Pythagorean Tarot by John Opsopaus; Illustrations by Rho
Review by Lee A. Bursten

If you would like to purchase this book/deck set, click here.

As a fan of The Mythic Tarot, I was excited to learn that there was a new deck which uses elements from Greek mythology for its symbolism. Let me state at the outset that there is plenty of interesting material here for readers who, like me, have no knowledge of or interest in Pythagorean numerology.

This deck began, according to the author, "as a project to embody my interpretations of the tarot, based on traditional iconography, archetypal imagery, and Pythagorean numerology, into a deck for my own use." He began by posting his interpretations on an Internet list, which eventually grew into the 470-page book which is included in this set. Apparently the entire text of the book can be read at the authorís website, where you can also see Opsopausís original designs for the Major Arcana. For the published set, the authorís designs have been recreated by a professional artist, Rho, who also created the Minor Arcana from Opsopausís written directions. By comparing the published cards with the scans on the website, one can see that Rho has been very faithful to Opsopausís drawings, mostly by improving the human proportions and anatomy, and subtly improving the color and composition.

The Major cards in their published form are interesting because, despite Rhoís excellent handling, they retain a homemade, funky appearance which is actually quite appealing. Many of the cards are rather close to the Marseilles designs, such as Angel (Judgement), which, like The Mythic Tarot, shows Hermes in his role as Psychopomp. Most of the Majors, however, avoid identifying the figures with specific individual deities; instead, several deities are mentioned for each card which fit within the cardís archetype. Several of Opsopausís choices strike me as odd. For example, while Victory (Chariot) follows tradition by showing a horse-drawn vehicle, the High Priest and the High Priestess sit in horse-drawn vehicles as well, which seems to me to muddy the iconography.

In the Magician, as in several other cards, the various symbols seem to have been stuck onto the picture in a way which doesnít really make for an harmonious whole. For comparison, I have scanned this card with the Magician from The Mythic Tarot. While the Pythagorean Magician is more sophisticated and in several ways more interesting, it lacks the power and drama of the simpler Mythic image. For this reason, I wish Rho had been given a freer hand to adapt Opsopausís pictures.

For the Minor Arcana numbered cards, Opsopaus has chosen to not use Rider-Waite-Smith type scenes, explaining that "the pip cards are illustrated with simple, abstract images representing the combined elemental and numerological interpretation of the card, so the meaning of a card can be determined from its suit and its position in the suit [Ö] there is, therefore, no need for the concrete interpretive images found in many modern tarot decks." This would actually have been quite an interesting approach. However, while the author does indeed link his meanings to numerological sequences, the fact is the overall interpretations are mostly based on the R-W-S/Golden Dawn standard, although he doesnít state this. I had mixed feelings upon discovering this; on the one hand, I was quite relieved that I wouldnít have to study a whole new Minor system, but on the other hand, it would have been interesting to see a Minor Arcana with pictures that illustrate a truly numerological approach (you can read more about this kind of approach in Diane Wilkesís review of Choice Centered Relating and the Tarot by Gail Fairfield).

Visually, the pip cards are rather simple, mostly showing arrangements of pips against a colored background. The pattern of the pips serves to illustrate the cardís meaning. I actually like these pip cards; the cool sparseness of the Four of Swords, for example, is appealing. The Pentacles cards, however, seem a little too plain, as in the Three of Pentacles. And I could have done without the three elemental symbols which sit awkwardly atop each Minor card. The symbol in the middle is the cardís element, and the other two are that elementís powers or qualities (for example, Fire is Warm and Dry). Since all the Fire cards are Warm and Dry, it seems redundant to place all three symbols on each card, especially since the powers or qualities arenít really looked at from an interpretive standpoint (at least, not for the pip cards).

The Court cards are also appealingly simple in design. I was a bit taken aback when I came to the Pages. The Page of Wands, for example, wears only a helmet, and has, as Mae West would say, the proverbial gun in his pocket. Since he has no pockets, this card has the potential to cause quite a bit of embarrassment, not to mention giggles, if one were to use this deck to read for others. The card is actually drawn in a completely inoffensive manner, but if youíre planning to buy this deck to use at the county fair, you might want to think again.

The book is truly impressive. Opsopaus has gone into quite a bit of depth with each Major card, placing it into a complex framework of Pythagorean numerology, Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Alchemy, and Jungian psychology. The prose is rather more academic than many Tarot readers (including myself) are accustomed to, thick (one might almost say clotted) with citations of sources. I think footnotes would have made for a more readable text. But much of the book is quite readable and interesting, although for some readers 16 pages on the Sun card may simply be too much. There are also many sentences such as the following in the section on the Empress:

"On Etruscan mirrors we see Uni (Juno), with Tin (Jove), naked, but for a cloak over her arm and a necklace (five pendants), or with a peplos exposing her right shoulder. Her hair is short or tied up. (van der Meer, 33, 116) "Gold-throned" (khrusothronos) is a common epithet of Hera; likewise, Aphrodite is called Golden (khruseiÍ, khrusÍ) (LSJ, s.v. "khrusothronos"; Kerťnyi, Gods, 80)."

A whole book of this sort of thing may not appeal. But itís important to point out that thereís a lot of good information in this book, if youíre willing to wade through passages like the above.

