Defeated by Leon, Leon, and Susan, or: a thoroughly unsuccessful reading


Before I start reading today, let me say this. I’m explicitly permitting myself to look up stuff (in the companion book and on the internet) if and when it seems called for so I learn more about the myths involved. Actually, I’ve been doing that a lot when I read for myself with my Decks of the Week. When I read for others I only use what I see by myself, but when it’s for myself, I frequently enjoy mixing readings and research. It usually works this way: I start wondering what an object on the card really is called, what it’s used for, what it’s significance was in a certain culture and/or at a certain time, etc. And then I go off to explore. Sometimes it just leads to distraction and random skipping around on the internet, but sometimes I come across some tidbit of information that helps me see a worthwhile perspective I couldn’t have arrived at on my own. Recent examples of the latter would be learning the differences between watermills, water wheels, and norias, or acquiring a bit more understanding of the meaning of Passover.

Once again, I let the Mighty Random Number Machine decide which spread of this list I was to use for my first reading with the Tarot of Northern Shadows. I got this:

1. Mother — 2. Father — 3. Child

Well. I’m not too much into such family/gender metaphors, so it’ll be interesting to see what I make of this.

I laid out the cards like that:

1 — 2

1. MotherEight of Discs

A man in a white shirt, white baseball cap, and a blue apron (who looks a bit like a stereotypical pizza baker with his dark hair and mustache) holds up a cheese as if to present it to us. Seven other cheese are on a table in front of him. The idea of several similar objects that are the result of someone’s work takes us firmly into RWS territory: repetition leads to mastery, practice makes perfect.

But why cheese? Cheesemaking requires extreme cleanliness so only the right kind of bacteria end up in the mix and attention to detail so the cheese ends up having the taste, smell, and texture that is desired (by the way, I learned this association of cheesemaking with cleanliness and attention to detail from Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching novels). It also makes me think of patience because you often simply have to wait until certain chemical processes have taken place before you can move on to the next step of your cheesemaking.

The one thing that confuses me is the fact that I can’t see anything historically Celtic or Norse in the clothes of the guy. The companion book tells me that this is actually a contemporary, living cheesemaker from Wales, apparently a friend of the artist. It seems a bit of a stretch to have him here, especially since there isn’t any information about cheese playing a crucial role in ancient Celtic cuisine.

2. FatherKing of Cups

Oh my, this is a guy I don’t much like… These bedroom eyes and the Tom Selleck mustache (not to mention the cup with the naked woman on it) scream wannabe-womanizer to me – the kind of guy who is always trying too hard to win over the ladies (because it’s never just one). He seems to be an actual king here, if the ermine fur on his clothes is any indication. In the background sits the ruin of a castle, high up on a rocky hill. I’m assuming this isn’t just any castle, and he’s not just any king, but I’ll have to read the companion book to find out more. Alright. This is the artist’s husband, posing as King Arthur. The castle is the Welsh Carreg Cennen, which doesn’t seem to have any King Arthur connection.

To be honest, the appearance of people from the artist’s life already annoys me, especially because she is so over-the-top in her praise. For example, the book says this card is “her personal tribute of respect” to her husband “as a man and as noted professional artist and illustrator.” A quick Google search, however, doesn’t bring up too many images assined to him, but it does bring me to an Amazon review of a book the two apparently wrote about their life. Since the review mentions their “constant states of poverty” and cites portrait commissions for Leon Olin as successes for the two, I’m finding it a little hard to believe he is in fact a “noted” artist.

Alright. Let’s see what cheese guy and King Leon produce in the way off offspring…

3. ChildThree of Cups

A cheerful blonde woman wearing a divided hennin (a courtly headdress particularly popular in Northern Europe during the early 1400s) accepts a golden cup with wine from a dark blonde, bearded man. In the background are two black guys and a red-haired one, all holding cups and melancholically looking into them. Were they hoping the lady would pick them over the others? Why are they so crestfallen when the Three of Cups usually is a card of celebration amongst friends?

The book tells me this card is referring to the tale of Peredur (the part relevant here starts in the line before p. 112 at the linked page) from the Mabinogion. It seems my hunch has been right because Peredur goes on to kill all three of his contenders after the Empress of Constantinople has given him all of their cups, thus making him the one to fight them. It now seems an even odder choice of story to illustrate the Three of Cups to me.

Oh, and of course we get to see yet another of Ms. Gainsford’s friends. The Empress bears the face of a Susan Sawyer who is described as “a woman of elegant charm and sophistication” by the artist. I’m not sure she actually did her friend a favor with this depiction – or is it just me who doesn’t think this isn’t such a favorable role to be shown in? (By the way, I can’t believe that “negro” still was an acceptable term for black people in 1997 when the book was published…)

How do I pull all this together now? I admit, I’m completely stumped right now. Maybe I should have asked an actual question before I started this reading?! Okay, let’s ban all these friends and husbands from consideration right now. That leaves us with a detail-oriented, skilled worker and a legendary king of romance who produce a situation where one’s success is another’s defeat, or, more accurately, death. Huh? Does that make sense to anyone? Because I’m giving up here.

Needless to say, my first impression of the deck is anything but good. I probably shouldn’t read the companion book anymore, to avoid meeting even more friends of Sylvia Gainsford’s. Which could leave me even more clueless about what exactly is depicted in the images and what these scenes are alluding to. Nevertheless, I’m planning to go all-intuitive the next time I read with this deck. Maybe that works better for me.


6 responses »

  1. Hm…no clue here either really as I find the Peredur link to the 3 of Cups strange, too. I didn’t have time to read the entire tale. Maybe I’ll have to do that later but well. And the King of Cups looks like someone from a bad 1970s porn flick to me. :D But well, de gustibus non est disputandum I suppose.

  2. The contemporary take on the Eight of Discs does seem odd in a Celtic/Norse medieval deck. But when I saw the cheese, I immediately thought of Tiffany Aching (big Pratchett fan here)! I’m with you on not knowing who the characters in a deck are modeled after.

  3. lol that cheese dude cracks me up. I don’t know why but I just had a giggle. and then the porno cup king and that blond with the forced smile in the last card… omg what a wreck. will be interesting to see where you go with this deck as the week goes on.

  4. @ Satu: I’m glad I’m not the only one to find the story to go with the Three of Cups a bit less-than-ideal. And the King of Cups does look like he could have had a career in porn! (I’m sure our mentioning of “porn” will bring many hopeful search engine users to this page eventually! ;) )

    @ bodhiseed: Given the sales of Pratchett’s books, I knew I couldn’t be the only fan – but it’s always nice to actually meet others that also cherish the Discworld (et al). How interesting that cheesemaking also is now associated with Tiffany Aching for you!

    @ jema: As I said, I’m not sure the artist really did her friends a favor when she mentioned their full names in the card descriptions… I’m actually tempted to write a really mean post about that aspect of the deck…

    @ Sharyn/AJ: Speaking of spoons – I’m not sure the “Welsh love spoon” really was the best choice for an Ace of Wands, either (it looks a bit like those here: At least in my mind, spoons are associated with liquids = water = cups. If it had to be cutlery, I would have suggested a fork for a Wands card…

  5. For some reason, the King of Cups reminds me of Sonny Bono (as in Sonny and Cher). :) I’ve had this deck twice and gave it away both times.

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