The Bright Idea Deck by Mark McElroy, illustrated by Eric Hotz

Review by Lee Bursten


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


Anyone who read my review of Mark’s book Putting the Tarot to Work will remember how intrigued and pleased I was by his practical, no-nonsense, down-to-earth approach to tarot.  I now have reason to be even more intrigued and pleased, because the concepts from that book have now taken shape as a deck, the Bright Idea Deck


While the word “tarot” isn’t in the title, the deck follows a standard tarot structure, with 22 trumps and 56 suit cards in four suits. The trumps use standard tarot trump concepts, but they have all been renamed. The four suits have also been renamed according to their border colors (Red, Blue, Yellow and Green).  And the court hierarchy is now Learning, Doing, Feeling and Controlling, rather than Page, Knight, Queen and King.  Thus, while perfectly comprehensible as a tarot deck to anyone experienced with tarot, for anyone else it would be unrecognizable as such.  This feature makes it an ideal deck to use with people who would be uncomfortable with a supposedly “occult” tool, or in environments where it would be deemed inappropriate.


Ever since occultists first turned their attention to the tarot, deck designers have had as their goal the representation of spiritual or metaphysical concepts and moods, resulting in a long line of mysterious priestesses, resplendent angels, imaginary beasts, and apocalyptic visions.  The artwork on the Bright Idea cards is in a very different vein.  We see modern people in modern settings; men and women in business suits and swimming trunks, in offices, parks, libraries and living rooms.  Modern-day items are used for symbolism, including laptop computers, toolboxes, pizza pies, light bulbs, typewriters, even a Segway.  The colors are bright, and the line drawings remind me a bit of illustrations or cartoons used in corporate manuals.  Artist Eric Hotz’s utilitarian style serves the purposes of the deck beautifully, but those who prefer the gauzy and mysterious may not appreciate it.


One of the things I love about these images is that Mark, like tarot author Gail Fairfield, takes seriously the concept that each card can be seen equally positively or negatively depending on context.  Thus, each card has a twist or an element which allows the reader to see the dark side of a light image and vice versa.  In the Green Learning (Page of Pentacles) card, for example, titled “Preparation,” the unicyclist seems to be learning her craft rather well – until we notice the large rock in her path, which she does not see because her attention is riveted on the unicycling manual she’s reading.


Experienced tarotists will immediately notice that the Golden Dawn astrological attributions can be found on the trumps and the numbered suit cards.  Sometimes the astrological glyphs can be seen clearly, but at other times the astrological influences are suggested by pictorial elements, such as the Blue 4 (Four of Cups) card, which according to the Golden Dawn is Moon in Cancer.  The moon can be seen in the design of the child’s inner tube, and Cancer is suggested by the crab on the sand near the woman.


Less easily noticed is the fact that the Golden Dawn’s Hebrew letter attributions are alluded to in the trump pictures.  We don’t actually see any Hebrew letters, but instead their meanings are suggested by pictorial elements.  One of the more obvious examples is XX Examination (Judgement), whose assigned Hebrew letter is ש Shin, which means “tooth.”  Other trumps are less obvious, but I’ll leave it to you to ferret them out, should you be so inclined.  One warning:  a few of the trumps use alternate or less-well-known meanings for the Hebrew letters.


That Examination card, by the way, is an excellent example of the brilliant imagery you’ll find in many of the cards in this deck.  I admire and envy Mark for his ability to create excitingly new images which also manage to honor traditional meanings and attributions.


If, like me, you get frustrated with Rider-Waite-Smith-derived decks because the sequence of numbered cards in a suit isn’t consistent between the suits (for example, threes don’t seem to mean the same thing from one suit to another), then this is the deck for you.  Mark has devised a numerological scheme which is adhered to regardless of suit.  Each card bearing the same number shows different facets and viewpoints according to its suit, but can still be recognized as bearing the general qualities of that number.  As a result, while many of the cards’ concepts are recognizable from their RWS counterparts, some differ significantly.


