Tarot Deck Review:
The Magdalene Legacy Tarot: Lost Keys of the Madonna
It was truly fulfilling to find The Magdalene Legacy Tarot: Lost Keys of the Madonna, a deck and book set conceived by Casey DuHammel and illustrated by Deborah L. Shutek-Jackson in my postbox. I have been eagerly awaiting this creation since my first conversations with DuHammel several years ago. Her passion for the story of Mary Magdalene bowled me over when we first talked! She told me then that she'd been collecting material about Mary Magdalene for many years already, the results of which are now integrated into this excellent and powerful Tarot. Others have reviewed the deck in a more "professional" manner, so I will use this column to share a bit about my own unique view of what a deck like this brings to the art and practice of Tarot as a tool of consciousness-expansion. (See Bonnie Cehovet's review here: http://www.aeclectic.net/tarot/cards/magdalene-legacy/review.shtml; view a selection of card samples here)
Every Tarot exists within a context of assumptions that give it birth. People who use the Tarot accept the premise that the 78-cards of any pack will refer to a sequence of stages in the archetypal journey of the soul, navigating through a human incarnation. We proceed as if a map of the human experience as a whole had been cut into 78 equal-sized pieces, then dealt out to the individual as their own magnetism decrees. No one pack of cards can hold everything possible about the Tarot, that macro-cosmic concept which is larger than all of its manifested examples. Any given pack of cards will naturally represent one possible worldview and belief-system that is evoked through the art, titles, and symbolism included on their faces. A huge amount of unspoken context shines out of any set of Tarot cards, revealed through the design choices made in the artistic depictions, through the titles, numbers and symbols displayed, the size and substantiality of the cards, the use of color, metallics, even texture, plus a host of other considerations contribute to the unique spin of any given pack.
Towards that end, DuHammel and Shutek-Jackson have chosen a subject deep enough to grant them a rich tapestry of interweaving elements through which to examine the human condition. The legend of Mary Magdalene as we know her in the 21st century is synthesized from Gnostic, Semitic, Egyptian and Christian scriptures. Her presence is attested by all four Gospel writers, but she is only fully appreciated through a widely variant, and intensely suppressed, analysis of historical material that never made it into the Biblical canon. Such research highlights the presence and contribution of Mary Magdalene throughout the public ministry of the man idealized in the Christian Savior, Jesus Christ. Magdalene's legend in western Europe includes the assertion that, after the Crucifixion, she and her family set out from Egypt and traveled across the Mediterranean in a boat with no oars, landing at a little fishing village along the coast of France. Subsequently, she lived out her final 30 years in the region, communicating with angels and providing an inspirational and healing presence for her adopted land. Her children assimilated into the local population, providing the folkloric basis for Europe's ancient royal families, who were therefore considered to have magical and healing gifts inherited from their sacred ancestors. The consequences of this belief-system -- which grew to huge proportions once the Catholic Church set up a veritable pilgrimage business to take advantage of it -- deeply colored both the art and the history of the region. It is to this European branch of the Holy Family that the Magdalene Legacy Tarot refers.
Given the extreme plainness and spare presentation of the oldest Marseille packs, modern packs tend to define themselves by overlaying new gloss upon the pre-existing pearl. Over time, this has led modern packs to verge in the direction of what my husband Michael Dowers calls "horror-vacua", the fear of empty spaces. Decks touched with this syndrome have every surface embellished, leaving every open space is crawling with information that telegraphs as movement. There is nowhere for the eye to rest and take its bearings! I am pleased to report that DuHammel and Shutek-Jackson don't incline their Tarot in this direction. The Trumps and Royals of the Magdalene Legacy Tarot, the so-called "face cards", are depicted in inviting naturalistic scenes that spell out pivotal events, lessons, and characters marking the important stages of the Magdalene Legacy. The user can easily imagine stepping through these doorways to interact with the charmed landscapes of the Holy Land, the city of Marseilles, the pilgrimage paths of Spain and the Langue d'Oc region of southern France. This group of cards carries the story and illustrates the mythos, the unique imaginal, of the Magdalene Legacy Tarot. We will find the author's most creative and revealing adaptations within this group of cards, which unquestionably represent the movers and shakers of this inspired multicultural lineage.
There is so much distinction and personality infused into these face cards that it will take me a while to get it all internalized. Suffice it to say that only the most attentive of Magdalene's devotees will come away from this vivid compendium of Gnostic/Christian mythos saying "I've heard it all before". The depth of DuHammel's research and dedication to detail shines through on every card. The story of the Holy Family had a very strong hold on southern Europe for many centuries before the Tarot appeared, but DuHammel and Shutek-Jackson have made an excellent synthesis between Tarot's traditional subjects and this esoteric strain of Gnostic/Christian mysticism. I love the Chariot card with it's depiction of the Holy Family's boat landing on the shores of France. I also love the Empress showing Magdalene in mature splendor, enthroned and "clothed with the Sun", her three handsome children grouped behind her. The Moon card is an inspired rendering of the Black Madonna and Child of Czestochowa, Poland, lighting up the dark night of the soul with their shining auras. The placement of Jesus Christ on The Emperor, corresponded to the astrological Sun, marks Trump #4 as the Anointed One for Gnostics, Jews and Christians alike. With Joan of Arc gracing The Justice card, the Virgin Mary on the Priestess, John the Baptist on the Hermit and the cathedral-building Abbe Suger on the Hierophant, there is a lot to take in here! Add to this the inspired choice to emulate certain classic exemplars of Magdalene art, and we have a power-packed document in hand, which will amply reward deeper investigation.
