Welcome back, and thanks for joining us on the latest installment of Forge Collective. We love exploring the dark side of nature, and sometimes that means delving into such arcane disciplines as tarot and alchemy. These practices explore the occult and physical side of the natural world using vastly different methods, yet they have many similarities spiritually. Both communicate the idea of striving through different permutations of your life to reach your highest self. Earlier this week we spoke with poet Coleman Stevenson, author of Breakfast: 43 Poems and The Accidental Rarefication of Pattern #5609, and her passion for these topics inspired us to dig in to tarot and alchemy’s respective pasts. We also wanted to know more about the lovely, pared down imagery of her Dark Exact tarot deck.
The history of tarot is a long one. Tarot and modern playing cards are thought to be based on the considerably more ornate Mamluk playing cards known as na’ib. These gorgeous, hand-painted cards were commissioned in court workshops by the wealthy upper class of the Middle East and India. Often they featured gold leaf and intricate geometric patterns and arches, similar to the advance architecture in the region at the time. These decks had a very similar structure to today’s playing card and tarot decks. They generally had four suits consisting of swords, cups, coins, and polo-sticks.
The playing cards were introduced to Western Europe through trade and conquest on the Iberian peninsula, and by 1375 they were everywhere. It is believed that sometime after this the major arcana, unique to the tarot, were added to the structure of the deck. One of the more interesting games was played in Italy in the 1500s. “Tarocchi appropriati” involved the trump cards either being assigned or dealt at random, and then players had to create a poetic verse related to the themes of their trump card. It could have been an inside joke, or a comment on a public figure or current event. The game was designed to showcase quick wits, and was mostly played in literary circles.
Developments in mass printing introduced tarot cards to a wider audience, and French occultists in the late eighteenth century were the first to use them for divination. It wasn’t, however, until Pamela Colman Smith designed her now iconic deck that tarot came to the popularity it has today. The Rider-Waite-Smith deck was the first mass-produced deck in history, and it hasn’t been out of print since 1901. This pioneering woman was the first to use actual scenes for each pip card, instead of just a few coins or wands. This made the pip cards easier to interpret. Her artwork was often inspired by her synesthesia, a condition where your senses are linked. In her case, she would see scenes when she heard certain classical works. She had an entire series of paintings based on what she saw when she listened to famous works by the likes of Beethoven and Debussy.
Ancient alchemists believed that everything; plants, animals, metals yet to be mined; grew and lived. When they worked in their labs, trying to essentially “grow” gold, they believed they were also searching for the secret behind bringing about life from nothing. This precursor to many modern sciences strived to create panaceas to every disease, elixirs of immortality, and transmute “base” metals into “noble” ones. (Like mercury into gold.) The first documented alchemist was known as Mary the Prophetess. She was referenced in the earliest surviving alchemical text as “one of the sages.” None of her actual writings survived, but she is credited with the development of, among other things, the double boiler or “bain marie”. Next time anyone needs gentle heat for melting chocolate, we all now know who to thank.
Alchemy began in the ancient Classical world, and spread in a very similar way to playing cards. Conquest and curiosity lead Muslim scholars to translate Jewish, Greek, and Egyptian texts on alchemy. They safeguarded and developed this craft further through the Dark Ages. Techniques and equipment developed by alchemists paved the way for later doctors and chemists, but as with playing cards after the passage of time it became more a spiritual practice. The different forms metals would take as alchemists tried to transmute them to gold reflect the different steps in our journey through life and toward the most perfect version of ourselves; similar to the Fool’s journey through the major arcana of the tarot. These sharp ancient minds may not have found the key to eternal life or limitless gold, but they influenced scientific discoveries and art for thousands of years to come. We were curious about how such an esoteric discipline influenced Coleman Stevenson, who developed the Dark Exact tarot and ritual kits we carry here at Birds N Bones.
Courtney Goe for Birds N Bones: What sparked your interest in tarot and alchemy?
Coleman Stevenson: I’ve always assigned high symbolic value to the objects in my life. I grew up in the deep South, where ritual was such a part of everyday life in many tiny ways. We made so much out of nothing, and life, I feel, was so enhanced by that. Seemingly ordinary gestures, objects, etc. could take on a sacred significance, which infused every day with meaning and magic. I was not, however, by way of my family, a part of any particular spiritual practice that I felt an affinity for. This left me searching for ways to harness that small magic, for other traditions that I might belong to, but simultaneously retain autonomy as a solitary practitioner. Tarot was the first such tool I found. It felt very foreign at first. I remember wondering if I could even be “allowed” to explore it, especially without others to initiate me into the tradition. Years later, the same was true of my discovery of alchemy. I realize now that these are both symbolic languages I spoke within all along. Alchemy was not merely historic or archaic; it was every art project I’d ever undertaken, every relationship I’d ever dared to enter into. It, like tarot, was a symbolic expression of the journey through self-realization, through the creative process.
BNB: How has tarot and ritual improved your life?
CS : Tarot helps me externalize ideas and emotions that are hard to focus on when they live only inside. It’s easier to explore the nuances of situations/personal tendencies and the possibilities for needed acceptance, change, and growth when the cards are arranged in a clear order on the table. I don’t have to hold the ideas in memory to consider them in relation to each other. They are concretely present in context. And when a card doesn’t seem to fit at first, it’s even better because it stretches me to consider how it might be relevant after all, and that’s when hidden ideas are revealed.
Ritual legitimizes the exploration, making it into an actual practice rather than a casual endeavor. It reminds me to focus my energies on specific goals instead of flailing away at vague ideas for improving myself and my life. It makes constant art of existence.
BNB: What made you decide to go with simple design and monochromatic color scheme of your Dark Exact deck?
CS: For starters, I wanted to create a deck that felt more personal… I am a collector of tarot decks, and I love them all dearly for their varying artwork, but when actually using them I often feel a disconnect from the faces on the cards. I don’t know who these people are, even when I understand intellectually what concepts they symbolize. I feel more of a connection to the objects in my life, including plants. I hoped that delivering those items as symbols might prove more universal than a deck full of figures. The starkness of the black and white seemed to enhance this, with the high contrast to emphasize the concepts in each card.
Image by Sierra Breshears
BNB: Who are your favorite poets, and how do you think their work influences yours?
CS: There are SO MANY! Too many to name… I really love Frank O’Hara. His work taught me to be fresh and write from the ongoing moment. Whitman and Dickinson taught me to break rules but have my own logic for it. Robert Wrigley taught me music in poems can be intense and subtle at the same time. Philip Larkin taught me that holding back emotion can create the best drama. Sylvia Plath taught me to bury things inside my poems and to not care if they are dugs up in the same state as they were interred.
BNB: What is your favorite place to escape to in nature?
CS: This might sound odd, but I really like nature that is enclosed somehow by humans, like botanical gardens, greenhouses, etc. I like the concentration of all those plants in one small space. I prefer this to expansive scenic views or endless winding trails up mountainsides. I like feeling contained better than I like facing my own insignificance in the presence of nature’s majesty. Maybe this is why so many of the ritual and divination tools I make are housed inside of small or even miniature boxes. I’m more comfortable with a clear, finite exterior that leads to an expansive and variable inner landscape.
BNB: What is your favorite piece of jewelry from the line and why?
CS: The Wyvern Rib Bangle is one of the most perfect pieces of jewelry I’ve ever owned. Since I acquired it, it has not left my wrist, not for a second. It goes with everything because it’s both classic and modern. It looks delicate and simple yet has impact in its unusual design, making it a statement piece that is also available for daily wear. We all use objects to communicate identity; despite its relative newness in my life, this Birds N Bones bracelet has already become this sort of symbolic object for me.
Everyone here at Birds N Bones would like to thank Coleman for her time and thoughtful answers to our questions.
We can’t help but feel like the Dark Exact deck is an example of another female artist modernizing the tarot to better fit the times and the people who use it. Check out Coleman Stevenson’s beautiful tarot deck here, and her powerful ritual kits here.
Stay tuned for more interviews with artists, playlists, travel destinations and sneak peeks of our upcoming line! There is so much excitement coming your way, you really don’t want to miss it. Best way to stay up to date? Sign up for our bi-monthly newsletter, woot woot!