Subject: Chrysalis Tarot
I have managed to score 12 copies. These are the only ones we will be able to get for the foreseeable future. …[S]end your people down, 12 of them, anyway, and let them get them while the getting is good.
I received this email a couple of Thursdays ago from Fran, the deck buyer at Isis Books & Gifts, where I am a store reader. I had been asking the week before when we were going to finally get this deck in stock, and I had started to suffer a moment of self-doubt wondering if I should have ordered it online instead of supporting my local brick and mortar. But my worries vanished when this email popped into my Inbox at the end of the day. I replied to set one aside for me, and that I’d be in first thing in the morning.
The next morning when I arrived the store was very busy, both cash registers with lines. Fran didn’t even look up and said, it’s by Oracle of Visions. I rushed over to grab my copy of the Chrysalis Tarot, published by US Games, paintings by Holly Sierra and written by Toney Brooks. I hesitated just a moment as I realized that it was not in a kit–no fancy book included. Mr. Brooks has an extensive background in mythology and metaphysics, so I had been hoping for a useful book.
If you’re not much of tarot deck collector, you may not know that a deck is created through a process of being written and illustrated. First a deck creator will come up with the ideas of how the deck should look, the color scheme and artistic style, what symbolism will be used, how the standard archetypes will be expressed, reacted against or commented on, etc. Then the artist designs the images based on the author’s ideas. Sometimes the artist is the author of their own deck.
However, sometimes the artist creates the deck–comes up with the ideas and then illustrates them–but has another person, someone with no input on the creative process, write the companion book. This is frequently the case with LWBs, but it can even be the case when a nice book is packaged together with a deck. In such a case, the writer of the book may be credited as the author even though they had no creative input into the development of the deck. Hopefully as they write the companion book they are in regular communication with the artist so that they understand the vision of the deck.
Knowing the relationship between the artist and the author of the book that accompanies the deck can help a great deal in determining to what degree the artwork will direct a reader’s understanding of the deck versus when the writing is paramount. The fact that this deck came packaged with an LWB instead of a companion guide made me curious about the role of the deck author. But more about that later.
I ripped into the packaging and once I had freed the cards from their plastic, I rushed them back to my office and set to work with them.
The cards are standard size and feature a cheerful, reversible butterfly and mandala design on the backs. The card fronts have a lovely subtle border that looks like carved wood surrounding each image, and a simple banner across the bottom declares the card title with no distracting commentary or keywords. The cardstock is a good weight, not so heavy as to make shuffling impossible, but thick enough to feel that the deck is tough enough to withstand use. It is very stiff to shuffle at first and took a couple of days to loosen up.
The artwork (the original paintings were created in oil) is soft, colorful and has a fairy tale feel to it. You can see beautiful high-resolution images of every card at artist Holly Sierra’s website. Although there are many humans in the scenes, often only animals are featured, and almost all the scenes are out in nature or feature a stylized, nature-based background. There is no nudity and the difficult cards are toned down by relying on mythological references. The deck feels safe and comfortable.
The most difficult card is probably Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and rebirth. She is featured on the Tower card. Her face hangs in the clouds in the sky above a lightning struck tower, her brow furrowed, her long tongue extended. Her garland of skulls stretches between two of her four hands; long bony fingers with overgrown, curved talon nails reach toward the destruction. As images of Kali goes, this is a tame one.
I was eager to work with these cards and laid out my first reading, anticipating the exciting spark of discovery. But the cards stared mutely at me from the table. If I applied the standard RWS meanings to the cards I got an answer to my question that made sense, but I certainly wanted something fresh from such a magical deck, not the same old, same old.
I asked another question and laid another spread. The cards sat there looking blankly at me.
Now, some people who are newer to tarot might get thrown off by a few things in this deck. First, it uses non-standard suits: Spirals, Mirrors, Scrolls and Stones, which in order correspond to Fire (Wands), Water (Cups), Air (Swords) and Earth (Pentacles). But this doesn’t interfere with my process–I specialize in teaching non-standard decks and in particular, I have a class in which I use non-standard suited decks to teach the correspondence of the four elements to the tarot suits. That’s one of the reasons I was eager to get my hands on this deck–I had just done a presentation the week before on this topic and I would have loved to have had the Chrysalis in my collection for that night’s practice. Luckily I got it in time to teach this material again at the Denver Tarot Meetup (coming up on June 24, 2014).
