James Ricklef has been involved in Tarot for a very long time even if he modestly proclaims not to be one of our communities’ stars. I hope you will enjoy this fascinating chat with James.
You will find some of the images from his new Tarot of the Masters as well.
Arwen: What was your first encounter with Tarot like?
James: I had heard of the Tarot long, long ago, but it wasn’t until I was doing research about it for some fiction writing that I was doing that I had my first real experience with it. As I learned more and more about it, I became increasingly fascinated. It was like falling in love, or perhaps you might say it was like Maslow’s “Peak Experience”. I had worked with the I Ching as an oracular tool off and on for about a decade before that, but it hadn’t captivated me in the same way. Maybe that’s because the I Ching doesn’t have all the pretty pictures that the Tarot does. 😀
I also remember the first reading I did for myself. (I didn’t get a reading from someone else for over a year after I “fell in love” with the Tarot.) Doing that first reading for myself was terribly tedious. Of course I used the Celtic Cross spread—that’s what beginners are told to use!—so I had 10 cards to interpret (and by “interpret” I mean, look up in a book) and to apply to their positional meanings. Add to that the fact that no one told me how hard it would be to do a self-reading, and you can imagine how difficult it was to do that reading. It took forever, but I finally got through it, tired and more confused than illuminated. Nevertheless, I was hooked. I knew that I’d get the hang of it eventually, so I didn’t let that first experience discourage me.
Arwen: Who do you see as other Tarot luminaries?
James: Hmm… The way this question is phrased makes me uncomfortable in that it has the immodest implication that I am a Tarot luminary. Let me address it this way instead:
A few of my favorite Tarot luminaries are Mary Greer, Rachel Pollack, and Robert Place. I’ve taken numerous workshops with Mary and Rachel (together and individually), and I’ve gotten so much out of them. If you ever get a chance to take a workshop with either of these incredible women, go for it! As for Bob Place, I am in total awe of the depth and breadth of his knowledge in fields related to Tarot, such as Alchemy and medieval art and culture, and his Alchemical Tarot is one of my favorite decks. Also, I had the memorable experience of exchanging Tarot readings with Bob at the Reader’s Studio when I was there a few years ago.
All three of these people are absolutely wonderful. Of course, I could list quite a few other greats in the field of Tarot, but I’ll just leave it at those three as being my favorites.
Arwen: It seems there are so many decks out there today. Why did you feel a need to create “Tarot Of The Masters”? Who was your target audience? What new spin did you hope to bring to the Tarot?
James: When I first began work on my deck, my intent was just to create a deck for myself to use, but as the project progressed, I realized that it could be a useful addition to the Tarot world. And since publishing it, I have gotten a lot of favorable responses about its readability, including some from people I greatly admire like Rachel Pollack and Mary Greer.
To address your question more specifically, let me begin by telling you what inspired me to create this deck in the first place.
Through the years I have been amazed at how many traditional Tarot cards resemble particular works of art dating back to the Renaissance. Of course, this is not surprising since the Tarot and fine art evolved together within the context of the surrounding culture. So I decided to create a deck where each of the cards is inspired by a classic work of art, and in preparation for that, I examined hundreds of pieces of art to find ones that resonated with each of the cards of the Tarot.
As for who is my target audience, I suppose that newbie Tarot readers may be unwilling to pay a little extra for a limited edition, self-published deck. However, I think Tarot deck collectors will be very interested in Tarot of the Masters because being self-published, it is quite rare. And I also think it will appeal to any Tarot reader who wants a vibrant and unique deck to read with. I have made the imagery accessible through its ties to the traditional RWS (Rider-Waite-Smith) deck while also giving it new depth through its connections to classic paintings and their cultural associations. For example, if you want a new way of looking at the old imagery of the Seven of Pentacles, read the poem, The Man with a Hoe, which is related to this card via the painting with that name.
As for the new “spin” that I hope this deck brings, let me begin with something that Rachel Pollack said about my deck:
“Tarot of the Masters is … a unified deck with wonderful colors and exciting scenes. Because the paintings are themselves so interesting they add extra layers of story — and therefore meaning — to the classic cards.”
That’s exactly what I was hoping to do with this deck — to make new layers of meaning accessible to the readers of these cards. (I discuss those insights in the book that I wrote to accompany the deck: Uncovering the Tarot of the Masters.) Many of the paintings that inspired the individual cards in my deck depict scenes from history or myth, and those back stories add nuances to the meanings for the cards. For example, the Seven of Swords was inspired by a seventeenth century painting that illustrates a scene from a Flemish folk tale about a peasant woman named Mad Meg who dared to venture into hell for the plunder she could find there. This produced an image similar to the RWS Seven of Swords, but it also provides something else to think about in relation to this card’s meaning.
So I think that my Tarot of the Masters deck carries on the traditions of the RWS deck while also creating a new vision of the cards. For a select few of the cards, though, I have created a new imagery that is different from the traditional RWS image, usually in cases where I had issues with the RWS version. For example, I’ve always thought that the RWS 2 of Wands and 3 of Wands seem rather redundant. Also, I wanted my 2 of Wands to reflect numerological concepts related to the number 2, so my version of that card depicts two wrestlers. At first glance, this card may seem a mere depiction of conflict, but it goes deeper than that. These wrestlers are engaged in a sporting contest, and as such, there are rules to their conflict. And since this is a Two card, there is an aspect of duality here, which may be stated by a variation on an old saying: “It takes two to tangle.”
