I'm a sex top but a tarot bottom, a fact which believe me is new to both of us. Dichotomies are unhelpful, and in the tarot especially we are all switches at heart; it involves so much push and pull, so much taking and giving up of control, that you can't even pretend the power is on one side or the other. (In all this talk of topping and switching, I of course mean your relationship to the cards themselves; if you're having your cards read by a third party, what's happening is a threesome, or maybe that bit in Adaptation where the three main characters in the screenplay are all the same guy.) However unhelpful they may be, however, dichotomies are also sexy, and so I'll say it again: I've recently learned that a tarot bottom.
The deck which taught me this is called the Alleyman's Tarot, produced by a nonbinary masc called 7 Dane Asmund (it behooves me to say here that "7" is a delicious flex). The Alleyman's was the biggest tarot project ever funded on Kickstarter, a platform not known for small tarot projects. It was big in terms of funding, but even more so in terms of ambition. The deck has over 200 cards (to the original tarot's 78 or so), some standard, some invented, most sourced from other artists' decks, some original to this one, and with a riot of duplications and alternate takes, such as, I believe, eight Deaths. With this object comes a thick spiral-bound guidebook, purportedly written by Asmund's plainspoken witchsona, the Alleyman.
The Alleyman's Tarot combines a number of things I thought I disliked about tarot decks. I funded it on Kickstarter as an art object, basically, and didn't think I would get much use out of it. I don't typically like decks with invented cards, decks with elaborate mythologies behind them; I'm notorious for never consulting a deck's enclosed guidebook, and I'm as allergic to urban fantasy as anyone can be who has literally, recently committed an act of urban fantasy. I'm a meaning-memorizer, someone whose readings are grounded in knowing Rider-Waite-Smith-type decks in great detail and freestyling elaborate spins, or twists, on these standard cards depending on the question and placement. Despite my rigid commitment to the Celtic cross spread, I've always considered myself a pretty chill guy, you know, just a casual man, where the tarot is concerned; don't imprison me in someone else's mind, please, when I'm trying to understand my own.
What I learned from the Alleyman's is that these are problems of execution, not broken ideas. It's perfectly possible to pull off a deep mythology, invented cards, and all the rest, so long as the project itself isn't half-assed – so long as the deck is doing all this as part of a sustained vision, rather than just adding some extra fillips and signatures. The Alleyman's Tarot actively resists memorization. It pushes the reader – gently, supportively, but very firmly – off the cliff of the familiar. The creativity it demands is not the creativity of reinterpreting well-known cards, but the creativity of feeling freely and relinquishing all control. I'm sure the reader exists who can off-road the Alleyman's Tarot – who can blithely leave the guidebook aside and gut through the whole thing on vibes alone – but I am not that reader, and I find that I don't want to be. You just don't get to command this deck. You cannot read it alone.
When you read this deck, you get read by it, and not by another person, but by the deck itself. There's this one joke I'm always making about how "the cards are reading me today" – the cards are reading me for filth in the queer sense, i.e. telling me what's obvious in an inventive, mocking way. Early in my tarot practice, I was more apologetic about how much I enjoy being read for filth. Tarot readers I respect kept suggesting that I move away from a sense that the cards were mean, that the cards were always telling me off somehow. They were right, and I've benefited from learning to see the cards as neutral, but there's neutral as in "this isn't good or bad" and there's neutral as in "the cards are mocking you as a friend," and I've come to embrace the latter as a part of my practice. Sometimes a friend needs to tell you what's what, and sometimes being topped by the cards involves consensual pain, and this is exactly what I love about this deck, which you've probably guessed by now is one that I love very much.
I feel a bit bad for talking up the Alleyman's like this, given that you can't buy it anymore, and I'm not sure if Asmund will sell it again (the production process, as you can imagine, was apparently harrowing). If you come and visit me, though, we have a look at it together. I have a feeling that the deck will benefit from being touched by many hands, from acquiring that patina that its conceit demands. Maybe I'll even read for you, although if so, you'll have to watch me puzzling over the book for half an hour, hesitantly explaining, "Well, in the 'you' position, we have the Ten of Eyes, and in the 'environment' position, that's...uh, Giuseppe." No doubt it'll be embarrassing, as a reader who sees himself as pretty experienced and debonair, but I suspect I'll enjoy it, that shame. Who knows what else this damn thing is about to awaken in me?