Last month I finally got my hands on a copy of the stunning The Sabbath Tarot. Let me tell you, it was worth the wait.
This deck is explicitly a celebration of the male Witch. The artwork is digitally transformed photography from the imagination of fitness photographer Allan Spiers, while the text was written by his partner, the equally talented Jeff Cullen. Together they paint a picture of a witchcraft that is at once both beautiful and primal, and deliciously masculine in its presentation.
As soon as I began to make my way through the cards, I knew that this deck was something special. The cards themselves are luscious, printed on satisfyingly heavy cardstock and edged with a deep, velvety crimson. The images are each works of high art, depicting the (mostly) male form in a style reminiscent of ancient Greek idealism. The rich, dark hues set the mood and style and present the naked form in a setting that is pure Witchcraft. This is not just a case of adding nudity for a cheap thrill or for shock value. Each image is carefully and thoughtfully presented to be an authentic spiritual vessel, even as it draws from, at times, raw, sexual expression.
The cards are borderless, allowing the reader to more fully immerse themselves in the imagery, and include astrological and elemental associations in the form of glyphs, embossed discreetly at the top of the cards and only really revealed when caught in the light. In this way they do not detract from the artistry, providing their information only when sought after. This allows the reader to more fully submit to the spirit of the card, gleaning its extra-rational wisdom.
In the introduction, Cullen challenges the largely European cultural assumption of the Witch-as-only-female and offers both personal and historical context for men who identify as such. Cullen cites examples such as Persia, Thessaly, and Egypt, where men were widely known to practice the dark arts.
Delving deeper, Cullen unambiguously references the importance of “the Devil” and draws an association between this often-feared figure and the Horned God of the Witches. This may be a first indication that the Witchcraft presented here isn’t exactly what is usually associated with modern Paganism. Absent is the symbolism of an agricultural fertility cycle combined with the usual trope of a heteronormative gender binary. In its place we are presented with something that feels deeply primal – and, to this gay occultist, authentic.
The Sabbath Tarot is delightfully wicked, in that it draws from a darker aesthetic and one that is based on the carnal celebration of the human body and more subtly, of the sexual attraction experienced between men.
As a gay man who practices Witchcraft, this deck promised to speak to me more directly than many of its predecessors, drawing inspiration and imagery from the European witch trials and directing it through a Witchcraft practice both traditional and modern. While there are images of women included, the vast majority of the cards depict men, keeping with the projects’ stated goal of presenting a Witchcraft that affirms a masculine presence.
“Each card is its own devil and should be treated as such.”
–Jeff Cullen, from the text
Another use of the word “devil” relevant to this text is a reference to an indwelling spirit – what we might even think of as a familiar, poised to assist us in our magical endeavors, acting as guide. Readers are encouraged to look beyond the cards’ use as a divination system or oracle: The Sabbath Tarot sets its’ sights on being an agent of practical magic, inviting the user to connect to the cards as living entities, spirits with whom we may work toward our fulfillment.
It is be no wonder then, that in this deck we would be treated to an “extra helping” of devilish wisdom, here in the form of three incarnations of “the Lord of the Sabbath,” each taking the place of the XV card of the greater arcana, known traditionally as “the Devil”. This is expressed in three distinct parts: “Lucifer,” the lord of rebellion and illumination; “Satan,” the enlightenment of the shadow; and “Diabolus,” the primal destroyer of ego.
The greater arcana have experienced a few other revisions, as well. “The Fool,” the traditional journeyman of the tarot, is here replaced by “The Faun,” setting the stage for a more earth-and-shadow-centered journey. “The Witch” replaces the more traditional “Magician,” while “The Witch Queen” and “The Witch King” replace “The Empress” and “The Emperor.” “The Hermit” has now become “The Wanderer.”
“Strength,” a card often depicting a feminine figure gently controlling a lion, representing the non-violent supremacy of the higher self over our base nature, is here recast as “Lust,” explained to be the driving force of Witchcraft. The card depicts a male Witch in an erotic embrace with a horned demon, representing the internal struggle to manifest our true wills and desires.
Card XII of the greater arcana, “The Marked Man,” while retaining its more traditional meaning, draws from the idea of initiation into the Craft and here shows a male pairing – initiator and initiate — engaged in a rite that even today some gender-essentialist “traditionalists” would find off-putting. Abandoned is the need for the “gender polarity” often touted in modern “traditionalism,” in favor of the deepest of the Witch’s powers: pure desire.
The journey continues to follow the archetypal pattern set forth by the tarot but never fails to present it in the context of the Witch’s quest for power. “The Pyre” takes the place of the more traditional “Tower” and anchors us firmly in the mythology of the Craft, while the (often overly Christianized) “Judgement” gives way to “The Demiurge,” which depicts a dark looming figure in a play of light and darkness, symbolizing the realization of consciousness and self-awareness. While the other cards retain their more traditional names, the imagery is consistent with the initiatic journey presented in some forms of esoteric Witchcraft.
The symbolism presented here is mythologically sound and offers a viable gateway into a current of Witchcraft that is affirming to a positive and inclusive male sexuality. Make no mistake: these cards are sexy. Some who are of a more prudish nature might even find some level of offense at the raw sexual nature presented here. The male form is presented in full glory and in various states of arousal. This too challenges the cultural norm of nudity being primarily for the (heterosexual) male gaze. When the tables are turned, and men are made to be the object of desire, the resistance is quite noticeable. Even in this we are treated to a deep lesson of Witchcraft: the power gained by the transgression of expectations or cultural norms.
The book includes a “Conjuration of the Cards,” an invocation and ritual to awaken the living presence within the deck, along with a few original divination spreads, a spell to create a special unguent (to be used to dress a candle for deck-related workings), and an all-purpose spell that utilizes various cards as points of magical focus.
There is far more than can be said about this deck and the work from which it stems. I am looking forward to using this deck in my magical work, both as oracular guide as well as ecstatic gateway into the trance worlds. For men who practice Witchcraft and especially for those who identify as gay or bisexual, The Sabbath Tarot is a deep, poignant, and sexy journey into the soul and psyche of the homoerotic masculine.