Review by Angela Asherbranner
In a distant time, under the quiet of a starlit night, tribal souls gather around a fire. All listen attentively to the elders' voices speaking of magic and history, gods and goddesses, heroic quests and gifts of the earth. Dancing beyond the safety of the fire, the Shaman chants ancient languages of secret knowledge and whispers alone with the spirits.
The Ironwing Tarot is a deck that inspires this sense of primal antiquity. Combining the mythology and mastery of iron with Shaman magic, Lorena Babcock Moore creates a unique visual journey of personal symbolism entwined within the stark black and white renderings of ink on scratch board. Holding the physical deck is analogous to holding an archaeological artefact densely decorated with red-tinted black pictographs. Yet the Ironwing Tarot is not simply a theme deck illustrating the iconography of ancient cultures. The imagery and symbolism ripple between time shifts of the past and present by juxtaposing extinct and extant plants, animals and minerals. A contemporary feature is the substitution of the traditional male occupations of metal worker, Shaman, Page, Knight and King with female figures.
The card dimensions are 2.5" x 4.6", printed on study white stock with a matte finish. This size is a little wider and shorter than a standard deck and could be awkward for small hands to shuffle. Illustrations are separated from the white borders with a thin, unobtrusive black line. The backs (not reversible) are simply decorated with a feather, flaming meteor and a whirlpool spiral to symbolize the elements of Air, Fire, Earth and Water. Limited Edition sets arrive with a shrink-wrapped deck (rounded corners), a spiral-bound paper book and a drawstring bag. The twenty-two Majors sets (square corners) are accompanied with a set of instructions.
The Ironwing Tarot consists of seventy-eight cards (twenty-two Majors and fifty-six Pips) renamed to fit the spirit of the deck. Twelve Major card names are replaced; for example, the Emperor is the Anvil, the Devil is Molten Iron. A symbolically appropriate red ochre (haematite) pigment accents each Major card. Moore transforms the illustrated Pips’ suites into Spikes (Wands), Coils (Cups), Blades (Swords) and Bells (Pentacles), each containing the appropriate count of symbols from Ores (Aces) to Ten. Interestingly, Moore separates the Court cards from their respective suites into a category named "Spirit Guides" including the Apprentice (Page), Gatemaker (Knight), Madrone (Queen) and Shaman (King). The Major and Pip cards do not include any text or numbering system.
Moore describes her depiction of objects as in the "scientific illustration" style, yet her mastery of art is evident in the sensitive line quality evoking an emotional response that far exceeds the cold and logical production of accurate illustrations. The ink on scratch board technique produces a fluid, organic motion to the complex and detailed drawings. Predominately symmetrical designs referencing mandalas command visual attention with strong negative spaces. The objects themselves are often extended, mirrored and multiplied to form a decorative enhancement rather than including extraneous lines. Natural objects are clearly presented and identifiable in realistic, stylized or abstracted forms.
Beyond the beauty of the images, the Ironwing Tarot is a deck of intelligent design. The objects included on each card contribute their physical or practical characteristics for the card’s interpretation. Moore wisely refrains from providing keywords and card meanings common to most Tarot documentation in the accompanying book. Instead, she focuses on detailed descriptions of the objects and processes contained in the card image. This open-ended structure provides great latitude for each individual to apply personal interpretations to the natural history objects.
The “Nine of Blades” (Swords) illustrates a lively raven mask surrounded by ancient Chinese and Scythian arrowheads. Moore describes the raven as a “. . . collector of strange objects, an intelligent problem-solver and an expert flier who rolls upside down for fun . . .” (74). The symbol of “raven” is left open to any interpretation by describing its nature instead of referencing a cultural mythology. The arrowheads as well are selected for their physical properties:
The arrowheads have eyes [. . .] but the holes are vacant. They are for whistling, not watching. In the wind of flight, they scream in triumph or warning, agonized or exulting. In a situation of such changing complexity, only the movement itself has meaning. (74)
Carefully selected references to traditional Tarot structure is exemplified by the card “Quench” (Temperance). A general Rider-Waite-Smith “Temperance” card interpretation refers to the mixing of incompatible or opposite elements into a balanced, integrated unity with a mysterious alchemical process. Moore eloquently illustrates this concept in “Quench” by describing the practical creation of a forged iron bowl. Utilizing the elements of fire and water with metal, the “. . . elements work together to create the bowl. Their mystical union completes a fit container for their continued synthesis” (32).
Beyond card descriptions, the book includes scientific and personal observations that serve to illuminate Moore’s thought process and symbolism for each card. Short essays on iron geology and mythology, blacksmithing and Shamanism weaves together these seemingly diverse elements into a logical and cohesive deck structure. A series of spreads (two created for this deck) and exercises introduce the depth and complexity of the imagery.
Although the book is a valuable reference, the deck is strong enough to stand alone for intuitive readings. If one has the Majors-only version, a little time invested researching the illustrated objects and their properties, and applied to common Tarot interpretations will provide a starting point for successful readings. Beginners might be more comfortable working with one- to three-card spreads until familiar with the deck. Intermediate and advanced readers will appreciate the deck’s potential to become a highly personalized tool for readings, meditations and spiritual journeys.
The Ironwing Tarot is a deck of many layers that invites individuals to share Moore’s vision or apply one’s own interpretations and personal "magic.” Readers interested in exploring Shamanism, spirit guides, feminism, metals, minerals, plants and animals from a Tarot perspective will find the Ironwing deck a source of instruction and encouragement on the journey of knowledge. Overall, the Ironwing Tarot is a refreshing and valuable addition to the world of contemporary Tarot.
Moore, Lorena Babcock. The Ironwing Tarot. N.p.: Lorena Babcock Moore, 2004.
Angela Asherbranner has a Master of Fine Arts degree in Digital Art. She is interested in the history, symbolism and artwork of Tarot cards, particularly contemporary Tarot art within the context of Visual Culture. Her artwork, teaching and articles encompass both digital media and traditional art practices.