The Haindl Tarot Deck and Related Books - Review by Lee A. Bursten
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The Haindl Tarot is an altogether remarkable and unique deck which was published by U.S. Games in 1990. Hermann Haindl is a German artist who set out to create a deck which would not only serve as an artistic expression of himself, but also celebrate different cultures from around the world. In these goals he has succeeded admirably.
The first thing that makes this deck unique is the quality of the art. Although it is always debatable where the line is drawn between illustration and art, I think almost anyone would agree that the art on these cards is on a very high level. The use of composition and color are highly sophisticated. Someone taking a quick and superficial look at the cards might be fooled, but one look at the Ace of Cups immediately shows the skill of the artist.
That same hasty observer might quickly come to the conclusion that the art is drab, dark, murky, and obscure. While it is true that browns and faded shades of other colors predominate, a closer look will reveal a large range of colors and moods. What makes this a very serious deck is not so much the artwork but Haindlís viewpoint, which is unafraid to look at the darker sides of life. Haindlís life has been difficult, starting with his captivity in a Russian prisoner of war camp in World War II, and the themes stated in the cards present an often somber mood. But this shouldnít scare anyone away from the deck. If you are willing to engage with its seriousness, you will be rewarded with one of the richest, deepest Tarot decks available.
The deck is descended conceptually from the Crowley-Harris Thoth deck, particularly in the Minors, which, like the Thoth Minors, show the requisite number of suit symbols against a highly evocative background, but they do not show scenes with humans in them as in the Waite-Smith. Also, the Minors are titled, using the Thoth titles as a model but sometimes changing them. These titles were what eventually kept me from reading with this deck on a regular basis, but itís still one of my favorite decks simply to take out and look at.
Another similarity with the Thoth deck is the multitude of symbol systems used on the cards. But, as Rachel Pollack points out in her books, the symbols are used much more freely and organically, and are presented more for their psychological impact than to illustrate any particular esoteric teaching. The Majors contain the Hebrew letter, the astrological glyph, and the Rune associated with each card. Also, unusual in decks, the element for each Major card is shown by a colored border, which might make this a good deck to practice Elemental Dignities with. The Minors contain an I-Ching hexagram which Haindl has assigned to each.
But the pictures themselves are the important thing. They are so evocative, you can get lost in them for hours. As you look at each card, it seems to grow until you are completely submerged in it, and you enter a silent world where symbols, scenes, and faces slowly float by.
One of Haindlís favorite symbols is the bubble. For what is often presumed to be a depressing deck, bubbles will playfully appear in the most unexpected places, signifying hope and grace. On the High Priestess appears the mother of all bubbles. Tiny, misty bubbles surround it, and you can almost feel the wet mist on your face. Itís interesting to compare this use of bubbles with the Tarot of a Moon Garden, which uses bubbles for pentacles. In that deck they come off as one more frivolous and cutesy effect. Here they offset the dark colors and stony backgrounds to add a (much welcome) lightness and airiness to the deck.
Haindl has an interesting way of painting humans. They appear almost evanescent or transparent, as if the stony backgrounds are what truly last, while humans and their foibles are here and gone before you know it.
One thing I didnít like was the card backs, showing an inhuman yellow eye containing a tear or a sty. This image is rather frightening and unpleasant and doesnít fit in with the mood of the rest of the deck.
It took me a long time to really get with this deck because I was initially quite put off by the Fool . Instead of showing a beautiful youth in the sunshine or a happy tramp or court jester, it shows a frowning young man who is placing a finger on the wound of a swan who writhes in pain. Yuck! But on a closer analysis, the man is not really frowning. Like a baby, he simply hasnít learned the social skill of keeping a pleasant expression on his face. And, like a baby, he doesnít know well enough to keep unpleasant facts to himself, like the fact that heís facing a wounded swan. Thus he resembles the "fools" who tell us what we donít want to hear and make us face truths we would rather ignore (specifically the environmental harm we have done to the planet, one of Haindlís themes in this deck).
Haindl likes to switch things around to gain a new perspective on them. One example is Empress and Emperor. Contrary to most decks, in this deck it is the Empress who represents intellectual achievement and the Emperor who is shown in a natural setting. Pollack in her books makes much of Haindlís desire to give precedence to the feminine, and the Emperor supposedly is shown in a negative light, striding away from the tree which gives him his strength. But I donít think one has to look at them this way. It could simply be a switching of the usual attributions, the Empress showing the fertility of the mind, and the Emperor showing the forces of nature in a powerful, masculine light.
The Hierophant is unique, as far as I know, in that instead of showing a Christian or quasi-Christian or pagan priest, it shows a Jewish grandfather, father and son. This serves to illustrate very well the concepts behind the Hierophant, i.e. tradition, both religious and familial. It is also interesting that one reason Haindl painted the picture this way is to help atone for the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. Likewise, the use of the Runes was specifically intended to rescue the Runes from the evil uses to which they were put by the Nazis. Iím grateful to Pollack for elucidating this part of the history of the Runes, which most books on the Runes do not see fit to mention.
The Chariot is one of this deckís masterpieces. I cannot put my finger on it, but this image somehow communicates a Chariot feeling in a wholly different and exciting way. The huge wolfís head looming behind the charioteer represents the fears that are always behind us, urging us on. To what extent do we carry on because of a positive desire to get ahead, and to what extent because of the wolf at our backs?
Death is another wonderful card. The bird is a perfect symbol for transformation, perhaps because of its utter lack of humanity. This is one card where Haindl has made the card less depressing than other decks.
