mj12.jpg (20263 bytes)Aleph-Beth Tarot Deck - Deck Reviews by Lee A. Bursten

In the interests of full disclosure I must point out that the creator/artist of this deck, Michele Jackson, was the webmistress of this site. However, this review was written completely independently -- I have received no input from Michele and she had no idea what I’m going to say.

This is a handmade, Majors-only collage deck. I generally am not too thrilled about collage decks, as to me they usually have that collage-deck look. One exception is Alexandra Genetti’s Jumbledance Tarot, which you can see on her website ( http://www.mcn.org/b/thewheel/jumbledance.html ). The Aleph-Beth deck is another exception. One look at these cards and it is quite apparent that the artist has an excellent sense of design and color.

Far from having the slapdash appearance of other collage decks, these pictures look as if each was created from scratch by someone with a unique artistic sensibility, much like the Voyager deck, although I actually prefer the Aleph-Beth pictures because they retain the iconic, direct quality of the best Tarot decks, unlike Voyager, which throws hundreds of images at you with each card.

The deck consists of 22 Major Arcana cards plus a cover card. The cards measure 3" x 5", with an extra quarter inch of lamination surrounding the cards (Michele has also made a miniature version). The backs are light blue and have been stamped with an American Indian design.

Included are two typewritten sheets explaining the genesis of the deck ("a project to help me learn the Hebrew alphabet"), the meanings of the Hebrew letters, where the corresponding symbols may be found on the cards, and the sources of some of the images. For example, the Hebrew letter for the Emperor is Heh, meaning "window," and sure enough, a window appears on that card, framing the Emperor (Hirohito of Japan). The sheets are folded to fit with the cards, and a small color version of the Star card is pasted on top, along with the artist’s signature. The whole is packed in a cloth bag, dark blue with tiny white stars, and tied with a yellow ribbon.

The cards themselves have extremely bright colors and use various media: photographs of people, animals, objects and statues; paintings; currency; printed text; and sketches. Interestingly, different styles of composition are used in different cards. For example, Strength is a rather staid scene, showing a Moorish chief with a lion. Because of the photographic realism of the painting of the Moor and Michele’s skill in assembling the different elements of the picture, the card looks like it could have been photographed from life.

The Fool, however, is quite a modern composition, showing a young man in a business suit standing on an impossibly thin ribbon-like bridge, gazing at two discs in a black sky, one containing moon and stars, the other a sunrise (or sunset). Convention is honored with a huge white rose at the bottom, and two small oxen ("Aleph" means ox) complete the picture. This card is really quite affecting.

I like the Magician for its elements; a portrait of Paschal Beverly Randolph, "a nineteenth century Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex Magician"; the motto "To know, to will, to dare, to keep silent," a quote from Aleister Crowley; and a table with scroll, cup, sphere and knife, which image was taken from Salvador Dali’s Universal Tarot.

The High Priestess is a wonderful photograph of a Kenyan woman. The expression on her face, the lines of wisdom, and the ceremonial jewelry, are all quite evocative. Tradition is honored with two columns, and birds fly in the background.

In the Hierophant, the figure looks like she comes from some prehistoric culture, but the explanatory text identifies her as the High Priestess of the Three Witches Church in Philadelphia! The Hebrew symbol, in this case nails ("Vau"), has been incorporated into the design of the card to a greater extent than most of the other cards, where the symbol usually appears isolated in a corner.

The Chariot is an absolutely stunning picture of a colorful fantasy ship, equipped with a hot air balloon, which sails through the air above a rocky coastline under a starry sky. It must have taken Michele quite a long time to cut out the ship with scissors, what with its complex sails and rigging, and its trailing bells, crescent moon, hourglass, and flags.

I love the Hanged One card -- an androgynous figure appears to be hanging him/herself. The fact that he/she is seated on a drum adds a ritualistic note. I particularly like the sketch of a hanged body in the background. The sketch is by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, and the handwriting next to it and the torn edge remind me of the Rohrig Tarot, which uses the same effect in many cards.

Death is rather grim, proving that this is not simply a "pretty" deck. A naked woman in the foreground has been pounced upon and is seemingly being devoured by an enormous skull looming behind her, while two clawed hands grip her from behind. Fortunately a small fish (for the Hebrew "Nun") serves in this case to inject a suggestion of new life into an otherwise horrific picture.

The Devil takes a lighter approach. A nude woman holds a card picturing "El Diablito" from a Mexican lotteria card (lotteria is a Bingo-like game which uses a grid composed of images rather than letters and numbers), surrounded by images of addictive substances, including wine, money, and cocaine.

The Moon is one of the cards where the Hebrew symbol (in this case "Qoph," back of the head) plays in integral part in the picture. In this card a woman with her back to us is viewing the scene, a rushing stream at night with a large yellow moon above. A giant wolf or fox head peeks around the edge of the card, and a beautiful statute of two moon-faced lovers completes the picture. The addition of a person viewing the scene is a wonderful addition because it serves to remove the whole picture from our direct experience, reminding us of Zen’s description of itself as only a finger pointing at the moon.

The Sun is a wonderfully cheerful card. The benign expression of the solar face, its outstretched palms offering us its bounty, and the cheerful innocence of the children make it a welcome sight after the grimness of the Death card.

Judgment is a card which displays the artist’s creativity. In the foreground a young man sits on the ground with his head on his knees, while in the background a huge, bright blue butterfly spreads its wings. A small angel atop the butterfly calls to the young man to forsake his despondency.

One of the reasons I love this deck is because the cards use not only different compositional styles but also different moods. In other words, this is not a deck where most of the cards are gloomy (like the Haindl) or one where most of the cards are cheerful and innocent (like the Hanson-Roberts). For example, the World is a simple but potent picture. The brilliant flamboyance of the previous pictures is put aside, and here we see a statue of a woman done in a prehistoric style, being held in a hand, being viewed by a large face. A photograph of a female dancer provides movement, and a photograph of the Earth provides the only color in an otherwise black-and-white card. This image marks a dignified and thoughtful end to a sequence of cards which is truly remarkable for its intensity, its color, its variety, and its imagination.

This is one self-published deck which deserves to be published by a mainstream publisher, although I suppose that is unlikely in today’s publishing scene, where artistic excellence is often not enough, and one must have a catchy "theme" which utilizes (or exploits) the fad of the moment.

These cards could definitely be used to read with, as they are quite successful in capturing the traditional meanings and moods of the cards. My only complaint about this deck is that there is not more of it! If there were a Minor Arcana, the deck would not only be my favorite "art" deck but one of my three or four favorite reading decks as well. Unfortunately this deck is not available for purchase at present; Michele simply makes them for people she wants to give them to. Therefore anyone who is given this deck will treasure it as a keepsake.

This deck is a great example of what can be accomplished with a collage deck. While it may be true than anyone can make one, I suspect there will not be as many as beautiful as this deck.

Aleph-Beth Tarot Deck by Michele Jackson


Review copyright 1999 Lee Bursten

Page Copyright 1999 Diane Wilkes