The Tarot of the Silicon Dawn is an original and modern deck of vivid colours, science fiction imagery and kinetic shapes. There are 97 cards in the deck, including extra majors, extra suit cards, and a new partial suit of the Void. It's an unconventional deck that expands the boundaries of tarot.
Originally published as an 85 card limited edition, the Tarot of the Silicon Dawn is now available as an extended, mass market edition from Lo Scarabeo. Created by Margaret Trauth (Egypt Urnash), it is radical in both its concepts and its execution, pushing the boundaries of the tarot tradition beyond the conventional and into the realms of the original and unexpected.
The set includes a 97 card deck, two extra cards, and a full sized companion book that contains a detailed commentary on the cards in English, and a quick reference guide in four other European languages. Housed in a sturdy box that fastens with a magnetic closure, the cards sit neatly beneath the book in a double well equipped with a white ribbon to aid removal. Smaller than the typical Lo Scarabeo deck, the cards measure 57x102mm (2.2x4 inches), and fit comfortably in the hand despite the additional thickness of the deck.
The backs of the cards feature a design of a spiral galaxy against a midnight blue background. This is almost, but not quite, reversible. Both the backs and the faces of the cards are borderless, maximising the impact of the modern, colourful images, and increasing the feel of limitless and unbounded potential that characterises this deck.
A further point of interest is the use of a special printing technique, where a thick layer of varnish is applied to parts of some cards. This shows up as a bright layer as the card is tilted to the light. Sometimes this is used to emphasise certain parts of the picture, in other cases it reveals shapes and images that are not on the normally printed scenes. This effect adds a layer of meaning to the cards that can be made to appear or vanish at will, extending the readers experience of the cards. It must be noted that although this varnish effect is sometime referred to as 'UV spot printing', the varnish is not UV sensitive and does not fluoresce under ultra-violet light. No special equipment is needed to see the effect that the artist intended.
Structurally the deck is unconventional. It has all the cards of the standard 78 card deck and then some more. For the purposes of this review I will follow the grouping of the cards in the book to determine which card belongs in which group. However it is up to the reader to decide how they wish to use the deck, what cards they use, which they leave in the box, and how they relate the cards to each other. In the book that accompanies the deck the artist says, with characteristic humour, "Permutate them into the Tarot however you please; use the Original Version, Extended Director's Cut or the Phantom Edit."
The art style is wholly modern, often humorous, taking influence from both comic book art and computer generated 'vector graphics' with their smooth lines and solid blocks of colour. The images themselves include aspects of science fiction and other speculative genres, displaying such modern touches as computers, mechanical creatures and space suits. Although the majority of the figures on the cards are apparently female there is a certain ambiguity. Many of them appear to be half one thing, half another, perhaps a third thing that we do not have a name for. Emotionally the images show extremes of emotion, great joy, desperate pain, but what ever the feeling the over riding impression of these cards is one of joyful inclusiveness. The reader is drawn into the cards to share the experiences of the people shown there.
In the Major Arcana the cards are, for the most part, titled in the top part of the picture, and numbered at the bottom with large Arabic numerals. In total there are 25 cards. Three of these are Fools, referring to the recurrence of cycles in our lives, the way in which we begin, and then begin again. All show women on the edge of cliffs, one leaping, one stepping blindly, one falling. In all three there are hidden wings on the back of each woman, visible only in the varnish when the card is turned to the light. Following this triplicity of fools are the 21 numbered cards of the major arcana, all numbered in Arabic, all named except for 12 who is left nameless. The ordering is conventional, Fortitude is 8 and Justice 11. Nestled in amongst these, in the centre of the deck is another extra card that sits alongside number 10, Fortune. This card, numbered X in the Roman style is named 'history', and is, in a sense, the gravitational force, the weight of history, about which the cards of the tarot revolve.
The images upon the cards are a combination of the modern and the traditional. Nevertheless, although almost totally devoid of the pseudo medieval trappings and usual esoteric symbolism of astrological signs and cabbalistic letters these cards still pay homage to the majors familiar to all students of the tarot. Each card is recognisable as itself, from the magician surround by her tools, to the unlikely trumpet player of Judgement. Justice holds her sword, the towers fall, and the nameless person on card 12 hangs reversed from an elaborate beam. Adherence to this structure has allowed the artist to create something that is at once both familiar and, at the same time, new and original, filled with its own dense symbolism and interlocking imagery that bursts the tarot structure at the seams and flows outward, filling the void beyond the tarot with butterflies, masks and fools.
