The Giger Tarot Review
by Jess Karlin*
* (Adjustment Avatar of Glenn F. Wright)
2015 Preface: The preparation of this Tarot deck review inspired my 2001 interview with the artist H. R. Giger, who died on May 12, 2014. The Giger Tarot is a strange deck for a number of reasons. It is one of the few cut-and-paste Tarots (i.e. decks whose content was not originally intended as Tarot) where the symmetry between Giger's art and the Tarot trumps is on solid ground instead of resting on the vaguest and most superficial sort of rough similitude. And the answer for why this is so is simple: Giger's art is infused with occult symbolism, much of it based in the very sort of symbolic sensibility (communicated by occultists such as Eliphas Lévi) that led to the creation of great modern occult Tarots such as Waite and Thoth. Giger downplayed the notion that he is operating according to some occult paradigm or design, but it is evident that Giger's study of occultism did its job of helping to profoundly influence his style.—June 9, 2015
THE GIGER TAROT—REVIEW
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
—The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot
In the Swiss soul, as all human souls, there are regions we do not know about... —C. G. Jung
A few years ago I reviewed the Haindl Tarot, which had been documented in a two-volume guide by Rachel Pollack, and while I found the deck to be sometimes visually interesting (if you’re into eco-götterdämmerung), the books were sophistical palliatives for the ignorant, which is to say typical pomo-tarot.* One aspect in the writing of this review troubled me, which was that Haindl’s ideas about Tarot, assuming he possessed any, were difficult to sort out from Pollack’s cartofeminism.1 Consequently, I offered a kind of disclaimer in the review, noting how I couldn’t be certain whether the books were true and honest representations of Haindl’s Tarotic ideas.
* 2015 Note—The idea of postmodern Tarot has been around for at least twenty years or so, and was a term used to describe the proliferation of "pop" Tarots that treated traditional Tarot symbolism with a kind of irony ranging from insouciance ("Whatever dude! it's just Tarot cards!") to antagonism for the alleged patriarchal worldview perpetrated against the usual list of victims by earlier occultists. The way in which I use the term, sometimes "pomo" or "pomos", in this article, can refer to alleged Tarot decks or the peddlers (i.e. creators and promoters).
Subsequently, I read Haindl’s own book2 about his deck, wherein he explained how his Tarot came to be, and in the process I discovered that his ideological basis for the deck was just as weird as Pollack had indicated—yes, he really thought putting runes and Hebrew letters together on Tarot cards would encourage "a reconciliation between Germans and Jews"! Pollack had done right by him after all, which was nevertheless a questionable accomplishment.
So, when I decided to review the H. R. Giger Tarot, I thought it might be good this time to actually talk to the artist, in addition to reading the text of his commentator, Akron (Charles Frey). I interviewed Giger and Akron (separately) about the deck, and have included their comments in this review.
As it turns out, Giger’s experience of Tarot, especially his artistic absorption of Tarotic imagery and even some of the occultist dogma associated with it, is similar to that of Haindl, and while he admits mainly a superficial, aesthetic debt to Tarot and its ideas, one can nevertheless readily see in much of Giger’s work how Tarot has often profoundly influenced him.
As Akron notes in his accompanying tarotbook, Gigers paintings are: "an homage to the tarot as a source of the artists spiritual inspiration." However, whereas Haindls vision of Tarot was narrowly expressive of a political dogma, Gigers was mainly artistic, or magickal. Gigers work is not meant to change anyones mind about the way the world ought to be. Giger is, in a journalistic way, telling us about how the world really is and he is manipulating its elemental tools to tell us that, in his often highly personalized view,3 it can be a pretty dark and frightening place.
To be Occult or not to be Occultthat is the dangerous question!
This occult basis for many of Gigers paintings may come as a bit of a surprise to those who only know of his work through the Alien films, or subsequent movie work he has done in the realm of science fiction. However, early in his career Giger had a fascination for a while with Tarot cards, and (mirroring Haindls interest) particularly the Thoth deck of Aleister Crowley. He was attracted to the presumed mystery and the potential magick represented by and resident in the ancient 4 hieroglyphs. Unlike the vast majority of hobbyists or even serious students, Giger was able to creatively mine Tarot for its images and to use the ideas of the occultists as artistic inspirations (in the manner of Eliot and Dali).
As we shall see, one occult influence in particular was to inspire a series of paintings which to this day both define Giger (for a certain class of fan) and have also served to make trouble for him with those who cant look beyond the surface, or who cant appreciate that sometimes there is nothing but a surface in art, even if the execution of it seems deeply articulated.
For all this, I need to point out the surprising fact that Gigers Tarot is not his design, at least not as Tarot cards.5 The creation of the deck, using Gigers pre-existing artwork, was mainly due to choices of images made by Akron, a Swiss author and self-professed magus, who is responsible for a number of Tarot books, particularly The Crowley Tarot (written with Hajo Banzhaf), a book of interpretations based on the Thoth deck, but only loosely connected to any of Crowleys ideas. Akron-Banzhaf are rather infamous for claiming in The Crowley Tarot that Crowley had only a superficial involvement in the creation of his Tarot deck, and that Thoth should properly "be called the Harris Tarot," after its artist, Frieda Harris.
Akrons desire to disenfranchise Crowley from his work is nothing new of course. As Ive outlined before in several pieces, the work of numerous pomos (Nicholls, Arrien, Greer, for example) has been focused upon minimizing the importance of occultists and claiming a superficial respect for the Tarot artist as archetypal eruptor.6 In this view, the occultist can never do anything more than burden naturally free images with a ponderous personal crust of obscurantism, intentionally indecipherable to most readers. The pomo, egalitarian as always, reacts against this elitist complication, by demanding that the occultist has no legitimate authority to tell others what the images mean, even if the occultist has designed them with specific meanings in mind.
Of course, the pomo habitually follows up this declaration of independence by peddling his or her own dumbed-down interpretations of what it all means to the very people who are supposed to be naturally gifted enough to figure that out for themselves. Akron-Banzhaf were following that tradition when they decided to slight Crowley in favor of Frieda Harris, no matter that Harris was a devoted student of Aleister Crowley. However, in downplaying the importance of dogma versus image, Akron was planting some seeds for a rather ironic reflection upon the tale of what he eventually did with the Tarotic images of H. R. Giger.
The story of how the Giger Tarot came to be begins long before Akron ever met Giger (at a 1988 party). As noted, Gigers interest in the occult and in Tarot began early in his career. Encouraged initially in the late 1960s by discussions with the Swiss author, Sergius Golowin (who published a book on Tarot in 1968, Die Zweiundzwanzig Grossen Arkane: das Tarot. Die Welt als Spiel), Giger began reading the works of the occultists, and has noted especially the influence of Eliphas Lévi and Aleister Crowley.
What has been in question in the past is what kind of influence occult literature actually had on Giger. Was he a student of the occult, an initiate, or merely an aesthetic user of occult symbolism? Is there actually a difference? Giger tends to give ambiguous answers to these questions.
On the one hand, he readily admits the obvious, that he has used the images and ideas of the occultists in his own works. And Giger himself has inspired much of the renewed interest in the occult in the last twenty-five years or so through his ground-breaking book, Necronomicon, the work from which Ridley Scott chose the design that was to become the Alien.
But, despite his fascination with dark (and even demonic) imagery, Giger claims this effect upon his work was mostly an unconscious one, and his artistic expression was always guided by an intuitive surrender to the aesthetic demands of the work, and certainly not by a concern to promote occult dogma. Nevertheless, he also admits: "But probably one has somehow an inner knowledge [of occult wisdom], which is already given to one. That is probably inside from the beginning."7
So, what Giger would allow is that the images he viewed in occult books resonated with the archetypal aesthetics he possessed before he encountered the works of Lévi and Crowley and others. They spoke his natural language, and he was inspired by their words to speak (in) theirs.
Then came pictures
As Giger says of his building interest in the occult: "I was fascinated, like everybody, about these magicians." Of course everybody wasnt capable of translating that fascination in the way Giger was. And one of those translations of occult fascination occurred in a series of paintings he did in the mid-1970s, known as the Spell paintings. These works are clearly inspired by occultist ideas, and particularly the dogma and images of the 19th-century French occultist, Eliphas Lévi (Alphonse Louis Constant). Lévi has been influential on generations of artists and writers, even ones who dont know his name, because his was the first modern research (and invention) of occult dogma to be widely read. Lévis works, while not exactly light reading, were translated and in a sense popularized8 into English by A. E. Waite, and became the basis of many of the ideas that were later adopted by the occult secret society, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn in turn passed on Lévis ideas, again through the works of several of its members, including Waite, whose theories about Tarot,9 for example, were used by Jessie Weston in From Ritual to Romance, which was thereafter a principal source for T. S. Eliots Tarot metaphors in The Wasteland.
Of course by the time Eliot inherited the Lévine dogma, he was mainly interested in using it to serve his own poetic interests, not in promoting occultism. Eliots use of Tarot symbolism was, as he said, an aesthetic convenience. And this is sometimes a difficult point for people to grasp, that artists may do the work of exposing themselves to an idea, and even hope that the exposure will somehow change them in the manner claimed for it by true devotees, but in the Art-istic (as in the Crowleyan alchemical) tradition, the magus-artist is mainly interested in transmuting the various leaden aspects of dogmatic indoctrinations into the gold of artistic expression.10 As Crowley says: "...no impression must be allowed to dominate you, only to fructify you; just as the artist, seeing an object, does not worship it, but breeds a masterpiece from it. This process is exhibited as one aspect of the Great Work."11 And this seeing without worshipping seems to be the kind of occult process Giger used in pursuit of his own Great Work.
In 1975, while doing the Lévi-inspired Spell paintings, Giger completed the work which in some peoples opinion12 is the most important painting in his oeuvre. Gigers Baphomet (work #272 ) is based on Lévis drawing of the Tarot Devil in Transcendental Magic (Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie) and is, like much of Gigers work, a complex Manichaean tableau, replete with a gunmetal goat, a vaginally-impaled goddess, and, depending on how you look at it, either a set of pain-inducing injectors, or a cobalt-60 radiation machine (for intersecting the killing and life-saving rays). Illustrating Lévis principles of romantic re-fusion of good and evil, light and dark, the original Baphomet13 was what Lévi called a pious hieroglyph, a pantheonic composite of numerous mythological elements, literally revolving around the ancient dualistic symbol of the goat. The Biblical goat, the sacrificial goat, was duplex. In the Old Testament it provided a means of slate-wiping wherein the goat would absorb and bear the sins of an individual or a community, and this ritual took two basic forms: sacrificial and emissarial. In fact in the Yom Kippur14 ceremony two goats were presented for the sin offering, the first was sacrificed to God in the usual manner,15 the second was consecrated to an entity or purpose called Azazel, which seems either to have been a demon or a place to which the second goat, the caper emisarrius (emissary goat), was sent.16 This emissary or scapegoat packed along the sins of the people and took them off into the wilderness (back into the chaos where they belonged). By this act, the people receive expiationatonement for their sinsand Lévi claims the second goat, the emmisarial goat, is a symbol of atonement through liberty, and that this double function ("reconciliation [with God] by self-sacrifice and expiation by freedom!") is embodied in his Baphomet. As he says, "The head of the goat...represents...the expiation within the body of physical sins." From this central sacrificial and consecretive idea Lévi then envelops the goathead with logical symbolic extensions, all repeating the point that only by a forced separation17 from God (that is away from his perfect unity into a binary division of light and darkcivilization and chaos) can one hope to obtain the distance necessary to see the division again as whole, as God sees it. In other words, we move to an opposite point where our vision and understanding become reflective, like a mirror. In this view, the very division and labeling of light and dark, good and evil, are necessary18 but still confusing distortions. It is like trying to blame ones little finger or ear lobe for perceived shortcomings that, if true at all, are truly the consequence of acts attributable to ones whole being. Thus, one needs to understand that his debt to God is just as much the fault of the sins of his own goodness, as those deriving from any evil aspect he may possess.
Or, as Nietzsche said: "One is best punished for his virtues,"which is to say one is most reasonably punished, and naturally so, for committing the sin of condemning half his being, and maybe the better half, to Hell.
And, as Lévi writes: "He who affirms the devil creates or makes the devil." That is, one must believe in the sin-making and sin-bearing creaturesomething outside of us which can, as the emissary goat, bear the ultimate responsibility for sinto place a devil into ones world in the first place.
This rejection of the Devil as anything more than a comic (but also tragic) mixed metaphor is really the beginning of a modern psychological understanding, which itself is quite threatening to traditional religious beliefs. If you de-demonize the Devil, might you not also de-deify God? And that is precisely what took place, or what took place is that God grew up and out and diminished the amount of quality time he could spend with his people and started taking care of the rest of the vast cosmos. Abandoned by their Father, and mocking his evil twin, people were left pretty vacant, a state from which one can make a clean start to finding out about himself, which is what the occultists have always claimed was part of the point of being here.
However, starting at square one, in this new game, we still find ourselves communicating in old terms, and so we can not really grasp what it means to be free from the Devil until we better understand what it has meant to be chained to him. This is what Lévi hoped to explain, and this is what Giger has portrayed in his interpretation of Lévis ideas. The first point is that, whereas before the spiritual aspects of light and dark were illustrated in a polarized, contradictory manner, the central theme of Lévis dogma is that now these opposing forces must be brought back together, to patchwork a kind of tarbaby demon called Baphomet, who only ensnares the ones who go looking for him and who touch him, and who create him in their own images. However, inside that dark joke, and the melodrama attendant to it, is a brilliant resolution of the light-dark binary, a combining of the symbols of light and dark into one, a fusion of the contrary pentacles into one redeemed star. This is what is literally at the center of Gigers Baphomet, intersecting and combining light and dark, upright and inverted, pentaclesthe goat and the goddess intercourse. This idea was not new to 20th-century occultism or Tarot design, as the redeemed pentagram (reborn as the unicursal hexagram) is also central to the Thelemic dogma of Aleister Crowley, but it was newly and perhaps definitively revisioned graphically by Gigers Baphomet and Spell paintings (particularly the Spell-IV painting).
All this speaks to the occult focus of much of Gigers work that was published in Necronomicon. And it was the Baphomet image, and the Baphomet principle, which attracted Akron to Giger, and encouraged Akron to convince Giger to Tarotize his paintings. The two met in 1988 at a party featuring Giger and Sergius Golowin as the principal invitees. As Giger relates: "...there was also among this small group of artistsAkrona very enigmatic figure." Though the two talked at length about many things (actually Giger says Akron did most of the talking), Akron says "..it was mainly through this painting (Baphomet) that I was drawn to Giger."
As related in the Taschen book which accompanies the Giger Tarot, Akron says he "began thinking of creating a tarot that would penetrate more deeply into the unconscious mechanisms of our behavior patterns" that could "could bring to light the shadows of our lives and souls." At some point, apparently after meeting Giger,19 Akron encountered Gigers Necronomicon. Akron says he was struck, at looking at Gigers "monstrous, corroded, crippled, and mutilated figures" that "Giger, and nobody else, must be the creator of the Shadow Tarot." Of course, having decided this for Giger and his paintings there was still the problem of getting him to go along. At first Akron was unsuccessful. Giger didnt like the idea of having to create an entirely new Tarot, partly because he had started to tire of painting, and partly because he knew the demands of such a project could be overwhelming.20 Akron persisted however and finally convinced Giger that, since so much of his work was already inspired by or reflective of Tarot imagery, they could pick out twenty-two paintings to become a Tarot. In the Taschen book Akron makes this process sound pretty straightforward, indicating that Giger was an active participant in making the choices. But in fact both Akron and Giger admit that Akron was mainly responsible for making the choices of the paintings which became the Giger Tarot (or, in its earlier incarnation, the Baphomet Tarot). In fact Akron goes so far as to say that Giger was barely involved at all in the selection process or much of anything to do with the project after giving Akron permission to use his paintings: "Giger is a painter. He supports everything that enhances the fame of his paintings. And the Tarot is to a certain extent a secondary application [of his images] in which he didnt have to be an active participant in making it happen." When I asked Akron why he thought Giger was willing to do the Tarot, Akron was quite explicit about his own role in the creation of the deck: "I dont know what Giger thought. He simply put his paintings at my disposal, and from these I made a Tarot." Somehow Akron seems to have forgotten that he conducted extensive telephone interviews with Giger21 trying to elicit his personal insights about the cards. It may be that Gigers replies were not sufficiently occult in nature to warrant their use in Akrons book, and Akron now admits: "I imposed the Tarot content (or interpretation) upon these images. Therefore the paintings are 100% Giger; the texts however are based completely on my philosophical doctrine."
And what is Akrons philosophical doctrine? The answer to that question seems almost as mysterious and difficult to peg down as questions about the exact (or at least probable) meanings of Gigers images. Giger himself says he often hasnt a clue about what his partner in this project is talking about: "I have a problem in reading the text of Akron sometimes because it is a lot of fantasy. And...its sometimes a little too much."22 And Giger notes this about Akrons interpretations of his paintings: "...sometimes if he would like to see something then he will see it in the painting. If he wants to have this meaning in it, then he will see it." This tendency of Akron to play fast and loose (and perhaps incoherently) with Gigers intent for the images, and Akrons stated desire to impose his own ideas on Gigers paintings certainly mirrors his approach in ignoring Crowleys ideas in The Crowley Tarot. In fact Akron seems to have been quite single-minded in his approach to getting his notions of Tarot piggybacked out into the world. As he says: "I had a concept in mind, and I believed that this [concept] could be supported by Gigers cards [i. e., Gigers paintings]...I would have developed the Baphomet even without Giger. But with Giger I had the authentic artist of global fame [or importance], suitable to my shadow concept."
His shadow concept is, of course, not only that of Eliphas Lévi,23 but also that of Carl Jung. Anyone wishing to see how occultism24 has obviously infiltrated the thinking of Jung should compare these two quotations:
To make light visible God had only to postulate shadow. To manifest the truth He permitted the possibility of doubt.25 The shadow bodies forth the light, and the possibility of error is essential for the temporal manifestation of truth. If the buckler of Satan did not intercept the spear of Michael, the might of the angel would be lost in the void or manifested by infinite destruction launched below from above. Did not the heel of Michael restrain Satan in his ascent, Satan would dethrone God, or rather he would lose himself in the abysses of the altitude. Hence Satan is needful to Michael as the pedestal to the statue, and Michael is necessary to Satan as the brake to the locomotive.
It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster's body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature.
Two Essays on the Collective Unconscious
One would have thought, given the importance of this shadow concept to Akrons whole view of life and Tarot as a potential model of it, which he admits he developed while he was working on The Crowley Tarot, that he would have jumped at the opportunity to discuss it when he wrote about the deck of Aleister Crowley. Akron calls Crowley "the modern prophet of the Shadow God," and Crowley even adopted the name Baphomet26 as his motto in the OTO, yet in Akrons discussion of Crowleys life and his ideas nothing is said of this, and virtually nothing (of substance) is said about the shadow either.
Instead, Akron assures the readers of The Crowley Tarot: "It is not the professed goal of this book to overcome the existing prejudices. We are not trying to stimulate work on the collective shadow, even if both of these goals would certainly be welcome." So, Akron did not welcome the opportunity to address these issues when he was merely explaining the deck of the Shadow-god prophet himself, but would reserve that for his own Tarot. All he needed were some shadowy (or at least darkly popular) images with which to illustrate his ideas. And these he found in Gigers paintings.
I point all this out for two reasons. Akron seems particularly upset that the two most important Tarot artists of the 20th century, Pamela Smith (artist of the Waite deck) and Frieda Harris (Thoth), have been denied the recognition they deserve. He argues, for example, in respect of Harris ill treatment by Crowley: "When the cards appeared in a limited edition of 200 decks in 1944, it was Crowley who pocketed the entire royalties for himself."27
The only problem with that supposed example of Crowleys greed and selfishness is that it isnt true. Aleister Crowley did release a limited edition of 200 copies of something in 1944, but it wasnt the Thoth deck itself, but instead Crowleys book about the deck, entitled The Book of Thoth. That project was largely funded by Crowleys secret society, the OTO, and while there is some question now as to whether Crowley was in a legal position in 1944 to award the copyright of that or any work to anyone (since Crowley was a bankrupt and had surrendered his ownership rights to the Crown) its pretty clear he intended this work to belong to OTO and that it was never considered to be the property of Frieda Harris.
A strong carda certain Guillotine card! Do you play?
As I first pointed out back in 199628 concerning The Crowley Tarot, Akron-Banzhaf are poor researchers and make numerous factual errors, some of which suggest they possessed only the most rudimentary grasp of their subject. However, this approach to (or avoidance of) facts is quite common in pomo-tarot writings, which seek to validate a present interpretation by dishonestly or ignorantly denying the credibility (and other virtues) of past ones. As noted, this goes so far as to even trying to alienate deck designers from their interpretive and creative rights.
The question then arises, has Akron done this with Gigers images and Gigers ideas as well? When, for example, I asked Akron, "You have written that Crowley did very little to contribute to Thoth except to provide a dogmatic framework, that it is mainly the work of Harris. Could this not also be said about the Giger Tarot, that it is mainly about his [Gigers] images, and not your ideas?", he replied: "No, because Giger had created the pictures before the Tarot images were conceived." So, whatever Giger had intended those images to be was of no concern to Akron, who was only interested in them in so far as they could illustrate his own ideas. Akrons indifference to the intent of the original designer is consistent with his approach to The Crowley Tarot as well.
But, even if this is true, does Giger suffer any injury as a result? After all, if Akron is following the same occult traditions and inspirations as Giger, wouldnt he be inclined to similarly interpret Gigers images AS Tarot? The answer to that question is that while it is certainly true that Akron has made superficially reasonable choices in many cases for which Giger image might fit a particular Tarot card, he often ignores in his comments even the most obvious ways in which those choices enlighten us about Tarot and Gigers obviously Tarotic inspirations.
For example, in the very first card, Gigers Fool image, Akron chose the Giger painting, Pump Excursion I (#610, 1988), a picture of an old Mayan man sitting in a urinal, a shotgun stuffed into his mouth, and his face confronting a real-life Penthouse centerfoldas Giger says hes going out thinking about where he came in. This is a remarkable, and quite amusing image, IF one bothers to interpret it as a painting, and IF one bothers to see what Giger has painted and to consider what he intended. In fact, it is certainly the best pomo design of the Fool ever attempted, but the point is that it is Gigers design, not Akrons. When I first began to investigate Gigers deck I did something which I typically do not do, I analyzed the cards (as Tarot) for myself before I began looking at Akrons comments. I wanted to see, without prejudice, if Akron and I were on the same page with respect to Gigers images as Tarot cards. When I looked at Gigers Fool card, his Mayan flautist (the shotgun is supposed to be a flute) was obviously evoking something sacrificial, which was further indicated by the presence of the Meso-American pyramid, or sacrificial temple. This idea fits perfectly with the occultist notion of the Fool, both in terms of Waites Jesus-Fool, and Crowleys Dionysian-Baphometic complex. The Meso-American blood ritual was focused on feeding Nature, particularly the Sun, not merely to appease the cosmic forces but to actually keep them going.
The Solar-blood aspect of the Fool is of course mentioned by both Waite and Crowley, and so when I looked to Akrons comments I thought this would be an obvious focus for his analysis. But then Akron is not analyzing anything, and certainly not Gigers paintings, hes indoctrinating. Not only does he not mention anything about the pyramid (other than remarking that it is "the steps which lead to life" [sic]), he fails to note the Meso-American aspect of the main figure or the background at all. This caused me at first to question whether I had perhaps misread the card, and Gigers intent with it, and so in my interview with Giger I asked him about this, and he confirmed that what I had originally thought about the image was true. He also added an amusing element, again completely ignored by Akron, by explaining to me that what appear to be headphones29 are in fact ear protectors meant to shield the old mans eardrums from the noise of his suicide.
Now, in fairness to Akron, I will point out a couple of things: one, I agreed with many of the choices he made for Gigers Tarot (although I think that points to an inherent Tarotic quality in Gigers paintings), and two, I havent read his 500-page opus, Baphomet, which is not available in English. It may be that in the severe editing30 he was forced to make for this new Taschen edition of the deck he felt compelled to remove even the most basic pertinent elements of his commentary that may have appeared in the German work. In fact Akron has reduced the explanatory coverage on each card down to just a page or two. Akron would not elaborate to me on this question (of how the edits may have affected his message) other than to say the Giger Tarot book is a TAROT-book (i.e., mainly a fortune-telling book) whereas Baphomet is a work of philosophy illustrated with a Tarot appendix. Nor would he answer my questions to him about the nature of his philosophy/religionhe just kept telling me I should buy his book (meaning the German version of Baphomet) where, he says, it is all explained. Ill get more into this question of the difference between the Baphomet and Giger Tarots, and their respective Akron-authored books, in just a moment, but I wanted to continue to point out some of the curious omissions of Akrons commentary in the Taschen book.
Moving to the second card, The Magician, Akron chose the Giger painting Spieglebild (Mirror Image, #344, 1977). Once again, in my evaluation of this Giger image AS Tarot I noticed an obvious element which Akron either misses or ignores. The image shows the head of a figure looking down (but also up) into its reflection on a guillotine blade. The reflected image is a skull and the eyes and tongue of the head seem to melt or bleed off into the respective sockets and holes on the blade image. Now, one could of course go many ways with the interpretation of this image,31 but remembering that it has been chosen to represent an already-existing set of Tarotic ideas, collectively known as The Magician, one aspect of this card seems quite interesting and relevant and that is the notion of the guillotine as the tool(s) of the Magus. The blade is rooted in and supported by long shafts of wood, which suggest the Wand, the basket (implied but not shown) which catches the head and its bolting blood suggests the Cup, the blade itself is obviously the Sword, and finally the head itself is the Disk, the compendium of the other forces but also the matrix in which the myriad conceptional possibilities of cosmos are rooted (as you see by the dream complex which fans out from the head like phantasmal hair).
Here is a bit of what Akron says about this image:
"...the Magician is the personification of the hero who creates the world in accordance with his own will and imagination."
