tarot_scholar: An image of Norman Rockwell's interpretation of Rosie the Riveter (Rosie)
I don't think I've talked about any books at all on this blog, except maybe only in passing. Well!

I've owned a copy of the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg deck for years now—possibly since 2008? The art is certainly striking, especially against the black background.



But it always felt like much of the art and symbolism that was beyond me. I didn't realize until a couple of years ago that there was a companion book; I didn't get around to acquiring a copy until this year.

The reason for my hesitance was partially my generally uninspiring previous experience with "companion books." They felt more like diet versions of a generic Tarot book then an in-depth exploration of a particular deck's art or history (the obvious exclusion being Crowley's Book of Thoth). Moreover, it seemed for a long time that the standalone book was unavailable; it only occurred in a package deals with the deck, which made it unnecessarily expensive and wasteful. Finally, as a Christmas gift to myself, when I found a used standalone copy available, I cashed in some Visa reward points and got Cynthia Giles's Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg for eventually free. It arrived a few days ago and I've just finished reading it now.

This is probably the best Tarot deck companion book I've encountered yet. Giles goes beyond telling you about the deck; she also delves into Russian history, culture, and folklore, much of which turn up in the actual cards. The casual user will no doubt recognize Josef Stalin as the figure in The Devil; if they page through the accompanying LWB, they'll also learn that Princess Olga of Kiev is pictured as the High Priestess, or that the Hierophant resembles Saint Vladimir. But without the background knowledge Giles collects in this volume, they would be much harder pressed to recognize other personages, like Ivan the Great, Grand Princess Sofia, or Ivan the Terrible. (Unless they were hardcore Russian history buffs, I suppose!) She also provides more details and context for the figures only briefly alluded to in the LWB. There is less detail when it comes to the specific court cards and pips, but that is largely due to the fact that there is an abundance of background information elsewhere. The amount of research and work that Giles put into this volume is staggering; she also makes numerous suggestions for further reading and includes her complete bibliography at the end.

I love this deck, and while I've read (relatively) successfully without Giles's companion book, after finally getting my hands on it I can conclude that the information and context provided in the book is, if not 100% essential for working with the deck, it's 100% important. If you've seen me mention this deck and have been thinking about getting one yourself, I would recommend saving up to get the deck and companion book package deal. Absolutely worth it.
tarot_scholar: An image of Norman Rockwell's interpretation of Rosie the Riveter (Rosie)



Maybe another reason I've slowed down with this shadow work meme is that a lot of the prompts are sort of meaningless for me. Last one was about my Inner Child, which is frankly in the category of New Age concepts I don't buy into (maybe that's why my card was the 10 of Swords?); coming up is "inner god" and questions of divinity, which I don't really know if I hold truck with either. But I'll keep on keeping on. It's better to use my cards more often than not, right?

Today was day 17. According to the meme:



Intimacy: How I can strenghten [sic] my bond with the loved one(s)? )
tarot_scholar: An image of Norman Rockwell's interpretation of Rosie the Riveter (Rosie)
The woman to whom all modern Tarot readers owe their hobby received a pittance for her artwork and died in debt, unknown outside her circle of bohemian friends.

Just so you know.

I mean there's more I could say, but someone else has already done an excellent job writing a comprehensive biography of her, so I will link to that and use this space to share some brief, notable facts. If you don't follow that link or remember anything else I mention here, remember that thanks to prevailing Victorian attitudes (read as: patriarachy, white supremacy), Smith never received the credit, money, or prestige she should have for her work on the groundbreaking Rider-Waite-Smith deck.

Unfortunately she has no direct descendents that could possibly benefit from her work (US Games estimates that, were she given her proper royalties, her estate would be worth millions today), so I guess the best we can do is remember to call the deck the RWS deck instead of just the Rider-Waite. Or maybe just Waite-Smith, as they did the work; Rider was just the publisher.

Anyway, here are some brief facts about Pamela Colman-Smith!

First of all, she was a cutie patootie and seems like she would have been a vibrant and interesting person just to know:

What a smile! She went by the nickname "Pixie" which I imagine suited her quite well.

Colman-Smith was born in 1878 to a British father and a Jamaican mother, their only child. She spent her early years in Manchester, then in Jamaica, until finally studying art in Brooklyn. While we remember her today for the RWS Tarot deck, Colman-Smith was engaged primarily in set design for the theater. She also became involved in the women's suffrage movement and illustrated pamphlets on the topic.
Additionally, Colman-Smith illustrated a handful of books: a rare copy of Bram Stoker's Lair of the White Worm, Ellen Terry's The Russian Ballet, The Book of Friendly Giants by Eunice Fuller, Seumas McManus's In Chimney Corners: Irish Folk Tales, The Golden Vanity and The Green Bed, and two books she wrote herself: Widdicombe Fair and Anancy Stories. Widdicombe Fair commands a 4-digit price on Amazon, but Anancy Stories is easy and cheap to find.
Colman-Smith was a member of the Golden Dawn in her own right. (I was always under the impression that she was just a random artist Waite had simply contracted out to. I don't know why. But in case anyone else was under that misconception, I thought I'd clear it up.) Outside this occult group, many of her friends were the movers and shakers of the early 20th century.

After this explosion of work in the turn of century, records of Colman-Smith dwindle until her death in Cornwall in 1951. She was in debt and her belongings were auctioned off. Hopefully among them is a well-preserved journal or diary that will one day be found and help clue us in on those missing thirty years of her life!
tarot_scholar: An image of Norman Rockwell's interpretation of Rosie the Riveter (Rosie)
It seems that after I finished that 30-Day Tarot Meme I immediately dropped off the face of the Internet. Truthfully there are a few things I'm thinking of writing on:


*unsung women of Tarot (Pamela Coleman-Smith, Lady Freida Harris, Florence Farr et al.)

*history of the Celtic Cross (if there's much to dig up; it doesn't seem like much)

*a whole series of each card (more for my own reference than for public consumption, not sure if I'll make those entries public)

*maybe more???? ideas??


But now that my job has picked back up again, it will take a while for these posts to get underway.
tarot_scholar: An image of Norman Rockwell's interpretation of Rosie the Riveter (Rosie)
A common method for teaching the Major Arcana is to frame it in the context of The Fool's journey, from The Magician all the way through The World, each card (theoretically) a logical consequence from the previous. But how long has this particular narrative been ascribed to the Major Arcana?

Many of the websites I visited and books I read when I first started to teach myself Tarot used this paradigm in elucidating the meanings of the Major Arcana. While I learned the card meanings easily enough, the nature of the relationship between the cards and the logical nature of the procession from the one to the next eluded me. No one really explained why the Major Arcana were ordered as they were, or why, for example, The Chariot necessarily follows The Lovers. Maybe my lack of understanding there means I don't truly comprehend the cards' true meaning; that's possible. Either way, the Fool's journey and the progression of the Majors has been a sticking point of mine, so I decided to do a little scratching.

As Robert O'Neill points out, mystical journeys are perhaps the most universal of tropes and they predate the Tarot by nearly immeasurable years. In Middle Ages Europe, those visions and journeys with pious Christian messages tended to be the ones saved and copied by churches and monasteries, and were also often referenced in sermons or artwork in the church. Given the ubiquity of these images, it's hardly surprising that some of them became the Trump cards of tarocchi decks of the time. Other images were derived from common secular visual tropes of the day, such as The Hanged Man. Art is always a reflection, and a product, of its era.

Prior to the advent of the printing press in Europe (1450), decks were individually created and inspired hand-painted works of art commissioned by wealthy patrons, bound together only by the rules of tarocchi. It's unlikely that they (or at least, that all of them) were used to teach any sort of lesson about piety or Godliness. While nearly all of the personages in the Major Arcana can be traced to popular literature (most notably Italian), there is no one definitive work with all of the Trumps in a particular order to tell a particular story; no one religious or occult order got together and dictated that the Trumps should be ordered just so for whatever purpose. Franco Patesi has suggested a few works in particular that may have served as inspiration and, while not rejecting the idea that a definitive source exists and hasn't been found (or existed but was destroyed), admits as more probable the "multiple streams of influence" hypothesis.

