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A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. Sept. Theme: "Sexuality" Volume 1 Issue 6 ISSN# 1708-3265

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Technically Tarot

Erotic Tarot: Naughty Novelty or Naked Truth?

with Jeannette Roth


By definition, the power of tarot arises from its symbols. The stronger the iconic vocabulary, the deeper the insight. And perhaps few symbols evoke as much power as those of a sexual nature. The phallic and the vulvic, tied by inescapable biologic necessity to our very existence, give rise to a wealth of fundamental associations - masculine and feminine, force and form, activity and passivity, expression and latency, generativity and fecundity, life and death…

Long a staple of the "secret teachings" of cloaked esoteric orders, tarot is rife with veiled sexual symbolism once imparted only to worthy initiates with the greatest of sanctimony. The Magician's upraised wand… the upturned crescent moon at the feet of the High Priestess… the fluidic interplay of Temperance's vessels… the exploding crown of the lightning-struck Tower… all these and more have been assigned sexual significance, purported to further elucidate the cards' mysteries.

But although once reserved for a privileged few - bound to silence by the most dire oaths - the keys to the mysteries are now often presented and discussed candidly by anyone inclined to pursue such studies. And as seekers embrace a more open approach to the metaphysical disciplines, it is only natural to expect their symbolic vocabulary should become more forthright as well.

It should perhaps come as no surprise, then, to see sexual imagery so boldly presented in contemporary tarot. To do so removes the need for intermediary associations, and puts the viewer one step closer to the intended lesson of the card.

In other words, instead of saying, "wand = phallus = creative force," we can simply say "penis = creative force," and thus mediate the need to question whether we have correctly followed the associative chain to its intended conclusion.

Going All the Way

If tarot teaches us anything, however, it is that there is balance in the universe. Tip the scales too far in one direction, and they most certainly will snap back the other way with equal force. Once hidden and even repressed, frank and even graphic sexual metaphors are now incorporated into tarot images with increasing regularity. Entire decks of copulating bodies can even be found in mainstream bookstores. An occasional erect penis may be one thing, but can we say that there is any real useful divinatory or esoteric knowledge in a deck that appears to showcase every sexual peccadillo under the sun?

There is probably no simple "yes" or "no" answer to this question, but given the recent proliferation of erotically-themed decks, it may be a question worth exploring.

What's So Wrong with Having a Little Fun?

From the outset, it seems necessary to concede that some sexually-themed tarots appear to have no other function beyond that of a novelty item. Indeed, one of the most notorious erotic decks - Amerigo Folchi's infamous Tarocco dei Giardini di Priapo (often called "The Garden of Penises Tarot," but actually correctly translated into English as "The Garden of Priapus") - was in fact executed as an artist's "flight of fancy," and not as an attempt to seriously explore tarot symbolism through an erotic lens (see Frank Jensen's interview with Folchi in Manteia #7 for more information). While Folchi's critics have labeled the deck "empty" and "offensive" - perhaps because of expectations that the Priapo would be similar to his other well-regarded and uncontroversial tarots - the deck is perhaps more properly characterized as "waggish" and "fun." There is clearly little, if any, useful mystical insight to be found among the Priapo's cards - but as long as the creator does not try to represent a deck as anything more, can we say that any harm has been done?

Conversely, there are decks such as the wildly popular Black Tarot, by Spanish graphic artist Luis Royo. Compiled from Royo's body of existing work, the images not only have little connection with meaningful tarot symbolism, but are dominated by nubile young women in "cheesecake" poses and endless damsels-in-distress on the verge of falling victim to the most terrible, monstrous creatures.

Yet, while the Black Tarot was probably intended as nothing more than a showcase for Royo's art, I am surprised at how many people have confessed to me that they actually read with this deck. Like Folchi's Priapo, the imagery could easily be construed as "offensive" by some (primarily because of what could be defined as "sexist content") - but has nonetheless found acceptance among both men and women as a useful tool for their cartomantic pursuits.

In the Mood

In the "middle ground" between novelty and substance is a class of erotic decks which could, for lack of a better term, be described as "moody." Here, the artists do not seek to replace veiled sexual symbols with explicit ones. Rather, they attempt to meaningfully evoke the general demeanor of the card, depicting sensual scenarios which provide an emotional - if not intellectual - "flavor" of its essence.

One example of such a deck is Luca Raimondo's Tarots of Casanova. While Casanova's historic reputation as a successful seducer of women is well-known, the deck wisely avoids endless bedroom scenes and portrayals of "grinding genitals."

Indeed, while most of the images in the Casanova tarot could rightfully be described as "sensual," only about half of them could be truly described as "erotic." A lone gondola drifting in a Venetian canal against a dramatic orange sky ("Sun" card)… a cuckolding lover stealing away in the dead of night via a lowered rope ("Hanged Man" card)… a crowd of mysterious masked carnival figures intently watching a high-stakes card game by candlelight (10 of Wands)… all giving rise to feelings and sensations which may or may not follow "traditional" tarot associations, but which nonetheless have a definite power to engage and inspire.

An even more dramatic example can be found in the independently-published, limited edition Skins deck, by Canadian artist Shandra MacNeill. Executed almost entirely in black, gray, brown, and auburn tones, MacNeill's characters pulse with a raw, unbridled sensuality and even lust which seems to tap directly into the center of each cards' very soul.

Here, we see the raw "lion energy" emerge literally from the masturbating avatar of "Strength," and the sweet, inviting yonic expanse which provides a foundation for reaching "The Star."

The intentional unevenness of the hand-cut cards adds another level of sensory experience to the deck, imbuing it with a raw primitiveness which serves to heighten its exhilarating effects.

Taking Off the Gloves - and the Pants!

Finally, we move on to an examination of decks in which the creators have decided to "call a spade 'a spade.'" In these decks, all manner of sexual phenomena and activity are presented in the bluntest possible terms, pushing tarot's sexual allegory to its very limits.

While it is conceivable that all of tarot's most important lessons could be phrased in sexually-related terms, the question which remains is whether it is actually ever advisable to do so. The strength of the best-regarded tarots seems to lie, at least in part, in their creators' abilities to find the best match between symbol and idea.

Is it possible, then, that the best match for a given set of ideas could always be found in sexual metaphor? The very notion seems somewhat limiting - but perhaps appropriate if one chooses to deal with a limited subset of tarot concepts.

Enter such decks as Keith Morgan's Tantric Tarot. While designed more specifically for use in sex magick, Morgan's major arcana images are not symbolically antithecal to many generally-accepted principles.

What is described euphemistically elsewhere as yin and yang are clearly presented in Morgan's designs (as executed by Elizabeth Taylor - not the actress, presumably) as the literal copulating intertwine of male and female. From a beautiful, pregnant Moon goddess to the orgiastic rites of Judgment (called "Karma" in Morgan's deck), the full spectrum of human sexuality is literally laid bare, describing the mysteries of birth, death, and rebirth in a graphic but clear-cut pictorial language.

Another "serious" erotic deck with a more ambitious scope is Lori Walls' Tarot Erotica. In this 78-card, fully illustrated tarot, the image tableaus are not limited to exploring issues of sexual and spiritual fulfillment.

Instead, in these cards, Walls has attempted to address many facets of human existence - mundane and lofty, profane and holy, worldly and divine. Sexual symbolism dominates, but does not constitute the entirety of any one scene.

Indeed, it is when Walls manages to fashion a unique combination of erotic and traditional symbolism into a one-page story that her work succeeds - such as The Empress, seated on a crescent moon throne and crowned with peacock feathers, and from whose knitting needles thread spills forth to entangle a copulating couple beneath.

Yet at other times, her pictures appear to be little more than naked versions of the classic Rider-Waite images - as with the dancing maidens in the Three of Cups card. Ultimately, the deck struggles in its attempt to maintain the delicate balance between eroticism and esotericism - but it remains a fascinating exercise in the implementation of an iconography which was once taboo.


These examples only scratch the surface of the new sexual and erotic images of tarot. From Charles Pry's wickedly funny Diableries Tarot, to joyful celebrations of the human form in Postman and Ganther's Cosmic Tribe Tarot, to the literary aspirations of the Decameron Tarot, we see deck creators rejecting oblique references to sexual metaphor in favour of saying exactly what they mean - sometimes for elucidation, sometimes just for fun.

While it is doubtful even a well-crafted erotic deck could supplant a more traditionally-styled esoteric tarot as the "working deck of choice" for the average student or reader, we nonetheless can find occasional flashes of symbolic brilliance that may influence and inspire the next generation of mainstream deck creators. Freed from outdated oaths of secrecy and unnecessary expressive restrictions, erotic tarots help us to realize that a wider range of meaningful and powerful imagery is now at our disposal.

Jeannette Roth has been collecting and studying tarot decks for over 20 years, and has presented lectures on topics related to tarot evolution and imagery around the midwestern U.S. for nearly 15 years. She is the co-owner of The Tarot Garden, which maintains the largest publicly-accessible database of 20th and 21st century tarot and cartomantic decks in the world.

Feel free to check out Tarot Garden's auctions on eBay!

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