Decks that are based on mythology or different cultures aren’t exactly new. It will ask a lot of a deck designer to find an angle that’ll attract an audience eager to check his or her work out, and be original and consistent at the same time. The American Gods Tarot Majors Only, a newly released and very limited edition tarot (first edition only 25 copies) from the hands of Anastasia Kashian is exactly such a deck. For this review I bombarded the designer with questions and as a result this has become just as much an interview too.
Part of testing this art piece and my research on this deck was rereading a Neil Gaiman* novel. I can’t think of many better ways to start a deck test…
Inspiration & artist
It is that novel, American Gods, and all its characters that has recently been reinvented into an Amazon Prime/Starz series with the same title, one that Kashian took as inspiration to create a Majors Only deck from. The book and thus series is about a battle for the world between our ‘new gods’ the Internet, technology and media (among other things) and the ones ‘led’ by Wednesday; Gods from the natives and the ones brought by all former immigrants – now called Americans – derived from their cultures when they crossed the oceans to find new lands and the fulfilment of a dream for a better future. That’s where they mythology angle in this deck comes from.
Kashian is a painter with a BSc in Anthropology and an MA in art and literature. Her interests in mythology, psychology, symbolism and reading tarot from a very young age (her first deck at age 12 was a Grimaud Marseilles. My first TdM too!) came together in this first edition Majors Only. “I’ve wanted to make one of my own, as an artistic challenge, for several years now. Watching the tv series is what inspired me to make this one. I had been searching for an angle on the tarot for some months, and the representation of mythological characters in a modern setting just clicked for me. Almost at once, I could see each character in relation to a specific card archetype,” so said the creator of American Gods, the tarot deck.
Kashian is a quick painter. Once the idea took form it cost her about 3 months to paint all the 22 Majors. “I know that’s no time at all to make a deck, but I was truly inspired and the ideas came as fast as I could get them down – I was working round the clock! One card was actually painted in Cardiff Airport.”
Now that we know a bit about the background, let’s have a look. My copy is one of the first 25. That very first limited edition will get a revisioned follow up soon with a better box (the prototype was too large – as a result I had to glue and reshape mine several times already since it got severely damaged in the mail), a possible reprint for less chipping on the black, and a Happy Squirrel. The look of the box will remain the same; similar to the tuck boxes at The Game Crafter (opens on both sides), all black with the print of The Sun card on the front and the title in white on the back.
The box holds a fold-out leaflet (LWB) with information on every single card: which character was chosen and why, plus information on the other symbolism. I know some people never look at these sheets, but it would be such a shame if you didn’t. Kashian is not only eloquent, but the information really shines a light on her art and symbols, and therefore the potential interpretations. The artist has a dream to one day write a real companion for the deck, but those take time. For now it is this useful leaflet. If you don’t know book or series a necessity to at least glance at, in my personal opinion.
Next to the leaflet we have the 22 Major Arcana of the American Gods Tarot…Majors Only! I keep repeating the Majors Only part because there will be a minors pack coming around the end of the year, so you will have the choice to buy a full deck or either one.
The core material for the minors might quite possible be more novel than screen, with more – as Anastasia Kashian told me – female characters of colour. She’s leaning in the direction of having completely illustrated minors, but reinventing the pictures in a way that diverges from the RWS characterisations and is more in tune with the mythos of the book. If the second TV series doesn’t happen she will make her own interpretations from scratch. It is currently unclear if there will be a second season, but Kashian does hope so “for the sake of coherence and consistency” of the deck.
Stock & art
Back to the Majors Only…The cards all have a double border. First a thick yellow-gold line in which a bar for the card title is set and then a black one around those.
The stock is somewhere along the lines of the better mass market decks, but without the lamination. It’s not linen, nor glossy or the really thin ones that makes us cranky. It is a little thicker than an average deck and moderately flexible (be a bit careful with a riffle, though! The cards have a tendency to stay curved when you bend them).
As I’ve said the characters in this deck come mostly from the American Gods TV series (although she already ‘cast’ the ones that aren’t on tv yet). That means characters not present in the novel also make an appearance. As an avid reader and Gaiman fan that was initially a disappointment, but since pretty much ALL the cards are immediately recognisable, and well chosen for their tarot counterpart, it was forgiven just as easily. Because the series did a good casting job – as did she – every arcana rings true within its theme.