In other words, while the images in the Major Arcana probably came from a multitude of tales and illustrations of spiritual progression, the final version we have today is not (so far as we can tell) based on any extant occult source's recommendation. The Waite-Smith deck, perhaps the most popular and recognizable Tarot deck in the world, was likely based in large part on the Sola-Busca Tarot, which A. E. Waite and Pamela Coleman Smith both probably saw in display in the British Museum. The Sola-Busca is the only extant and complete full-color tarocchi deck with full-color illustrations of the Trumps and the pips, though that is not to suggest the Waite-Smith deck is a mere clone. Smith and Waite adjusted some of the card meanings and images so that there are major differences between the two, even though there also many similarities. Here are some more sample images of the Sola-Busca deck so you can check for yourself. Giordani Berti suggests that the Sola-Busca deck, which has been attributed to Nicola di maestro Antonio, is an occult deck (not only a mere gaming deck) with ties to alchemy, but it's my unlearned opinion that those similarities were not meant to be any kind of lesson or secret code, but are just more contemporary images and ideas Nicola di maestro Antonio used for the sake of art. In any case, those ties are through the use of images in cards throughout the deck, more or less at random; Berti is not referring to any secret "recipe" (literal or metaphorical) contained with the ordered numbers of the Trumps.

This is not to say that it is impossible or inappropriate to read other traditions—like alchemy, astrology, or the Kabbalah—on to the cards. If you happen to know a lot about them, that certainly enriches your understanding of the cards and adds new layers of meaning to draw on. I'm not questioning the legitimacy of such a practice; this reading-on is the exact reason Tarot as a divination tool exists today. I only mean that my goal in this investigation was the strictly-defined Fool's journey in the Majors: was this a narrative that artists had in mind when creating the early decks? Is there a long-standing historical tradition of the Major Arcana as a story or some kind ? If so, where did it come from? If not, when did people start applying that idea?

Since I think it's safe to say that the Fool's journey was not the intended framework of the Majors in the earliest decks, when did it start getting read on to the Major Arcana?

Such a narrative is not really the focus either in Waite's Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1911) or in Tarot of the Bohemians (1896). Nor was I able to detect one in Eliphas Levi's Transcendental Magic: Its Dogma and Its Rituals (1854–1856). S. L. MacGregor Mathers, in his summation of the meanings of the Major Arcana in The Tarot in 1888, provides a little fable almost as a mnemonic aside:


The Human Will (1) enlightened by Science (2) and manifested by Action (3) should find its Realisation (4) in deeds of Mercy and Beneficence (5). The Wise Disposition (6) of this will give him Victory (7) through Equilibrium (8)* and Prudence (9), over the fluctuations of Fortune (10). Fortitude (11), sanctified by Sacrifice of Self (12), will triumph over Death itself (13), and thus a Wise Combination (14) will enable him to defy Fate (15). In each Misfortune (16) he will see the Star of Hope (17) shine through the twilight of Deception (18); and ultimate Happiness (19) will be the Result (20). Folly (0), on the other hand, will bring about an evil Reward (21).


*Here Mathers is using the Major Arcana model with 8 as Justice (or Adjustment) and 11 as Strength, instead of the reverse we see in Waite's model. Note that both of them do not number the Fool before 1, but in between Judgment and The World, though it retains its value of 0.


P. D. Ouspensky, famed proponent of the Fourth Dimension, also took some time out to write on the Tarot: a tract titled The Symbolism of the Tarot (1913). He talks only about the Major Arcana, and the bulk of the writing is a first-person narrative through every card in the Majors. While each stage of the journey (each card) is connected to each other, the order Ouspensky chooses for his story isn't to simply follow the traditional numbering. Starting with the Magician at one end of the Majors and The Fool at the other, Ouspensky works from either side in to the middle. He starts with the Magician, then to the Fool, then to the High Priestess, then to the World, and so on, ending with The Hanged Man as the ultimate end of the tale. According to Ouspensky, in each pair of opposite cards, "one card complet[es] the sense of another and two mak[e] one." That is the the only thing approaching The Fool's journey I could find, though as you can see there are strong differences between Ouspensky's narrative and the story suggested by the numerical order of the Major Arcana.

Finally, Crowley opens The Book of Thoth with:

Be this thy task, to see how each card springs necessarily from each other card, even in due order from The Fool unto The Ten of Coins.


which implies that there is a logical sequence behind not just the Major Arcana but the entire deck. The imposition of the Qabalah on the Tarot does create something of a natural progression, though there are multiple paths on the Tree of Life and there is nothing to suggest that the Tarot was originally designed with the Qabalah in mind. Moreover, this logical progression is not limited to the trumps and is not described by Crowley as "the Fool's journey."

