The William Blake Tarot by Ed Buryn
Review by Joan Cole
 

Today one of English Romanticism's favorite figures, in his own time Blake (1757-1827) was considered a lunatic.  Wordsworth said, "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."  It wasn’t until long after his death that his work won the acclaim it so rightly deserved.  Blake was a major influence on such diverse figures as W.B. Yeats (who called him his master), James Joyce, Allen Ginsberg (who considered him his guru), Van Morrison, French surrealists and American beats and hippies.  The name of Jim Morrison’s band, The Doors, was inspired by a line of Blakean poetry that Aldous Huxley had borrowed.  My own first encounter with Blake was hearing a few lines of his poetry in a strange little movie called Mindwalk about ten years ago.

 

About William Blake

 

There are so many things about William Blake that are interesting.  He was a member of the working class, who made his living as an engraver.  For all the admiration his writing has today, apart from two early lyrics pirated towards the end of his life, not a single item of text by Blake achieved commercial publication.  Similar to the modern day blogger, Blake received very little outside notice or encouragement for his writing.  Another similarity was his experimentation with media.  Rather than using conventional movable type printing, Blake was a self-publisher.  He came up with a process of engraving copper plates to print from, and then hand-colored the resulting pages.  His books were printed to order from these plates.  Probably less than 100 copies of his most successful work, The Songs of Innocence, were produced in his lifetime.  Jerusalem, on which he labored for 15 years, was apparently printed only six times, and only once in color.  In his lifetime and for much of the 19th century, Blake was better known as a visual artist than a poet. It was only after W.B. Yeats edited one of the first Blake poetry collections that the situation reversed, with new generations of readers reading Blake’s literary work without the images that Blake created to accompany them.

 

Blake is also interesting in the context of the politics of the time.  A friend of Thomas Paine and other radicals (Levellers, Diggers, Quakers, Ranters and Muggletonians) in his youth, he wrote poetic narratives of the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and was an opponent both to the Established Church and to Deism.  Many of his poetic works are still politically relevant today.

 

But it is as an expositor of the perennial tradition that Blake is most relevant to the Tarotist.  Blake was an omnivorous reader of the classics, and one of the great synthesists of the western esoteric tradition.  Professor Milton O. Percival sums up Blake's intellectual background as having included:

 

The Orphic and Pythagorean tradition, Neoplatonism in the whole of its extent, the Hermetic, kabbalistic, Gnostic, and alchemical writings, Erigena, Paracelsus, Boehme, and Swedenborg. . . . Anyone who undertakes to do Blake's reading after him will respect his prowess as a reader. . . . When Blake, in an impetuous moment, referred to himself as a "mental prince," he uttered no more than sober truth.


Kathleen Raine, who demonstrated the connection between Blake and the first English translator of Plato and Plotinus, Thomas Taylor, wrote that:

 

Blake, like Dante, derived his knowledge of the soul from the ancients.  He was a traditionalist in a society that had as a whole lapsed from tradition.  To the modern reader, he appears most original when he is least so, most cranky when he is communicating traditional doctrine, and most personal when his theme is metaphysical reality, expressed in canonical symbols.

 

What about the deck?

 

Although contemporary with Court de Gebelin (who started the esoteric Tarot tradition in 1781 with his commentary in Le Monde Primitif) and Alliette (who created the Etteilla Tarot in 1783), Blake was unaware of Tarot.  Yet, noting how steeped Blake is in the current of traditional esoteric lore, Buryn speculates that had Blake known about Tarot, he might have designed a deck of his own.  He certainly had the skills and background to do so. 

 

Buryn uses figures from Blake’s mythology to populate this deck.  In particular, he drew from Blake’s longest poem (which was left in manuscript), The Four Zoas: The Death and Judgment of Albion The Ancient Man, many elements of which appear in Blake’s Jerusalem.  The Four Zoas is Blake’s version of the story of revelation, and an appropriate choice for a Tarot.  The story of the fall of humanity into generation (incarnation) and journey of return to divinity is one many see in the sequence of the Major Arcana.  In The Four Zoas, the symbol of humanity is a giant man named Albion who fell from divinity and “whose real humanity [was] slain on the stems of vegetation.”  In his fall, he “was originally fourfold but was self divided” into four Zoas. 

 

 

Kathleen Raine wrote:

 

Blake returned again and again to the problem of evil in the symbolic terms of a “descent” of the soul from a world of spiritual light into a world of material darkness, but behind the story of the soul lies the cosmic problem of the origin and nature of the world.  The original “descent” of light, or spirit, into matter, or darkness, has been expressed in many fables: the dismembering of Osiris and the scattering of his body over the earth; the laceration of Dionysus; the deus absconditus, or hidden god, of Alchemy, made prisoner in matter.  As the individual soul has its cycle of descent and return, so have these symbolic figures of the divine power in the cosmos itself.

 

Buryn deserves credit for realizing how much Blake brings to tarot and doing the work to build a deck from Blake’s prodigious output.  Most theme decks are not study decks – generally, study of the illustrated theme will not greatly improve one’s understanding of deeper meanings in Tarot as a whole.  This is one of the rare exceptions to that rule, simply because Blake is writing from the same sources used in the development of esoteric Tarot.  As Yeats said,

 

Blake was a great poet and a great painter, but he was a great mystic also, and cast this mysticism into a form which, however, chaotic when compared with his lyrics and his painting, was in every way more beautiful than the form chosen by Swedenborg or Boehme.

 

Some commentators have noted the error of oversimplifying Blake’s mythology.  Michael Mason stated that “Blake’s mythology was a device for virtually unlimited multiplication and diversification, and if it could be summarized in a table it would have failed in its purpose”.  Blake himself wrote that “to generalize is to be an idiot” and “unity is the cloak of folly”.  It is possible that by mapping Blakean figures onto such a structured system as the tarot, Buryn has committed this error of oversimplification.  Yet so long as the Tarotist remains aware that this deck is a product of Buryn’s creative imagination, inspired by Blake, this caution can be noted and simply taken in stride.  As Buryn points out, “Most of Blake’s own works were reinterpretations of the works of other poets and artists.  Now, Blake himself is reinterpreted here through the medium of Tarot.”  Buryn is without a doubt to be congratulated for the quality of the book, which succeeds in making this part of Blake’s mythology comprehensible to the reader who has not encountered Blake prior to taking up this deck. 

 

In its method, this deck reminds me of the Victoria Regina Tarot.  By taking elements from the body of Blake’s artistic output, the deck achieves a consistency difficult to achieve in the collage form.  Each image was constructed by collage of photocopies of artwork, some of which were then handcolored by Buryn as they were black and white in the original.  Perhaps half of the images contain a quote from Blake’s writing worked into the image.  While the story of a card is always taken from Blake’s mythology, the identity of the figures shown may have been different in the original artwork.  For instance, Mystery (the High Priestess) is interpreted as Enitharmon, the female emanation of Urthona, but shows an illustration of Hecate.  Buryn’s book describes the card from both perspectives.  I felt more sated in understanding the design choices Buryn made for any particular card than I usually do when reading an accompanying book.

 

The Triumphs (Major Arcana)

Traditional

Blake Tarot

Depicts

(none)

00 – The Eternity Card
(Albion)

Albion asleep on the Rock of Ages.  Fallen from Eternity, his zoas have divided (collage elements taken from an illustration of Jacob’s Dream in the Book of Genesis)

0 - Fool

Innocence
(Tharmas)

Tharmas with a dog and crocodile

1 - Magician

Magic
(Los / Urthona)

Hermes-Anubis straddling the Nile, channeling energy from Sirius

2 - High Priestess

Mystery
(Enitharmon / Urthona)

Triple Goddess Hecate sits hand and foot on a book, looking at a crocodile, with a bat above her head

3 - Empress

Nature
(Vala / Luvah)

Bathsheba (King David’s favorite wife) and her two sons.  One who died next to lilies of sorrow, and Solomon next to roses of glory.

4 - Emperor

Reason
(Urizen)

Urizen leaning out the sphere of eternity into the Void, in the act of measuring.

5 - Hierophant

Religion

King George III wearing a papal tiara and bat wings, in the company of angels who have serpents crawling from beneath their gowns.

6 - Lovers

Knowledge

Adam and Eve with the angel Raphael

7 - Chariot

Experience

The Plough of Jehovah – The oxen have lion manes, horns, and mens’ faces and carry eagles on their backs.  The wheels are formed of serpents.

8/11 - Justice

Assessment
(Luvah)

A naked man holding unbalanced scales and a scroll of imagination stepping through a Gothic gateway.

9 - Hermit

Imagination
(Los / Urthona)

A figure holding a globe of holy fire heading towards a dark doorway..

10 - Wheel of Fortune

Whirlwind
(The Four Zoas)

Ezekiel’s Vision – a whirlwind full of starry eyes containing four faces with God in his throne on top.

11/8 - Strength

Energy

Tharmas sitting beneath an oak tree with various animals, including ox, lion, man, eagle, serpent, cock, peacock, ram and horse..

12 - Hanged Man

Reversal
(Urizen)

Urizen doing a handstand

13 - Death

Transformation

Time shown as a grotesque angel, destroying humans with a scythe and looking into the future.

14 - Temperance

Forgiveness

Jesus with Angels, blessing bread and wine.

15 - Devil

Error

Satan with numberless potentates.

16 - Tower

Lightning

Satan, the Accuser, destroying Job’s sons and their wives.  Illuminated by a flash of lightning, he is collapsing a temple.

17 - Star

Stars

John Milton in old age gazing at constellations from an underground cave.

18 - Moon

Moon

A family standing beside a moonlit bay, with a pair of fiends lurking in the shadows.

19 – Sun

Sun

Jesus with children flying upstream between tree-lined riverbanks towards the sun.  Atropos walks on the water in the other direction, and St. John flies in front of the sun.

20 - Judgement

Liberty
(Jerusalem / Albion)

The butterfly winged Jerusalem (the female emanation of Albion) flies in the center of the scene.  Surrounding her are dead rising from the earth, figures looking down from the sky, and a flaming angel blowing a trumpet.

21 - World

Union
(Albion)

Albion standing on the Rock of Ages with arms outstretched and scenes from the Book of Genesis in the border.

 

While it is an admirable study deck, this is not an easy deck to simply use right out of the box.  Without building great facility with Blakean imagery and mythology, I think it is difficult to use to give readings for others, as it is hard to refer these images to the more mundane concerns addressed in those readings.  While the meanings implied by the illustrations chosen fit within the RWS divinatory tradition, I could not simply glance at a card and know which card I was looking at.  The Three of Cups does not show three females dancing in a circle, and in fact, is not the suit of Cups.  If one did not read the book closely, one might be unsure whether the Three of Music or the Three of Painting should be considered equivalent to the Three of Cups in another deck.  (This problem with the Blake Tarot reminds me of the Shakespearian Tarot.)  Due to the Blakean assignment of Love to Fire, Matter to Water, and Imagination to Earth, the suit-element correspondences are unusual.  I found it useful to ignore the elemental imagery borders, and mentally continue my normal correspondence of Love to Water, Matter to Earth and Imagination to Fire in order to read with this deck.  It was only when I got to the end of the accompanying book that I discovered Buryn had intended the little glyph on the bottom right corner to remind one of the standard suit.

 

Just as the Major Arcana are based on the work The Four Zoas, the Minor Arcana are correlated with the Zoas as well, one per suit.  The word Zoa is Greek. It means 'living one'. In the Book of Ezekiel (1:4-27), Zoa is the name of the four creatures who pull the chariot of God's Spirit.  The Zoas appear again in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 4:6-8), in the midst of, and round about the throne.  In typical writings on the tarot, they often appear with the name of tetramorph.

 

According to Blake, “In eternity the four arts: Poetry, Painting, Music and … Science, are the four faces of man.”  In this tarot, each of these creative processes becomes a tarot suit.  In the chart below, I will organize the chart by the suits we are used to.

 

The Creative Process Cards (Minor Arcana)

 

Wands

Cups

Swords

Coins

Blake Suit

Poetry

Music

Science

Painting

Zoa

Urthona

Luvah

Urizen

Tharmas

Blake’s Element

Earth
Spirit of Earth

Fire
Flame of Feeling

Air
Vapour of Thought

Water
Body of Water

Tetramorph

Eagle

Man, Angel

Lion

Ox

Zoa appears in Triumphs

I, II, IX

III, VIII

IV, XII

0, XI

Pip illustrations from

Night Thoughts by Edward Young

Poems by Mr. Gray

The Book of Urizen

Various sources

 

The Person Cards (Court Cards)

RWS

Page

Knight

Queen

King

Blake

Child

Angel

Woman

Man

Element

Earth (Spirit)

Air (Mind)

Water (Matter)

Fire (Passion)

Role

Face of innocence

Sacred persona or mask

Feminine role

Masculine role

 

Dear mother, dear mother, the church is cold,
But the ale-house is healthy and pleasant and warm.
Besides, I can tell where I am used well;
Such usage in Heaven will never do well.

But if at the church they would give us some ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We’d sing and we’d pray all the live-long day,
Nor ever once wish from the church to stray.
(The Little Vagabond)

 

The William Blake Tarot Book and Deck Set, published in 1995,  is currently out of print, but there are still a few copies available for purchase directly from Ed Buryn, the creator of the deck.  Ed Buryn can be reached at edburyn@sbcglobal.net

 

William Blake Tarot Book/Deck Set by Ed Buryn
Publisher: Thorsons
ISBN #: 1855383306

 

To learn more about topics mentioned in this review

 

Joan Cole is a stay-at-home mom and former geek.   She has been studying Tarot off and on since the early 1980's.  You can see her deck collection here.


Images © 1995 Thorsons
Review © 2003 Joan Cole
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes