The Tarot Muse
Carolyn R. Guss
Certified Professional Tarot Reader and Teacher

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The Gothic Tarot—created by Leilah Wendell


First Printing limited to edition of 1,000 (numbered & signed by Wendell)

Published by Westgate Press (Opelousas, LA;


ISBN 0944087108

  reviewed by Carolyn R. Guss, The Tarot Muse ©

I have seen the DEATH card and it is—The Gothic Tarot. So has Leilah Wendell, creator and publisher (through her Westgate Press) of this unique Major Arcana deck. In fact, Wendell has seen Death itself—not as a near-death experience, but as a personal encounter with Azrael, the Angel of Death, who visited her at an early age, and with whom she has frequently communed. After undertaking a career in mortuary science, Wendell went on to establish a magazine, Undinal Songs; found a publishing house (Westgate); and then a shop and gallery, first on her native turf of Long Island, and then in Louisiana, to which she relocated in 1990.

The Gothic Tarot, released in 1998, merges Wendell’s focus on death with the medium of Tarot. This first printing, which Westgate produced in a signed, numbered edition of 1,000, embraces the 22 images of the Major Arcana much as Azrael embraces its subjects. To that end, Wendell created the deck using full-color cemetery photographs from the U.S. and abroad, which she enhanced with collage and hand-coloring. The results are intriguing and—well, gothic.

This deck speaks a whispered language, the voice one uses in graveyards. The images on each card are direct, not ethereal—in keeping, I suppose, with Wendell’s philosophy of how we encounter death: as an angel, yes, but a full-bodied one. (Despite the often-otherworldly beings the sculptures represent, these are not gossamer figures, but angels of stone.) Wendell’s approach to the Tarot seems right: presenting possibilities, with a fair amount of room for personal interpretation, thus echoing her belief that we all experience Azrael differently, and in a highly personal way. The deck allows for freedom of interpretation while mostly staying true to the traditional essence of the Major Arcana. (I always appreciate both in any new “take” on the Tarot.)

That said, the DEATH card itself in this largely engaging deck isn’t its strongest offering. But the entire deck resembles one big DEATH card, so the loss is not too keenly felt. A moldering skull, in what appears to be a crumbling crypt, is flanked by two crimson candles and a pair of roses. (White roses would have proved truer to traditional Tarot iconography and looked less like a Grateful Dead emblem.) Only a brilliant amethyst crystal amidst ashes, bone fragments, and the detritus of death speaks to the regenerative power this card usually represents.

My favorite cards from this deck include the HIGH PRIESTESS, EMPRESS, EMPEROR, HIEROPHANT, LOVERS, HERMIT, and WORLD. I have long associated the HIGH PRIESTESS with the symbol of the mirror: as a lunar figure who shines with reflected light, she seems to hold a mirror up to ourselves, showing us our potential. Wendell’s depiction is particularly successful. A deeply-shadowed and seemingly impassive caryatid-type figure lifts a rectangular frame above her head, in which we see a cosmic explosion of light: a reflection of the wonder of possibilities ahead, when we engage with the unknown inside ourselves.

Wendell’s EMPRESS—a granite angel who seems more a creature of earth than heaven (like an escapee from a Wim Wenders film)—is both modest and sensual with red flowers on her breast (true to her Venus ruler) and a gilt-flamed torch in her hands. Behind her the flowering trees suggest abundant life in the face of death, as one might ponder when visiting a cemetery on a fine spring day. Wendell’s figure could be Demeter holding her torch for Persephone as she stares down at the earth in hopes of reclaiming her daughter from Hades.

The Gothic Tarot’s EMPEROR and HIEROPHANT cards are among the most compelling I have seen. What are we to make of the EMPEROR’s power, since it seems to aggrieve him so? It’s as if he views a premonition of his own death (as card number 4, he numerologically embodies the reduced number of the DEATH card itself, 13) or a vision of where all his earthly authority will eventually lead, and thus hides his face within the stone folds of his cloak—so unlike the cherub in Wendell’s INNOCENCE card (equivalent to the FOOL), who lifts hers tentatively toward the sky. She seems all question and the EMPEROR all answer—although that answer may not be felicitous. However, in studying this stark image a moment longer, one finds a second strong visage, in profile, among the cloak’s folds. This is the true countenance of the EMPEROR, who negates the FOOL’s uncertainty with the monarch’s own great confidence. It is the face of the emperor that we see on ancient coins. A violent lightning strike in a blue sky at the right side of the card suggests the energy that ego and power engender as well as where they lead, and so serves as a harbinger of the TOWER, card number 16 (itself a multiple of 4).

The HIEROPHANT is not frequently given its visual due: the imagery is often static and flat. Wendell captures Trump V hauntingly, bringing forth the deeply inherent mysterious qualities of the card (the hierophant being known as the speaker of mysteries) while honoring the sacred-in-the-earthly that it represents. A hooded stone figure bows low over a void before an autumnal landscape. (In this way Wendell’s image reminds me of Arnell Ando’s card from the Transformational Tarot, in which the SAGE—Ando’s equivalent of the Hierophant—is set among fall foliage.) At its right a silver chalice appears, a burst of fire issuing from it. And above, the all-seeing eye of the Divine, whom the Hierophant ultimately serves.

The LOVERS reduces the multiple figures typically seen in this card to one. A yearning sculpted figure, red roses strewn in lap, engages with a beam of white light, like a comet on a vertical course. But isn’t this the way love strikes us? Thus, the “light being” perhaps symbolizes the union of human and Divine, the highest incarnation of the LOVERS.

Wendell’s HERMIT depicts a hunched and grieving figure similar to the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot’s 9 of Swords. Through a “window” in the base of the monument on which it rests, we see a deep turquoise pool that takes us nowhere but into ourselves, s the HERMIT iconography calls for. A bat, a HERMIT familiar, wings its way there.

Both SUN and WORLD cards display stone figures with upraised arms and an orb aloft between them. The SUN’s cherubic child plays with his solar star as if a toddler with a beach ball in a cemetery. Beneath him burns a rapidly encroaching flame. The ambiguity raised by Wendell’s WORLD is in-keeping with the challenging WORLD cards from the Haindl and Universal Dalí Tarot decks. There is vigorous beauty in this triumphant angel, with the Earth floating above, despite the possibly ecological statement of an eye (first seen in the HIEROPHANT), now red-rimmed, weeping a single, bloody tear. Beside the jubilant angel a death-mask effigy appears, again reminding us of Azrael’s presence, even in the face of life.

Gothic Tarot images that work less well for me include STRENGTH—which seems to suggest a lack of this virtue with its cowed angel, hand atop a skull; and the HANGED MAN, depicted as a classic crucified Christ backed by a blazing sunset rather than a man upended and hanging by his foot from a “a tree of living wood, with leaves thereon” (as Arthur Edward Waite so carefully asserted in his Pictorial Key to the Tarot.) Admittedly, “hanged-man” type imagery doesn’t figure prominently among even the most unconventional cemetery markers, but with collage one can work imaginative wonders. Another disappointment is the MOON, a card that would seem to present a perfect opportunity for finding a cemetery source. Oddly enough, Wendell’s lunar representation doesn’t depict a moon of any stripe (or phase), taking us instead inside a gloomy mausoleum. A stone figure with outstretched arms stands superimposed over the entranceway, which doesn’t offer me enough to connect with in this usually deeply significant card.

As a predominantly art Tarot, The Gothic Tarot stands alone, without need for an accompanying manual. However, given the unusual nature of some of the imagery, a small leaflet might have added insight to one’s own interpretations. With regard to readings, this dark but powerful deck is especially effective for those Major Arcana only spreads, such as the one detailed in Mary K. Greer’s book, Tarot for Your Self. I also had excellent results with a self-designed “Crossroads” spread I did on Hecate Night (November 16).

For a Scorpio native or those interested in necromantic studies, this deck seems a must. It would also appeal to those of the Tarot constellation EMPEROR/DEATH (4/13 vibration), and any Tarot reader who is an admirer of Victorian cemetery art: the hauntingly beautiful figures that grace Nineteenth-century graveyards in Europe and America. (It seems no coincidence that the Victorians were fascinated—actually obsessed—with Death as well.) Visitors of New Orleans cemeteries will certainly recognize a beloved monument or two. Also, the deck might easily find fans among the Gothic subculture. And of course it would be perfect for that All Hallows Tarot reading.