On and on my research could go, and hopefully it will, but it requires more time and more than just cursory readings and searching for terms. There are numerous 19th and 18th century texts in French I haven't been able to find online and in English (my French skills are not up to the task of 200-year-old treatises on occult topics); they may shed some more light on the topic, or at least contribute to a clear and unequivocal "no." I largely suspect that the popularity of Joseph Campbell's work in comparative mythology and the 1949 publication of The Hero With a Thousand Faces is the leading contributor to the idea of The Fool's journey.
tarot_scholar: An image of Norman Rockwell's interpretation of Rosie the Riveter (Rosie)

For the writing project that I mentioned in my last post, I decided a good jumping-off point would be to have a section related to every Tarot card. Since the project is inherently open-ended, setting a limit would be one way of deciding when the story was "over" (or, just as likely, setting a minimum would be a good way generating enough material to work out something like a story arc). I went back through what I had written and decided one particular letter would be a good match for the Knight of Cups.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Knight of Cups in my St. Petersburg deck was missing. (And, also, the Ace of Coins.)

I've been a bad Tarot reader and couldn't recall if those cards had been missing forever or if it had been lost in one of the many international moves it's seen; I couldn't even recall what they looked like. This deck has also seen some abuse, otherwise. A few cards had met with a watery fate and while I had been able to dry the bulk of the wet cards to satisfaction, three or four hadn't fared so well.

What is a Tarot reader to do when some cards aren't doing so well, or are missing altogether?

Waite does not touch on such a minor tragedy in his Pictorial Key to the Tarot, nor does a solution manifest itself in the The Tarot of the Bohemians, by Gérard "Papus" Encausse or in Crowley's Book of Thoth. Unfortunately, I don't have access to their older, Francophone sources to see if this was simply overlooked or if the literature really is that quiet on the problem. If I am allowed a moment of speculation: these turn-of-the-century works are so focused on constructing perfect systems and representations, and on the universality of the Tarot, that for them a deck without all its cards would be a machine without a cog. It would work well enough, particularly in the hands of a skilled practitioner, but it seems they would recommend finding a replacement toute suite. Not necessarily the identical card, but at least a stand-in; a good reader will still be able to call up the mental image of the card as well as its associated meanings.

As for contemporary Tarot practitioners, there are lots of Internet anecdotes about people reading with less-than-full decks and the message still getting across, even if the card missing would be central to any readings given. This seems to be the overwhelming majority, though opposition exists. There is also the "Everything is Divine Providence" school of thought, who suggest that the missing cards are missing to tell you a message, whether it's to focus on that particular aspect of your life or to say, "Work with another deck!" Since I don't approach the Tarot religiously or spiritually, I have a tough time reconciling myself to that particular belief. I will meditate on the Ace of Coins and the Knight of Cups later tonight to see if they have any application to me currently, nonetheless.

When it comes to damaged cards, Biddy Tarot (as authoritative a source as any in contemporary Tarot, I suppose) suggests that a little wear and tear is nothing to worry about, unless you personally find it distracting. I am rather fond of that view, even if it is a little bit woo. It is nice to hold a card and be able to say, "Ah, this is from when this thing happened, I remember." The problem is that water damage can make the paper react in funny ways that are as irritating as they are charming, and even interfere with a truly random shuffle and cutting of the deck. That is the one thing I hold sacrosanct above everything else with the Tarot: true randomness.

Unless you personally find it distracting. That, I think, is the crux of this issue. I can't say when the cards in my deck disappeared; I certainly didn't notice anything peculiar about my readings with this deck at all. Since I didn't know then, I couldn't find it distracting. But now that I know, it'll bother me; all the more because of my current writing project. My Thoth deck has all of its cards, but it is simply Not the Right Deck for YNF.

So what am I going to do about my less-than-full deck? I decided to cash in an old Amazon gift certificate and buy another deck to add in the missing cards (and the damaged ones, while I'm at it), and keep it on hand in case of further disappearances/problems. The original deck is one I bought on a very special trip back in the day, so I'd like to keep it close to me as a memento.

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