The “Landscape” As We Know It

AUTHOR’S NOTE: You knew I would get back to the topic of “landscape,” just not in the way I originally envisioned.

I’ve written in the past about the enormous outpouring of new tarot decks (apparently due to the advent of self-publishing where their worthiness to see the light of day doesn’t have to be demonstrated to the “bottom-line” sensibilities of beady-eyed professional editors and cost-conscious publishers). Many of these are minimalist (and artistically deficient) personal statements that are of little use to the serious, tradition-minded practitioner, although it’s probably true that most of them (at least those that aren’t more oracle than tarot) have their roots in the Tarot de Marseille (TdM) or in some cases the seminal early Italian decks. I own more than a few of them (what was I thinking?) but I seldom or never use them in readings.

When it comes to comparing iconography, I usually devote my analysis to the three main progenitors of the modern tarot: The TdM; the Thoth and the Waite-Smith (RWS) decks. I look for evidence of a coherent visual and conceptual lineage across the span of several centuries. (See my recent post “The Importance of Focus” for an example of my methodology.) The Tarot de Marseille owes a great deal to its Italian antecedents, and in fact the creative surge in card development seems to have passed back and forth between Italy and France (with a side-trip into Germany and Switzerland) at least once. The fascination of writers and diviners with the cryptic geometric patterns of the “pip” cards accounts for much of its allure. With the Thoth deck, Crowley’s original intent was to “execute a pack after the tradition of the Mediaeval Editors,” but he and Frieda Harris gave this up due to “technical difficulties.” Nonetheless, the Minor Arcana of the Thoth tarot in most cases strongly echo the design of the TdM pips, with a much more evocative color palette and semi-scenic artwork (I call them “glorified pip” cards); the rest of the deck primarily reflects allegiance to Liber T, the tarot “curriculum” of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The RWS tarot is for the most part an entirely different animal, hiding its origins in the Golden Dawn’s occult foundation while also departing the TdM paradigm and embracing often puzzling, counterintuitive scenic narratives (which largely account for its popularity among non-esoteric tarot readers, who are all too eager to swallow its folkloric underpinnings). It’s generally accepted by tarot historians that Smith, a stagecraft designer, inserted her prosaic theatrical vignettes with little oversight from Waite, who categorically dismissed the idea of common fortune-telling with the tarot.

I won’t go in-depth into the subject of what some are calling the “New Tarot,” a movement that doesn’t honor the historically-established canon, except to say that decks created under this premise may work fine as oracles, but “they ain’t tarot,” just more personal statements that satisfy their creators’ private vision (and, it must be mentioned, efforts that require learning a different set of divinatory meanings just like any other oracle deck). As long as we understand exactly what they are, more power to them. But I think posterity will show that they are mainly a passing fancy; in fact there is some evidence that the trend is already fading. For the practical work of exploring future circumstances and potential events, these innovations (aberrations?) are mostly superfluous anyway and, since this is a divination blog, I won’t discuss their use for psychological self-awareness and self-improvement. The average tarot-reader can get by quite well with one of the “big three” or their close descendants (aka “clones”). Everything else strikes me as just conspicuous consumerism or, in Mel Brook’s pithy phrase, “the soitch for more money.”

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