By way of gentle contrast to the Trumps, the numbered Pips are more understated, pointing back to their geometric, elemental and numerological roots. DuHammel and Shutek-Jackson are following a pips-pack modification which was (as far as I know) first explicated by the French Tarot magus of the early 1900's, Eudes Picard. This style of presentation has become more popular since it was grafted onto Oswald Wirth's Trumps for the Universal Wirth Tarot -- though before that was published, this style of pips were featured on El Gran Tarot Esoterico, The Balbi Tarot, The Crystal Tarot, and the Salvador Dali Tarot. I like the calmness of these images as rendered by Shutek-Jackson, with their ivory paper, the shadowy yin/yang backdrop image of the entwined lily and rose, and their handsome grapevine border framing relatively simple designs in the foreground. The thoughtful key words at each end of the card also add to the effect the numbered suit-cards can have in a reading. It becomes very clear upon laying out a spread, that half of the cards are strongly 'personified' , with human motives and strategies drawing central attention, whereas other cards simply represent natural laws and elemental states, with the subtle geometry of suit symbols predominating. All of these details become aids to interpretation, once we have become comfortable with the imaginal world this pack presents us with.
Choosing the Picard models for the numbered suit-cards put DuHammel and Shutek-Jackson into a peculiar position. Picard not only created a visually-unique set of Pip cards, but he also made an executive decision to switch out the elemental correspondences between the watery suit of Cups and the airy suit of Swords (replaced by Quills in the Magdalene Legacy Tarot). This creates a bit of cognitive-dissonance for the reader who is accustomed to the more usual correspondences as found in the majority of Tarots. For example, Picard's Swords are all visualized in, on, or interacting with a body of water, and they are decorated with water-lillies, fishes and crabs. Meanwhile his cups or chalices appear suspended in the air, they shine with a silvery or crystalline light, and are surrounded by the Cathar symbols of birds, butterflies and flowers.
The creators of the Magdalene Legacy Tarot chose to split the difference, integrating Picard's unique visual elements with the more normal suit-to-element correspondences. This is why traces of Picard's watery substrate flows through the lower part of every Quills card, even showing the sign of Scorpio on the 4 of Quills. Alternately, winged creatures decorate the Cups, and we see the symbols for the three Air signs shimmering in the water below the Ace of Cups. I'm guessing that these visual suggestions have been retained to remind the user that we must not ignore the mind when we are immersed in our feelings, nor should we rationalize away our finer sentiments while we are indulging in logic and ratiocination.
Because of this pack's immersion in spiritual feminism, mysticism with a female face, and Gnostic Christianity, The Magdalene Legacy Tarot makes a great primer for cataloguing some of the more persistent underground religious impulses in Europe. I'm quite happy to report that even though this pack is centered on the story of Mary Magdalene, it is not specifically a pack for women or a goddess/feminist pack. Instead we have a modern reconstruction of a multi-cultural, intergenerational weaving with many strong characters of both genders represented. True to their focus on the motif of Sacred Marriage, the deck creators have carried the theme of reconciliation of opposites across all the levels of the deck.
This focus on the mediated opposites adds significance of the internal mirroring of Air and Water that we see on the Sword and Cup suits. Also, the suit symbol for the Disks is the historic Chi Ro sign that, as we are told, conjoins a masculine and feminine element, much like the paired symbols of the Chalice and the Blade. Among the Trumps, we see those bordered with the colors of the "yang" elements of Fire (red) and Air (yellow) displaying their correspondences up in the right-hand corner, in "dexter" position. Alternately, the Trumps with the borders of blue and green, denoting the "yin" elements of Water and Earth, have their astrological correspondences up in the left-hand corner of the card, the "dexter" position. No doubt I haven't yet found all of the esoteric hints and clues that are buried in this pack, but I'm mentioning these to serve as a spur for users to keep their eyes and minds open while engaging in deeper investigation.
DuHammel makes us aware of a fascinating array of interconnections between the destiny of this Holy Family and the nations that have hosted its members. Also, her own insights and comments give a lively feel to the book, enriching our associations with the individual cards even beyond the theme and focus of the deck as a whole. The smallness of the accompanying book belies the potency of the writing, giving testimony to the author's wide range of personal studies. Through DuHammel's many associations, we gain glimpses of the larger world of Tarot throughout. Users are encouraged to bring along the learning they have gleaned from other decks and traditions whenever they break open this pack. For example, a short mention in the text of the 8 of Disks led me to a very profitable little investigation into the eight forms of wealth of the goddess Lakshmi. So interesting!
