Liber T: Tarot of Stars Eternal by Roberto Negrini, art by Andrea Serio
Review by Lee Bursten
If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.
For this deck, the excellent artist Andrea Serio (the Dante Tarot) has recreated Lady Frieda Harris’s images for Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck, under the guidance of Roberto Negrini. Negrini is a member of Filiazione Franco-Haitiana e Italica of Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis, and is considered by many to be one of the greatest Crowley scholars in Europe, and thus is presumably qualified to create a new deck whose stated goal is to rework and amplify themes found in the Thoth deck. Negrini has added symbolism from the Order of the Golden Dawn texts (which were only used in part by Crowley), and for the numbered Minors, he’s added scenes based upon the 36 Symbolic Constellations (decans) of ancient Egyptian astrology as referenced by the Golden Dawn texts.
I found it interesting that the introduction in the Little White Booklet cites the Crowley/Harris Thoth deck as only one of “various models of reference.” According to the LWB, the Thoth deck “in part inspired” the Liber T Majors as well as “some symbolic content.” However, anyone who is familiar with the Thoth deck will immediately notice that all 78 Liber T cards are heavily influenced by, and are generally faithful to, their Thoth counterparts. In fact, one could reasonably view the Liber T deck as a new artistic rendering of the Thoth deck, with some new symbolism added.
I applaud Lo Scarabeo’s unusual choice of artist for this deck. Andrea Serio’s style is quite different from Frieda Harris’s, but in its own way quite as distinctive and individualistic. Serio’s work is quite modern. The combination of rounded, smooth shapes, soft textures, and bold colors is quite pleasing to the eye. Those people (and there are many) who are discomfited by Harris’s often edgy, disturbing, and sometimes threatening style will find much to appreciate in the Liber T’s soothing tones.
I suppose I’m just one of those shallow Americans who likes to look at pretty pictures. Guilty as charged. If I’m going to spend a good part of my life looking at a set of pictures, I’d rather they be pleasant rather than unpleasant to look at. And I’ve always felt that it isn’t necessary for a card to be ugly in order to evoke unpleasant meanings.
At the same time, I have to acknowledge that there are many qualities in the Thoth deck which are missing in the Liber T images. Much as I enjoy Serio’s style, if someone were to force me to choose between the two decks, I would probably stick with the Thoth.
The Liber T Majors are the most faithful to the Thoth deck. While there are some subtle differences, most of the visual content is the same, barring of course the vast differences in style. The Liber T Majors tend to simplify things a bit, so many of the cards look less crowded and busy than their Thoth forebears. Serio depicts many of the faces with a youthful or naïve appearance, which brings in a very welcome light touch compared to the often somber Thoth. However, while the overall effect of the Liber T Majors is softer and more pleasant than the Thoth Majors, I have to admit that some of the power of Harris’s depictions is diminished in Serio’s work.
The Lust (Strength) card is a good example. Serio has streamlined the card, making it less busy and directing the eye more readily to the important features of the card. On the lion, Serio has done away with many of Harris’s thick, heavy lines, although a few of them are still evident on the far left and on the animal’s legs. The heavy, vivid, and nightmarish qualities of the lion have been replaced by Serio’s trademark soft, smooth, bulbous shapes. The dreamlike intensity of Harris’s faces becomes a gentler, amorphous mass which seems to be coalescing into existence and is about to disperse into nothingness. The Chagall-like faces and praying hands visible in the purple background on Harris’s card are only barely discernible in Serio’s.
Again, it’s really a matter of individual taste as to which style one prefers. While I prefer Serio’s, I can also see how many would find Harris’s more evocative.
For the Court cards, I was a bit disappointed. Harris’s strength of composition seems to become dissipated, and as a result, the cards aren’t very interesting to look at. An example is the Knight of Swords. The energy, the forward momentum, the dizzying perspective of the Thoth card are missing in the Liber T card.
Much could be written about the numbered Minor cards. To those people like myself who are intrigued by the Thoth Minors but are put off by the quaint or threatening keywords printed on the cards (“Debauch,” “Cruelty”) and who find Rider-Waite-Smith-type scenes to be more suggestive than the Thoth’s delicate moods, it would seem to be a wonderful idea to add scenes to the Thoth cards, and to do away with those annoying keywords. And at first, the Liber T Minors seem to fulfill this potential. The Thoth’s arrangements of suit symbols are worked into the scenes in different ways; sometimes the symbols are being held by the characters, and sometimes the Thoth image is superimposed over the scene or placed near the bottom. The scenes are enacted by humans, animals, and mythological creatures.
