I have been working on an ocean-based Tarot deck for a while (at first I was calling it “La Mer,” an older French term for the ocean, until a friend pointed out calling your deck “Lamer” might not work out so well). The first card in the deck is The Fool, which represents taking the first step in the path you are following. The Rider-Waite deck shows a young man, his head in the air, walking toward the brink of a cliff, while a small dog barks to get his attention to what is about to happen.
In this version, a woman takes her first step into the sea with her spirit guide, in this case a spirit shark, glides silently by her side. The kelp part as they pass through, since once you know the language of the sea it will do anything for you. Because she is new to all this she must keep her head out of the water in order to breath; until she can master her fear of the unknown and begin swimming she will not be able to go very far, which is true with all of us when encountering something as vast and supernatural as the ocean for the first time.
I had been working on a tarot deck a couple of years ago, Um Tarot Suja, a sex magic deck (or at least that was the idea going into the project). I wanted to stay relatively faithful to the Rider-Waite deck. So, as they say in The Sound of Music, we’ll start at the beginning.
It helps me, at least, to think of the tarot as a narration of a spiritual journey, each card progressing down the path, as it were. The first card, The Fool, has a care-free youth starting out with his/her head in the sky, not paying attention to the abyss at they are about to plunge into. At their feet is a small animal (usually a yapping dog) which tries to get the Fool’s attention. We’ve all been there, starting out on a project full of excitement and idealism, having no idea what is in store for us.
My first two attempts (the bottom two cards) had the Fool stepping out into the (literal) darkness of the unknown. There isn’t a cliff, just the nothingness of the unknown, stepping into a blackness that has no form or shape. In the two cards both women have their hands stretched out to their spirit guides, a cat and a fox (what can I say? I like cats and foxes) and while technically either card to constitute as a Fool, neither really satisfied.
The final draft has the Fool transported to a unpleasant, godforsaken alien landscape (Utah) and the abyss, the start of our journey, is a stairway to (wait for it) the heavens. The Fool must take her first step up the stairs and into the unknown, accompanied by her guide, but once she does she can go anywhere in the universe she wishes, both literally and metaphorically.
Over the years I’ve used two different decks when it comes to Tarot — Milo Manara’s and The Cosmic Tribe. What I present here are some rough drafts of different card in the Major Arcana I’ve been thinking about. Sometimes when I’m designing cards I can see the entire deck’s theme in my head and then it’s just a matter of trying to find the right images that’ll work with each card.
This isn’t one of those times. But that’s fine too, since it means I can make it up as I go along. We’ll see what happens. It’s always good, as T.S. Eliot reminds us, to play with a wicked pack of cards.
For the most part I’ll be using the concepts of Tarot laid down in the standard Rider-Waite deck, mainly because more people seem familiar with it, and I find its ideas straight-forward and easy to adapt to what I am working on. The Fool (card 0) in the Tarot usually depicts a youth setting off on the first step of his or her journey. In the beginning we are all fools, open to anything, ready to believe in the most heretical of ideas. We will need this openness if we are to find what we are looking for. As the ancient Chinese saying goes, “a 1000 mile journey begins with the first step.” And so shall we. Buddha’s dying words to his followers were, “walk on!” And so shall we as well.
The Fool carries all her worldly possessions on a stick, thrown over her shoulder, happily looking up into the air and oblivious of the cliff she is about to step off into. Call it a leap of faith, call it falling into the unknown, but if we are willing to take our first step in attempting anything then we will need to step away from all of that which brings us comfort and complacency, so that we might confront whatever it is we are looking for. At the Fool’s feet a little white dog is barking, trying to get her to look where she is going.
While in the Rider-Waite deck the Fool is literally about to plunge off the side of a cliff, there are other less literal ways of representing that. The world of Tarot is the world of dreams, and the dream world seems like a good place to start our journey. In the middle of an empty desert a stone staircase rises into the universe. If we want to take our first step into the unknown we must be willing to follow those stairs where they lead us. In this image the Fool has yet to start climbing the stairs – has yet to commit herself to her question – and is distracted by what is around her. It’s easy to get distracted, but the moment we focus ourselves and put our foot on the first stair is the moment our journey truly begins.
A second idea I came up with for the Fool is a little different. Instead of looking like an escapee from Cirque du Soleil, I decided upon a young woman who about to step naked from behind a curtain. She has yet to do this, but she will. After all, if we are going to explore the world of poetry and passion, desire and madness, then the first step for us is being comfortable enough with our own bodies so that we can actually know what we are looking for. I’m always fascinated at how many people want to burn with fire but are so horrified at what that requires they never admit it? Passion is our birthright. The same fire that burned in John Keats and Anne Sexton, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath burns in everyone. Pretending it is any other way, to me, is hell. The other thing that is different in both cards is that I don’t have an annoying white mutt. The dog is symbolic. It is the Fool’s guide, that which will help her on her journey. There is no reason why it has to look the way it does except that Pamela Colman Smith, who designed the cards for the original deck, happened to like little white dogs, apparently. The girl’s spirit guide here is a blue ghost fox. It stands out sharply from everything else in the room, since it belongs to the realm of sleep and half-sleep, not the bright light of logic and daytime skepticism.