I’d call this a review of the Rosetta Tarot, Papyrus Gold Edition, but let’s be honest here– it’s just going to be me fangirling for a dozen consecutive paragraphs.
You know how there is the writer’s writer, i.e., an author who is just highly lauded among the author community, or the artists that the art community itself is head over heels for? Whether the writer’s writer or artist’s artist attains mainstream commercial appeal might be a different story altogether, but among their professional and industry peers, these people hold clout.
M. M. Meleen is like that. I don’t think a deck collection will ever be complete without an M. M. Meleen deck. She’s the real deal. And she’s the total package. I’ve reviewed the Tabula Mundi Tarot before here. You can also watch a Sightsee the Tarot video workshop where we walk through a tarot spread from Meleen’s Book M: Liber Mundi.
The Rosetta Tarot, published back in 2011, is a Thoth-based deck. While her Tabula Mundi Tarot was, too, I feel like that one showed a lot more of the artist’s own hand and point of view. Whereas here in the Rosetta Tarot, the Thoth influence is a lot more pronounced.
One of the things that made me think was how similar my experiences with creating my deck were to Meleen’s path with the Rosetta Tarot. Meleen describes the initial intention of the Rosetta to be “the love-child of the Thoth tarot and the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot. As it evolved the genes of the Thoth parent proved dominant. (As a friend commented, ‘Thoth is kind of like that.’)” Whoa! I experienced the same exact situation with my SKT! With the SKT, I think physically it resembles the RWS more (whereas the Rosetta is quite unequivocally taking on the physical attributes of the Thoth). But echoing what Meleen says about her experience, I also feel like the SKT ended up with a personality that’s predominantly Thoth.
The deck’s companion guidebook is The Book of Seshet, and while it’s keyed to the Rosetta Tarot, it’s also an educational and instructive tome on the Thoth deck and on Golden Dawn tenets. If you’ve got a love for occult tarot, then you need to get this book for your personal library. By the way, I love that it’s called the Book of Seshet, Seshet being the feminine counterpart to Thoth.
Rosetta integrates phonetic Egyptian hieroglyphs and provides a key for reading the captions on the cards. I also love that Meleen included a card with my name written out phonetically in hieroglyphs (the right-most card pictured above). The foot ideogram corresponds with B. Putting it together, it’s B – N – AO – B – L (Benebell)! *squeals with delight*
Rando personal thing: I’ve saved all the ribbons, bands, and things that came with the deck (inside the box, there’s another beautiful crafted, detailed paper band keep the cards together) and every time I use this deck, I carefully remove all the bands, and every time I put it away, I restore all the bands. I’ve found that exercise, in and of itself, feels ritualistic, and I love it.
The art for each suit of the Rosetta Tarot is in a different medium, chosen for that suit in particular. The Majors are done in acrylics. The suit of Wands is done in colored pencil and acrylic. The Swords is in dry-point etching on metal plates, then inked and hand-painted in acrylics. The Cups are done in mixed media, of watercolor and water-based inks. The Disks are done in oil pigments. Thus, even the choice in art medium serves to amplify each card’s elemental qualities.
Above, Crowley and Harris’s influence are undeniable, and quite pronounced in the High Priestess, The Chariot, Key 8: Adjustment (more popularly known as Key 11: Justice by way of the RWS), and the Hermit card, though in all of these cases, she’s also made it her own. You’re going to see the physical Thoth influence in the high-concept compositional design in the pip cards and in the dressings of the courts.
I was fortunate enough to have been gifted this deck, and now it sits as one of my prized divinatory tools. The craftsmanship, the artwork, the thought, the magical sympathetic symbolism, all of it is just unparalleled. Recently I’ve heard– not once, but repeatedly– members of the tarot community gripe about the waning in substance of tarot decks in the marketplace. When I hear that, I just smile and think, “That’s probably because you haven’t heard of M. M. Meleen. Well! May it please the court, come take a look at any– any– of Meleen’s tarot deck offerings.”
You’ll note that the colors here are keyed to the color scales ascribed by the Golden Dawn. Since the astrological roots at the essence of each card is so integral to the deck’s architecture, the guidebook includes several chapters on the intersection of tarot and astrology. If you’ve been wanting to deep-dive into working more productively at that intersection, this deck and its guidebook will help.
Each card entry in the Book of Seshet describes the imagery on the card, letting you know the names of any divinities featured or referenced, the Qabalistic and astrological correspondences and how Meleen has articulated them in the imagery, and then how to interpret that card in a reading. A lot of the content can be applied broadly for any Thoth-based deck. Of particular noteworthiness is the masterful way Meleen explains the astrological basis for each card’s meaning attributions. For those who’ve never been able to get a handle over the GD astrological correspondences and how they play in to interpretations of the keys, you’ll want to study this guidebook.