I had some trouble figuring out the Devil, because I thought the goat and the snake made up some kind of scene in which they interacted with each other, and I couldnít see the significance. But now I think Haindl did not mean it to be a scene, but was simply illustrating two different aspects of the Devil. The positive aspects are suggested by the goatís third eye, his innocent smile, and the crystals atop his head, indicating enlightenment.
My favorite card in this deck, and one of my very favorite single Tarot cards of any deck, is the Star, showing a woman bending over, washing her hair in a mountain stream. The power and simplicity of this image show Haindlís artistry at its very best.
The Universe is awe-inspiring. Taking off from the standard image of a serpent with its tail in its mouth, Haindl has painted a transcendent picture of the serpent breathing fire as it removes the tail from the mouth and begins to uncoil, sailing majestically through outer space, while the Earth spins above.
For the Minors, Haindl has taken details from his previously painted works and superimposed the suit symbols onto them. This unusual method works well, as he places the symbols organically against the background to form patterns suggestive of the meaning. Many of the cards were taken from the same paintings, adding a unifying look to the cards (although some might complain it makes them somewhat monotonous). A good example of Haindlís creativity is the Eight of Stones, where a bubble replaces one of the stones. The bubble was actually part of the original painting, and Haindl placed the seven stones in such a way so that it appears that the bubble is actually floating upwards.
Another feature of the Minors is their negativity. Like Thoth, there are cards titled "Cruelty" and "Ruin." Unfortunately, Haindl has retitled Crowleyís "Futility," which is bad enough, to "Uselessness," which is even worse. "Futility" could refer to a specific action, but the word "Uselessness" seems to want to include the entire person.
What a downer! Iíd hate to have that card come up in a reading. The picture is distressing as well, with eyes, mouths and noses bubbling up in an amorphous lump.
The striking beauty of the Courts goes a long way towards making up for the depressing Minors. The Mothers (Queens) illustrate the power and majesty in these Courts.
Coinciding with the publication of the deck, Newcastle Publishing brought out a two-volume companion book, The Haindl Tarot by Rachel Pollack. Part I covers the Majors, Part II the Minors. In fact, Pollack basically took the format of her (deservedly) highly regarded 78 Degrees of Wisdom and rewrote the entire book for the Haindl deck, which must have been quite a project, and demonstrates Pollackís commitment to this deck. These books are a must for anyone who is really into this deck, as every symbol and attribute on the cards is discussed, as well as fitting the cards into Pollackís and Haindlís conceptual frameworks.
I must admit that after reading Pollackís books I was in awe of her encyclopedic knowledge of mythologies and cultures, but I was somewhat intimidated by it as well. Knowing I could never bring to a reading what she can, it made me reluctant to try reading with the deck at all. For this reason Iím delighted to report that Pollack has written a new book, The Haindl Tarot: A Readerís Handbook, published by U.S. Games, in which she approaches the deck specifically from a practical, reading-oriented viewpoint. The symbology on the cards is discussed, but in a more abbreviated, easier-to-digest manner, and more weight is given to divinatory meanings.
My favorite parts of the book came at the end, where she discusses her views on Tarot reading (itís interesting to compare these with her earlier books and see how her views have evolved somewhat over time), as well as three extensive sample readings. I found the writing in this book to be friendlier and more helpful than the earlier work, although that earlier work is invaluable if one really wants to study the cards. She states in the introduction to the latest book that she wrote it as an adjunct to the first books, and that someone could use this book without having to have read the first ones.
Particularly interesting is her treatment of the Court cards. Since they illustrate mythological figures of different cultures, she advocates that we see them as Helpers or Teachers who have something to tell us or attributes to emulate regarding the subject of the reading, although she also supplies more standard personality-type interpretations. The problem with the latter is that some of the Court figures that Haindl has chosen are singularly devoid of characteristics which can be interepreted in terms of human personality, such as the Princess of Cups, which shows Brigid of Ireland. Pollack seems to develop her interpretation more from the history of the figure of Brigid through the ages than for any intrinsic characteristic that Brigid symbolizes.
Seeing the Courts as Helpers and Teachers opens the way for new, possibly more valuable uses for the Courts. Pollack has also been a Court card pioneer in her own deck, Shining Woman Tarot, where the Courts become Gift, Place, Knower, and Speaker, signifying different ways of experiencing the suit energies.
My advice to someone who wants to investigate this deck would be to buy the latest book (The Haindl Tarot: A Readerís Handbook), and work with that for a while. If your fascination with this deck grows (as mine did), then you may want to get the earlier two books for a more complete discussion of the cards. For those who own the first books, there is enough new material in the latest book to make it a worthwhile purchase.
For those who wish to study this deck, I would recommend reading Pollackís commentaries for the Minors but not troubling yourself at first with the material on the I-Ching hexagrams included on each Minor card. Unless you are already familiar with the I-Ching, this material adds another interpretative layer over the cards which can make them quite overwhelming for the beginner. I would suggest becoming familiar and comfortable with the Minors first, and then going back and studying the I-Ching sections at a later point to deepen your understanding.
More than any other artist-author collaborations I can think of, Haindlís and Pollackís contributions meld together superlatively. Each complements the other extraordinarily well. Personally, Iím grateful that they have brought this deck and these books into the world. The cards are wonderful to look at and to experiment with. As Pollack states in the introduction to her latest book, many people are finding reading with this deck a worthwhile experience. But even if ultimately you decide itís not your cup of tea as a reading deck, I guarantee itís worth buying just for the wonderful art and Pollackís fascinating commentaries.
If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.
If you would like to purchase the book, The Haindl Tarot: A Readerís Handbook, click here.
Images Copyright USGames
Review Copyright 2000 Lee A. Bursten