I particularly liked the chapters on the Minor numbered cards, because Opsopaus attempts to describe Golden-Dawn-derived interpretations from a numerological standpoint, and succeeds to a far greater degree than other Tarot authors have. Anyone who has tried to place the R-W-S Minors in a numerological context knows that there are several cards which wonít fit into any such scheme. But Opsopaus somehow makes it all work, and explains it in simple, clear language. The understanding gained from such an approach can be transferred to any deck, and I found it extremely valuable.

The introductory remarks to each number, however, are even more clotted than the text for the Majors. One more brief quote:

"The Passive Dyad corresponds to the Second Cosmological Stage, in which some active agent (e.g. Marduk, Shu, "Destructive Strife" Ė Oloios Neikos, etc.) opens a gap between the Earth (Gaia, Keb) and Sky (Ouranos, Nut); itís the splitting of the Cosmic Egg."

When concept after concept is piled up like this, I find the whole edifices soon crashes over, leaving me with less understanding than I had before. Those who do not read classical Greek may find it rough going.

Opsopaus breaks down each of his numbers into Active and Passive, but I found this to be fairly useless, since he doesnít provide any interpretive context for such a distinction. What would the Active mode signify in a reading, as opposed to the Passive? And how would we know when one or the other applies?

I had difficulty with the authorís assignment of the twelve Olympians to the Court cards. Any such assignment is bound to result in several cards whose deities donít quite fit. For example, the King of Pentacles is assigned to Hades, because "he rules the underworld, which consumes all things, and because he is Pluto, Lord of the Earth, which is the source of all wealth." However, then he gives a Golden-Dawn-based interpretation of the King of Pentaclesí personality, which doesnít seem to have anything to do with classical descriptions of Hades. Having decided to restrict the Court cards to Olympians, he seems to admit that his scheme is less than perfect, when he says that the King of Wands "is assigned to Hephaistos because he is an Olympian, but it really belongs to Prometheus." Later in the text the author provides more of a rationale for why the King of Wands is Hephaistos and not the pre-Olympian Prometheus, but Iím still left with the feeling that he really would have preferred Prometheus but had painted himself into a corner by having previously decided to restrict himself to Olympians.

At the end of the book is a section on "Divination and Other Practical Aspects." Opsopaus favors an approach to divination similar to that of the ancients, for whom divination was a life-altering event and not to be taken lightly. Some readers may be alarmed at the suggestion that "it is helpful to fast for seven hours, or at least to abstain from heavy food. You may also want to deprive yourself of sleep the day before; this facilitates entering a liminal state in which your conscious mind is less likely to block the synchronistic event." Personally, I think my conscious mind would be less likely to accomplish much of anything while in such a state, including shuffling a deck of cards. A lustral bath is also recommended. "If a bath is infeasible," the author primly tells us, "at least wash your hands."

Actually, Opsopaus is letting us off easy by recommending fasting for seven hours. Elsewhere on his website, when discussing the practice of Haruspicy (divination with a raw egg), he says we "should fast for at least twelve hours before the Rite; three days is best." Iím afraid that after three days of fasting, I would be more likely to eat the raw egg than divine with it.

Itís easy to make fun of this sort of thing, but Opsopaus does make a valid point, which is that when we de-ritualize the art of divination, we lose something in the process. However, I donít think I agree with his overall premise. Rachel Pollack says that one of the best ways to learn about the cards is to read with them. But if reading is infrequent and over-ritualized until itís built up in the readerís mind to such an extent that he or she is expecting, as Gail Fairfield says, the sky to fall, it seems to me we wonít be learning very much, and we wonít be in a condition to perform a useful reading.

Opsopaus also includes advice for learning the cards, which includes memorizing the poetry he has written for each card. I found these verses less than helpful, especially ones like the following, for the Twos:

"In Two divide the source and end apart
to yield the Goal, at which is aimed the start."

It would take somebody smarter than I am to make any sense of this verse. I ended up breaking it down into its component parts and moving them around like a jigsaw puzzle until it made sense:

"Divide apart the source and end in two to yield the Goal, at which the start is aimed."

Not much better, but at least I can follow the sense. If his verse was going to be so tortured, perhaps the author would have been better off omitting it.

Information about correlations between dice and the Tarot is included, along with a chart which explains how to derive Major Arcana cards from throws of two dice. I must say that I couldnít understand this chart at all, and I fail to see why anyone would want to choose Tarot cards by throwing dice as opposed to simply shuffling the deck and drawing a card off the top.

My overall impression from this set is that the Tarot is for Opsopaus more of an intellectual and academic exercise than a living, breathing tool which we can use in our everyday lives. While his erudition is of a very high level, and while heís approached his task with admirable industry and enthusiasm, Iím not sure that many people will want to use this as their main reading deck or as their main interpretive system. But many will be fascinated by the depth of the mythological associations and the extent to which the system has been thought through and developed.

You can read another review of this deck here.

If you would like to purchase this book/deck set, click here.

Pythagorean Tarot by John Opsopaus; Illustrations by Rho
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN #: 1-56718-449

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 © 2001 Llewellyn Worldwide
Review © 2002 Lee Bursten
Page © 2002 Diane Wilkes