Quest Tarot by Joseph Ernest Martin   
Review by Lee A. Bursten

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

This is a very exciting new deck published by Llewellyn.  One of the many things I like about it is that it doesnít embody any particular cultural or ethnic ďtheme,Ē and instead relies simply on the sensibilities of the artist, resulting in a vibrant, lively and wholly original deck.


The art is computer-generated, and Martin takes advantage of the potential of that medium to let his imagination soar.  Dinosaurs, UFOs, flora and fauna, stones and crystals all figure into the mix.  The humans are represented by metallic figures.  The Fool card, surely one of the most beautiful ever created, is only one example of the dizzying freedom to be found in the entire deck.


But the artist has also provided plenty of material for those who prefer traditional symbology.  The standard Golden Dawn astrological and Qabalistic symbols are included on the Majors.  And Martin doesnít stop there.  Also included on the Majors are symbols indicating correspondences with gemstones, Runes, Roman letters, and the four elements.  The Minors include, again, symbols for the standard Golden Dawn astrological correspondences, along with gemstones, I Ching, elements and Roman letters, while the Court cards have symbols for skin, eye and hair color, elements, Roman letters, and a Yes/No feature which Martin has invented.  Another of this deckís benefits is that this cacophony of symbols, which would otherwise be quite overwhelming, is tamed by being organized within an artfully composed golden border, which allows the reader to either notice them or ignore them, as the situation requires.  The card image isnít obstructed at all, and everything coexists happily.


There are also keywords on all the cards.  The Major keywords are original to Martin, but the Minor keywords follow in the Golden Dawn tradition, particularly as used by Aleister Crowley in his Thoth deck.  However, the Quest Tarot isnít directly derived from the Thoth.  Instead, much of the material in the deck is derived from the Haindl Tarot by Hermann Haindl and the books written for it by Rachel Pollack.  In the Quest commentary on one card, Aeon (Judgement), Martin tells us that this card was designed as an homage to Haindl and Pollack, and in fact the image is basically a recreation of Haindlís Aeon card.  But in fact the entire deck is to a large part derived from the Haindl.  I donít mean this as a criticism; in fact, I think that the Rider-Waite-Smith and Thoth decks are relied on too heavily nowadays, and since the Haindl is one of my favorites, Iím delighted to see it serve as inspiration to a new generation of Tarot creators.  But I want to take a moment and describe the details of that derivation, since the book treats certain features as if they were Martinís innovations, which isnít the case.


The features which were derived from the Haindl deck are as follows:











As well, there are several cards whose entire design is obviously derived from the corresponding Haindl card (for example, The Empress), and there are many more which borrow specific design elements, for example the owl on the Hermit, or the feathers on Justice.


However, I must emphasize that the style is completely different from the Haindl.  The Haindl uses a muted, earth-tone palette to create a subtle, dream-like atmosphere, while the Quest uses exuberant candy colors (for example, on the Seven of Cups) to great advantage.  I like both styles, and they couldnít be more different from each other.


I like all of the Majors, but not equally.  I enjoyed the startling and amusing use of dinosaurs on the Chariot, and I applaud the political statement made on the Lovers card, with its three symbols for heterosexual, lesbian, and gay relationship.  I was less enamored of the Hierophant (at top), whose robotic visage and posture seemed difficult to relate to.


Another thing I like about the Majors is their variety of approach.  Some are straightforward Marseilles/R-W-S representations, while others are quite abstract.


My one complaint about the artwork on the Majors is that itís sometimes a little difficult to make out some of the details on the cards.  Iím not enough of an artist to be able to tell if this is the fault of the artwork or simply that the cards are too small.  Itís not a big deal, just every once in a while I wish I could see a larger version of the card so I could make out some of the more obscure details.  (One can order giclee prints of the cards in three sizes at the deckís website.)


