This post is inspired by my enthusiasm for the Dark Grimoire Tarot which I, somewhat inexplicably, took a shine to recently. I mean, while I certainly appreciate Lovecraftian tentacle aesthetics I probably never will take too seriously any efforts to turn his fictional horror setting into a magical system, so my regard for such things is pretty low. I ordered this tarot deck because I found Michele Penco's art haunting but attractive and I thought it would be an interesting novelty to add to my tarot collection. However, when I actually tried reading with it I was, somewhat uncomfortably, blown away. So I am trying to make sense of just why this deck speaks with such a fresh and powerful voice, especially considering that when it was first slated for publication by Lo Scarabeo its working title was The Tarot of the Unspeakable (and it was a much better title too, in my opinion).
I can't deny that there is something intriguing about the underlying philosophical trajectory of Lovecraft's work and how it has spawned an enduring mythology so alien yet oddly familiar. And although I don't believe he channelled some sort of revelation about the Great Old Ones, I do think Lovecraft gave literary expression to a certain philosophical sensibility that truly is both great and old.
A sensibility not unlike the one that inspired Gnosticism, in my opinion. In his excellent work, Gnostic Philosophy, Tobias Churton makes the compelling assertion that Gnosticism is an impulse traceable throughout the ages, rather than a single historical religious movement; and that the impulse constitutes a kind of Gnostic Spirit emerging again and again in different times and places. In religious movements like the Christian and Sethian Gnostics, Sufis, Templars, certainly - but also in literary and cinematic forms such as the writing of Jean Baudrillard, Phillip K. Dick and films like the The Matrix.
It's the intuitive perception that there is something wrong with the world, and the truth is hidden just ever so slightly beyond the periphery of our ordinary experience. That the universe is not an entirely benign place but can be quite cruel, implacable and often unspeakably (If I may be permitted to use Lovercraft's favourite adjective) strange. The insight that the Dark Grimoire Tarot sparked for me is that if we turn a Gnostic lens to Lovecraft - a spark of gnosis might be found throbbing latent in the tentacled chaos.
For instance, the gods of Lovecraft's world are hostile, and inconceivably 'other' - not unlike the Gnostic's sinister demiurge and his archons (or the Cathar's theologically cognate notion of Devil - who they recognised as the creator of the material universe). Lovecraft's writing jettisons anthropocentric tendencies that long to place humans at the centre of the mythic stage. Instead, his fiction is permeated by an impersonal terror at our apparent insignificance: trapped in fleshy bodies that hurt, stuck on a fragile blue planet spinning in a cold black void where a lot of terrible, scary stuff happens at the whim of forces unimaginably vast.
Like most of Lovecraft's protagonists we too are not sure why or what exactly to do about our predicament.
Like the Gnostics, Lovecraft imagines a deeper order of reality, dreadful but hidden from plain view by our mundane preoccupations. And like the Gnostics, he imagines no reason why the deities of his universe should be any better than its merciless grinding. No, when Cthulhu returns everyone dies, and his crazed cultists long for the day when "all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom". I can't help but wonder if frothing-at-the-mouth evangelicals dream and hope for anything all that different? I am reminded of the bloodthirstiness of the God of the old testament and the fiery eschaton in the book of Revelations... and in this light it seems quite reasonable that the Christian Gnostics took Jehova to be their monstrous Yaldabaoth - the arrogant, cruel and ultimately insane demiurge.
Like the Gnostics, Lovecraft imagined his world as fundamentally evil and the veil of illusion that is our ordinary consensual reality is what protects the fragile mortal minds of men from the truth. The resulting madness of his protagonists upon revelation of this reality is therefore comparable, mythically speaking, to the madness of saints. I can't help but suspect the reason his work has been so enduring is because the horror of his fiction taps the same existential dread that spurred the Gnostics in their various forms, and is a dread felt by most people in one way or another. The impersonal, intangible anxiety at how we feel cut adrift in a world characterised by suffering. What Buddhism - that great Gnostic impulse of the east - refers to as samsara: the ceaseless ocean of suffering.
There are yet more pleasing symmetries just ripe for the plucking if you take into account that Gnosticism is traceable to the cosmic dualism of ancient Persia. Similarly, Lovecraft traces the original source of the cult of Elder Gods to "the pathless deserts of Arabia, where Irem, the City of Pillars, dreams hidden and untouched". And just as the Gnostic Spirit wends its way through Hellenistic, Greco-Egyptian, Semitic cultures pretty much all the way through the Middle East, Europe and on to Asia - so too the fictional cult of Old Ones rears its scaly tentacled head in most of these places and cultures.
What I am I getting at?
That perhaps approaching the Lovecraftian narratives in this deck as a kind of modern Gnostic allegory is potentially an interesting, spiritually productive angle to consider when working with the Dark Grimoire Tarot and perhaps even Lovecraft's legacy of writings as a whole.
To this end I find Dark Grimoire Tarot to be extraordinarily tractable and that's because it very successfully combines another celebrated Gnostic model, the tarot, with Lovecraftian mythic imagination. I began researching the deck's background a little and I was surpised at how carefully it had been designed to ensure that it would be genuinely workable as a tarot deck.
It's evident that a great deal of thought went it into its creation and in my opinion the result is something innovative. A rare contribution to tarot in the era of vacuous theme decks. You expect to find a cheesy catalogue of silly monsters but what you actually unearth after spending some time with the deck, like an ancient set of eldritch tablets, is that the underlying existential dread of Lovecraft's world is transformatively activated by the archetypes of the tarot and so doing becomes a vehicle for something far more profound than pulp fiction. A subtle interplay of meaning between the two symbol sets results in a dazzling and balanced gestalt that allows one to reach through the confinement of your personal existential anxiety to knowledge - gnosis - of something transcendent beyond it.
My own Gnostic reading of this is that by exposing the limiting demiurgic forces latent in our experience (represented by the cards as Lovecraftian narratives) - forces which are the fears, demons and shadows of our own projections - we can potentially become freed from them. And in this respect this deck delivers a real sense of beauty and hope with each use. It's no accident either because it seems this feature was consciously built into the deck.
I'll conclude by sharing an excellent comment I found given by an editor at Lo Scarabeo who was involved in the Dark Grimoire Tarot's development:
The basis of Lovecraftian Horror was the concept that the world itself was “evil”, and madness would have been the only fate of those who looked beyond the veil. So the veil of Maya, illusion separating from truth, is our savior.
It is a bad way to look at the world, also because the “seeker” is always the “victim”.
I think the “dark” of the Dark Grimoire Tarot is about touching darkness. (Well, it’s a Tarot deck and not a collection of Lovecraft based illustrations). When you are drawn into the darkness how do you stay yourself, how do you remember light?
How do you allow darkness to change and mold you (because if you go into the darkness you must accept it or sacrifice something precious: read Heart of Darkness by J. Conrad – I really would like to make a Tarot deck on that concept)
And again… what is the meaning of darkness? How can you accept and feel the evil in the world and not be destroyed?
So, when we touch darkness, we don’t do that through a glass window. And still, in a way, even if it doesn’t seem to change anything, darkness is also touched by us.
It was difficult to try to convey the main character of the deck (there are two actually: a man and a woman) as both a victim and a hero. As someone fighting darkness and someone embracing it and learning from it (darkness is both a devourer and a teacher?)
There was one last concept I wanted to address about darkness and that was quite important when thinking about this deck: the concept of “empowering”.
One of the ways to use Tarot we consider important revolves around the concept of “empowering”. Future should not be fate, and a querient (if you read for others or if you read for yourself) should be encouraged by Tarot to find solution, think strategies, act… and ultimately accept responsibility for himself.
When considering a horror/dark deck, one should think that the horror concept really has no heroes but rather victims. The horror comes exactly when the point of view of the reader/spectator has no control over things. There is nothing but to run and hide, and even so, there is no escape. The feeling of dread we receive from true horror is definitely linked to “lack of control”. Doing a horror Tarot deck means asking the people who use it to sympathise with lack of control, and that’s not really good for empowering them.
[An attempt at] answering this contradiction, and trying to find a way to have these two concepts coexist has been an important part of the design work.
One final note. Most of the times creating a deck is not a way to give an answer to all possible considerations about a theme (like darkness, for instance). It’s just a way to ask the questions, or to open a door. We don’t know, ever, what’s behind the door.