Shadow as The Fool, the Zoraya who can’t lie as High Priestess, Wednesday as Hierophant and that creepy-ass woman (excusez-let-mot) in the tv as The Tower seem like legit choices and they’re also well clarified in the LWB.
Is this deck readable for someone who has never heard of the TV series nor Gaiman’s novel…Hmm, I am in doubt. The characters wear the faces of the actors and if you recognise them as person and not play that could be confusing. As well as the fact that certain scenes from the book or mythological and biblical references are used in the background, not what you’re used to from their tarot counterparts. It makes this deck much deeper than thought at first sight – especially considering it is tv series-themed – but also a little more complicated.
If you know tarot and you know the story I think you can easily read with this deck if you simply let the art have a good say as well. If you miss either one of these ingredients I would recommend doing at least the research I did…read the book, or watch the series. Anastasia Kashian created this deck for all to use, but my recommendation would be a sure-fire no to beginners who want to know and use (teachings on) one of the foundational decks (after).
So far American Gods Tarot (Majors Only) seems like a deck that we can expect from a (TV series) themed tarot with mythology thrown in. Those things don’t make this deck special – and I told you it is. That part starts with all the extra information she uses and points us in the right direction. The true interesting thing: her art choices. First off, all Kashian’s majors are painted landscape. Coming from someone who started her journey with a Tarot de Marseille it is perhaps not the oddest choice. It is however definitely rare in tarot land. The storyboard perspective most historical deck readers have, comes out on top with landscape cards – as I quickly saw while testing the deck.
It is, as Kashian says herself, a format that “leads the eye from side to side in a very literal reading movement.” It allowed the designer of the American Gods Tarot Majors Only to change the symmetry of the cards in various ways – some face right, others left, others have a more bilateral symmetry, with equal balance to both sides. It definitely affects the way tarot and in this case American Gods Tarot is read and how you look at the story unfolding.
That brings out the question which type of deck this is too. I’ve already said it isn’t exactly a beginner’s deck and that also has to do with its foundation. Is it a WCS type, A Thoth-y one or perhaps truly a Modern Marseille? Honestly: neither one. I couldn’t pinpoint it. It has for sure references to a Waite-Smith – the titles and numbering are all there. Then there is some of the character-driven and universal symbolism that points to what we are seeing in a WCS. Then there were some things that reminded me of a story perhaps Crowley or a TdM artist would sooner tell.
So, I asked the designer. Kashian was eager to explain: the deck is a combination of pretty much all tarot. “There’s no getting away from the RWS (TQS: Nowadays Waite-Smith/WCS). It’s a part of our collective consciousness if we know anything about Tarot at all – and the same can be said of the Thoth for anyone who has studied symbolic imagery to any extent,” Kashian explains. The artist continues: “I think it’s important to remember that they, too, were drawing on and recombining elements of earlier traditions, and the visions of earlier artists. It’s a rich vein, and it isn’t mined out yet.”
This answer explained a lot about the American Gods Tarot art-wise, but it didn’t explain the focus on storyboard reading. Had the Tarot de Marseille, or at least reading with historical decks, another influence? “I tried not to look at anything later than the Visconti and Este decks while I was making it, in an attempt to keep my mind’s eye as impartial as possible! Of course that didn’t work all that well… Shadow on the tree (XII Hanged Man) for example is an archetype that stems from his internal story, and it coincides with the transmuted meaning in the RWS tradition, so that was the obvious fit. Most of them worked this way – a compromise between using my collected academic knowledge, and my visceral response to the card in the context of the story.”
The deck was initially created as being a more meditative deck. That’s the sort of thing the deck designer wanted for herself. You can make spreads and combine the stories endlessly, and all the cards have multiple common threads that run through the deck. Testers are known to have used them for more predictive or analytic work too, and reported that they are extremely effective for that purpose.
Your reviewer really understands the meditative part and also tried out the guidance & analytical part.
Her way of working on the cards obviously led to a deck that is still rooted in the very core of tarot, but at the same time a completely new and different tarot. Her creative steps had another design effect we don’t often see. We are used to seeing just the one archetype (for lack of a better word) in a Major Arcana card, but each American Gods Tarot card has a complete story unfolding within the landscape. Kashian calls them portrait studies with a story unfolding.
