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Chieftains The Brough Master TextI have a longstanding obsession with Tarot cards. You still there? Only I know that these paper prophets do have a habit of spooking the most sensible, scientific and sceptical of minds. A box of tarantulas, a basket of snakes might have a lesser effect on a phobic than the opening of a deck of Tarot cards. Just the mention does it sometimes. You would be surprised at the people I have met who are, well, afraid of them.

Respect. That is what we all should have for things folkloric and mythological and over the years the Tarot, whichever deck you prefer, has become that. They had humbler beginnings as a kind of Bridge game and were called the ‘Carte di Trionfi’ – the Triumphs. Already the linguistic pleasure is stealing over me, Triumph is a good word. I don’t know about you but there are words that speak to me. I appreciate, that’s what they are supposed to do, they are a communication tool. What I mean is that some words have a different tone, a timbre (eek!) even and they become part of your own personal lexicon.Your tongue. Triumph is one of mine. Nightmare is another.  Tarot. Tarot speaks to me.

My first encounter was not, as you might think, in a gypsy tent pitched in the wilds of some Odessan Steppes with a blue roan Brabant horse cropping the grass nearby. They were not dealt to me by a wise woman with a swishy skirt. No. It was Live and Let Die actually. Cue the music. I was intrigued and inspired by Jane Seymour playing ‘Solitaire’. First of all, lexicon bell rings, ‘Solitaire’, is one of my trigger words. Secondly her initial dialogue was very spare and full of foreboding. Thirdly, the Tarot itself. I’d never seen one. The cards were a thing of beauty and their use as tools of divination made them even more beautiful.

You could also blame my Dad, he introduced me and my sister, Jane, to card games. We were big on card games in our house. This was, after all, (fanfare please) the 1970s and, if you didn’t have any macrame to do, then a hand or two of Bezique would see you through the long winter nights.  Bezique? Don’t ask. We had a very big, very encyclopaedic book of card games. One of my time travel skills is that whichever era I might happen to wormhole into I will be able to pick up a deck and after some amateurish shuffling, astonish them with my skill at a triple hand of Piquet.

And a quick word here concerning the dark shadow of The Cards. My mum would not play. She didn’t like card games and it was largely due to the fact that she had been brought up to understand, not believe mind, but understand, that playing cards were ‘The Devil’s pictures’. That’s not to say that she crossed herself or muttered Hail Mary as they were brought out of the sideboard but she was, shall we say, uncomfortable about them. They were not for her.

On the other bough of the family tree, some of my paternal relatives might have been lifted straight from a saloon in a Western. If I tell you that, in her sixties, my great grandma broke her hip getting run over on the way to the pub to ‘handbag’ a man who had dissed her son, you get a sense of my rootstock.  Cards figured frequently in their fingers. No one drove Whist like them. They were jokers and knaves with hearts in spades.

This  education in suits and court cards was just the lure. I loved the imagery of  playing cards and again, the language, the Jack or Knave, the Joker. My favourite of all time is ‘wild card’ which cannot even be tarnished by use in reality TV shows. ‘Twos are wild, Aces high.’ my dad would intone, as the cards flew across the table. There was a little universe hidden in the pack. They were my gateway drug. Then Live and Let Die showed me the hard stuff.

I didn’t buy any tarot cards until I was much older and researching something for a tv script I was writing. There is a superstition that you should not buy your own first Tarot deck, which of course only adds to the shadows. That said I think they might be right. The first deck I picked from the internet, because it was an old style one, was sinister in the extreme. It arrived in a jiffy bag from Penzance so perhaps I should have been warned. I could barely get them out of their little cardboard ‘Made in China’ box and they spent much of the next couple of years hidden in a drawer before being passed, like the runes, to an unsuspecting charity shop. I trust that someone ‘found’ them, that is, that I was simply the conduit for that deck. I had to buy them in order that they could be passed on.

The deck I currently keep, in their midnight blue velvet bag on a chest of drawers that the moonlight touches, are called the Victoria Regina deck. I bought them from that wicked old internet of course but this time something was altered.  They arrived in a box and they took my breath away.

