Tarot of the Dead
by Monica Knighton
Ancestor reverence is a part of my spiritual practice - it is natural to me, a natural experience of gratitude, love, and respect, for those who have come before. I have set aside a full shelf of old photos and mementos, central in the central room of my house, where sometimes I light a candle, or place a glass of cool water. This creates a ritual of the natural, and yearly, my family acknowledges the known and the unknown, in a celebration of Halloween, which would correlate with Dia de los Muertos - the Day of the Dead.
The Day of the Dead is a major holiday in Mexico, joyfully paying respect to the ancestors. The holiday inspired Monica Knighton's Tarot of the Dead
, which honors the dead, and indeed, honors death itself. The artist shares her philosophy on death in the tarot's accompanying booklet. It is a simple philosophy, but wise just the same: she says, of her deck and death, "This isn't about what happens after you die. It's not about religious belief, or lack thereof - as Tom Stoppard says, death is for everyone, even you. It's about letting go of the euphemisms and accepting where the parade is headed. The shadow of mortality makes the minor worries of the day silly, petty, and ridiculous. It throws into sharp contrast what is important, or even that nothing is all that important." With these rather straightforward words, she introduces her cards.
When I first saw Tarot of the Dead
, in which all of the figures - save one - are skeletons, I made the assumption it was somehow a tarot of the Grateful Dead ... The skeletons and roses are very similar to the artwork favored by the band. I'm not the only one to have made the mistake. Getting beyond that wrong assumption and seeing the deck for what it is, it becomes more enjoyable. Not that I don't like the Dead, I do; I just like this idea for a tarot deck a bit more. Interestingly, the Fool - one of my favorite cards in the deck - is a trusting hitchhiker, carrying a backpack, traveling with his (or her) dog (who is also skeletal). The Fool is on a back road, walking through a mountain landscape, and a car has stopped to offer a ride. I really do like this card, and feel that it strongly reflects traditional meanings of the Fool. This is a Fool I can relate to - taking off on foot, carrying a pack, accompanied by canine best friend, not knowing exactly where I'm going ahead of time but knowing I will get there and knowing I'll enjoy the trip. And, it's also very Grateful Dead-like to me too. The Hierophant dispenses wisdom from his lawn chair, flanked by pink flamingos, the light of day shining off his mirror ball. My guess is he's from Florida, and could be anybody's grandfather, teaching through the experiences that have come with age. The artist has given this card a decidedly humorous aspect, a casual character usually missing from the traditional Hierophant. The Wheel of Fortune is such a pretty card, the seasons highlighted in each corner, the skeleton pedaling a large tricycle - the front wheel is larger than the others, a clever take on the symbolism. Another favorite is Strength, numbered eleven (there is a mix-up in the booklet, which lists Strength as eight and Justice as eleven), which shows a fire-eater performing confidently on stage. He's wearing a leather vest, and just seems pretty cool - and fearless. A mention must be made about the thirteenth card, which goes untitled. This one we know is Death, and the artist has chosen to explain it thusly: ". Bears no name and is often called Death. It signifies a powerful but natural change. Marks the beginning of self-awareness. To live, one must accept that one dies." The card itself shows a young, very pregnant woman - who is fully alive. The card definitely stands out. And another favorite is the World, which although based very much on earlier representations, is just very simply happy with her fiddle and dance.
Minor Arcana cards have no scenes, but are nicely done and look terrific in a spread. Wands are Pens - simple fountain pens on aqua backgrounds, Cups are Coffins - simple wooden ones on green and purple, Swords have become Pistols - the old-fashioned kind against pale pink, and Coins are Reels - metal film reels against yellow. These alterations in the suits are not clear at first, but are well explained. For Pens, Knighton says, "The old saying that the pen is mightier than the sword may well be true. The wildfire of creative force often cannot be contained by reason or will. This is a suit of freedom, of active change, and of seized opportunity, just like a writer brainstorming, we must act in the now, feverishly scribbling down our stories, ideas, and dreams as they race through the mind, otherwise they fly away." And for Reels, "This suit deals with the world we work, eat, sleep, love, and generally live in. But this cannot literally be the physical world around us. Each of us lives in a reality built for us by our experiences and what our senses report to us. Just as our perception of the world is translated to us through our mind and senses, film reflects a composite perception of the material world." Court cards are creative and clever too, and reflect their character well.
Feathers, flowers, and even fish bones adorn the cards, and banjoes, funky sunglasses, and breezy frocks all emphasize a very free-spirited quality. This is a joyful celebration. It offers us an acceptance of death - and of the dead, certainly not in a morbid or overly analytical way, but in a way that causes fear to cease and spirit and love to reign. If we give up fear, we can live; the cards seem to implore us to do just that. I have a feeling Tarot of the Dead
may become a favorite of mine, and know it will surely become the favorite of many.
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Card artwork by Monica Knighton
All writing and photography © N Levine - Illumination Tarot, unless otherwise noted. 1999-2021