:: Article


By Karen Whiteson.

Card Number One shows an artisan setting out the tools of his trade on the trestle table before him. Mark that knife: he could be the tarot-cutter, inserting a sly self-portrait into the pack. See him conjuring himself out of thin air, the ambidextrous mystery carver of this design.

Number Two shows a hieratic female, seated on a throne-like chair, a weighty book in her lap. The keeper of the secret lore of the tarot, its book is the key to all books and she its Decipheress:–Nea herself–who sits by the busy concourse by the Thames, killing time between readings.

Nea doesn’t believe in the tarot as a book. Or if it is a book it’s not a very good one. It’s a syncretic mass of elements haphazardly codified over the course of five hundred years: as a symbolic code it’s a shambles.

This is is not to trash the tarot in her view. Rather to recognise it on its own terms. Like dreams, the tarot is not meant to work as a coherent narrative. The prime function of the dream is to keep the dreamer asleep so that the proteins of the brain can be replenished. (And so, the dream always wishes the same thing–to protect the sleeping status of the dreamer). Dreams do not exist in order to be interpreted and the tarots were not invented for the purposes of divination, but as a game. The Game of Triumphs being the prototype of all trick-taking games. The innovation of the tarot or “carta da trionfi”, as it was called for about a hundred years after its invention, consisted of the addition of a fifth suit of twenty two cards, twenty one of which were permanently allocated the role of trumps.

Previous to this augmentation, one of the four existing suits would be nominated for the role. The tarot was effectively a designer card-pack and even the mass produced woodcut versions were costlier than a regular card deck. The survival of earlier, hand-painted versions of the trumps supports this indication that the tarot was initially an aristocratic commodity which subsequently went retail in the form of woodcuts.

I woke to find myself in a room bare of anything except the signs of the passage of time. Woken from a sleep so monumental it constituted a state more mineral than vegetative. Looking about me I found myself in a stone cubicle. I gazed ahead, towards a small casement window embedded in the recess of the turret-thick wall, where a cobwebbed curtain hung, rotted into threadbare wisps; or else a cobweb that had thickened with the dust of aeons.

I lay there staring at these rags or webs in the frame, speculating as to the nature of their material. As I gazed I saw the raggedy angles of some vestigial shape form a cluster of two or three elongated stars; their outlines rimed with luminous beads of moisture like dew, or tears.

With the emergence of woodcut technology throughout Europe, playing cards, along with devotional imagery in the form of block-books, became household objects. Woodcuts depicting devotional subjects have frequently been found inserted into objects other than books. Single-leaf woodcuts were often pasted, tacked, and sewn to all sorts of objects and surfaces. One batch of woodcut fragments was found on the walls and doors of a house as it was being demolished; others were found on the covers or sides of chests, sewn into garments and stashed down wells.

Woodcuts were often used in conjunction with the rosary, as aid to prayer. In the latter half of the quattrocento, the style of Catholic worship temporarily shifted away from ostentatious liturgy and relic-mania into a more meditational mode. The rosary and the woodcut were the main props for this more introspective form of worship. A picture of a saint in the act of benediction was imbued with the real presence of the gesture. The very paper upon which the image was impressed became charged with the saint’s aura; as if the printing technique used in its manufacture was being reproduced by the subject. Woodcuts, the first mass-produced images, took on the very fetishism of the relic-worship they were meant to replace.

Ever since Nea, aged eleven, (though she wasn’t called ‘Nea’ then, but something else, which hardly anyone now remembers), first came across the tarot trumps, half buried amongst the stationery cluttered about the Olivetti and architectural blueprints on her father’s desk–she was struck by the way they looked unexpected and new and yet at the same time it was as if they’d always been there; simultaneously novel and archaic.

First, the transference of the drawing onto the woodblock. It shows a figure in motion; walking stick in one hand, bundle over his shoulder and a semi-domesticated looking animal following hard on his heel–this creature attached by its claws to his buttock which ripped leggings clearly expose. On his upper half he wears a jester’s doublet ringed with bells, and matching cap. The result of blind-copying many times removed, the drawing looks flattened out–as if the figure strode between panes of glass and all his props and his paraphenalia: dog, bundle, sticks, leggings, cap and bells–lay compressed within this sheerest sliver of space. Only the landscape under his feet, sketched as a semi-abstract pattern of tufts and hillocks, escapes the 2D effect.

Cutting the wood with the grain; chiseling out the lights; gouging out the negative space on either side of the line. It’s a two handed process; angling the woodblock against the knife whilst turning the tool against the block. The Fool’s head is turned to the left, though the printing process will reverse the figure–so he’ll end up looking in the opposite direction to his carver’s self-portrait. Unlike with intaglio, where the line is incised rather than prominent, here only low pressure is required; a zero intensity operation. Next, the rubbing so that the image is impressed upon the card and then the final stenciling in of the colours.

The delicate lift of the chin as he trundles along, his eyes dreamy, suggest a blithe unawareness of the mauling his arse-cheek is receiving from the paws of the semi-feral familiar following in his wake. Wistful, head cocked for the scent of an inkling; jingling faintly in his cap and bells, The Fool moves sans strategy.

The tarot-cutter calls him “Tronco”–the trunk of a tree, a log, a stump, an insentient block as in “blockhead”: the raw material, sourced from the trunk of the tree, from which all the tarots are carved The Fool being its common stock, its prima materia.

It’s a card that can neither win tricks nor itself be lost. In the card game that eventually came to be called “Tarrocco,” players have to follow suit (including trumps belonging to that suit) unless they have a void in that suit, in which case they must play a trump, and if no trumps, then any card whatever. The Fool, however, can be played at any time at all and so helps protect the valuable trumps which renders it a valuable card in itself. The Fool always returns to the hand of the one whom was originally dealt, where it remains for the duration of the round. The Fool is a stalling device; one of its many nicknames is The Excuse. Ever retrievable from the pool of cards on the table, the Fool remains within the keeping of a single gesture.

I dream of waking up . So immured am I within the the dream I can dream I wake up without breaching the sleep in which this dream is enveloped. Just as in my first encounter with television, when for a while, I was unsure if the figures in the box could see me as I could see them. I used to imagine that they could see out if they chose to, but were all sworn, on pain of death, to avoid gazing directly at the camera. Just as now, I was so bound to the conditions of the dream, I could experience only that contained within its mise en scene. The opposite of a lucid dream therefore, though a stark clarity did hover over the scene of waste which encompassed me . I knew I had my work cut out if I was to escape the turret-like structure which housed my sleep. An utterly sealed space which–except for the light trickling through silhouettes of etiolated stars-shapes–nothing could leave or enter. A place of bare existence.

As the spider spins luminous webs from the secretions of its own body so I absorbed the star motif in order to inhabit it. As an alchemist once wrote: To see a body and a spirit rise from small invisible putrefied atoms doth cause a religious astonishment. To see was the thing I came back to life for; as I was, on the very instant of awakening, seized by this hunger for the image.

Card Number Seventeen, with its multi-coloured stars; seven small ones, plus the bigger one placed dead centre–is the card that brings it back most vividly–the moment of Nea’s first sighting of the tarot trumps. Not because it was the first card she saw, but on account of its brilliance which reflects the overall impact of the trumps as collective object. The colours scintillating amongst the workaday rubble of the father’s desk. Immediately she’d appropriated it; expecting he’d indulge her in this, as in most things. It contained a glimpse of something: the peacock’s tail, that flash of iridescence that offers a preview of the coming transformation.

And, she figured, The Star was the tarot because the star is fate, and that’s what the cards tell. Fate being that which has already been decided, before she was even born; or, maybe just before, in the months leading up to her birth: fate being anyhow, pre-natal.

It shows a woman, semi-kneeling, naked, by a stream; her long hair the same dark blue as the water which, a red jug tilted in each hand. she pours back into the stream. Balanced on the edge of the bank, one leg is planted on its foot before her, the other kneels on the yellow earth behind. It’s an anatomically impossible position, due to the V shape formed by the kneeling leg, the shin pointed upwards. It gives the impression she’s just arrived, that she’s run all the way here and, still half-running, knelt beside the stream to perform her ablutions–a specific moment in a transitory chain of moments. The heavy black of the outline and cross-hatchings give the figure a wooden appearance; whilst the rapt look on her face is remarkably expressive. Like a statue coming to life, the image is both still and in motion; like a frame from a lost film; a fragment of a more extended gesture.

