It’s 12 years now since The Transparent Tarot was first released, and so it must have been a good couple of years before that (at a guess — publishing is a slow process but also I’m terrible with time) when I first had the idea and immediately started working on it. I’d already finished The Tarot of the Sidhe, which had been published as a Majors Only deck by the alchemist Adam Mclean, and while I was seeking a publisher for the complete deck I started to think about what theme to choose for my next. After all, at that point I was not working as an actor (my original training and now once again my main career) due to my daughter being small, and so Tarot creation, art, and writing had become my chief occupations. I remember very clearly that it was around New Years and I was up in Scotland on holiday, staying on the shore of Loch Lomond, one of my favorite places in the world. After mulling over various ideas that are now forgotten, and despairing over the fact that it seemed everything had already been done, I was awoken in the middle of the night — 3:00 AM, that legendary time that muses strike! — with a bolt of pure inspiration, absolutely out of the blue.
A Transparent Tarot… that you read in layers!
My first thought was that it would have to be very simple, not in concept but in the design of the cards, much more minimalistic than my usual “let’s cram all the relevant symbols possible plus a few more and all the colors too” style, allowing unique images to be created every time you layered them, with no clutter. Swift on the heels of that thought came the realization that if I had this idea, then surely someone must have already done it. However, I didn’t have access to the internet and couldn’t search so started doodling immediately, the thought being that even if they hadn’t yet, someone could still beat me to it. I can’t remember where I first read this, but I’m a firm believer that we don’t own ideas, but that they are floating around looking for the most suitable receiver to pick them up and manifest them. If you have a great idea but don’t get it out there, it will move on to someone else! My third thought, as I doodled away, was that the Major Arcana would have to be completely de-personified so that the only figures that appeared would be in the Minors and the Courts. That way, I figured, it would be visually clear that the Major Arcana represent the archetypal forces that are the landscape of our lives and we would be able to see the Minors as the figures who are going about their daily lives, representing our more everyday experiences. So that was the first day or two…it really felt like divine inspiration.
Once I returned home and was able to do an online search, I was delighted to find that this seemed to be a completely original idea. I became utterly possessed by the need to be the first! I set to work immediately on working out how this would even be possible. I began by working out the basic shape and necessary geometry of the majors to ensure that any combination would form not only a coherent image but one that made sense in the context of the meaning. For example, the obvious pairings of the Empress and Emperor were designed to work together, with the Empress being the land itself and the Emperor being a city built upon that land, full of phallic skyscrapers. As I recall, those were the first I got down, and I started to get excited about the idea as I realized I had something that could really work and create a completely new way of reading the cards.
I then looked at the cosmic quartet of The Moon, The Sun, The Star, and The World and decided they should all fit within the same size and position circle on the cards. This circle then became key in working out the geometry of the whole deck, with the intended meaning of the layering of various cards being worked out by how they related to that circle (which was placed slightly above-center so that reversals would be clear, and also allowing for a vesica piscis effect when this happened). Some symbols would appear within the circle, some would surround and seem to encapsulate it (like the Magician card), while others would cut through it (like the Death card) or rise above it (Judgement), all appropriate positions for the meaning of the cards.
But what symbols to use? The Empress/Emperor idea seemed very clear and came to me straight away, and The Moon, The Sun, and The Star were naturally straightforward. For The World card, I knew I wanted it to fit within that circle but to be an abstract symbol, not something as concrete as depicting the Earth as a globe, because that doesn’t necessarily convey the meaning. I chose a spiral, a pattern which is reflected from the underlying mathematical structure of the Universe, and the colors of the spectrum, to show that everything was complete and contained within it. I didn’t want to alienate people any more than I already had by coming up with a concept so radically different, but equally I knew I would have to reinvent the majors to some extent, as all good decks are rich with imagery that contains the mysteries and meanings of the cards. I would contemplate each card and then, through a combination of traditional meanings and my own mythic and symbolic vocabulary, come up with a symbol that I felt summed up a distilled version of that card. Quite often that would simply involve taking one key symbol from the traditional card and utilizing it:
For example, Death became simply a scythe cutting away the heads of wheat (which again fit the idea of landscape). Justice became simply the scales, with a silver bowl and a golden bowl symbolizing the conscious and subconscious, male and female, active and passive, any polarity which might need to be in balance. The Lovers became a heart that takes up the whole card, with a Yin-Yang at its center in the position of that universal circle.
Some cards, namely those in which the symbolism is usually very much centered around the figure, needed a bit more of a unique twist to fit the system. In traditional symbolism, the Magician wears white and red, colors significant in many magical systems, including alchemy. Since I had always loved Arthurian Mythology and Merlin in particular, the symbol of the red and white dragons intertwined (and wrapped around that key circle), linked not only to alchemy but to both a key story from Merlin’s childhood and Mercury’s caduceus, encapsulated the energy of the card well. The High Priestess became a book and crescent moon, and the Hierophant had the baggage of any church associations removed by becoming an ancient tree — a symbol of wisdom with strong roots in tradition but branches ever-growing upwards and outwards.
There are only 22 major arcana, so it was simple enough to make sure that any combination of them would work, and once I started to create the cards themselves I could scan them and layer them digitally to check that even all together at once they would look aesthetically balanced. I’d decided to use only small dots and no solid lines in the designs in order to aid the mingling of images when they were layered, using simple felt-tip pens on A4 sized paper. (I still have the originals if anyone wants a piece of Tarot art!) I also kept my color palette quite simple, as during the creative process I couldn’t be sure how well it would work once it was in someone’s hands and kept it as simple as possible for that reason.
Since the deck was such a unique concept and the majors had been radically reimagined as well, I decided to stick to very traditional Rider-Waite-Smith inspired imagery for the Minors, using very simple silhouette figures in colors which indicated the element of the suit. Now, we were dealing with so many cards — any of which could be not only reversed but also flipped sideways — the possible combinations started to reach the millions. I realized I couldn’t plan every possible combination, so the minors were designed so that each suit would relate in a pattern and each number would fit together. The Courts were also kept fairly simple, each King, Queen, Knight, and Page taking up the same space no matter the suit but with different colors and features to convey character. After that, it was in the lap of the gods!
…or rather, the hands of the readers! There was always the chance that it just wouldn’t make sense, that there were too many variables to be certain. It was a question of trusting how the Tarot works, without any of us really knowing exactly how it works. Just trusting that, somehow, here was a tool that would act as a mirror for your life, as a map to advise you. A tool that was now in your hands, for you to find your own ways of using it. And oh boy, did you! Once it got into the hands of readers, people started exploring all kinds of new ways to use the cards, and still are. Of course, I am still discovering new combinations and ways of using them myself. Some of these new techniques are explored in the accompanying book to the second edition, which was recently released. Thank you all so much, those who have the deck and have shared your insights with me over the years: I am so excited to share this new edition with you!
Love and blessings to all, and may the path forward always be Transparent…–Emily Carding
Emily Carding is a professional actor, writer, and artist living by the sea in beautiful East Sussex. She is a solo parent to a teenage gothspring who was once an adorable faery child and possibly still is somewhere under all the hoodies and grunting. She is the creator of The Transparent Tarot, The Transparent Oracle, The Tarot of the Sidhe, and The Simple Wisdom of the Household Dog for Schiffer Books and Faery Craft for Llewellyn publishing, with So Potent Art: The Magic of Shakespeare due out from Llewellyn in 2021. She has also written a number of essays in esoteric anthologies on a variety of subjects for Avalonia Books. As an artist, she also illustrated Gods of the Vikings for Avalonia Books, a number of book covers for the same publisher, and the majors only deck Tarot of the Black Mountain. As an actor, she is best known for her international tour of the award-winning Richard III (a one-woman show) by Brite Theater and makes a brief appearance in the British horror movie Ghost Stories, where she plays the ghost of Martin Freeman’s wife. She managed to not call him ‘Bilbo’ once whilst filming.
Emily holds a BA (hons) in Theatre Arts from Bretton Hall and an MFA in Staging Shakespeare from the University of Exeter. She is an initiate of the Alexandrian Wiccan tradition and has been working with Tarot for over twenty-five years.
Connect with Emily on Twitter @emilycarding