I was originally attracted to The Tarot of Why because of its Asian-esque images. While the facial features and skin tones are ambiguous, much of the characters don traditional Japanese attire. Being a tarot reader of Asian descent, I’m always interested in decks with Asian themes and/or made by Asian creators.
But my initial attraction was superficial. While I liked the theme and art style, it wasn’t until I had the deck in my hands that I saw the full extent of its beauty and uniqueness. This deck feels fundamentally different from every other tarot deck in my possession.
After I started working with this deck, I realized that my other decks with Asian themes/characters or created by people of Asian descent aren’t significantly different. As I primarily read with Rider Waite Smith decks, the interpretations of cards don’t vary much between decks. While most decks that I continuously return to all possess cards I find interesting or even enlightening, the overall essence of RWS tarot persists.
And the RWS essence is distinctly western. Its underlying logic and philosophies are based on western occultism, accumulated and disseminated through The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a magical society based in England. As such, even though it incorporates elements of Eastern practices, it is still a reflection of western ideals.
While The Tarot of Why is also a RWS deck at its core, the cards that diverge from its parent express attitudes that feel distinctly Asian to me. The card that emphasizes this most strongly is the 6 of Pentacles.
Traditionally, this card shows a person in a position of wealth giving to the needy with one hand and holding a scale in the other. There is no mistaking who is in the position of power – the rich man not only has the power to alleviate poverty, he decides who deserves to be risen from it. This card speaks of one aspect of giving – whether it is from a sincere intention of mercy or to elevate one’s own importance – it focuses on the grace and obligation of those who can afford to give.
In this deck, we see instead a person in armour being lifted by two others who are on their knees. The soldier also rests his hands on their head for support. All three display expressions of solemnness. This reminds me of a Donnie Yen movie set in pre-industrialized China. In a small farming village, the elders determine which children demonstrate potential and provide for them the means to receive an education.
Perhaps this soldier is the beneficiary of his village’s support. He has worked hard and achieved a position in the army but he cannot say that he did this on his own. An entire village has toiled so that he may rise.
Instead of the concept of benevolence, this card demonstrates another aspect of giving – self-sacrifice. This ideal of placing the common before the self as well the need to credit and give back to the common if one is fortunate enough to achieve success is the core of East Asian values.
In addition to the 6 of Pentacles, the 3 and 10 of Swords also possess a more eastern worldview. Both cards shows two people, with one fallen and another standing over the fallen body. In both cards, the focus is on the anguish of the slayer instead of the pain of the defeated. While the central theme of each card remains similar – that of heartache in the 3 and acknowledgement of fallacies in the 10 – they shift the perspective from the person experiencing such difficulties to the person causing it.
When I look at these cards, the theme of karma comes to mind. The suffering in the 3 of Swords isn’t an isolated experience. Rather, there is cause and effect. This card teaches us that, just as we’re susceptible to being hurt, we’re also capable of hurting others. What’s more, there are consequences to such behaviour. No morally conscious person can hurt others without also hurting ourselves. Even if we don’t feel the consequences of our actions immediately, our guilt and shame will eventually catch up with us.
The 10 of Swords speaks of a different form of karma – that which is passed on from one person to another. Just like the RWS version, there is a person pierced with 10 Swords. In this card, however, the body appears to be writhing with pain. Furthermore, the body is decapitated and the tortured man standing over this body holds the head on a platter. This image shows that when horrible ideas and oppressive values refuse to die, they risk being diffused into society and passed on to future generations. Society suffers as it continues to bear the horror and the pain.
Weaving in the concept of karma into these cards present a more cyclical way of thinking and places importance in communal values. This is in contrast to the more linear and individualistic perspective of the West. While one style is not better than the other, I value this deck for presenting a yin alternative to tarot interpretation. Even as it incorporates the boldness and imagination of western traditions, The Tarot of Why, subtly blends in contrasting flavours, resulting in a deck that is richly diverse and incredibly inviting.