Once, on a beach, I found a bird skeleton. This was the first time I found some animal bones. For a moment, it felt like being in an adventure movie, suddenly finding some lost treasure. Excited, I picked up the whole thing and happily brought it home with me, regularly checking on the bones to make sure that it was real. My adventure, however, ended badly, as I soon developed an acute rash in the skin and had to be brought to the hospital for a cortisone shot. The lesson was simple: treasures might be cursed and bones found in the wild are to be left alone, lest they bring some pestilence with them.
I never thought of going back to bones. In fact, I quite forgot the whole thing until today, when it came back to mind as I was writing this text about the newest tarot deck to grace my doorstep. A deck with one of the most interesting concepts I’ve seen in quite some time. A Tarot of Bones. As a recent Marseille convert, the idea of “reading to the bones” has become increasingly familiar, and in some cases, a mantra. How then would a set of cards which depicted only bones do, when one wanted a tarot reading?
Enter Lupa, a Neo-Pagan author who has been working with animal parts for some years now and published some work on the subject. For this deck, she has amassed an incredible amount of animal parts (both real and replicas) and assembled them into artistic installations that incorporated tarot symbolism. For the deck, skulls, rib bones, vertebrae, teeth and jaws and long bones from the legs and feet have been amassed, each particular sort of bone attributed to either the Major Arcana cards or one of the suits of the Minor Arcana. Hence, we find Skulls in the trumps, while rib bones were used for the suit of cups, long bones for wands, vertebrae for disks and teeth for swords. For the court cards, skulls and the bone that was attributed to a particular suit are present, so for example, the Knight of wands shows us the skull and the wing bone of an American Turkey.
Browsing through the deck, each card is both unique – with a particular background that agrees with the image depicted – and easy to identify, the name of the card plainly visible in the cards. The pictures are pleasing to the eye and invite us to return to a more natural world or, at least, a more nature-friendly world. This is, I think, one of the strengths of this deck. To let go of usual images that populate our human mind, with all the symbols and images that we use to stand apart from Nature and open the door to the natural world which lies all around us and let it in. I’ve been taking this deck with me for walks in beaches and parks and lying random cards on the ground to look at and meditate. They connect well with the natural world and, in fact, they seem stronger with this little exercise, speaking with a louder and clearer voice.
As for reading, well… skulls and bones don’t make for an easy reading if you, like me, can’t tell a hyena skull from a wolf skull. When I first opened the deck, and started looking at the cards my first thought was “how in hell am I going to read this?”. My problem was that I never got used to rely on keywords and when you’re used to work with images, it helps to actually be able to tell what you’re looking at. This is where Lupa’s companion book comes in handy (since there is no LWB accompanying the deck), by giving us both a description of the card and a peek behind the making of each assemblage as well as the reasons for a certain animal being selected. The book also tells us how the Waite-Smith system was used as the inspiration of the deck so expect to find some Waite-Smith inspired imagery.
But there is another way to read with it, and one that I found to be more fulfilling, which is to forget about everything you know about the tarot or, indeed, about the animals represented here and just let the images soak you. To let them come forth and freely enter your mind to tell you their story. My first question to the deck was “How can I work with you?” After laying three cards on the table, I got:
10 OF WANDS / 7 OF PENTACLES / 3 OF CUPS
“What is tied needs to be let loose. Spread us around your space and watch the ripples as they unfold.” Oh! This was easy, I thought. To forget about meanings and traditional depictions and reading systems. To forget about bones and animals and everything related to them and just let it flow. But then, what was I to expect from a deck that prompt us to reconnect with the rhythms of nature? To just let go of everything and go with the flow. If you want a reading to the bones, strip out all the meat and fat to focus on focus on what’s necessary.
All good and dandy then. Time to go to the next question, I thought. “What do you have to tell me?”
9 OF SWORDS / 4 OF PENTACLES / ACE OF WANDS.
This one took me a bit longer than the previous one. Which, to be quite honest, I liked, as it tells me that there’s things to explore in here. Mysteries to be discovered. So I went with the theme: 9 sets of bone shards are spread all around the tableaux. They might be teeth but spread out this way they will hardly cut anything. What good then, does to be sharp, if you can’t exercise that sharpness? In the next card, the four of pentacles, four vertebrae are joined together in a cross. It almost seems as if all those shards came together to form these larger structures. Where previously there was chaos and entropy, now there’s stability; there’s a sense of order. And then, as we look at the ace of wands, we can easily see how each branch of the bone cross rose and melded to form the long bone visible in the last card. My snappy sentence would then be “What is separated needs to be put together. Do this in steps, looking first for stability and then for unity.”