The Two of Disks/Pentacles is one of those cards I’m particularly curious about how a deck creator will interpret it. Here, reading from the guidebook, “Jupiter is expansive energy, while Capricorn is contractive. This pulsation between expansion and contraction is the engine that drives the force of change.” Inscribed within the ourosboros are the ba gua, or eight trigrams of the I Ching Book of Changes. Meleen’s Two of Disks in the Tabula Mundi Tarot also anchors itself strongly in I Ching principles. I love it!
So how does this deck read? For me, it’s very direct. It’s reliable. It’s precise. I’d consider it a great workhorse deck for client and pro readings. Meleen’s coloring really comes alive, dancing on your reading table and even in photographs. Just look at these photographs I’ve taken for the review– tell me you can’t feel the charged magnetism. The sophistication of the artwork itself also means these cards look great on your altar. For those who integrate divination steps in their ritual work, this would be a great deck to reach for.
The painstaking detail-oriented and demanding Work that Meleen did in the coloring of the cards– even the energetic and magical significance of her choices in medium– means that for us as readers, the work becomes effortless. She did all the heavy lifting for us. I think what sets Meleen’s art style apart from what I more commonly see is her deft use of color, and more specifically, color combinations. Like pictorial calculus.
A detail I haven’t seen many decks do is feature the card captions in phonetic hieroglyphs. Even without being fully literate, after some use with the cards, you pick up on the symbols fairly quickly (the key number and suit centered at the top). But don’t worry if you prefer English– I think this feature is only in the Papyrus Gold Edition, or select editions of the Rosetta. The standard edition featured in the Book of Seshet has English captions, so just opt for that one. Though personally, what fun is that? I say go for the Papyrus Gold!
If I may hijack my own deck review for a moment to rant, lately I’ve been hearing a lot of grumblings in the tarot community about how commercialized the world of tarot decks has become, and how deck creators are just doing it for the coin. While that may be true for a slice of the marketplace, it’s not true for the entire pie. Case in point, the Rosetta Tarot. If the argument is that the Rosetta Tarot is a decade old, okay, sure, but then take a look at the Pharos Tarot (link to Meleen’s page here), which was published in 2020. I haven’t gotten to writing up a review of the Pharos yet, but that’s on my to-do list.
What you think is going on in terms of trends in tarot deck publication depends on where you’re looking. In recent years, Vinitski’s esoteric decks have been gaining in popularity and also name recognition. Robert Place has been and continues to publish an impressive oeuvre of provocative decks, with his latest work being the Alchemical Tarot of Marseille. We had the Solomonic-inspired decks by Travis McHenry. The Lua Tarot by Maree Bento has a lot of really well articulated Hermetic and Neoplatonic representations, and those with an interest in Renaissance magic are going to take a liking to Bento’s work. The Pistis Sophia is another recent publication by Huggens and Phillips. I’ve also been eyeing the Terra Volatile Tarot.
And those are just the ones on my radar, from someone who isn’t even proactively looking anymore. So if you’ve been yearning for more substance in a contemporary tarot deck that features fine art, invest and experience one of M. M. Meleen’s decks.
I love all the nods to the Thoth, but love even more the ingenious creator interpretations. Like featuring emerald beads on an abacus for the Nine of Disks, the Lord of Material Gain, with all that methodical Virgo energy. The Ten of Disks features a common Chinese amulet– coins arranged in an auspicious shape and tied together with red string, used for increasing prosperity.
Like the deck’s namesake, the Rosetta Tarot juxtaposes Egyptian with Greek mythology. Meleen’s particular art style and techniques applied brings each card to life. I feel fire and warmth when I see cards from the Wands suit. I feel the cool of water when I look at the Cups. Sharp, jagged, and acute angled forms dominate in the Swords.
I want to share a passage from the guidebook’s Introduction pages:
If tarot is a language, it is a language of archetypes, or hieroglyphs that represent archetypes. It has been referred to as “God’s picture book” and also as a model of the known universe. It bypasses words and symbolically illustrates concepts in a form so elastic as to be capable of morphing; expanding and contracting to fit any combination of circumstance.
Not to make too fine a point distinguishing between illustration work and fine art, but most tarot deck art feels like illustration, not fine art. Only a rare few feature what I would consider fine art, and the works on the Rosetta Tarot would be one of them.
[Off the top of my head, the Mary-El Tarot is another. The artwork on the Thoth Journey: the Oracle of Change, a recently published deck, which I’ll review in the near future, is another. Same goes for the in-progress deck that Josephine McCarthy is working on.]
You can order your copy of the Rosetta Tarot directly from Meleen’s studios, Atu House, linked here. The Papyrus Gold Edition is well worth your investment. It’s art. It’s an occult tarot deck crafted by a fellow occultist. It’s not going to be like anything else you already have in your collection. If you’ve been looking to broaden and deepen your proficiency with the Thoth, the Rosetta Tarot will absolutely help you to achieve that. If you’ve never really been into the Thoth, don’t feel comfortable with the imprint of energies coming off Crowley’s Thoth, then you’re going to appreciate that system filtered and interpreted through Meleen.