Below I am posting an introduction to the structure and ideas as found in the Mary-el Tarot. This will be the first in a series for the Mary-el Tarot study group. I will try to update several times a week with new exercises and essays. Feel free to comment and question as much as you like! Hopefully this will grow into a decent resource on the Mary-el Tarot and tarot philosophy in general.
The idea for the phrase “Landscapes of the Abyss” came to me when I was working on the Fool card. I couldn’t get the composition just right and I felt like I was missing something important that was just outside my reach. Finally one night I had a dream in which I was standing beneath a giant pyramid-shaped mountain. There was a river that came from the mountain and flowed straight toward me , across a flat plain and became a waterfall as it fell off a cliff into some unknown depth.
On one shore of the river was a tall luminescent tower that looked like it was made of pearl. On the other shore was a red dragon who’s tail was curled up on the land but the rest of him stood high up in their air as if he was on guard.
Somewhere over my head was a person flying and I could see his slippered feet, just like in The Fool card.
I thought of the spire, the dragon, and the mountain, as the supernal triad of the tree of life, and the Fool was jumping off the same cliff the waterfall was tumbling over – into the abyss that exists in that space between what is ideal and what is real.
I remember thinking at that time that all of these images and symbols we find in tarot, and maybe in our lives, are the landscapes in the abyss, this space or void that was made – into which everything can be created, manifest.
So that’s why I titled the book, Landscapes of the Abyss.
The Mary-el Tarot was created over about a 13 year period. All of the cards except the Knight of Cups, measure 11.5 inches by 7 inches and they are on either illustration board or masonite which is a type of pressed wood. The reason I used that instead of canvas, which I usually prefer, is because I didn’t want there to be any obvious canvas marks in the final card images.
They are painted with oil paints in an old method called grisaille which literally translates to “grey” in French. Traditionally, a painting is completed in shades of grey only, then you lay on a thin wash of a neutral color called an imprimatura, Italian for “first paint layer”, which lends a nice middle toned ground upon which to start layering on thin glazes of transparent color until the painting is complete.
The main pattern or structure of the Mary-el tarot is based on the Tarot de Marseille. It has 22 Major Arcana, including the unnumbered Fool, and 56 Minor Arcana. The card order is that of the Tarot de Marseille (and the Crowley Thoth) with Justice 8 and Strength 11.
The Minor Arcana are completely illustrated and are based on the numerology as set forth in the Major Arcana. So, the Aces are based on the Magician, split within the 4 elements, the Two’s on the High Priestess, the Threes the Empress and so on. The Court Cards are fairly traditional; they are titled Page, Knight, Queen and King, and I also associate those with Major Arcana, so the Pages which follow the 10s get associated with Strength, 11. The Knights with 12 The Hanged Man, The Queens with 13 Death and the Kings with 14 Temperance.
The Suit symbols are Wands, Swords, Cups, and Disks. Wands are Fire, Swords are Air, Cups are Water, and Disks are Earth. I see the order those are in as being very subjective, and they can appear different depending on where you stand, but for the sake of keeping things in some sort of simple order I usually describe them in the order of Fire, Air, Water Earth because that is the elements from the lightest to the densest, and also if you can imagine moving down our bodies, Fire being somewhere up here, Air being in our heads, water being here in our hearts and earth being down here.
Below is a brief chart, and we will go further into the elemental correlations later because it is a very important part of this deck.
|States of MatterIn order of density||Plasma||Gas||Liquid||Solid|
|Sun||Atmosphere||Bodies of Water||Ground/Rock|
So, even though the traditional structure of tarot is there, and something I highly value, this deck is not a clone of The Rider Waite, or the Thoth, or the Marseille, or all 3, or any other deck. Rather I wanted to learn where the underlying symbolism came from and illustrate that. I believe that all of these decks as well as any kind of symbolism humans tend to record, are based on a much older and basic truth, one that exists within us as archetypes.
A lot of people ask what the theme of the Mary-el is.
It doesn’t have a theme as we usually think of them in modern tarot decks, but there has been an overall prevalent idea of balance and symmetry. When I started I had the perception that tarot was lacking a certain balance between male and female energies, yin and yang, with most decks being one or the other predominantly. Also I believed there was a disparity between depth and quality of art as opposed to the internal quality of the symbolism. We all know about the art decks out there that are symbolically shallow, or even energetically shallow and the great decks tend to be lacking artistically. Now over time I have come to think of the art in some of the great old decks as fantastic and brilliant and I love it! I love Pamela Colman Smith’s art! I love Frieda Harris’ art! I love the old woodblocks and medieval art! BUT when I first began I sensed a lack of quality art. Maybe what I sensed was a lack of quality modern art, modern style, and I wanted to do that. Remember this was like 15 years ago now so many beautiful, and symbolically rich decks have come out since then.
Throughout the journey of creating this deck It taught me about itself, slooowwwwlllyyy. In the end I think it is the language of the subconscious, the same language of dreams,art, and creativity. I believe very much in archetypes and the work of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, that there is a symbolic language we all possess and know, if not consciously, then subconsciously. It is constantly the foundation of our actions and decisions, and it communicates with us through thoughts and emotions, intuition, gut instincts, etc. It basically underlies and colors everything we do and perceive. I think dreams are like stars, they are always in the sky, it’s just we can only see them when the sun goes down. The same way I think that dreams , that flow of symbolism, is always there 24 hours a day.
There is an idea about a tiger and a monkey. The tiger is the subconscious and the monkey is the waking conscious. The monkey riding on this tiger’s back really thinks he is in control but the whole idea is completely ridiculous as you can imagine.
I think one of the things you learn through study of that internal language is free will, which happens in the 7s. And what you learn is not to control the tiger, but to work with the tiger because the monkey is smart, we can harness and use the power of the tiger, we can be aware of the tiger and direct our life to a meaningful end.