Tag: Tarot symbolism

VAMP: the Theda Bara Tarot, the minor arcana

VAMP: the Theda Bara Tarot is due to be entered on kickstarter to crowd fund a print run some time in September.

The minors of the VAMP deck are based on the writings of Count Matteo Boiardo (1441-1494) who proposed a 78 card tarot consisting of 21 majors, plus the Fool and four suits based on what was popularly known at the time as the Four Passions of Fear, Jealousy, Hope and Love.

In the late 1400s, Boiardo wrote a tarot poem consisting of two sonnets and five capitolo, with a tercet (3 line verse) for each capitolo. So each minor card has it’s own three line verse. The ace to ten of each suit is a tercet based on the passion, and the verses for the court cards relate to classical figures that the 15th century audience would be familiar with.

So, the Boiardo suits based on the Four Passions are the basis for the Theda Bara deck.

Mary Greer relates the Boairdo suits to the more familiar suits as:

Fear = Swords

Jealousy = Wands

Hope = Coins

Love = Cups

So, why use these suits for the Theda Bara deck rather than the more traditional suits? Well, Theda Bara was a star of the silent film era, and  the basic themes of the silent films she starred in are the passions and emotions of Fear, Jealousy, Hope and Love.

Theda was a student of the Delsarte method, that was commonly used by actors in the silent era. This involved poses and facial expressions to register emotions. In Eve Golden’s biography of Theda, she describes:

“In the early years of fan magazines, Theda and her fellow stars were pictured registering Fear, Love, ….and other facial expressions”

By modern standards the Delsarte method may look exaggerated and almost pantomime like. But it is unfair to make such judgements, and the acting methods of today may look equally ‘wrong’ in one hundred years from now. Luckily for us, we have stills from the period with Theda in poses and with facial expressions that perfectly match the Boiardo suits.

I have created each card using a suitable image to reflect that emotion. This was not an easy task. I have a collection of many hundred different images of Theda, and narrowed them down to about 130 covering the four suits. The ranking them from most to least, as Mary Greer explains in ‘Understanding the Tarot Court’

“The pip cards in the ‘good suits’ (love and hope) rank from ten down to ace and the ‘bad’ pips (fear and jealousy) ran the other direction ‘because more love and more love are better than less, and less fear and jealousy are better than more” 

This allows the reader a choice in deciding on how to  interpret the minors. The reader can relate each card to the matched traditional suit as described above by Mary Greer, so the Ace of Hope here becomes the Ace of Coins. The card is read in the traditional manner with the  common meanings for the Ace of Coins. Alternatively, they can be read in the same way that Boiardo proposed. In the case of the Ten of Fear above, this would be the ‘worst bad card’ as Fear is the worst of the Four Passions and ten is the highest rank of the pips. Using the Boiardo tercet for each card gives further guidance for the reader, and  the three verses for each minor are clearly displayed in their entirety (unlike the majors where I have deliberately obscured the text).

Once selecting the image, they were edited and digitally enhanced to be suitable for the cards. The relevant Boiardo tercet for each card was written by myself with an ink pen using an oblique nib. I used a personalised variation of chancery cursive script, a calligraphy style that was created in Italy in the 15th century, and I love to imagine that Boiardo would have used a similar style himself when creating the poems.

I will be releasing more images from the minor suits over the next few days on my instagram and facebook pages, so please follow me there to keep up to date with them.


Tarot card elements and symbolism

In my last blog I described the key factors in creating my tarot card designs. The first of these that I will now describe in more detail was:

What do the tarot cards mean to me? What are the key elements and symbolism of a card that are the core of the meaning for that card?

I started collecting tarot decks before I had any books on the subject, and was interested in the similarities and differences between them without really understanding the reason why. Some subtle differences totally evaded my attention until I started looking at them more closely and reading about them.

For example, I was familiar with the Empress holding a shield with an eagle on it. But I had never noticed before that in some decks the shield was in her left hand, and some in her right. And some eagles are facing right and some left.

A selection of Empress cards from some different decks I own

Does it matter? Does this change the meaning of the card or the way it is read? Are these differences deliberate? I found the answers to these questions when I started researching the history of the tarot, the symbolism of the images and how these have changed and developed over the years. For the record, these minor differences can be significant, and my Empress will have a two-headed eagle on her shield for reasons I will explain when the card is created.

So, my approach to creating the cards was to firstly go through all of my tarot decks and analyse what made sense to me for each individual card. I then scanned the cards that resonated, printed them off all together one one sheet so that I could look at all the different designs for each card together. I then noted the characteristics for each card that were important for me and that I would want to appear on my designs.

At the same time I was reading the tarot history and symbolism books I owned, making notes for each card on the elements that were important for me. I began to realise I had significant scope to change some elements of the tarot without weakening the meaning and symbolism of those cards. I also realised some elements of the tarot were almost compulsory, and I really didn’t want change or ignore these elements. For example, I really can’t imagine the Hanged Man without that iconic crossed knee. And before you shout at me and point to some great tarot decks that have a Hanged Man without a crossed knee, this is my opinion on what is important to me in my deck.

The iconic pose of the Hanged Man

I also found many excellent online resources covering tarot history and symbolism. Special mention to the excellent Tarot Heritage  website, and Mary Greer’s site too.

Combining these two approaches gives me an overview of the key elements for each card, and almost a checklist of what is important for me to include. This tells me what I really need to incorporate into my designs and what would be nice. It also helps me to decide on the subtle differences between cards and what, if any, such changes affect the reading of the card. And it gives me the opportunity to add some new or little used ideas on the cards.

At the time of writing this post, I have completed this approach for all of the major arcana, and am partway through the minors.

Having determined the elements and symbolism, the next step was to combine this with the idea for an image suitable for the wet plate collodion process and with the look and aesthetic I want.  I will describe this in my next blog.



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