Second, the deck uses mythological references to express the Major Arcana archetypes. Unfamiliar characters such as Papa Legba for Strength (a Haitian spirit who stands at the crossroads, serving as psychopomp to the reader) or Elpi for the Star (a diminutive for Elpis, the Greek goddess of hope who was forgotten in Pandora’s box and who reminds us that the choices we make today determine if our dreams will be realized in the future) might throw off a reader who is not well-versed in mythology–these were two I was not previously familiar with. I’m not an expert on mythology, but it is something I’m very interested in, and I am always excited to learn more world mythology. I teach a class on the Mythology of the Tarot and one on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Having to engage in a little extra research to fully understand a deck is an exciting challenge.
Lastly, the cards tend to deviate from standard RWS imagery. Any tarot reader worth their salt should thrive on this kind of originality, but it is possible that readers with just the right amount of experience (brand-new readers are completely free and open with any deck, so I’m talking about people who have a deck or two and have read a book or two) might have to re-wire their expectations when looking at the imagery. Likewise, the court cards are re-imagined as a troupe of medieval artists and entertainers. But this stuff never throws me off–I specialize in teaching reading methods based on the artwork of the cards rather than traditional symbolism. Not only am I one of the few teachers I know who doesn’t require beginning tarot students to use a RWS-derived deck, but I actually discourage the use of RWS decks for beginners–I think every tarot reader should have the images of that deck burned into their memory, but I don’t think you have to start there and I encourage students to use any illustrated deck whose artwork appeals to them.
Basically, the Chrysalis Tarot should be perfect for me–it should excite my senses, challenge my knowledge and inspire fresh readings.
It folded its arms and sullenly gazed at me from hooded eyes.
I was getting grumpy.
I pulled out the LWB to see what the highly educated and spiritually adept author had to say about these intransigent cards. This LWB is a bit more in-depth than most, but it’s still an LWB, not a companion guide. What is amazing and generous though is that not only can you download a pdf of the LWB from the US Games website, but author Toney Brooks has his own extensive website with excellent write-ups on many of the cards. I read some of his entries and started to get excited again–yes, yes! New information, fascinating mythology, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey–fabulous stuff!
I asked another question and laid out another spread. I heard the cards mocking me as my own standard meanings, my personal vocabulary that I’ve develop over 20+ years of reading, were the only thing that made sense as an answer to my question. Certainly this is convenient–my meanings based on the RWS card images, modified slightly by other favorite decks, seemed to produce very clear, accurate readings. But that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted fresh, new, inspired. I looked up the meanings online. This helped.
Now, anyone who knows me just dropped their jaw. I am the most outspoken proponent of getting all meanings from the images on the cards, not from books (or online content). I have more than once reached out and confiscated an LWB out of the hands of an unsuspecting tarot meetup participant. I had a student one year who came into class every week and said, oh, I just wanted to let you know that I burned all my tarot books this week. Everyone knows I don’t read tarot books (at least, not many).
Take the Seven of Mirrors, for example. It shows a woman weaving at a loom, seven mirrors scattered around the room. The colors are rich and luscious, the artwork textured with loving detail. The clear blues of the glass in the gilt-framed blank mirrors, the warm solidity of the wooden loom, the golden hair and gown of the weaver, the detail of the pattern in the wallpaper (this is one of only a handful of interior scenes). Mirrors of all sizes and shapes filled the room. The largest, a round mirror in a cerulean frame, is cracked, and reflects the back of the weaver’s head. Rather than showing the details of warp and weft (details which are clearly illustrated in The Weaver: Queen of Scrolls), a gauzy chiffon wafts in the loom. The weaver looks not at her work, but stares into the distance of her inner thoughts.
I thought of Penelope, whose husband Odysseus left her to fight in the Trojan war and ended up going on a twenty-year adventure. Despairing of ever seeing him again, raising her son alone, Penelope spent every day weaving Odysseus’s shroud, but each night she would pull out the work she had done, prolonging her faith in his return, and keeping her clamoring suitors at bay. He did eventually come home to her, but that’s another story. The story of Penelope is a wonderful illustration for the Seven of Cups–hoping, uncertainty, delaying, having faith in a happy outcome in the face of many imagined horrors.
I looked the card up on Mr. Brooks’s website. The card is actually the Lady of Shalott from the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The basic card meaning is still indecision and uncertainty, but the story is quite interesting. The Lady of Shalott is cursed to live in isolation and can only view the world indirectly through the reflection of mirrors. She works to weave the shadows of reality that she witnesses into detailed tapestries. Mr. Brooks advises that we learn to distinguish illusion from reality to make better informed choices–something the tarot can help with. This site is so helpful, I thought, I did not know that story.
I started voraciously reading every entry on Mr. Brooks’s website.
