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The best way I can think to describe tarot is "an illustrated path to personal empowerment." Or, as tarot deck creator Rhienna Renée Guedry says in the guidebook for her Violet Ascension deck, "a means to seeking a path in uncertain times." Tarot has certainly served that purpose for me.
My first tarot deck was a gift from a friend in New Orleans. It came to me at a shaky time in my life. I couldn't decide which path to take, so I fled home to Louisiana from Colorado looking for clarity. A friend of mine had recently gotten a tattoo of a tarot card, "the Hanged Man", on his arm. He told me I shouldn't go back to Colorado without a tarot deck of my own.
The origins of tarot remain somewhat mysterious. We know there was a practice around tarot happening in Italy sometime before 1425, as evidenced by an old set of rudimentary directions for a bridge-like card game using trionfi cards, or "triumphs." In Austria, it was Königrufe or Tarock; the game was called tarocchi or tarocchini in Italy; and the French called it tarot. The designs of these early tarot cards were said to be inspired by costumed carnival participants, and the early trionfi, at least, had allegorical imagery. It wasn't until the late 18th century that tarot cards entered the realm of the occult by way of card deck divination, or "cartomancy."
A modern tarot deck, like the ubiquitous Rider-Waite deck first printed in 1910 and illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith, is a far cry from its early predecessors. The Christian symbolism of the earlier tarot is replaced by a more generalized religious tone—the Pope became the Heirophant, and the Papess became the High Priestess. The images presented on the Rider-Waite cards appear simple, but the longer you look at them, the more intricate symbolism can become apparent.
The deck, usually called the Rider-Waite deck (which conveniently erases illustrator Pamela Colman Smith's enormous contribution), has its pitfalls. Visually and to a degree, and sometimes thematically, it doesn't stray far from white European representation, or the binarism of gender. Wanting more people to see their lives present in depictions of the divine, many have taken it upon themselves to make their own decks. Across the South and beyond practitioners of tarot have offered a variety of updates to traditional decks, four Southern tarot decks that are broadening tarot imagination and imagery are profiled below.
1. Delta Enduring Tarot
Creator: Egan, from South Louisiana, currently residing in Asheville, South Carolina
Why make a deck about the South? "[The Mississippi Delta] is this collaboration of cultures from all over the world, put into one place. The people that have been there have similarities to each other, that they [might not] have with anyone else in the world. […] And there's this beauty surrounding them, next to the ongoing tragedies they're constantly being accosted with, […] All of that just makes it this very magical place, and the fact that people are still out there, making beautiful things and raising beautiful families and finding happiness in spite of all this is something that gives me so much hope for the future of the Mississippi Delta." -Egan
A Louisiana native, medical doctor, illustrator, and a staunch admirer of the Mississippi Delta region, Egan created the Delta Enduring Tarot deck in an attempt to express the unique experience of living in the Deep South. They wanted to create a familiar sort of tarot while also challenging common patriarchal and Eurocentric iconography: "I wanted to challenge some of that in playful and sometimes serious ways in the art that I did, because my tarot deck is a Waite-Smith-based deck," they said.
Throughout Delta Enduring, we can see Egan play—and it can be dark. The Five of Wands, traditionally a depiction of five men sparring with wooden staffs, turns into five presumably-drunk men in poses reminiscent of the original card, holding Hand Grenade drinks outside of a bar. Delta's Devil card is an ominous police cruiser rolling up on a nervous person in a hoodie. The Chariot depicts a pick-up truck full of watermelons, and the Magician is a woman with an infinity halo creating some delicious magic in a Dutch oven. Temperance becomes Harm Reduction, depicted as two people in an emotional embrace, used syringe of Naloxone on the table in the foreground.
Temperance – which generally represents balance, patience, and moderation – was one of several traditional tarot card meanings that Egan left behind. "It just wasn't something that I felt needed to be said anymore," they explained.
The Tower card also falls into that category for Egan. In the Waite-Smith tarot, The Tower Card is assumed to be the Tower of Babel in flames, with a lightning bolt striking a symbolic crown off the top, "On the surface, [The Tower] is complete upheaval and destruction," they said. "And thinking about the South, and about our relationship to destruction, I completely threw that out." Instead, Delta Enduring has The Levee, depicted with a serious breach and water seeping into homes below.