The brush stroke style – later in this article – is hard to capture on my camera, but I tried to make some close-ups of The Sun, Temperance, The Male Lovers and the Judgement card to give you a better indication of what to expect. These cards all have a unique background as well that shows the ‘double layering’ I am explaining here. And the fact you should not expect ‘regular’ Major Arcana symbolism.
There is one central figure from the theme (with the actor’s face and all) standing in the forefront, but in the background – almost as if there are two different paintings coming together – there is a lot more going on. Scenes from the book/series left and right, different sets of symbols: you can either see a story evolve within a story or read a symbols-set together with the main character. If there ever was a possibility to do a one card reading it is probably here.
One thing I had some trouble with is the (most of the times) high quality drawings of the characters in the forefront, but the often less than defined and refined art in the back. There’s a disconnect here that I couldn’t really explain. To a reader they are both important so I was bummed by the difference in these scenics.
Another thing that qualifies as original (but might be less appealing to some) is her choice for printing. Most decks have clean cut sharp imagery and when I asked the artist about ‘the lack of pixelation’ I was set straight. What you see isn’t ‘less sharp’, but down to the fact all the images were created at printing scale. Why? “I wanted to have a hand painted feel that was reminiscent of the earliest decks, like the Visconti, that were of course created by hand directly at their final scale. Therefore the grain of the paper and the marks of the brush remain visible, as if you were looking at a painting close-by,” explains Kashian.
Decks created nowadays are printed from much larger scale paintings. If you’ve ever followed a deck designer on Instagram/Facebook they sometimes show you the originals of their deck in progress. In that case you know these are usually at least A4 sized, sometimes larger. Rescale those to a smaller card, add digital technology and you get the sharper look we’re so used to. She is right that if you look at older decks there is more roughness going on. They aren’t perfectly smooth. “Even with the original RWS! This was an effect I wanted, for the man-made nature of the cards to be evident.”
The combination of Gaiman’s work as a theme and Kashian’s choices in art make for a rather remarkable deck. That art certainly needs to be your cup of tea. Subjective alert: I’m not entirely convinced, but that doesn’t mean I am not impressed with the concept and contents. That part is definitely intriguing. I can only applaud the landscape choice, the many symbolical and mythological references and the excellent fit of theme on tarot.
The duality in the picture makes sure just one card can be enough for much more than a quick-y reading if you know what you’re doing. If you consider the fact card readers tend to think (a misconception imho) Majors Only decks are limiting that is a huge bonus for this Then & Now mythology deck.
I don’t think this deck is ideal for beginners. Too much is going on and the typical pattern of any of the three foundational decks is severely lacking. In my book that can be a good thing, but for a newbie who is just learning tarot patterns and constructs it might be too big a jump. American Gods Tarot (Majors Only) is fitting for collectors and a nice a-typical deck for (advanced) readers who like to read with something that does not ask oodles of extra study, but is still very much out-of-the-box. American Gods Tarot shows how applying popular culture to a tarot deck can also be done with a nod to (and honouring of) tarot-history. I can’t wait to find out what Neil Gaiman thinks of it…
BUY the American Gods Majors Only deck
They are currently available on Kashian’s Ebay shop – solveij_k – but she also just made a Facebook page specifically for Tarot cards to be able to contact her and follow progress on the minors and possible other work.
You can find that FB page via this link.
EXTRA NOTES: PERMISSION GAIMAN/TV SHOW
* While she does not have official permission from Neil Gaiman he does know about the deck and the fact she is selling them. He has raised no objection (though Kashian thinks she might hear back from him with respect to licensing if the decks start to sell in a big way). Gaiman is not on of those people to cry copyright or any of those things when someone is using his work to create an other art-form. His public and official stance on derivative works – that he actually calls “transformative works” – is that they do him no harm, and are potentially good free advertising for his work. She has also directly spoken to Michael Green, the tv-show’s producer, and he thought it would be a good idea for me to try it out. Most of the cast seemed “delighted to see themselves imagined in a new context, and to share artwork featuring themselves and their colleagues with their fans across social media”, so says the deck designer. So, all’s good and you won’t have to feel ‘bad’ for buying this deck if you value copyright. The designer has been open about it and no objections have been raised at all. Go enjoy your gods ;-).