I’m delving into a subject here that may be difficult to grasp, so bear with me. Some of you – but not many, I’d wager, given the demographic of the tarot community – know what a “dead-blow” hammer (or mallet) is. It’s a striking tool used in applications like metal-working, sculpting, wood-carving, cobbling, jewelry-making and similar crafting activities that require very precise control of the impact to enable finely-detailed work without marring the work-piece. The force it delivers is much less sharply focused (“distributed” is the correct word) than that of a conventional hammer, which minimizes rebound that could compromise precision in the finished product. Craft workers will be aware of similar mallets made of wood, leather, plastic and soft metals like copper and bronze.
I sometimes liken the best tarot decks to a “dead-blow” hammer: you hit a question with them and they deliver a dead-level response, with minimal distortion or deflection due to their own idiosyncrasies. Although tarot enthusiasts revere interpretive free-association from the images on the cards, a deck that bills itself as a legitimate heir (less elegantly known as a “clone”) of a recognized standard in the field must exhibit certain qualities that will be instantly familiar to anyone attempting to read with it. Decks that depart too far from the acknowledged blueprint, regardless of how creatively inspired they are, risk being dismissed as mere “oracles” rather than “true” tarots. Some are certainly excellent – the Chrysalis Tarot comes to mind – but, contrary to what the old Parkay margarine commercials would have us believe, they ain’t “butter.” Some of the potency of such a deck is sacrificed as the user, lacking an internal compass for navigating the unfamiliar landscape, struggles to figure out what they’re supposed to be seeing in the cards. The creator’s artistic innovations can ultimately amount to distracting “spin” that isn’t readily absorbed into the narrative of a reading, effectively “bouncing off” of the reader’s comprehension with no net benefit to the results.
This observation is even more relevant in the world of Lenormand, which brooks far less imaginative by-play in the cards. The Dog is a dog, no more nor less, not a woman walking a poodle on a leash through a park. I had an eye-opening experience with Ciro Marchetti’s Gilded Reverie Lenormand in this regard. A relative of mine took one look at the Dog with a leash in its mouth and immediately said: “Oh, look, he wants to go out. Maybe he has to “go.” Unless your best friend has bladder-control issues, such fanciful impressions are off by a country mile, however charming they might seem. Attempts to reinvent the wheel in Lenormad almost invariably produce more smoke than fire. Like fine whisky, it’s best savored “neat” – consider the old Thelonius Monk album title, “Straight, No Chaser” – rather than tarted up with mixers.
I suppose it comes down to whether you own decks simply to admire the artwork, or whether you want them for their “workhorse” potential. Personally, I prefer implements that are clean, sharp and not jazzed up with gimmickry that makes them seem more like science-fair projects than humble tools of the trade. I’m reminded of the comedy routine where Kathy Bates (or it may have been Rosie O’Donnell) played a diner waitress whose customer ordered decaffeinated coffee; she shouted back to the counter-man “One cup of ‘why bother!” Indeed.