I received the Mary-El Tarot today, quite unexpectedly. Amazon has listed it as back-ordered for awhile now, and I hadn't noticed the e-mail telling me it had been shipped ... but suddenly it appeared. I opened the package with some trepidation -- would it live up to the expectations I've had for it over the past four or five years? The answer is an unqualified YES.
The presentation is excellent: the sturdy box has a hinged top that stays closed with a hidden magnet. The compartment for the cards is much better quality than many similar boxes. (But it's necessary to tip the whole box over to get all the cards out; the thumb hole doesn't go all the way to the bottom of the box. A ribbon attached to the bottom of the compartment should fix that.)
When I pulled the cards out of the box and began my initial quick glance through the deck -- to get a feel for the cards and to make sure they were all there -- the first thing I noticed is that one of the cards was backwards in the deck, and out of order: the Queen of Cups. I set it aside and started going through the rest of the deck, expecting that maybe I'd find another card was missing. But no: they were all there. I just had an extra Queen of Cups. The wise woman in that card is staring at me now as I write this. About her, Marie White says this: "The Queen of Cups _is_ the Holy Grail, the reservoir and container of all our subconscious and ancestral wisdom, the dark waters of the abyss." Oh my.
I've now spent two hours going through the deck slowly, card by card, spending a few seconds or a minute on each one, then going back to them again and again. I've never seen a Tarot deck as rich, beautiful, and haunting as this one. The images all seem utterly unique, yet utterly familiar. With every card I have a sense of deep familiarity, as if I've been seeing the images my whole life, but I can't quite name them or remember where I saw them; but every familiar image is also deeply surreal, alien, new.
A few initial reactions:
--The box describes the Mary-El Tarot as inspired by the three main Tarot traditions: Rider-Waite, Marseille and Thoth. I've had a Thoth deck for a long time, but never really paid much attention to it: Crowley's occultism never appealed to me. But I just took it out again and looked over the cards, and the strong influence of them on the Mary-El is quite apparent (and makes me appreciate Thoth in a way I never have before). Many of the cards in this new deck have the swirling, cosmic feel of the Thoth cards, the multiple layers of surreal symbolism, and the odd presence of simple geometrical forms: a few lines forming a triangle, for example.
--Some common elements: lots of runes (I have no idea what they mean); lots of tattoos; a strong eroticism, including explicit male, female and (in the Aces) androgynous nudity; a surprising degree of variation in approach from one card to another, including strong human portraits (the Queen of Cups); landscapes (the Fours); close-up animal "portraits" (the Knight of Wands); symbolic abstraction (7 of Disks); and so on.
--The colors are extremely rich and dense: you'll find no airy-fairy pastels here. This is the earthiest Tarot I've ever seen.
--Each card has a simple black border that makes the image really pop. The titles are printed in a simple font (maybe too simple; to me it lacks character).
--Occasionally the level of detail in the original painting is so fine that it's hard to see in the cards. There's some not-quite-legible writing in the King of Swords, for example.
--The style of much of the art is reminiscent of Leo and Diane Dillon, especially their more psychedelic SF/fantasy book covers from the 60s and 70s, which were some of favorite book covers growing up.
--There are several cards that didn't appeal to me, or that I actually didn't like, when I first saw the images on the author's website. But today I've found that in every single case, by lingering over the card, looking more closely at the details, and simply questioning their meaning, I've changed my mind. I can honestly say now that there's not a single card in the deck that doesn't strike me as profound and beautiful.
--There's also not a single card in the deck that I can really say I understand with anything like a firm grasp of what's going on. That's a good thing!
--Is it my imagination or is there quite a bit of biblical imagery in these cards?
--The cards are large and glossy. They seem very good quality, but I'm still a little worried how they'll react to much handling. The glossiness is almost sticky, which makes me think they may attract dust and grit which might start to scratch the cards. Also, I do wonder if the edges of the cards will hold up: will the high gloss coating start to peel over time? No idea. But it's a concern. The quality is high, but not as good as the best (i.e., the Kat Black's Golden and Touchstone Tarots). At least that's my first impression.
So my conclusion is this: The Mary-El Tarot is (and here's a phrase I usually _loathe_, but it's totally appropriate here) an instant classic. I can hardly conceive that there might be a better Tarot published this year, or this decade. It's that good.