Egan also added four cards to the standard 78-card tarot that anyone who's spent time in Louisiana will recognize: The Hurricane (uncontrollable destructive forces), Termite Swarm (temporary chaos), The Heat (constant oppressive forces), and Mardi Gras (the motivation to celebrate). The extra four cards round out the Delta Enduring tarot deck as an homage to the region's often misunderstood, complicated way of life—a culture big enough to deserve its own deck.
2. Violet Ascension Tarot
Creator: Rhienna Renée Guedry, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Why make a deck about the South? "So many [of my ancestors] never left [Ascension Parish] and I suppose there's something to that which shakes, haunts, and inspires me. […] It's truly something I find hard to put into words—it's a feeling, it's the weather. It's ephemeral and it's concrete. I feel strongly connected to the landscape and the history of that place. It will always be home, and always be a place I dream about and long for." -Rhienna Renée Guedry
The Violet Ascension tarot deck is a nature-intensive study in introspection with flavors of nature's magic, queerness, and southernness mixed in. It's also a repository for creator Rhienna Renée Guedry's southern heritage, which weaves in throughout the deck. The deck features raccoons, crustaceans, birds, armadillos, sea turtles, The World as a disco ball, a Bowie-inspired Star, and nearly an entire suit of bicycles (Wheels). That description may suggest this deck goes all over the place, but it's cohesive in a way that's somewhat difficult to explain.
The first thing you'll notice about the Violet Ascension deck is that it can bring you to a quieter place simply by flipping through it. In ways violence isn't part of the illustrations in the deck. There are no wands in the Wands suit: she replaces them with illustrations of animals that have horns, including a trio of narwhals and a unicorn. There are no swords in the Swords suit; the card-space is instead given mostly to birds, who (like swords) inhabit the realm of air. "There are no weapons, no acts of aggression, and while there are a few predators, they are not engaged in any conflict," Guedry said.
In seeking to minimize the aggression of iconography, Guedry transforms the traditional violence in tarot into something much more subtle, and even graceful. For instance, the Tower—traditionally an ominous and visceral illustration of a tower on fire, symbolizing destruction—is depicted in Violet Ascension as a fire watchtower, perched among the pines, vigilantly looking for the coming destruction (lest it be engulfed by flames). Another example is the Ten of Swords, most commonly depicted as an image of ten swords sticking out of a presumably dead man's back. Guedry attempting to still honor the essential lesson of the card distilled it instead into a hopeful image of a snake shedding its skin, signifying the end of a hard era.
A majority of the cards in the Violet Ascension deck feature animals and elements of nature, many native to the deep South. Guedry said it was almost a challenge not to put an animal on every card. "There are so many living creatures and elements of nature at play throughout the deck, and each one was researched and selected in earnest," she said. "I wanted to convey the beauty and power in nature and natural imagery; the way we connect to animals and have an obligation to take care of this planet."
Guedry removed most of the depictions of human beings from her deck so the deck wouldn't exclude anyone. "I wanted to be mindful of the way each card might be viewed in the hands of various marginalized folks, and I ran that question through as I sketched out each card and each suite," she said. "I wanted the deck to have equity—that anyone could use the deck without feeling like a specific card wasn't or couldn't be relatable to their individual experiences.
3. Mesquite Tarot
Creators: Bronwyn Walls (illustrator) & Aleisha Fitz (author)
Why make a deck about the South? "Mesquite reflects both the warmth and spaciousness of the Texas landscape. In addition, our soft and natural color palette is reminiscent of Texas desert and hill country scenery. Aleisha and I have both called Texas home as well as other areas in the South; Aleisha spent many years in Florida and I have spent many years in Louisiana, where I live now. We both love this region for so many reasons. Among those many reasons, I love the South for its vibrant personality, its slow and steady pace, its warm weather, its resilience, and its wildlife." -Bronwyn Walls
The Mesquite tarot deck, conceived by a pair of creative roommates beneath a mesquite tree in Austin, Texas, comes in a drawstring cloth bag alongside a beautiful guidebook, which reads like poetry. Delicate as it may be, illustrator Bronwyn Walls says that co-creating the Mesquite deck remains "the most intensive and time-consuming art project I've taken on."
