Review: The English Magic Tarot

Claire Dixon —  September 22, 2016 — Leave a comment

TWHEnglish Magic Tarot is a deck devised by magician and comic book artist Rex Van Ryn, painter Steve Dooley and Pagan writer and musician Andy Letcher. With a foreword by Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids Philip Carr Gomm, the new deck deftly entwines all aspects of English Magic.

As Philip Carr-Gomm states: “With this deck and book, you have the chance to explore the world of English magic directly, engaging with its peculiar charms and eccentricities. And with what excellent guides!”

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

Drawing on High Magical Traditions represented by organizations such as Order of the Golden Dawn and embodied by the likes of Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune and Austin Osman Spare, the deck is replete with Hermetic symbolism. It also acknowledges the low magic path of the cunning folk and how the tarot has been used in that tradition. As Andy Letcher notes: “We regard the tarot as a kind of distillation of Western wisdom.”

The deck is set in the Tudor and Stuart periods, beginning with the reign of Henry VIII (although the Tudor period began earlier), through the upheaval of the Stuarts.This was a time of radical change in England.

The Elizabethan part of the Tudor period and the subsequent Stuart age almost fall into two distinct halves in terms of differences in culture and attitude, and the outlooks towards religion and magic going a long way to define each period.

The Tudor period featured the Reformation and the subsequent Dissolution of the Monasteries, which resulted in conflict with Europe that culminated in the Spanish Armada. It was also in this period that the Enclosure Act restricted the use of common land, having a huge impact on poorer people. But under Elizabeth, this was also a time of relative freedom in religion and the arts flourished as a result.

As Matt Sutherland for Foreword Reviews notes: “The mysticism, mysteries, rituals, and lore of Elizabethan-era England (were) perhaps history’s most fervent period and place for the magic arts.”

Elizabeth was much more tolerant of religious differences than any of her other family members and her successors – James I, instigator of the witch trials, being the most notable example. She also employed Dr John Dee, astrologer and occultist, as one of her courtiers and spies during her reign. His interest in the esoteric as well as alchemical and magical practices paved the way for later luminaries such as Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon.

[Public Domain due to age of image]

[Public Domain due to age of image]

The English Magic Tarot acknowledges this overlooked period of magical tradition and celebrates the spirit of possibility and exploration synonymous with the Elizabethan age. In Europe, this period, as well as overseeing the Renaissance, saw the birth of the tarot and its establishment as an essential tool in high and low magical traditions. One cannot help but wonder what kind of world we would be living in if the alchemical traditions celebrated in the deck had been developed and explored to their fullest capacity.

Another aspect of this deck worth mentioning is the emphasis on storytelling and how important this was in the Elizabethan age, evidenced by the growth of the arts during this time, the theatre in particular. The cards themselves are awash with riddles and symbols inspired by the Elizabethan era.

As Letcher confirms: “There are indeed riddles, references and lore scattered through every card. All these are significant and have been placed there deliberately. On one level, they are there simply to encourage readers to look more closely at the cards and to entice them into a deeper understanding of English magic. But we also wanted there to be an overarching theme to the cards, something that ran through them all and bound them together. The riddles do all point to something. It’s a kind of treasure hunt, if you will, and there is an actual answer at the end.”

Each card feels like a story in itself and the entire deck appears to be telling its own tale of some kind. The companion booklet discusses at length the growth of the arts during this period – theatre in particular  – and the magical, transformational aspects of that process.

Letcher says: “Our storytelling approach to the tarot means we encourage people to use the cards as a device to help them discover, and take control of the stories they tell about themselves and their lives.”

The set also gives the reader some unique techniques for using the cards, which are inspired by the Art of Memory tradition. This technique utilises concepts such as the alchemy of theatre and art in general, which only add to the depth and mystery of this deck.

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

The visual impact of the deck cannot to be ignored. It’s rootedness in the comic book genre via Rex Van Ryn’s work gives it a contemporary edge and vitality but it clearly acknowledges the classic Waite-Smith deck and salutes the contribution of Pamela Colman Smith’s work as an artist, and how art can be magical and transformative.

As Van Ryn explained, the imagery of the deck was conceived in a very magical way. “I meditated on the cards’ meaning using a drum beat to induce a trance state, sometimes dancing, sometimes prone. When I had imagined the ‘image’, I broke my trance and drew what was in my mind.”

Dooley’s colouring work added to this process. He says: “At no point did Van Ryn say how I should colour the cards. He had faith. I devised an entire palette purely on instinct. It had to work for me on many levels. Each card had to work as an individual image, yet they also had to work together. I wanted them to be earthy yet bright, old but relative to today.”

Obviously, the artistic and magical backgrounds of both Van Ryn and Dooley would ensure that the visual impact of the deck and the significance of art as a transformational tool would come to the fore. As a result, the deck is a rich, with every card layered with symbolism and meaning.

It is interesting that the English Magic Tarot has emerged from the collective unconscious at this time. As stated earlier, the Tudor and Stuart periods were a turbulent time in English history, with a great deal of social and religious change. Given the upheaval across the world at present, it is no surprise that this period should emerge and remind us of how the use of magical practices and the occult helped to temper seismic upheavals in previous eras.

As author John Matthews, co-creator of The Wildwood Tarot and other decks, states: “Its clear (they’re) tapping into the national psyche, and with all that’s going on since Brexit that can be quite lot.”

The English Magic Tarot comes with a companion booklet that has a wealth of information about period and its magical practices. The deck stays true to the classical format of the period from which tarot emerged and consists of a 22 major arcana deck and a minor arcana of four suits of cups, wands, coins and swords. The booklet gives some very interesting techniques of how to use the cards, not only giving spreads but also going into great detail about the art of memory technique employed by alchemists during this period. This is a fascinating technique, invoking the literal magic of theatre into the process.

There is also a description of the use of archetypes and how they were used by the flourishing theatre movement during the Elizabethan age, which used many neo-Platonic techniques (this is why the famous theatre was called the Globe).

This is a great tarot deck, lovingly crafted and which gives respect and acknowledgement on many levels to the tarot and those who have shaped its development, yet with an edgy and fresh style.

Claire Dixon

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Claire Dixon is a Bardic level druid with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and a member of the Pagan Federation. She is a married mother of three based in Worcestershire, England. Claire is an avid astrologer, having studied the subject since her early teens, and has written extensively on astrology/astronomy for Pagan publications. She also loves researching British and Irish history and mythology. Claire is also an 80s TV boxset freak (Kip Carpenter’s Robin of Sherwood is a particular favourite) and Earl Grey tea fan.