The English Magic Tarot was first published in 2015 by Weiser Books. According to its tagline, this deck is “rumoured to be the very key to the English Hermetic tradition . . . here restored in full.” Okay, you have my attention. Keep going.
This deck places you in that heyday of English magic, between the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Early Modern period. These cards are set in the turbulent times of King Henry VIII and onward for about a century. The courtier on The Sun card is wearing clothing in the style of the mid-1500s, which the guidebook likens to Sir Francis Drake. Judgement features a giant Wicker Man going up in flames.
How would I describe the art style? Dramatic, hardboiled pulp fiction featuring swashbuckler protagonists set in 17th century England. Think John Constantine meets Three Musketeers with lots of mystery and mysticism. Also, with the mannerisms of 1950s comic book illustration.
Now let’s get into the depths of the tarot deck’s premise.
During the Occult Revival of the 19th century, French writers like Eliphas Levi and Papus drew connections between the tarot and the Kabbalah, connecting letters of the Hebrew alphabet to the 22 Keys of the Majors. Members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in London then took those associations and created a magical tool out of the tarot deck, a tool for pathworking the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.
I love the introductory chapter on the history of Tudor England, which is the time period that these cards are set in. It convinces the reader that there is a defined, well-researched point of view to this deck, not to mention the chapter on English history in here is much more interestingly written than, say, your stuffy history book from school days.
So what exactly is English magic? I’ll cite from the book. It’s a regional form of natural magic that evolved from prehistoric times, where divination is included in that umbrella of natural magic.
Within the English Magic Tarot, you’ll feel the influence of the Druids, see interspersed throughout references to ogham tree-lore, runes, and iconography dated from the Middle Ages to the Scientific Revolution.
Also, throughout the cards there’s text written in a cipher or magical script, maybe the Theban alphabet (?), though it isn’t decoded or explained in the guidebook. So either you know it or you don’t. Shrug. =)
English magic consists of two streams: high or learned magic (tracing its roots back to Hellenistic Egypt and the legendary texts of Hermes Trismegistus), consisting of much book learning, astral magic, and complex rituals that require the precision of astrological timing, and low magic, which is the “magic done by ordinary folk.”
This is fortune-telling, healing spells, charms, wort-cunning, dowsing, and warding off the evil eye. These two streams are not parallel, but coiling, often mixing with one another, such as it does in Wicca. The two streams coil also in tarot.
By the way, loving that The High Priestess card features a Crone plunging her hands into the waters, a full moon in the reflection symbolic of the Mother, met also by a reflection of a Maiden rising up from the waters. The Magician card features a magus standing in front of a window that has been transformed into a portal, and he has cast a spell allowing him to step into another world. The imagery was inspired by John Dee.
There are three authors credited to this deck. Rex Van Ryn is an English Magician and comic book artist who illustrated the graphic novel John Barleycorn Must Die. Steve Dooley is a Trompe-l’œil mural painter whose works can be found in castles and chateaus across Europe. Andy Letcher is a practicing Druid, scholar, and the author of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom (2007), among many academic publications on paganism, shamanism, and folklore.
The imagery follows the RWS pretty closely, and in terms of ordering in the Majors, Key 8 is Strength and Key 11 is Justice. The artwork feels animated and alive, credited largely to the incredible linework by the artists. If you look at the mark-making, you see a lot of short, strong, angled, and frenetic lines to convey action.
Key 10 features a Romany fortune teller. Key 13: Death features an executioner, but the Hand of Death from above reaching for him suggests that the executioner himself is about to die. The Tower card features the Tower of London and that guy on The Star card is Sir Isaac Newton. The World card features a nature spirit dancing in a tree while a raven flies overhead.
The Majors are borderless, but then the Minor Arcana suits feature these really thick solid-colored margins, with the colors corresponding to each element per the Golden Dawn. So Fire is red, Water is blue, Air is yellow, and Earth is green. I’m really loving that Ace of Wands, which features a coat of arms and a legend that reads, “Fire my Spirit” while reversed, it reads, “To Will.”
I’m not sure if it was the deck creators’ intentions for the colored borders to be so overpowering or if it was a formatting error during the production process, but they’re huge. They in effect shrink the otherwise magnetic illustration work.
The art also calls to mind Shakespearean theater, doesn’t it? Speaking of theater, the guidebook talks about memory theater or a memory palace as a form of high magic. (Apologies for spelling inconsistencies– where I’m writing on my own, I use American spelling; where I’m citing or copying directly from the guidebook, you’ll see English spelling.)
To create a memory palace, choose a building you know well. It should be bright and well-lit. Visualize yourself walking through the rooms in that building. A memory theater is when you mentally place images of things you want to remember in the corners of the rooms or at suitable stopping points, on table tops, pedestals, display cabinets, atop a fireplace mantle, etc.
Compare memory theater to a technique instructed in the Corpus Hermeticum, where ancient Egyptian magi purportedly drew down powers from the stars to animate statues or empower talismans.
Oh, and loving how all four of the Aces feature a coat of arms. Here in the Ace of Cups, you see the Holy Grail and the caption, “Water my Blood” and in reverse, “To Keep Silent.”
Blend the two ideas. Contain within your mind, within that memory palace, daemonic or spirit powers of the universe, so your memory palace in effect contains a folio of magic. In a way, a tarot deck is like a physical map or materialized representation of a memory palace in which such spirits are kept. (Hint, hint… wink, nod… Spirit Keeper’s Tarot? Book of Maps?)
The cards in this deck feel like folios of magic and the full deck itself is a map of that recreated memory theater.
Out of the box, the Minor suits are ordered Wands, Swords, Cups, and Coins. I love how the guidebook describes the suit of Swords, in comparison to Wands. “If fire is all about bringing things together to create something new, then air is about splitting things up into their constituent parts to find out what they’re made of.” This is the suit of editing, pruning, pairng, intellect, reason, and science.
That Ten of Swords is really creative. It depicts a man falling through the sky, though it is intentionally ambiguous as to whether he is being pierced by the ten swords or it’s just a matter of perspective, angles, and an optical illusion.
The creators went with a very traditionally English interpretation for the Queen of Swords– in this deck, she is cold, bitter, and perhaps even a little cruel. She was dealt a difficult fate in life, so now she has lost all trace of the fresh-faced optimism she had in her youth. The Queen of Swords in this deck is about being stuck in a hurt place, locked up in a figurative tower.
The guidebook makes a lot of pop culture references to help explain card meanings. If that’s something you’re into, you’re going to love the companion book. While the Majors are given two-page spreads per card, it gets truncated into one page per card in the Minors.
The legend on the Ace of Coins reads, “Earth my body” and in reverse, “To know.” The Two of Coins features an astronomer and in place of the coins/pentacles, we see two orbs that resemble planets. The Three of Coins features a geometer standing at the center of a cathedral.
You’ll notice that in this deck, the imagery in the Seven of Coins is going to remind you more of the RWS Nine of Pentacles, and then in the subsequent photograph, you’ll see how the Nine of Coins has some RWS Seven of Pentacles vibes.
Per the guidebook’s explanation, “This is simply the way the cards came to Rex, and the significance of the change will doubtless become apparent with time.” Ah. Rex is taking a page out of Mr. Waite’s playbook– i.e., “My ways are so obvious to the intelligent and initiated, that there is no reason for me to explain further.” :: smiles :: That’s so English occultist of you. =)
Loving that King of Coins. Aren’t you? You’ll have me swooning any time you picture library bookshelves. Card description in the guidebook: “A man sits in a library writing a book. It’s quite an odd, outdoor library and the books are all to do with magic.”
Like a lot of the “oldies but goodies” decks I’ve been throwing up on my deck review blog this year, I was gifted this deck years back, and found the artwork is dynamic and compelling. If the English Magic Tarot is exciting you and giving you new life, you might also be interested in checking out the nutshell studies I’ve done of various Golden Dawn decks, which you can find here.