Templar Tarot by Allen Chester, Booklet by Daria Kelleher
Review by Diane Wilkes
Templar Tarot is a mass of contradictions. The title and the reversible backs sporting the burgundy cross would lead you to believe that this deck is all about the Knights Templar and their spurious connection to the tarot. The little white booklet (LWB) is hardly little (weighing in at over 50 pages) and further attests to this deck's connection to the order of warrior monks. But the deck itself is, for the most part, dedicated to psychedelic art, individuals bedecked with horns and skull-worship of the highest order.
You don't believe me? Look closely at the serenely lovely High Priestess, winged and Madonna-like. She's cradling a skull! The muted blue and green background of this card is a subtle example of the trippy lightning-like streaks of color that pervade the card settings you'll see in this deck. And the circlet wreath headgear would not come amiss at your local Beltaine gathering, so even in this most sedate of cards, you have the olio of influences that overwhelm these cards.
The artist chose not to include borders on this card, indicating a desire to eliminate any barriers that could interfere with someone "entering" the artwork completely. While I normally applaud and benefit from this practice, there are many, many cards in the Templar Tarot from which I would shrink from entering. The Lovers is a perfect example. In this card, a young woman sits on a ground littered with books--one opened and gnawed--a wine glass, scattered shells, and an overturned hourglass. Perhaps this last symbol hints that her date with Destiny is with the skeleton dressed in a ruby cape behind her holding a rose (beats some of the dates I had in my youth!). I can just envision this romantic guy on the Dating Game--look at the two skulls at the side playing a violin. A winged angel is on the other side, but she, too, is pointing in old Skin-and-Bones' direction--the Vanna White of the Underworld. But wait: there's someone behind Door Number Two: a black-robed and cowled man is another option. Too bad he looks like an extra from The Seventh Seal. Boy, did girlfriend ever choose the wrong game show.
Strength (which is numbered eight in this deck) contains another landscape I'd prefer not to visit. Dismembered skeletons are strewn about a brownish landscape that seems to be inside a tower prison. Perhaps I'm just projecting--but can you blame me? An ethereal and slender Hermit look-alike prays serenely amidst this unpleasant scene.
Speaking of slender, this artist has a thing for skinny. Many of the figures in the Templar Tarot are downright emaciated. Perhaps because the artist also has a penchant for skeletons, he likes it when the human body is as close to the skeletal state as possible. I don't really know. I also remain unaware of any links between the Knights Templar and anorexia.
Not all of the Templar Tarot scenes are grim. The Hermit card is ethereal and lovely. The Ten of Cups shows an idyllic scene of domestic bliss, very much in the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) tradition. In fact, many of the cards follow that deck's format (admittedly, with a twist), which makes this deck very easy to read with. Marc Gerstein once stated that, if you are wondering if a deck is a RWS-clone, look at the Six of Swords. If you see the obligatory boat traversing the seas, it's a dead give-away (so to speak). This deck contains the boat and many other direct ties to the RWS, yet is no clone, in that the artist has created variations on familiar themes. The Eight of Pentacles, for example, shows an artisan sitting at her easel in the process of painting pentacles. Here the psychedelic background is used to good effect; you can imagine the fiery setting symbolizing the state of creativity involved. One of my favorite cards is the Four of Swords, which depicts a winged woman drawing her boundaries in the tundra with a sword. There's a sense of focused, determined peace to this card that I find centering.
The psychedelic artwork definitely impacts the way I respond to the cards. When I see this particular Eight of Cups, I'm not sure if the heavy personal trip to come involves a monastery or mushrooms. Another of my favorite cards in this deck is the Hierophant, renamed Priest. While he wears traditional cleric garb, he also sports a pagan horned god headdress and feathers seem to spring from his person. He reminds me of one of those sixties revolutionary priests, or Doonesbury's hip reverend who could "rap to the young." It is tempting, in light of the time period the art evokes, to sagely intone, "Different strokes for different folks," but the fact that this deck purports to be related to the Knights Templar makes it difficult for me to assimilate quite so many different strokes. You simply don't see all that much of the Templar motif in the actual cards, though various Knights, including the Knight of Wands, wear the famed insignia.
Card titles for the Majors are traditional, but alternatives are given in the little white book. They are as follows:
The Fool (The Pilgrim)
The Magician (The Troubadour)
The High Priestess (Mary Magdalene)
The Empress (Great Mother)
The Emperor (Dagobert II)
The Priest (The Pope)
The Lovers (Repanse de Schoye)
The Chariot (Saladin)
Strength (Bernard of Clairvaux)
The Hermit (John the Baptist)
The Wheel of Fortune (The Tarot)
Justice (King Solomon)
The Hanged Man (The Heretic)
Death (The Alchemist)
Temperance (The Grand Master)
The Devil (Rex Mundi)
The Tower (The Secret Tomb)
The Star (The Bloodline)
The Moon (The Cathars)
The Sun (The Gnostic Church)
Judgement (spelled Judgment in the book, but not the card) (The Crucifixion)
The World (Ein Sof)
As you can see by the supplied titles, the cards are a hodgepodge that sometimes can relate to the Knights Templar, but just as often, do not. We have referents to King Solomon, the Qabala (Ein Sof), and the Great Mother, not strictly seen as the stuff of which the Templars are made. Many of the Court Cards are given an historical provenance; for example, the Knight of Cups is attributed to Childerick I.
The deck contains an additional card called "The Magic Flute," a card that could easily be confused with the Fool. We are not given much information about this card, and again, links to the Knights Templar are neither given nor received.
The deck itself is well-made, with smooth edges, rounded corners, and a matte finish. The cards are larger than standard, the size of an index card (three by five inches). Suits are Staves, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles. The LWB is written by Daria Kelleher, who is described as a tarot reader who, by "strange coincidence, has also done extensive research on the Knights Templar for her series of young adult novels." Perhaps her background in fiction explains why she would write that "A persistent belief is that the Tarot was the invention of the Knights Templar." That belief does not persist today with anyone conversant in tarot history. She also mentions (surprise!) Gypsies and Arabs...even Egypt and the Rosicrucians get cited. The LWB also contains a short history of the Knights Templar, upright and reversed meanings of the cards, one layout (the Celtic Cross, which curiously has been retitled "The Ten Card Spread"), and a six page glossary that offers information about the historical personages attributed to the cards, and terms like "dualism" and "Rex Mundi," which appear earlier in the booklet. Finally, there is a short blurb about the artist and the author of the booklet, who is writing a forthcoming companion book for the Templar Tarot.
I have found that many people have powerful reactions to this deck--they either find it extremely attractive or intensely repulsive. I find the Templar Tarot a quite readable and well-priced, professionally done, self-published deck. I recommend it to collectors and those interested in the Knights Templar (with the caveat that it is hardly or solely representational of the Knights Templar). I think this deck would also find favor with members of the pagan community who also have an affinity for skulls and skeletons. The art is striking, vivid, and visceral, and might appeal to other tarot enthusiasts who don't fit into the earlier mentioned categories of those to whom this deck would appeal.
You can see a sample reading with this deck here.
You can see more cards and purchase this deck from the artist's website.
Templar Tarot by Allen Chester; Booklet by Daria Kelleher
Publisher: Inspire by Design
Images © 2001 Allen Chester
Review and page © 2002 Diane Wilkes