The Ship of Fools Tarot Deck by Brian Williams
Reviewed by Joan Cole

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

Of the Power of Fools: Folly has a vast tent
In which is encamped the entire world
Especially those of power and money.

 

“The relevance of the Narrenschiff to the tarot is in its capacity as a sort of Renaissance catalogue or register.  The Narrenschiff images and text function as a kind of encyclopedia of the human soul, with special emphasis on humanity’s capacity for foolishness.” (Brian Williams)
 

About Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff
 

In 1494 in Basel, Das Narrenschiff by Sebastian Brant was published.  The name translates to Ship of Fools.  Sebastian Brant had already published earlier works, many of which were satiric broadsides or pamphlets, but this book became the most famous book of its time (the first international bestseller) – with versions in Latin, Low German, French, English, Flemish and Dutch published between 1497 and 1548.
 

This book was published right on the cusp of the Northern Renaissance, just as tarot seems to have emerged right on the cusp of the Italian Renaissance.  Like the tarot itself, it combines elements of Medieval and Renaissance thought.  To put the timing in perspective, it was published only 40 years after Johann Gutenberg printed a bible at Mainz (1454).  Some other relevant happenings of the time: in 1463 Ficino translates the Corpus Hermeticum, 1471 Ficino’s Pimander was published, and, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed to the church door his Ninety-five Theses against Indulgences that launched the Reformation.
 

Brant was a moralist, and a conservative – a loyalist to the Holy Roman Empire and a devout Catholic.  Although he had many friends in the humanist movement, he was a supporter of the church.  He wanted to conserve and strengthen the status quo.  Yet he wrote in the vernacular, intending as his audience not other scholars but the upper middle class (bourgeoisie).  A modern day analogue might be someone like William J. Bennett (without the attendant gambling hypocrisy).  As John Harthan observes, "Brant brought together medieval and Renaissance elements, satirizing man’s vices and follies in humorous verses which look back to medieval exemplars...and...to classical modes...but is aimed at a new reading public, urban, skeptical and ready to be entertained."
 

Compared to illustrated books like William Blake's, where a particular vision can be expressed with great facility in both words and images by the same person, there will always be a difference to some extent in artist/writer partnerships.  Artists hired to express the vision of a designer working in words always have their own version of the message, or perhaps an additional message that works its way in to the image.  The depth of the message can differ as well, with profound words and mediocre images, or vice versa.  To my own modern sensibility, the woodcuts in the Ship of Fools are of much greater interest than the accompanying text.  Yet at the time it was published, the disparity must not have been as great - many words Brant coined in the text of this book became popular, and his choice of the word Narr over other variant terms for Fool has persisted to the present day.  It is also a matter of taste.  Brian Williams wrote that “Brant’s text is funny and biting, yet humane.”  Edwin Zeydel wrote, “In no other German work of the fifteenth century are grave seriousness and heavy moral didacticism, schooled in the accepted authorities, so completely fused with ribald, teasing humor.”
 

Some of the woodcuts may have been created by a young Albrecht Dürer, who was in Basel at the time the book was published.  Scholars believe that a group of five or six artists were involved, with the master of the workshop responsible for about 2/3 of the woodcuts.  Each woodcut illustrates a chapter from Das Narrenschiff, giving either a literal or allegorical interpretation of that particular sin or vice. 

 

 

About Brian Williams’ Tarot inspired by the Narrenschiff

The art is monochromatic.  Rather than black-on-white, it is sepia-on-tan.  This is not a collage deck.  Brian Williams did not manipulate photocopies or trace all the linework of the original woodcuts.  Rather, he redrew all the images from the Narrenschiff that were used in this deck.  If you look closely, this is especially visible in the faces of the figures, and frequently he has removed cross-hatching lines from the background that made the foreground figure harder to see, or simplified it in other small ways.  He added crowns to figures he determined were to represent royalty, and added suit symbols to the Minor Arcana cards.  These small adjustments are generally the extent of the changes he made.  In the Narrenschiff, there are 115 woodcuts, seven of which are repeats.  Williams used all but 33 of these to create the Tarot.  He had to create 11 cards in the style of the Narrenschiff, either by combining parts taken from multiple woodcuts, or not using the actual woodcuts at all. 

Traditional

Ship of Fools

Depicts

0 - Fool

The Vagabond

A barefoot fool with his staff and sack and biting dog.  This original image incorporates elements from 58 – Of Forgetting Oneself and 80 – Foolish News

1 - Magician

The Montebank

Ritter Peter and Doctor Griff, the pompous old nobleman and the wise fool who tweaks his ear  Woodcut from 76 – Of Great Boasting

2 - High Priestess

The Papess

Eccelsia, the Church personified.  Woodcut from 22 – The Teaching of Wisdom repeated in 112 – The Wise Man

3 - Empress

The Empress

Mother Folly.  Woodcut from 46 – Of the Power of Fools

4 - Emperor

The Emperor

This original image combines parts of the following woodcuts – 99 – Of the Decline of the Faith, 70 – Not Providing in Time, and 107 – Of Reward for Wisdom

5 - Hierophant

The Pope

The Pope with a kneeling fool.  Woodcut 99 – Of the Decline of the Faith was used, with the deletion of an Emperor and his retinue of cardinals and dignitaries.

6 - Lovers

Love

Venus and her child Cupid.  Woodcut 13 – Of Amours

7 - Chariot

The Cart

A wagon that appears on the title page of the book, taking a load of fools to the ship.

