I first became aware of the Tarot Illuminati through Facebook a couple of years ago. What caught my eye was the decadent image of the High Priestess which graced the cover of the Tarosophist International winter 2011 issue. As I now glance over the Tarot Illuminati Facebook page, words like “beautiful,” “breathtaking,” “gorgeous,” “magical,” and “stunning” pop out from reviews and thank-yous posted by this deck’s adoring fans.
This tour de force, designed by Erik C. Dunne with a companion book by Kim Huggens and published by Lo Scarabeo, blitzed the tarot world card by blingy card as Erik unveiled the deck slowly over a year and a half, a steady curtain call of the glitz and glamour, bright lights and show stopping spectacle of a Broadway blockbuster.
Of course, I’ve always been more of an Off-Off girl, seeking out the tiny black box theatres with dull costumes, no set, and meaty, intense characters who challenge my world view, take me into the depths of my understanding of reality and re-weave the fabric of my being. Like a big Broadway musical, this full-voiced deck overwhelms my senses with one big production number after another. I’m yearning for a quiet scene, a whispered aside, the melancholy ballad. My question as I flip through the cards is: can this jewel box oracle get in my black box brain and speak to me?
On the shelf the Tarot Illuminati box is exquisitely presented in a peacock spectrum of blues and greens, overlaid with antiqued gold rays extending from a vesica piscis which frames the incomparable High Priestess image in her subtle shading of cool blues and lavender. She is arrayed in a luxury of texture from diaphanous chiffons to patterned jacquards, from draping silks and glimmering satins to heavy velvet. Her chain mail girdle and cuffs contrast with her feathery, pleated headdress behind the crescent curves of her hammered silver Isis crown. Intricate silver metalwork falls from her jeweled belt while above her armored midriff and below her cowled neck she opens her sacred, ancient scroll. The photo realism of face and hands—remote disdain and cutting cheekbones above grasping fingers—brings an almost unnatural human presence to this fantasy image.
The many-layered costume and heavily made-up features all speak to a veiling and complexity of her truth, despite the fact that she holds her scroll open to the viewer. We remember that words are also a veil for truth and we approach a possible understanding of the image.
Inside the durable box—the nicest kind with a magnetic flap closure—we are again greeted with the same image on the cover of the 160-page full-color book. The deck itself is nestled comfortably in a perfectly sized cubbyhole with a bright yellow satin ribbon that easily lifts the deck from its snug home.
The cards are very thick with gilded edges and the card backs feature an opulent gold metalwork pattern over the peacock blues of the box and book cover. I have heard reports of sticky cards, which I think is a common and forgivable side effect of the gilding process. The cards are too thick to riffle shuffle, and certainly you wouldn’t want to treat this art piece like a working deck. Overhand shuffling is smooth and effective and allows you to trance out on the beautiful and reversible card backs.
The cards are a standard size, approximately 2 ¾ x 4 ¾ inches, and borderless with a brief banner across the bottom declaring the card title. All the titles are traditional with the exception of the substitution of the Alchemist for the Magician. The riotous colors are so overwhelming as to beg for a border that might bring consistency to a spread. Normally I prefer borderless decks, but this seems to crave something to tone it down and give it some structure.
The artwork itself is well-executed digital illustration and photo collage. I have always found that contrasting photographic backgrounds and people with computer generated props and costumes undermines my suspension of disbelief—I find greater verisimilitude in images that let go of the real world and embrace their own unique mise-en-scene.
My favorite cards in the deck tend toward the cool end of the color spectrum and aren’t overproduced, sticking to simpler images rather than busy symbolism that doesn’t give the eye a place to rest.
The Princess of Swords in the full skirts and ruffled collar of her Elizabethan gown (the suit of Swords features a cast from the Elizabethan period) stands in the grass beneath a craggy cliff topped with a wind-swept tree. Five seagulls lift up and away against cloudy gray skies. The wind tangles her hip-length red hair as a lace scarf blows around her. She looks up at the sword lifted in her hands. She feels secure and safe on the ground but ready to take on the climb to new heights.
The Nine of Swords is another favorite card. If only more of the cards shared this rich but muted palette I could more easily honor the Technicolor majority as having their appropriate place. In this card a woman with long red hair sits forward from the ruffled and appliquéd pillows on her curtained four-poster, head in her hands as rich earth-toned tapestries tumble to the floor. Stone sculptures, a common motif, sit on the ground by the head of the bed. The somber colors help to affirm the standard meaning of this card: despair, interpreted in the book as “The things that go bump in the night.”
