William Blake Tarot by Ed Buryn, based on the art and poetry of William Blake
Review by Valerie Sim-Behi

I "discovered" the William Blake Tarot deck belatedly in 1999 when someone mentioned it on my e-list, thus whetting my curiosity. As soon as I saw a few pictures of the deck, I knew I had to own it, as William Blake has always fascinated me for  having had visions so many light-years ahead of his time. Blake was an artist, a visionary, a poet, a musician, a mythologizer and, last but not least, an engraver, which enabled him to reproduce and preserve his art in a superior manner. As far as I am concerned, the man was an utter genius with a vision that is gifted only a few times a century... if indeed that often. It is appropriate that this posthumous tribute to Blake is available now, 200 years after Blake lived, for it is now that we are finally able to appreciate the vision that was misunderstood during his own lifetime.

The William Blake deck is unique in so many ways. As the most vocal proponent of the Comparative Tarot Method, I am completely open to any deck as long as they remain (and of course this label is somewhat subjective) "Tarot." My personal definition of a Tarot deck is one that has 78 cards  (plus one or two, if those additions are logically substantiated by the system being explained), and that contains 22 Majors or Trumps, a Minor Arcana of four suits, including within each suit an Ace and nine numbered cards, plus four Court cards per suit. I realize that for other people, when it comes to an absolute definition of Tarot, their mileage may vary.

The Blake Majors, or Triumphs, 21 Illustrations of the Book of Job, are divided into three cycles of seven each. Cycle One, Matter (The Fall/Worldliness), contains Triumphs 0 through VII; Cycle Two (Regeneration/Transformation) contains Triumphs VIII through XIV; and Cycle Three (Dark Night of the Soul/Revelation) contains Triumphs XV through XXI.

Ed Buryn has created 22 Triumphs, plus Card 00  (Eternity) and he has divided his Minors into the following four suits: Painting, Science, Music and Poetry. Card 00, a card that transcends numbers, is the pivotal point at which card 21 (Union/The World) cycles back via unification to meet card 0 (Innocence/The Fool) and begin the journey anew.

Eternity represents our own sleeping consciousness. This card is illustrated with Albion, or "Everyman," Blake's personification of the human soul, himself containing the four elemental powers, asleep on the Rock of Ages. But in his unconscious fall to Earth, the four ways of processing knowledge and experience had become imbalanced. Albion will thus remain asleep until these 'four faces of man' (Zoas) are reunited, and his divided soul is regenerated. In the world of Blake, this is an eternally regenerative spiritual cycle that is never finished. The Triumphs have all been renamed as befits this journey, and are, in order beginning with 0: Innocence, Magic, Mystery, Nature, Reason, Religion, Knowledge, Experience, Assessment, Imagination, Whirlwind, Energy, Reversal, Transformation, Forgiveness, Error, Lightning, Stars, Moon, Sun, Liberty, and Union.

Suit correspondences, describing the psychological states associated with Blake's primal arts are:

Painting = Body/Matter      
Science = Mind/Thought       
Music = Emotions/Love     
Poetry = Imagination/Spirit 

So far, so good? Let's move on... What's this? The suit correspondences described above are nearly diametrically opposed to the elemental correspondences used in Rider-Waite (RWS) and its clones/offshoots.

To illustrate:

Painting = Body/Matter                  Blake-Water                    RWS-Earth
Science = Mind/Thought                Blake-Air                         RWS-Air
Music = Emotions/Love                 Blake-Fire                        RWS-Water
Poetry = Imagination/Spirit             Blake-Earth                      RWS-Fire

Thus, the suit of Painting in the Blake deck corresponds most closely to Earth in RWS system;
Science in the Blake deck is Air (the only suit that corresponds directly to RWS elemental correspondences); Music in Blake is equal to Water in RWS; and Poetry in Blake is most closely related to Fire in RWS.

I will admit that this boggled me initially, even with the excellent book (a must-have for this deck) that Buryn has written to explain the card system and meanings as seen through Blake's vision. Discovering I lived only 45 minutes from Ed Buryn, I decided to take a workshop from him when I received a flyer in Mary Greer's excellent T.A.R.O.T. magazine that advertised just such a workshop. I am so glad I did! Ed opened up a new world of Tarot for me. He helped me to feel Blake, his ideas and his cosmology, and to partially share Blake's vision.

As Mary Greer commented recently on my e-list: "Blake was a mystic who developed his own ideas about physical existence, based on his experiences in the mystical realm. As might be imagined our world looks very different from this point of view." I am used to Mary's acute insights, but this is a small but priceless nugget by which Blakean studies are illuminated and enriched.

In the workshop, Ed explained that Blake regarded Imagination/Spirit (Poetry) as Earth because it is only one's Spirit/Imagination that is truly durable and lasting. To Blake, Imagination/Spirit were the true "earth" or matter. Body/Matter (Painting), which is traditionally equated with Earth, is what is actually transitory when seen through the Blakean frame of reference. For Blake, the physical body was seen as ephemeral, a mortal container that would ultimately evaporate away and cease to exist. Emotions/Love, the suit of Music in the Blake deck, was corresponded elementally to Fire, because herein a la Blake, we have the passions of love and the creative force. (This is a correlation that I find many beginning Tarot students adhere to naturally. Many times, using RWS, I have had to explain why Water corresponds to pure emotions and love while passion and creativity are Fire.) With the suit of Science, Mind/Thought, being Air, we are in synch with those correspondences in the Golden Dawn decks and their derivatives.

In the words of Buryn, "The entire key to Blake’s system, and part of its revolutionary appeal, is that elemental Earth unequivocally represents Imagination and Spirit, thus asserting the firm and solid belief that these are the only permanent forces in the universe, literally the ground of reality. The illusion of Matter becomes symbolized by Water, and the emotions or passions become Fire." Exactly. It requires a whole new kind of seeing, but it is a visionary system that sings when applied to the cards created to express that system.

To give one example of how this works, let's discuss the Child of Music, the card I drew for my card-a-day this recent Thanksgiving. In this deck the Child of Music, (corresponding to the Page of Cups in RWS), is illustrated by a young Pied Piper dressed in leggings and wolf skins. Ed Buryn describes this boy as a "sheep in wolf's clothing." This youthful spirit is communing deeply and passionately, almost obliviously, to an inner music heard only by him. It doesn't matter that the landscape through which he moves is barren and forbidding. He is too passionately connected to his music to notice.

This is s/he who runs with wolves. This is primitive and primal joy in the spiritual journey. This free soul is brave and has a willingness to take risks for that which he loves, but he is also emotionally vulnerable. He is the symbolic and sometimes hypersensitive Inner Child who can occasionally feel betrayed and may lapse into reclusiveness, but right now he is piping joyously for all to hear. When you move to the music of your heart and soul your childishly unfettered imagination knows no bounds and your soul sings! Piping from the heart [emotion] leads to illuminating visions and passionate [fiery] growth.

Back to what was mentioned only briefly above, the four elements are also associated with the four Zoas, which are the natural forms in which those energies have disguised themselves. Says Buryn, "The fall and eventual regeneration of the Zoas is the central theme of Blake's myth." The Zoas and their keywords are as follows:

Tharmas, corresponding to sensation - "The Parent Power"
Urizen, read "your reason," to intellect - "King of Pride"
Luvah to emotional knowing - "Prince of Love"
Urthona, read "Earth owner" to intuition - "Prophet of Eternity (Time)" 
 
To make the paradigmatic comparison complete, the Triumphs, when taken in the order mentioned above, manage to combine the Fool's Journey of traditional Tarot with Blake's myth of the four Zoas. Buryn refers to this as the Soul's Journey. Buryn has managed to fluidly and seamlessly merge the two systems with a success that is rarely attained in such attempts.

This represents just my short and extremely abbreviated introduction to understanding and loving the Blake Tarot. To fully comprehend and appreciate this deck, not only the deck itself, but the book that accompanies it, is truly necessary. (The good news is that they are sold new as a set, and only if you acquire them used and for some reason separately on EBay, etc., could you not purchase the two together. Although the Blake Tarot is not sold at bookstores or Amazon, etc., Ed Buryn has copies of the deck available for sale and can be reached via email here.

This is the only radically different system of elemental correspondences that I have been able to embrace totally and read with confidently. I admit that I look at the Blake correspondences, read them as presented by Buryn/Blake, and then also do a mental-shift into RWS, but I find that Blake's view and the mental translation both have much to offer to meditation and in readings.

Join me in stepping into Blake's world. Let your mind bend around the difference in correspondences. Don't limit your sight. See through Blake's eyes and the world he defined. Trust yourself. Trust that vision. Closing with the words of William Blake himself:

I rest not from my great task!
To open the eternal worlds, to open the immortal eyes
Of man inwards into the worlds of thought.

William Blake (1757-1827)

William Blake Tarot by Ed Buryn
Publisher: Thorsons (an imprint of Harper Collins) 1995
ISBN #: 0062513168


Valerie Sim-Behi is the founder and moderator of Comparative Tarot, an email list devoted to studying cards of different decks  in comparison to each other.   She has worked with the tarot for over 30 years.  Valerie created a spread that will appear in the book accompanying the Victoria-Regina Tarot by Sarah Ovenall, and has written various articles, including one on the Comparative Tarot method that was published in Llewellyn's Tarot Calendar 2002.  You can visit Valerie at the Comparative Tarot website

Images © 1995 Thorsons
Review © 2002 Valerie Sim-Behi
Page © 2002 Diane Wilkes