Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

The Companion, King of Spirals, Chrysalis Tarot by Holly Sierra and Toney Brooks, published by US Games Systems.
The Companion, King of Spirals, Chrysalis Tarot by Holly Sierra and Toney Brooks, published by US Games Systems.

About five weeks ago, I came across a review of the Chrysalis Tarot by Dan Pelletier of the Tarot Garden (published October 30 on his Facebook page). He praised the deck creators, saying, “Sierra and Brooks demonstrate they actually understand the courts on a deep level.” The thing is, I’ve been working with this deck on and off for a few months and I’m not entranced by the court cards. I’m intrigued–the idea of capturing the spirit of a troupe of medieval entertainers is evocative, and remember I’m a theatre major. But in practice, it wasn’t working for me. And I seemed to pull a lot of court cards when using this deck. Then this week Christiana Gaudet published a review of the Chrysalis and she questioned the structure that underlies the court cards. Inspired by Dan and Christiana, I decided to try to understand this ragtag band.

Dan mentioned that he doesn’t think most artists capture the qualities that the courts are supposed to evoke. I agree, and what has happened for me over the years is that I now read the court cards not based nearly as much on the images but primarily based on their assigned energetic quality. I primarily use the astrological correspondences, but I also take into account and adjusting my meanings as needed based on the element of the suit and the element of the ranking. (That is to say, in a standard RWS style deck, the Kings are fire, the Queens are water, the Knights are air, and the Pages are earth, based on the qabalistic four worlds, see this post for more details. So for me, the Queen of Wands is Water of Fire. We did a series of classes on this topic in my Tarot Geeks meetup back in 2009-2010, and it really deepened my understanding of the courts immensely.)

Controlling - Restraint from the Bright Idea Deck by Mark McElroy, published by Llewellyn Publications.
Controlling – Restraint from the Bright Idea Deck by Mark McElroy, published by Llewellyn Publications.

I completely understand and respect Chrysalis author Toney Brooks’s choice to steer clear of esoteric influences of the tarot. However, in his own words, he says that he uses the architecture of the tarot to design this deck. And I agree that if that architecture is based on esotericism, a different blueprint needs to be developed. Of course, many tarot creators over the years have bypassed the esotericism with a variety of rankings. The Motherpeace deck uses Shaman, Priestess, Son, and Daughter. The William Blake Tarot uses Man, Woman, Child, and Angel. The Gaian Tarot uses Elder, Guardian, Explorer, and Child. Any of these options, not to mention numerous others, works beautifully and easily replaces the esoteric architecture. Mark McElroy brilliantly redesigned the court cards for his Bright Idea deck as Controlling, Feeling, Doing and Learning. This works. It’s an inventive and structured approach. (The Bright Idea card Controlling in the suit of Blue, or emotions, is called Restraint and shows a peace officer holding up his hand to halt an angry mob, a powerful image in light of the Ferguson fiasco.)

The problem is, Toney Brooks truly did come up with a motley crew here with his court cards. No structure is clear, to me, in the illustrations. I turned to the LWB to uncover his intentions. There are yearnings toward a new architecture—he describes the Kings as Mentors, the Queens for the most part as Muses, most of the Knights are Mystics, and most of the Pages are Messengers. But he’s not consistent in this usage—the Queen of Mirrors is described as a Mystic, while the Knight of Mirrors is called a Messenger and Page of Mirrors is referred to as the Muse. It doesn’t help that one of the Queens is also called The Muse. (I checked Toney’s website and found on his page on the Troupe that he does consider there to be four consistent categories of Mentor, Muse, Mystic and Messenger. I’m guessing that the confusion in the LWB is an editing error.)

Continuing to try to work with this structure, the card that I pulled the other day immediately comes to mind. I drew the King of Spirals, which would be Fire of Fire using esotericism, but in this deck it is the Mentor of Fire. Fire in the LWB is passion, personal growth, rational thinking (as opposed to scrolls which is intellect), and energy. So the Mentor of Passion, the Mentor of Energy and Growth to me would be someone who advises or guides me using fiery qualities—charisma, inspiration, leading by example, not afraid to get his hands dirty, willing to do it with you. The King of Spirals, the fire mentor, is titled The Companion. A companion to me is an equal. A companion is someone who shares with me, not someone more experienced than me who is guiding or advising me. And the image shows a man sitting on a stool, one hand out as if to make a point. This is not action or energy, it looks to me like someone simply telling a story, I can see him in a tavern, striking up a conversation with anyone within earshot.

For me, the court cards of the tarot must exhibit both a rank and an element. What different ranks the creator dreams up can open up profound and myriad possibilities. But just coming up with four ranks doesn’t do the trick. These ranks need to be understood generally and severally—there must be a clear sense of what a mentor is, then each specific mentor must be clearly identified as the rank applied to the suit. The illustration has to support this.

The Minstrel, King of Stones, Chrysalis Tarot by Holly Sierra and Toney Brooks, published by US Games Systems.
The Minstrel, King of Stones, Chrysalis Tarot by Holly Sierra and Toney Brooks, published by US Games Systems.

In an example, Toney says, “…the Minstrel corresponds to the RWS King of Pentacles. These two cards share similar qualities…” And then goes on to say of the Minstrel, “The Minstrel is The Troupe’s unofficial honcho who leads his band of medieval merrymakers through the countryside bringing news and gossip from faraway places. As a Mentor from the suit of Stones (Earth, the material realm), The Minstrel is a trustworthy advisor in down-to-earth matters such as career, finance and material possessions.” The first half of the description describes the image on the card, the second half is the standard tarot meaning. The image and standard tarot meaning do not overlap here—nothing in this image of a man playing a lute with his dog by his side suggests wealth or career. Minstrels in medieval times were entirely dependent on patrons for their daily living needs. In fact, Patron would be a good example of a King of Pentacles translated to a medieval troupe. But not Minstrel.

I would have loved to see something exciting and new here, something that sparked my imagination and revved me up to a new level of understanding. I wonder what might have worked better– Commedia dell’arte stock characters, perhaps? Unfortunately, the Chrysalis Tarot breaks from esoteric tradition while failing to lay the foundation for a new structure.
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Joy Vernon has been studying and teaching energetic and esoteric modalities for more than twenty years. She is the organizer of the Denver Tarot Geeks and Denver Tarot Meetup, and she served on the faculty of Avalon Center for Druidic Studies. She is one of the psychics at Isis Books and has been featured at SpiritWays, the Mercury Café and psychic fairs throughout the Denver Metro and Northern Colorado. She is a Certified Professional Tarot Reader and a member of the American Tarot Association and Tarosophy Tarot Association. Joy also teaches Traditional Japanese Reiki. For information on upcoming classes or to schedule an appointment, please visit JoyVernon.com.
© 2014 by Joy Vernon. All rights reserved.

Joy Vernon is widely recognized by tarot professionals as an expert tarot teacher and respected community leader. With over twenty years’ experience teaching energetic and esoteric modalities, Joy brings expertise and practiced familiarity to her specialty of esoteric tarot, which layers astrological and qabalistic symbolism onto the traditional tarot structure. Under her leadership, the Denver Tarot Meetup has grown into one of the largest and most active tarot-specific meetups in the world. Joy works as a tarot reader, astrologer, and teacher at Isis Books. To learn more, please visit JoyVernon.com.
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Rank-o-phile: The Chrysalis Troupe