The Arthur Rackham Tarot Deck Review: Yielding to Dreams
Walking along an overgrown path in a dense, shadowy forest, the heavy scent of blossoms pulls you down into an unsettled sleep. Sprawled unconscious along the reaching roots, the petaled bower above enticingly frames an area of dark emptiness. This opening lures you across the threshold, dreams stealing you into the faerie realm. The tarot’s Four of Swords, a card for rest, peace, and security, is our gateway into the beguiling, but never quite safe, world of the Rackham Tarot.
The enchanting fairy tale imagery of the Rackham Tarot, coming out in June 2019 from Lo Scarabeo, draws us down into its emotive depths. This deck comprises illustrations by British artist Arthur Rackham, one of the most highly regarded artists of the Golden Age of Illustration. Initially trained as a journalistic illustrator, he eventually took his precise, intricate drawings to the literary world, producing art for limited edition gift books. He became best known for illustrations of Peter Pan, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Wagner’s “Ring.” In fact, many tarot readers are already familiar with The Ring Cycle Tarot, adapted from illustrations by Arthur Rackham and published by Schiffer Books. These images of myth, legend, folklore, and fairy tale twist into an utterly unique and immersive tarot reading experience.
Eerie, Effervescent, Entrancing Imagery
The Arthur Rackham Tarot features sometimes eerie, sometimes effervescent, always entrancing imagery. Arthur Rackham’s signature style combines strong pen and ink lines with delicate, diaphanous watercolor washes for a detailed yet impressionistic feel. The light, broadness of day is never seen. These painted backdrops fade into twilight like a drop of color swirling into a bowl of water, then rinsing away.
Nothing is quite as it seems in the mist of the dreamworld. A fairy dancer lifts into arabesque on a spider-thread high wire. She seems suspended in time and place, an appropriate interpretation of Trump XII, the tarot’s Hanged Man. Trees snarl and clutch at a lost and frightened woman in the forlorn Three of Swords. A long-nosed goblin squirms out of encasing bark, delegate for a stand of trees, to enact the Nine of Wands, a card that suggests holding your ground.
But out of the mysterious depths arise tender, friendly scenes. Fairies sing in the wood while a hook-nosed, winged fay performs on the cello. One imp holds up the book of music and another turns the page. The music in this rendition of the Ten of Coins, an image from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is intended to hold back evil things, keeping the locale homey and safe so we can yield to dreams.
A rooftop garden, cozy against the spires of the city, is the setting for the Six of Cups, a card associated with childhood friendship and the innocent stirrings of love. A boy and girl have snuck out of the windows of their respective homes onto the roof. The girl looks up from her over-sized book while the boy leans towards her with a gentle smile.
To express the traditional harvest shown in the Seven of Coins, we see a tree abundant with apples, a squirrel perched on a high branch. Meanwhile, naked children swing from the branches, collect fruit in baskets, and share the sweetness.
Curious characters take center stage of each card’s drama. Two ghostly graybeards in billowing cloaks accompany a woman riding a feisty horse led by an almost unseen man over curling waves washing across the stony path in the Six of Wands. A card for victory, here the friars provide safe passage and promise guidance.
A ragged babushka hunches in the alleys of a Tudor town in the Five of Coins. Apartments hover over her, perhaps a place to stay. The cobblestone street pours into the river, an empty boat could carry her away. Her downcast face and windblown gait suggest that neither option is hers.
In the Sun card, the foppish Lord Chamberlain from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens blows a dandelion gone to seed for an elegantly dressed fairy child, a trick that lets her Majesty know the time. This surprising depiction focuses on timing and cycles, even producing the impression of an old year to new year transition.
The Rackham Courts and Majors
The cards are deliciously devoid of words, with images bordered top and bottom only. Simple iconic indicators in the parchment colored borders identify number and suit, in the style of all recent Lo Scarabeo decks. The court cards are represented by a helmet for the Page, a horsehead for the Knight, a diadem for the Queen, and a tall, spiked crown for the King.
Even the Majors are wordless, following the elegant new Lo Scarabeo format. II, the High Priestess, peeps at a curtain, her mouth covered with her hand. The idea of the withdrawn, secretive, introverted and intuitive priestess — and the question of what lies beyond the veil — can be drawn from this image.
The classically draped maiden in XIV, Temperance, melts into, or rises from, a churning sea that crashes against the rock foundations of a quaint town opposite a castle atop towering cliffs. The idea of water mixing into water, and the potential of stepping up from one level to a higher, then a higher, are appropriate symbols for this card.
A sinister character in a black doublet and Elizabethan ruff drags a struggling woman in a rose-colored ballgown into a puff of smoke at the macabre masquerade of XV, the Devil. His sinewy strength arouses both fear and fascination, an appropriate contrast.
An Amazon Hierophant
The most unusual card of the Major Arcana is V, the Hierophant, with Hippolyta, the Amazon queen, cast in the role. She strides through the forest with her two hounds, holding her spear aloft. Following, hidden by the curve of a leaning tree, is Theseus, her betrothed. This illustration, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lends an Artemis-like character to the warrior queen. Once the story is known, the symbolism is rich. Although Hippolyta and Theseus are not main characters in the play, their backstory is well-known from myth.
