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Aces to Threes
I’ve been struggling with how to depict the tarot courts since back when I was still doing the Majors. And the whole time, I’ve been reading, brainstorming, researching, thinking– though no drawing– how the heck am I going to do this, and do this with any semblance of justice.
The more texts I studied on angelic correspondences to the elements, directions, and/or astrology, the more confused I got. Do I go Golden Dawn since up to this point so much of my point of view with the deck has been GD-influenced, or do I follow the lead of religious scholars turned mystics who say some of the Golden Dawn attributions for the Kabbalah are anti-Semitic in their source origins? How do I reconcile Christian mysticism, Jewish mysticism, and Islamic mysticism when it comes to angels? How do I also do it all with resonant subtext to Chinese, Taoist, and Buddhist ideas of angelic(-like) realms?
Also, when deck creators want to incorporate multiculturalism, they typically follow– shit–what’s his face–I can’t think of the name without looking it up. I’ve got it in an end note citation in Holistic Tarot if you really care. Anyway, Eden Gray followed what’s-his-face and everybody after Eden Gray followed Eden Gray so we go with this whole notion of Wands medium-hair, fair-eyed, Cups light-hair, light-eyed (or those two swapped), Swords dark-hair, medium-eyed, and Pentacles dark-hair, dark-eyed, so we typically end up with Asian or Middle Eastern for Swords and then Middle Eastern, Native American, or African for Pentacles. I opted not to go that route.
Agrippa made note of correspondences between geography, directionality, and the four elements, though he kept it relatively vague. Crowley then gave his thoughts on geography, directionality, and the four elements. His directionality conflict with Agrippa’s, but the geography and four elements kind of lined up. Well, lined up close enough to work for me. So that’s what I went with instead of what has become the more popular and trending ethnic associations for the four courts.
And that was just the tip of the iceberg of daunting considerations for the courts.
The more I thought into it, the more stressed and nervous I got. And I did not want to go the direction of “screw everything and everyone, I’m gonna follow my intuition and channel it from my own higher consciousness” or whatever it is people say when they don’t want to listen to precedent or read books. How do I honor precedent and still acknowledge my intuition?
The art style for the deck I opted for is in the spirit of Renaissance humanism, a time when Christian mysticism and paganism merged in eclectic ways and mystics of that time were far more cosmopolitan and worldly than we folks today give them credit for being. I think the louder establishment voices of that time in history for structured Catholicism and the Church came as a knee-jerk reaction of the establishment to the subversive undercurrent of diverse thoughts that were emerging at the time.
Anyway, so an art style in the spirit of Renaissance humanism, yet I still wanted my deck to express the progress we’ve made as a global culture in terms of social constructs like race and gender. Right. The more I thought about it, the more stressed and nervous I got. I sure did a lot of “Lord give me the strength to–” prayers.
“The Messengers” – The Angelic Strongholds (Tarot Pages)
The tarot Pages would be stand-ins for the angelic Strongholds, our divine messengers. In terms of operation within the universe of Spirit Keeper, these Strongholds would be the keeper’s messengers between the inner temple and Heaven, however the keeper expresses that concept of Heaven or an eternal celestial realm.
I went with depicting all Pages as gendered female. The Pages would all appear to the keeper in that likeness.
“The Shining Ones” – The Angelic Virtues (Tarot Knights)
You might recall the rider in Key 13: The Reaper from the Majors, where the Reaper astride the pale horse of Death doesn’t have a saddle, reins, or any of that nonsense around a horse’s head and mouth.
In the preliminary (rejected) drafts of my knight cards, whether or not people would be riding the horses (hadn’t decided yet at that point), I knew I wanted the horses to be depicted as free. Even if they carried a rider, they would be carrying the riders on their own volition. So, no saddle or reins.
So at first I thought I really wanted to play up the Four Horsemen motif in the Knights, pencil sketching in, like, depictions of famine, war, but then the whole time thinking gee, I don’t think I have ever in my whole life of tarot reading encountered such morbid knight cards. And then of course the Knight of Cups started looking confusingly similar to the Death card in the Majors (not pictured here; got erased way early on) and that was when I thought, okay, this is the wrong direction.
I went for depicting the elements at full blast instead, on the rational basis that the angelic virtues depicted by the four tarot knights here control the elements and are the spirits behind the materialized manifestations of those elements on earth when they appear as Acts of God (flood, thunder, earthquake, tragedies, miracles, yada yada). But then I realized, gee, for such an important role, these are some fugly ass tarot cards. So before I finished the Knight of Orbs, I abandoned the entire design idea and went back to the drawing board.
