Voyager Tarot and Related Books - Review by Lee A. Bursten
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For two years now Ive been picking this deck up and putting it down. Now Im finally determined to set down my thoughts about it. Assessing this deck is difficult because there are several factors that clamor for ones attention and make it difficult to form an impression of the deck as a whole.
The first thing that leaps out at you is the altogether remarkable artwork, which as Im sure everyone knows by now is photographic collage. This may not have been the first collage deck, but even after 14 years its by far the most striking. The multitude of images on each card is quite overwhelming, but if one looks carefully it becomes apparent that the artist, Ken Knutson, utilized very sophisticated compositional techniques. There is always a recognizable focus and movement to the pictures. The juxtaposition of different sizes and perspectives makes for a wonderful dreamlike effect.
The next remarkable feature is the concept itself. The creator, James Wanless, apparently envisioned a deck that would be somewhat Thoth-like but would contain symbolism that was truly universal, utilizing images from the natural world around us (plants, animals, weather), diverse depictions of humanity, and man-made objects (automobiles, coins, runways, ice-cream sundaes, airplanes).
The visual universalism is matched by the conceptual thrust of the deck. Wanless wants us to be reminded of the multitude of personalities and moods within each one of us. He takes a psychological perspective. Mythological and occult correspondences are mentioned, but, like the Mythic Tarot, are used only to illustrate the psychological points. Wanless also takes a self-help approach which is unusual in Tarot. The cards are given positive, life-affirming interpretations which encourage us to think creatively and see the difficult cards as challenges rather than forecasts of doom.
For example, Fortune (Wheel of Fortune), usually interpreted by authors as a change in circumstances, is interpreted by Wanless as our ability to utilize the bounty the universe brings us. Its interesting to compare this to Rachel Pollacks interpretation (in 78 Degrees of Wisdom). She also takes a psychological approach, but she interprets it as the ability to stay centered amid lifes changes. Pollacks interpretation is subtle and thoughtful (a High Priestess approach); Wanlesss, exuberant and optimistic, perhaps a little naive (a Magician approach).
I found particularly attractive the Family cards, which re-envision the Court cards as a mythic family: Child, Man, Woman, and Sage. I think its a wonderful idea to give some recognition and respect to elders, especially in our youth-oriented society.
Having set down what I like about this deck, now I must turn to the other side of the coin. The biggest hurdle I had to face was the writing style of the author. While refreshingly direct and upbeat, it is also brazenly self-promotional. Like Walt Whitmans poetry, Wanlesss writing is constantly describing itself and trumpeting its virtues, and often takes a haranguing, carnival-barker tone. Here is one example from the Guidebook included with the deck: "Finally, and never to be discounted, is the fact that Voyager is indeed a treasure house of great art from throughout the world. Its photo-montaged cards include exquisite and ordinary artifacts of human and natural genius. Never has the entire history of art been presented in such a concise and creative way. It is a living museum, a testament of the saving grace and transformative power of art!"
Needless to say, a little of this goes a very long way. I feel like Im reading the script for an infomercial. It makes me want to say, "Calm down, Jim -- Ive already bought the product!" Also, it seems as if the author has attended one too many motivational seminars; theres lots of "high-concept" terminology, like "wholistic" or "edutainment." Theres a lot of valuable and interesting material in his writing -- you just have to ignore the irritating parts.
The worst offender is the Way of the Great Oracle book (sold separately). This book is valuable in that it includes much interpretive information for each card, as well as small essays included with each Major card discussing reading approaches, i.e. the "Magician" way, the "Priestess" way, etc. But its padded out with a lot of material which is pure promotion. Wanless devotes a page to each of several divinatory techniques, including astrology and I Ching, the point being to show how much better and more evolved Voyager is. Also included is a rip-off of Buddhism, "The Four Golden Truths" and "The Seven Steps of Power," which personally I did not find very useful.
Although I like Wanlesss enthusiasm, I wish he would adopt a more rational and adult tone. Interestingly, he does take a more reasoned, adult approach in Strategic Intuition for the 21st Century, a book geared toward business types, although periodically he returns to infomercial mode. Im not sure what this says about Wanlesss biases. Why does the business audience deserve to be spoken to quietly and plainly, while Tarot folks get New-Agey proclamations? I do love the idea for this book, and its major point, which is that Tarot should be something ordinary people pick up and use for everyday situations (an idea explored by Piers Anthony in his Tarot science fiction trilogy). Wanless proclaims Tarot as easy and fun for anyone even if one interprets the deck intuitively without reading any books, but, while I wish it were so, I dont think its all that easy. I think the average non-Taroist person who picks up a Tarot deck, even Wanlesss (or especially Wanlesss), without doing any kind of study, wouldnt get much out of it.