Some of the scenes are straightforward. In the Two of Scepters (“Dominion” in the Thoth deck), the two crossed dorjes (Tibetan scepters) are held by a suitably powerful figure. But on many of the cards, the scene enacted is so obscure that it’s often impossible to discern how it relates to the Crowley/Golden Dawn-derived meanings.
In other cards, Negrini’s approach seems to demonstrate an agenda which is lacking (or so it seems to me) in Crowley. In the Thoth deck, for example, the Seven of Cups is labeled with the keyword “Debauch.” The cups on the Thoth card are dripping iridescent slime into a pool at the bottom. In the Liber T card, the Thoth image is at the bottom, and above it is a complicated scene, as follows:
1) At the top of the card, a white mask face looks down and cries a red tear. The figure’s hands hold a sword and a leafy branch.
2) In the middle of the card, a Christian cross made of tree trunks is covered with blood, and drips blood into a puddle below.
3) To the left, a person holding a cross flagellates him/herself.
4) To the right, a nun is beating a child with a stick.
5) At the center of the card, underneath the bloody cross, a woman is tied at the stake and two monks are about to torture her with creepy-looking implements.
Now, it’s true that Crowley’s antipathy to the Christian religion is well-known. It’s also true that Crowley’s Book of Thoth, which he wrote to accompany his deck, says for this card that “it is a wholesome reminder of the fatal ease with which a Sacrament may be profaned and prostituted […] at once the holiest mysteries of Nature become the obscene and shameful secrets of a guilty conscience.”
But I would argue that in Crowley’s text, he’s referring to more universal matters and not simply inveighing against the Christian religion. I’m not a Crowley expert, but I would guess that when he writes of sacraments and mysteries of nature, he’s referencing deeper and more profound concepts than what religion one belongs to. It also seems to me that by narrowing the meaning of the card to religious intolerance, it becomes more difficult to apply the card to everyday life. For instance, having overindulged at a party would easily conform to the Thoth image, keyword, and Book of Thoth text (the “Sacrament” and “holiest mysteries of Nature” could be interpreted simply as the human body which in this case has been abused), whereas it would be difficult to apply this meaning to the Liber T image.
The inscrutable nature of many of the scenes presents a real problem for those who want to work with the deck. Understandably enough, there isn’t room enough in the LWB to explain the scenes. The ideal solution would be an accompanying book by Negrini, but, sad to say, I’ve been told that Lo Scarabeo as of this writing does not plan to produce a book, due to the difficulties involved with translating such esoteric material. This is an unfortunate turn of events indeed, because I think an accompanying book would have given this deck the potential for much success, but without the book, the deck will probably only appeal to Thoth aficionados as a novelty.
In the absence of a book, it would be interesting to try to track down Negrini’s sources in order to gain an understanding of the particular myths and stories that the scenes might relate to, but I’m not enough of a scholar to do it. These scenes were inspired by, according to the LWB, “The Sublime Books and the Liber Hermetis of the Corpus Hermeticum, the Indian [Vedic] astrological tradition, the Latin manuscripts of the Arab text Picatrix, the renaissance writings of Cornelio Agrippa and Giordano Bruno, and the iconography of Hermetic historical monuments such as the ‘Hall of the Months’ in Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, frescoed with the Decans in 1470 by Francesco Cossa and Cosmé Tura as requested by Borso d’Este, based on the ideas of the learned hermetist Pellegrino Prisciani.” Happy hunting!
It would, of course, be possible to simply let the scenes play on one’s imagination, and use them to suggest meanings or moods regardless of the Crowley/Golden Dawn-inspired meanings. For those who would like to try this method, this deck could be a rich resource indeed.
And I would buy anything illustrated by Andrea Serio, simply because of the pleasure to be derived from his images.
Liber T: Tarot of Stars Eternal
by Roberto Negrini
art by Andrea Serio
Published by Lo Scarabeo
Distributed in U.S. by Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN # 073870565-9
If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.
You can read other reviews of this deck here and here.
You can see a sample reading with this deck here.
Lee Bursten has been studying the Tarot for 25 years. He is the author of a new tarot deck which will be published by Lo Scarabeo in 2004 or 2005. He owns over 170 Tarot and oracle decks and over 50 books on esoteric subjects including the Tarot, playing cards and astrology, and has written over 70 Tarot deck reviews for Tarot Passages. He is available for professional e-mail readings at Aeclectic Tarot.
Images from Liber T © 2004 Lo Scarabeo
Images from Thoth © US Games, AG Muller, O.T.O.
Review © 2004 Lee Bursten
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes