I have been asked a few times about my experiences with the Rohrig Tarot. To be honest, I cannot remember specific readings; however, I will never forget the magic of both discovering and becoming acquainted with the deck. The Rohrig was the first real step I made on a journey I am now knee-deep in. It was the seed from which my whole journey into tarot was born.
To say that the Rohrig Tarot was my very first deck would not be entirely true. It was actually my second. My first deck came with a book by Jonathan Dee and was illustrated by Shirley Barker. I had never considered reading tarot before I picked the set up in my local North London supermarket in the late 90s. It had been sitting on a shelf with other kits and was just £4.99, so I chucked it into the trolly with the weekly shopping. I’d planned to have friends around for dinner that night, so I didn’t give it much thought. After we’d eaten and refreshed our glasses, I pulled the deck out and my mate’s wife and I flipped through them. She said that she had a set of tarot cards at home (which turned out to be the 1JJ Swiss) but didn’t know how to use them. We played about and read definitions from the book until we lost interest. At that point, I had no idea what this slight curiosity would evolve into.
At another friend’s house a couple of weeks later, I met his new housemate. Even though I couldn’t tell you her name now, we clicked instantly, and eventually got onto the subject of tarot. She didn’t know much about it, but she knew more than I did. She talked about the different kinds of decks on the market and suggested that I go and choose one in London with her that weekend. I readily admitted that the Shirley Barker set did little for me, so the next day, we hit Covent Garden. It was the first time I ever visited a long-term-favourite-haunt, Mysteries.
In those days, Mysteries was a lot different to how it is now (it recently shrunk in size and doesn’t have the edge it once did). The internet was new then and there wasn’t the amount of sets we currently see on the market, seventeen years later. They had a couple of photo albums filled up with samples (three to a page) and I was encouraged to flip through and choose which pack I found attractive. My ex wanted to get in on the act, so he sifted through them too. I can still remember some of what I saw – in particular, the Chinese Tarot by U. S. Games, The Templar Tarot and the Art Nouveau by Matt Myers. As I thumbed through the catalogue, the Rohrig (which was much larger than the other samples in the book) stood out. It was the guy in The Devil card which did it for me. Once I’d locked eyes with him, it was game-over. I must have flipped back to that page four or five times. After I’d met with his eyes, I didn’t feel connected to anything else in that book. The Rohrig was one of the most expensive sets there, but I didn’t care. I paid up. My ex bought The Medieval Scapini for himself.
I couldn’t wait to look at the whole deck, so I opened them in a bar we’d ended up having lunch at afterwards. The first card I saw was The Fool. Wow. I still get goosebumps when I look at that card, as I do with many of the Majors in the deck. Carl W. Rohrig is an amazing artist. He breathes such life into his characters and the scenes feel real enough to step inside of. I instantly connected to the intense Magus, the beautiful High Priestess, and then .. I saw The Chariot.
My heart dropped when I came up against the racing car driver in The Chariot. It has been going so well until that point. And the disappointment didn’t stop there; I adore James Dean, but I didn’t want to see him as ‘my’ Hermit. I could have probably gotten over those two cards, but as I went through the remainder of the deck, more disappointments were to follow. Some of the cards looked as though they’d been ripped straight from a Pirrelli calendar. I literally stopped in my tracks when I saw the topless women in panties on the 8 of Swords. This card is titled Interferance. You’re not wrong. My expectation was kind of stamped on at that moment.
From there, I noticed bare-breasts at every twist and turn – and in some cases, not even breasts which were attached to anything; just floating breasts, some with eyes, some with the heads of penises beside them. I loved many of the images in this deck very much, but these details cheapened it for me. I am no prude, but there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for their addition in most places. Needless to say, I got over the breasts as best I could. I bought myself a lovely wooden box, which fitted their cup-size exactly.
Reading in those early days was not easy. I had [what I didn’t know was] a Thoth-clone, which I was using alongside [what I didn’t know was] a Rider-Waite-style book. The book had illustrations from Shirley Barker’s set, which used [what I didn’t know was] Marseille-style imagery. I tried to work out the difference between the two different court structures without understanding their discrepancies, since neither the LWB or Dee’s manual said anything about different traditions. It was a confusing time, but you know, it was a lot of fun too!
Friends became interested in the cards (which were large and mystically attractive), so when we had people around during the Summer for drinks, I’d take them into our bedroom, where I had a big red bed, fabric flowing from the open window and wind chimes clinking and clonking away. I only knew a ‘clock’ spread then, so I would lay the twelve cards out on the bed where we’d sit cross-legged and I’d try to interpret them with drink in hand. I didn’t have much to go on – only my impressions of the beautiful paintings and what the jarring interpretations in the books had to say – but somehow, those early readings were still magical, regardless. They were like stepping into a different world, which I now equate to this deck. I don’t doubt that many people stay in that wonderful place and never desire to learn any more. It’s a nice ethereal place to be.
The Rohrig will always be my doorway to a different world – it lead me to to magic and potential and mystery. It’s of that time. Friends were as mesmerised by the readings I performed on that big red bed as I was. We didn’t know if we were doing it right or wrong, but we had fun.
I didn’t have the internet in those days. I’m kind of glad I didn’t, to be honest. I just sat at our dining room table, opened up the wooden box and gave it my best shot. I bonded with that deck, despite its naked ladies and male appendages. Years later on a forum, I trimmed away the keywords publicly with a pair of scissors (something a lot of people do nowadays): it was something I never regretted.
If it hadn’t been for those few cards which had put me off so greatly, I might never have replaced The Rohrig or cared to look for another pack. If every card looked as beautiful as the Queen of Swords, Prince of Swords, and the Knight of Disks, it would be my deck of choice without question. I haven’t used the set for an age, because after seventeen years, I still feel the disappointment of what it could have been. If I could ask any deck artist to come back and revision their tarot for a modern audience, it would be Carl W. Rohrig, who kind of gifted me the best and worst deck, all in one go!
Adapted from my post ‘Remembering the Rohrig’ by Steven Bright, 2014.
Illustrations from The Rohrig Tarot by Carl W. Rohrig.