A Review of the Mary-El Tarot

I’ve been wanting this deck for a really, really long time. I’d seen images all over the internet, and it is beautiful, although it’s non-traditional enough that I had hesitated to buy it until now. But boy, am I ever glad that I finally have my hands on it.

Mary-El Box Open

Before I dive into the art, let’s talk about the nitty-gritty physical stuff. This deck is so well constructed. The card stock is smooth and sturdy (probably the best in my collection at this point), with a nice glossy finish to it. The box itself is practically a suitcase, both in its size and its durability. This deck was crafted and packaged with care.

Mary-El Major Arcana 1
The Magician, the Emperor, and the Hermit. Oh, but that Hermit is cool.

The cards themselves are stunning. I’m a sucker for bold colors, and on that front, this deck certainly does not disappoint. I’m almost tempted to classify the Mary-El Tarot as an art deck, although it reads so beautifully that by all rights I consider it a working deck instead. Nevertheless, the art in this deck is… Powerful. Almost overwhelming.

Mary-El Major Arcana 2
The Hanged Man, the Moon, and Judgment.

The deck adheres to the basic 78-card structure of Tarot, but in many ways is a non-traditional pack. This is true both regarding the imagery (see Judgment above) and the ways the cards are meant to be interpreted; for the interpretation process, the hefty companion book is essential. Because of the vividness of the card images and the wealth of information available in the LWB, I think this deck would be a very smooth, easy read for neophyte readers, but I personally am wary of labeling it a “beginner’s” deck, because I’m always of the mind that non-traditional approaches are best learned after the standard in one’s Tarot education. (Grumble grumble, bah humbug.)

Mary-El LWB
The Ace of Disks with its accompanying pages from the companion book. The figures in all the Aces appear to be hermaphroditic in this deck.

The suits are Wands, Cups, Swords, and Disks, and each card is a work of art unto itself. (Does anyone know if there’s a way to acquire poster-size prints of these cards? I don’t actually have the money to spend on such a thing, but damn, I would dream about it.)

Mary-El Wands
King of Wands, Nine of Wands, and Eight of Wands.

What really strikes me about this deck is the lack of a consistent artistic style across cards. There are portraits, landscapes, and still lives (lifes?); different color palettes are used without too much of a unifying scheme; and, most strikingly, small artistic details like brushwork and the degree of photorealism vary vastly across the deck’s scope. In some ways, it almost feels like a collaboration deck, with different cards drawn by different artists. Normally, I’m not a fan of stylistic disunity in a deck, but here, it really works. I feel like I could walk into opening night at an art gallery in New York and see all seventy-eight of these images* hanging together as a thoughtfully curated collection. They don’t all look alike, nor even feel alike, but they’re definitely meant to go together.

Mary-El Cups
Two of Cups, Four of Cups, Page of Cups. That has to be one of my favorite depictions of the Two of Cups ever.

I know that many Tarot readers dislike large borders in their decks. Personally, I’ve always been rather ambivalent, although I’m not a huge fan of the omnilinguistic Lo Scarabeo borders. Nevertheless, in this particular deck, the wide black borders on each card are extremely noticeable. This may turn off some people, but personally, I think it works. The borders do a lovely job of framing the bold colors in each image and making the artwork pop. It’s a personal preference, so take it or leave it, but I think the choice to have a border–and to have it be black–was a wise one.

Mary-El Swords
Three of Swords, Five of Swords, Seven of Swords. I’m intrigued by the baby in the Five. This is a prime example of the deck’s nontraditional nature.

As you can see above, this deck incorporates a lot of animal imagery. It’s not an animal deck, and there are still human faces and figures featured throughout the deck, but the Mary-El Tarot makes the impressive move of shifting over a lot of more traditionally human cards (e.g. the Seven of Swords) to exclusively animal imagery. Once again, I think it adds to the artistic diversity here, although it might make the deck a tiny bit more difficult to read for those who are accustomed to looking for human behavioral cues in the cards.

Mary-El Disks
Two of Disks, Five of Disks, Queen of Disks. Again, a highly non-traditional Five.

There’s just such a beautiful creativity to this deck. I love the take on the Two of Disks. For those in my readership who are more inclined towards social justice, this is a wonderfully progressive deck. It has so much more racial diversity than you see in a lot of other Tarot decks,** and it also brushes up against gender-related identity politics in a way that much of Tarot these days does not. (The Hierophant in this deck is a nursing woman, which I thought was a brilliant choice.) I am far from an expert on the intersection of social justice and Tarot, as anyone who read my most recent post will know, but if you want further discussion thereof, I refer you to Asali Earthwork’s excellent Tarot of the QTPOC series.

Oh, and one other thing: This deck is never remotely pornographic, but it is also far from prudish. There is nudity. There is a lot of nudity. There are breasts and penises, and occasionally they’re attached to the same body. I personally love nudity in Tarot–when it’s not smutty, it makes the cards feel somehow more genuine to me–but if you’re looking for a Tarot deck to bring to your great-aunt’s knitting circle, this is probably not the one for you.

Mary-El Nudity.JPG
Some examples of cards that feature heavy nudity: the Fool, the Wheel of Fortune, and the Page of Swords. Somehow it strikes me as incorrect for the Fool to be circumcised. And there are plenty of visibly non-Jewish willies flopping around this deck, so removing the Fool’s foreskin, specifically, was a definite artistic choice.

Normally, in a deck review, I try to pluck a few cards that struck a wrong chord with me, just to give the highs and the lows of the deck. I haven’t done that here. It’s not that there aren’t cards that bother me (I find the Three of Wands drab and am slightly miffed at the nontraditional Hierophant), but rather that I see each card’s place in the cohesive collection that is the deck as a whole. Even when I don’t love a card, I can still see how it belongs in the deck, so I’m leaving off the “cards I disliked” portion of this review.

All told, the Mary-El Tarot is a beautiful deck, and a gem to have added to my collection. Above all else, this deck is bold. It’s intense, and artistic. So far, it has churned out beautiful, insightful readings for me, and I expect that its rich symbolism and masterful art would offer the same to just about any reader.

*Okay, a really big art gallery in New York. I think the balance of styles in this deck is a great complement to decks like the Tarot of the Hidden Realm, which is a study in portraiture.

**Speaking of which, is the #TarotSoWhite hashtag still going? I don’t have Instagram or Facebook, so I’m not really connected to a lot of the broader online Tarot community. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of racial diversity in Tarot decks, will someone please buy me the Ghetto Tarot?

6 thoughts on “A Review of the Mary-El Tarot

  1. Wonderful deck you got Jack, thanks for your review, i agree thay the symbolism is different from RWS systems but also striking artworks!


  2. Great review…. I have just started working with this myself, and it is proving to be fascinating to say the least… visceral imagery that really packs a punch together with insightful meanings that seem to draw something from Thoth, but then bend it around a different corner…. it will be an interesting journey 🙂


  3. Thank you for the complimentary shout-out! And yes, this deck is something else. I was overtaken by its imagery at the moment of unboxing and just sought of stared numbly at it for a while before the work it started sinking in. Hard to look away.


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