The XIII Tarot by Nekro, published in 2014 by Fournier/Lo Scarabeo (and distributed in North America by Llewellyn) is a Gothic-inspired art deck with ornamental detailing, intense, evocative emotion, and a macabre motif. The art is in grayscale, with select sections of each card digitally enhanced a brilliant red.
The audience for the XIII Tarot deck is going to be aficionados of dark/gothic tarot decks, though without illustrated pips, it’s going to be better suited for Marseille readers.
Many of the reviews for the deck that I read on Amazon complain about the non-illustrated pips, but that didn’t bother me. You just have to know what you’re getting, as a deck buyer. In the context of Nekro’s highly detailed artwork, I like the non-illustrated pips. Illustrated pips, given Nekro’s highly detailed art work, along with the already highly detailed Majors might have been overkill.
When the cards are set out in spreads, the images on the Majors step forward beautifully, the Courts speak to us in their respective voices, and the pips provide supplemental information. For me, the deck reads quite well, but I see how visual-spatial-right-brained readers are going to prefer the illustrated pips that you might find in other Gothic decks like the Dark Grimoire Tarot by Michele Penco also by Lo Scarabeo, or the Bohemian Gothic Tarot by Alex Ukolov and Karen Mahony, which sadly, is now out of print (I believe).
The cards are a tad smaller, measuring about 2.2″ x 4.2″ and are bordered, with one of the more creative borders I’ve seen on tarot decks. There is a gray carved stone or maybe wrought iron aesthetic to the borders with symbols on the four corners indicating suit (for instance, hourglasses in the four corners to indicate that the card is from the suit of Cups).
The card backs are non-reversible, which to me means I will most likely be reading the cards without reversals. The card back design is (what I like to refer to as) fantasy-Asian, with the ornate dragon head and fiery glowing eyes. The ornamentation design around the dragon head also feels Baroque to me.
The Majors don’t necessarily follow the symbolism of any of the classical symbolic traditions for tarot Majors, so in my initial workings with the deck, I do need to check the card names captioned in the corners. (The cards are titled along the four corners in Spanish, English, French, and German.) The Lovers card makes sense to me, and I probably could have picked that one out without checking the captions, but The Chariot, for example, I don’t think I would have figured out without captions. Also, shouldn’t the imagery for The Chariot appear to be in movement in some way?
Some of the illustrations didn’t go with the corresponding tarot card, I felt. For instance, the illustration for The Magician (pictured above), a cloaked figure with an ornate 7-pointed star tattooed on the forehead, has more of The Hermit vibe to me, and likewise the card for The Hermit (pictured below), a throned figure holding a glowing wand in one hand and a sword in the other, seems more The Magician to me. I do, however, adore this High Priestess card. The Empress and Emperor also almost seem like the illustrations could have been switched around, because that image on Key IV: The Emperor has a very strong Empress energy to me.
Key VIII is Justice (traditionally Strength in the RWS and Justice in Marseille) and Key XI is Strength (traditionally Justice in the RWS and Strength in Marseille). Again, love the Justice card in this deck. The illustration for The Hanged Man is another card I probably wouldn’t have figured out on my own based on popular tarot traditions.
I love the Death card here. Temperance works for me, too, though I can see the rationale for those who say it didn’t work for them. The Devil card doesn’t call to mind temptations for me, but I guess it works because of the two glowing horns? Also, while that Tower card is magnificent in its own right, and there is that bolt of lightning, I don’t get the sense that the entire structure is about to come toppling down. Do you? Looks like a pretty well constructed castle to me. For a Tower card, I tend to feel like the depicted structure should be unstable or look like it’s about to crumble.
I was left wondering whether an experienced tarot practitioner was consulted for the creation of this deck. Yes, most contemporary tarot decks we see today veer from so-called “tradition” with the Majors, and typically that’s my favorite part of playing with a new deck– seeing how the creators reinterpret traditions to express that same essence, archetype, or energy. Here, like The Chariot or The Tower, even keeping as open of a mind as possible, I wonder how well these images capture the will, force, and movement of The Chariot, or the toppling of egos and the reconstructive message of The Tower.
