Review by Kim Huggens
Some people say that Tarot exists in a world that is not quite as it seems; that it moves in mysterious ways; that it has a misty, ethereal, dreamy quality that allows more effective access to the reader’s subconscious and intuition. Everything in the Mystic Dreamer Tarot pulls the reader into that very world, where ravens fly at night beneath a lunar landscape, signposts appear blank, and the mists roll in around you. To some this may appear sinister, but the Mystic Dreamer Tarot takes you gently by the hand and guides you through the mists deeper into mystery.
This deck, by Heidi Darras, is a photo-manipulated deck. At times this art style is used to great effect, and the deck reminds me of Ciro Marchetti’s Gilded Tarot and his Tarot of Dreams. At other times however the images do not flow as seamlessly into one another and they becoming jarring to the eye. Throughout the cards recurring symbols can be seen in the periphery or background: ravens in flight, the moon, mist, signposts, and more. These recurring symbols allow the reader to make links between the cards, and highlights similarities and differences as well. The choice of clothing for the figures in the cards is interesting: at times it is inspired by traditional Tarot imagery or medieval costume, at other times it seems more appropriate to a nightclub (such as the Fool in his chain shirt and flared trousers!) or a Gothic fantasy.
The Mystic Dreamer Tarot is heavily influenced by the Rider Waite Smith tradition, both in card meaning and imagery. At times the card images are almost the same as those in the Rider Waite Smith, but at other times the creator has not shied away from creating something different, or adding a twist or something extra to an image. Her Hierophant is no longer a Pope holding the keys of the tradition, while two altar boys pray at his feet: instead he is a handsome young man in a cathedral setting, surrounded by books. Justice is no longer seated in stone but instead stands at the edge of a precipice, looking over creation. In places there are also tantalizing symbols that you have to look closely to see: the ascending stairway behind the High Priestess, the sword in the chalice beneath the Lovers, and the raven bearing the lucky clover in the Four of Wands. Unfortunately however, these images have been done an injustice by being scaled down to fit the standard Tarot pack size. The detail and colours, the carefully placed little symbols, all get consumed by the images at such small size. I found myself continually squinting at the cards as I looked through, and am tempted to employ a magnifying glass next time!
Figures in the cards make this deck undeniably aimed at the younger market. Everybody is beautiful, young, and striking in appearance, from the rather sexy Hierophant with his knee-high jackboots, to the scantily clad female warrior on the 7 of Wands, who seems to be working on the Armour rules for female Dungeons and Dragons characters (the less Armour, and the more cleavage shown, the higher the Armour class). I am also very curious and slightly non-plussed about the outfit chosen for the Knight of Wands, who seems to have constructed his clothing out of belts and coloured tape.
However, the images themselves are for the most part easy to read, pleasing to the eye, and well-executed by the artist. In places I was extremely pleased to see cards that really showed the meanings. These cards were mostly in the Minor Arcana however, such as the 3 of Pentacles, 5 of Wands, and 6 of Cups. It seems that the Major Arcana are indeed very beautiful, but they suffer from the illness of many Tarot decks in that they are too abstract. Judgement, for instance, has become simply a female angel blowing a trumpet and The World shows us a woman flapping a veil whilst standing upon the globe, with various animals floating around her. Some Majors are fantastic and evoke meaning brilliantly, but cards such as these left me cold, and would no doubt make the already-difficult concepts of such cards even harder to grasp for beginners. In places I also found that the facial expressions of some of the figures were all wrong for the card: such as the 9 of Cups, in which the figure looks really, really sad, instead of joyous and happy as she is described in the book. This seems a definite flaw in a deck that the creator wanted to be emotional:
“I knew my dream deck would be emotional. I wanted to reveal the hidden emotions in each card.” ~ Artist’s Note, xvi.
Another thing that the artist wanted for her deck was to eliminate the Biblical symbolism from the cards to make it more modern and up-to-date. Firstly, I think many people would disagree that it is the Bible imagery that keeps Tarot away from the modern world. Secondly, Darras has managed to keep an awful lot of Biblical and Christian imagery in the deck despite all this: the titles have not been changed, Judgement’s trumpet-blowing angel is still there, a crucifix and pope’s scepter appear in the Hierophant, the Trees of Life and Knowledge appear in the Lovers, a stained glass window of a parable from the Bible is a major feature of the Four of Swords, and more. Personally I don’t mind, but the creator probably should.
The companion book, The Dreamer’s Journal, written by Barbara Moore, who seems to have become Llewellyn’s stock-in-trade companion book author, is better than expected. It begins with chapters ideal for a beginner, covering topics of how to read the cards, choose a suitable spread, keep a Tarot journal, and the basics. The section on Dream Work with the deck is particularly interesting even for more advanced students of Tarot, and has some excellent ideas for specific use with this deck. I would also recommend pages 8-10 for anybody wanting to learn how to perform a reading, and pages 12-14 for excellent advice on learning the Tarot, complete with useful exercises that will not only stand a beginner in good stead but also help an advanced reader improve and renew their knowledge. The Tarot spreads given in the book are varied, with some standard spreads such as the Celtic Cross, but a wide variety of new spreads that can be used for many different readings. They are excellent spreads, and I particularly liked the relationship spreads and the “Message from the Universe Spread”.
The card meanings are split into sections of Major Arcana, Minor Arcana, and Court Cards, and although the notes for each card are brief they serve to highlight the symbols and what they mean – particularly useful for those of us who find the images too small to identify correctly! However, each card also has a “Use Your Intuition” section at the end, in which the reader is asked a few questions about the card. Obviously this is intended to get the reader using their intuition and thinking, leading them to new perspectives of the cards, but instead it reads like a child’s exercise book (Can you see the cat? What sounds does it make?), and asks questions about some things in the cards which are, as already mentioned, too small to see!
The cards themselves are Llewellyn’s standard size, with reversible backs that have a striking lunar design. Both the card backs and the card fronts have parchment-like borders, with a scroll in the bottom border bearing the card name and number. The titles have remained the same as the Rider Waite Smith deck, as has the numbering of the Majors and the elemental attributions of the suits. The deck is presented in an attractive box with the companion book and a black gauze drawstring bag for storage, and overall it is nicely presented.
Generally speaking this is a beautiful deck to look at, and will hit the spot for many readers out there who want a nice alternative to the Rider Waite Smith, and something in a more modern style. Except with reference to a couple of the Majors, the Mystic Dreamer Tarot would make an excellent first deck, and the recurring symbols and symbolic additions to many of the cards would intrigue a more advanced reader. As usual, I would have preferred a companion book written by the artist herself, but not all artists are writers! I recommend the Mystic Dreamer Tarot to beginners, people who want something a little fantastical without the usually accompanying faeries, unicorns, and mermaids, and readers who want something a little different but not too wildly so.
Kim Huggens is a 24 year old PhD student in the Ancient History and Archaeology department of Cardiff University. She has been studying and reading Tarot since the age of 9, and has a deck collection numbering over 250. She is the co-creator of the Sol Invictus: The God Tarot and is currently working on a second deck, Pistis Sophia: The Goddess Tarot", and a book for Llewellyn Publications, due for release Autumn 2010.