The Angels Tarot by Robert M. Place (book by Rosemary Ellen Guiley and Robert M. Place
Review by Lee A. Bursten

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

This deck/book set was published the same year as the Alchemical Tarot, by the same authors.  Unlike that highly-regarded deck, I feel the Angels Tarot has not gotten nearly the attention it deserves.

In this deck, angels are not pictured as hazy, ethereal, soft-focus creatures who are always beaming pleasant thoughts at us, but rather as exciting, vivid and strange messengers from the psyche (or from the spiritual world, depending on how one sees these things).  This may have diminished the deck’s potential popularity among New Age angelophiles, but it vastly enhances its use as a tool with which to explore our inner world.  I freely admit I have no real knowledge or experience with angels, Christian or otherwise.  But I find that the evocative imagery and iconic appearance of these figures makes them quite striking as Tarot cards, regardless of their origin.  The wings themselves can be taken simply as symbols of the otherworldliness and spirituality of the figures.

The imagery is taken for the most part from Christian angelology and iconography, but the authors stress in the book that they regard angels, like the Tarot figures, as archetypes of human experience, with correspondences and parallels to many other religions.  To illustrate this point, I’ve scanned the Abraxas/Angel of Magic (Magician) card along with the Gift of Birds card from the Shining Tribe Tarot by Rachel Pollack.  The imagery is strikingly similar, despite the obvious differences in Place’s and Pollack’s sources.  While the Abraxas image is quite different from the Magician we’re accustomed to, its power and vividness alone make it a great Magician card, quite apart from the book’s description of the Magician-like qualities of Abraxas.

Some of the Major Arcana are quite traditional, for example Temperance, which even includes the triangle-within-a-square symbol from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck.  Others show interesting takes on the traditional pictures, such as the Manu/Angel of Fate (Wheel of Fortune) card (all the Majors have subtitles which help one recognize the traditional Tarot title).  On this card the angel scatters symbols of fate: coins, dice, and playing cards.  Another interesting variation is the Theliel/Prince of Lovers (Lovers) card, which shows only the Cupid figure usually seen hovering in the sky on Marseilles and other antique Lovers cards.  This has a perhaps unintended consequence; there is no male-female imagery in this deck, that is, no card on which a man and a woman are shown together.  This, combined with the androgynous quality of many of the angels, might make this a good deck for gays and lesbians, who usually have to struggle to reconcile their own experience with the heterosexual imagery which pervades most decks. 

Several cards are simply beautiful, such as the Moon, who is shown making and scattering dreams, represented as multi-colored stars. 

Some have called these Court cards plain, but I disagree.  Their faces are extremely expressive, and the artist has included many elemental symbols on the Courts, such as the fish on the Lady of Hearts.  These are my favorite Court cards of any of Place’s decks. 

I love the fact that the Minor cards use French playing-card suits (Hearts, Spades, Diamonds, Clubs) rather than the traditional Italian Tarot suits.  Coincidentally, I have been looking for some time for a Tarot deck with French suits, and have been unable to find one until now.  There are French decks sold for game-playing which have French suits, but the Majors of those decks are of the type used in Tarock decks, in other words, purely decorative, with no relation to traditional symbols or concepts.  Then there is Raymond Buckland’s Gypsy Fortune-Telling Tarot, which uses French suits, but the Majors are, again, completely unrelated to standard Tarot Majors.  I believe the Angels Tarot is the only true Tarot deck to use French suits.  

There are two obstacles that many people would experience with this deck.  First, the Devil and Death cards are rather harsh.  Abaddon/Angel of Death is a stark picture showing a skeleton with a blood-tipped scythe.  Both the picture and the title are harsh; if reading for a squeamish client, one might want to especially emphasize that the Death card does not mean physical death.  Actually, I find that the stark quality of the skeleton is ameliorated by the large wings, which suggest that there is more to death than simply decay. 

Likewise, the choice of “Satan” as a title for the Devil card was perhaps an unfortunate one, as for many people the name “Satan” is even more emotionally loaded than the name “Devil.”  Fortunately, the picture is not particularly frightening, and is in my opinion less frightening than the Rider-Waite-Smith image.  In the Angels deck, he appears almost a figure of ridicule, puffed-up with self-importance. 

The next obstacle is the fact that the pip cards (Ace through 10) are unillustrated; that is, like playing cards, they show the requisite number of suit symbols and no scene.  This obstacle may be insurmountable.  If you must have illustrated pip cards, then this deck is not for you. 

However, many people, especially in Europe, work with unillustrated pip decks like the Marseilles, and doing so can open one’s mind to different ways of working with the Tarot.  With such a deck, one can be creative in deciding how to interpret the cards.  One can simply call to mind the Rider-Waite-Smith-type pictures, or one can use a number-plus-suit system to develop one’s own interpretations.  Tom Tadfor Little will be publishing a book outlining his own newly-invented system.  Whatever system you use, you will find that, although reading without scenes is in some ways challenging, in other ways it’s liberating, since the intuition is not bound or restricted by a picture. 

The authors present a system which they claim is a number-plus-suit method, but actually most of the card interpretations are derived from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, with a few exceptions.  Actually, these interpretations are the same as those used for the Alchemical deck. 

Place’s pips are striking.  The standard pip symbols are formed by angels’ faces and wings, drawn in the shape of the pip symbol, as for example in the 10 of Hearts.  The pip cards do not contain numbers, but the orientation of the cards, unlike some Marseilles decks, can be easily determined by the direction of the faces.  I find that all those little faces have a pleasant humanizing effect on the reading process, which one can miss sometimes when working with a deck like the Marseilles, which simply shows ten cups.  And Place incorporates the standard Italian suit symbols on at least one card per suit, so there is still a design connection to the Tarot suit symbols we know and love. 

The accompanying book by Guiley and Place is very good as an introduction to angel lore.  I was fascinated to learn that Christian angelology has roots in pagan and Judaic traditions, and this is something else which makes the deck more palatable for non-Christians.  My one slight complaint is that Guiley has a tendency to shift without warning from describing traditional ideas about angels to laying out her own beliefs.  I admit my mind did wander a bit while reading about the complex cosmologies and hierarchies of angels, although I’m sure the authors only touched the surface of this intimidating topic. 

I think this is an excellent deck for: a) people who love Robert Place’s artwork; b) people who are intrigued by Christian iconography and art but find the Tarot of the Saints to be too entrenched in a particular religious tradition; and c) people who enjoy experimenting with non-illustrated-pip decks.  Since I fall into all three categories, this is one of my favorite decks.

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

The Angels Tarot by Robert M. Place and Rosemary Ellen Guiley
Publisher: HarperSanFrancisco
ISBN #: 0062511939

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.