But the catch is:
"Paradoxically, this viewpoint does not include the actual ego within itself. The Magician is therefore not able to recognize that he experiences the world only through the images that he creates for himself."
So, in Akrons view the Magician is yet another deluded masculine principle.32 The mirror aspect of the card confronts the Magician with an image upon which he literally refuses to reflect, but towards which he has no choice but to go. At the same time we are told by Akron that the Magician has begun the long journey towards a personal consciousness. Of course this is demonstrative of the notion of the trumps as a travel-log of psychological development, indicating a definite beginning and ending, and twenty stops in between those. It is, in other words, the infamous Fools Journey, here shifted a bit to involve the Magician as the chief explorer.
The problem with that view, both in terms of its Tarotic content, and Gigers image, is that it ignores the traditional occult dogma of the place and meaning of the Magician (or Magus). For example, Akron calls his Magician the "personification of the hero", presumably meaning the Jungian Archetype. But the Jungian personification of the hero is actually a Solar figure, who "...passes from joy to sorrow, from sorrow to joy...like the sun..." On the other hand the Magician/Magus figure is typically a Mercurial motif, who would seem to be better represented by some combination of the Trickster or Wise Old Man archetypes. This is particularly true given the suggestion that Gigers or Akrons Magician has suffered an ego inflation; in Jungian terms this means one has unduly focused on an unconscious element, the archetype, with the result that this archetype tends to distort (for good or ill) the conscious expression of its form. So, one comes to believe that the magical qualities of a Trickster or Wise Old Man are in fact vested within himselfthat he IS a magician. This could make for quite an interesting comparison between the artist, Giger, who unconsciously (and seemingly without much self-possession) creates art, as if by magic, and the self-professed magician, Akron.
Now, Waite has referred to the Magician as signifying "the divine motive in man, reflecting God", and that it is symbolic of "attainment in the spirit". In fact the Magician is usually not at the beginning of a journey, but at the end, at a point of mastery. But the kind of Magician Akron has presented is literally Faustian, that is one who attains via a demonic (self-deluding) shortcut. As Jung points out in a passage seemingly written for Gigers painting:
The "mirror" as an "indispensable instrument of navigation" doubtless refers to the intellect, which is able to think and is constantly persuading us to identify ourselves with its insights ("reflections"). The mirror is one of Schopenhauers favourite similes for the intellect. The term "instrument of navigation" is an apt expression for this, since it is indeed mans indispensable guide on pathless seas. But when the ground slips from under his feet and he begins to speculate in the void, seduced by the soaring flights of intuition, the situation becomes dangerous (and here we are referred to Rembrandts illustration of Faust being seduced by a magic mirror).
Psychology and Alchemy, Jung
The latter warning about the dangers of speculating in the void again seems relevant to the discussion of the whole pomo problem in Tarot, the Faustian tendency to seduce and to be seduced by the soaring flights (or more often the muddled wadings) of intuition, or what passes for that in newagelandwhich is just ignorant guessing. The situation becomes not so much dangerous as ridiculous, as one can see in the Akron handling of another of Gigers paintings, the one enshrined in the Tarot card Emperor.
Here the problem is that Akrons poor memory of Gigers ideas, or poorer respect for them, has again robbed his interpretation of any credible Tarotic bite. This image is quite as striking as that of Gigers shotgun-sucking Fool. The Giger Emperor is on safari (as is obviously indicated by its title), and Gigers dry (or desiccated) wit depicts the Macomberesque creature backpacking along the legless upper half of an ancient warrior. Meanwhile, the modern hunter, decked out with his skull-shaped baseball cap and a catheterized ammunition box, has gotten rid of (or has lost) his human arms and has replaced them with two prosthetic devices, one a black steel claw and the other his rifle. This is of course reminiscent of Jodorowskys similar image in El Topo of the duplex (and literally co-dependent) gunfighter master. Gigers suggestion here is that the motive power of our destructive tendencies has ancient roots. The long-dead warriors can not enter our world unless we walk them into the future, but when we pull the trigger it is really an ancient arm reaching forward to fire a weapon weve so fused with our own identity that we no longer can distinguish the device from our own physical bodies. Our arms have been replaced with real ones. Yet, we can not or will not look about to see that the driving force behind our need to destroy and to dominate is literally an otherwise useless relic of a primitive past. Now, that interpretation of this image respects what Giger has painted while still paying homage to the typically misandrous interpretations of the pomo Emperor. However, in Akrons take on the card, hes abandoned the notion of the safari altogether, seeing the humorous aspect as not ironic but tragic, and he has imposed a rather typically hysterical pomoist whining about the "wounded world" (pollution, dying forests, concrete fortresses!!) and how this Emperor, Akrons Emperor, is a "projection of our inner image of parental authority." Well, perhaps those words do constitute a projection of a sort anyway. But, Gigers image is clearly not suggestive of the threats and failures of the patriarchy. It is instead a self-reflective reverie on his own attraction to weapons. Giger himself sees the firearm as a kind of artistic-magickal tool, but the ambition to master it belongs, he would suggest, to something archaic in our nature, which can be quite dangerous if one is not aware of it. Jung would certainly agree about that. But it isnt really necessary, or very helpful, to demonize the relic. We wont get a proper (not to mention a potentially humorous) view of the truth of our ancient-modern hybrid humanity by trying to blame all our troubles on one gender of our identities. The need to demonize the masculine (or a certain hysterical view of it), so prevalent in much of pomo-tarot dogma, mirrors the need in the past to demonize our instinctive drives (by associating them with the Devil), or the shadowy portions of our complex psyches. And Gigers images simply repel any attempt to do this. This is why, along with the fact he doesn't really care what Giger thinks, Akrons commentary so often seems disconnected from the visual images hes supposedly explaining.
This may reveal part of the reason why, when Taschen decided to publish its own version of Gigers Tarot, it made the decision to focus mainly on Giger, and to encourage Akron to largely edit his Baphometic philosophy. The publisher also decided a name change was in order, and so altered the name of the deck from Baphomet or Tarot of the Underworld, to H. R. Giger Tarot. At the same time they asked Akron to write a book that was focused more on fortune-telling, a more marketable Tarotic feature than Akrons dogma (which had fueled few sales in the Baphomet version of the deck). While Akrons ideas have been diminished in the new book, Gigers are unfortunately hardly present at all. In fact, Akron only mentions Gigers name in the card descriptions a few times. So, while the new Taschen book dispenses with Akrons ideology to a large extent we do not see a concommitant increase in discussion of Gigers images, as paintings or as Tarot. And this is a truly unfortunate shortcoming and a missed opportunity in this new edition of the deck.
Finally, we face this question in the evaluation of The Giger Tarotwhether the shadow which has been imposed upon it is an enhancement or an adumbration. Is the revelation of Akrons (versus Gigers) Baphomet, even in a watered-down version, a friend or a foe to Gigers art? And can and should these images be de-coupled from Akrons dogma, which so often distorts instead of elucidates, so that they can be allowed to be independent Tarotic statements? This seems to me a perfectly fair set of questions to ask, especially given that pomos themselves so quickly seek to validate the artists of Tarot while denying the interpretive rights of occult designers. Perhaps, in the end, this is a case of a pomo asking to be hoisted (and hanged upside-down) with his own petard.
1-Cartofeminism is my own neologism, and refers to a certain brand of misandrous (and rather silly) feminism which has found its place and voice in postmodern Tarot. Cartofeminists see traditional occult Tarot as essentially elitist and often promoting a phallocentric and even misogynistic dogma. That critique is not inherently flawed, but the pursuit of balance is usually made via an equally troubling hostility to reason and factual truth, and a political discourse aimed at demonizing men and all male aspects of Tarot. 2015 update: I subsequently distinguished "cartofeminism" from the genuine article, because I would like to think feminists are themselves distinguished from the muddle-headed peddlers who push cartofeminism. I originally included the word "feminism" in my disparaging term, because I thought the people advocating this bizarre ideology were sincerely upset about a real (or really imagined) injustice. In fact, they were just hucksters looking to dupe the always plentiful suppy of hypersensitive, hopelessly needy, "victims" who mill about at the gate of the most exterior wall of the temple of Tarot.
2-Hermann Haindl und seine Welt des Tarot.
3-In that sense he is definitely a gonzo journalist.
4-Despite the popular misunderstanding that Tarot was invented by some ancient people (Egyptians or Atlanteans are the usual suspects), and the notion that it came to Europe via Gypsies, it was in fact invented by Renaissance Italians, who added a fifth suit of Trionfi cards (the 22 cards subsequently called Major Arcana by occultists) to an already-existing four-suited deck of 56 cards. This combined deck was used to play card games, not to convey ancient wisdom, except in the sense that many of the Christian virtues and vices displayed on the old cards (particularly in the Trionfi cards) did have roots in ancient artistic and literary motifs.
5-The one exception is XV-Devil.
6-In cartofeminist (Jungian) jargon, symbols do not appear on cards, nor are they designed with any rational intent, they erupt! See my review of Jung and Tarot for an explanation of the political utility of this idea.
7-From a December, 1992 Esotera article by Irene Dalichow.
8-Waite tended to shave off Lévi’s rough (that is to say, his French) edges, at least in Waite’s view that was the service he was rendering to Lévi and his English readers. Often his translations serve to distort more than clarify however.
9-Most of these are presented in Waite’s book, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot.
10-See Crowley’s Thoth card, XIV-Art, and the corresponding essay in Book of Thoth.
11-The Book of Lies
12-For example, Akron is of this opinion, although it must be pointed out that Akron demonstrates an indifference to specific paintings in Giger’s work, tending to clump together all his paintings using Baphomet as the painting Baphomet. For example, he refers to Spell IV as Baphomet, but these are actually different paintings. So, when Akron told me that Baphomet was the most important Giger work, he may very well have been talking about Spell IV.
13-That is the original Lévi Baphomet. The original Baphomet was a vaguely described demon supposedly worshipped by the Templars, but this evidence was obtained under the severe duress threatened by the Inquisition, and can not be taken very seriously. Nevertheless, the notion that the Templars had access to some Eastern wisdom (Baphomet was claimed to be a corruption of Mahomet—Mohammed), filtered down through the centuries, obtaining much enthusiastic currency when the Freemasons decided that they were the true descendents of the Templars. Again, though this inheritance is pure fantasy, occultists have repeated this canard, and with the help of Lévi, who fleshed out the old goat, and gave it a credible-sounding dogma, they have elevated the Templar god to a new disrespectability. For example, recently some American racists, attracted to devil-worship and other forms of occultism, have adopted the pentagram as their symbol and call it a Baphomet. While their beliefs and practices could not likely be more divorced from those of Eliphas Lévi, whose esoteric ideas are not exactly the stuff of KKK or White Aryan Resistance teachings, nevertheless the symbol of the Baphomet is usually packaged with its dark side showing—the redemptive aspects, the elements of Light, are seldom publicly promoted or recognized. One might decide to blame this all on Aleister Crowley, whose investigation of (one might say plunging into) the dark side of Baphomet has been co-opted by all kinds of oddly-missioned people, but then he also had little patience for American idiots.
14-Day of Atonement, known also as The Sabbath.
15-Usual for a sin offering, which involved various bloody rituals, including spattering the goat’s blood around the altar and sometimes inside the inner sanctum as a way of cleansing.
16-In later versions of this psychodrama the emissary goat was led out, as if to his freedom in the wilderness, only to be tossed off a cliff. Needless to say, the blending of the idea of the sinful and sacrificial symbols in one creature was split asunder when the Christians took over. But the desire to somehow "save" the Devil too, or at least to compensate him for his taking the rap for all the evil in the world still inspires people, and formed a basis for the kind of thinking that led Romantics to speculate about the need to unify our split souls—as in Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—the dark side could not be understood, nor appreciated, if we would not take the first step to acknowledging it as an essential part of ourselves. Thus, Jesus and Satan become a blended figure, or a blended pair of pentagrams. This is precisely what Lévi is doing with his Baphomet.
17-Sin is behavior which divorces or pushes us away from the presence of God, as in the Garden of Eden myth. To get back (to return) to this presence is what atonement and redemption are all about. The ancients used the blood and burned bodies of animals to obtain this, Christians used a human-deity hybrid, who nevertheless suffered the same fate as the goats, with the exception that he was then able to transmute the divorce and show the way of return to God’s presence. Much of occult Tarot dogma concerns this same problem and solution(s), the main differences being how the sinful aspect, which is also a liberating aspect, is treated.
18-In that we could not properly understand our relative relationship to God without the power to discriminate. We live in a world where recognizing differences does matter. What can be a problem is taking that natural ability and turning it into a religious obligation powered by questionable assumptions concerning God’s will and judgment.
19-The timing of these events is not certain, but Akron implies that his first encounter with Necronmicon occurred in 1991, about three years after he had initially met Giger. However, in a 1992 Esotera interview Akron is reported saying that he first approached Giger about doing a deck before this, and before he had begun work on the Crowley book.
20-Giger knew the ordeal that Frieda Harris had endured in the creation of Thoth, and certainly didn’t intend on chaining himself to the never-ending task.
21-Giger recalls having spent about an hour per card in phone interviews with Akron about the twenty-two selected paintings.
22-This refers to Akron’s writings in the 500-page Baphomet book which accompanied the initial release of the deck back in 1992. According to Akron, the present Taschen book is a mere shadow of that work.
23-Lévi writes extensively and quite interestingly about the positive role and value of the shadow in Transcendetal Magic. For example: "Then, when you have seen God, the hierophant will say to you:—‘Turn round!’ and, in the shadow which you throw in the presence of this sun of intelligences, there will appear to you the devil, that black phantom which you see when your gaze is not fixed upon God." By this Lévi is clearly saying that each person makes his own devil, or manifests a personal aspect of a devil as a natural consequence of his choosing to look away from God (which is to say choosing to be an individual ego).
24-Freud, unlike Jung, seems to have particularly despised occultism, telling Jung he should guard against its unscientific influences and reputation. Jung thought Freud was being characteristically too materialistic in this attitude.
25-So this is a kind of Cartesian-via-Sartrean shadow—the negative shaper of all perceptions—as Sartre modified Descartes: "I doubt therefore I am."
26-Indeed, Crowley claimed he was the reincarnation of Eliphas Lévi.
27-The Crowley Tarot, page 211.
28-Pointed out to the always befuddled Mary K. Greer, who was using Akron-Banzhaf’s The Crowley Tarot as support for her claim that Crowley had only contributed "complaints and demands" to the production of Thoth.
29-Giger agreed with me that headphones also could work, with the Mayan hoping the music could drown out the noise of his demise as well.
30-In the Taschen book Akron complains about the removal of what he calls "the Baphometic superstructure", which left—gasp!—only Giger’s images. This was one reason why the name of the deck was changed to reflect Giger’s contribution being elevated to the main role. One might question whether this was not always the case anyway.
31-For example, note the potential comparative opportunities in this quotation from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the popular theme for jests; it was the best cure for headache, it infallibly prevented the hair from turning grey, it imparted a peculiar delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which shaved close: who kissed La Guillotine, looked through the little window and sneezed into the sack. It was the sign of the regeneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.
It sheared off heads so many, that it, and the ground it most polluted, were a rotten red. It was taken to pieces, like a toy-puzzle for a young Devil, and was put together again when the occasion wanted it. It hushed the eloquent, struck down the powerful, abolished the beautiful and good. Twenty-two friends of high public mark, twenty-one living and one dead, it had lopped the heads off, in one morning, in as many minutes. The name of the strong man of Old Scripture had descended to the chief functionary who worked it; but, so armed, he was stronger than his namesake, and blinder, and tore away the gates of God's own Temple every day.
32-In fact, Jung talks interestingly about this idea with respect to Oedipus, a figure traditionally linked by occultists to the warrior-prince of the Tarot Chariot. See Jungs chapter, "The Origin of the Hero", in Symbols of Transformation.