The Glastonbury Tarot by Lisa Tenzin-Dolma
Review by Lee A. Bursten  

If you are interested in purchasing this book/deck set, click here.

When I first saw online scans of this deck, I wasn’t impressed by the art, and I simply passed it by.  However, after seeing that several members of the Aeclectic Tarot Forums were enthusiastic about it, I gave it another look, and decided to order it.

I’m glad I did, because this is an altogether remarkable deck.  In fairness, this is one of those decks which look a lot better in person than in scans.  Tenzin-Dolma paints in bright, primary colors.  The cards are so vivid that they create their own spell.  The images are rather simple, and the simplicity along with the vividness creates a powerful effect.  And despite the simple, bright pictures, much subtle use is made of facial expressions and postures, adding depth to the images. 

The “theme” of this deck is the collection of myths and legends surrounding Glastonbury in Great Britain.  Many of these myths, both pre-Christian (i.e., Pagan) and Christian, involve King Arthur, and so this could be called an Arthurian tarot.  However, there are also many stories involving early Christianity, and some of these are included as well.  Because Tenzin-Dolma is focusing on a place and not a mythology, it frees the deck from having to create a single, consistent story.  In contrast, The Arthurian Tarot and Legend: The Arthurian Tarot try to present the disparate and contradictory Arthurian legends as a single world, and they don't really fit together that way.

Nevertheless, I do think that the Pagan and Christian elements of the deck sit uneasily together. There are Christian characters in the Majors (St. Collen, St. Dunstan, St. Michael) who have dedicated themselves to destroying Paganism, which makes it hard to see the Majors – which, despite the Christian elements, are given an overall Pagan slant -- as a unified whole.  In Greek mythology the gods and goddesses are often at war with each other, but there you get the feeling of a boisterous family, sometimes fighting, sometimes loving, yet still loyal to each other in the end.  But when some of the characters are working to bring about the downfall of the rest, then it’s hard to see them as parts of a unified Tarot deck, especially when they are used to represent “good” cards (The Hermit, Judgement).

Tenzin-Dolma is a graceful writer, and the accompanying book does a good job at explaining the various myths and stories associated with the cards.  I particularly enjoyed her description of a personal encounter with a UFO which inspired the design of one of the cards.  She takes a self-help, self-empowerment perspective.  This is borne out by her interpretations of the Minors, which more or less follow the Golden Dawn pattern, but many of the more negative cards are given a positive slant. Sometimes they show someone triumphing over the problem portrayed in the same card in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, as in the 10 of Swords (“Rebirth”).  Sometimes, a new, more positive concept is substituted, as in the Five of Staffs (“Empowerment”).  There are still negative concepts, though, including “Grief” and “Mourning.” 

Interestingly, while the Majors show people living “long ago and far away,” the Minors are contemporary, showing people in jeans and sneakers.  Somehow this doesn’t seem jarring.  Personally, I enjoy the contemporary scenes for the Minors, which tie in nicely with the author's description of the Majors as archetypal powers and the Minors as showing how those forces are played out in daily life.  I particularly like the 10 of Staffs (“Responsibility”), showing a young father with his infant. 

While I like the overall style, especially the coloring, and while there are some cards that I love (such as Death), I must also point out that the quality of the artwork is oddly inconsistent. Most of the cards which show profiles look quite amateurish, such as the Knight of Staffs.  Yet in the King of Chalices, the artist shows herself perfectly capable of painting a figure in profile.  And the World card is downright ugly. 

Esthetic problems also get in the way of the Hanged Man.  I generally like my Hanged Man cards to show hanged men, but Tenzin-Dolma has an intriguing concept which works.  The card shows Percival in the castle of the wounded Fisher King, observing a procession of maidens carrying the Grail symbols.  The Fisher King, like the Hanged Man, waits patiently for Percival to ask the proper question, which will end the wasting of the land caused by the Fisher King’s wound.  He cannot interfere and encourage Percival; he must simply wait, and either Percival will ask the question or he won’t, and if he doesn’t then the King must go on waiting. 

Unfortunately the card itself doesn’t really work, because of the clumsy execution.  Such a subtly-nuanced scene requires something more than a grade-school poster project, which is what the card resembles.  I wouldn’t be so critical of it if Tenzin-Dolma hadn’t shown herself capable of such fine work in other cards.

I had a problem at first with the Devil card, which shows a rather harsh picture.  St. Dunstan, confronted with the Devil disguised as an alluring, naked woman, holds out his red-hot tongs with which he is about to pinch her nose, in his efforts to resist temptation. I understand the book's description of this card as meaning an attempt to face and dispel fears, but it's hard for me to feel much sympathy for St. Dunstan.  Actually I feel sorry for the woman.  The card is confusing because the woman is supposed to be the Devil in disguise, yet the Devil is also pictured as a third entity on the card. It seems like the woman is simply the victim of a misunderstanding and is about to get her nose burnt by the fanatic St. Dunstan, who surely has some issues with his sexuality. To me it seems to make more sense to identify the Devil, or Devilish obsession, with St. Dunstan rather than the woman!

After giving it much thought, I decided that despite the fact that St. Dunstan is a saint and the woman is the Devil in disguise, I think the woman and St. Dunstan should be seen as equals, rather than as good-guy/bad-guy. Like the humans on the R-W-S Devil card, they are equally enslaved by the Devil. For the woman's part, she is on a power trip, trying to make herself feel good by seducing a monk. St. Dunstan is about to commit an evil, violent act (burning the woman's nose) because he wants to root out and banish his own sexuality.  A similar situation is pictured on the Devil card of the Ancestral Path Tarot, where a man and woman argue while the Devil eggs them on.

One can find echoes of other decks, if one looks for them.  The overall style bears some similarities to the Dreampower Tarot by Stuart Littlejohn, whom Tenzin-Dolma lists in the book as among those artists who have inspired her, as well as to the Universal Tarot by Maxwell Miller, another Weiser publication.  And the Seven of Swords (“Boundaries”) is obviously derived from the Seven of Birds from Rachel Pollack’s Shining Woman Tarot (now republished as Shining Tribe Tarot). 

Despite my reservations about some of the art, there is something indefinable which draws me to this deck.  It contains a spark of life which is missing in most other decks.  I could easily see this becoming a deck which one could feel very comfortable working with, and the vivid colors will certainly help to stimulate one’s intuition.  If you, like me, passed this one by based on online scans, I’d encourage a second look. 

You can read another review of this deck here.

If you are interested in purchasing this book/deck set, click here.

The Glastonbury Tarot by Lisa Tenzin-Dolma
Published by Samuel Weiser, Inc.
ISBN No. 1-57863-140-8

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.