The Dark Grimoire Tarot takes its inspiration from magical texts of fiction and legend - the Necronomicon and other grimoires. The 78 cards have non-traditional scenes of horror and nightmare. Often strange, they're also sometimes disturbing, particularly in the literal Hanged Man.
The Dark Grimoire Tarot by Lo Scarabeo is a deck whose structure should be familiar to all tarot readers. Beautifully illustrated by Michele Penco using muted palette of colours relieved by bright but ominous highlights it has 22 majors that employ the usual titles and order (Justice is 8, Strength is 11). The minors are fully illustrated and use the common suit names and elemental attributions. Wands are fire, Swords are air, Chalices are water and Pentacles are earth. The court cards are named King, Queen, Knight and Knave although the Knave is pictured as a young woman rather as a young man. The elaborate and foreboding backs are non reversible.
This familiarity of structure combines with the strange and disturbing imagery to provide an extraordinary journey into the deepest recesses of the unconscious, an exploration of the darkest part of the psyche where hide the most powerful and most troubling of ones hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares; where dwell the dark gods and demons that rule the soul.
The deck takes its name from the books of magic, the grimoires, both real and imaginary that for centuries have promised knowledge and power for those brave enough to use them. This deck assumes that the Tarot itself is a grimoire, a book of illustrations that throw light into the darkness of the psyche and reveals that which the unconscious has hidden allowing it to be integrated into the conscious mind. The art reflects this theme, the illustrations are both dark and unsettling, nightmare figures step out of shadow and into a glowing, unholy light; twisted creatures, neither man nor beast but something other, inhabit the shadowed hinterlands with malevolent intent; dark path lead through stunted trees; grotesque statues peer across blasted landscapes; young women face monsters on desolate moor lands; scholars hang themselves in libraries for fear of the hard won knowledge they have gained. This is indeed not the deck for the faint of heart; rather it is a deck for those unafraid of the darkness in their own souls and who are willing to confront the night side of their own nature.
The major arcana draws it’s primary inspiration from the darkest grimoire of them all, the infamous and legendary Necronomicon, and from the mythos of the man whose portrait adorns the backs of these cards; H P Lovecraft who was both the master and the slave of the dark forces that lie in wait for the unwary at the edge of vision and on the borders of sleep. It is not necessary to know the Lovecraft mythos in order to use this deck; the images speak for themselves reaching out and touching a universal fear and awe of the dark and of the unseen, unnamed creatures that dwell therein.
The imagery of these cards, and therefore their inherent significance is substantially the same as in a more traditional tarot deck. Each card remains recognisable as itself. This however does not mean that this deck is merely a traditional deck overlaid by a theme, this is not, the standard RWS dressed up in Lovecraftian finery, it is rather a re-imagining of the traditional designs through the dark and distorted lens of Lovecraft’s fervid, nightmare strewn imagination, giving both images and meanings a malign and disturbing aspect not usually found in tarot. This is the dark side of tarot imagery, the Fool trapped in his madness; the power crazed Emperor destroying his servants for his own greed; the dying sun lighting the subhuman faces of the children of the earth.
For those that would wish to know more of the genesis of these images the booklet that accompanies this deck gives enough information for further research. But though this may shed further light upon the designs used or provide pleasure and interest to the Lovecraft scholar or aficionado it is unnecessary in order to use this deck.
The minor arcana are envisioned as four separate grimoires, one for each suit; four books of hidden knowledge each one pictured upon the ace. The progression through the suit describes the opening and use of that book, the pitfalls, the opportunities, the resolution gained from accessing that particular sphere of self knowledge. The suit of Chalices is the Grimoire of Dreams, here can be found knowledge of ones deepest emotions, the hope of love and the fear of loss. The suit of Pentacles represents the Grimoire of Shadows wherein is shown the path of the material world, the physical body, its needs and desires. The suit of Wands is the Grimoire of Lights, the creative ability, the fire and the force that contrives light from the darkness. Lastly the suit of Swords is the Grimoire of Demons, the obsessive thoughts that drive and control, and which, unchecked, lead to madness and despair.
The booklet provided with the deck does not give individual meanings for each of the minors, instead it tells only the spheres in which the suits operate, and meanings are given for the progression of knowledge from ace to ten. The reader themselves is allowed to decide how each number operates within each suit.
The images that adorn the minors are very different from those of most decks, not only are the images re-imagined in the same way as the majors, sometimes giving a wry nod to the RWS, sometimes wholly new and surprising; but, even more unusually, are fully pictorial; the suit signifiers do not appear in the pictures. The reader is given the suit and the number in the scrolled border at the bottom of the card but that is all, there are no swords to be seen in the suit of Swords, no wands visible in the suit of Wands. The artist has been allowed free rein to interpret the card without the constraining need to fit the requisite number of suit signifiers into the picture. This has allowed for a freedom of expression and a depth of detail unusual in the minor suits and more often found in the majors.
The court cards are envisioned in the usual way, four figures for each suit, each holding the proper symbol. According to the information given in the accompanying booklet it appears that these four characters represent a form of guardianship over the knowledge contained in the grimoires that are the suits. The female Knave holds the potential of knowledge contained in the book, the horsed Knight action in pursuing that knowledge whilst the enthroned King and Queen respectively bear the perception and the control of this intelligence.
The four court cards of each suit, while being in harmony with each other are distinctly different from those of the other suits, each displaying an aspect of character that makes them easily distinguished and easy to read as separate but related entities. The suit of swords features a predominance of severed heads, symbolic of the obsessive nature of the thought process. The suit of Chalices shows a leaning toward the dreamy mysteries of the east. The characters in the Pentacle court seem dark and somehow evasive, although their eyes will sometimes look out of the cards, still they are guarded, protective of their knowledge. The suit of Wands seem neither direct nor guarded, they look away, fully confident in their own power they have no need to protect that which they know, they stand proud and self contained.
Overall the Dark Grimoire Tarot presents an enthralling and disturbing vision of the dark side of the psyche. It is a perfect blend of familiarity and originality, the familiar structure allows the reader to concentrate their attention upon the extraordinary images. The detailed art work and the coherence of the images throughout the whole of the deck give an integrity of concept which allows the reader to fully enter the world presented by the artist. A world where symbols and images occur and reoccur in different and separate cards allowing for instinctive connections to be made by the reader and giving tremendous scope and freedom for those that read intuitively.
A sample reading done using the pentagram spread given in the instruction booklet showed that this deck can indeed cut to the heart of the matter. The imagery provided by the cards proved to be symbolically significant to the question and the cards showed, without doubt, that despite their apparent darkness they were able to provide a positive note of hope in the answer that they gave. A further one card reading for a third party, answering a question that was both simple and mundane, gave an answer that was staggering in its relevance and directness.
This deck is not only beautiful in a dark and foreboding way it is also useful for many styles and types of reading. Undoubtedly continued use of this deck and familiarisation with its images and symbols would only serve to enhance and deepen the reading experience.
The Dark Grimoire came to me in a very special manner – it was gifted to me at the Readers Studio 2009 by Amy Lamash (creator of the Tarot Calendar). We were sitting at the same table, and comparing decks from our Llewellyn gift bags. I remarked that I did not have that deck – and the rest is history! We also ended up having a wonderful discussion at our table about “dark decks”, and where their place might be in readings. Quite an interesting way to begin the Readers Studio experience!
The basis of this deck is the concept of Grimoires - the ancient texts of magic, witchcraft and rituals that over time many people have looked on as being books of Black Magic. In these texts students found the formulas for “doing the work”. These books were thought to be dangerous if used without precautions, and were condemned by the church without reservation.
Here the Tarot is presented as a possible book of magic – inspired by the dream worlds of fantasy literature, by grimoires (real and imaginary), by the nightmares that they may have generated and continue to generate in the depths of the subconscious. Just reading the author’s words scares me! However, without all of this, how boring would life be!
The Dark Grimoire is seen by the author as a key to opening forgotten doors hidden in the furthest corners of the psyche. In opening these doors, the author posits that we gain recognition and knowledge of our own fears, of our own “dark side”, and in the process bringing a sense of balance to our whole being.
The deck follows traditional structure – 22 Major Arcana, 40 Pips and 16 Court cards. Traditional card titles are used for the Major Arcana, with Justice at VIII and Strength at XI. The Minor Arcana suits are Wands, Chalices, Swords and Pentacles. The Court cards are King, Queen, Knight and Knave.
The accompanying LWB (Little White Book) is done in traditional Lo Scarabeo style, with the information presented in five languages: English, Italian, French, German and Spanish. There is a short introduction to the concept of what a Grimoire is (ancient texts of magic, witchcraft and rituals), followed by a discussion of Tarots as books of magic.
