I'd like to wish Rex Van Ryn, Steve Dooley, and Andy Letcher a very happy Publication Day for The English Magic Tarot. As the publisher, Weiser Books, describes it:
"This captivating new tarot deck draws us into the vibrant but often hidden world of English magic, evoking a golden age of mysticism when John Dee was Queen Elizabeth’s Court Astrologer, antiquarian John Aubrey rediscovered ancient sacred sites, and the great physicist Isaac Newton studied alchemy. The English Magic Tarot places the cards in the colorful yet turbulent period of English history that stretches from the time of Henry VIII to the Restoration. During this time of upheaval archetypal forces were very much at play, making this a perfect setting for the cards."
The deck comes with a 160-page book, providing an in-depth guide to its use. It's beautifully produced, fascinating to peruse (and to use), and I highly recommend it.
This is a project that I have been following closely not only because it's magical and unique -- blending an erudite approach to the history of Western magic with comics-inflected art and a sly, smart humor -- but also because it's a thoroughly Chagfordian enterprise, involving many of my village friends and neighbors:
The deck's roots (as long-time Myth & Moor readers know) go back to John Barleycorn Must Die, a graphic novel by Rex and my husband Howard. The main character of the novel, a mysterious English magician, used a tarot deck of this very sort, full of English magic and history; and the esoteric traditions behind it were further explored on their weekly Barleycorn blog. Rex was first inspired to turn Barleycorn's fictional tarot into reality (a number of those early designs can be found in the Barleycorn blog archives)...and then over time, the project evolved and broadened to become The English Magic Tarot. The deck's art was pencilled and inked by Rex, and painted by illustrator Steve Dooley. Andy Letcher joined the team to write the deck's accompanying book, drawing on his long history as a folklorist and scholar of Western magical traditions.
More Chagford folk can be found in the deck itself, including the mischievous characters below: Steve as the Ace of Coins, Andy as the Fool, jewelry designer Jason of England as the Devil, baker extraordinaire Ruth Olley as Strength, and Rima Staines of Hedgespoken as the gypsy of the Fortune card. (I've spotted other familiar faces in the Major Arcana, but I haven't yet found them all....)
The English Magic Tarot uses symbols derived from the heyday of the English magical tradition, a period that lies between the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Early Modern. As Andy explains in the book's introduction:
"English magic is a distinctive, local branch of natural magic. It has evolved through many iterations, from prehistoric times to the present day, and freely bends high and low magic. One constant is that it regards the cosmos as animate, and our place in the world as significant. It calls us to rediscover a magical connection with the land upon which we happen to live, whether that be England or elsewhere. It supposes that through practice or study (not least, of the tarot!) we can attain a greater understanding of the disparate parts of the self, and the magical connections that permeate the universe. Through English magic we can attain a state of gnosis and true knowledge of the world....
"A trip to a good anthropological museum (like the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, which is absolutely stuffed full of magical objects, charms, and spells) shows that magic is universal. English magic is simply the English dialect of a language that's shared by all human cultures. It is our particular, regional way of doing it. It stands to reason that if magic is natural, then it will be shaped by the land it belongs to and the language and culture of the people living there.
"No one really knows why, but this small country named England has produced a great many magicans. The foundations of English magic go right back to the earliest days, to the architects who aligned Stonehenge to the midwinter sun, to the Druids with their ogham tree-lore, and to the early Anglo-Saxons with their runes. The traces of our ancestors' magical practices lie etched across and buried within the English landscape, and if you look carefully you'll see those traces in The English Magic Tarot cards too."
For further information, visit the English Magic Tarot blog and Twitter page, or read an interview with the deck's three creators. You can see more of Rex's art on his Facebook page, more of Steve's art on his painting & illustration site; and read more of Andy's deeply folkloric writing on his Wyrdlore blog.
I also recommend Howard & Rex's original Barleycorn blog, where it all began: in particular, their discussion of magic with Andy Letcher, and tarot with Amal El-Mohtar, plus conversations around our kitchen table with Iain McCaig, Alan Lee, Brian & Wendy Froud, Rima Staines, David Wyatt, Didier Graffet, Yoann Lossel, and other good folks.