Ultimately this deck is very traditional, hardly differing from the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) images. Indeed they are so standard that small deviations tend to draw attention. For instance, both the Two of Wands and the Three of Wands feature ships, whereas only in the RWS Three of Wands do ships play a role. In the Tarot Illuminati, the ships are clearly leaving port in the Two of Wands and sailing back into the harbor in the Three. More ships return in the Three than left in the Two, which implies a successful venture, but the crashing of waves against rocks seems to recommend caution—the cargo is not safe ashore yet. The turbaned figure in harem pants and curl-toed slippers—the suit of Wands features stereotypically Persian dress—stands between two wands planted firmly in the ground, one before him and one behind him, while he holds the third tilted at an angle behind his back. This odd posture distorts the line of his body while at the same time flexing the muscles of his broad back, this sinewy strength clear under the skin-tight shimmering emerald green top he wears. He is perhaps using the wand to signal the ships, alerting them to the dangers of the coast.
The distortion of form is a common theme in this deck. The nude man and woman in the Lovers card twist themselves in an interpretive dance that seems to bring the pain of the Fall to this Eden.
The woman in the Star looks stiffly down at the water pouring out of her urns while she over arches her back, allowing her tiny naked breasts to point up to the gold filigree stars above. The glittering glow that swirls around the stars hovering in the pink and purple sunset sky and spirals around the streams of water breaking the golden reflection in the pool combined with the curling swoops of feathery blue and gold that grace both her body and the landscape bring a magical energy to the card, part photographic portrait and part aura painting.
The dove in the Ace of Cups, rather than gracefully descending into the chalice, seems to struggle to escape, splashing five streams out of the cup as it rises amid sparkles, while many yods, the sparks of the Divine, cascade from its wings to shower the pink blossoms below. The hand from the fluffy white cloud holds the jeweled cup in twisted, claw-like fingers. The water lilies grow out of rock, another unnatural distortion. Overall the card seems to speak of the discomfort as we first twist out of the denial of the Divine and allow ourselves to open to receive the gift of heavenly abundance.
There is a lack of cohesion to this deck that I find confusing. The Pentacles are all images of Asian people and culture. But this clear suit symbolism is not carried throughout the deck. The male characters in the Wands suit feature the Persian dress noted above (albeit in more lamé than one would expect from the implied time period), but the Wands women are in European costume. The suit of Cups features Western costumes from the Renaissance through the Elizabethan period, confusing the Swords which seem to be more strictly Elizabethan. Although I often appreciate decks that show a unique story or culture throughout a suit, in this case I would rather have all these time periods and cultures mixed together, creating a unified Tarot Illuminati universe that transcends time and culture—more Baz Lurhmann and less costume drama.
The accompanying book is beautiful with full-color illustrations. It features several spreads and a brief section on how to read the cards. Each card has its own page, with a short monologue seeming to be spoken by the character featured on the card, followed by a paragraph of keywords. This unique take provides interesting reading. However, the back of the box promises that “every detail is meaningful” in this deck, and I would have been interested to hear this highly educated author’s take on these details.
There is a greatly expanded book, The Tarot Illuminati Revealed: A Complete Guide to the Tarot Illuminati, available in a Kindle edition from Amazon for an additional charge. A sample chapter of this longer tome is included in the volume in the boxed kit and showcases author Kim Huggens’s extensive knowledge of mythology and history. It promises to be relevant to and revealing of tarot generally as well as the Tarot Illuminati specifically.
The ornate detail of this deck is both help and hindrance. Each card is sumptuous, but with so much to notice, it is easy to get lost. Several people have mentioned to me that whereas they find each card lovely, there is a limit to how many cards can be laid out in a spread before chaos sets in. A spread with this deck is like a bouquet of every exotic flower in the shop without any carnations or baby’s breath to provide the supporting cast that lets the star shine. It is clear from all the glowing reviews of this deck and all the raves I’ve heard from colleagues that many people have an eye for the splendor displayed here. But for those who don’t, I wonder if it wouldn’t be helpful to use this deck to highlight a three card overview and then incorporate a plainer, less colorful deck—perhaps a black and white deck—to fill in the details of the spread. This might be a great way to incorporate this deck in readings while not getting blinded by its dazzling beauty. This is my solution to providing a black box setting to showcase an out-of-town headliner.
Joy Vernon has been teaching energetic and esoteric modalities for over twenty years. She is one of the Psychics of Isis in Denver, Colorado and also reads at Northern Lights in Fort Collins. She teaches tarot, astrology, qabalah and traditional Japanese Reiki. She is a Certified Professional Tarot Reader and a member of the American Tarot Association. Her specialty is Empyrean Key Transformational Guidance, which helps her clients break through blocks and align with their higher purpose. Joy has a degree in theatre and worked in that field for decades before becoming a full-time tarot reader. For information on upcoming classes or to schedule an appointment, please visit JoyVernon.com.
© 2013 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.