Tarot of the Thousand and One Nights; Idea and Graphics by Pietro Alligo; Artwork by Léon Carré
Review by Diane Wilkes

If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

The concept of this deck sounds wonderful--a tarot based on the stories that comprise the "Arabian Nights." Surely Scheherazade touched on every one of the tarot meanings as she cast her storytelling spell on the Sultan of the Swinging Scimitar. The card images are beautifully and delicately detailed and are as inviting as Scheherazade's tales. However, the lack of a compelling connection that continues to intrigue and delight--unlike the one which saved Scheherazade's life--dooms this deck to oblivion...unless the Tarot of the Thousand and One Nights can be saved by a book that helps us to grasp why we should care about the fate of these cards.

Granted, they have a very pretty face. The artwork is quite intricate and the colors are subtle and deep. The rich, earth-hues sprinkled with a smattering of colors that are not as often found in nature are just what I personally find appealing. Take the card backs, which are bordered in turquoise and two different greens. At the center is a pastoral scene doubled in on itself so that they are perfectly reversible. The result is serenity-inducing, the ideal mood-enhancer for a reader who is shuffling the cards.

However, unless I looked at the deck again, I wouldn't immediately place the image as that which depicts the Wheel of Fortune, a card I normally associate with high energy and expansive movement. Many of the cards (both the Major and Minor Arcana) share that same disconnect. This deck is long on distance and short on close-ups, so if you like to get insights from a card character's face, you're up the proverbial creek.

The Fool looks more like a shepherd without a flock than an exuberant seeker on the verge of taking a leap of faith. The Venerable Woman, who we know as the High Priestess, is unusual, in that she is not alone; Her Paleness is carried about on her throne by four turbaned servants as even the king bows to her majesty. The Empress is separated from us by several carpets--we can not tell if she is displeased or delighted with us. The Emperor, on the other hand, is less distant--this doesn't make tarot sense, but I suppose it is in keeping with the Islamic concept of keeping women out of sight.

Lovers dance in the outdoors at dusk, but there is no angel overseeing their movements. A horse nuzzles grass at the outer edges of the scene, but the little white booklet (LWB) doesn't explain his presence, so why would I be able to? The Chariot is another scene filled with riders and horses--it is hard to distinguish who must ensure the black and white horse pull together, instead of going off in different directions. There is a cougar at the front of the line, though, which gives a taste of the ruthlessness one must possess in order to stay at the head of the pack.

The Hermit sits in nature, having deep thoughts a la Jack Handey. He holds a carnelian rosary in one hand, and the other points upward; that, along with his white robes, suggests he is a holy man or monk. The Strength card, renamed Courage, is depicted with a small figure facing a huge serpent. To me, he doesn't look courageous--he looks more like dinner.

The Bound Man (at top) is an unusual rendition of the Hanged Man. In this image, a man is schlepped across cobblestones like a dog with IBS. At the end of the arched corridor, we see another man beating a donkey, echoing the inhumane treatment depicted at the centerpiece of this card. The ornate Arabic architecture and serene colors form a distinct contrast to the action in the scene which unfortunately for me brings to mind Abu Ghraib. I don't think that's what Scheherazade had in mind.

The One Thousand and One Nights Tarot Death card is somewhat atypical--a red-eyed blonde woman runs wildly through a cemetery. The rest of the scene looks appropriately haunting--a tormented grey sky, a moon slightly obfuscated by clouds--but those Day-Glo eyes turn it into a bit of a joke. The Devil is yet another monster (related, no doubt, to the serpent in Strength). The Tower, renamed Danger, has another huge reptile curled among a maze of white flowers; if you look closely, you can discern a tiny man looking mighty scared. And well he should--he is smaller than the flowers!

The Moon is a far howl from the primordial scenes we are used to--the neighborhood is largely upscale in this version. There is even a pergola. But the mucky pond still has murky waters, even if lily pads float atop them. The Sun, on the other hand, simply looks like a painting for a brochure promoting travel to the Middle East and has no occult resonance whatsoever.

