Tarot of the Dead, by Monica Knighton
Review by Kim Huggens
If you would like to order this deck, click here.
It is said that the Gods envy us humans because we are mortal. Our mortality--the inevitability of our inescapable death--is the reason we often do so much in life, and it makes life taste sweeter. After all, if you know something will one day come to an end, you take time to enjoy it more. And herein lies the wisdom of the Death card, numbered 13 in the Major Arcana. Death, or the unavoidable ending of life, is a catalyst for change in life. It gives us a constant kick up the backside and gets us working towards our goals in life.
But how many of us look at the Death card and see that? How many of us can honestly and fearlessly admit that the Death card does sometimes indicate not just metaphorical, symbolic death, but physical, rigor-mortis, breath-taking death? How many see the Death card and see an old friend waving at them?
Death is a part of life, for each necessitate the existence of the other, and we all die. Everything dies. Our current scientific paradigm states that even our universe will die.
So, it makes sense to have physical death in the tarot, just as it makes sense to include other aspects of life, such as birth, creation, love, and dispute.
This is the principle that the Tarot of the Dead by Monica Knighton works on and expresses: a joyous, humorous, and very true celebration of life and death through the carnival atmosphere of the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos).
Knighton’s Tarot of the Dead began life as a small-press deck, and over the years it became that magical thing, ‘HTF’- Hard to find. I know of many collectors who spent a lot of time and money acquiring the deck in its original incarnation. You will be pleased to know then that Llewellyn has now mass-produced the deck, this bringing it into the wider availability of the tarot masses. Did they do us a favor? Hell, yes!
The first thing that strikes you about this deck is that it really is fun. You’d expect a deck called the Tarot of the Dead to be quite a dark, monochromic, drab deck with lots of Gothic architecture and nihilistic philosophies. But this deck is entirely the opposite, simply because it includes the carnival mood of the Mexican Day of the Dead. It laughs at death in a good-natured way. It pokes fun at itself. It presents to you humorous, tongue-in-cheek, and often touching and evocative images, and still has the atmosphere of Mardi Gras or Carnival Night. Having said this, I must say that this deck would be perfect for any devotees of the Voodoo deity Baron Samedi- a loa who not only rules over death, but sexual pleasure and laughter too. Baron Samedi is dead, so he cannot feel any sexual pleasure or pain; instead, he laughs at it. Not in a derogatory, nasty way, but in a good-natured, philosophical way. And that’s exactly what the Tarot of the Dead reminds me of.
The deck itself is based on the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS), though the Minor Arcana are more in the style of the Marseilles (they are pip cards) The deck retains the traditional meanings of the cards, and the order of the Major Arcana stays the same. Often the images are very traditional as well, so you can easily recognize which card is supposed to be which, but they are slightly changed. Firstly, all the figures in the cards are skeletons (with one exception, which we will come to later.) These skeletons are often set in a more modern surrounding than the RWS figures- they decorate their lawns with plastic pink flamingos, they call their friends on their office phone, they direct films, they write scripts, and they hitchhike on the highway, just like the living do. And what’s more, these modern additions also provide extra meanings for the cards. The Emperor, for instance, isn’t just sitting on a fur-covered throne, with sceptre, cape, and crown. This skeletal businessman sits in his office chair before his computer, doing a business deal over the phone. On his desk is a vase of corn sheaths- a direct reference to his counterpart The Empress, who sits in a field holding a bunch of flowers and corn.
In places, much of the RWS or traditional tarot symbolism is kept, though used in a different way. A great example of this is the Lovers card, where the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden still feature, but the arrow usually about to be fired by the angel (in some decks- not in the RWS) is now found embedded in the chests of the two skeletons that embrace in the center of the scene. This image is both humorous and tragic, while at the same time being meaningful and very easy to read.
The Magician card is another wonderful one, and one of my favorites- he sits at the table that is loaded with the Magician’s tools (as in the RWS), these tools being Coffins, Pistols, Pens, and Film Reels instead of Cups, Swords, Wands, and Coins. He is using the Pen to write, bringing his chaotic thoughts into manifestation through the Pen (which is, after all, this deck’s Wand.) Even better, there’s a small, skeletal puppet dangling from the corner of the table.
Now, we come to the Death card. The card that exemplifies this deck’s philosophy. It’s great--I love it. But if I took off the card titles and showed it to you, I can guarantee that you’d say it was the Empress card.
You see, this card is the only one that does not have a skeletal figure in it. Instead, we see a heavily pregnant woman, wearing blue, seated in a room. And here I was, expecting (and kind of hoping) to see some sort of Baron Samedi/Lord of the Dead image, but I was pleasantly surprised instead. This Death card is paradoxical and evocative, and with some thought given to it, yields up some amazing insights.
Which just goes to show that this deck is more than just a fun, pretty deck. Look deeper, take some time to play around with the cards and think about the images, and you’ll find there’s more to it than immediately meets the eye.
The artwork in the deck is nice--quite cartoony, but attractive and colorful, with great attention to detail. It fits in with the carnival atmosphere of the deck and the light humor.
The Minor Arcana though, at least for me, were a disappointment. I’m one of those readers who prefers illustrated Minors, not the Marseilles-style pips, and this deck has just that. Personally, I find them very difficult to read, but I understand that many people prefer unillustrated Minor Arcana. As mentioned earlier, the suits have been changed in this deck: Cups have become Coffins (a vessel for the human essence), Wands have become Pens (the creative tool), Swords have become Pistols, and Coins have become Film Reels. At first I didn’t like the last two changes--Pistols and Film Reels seemed a little shallow to me, but then I read Knighton’s justification of it in the Little White Book, and was converted. Once again, there’s more to this deck than immediately meets the eye.
The Court Cards are brilliant. Taking its cue from modern playing cards, the Tarot of the Dead has two images on each of its Courts: one upright, and the other upside down, each taking up half the card. The images are different, each showing a different side to that Court Card depending on whether it is pulled upright or reversed, so this is a great boon for those who use reversals. As with the Major Arcana, a lot of thought has been put into the images and symbolism of these cards, and they are really easy to read, even for beginners.
The backs of the cards are wonderful as well. Colorful beyond compare, I fell in love with them straight away! They are a checkerboard of color, with two skulls (one upright, one upside down) in white laid over them. They are also reversible, and create a beautiful rainbow when shuffled.
Monica Knighton really has created a beautiful deck here. She has done a marvellous job of balancing readability with something completely different, and she has managed to make us stop and look at life, death,--and the Tarot--from a different perspective. The Tarot of the Dead would not only be a good deck for general readings, but would work particularly well at Samhain, Hallowe’en, Dia de los Muertos, and any other fun festival.
You can read another review of this edition of the deck here and the original edition here.
If you would like to order this deck, click here.
Kim Huggens is a 19 year-old Pagan Tarot reader, reading Philosophy at Cardiff University. She has been studying tarot since the age of nine, and runs talks and workshops on different aspects of the tarot. She is President of the Cardiff University Pagan Society, and runs an online tarot course here. She lives with her boyfriend in Cardiff, and currently has a tarot deck collection of over 150 decks.
Images © 2004 Llewellyn
Review © 2004 Kim Huggens
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes