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Deck creator forum — Mary-el Tarot

October 25, 2010

The following is a new entry in my “Deck Creator Forum.”  I occasionally do deck reviews on this blog, but in this feature I have asked various deck creators say a few words (or paragraphs, actually) about their Tarot deck.

By the way, you too can contribute to this discussion.  If you have this deck and have experience using it, please leave comments about your use of it.  (Note that I will be moderating the comments.)

Mary-El EmperorI have to confess right upfront that I love the artwork of the Mary-El Tarot deck.  The images are mythic and dreamlike with a lot of subtly embedded symbolism. Its power does not rely on mere slickness and pretty pictures, though.  Rather, the artwork in this deck is gritty, unapologetic, and visceral, and it grabs you by the … well … you know.

In the Majors, I particularly like the Hermit, which reminds me a bit of Van Gogh’s “Starry, Starry Night,” and I like how the Moon and Sun cards look when considered together.

. Mary-El Hermit

Mary-El Moon and Sun

In the Minors I adore the Nine of Wands and Nine of Swords (two cards that aren’t often my favorites in other decks!), and I find the Two of Disks rather beguiling.

Mary El Nine of Wands Mary El Nine of Swords Mary El Two of Disks

I am a rather baffled by some of the other cards, though. Many of them deviate a lot from the familiar RWS images, so it will not be as easy to pick up this deck and use it right out of the box as it is with many of the “RWS clone” decks. But I’m sure that with a bit of use and with the help of the author’s accompanying book (when the deck and book are finally available), they will become more accessible. And the experience of learning to use this deck should be worth the effort.

By the way, you can peruse the card images for this deck on the Mary-El website and familiarize yourself with them before buying this deck, which is not due out for over a year. (Sorry to tantalize you with a lovely deck that is not yet available.)

So here now is my interview with Marie White, this deck’s creator, which I think you’ll find quite interesting.


James: How did you come up with the name “Mary-el Tarot”?

Marie: The name Mary-el came from a contraction of Mary, a name often used for the feminine god principle, and also the root of my name Marie, and El an ancient Semitic name for God that still persists in a lot of our words and names (Allah, Michael, etc.). It was a way of saying this tarot was a combination of male and female energy and also a work between myself and spirit, man and God, modern and ancient.


What inspired you to create this deck?

Boredom!  At the time I had no idea what a huge, all-consuming project it would turn into.  I just thought I would play around a little bit and then I thought, “Hmm, I think I could do a whole deck”, and then I thought (a while later) “My god, I think this is what I was meant to do; my whole life has led up to this.”   It was consciously accidental, subconsciously meant to be.


Most modern Tarot decks fall into one of three “camps” – Marseille, RiderWaiteSmith, or Thoth? With which of those is your deck most closely aligned, or if it does not fall into any of those camps, what is the basic structure?

I never tried to make my deck match any other system out there.  Rather, I looked for the source of all of those systems, which I think is very wide and ultimately comes from within us.  I did study all three of the decks you mention as much as I obsessively could, plus many other decks, philosophy, religion, mythology, art, etc.  If I had to say which of the three it was closest to, I would say Thoth because my thinking was probably most similar and aligned with that tarot. However, I always defaulted toward the Marseille when it came to structure and considered it a standard.

I intentionally tried to stay away from the minors in the Rider Waite deck as it was always presented as if Pamela Colman Smith was given free reign with them and didn’t base them on anything in particular (except maybe some miscellaneous Sola Busca images or art from local museums).  Rightly or wrongly, that is what I thought for a long time.  As I worked on my own deck, and particularly toward the end, I realized that A.E. Waite must have known more than he let on, and Pamela Colman Smith was absolutely brilliant in the treatment of the minor arcana as well as the major arcana.


Your deck presents a rather unique take on many of the cards.  Can you tell us a bit about one of them, the Nine of Disks, to give us an indication of the depth of meaning the Mary-El deck brings to the table?  Your version of this card seems quite different from the RWS version with its woman-with-a-falcon image. In fact, your version is an updated rendition of Eliphas Levi’s engraving of Baphomet, so I’m wondering why you chose that image to use. And what meaning or relevance to this card did you intend to portray with a few of the changes you made to Levi’s image: the wings at the top of the caduceus, the art deco pillars in the background, and the tripling of the goat head?

Mary-El Nine of Disks vs Levi's Baphomet

When I designed the 9s I was thinking about what would the pinnacle of this suit look like? And, since I allowed the tarot to describe its own numerology, how would the Hermit be expressed and divided through the 4 elements? The suit of Disks, being earth, takes it one step further because it is a combination and culmination of all of the elements, a manifestation of them.


Sounds like a Kabalistic take on that element.

Yes, I suppose it is as it divides the earth element into 4 parts like Malkuth is divided into 4. On the other hand, the earth symbolized as a cross within a circle is as ancient as mankind.


So, how did you apply that to you imagery on this card?

To me the highest manifestation would be the alchemical process of creating spiritual gold from the raw material of our bodies — the re-unification of all the elements — and I saw it as a golden pyramid or tower between the black and white towers. This would be how the Hermits lamp would manifest.  It would unify Hermes and Aphrodite, up and down, dark and light, animal and angel, creator and destroyer, wisdom and ignorance etc., and that all would happen within the body.

The head on the creature on the Nine of Disks was fashioned after the Egyptian God Khnum, who created the souls of men from the fertile mud of the Nile (the ba), to symbolize the creation of a soul. Also, there is a lot of symbolism between goats and sheep, sheep follow and goats are individual.  This image was to be the complete exaltation of the individual finding enlightenment within himself and nowhere else.

Mary El King of DisksAs I sketched this out I realized the whole concept was amazingly similar to Levi’s Baphomet, and looking at his drawing I really understood it in a way I never had before. Some of the most profound truths appear to people as devils and that isn’t a wrong thing, just a protective mechanism.  And what appears most divine to some people, to others appears the most Satanic (see also the King of Disks which is similar in concept). I decided then to redo the Baphomet image in the way I saw it, and I love how it came out.

The 9 of Disks is the enlightenment and transformation of the human soul into spiritual Gold. I don’t know exactly why Waite and Smith designed their 9 of Pentacles the way they did, but looking at the image I see a more Christian perspective where the woman does tend a beautiful garden and grows grapes on a vine (a Christian symbol) and then her soul is exalted and released as the beautiful bird. But, the bird is masked and still under someone else’s control. I suppose that’s the main difference between my 9 of Disks and the RWS 9 of Pentacles. Mine transforms through itself and the RWS is transformed through being part of the vine. I am not saying that is wrong, just a different perspective, and a different path.

But yes, I see the 9 of Disks as a very important card in the purpose of the whole deck. (You couldn’t pick a simple card to discuss, could you. LOL!).


Apparently there was a reason that one called to me! 😀

To answer your specific questions, the tripling of the head was to represent Hermes Trismegistus, the ultimate alchemist.  (The complimentary symbol is the flaming wheel in the stomach for the feminine counterpart.)  The wings on the caduceus are traditional, and I see them as the wings of the eagle, representing Air at the top of the staff (the soul) where the bottom of the staff is earth, and the winding snakes are fire and water. Notice how that is a microcosm of the whole image. The towers Boaz and Jachin (like the 2 serpents) repeat and have special significance throughout the deck, symbolic of the duality of existence. The Caduceus, the tool of Hermes, is really a symbolic key to the whole deck.


So is there a basic theme for your deck?

Well, I wouldn’t consider it a proper theme per se, but when I started I wanted to balance male and female energies which I perceived to be lacking in other decks at the time.  As time went on, the alchemical interaction (coming together, merging, dividing, etc.) between opposing forces permeated the whole deck.


How did you create the artwork for your deck?

They were all done with traditional oil paints, which I love.  It was a really tedious process but I think it was worth it.


Are there any non-traditional elements of this deck, such as a 79th card, unusual suit names, an extra suit, or something like that?

No.  It is all very traditional.  At first glance it might seem different, but the difference lies in the illustrative interpretation of the concepts, not in the structure itself.  78 cards, 4 suits corresponding to the 4 classical elements.  16 court cards named King, Queen, Knight and Page.  The ordering is Marseille and the names of the Major Arcana are modern, High Priestess, Hierophant, etc.


Are there any other remarkable or unusual features about this deck that you’d like to talk about?

I think the strength in this deck lies in the Minor Arcana.  I used the structure of the Major Arcana itself to understand the numerology throughout the whole deck and I think it went amazing places.  There is no lessening of importance in the Minor Arcana, and just as much, if not more, thought and effort went into them. Also, the cards of the Minor Arcana speak a universal language.  I did not try to invent or create one, I tried to learn and record as faithfully as humanly possible those symbols we all have and understand — the archetypes.  Once you figure out the language in this deck it will apply to dreams and nature and mythology — everything.


What is your favorite card from your deck? Why is it your favorite?

Mary-El Nine of CupsThat’s a hard one! I have a bunch I really love for different reasons like the 5 of Disks, the 8 of Wands, 9 of Disks or Temperance.  The one that probably makes me happiest to look at is the 9 of Cups.  I don’t necessarily think it’s the most beautiful but it has the most heart (as the 9 of Cups should!).  It shows a baboon sitting inside what appears to be a Freemasons temple.  He seems to be amazed at the stairway leading up to the star above him. To me it is the story of mankind from the creature crawling out of the sea — the scorpion which is the crustacean rising from the depths in the traditional Moon card — to the silly primate who retains his humor and joy in life despite all of its complexity and duality as seen in the checkered floor and black and white pillars: Jachin and Boaz.  Eventually even his soul will climb the stairs and install itself in the sky as a star.  His heart is lighter than a feather.


Is there a companion book for your deck? Does it come with the deck or is it available some other way?

I am currently writing a companion book which will be available with the deck.


When and where will your deck be available?

It will be available in the spring of 2012, just in time to usher in the end of the world.  (Just kidding!) It is being published by Schiffer Books and will be available in all the usual places.



Publisher:  Schiffer Books
Publication date:  Spring 2012
Deck website:

You can order this deck on Amazon.

All images from the Mary-El deck are © Marie White


NOTE: If you have a deck that you would like to have featured here, contact me about it.

  1. Wonderful interview Marie, James. I am looking forward to working out my own integrate guide to Mary-el when the finished deck is available. Marie seems to have taken the time and unpredictable effort to let her dreams ferment and suggest the permutations to a tarot symbols. I am quite impressed with the results. I believe this deck should make a deep impact in the tarot reading community, especially those of us who want to discover deeper and higher degrees of esoteric significance to the life experience orientation of traditional tarot.

    • Thanks Paul. I agree that this deck will be a significant addition to the Tarot world.

    • Marie permalink

      Hi Paul!
      Thank you very much, thats very nice of you:)


  2. I have been in love with Marie’s work for years. This deck has heart and soul.
    Beautiful and well thought out! I can’t wait to read with this deck too! I see the influence of the Hebrew people of ancient Egypt in your images this era is very close to my heart! Namaste Marie!

    • Hi Julie,
      I’m sure that Marie will be thrilled to hear that a wonderful artist like you loves her work. 😀

    • Marie permalink

      Hi Julie!
      Thank you, I am humbled by your comments. I know what you mean, I have long felt the similarities in where we draw our inspiration. I know its not pc to ever mention the origins of tarot and Egypt in the same breath, but this really is the time and place a lot of symbolism emerged from, from Egypt and Mesopotamia and the middle east….they were the first to record what they observed and passed the knowledge around to the rest of the world and eventually it has trickled down to us in modern times.
      The reason I like a lot of the Hebrew and Jewish stuff is because it is a direct link to this past.
      I can’t wait to see the stuff you have been working on!
      🙂 Marie

  3. Thanks for this interview, James. I am anxiously awaiting the publication of this deck. Marie, what a wonderful gift and legacy you have created. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the deck and its roots.

    I love Tarot as much for the art as the “science” for lack of a better word. I’m always interested in imagery that makes me feel something. The words you used to describe the deck are perfect, James… unapologetic, gritty, visceral… absolutely! Visual poetry… so many layers.

    James, I am really enjoying (and appreciating) this series. Keep ’em coming!

    • Thanks Danya! I already have three more interviews in the pipeline, and I am awaiting responses on many more. I’m having fun doing this series and glad people are enjoying it.

    • Marie permalink

      Hi Danya, thank you very much! I think the term science is perfect, art and science are perfect together.

      “The foundation of empire is art and science. Remove them or degrade them, and the empire is no more. Empire follows art and not vice versa as Englishmen suppose.” ~ William Blake


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  1. Mary-el « pirateborealis
  2. Tarot Deck Creator Forum – An annotated index | James Ricklef's Tarot Blog

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