Now, for the part of the deck that I saw many Amazon reviewers criticize, I personally love the Minors in the XIII Tarot and found much of the criticism unwarranted. These Minors are beautiful.
For the suit of Wands, we have Skulls, or more specifically, the skull of a bird. In some of the Wands cards, like the Ace of Wands (pictured below), the imagery calls to mind animal sacrifice and divination, with blood running in lines around the skulls in prophetic streams.
In all of the Aces, actually, I love the detailing of the red streams tricking in rivulets, such as the you see around the dominant skull in the Ace of Wands (above) or the dominant hourglass in the Ace of Cups (below).
For the suit of Cups or Chalices, we have Hourglasses, with the sand illuminated blood red. From what I could observe, every hourglass is the same exact image, digitally rendered to reflect the pip number. When reading the cards with a focus on numerology and the four elements (because I haven’t memorized the astrological decan correspondences and I really love this deck as a collector’s deck, so I don’t want to write on them), I don’t mind these pips at all. In a way, the XIII Tarot deck is keyed more to an analytic reader. If you’re more right-brained or “story tell” when you read cards, I can see how this may be a difficult deck to work with, even when using a Marseille interpretive approach.
The suit of Swords is illustrated with what appear to be dirks or daggers, and Pentacles are keys. I love the key imagery here for the Pentacles. In terms of naming the cards, there are no significant deviations from classical tarot card names for either the Majors or the Courts. Even in these suits, the suit with the keys (are they intended to be skeleton keys?) are not called the suit of Keys, but are still referred to as the suit of Pentacles. The skulls are not the suit of Skulls; it’s still the suit of Wands.
Now, I found the court cards to be riveting. In terms of trying to identify the court card from just the artwork, that may be hard, even for the most experienced tarot reader. Perhaps foreseeing that, the suit symbol does appear in the four corners of each court card, so there are little skulls in the corners of each of the Wands courts, for instance, and hourglasses at the corners of all the Cups courts. The reader can still identify the cards with relative ease in a reading.
The suit of Wands was illustrated with bird skulls, and the Page of Wands depicts a beheaded raven. There is no bird imagery to speak of in the Knight or Queen of Wands, though the King of Wands is in an incredible, provocative illustration of a raven perched on the hilt of a sword. At least to me it looks like a sword, not a wand or baton.
As a reader I do associate Cups court energy as possibly exhibiting musical or artistic talents, do I like seeing the Page of Cups here (you can see a bit of it in the above image, top right corner, cut off) with a figure holding a cello. Otherwise, most of the imagery for these courts are abstract and surrealist, such as an ornate open skull with red flames coming out of its head, or the Queen of Cups wearing a mask, with laser beams shooting out of her eyes.
When reading with the XIII Tarot, I’m going to use the Knight of Swords as my personal signifier (significator) card instead of my usual Queen of Swords. Look at that Knight of Swords! Breathtaking, and so Queen of Swords-ish if you ask me. In fact, the two images should be switched around– what you see above for the Knight of Swords could be the Queen, and what you see for the Queen could be the Knight. Omigod, I am so in love with that Knight of Swords image.
The Fournier/Lo Scarabeo little white booklets (LWBs) are the traditional terse LWBs that don’t have a lot of tarot instruction and pack four languages of text into very few pages. I don’t mind that at all. I don’t buy decks with the presumption it will come with its own comprehensive 500-page study book. Plus, as far as LWBs go, this one has a ton of information.