This was the Marteau pack–the twentieth century disneyfied version of the Tarot de Marseilles, with its rationalized outlines and simplified color scheme: the three primaries with accents of forest green vegetation sprinkled here and there on the otherwise arid yellow earth. And the neutral vellum-like tone of carnation used for flesh, as well as serving for the wood of The Magician’s table.

This very same deck, creased, tattered and soiled, still remains, three decades later, in her possession. Having instantly appropriated the pack from his desk, she’d held onto it and continued to do so. even when there came a time she’d discarded all else acquired from that source, upto and including her own name. For a long time she was paralyzed by the moment of apprehension. Then–in a manner that was nothing if not methodical–she began to jettison everything: all that is, except for these gaudy oblongs. No longer able to deem them as precious found objects, as treasure; she still could not re-designate them as junk. Held in perpetual abeyance, they occupied some third, radically ambiguous category.

Though the pack she uses for consultation purposes, is the Convers; a facsimile based on the same late eighteenth century design, but with the archaic nuances of colour and line retained. The card stock is thinner than the Marteau and the oblong a bit smaller. A much lighter pack, in every sense of the word, with a finer and sketchier line; dark sepia brown instead of black. In both versions however, the pouring action conveyed by the girl at the centre of the card is identical . It’s a pouring of the river back into itself, as if this stream issued not from the river mouth but from the vessels in her hands. Or, maybe this water is in process of flowing backwards from the stream into the jugs. Either way, the water has no visible source, but seems to undergo a perpetual self-replenishment.

Apart from the overall design, the key difference between the Convers and the Marteau lies in the composition of the landscape and in particular the amount of space given to the stream. In the Marteau card the water occupies the foreground section of the right hand side, so it seems to stem from the front leg, its foot placed on the brink of the stream, whilst her back knee rests on the yellow of the earth curved in an L shape around her. There are two trees in the horizon and a shrub sprouts in the hillock behind her left foot. Here, she kneels on the bank overlooking the stream; whilst, in the Convers, the pale blue water takes up the whole bottom edge of the frame and she’s positioned semi-kneeling in/on the stream, so appears to tread the water as it flows between vessels. The same two trees appear on the horizon, but the third shrub has been subsumed into the edge of the bank, its outline still visible in the frond-like form of a fishtail.

Nea has tracked this image down to its earliest known version; an uncut and incomplete card sheet dated circa 1500 which is probably the closest thing there is to an “ur-tarot”. Here, the same fishtail motif appears, gouged out from the side of the bank so it appears as a negative image; as an indentation, where the land’s edge comes to an abrupt halt.

She’d taken the name “Nea” after Albunea, “The Tiburtine Sibyl” who presided over the sulphuric springs at Albulae Aquae–the greenish white water forming the small lake that used to empty into the Anio, before joining the Tiber on its course through Rome. It is said that a statue of Albunea carrying a book, was once found submerged in stream of the Anio. An engraving by an anonymous Florentine shows Albunea depicted in The Fine Manner, a lamb fleece worn cape style round her shoulders. She sits, book in lap, perched on a plateau of rock, its jagged edges like tooth-marks, floating in the river. It’s reported by Pliny that, in classical times, this lake harboured several such floating islets all covered with grass, which bobbed around on its surface; maybe due to the chemical content of the water which allowed the travertine to float. The white stone forms its layers by a process of precipitation caused by the limestone dissolving in the highly acidic water. This crystallization of the limestone deposit, articulated layer by layer, is said to have healing properties for the bones.

The hot springs of the Anio emit the methane of ignis fatuus who’s phosphorescence hovers over swampy ground at night are caused by spontaneous combustion of gases emitted by rotting organic matter. The groves near Albunea’s lake host a shrine to Faunus, one of the oldest Roman gods, related to the Greek Pan. Under the avatar of “Fatuus” he delivered prophecies based on the dreams of those who came to his shrine, where they’d sleep upon the fleeces of sacrificed lambs; a practice known as incubation.

Karen Whiteson has written poetry, libretti and a radio play but for now she is focused on short stories. Some of these have been published in the Edinburgh Review, in anthologies published by Penguin, Aurora Metro and Unthank Books and on the Ink Sweat & Tears website. She lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 11th, 2012.