Over the last few years in these meandering screeds I have slyly dubbed myself “mad scientist, mystic, skeptic, curmudgeon, iconoclast and gadfly,” and at various times in my life I’ve been a business manager, professional writer, amateur artist, half-assed poet, acoustic-guitar hack and card-carrying intellectual, but I harbor no pretensions about being a “Renaissance Man,” tarot or otherwise. I admit that I do not have the entrepreneurial flair to be a very convincing “master,” although I do strive for the best writing I can muster, trying to shoehorn all my skills of reasoning, exposition and vocabulary into what have typically been three-paragraph essays.
In a parallel universe, the snooty elitism of wine snobs is well-known. Much of their recondite vocabulary speaks of properties that apply to anything but fermented grapes. To be fair, I have come to the conclusion that some red wines do present the fanciful and not-entirely-agreeable sensory impression of “raisins” or the slightly more desirable “black currants” in both aroma and taste (“nose” and “palate” to you wannabes), and I can even recognize the sophisticated overtones of “black cherries” and “plums” (but — heaven forbid! — not the plum’s wrinkled progeny, “prunes”) in some of the more complex vintages. For their part, the whites can often deliver hints of a “buttery” lubricity and flavors of “grapefruit,” “apricot” or “butterscotch” (actually, finding that last one can be a stretch for me even in a mellow Chardonnay). Impressive for something that is basically fruit, natural sugars, water and alcohol, but hardly essential to its enjoyment.
More recently, the same malady has afflicted craft-beer aficionados. I once commented sarcastically on the “Beer Advocate” forum that, if I wanted my beer to smell like new-mown grass and citrus and taste like bacon, I would buy a hog farm in Florida (which got me promptly ostracized by the community). Acknowledging that different hops and malts do produce uniquely different flavors, some “dry” and “clean,” others more “piney” or “fruity,” waxing lyrical about the “mouthfeel” of the brew or the “lacing” of foam it leaves on the inside of the glass borders on hysterical. I love high-end beer, but I’m not going to try to make poetry out of its finer points.
And now, against all reason, this lunacy has crept into whisky (or “whiskey”) critiques. I must be a philistine, but my whisky tends to smell and taste like . . . well, whisky, although I do sometimes detect brown sugar or honey in some of the sweeter bourbons. (I have yet to sense any of that alleged “bacon” and I’m not sure I ever want to, but the “campfire smoke” — I think of it more as “wet ashes” — due to the pronounced peat in some scotch is hard to miss.) Many of the exotic essences that self-styled “experts” claim to have discerned in their booze suggest substances I very much doubt they have ever poked their snouts or tongues into (but hey, it certainly sounds highbrow!) If the whisky is smooth and subtle rather than overly “boozy,” “hot” or “raw” (and incidentally does what liquor is intended to do), who needs the arcane lingo? With some of the touted varieties costing well over $100 a bottle, on the remotely credible chance that I ever buy one I’m damn well going to drink all of it no matter what it tastes like; there is always ginger ale, soda water, a splash of ice water or just plain ice to dilute and tame it.
Which brings me to the real subject of this essay. There seems to be a growing perception that reading with visually “scenic” tarot decks like the Waite-Smith is somehow pedestrian and even wrong-headed, like we’re intentionally “cheating” by borrowing from the narrative vignettes captured in the images, usually by free-associating from them. Would-be purists long to be able to successfully interpret the scant symbolism of the less-explicit “pip” cards in the historical (and, not surprisingly, cognoscenti-acclaimed) Tarot de Marseille, or of the even more austere playing cards.
I’m not entirely without guilt here. I worked exclusively with the Thoth tarot for nearly 40 years, and when I finally bought an RWS deck so I could talk about it intelligently on the tarot forums, my first thought was “Hey, a lot of these images have little or nothing to do with the text of Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot,” the deck’s alleged source, and an even less-recognizable accord with their Golden Dawn roots. It seemed to me that Smith had hijacked the Minor Arcana to serve her own esoteric/aesthetic muse, and Waite wasn’t paying close enough attention to her artistic vagaries. I’m not alone in thinking this; nonetheless, I do use the deck for public readings because it plainly says “this is tarot” to almost everyone who shows up at the table.