The cards are presented as text only, no scans. From the LWB:
“II The High Priestess – The wise woman holds the nocturnal knowledge of the “World of Dreams” and jealously guards the book of incantations. Every waterway sustains witches, who float even if bound.”
“XVIII La Moon – The Full Moon reflects on the ocean of the unconscious: the nocturnal light unveils some shadows where monsters lurk, ready to reawaken and ambush the mind.”
There is a template presented, in the form of a Pentagram, for performing a reading. It was interesting to note that according to the LWB, the form of the Pentagram was a symbol that grimoires advised be used for “fettering the demons of Air, the spirits of Fire, the spectre of Water, and the ghosts of the Earth.”
The five positions are defined as:
Position 1: The purpose of the query, the objective or desire of the Querent. Position 2: The past that led to the current situation. Position 3: The probable evolution of the current situation. Position 4: Obstacles and difficulties to be overcome. Position 5: The suggestions for overcoming the obstacles.
The suits are defined as follows:
Wands are seen as Lights, representing creativity and the element of Fire. Lights are seen as defeating darkness, dispersing fears, and releasing creativity.
Chalices are Dreams, representing emotions and the element of Water.
Swords are Demons, representing thought and the element of Air. If thoughts escape our control, they can become obsessions, taking the form of demons that enslave the mind.
Pentacles are shadows, representing matter and the element of Earth. “Amidst the Shadows grow attachments of men who identify themselves with their body and with the objects they possess.”
The deck itself is approximately 2 5/8” by 4 ¾”, of glossy, good quality cardstock. The card backs show a dark blue/gray border, followed by a black and gold inner border. Centered on the card is what appears to be a mirror, with an image of H. P. Lovecraft himself holding a book (grimoire?) and looking into the mirror. In the background we see the head of another individual behind his right shoulder, and a hooded figure standing a little further back behind his left shoulder. The backs are not reversible.
The card faces show the same blue/gray border. At the bottom of the Major Arcana is a gold scroll with the card number in Roman numerals. The card title in each of four languages is placed to the right and left of the Roman numeral. The Pips (numbered cards) show the same thing, using Arabic numerals, with the suit name replacing the card title. The Court Cards show the card title and suit in each of four languages across the bottom of the card.
The coloring is dark, but muted, which for some reason makes it less scary. The style is part reality, part fantasy. The Major Arcana draw their inspiration from the Necronomicon – a fictional book appearing in stories by horror writer H. P. Lovecraft.
The Knight of Pentacles rides on a mythical demon, while the Ace of Wands is a Grimoire surrounded by lit candles, with a figure of light either coming from it or going into it (it is hard to tell). The Two of Wands shows a discussion going on by lamplight between two modern scholars, with rolled up scrolls and a skull in the foreground.
The Three of Wands shows two males in the foreground, watching a drama unfolding below them: several robed figures are seen approaching a lighted cauldron, with large pillars in the background. The Ace of Swords shows a book loosely open, with a pentagram on the front. Pages are escaping from it.
The Fool is seated, held immobile in a straightjacket. He has a light over his head, a devil in front of him, and robed figures behind him. The Magician shows a robed, turbaned figure, seated at a table, writing in his book with a quill pen. Behind him curtains flow in the breeze in an open window.
The High Priestess is seen standing, book in hand, lit from behind by an orange glow in the sky. The Empress is a standing figure, surrounded by several figures that are bowing down to her, and one that is raising his arms to her.
The Hanged Man is hanging from a chandelier in the middle of his study. Through an open window we can see the surrounding town.
I found this to be an intriguing deck – well thought out, and easy to read with. While the imagery and symbolism are not traditional, they do reflect the traditional qualities of the cards, meaning that it is not difficult to read with them. They are gentle by nature (if a dark deck can be termed gentle!), meaning that this is a deck that could be offered as a choice of reading deck for most clientele.
This is a deck that will, by its very nature, take the reader – and the Seeker – to the hidden places in their life. I did a short (three card) reading for a situation that I am facing, without defining the positions, and found that it very accurately depicted what has gone on to date – and gave me a heads up as to what may be a core issue. This is one deck that you don’t want to ask a question of if you don’t want the answer, or are not ready for it!
© Bonnie Cehovet