Hello, welcome to my news series on the Tarot of Delphi. I finally received the deck for Christmas! I am finding this deck extremely inspiring. The Victorian, aesthetic take on classical subjects; the depiction of my favourite gods, goddesses, and legends; and an original take on Tarot symbolism. As part of my study of the deck, I want to share my insights on art, mythology, and Tarot. Today I will start with the Aces.
The Ace of Wands shows a maenad – a follower of Dionysus, god of wine and revelry – during a ritual. The cup in her left hand represents her ability to receive, and the torch in her right hand her ability to give. Her gown is flaming red, and she is wearing the skin of a cheetah. She is light on her feet, lost in euphoria and ecstasy. Her attitude oozes passion and she is looking directly to the right. This woman is sensual, confident, if a little crazy. She represents the gift of passion, spirit, will, inspiration, and intent. Put bluntly, she is like sex on a stick, appropriately illustrated by the instruments she is holding.
The image was painted in 1877 by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a dutch-born painter residing in England. The title Autumn: Vintage Festival, echoes some of his earlier, better-known works. I had the luxury of seeing the 1871, smaller version of Vintage Festival at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne yesterday. Remarkably little is known of Autumn: Vintage Festival and the painting currently resides in the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. Sir Alma-Tadema was a the forefront of the neoclassical movement of the 1860s, along with Lord Leighton, Watts, and Poynter. Sir Alma-Tadema is well-known for his archaelogical exactness and his attention to surface detail. Unlike some of his larger works, Autumn: Vintage Festival concentrates on the central figure rather than an elaborate background. In this painting, the background vases and statues are blurry, representing the frenzy of Dionysan rites.
The powerful Ace of Wands can be contrasted with the demure Ace of Coins. The Ace of Coins depicts a dryad (forest nymph) growing like a creeping vine out of an oak stump. The foliage surrounds her and her messy hair merges with the canopy. She is luxuriant but not luxurious, and perfectly conveys the closeness to earth of the suit of Coins. She symbolises the start of a journey of the senses and the body. As nature spirits, dryads form a symbiosis with their plant and will die if their host does. Her nakedness reveals vulnerability and the fragility of the link with nature. In readings I would interpret the Ace of Coins as the start of a new life cycle, potential, fertility, and an invitation to take care of one’s body and surroundings.
The Ace of Coins is based on A Hamadryad, a 1893 painting by John William Waterhouse. Waterhouse is one of my favourite painters. During the 1980s, he developed his mature style, depicting single female subjects on a classical theme, with an unmmistakable similarity of mood. In the Hamadryad one can recognise his portrayal of faces, and easthetic representation of nature. As opposed to Pre-Raphaelite paintings (which predate this painting by 40 years), the depiction of leaves, vines and flowers is not exact and true to form. Rather the shape, texture and colour of nature is used to reveal an emotion. The vines offer safety and comfort, but the Ace of Coins also warns to over-reliance on material concerns.
The Hamadryad resides in the Plymouth Art Gallery, and the original version shows a satyr at the dryad’s feet . Its entry in Royal Academy Notes of 1893 reads: “Originally intended for a decorative panel. A little goat-legged satyr has unconsciously charmed a wood-nymph from the ivy-girt bole of an oak tree by the music of his Pan-pipes.” In readings I will try to remind myself : « Where is the dryad looking ? Who will she give to ? ».
The Ace of Cups represents Venus at the Bath, as imagined by John William Godward in 1901. Venus is naked and holds a cream and lavender shawl. The columns of the bath rise on each side of her, inscribing her firmly into the marble background – a typical trick of neoclassical painters to emphasize the statuesque nature of their subject. Venus looks gently to the right, and her face strikes a clear resemblance with Athenais (Enchantress of Wands, Godward 1908).
I have to admit I struggle with this card – it is similar to other cards in the deck by Godward (read : maidens and marble), bar the deep blue and turquoise background. The card has nothing of the strength of the Ace of Wands or Ace of Swords, but this may be the point. The naked figure is vulnerable, and her soft looks reveals the pondering, impassive nature of the Cups suit. This is a fountain of opportunity that could soon dry up.
The figure stands out from the background and moves towards us, rather than moving to the side (Ace of Wands), bursting from an oak (Ace of Coins), or staring intently at us from a throne (Ace of Swords). This Ace is a soft invitation to reflect and be perceptive. Venus (or Aphrodite in Greece) is an interesting deity – she simultaneously reflects passion to drown reason, yet faithfulness and composure. The Ace of Cups sides on the side of fidelity to own’s emotions and inner state.
Finally, the Ace of Swords represents Cleopatra as painted in 1887 by John William Waterhouse. I have pulled it a few times in readings and it sheds light on the truth of other cards beautifully, especially when following Cleopatra’s gaze. Cleopatra is sitting on a lion throne, staring intently at the reader. She has the will to defy all and as the Ace of Swords, she doesn’t bite her words. She sees through the mist and confusion to the truth of a situation.
She is dressed in white (purity) but richly adorned with a gold crown and gold scarf, indicating her strength. Her uncorseted, strong look must have been a shocker to a Victorian audience, a defiance even. Her face is mesmerizing and her stare is penetrating. Unflinching and calculating, Cleopatra retook the throne stolen by her brother; forged alliances with Rome; and became one of the best-known female figures in history. The Ace of Swords represents power, intensity, conquest, and critical thinking. The dark side of this card is the fate of Cleopatra, despised by the Romans as a calculating man-eater.