Black and white tarot decks, mainly for the monochrome pen and ink artwork, hold a special preferential place in my heart. For a phase of my tarot journey, my sole workhorse deck was The Hermetic Tarot. The earlier nox et lux edition of Tabula Mundi Tarot (see the Majors here and the Minors here) is just magical to work with. And of course the first iteration of the Spirit Keeper’s Tarot was straightforward black and white line drawings.
Tarot of the Abyss by Ana Tourian is a black and white deck published earlier this year by U.S. Games. It’s an 80-card deck, with two version of the Three of Swords and two versions of the Ten of Swords. More on that later.
I wanted to talk a bit about the box itself first. The Emperor card is on the box front, The Tower card on the cover art for the guidebook, a Romantic Era gothic-inspired style of depicting Strength, plus the Ace of Wands (symbolic of breaking Light) as the choice images for the packaging says so much, doesn’t it?
I’ve been excited about Ana Tourian’s Tarot of the Abyss for quite a while now, and followed its development from pretty early on. The illustration work here has this dark and complex fairytale aesthetic, which tells the origins story of Light.
“In the instant that Spirit willed it, out of darkness came light, the source of all that is. That light gave rise to the entire universe, first as energy and then as matter,” writes Tourian in the companion guidebook (a meaty tome, by the way). “Out of the abyss came forth the light.”
Check out what Tourian did there with Key 12: The Hanged One. You are the hanged one. We’re seeing the world through the first person point of view, and we’re suspended upside down.
And that Death card! Okay hear me out and let me see if I can explain my thoughts here.
Above left is the “negative” image of the actual card illustration for Death. My feeling is that this version with the black background and the spirit of Death illuminated in that ghostly white is what would the observer of a Key XIII event would witness. But then the actual first-person experience and insight of the Key XIII event would be what you see on the card, with the white background and the spirit of Death outlined as shown. So it’s a play on that Abyss vs. Light that is the thematic motif throughout this deck.
As above, so below– as it was on the macro-scale, it so happens on the micro-scale with how Tarot of the Abyss came to be. In the instant that the divine higher genius within the artist willed it, out of the void came the inspiration, the source of all that unraveled itself as this tarot deck.
By the way, I love the dominance of shadow in Key 8: Strength as the counter-weight to Key 11: Justice, which has a dominance of light. Here you see the personification that is Lady Justice, fierce but fair.
In many of the compositions, see back to The Emperor, or here in both Strength and Justice, to name a few examples, the figures in the illustrations are looking straight at you, the viewer, establishing an energetic or psychic bond, and then drawing you in.
This adds another layer of significance to those particular cards vs. when the composition is such where you’re a bystander or passive observer. In matters of Strength or Justice, as with The Hanged One, you are a character in the storyline, and therefore your next decision will determine the outcome. Whereas with other cards, such as The Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, or Temperance, when the illustration is such that you’re just the observer, the energy conveyed is that of greater extenuating forces, for better and for worse.
I know that Tourian’s of Romanian descent, but that’s not why I think this– even if I didn’t know that, I would have caught the scent of Slavic heritage in the art style. Her compositions in Abyss are reminiscent of the 19th century Symbolist art movement– art that reveled in the unverified personal gnosis– art that was surreal, dream-like, and not literal, but revelatory through signs and symbols of divine truths. Tourian’s art embodies all of that. It’s Romantic, and it’s emotional. You can’t look at this art and not feel something.
That card back design is just beautiful. I love everything about it.
I was, however, curious about how the card back design would have looked if the black and white was reversed. Above left is the actual card back design, which is beautiful. To its right is just the “Negative” auto color adjustment that I did with one click of a button in my photo editing program. Ooh…!
In the companion guidebook, which is very meaty, Minor Arcana card entries are given equal treatment to Major Arcana card entries, which is something that automatically earns brownie points from me. =)
What delights me the most about this deck is following Tourian’s path of reasoning for how she illustrates each tarot card’s key concepts, like in the Two of Swords. The faceless woman (a reinterpretation of the classical RWS depiction of a blindfolded or “hoodwinked” woman) balances in her hands two contrasting jester masks (representing two different, contrasting aspects of our selves that we want to present to the external world), and she kneels atop the two crossed swords that are the emblems for this pip card.
Tarot of the Abyss is the kind of deck you’d reach for when it comes to deepening exploratory work through the nether regions of your own mind. It would also make for a great professional reader’s workhorse deck because the art gives you so much to draw from.
This is an 80 card deck where there are two bonus cards: an Alternative version of the Three of Swords and one for the Ten of Swords. You can see in the above photo the two Three of Swords cards side by side. The Traditional version is about loss and heartbreak, the “grieving card,” as the guidebook notes.
Whereas the Alternative Card version draws its meaning from the numerology of the number 3, the Triad, and the element Air, which is of the mind. So here, the Alternate Three of Swords is about growth and expansion of the mind– multiplicity of the ways you see and understand knowledge. The Book of Thought that the three swords are pierced through suggests an unlocking of those pages. The words floating off the pages toward the figure represents living knowledge.
There’s something deeply prescient about Tourian adding alternate cards specifically for the Three and the Ten of Swords, especially in the times we find ourselves in at the moment.
So much of the global collective has been going through either a Three of Swords moment or Ten of Swords. By the way, is it just me seeing patterns where there are none, but do those ten birds in the skies on the Traditional Ten of Swords remind you of the revised replacement Ten of Swords from the Light Seer’s Tarot? I’m in no way saying there’s any intentional connection. It’s more that both artists have pulled something from the psychic aethers relating to the Ten of Swords manifestation we’re in today.
You can really hear the artist’s voice in the guidebook. It almost has a memoir-like tone to it, and so the guidebook itself, although just card meanings, draws you in with its narrative style.
When you study the play between black and white, positive space vs. negative space in Tourian’s art, you know you are looking at works of mastery. There is a diversity of textures and such volume that you don’t miss the color at all. Her implied lines (the drama in the negative space) vs. the actual lines of her pen strokes are dynamic, which is why these illustrations feel alive to you, why you think there’s such momentum and flow.
Love the first-person point of view in so many of these compositions, like that Three of Cups.
Ooh, I’m skipping around a bit, but I wanted to share Ana Tourian’s method for clearing her deck, which you can read about in the guidebook. Pass the deck through the smoke of incense and recite:
Cards of light, cards of fire,
Let your message shine through desire.
May your truth be held in sight,
May the path be clear and bright.
My go-to method is also passing the deck through the smoke of incense, so this really resonated with me.
Not only can you see the master artist’s hand in these detailed illustrations, but what you’re seeing is also a witch’s handiwork. I know you can intuit the life force infused into every pen stroke. That’s why the art feels so alive, where there’s movement to the shapes and potency in the cross-hatching.
Each card in this deck reads like a poem or short story, where the gothic, melancholic, supernatural drama of Edgar Allan Poe meets the lyrical, rhythmic style of Alexander Pushkin.
The court cards connect with each other to reveal a bigger picture, a bit like the Minors in the Prisma Visions Tarot. Actually, intentional or not by the artist, many of the edges of the cards have lines that connect, and it feels very synchronistic.
This feels a bit like a Marseille, RWS, and Thoth fusion, rendered in a haunting woodcut engraving style of line art.
I often hear people ask, what’s a good deck for witches? Or inquiries about a witchy deck. For me personally, the decks that literally use the word “Witch” in the name or feature a bunch of women in pointy hats on the card illustrations aren’t necessarily what do it for me. It’s going to be a deck like Tarot of the Abyss that really feel witchy.
I was gifted this deck by Ana, the artist, who is a friend of mine, and she wasn’t expecting a review from me. It was just a gift. But I wanted to share it with you all because this deck speaks to my soul. It makes me happy to share my thoughts about this deck.
Tarot of the Abyss is a stunner, one that you will find yourself reaching for when you are lost, disoriented, or trapped in chaos and desperate for a visual of that Path of Light.
Magical, mystical, and satisfyingly witchy in its aesthetic, U.S. Games has absolutely knocked it out of the park with this one.