The progression from Swords to Pentacles to Batons tells me that there are advantages to this approach. Swords turn into coins, loosing their sharp edges and bringing in rewards which can then be used to build a wand. Batons being associated with work and might, this tells me that by bringing focus to my work, things will be able to grow faster and stronger (notice how the size and the volume of the bones increase from card to card).
Looking up to the first reading I can see how they complement each other. One telling me to let go and become looser, the other, to concentrate and focus. If anything, I’m again recalled of the rhythms of nature. Of things expanding and contracting and how important it is to stay in the flow of things. Nature has seasons, after all, and these seasons teach us that there is a time for everything. It’s back to the basics then, remaining open and aware of what lies in front of us.
The Tarot of Bones can be ordered from the author here. Be sure to pass by her site and check all the cards of the deck as well as the sculptures that were made for each card. There’s great work there. For more about Lupa and her work, just visit her site.
A few days ago, i received in the mail a package from Camelia Elias. Inside, there was a copy of her newest book, “Towards the Art of Reading”. By chance, or simply because the Universe works in mysterious ways, that same day I also received a book containing a selection of texts by noted poet and Falconer Khushal Khan Kattak.
The coincidence didn’t pass unnoticed. Tarot, poetry and falcons. In common, the act of seeing.
The all-seeing eye of Horus claiming for attention, and reminding me that we should not only look outwards, but also inwards. That the Tarot is ultimately about gaining awareness about ourselves and our surroundings.
God has given me a mind,
that all clear … I always find.
Secrets of earth and heavens
in my heart God has defined.
God’s shown me everything
in my heart: I am, not blind!
In others are the black night:
Kushal makes dawn, a find!
When dealing with the Tarot, the first question we have to answer is “What do we see?” Sure… Some images are laid upon the table. There’s a story there, waiting to be told. This story is never trivial. Quite on the contrary, it’s supposed to shed light on a matter / question / doubt. And we are asked to take the images before us and give them meaning. And no matter how much one argues, divination is about answering questions.
To accomplish this, we only need two things: to be able to see, and to relate what we see to the question at hand.
Camelia’s book starts in a very powerful way: with an explained reading. Where she goes step by step through the mental process which she uses to arrive at an answer. The book then goes on to explain her process and how she sees each of the major trumps. There’s some meanings conveniently placed at the end of each card, but that’s not even the important part. It’s the invitation she extends to us all to look at each card. To really look at each card and describe it. Think about it. Actually interact with it.
Only by this reason alone, this book is worth the price of admission alone. We’re being asked not to memorize a somewhat useless list of meanings and definitions but to truly see what’s before us and ask ourselves, at each and every step, “Why is this relevant to the issue at hand?”
In a way, this is a book about the author. And her particular method of card reading. Then again, if reading the cards was just about putting lists of names and verbs in the head, we would really only need one or two books on the Tarot.
On the other hand, if we understand the process through which a reading is made, well then… We can start constructing our own connections, our own particular way of seeing. And our skills will evolve faster and will develop to its fullest. To really learn a trade, we need to see and understand how its done. To see others do it, and try first to imitate them, and then to surpass them.
Like an arrow is requiring an archer to make it fly,
poetry needs a skill that only in magician does lie.
To weight words properly heart must be balanced,
That one too many words is uneven, too hard a try!
On an ink-black horse Truth’s bride is mounted…
as over face, the veil of metaphor, she does apply.
This is a book to keep at hand at all times. To read it once, from cover to cover, and try to pick up all that you can. And then leave it for a while, while its teachings sink into your mind and are properly digested. This is a book to be read slowly, little by little. As if you were savouring a nice port. Even though it is written in a practical, direct manner, it is packed with information, and somethings will become clear with successive readings. It is profundly illustrated, so you know what is being discussed. The images, photographed from the Carolus Zoya’s version of the Marseille deck are alluring and inviting.
Even if you’re not a Marseille adept, the combination of the images with Canelia’s prose will seriously make you consider using it. It’s a good thing, then, that the book came with a copy of the trumps. That way, you won’t have to mutilate your book in order to use them. And who knows… Maybe if we’re lucky enough we’ll get to see the full deck printed out. But even if we don’t, try to see them as an invitation to experience a Marseille deck. And to find out why it’s still one of the most well regarded decks out there.
The wise one’s the one who says his say but once:
wise everywhere know, that wit’s soul is brevity.
(All poems taken from “Khushal Khan Khattak: the Great Warrior-Poet of Afghanistan”, Bookhaven, 2012; Falcon image taken from the movie “Disharming Falcons“, directed by Wendy Johnson and Annie Nocenti.
For more about Camelia Elias, please visit her blog Taroflexions)