Ship of Fools Tarot Reviews
The Ship of Fools Tarot is a pen-and-ink tarot blending classical tarot symbolism with the illustrations and ideas of Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools), a satiric medieval German poem warning against over 100 vices and follies.
Tarot Deck - 78 Cards - Llewellyn 2002
Review by Kate Hill
The Ship of Fools Tarot is "a classic and traditional tarot uniquely based on images of freedom and foolishness" by Brian Williams, creator of other well-known tarots like the Renaissance Tarot, PoMo Tarot and the Minchiate Tarot. The inspiration for these cards was 'Das Narrenschiff', The Ship of Fools, a German poem published by Sebastian Brant in 1495. The popular poem was a moralistic satire warning against more than one hundred vices and follies, from recklessness to bringing animals into church. Originally illustrated with woodcut images showing a fool in jester's hat involved in the various offences, Williams has selected the whole or parts of these images, and combined them with Marseilles and Rider-Waite tarot symbols to create each tarot card.
The art style of uncoloured pen and ink line drawings on an ivory-coloured background imitates the original woodcuts, and keeps the rustic atmosphere of the medieval Narrenschiff illustrations. The lack of colour on the cards gives the tarot scene a curious equality - there is no difference of hue or tone to draw the eye, no distractingly loud or clashing colours, which seems to make the subject of the card seem more prominent.
Several of the illustrations from The Ship of Fools parallel the traditional tarot trumps so well that Narrenschiff illustration was copied in its entirety. (The Empress and Justice are examples of these.) Othe illustrations needed only minor alterations, such as those used for High Priestess (or Papess, as she is known in this deck) and the Five of Coins, while the cards that fit less closely have been constructed from combined elements of various Narrenschiff drawings. The few tarot archetypes that had no plausible Narrenschiff equivalents - Temperance, the Eight of Coins, the Five and Nine of Swords - are directly Rider-Waite or Marseilles inspired.
The companion text, the Book of Fools is aimed at a more knowledgeable tarot reader than the usual Llewellyn book. Divinatory meanings are sketchy, there's no potted tarot history, explanation of how to use the cards or multiple tarot spreads (just Williams' Celtic Cross variation, just before the bibliography). The card explanations that make up the bulk of the book are more comparative than advisory. Williams spends much time jusitifying his choice of symbolism, comparing and contrasting the Narrenschiff image and the folly it originally described with the Rider-Waite or Marseilles tarot archetype. Pictures of the corresponding image from the Narrenschiff, the Tarot de Marseille, and/or the Rider-Waite Tarot, also accompany the explanation.
The strong Narrenschiff flavour and the lack of bright colour in this deck may not be to everyone's taste, but for readers with an interest in tarot history and a desire for an artistic deck with solid symbolism (that isn't uniquely personal to the creator), this 'foolish' tarot would be a wise choice.
Kate Hill is the owner, founder and editor of Aeclectic Tarot, and has reviewed more than 200 decks over the years.