By the way, if your readers want to find out more about my Tarot of the Masters deck, they can go to this web page.
Also, they can read a review of it here.
Arwen: “Tarot of the Masters” is definitely in the Rider-Waite-Smith style. What is it about the RWS system that makes you prefer it over the Thoth or Marseille styles?
James: First of all, the RWS system is what I learned with, so it is the one with which I am most comfortable. In addition, I wanted to create a deck that would be readily accessible to a lot of people, and the RWS system gives it that accessibility. As for the other systems you mentioned, I really prefer pictorial pips to non-illustrated ones, which we have with the Marseille style. And with the Thoth system, there are a few things I don’t like, such as the way that the court cards are set up.
Arwen: You have written several unique takes on Tarot and how to use it and study with it. Can you tell me a bit about what motivates you to write this type of book?
James: I assume you are referring to my use of sample readings for historical, mythical, and literary figures, which I have used in both Tarot Tells the Tale and Tarot: Get the Whole Story.
When I was first learning how to read Tarot cards, I found books that explained individual card meanings and books that presented Tarot spreads. But what I most wanted to see—sample readings that demonstrated the art of doing an actual Tarot reading—was almost impossible to find. And when I did find a few such readings, they were for an anonymous person, and my lack of familiarity with that person’s situation limited how well I could make sense of the reading.
So years later, when I was considering how to help others learn about the Tarot, I decided to use Tarot readings for famous characters from mythology, literature, and history in order to provide sample readings that everyone could relate to and understand. And in addition to making those readings informative and educational, I tried to make them fun and interesting to read, since people learn best when they are being entertained.
Arwen: Who inspires you?
James: You mean besides the Tarot “luminaries” I’ve already mentioned? Well, I find inspiration everywhere. For example, I read a lot of books about New Age spirituality, and I always find in them bits of wisdom that are quite applicable to my Tarot work.
Some of the authors and books that I have read recently include Thomas Moore (Soul Mates) Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth), and Gary Zukav and Linda Francis (The Heart of the Soul). Right now I am reading Chop Wood, Carry Water by Rick Fields. I have used bits of wisdom from these sources in my book about my deck (Uncovering the Tarot of the Masters) and in the book on Tarot Affirmations that I am working on right now.
Arwen: Has the Tarot ever failed you?
James: No, but I’m sure I’ve failed it from time to time. 😀
Seriously though, when a reading fails us, it is because we have not read the signs (cards) properly. This is not to say that we are bad readers; it just means that we are imperfect beings. Sometimes our egos get in the way, sometimes we just have a bad day, or whatever. Also, you have to be able to understand an answer in order to be able to “hear” it properly.
As an example of that, I know several people who have said that just prior to 9/11 they got the Tower card a lot. However, what happened on 9/11 was just so unimaginable, so far out of our normal context of experience, that they had no cognitive basis for understanding what the Tarot was trying to tell them.
Arwen: What is one thing about Tarot that you think is overdone?
James: Fortune-telling. Lay people assume that that’s the sum and total of the Tarot—and there are many Tarot readers who seem to agree—and of course, it’s not. Also, there are a couple of serious problems with fortune-telling. First, it assumes that you are helpless to change your future, and I disagree with that. Second, when people go to someone for a fortune-telling reading, they tend to think this person has all the answers so they give away their personal power to that reader. Besides being disempowering, this also allows people to shirk responsibility for their lives.
My motto is that I am “a fortune-helper, not a fortune-teller,” and so my readings are geared toward working with the other person to find insights into their issues and to create solutions to their problems. In addition, there are a lot of ways to use the Tarot besides doing readings, such as meditation, guided visualizations, and spiritual exploration. These methods are powerful and they are easier to use for self-exploration than doing self-readings. By the way, if you want to see some unusual, but brilliant, ways to use the Tarot, try Nina Lee Braden’s book, Tarot for Self Discovery.
Arwen: Other projects we can look forward to?
James: Right now I’m working on a book about Tarot Affirmations. The primary intent of this book is to present and explain affirmations that can be used with each of the seventy-eight Tarot cards to help you in your journey of self-improvement and enlightenment. This book is also useful for deepening your understanding of the cards, since the discussions of the affirmations in it delve into the meanings of the cards as well.
So you might ask, Why associate affirmations with the Tarot? One reason is that doing this helps create affirmations that are imbued with the Tarot’s wisdom. Another is that you can “transport” an affirmation into your subconscious mind (which communicates using images and symbols just like the Tarot does) by repeating an affirmation while you visualize or meditate upon an associated Tarot card.
By the way, my current target is for this book to be available around the end of September. Your readers can find updates about it here.
Arwen: If you could give one piece of advice to every aspiring Tarot lover in the world, what would it be?
James: Follow your heart and your intuition, and find your own path. By that, I mean find your own meanings for the cards and find your own way of reading them. As you read Tarot books or take classes in this subject, you inevitably will find disagreement as to interpretations of the cards or instructions for doing a Tarot reading. But any book you read, any class you take, or any mentor you learn from can only give you their opinion of what works for them. Of course there is value in considering their advice, but at some point, you must take all that you have been taught and all that you have read, and use it to synthesize your own understanding of the cards and your own way of reading them. So any authority you listen to, and any book you read (even one of mine) is merely a guide to finding the truths that you will discover inside your own heart while studying and working with the cards themselves.