In the last few months you could not be a part of any Facebook group without seeing pictures of a coffin shaped new tarot release. That coffin box was the exterior of the limited edition of the Santa Muerte Tarot, a recent release by tarot publisher Lo Scarabeo. The limited edition was already sold out during its pre-order period, but what some don’t know (or don’t realise): its regular edition is still very much available and, despite a different box, offers exactly the same deck.
Now, I’ll add points to a grade total for added materials and excellent storage, but in the end…the tarot deck is what it is all about. If you’ve been playing with the idea of buying the Santa Muerte Regular edition or you’ve just heard about it, here is where you’ll read if it should become part of your collection.
Tarot fan favourite Fabio Listrani is the designer behind the Santa Muerte Tarot. That fact alone will be reason enough for some of you readers to not even finish this review and run to the store immediately to acquire it. His Night Sun Tarot might just be one of the most popular esoteric decks out there (I love it. Fabio, when can we expect that wonderful large companion?) and upon hearing this I expected *a lot* from the Santa Muerte deck.
Misrepresentation & foreword
Listrani is renowned and celebrated because of his wonderful art – art that’s called visual cultural nomadism; diving into other countries’ folk and religious symbols and applying it to your graphics. But, while he might be highly acclaimed as an artist, the Santa Muerte Tarot has gotten quite a lot of criticism because its designer isn’t Mexican or a follower of the Mexican and Pre-Colombian Catholic folk religion this deck is about (though, has anyone asked him?). Supposedly that led to misleading ‘Westernised’ images and other mistakes.
When it comes to tarot decks and artistic representation of belief systems, there always will be two camps. The group that considers the artwork on the deck to be wrong or even blasphemous, and the team that actually thinks it represents an accurate or even beautiful display of his/her religion. I thought it important to mention this discussion on misrepresentation (and money grabbing), but I am not about to join either side. First: not knowledgeable enough on Santa Muerte. Secondly: it is my job to tell you about what I see and read, the artwork in general, the quality of stock, its readability, etc… What I always do in my tarot deck reviews. I leave the decision to not buy the Santa Muerte Tarot – or buy it and then (dis)agree on the idea of misleading depictions – up to you. Also: as always ;-).
What is interesting to notice in this whole discussion, is the foreword in the Santa Muerte Tarot LWB. Designer Listrani mentions the deck was created as a banner of resistance, defiantly standing up against those who govern and abuse their power – because at the moment of death money and titles mean nothing. We all end up the same. Plus, the deck is a celebration of our ancestors and a possible window into history where we can learn from past mistakes and not repeat them. To me this speaks at least of respect for Santa Muerte, and the idea the Saint/Goddess can actually mean something to all of us who divine.
Look & feel: artwork
So back to the cards and what they indeed can mean for a tarot reader. If you know Fabio’s work, you might expect sci-fi influences, but the artwork is different this time. Design is (duh) completely focused on Santa Muerte and the festivities surrounding the Day of the Dead. This leads to a more colourful and ‘’looser’’ way of drawing. Think lots and lots of skulls, dressed skeletons, flowers, vibrant colour schemes and other very typical imagery we often see surrounding Dia de Muertos.
I’d already seen a few pictures online, but having it in my hand I can say: the deck looks pretty d*mn cool. Even if you are not into skulls or ‘threatening dark skies’ (know what I mean?), there is a softness to it all. The vibe of the art is thoughtful and joyous at the same time. Perhaps exactly the right tone. If anything, Santa Muerte and Dia de Muertos teaches us not to be afraid of death and dying; the process is more part of life than any other event. And we honour our deceased relatives on top of that.
All the people cards are portrayed by a skeletal figure and backgrounds are full of colour, other (mini) skulls, an incredible amount of flowers, lush vegetation, and references to daily life (buildings). And a symbolic animal or insect here and there. What is so surprising in a way, is the fact that the theme does not really feel forced. It was my one concern with a Santa Muerte Tarot deck. I’d expected possible skeleton & skull-fatigue at one point or plenty possibilities where the umpteenth variety on the whole Day of the Dead/folk goddess-theme would fall flat. It doesn’t. Perhaps it should NOT be a surprise with a highly qualified artist like Listrani at the wheel, but this is usually the biggest danger’ for thematic decks.
Again, while I can’t say if the representations of Dia de Muertos (a.k.a. the anglicised Dia de Los Muertos) or its Goddess/Saint are correct in every way, I *can* say that Fabio Listrani/Lo Scarabeo had a complete concept to work with. Every card in the Santa Muerte Tarot feels thought through…not the simple plastering of a theme onto a tarot deck. It is a refreshing deck and you absolutely have something to look at with each card.
