Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Sheridan Douglas Tarot

After many years of rather lazy looking, I have finally found a copy of the Sheridan Douglas tarot at a price I was prepared to pay for it. It is of course a copy of the 2006 edition of this deck originally published in 1972. Perhaps I have confessed here before that there is a bit of an old hippy going on inside me and I quite often feel most at home with the manners, fads, looks and mores of the 1960s and 1970s. Two of my other favourite decks, the Aquarian and Morgan-Greer are both very seventies in appearance, although Morgan-Greer was actually published in 1980.
The history of this deck is available on the internet for those who would like to know. It has perhaps been most influential through the book which it was originally designed to illustrate. Perhaps I should say at the start of this post that it is supposed to be heavily based on the Western magical tradition and particularly the Tree of Life. I would have to admit that while I have dabbled in these things, my own methods of divination are far too freeform to have been shackled by such a single tradition and thus I cannot claim to know enough about the tradition to comment on that aspect of this deck. Nonetheless there is a great tradition of individual magicians taking the materials of ceremonial magic and turning them into the materials of folk magic - this is exactly the magical tradition which was prevalent in British society before the Golden Dawn and then the Wicca came along.
My copy wasn't actually new, it was second hand - I am sure that I have covered my opinion on the use of second hand magical tools at great length here repeatedly, but suffice to say that the joke that the children of the Wicca are greatly loved by the proprietors of magical supply stores, may account for the tradition that everything used in magic should be 'virgin'. *I'm* not a virgin and don't see why the things used in may magic should be, either. In fact I'm convinced that the universe will always come up with what I need at the time I need it.
Even before I had shuffled this deck it had taught me something. That is the wisdom of the tradition that pictorial decks can be rather limiting to the reader, since the reader only gets used to one interpretation of the minors, and can't see the broader perspective of the non-pictorial minors. I genuinely expected this to be a non-pictorial-minors deck, and was surprised to find that it wasn't. When I found it had pictorial minors I was somewhat surprised to find the extent to which some of them differ from the Rider Waite Smith minors, and am afraid I found myself thinking about the RWS ones rather than looking at the pictures. I rather like that this deck has some rather different interpretations:
The deck deals with a card which has always been very difficult for me to read, the 6 of cups, by replacing the poison dwarf with a figure gazing into the bottom layer of a fountain composed of six 'cups' with the water running down from one to the other. Bearing in mind that the traditional meaning of this card is 'the past' I find this a much more confortable reinterpretation of the card without the bizarre graphics of Colman Smith. This and the other images are much simpler than the pictures on the RWS minors which means that there aren't the subtle details in the background which many readers are familiar with from RWS, and there is a sense in which the meaning is simpler, which I think readers will either like or not.
This simplification is perhaps most obvious in the 7 of cups, where the multiple opportunities of the RWS deck are replaced by a figure with six cups staring at a single cup standing on a cliff over an expanse of water. As with many of the cards this subtly changes the meaning and my own reading of the picture would tend to be about desire or avariciousness - this feels like a man who already has a lot but wants it all.
The bloated plutocrat of the RWS 9 of cups is replaced by a nude female figure with hair streaming behind her, looking at one cup while the other eight are lined up next to her.
I really like the reinterpretation of the 10 of cups, which shows two figures dancing with the ten cups arrayed on the ground in front of them. This shifts the meaning of the card away from the nuclear family-orientated version of the RWS deck, while (perhaps unfortunately) making the meaning of the card look much more like the 3 of cups.
The 5 of pentacles is reinterpreted to showing two bare-clothed figures on a plank loose at sea, The pentacles are depicted on five fish which are swimming past. I really like this interpretation of the desperation and lack of resources card.
The 6 of pentacles is completely transformed from the giving-to-the-beggars-with-the-overtones-of-making-a-judgement scene. It shows a man with a fez on his head (and what looks rather like a wand in his belt) indicating the six pentacles laid out on a table in front of him. My first impression was to dislike this card intensely, but actually I like that it is as if he is offering a choice of the pentacles to the reader.
I think my favourite reinterpretation of the RWS cards is found in the 9 of Pentacles. I'm afraid that I must let you into the bizarre world of the inside of my head and tell you that I am accustomed to think of the lady in the RWS 9 of Pentacles as an elderly South African white woman, who enjoyed the life she led under apartheid, remains well rich, but is finding the cold wind of reality which is blowing into her world, rather threatening. In the Sheridan Douglas deck this card is transformed into a man warming his feet at a fire (which has a cauldron simmering on it), while the pentacles are heaped up on the floor in the foreground of the card. It retains the sense I have of this card indicated prosperity and comfort, with the protection they give from the world outside, which can nonetheless intrude at any moment.
The 8 of swords gets a dead seventies reinterpretation in this deck. The figure is topless with big tits for a start. She isn't blindfolded, but gives the impression that her hands are actually bound behind her back, and the eight swords are pointed at her in the air. There are five other things which look rather like snowflakes at the base of the card, but which on closer examination prove to be sets of swords pointing inwards. The background of the card in unrelieved black and this deck dramatically intensifies the pain of this card. The woman can only but look and there is no escape - there are none of the overtones found in RWS that she could get out of this if she liked.
