Some tarot decks you can look away from.
Your eye glazes over the art and you look for what you want to find; you seek out what you're used to finding in a particular card, careless of what's there that doesn't fit.
Enter The Mary-El Tarot: Landscapes of the Abyss by visionary Marie White, and I dare you to look away. In fact, I bet you try. The images are dark and macabre, strange and disturbing. They are rich, detailed, engaging wisdom and embodied intuition. If you're looking for a deck you can't look away from no matter how hard you try, this is the deck for you.
The packaging is wonderful. In usual Schiffer form, it comes in a gorgeous magnetic closure box and within it, the companion book and the deck all wrapped up nice and tidy. The box is sturdy and doesn't look like it will wear out with regular opening and closing. It is quite large and a bit awkward so if you like your decks mobile you'll find different storage for the cards.
The cards are sturdy and larger than usual. I have tiny hands which makes shuffling a mess for me. It makes sense considering the depth of the art- you'd need a larger showcase for it. I still wish that some of the size had been sacrificed by eliminating the thick black borders. One day I'll get some one to shear them off for me or learn how to do it myself. The card backs are reversible and I love the reversible twin ouroboros chosen for them.
They are also super glossy which doesn't make shuffling easier and it can be difficult to photograph without a glare. Additionally, glossy cards often start to peel off that glossy plastic with continued shuffling. I've had some cards start to fray just a bit, which isn't very promising. Still, the card stock is thick enough that if these were matte cards, I'd be happier about their chances to stand the test of wear and tear.
THE NOT SO LITTLE WHITE BOOK
The companion book is incredibly detailed, providing an at once broad and detailed view of the card, its meanings rooted in all three traditions of the tarot- Rider Waite, Marseilles, and Thoth. I am consistently stunned at the amount of research that must have gone into each and every card's text. It pulls from so many myths, though it does have a focus on Judaic traditions that can be a bit overpowering, and manages to make cohesive sense of the abundance of symbols on each card. I wish that the art in the companion books was in color though I understand that the overall price of the deck would have increased substantially.
One of the things I loved about the Major Arcana explanations was the way in which Marie White took the time to connect what happened in the previous card to the card you are looking at. It creates a noticeable flow and reinforces The Fool's Journey we are all a part of when working with the tarot in such a fundamental way. From the way she explains this journey, we begin to see its mirror image in the various traditions she pulls from, offering a universal perspective that doesn't assume homogeneity but marks the synchronicity present even in diversity.
There are moments in the guidebook where the language leans too binary for my tastes- conversations of the divine masculine and feminine, gender binary language and symbolism, discussions of light and shadow. I can't condemn it entirely though, even within these discussion there is space to shake it up, and sometimes Marie White does that work and sometimes I have to do it for my own sanity.
I'll say it again and say it plain. These images do not need this border around them! They demand to be loosed, every art piece begging to break out of the border's restrictive lines. If you can do so carefully, cut the borders right off. For one, it would reduce the size, and for the other, I am sure the art will read a lot better without being trapped in those borders. I think Marie White agrees because a quick perusal through her Instagram shows her working with the deck using borderless cards!
The art of the Mary-El Tarot is wild and at times unhinged. A mixture of landscapes, animals, and people. The illustrations were created first with oil paints and then digitally copied which explains the infinite depth and variety in visual texture. The bodies depicted are diverse in age, race, and body type. I would call this deck queer now, though I worry that I do that because it is strange- and strange does not always mean queer and also queer is strange and unsettling and that is pretty rad too.
A friend and I were talking about the way visibly (visibly is a subjective term that indicates recognition but is not guaranteed) queer, trans, and non-binary bodies are represented in this deck. We wondered why they had to be surrounded by the ghastly, unnerving, and macabre and the more visible (again, visible is a subjective, awkward, and insufficient word) cis and/or het human figures were allowed beauty. What would it mean to bathe queer, trans, and non-binary bodies in light, fantasy, flowers, and bird song as our spell against a world that so often demands their subjection?
WORKING WITH THE DECK
I recommend this deck to the tarot reader looking for a new challenge. If you enjoy a mix of tradition and intuitive reading, this is the deck for you. Don't ignore the LWB. While I do appreciate an approach that focuses on what your intuition tells you about the cards, it is worth keeping the LWB to enrich the messages you received. There are quite a few cards that are very difficult to decipher without some assistance from the guidebook. It helps that Marie White has a fascinating perspective and does so much more than the usual card+standard explanation.
I'll also add that if you don't have familiarity or interest in Kabbalah and its use in tarot, the companion book might throw or put you off. To that point, I should note that the Marie White focuses on not just mentions the supplemental knowledge often invoked by seasoned readers like numerology, The Tree of Life, Judaic symbolism, and art history. The Mary-El Tarot is not a deck I would recommend for beginners, though there's no real reason to avoid it if you don't mind intrigue and challenge.
This deck lives in the body. Very often the LWB references bodies and body parts in a way that can get uncomfortable for folks who've had difficulty existing in their body. There is also a lot of nudity so be mindful if you find that distracting or discomfiting. I don't mind because it's not done for sensationalism but that is not the only reason someone might have issues with nudity.
If you tend towards writing, particularly journaling, this is the deck for you. It will pull at you, invite you to go deeper, find something new with every look at a card. Daily draws with the deck so far have been inspiring and I could spend all day musing and writing about them. Approach the deck with the honesty usually expected of journaling work. There's something about it that requires a willingness to face right up to your shadow and bring it along for the ride. I say more about this in my deck interview with the deck. The journey through the Landscapes of the Abyss is treacherous and the availability of light to guide your way is directly proportional to your commitment to surrender Truth.