One innovation that makes this pack stand out is its method of elemental mirroring between the Trumps and the Suit cards. The four Suits have each been given a different colored border: red for Fire, yellow for Air, green for Disks and blue for Cups. These border colors are extended to the Trumps as well, thereby doling out the individual Trumps into the elemental families based on their correspondences within the astro-alpha-numeric net of the Hebrew Alphabet. Each suit gets 5 of the Trumps, except the Fire suit, which gets seven Trumps due to its importance as the most active and assertive of the Elements. Essentially, each Element receives three Trumps representing the cardinal, fixed and mutable signs of that element, plus one or two relevant Planets, and sometimes also a card representing one of the three Celestial Elements; Fire, Water or Air. This allows the user to match up one's Trump interpretation with the suit and elemental modality that is most sympathetic to it. Following this line of thinking, one can expand upon the meaning of any card by investigating the rest of its elemental family members. Each elemental family will share an essential body of assumptions and responses that will augment and strengthen any individual card's expression.
If there is anything I might choose to quibble about, it is the fact that this pack keys the Trumps to the Kabbalistic paths of Athanasius Kircher's adaptation of the Kabbalah Tree. Kircher created what is essentially a Catholic redaction of the original Hebrew concept, and published it in Oedipus Aegyptiacus in 1653. This scheme was subsequently promoted over the natural, inherent Hebrew tree as defined the ancient Sefer Yetzirah. My purist nature has never allowed me to bond with this Christianized version of the Tree, though it has become the most well-known Kabbalistic model that is discussed in modern esoteric literature. We read in DuHammel's book that she's blending traditional and modern, Continental and English methodologies on her pack. Therefore this choice has its own historical logic within the spirit of this intergenerational Judeo-Christian transmission.
A case in point: The Magus of the Magdalene Legacy Tarot features Giordano Bruno, a rebellious and self-directed magus, neoplatonist and mathematician who was burned at the stake in 1600 by the Catholic Office of the Inquisition for his profession of heliocentric astrology. Meanwhile, Kircher the German Jesuit scholar and polymath, published his version of the Tree in the early 1650's, showing the typical Jesuit tactic of assimilating another culture's esotericism, but subtly made over for the Catholic agenda. Had these two men met and discussed Hebrew mysticism face to face, their differences quite likely would not have been bridgeable! But such are the paradoxes and twists of fate that characterize the simultaneous attraction and hostilities arcing between the Semitic mysteries and the Greco-Roman mysteries. This conversation went through many stages as the continuous cultural ripple of history flowed from the Holy Land into south and central Europe. History shows that the path of esoteric transmission is often rocky, interrupted and erratic. DuHammel and Shutek-Jackson's Tarot falls directly into the fertile intersection between settled orthodox dogma and persistent underground heresies. Each user has the opportunity and responsibility to make what they can of the implications and applications they find here!
The creators of The Magdalene Legacy Tarot; Lost Keys of the Madonna have placed a lot of emphasis on endowing their cards with esoteric roots and internal consistency. This is a concern that I respect and also insist upon myself. My preference is to work with a deck that either represents the historical and traditional values directly, or if I can't have that, a deck that gets out of the way enough so I can apply what I have learned about the core values of European magic. I refer here to the number/letter correspondences on the Trumps, the ancient Decave mysticism on the Pips, rounded out with a full Zodiac in the Royals. Without this kind of "bone structure", it is easy to overweight one's pack towards fanciful imagery and imaginative titles, leaving aside the bedrock values that make Tarot so useful. I want to be able to follow the logic of the Kabbalah Tree and the Greek Tetractys when comprising meanings for the numbered suit cards. I want to fall back into the personalities of the Zodiac when interpreting the Royals, pegging the Pages to the Solstices and Equinoxes. I presuppose that the very outline separating a Tarot pack from every other type of card game is an unmistakable clue to how the cards can be used "for those who have eyes to see". A deck that interferes with my employment of these distinct metaphysical keys, handling them in a partial fashion or cobbling them together willy-nilly just for the sake of being pretentious, will never last long on my Tarot table. Such a deck would be unable to pull its weight compared to the classics of the genre! Happily, The Magdalene Legacy Tarot joins the ranks of packs that I would call "real Tarot", in the sense of maintaing a connection to the spirit and ethos of occultism that prevailed from the 16th through 19th centuries. For all these reasons, I am proud for DuHammel and Shutek-Jackson, to see the excellent compilation they have made of the numinous and multicultural story of the Holy Family, whose European mythos is enshrined on the face of this pack.
ArkLetter 110, April 28, 2014
copyright christine payne-towler 2005-2014, all rights reserved
TAROT ARKLETTERS are published by:
Christine Payne-Towler and Noreah Press
Tarot Interpretation & Charts
Tarot Reading text creation at Tarot.com
Bishop, Gnostic Church of St. Mary Magdalene
Founder: Tarot University Online
Author: The Underground Stream, the Tarot of the Holy Light
Anyone objecting to the use of their image in this free publication can have it removed immediately - Ed.