There is a surprising amount of substance in this particular LWB. The LWB tells us that the tarot is “mostly used for fortune telling, meditation and practice of magical rights” but is also “an effective agent in psychotherapy and as a help and advisor in psychological matters in general.” Cool! There’s a paragraph on Jungian analysis, another for the Kabbalah, and the origins of tarot are stated to be unknown, but “most probably tarot cards were first used in Europe and the western hemisphere by gipsies” [original spelling in text retained]. There is even an honorable mention of Eden Gray.
The LWB teaches an early 20th century approach to significators, noting that The Magician is used as the significator for male querents and The High Priestess for female. It then proceeds to instruct on a variation of the Celtic Cross. One super cool note I found in the LWB:
“It is advisable to work with two tarot decks: one for meditation purposes, which should be used only by is owner to avoid extraneous vibrations, and the other for fortune telling.”
As its own unique tarot-inspired divinatory system, I see the XIII Tarot being a potent deck. To show how I would read with the XIII Tarot and its unillustrated pips compared to LWB instructions, let’s try out a simple 3-card reading, past, present, and future.
The Five of Cups indicates to me a present mindset buoyed on emotion. Five here represents uncertainty, a turning point, and feeling in crisis, fearfully unsure of what your next move will be. How did we get here?
We see one of the Majors, so what pushed us to where we are now was certainly some strong forces that were beyond our personal control: The Hanged Man. Getting blamed for something you didn’t do; being characterized by someone you are not; and again, that element of water coming through, connecting it to the present Five of Cups.
The Hanged Man in the past signifies having been held back by society, by social norms or standards, and shows self-sacrifice for what we hoped would be a greater good. However, that has led us to the present Five of Cups, a period of emotional unrest, uncertainty, and suspension. What’s next?
Four of Swords, balancing water with air, a neutralizing effect. At least we’re headed in the direction of stability, as indicated by the numerological association with four. Going out, socializing, exposing yourself too much to society, and spending too much time embodying your superficial external self are not good moves for you. Instead, embrace being an introvert. Solitude and introspection are going to serve you well. The path you’re taking now, with so much emotional anxiety, could lead to health problems, so to prevent that path. take some time out for self-care. You need rest. That’s really the message here, three cards summed up in three words: you need rest.
So that’s how I might look at the cards. How do I stack up compared to the LWB?
Per the LWB, The Hanged Man symbolizes “renunciation and sacrifice,” and its divinatory meaning is that of “life in suspension.” That is the lead-in to the present, the Five of Cups. Loss, fair weather or superficial friendships, or a loveless marriage. Empty partnerships. I dig that. The LWB meanings are more specific than what I came up with. The Four of Swords is about “respite, rest, repose, replenishment, solitude, exile, retreat.”
Also, according to the LWB, you would read this deck with reversals, as reversal meanings are provided. Going through the card meanings in the LWB, it does seem like you can simply transfer your knowledge of RWS card meanings to this deck. For me, as a reader, I may do that to a certain extent, but will also rely more heavily on numerology, the metaphysical representation of the elements, and symbolism that is specific to the XIII Tarot art.
There’s a dark fantasy aesthetic to the XIII Tarot that is going to appeal very strongly to a subset of the tarot community. I can totally see this deck being used in a tech noir film or movie production where tarot cards are being depicted. If the subculture that this deck represents resonates with you and you are thinking of learning how to read TdM pips, consider the XIII Tarot. It’s a fantastic working deck for TdM paired with a medieval gothic dark fantasy ambiance.
I cannot get over how beautiful this deck is. Every time I pick up a card and look at it again, I notice new details, which means as its own divinatory system, the XIII Tarot is a deeply symbolic deck. Nekro’s art has been described as a style marked by a “desaturated color range with small touches of color” and working with baroque photocompositions. The trailer video for the deck promises that “darkness has never been so beautiful” and for sure on that count, the XIII Tarot delivers with exceptional brilliance.
FTC Disclosure: In accordance with Title 16 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Part 255, “Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising,” I received XIII Tarot from Llewellyn for prospective review. Everything I’ve said here is sincere and accurately reflects my opinion of the deck.