myth21.jpg (19374 bytes)The Mythic Tarot Deck Review by Lee A. Bursten

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

This very successful deck by Juliet Sharman-Burke and Liz Greene (cards drawn by Tricia Newell) was published in 1986 and is still in print. Although this is a "cultural" Tarot whose theme is Greek mythology, the actual theme of this deck is a psychological approach to the Tarot, using Greek myths to illustrate the deck’s psychological themes. According to Sharman-Burke, "Greek myths have been assigned to each card and the stories are intended to be used as a springboard from which to enrich an understanding of the psychological uses the tarot can be put to."

In 1985 Sharman-Burke wrote "The Complete Book of Tarot," in which she interpreted the Waite-Smith deck by using mythological characters, mostly Greek, as keys to the Major cards. The Mythic Tarot goes one step further by picturing those characters on the cards. The only differences from Sharman-Burke’s original attributions are in the few cards to which she had originally assigned non-Greek characters. For example, where her first book assigned Odin to the Hanged Man, the Mythic Tarot uses Prometheus. Each of the Major Arcana are assigned to a god, except for Prometheus (the Hanged Man) and Cronos (the Hermit), who are titans (an earlier race than the gods), and Heracles (Strength), who is a demigod (offspring of god and human). The Court cards picture demigods. The numbered Minors illustrate myths, one for each suit, with each card illustrating a scene from that suit’s myth.

The card illustrations by Tricia Newell (who, I must say, receives rather small billing compared to artists of other decks) contribute much to the deck’s success. One of the things I like best about them is that one gets the impression that the artist had never seen the Waite cards, as even when they illustrate similar scenes, they are quite different in composition and mood. They are done in a style that might best be likened to sophisticated children’s book illustrations. They are not "cute" at all, and do not shy away from such unpleasant subjects as murder, anxiety, et cetera. They are simple but are capable of expressing much emotional subtlety, and are quite pleasant to look at. Although the people are drawn with simplicity, the backgrounds have a great amount of detail, particularly textures, such as stone, earth, and clouds. The colors are pleasingly bright and vivid. My favorite card artistically is the Page of Wands, showing a boy (Phrixus) riding a golden ram which flies above green hills, while a red sun rises. This card has a dreamlike vividness which seems truly mythic.

This is a deck/book set, and the book, "The Mythic Tarot: A New Approach to the Tarot Cards," I can honestly say is the best book from a set that I have ever read. The authors assume no previous Tarot knowledge, and it is in fact an excellent book for those new to Tarot, in part because of the author’s skill in presenting the key concepts, and in part because of the authors’ aggressively psychological approach. By this I mean there is no esotericism, no astrological or cabalistic attributions, and no spiritual perspectives. Spiritual issues are addressed with the card of the Hierophant, but in psychological terms, as a function of the individual’s psyche.

In fact all of the cards, as well as the suggested manner of reading a layout, emphasize an inner, psychological perspective rather than one geared toward outer events. Where outer events are discussed, they are seen as being ultimately caused by inner states. The lack of esoteric symbolism makes the cards easier to learn, because the reader can concentrate on the essence of each card. Sharman-Burke, a practicing analytic psychologist, does discuss astrological correlations for the Court cards in her "The Mythic Tarot Workbook," available separately, and she touches on cabala in her most recent book, "Understanding the Tarot." Greene is an astrologer who has written many books on astrology.

The cards do contain symbolism, but not the cluttered and obscure symbolism of the Waite deck. For example, where the Waite Chariot contains a large number of esoteric symbols, the Mythic Chariot simply shows Ares, god of war, whose chariot is pulled by a black and a white horse, symbolizing "the potential for both good and evil contained in the aggressive instinct." At Ares’ side is a spear, "the traditional symbol of the masculine -- an image of phallic power and potency in both men and women." The only other symbolic material in the card is the desert background, which "lacks water -- an image of the lack of feeling and relatedness in which the aggressive impulses thrive."

Another of my favorite cards is the World, similar to the traditional image, but the double-sexed figure is ingeniously illustrated by having the figure bear two heads, one male and one female, rather than showing any private parts. Instead of a wreath the figure is encircled by a snake devouring itself, while in the four corners are the four suit symbols; a wand, a sword, a cup and a pentacle, replacing the usual biblical figures (which I have never liked.) The background is a beautiful rendering of sky and clouds.

Each Major card is accorded two or three pages of description. The myth that the card illustrates is described, then a lengthy interpretation of the card’s meaning on an "inner level," and then a short divinatory interpretation. The writing is excellent and often achieves the poetic or profound, as in the Wheel of Fortune: "The experience of the Wheel of Fortune is really an experience of that ‘Other’ within us, which ordinarily we project onto the world outside, thus blaming sudden changes of fortune on someone or something besides ourselves. The turn of the Wheel of Fortune forces us to become aware of this Other, the intelligent movement behind the Wheel which is the destiny we each carry within us."

Six of the Majors take place within caves, symbolizing the inner recesses of the psyche. In most of these the outer landscape is viewed through the cave opening. In the Devil there is no opening visible, implying "the most inaccessible realm of the unconscious," that which engenders feelings of shame and self-loathing.

Although this deck looks very different from the Waite-Smith deck, the authors have made efforts to maintain connections with it. The card and suit titles, for example, strictly adhere to the Waite convention, although the Major cards are unnumbered. In the Minor cards, although each suit illustrates a specific myth, the scenes chosen for each card usually mirror the corresponding Waite-Smith scenes. This has been very cleverly done, but it leads to some odd choices, for example in the suit of Pentacles, illustrating the myth of Daedalus, where one of the most interesting scenes of the myth, his flight with his son Icarus on wings he constructed of wax and feathers, is missing. The correspondences to the Waite Minors does make the deck quite approachable for those who are familiar with the Waite deck.

For me one of the most welcome features of this deck is the use of specific demigods for the Court cards. I don’t know about anyone else, but I have found in my experience the Court cards most difficult to get a grasp on, as most books present them as somewhat arbitrary lists of characteristics which must be memorized. Having a specific person with a specific story really pulls it all together and allows one to imagine how this person would react to any particular situation. Because each person has a detailed story, we now can understand why the Knight of Cups is romantic, or why the Queen of Wands is stable and loyal. To me this makes a world of difference.

The only thing which one might miss in this deck, and the same could be said for all "cultural" decks (for example the Arthurian Tarot or the Norse Tarot), is a certain sense of mystery. In non-cultural decks (like the Waite-Smith) one has the feeling that these figures are mysteriously reminiscent of certain things, and one can make certain associations, but in the end the individual cards defy categorization. Much of the charm of the Waite-Smith Minors lies in the fact that although each suit seems like it could be telling a story, the story always remains just out of reach, and is in fact ungraspable. Having the cards actually tell a story does help link them together and makes them easier to learn, but a sense of mystery is lost. However, in the Mythic Tarot, mystery is regained in another way -- the mysterious processes of the inner world, which is the deck’s major concern.

I’ve read bad reports about the book’s binding, but I’ve had pretty good luck with mine, so maybe they’ve improved the quality. I also have no problem with the enclosed black layout cloth, except that the spaces on which to lay out each card are drawn too small for the cards (it seems like they were drawn to match the Waite-Smith size).

I wholeheartedly recommend this deck, particularly for those interested in a psychological approach, and also for those who don’t feel drawn to the standard occult/esoteric symbolism.

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

Review Copyright (c) 1998 Lee A. Bursten

The Mythic Tarot
ISBN : 0-671-61863-6
Simon & Schuster Building
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, New York 10020

Page Copyright 1998 by Diane Wilkes