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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Victorian Fairy Tarot: A Review

The Victorian Fairy Tarot is the single most beautiful original tarot deck I have ever seen. When I first went through the cards, I was so overwhelmed that I had to monitor my own breath.

Decades ago, when I purchased my first tarot deck, I never thought that I would become a collector. I'm a devout Catholic, for one. As a creative writer and a teacher of anthropology, I am fascinated by tarot as an art form and as an expression of humanity's wrestling with the big questions. I love comparing how different decks treat the themes encapsulated in a given card. Tarot decks offer mini voyages into the human mind, perception, interpretation, communication, morality, soul, and heart.

As much as I love tarot decks as reflections of human depth, I am often less than taken by the aesthetic qualities of tarot art. It often isn't quite as good as the art in, say, illustrated children's books or in advertising. There is an overabundance of kitsch: willowy goddesses very unlike the real life Pagans one meets at neighborhood potlucks, and romance-novel, cover-model gods. Everyone tends to be a twenty-something, with few children or old people. A notable exception is the excellent Druidcraft Tarot which includes saggy breasts on grey-haired queens and large bellies on balding kings. All too often in tarot decks nature, for all the neo-Pagan stated embrace of it, is a vague blur of green, with again the Druidcraft Tarot a notable exception, depicting as it does recognizable plants.

The decks with really good artwork tend to take pre-existing art by celebrated artists and repurpose that art for a tarot deck. One example: the Lo Scarabeo Tarot of the Thousand and One Nights. That deck uses the exquisite Orientalist artwork of Leon Carre. These cards are eye-poppingly gorgeous, but Carre was not painting for Tarot, so sometimes the relationship between the card and its meaning is vague.

Kat Black has taken medieval and Renaissance art to make her collage decks, the Golden Tarot and the Touchstone Tarot. Both decks are among the most beautiful of tarot decks.

Okay, enough about other decks. Back to the Victorian Fairy Tarot.

This is the finest original art I've ever seen on a Tarot deck. It is every bit as good as the artwork you might see in an award-winning children's book. Lunaea Weatherstone, the deck's author, dedicates the book to "The spirits of Arthur Rackham and J. M. Barrie." J. M. Barrie was the Victorian children's author who wrote "Peter Pan." Arthur Rackham was a Victorian children's book illustrator. Victorian tarot author and illustrator Lunaea Weatherstone and Gary A Lippincott – your reach did not exceed your grasp. Your work is every bit as fine as that of your heroes.

I identify real species of birds on these cards, real plants, real dilemmas that the natural world presents. The seven of spring – the deck's analogue to the seven of wands – depicts a farmer trying to shield his grain from birds. This is an intelligent and apt illustration of the seven of wands' concept – struggling and succeeding in spite of significant odds. There's a very believable Norway rat stealing milk on the seven of winter – the seven of swords. Temperance depicts fennel, wormwood, and absinthe, all as recognizable as they would be in a field guide. For all of his realism, Lippincott conveys nature's magic, as well. This is the natural world as it looked to you through the enchanted eyes you had as a child.

The deck honors the "Victorian" component of its name, as well. The Emperor looks a bit like Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, with his mustache, muttonchops, and butterfly wings. Okay, the butterfly wings are an added delight, and not historically accurate. The Hierophant is a Vicar, delivering a sermon to English country folk. The nine of spring is a Victorian eccentric occupying his cabinet of curios – skulls, pressed plants, botanical drawings, feathers. One thinks of Victorian explorers like Charles Darwin who traveled the world collecting artifacts.

The Major Arcana card 8, Strength, is meant to convey, strength, yes, but a certain kind of strength, the mastery of self that a woman who tames a lion exhibits. In the Victorian Fairy tarot, card 8 is a barefoot, grey-haired lady. She is surrounded by beautifully realistic honeybees, a wicker hive, and clover. She exhibits her strength by stroking one of her charges as if it were a pet. A beatific smile crinkles her aged face.

Lippincott's use of light is entrancing. The Hermit card is an old man reading in his oak tree house, lit with the golden glow of a lantern. A grey and white owl, perhaps a saw-whet owl, perches a bit back, out of the light, in the grey gloom. I am warmed by, and drawn into, this image.

But wait! There's more! The minor arcana cards are every bit as sublime as the majors. And even more. When I go through a new deck, I rapidly discern that some cards were just not worth the price of admission. I assess decks as fifty percent worth it, or sixty. This deck is one hundred percent worth it. Every card is lovely and intellectually provocative. Every interpretation is worth a pause, worth some thought.

Lippincott's use of color is masterful and authentic; this is the palette of the Victorian era. The deck never strays from its theme; it never strikes discordant notes that make you question what a given interpretation is doing in this deck.

Lunaea Weatherstone's texts combine a bit of fairy whimsy, a bit of Victorian history or culture, and a bit of sound common sense. Each major arcana card is preceded by a quote from a Victorian author. Every card is followed by a pithy "in a nutshell" summation. Wands are spring, cups are summer, pentacles are autumn, and swords are winter, and that scheme works beautifully.

"Can A Christian Read Tarot Cards?" blog post here.


  1. Sounds beautiful, I'd love to look at these illustrations! I want to have my tarot read by you!

    1. Kim, next time you are nearby ... or I can come visit you.