Tarot Wayang by Ani Sekarningsih
Review by Sandra A. Thomson


With all the new decks being designed and created these days, occasionally I discover one that is so unique and delightful that I am besotted (as Sister Wendy says) by it.  The Tarot Wayang is such a deck, and reflects all that I learned to love about the wayang kulit (shadow puppet) plays when I visited Indonesia.


This small deck (2 3/8" x 3 3/8") photographically depicts a few (how can 78 be only a few?) of the characters from the wayang kulit.  The name of each puppet/character appears in caps at the bottom of each plastic coated card, while the card's meaning is printed in Indonesian on the left side of the card, and English on the right.  A chart accompanying the manual, written in both Indonesian and English, further identifies each of the characters and in a few words explains who he or she is. 


It's not as simple as that, however.  I have often referred to Tarot decks as "flashcards of the Self" (in the Jungian sense), and these gorgeous cards could easily serve as flashcards of Indonesian stories, philosophy, and sacred tradition. 


The ever-popular wayang kulit performances, on which this deck is built, typically begin late at night and sometimes extend through the night, especially if they are part of a greater ceremony or celebration, as it sometimes culturally mandated.  Behind a large white cloth screen, a coconut oil lamp flickers, casting light and shadow.  If you didn't know already, you are graphically shown at the outset that this is a play about good and evil.


The dalang, or priest puppeteer, sitting cross-legged behind the screen, manipulates the elaborately carved and painted flat leather stick puppets (the wayang), which have jointed arms and legs.  Kulit (skin or covering) refers to the leather from which the puppets are made. 


Wayang entertainment, based largely on the great Hindu epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata are simultaneously morality plays, theatrical and ribald stories, and a form of religious experience.  The dalang, or priest puppeteer, a keeper of religious stories and sacred traditions, is a spiritual teacher with magical powers.  Not only must he expertly manipulate the puppets, but he must be able to change his voice when speaking as the various characters, and rely on his memory and knowledge of hundreds of stories.  Every object, every article of clothing, and every move of the puppets have a symbolic significance aside from their entertainment capabilities.


In the Tarot Wayang deck, brilliantly colored photographs of the wayang puppets representing the Major Arcana are shown against a black background. 


In the wayang kulit royalty of the Pandawa (the good guys in the Mahabharata), especially Arjuna, (shown in this deck as the Six of Wands, "victory") are accompanied by their loyal clown servants.  They do not appear in the original versions of the Hindu epics, except briefly, but play a more dominant and larger role in the wayang stories.  They typically speak the local dialect and laugh at the silliness of the other characters, who speak more ancient dialects and are so stuffy and blind. 


Naturally, the ponokawan, (pono for clear, clever vision, kawan for companion) as they are collectively called, are beloved by the audience, and non-Indonesian visitors often cannot understand why locals are laughing uproariously during what they have been told is a sacred performance.  The ponokawan usually have ugly faces, disproportionate bodies, and often engage in socially inappropriate behavior, but, as you can understand by their name, they can also be wise and good advisers. 


One of the most well-known ponokawan is Bagong with his squat body and big eyes.  In this deck, he is presented as The Fool,  so we learn we may as well get used to the clowns right away. 


The Magician, represented by Semar, is the father of the royal clown servants: Bagong, Petruk (Nine of Coins, "self-mastery) and Gareng (Two of Coins, "open-ending").  He is a very fat man with a big belly and enormous buttocks, so he can sit comfortably—the implicit symbolism showing that a ksatria, or knight/prince accompanied by Semar should be comfortable in life and achieve all his wishes—and pass gas easily and readily.  His white tufted hair indicates he is a wise man and a perfect meditator, and his one tooth tells us that he speaks only the truth.  Semar's white face symbolizes a kind teacher whose students follow his instructions gladly, whereas students follow the instructions of a black-faced teacher because they fear him. 


Among the other puppets representing Major Arcana cards, which are similar to those in other decks, and yet are not, are:

Puppets representing the Wands or Gada suit have a yellow (fire) background.  Those representing the Kendi Pertolo (Cups) suit have a blue (water) background.  Pasopati (Swords) puppets are set against a violet (air) background, and the Cupu Manik (Coins) suit against a green (earth) background. 


The wayang figure representing the Ace of Wands is Dewa Indra, god of beauty.  Dewa Kamajaya, god of love, portrays the Ace of Cups.  Dewa Bayu, god of storms, serves as the Ace of Swords, and Batara Wisnu, god of prosperity, represents the Ace of Coins.


Because the manual that accompanies the deck is designed to teach the basics of Tarot to the Indonesian people (they already know and understand some of the symbolism I have presented), it contains elementary chapters on the meanings of the cards, using the Celtic Cross layout, dignities (called friendly and clashing elements), zodiacal associations, and procedures for reading the cards.  In short, it is jam-packed for a beginning reader.  


I hope that subsequent or accompanying books will explain in more detail the symbolism of each of the characters for non-Indonesian Tarot readers, who likely can only slightly begin to grasp its complicated symbolism.  For instance, Samar, Hanoman (the monkey general, Pancawati warrior, and Seven of Cups), and Bima (one of the Pandawa brothers and the eighth Major Arcana), all wear kampuh polong clothing, i.e., pieces of four-colored cloth that remind us of the need to harmonize different kinds of "lusts": anger (red), greed (yellow), and sloth (black).  The white in the cloth represents lack of desire or desire mastered, holiness.


Although absolutely delightful, this is not a deck to be taken lightly, as indicated by the following statement: "Due to the role of supernatural energy within these cards, we are not responsible for any risk caused by copying them without any permission from the inventor/publisher."  We, of course, have the permission of Ani Sekarningsih to reproduce the cards accompanying this review. Ani explained to me that it was important to spend some time meditating before using the cards in the deck.


The book/deck set for Tarot Wayang (ISBN 979-695870-8) is published by Grasindo in Jakarta.  You can see copies of the cards and read about the deck creator on Ani's website, where you can also sign her guest book and ask to be contacted by her for additional information.



Sandra A. Thomson is the president of the American Tarot Association. She is the co-author of three tarot books.  Her fourth, a Tarot dictionary, will be released by St. Martin Press in August.   She is also the author of a dream dictionary, some of whose contents are shown on oxygen.com.  A California licensed psychologist, and a student of the Korean discipline of Sunin Do, Sandra is interested in the many ways that the Tarot can be used to express and prompt personal and spiritual growth.

Images © Grasindo
Review © 2003 Sandra Thomson
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes