Fey Tarot by Mara Aghem and Riccardo Minetti, book by Riccardo Minetti
Review by Lee A. Bursten
If you would like to purchase this deck/book set, click here.
The last time I wrote an extremely positive review, the
deck’s creator expressed her displeasure, writing on her website that I had
gone “over the top” in my praise. However,
as I wrote in that review, if I’m going to be honest about decks I don’t
like, then I have an equal obligation to be honest about the decks I do like.
If any deck deserves to have a reviewer go “over the top,” it’s the
Fey Tarot. It’s an important,
perhaps even a vital, step in the evolution of the Tarot.
Now, you, the reader, may wonder why I would make such an
extravagant statement about a whimsical, childish deck.
The answer is that this deck is neither whimsical nor childish.
Whimsy does certainly play a part, but there is much, much more.
The Fey Tarot sets out to create an entire world, with its own characters, customs, laws of physics, and metaphysical structures, which are not only illustrated but are truly brought to life in the cards. Many decks attempt this, with varying degrees of success. The Fey Tarot succeeds to a phenomenal degree, due to the technical skill and the passion of the artist, Mara Aghem, and the thoroughness and depth of imagination of the co-creator and book author, Riccardo Minetti. It’s apparent from looking at the cards and from reading the book that the creators have put their heart and soul into this project, which, as Minetti states in the book, took three years to complete.
Let me first discuss the art. Aghem’s pictures are absolutely amazing in their glorious colors and their photographic detail. I’ve never seen Tarot art like this. According to the book, the style is influenced by comic book art (Aghem has been a comic book artist for Lo Scarabeo) and Japanese anime films. What’s really unusual about this art when compared to other Tarot decks is the attention paid to the characters’ facial expressions and physiognomy, which, as much as anything else on the cards, serve to tell the cards’ stories. The book details the extent to which the creators discussed and worked and reworked each card, but one can see this even without having read about it in the book. The variety and sophistication of the characters’ expressions help to establish the reality and the depth of the created world illustrated in the cards, just as the small, telling details are what make the difference between a believable fantasy or science fiction novel and an unbelievable one.
It’s important to point out that while the Majors are faithful to traditional Tarot concepts, they do not look like Marseilles or Rider-Waite-Smith designs. Death, for example, is pictured as a chess player, who moves us around on her circular chessboard. While she looks kindly enough, her positive and negative attributes are symbolized by one red and one green eye. The White King on the chessboard is surrounded; his time has come. In a perfect example of the creators’ commitment to imaginative detail, the surrounding chess pieces represent Major Arcana cards; a trumpeting angel for Judgement, a tower for the Tower, a wheel for the Wheel, a snail for the World (a celestial snail is pictured on the World card), and a dragon for the Wise One (Hermit).
Another card which differs from the norm is Temperance. Gone is the angel pouring water between two vessels. Instead, a green-skinned, scaled Fey, perhaps a mermaid, stands waist-deep in still water, while a halo of fishes swims about her head. Combinations of elements are subtly suggested, but the overall effect of calm and quiet is what gives the card its power.
I love to see imaginative reworkings of the traditional concepts, and this deck has them on almost every card. The Wheel shows two Fey, one old, one young, kneeling on the ground and arranging tiny houses, trees, and people into a spiral. According to the book, the old one removes the pieces as quickly as the young one can place them. Such a re-imagining of the traditional pictures is vital, because it helps us experience the impact of the concept anew and with fresh eyes.
Here are my favorite two Majors (out of a deck of favorites). In the Tower, it is the base of the tower which is collapsing into the air, rather than the crown. A bemused Fey watches from the window as the bricks at the base fall away into nothing, and pterodactyls fly underneath. This card, along with several others, leaves the realm of the evocative and enters that of the visionary.
And my very favorite is Judgement. The artist sleeps in exhaustion, done with her labors. But the fruits of her effort are coming to life around her while she sleeps. Tiny Fey spring into being from the paint tube, the paper, the brush, her sweater. My favorite is the one that emerges from the bottle of black ink. This card says so much on so many levels. The Fey can represent the consequences of one’s actions, the fruits of one’s labors. They could also simply represent the potentials and possibilities inherent in the objects around us, which we usually are too unaware (or asleep) to notice. It could mean that when we have exhausted our resources and have no more to give, sometimes things will unexpectedly come together to save the day. Or one can simply look at the picture and experience the magic.
The Minors are surprising, because the creators have given them just as much attention and thought and effort as they have the Majors. For the most part they follow the Rider-Waite-Smith interpretive scheme, although there are a few exceptions. This will be welcome news to those familiar with the R-W-S or its derivatives and clones (which in the U.S. at least will include almost everybody), as for them there will be much less of a “learning curve.” One large difference between these Minors and most other illustrated-pip decks is that the number of the card is not illustrated by showing the requisite number of suit symbols in the picture. For example, the Ten of Swords does not include ten swords in the picture, as does the R-W-S and its derivatives. On the one hand, this is a good thing because it frees the artist to exercise her imagination without restriction. On the other hand, I am somewhat of a traditionalist and I can’t help feeling that not including the proper number of suit symbols takes the deck one step away from being a true Tarot.
The Aces are wonderful. Rather than showing a Fey holding the suit symbol, instead the Fey itself becomes the symbol, as in the Ace of Pentacles, where she draws a pentacle onto her hand.
A great example of the use of color in this deck is the Five of Chalices. A beautiful blue cup lies shattered in ruins. But seated in the part that remains is a mischievous Fey, whose skin graduates from pink to peach and glows with an inner light.
I love the ambiguity of the Five of Pentacles. One can see the picture from the perspective of the home’s residents, blissfully unaware of the sinister-looking creature outside their window; or one can see it from the creature’s perspective, perhaps simply a small woodland mammal (the Fey might, after all, be tiny) who is attracted to the warmth and light. Either way the card offers new perspectives on the traditional image of the couple in rags outside the church in the traditional R-W-S image.
Some cards just rise up and hit you over the head with their perfection. The Knave (Page) of Wands, for example, shows a Fey with an outstretched hand, over which floats an egg with a small young plant growing out of it. A blank page with a quill pen sits before her. The creative act is still flowering in her mind, but has not yet reached the stage of final expression. I feel the same way every time I sit down to write a review and end up staring at the blank computer screen!
Much attention has been paid to the crustacean pictured on the traditional Moon card. The Moon in the Fey Tarot doesn’t have a crustacean, but the same uneasy effect is present, is in fact amplified, in the Knight of Chalices, who rides a giant (and rather alarming) lobster.
I do have two small criticisms to make about the cards. Firstly, I tried to count the Minor cards according to whether they showed predominantly male or female Fey. By my count, there were twice as many female as male cards. I would have preferred more gender parity. Also, some of the women seem to have been painted in a somewhat sexualized way. Some of the women are pictured in various states of dress or undress, or with nipples peeking out over the tops of their clothes. For example, in the Eight of Swords, a female Fey has been captured and bound. But the hypersexualized way her body has been drawn, along with her childlike face and her submissive posture and expression, lend an uncomfortable suggestion of violence and bondage which I feel is inappropriate for a deck whose cards, according to the book, “skim over reality and future possibilities, without bringing shadows or violence with them.” I would simply ask the creators if they would have presented men in a similarly sexualized way. If the answer is no, then the deck is sexist. But this observation doesn’t seem to get in my way when doing readings. And yes, these cards read excellently!
Moving on to the book, I have to say at the outset that this is the best book-to-accompany-deck that I have ever read. Minetti goes into great detail about the creative process, and reproduces many preliminary sketches, all of which is fascinating. Included is a history of Tarot which manages to be accurate and blessedly succinct at the same time. “Blessedly succinct” is also a good description for Minetti’s card descriptions and divinatory meanings. My heart always sinks when I’m reading a deck’s book and I see five pages devoted to each card. Minetti succeeds greatly in communicating the essentials without going on and on. For the Majors, he includes an introductory paragraph acquainting us with the general concepts, a description of the image, simple divinatory meanings, more advanced divinatory concepts, a discussion of the particular symbols used on the card, and reflections on the more spiritual aspects. All of this is accomplished in about a page and a half, and that includes a greyscale reproduction of the card image. The texts for the Minors are the same but without the introductory paragraph and the reflections.
These texts do a wonderful job of helping us get to know the cards while at the same time suggesting more advanced or larger concepts. For the Minors, there are many suggestions that could lead to more sophisticated viewpoints or interesting twists when interpreting the cards. At the end of the book are four spreads. One is a three-card spread, and one a six-card general purpose spread. A third spread involves separating the deck into the four suits and the Majors, and choosing one card face down from each suit, then shuffling the deck and choosing four cards from this mixed-suit deck to comment on and elaborate the previous four cards. The fourth spread is really more of an exercise, involving laying out two cards and then imagining what kind of card would be engendered by the combination of the two. This is an excellent idea, which falls under the category of “I wish I had thought of that!”
The book is very well-written and often rises to the level of the poetic. Unfortunately, during the production of the book there were some problems with translation, and as a result the text is sometimes awkward or obscure; in fact, there are a few Minors where I’m still not sure, after reading the text several times, what the author was getting at. I feel sure that these are problems of translation and not the fault of the author. While I applaud Lo Scarabeo for releasing a book in English and I’m greatly appreciative of it, I would hope that in the future they would retain a translator who was up to the task.
The real strength to both the deck and the book is that the scenes, the stories, the moods, and the expressions pictured on the cards and explained in the book help immeasurably when doing readings. Those interested in the storytelling aspects of Tarot will undoubtedly find that these cards cry out to be used for such purposes, because of the strength and vitality of the authors’ imaginations. And this is why I say that this deck is a significant step forward for Tarot. With other decks, there always seems to be a veil between the creators’ intentions and the readers’ efforts to draw meaning from them. With this deck, the extraordinary time and effort expended by the creators has resulted in cards which are so vivid, which have such a concrete reality to them (in spite of their airy and bubbly theme), that the meanings truly jump out at you. The characters on the cards seem eager to join themselves together to create the story that every good reader hopes to draw out of the cards.
I can’t say whether this will become my favorite deck (I am notoriously fickle). But I will say that since receiving the set a week ago, I’ve been reading non-stop with the Fey Tarot and with no other deck.
To see a sample reading with this deck, click here.
The Fey Tarot Kit Edition, deck by Mara Aghem and
Riccardo Minetti, book by Riccardo Minetti
Published by Lo Scarabeo, distributed by Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN #: 0-7387-028-3
If you would like to purchase this deck/book set, click here.
Lee A. Bursten has been studying Tarot off and on for about 20 years. He enjoys reading about Tarot and searching for the "Perfect Deck," which is always just around the corner but out of reach. He is very grateful to Michele and Diane for posting his reviews, and especially to his significant other, Larry Katz, for his superhuman patience.
Images © 2002 Lo Scarabeo
Review © 2002/2003 Lee Bursten
Page © 2002/2003 Diane Wilkes