Pattern & layer
Despite offering very different artwork for almost the entire deck the designer made pretty much all the Major Arcana easily recognisable. Some were obviously made with a bit of humour (Strength and Hanged Man) and I could not help but see references to popular Hollywood movies in the fantasy genre – but that could just be my brain playing tricks. I like *all* the cards, a rare happenstance by the way, but a few Trumps jumped out: the Ouija board reading Hierophant, the solution to the locked heart seeking Lovers, the coffin slumbering Hermit, the Scythe wielding Wheel of Fortune turners, The Escher (or Hogwarts?) Tower card and the unexpected head-dressed Star.
The Minor Arcana show best that this deck is modelled after the Waite Smith (WCS) Tarot, since it has scenics. But that is pretty much where the connection ends (though pattern and symbols come back here and there). The Santa Muerte Tarot shows us the old in a completely new jacket. Exactly what I meant with refreshing. I love it how lately more tarot decks designers have managed to keep the core of a tarot system/pattern intact, but offer us something entirely new in excellent design. The Santa Muerte Tarot deck is yet another example of that. It isn’t merely a WCS clone (as some say disparagingly, I prefer ‘inspired by’) with a layer of Day of the Dead/Lady of the Holy Dead. No, the theme is fully integrated and *decides* the imagery. If you are used to read WCS decks you’ll be able to use your foundation, but then you’ll go way beyond that. You’ll have to. A large amount of cards will make you, the tarot reader, think and reflect on the art.
A large amount of cards will make the tarot reader think and reflect on the art
As a result of Fabio Listrani’s alterations you have a tote bag carrying Page of Pentacles (Yes!) and other characters and scenic/numbered cards in not so obvious compelling designs. A shipmate sitting in a little gazebo, guitar in the corner, staring sadly at a heart-shaped locket for the 4 of chalices (cups), where the 5 of the same suit shows a skeletal figure immersed in water until his waist with a labyrinth hat on, telling us to reflect on our initial disappointment and emotional turmoil to find a way out to better things.
Other great examples are the 3 of Pentacles; a bearded skeleton with a huge Mexican Fiesta hat watering 3 flowers on a dry piece of land. The first fruits of the seeds you found and planned. Whereas the figure in the 7P is using an abacus, emphasising the need to (re)calculate, (re)calibrate and not be hasty. The 2 of Wands depicts a fiery red painted bandit holding two pistols like crossing wands – reminiscent of Frieda Harris’s Thoth 2W.
And if we look at the 8 of Swords of the Santa Muerte Tarot we encounter an almost unillustrated pip. Almost. It still gives us a sky full of thunderclouds and lightening, plus 8 raised swords. In defence? As a salute? Hard to see, but on second sight you suddenly notice this depressing stormy horizon is actually a huge smokey skull looking down on the 8 sword carriers (Mors Mordre anyone?) The 9 is one of those cards that definitely expects us to think. To me it was a card exemplary for Listrani’s earlier work and I had to take out the companion (and the lightbulb followed).
Transformation & overwhelming
Another thing that I really liked in the Minors is the fact all the 10’s, the end of the cycles, were shown as transformation in the form of a butterfly in the vibe of their suit. This ties in with the whole Death cultus (and how we usually perceive card XIII=change/transformation) and the symbolism of a butterfly as one of the best examples of transformation we have.
If I had to name one quip with all this amazing artwork: all the cards show a huge amount of details and colours. Everywhere is something, get it? A certain amount of readers go crazy *over* all those options, alas another group goes crazy *from* it. Too overwhelming and nothing to focus on. That’s what I heard back with the Tarot Illuminati too. The Santa Muerte Tarot is an equally rich deck and if you have trouble reading ‘busy’ and don’t have a wide variety of decks to choose from, check out the pictures real good (also because they’re amazing drawings) to see if you could work with so much detail.
Lo Scarabeo has been upgrading their decks lately. The Healing Light Tarot (HLT) came in a great sturdy box that I initially thought was reserved for their limited edition decks like the Sola Busca or the celebratory Etteilla deck I recently got in the mail. But no, this is the 4th deck that arrived in the same pretty thick rectangle box. In this case printed with Santa Muerte Tarot art allover and opened by way of the ‘parfum cap’ (lid lift top in a different way). Unless I am mistaken their stock has changed indefinitely now too. It will still be too thin for many, but it seems to have been improved. My older LS decks feel flimsier in comparison. Yet again a light layer of gloss is added (like with the HLT), without being overly glossy. It makes the art pop.
What makes the art pop even more, is: Santa Muerta Tarot cards are all pretty much borderless. Whoohoo! Pretty much, because there is this small 1/2 centimetre (quarter inch?) wide u-shaped bar in a yellow-creamy colour. Had it framed the entire card it would have been a(n ugly) border, resulting in people at the Tarot with Scissors group ready to shine, but now it starts halfway and functions more as some sort of ‘protective sleeve’. Said sleeve is what gives away the Arabic number (0, 1, 2, 3) plus the full name of the Major and court, or the number and suit of the Minor. It’s all quite clean and a true improvement. Reversal readers can rejoice too. The beautiful blue background with Santa Muerte skulls and flowers won’t show if the card is upright or reversed when you’re shuffling.