The Thoth deck, with its semi-scenic “glorified pip” cards, straddles the line between the RWS and the TdM. Its images are evocative due to their color palette and mood, not their overt story-telling. For many people, the esoteric masterpiece conceived and executed by Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris amounts to — in Wisnton Churchill’s memorable turn of phrase — “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” In my own case I took to it like a duck to water in 1972 and never looked back.
Does this make me a “cartomantic snob?” I do admit to having found the RWS deck “too easy” after crossing wits with Crowley and Harris for so long. Some of the embedded narrative I do in fact give a nod to in my readings, but much of it I completely ignore as misleading or at best merely irrelevant. When I read with the deck, I generally apply Thoth or Golden Dawn correspondences when more depth is required, although the average sitter needn’t be aware of it. I don’t begrudge newcomers their reliance on this crutch, but it should be recognized for what it is: an entry-level primer that can be profitably superseded when the time is right. But rather than favoring one at the expense of the other, why not build a working relationship with both? Think of it as playing to their respective strengths, not “slumming” in the case of the scenic decks.
Not long ago I was thinking about the various “tarot factions” that exist and how I might write about them in a fresh (and satirical) way. The timeline for tarot-card development is fairly well-known, at least in broad terms: early Italian decks were appropriated by French, Swiss and German cartiers for the “Marseille” and “Besancon” styles, followed by the seminal esoteric deck of Etteilla, then by the full flowering of occult thought in the Golden Dawn tarot pack created by chief adept S.L. “Macgregor” Mathers that was to be copied by Order initiates, thence to the often-emulated Rider-Waite-Smith tarot of Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith and the frequently-cloned but never equaled Thoth deck of Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris, and finally to the present-day cornucopia of random excess that tarot-deck creation has become, complete with faeries, humanoid animals, zombies and other pop-culture strangeness.
Probably the best way to bin these different paradigms is according to the types of people who gravitate toward each. At different times I’ve planted a foot in the online outposts of most of these factions just to see what was going on: the historians, the occultists, the Thothies, the RWS aficionados, the TdM traditionalists, the students, the empaths and modern mystics, the social-media hangers-on, etc. I thought it might be entertaining to take out my Post-Modern Tarot, which has become my favorite deck for socio-psychological sniping, and try to peg the deck styles to the characters I’ve encountered in my adventures. This array of cards is laid out in roughly chronological order from left-to-right.
Tarot traditionalists and historians have the Hierophant (“Mr. Religion”) as their avatar due to their matter-of-fact focus on the verities of scholarship.
Adherents of the less-popular decks of Etteilla and his European successors are represented by the Hermit (“Out Of It”) because, well, they’re sort of “out in left field.”
The vast number of “RWS masters” as well as those who fancy themselves coaches, counselors and therapists count themselves kin to the Magician (hopefully not the “pulling rabbits out of hats” kind), here called “Expert.”
Those who admire the Thoth deck of the “evil mastermind” (Aleister Crowley) and occultists of all stripes (at least by reputation) dwell with the Devil (“Evil”).
Purveyors of “instant wisdom” over social media (entrepreneurial You-tubers, self-styled gurus, preening exhibitionists, et. al.) relate to the Sun, the narcissistic “Day” (and if they don’t they should take a hard look at themselves).
The empaths and modern mystics, those faerie-lovers the traditionalists and occultists peevishly label “woo-woo,” are exponents of the Star (“Sweetness and Starlight”).
I hope everyone has found at least a little something here to “tweak their beaks.” If they went away unmoved I wouldn’t be a curmudgeon worthy of my smirk. Perhaps these oh-so-clever vignettes will help aspiring tarot snobs “pick their poison.”