The deck has a lightness to it, on more than one level. Most obviously, the cards are smaller—right around playing card size. Perhaps most impressive is how Walls' illustrations on the cards seem built around the frame of Fitz's poetic interpretations in the guidebook. The Mesquite's deck and guidebook speak to the closeness of Fitz and Walls in their collaboration: both look like the work of one soul.
The representations of people in the Mesquite deck are less detailed than their Rider-Waite-Smith counterparts, allowing a broader interpretation that doesn't hinge on gender. You'll see it in the card names themselves, too: Pages, knights, queens, and kings aren't in this deck at all; instead, those cards take their names from their meanings – novices, students, knowers, and leaders, respectively. Illustrations on the cards that specifically imbue femininity, such as The Empress and The High Priestess, don't present specifically as women; and the same with the more masculine cards, like The Hanged Man (in Mesquite as The Hanged One) and The Emperor, represented by intertwined Venus and Mars symbols.
Mesquite Tarot is currently not available for purchase, but that may change soon: Walls and Fitz plan to open it up to publishers in the coming year.
4. Dust II Onyx, A Melanated Tarot
Creator: Courtney Alexander
Multimedia artist and University of Florida alumnus Courtney Alexander created a masterpiece in the Dust II Onyx tarot deck, which celebrates her perception of her own body as it intertwines with her lineage, art history, and images from her own dreams.
Alexander grew up among the fields of sugar cane in Pahokee, Florida—a rural agricultural town on Lake Okeechobee. It was so small, Alexander says, that people only shared the last four digits of their phone numbers with each other because "everyone had the same first three."
Alexander's journey into art was a winding path that hadn't aimed there in the beginning, but one day, she found herself in a community college art classroom, as she says, "removing creativity from purpose."
"This was the first time in my life that I really used art to talk about the things that I didn't have a vocabulary for the time, or that I didn't have the community around me at the time to really listen [in order to] dissect these issues," she said.
Among the issues Alexander explored in her early art were the space of her physical body, her Blackness, and how others responded to those things. Her work progressed to involve art history as a method of self-exploration. "I looked to art history to explore how being a fat Black woman and being inserted into common narratives brought new context to them," she writes on her website. "Now I have turned to systems of divination as a medium through which I can not only explore my own perception of self, but the interconnectedness of my experiences with others."
Alexander's fascination with tarot came about during a lonely time in her life, as a way to feel less isolated. "I was at a time in my life where I just needed answers," she says. "I felt alone in a lot of ways." Being raised a Christian, Alexander was conditioned to fear tarot cards and divination in general, so her first brush with it came via phone app, which made her feel like she could use it and still keep a physical distance from it. Eventually, she began to have dreams of paintings done on black backdrops, and woke up needing to bring them into reality.
The resulting series of 78 paintings became the Dust II Onyx tarot deck, which she completed less than eight months after she began. "Within two weeks of starting, I had already done 20 paintings," she said. "I think I was just on fire."
The deck comes with a 200-page, heavily-researched hardcover guidebook that answers any questions concerning meaning, history, or themes. Inspired by her own journey of deconstructing, decolonizing and disconnecting from her Christian heteropatriarchal foundations, she changed much of the normative imagery and language of typical tarot decks to speak more to Black cultural norms. For example, The Hanged Man is Suspension in Dust II Onyx. "The last thing that I want to do is to glorify the depiction of a Black person hanging," Alexander said.
The typical Heirophant card turns into The Moors in Dust II Onyx. "I was not familiar with that language. It's more Western or European," she explained, speaking of The Heirophant. "Black folks know who the Moors are, especially if you have a couple of woke people around you growing up, they're going to tell you about the Moors and how they traveled around and spread a lot of knowledge."
Alexander recently released a travel version of Dust II Onyx, for people who want a spare to go with them anywhere (or for people with smaller hands, Alexander notes).