The conventional minor arcana is divided into four suits, named Wands, Swords, Cups and Pentacles, and further divided into number cards and courts. All minors carry their number or the letter of the court in each of the four corners of the card along with a small suit symbol. Each suit is assigned to an element and colour coded in accordance with this designation. Cups and Swords are given to Water and air respectively, complying with their most usual elemental attributions, and coloured in tones of blue for water, and yellow for air. Atypically the suit of Wands is assigned to earth and that of Pentacles to fire. This however goes deeper than a simple elemental switch, it is, in fact, an exchange of suit names. In this way the card usually designated the 10 of Wands, assigned to the element of fire, and called 'Oppression' by Crowley, is still called 'Oppression' and is still assigned to the element of fire, but is now the 10 of Pentacles.
Apart from this elemental change the court cards of these suits are typical enough. Named King, Queen, Chevalier and Prince/Princess they are associated with the 16 elemental combinations as they are in the Crowley/Golden Dawn traditions. In this system all kings are air, queens are water, Chevaliers are fire and Prince/Princesses are earth. In this way the Chevalier of Swords is designated 'fire of air'; fire because he is a chevalier, air because he is of the suit of swords. The kings are all male, the queens all female, and the chevaliers and Prince/Princesses have two male and two female figures each, giving an even spread of genders across the 16 cards. Each of the 16 characters is an individual, from the dragon rider on the Chevalier of Pentacles to the Librarian of the Queen of Swords, all are clearly delineated characters with distinct personalities.
The number cards again break the bounds of the traditional tarot. As well as the usual Ace to Ten there is an additional card in each suit, the 99: a tongue in cheek extension of the suit. All suits start with the Ace, pictured as a woman masked by an image of the suit, each rising up out of her element. The Queen of Cups rising from the water, many breasted and pregnant, the fiery Queen of Pentacles blazing up from crimson flames.
From these beginnings, the roots of the elements, the suits explode out into the numbered cards and, although illustrated using contemporary images, are comparable in meaning to the traditional decks of Waite and Crowley but coloured by this deck's themes of choice, transformation and expansion. In this way the 8 of Wands (pentacles in Crowley and Waite) is portrayed as a nuclear bunker, stocked against a potential necessity instead of a farmer tending his crop. The image is different, the suit has changed, yet the sense of preparing for the future, of Prudence, is still there. The woman in the 3 of Swords plunges the blades into her womb rather than her heart yet the image is still recognisable to those familiar with the Waite deck. Likewise the ten of Swords shows a woman surrounded by swords, the tenth about to fall upon her, yet the thrust of the image is not static as it is in the Waite deck, it is about choice and implies that at least part of the disaster is of one's own making, and therefore its solution is also within one's own grasp.
After the tens come the 99s and it is at this point that the idea of the element is taken to such an extreme it transcends the limits of the suit and becomes something other. In this way the growth inherent in the earthy wands suit escapes the confines of the earth to seed the stars with life. The 99 of Wands, venturing as it does beyond the earth, introduces one of the main themes of this deck, and that is the void. The emptiness that must be crossed to reach the stars.
This emptiness that must be crossed, of filled, is present in this deck as the partial Void suit. This includes four court cards and a single card numbered Zero. The court cards are oriented in landscape format and printed in varnish upon black backgrounds, existing only when they are turned to catch the light. They speak of absences, an empty space suit floating in the void, a woman taking off a mask, revealing nothing beneath. These are strange and challenging images, which, unlike the normal court cards show us what we lack rather than what we are. The Zero card, the only other card of the void suit, shows a white butterfly flying against a black background. From the absence of the courts something has been born. Something that might one day grow to fill the universe.
Beyond this deliberately truncated void suit there are a number of extra cards, perhaps alternative majors, perhaps something else. Five of these are mentioned in the book, four are not. Of the five that are mentioned, two deal with ideas of ambiguous gender (a theme that is touched upon in a number of other cards in the deck), two are fools, or potential fools, and one is numbered XIII and is perhaps another view of death. Of the other four cards two are of the galaxy that decorates the back of the deck. One of these has the back design upon the face, a white galaxy upon an indigo background so that the card is the same upon both sides. The other has the same design impressed in varnish upon a white ground and includes a slim varnished border. Neither of these cards are mentioned in the book and it is for the reader to decide what, if anything they mean. If this is not enough there are two more cards that bring the number up to 99, a number that has some significance in this deck. These are title cards. In the normal run of things these cards would usually be left in the box or discarded. Yet in this deck, that expands ever outward, perhaps it is different. The only way to know would be to try.