Included with the deck are two text cards.  One lists the number associations, 1 through 10, with a single keyword for each number.  The other lists suit associations, which gives a few keywords for each of the five suits (counting the trumps as a suit).  Even without consulting the book, one could easily sit down with the deck and these two cards, and spend several profitable hours examining the cards in light of the suit and number associations.  Even better, one could easily use these concepts (either the number and suit associations alone, or including the specific card titles and concepts of the Bright Idea Deck) to read antique or modern non-illustrated-pip decks.


Another thing I like about this deck is the lack of religious, metaphysical, spiritual, or ideological material.  Although I’ve dramatically expanded my knowledge about various religious and spiritual traditions through my study of various tarot decks, at the same time I find it refreshing to see a deck which doesn’t make metaphysical assumptions or take ideological stands.  I’m also glad to see it in this particular deck, because such religious viewpoints might have had the effect of inhibiting or restricting the freewheeling, creative mood.


However, I don’t wish to give the impression that this deck is unsuitable for spiritual concerns.  On the contrary, I have long felt that true spirituality resides not in cloudy, mysterious visions, but rather in everyday reality.  In fact, I’d be willing to bet that if one were to use the Bright Idea deck to examine spiritual questions, one might well receive more interesting and useful answers with this deck than with many others.


Included with the deck is a 202-page book, Creative Brainstorming with the Bright Idea Deck.  In it, the deck’s goal, to serve as a tool which can be used by anyone for the generation of ideas and solutions, is articulated with admirable directness and succinctness.  The basic methodology of shuffling the cards, laying them out in spreads, and discerning meanings from the cards is explained simply and directly, as is appropriate in a book geared toward people with no tarot experience.  Also included are suggestions for other methods of using the cards for idea generation, such as “interviewing” the cards to see what their advice would be.  The card chapters take a rather loose and freewheeling approach, focusing on exploratory questions and associations rather than a dry recitation of each symbol and its meaning.  The general approach is consistent with the aforementioned Putting the Tarot to Work book.


A few simple spreads are given, the most extensive being a five-card Four Dimensions spread, sort of a Celtic Cross but without the four-card staff.  Rather than being an all-around general spread, the Four Dimensions spread positions all relate to a specific problem or situation.  I particularly liked this spread because I found it gave my readings more of a focus and direction than the usual Celtic Cross.


When doing readings,  I found myself first scanning the cards for general impressions, and then breaking down the reading into various methods of analysis – by imagery, by keyword, by concept, by suit/number – and observing how these various permutations echoed and wove around and through each other.  Of course one can do this with any deck, but the process seems to come more naturally with the Bright Idea deck.


The decision was apparently made to market this set to a strictly non-tarot audience.  There is no mention of the word “tarot” or of the deck’s astrological or Qabalistic correspondences anywhere in the accompanying book or the set’s packaging.  The white cardboard box included with all recent Llewellyn decks is plain white, lacking the adornment seen with their other decks.  You won’t even find any evidence that Llewellyn is a new age publisher (the publishing category for the set is listed as “Self-Help/Business”).  While I understand and even agree with this marketing decision, I must approach the product as a tarotist, since that’s what I am. This may very well be an excellent product for a non-tarotist, but what I really want to emphasize is that, from a tarot perspective, this is an excellent deck, one which has the power to re-energize your tarot cells, as it has certainly re-energized mine. 


The Bright Idea Deck by Mark McElroy; Illustrations by Eric Hotz

Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide

ISBN #:  0738705950

Available March 2005


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


Lee Bursten is the creator and author of the Gay Tarot, and is writing the accompanying text for Ciro Marchetti's new deck, the Tarot of Dreams.  He has written many tarot deck reviews for the Tarot Passages website, and has served as a professional tarot reader and forum moderator for the Aeclectic website. 

Images © 2005 Llewellyn Worldwide
Review © 2005 Lee Bursten
Page © 2005 Diane Wilkes