The warrior Theseus wooed Hippolyta with his sword, his strength winning her heart. Many critics see this as the female subjugated by the male, an interesting twist to the ideas of dogma and tradition that readers attribute to the card. However, there is a distinct gender role reversal in this image: Hippolyta dominates the scene while Theseus brings up the rear, lost in a lower quadrant of the picture. On the other hand, marriage, impending between these two characters, is one signification for the card’s symbolism of presiding clergy. But most significantly, in this scene of the play, Hippolyta and Theseus come across all the sleeping characters and wake them up — a beautiful interpretation of the High Priest who rouses us from the sleep of illusion into the light of spiritual truth.
The Power of Myth in the Arthur Rackham Tarot
What I like best about the Rackham Tarot might equally dissuade someone from this deck. The cards are not tarot images. Instead, they are cropped illustrations by one of the most beloved and prized artists of his time. Not created by this artist, the deck was rather curated by a highly-knowledgeable tarot publisher. The result is that not every card presents an immediately clear meaning from one of the tarot lineages. But each recounts a perfectly clear story.
Readers whose best skill is to plaster stock meanings onto the cards will find themselves flustered. But lovers of myth and story will relish reading this deck. If you’re hesitant, let High Priest Hippolyta and her hounds teach you. Start with the image, and letting the feminine lead, set your imagination to walk ahead confidently while knowledge ducks and tarries behind. Then when you catch the whiff of the game, your heart will thrill at the impending chase for understanding.
For those who need additional assistance, the deck includes a Little White Book, authored by Lunaea Weatherstone (Mystical Cats Tarot, Victorian Fairy Tarot). After brief biographical information on the artist, she explains each Major Arcana card in a handful of sentences. Then the Minors receive an even terser treatment. A clever three-card spread appears in the section on “How to Read the Cards.” Ms. Weatherstone deserves respect for the pointed interpretations she provides. If only there had been more room, it would have been helpful to share the story each image comes from. Even without this information, some will be recognizable while others will be completely unknown.
Familiar Stories in Picture Book Cards
Nevertheless, there are familiar stories in the cards. The King of Coins is Midas, who turns everything he touches to gold.
Hansel, locked in a cabinet, fools the witch into thinking he’s too thin to eat by holding out a thin, knobby bone through the bars of his cage in the Eight of Swords, based on Hansel and Gretel.
The Nine of Cups portrays a woman in a deplorable, barren room putting on a ball gown. In this scene from the story of The True Bride, a close parallel to Cinderella, the penniless heroine, beleaguered by a wicked stepmother, dresses for a fancy ball.
The Ten of Wands shows The Goose Girl. In this story, a princess, forced to trade places with her chambermaid, was given the chore of tending the geese. In the dark arched gateway, she talks to the head of her beloved horse, killed at the chambermaid’s command. Outside, the shadowy figure of the old king intimidates, but in truth he will recognize her for who she is and restore her to her proper place.
However interesting, recognizing the stories in this deck is not a requirement. This deck has one thing that is uncompromisingly essential to tarot images, and which many modern tarots are disgracefully lacking. These cards tell stories. Every vignette is carefully lifted from the beckoning pages of tales and adventures. Even if you don’t recognize the narrative the illustration derives from, you can still tell its tale. These picture book cards are eloquently straightforward to read.
Interpreting the Dream
Lo Scarabeo is not the first publisher to capitalize on Arthur Rackham’s prolific and mesmerizing images. In fact, this is not even Lo Scarabeo’s first Rackham deck, having published the Fairy Oracle last fall. Additionally, Doug Thornsjo of Duck Soup Productions, creator of many innovative decks, is currently crowdfunding the second edition of his Arthur Rackham Oracle. As mentioned above, Wagner aficionados will love the Ring Cycle Tarot.
Which deck to choose? Here, tarot and oracle meld together so much as to be almost indistinguishable. The cards from both the Rackham tarot and oracle decks can be read simply as oracle pictures. In fact, this is the main selling point for oracle decks: no knowledge required. As a result, the Rackham Tarot is the perfect crossover deck. Love the images. Read the stories. Look for connections as you compare these cards to those of other tarot decks. The tarot structure is the armature on which this art hangs.
When faced with the tarot versus oracle conundrum, I always choose tarot. Once a reader understands the tarot skeleton, decks like this make tarot reading pure pleasure. When I explore the details of an image, while considering in parallel the meanings, symbols, and correspondences of the tarot, I drift into the land of magic. Perhaps fairies whisper in my ear. But knowledge not available to me via either system alone gushes in. Start climbing the tarot scaffolding and you’ll leave the beached oracles far below. Not only can this deck climb, it has wings. Descend into the dark dream depths of the Rackham Tarot, and reaching bedrock, lift off into sibylline flight.
Rackham Tarot. Illustrations by Arthur Rackham. The collection was curated into a tarot deck by Pietro Alligo (Lo Scarabeo Founder, and author of many decks, including Tarot of the 78 Doors, the After Tarot Deck, and Tarot Mucha) and marketed by Mario Pignatiello for Lo Scarabeo publishers. Lunaea Weatherstone wrote the accompanying Little White Book. The cards are 2 9/16″ wide by 4 5/8″ tall, making it slightly smaller than an average deck. The symmetrical backs feature a detail from the Four of Swords image, a woman sprawled, perhaps sleeping or fainted, at the roots of a large tree in a dark forest.
Back to Reality
What do you think of the Arthur Rackham Tarot? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Are you a beginning reader? Do you find this deck easy to use? Please share your experiences! This review is part of a developing series on Romantic Tarot Decks for Tarot in Love. You can also read a variety of tarot and oracle deck reviews at Completely Joyous.