8/11 – Justice

8 – Justice

A fool blindfolding Justice – Woodcut 71 – Quarreling and Going to Court

9 – Hermit

The Hermit

This original image combines parts of the following woodcuts – 86 – Of Contempt of God, 90 – Honor Father and Mother

10- Wheel of Fortune

The Wheel of Fortune

The Wheel of Fortune.  Woodcut from 37 – Of Chance repeated in 56 Of the End of Power

11/8 – Strength

11 – Strength

A fool seizing his donkey mount by the mouth, trying to hold on after falling to the side because he had failed to tighten the saddle belt.  The woodcut from 12 – Of Heedless Fools was slightly modified.

12 - Hanged Man

The Hanged Man

A fool who has tried to reach for a too-high bird’s nest falls out of the tree.  Woodcut from 36 – Of Complacency

13 - Death

Death

A fool accosted by the skeletal Death carrying a coffin.  Woodcut from 85 – Not Providing for Death

14 - Temperance

Temperance

This is a completely original image.  The fool pours from one pitcher to another.  The water overflows onto a flower at his feet.

15 - Devil

The Devil

This devil warns against keeping ill-gotten gains.  Woodcut 20 – Of Finding Treasures

16 - Tower

The Tower

This tower is unchanged from the original image, other than removing some additional houses in the background.  The verse from the woodcut 23 – Of Vaunting Luck: “Who thinks that he has everything, / That Lady Fortune’s on his string, / Will some day feel Fate’s mallet swing.”  You can see the hammer of fate in this image instead of the lightning we normally see in a Tarot Tower.

17 - Star

The Stars

Other than the removal of the sun and moon from the background, this is the woodcut 65 – Of Attention to the Stars, which warns against astrology and other superstitions.

18 - Moon

The Moon

Like older Tarot images, this shows measuring with a compass.  A moon was added to the background, but otherwise this is woodcut 66 – Of Experience of All Lands

19 - Sun

The Sun

The fool who competes with the sun by building a fire in the daytime is shown, taken from woodcut 28 – Of Speaking Against God.

20 - Judgment

Judgment

The fool is being punished by cloud-sitting Moses and Solomon with a rain of frogs and locusts.  Woodcut 88- Of Torture and Punishment by God

21 - World

The World

The fool who takes on worries or responsibilities beyond his duty is show with the world on his back.  Woodcut 24 – Of Too Much Care

 

Brian Williams selects images sometimes based on the topic of the chapter, and sometimes for the similarity of the image to historical tarot (especially with the Major Arcana) or with the Rider-Waite (with the Minor Arcana).  This is an ironic tarot, much like his Pomo Tarot.  He banters with Brant in his selection of chapters to become tarot cards, often turning Brant's point on its head, as when he chooses the woodcut warning against astrology to illustrate the Stars..  Other times, he seems to be making fun of the Rider-Waite image in his selection.  For example, with the 10 of Cups  –  if you’ve ever thought the image of the happy family with rainbow too sugary and schmaltzy, you might like the choice from this deck of a topless woman pouring slops down on her nocturnal serenaders.  With the Three of Coins, there is a closer correspondence to the Rider Waite.  Here rather than the master working from plans, we see the dangers of building without plans.
 

Sometimes, the choice Williams made is unexpected, and the divinatory meaning he supplies unlike any I’ve seen before for the card.  Two example come immediately to mind: The Eight of Swords is given the divinatory meaning “Directionless journey, wayward voyage, aimless motion. A mission or crusade.  Collective endeavor, group effort.  Festivity, merrymaking.  Messing about in boats.”  Messing about in boats???  Or the Eight of Cups, which comes from a woodcut satirizing self-complacency (a reasonable link) lists among its divinatory meanings “Domestic activity, busy homemaking.  Cooking and cuisine.”
 

The accompanying book leaves things to the reader to puzzle out.  For each card, Williams usefully provides the Ship of Fools card image, the woodcut from the Narrenschiff, and images of the Marseilles and Rider-Waite cards.  In the discussion of the Major Arcana, there is some brief treatment of Renaissance period variants of the card, but not with the same depth as the book accompanying the Renaissance Tarot.  For the verses accompanying the woodcut, he provides a translation by Berkeley scholar Peter Spoerl, which is more literal than the verse translation in the more easily accessible Zeydel version that Dover puts out.  He describes the various card images shown, but the text really does not justify his choice.  That exercise is left to the reader.
 

I love this deck.  The Northern Renaissance is something that I have particular interest in, as it is from German writers that translations of Cabala made their way into the overall corpus of esoteric thought.  I am also a big fan of puzzles, and the puzzle element of understanding why a particular woodcut was chosen for a particular card is one that will keep me working with this deck.  For this reason, I would hesitate to recommend it as the sole first deck for a new tarotist.  For the tarot audience in general, however, I recommend this deck just for the humor and humanism of its imagery. 
 

The Ship of Fools Tarot Deck by Brian Williams
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN #: 0738701610

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

You can read other reviews of this deck here and here.

You can read a tribute to the artist of this deck, Brian Williams, here.

To learn more about topics mentioned in this review:
 

Books

The history of the illustrated book: the Western tradition by John Harthan (London: Thames and Hudson, 1981)

The Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant: translation with commentary by Edwin H. Zeydel (Columbia University Press, 1944) reprinted by Dover Publications (New York, 1962)
 

Ship of Fools Exhibition Sites

The Stultifera Navis web site - created by Special Collections & Archives, University of Houston Libraries

University of Glasgow Special Collections Book of the Month Exhibition
 

Joan Cole is a stay-at-home mom and former geek.   She has been studying Tarot off and on since the early 1980's.  You can see her deck collection here.


Images © 2002 Llewellyn Worldwide
Review © 2004 Joan Cole
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes