Circus and Sideshow Tarot by Chris Paradis
Review by Diane Wilkes

With the success of the HBO series Carnivale, Chris Paradis' Circus and Sideshow Tarot (C&ST) seems especially timely and marketable. I think it would have been a far superior tie-in to the actual Carnivale Tarot--one more in accord with the ambiance of the series. I can even see Sofie whipping out the Circus and Sideshow Tarot in some of the scenes.

Of course, Paradis began work on the C&ST in 2002--ages before HBO began putting up the Carnivale tents. The C&ST  is just another example of someone catching the collective zeitgeist by its tail (tale?). Chris seems to have a sixth sense when it comes to the pop culture domain--look at the success of his Rock and Roll Tarot!

While Paradis intends to create a full 78-card deck, this version of the C&ST is Majors-only, plus four Aces to represent the elements. Marie White did the same thing with the Mary-el Tarot. I happen to like this concept, because it allows you to work the elements into your readings; Geraldine Amaral discusses this as an excellent technique for beginners in her video. So, despite its Major Arcana-only status, you can still receive a reading using this deck that accesses mundane, as well as esoteric, issues.

If I were limited to one word to describe this deck, it would be "clever." Paradis' innovative concept is matched by his inventive approach in all areas--card design (horizontal cards are so apt for this theme!) and his revisioning of the archetypes. Notice the circus-theme  in some of the revised card titles:

C&ST Title Traditional Title
The Fool The Fool
The Magician The Magician
The High Priestess The High Priestess
The Empress The Empress
The Emperor The Emperor
The Ringmaster The Hierophant
The Lovers The Lovers
The Joyride The Chariot
Strength Strength
The Hermit The Hermit
The Oracle The Wheel of Fortune
Balance Justice
The Hanged One The Hanged Man
The Sleepwalker Death
The Missing Link Temperance
The Devil The Devil
The Escape Artist The Tower
The Star The Star
The Moon The Moon
The Sun The Sun
The Parade Judgment
The Big Top The World

Paradis even brings in Kabbalah with The Fool, titled "Aleph, the Lady Cannonball." The Magician, one of my favorite cards, depicts a dashing and tuxedoed African-American "Conjurer" who uses all the elements "before your very eyes." A friend of mine always looks to see if the Empress and Emperor seem well-matched. In the C&ST, Mama Eva, weighing in at 579 pounds, might crush her mate, Czar Nicolai--he's only 31 inches tall, despite his rotund form. Still, he's a "Mighty Mite! Small in Stature, Strong in Will!" so he mite (sic) be able to handle her. He certainly does in Carnivale.

Note that, numerologically speaking, Eva's weight adds up to three and Nicolai's height comes out as the number four--their signature digits. This attention to symbolic detail is reflective of the artist's approach to all of his cards.

The Hierophant has transmogrified into the Ringmaster, the Master of Ceremony who demands you suspect skepticism in things "beyond belief." How fitting is that? The Chariot, renamed "The Joyride" is a clown-filled jalopy--a bit too whimsical for my understanding of this driven card--but there is a leader, even here.

Strength is a lion tamer (named Bast, of course) and is numbered VIII. Balance (at top) shows the delicacy and difficulty of Justice with dash and grace. One expects the grace, but delights in the dash.

Another delightful card is The Sleepwalker (Death), which makes me think of master performer Screamin' Jay Hawkins singing "I Put a Spell on You" as he rose from his casket on stage. Temperance shows a two-headed man (The Missing Link--A Creature Crossed by Nature). This particular alchemical combination goes more than skin deep.

The Devil is "Half Man! Half Goat!" While that could describe some blind dates in my past, it also evokes Devils from Marseilles to Rider-Waite-Smith. The Star is the loveliest card in the C&ST, a "Mermaiden from Atlantis" who has more grit--and carney character than Daryl Hannah's portrayal--I guess Lumeni lived a little closer to the sand.

The four Aces let us know that Paradis gave a lot of thought to his suits--Wands are Clowns, all spirited vibrance, Cups are emotionally poignant Freaks, Swords are Daggers (all the better to be swallowed), and Pentacles are the Candy (everybody wants).

The deck comes in a colorful hand-made bag and includes a signed (but oddly, not numbered) signature card. The prototype of this deck was a bit darker and more vivid, but unfortunately, came apart in my hands. The new version is beautifully and sturdily laminated. The backs are also different from the originals, which were colorful but now are black and white (cream, really) and contain a stamp of two hands. They are now reversible, which the originals were not. The ivory cardstock gives the deck an aged patina providing the (ahem) illusion of cards passed through generations of carneys--I mean, a true psychic lineage. The horizontal form is quite unusual in tarot, and simulates a poster or postcard in its feel.

Upon seeing this deck, a friend opined that the deck aligns closely with many people's preconceptions of the tarot. They see the tarot as a carnival amusement, akin at best to nutritionless cotton candy and, at worst, to overpriced souvenirs and elephant droppings to watch out for. This unique and, yes, clever deck stands all stereotypes on their pointed little heads--and then watches them perform somersaults on the parallel bars, with flash and a glimpse of thigh.

I believe this deck is already sold out, but click here to get yer Crackerjacks--I mean, to request the artist's updates on further editions.

You can follow the deck's progression via Chris' Live Journal Site.

Circus and Sideshow Tarot by Chris Paradis

  Yes No
78 cards   X
Reversible Backs X  
Strength VIII, Justice XI                                     X  
Color Images X  
Standard (RWS) Titles of the Major Arcana   X
Traditional (RWS) Suits (Rods/Wands, Cups/Chalices, Swords, Pentacles/Disks/Coins) N/A  
Traditional (RWS) Golden Dawn Suit-Element Attributions N/A  
Standard dimensions (approx. 4 3/8" X 2 3/8")                     X
Smaller than standard                                    X
Larger than standard (5" x 3 1/4")                  X  

Images 2004 Chris Paradis
Review and page 2004 Diane Wilkes