As for the keywords, I must say Iím not a fan of keywords on Major cards.  It seems to me that the standard titles of the cards are quite evocative enough, and adding keywords has a tendency to narrow the potential range of meanings in a way Iím not comfortable with.  I also feel that people should be allowed to decide for themselves what the archetypes mean to them.  I suppose this was done to make the Majors easier to use for beginners, but I think the benefits derived from ease of use arenít worth it if it means sacrificing the flexibility and fluidity of the Tarot, which is, in my opinion, what makes the Tarot such a valuable tool.


The numbered Minors are done in the same mode as Haindl and Thoth, that is, pip cards with the suit symbols placed in arrangements and against backgrounds that are evocative of the cardsí meanings.  The backgrounds are more directly indicative of meaning in the Quest; in the Haindl, the backgrounds tend to be more obscure.  My favorite are the Wands, because of the glowing lights at the ends of the wands (for example, in the Three of Wands), which make for a very pretty effect in a layout.  In fact, all the cards look great in a layout, with their vivid pastel colors.


Some of the cards seem a little confusing regarding their elemental correspondences.  The Four of Stones, for example, has always struck me as a very earthy card, but in Quest we see four stones floating above a river of molten lava, which makes me think of fire.  However, it certainly does fit in with the title of the card, ďThe Power of the Earth,Ē since volcanoes and lava certainly are a very vivid example of power in the earth.


I like many of Haindlís Minor keywords, and so I also like them in the Quest deck.  However, I wish Martin had modified some of the more doom-laden Haindl/Crowley keywords, such as the Nine and Ten of Swords (Cruelty and Ruin).  Itís not so bad when one reads for oneself, but it seems to me that one runs a large risk of scaring the wits out of a querent with such keywords.


The Court cards present us with a rather complicated situation.  In the Haindl deck, Hermann Haindl (with suggestions from Rachel Pollack) chose a mythological figure for each card.  The Stones show Native American figures, the Cups European, the Wands Indian, and the Swords Egyptian.  Pollack elucidated personality descriptions and divinatory meanings for them in her books.  I had always felt that while the Haindl Courts were spectacularly successful on an artistic level, they were somewhat difficult to interpret in a reading.  Pollackís descriptions had seemed a little vague to me, not through any fault of her own but simply because some of the figures Haindl had chosen lacked enough personality characteristics to hang an interpretation on.


Martin made the decision to jettison the deities Haindl chose to go on the cards, yet he kept the Haindl Court personalities.  So, for example, in the Haindl, the Son of Stones shows Chief Seattle (the only historical figure in the Haindl Courts), and Pollackís commentary speaks of the necessity to speak the truth and work for positive change.  In the Quest Son of Stones we have a keyword, ďAdvocate,Ē and the picture shows a metallic male figure standing in a position which suggests he is an orator, with megaphones above his head and five small figures before him, representing the disenfranchised.


Here are the Quest keywords for the Courts:






I think this approach is rather a daring one, because the resulting Court personalities are completely different from any deckís, other than the Haindl.  I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I like Martinís keywords for the Courts.  I find they give me more of a handle on the personalities than I had with Pollackís commentaries, and for that Iím grateful, because this will allow me to use the Haindl deck with more confidence.  On the other hand, if one were going to create a deck from scratch, are these really the personalities one would choose for Courts?  They make sense in the Haindl because Haindlís mythological figures are so artistically strong, but if one is going to surgically remove the deities and leave only the personalities behind, then they seem to lack an internal logic.  Much as I like the Haindl, I think in the case of the Courts, I would have preferred if Martin had come up with his own Court personalities.


Unfortunately, the bookís description of the Courts is less than helpful.  A few of the Court descriptions succeed admirably in communicating the essence of a personality, but I found most of them to be collections of traits which didnít really gel for me as people.


Another daring choice in this deck was to combine the highly evocative and colorful pictures, which seem ideal for consciousness-raising and consciousness-exploring uses of the Tarot, with mechanisms for conducting old-fashioned fortune-telling.  Most of these mechanisms are contained in the Court cards.  First, there are symbols for hair, eye and skin color.  Iím biased here, because I donít see much of a use for these in a reading.  It seems to me that either the person represented by the card will have the indicated coloration or they wonít, and either way it doesnít seem to offer much of value to the reading. 