The box also had enough space for a mini paperback booklet* in those typical 6 languages. This card-sized companion is small but useful. Since Listrani didn’t follow Pamela’s artwork to the letter and in some cases diverts extremely from the original, an idea on what the art focuses on is helpful. On top of that the noted down interpretations aren’t always typical WCS. They are absolutely tied in with the imagery of the cards and make use of element and numbers. Each Major has about two paragraphs of text and each minor about half of that. Every suit starts with a little explanation on use of colour and what the suit ‘means’ (here not only the fact Pentacles, for example, is linked to money and the material world, but also elemental and esoteric connections: Earth | To Live).
Expect the text per card to tell you what the draw represents, including a few sentences called Advice of The Dead – basically another way of interpreting. Especially handy if you read solution based tarot or transformative tarot. I do think the Santa Muerte Tarot is one of those decks that would benefit from a larger companion book at one point (like the Chysalis Tarot, Deviant Moon and Tabula Mundi decks before ‘him’), simply because I would love to read (more) about the choices for certain symbols and the art in general.**
How it reads…
The companion offered only one spread, but that one follows the visual components of a Ouija board and is, rather unexpectedly, quite the complicated spread. It utilises pretty much the whole deck and consists of several layers and steps.
Based on its theme and some very obvious hints in design and intro I am quite sure this deck would be an excellent tarot to seek guidance from ancestors or to create a connection with deceased loved ones – but I’ll leave that up to you. Another option, purely based on paintings & concept, is Santa Muerte as an education in past mistakes. It’ll be here to learn from our previous behaviour and missteps and not repeat them in the future.
I used a few of my own reading techniques to test out the deck. The deck’s own answer on what it will be best suited for (8C, 8C, 6W) says it’ll help you create emotional balance. A few more draws over the last few weeks let me know exactly that, and I am sure that preventing old mistakes can be tied in with such readings. The Santa Muerte Tarot gives it to you straightforward. The boldness and humour in some of the illustrations didn’t translate into tongue in cheek answers, as I expected a bit. No the Santa Muerte deck felt exactly like I (assume) some wise ancestor would communicate: serious, calm and with a lot of reflection.
You have to really pay attention to the different imagery, it will help you get a new tarot vocab with this deck. My advice is to make use of the variety in graphics and the booklet, since standard WCS interpretation does not (always) apply. This deck goes deeper and is quite focused on helping you. Answers lean towards directness, but with a very strong core of the possibility to transform, get through a situation. Even the future readings with just 3 cards automatically got beyond telling me what to expect and threw in some advice. I thought that was interesting, considering that particular “Advice of the Dead” paragraph with every card in the LWB. (Ultimately this is my personal experience. If you ended up getting a completely different vibe, tell me so in the comments on my Facebook wall).
Conclusion: thoughtful and colourful.
The Santa Muerte Tarot is a combination of things. While not everyone agrees, it feels like an ode to the concept of Death & Transformation, and the focus on this specific folk religion. The phenomenal artwork, based on the theme of Dios de Los Muertes and Santa Muerte, never felt forced. It’s a well-constructed concept and it works for a tarot deck. No skull-fatigue with me at least, all adaptations could be substantiated and several cards pleasantly surprised me. Such skilful artistry with a theme that could have gone haywire halfway through the Majors already.
The gorgeous bold illustrations are an absolute plus for tarot lovers who prefer an array of symbols and lush drawings. Though it can be a check in the minor column for readers who need the quiet in their art. A deck full of detail *can* be distracting. I personally had no issue with that, but I did take more time to look at the cards. Because there was much to see and all that detail is there for a reason. And…the images truly make you think at times and offer something unexpected.
Listrani has done a tremendous job in reinventing a well known pattern. His Santa Muerte Tarot is a different take on the Waite-Smith system and those reinventions are inspired by the theme, but also by esoteric concepts, numerology and elements. Leaving a hard-core WCS reader or newbie possibly confused or perhaps irritated.
So, I think the right person for this deck has a taste for tarot variety, bold colours and plenty detail and calls him/herself skilled in WCS or Thoth, ready to add new symbolism and interpretations. You can start honouring your ancestors or straighten out your emotional issues as soon as you have Italy’s latest release at home. And Tarot collectors: just because you missed the coffin, doesn’t mean this edition can’t colour your shelves real good. Purely based on how it works as a tarot deck and art project I can only say that just like with The Night Sun Tarot Lo Scarabeo has managed to deliver another great conceptual Listrani title to the tarot world. I am going to sit and wait here for those extra companions to arrive at my door…
NB1 * The booklet can only be stored on one side of the box. It does not look like it, but the side of the XIII/Santa Muerte card is slightly bigger and fits the LWB perfectly).
NB2 ** Red Wheel/Weiser just released a book on Santa Muerte if you want to know more about the Lady of the Shadows of the Day of the Dead. It could help with more understanding of what you’re working with. I haven’t requested it for review, because I have 5 other books to review in a short time, but thought to mention it here…