deck has become very, very narrow. And other decks begin to look to me like oracles. The pendulum has swung very far to one side. I'm sure I'll find my way back to the middle at some point. I don't profess to understand or even want to understand qabalah, astrology, and so forth. But I feel that paddling around, even in the shallow end of it all, is stretching me in good ways. So for now, decks like the Gaian will stay in their boxes. Decks like Wild Unknown will stay out of my shopping cart.

But I still really dislike Crowley and think his Thelema is a bunch of derivative, drug-induced, adolescent shock-schlock bollocks.


  1. There are quite a few decks out there with astrological associations and quabbalistic stuff, not just the Thoth. And many of them at least as pretty - for example some of Ciro Marchetti's decks...

    Glad that your passion for the Thoth hasn't transferred over to the unpleasant Crowley, though!

    1. I don't know that I can get into Marchetti's decks. I don't like the colours or style. But who knows, eh!

    2. Well, you didn't like the Thoth a couple of years ago ;)

  2. Long comment, which blogspot has obliged me to split up into two posts:

    You are experiencing feelings I've had for quite some time, since I came back from my tarot hiatus a few years ago. The majority of deck creators since Waite and Crowley have taken highly distilled, one-note "meanings" originally derived from the Golden Dawn tarot framework and built their deck upon them, without even a 1/4 of the symbolic, philosophical, astrological, Qabalistic, or other "meat" that the RWS and Thoth decks encompass.

    It is rather akin to someone who baked an elaborate, venerable cake. Maybe a fruit cake, with a variety of ingredients both whole (eggs; milk) and divisible (candied and preserved fruits; fine cake flour they milled themselves from wheat they specially sourced; spices they toasted and then ground). And they poured the batter into particular-shaped baking tins, perhaps sun, moon, and stars. And these cakes were such a hit, resonated with so many, because of all the effort, thought and process behind them--the fruit preserved in X form of alcohol for Y amount of time and each for a different reason (because rum complements this fruit best while brandy best brings out the tartness in that fruit), and so on. And then later, people who had eaten those cakes and been so profoundly affected by them were inspired to make their own cakes. So they went and bought sun, moon and stars tins and all-purpose flour and a pack of dried fruit from the supermarket. At the end of the baking process, they hold out their star-shaped cake and say, "Here you are! Here's a fruit cake for you to use and enjoy."

    It has the barest trappings of the predecessor-- yes, flour, eggs, sugar, fruit, celestial shape. It *is* a cake, a fruit cake, a celestial fruit cake. You can legitimately tell your friends, "Look, I've made a Moon Cake (TM)." But there is comparatively little "to" it. The creator couldn't tell you the meaning of this or that fruit and likely has omitted many of the carefully-sourced and processed fruits and other ingredients from the original. It has less nutritional value (as cakes go) than the original. In short, it retains only the appearance and basic use (cake = eat; special occasion) of the original, without giving the consumer much to --literally-- chew on.

    How can the new cakes ever fully satisfy someone who knows that in a time since past, there was a Mooncake of great variety and depth of thought and high degree of skill?

    The astonishing thing about all of the above is that I make this analogy as someone who is not even highly attached to either the RWS or Thoth. In fact, for many years, I took a fairly dim view of the RWS (avoided actually buying a copy at all costs). My opinion rose as I learned more about the artist (and learned more about its depth of esoteric thought) but by the point is, I am by no means a devotee of either of these decks, their creators or the Golden Dawn. I just happen to be intrigued by all of the above and have read a fair bit about them.

    1. I always fall back to my Robin Wood deck. it's a RWS type and I love it. it is always my go-to deck.

    2. I haven't looked at the Robin Wood in ages! Whenever I get it out, I always get an extreme 80s vibe. :) And some the images remind me of Captain America comics. :)

  3. Part 2

    So, I find myself in the same curious position at which you seem to have arrived: not being a True Believer; acknowledging that all of these elaborate correspondences were put together by clever and inspiring people far after tarot's first incarnations as playing cards and simple fortune-telling tools; viewing with a jaded eye many of the teachings (and antics) of their luminaries and leaders....and yet, for all of this, still feeling that later "cakes" modeled after theirs can never be fully satisfying, will always feel lacking in a way that leaves me singing, "Is that all there is?" and moving on to the next deck or falling back to my tried and true "meaty" decks when I need a proper self-reading.

    The decks I fall back on for significant questions all have quite a bit of their own "meat" to chew and digest, even if they--like the Maat or Hallowquest/Arthurian--- owe an obvious debt to the Order of the Golden Dawn (and even if they are flawed within their own systems, which, like the Golden Dawn was with its first decks, these decks inescapably are; that's the occupational hazard of "correspondences"). It is no coincidence that the creators of each of these two decks (and others I value) have produced copious books, blogs and commentaries on their respective decks; there is room and need for all of this material because the creators have devised complex systems using their own attributions and narratives.

    If the Golden Dawn hadn't baked its own "cake" to begin with, would these later decks have come about? Perhaps not. Likely not, even. But in these cases, the new chef has taken charge of the kitchen and gotten their own hands dirty with their own set of ingredients and techniques. They have not just picked up the old recipe, gone down the list ticking off the ingredients to buy, popped it all into a moon-shaped tin, and called it a Mooncake. They've made a new cake that brings something substantive into the world of pastry.

    This is the essence of syncretism, of cultural integration and innovation. Without Christianity, Santeria and Vodou would not exist, yet the latter two exist as forces in their own right, offering something of substance--love it or leave it!-- to the world and the pantheon of religions. Without the British, French, ancient Greek and Roman, and Iroquois systems of government as predecessors, would the United States democracy as we know it exist? Surely not. Yet, it stands on its own feet as something to be studied and undertaken--whether accepted or rejected or both, it doesn't matter--by new generations of seekers.

    Thank you for an enjoyable and thought-provoking post, as always. Yours has been my favorite tarot blog for some time now--long before your current amour with your "Thothy-pie." (And may I wish you continued joy each other.)

    1. I love your cake analogy! And will I ever be able to look at this deck again and not think 'Moon Cake'?

      Nope, it's the Moon Cake deck. :)