Review by Le Fanu
Every now and again, a deck comes along which gives even seasoned tarot users a bit of a mental reorientation and makes them rethink the tools they are working with. Dame Fortune’s Wheel Tarot, illustrated by Paul Huson and published by Lo Scarabeo is perhaps one such deck. Whenever a new Lo Scarabeo deck comes onto the market, you can always guarantee that it will have an added twist and, given a chance, will always have something which stretches the reader or pulls them in a direction where they might otherwise not have ventured. We should applaud Lo Scarabeo for consistently taking contemporary tarot into new directions and never letting us get complaisant, and Dame Fortune’s Wheel, given a little time and study should reap rich rewards.
Paul Huson is the author of Mystical Origins of the Tarot, which can be used to enrich understanding of this deck. However, I do not own the book and for this review have taken only the deck, together with the accompanying LWB, and have therefore not considered the book as indispensible for working with the deck. I am sure it would be useful and enlightening to read, but as the deck was not published as part of a kit, I thought it better to assess the deck alone.
What first strikes anyone upon viewing the deck for the first time are the almost “Pop Art” colours. Very strong colours are used throughout and I have found that this can either attract or repel people. The base backgrounds of the Majors are bright, almost fluorescent, green and yellow and I think it is worth quoting Huson himself who, on a thread here at Aeclectic Tarot, said “think Chartres Cathedral stained-glass” which is perhaps the way we should approach them. He sees the colours as a nod towards the fact that so often in history, the visionary experience was described in terms of luminous, bejewelled colours and the deck exploits well this sense of the unreality of such vivid colours, jolting us out of our expectations that tarot cards should be somehow dark, muted and thus mysterious. They can be vivid, jewel-like, vibrant and still retain their mystery. I think this deck is proof of this.
What is important to point out is that Dame Fortune’s Wheel is an attempt to create a historic style deck with scenic pips rather than the usual non-scenic pips we find in historic decks. However, the card meanings are drawn from Etteilla rather than the Rider Waite-Smith system. This is not a Tarot de Marseilles with RWS-illustrated minors. Huson writes in the LWB that the pips “evoke the canonical interpretations of Etteilla with imagery to match the trumps.” Basically, if you are looking for a deck with the Rider Waite-Smith system, you might end up getting frustrated with this one. If you are looking for a historic-style deck to take the first steps towards understanding the Tarot de Marseilles system, then you may also get frustrated with this deck. The idea of having scenic pips to facilitate meaning is, of course, Rider Waite-Smith in origin. The iconography and visual style of the deck is Marseilles inspired, whilst the card meanings are Etteilla in origin, especially in the Minors. Accept these and you should be able to make headway with the deck.
Provided of course you like the artwork. Looking through the cards, they are a mixture of traditional (Nicolas Conver) Tarot de Marseilles imagery (seen in cards such as The Moon and the Pope), Medieval manuscript iconography, with astrological touches (I know very little about astrology and found that there was just enough astrology in this deck to keep me stimulated yet not leave me feeling bogged down.) Other historic decks make their influence felt; The Hanged Man, Death, Justice, and a few others, are derived from the 15th Century Gringoneur deck. The Devil is perhaps the most bizarre card in the pack; the style of drawing here is almost cubist, yet it must be said that the overall effect of so many different images from disparate sources is, however, harmonious and works well. None of the images jar and the deck forms a coherent whole. Having said that, my first impression of the deck was not, I have to admit, entirely favourable, but once I had learnt to love the colours, I found the deck just drew me in. After a short time of reading with this deck, doing short daily draws, it quickly felt like a classic deck to me and I now have a peculiar sense that this deck has always been around. It may not be the deck I consistently use, but I feel that as a reading deck, the system and the artwork click. There are a few occasions where the iconography differs from what might be considered the norm; the Star is a naked man and the Tower does not feature any tumbling figures, but on the whole, the iconography of the majors doesn’t deviate from traditional depictions.
For the minors in Dame Fortune’s Wheel, Huson has reinstated the French playing card tradition of giving names and distinct personalities to the court cards (except the Knights), thus we have Caesar as the King of Batons, Lancelot as the Knave of Coins and Pallas as the Queen of Swords. I also like the fact that the deck comes with a Significator card which means that when you are doing spreads you don’t need to take out the Queen of Wands or King of Swords, thus removing from the deck a card which might want to make its presence felt in a position in the spread! The Significator is a striking card based on a design from a medieval manuscript which depicts man and all the signs of the zodiac. It works as a kind of “everyman” card and, as it features all signs of the zodiac, can represent whoever we want it to represent.
Unlike recent Lo Scarabeo publications, the cards do not have titles in different languages. All the card titles are in English, and it is The Female Pope rather than the RWS High Priestess, Fortitude not Strength (and placed at number XI in the sequencing of the Trumps). There is a thin white border around the image, and the backs are an attractive and colourful design which reminds me of a Moorish mosaic motif. It would be impossible to tell whether a card was reversed or not The card size is standard Lo Scarabeo size, neither too big nor too small and is comfortable to shuffle whatever size your hands. The cardstock is, as always with Lo Scarabeo, excellent quality, lightly laminated, feeling flexible yet durable.
Some users, however, may have issues with the actual card meanings which for many cards, according to the LWB, are a little bit removed from more familiar meanings. Those who associate the 4 of Coins with meanness and miserliness, will find that here it is listed as referring to generosity and donations, and the cornucopia image on the card reflects this. Yet, as already mentioned, the pips “evoke” Etteilla meanings and although his meanings (according to Huson) would have come via the Marseilles/ Besançon pattern, they were very much shaped by his own beliefs. In the LWB, Huson observes that “apart from putting cartomancy on the map as a divination method, Etteilla provided what would henceforth become the “canonical” interpretations of the tarot suit cards in Europe, and it is to these interpretations that Dame Fortune’s Wheel Tarot returns.” Yet it gives them a whole new visual vocabulary. Any reader will, of course, once they get started, put their own layers of meaning and symbolism into how they read the deck, but it is worth bearing in mind where this deck is coming from, and which system it draws upon.
The spread which is included with the LWB is a small three-card spread (one of which is the Significator) which Huson points out is “reputedly a gypsy method”. I thought this was a good spread to see with a deck containing a system which might be relatively new to most people. It is a sufficiently gentle initiation into a deck which will require a certain amount of readjustment. There is no reason why a beginner, or someone who isn’t familiar with any of the three systems referred to in this review, shouldn’t go far with this deck.
The more I look at Dame Fortune’s Wheel Tarot the more I feel it has a lot to say. It is very obvious that here is a deck which has been deeply thought through and executed with great sensitivity. The style of drawing does not slavishly imitate a medieval style. There are contemporary touches to the faces and figure-drawing to prevent them becoming pseudo-historic pastiche, and it would certainly be a waste to transpose traditional Rider Waite-Smith meanings onto a deck like this, as the universe of the cards feels so tangibly different to the Rider Waite-Smith universe. It also feels tangibly different from The Tarot of Marseilles Universe. It is a deck which should be allowed to articulate its own secrets and be taken on its own terms. There is certainly much substance here.
Le Fanu bought his first tarot deck at the age of 12 and has been collecting on and off ever since, with a particular fascination for historic decks. Other interests include Victorian Spirituality, true ghost stories and paranormal phenomena. He lived for many years in Brazil which deepened his interest in Spiritism and divination.