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Monday, January 26, 2015

Tarot of Delphi Review

"Tarot of Delphi" is a 79 card Tarot deck "created and curated" by Janet Denise Hildegard Hinkel. Hinkel illustrates her cards with paintings and watercolors by two dozen British artists from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, that is, from 1838 to 1913. The artworks that Hinkel has selected depict life in ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome. The cards are three inches by five, glossy, on sturdy stock. The artworks occupy the center of the card. They are surrounded by a narrow golden frame with ivy leaves accenting the corners. Surrounding that is a border pattern of pale beige and gray. The fully reversible backs of the cards are black, a muted shade of Persian orange, and gold. Bars at the top and bottom mimic Greek columnar elements; in the center of the card, vegetal elements meet in a cross pattern. The backs of the Tarot of Delphi are the most exquisite Tarot card backs I have ever seen.

The colors that dominate on the cards themselves are muted Persian oranges, russets, golds, and flesh tones, with stunning reds providing contrast, for example in the robes of the otherwise shadowed High Priestess. Some cards feature emerald greens and sapphires, for example the ace of coins, which depicts an ivy nymph intertwined with foliage, and the enchantress of cups, which depicts Circe in a peacock gown pouring jade-colored poison into a turquoise sea. The three of swords features the midnight blue of Electra's robe as she mourns her doomed family; the five of wands shows an ancient Greek maiden in a mineral-green robe playing an early form of badminton.

The artwork Hinkel has chosen is almost photographic in its precise details. It is so crisply rendered that I'm sure an expert could identify the very quarry that provided the gold- and gray-veined marble for the fountain in the six of cups. The many nude females are anatomically accurate.

Dressed in togas, armor, and peplums, or simply nude, characters lounge royally on expansive verandahs, play lyres, herd goats, drink from pottery kylikes, perform Pagan rituals, interact with gods, raise children, dance, flirt, embrace, bathe, breach the defenses of besieged cities, and plot to conquer civilizations. The Tarot of Delphi is a very beautiful deck. 

There is an added attraction to its visual beauty. Janet Denise Hildegard Hinkle can write. The accompanying manual is small enough to fit in the palm of a closed hand. But this tiny volume is jam packed with well written prose that identifies each artwork, says who created it and when, and how the artwork in question relates to the card it illustrates. Hinkle educates her readers in the classics, and that is a very good thing. Readers will learn of the myths, like that of Orpheus, who entered the underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice, and of history, including Rome's genocidal defeat of Carthage, and Queen Zenobia's resistance to Rome. Hinkle wastes not a single word in her stirring sermonizing on how the perennial lessons of the past can be applied today.

If I'm going to read with a deck, I want the pictures to be beautiful and deep, and these pictures are. I also want the pictures to be readily accessible to querents, and many of these are not. In a couple of cases, I wondered why Hinkel did not pick an illustration for another card. One of her two Empress cards (thus a 79 card deck) depicts Zenobia, alone, looking meditative, and in chains. A woman in chains would work better for the eight of swords than for the Empress. Narcissus illustrates the four of coins; Narcissus, as his name implies, exemplifies narcissism. Surely Midas would have been the better choice.

The five of swords, a card that depicts ruinous spite, is illustrated by a beautiful if remote woman holding back a curtain and leaning on a staff. This puzzled me. Upon examination, I realized that she was leaning, in fact, on an ax, discretely dripping blood. Aha! This was Clytemnestra, after her avenging the death of her daughter Iphigenia at the hands of her ambitious husband Agamemnon. It's the perfect backstory for the five of swords, but this illustration, as with many others, is not as readily accessible as I'd like.

I compare this deck to the sublime Victorian Romantic tarot of Baba Studios. That deck reveals a Victorian world populated by young people, old people, poverty, and ugliness, as well as shiny pretty people. The Ancients killed their own handicapped children, and many of their daughters, just for the crime of being born female. Roman soldiers, such as Hinkel's hero of swords, committed unspeakable horrors as a matter of course. The vast majority of the population in the Ancient World lived their lives under the heel of the shiny, pretty people in these cards. There was Aesop, Socrates Spartacus, and Thecla. Their struggles, whose tensions rent the Ancient World, are not in this deck, although, to her credit, Hinkel includes Diogenes, the wise beggar, as The Hermit. Thecla would have been perfect for Strength.

Too, I got tired of all the nude females, not because of their nudity, but because of their obvious status as underage eye candy. They all lack hair in their exposed privates, suggesting a youth that should be protected, not exposed. None of the nudes look like most of us look when naked. The Ancients valued physical perfection too much. Paganism in the real Ancient World was not always as harmonious as Hinkel depicts. Reservations aside, the Tarot of Delphi is a triumph, and Tarot collectors will want to add it.

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