Secondly, each Court card contains two daggers at the top of the border, and the way these daggers face will indicate Yes, No, Maybe, The Answer Lies in the Future, or The Answer Lies in the Past.  The idea here is you can separate out the Courts, shuffle them and pick one for your Yes/No answer, or, alternatively, you could shuffle and lay out the deck as usual and use the daggers (on whatever Court cards appear) to add an extra depth to the reading.  The latter use appeals to me more than the former, but Iím a little skeptical about using a symbol system that seemingly has no relation whatsoever to the cards the symbols appear on.  For example, Daughter of Cups (Connection) is No, while the Father of Cups (Fatherhood) is Yes.  Surely we are not to meant to draw the conclusion that the Father of Cups is a more favorable card than the Daughter of Cups, yet I fear some will indeed draw such a conclusion.


To be fair to the deckís creator, he obviously wanted to include different kinds of features to appeal to different kinds of readers, and, to his credit, the different symbols are, as mentioned above, unobtrusive and easily ignored if one doesnít want to use them.


The accompanying book, The Compass: Guide to the Quest Tarot, makes a real effort to be user-friendly and approachable, and is to a large extent successful at this.  I did have some problems with it.  I didnít like the organization of the book.  First thereís a chapter providing meanings for the astrological symbols, and then one for Hebrew letters, then one for I Ching, then one for Runes, and only then do we get a card-by-card commentary using the imagery.  The problem with this is that if one wants to read all there is to read about a card, one must jump between five or six chapters.  I would far rather have seen an approach similar to Rachel Pollackís for her Haindl books, where she includes discussions of each cardís Qabalistic, astrological, and I Ching symbolism in that cardís chapter.


The book includes a chapter on ďHow To Foretell Timelines,Ē using a rather involved procedure which utilizes clock symbols found on the Aces.  I have the same skepticism about this as I do regarding the other fortune-telling aspects of the deck, but those who are interested may find this an appealing system.


Also included is a chapter on ďSpelling Out Words,Ē utilizing the Roman letters which are included on most of the cards.  I was less than impressed with this system, which involves pulling a number of cards, writing down the resulting letters, combining those letters into as many words as can be thought of (there are some ďwild cardsĒ which could represent any letter), and then having the querent put together all the resulting words into a story.  This might be an interesting party game, but Iím not sure that there are many people out there who will really want to use the Tarot for party games.


Also included are one-, three-, and four-card spreads, as well as the Celtic Cross and an original Quest Tarot Spread, which uses 13 cards.  As in Rachel Pollackís Hagall Spread which she created for the Haindl deck, Martin offers the option of separating out the numbered cards, Majors, and Courts for different parts of the spread.  I tried out this spread (using the deck shuffled normally) and obtained excellent results.  I like this spread a lot and will be using it in the future.


My one real complaint about the book is that it doesnít offer any sample readings or advice about how to weave the cards together to form a story, which is odd for a deck which includes so many different symbol systems.  Although the book and deck are in many ways geared toward the beginner, Iím afraid a beginner would be quite overwhelmed with all the symbols and information contained in the deck.  Some guidance on how to go about choosing what to include in a reading would have been very welcome.  I understand there may have been space limitations, but there are pages and pages spent on what I would consider lower priority matters like what kind of table to use, what kind of box, what kind of cloth, and how to use the ďblankĒ card in the deck to create your own personalized card.  I think at least a short discussion on how the author himself picks and chooses which symbols to use in a reading, along with a few sample readings, would have been more valuable.


To sum up, despite some reservations about the book and about the Court cards, overall I find the Quest Tarot to be an extremely appealing and vibrant deck, and one which is a breath of fresh air.  Just about everyone will find something to interest and attract them.  I highly recommend it.


Quest Tarot by Joseph Ernest Martin

Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide

ISBN No.:  0-7387-0195-5

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

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.

Images © 2003 Llewellyn Worldwide
Review © 2003 Lee Bursten
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes