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We tend to think of ourselves as an image saturated and obsessed society. We’ve made print cheap, we’re surrounded by images that move and glow and build social networks on people’s virtual bulletin boards. None of this could be possible without a blooming visual literacy that spans everything from emoticons to advertising billboards and the graffiti tags that mock them.
But visual literacy existed in the Western world long before electronic technology. For example, it was a strong form of communication in the middle ages, when books were expensive, and not widely available. Both tarot cards and stained glass windows originated in medieval times, and served to teach, enlighten, and entertain. The Catholic Church, realizing the teaching and branding power of colored glass windows, used them to display the iconographic lives of saints and Bible stories in the 12th-14th centuries, to impress a mostly illiterate following.
The secular use of tarot cards paralleled the popularity of stained glass windows. The Encyclopedia Americana says the tarot was introduced to Italy in the last quarter of the 14th century by Crusaders and wandering gypsies, but notes that the cards reference Hebrew and Oriental mysticism and Egyptian mythology. The cards bore a resemblance to circular cards used to teach philosophy and religion in the Far East in the 9th century. Wikipedia mentions that the concept of playing cards came to the West in the 12th century, and the tarot deck, derived from the Italian word tarocchi, was originally a card game, not associated with mysticism and fortune telling until the late 1700s.
From these cryptic origins, over the years, the tarot, consisting of 22 Major Arcana cards and 56 Minor Arcana cards, has both traditionally preserved its own iconography (think of all the references based on cards like “The Fool” and “Death”) and provided a canvas for those who eschew tradition. This accounts for tarot decks based on everything from cats to baseball, and reflecting philosophies from Aleister Crowley’s magic to Charles Schultz’s Peanuts.
When I read about The Collective Tarot on Kickstarter, I was excited to learn more about how this group of creators made these cards to incorporate anarchist and queer lifestyle and beliefs. I met with two of the deck’s creators, Annie Murphy and Clio Reese Sady, to learn more about how this deck came to be, and what their goals were in creating it.
Annie told me there were five core collective members: Clio, Annie, Sacha Marini, Lori Lawrence and Jackie Davis. Sasha came up with the idea of making their own deck in 2007, and the first printing was done in 2008. They made a list of archetypes to prevent too much overlap in the cards’ imagery, and four of them each drew a different suit. They all picked four friends to design cards, and the original five became the point people to convey ideas on how to design the Major Arcana. Of course, some cards had to be redrawn. They wanted to avoid using culturally appropriated images, and to follow the anarchist belief of no gods, no masters.
The popularity of the first two editions led to the creation of the third. The first edition of 500 decks was sold locally. The second edition of 750 decks, sold by the printer, sold out in five months, nationwide. Emails and requests for more decks proved there was an audience for a third edition. But this time, the creators made a Facebook page to publicize the who/where/how/why of The Collective Tarot, and to find out if their project might succeed if funded by crowdsourcing.
Once the deck was designed, they got a quote to make 2000 decks, being careful to put a cap on both production and demand. “We wanted to avoid a Groupon-type bankruptcy, if the decks’ popularity took off, “ Clio explained. With surplus funds from Kickstarter sales, they were able to print 2500 decks, allowing them to sell cards on their West Coast tour, and from their blog.
When I asked Annie and Clio what made their deck different, they laughed and said, “It’s a gateway deck to magic. Your mom might even like it!” They explained how the tarot is interactive, like the Internet or a comic book, only it interacts with your own personal narrative. They were tired of images in the media that were alienating, and tried instead to make their deck empowering. At a time of instability, for a generation growing up in a recession, they felt the cards could become a precious object that could provide portable solace and advice. “This is my therapist! This is my self-help!” fans have testified.
The cards also encourage people to keep the oral tradition alive, just as in the past, when they were a stashable group of images for people who couldn’t read, that reflected the collective memory of a culture.
Looking at this new deck, users familiar with the tarot will note some changes. Instead of wands, cups, swords, and coins, the suits have morphed to keys, bottles, feathers and bones (all of them found objects). Face cards, in true anarchist form, no longer reflect positions of monarchy or gender. Instead, they represent stages along the path towards wisdom: seeker, apprentice, artist and mentor.
The deck comes with a booklet of instruction, to help users read the cards, but there are no complex layouts or formulas to follow. “There is no ‘right’ way to approach a tarot deck. You totally get to make it up. However, we wanted to include some suggestions for starting out, giving readings to yourself, friends, and strangers at the county fair,” the booklet informs.
I noticed that unlike other decks I’d seen, there was no interpretation for reverse images. Neither Annie nor Clio use reverse readings, but Clio suggested, “It could mean something is blocking the energy, you need to unblock it, let it flow.”
The cards are oversized and thick. They look common, but beckon with a spark of something special. What card readers will notice most about these images is their inclusivity. People of color, differently-abled people, people of many genders, ages and sexual preferences make up this new deck. How nice to see a card celebrating the hanky code! The narrative is grounded in its Pacific-Northwest homeland, mentioning Portland bookstores and events like the Winter Solstice puppet show in the cards’ explanations. But its popularity proves its appeal to a larger audience, of anarchists, queers, artists and others outside the mainstream.
Users may have mixed reactions to the new imagery. On the one hand, it’s invigorating to lose excluding or bigoted images. But some of the archetype images of the old cards contain powerful mystery. An example: the new Major Arcana card for Disaster features a collection of icons representing change, but somehow the whole of this cluttered image lacks the lightning energy of the classic tumbling tower. Then again, choosing any deck involves give and take between the given cards’ images and the user’s own iconography.
Annie and Clio suggest the power of the cards comes from drawing the cards, feeling their images and watching how the images interact and read into each other. And if anything feels like magic, it’s probably how the cards gradually become yours. Like the face cards of the four suits, they help you read yourself and grow, as you follow your own search for wisdom and understanding.
The Collective Tarot; A Magical Collaboration
Core Collective Members: Jackie Davis, Lori Lawrence, Sacha Marini, Annie Murphy, Clio Reese Sady