Sunday, November 15, 2015

A New Afro-Diasporic Inspired Divination System - The Vudu Tarot

While I am not a Tarot reader, and am not heavily invested in Tarot as a form a divination, as someone who has lived his entire life in the United States and Western Europe, someone who has been profoundly interested in divination since he was quite young, I have rubbed shoulders so to speak, with Tarot as a system of divination, Tarot literature, and Tarot decks, both as art and as cards, for roughly 50 years. I've played with Tarot off and on, and studied it in earnest at one point. It, as with cards in general, my first divination deck was a version of the Lenormand cards rather than Tarot, was not to become my method of divination, but I none the less find Tarot and cards in general to be a fascinating study.

Tarot has a fascinating history, part of which relates to divination and magical study, beginning in the 19th century, despite the myths that have built up around tarot during that period claiming it as an ancient system of divination. However, I am not writing to discuss that history, fabricated or otherwise today, nor the fact that Tarot as a modern tool of divination is intimately tied to the esoteric studies of 18th and 19th century Freemasons, most notably A.E. Waite, who gave his name to perhaps the most famous Tarot Deck of modern times.

One of my fascinations with the transportation of Afro-Caribbean religious traditions to North America has been the ways that North Americans translate and alter those traditions when they encounter them. Those ways are sometimes logical, and perhaps more often less so, and even sometimes violent in terms of their impact upon tradition. One alteration, which may in all good reason, be seen as a benign change, has been the adaptation of Tarot cards within the Haitian Vodou religion. Although in Haiti, several other traditional methods of divination have been documented during the 20th century, and by all accounts continue in Haiti, and among Haitians in the North American and European diaspora, by the mid 20th century, some Haitians had adopted the use of  regular playing cards for the purpose of divination. Doubtlessly, they would have been to a greater or lesser degree influenced by French traditions of card reading, and it might have come from interactions with the economic and cultural “elites” within Haiti, who have a history of interest in esoteric practices which parallel those favored among the French.


In the North American diaspora, most Haitian servitors (those who follow the Vodou religion) continue to use traditional methods, most commonly today the regular deck of cards. However, among North Americans who have adopted the religion we most often identify as Haitian Vodou, the tendency over the past dozen years or so has been to use the Tarot instead of regular playing cards. This is no doubt the result of the popularity of Tarot over regular cards for divination in the United States, which was established in the 1960s, and which has grown since that time. The other factor which is not unrelated, was probably the creation of the New Orleans Vodou Tarot deck and book created by Louis Martinié and Sallie Ann Glassman, in 1992.

Since that time, this particular deck became the defacto preferred deck in use by North Americans who had adopted Vodou as their religious practice. Whatever ideological arguments one might make regarding possible weaknesses in the deck, it was found to be visually appealing by most and it emphasized both the Lwa, the spirits of Vodou, and probably because it was popular among such communities, it also referenced the Orichas who are spirits of popular religion in Cuba, Brazil, and Nigeria, which is where their African origins are to be found.

Since the early 1990s, no new deck has come to really challenge the popularity of the New Orleans deck. But things are about to change, or at least that is a distinct possibility! Over the past year, a talented young artist, and follower of several Afro-Caribbean religious traditions named Monroe Rodriguez Singh has designed a new deck of Vodou Tarot. What follows is a description based upon my own observation of Monroe's deck and informed by discussions with him and questions asked of him over the period of time he has been working on designing these cards.

Monroe Rodriguez Singh is an artist, designer, developer, and professional tarot reader. He has formal art education and has had his work exhibited in various locations across the continent. Over more than a half decade, he has read tarot professionally and is a member of the American Tarot Association and Tarosophy Tarot Association. About 5 years ago he began to explore Afro-Caribbean spiritual traditions personally, and at some point came to realize that he wanted to create a tarot  deck that reflected these traditions is a new way, one which more dynamically expressed his connections and experiences with African inspired spirituality. In approaching this goal his efforts naturally reflect his own multicultural background and utilize the knowledge he has gained concerning Afro-Caribbean culture. As a result, this new deck is inspired by Afro-caribbean spirituality in a way that is much less informed by European mediation than perhaps previous decks have been.

In part, his decision to take on this task reflected his frustrations with what was available. There are few decks directly geared toward readers of color, and the foundation of other decks did not reflect his own experiences of these traditions as closely as he would have wished. He decided to create a tarot that would incorporate a better and more complete reflection of the mythology of the African diaspora and which, as also reflects his experience, includes both West Indian and East Indian cultural forms, which is also found in parts of the Caribbean.

Monroe indicated that he first acquired a set of Tarot cards as a child, and he has not stopped. Today he owns over 50 different Tarot decks and shows no signs of slowing down. He brings extensive reading on comparitive religions, mythology, metaphysics, and psychology to his reading practice, and has drawn upon this background in creating his new deck.

Interestingly, he notes that his first attraction to the tarot was due to their artistic aspects more than their functional purpose, although that soon became important to him, and he discovered a natural talent for reading.

Like many of his generation, he grew up within a traditional Protestant family, but also like many, that experience also provided him with exposure to Southern African-American, Latino, and Native spiritual influences. This influence was strongest coming from his grandmother, and was augmented by reading, the result of his own curiosity. When he went to college, he continued this exploration both in formal academic and informal settings.

After college, he began to read the tarot professionally and has read in New Orleans, on the West Coast, and on Internet radio as well.

He notes that Tarot cards today span a wide range of stylistic approaches and this makes chosing a deck which one can be comfortable with challenging, especially if you are trying to bridge popular cultural forms and practices such as Tarot and traditional spiritual practices. He feels that the art, especially an art that is both modern but also respectful of traditional cultural elements is important. He has found aspects of other decks offensive, and also sees some of the artwork as being out of touch with someone of his own age.
His deck is a Vudu deck, and that is an important distinction. He draws on the traditional aspects of Haitian religion, but he also works side by side with the Dominican Vudu traditions of the Spanish speaking side of Hispaniola, the Caribbean island on which the Republic of Haiti was born.

This deck is grounded in the Spirits of the  African Diasporic traditions and their own stories and Monroe argues thoughtfully that they complement the archetypes of the modern Tarot. In his deck, the  death card is Baron Del Cementerio, the Baron of the Cementery who is the guide for the Guede - the Dead. His image with a skull wearing a top hat and cane with Haitian veves is reminiscent of Death on the pale horse in the Rider Waite card.

The Aces of each suits are all Legba (gatekeeper) spirits for the nacions (nations) or divisions of spirits. The Suits reflect their elemental types while using the same names with the exception of pentacles which is called “Skulls” in the Vudu Tarot. The Skulls suit represent spirits from the Guede and Baron Division. The Wands reflect hot Petro and Kongo Spirits; the Cups, the cooler Rada and Agua Dulce (India) Divisions. And the Swords have the armored warriors of the Nago or Ogou Division who have Yoruba influences.

Among his offerings is a  limited edition expansion deck that is focused on other ATRS and Hinduism. I encourage you to support his Kickstarter campaign and get this very creative deck.

To Order a copy of this deck, go to the following link and make a pledge of $50 or more. Ships all over the world and comes with other goodies as listed for each pledge level:

Kickstarter Vudu Tarot Campaign

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