I played with the consideration of omitting horse imagery altogether, but as soon as I said it aloud to myself, I knew for this deck, I had to put the horses back in. That’s why intuitively in the earlier (rejected) drafts I kept putting the horses front and center. It’s not that I wanted them front and center; it’s that there’s something about the Four Horsemen concept I shouldn’t leave out.
Then there was the issue of riders. Should the knights be riding the horses as they do in iconic tarot imagery? Here’s the thing. Remember this is an angel tarot deck (heh)? Right, so I wanted to depict winged angels for the knights. Why are winged angels riding on horseback? Why don’t they just, you know, fly?
Anyway that’s why I went with what I ended up going with. All knights or angelic Virtues in these cards appear to the keeper gendered male.
Fun personal story-time. When I started work on the knights, it also was, err… that time of the month for me. I tend to have pretty brutal ones that leave me arguably disabled. My head was pounding, everything hurt, I felt sick, and so I think during that time, I struggled to keep my creative channel clear when drawing the knights.
Out of all the cards I’ve done so far, I struggled the most with the Fool card and with these four knights. Above you’ll see on the left the very, very first tarot card I drew when I began this undertaking. From that image, you can see where I started. Then after completing the Majors, I re-did The Fool card, which you can see in the center and mark the progress I made. Finally, the last card to the right is the last card I drew after I completed the Majors and the Minors of my tarot deck. It marks how far I’ve come since the beginning.
Something definitely happened during the process of crafting these cards and I leveled up in ways that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I think the timeline expressed by the above three cards, left to right, bear evidence of that.
“The Shields” – The Angelic Powers (Tarot Queens)
This part gets tricky. Angelic Powers in angel hierarchy are commonly depicted as warrior angels, armored and wielding sword and shield. In the tarot courts, that can feel very knight-y. And yet hierarchy wise, I wanted the knights to be the Virtues and the queens to be the Powers. That means in my deck, the tarot queens need to go more in the direction of fierce-protector-defender, and not so much sweet-matronly-nurturer.
The result is we’ve got a cast of warrior queens. Now I just had to make sure to render the Spirit Keeper queens in such a way that they won’t get intuitively confused with the tarot knights. Here’s to hoping my queens don’t turn out knight-y.
The other issue is depictions of gender. In the hierarchical system, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense for all the Powers to be female (and then later, all the Archangels to be male). It made more sense to have a balanced depiction of gender within each rank.
In terms of operative value in this deck, these queens had to be powerful protection talismans (each shield is a sigil seal). Which, you know, only put more pressure on me to get it right.
Oh–wonder if anyone noticed this. So, my story goes that the queens are the defenders and protectors of their respective realms. Scepters (Wands) is the Lance or Spear of Destiny; Chalices is the Grail; Swords is the Sword of the Spirit; and Orbs (Pentacles) is the Bread of Life. Aces are the stand-in omens for the four sacred relics. Compare the four shields of the queens (pictured above) with the four Aces.
The cross symbol on the torch in the Ace of Wands is the center point of the Queen of Wands’s shield. The center point of the Chalices shield is a chalice flanked by two Water glyphs, with an outline similar to the Grail. The eagle on the Queen of Sword’s shield is resting on the crown of that mosaic mask, reminiscent of the crown at the center point of the Ace of Swords. (And also brings in Aztec mythos of the eagle and serpent.) And then the parallels between the Orbs shield and the Ace of Orbs. I hope you find that neat. =)
Psst… if you’re wondering what’s written on the Queen of Chalices’s shield, it’s “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me,” from the Latin Vulgate Bible. Why? Water? Purification? Transformation? Catharsis? Death card? Key 13, Queen is 13th card? Water? See what I did there? 😉
At the queen or Powers level, I would think that these spirits have integrated into Divine Androgyne with an equal balance of anima and animus, so this left the question of how do I depict that?
I decided to go with this acknowledgement (in the guidebook) that all the queens are a balance of male and female gender identity, but that to the keeper, the active element queens would appear as male while the passive element queens would appear as female. So the classic Queen of Wands and Queen of Swords in this deck would appear gendered male, but still hold the title Queen. There was a trade-off here because I had kinda wanted to go the direction of depicting Judith beheading Holofernes with the Queen of Swords, but ah well. You can’t do it all.
I did laugh my ass off after I finished the four Queens and saw their caption titles. The Asian (fusion of traditional Japanese samurai and Chinese terracotta soldiers) dude is the Golden Shield? The white girl is the Ivory Shield? The guy with the Meso-American vibes is the Scarlet Shield? It was kind of a post-completion head-to-desk moment.
