Pictorial Tarot Decks - a stuck concept?
Has anyone noticed that 99.9% of tarot packs on the market today have pictorial pips? Most of these packs take their inspiration from the images on the Rider Waite Deck, as illustrated by Pamela Colman-Smith. This pack is now known as the Traditional Tarot, as marketed by U.S.Games Systems Inc., and tarot students are usually recommended this set as a starter/beginners pack, because it is easy to use. Or is it?
On one occasion when teaching tarot at Adult Education I had nine enthusiastic students turn up. When I asked why they had decided to have lessons all nine responded that it was because they did not know why the 2 of Wands had a man holding the world and looking out to sea, or that the 7 of Pentacles had a man leaning on a staff staring at clump of greenery. They also claimed that they were finding it difficult to synthesise a reading. I grinned and asked them all to take out their pack of Waite Tarot cards. They gasped and truly believed me psychic, for how else could I have possible known which pack they all had tucked in their bags.
The simple answer is is that the Waite Pack is marketed as the beginners pack and also as a traditional pack. My students had never seen a Marseille pack, and had no concept whatsoever of any earlier tradition prior to the traditional pack. They all believed that the images on the Waite deck are truly THE absolute and ONLY interpretation for each card. Add to this the fact that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Waite look-a-like packs on the market and we can begin to see where understanding the true value of each card becomes clogged down in the make-believe world of an artist's concept.
Waite and Pamela Colman-Smith may well have known why they rendered each image as they did, but they hardly deigned to share their information with the world at large. Waite's original handbook to accompany the cards, The Key to the Tarot (later to become The Pictorial Key to the Tarot) says very about each card. For the 2 of Batons Waite says, "…Between the alternative readings there is no marriage possible…" and "…The design gives no suggestion…" He may well to go on to say more himself yet seems equally perplexed as to how to validate complex interpretations through a single static image. For the 7 of Pentacles he does no better when talking about the divinatory meanings, "…these are exceedingly contradictory…"
The tarot is a complex, yet simple, set of 22 symbols, as represented on the Major Cards; numbers, and elements. As soon as a picture is placed on each minor card then their fluidity is lost and ones ability to quickly assess groups of numbers and elements diminished. Each card is like a chameleon that subtly changes colour according to the card it is next to. Once the symbols are interfered with by other images much of that fluidity to merge and blend is lost. The Waite pack locks each of these fluid symbols into a concrete state, if not by the added imagery alone, then by the very fact that someone is telling you that this card MUST mean THIS and that you MUST take their word that it means THIS. Yet, as we have seen, Waite offers no explanation as to WHY it should mean what he claims it does.
Add to this the plethora of copyists, who merely take elements of each one of Waite's images, most likely with little or no understanding as to why they are depicting the card in much the same way, and we end up with a rigid concept of what tarot is all about. I have seen everything from dragon cards, to goddess cards, to medieval cards ALL clones of Waite's pack with no original intent. Sad, but true.
The other disturbing consequence of Waite's pack is how much has been written about the designs after the event. Waite and Pamela Colman-Smith who conceptualised the pack wrote little or nothing specifically about each design, yet later tarot enthusiasts have deemed to know precisely why something was drawn, coloured or symbolised as it was and what the great hidden secret is within the design. With students this has led to an enormous amount of misplaced reliance on someone else telling them what each card means rather than them being inspired to learn the mysteries of the cards for themselves. Thus they come to me knowing 78 interpretations, have no idea why each card means what they have been told it means, and have no idea how to draw together a full reading.
The art or craft of tarot reading is in ones ability to synthesise and view a whole picture of the questioner's life and future potential, not merely to expound individual interpretations for each card.
So why is the pictorial tarot concept so popular? Is it that people are intrinsically lazy and want images to guide them, is it that current artists truly have no divine inspiration, is it that we are TOLD that this is tarot and that this is what we must desire? Is it really a question of being led by the nose by publishers? Has tarot truly been brought to its knees through marketing and money making?
Some time ago I went into a car showroom to enquire about a new car. I liked the car but didn't like its black interior and asked if I could have one with maybe a lighter coloured dashboard and door panels. I was told that the interior was black, that was all that was on offer, and that was what the public preferred. I informed the salesman that I WAS the public, that I did not prefer black and that some designer had deemed that black was the in colour for this season. I did not buy the car. Within a year the designers had decided that grey was the in colour and things turned around. It is exactly the same with tarot cards. We can only buy what the publishers present us with.
U.S. Games systems now own the copywrite on the Waite-Smith deck and they have remarketed it as the Traditional tarot. They also sell the Universal Waite tarot as re-rendered by M. Hanson-Roberts and many other variations on a theme. Through their web site one can submit tarot designs for review for publication, however the guidelines are very decisive.
"4. All 40 pip cards of the Minor Arcana (10 through ace in each of the four suits) must be full picture scenes, not just reproductions of geometric shapes."
This states very clearly that if all 40 pip cards are not pictorial that U.S.Games Systems (who hold a huge percentage of the tarot market) will not even consider viewing your designs. Therefore if you have any sort of hankering to design a pack of tarot cards you MUST have pictures on the pip cards, find another publisher or self publish.
Llewellyn have an easier set of guidelines stating "…We particularly seek decks with a strong foundation in the standard tarot structure and interpretation based on a 78-card deck. Our interest, though, is not limited to these types of decks; variations are welcome as long as the variations are explained and are appropriate for the internal system of the deck. Although we seek to publish beautiful and artistic decks, we do not publish "collectable" or "art" decks."
Quite what they mean by "…the standard tarot structure…" is anyone's guess.
Carta Mundi on the other hand request that you pay for your own publication, but will assist with distribution and advertising through their catalogue if you have enough cards printed. However in their guidelines they merely say, "Would you like to have it produced and distributed professionally? ", so they may well have changed their policy since I last spoke with them.