Instead of the androgynous World Dancer, we have a couple embracing in the middle of a gauzy, pink cloud. Again, I can't help wishing the figures were a bit larger, but the gentle colors and intricate artwork makes for a very pretty picture (at top).

Aces are elementals and should convey the powerful force of their suit. The Ace of Wands contains tall trees with moss at the bottoms, conveying growth, but the adorable deer grazing in the grass make the energy diffuse. The Ace of Cups is particularly idyllic. It is of an unexpectedly Pre-Raphaelite-like portrait of water nymphs bearing a mermaid across an azure pool. This card expresses the water element, but more as a refined tributary than an onrushing surge. 

The Minor Arcana are often quite different from their Rider-Waite-Smith counterparts, as well as the LWB description. One example: an encampment scene near a busy port at dusk is depicted on the Seven of Pentacles. Perhaps the multiple beings on the card are eating their meal as they await the dawn, but it's hard to transfer all the traditional nuances of this card to such a specific image. The LWB reads: Studies, learning, discoveries, deceit, failure, defeat. The italicized words are the reversed meaning. Neither the upright nor reversed keywords seem to relate to this image at all.

I'm beginning to feel like a broken record, but the most effective court cards are--yet again--the ones in which we see the character being depicted as not being overwhelmed by the decor and background on the card. The Knave of Cups is a Pasha-in-Training--he is surrounded by pillows, books, and a comforting pot of tea awaits his thirst, yet the city outside must wait until he has learned his life lessons. (The Courts are Knave, Knight, Queen, and King). The Queen of Pentacles is seated on a large and plush dais, but the servant or subject approaching her is actually larger in size. Many of the Kings are depicted with their loyal subjects, perhaps to convey the power they have over human life--but they are diminished only slightly less than their subordinates.

The King of Wands is by himself, and reminiscent of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies--robed in royal red, with a long white beard. He is seated on a bench in a leafy garden, dwarfed by the large and looming tree that stands behind him. It may be representative of his noble wand-like power, but he seems inconsequential in comparison to the tree. If only his face were as large as one of the flowers at his feet, we might begin to know and understand his power better--or at least feel we could own some of it for ourselves.

Perhaps the point of these far-off, tiny characters on the card is to emphasize their difference from us, lowly people who read the cards instead of being fabled myths. If so, I can only say that this chasm doesn't lead this reader to want to remain in its inhospitable, unreachable climes for any length of time--or book another trip in the near future.

The cards have culturally appropriate borders--the Majors are colored a red sienna, the Minors are blue--but their presence makes the main card images smaller. The miniature style is elegant and the rich detail makes for great storytelling, but the images themselves are not reader-friendly. The LWB, which is translated into English, Italian, Spanish, French, and German, includes a prosaic spread unrelated to the deck's theme, along with some background information on the "Arabian Nights" and its introduction to European readers, along with a brief explanation of the deck that fails to explain how the cards are really connected to Scheherazade's stories. There is also a section devoted to specific card interpretations that are pithy and often unrelated to the images.

Interestingly, about the same time I began exploring this deck in order to review it, I was also finishing up the excellent Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. It may be the most compelling and important book I've read thus far this year. Nafisi, like this deck, shows us the perfumed, mysterious charm of the Middle East, but she also provides us with a real and human dimension that quickens our breath and makes us breathe as one with its denizens. Her book possesses what this deck lacks--a real and pulsing heart.

I recommend this deck only for tarot collectors and those who are more interested in art than reading the cards. This assessment could change if a good companion book were available for the Tarot of the Thousand and One Nights.

If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

  Yes No
78 cards X  
Reversible Backs X  
Strength VIII, Justice XI   X
Color Images X  
Mostly Standard (RWS) Titles of the Major Arcana X  
Traditional (RWS) Suits (Rods/Wands, Cups/Chalices, Swords, Pentacles/Discs) X  
Traditional (RWS) Golden Dawn Suit-Element Attributions Rods--Air; Swords--Fire   X
Standard dimensions (approx. 4 3/4" X 2 3/4")                   X  
Smaller than standard                                           X
Larger than standard                                               X

Images © 2005 Lo Scarabeo
Review and page © 2005 Diane Wilkes