n3.jpg (28074 bytes)The Norse Tarot - Review by Lee A. Bursten

Although this deck is a "cultural" Tarot whose theme is Norse mythology, its main interest for me is the dynamic, vital quality of its artwork, especially the Minors. Barrett is an accomplished illustrator who painstakingly fills his drawings with rich detail and texture.

The coloring, done with watercolor, is marvelous -- the colors are muted yet bright at the same time. Hands and faces sometimes seem rushed or rudimentary, but this is more than made up for by the realism of the clothing, the objects, the grass, trees and rocks, the animals, and most of all by the beautiful blue skies. There is more sky in this deck than in any other I can think of; it serves as a background to most of the cards, along with billowing white clouds. It gives this deck an open feeling that is a refreshing change from the crowded, not to say claustrophobic, feeling of many decks, as if one has been liberated from a dusty old museum into the bright sunlight.

Another favorite feature about the art is the way that elements of the scene often break out of their frame into the surrounding intricate knotwork border. This gives the impression that the scene is jumping out at the viewer. A perfect example is the 7 of Wands.

Barrett makes clear in the accompanying book that although many of the cards are different than the Waite standard, he means for the interpretations to be the same throughout. This usually holds true, although in some cases elements in the card, or the stories behind the cards, do give a different perspective. For example, in the 7 of Swords, there is the usual sneaking man, but in this case he is sneaking around a sleeping dragon. The dragon can be a wonderful symbol for those things in our lives which we would prefer to leave unawakened.

Personally I don’t feel strongly about Norse mythology one way or the other, although I remember with fondness my first exposure to it -- "The Mighty Thor" comic books from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. As noted in the accompanying book, as well as in Edith Hamilton’s "Mythology," this mythology is noteworthy as being an extremely pessimistic one, created by a people who had no illusions about the difficulty (and shortness) of life.

The gods, along with mankind, know they are doomed, and the greatest virtue to be obtained in life, for both gods and humans, is to die honorably in battle, sort of like the Klingons in "Star Trek," who, come to think of it, were probably created with the Norse peoples and mythology in mind. Those to whom warfare and strife are things to be avoided may feel, as I do, somewhat uncomfortable with the martial setting, with its many battle scenes. Nevertheless, it certainly makes for an interesting and exciting deck.

In the Mythic Tarot, a similar deck which uses Greek mythology rather than Norse, each Major card illustrates a god or goddess, while the Courts show demigods, and the numbered Minors illustrate scenes from myths, with each suit comprising a myth, so that the 2 through 10 of each suit tell a particular story.

Barrett takes a different approach. He starts the Majors similarly, with each one simply showing the appropriate Norse god or goddess for that card. But from card 13 (Death) onwards the Majors show scenes from a particular myth, in this case the death of the beloved god Baldur, the destruction of the gods and the earth (Ragnarok), and Baldur’s rebirth. Meanwhile, the Minors, rather than illustrating specific myths, are much more Waite-like in that they show unconnected scenes from the everyday life, in this case that of the Norse people.

Much as I like the Mythic Tarot, I prefer this approach to the Minors. It allows one to let one’s imagination play with the scenes on the cards and find creative ways to fit them to a particular situation, rather than being constantly reminded of particular myths.

I find this deck fun to read with, because Barrett relies on drama and simple human interest rather than occult symbolism. The Majors are quite sparse, in keeping with the open feeling given by the sky backgrounds. Most of them simply show the god or goddess in a simple setting, with perhaps a few animals associated with that character.

For example, the Magician shows Odin with his two wolves and his two birds (however, in this case convention is honored by including a cup, spear, shield and sword). The Empress shows Frigga with a cat and a bird. Interestingly, although this Empress looks quite different from the standard Waite version, she is actually more faithful to the original Marseilles conception of the Empress, a martial-looking woman with a shield.

The Lovers more clearly illustrates the meaning of choice than most other decks. Frigga must choose between remaining faithful to her husband and sleeping with a dwarf in order to obtain the dwarf’s handiwork, a necklace she covets.

