Ancient Egyptian Tarot by Clive Barrett
Review by Linda Dunn

If you would like to order this deck, click here.

Though there are several Egyptian-themed decks available, most of them leave me rather cold. Being a fan of all things Egyptian, however, I never gave up looking for a great Egyptian deck. A few years ago, my search finally ended when I got my hands on Clive Barrett's "The Ancient Egyptian Tarot." Over time it has become one of my favorite decks to reach for when I am taking a vacation from my trusty Thoth. Barrett's deck has flickered in and out of print several times, and is currently quite hard to find. Happily, however, it is scheduled to be reissued in February 2004. The edition I am reviewing here is the previous edition of 1994, but the advance information on the new edition indicates that only the packaging has been updated.

The deck comes with a small paperback book. The cards themselves are a bit wider than is the norm; the book explains that the card size follows the principles of Sacred Geometry (the 2:3 ratio of the Golden Mean), and the various inner borders follow other more detailed principles of Sacred Geometry which are also explained. The hieroglyphics around the border of each card are relevant passages from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The Trumps depict various deities of the Egyptian pantheon, while the Minors are populated by mere mortals going about their lives in Ancient Egypt.

The art is top-notch, and appears to be either colored pencil or conte crayon. The colors are very vivid, and the pictures lean more towards naturalistic than stylized (i.e., it's not just that two-dimensional profile thing you get in most Egyptian decks). The pictures generally convey the basic meaning of the Smith-Waite deck, even if the particulars of the scene are different.

What truly makes this deck a standout for me, though, is how easily it adapts to whatever one's particular interpretative bent is. I want to preface the following remarks by admitting that I am strongly biased towards overtly Qabalistic decks such as Thoth. I also enjoy the illustrated minors of the Smith-Waite deck, but never resonated very strongly with the medieval type imagery. The Ancient Egyptian Tarot comfortably occupies a place between these two deck styles. The illustrated minors are colorful, fresh, inventive, and very evocative -- a practiced reader could happily work with this deck and completely ignore Qabalah altogether, and a beginner could make a great start at interpretations by merely studying the pictures. I showed some of the minors to a complete tarot novice, and she got most of the basic meanings spot on.

On the other hand, if you are coming from a more intricate esoteric system such as one of the Golden Dawn/Thelemic varieties, you will be richly rewarded by this deck as well. Refreshingly, these aspects are not pounded home again and again until the reader hollers Uncle Al; aside from the standard few paragraphs of the Golden Dawn's contribution to Tarot and a little diagram of the Tree of Life in the back of the book, all Clive Barrett says about this is the following: "Each card is fully illustrated, and so not only more satisfying for both the reader and the subject but also readily accessible to the beginner...the practiced user will find deeper symbols contained within the illustrations." That's pretty low key, but a close examination of this deck reveals this statement to be an extreme understatement.

For instance, consider the Five of Swords. Four swords lay broken on the floor of a dwelling. The man of the house stands dejected on the balcony, head bowed. A woman in the foreground watches him, and is loosely holding one remaining sword, presently hidden from him. The book's cursory explanation ("a humiliating defeat which must be accepted before progress is made") certainly fits. But going beyond this book meaning yields a stunning level of increasingly deeper esoteric meaning. The planet ascribed to this card is Venus - the woman is wearing a green dress in support of this. The sephira is Geburah, underscored by the man's Martian-like red belt on his tunic. Further, Venus energy evokes Netzach, and the actual physical positions of the two characters alludes to the positions of Geburah and Netzach on the Tree of Life. Going still deeper, we are reminded that the energy of Venus is really the watered-down energy of Binah, the highest female principle of all, symbolized by the black tablecloth hiding this last remaining sword from the view of the man on the balcony.

Whether interpreting the picture at face value, or interpreting the Qabalistic symbolism, the message comes through very clearly: only when the rational mind is completely defeated can the more powerful intuitive mind (represented here by male vs. female principles) come into its full power. And that full power is hidden from us until we can look beyond the failure of the rational and look behind the veil of the unconscious. The unconscious, for its part, will bide its time until then, keeping that sword in trust for us.

This interpretation of this single card is not even as detailed as it could be. Tiny but significant details abound - there is a pomegranate on the table the woman is leaning on, for instance, evoking even more nifty things about the unconscious. The great thing is that every card in the deck rewards deep study in just this way. The more you look, the more you see.

One of the most genuinely cool things in this deck is what I call the "secret stories" element. This isn't mentioned in the book, but there are several recurring characters appearing here and there in the deck in "Where's Waldo?" fashion. For instance, there is a covert saga involving a little bald Egyptian toddler, shown first and prominently in the Five of Cups. He appears in several other cards, though not in any kind of set order (he flits in and out of the Cups, and makes a cameo on a Trump or two). Take the time to find all the cards with him in them and lay them out in a little story, and you'll get some really interesting insights on how these cards relate to each other. Consider these card sequences Qabalistically and -- you guessed it -- you'll come away with some pretty sharp Tree of Life tidbits that might not have occurred to you before. There are other "characters" you can follow like this, and you can even track a journey that the afore-mentioned Five of Swords' pomegranate takes throughout the deck.

I thought it was really nice that while there are some nods to Thoth and Crowley (the Three of Wands is based on a rather famous painting of Crowley, giving the Thelemically-minded a little wink), it is definitely not overtly Thelemic or really overtly any one thing. It can be if you want it to be, but it's your choice. The book is more concerned with general meanings, and is very well-written. Astrological attributes and Golden Dawn keywords are given, along with a few paragraphs of general interpretations to use as a springboard for working with each card. There is an interesting section comparing the story of Osirus to the Holy Grail saga, as well as a few simple spreads (if there is such a thing...) included in the back of the book.

The Court Cards follow Thoth pretty closely (Kings on horseback, Princes on Chariots), while the Strength (VIII) and Justice (XI) cards follow the Smith-Waite numeric system.

This would be a really great deck for a beginner, as well as a wonderful addition to even the most seasoned veteran's collection. I see and learn new things every time I study it, and it is a fantastic deck with which to read. I've occasionally been surprised to hear a querent take off and do her own reading before I even open my mouth; the artwork really pulls people in and engages them.

The upcoming reissue of this set is listed on Amazon.com, and also is available at the author's own site, Mythographia, which is worth a visit just to have a look at the beyond-cool little esoteric toy soldiers. Clive Barrett has created a remarkable piece of work with this book and deck set.

The Ancient Egyptian Tarot by Clive Barrett
Publisher: Element Books
ISBN#: 0007165498

If you would like to order this deck, click here.

Linda Dunn has been fascinated with tarot ever since she spotted a deck (11J Swiss) at an antique store as a child and convinced her mother to buy it for her. In real life, she has worked as a journalist, musician, and commercial composer, and currently runs her own web design company, Purple Genie, Inc.


Images 2002, 2004 Element Books
Review 2004 Linda Dunn
Page 2004 Diane Wilkes