Pre-dating ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia—also known as Babylonia—was the “cradle of civilization” that nurtured the world’s first cities. The Fertile Crescent was the home of ancient Sumerian culture, forming the basis of the Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian Empires. Biblical stories demonized the city of Babylon, but recent archeological discoveries uncovered an innovative, vibrant and deeply religious civilization.
An agricultural people, the Babylonians worshiped many types of gods and goddesses, although the relationship between deities and humans were much like that of the relationship between parents and children. The Babylonians considered it their duty to carry out the will of the gods on earth and dedicated their many contributions—including humanity’s earliest written records—to various cosmic, underworld, nature, and personal deities. Throughout the successive Babylonian empires, the cosmology, symbolism, and personality of their deities changed little.
Golden Dawn Adept Sandra Tabatha Cicero has honored the rich culture of the ancient Sumerians by creating the Babylonian Tarot. Not only has she written the 189-page companion book, but has also illustrated each of the colorful cards depicting Babylonian mythos. Although Sumerian legends are lesser known, Cicero asserts that the Babylonian pantheons and stories are every bit as fascinating as their later counterparts from Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The Babylon Tarot follows traditional attributions, but Cicero has added five extra cards: Genesis, a Major Arcana card with no attributions that precedes The Fool and “resides” in the realm between Ain Soph and Kether (Qabalah) and four Court Cards known as Kerubs, which represent the fifth element of Spirit.
Arrows (Swords) and Wands are masculine—representing Air and Fire respectively—and the Minors of these suits have a diamond shape in the background while the Cups and Disks (Pentacles) are feminine and the Minors have a Vesica Piscis (almond shape) in the background. Kerubs, Kings, Queens, Princes, and Princesses are the Court ordering following the Tens.
The Minors of the Babylonian Tarot include keywords at the bottom (e.g. Courage for 7 of Wands and Skill for the 8 of Disks) while the Majors and Court cards display the name of a particular Sumerian hero, heroine, or deity at the bottom. Strength is card 8 and the rest of the cards retain their traditional titles except the World becomes Universe. The card backs are mostly reversible, but those with a sharp eye will notice that one side of the border is a lighter shade of blue than the other side. The cards have the same slick, matte finish as recent Llewellyn decks—as well as the same height—but the cards are ¼ inch wider than The Quest, Gilded, Revelations, etc. For some reason, a black organdy bag is not included with the Babylonian Tarot but the customary white cardboard box with navy blue trimming is there.
Cicero presents detailed accounts of the Mesopotamian legends associated with each card, including excerpts from ancient literature such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as upright and reversed meanings of the cards.
Two spreads were created just for the Babylonian Tarot: The 6-card Babylonian Universe Spread and the 10-card Rosette of the Gods Spread. The Appendix is a rich resource of correspondences, including astrological, elemental, and Qabalistic attributions. The Sephiroth, Worlds, and Decans associated with the Minors are outlined, as is the sub-element, World, and Hebrew letter associated with the Court Cards. My favorite chart is the Majors, which shows the Forces, Hebrew letters, Paths and locations of each card (Tree of Life). For example, you can see at a glance that The Chariot is located between Binah and Geburah and The Wheel is located between Chesed and Netzach.
Not familiar with Qabalah or the Tree of Life? No worries. Cicero doesn’t even discuss Ain Soph, Sephiroth or the Worlds in the text of the companion book.
Which begs the question: why are these attributions included in the Appendix of the Babylonian Tarot when neither Qabalah nor the Western Magickal traditions are addressed in the text? Who knows…but they’re my favorite part of the companion book!
The Babylonian Tarot may not be a good deck for beginners even though it (mostly) follows traditional attributions. Why? Well, for one thing, the stories selected for the cards aren’t necessarily in line with the meanings of the cards. For example, Cicero chose Lamastu, one of the most feared entities in the Babylonian pantheon, to represent The Devil. She tells us that this “demoness” was particularly cruel to children and responsible for disease, nightmares, miscarriages, and causing crib deaths among infants. The prototype for earliest vampire and succubus legends, her clawed, bloodstained hands holds deadly serpents while a dog and piglet suckle at her bare breasts.
Yet, following in line with traditional attributes, the meanings given for The Devil are: Natural generative force. Material Force. Possessions. Sensuality. Sexual force and reproduction. Hedonism. Material temptation or excess. Self-deception. Illusion. Distorted perceptions. Mirth. (If you think “mirth” is unusual, note that this is one of the Qabalistic functions associated with The Devil.) The interpretations don’t seem to jive with the story of Lamastu.
Inserted in the text of each story associated with the cards is the traditional astrological attribution. This often seems out of place, especially when it conflicts with the story. For example, Marduk is associated with the Emperor, and Cicero tells us that the planet Jupiter was the visible manifestation of Marduk. Yet, a few sentences down, she reminds us that the Emperor is associated with Aries. These kinds of differences could very well confuse those new to Tarot. In addition, many of the heroes/deities are war gods or those who suffer at the hands of galla demons (e.g. Tammuz as the Hanged Man). As such, there seems to be a wide contrast between the legend associated with the card and traditional meanings.
I think it’s fine when a deck creator and artist wants to put a new spin on Tarot, because varied perspectives provide new ways of looking at the cards. However, when mixing various traditions, the result can be confusing at worst and disconcerting at best.
I performed the Babylonian Universe Spread and found the cards to be quite insightful and accurate. Cicero’s artwork is crude in some places and lavishly refined in others, resulting in interesting artistic combinations and fertile symbolism. I did a Past, Present and Future reading for my husband and while I couldn’t get much from the cards, he knew exactly what they meant—and proceeded to give a detailed account of their message! He doesn’t read Tarot and, while he’s very intuitive, it just goes to show how accessible the Babylonian Tarot could be for gleaning information just from the images. As far as I know, this is the only Tarot deck dedicated to the legends of the Fertile Crescent. Personally, I don’t resonate with Babylonian mythos or spirituality, so I found most of the mythology boring. However, it’s obvious that Cicero has put a lot of time in researching the Sumerian legends, despite the ill-fitting correlations of some of the stories with the traditional meanings that she offers. If you’re attracted to Babylonian, Hebrew, or Egyptian mythology, you’ll likely enjoy the Babylonian Tarot. The correspondences in the Appendix are a nice extra and the lesser-known mythos may well add some breadth to your Tarot readings and meditations.
(Note: as has been the case lately, there’s some sloppy editing from the Llewellyn team. There are misspellings—such as “losses” for “loses” and “shear pleasure” that should be “sheer pleasure”—as well as grammatical mistakes. Sloppy editing just happens to be a pet peeve of mine, so just a FYI.)
Babylonian Tarot by Sandra Tabatha Cicero. © 2005. Llewellyn Worldwide, 2143 Wooddale Drive, Woodbury, MN 55125-2989. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the publisher.
Content copyright © by Janet Boyer. All rights reserved. This review was written by Janet Boyer. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission.