As I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into the field of Tarot, I’ve come to realize that its practitioners seem to fall into two camps: one camp consists of those who devote themselves almost exclusively to one single deck, while the other is comprised of those who cultivate collections of a much larger number of different decks (sometimes to the point of needing storage space on the order of an entire, separate, walk-in closet dedicated to housing them all).
Maybe I should back up for a second to explicitly state something for anyone reading along who doesn’t actually have much acquaintance with Tarot: there are many different decks out there in the world at this point in our societal evolution that fall under the heading of “Tarot.” If you’re like I once was, you may be laboring under the (mistaken but understandable) assumption that “Tarot” equates to one certain deck, and you may further be holding in your mind a picture of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck (the “RWS”) where your mental file for “Tarot” resides. And the RWS is definitely by far the single most widely known and widely used Tarot deck on the planet, so who could blame you? It’s the one that basically looks like someone’s photo diary from when they visited the local Renaissance Fair:
But as I soon learned when I began exploring Tarot more vigorously, there are literally hundreds of different decks, if not thousands by now. The RWS still remains the most widely utilized template, and many deck creators simply put a new stylistic spin on the by now traditional images, without doing much else to set their decks apart from the RWS itself in terms of actual meanings — Tarot aficionados will often refer to such decks as “clones” of the RWS. In a distant but fanatically adored second place for widespread use and template-status would be the Crowley-Harris Thoth deck (the “Thoth”). The artwork of the Thoth is very different from that of the RWS, but then again, the respective visionaries behind the creation of each — Arthur Waite, who accounts for the “W” in “RWS,” and notorious Aleister Crowley — both came up out of the same occult organization, something called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and a peek below the surface level of artistic style will show as many similarities between the two decks as differences.
So the point here is that there are oodles of different decks out there, but if you look past the surfaces of them, a huge percentage can be seen as all hewing to the same overall templates and the same libraries of symbolism.
You’ll probably also notice that, as mentioned above, the RWS and the Thoth get treated as sort of the Coke and Pepsi of Tarot decks, and you might even perceive a sort of “either/or” binary effect going on, under which Tarot enthusiasts seem to hold this odd, implicit view that you need to choose one or the other, much like people once played a game of “Beatles or Elvis?” Me, I tend to find merit in both, although I have to confess that as a Tarot beginner, I was far more attracted to the Thoth deck for multiple reasons, but was then kind of dismayed to find that it was the RWS system that lodged way more firmly in my gray matter. I still bang my head against the Thoth periodically, and I don’t intend to ever stop, and I do feel comfortable enough reading with the Thoth and with other Thoth-based decks…but I’m much more of a natural with the RWS and its progeny.
So having said all that, back to that thing I said up above, about how some people stick to one main deck, while others amass these sometimes giant collections… I’m not that much of a hoarder, not like some people I know who keep up collections of decks numbering in the triple digits, but I do tend to like having multiple decks on hand. I’m a fiend for symbolism, and I find it keeps my mind very engaged to shuttle back and forth among different decks, always readjusting to the ways in which various artists have rendered the same overall concepts…
I tend to pick decks that have artwork that really triggers my own imagination, and I seem to lean toward the modern, the busy, and above all, the surreal. And as touched on above, the easiest decks for me to read with are those that, underneath their individual artistic trappings, seem to cling the closest to the RWS model. Some are virtually identical beneath the finer details of the artwork, and some vary quite a bit…and I have to say that the most frustrating are the decks that are mostly straight-up RWS clones, but which have just a few cards that veer off into new symbolic territory. These can baffle me, sometimes for long periods.
And with all that preamble now out of the way, we arrive at the main point of this post: I finally cracked one such frustrating card, whose seemingly non-RWS thrust in an otherwise very RWS deck has been giving me grief for many months now…
The deck of which I speak is the Deviant Moon Tarot, which made quite a splash when it debuted a few years ago.
Its creator apparently spent time taking photos for reference in abandoned factories and cemeteries so as to help him capture the vibe he wanted, and making etchings of actual gravestones and such for incorporation into the deck. This made for quite the unique feel, and the imagery that I saw online began to grow on me, to the point where I eventually grabbed myself a copy. I was surprised to find, though, that behind all that odd impish imagery, the deck was actually very faithful to the RWS model. With one major (for me) exception:
The Hermit card.
Now, the Hermit card is possibly one of the better known images drawn from Tarot, thanks in no small part to the inclusion of it as the interior illustration in the fourth album by landmark rock band, Led Zeppelin. This is the celebrated sonic platter that gave to the world the beloved anthem, Stairway to Heaven (among other fabulous cuts). Check it:
That image there gives a very accurate depiction of the general gist of the RWS Hermit: old man, isolated, big walking stick, lantern — all of this is in line with the Hermit’s meaning as a symbol of the spiritual seeker, one who quests for knowledge that can’t generally be found within the context of our own daily lives here in regular, bustling civilization. An overwhelming majority of other decks generally offers up identifiable spins on this archetype.
But then there’s the Deviant Moon version:
Is that an old man? An old woman? Neither? Both? Why is he/she/it within the city’s limits? Where’s the isolation out in the wilderness? Where’s the staff? Where’s the lantern, for crying out loud??
Like I said: this image baffled me for a long time. And I know I’m not the only one, as I discovered threads on various online bulletin boards, filled with posts in which people all bemoaned the same interpretive problems: What the heck did this thing mean? How does it reconcile with the RWS Hermit, which it must have to do, right?, as the rest of the deck is so clearly RWS-based…?
And then a couple of days ago…epiphany!
It struck me that this Hermit represents a very specific moment in the quest for spiritual discovery and growth: it’s that moment when the spiritual seeker has gotten herself/himself into a position such that it’s necessary to weather a sudden, unstoppable incoming flood of knowledge/sensation/input, and there’s nowhere to hide from it, no way to elude or evade it. You, the seeker, have asked for it, and now you’re getting it, even if that means being steamrollered by it. Contemplate the person who gets so deep into trance that, for the first time, they’re not sure they’ll be able to find their way out of it. Consider the seeker who leaps into the existential Abyss, and gets so far out into actual ego-death, that the sense of “I” that we generally carry with us completely disappears. Ponder the psychonaut adventurer who plunges out into the cosmic seas of something like DMT or Ayahuasca for the first time, and realizes for one screaming microsecond as the substance comes on, that this will be far, far more than was ever bargained for, and that there’s no hope for control here — all that’s left is surrender…
And of course, it’s often through such staggering, transformative experiences that we derive the most Truth and Enlightenment…but they’re certainly not the easiest experiences in the world to endure! And so I believe that that’s what this particular Hermit represents: that aspect, that specific moment, in the quest for spiritual Knowledge. The moment in which one is transported, shrieking, toward some new and vastly greater Understanding. And that doesn’t fly in the face of the traditional Hermit’s meaning at all — it actually fits with it exceedingly well. And now that I’ve seen it as such, I doubt I’ll ever be able to un-see it.
…And now I just need to have similar epiphanies regarding a few dozen other frustrating cards scattered among the various other decks in my collection…