Quite often in our online tarot community a question arises: "can someone recommend a good tarot book?" Almost as often, another question comes up: "which tarot deck should I get?"
I have found that on many occasions through the years I have given the same answer to both questions. James Ricklef. I recommend his The Soul's Journey book and I recommend his decks.
What makes a good tarot book and what makes a good tarot deck is quite subjective of course. Chances are that all who respond to such questions are merely suggesting their favorites. Nothing wrong with that.
But, when I think about it, I realize that The Soul's Journey is the only tarot book of which I have purchased multiple copies. First one, I gave to my son. Second one I gave to a friend. Third copy I bought the kindle edition so I'd have it handy. I've had the book since it came out in 2013 and I still turn to it -- not because I want to research a card, but rather because I find it so enjoyable. The fact that it is also a great book for bibliomancy is another reason as well.
Lately James has been busy creating new Tarot decks... The recent RWS 2.0 and the just released 21st Century Tarot de Marseilles Majors deck.
I got his TdM majors deck as soon as it was available and I was blown away by it. The vibrant colors and the meticulous line work make the images practically jump out of the cards!
I've spoken with James many times over the years. We have met for coffee and he has been a guest on my radio shows a few times. Much like the tarot itself, I find that there is always something new to learn from James. He has such a wealth of tarot knowledge and experience and great stories too. So I was thrilled that he agreed to do an interview for this column and that he gave such thoughtful answers my many questions.
MB: In your book, The Soul's Journey, you share spiritual meanings for each of the cards. And yet, in writing that book you embarked on your own journey of "awakening?" What were some of the indications that it would become more for you than, say, just writing another book?
JR: First of all, I would like to clarify something. I wouldn’t say that I “embarked” on my own journey of awakening in writing TSJ. It would be more accurate to say that writing this book was an important phase of my ongoing journey.
Getting back to your question: As I wrote that book, it often felt like it was writing itself. Someone once told me that The Soul's Journey “was obviously channeled,” and it sure felt like that sometimes. Also, while writing it (which I initially did as a series of essay blog posts on my website), I often felt profoundly moved by the essays. I would write one, post it, and then reread it later and say, “Did I actually write that? Wow, that’s good!”
By the way, it’s notable that this is the only one of my books that I repeatedly reread for myself. (I’m currently reading it one essay per day, which will take the better part of a year.)
MB: For me, The Souls Journey, has become probably the single greatest tarot book on my shelf for bibliomancy... could you tell that would be a sort of dual purpose of it when you were writing it? And how do you feel about people using it in that way?
JR: Thank you for the complement. I certainly realized that it could be used that way. The following is a quote from the book’s Introduction:
“You can also use this book as a sort of daybook, or you can use it for bibliomancy. As a daybook, you would read it sequentially, considering one entry per day. For bibliomancy, open it at random and read the entry on that page for inspiration or even for an answer to a specific question.”
I think it’s great that people are using it that way!
MB: I read The Soul's Journey on a roadtrip... it didn't feel like I was reading just a book about Tarot... It has such wonderful life guidance... It made me see you in the light of the Hierophant! Do you see yourself as a spiritual teacher in some ways?
JR: I love it when people see TSJ as a spiritual book first and a Tarot book second. In fact, that was my intent.
Actually, I would prefer to be seen as the Hermit since I find the Hierophant to be a bit too stodgy and straightlaced in his approach for my taste. In fact, though, I see myself more in terms of the George Bernard Shaw quote with which I opened this book:
"I’m not a teacher, only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead — ahead of myself as well as you."
As I noted previously, it often felt like I was channeling this material, so writing it was like accessing a lantern (if I may reference the Hermit’s imagery) to illuminate my way, and I hoped that it would serve that function for others too.
MB: How did your relationship with the Tarot begin and what has kept your interest so many years later?
JR: In the late 1990s I happened to start reading about the Tarot. It was pure serendipity. The Tarot captivated my attention and it felt like falling in love — I kept wanting to know more about it, and the more I discovered, the more excited I was about it and the more I wanted to know.
At that time, there was an online Tarot group called “Tarot-L” that I joined. It was filled with some brilliant Tarot experts like Robert Place, Mary Greer, and Rachel Pollack, and I learned a great deal from that group; more than I did from books and other Tarot websites even.
I was lucky that I had a great deal of time to spend studying back then. I was working in the IT department of a company that had been purchased by another company. The purchasing company was afraid to let the IT people go until they were sure that their computer systems could be fully integrated, but really, there was very little that I had to do, maybe about an hour each day. So I spent about seven hours each day for about a year and a half immersed in the Tarot online.
At that time, I also started work on my first book (the now OOP KnightHawk’s Tarot Readings), encouraged by some of the people I’d gotten to know in the Internet Tarot community. And I also started going to Tarot conferences then, beginning with the 1999 Bay Area Tarot Symposium (BATS). And let me tell you, if you want to expand your knowledge of and your enthusiasm for the Tarot, such conferences are great! (For more about that, see: https://jamesricklef.wordpress.com/tarot-articles/tarot-convention-reports/
I had previously been interested in the I Ching, and had learned a bit about it. But it didn’t have the pretty pictures that Tarot decks have, so maybe that’s why the Tarot captivated me more than the I Ching had.
MB: Looking at your "21st Century Tarot de Marseilles" Majors deck...James!... the contrast between the precision of your line work and the sort of freedom you give yourself in coloring it... is it easy to sustain that kind of tension(?) when you are working on a card? Is it tension or like switching gears?
JR: Interesting question. I never thought of it like that: as two contrasting ways of working. Maybe that’s because I do both of them on the computer. I do the initial drawings by hand, but then I scan them into a file. I then clean up the line work to make it sharp and crisp, and that takes quite a lot of time and effort, about as much time as the coloring does. But yes, now that you mention it, it is like switching gears. The line drawing and cleanup process is tedious, but kind of meditative too. The coloring, on the other hand, can be quite exhilarating sometimes, and it is also very intuitive (which the line clean up is not). Sometimes I just look at the uncolored space and visualize color in it. That tells me what to put there. I trust my intuition to make such choices.
In his review of the deck, then, he said that I couldn’t say why I colored it the way I did. As I recall it, that’s not really what I said. Perhaps I should have phrased it the way some people do. Perhaps I should have said, “My spirit guides told me to do it that way.” That would have been an equally valid way to put it, but that’s not the phraseology that I generally use. For some reason, though, people respect that way of putting it more than “I use my intuition.”
MB: There are touches in your TdM Majors deck that seem to really make this deck your own... what would you say is your "signature" on this deck?
JR: Definitely, it’s the bright, vivid coloring which, I feel, brings those images alive. I don’t know of any other TdM decks that shine like that. I also feel that I brought the characters’ eyes to life. In prior versions of this deck, the eyes seem dull and rather lifeless.
MB: You are now "embarking" on the TdM minors, what are you looking to do with them?
JR: The same thing I did with the Majors — recolor and reimagine them in a way that will brighten them and bring them to life. Again, I want them to look more 21st Century than 17th Century.
MB: What inspires you in the artwork you choose to re-imagine... what catches your eye or speaks to you?
First of all, I think I was drawn to this process generally because I had learned a lot about coloring Tarot imagery when I created my (now OOP) Tarot of the Masters deck. ((https://jamesricklef.wordpress.com/products/tarot-of-masters/
) I came to feel very much in tune with that process, if you know what I mean by that.
As for the choice of decks: I don’t see much point in updating a deck that not many people know about. In both of my recent efforts — my RWS 2.0 and 21st Century TdM decks — I chose decks that are very iconic, but which I’ve thought could use improvement in terms of the vividness of the colors. As for the line work, the RWS, even more that the TdM, really needed to have that cleaned up. People have told me that they see details in my RWS 2.0 deck that they had never noticed in prior versions of the RWS deck.
As a counterexample, note that I have not (and will not) reimagine the Thoth deck. The artwork on those cards is absolutely perfect as it is. It would be like doing a remake of Gone with the Wind.
Here’s how I started out on this journey many years ago. First, I did my own version of a few RWS cards. I don’t know why; I was just drawn to do it (no pun intended). I showed the results to a few friends, and they were blown away. I had tried to give the images a sort of 3D effect, and my friends saw that too, so I was encouraged. They urged me to continue, which ultimately led to my RWS 2.0 deck. After completing that deck, I did not plan to ever do something like that again.
But you know what? The Universe laughs at us when we make plans. So about a year ago, I realized that I missed the process of reworking and recoloring card images. I decided I would try working on a few of the Tarot de Marseilles cards (just for fun, I told myself), and I quickly saw that I was being drawn into this process again. I posted my version of the Fool card online, and the response was enthusiastic.
MB: You are what I consider one of the top Tarot experts... what do you think the next evolution in Tarot is going to be...for readers or artists?
JR: Thank you for the complement. You're too kind.