With the change to a storytelling sequence starting with Death, the images on the cards become quite different from the standard Tarot pictures. Sometimes this difference is enough to trouble me, for example in Temperance, showing Hel, the goddess of the underworld, holding a skull in one hand and surrounded by the spirits of the dead, while a horse bears a rider away, towards the viewer. The rider is a god who the gods have sent to beg for the return of the slain Baldur, and Hel has decided to release him if every living creature will shed tears for him.

The fairness of Hel’s compromise certainly qualifies her to be identified with Temperance; but the picture is so different that I have a hard time. However, while in other decks this difference would be enough to make me abandon the deck immediately, in this case I find that the story gives an intense psychological resonance to the card which makes it worthwhile in its own right. The joy that the messenger feels in having obtained a compromise from Hel is quite affecting. But, since my personal preference is for decks that stick more or less with the traditional images (and there’s lots of room for creativity within that parameter), this is probably enough to keep me from considering this my favorite deck.

Likewise, in the Devil we see Loki, the evil god who is responsible for Baldur’s death, bound by the gods to a rock in punishment, in a scene reminiscent of the Mythic Tarot’s Hanged Man, where Prometheus is punished for having given mankind the gift of fire by being bound to a rock and tortured by an eagle who eats his liver. In this case Loki is tortured by a snake who drips venom on him, although his wife faithfully catches the venom in a bowl, so that it only drips on him when she must empty the bowl. A Devil card where it is the Devil himself who is bound is an interesting variation, and the inclusion of his compassionate wife adds a note of pathos.

I find the Tower card to be very faithful to the feeling of traditional Towers, although the picture is different. Here a tall building stands untouched, while the rainbow bridge connecting earth to the abode of the gods is shattered in the final battle.

In the Courts we have generic people displaying their traditional qualities, as in the Waite-Smith deck. One welcome difference is that, although the cards are named Prince, Princess, Queen and King as in many decks, in this deck it is the Princesses rather than the Princes who are equivalent to the standard Knights, while the Princes take the place of Pages. There are also some interesting variations here -- the Queen of Discs, so often associated with fertility, is shown in a rocky setting, perhaps because that is where she is needed the most.

In the numbered Minors, having freed himself from mythological correlations, Barrett lets his creativity run rampant. There are many action scenes, unusual angles, and interesting takes on the Waite-Smith model. The 4 of Wands shows a builder having completed his roof supports. The 8 of Wands, like the Mythic Tarot, shows a ship with eight oars, but from a dizzying top view. The 7 of Cups, showing a man being awakened in bed by three dwarfs bearing gifts, isn’t too impressive when you first look at it, but give it a chance -- on repeated viewings the strangeness of the scene begins to take hold with an almost Freudian quality.

The 2 of Swords is a wonderful card -- the warriors have put aside their battle to play a game of chess. This is a great example of finding a totally new picture to illustrate the traditional meaning. The 6 of Swords is very affecting, and artistically superior to many of the other cards, although it might be difficult when first looking at the card to tell that the woman has alighted in a boat. The 8 of Swords evokes a visceral response, again made more dramatic by the overhead angle. The 9 of Discs evokes its own special mood with a windswept beach, an open treasure chest, and a beautiful woman.

It’s nice to see the artist/creator of a deck write his own book, but I wish there were more to it. It’s not very large, and the divinatory meanings are pretty much on the level of a Little White Booklet. They are no better or no worse than any of the more fortune-telling-oriented books such as Marcia Masino’s Easy Tarot Guide. The best part of the book is the descriptions of the Majors which tell the mythological stories behind the cards.

I sometimes like to do the Tarot exercise which involves drawing one card after another and making up a story to fit the cards. This deck would be perfect for such a use because of the dynamic quality of the pictures -- they simply beg you to tell a story with them.

The Norse Tarot by Clive Barrett
The Aquarian Press
An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers
77-85 Fulham Palace Road
Hammersmith, London W6 8JB
ISBN 0 85030 726 0

Page Copyright 2000 Diane Wilkes