Ship of Fools Tarot
by Brian Williams
In 112 passages with accompanying woodcut images, fifteenth century German humanist Sebastian Brant portrayed a collection of fools that represented the follies and foibles of the ordinary human being. Brant's fools were shown involved in a variety of everyday acts, sometimes looking quite innocuous to our modern eye. There was a moral message behind Brant's work, and not just in pointing out that adultery or stealing were wrong. Even those things that seemed like harmless human oversights, betrayed the real foolishness of man, for he could not see the spiritual or philosophical consequences of his actions.
Brant titled his collection, "Das Nerrenschiff," or "Ship of Fools," and not only was it popular in his own time, translated into a number of languages, it has also found its influence in the works of twentieth century novelists and musicians; notably Katherine Anne Porter, and the Grateful Dead. Brant's simple but direct words and message echo, and have found a place again now, in the twenty-first century, in Brian Williams' last tarot work.
Williams had keen vision. His tarot work balanced an understanding of the human soul, with an appreciation for the human spirit. His work is aware of our best potentials, and forgiving of what some might see as flaws or weaknesses. Inspired by Brant's own keen vision and the obvious potential of turning "Das Nerrenschiff" into a tarot deck, Williams created his Ship of Fools Tarot, beautifully styled with or after the original woodcuts from "Das Nerrenschiff." Many of the woodcuts have been kept very close to their original form, creating excellent representations of the tarot, and those that needed rearranging were secure in the adept hand of Brian Williams. Thus, the artwork is highly enjoyable and appealing, as well as often being quite humorous.
Through the Ship of Fools Tarot we can be reminded that we are responsible for our own lives and the consequences of our actions, which is an underlying purpose of tarot in general; being in control of one's destiny, using tarot as a tool of navigation. At the same time, we never forget, through Williams' wonderful writing, to lighten up a little.
I have really enjoyed this set. I love the combining of the fifteenth century with the twenty-first; the places where our vision and understanding of life overlap, and the places where they part. I also love the woodcuts, touched by Williams' artistic finesse. To Brant's satirical and sometimes stodgy message, Williams brought compassion and wit. Williams' writing is enjoyable - clear, concise, interesting. He explained his choices for the tarot images well, describing the original Ship of Fools woodcuts, and comparing the images to the Tarot of Marseilles, and the work of Pamela Colman Smith, from the Rider-Waite Tarot.
Readings I have done with this deck have been accurate and effective, with symbolism from the old woodcuts oddly achieving real precision in reflecting events in my life, and feelings existing below the surface. I'm not sure this would be the best set for a beginner, who might not be entirely comfortable with a few slight variations on the traditional, or even with the humor with which Williams wrote. Though the book is complete, it is not a comprehensive guide to tarot, so a beginner drawn to this deck would probably benefit from using an additional book alongside it, as he or she learns. But overall, I feel it is a set that can't be missed.
Card artwork by Brian Williams
A version of this review was originally published in Parabola Magazine, Summer 2003.
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