It is interesting that you ask this. Over two decades ago I interviewed Thalassa (the organizer of the long-running BATS event) and a couple of the questions I asked her were similar to what you're asking here. (See https://jamesricklef.wordpress.com/tarot-articles/interview-with-thalassa/
) With over 20 years of hindsight, it’s interesting to read what she predicted and hoped for. She was pretty spot on about a couple of things, especially when she addressed my question about how she saw that Tarot community evolving, and I hope my words will stand the test of time half as well as hers have.
That said, I’m going to focus on what I hope will happen more than what I predict will happen. I know it seems strange for a Tarot reader to avoid making predictions, but I don’t use the Tarot as a predictive tool very much. I don’t think the future is etched in stone, so I use the Tarot as a guide instead. As my website (and my business card) says, “I’m a fortune helper, not a fortune teller.”
First of all, I’m going to reiterate one of Thalassa’s hopes (which is still unfulfilled): I hope our society can get over the superficial way that Tarot is portrayed in movies and on TV. It has gotten better in modern times (specifically, I’m thinking about its depiction on Mad Men, which was pretty good), but it’s still often shown as an eerie fortune-telling tool. I’m happy to see that its actual use has grown beyond that, so it is now common to use it as a helpful (remember my “fortune helper” line?) or therapeutic tool. I would like to see that trend continue, and I think it will. (There you go: a prediction!) However, the masses in our culture still see it in its fortune telling role, and I hope that changes. I think it slowly will.
As for deck creators, we have seen an accelerating explosion of new and innovative decks in the 21st century, which is a great thing that is going to continue. The options for what deck to buy and use are practically endless now, which is great for Tarot readers. These days, there is a deck for every taste. The challenging side of this for independent deck creators is that the competition is fierce now, and that is only going to increase. Creating a deck is a huge undertaking in terms of time and effort, and when there are a million options out there, your piece of the pie is getting smaller all the time. You’ve got to do it for love, because you're not going to get rich this way by any means. (Trust me! I know.)
MB: What piece of advice do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out in the Tarot world?
JR: I wish someone had told me that working in the Tarot business is one part Tarot and ten parts business. That has been the biggest challenge for me: I love that one part Tarot, but I really don’t like that other ten parts. I wish I had learned more about how to deal with the business aspects early on.
MB If you could have a dinner party and invite anyone from Tarot history... who would it be and why?
JR: I assume you mean people who are no long living. (I’ve already been lucky enough to have met and talked to so many of the living Tarot greats.) Here are a couple of people that would be high on my list:
First: Pamela Colman Smith, definitely. Her illustrations for the RWS deck were ground breaking, and I’d love to ask her what were her inspirations for the Pip cards. For example, the Seven of Wands seems to have been inspired by the painting “The Man with the Hoe” and the poem about it (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_with_the_Hoe
). The poem was popular and very well known around the time that she did her artwork for the RWS, and interest in the painting consequently had been revitalized, so it is almost certain that she was aware of it. Also, her Three of Swords is obviously based on the Sola Busca version of that card. But what inspired her for the others? And what was working with A.E. Waite like? From what I have heard, he gave her a lot of free rein in creating the minor arcana cards. However, he seems pretty condescending in the way he wrote The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Did she find him hard to work with? So many questions!
And speaking of Tarot books, Eden Gray’s Tarot Revealed: A Modern Guide to Reading the Tarot Cards (from 1969, I believe) was pretty ground breaking too, so I’d like to invite her as well. With this, the world finally got a book about the Tarot written for the masses instead of, for example, Waite’s intentionally obscure, arcane PKT, which for the most part seemed written for the “initiated” few. Tarot Revealed did exactly what its title promised: it revealed the Tarot to the general public, and consequently, it informed and cultivated a new generation of Tarot readers. I would love know that inspired Gray to write it. By the way, Eden Gray is someone who some people I know have met (she was at an International Tarot Symposium in the late 1990s shortly before she died at the age of 97), and they have had nice things to say about her, so I’d like to have her at a dinner party just for that.
One other possibility. Although I’m not a big fan of the Thoth deck (due to Crowley’s design of it), I would love to have Lady Frieda Harris at a dinner party. Partly to talk to her about her artwork on that deck (which, as I noted, is wonderful), but also to hear what she would have to say about the infamous Aleister Crowley. (I’m not above gossip when it’s about dead people. )
Thank you for this interview. Your questions were very thought provoking for me, and I hope my answers did them justice.
indeed they did...and how! Thank James for taking the time to be with us!
to see a walkthrough video of the 21st Century Tarot de Marseilles and James' Tarot of the Masters...