The Dragons Tarot by Manfredi Toraldo and Severino Baraldi
Review by Kim Huggens
There are only a few ‘dragon decks’ in existence that I can think of and most of them I've found disappointing in one way or another. I have a friend who is obsessed with dragons, and he has also found the dragon decks he has seen lacking something- either something Tarot-y or dragon-y.
Now, this lack of decent dragon-themed tarot decks is a great disservice, considering how popular dragons have become--especially amongst neo-Pagans.
So you can maybe understand why I am so thankful that the new Dragons Tarot, published by Lo Scarabeo, is here. It’s an excellent dragon deck - not too dragon-y to take away from the tarot part of it, yet not sacrificing the essential aspects of the wide-ranging mythology and folklore surrounding these epic, mythical beasts.
All the other dragon decks I have come across so far have just used dragons as art, often drawing fantastical creatures that popped straight out of the artist’s imagination, and using them to adorn the cards (such as Peter Pracownik’s Dragon Tarot). There is certainly nothing wrong with this if you like artwork with dragons in it, but what about somebody looking for something more, a deck that sees the history and mythology in dragons? Well, the Dragons Tarot would be perfect for them--it goes beyond mere art and pretty pictures, and goes straight back to myths, legends, and beliefs about dragons, using them to not only illustrate these lush and evocative cards, but also to convey the card meanings.
Take a look at the Major Arcana, for instance, and you’ll not only find Tiamet, Kur, and Tepheus (all mythical beasts with their own stories and meanings), but also other characters who mingled into the stories of these dragons--Merlin, Sigurd, Uther Pendragon, and St. George. In two of the Majors we also see events from myths involving dragons: the Scourge of Beowulf and the disappearance of the dinosaurs. What’s more is these cards are multicultural--we have Chinese dragons, Celtic stories, Norse ideas, Christian legends, Greek beasts, and more. This diversity really emphasizes the powerful realization that dragons are almost a primal force in the human psyche, an ongoing and repeating saga that is narrated in every culture. A powerful and apt symbol indeed, for use in the tarot.
Throughout the Major Arcana, the images are striking and symbolic. Some of them retain imagery from the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) Tarot, but many also change the traditional imagery completely, depicting instead an image of relevance to the dragon or myth in that card. Even when this is done however, the card is still recognizable and easy to read and interpret. Every now and again there are references to traditional tarot symbolism in an otherwise completely untraditional image: the ram’s head carved into a mountain in the Emperor card, the almost un-noticeable Cerberus in the Hermit card, the camel in the High Priestess card, and the trumpeting angel in Judgement. I am particularly fond of the Tower card in this deck, where we see a huge dragon, his tail nailed to the ground whilst forked lightning crackles around him, and a golden angel with a red-hot sword looks on, triumphantly. The text in the little white book reads:
“The great dragon of Hebrew legends boasted to have created the heavens and earth and was thrust into the ground by the Lord and made to keep watch until the day of judgement arrives. The limits of one power affect the power of others. Limits – Haughtiness – Collapse of mistaken convictions – Punishment.” ~ p. 7
To me, this card and its small description in the accompanying book exemplify how deep this deck really is, though because the descriptions of each card are so small, I don’t doubt that a bit of research would help the prospective user of the Dragons Tarot.
The Minor Arcana are also multicultural, though this time they use one culture for each suit. We see Chinese dragons in the Chalices (Cups) suit, Aztec dragons in the Pentacles suit, European dragons for the Swords suit, and African ‘dragons’ in the Wands suit. Whilst in some places these cards stick to RWS imagery, in other places, the images are very culturally based, and it takes a perusal of the accompanying booklet to fully understand their relevance to the traditional interpretations of the cards. For instance, the Five of Pentacles shows an exiled Aztec priest having a vision of the future of his people- a particularly haunting vision of a man clad in Spanish armour, bearded, clutching at one of the five gold discs in the card.
I must admit that I am not entirely happy with the Wands suit- to my knowledge, there is not much evidence of dragons featuring heavily in African belief, but we are told in the accompanying book that these dragons “...embody the great force of nature”, so I suppose they are justified in some way. (However, I am still a little concerned by how similar to dinosaurs these African dragons look- the fact that they are co-existing in these cards with humans jars the nerves slightly.)
The Court Cards are fairly traditional, with the only title change being from Page to ‘Infanta’. Once again, it helps to read the accompanying booklet to get more of a sense of what the images in these cards are supposed to represent, as many of them refer to actual people or legendary figures (such as the King of Swords who is ‘perhaps King Arthur’.) One thing I find appealing about the Court Cards in the Dragons Tarot however, is the Knights- each one is a ‘future warrior’ or ‘future King’- whichever is appropriate for that suit. So for instance, the Knight of Chalices is the future Emperor of China, the Knight of Wands is a future warrior, (the Wands suit is based around warrior figures) and the Knight of Swords a young King. To me, this relates directly back to the Thoth deck, in which the Knights (or Princes) are destined to depose the Kings (or Knights) of their suits.
The artwork in this deck is very beautiful--sleek, colourful, and detailed, allowing for symbolism to creep through. However, I find the red borders and the Aztec-looking backs very uninspiring, even bordering on ugly and garish. As with most Lo Scarabeo decks, the card titles are given unobtrusively in six different languages in the top and bottom borders of the cards.
Overall, this deck is probably one of the best dragon-themed decks around, at least if you’re looking for a deck that’s more than just a pretty face. The Dragons Tarot has depth beyond the fantasy artwork that seems so prevalent today, though in places it would be worthwhile to do a little bit of research about the myths and figures depicted in the cards. I would highly recommend this deck to any serious dragon enthusiast, and even those looking for a fantasy art deck would find this deck quite appealing. Beginners may, however, find it a little hard-going at first, since it is quite different from traditional decks.
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 Lo Scarabeo
Review © 2004 Kiim Huggins
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes