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Deck by Johanna Gargiulo-Sherman was published by U.S. Games Systems in 1982
73.66 x 127 x 30.48mm | 408.23g
Anybody who is looking for something different will be sure to find it with this one.
According to the booklet, the artist’s goal is to "enable viewers to envision the obvious fragmentation of their existence, to recognize and foresee their own inner strengths and, despite the ever-present obstacles that arise in life, to transcend earthly existence." This statement seems at odds with the visual impact of the deck, which has many images that are quite disturbing, and some that are downright frightening.
The artist is a master colorist, and the deck truly excels at color. The colors used are mostly dark and vivid reds, purples, oranges, blues and greens. There are no light, pale colors in this deck, only dark ones, giving it a dreamlike, hallucinatory quality that really pulls you in.
Most of the scenes take place in woodland, and the cards are densely packed with trees, foliage, and flowers. There is a crowded, claustrophobic feeling to every card in the deck. There is a great deal of energy and drama in each card, and an intensity which is rarely found in other decks. I think this deck lends itself to being used for reading simply by the nature of the intense colors and dramatic scenes.
Although the use of color is truly masterful, for me the deck falls short in its draftsmanship. Many cards, like Strength or the Star, have an amateurish look about them. In some cards it’s difficult to make out what is going on, such as the 7 of Pentacles, where I had to rely on the booklet to find out that the figure was sowing seeds. Although one might also complain about the draftsmanship in the Waite-Smith deck, at least in that deck there is never any doubt about what is happening.
Sherman displays some lack of expertise in anatomy, for instance in the 7 of Swords, where the figure’s outstretched fingers are all the same length. Also, the artist seems to not enjoy drawing eyes. Except for a huge Sphinx which (characteristically for this deck) towers threateningly over the Wheel of Fortune, the figures on most of the cards have their eyes closed, although on many cards it’s impossible to tell whether the eyes are closed or simply blank, i.e. all white with no iris or pupil. Needless to say, this makes for a very disturbing effect.
Every time I look through this deck I am struck by the disturbing and scary aspects. The Hermit, almost always pictured as a kindly dispenser of wisdom, in this deck has blank eyes which stare out from a dead-looking face. In the Wheel of Fortune, the demons from the Waite-Smith Wheel have grown large and menacing and seem to be controlling the wheel’s turning, while the aforementioned Sphinx glares malevolently at the viewer. In Judgment the angel, who has completely taken over the card, holds the trumpet directly over the child, and seems about to either suck the child up through the trumpet or else to be preparing to blast the child out of existence, while its parents beg for mercy in the background. (These are my interpretations, not Sherman’s.) In the Lovers the man dominates the two women and seems to be holding them captive, while the angel, blindfolded, smiles up at the sky, unaware of the scene being enacted below in his name.
The Minors are more abstract. They have scenes somewhat similar to the Waite deck, but the suit symbols are emphasized and the figures often float against a starry background. There are plenty of disturbing images here, too. In the 10 of Wands, nine wands entrap a figure lying on the ground, while the tenth wand hovers over his chest, "ready to leave its mark," according to the booklet. The 7 of Cups is an interesting card, showing a man with a desperate expression holding five cups, while two arms reach up from the bottom of the card to steal them. Behind him a woman offers two more cups, her face changing "from kindness to scorn to aged disappointment." Characteristically, the card uses concepts from the Waite-Smith deck but puts its own negative spin on them.
In the Knight of Swords we have a good example of the contrast between the artist’s stated intention and what is actually shown on the card. Sherman writes, "On a foggy night a determined knight...emerges from the mist...this card signifies a strong, brave but domineering individual...skillful and clever, charismatic and persuasive." What the card actually shows is a knight looking basically like a vampire, with a grim expression and an upraised sword. The effect is actually quite terrifying. In fact, many of the humans in this deck look like vampires.
I admit to breathing a sigh of relief when I saw the 10 of Swords, often the most dreadful card in any deck. Here it is rather sedate, showing ten bloody swords stuck in a tree. But my hopes were dashed when I saw the 5 of Swords, which shows an almost naked, blue-skinned, kneeling man, being impaled from the side by four swords, while a fifth one hangs over him "ready to strike." As if we did not get the point, the artist has helpfully painted blood trickling down his body from each wound to pool at his feet. This card wins the Most Gruesome Tarot Card award, at least in my experience.
There are some interesting motifs that run throughout the deck. For example, each of the Kings holds in his hand an "elemental" creature corresponding to the element of the suit -- a salamander for Wands, an undine for Cups, a sylph for Swords, and a gnome for Pentacles. Also, each of the Majors has what at first seems to be a pool of water at the bottom of the card, but is actually the Cosmic Rose of time and space, which is pictured on the card backs surrounded by four roses - Red, White, Gold, and Blue.
The booklet that comes with the deck is substantial at 55 pages, with upright and reversed meanings by the artist, as well as an interesting introduction by Stuart Kaplan explaining how the deck came to be. The card meanings are extremely predictive in nature, however. The cards have such emotional power that I think one would be better off developing one’s own meanings by examining the cards rather than memorizing such meanings as "lack of perseverance brings failure."
You can also buy the deck packaged with a book called "Reveal the Secrets of the Sacred Rose." Although the author states "Not all the views within this book will agree with those of the creator of this pack in the divinatory sense," the meanings given mostly follow Sherman’s predictive ones, although rather than upright and reversed we are given positive and negative meanings. The author (Steven Culbert) has a commendable common-sense approach to such subjects as rituals and how to weave the cards in a layout together when reading, but I frankly think there is not much here that you don’t already get in the booklet.
There are certainly many cards which are not as gloomy as the ones I have described here, but someone who buys this deck should be aware that this is not a "sweetness and light" deck. It does have a fascinating, dark power, and is certainly worth a look.