Visual Language and Tarot

Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been reading tarot for a long time, and take great pride in my practice. I’ve been reading for around 8 years now, and have amassed a great variety of decks in that time. I had typically regarded this pastime as separate from my artistic side, but like practically everything else in life, art is (of course) central to it. I have recently realized that a deck of tarot cards is essentially a portable body of work for its artist, since visuals and iconography are indispensable in any divinatory practice. The individuality of the artist, reader, and querent make each style of reading extremely personal, almost requiring a miniature formal analysis with each flip of the card.

I find that we tend to think of oracle and tarot cards from a Western literary perspective, that is as a set of words accompanied by a picture like those we’d see in a book. Due to this, many artists end up visualizing their designs sparse in iconography and reliant on the reader’s “book knowledge” instead. I find that my Murder of Crows deck by Corrado Roi functions like this, with an incredible style that only gives a general feeling of the card that must be amplified by your own knowledge of its meaning. This turns a tarot spread into a type of run-on sentence, where you add each clause or card separately into the whole meaning.

The other major style of tarot cards, which I tend to prefer, is almost glyphic in nature. My most cherished deck, Aleister Crowley’s Thoth, has each card packed with iconography and natural correspondences. In an odd way I find this type of card more fluid in its reading, as you can group multiple cards’ visual language together to get the full picture. If we were to liken the previous deck’s style to written English language, the Thoth deck would be like Maya glyphs in which the whole image is fluidly composed of syllables and sounds.

To illustrate this concept, we can look at how both decks represent the very first card, the Fool.

The Thoth deck has practically every piece of original symbolism packed onto this card. At the bottom the triangle representing the element of air is present as well as the Hebrew letter Aleph (since the tarot is thought to originate from the Hebrew Qabalah). The figure wears a jester’s pointed shoes, the horns of Bacchus, wields all four elements, and stands on Harpocrates. These are all symbols of spring/nature and adolescent fertility, which is where this card derives its meaning. This composition is carefully and methodically designed to encapsulate the “beginning” of all things.

The Murder of Crows version has little to even signify the Fool himself, just the number 0 and the bindle the figure holds signifying a journey. The description in this deck’s booklet embellishes the card with a warning, and urges the reader to take the place of the Fool. This is helped by the figures’ nondescript cloak and mask. While generally noticeable, the booklet is necessary to glean exactly what is meant by this image.

This is not to say that any one deck or style of reading is better than another. I find these differences fascinating and an extremely poignant example of how understanding visual language is important in all of our daily activities.

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