I found the Minor card interpretations much easier to digest in Strategic Intuition, and I found especially interesting Wanlesss interpretations of the Waite-Smith Minors, although, characteristically, the Voyager interpretations are much longer. In this book the Majors and Courts are more directly related to business situations and are of less interest to the average Taroist.
Wanless places less emphasis on structured layouts. His preferred style of reading is variations on simply asking a question and picking a card for the answer. In the Guidebook he presents a number of unstructured self-analysis type readings, as well as a Celtic Cross-type layout which again is primarily for self-analysis. In Strategic Intuition he recommends either the simple Q&A type reading or simple three- to five-card layouts for decision-making purposes.
Of all Tarot authors Wanless is the least prediction-oriented. He doesnt seem to believe at all in a decks (or a readers) ability to forecast the future. Consistent with his self-empowerment approach, he says we can forecast the future by making our own future. I must say I have a great deal of sympathy with this viewpoint. After all, when you predict the future, what does it get you? You make the prediction, and it sits there like a lump. There is no immediate gratification, since after making the prediction you still dont know whether it will come true. By the time the foreseen event happens or doesnt happen you will probably have either forgotten about it altogether or will have lost interest in the outcome. Much more interesting and valuable is a reading where you learn something about yourself that inspires you to make a change or take a risk that you wouldnt have otherwise.
However, this refreshing, non-fatalistic view of the future is inconsistent, in my opinion, with the concept of Life Cards and Year Cards (a concept invented, I believe, by Crowley and developed by Angeles Arrien and Mary Greer), which Wanless presents (wthout attribution) in the Guidebook. If we make our own futures, why should we be governed by year or life cards determined by our birthdays?
Regarding my favorite subject, proper billing for artists, I must report that at the back of the Guidebook are biographies for both author and artist, and Wanless certainly writes generously about the contribution the art makes to the deck. Yet I sense a certain ambivalence, as if a part of him would rather forget that someone else was involved in the decks creation. Knutsons bio is much smaller than Wanlesss, and is even smaller than Knutsons bio in the original edition. (Although, to be fair, I dont know the circumstances -- perhaps Knutson wanted it that way.) Knutsons name seems to be shrinking from the first edition deck box to the latest edition. His name does not appear at all in Way of the Great Oracle, except in a copyright notice behind the title page concerning the cover art, although his art appears throughout the book. Strategic Intuition contains this passage: "After completing the art on the Voyager deck, I presented it to publishers in New York. It was rejected by all of them. Instead of giving in to the demons of failure, it became a challenge." This would certainly imply to an inattentive reader that Wanless completed the art by himself.
Lastly, I have to address the question Ive been wrestling with for two years: whether this deck is a good one to read with. I absolutely love Knutsons artwork. I truly admire and appreciate Wanlesss concept and enthusiastic and optimistic approach. Much as I hate to agree with his self-promotion, I do think his ideas could lead to a Tarot for the future, one that reminds us of the beauty and meaning of the world around us. And yet ... I find this deck somewhat chilly to work with. Its not a "comfy" deck. Even those cards that relate to comfort and warmth, such as the Empress, the 3 of Wands (Compassion), the 3 of Worlds (Nurturing), or the Woman of Worlds (Queen of Pentacles), are not particularly warm or comfortable to look at. This deck is great for huge, breathtaking vistas and cosmological perspectives, but many times I would rather have the small and comfortable. Actually, its possible that the small and comfortable (for some reason I keep thinking of the Hanson-Roberts) may at times be more intuitive -- perhaps the flood of powerful images on Voyager might sometimes stifle the fragile intuition.
Those readers accustomed to the Thoth deck will have an easier time with these Minors than those who use Waite-type decks. The cards show energies and moods (e.g. Reflection, Anger, Integrity, Growth), but dont show the specific situations were used to on the Waite-Smith decks. I admire the Thoth/Voyager Minors approach, but somehow I find they dont really "click" in a reading the way the Waite-type Minors do. On the other hand, intellectually I love the structured approach -- each numbered Minor card is an attribute of the correspondingly numbered Major.
The lack of traditional imagery on the Majors also needs to be addressed. Ive always been an enthusiastic proponent of traditional imagery, although I also like to see original and striking reconceptualizations. In this deck the traditional goes out the window. The concepts of the traditional cards are all there -- but not the pictures. This is not a deck I would simply dismiss for lack of traditional imagery, because the artwork truly is evocative and substantive on its own. At times Im totally caught up in its spell. But then when I see a Waite-Smith clone I fall in love all over again with those traditional figures, and I miss them. For that reason I dont think this deck could be "the one" for me, which frustrates me because theres so much about Voyagers images and intentions that I like. I would recommend this deck to anyone, though -- reading the Guidebook and looking at the beautiful cards will certainly provide new ideas for all the different things a card might mean.
See more images from the Voyager Tarot Deck
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Images copyright 1984 Merrill West