I don’t consider myself a reader in any way, I just like to look at the deck. The illustrations are black and white beauty and were created by artist Sarah Ovenall. I can spend hours turning these cards. On occasion I look into the images and just wander around them, at other times I reach for the book and research the established meaning of each one. Here we have the magic of words  once more; the hair goes up on the back of my neck at the phrase ‘Major Arcana’.

Do not misunderstand me, I don’t believe in ‘psychics’ per se, the people who peddle fortunes for cash on mega rate phone lines or blather pseudo-psycho nonsense at people to manipulate their emotional vulnerability. I have no respect for such people because they don’t respect what is true magic; intuition, soul, spirit, connection. You can’t sell this. It is not a commodity. I have more respect for the lady in town who ran a hardware shop and would, on random occasions, offer people an insight, coldly and without preamble or fannying about. “Beware snakes and ladders.” she’d inform you, that was all the information she had and handing it over was as natural as breathing to her and she did not take any kind of payment, except for the packet of curtain hooks you might purchase.

Back to the cards. There are rituals I have; I like to turn over an odd number and consider them. Consider is an important word. I am not asking for psychic messages, I am clearing my head and letting other, deeper thoughts push forward. It’s a kind of meditation. To me the Tarot deck is a way of focusing. The beauty draws you into itself.

Is it Beauty tempered with Darkness? The most famous cards are probably The Hanged Man and Death circling amongst the Wands and Cups, Swords and Pentacles. Ooh, there you go again! Pentacle. Sword. Ring-ring-ring goes my lexicon bell. The cards, however, are open to your interpretation. They’re negative if you bring the negativity. They are, in the end, just cards, they do not control the thoughts that burble into your head. You alone are responsible for that.

This negative aspect, the fear and the mistrust, was highlighted a few years ago when I ran a creative writing workshop.  The course was about finding different ways into your writing by investigating the methods by which Man has always scratched his marks on the world. The first day was about runes and ogham and ancient writing alphabets. Another day we looked at Roman curses. On the fifth day we were going to create our own Tarot.

five of lampsEveryone was scared. One lady actually said ‘I can’t do that.’ Another said ‘I don’t like the idea of tampering with the occult.’ and the room grew darker. Rectangles of paper or card, lent incredible power by imagination, history and language. Two of the ladies who were into their witchcraft were very much against it until I pointed out that, far from tampering, we were going to make our OWN decks, that is, manufacture cards with symbols and words that meant something to us, using the traditional deck as an inspiration only. I passed around the few cards I’d made with brown craft card, cut out letters,pictures of top hats and photos I’d taken of olde worlde streetlamps in Aberdeen. The Ace of Hats, the Five of Lamps.  After a few moments the lady who had said ‘I can’t do that.’ picked up the glue pen and began to rummage in the box of scraps and pictures.

By the end of the session they had each produced small epics. Images and words from heart and soul were speckled over the table and each had specific intentions and ideas behind them. We were no longer haunted.

I’ve been writing another book in the Witch Ways series and one of the items that spelled itself onto the pages was the Havoc Deck, a set of cards kept by a character, Mrs Creasey. The Havoc Deck are the only deck of their kind and she calls them her ‘paper prophets’. What they do in the book is hint at the inner strengths and possible futures of the Way sisters. Nothing is written in capitals and obvious, the Havoc Deck is there to give Hettie and Mrs Creasey a few pointers. For me that is the life of the Tarot, the idea that the words and images are a way of looking more clearly from the corner of your eye.

You can be a traditionalist and hanker for The Queen of Wands or the Hierophant. You can fall for the charms of any of the many decks on offer.  Or, you could take a leap with a pair of round nosed scissors, a Pritt stick, a smudged picture of a teapot, a torn fragment of text from a favoured old storybook. Tap in.

The best deck, to my mind, the most dangerous, the most beautiful, the most scary, the most daring, the most enlightening, is the one into which you have put your own thoughts, and the raggedy edges of your soul.

 

Intrigued? The cards tell me you desire a free book and the cards do not lie. Well, hardly ever. The joker is wild after all. Anyway, freebie? Look no further: https://www.helenslavin.com/signup/

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‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge

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