Sharman-Caselli Tarot (packaged with Beginner's Guide to Tarot by Juliet Sharman-Burke)
Illustrated by Giovanni Caselli
Review by Diane Wilkes

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The Sharman-Caselli Tarot, a Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) variant, coupled with Juliet Sharman-Burke's companion book, is an ideal match for beginners.  The deck itself would in the past have been classified a RWS clone, though that term has been correctly criticized for its imprecision. Still, while not identical, the symbolism of Sharman-Burke's deck is so close a counterpart to the RWS that I deem it a fraternal twin.

The art is attractive, pastel colors predominate and the cards are color- and symbol-coded. For example, most of the Wand cards contain a salamander and contain hues of yellow, red, brown, and orange. Butterflies and/or birds appear on most Swords, and the principal colors are steel gray and ice blue. Giovanni Caselli illustrated the deck to Sharman-Burke's specifications, which were clearly devised with beginners in mind, hence the consistency in color and symbol. 

Both the deck and book are ordered thus: Cups, Wands, Swords, Pentacles, Major Arcana. Sharman-Burke has arranged the order to reflect her teaching method, which is to introduce each suit separately. All of the cards in one suit are given a two page interpretation that includes a black-and-white photocopy of the card with arrows indicating three to five symbols the author wants to emphasize, the card's "theme," description, and a one or two paragraph "Divinatory Meaning." No extra space is allotted for the Major Arcana--all cards are equal in Ms. Sharman-Burke's world. At the completion of each suit, a five card sample reading using only that suit ends the section. The layout for all four suits is the same spread, a simple horseshoe. At the end of the Major Arcana section, a seven card Star spread is used for a sample reading that uses only the Major Arcana. Lastly, there's that old horseshoe spread again, one last sample reading that uses all the cards from the deck.

In this deck, Sharman-Burke defines the suits as follows:

Cups         -     Feelings, relationships
Wands      -     Creativity, imagination
Swords     -     Life challenges
Pentacles   -     Material/financial aspects of life

This seems way harsh to the suit of Swords, and the author does touch on the intellectual and verbal qualities of Swords as well. But it also speaks to the predictive slant which suffuses the book. Since the author is a practicing analytic psychotherapist, I found this slightly surprising, but in keeping with the aim of the book, which is more-or-less introductory. The title of the book is Beginner's Guide to Tarot, after all.

Both the arrows pointing out the specific symbolism and the theme (which could just as well be named keyword or keywords) are excellent tools to help a tarot novice focus on the crucial elements of each card. Sometimes I found the themes rather untraditional, such as "Struggle and tension" for the Chariot and "Cooperation and Sharing" for Temperance, but for the most part, Sharman-Burke's keywords are conventional, such as "Transformation and Change" for Death and "Sacrifice" for the Hanged Man. The Minor Arcana follows suit (pardon the pun), though even here there are oddities. The Three of Cups is associated with "an engagement, wedding or birth or baptism" and the Four of Wands is described in a manner akin to what I traditionally see as the Six of Wands. It even contains a laurel wreath of victory! 

The Major Arcana are not numbered, and the author's order is somewhat quirky. Sharman-Burke places Justice after the Chariot, following that up with Temperance, Strength, and the Hermit respectively. This is because she places these cards together as the four virtues, with the Hermit representing Prudence. Other than that, the order remains unchanged from the RWS.

One quality of the RWS, the ambiguous facial expressions on the individuals depicted, isn't borne out in the Sharman-Caselli deck. The High Priestess looks like a cloistered debutante garbed in requisite white, but the secrets of the social register aren't all that compelling to me. The Empress card would be exquisite, if it were not for the fact that the woman has the face and lips of a Kewpie doll. The predominant character in the Five of Swords simply looks exultant, not gloating. The woman in ropes in the Eight of Swords has the face of a placid, even contented, victim. The man in the Seven of Swords doesn't seem remotely sneaky nor stealthy, more like a good and genial laborer doing his job--I get the sense he works for the Sword-Swallower at the circus, banners waving above the tents in the bright blue, unthreatening sky.

Still, some of the cards are just wonderful. The Queen of Cups is a human waterfall with her flowy gown that morphs into pooling tides. I would gladly have her read my cards or glimpse my future in her chalice of visions. The Knight of Swords seems to be moving with the wind. The Eight of Wands adds an empowering element with the archer focusing his energy and imagination skyward. I love all the Aces, and the Death and Devil cards are beautiful and interesting without losing a whit of their puissance. The Lovers card offers a real choice between innocence vs. experience in an understated, yet effective, image. I prefer all of these cards to their RWS counterparts.

Sharman-Burke urges the reader to personalize the Major Arcana stages--indeed, all of the cards--to his or her own life so as to make the images and meanings visceral. She touts the importance of intuition over logic when tuning into the cards. Reversals are not specified, but each card's downside is briefly addressed. The negative aspect of the card tends to be the direct opposite of its given meaning. Card backs are plain fuschia; the artist's copyright is typed in small letters on both ends so that they are reversible.

The set itself comes in a package similar to the same publisher's version of the Elemental Tarot. The book cover wraps around the packaging that holds the deck, so you need to invest in (or sew) a bag or box to tote the deck about, if you want to leave the book at home. I took a scissors immediately to it so that the book's back wasn't twice the size of its front. Symmetry, you know.

Surprisingly, no bibliography is provided in this book for beginners, who seem to me the readers who could most benefit from one. This set's strength is also its weakness, I think; it is perfectly self-contained but limited by the occasional lack of nuance in the imagery and interpretations.

On the other hand, it is an excellent set for beginners looking for a deck that is similar to the RWS, but different, more modern. The author's writing is clear and cogent. My criticisms are minor, indeed--I think Juliet Sharman-Burke has created a valuable set for its target audience. I recommend this deck also for RWS enthusiasts who like a deck to vary only slightly from that tradition.

Beginners Guide to the Tarot by Juliet Sharman Burke with cards illustrated by Giovanni Caselli
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
ISBN: 0-312-28482-9

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Excerpt:

Seven of Swords

Theme: A time for tact rather than aggression

The Seven of Swords shows a man trying to make a sly escape from a military camp. He sneaks away stealthily with seven swords held carefully in both arms. It seems that his departure goes unnoticed by the camp, and his looks is one of quiet confidence. The pennants flying from the tent poles display bird motifs, which reflect the airy quality of the suit of Swords. The sky is scattered with little white clouds, again emphasizing the connection between this suit and the element of air. The whole image depicts a carefully thought-out action, which is planned and well-executed, rather than something spontaneous, done on emotional impulse.

Divinatory Meaning

The Seven of Swords is an ambivalent card. It suggests a deed that is done in secret, a stealthy and even underhand action, yet it also suggests the use of tact or discretion. A positive interpretation of the Seven of Swords is to remind you of the wisdom of acting cautiously or with diplomacy, to not reveal your hand too readily. For example, if you were to have an idea for a product that might be very popular, it would be unwise to talk about it before it is protected by copyright.

When the Seven of Swords comes up in a reading, it means that you should be careful about being too free and open about your intentions or feelings, as such openness might prove detrimental to you. A less attractive interpretation of this card suggests that you are trying to get away with something dishonorable or even downright dishonest. If this is the case, it can act as a warning of the consequences should you be found out.

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Images and text 2002 St. Martin's Griffin Press
Review and page 2002 Diane Wilkes