Oh, and there were two ways to go for depicting The Ebony Shield, following Agrippa and Crowley. In short, Crowley noted that Earth/Pentacles/Disks corresponds with Europe and Africa, so I could have gone in an European direction or African direction for the Pentacles Queen. I went flaky Libra by going fusion with imagery that could be European pagan or could be African and, in particular, North African with some of the Moroccan-style accessories.
To take you behind my intentions and design process, I didn’t want to render holy guardians that looked hot, too pretty, too handsome, too sexy, etc. Sure, I wanted to convey a certain beauty, but the first thing an onlooker notices about the card overall should not be whether the human figure in it is hot or not. That’s what I was hoping to achieve.
As to why the tarot queens are the only courts to not have angel wings, I’ll just keep it real with you. There’s no deep meaningful reason. It wouldn’t have looked good after how I rendered the queens. They literally take up too much space on the card and the rendering of their outfits and shields are so detailed that if I then added wings with the feather by feather detailing, the whole image would be muddy. So that is pretty much the only reason why they don’t have wings. No, but okay here’s the thing. They do have wings. They’ve just tucked them away for the picture.
The Four Archangels (Tarot Kings)
Oh boy. Now we get to the court cards that gave me the biggest headache. The Golden Dawn correspondences for the four Archangels to the four directions and four elements is by far the most well-known and used. But without getting into why, because this isn’t the time or place for that, that approach can be construed as problematic and not in observance of traditional Jewish or Islamic mysticism.
I may have done a cop-out by simply not identifying any of the Archangels by name. Instead, we’ve got the Archangel of Glory, Archangel of Healing, Archangel Commander, and Archangel of Mysteries. Plus there are more detailed descriptions of the symbolism and iconography I went with in the operative notes. And then I just left it at that.
In the closed universe of this tarot deck, this compendium of divinities, “Archangel” and, for that matter, “angel” are terms that take on a broad meaning. “Archangel” here is used to denote rank and title– the chief angel, the head honcho among the Holy Guardians in each elemental realm.
That’s why I don’t necessarily associate the tarot king with male energy (or queen with female). It’s just a rank. So I opted to depict the king and queen in the active suits (Scepters and Swords) with more pronounced male qualities and the king and queen in the passive suits (Chalices and Orbs) with more pronounced female qualities.
I drew and erased so many rough sketches for the Archangels. Here I’m only showing a couple. The first version had the twin pillars on either vertical side of the cards to indicate celestial gateways. I thought that was clever. And then I realized it wasn’t. So I erased the pillars.
The above draft is like the best ever, isn’t it?– It’s even got a title. It’s called “Archangel Michael doing a modern interpretive sword dance.”
Right. Exactly. So the whole thing got erased and I tried again.
(Yeah, by the way, I do secretly, or not so secretly, know which archangel I intended for each king card. I just omit any mention of it from the card and from the companion guidebook.)
I also knew I wanted to include the magic squares and render the numbers with Brahmi numerals. So I struggled with many drafts of how I’d integrate the squares into the imagery for the four cards. Did I want them all to be the same? Or would the magic squares appear differently for each card?
Do you like the random lotus blossom stuck awkwardly to the left side of the Queen of Chalices’s hair? Yeah, neither do I. It was a fluke. I was drawing the lines for her hair with the ink pen when my hand wobbled and went werp. Off went the ink in the opposite direction of her hair. Shit. I decided to just work with it and turned the opposite-direction-line into a lotus petal and there you have it. Lotus blossom stuck to the side of her hair.
The very last card I drew was the King of Pentacles, which is depicted here with more feminine qualities, expressing the passive nature of the element Earth.
About a week prior to undertaking this whole project, before I even had a remote inkling I would ever be someone who’d illustrate a tarot deck, the Ace of Pentacles had been my unrelenting stalker card. So it’s full-circle to me that the very last card I illustrate would make reference to the Ace of Pentacles (Ace of Orbs) from this deck.
Pictured above left to right: The Hermit (I’ve renamed it to The Erudite), our lovely King of Pentacles (now Archangel of Mysteries, the Angel Who Illuminates the Shadow), side by side with the Ace of Pentacles (my Ace of Orbs), and the High Priestess.
Argh. I might look into the possibility of fixing my Archangel card above. There’s supposed to be two ears of corn, but instead, the way I drew it, it just looks like one that I’ve mis-aligned and drawn badly. Ack.
Overall, I went with classically feminine depictions for all Pages, classically masculine (or at least I tried…I’m not that great at drawing dudes) depictions for the Knights, and then– what’s the modern-day term for it–non-binary (?) for the Queens and Kings. But it’s still done in a way that (I hope) still feels very Renaissance and not contemporary.
Hierarchy wise, that makes sense to me. The closer up the ladder you get to heaven, the closer you ought to be to a Divine Androgyne, with well-balanced anima and animus. Traditionally how mystic artists liked to depict that was with both the sun and moon in the skies at the same time, or the man and the woman with that whole serpent thingie like DNA intertwined between them.
Sure, in the Wands and Swords they lean more into the side of masculine and in Cups and Pentacles they lean more into the side of feminine, but I don’t think it’s definitively black and white either. I think it’s a little bit ambiguous and hard to say for sure. And then–I really hope–the symbolism on the cards, the story those symbols tell you, and the divine nature of the spirit emanating from the card takes your attention and you find that the gender issue is a non-issue.
The feminine Queen of Chalices is clearly the queen because of her shield. Queens are the last line of defense in the realm before reaching the kings. They’re our protectors and defenders, and so the prominence of the shield lets you know she’s the queen.
The feminine King of Chalices is clearly the king and not the queen of cups because the body language of the kings indicate openness, and rather than conceal their realms behind impenetrable shields or hold on to them protectively, the kings present the gifts of their realms out front. Also, the magic square should be the dead giveaway she’s the King, not the Queen of Chalices.
The black an white line drawings for the full 78-card tarot deck is now done.
I commenced the project on June 13 during the new moon in Gemini, completed the Majors about 16 days later on the full moon in Capricorn (ooh–when Ceres entered Virgo) and then took another 14-15 days to complete the numbered pips (Aces through Tens, sans Courts). June 13 to July 13. That’s one month’s time.
Then the courts were completed on July 20. That’s 38 days for the pen and ink line drawings of 78 black and white tarot cards.
I cannot fully convey to you how much I dreaded the courts. It’s funny how not only are they considered harder to read in a tarot deck when they come up in readings, but if you’re going to give the courts the full considerations they warrant, then they’re also the hardest cards in the tarot deck to draw. Or maybe that’s just for me because I’m an amateur artist with no formal training.
In my previous post I noted how one of the early rules I had set for myself (which I broke…like… I mean you can’t even tell it was ever a rule to begin with, that’s how broken it got) was “no people.” That’s because I suck at drawing people and I knew if I tried to draw people in my deck, the whole racket would end up looking cartoony. Oh–I can certainly draw cartoony people. I just can’t draw people people.
But can you really depict court cards without people? Sure. Some creative amazing brilliant artiste out there probably can. But not me. Part of me was tempted to give my angelic figures no faces– as in like their heads would be flaming balls of light or whatever. I did some preliminary thumbnail sketches to that effect, but it looked really hokey. I realized I had to draw faces, or… you know, at least attempt abstract implications of humanoid faces.
The next step is to add color, but I’ve negotiated a hiatus. I need to get back to life. The knuckle on my right thumb (drawing hand) is wonky now and all five fingers on that hand, especially the joints, feel sore. There’s also something off about my wrist now. And prior to getting derailed into this project, I was working on something else, something important, so I need to get back to that.
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10 thoughts on “Drawing My Own Tarot Deck: Ruminations on the Court Cards”
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Your Archangels have the gentleness of true mastery.
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Can’t wait to see the finished deck. Repetitive stress injuries are no joke, though, so take good care and don’t overdo.
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Absolutely magnificent, and I love the direction you ended up going with the Knights. Thank you, as always, for sharing.
I don’t even know how to express the awe that I feel with your process in creating The Spirit Keeper’s Tarot. It’s positively magnificent. It’s so beautiful it makes me want to cry. Thanks for taking us with you! XO
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Your art is beautiful! Definitely book-worthy. It’s hard to get pen art just right, but you have an eye for it.
I have a doubt that has been eating me inside since I saw the first walktrhoughs of your deck, actually 2 but one has been answered already by this post. How did the scarlet shield ended up with such a fiery depiction?
Regardless of the fact that it’s scarlet since you do explicitly say you are connecting the swords with Rubedo the queen is dressed in something more widely related with fire in mesoamerican culture, the eagle eating the snake is a solar omen and to a certain point I could get behind the idea that represents the union of fire (the eagle) and water (the snake) giving birth to air but I have no idea if you actually think so.
And as for the chimalli its similarities to the depiction of Tonatiuh on the center of La Piedra del Sol are impossible to dismiss by someone who has it on his national currency ie me. Am I missing something among your choices? Was this something you choose to ignore? Am i bumming you out because you just realized this?
I will immensely appreciate it if you respond to my query and I’m also aware you do not owe me an answer.
I’ve also been wondering if its possible to buy the Book of maps on its own because sounds extremely interesting and I don´t know if I can wait for the second edition of the deck to get it.