The 2 of swords is made more martial than it is in the RWS - although even in the RWS deck there is a sense of rocky times ahead, of all not being what it seems. Here the nude figure is caught between water and flames, and is flailing around with his two swords, clearly fighting for his life. While this is an intensification of the 'hoodwinked' interpretation of this card, to actual combat, I think it fits better with the martial tendency of the suit of air.
The difficult 3 of swords is interpreted in a way that seems rather different. It was when I first read Waite's comment that the meaning of his heart pierced with swords was too obvious to require comment, that I first realised how annoying he could be. Here three red arms hold three swords in a circular pattern on a plain black background, suggesting an ongoing, cyclical, pointless war of attrition which will never end and will not be good for anyone.
The 4 of swords gets a less ecclesiastical feeling than you get in the RWS - two knights have taken off their helmets, dropped their swords and are playing a game on a table. I do like this impression of having a rest.
The difficult 5 of swords is made even more sinister by the depiction of a lady in  court dress being menaced by five swords. The sinisterness is further increased by the depiction of some menacing eyes staring at her out of the background. The only unfortunate thing about this card is that it looks as if she's already been shot by an arrow in the leg which she is holding on to. While this is clearly different from the swords when you examine it, it is unfortunate that unless you examine it, this card rather looks as if there are six swords, not five.
Anyone who loves the grppvy graphics of the time will love the 6 of Swords which shows a man (dressed apparently in flares) wading through a body of water from one shore where there are four swords (I imagine he has left them there) to the other shore where there are two sowrds sticking up out of the ground. I'm already finding myself interpreting this as him going to collect  the other two swords so that he can return and add them to his collection.
I have always found the RWS 2 and 3 of wands difficult to interpret and particularly difficult to differentiate. This deck more than adequately deals with that problem by having the 2 of wands depict a man rubbing sticks together to make a fire (why has nobody else thought of that as the obvious meaning of two sticks?). The 3 of wands then goes out on a limb somewhat by showing no wands at all, except as they are formed into a ship with a joyous looking dolphin leaping about in front of it. I've always wanted to attach the phrase 'the world is my oyster' to that card, and am glad I have finally found a deck which comes within spitting distance of actually doing so.
The 4 of wands is completely different from the scene in RWS which suggests so many different possibilities, and I feel that this is the one of the changed depictions I like the least. It shows four very different 'wands' lined up against a green background. Suggestive of preparation, perhaps, but rather lacking the lush party imagery of the RWS deck.
The fight in the 5 of wands - which I have seen described over and over again as a pretend fight against all the evidence - is here made brutal. A naked man and woman fight under a pentagram made of wands. The brutality of this card is really quite frightening.
The artist has gone for the triumphal imagery of the 6 of wands alone, and omitted the people surrounding the procession as well as the horse, which in RWS I always feel is sniggering at the man on the horse.
The meaning of 9 of wands is dramatically changed by the complete omission of anything like a bandage or any interpretation of guarding, such as I have seen in other RWS decks. Here the man shouts 'green man' because the wands behind him are all green and he himself has greenery growing around him and twining up his body. Oh, perhaps I should say he is actually green as well. This is a dramatic change in the meaning of the card - to, say, fruition and fecundity - and I actually rather like it.
The 10 of wands draws on the triumphal aspects of this suit - or rather the triumph of the will over everything else - in depicting the Roman fasces alone. I like that.
Perhaps I should say that the Major Arcana re more influenced by the Tarot de Marseille that RWS, in both numbering and design.
In general terms I have a feeling that while this deck is almost legendary, it is one which wouldn't appeal to a lot of people nowadays. I have a feeling that that situation may have been different in the seventies, when decks were hard to come by. It isn't the Rider Waite, it isn't the Marseille, and it certainly isn't Thoth, so it doesn't clearly belong to one of the streams of the modern tarot world.
The art may also be too simplistic for a lot of people. Personally I like the graphic art of the 1960s and 1970s, and I also like simple art, so I am very drawn to the bold lines and solid blocks of plain unshaded colour of this deck. It managed to retain the faux mediaeval setting of the RWS deck, rather than going completely for a seventies look. I like the way the suits are indicated by a small suit symbol on the left of each card with the number. One thing I don't like is that I think the card is more glossy than I would like it to be. It feels overly glossy and smells rather plastic when you get close to it, in my opinion.
So having got through the descriptive bit I have shuffled the deck for the first time asking it why it has come into my life. I always think each tarot deck feels different, even individual decks within a print run, each with their own personality, and this deck's personality feels as if it is diginified and will not give easy answers. Perhaps it is showing its background in ceremonial magic rather than the throw-down-a-few-cards-on-a-pub-table kind of divination I am accustomed to. I shuffled for quite some time before a card came to my attention. The card I have drawn is XIV Temperance. A major, so the deck is going to be telling me things, and temperance of course refers to balance, so I think this deck has come into my life to talk sense to me when I am expecting the tarot to confirm my own opinions. Sigh. Nobody said divination should be comfortable.

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