And the more I read on his site, the less I understood the cards. I felt like I was not able to read them at all without learning exactly what he said they mean. And that will suck the life out of any reader’s work.
It became more and more important for me to know which came first, the art or the writing. The interaction between author and artist is an interesting thing. Both are necessary, but tarot is a visual medium and to me the art will always determine the meaning of the card over any accompanying text. But I loved the writing of this particular author and wanted to honor his intentions.
I contacted Mr. Brooks and asked how he and Ms. Sierra worked together on the deck creation. It turns out that after discovering his book on Arthurian mythology, she contacted him and proposed they partner together on a deck. The entire collaboration was done by email–not uncommon, I believe, in this day and age.
Mr. Brooks told me that he “designed the schema and philosophy – the stuff under the hood – recast the majors, renamed the suits, invented The Troupe [which replace the court cards], and set the keywords for the minors.” To develop the Major Arcana and the Troupe, they discussed together what to use and not use in the symbolism. Mr. Brooks wanted to work from the original illustrated tarot deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith, but develop images that arose from the Collective Unconscious, eschewing the highly Christian symbolism used by Arthur Edward Waite, as well as the culturally expired hierarchy of King and Queen, Emperor and Empress. His goal was to make the deck more creative, relevant, holistic, and multi-cultural. Mr. Brooks explained to me that he and Ms. Sierra were very much in sync. For instance, he provided her only keywords and scant notes for the Minor Arcana and then wrote his descriptions based on her artwork, only very rarely proposing modifications to her illustrations.
I had been working with the deck for two days now and was determined to get it to talk to me. I asked another question and laid out another spread. The cards included the Four of Spirals paired with the Ten of Mirrors. The Four of Spirals is featured on the cover of the LWB. It, along with the Seven of Scrolls, were some of the images that had caught my eye in the early stages of the promotion of this deck, images that attested to its magical quality, images that drew me in and invited me to play.
I stared at that Four of Spirals. An adorable thatch-roofed cottage sits in a stand of bare-branched trees, the crescent moon hovering low in the sky. The asymmetry of the little house, its odd-shaped windows, the bee-hive in front, the decorative spiral to one side of the door and straw broom on the other, created a fairy tale enchantment. In the foreground, lending perspective, are four weeds, their tops curved in the tight spiral of new growth, the theme of the suit. As I gazed at the card it started to vibrate, and I suddenly shifted into the scene, standing at a distance, just about to push past the last of the tall weeds and arrive at my destination. The jewel-toned bird of the Ten of Mirrors flapped over my head, holding in its beak colorful ribbons adorned with tiny mirrors, and light glinted and glanced around this astral landscape I’d been drawn into. I knew without a doubt that the answer to my question is to sweep out my home carefully and put little lights everywhere–I have a strand of Christmas lights that will work.
I looked at an earlier reading I had done–I had asked about a client of mine who was considering starting her own business. Doing a follow-up for her, I had pulled the Ten of Stones and Three of Spirals–my usual way of reading these two cards would be “making a lot of money from self-employment” (a reading I could have gotten with any old deck). But now I looked at it again and the cards said, she needs to plant ten gemstones (silver coins would work) at the root of a three-branched tree.
I looked at another reading. The Eight of Stones and the Ace of Scrolls. I needed a recipe for what I was stirring up in the cauldron.
When I first learned to read the tarot twenty-three years ago my teacher told me that no card stands on its own. The meaning arises from the interaction of the cards. This is why card meanings and authorial essays can only go so far in guiding us toward an understanding of a spread. To enter the depths of a deck, the characters of myths and tales must break out of the frame of their own story and wander, perhaps lost at first, into the unknown of neighboring cards. This smashes expectations and releases creativity; imagination is the foundation of intuition.
I had entered the magical world of this deck! Unlike other decks, this one does not simply provide the usual insight and prognostication. This one teaches you magic spells for creating the outcomes that you desire. I felt this deck had initiated me into its unique universe and I had a lifetime pass to visit whenever I wanted.
Joy Vernon has been teaching energetic and esoteric modalities for over twenty years. She is one of the Psychics of Isis in Denver, Colorado. She teaches Tarot, Astrology, Qabalah and Traditional Japanese Reiki. She is a Certified Professional Tarot Reader and a member of the American Tarot Association and Tarosophy Tarot Association. Her specialty is Empyrean Key Transformational Guidance, which helps her clients break through blocks and align with their higher purpose. For information on upcoming classes or to schedule an appointment, please visit JoyVernon.com.
© 2014 by Joy Vernon. All rights reserved.