March / April 2014 Issue
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Review of the Samurai Tarot
This article was written by Donald Michael Kraig, Certified Tarot Grandmaster on November 30, -0001
A deck that delicately imitates the soft pastels of colored Ukiyo-e art in an attempt to shoehorn a brief look at Samurai concepts into the Western Tarot paradigm. The art must be appreciated as should be the dedication of the designer. The variation of meanings from the RWS tradition may turn some people off of this deck, but others may find it an introduction to the Samurai and the Bushido code. If you are familiar with some Asian spiritual concepts, this may be a good set of visual cues for meditation.
The Samurai Tarot is a beautiful deck. The soft, pastel colors and watercolor-like washes, certainly evoke another time and place, a tribute to the styles of art known as Ukiyo-e. It is a delightful "art deck."
With that said, I also have to clarify a preconception on my part. One of the things Western civilizations have done is borrow a tiny bit from native cultures, thinking they have caught the essence of that culture while allowing them to steal and destroy that culture. The most famous example of this is in the Americas. Today, people wear a leather vest, put a feather in their hair and a dream catcher over their beds, have meetings where they say, "Ho!" a lot, and think they are honoring Native American traditions while Native Americans on reservations suffer poverty, alcoholism, unemployment and other problems. Occultists in the West have adopted traditions from India, such as the concept of Karma, but they alter the original concept, adding such ideas as the "lords of Karma" and turning Karma into some sort of cosmic system of punishments and rewards, none of which are part of the original idea. Such cultural usurpation is, unfortunately, quite common.
Thus, it was with some trepidation that I approached the Samurai Tarot, an admitted limitation on my part. I am by no means an expert in Samurai traditions or culture, but I wouldn’t have the audacity to produce a Samurai-based Tarot after watching movies by Kurosawa and reading a couple of books such as The Book of Five Rings, and yet this is what creator Filadoro appears to have done and gives as references. He also uses the film Zatoichi by T. Kitano as a source, a film made in 2003, and ignores the other 26 films about Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman, made between 1962 and 1989, as well as a Japanese TV series.
But there is even a more difficult aspect to this. The Tarot presents a view of life steeped in Western cultural traditions. How do you push and pull Samurai traditions into this Western cultural milieu? You’re either going to have to give up some Western traditions or some Japanese traditions, and since this deck was created by a Westerner, my assumption is that it was going to be the former, resulting in a highly bastardized view of the Samurai. This is not meant as an attack on Mr. Filadoro. I’m sure he did the best he possibly could. Unfortunately, unless you make major changes to the inner concepts of the Tarot—something not done with this deck—it is the Samurai who is going to be slighted.
In the West, mystics frequently talk of a four-element system composed of Fire, Air, Earth, and Water. To this, the element of Spirit is frequently added. Spirit is sometimes associated with the Major Arcana and the four elements are linked to the suits of the Minor Arcana. Indeed, that is what has been done here. However in Asian traditions, the five elements are not Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Spirit. Rather they are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. The tradition is abandoned to fit the Rider-Waite-Smith tradition.
At best, this deck is neither Western nor Eastern, but a bastardization of both. If you are against cultural imperialism and cultural usurpation, this may not be a deck for you.
But enough of the problems with the deck because of what it didn’t do. I think it’s also fair to look at this deck for what it does do. Although superficially following the RWS format, the meanings of the cards do not follow the RWS tradition. Therefore, the Little White Booklet is necessary to get an idea of the meaning of the cards. The Minors follow one of four patterns: Pentacles represent daily life in ancient Japan, Wands are about improving yourself, Chalices deal with creatures of the unconscious, and Swords represent the destination of your spiritual journey. The Court Cards are each a famous person from Japanese history history or legend, ranging from the actor Kabuki Ichikawa Danjuro (Knave of Pentacles) to the monk Takuan (King of Swords). The LWB features two spreads, a two-card reading called "Duel" and a five-card spread called "Clash at the Crossroads."
So does this deck "work?" Well, that depends upon what you mean by "work":
If you are linked to the RWS meanings, you could use the names and numbers to give a general reading.
If you can get past the cultural usurpation and spend a lot of time studying the LWB, you would be able to eventually memorize the author’s meanings for the cards. By examining the meanings, it appears as if a good reading could be given.
The symbolism on many of the cards is very simple, matching the rather Zen ethos that pervades the cards (interesting, as the Samurai are more associated with Shintoism than Zen, but blurring of paradigms doesn’t stop this deck). Add that simplicity to the fact that the symbolism is decidedly non-Western makes this difficult to work with strictly through intuition based on the symbols if you are a Westerner.
If you are working strictly for meditation purposes, and have studied some Asian traditions, you will find the art evocative.
And speaking of the art, it is very Asian-like (Asian-lite?), and sure to enhance any Western environment seeking to broadly imitate an Asian atmosphere.
So this deck is a mixed bag. It succeeds in several areas and fails in others. It’s not going to be in my "keep ready to use at any time" set of deck, but it’s more than just an art deck. The author put a lot of thought (albeit a Western interpretation of Asian thought) into this deck and the art captures a Japanese flavor. This is a deck I’ll come back to, on occasion, when I’m in an Asian mood. Saki and some sushi, anyone?
Name of deck: Samurai Tarot
Publisher: Lo Scarabeo
Creator’s name: Massimilliano Filadoro
Artist’s name: Giancarlo Caracuzzo
Name of accompanying booklet: Samurai Tarot
Number of pages of booklet: 64 (14 in English)
Author of booklet: Massimilliano Filadoro
Available in a boxed kit?: No
Magical Uses: Attuning to Asian concepts and meditation techniques
Reading Uses: General
Ethnic Focus: Japanese
Artistic Style: Traditional Japanese style
Theme: Japan and Samurai traditions
Tarot, Divination Deck, Other Tarot
Does it follow Rider-Waite-Smith Standard?: Yes, but with the older numbering of Justice as 8 and Strength as 11.
Does it have extra cards? If yes, what are they?: No.
Does it have alternate names for Major Arcana cards?:
Card 5, the Hierophant, becomes The Priest
Card 9, the Hermit, becomes The Monk
Does it have alternate names for Minor Arcana suits? If yes, what are they?: Cups become Chalices
Does it have alternate names for the Court Cards? If yes, what are they?: Pages become Knaves
Why was deck created?: The Samurai Tarot is presented as a journey of an "inner Samurai" (the initiate that each one of us has inside) through the tests of life, transformed according to the imagination of feudal Japan, where myth and reality do not have precise boundaries and both become a metaphor of our contemporary world.
Book suggestions for Tarot beginners and this deck: The Complete Tarot Reader; Tarot for Beginners
Book suggestions for experienced Tarot users and this deck: Heart of Tarot; Past Life & Karmic Tarot
Alternative decks you might like:
The Buddha Tarot
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