Written by the artist in an engaging and familiar style the book that accompanies the deck is an integral part of the package. Speaking directly to the reader in a friendly, colloquial manner Margaret Trauth not only explains her cards, but also reveals through her words the themes of expansion, transformation, and self knowledge that permeate the deck. Using examples drawn from modern culture she refers to video games, computer programming, star trek and the C'thulhu mythos to give her words relevance to a modern, tech savy audience: nor is she afraid to use coarse language when needed to drive her point home. Her words do not bound the cards in finite meanings, but instead emphasise the elasticity of the images, the unbounded possibilities contained within the thing we know as tarot.
Inspired by traditional decks but taking those ideas in startlingly original directions the Tarot of the Silicon Dawn is a fascinating exploration of the elastic boundaries of the tarot. Although all extra cards could be removed and the deck reduced to the 78 cards of the standard tarot to do so would be to miss out upon much of that which makes this deck special. Built upon the idea of expansion the added cards stretch the concepts of what a tarot deck is. It takes all our expectations and takes them further, out beyond the world into the void, for it is only thus that we will reach the stars.
Sometimes, you wait for a deck for ages and then open it to crushing disappointment.
Sometimes, you don’t think you will like a deck and then when it is in your hands it is a delight.
For me, the Silicon Dawn falls into the second category. I’m not even going to try and pretend that this is an objective review: I am completely captivated by this deck and by the book that accompanies it. The best I can do is to try and explain why I love the kit, and point to some of the quirks which have seduced me. They may equally well repel others.
Firstly, the tone of the deck is neatly summed up by the creator as “a cartoonist’s view of the future”. Superhero-esque characters, stars, galaxies and humans with beast like features are all here, often frozen in the midst of action – it’s an energetic deck. This is the first reason I fell for the set: the artwork, and the way that it fits the size of the cards (a neat little 2 ¼ ins by 4 ins) to perfection. I felt I’d fallen into the middle of a graphic novel (as against a child’s cartoon, if you are offended by nudity then there are a few cards which you might take exception to).
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the structure of the deck is very, very clever without being patronising. I’ve noticed that when a creator sets out to do “something different” the deck can depart from tarot so much that I end up wondering why they just didn’t do an oracle deck instead. Everything about this deck made me worry that this would be the case. There are twenty one extra cards, so ninety nine cards in all; some of those cards are renamed or alternate Majors; some are from a new suit; and finally there are four new Minors (the 99s of the suits). If that wasn’t enough (and this really worried me) the Wands are Earth and Pentacles are Fire. But stop! Don’t run off yet – the deck works, really works as tarot and I’ll try to explain why I think this is.
The deck has its roots in the Golden Dawn ideas brought to life in the Rider-Waite-Smith and Crowley-Harris decks. However, the author “made a deliberate choice not to look at any of the actual cards of the various decks I was working from”. This means that while the imagery isn’t just another RWS or Thoth in different clothes, it also isn’t a re-imagining of what the author expects the Tarot should be like if only someone had asked them first. This deck is firmly rooted in the Tarot traditions of the last century, and swapping the pentacles and wands didn’t prove a stumbling block for me because the images speak for themselves. The author knows tarot and this comes through in the 78 cards of the regular deck. While adding additional cards might prove a bridge too far for traditionalists, I’d encourage you to experiment with them. I’ll introduce some of them now.
The extra suit I mentioned is the (VOID) (sic.), represented by four Courts and a butterfly. The Courts appear to be completely black and featureless at first glance, but through the magic of UV spot printing some areas are shinier than others so there are hidden pictures. “It’s all about absences”… There are also many, many Fools; alternates for several Majors; and cards which you just don’t find in a regular deck (8 ½ anyone?). I love these. They seem as if they belong to Tarot, and always have.
Finally, there’s the book included with the kit: a perfect companion to the deck. It starts with the words “tarot is a big pack of lies and misinterpretations” and goes from there. Each card is not just described, but brought alive even before you look at the image, and the Minors aren’t short-changed either. If you like your Tarot books ladylike, respectful or teacherly in tone then the book may not be your cup of tea. It has references from mythology, physics, mathematics, “popular culture”, technology, all delivered in a way that talks straight to the reader.
If you are still here, then I assume that you are interested in buying the Lo Scarabeo set. At the time of writing the deck has been released in Europe and is about to be launched in the USA (where it will be distributed by Llewellyn), so it should be available from your favourite retailers. It comes in a magnetic flip top box, complete with a well for the cards (they fit in two piles next to each other) and the book.
I’m already thinking about a backup…
Note: This review first appeared in the TABI (Tarot Association of the British Isels) e-zine.