Graven Images Oracle Review
© 2008 by Judith A. Johnston
When I first saw images from this deck online, it was unpublished. The idea for the deck had been turned down by one of the major card publishers in the United States, but I did not know this when I wrote to Natalie Zaman to enthuse about the deck and start a thread on it at an online forum. Apparently, she was feeling discouraged about the work that she and Katharine Clark were so committed to, and was so buoyed by the interest and attention coming from the public in that thread, that she persevered in finding a publisher. We are fortunate that Phyllis Galde of Galde Press had the vision to see the unusual vitality and effort in this deck and agree to publish it.
I felt an immediate connection to the images, and to Nat and Kat themselves. Both women are active in their communities, and involved in teaching and talking about life and history in a positive way. I respect such action and their spiritual approach to life and other people. I was fortunate to be asked to sew them tarot bags using Nat’s cemetery photographs, and simply working with those images made me appreciate the value of the deck.
As this deck and its images became part of my experience, a 1998 documentary was shown on television called Mortal Remains by Chris Gallager of Foxglove Films. It was filmed on location in British Columbia, but also showed one of the most fascinating larger cemeteries in North America, Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City. The film explained that in previous centuries, death or aging was not feared and avoided the way our Western society views it now. People used to stroll and picnic in cemeteries, children played there, families connected, living and dead. I think our fear of death and showing the emotion of grief has turned us away from the richness of such historical sites, and our own family graves. Although you might feel grief and strong emotion, you will feel life as well, and an infinite connection to the way things are for humans: we all die. Cemeteries are stories of human life, often stated in stone carvings, rich in symbolism: stories containing pleasure and adversity, war, illness, and terrible accident, but nonetheless compelling, because we like to read stories about other people, it helps us sort through our own lives.
For those that run from facing death, the Graven Images Oracle can be a path to healing those fears. Feel the peace of death, walk through the decades in cemeteries, be awed by human life, do genealogical research, visit the grave of your spouse or parent. Embrace it, for it must be faced. Make that connection and feel sanctuary in your lives. A life of learning also connects to unavoidable death, it is part of being human.
IVY, IVY OUT AND FREE
Before the deck was published, Nat told an eerie story of one odd section of her favourite cemetery, Elmwood Cemetery in New Jersey. Elmwood is an old cemetery hidden away off an industrial road, with large, dark trees in dense groups throughout the graveyard. This particular section was under some imposing pines and the air smelled very strongly of pine resin even with the car windows rolled up. Natalie described her discovery of the Ivy card:
“I stepped in—hesitantly. By the time I had taken a handful of steps, the ivy was calf-high. The stones seemed to float in a green sea. And it was dim and murky in there—any pictures I took ended up needing the flash—even though I was outside and it was the middle of the day. As I examined the stones—and I really didn’t want to touch anything—I found that all of them were carved with the Cyrillic alphabet.”
Cemeteries are often quiet places where the sounds of the outside world seem to fade and you walk in a blanketed atmosphere of natural quietude. The actuality of the scene was murkier and more oppressive than the flash-lit picture conveys. Consider Nat’s other comments about this place:
“I think the picture captures a tiny bit of the movement that was going on in that place, because you see, something lives in that little wood. Oh, of course there are animals, but what I saw, out of the corners of my eyes and even head on, were shadows—too large to be woodchucks—flitting from tree to tree. And there was the distinct feeling that I was being watched. It wasn’t negative or threatening, but watchful—and it followed me home. I’ll never forget that night—it was one of those times where you’re in bed with your eyes closed and you feel that if you open them you’ll be face to face with something…”
I can hear that rustling and see shadows from the edge of my eyes! The calf-deep ivy reminds me of swimming in an unknown lake in the dark. Water, trees, stone; the familiar becomes strange when things are saturated in twilight. You almost expect something to brush your leg or grab your foot and hold you, pull you down.
I decided to do up a little watercolour and ink sketch of the Ivy card, and then draw a mandala behind the headstone, randomly, without too much planning. I like to do quickie sketches or exercises with cards since it helps me to connect with the images and remember the cards. The ivy looks like a skirt on this monument, a liquid swirl of green leaves spilling over the stone and billowing up at the hem, almost as imposing as the pines enveloping it. No poignant folk songs for this cemetery, or sweet roses entwining on graves, but thick, green vines, lushly overtaking carved stone and language, hidden, everywhere blanketed by the smell of pine, with companion stones amid the murk. As I was drawing the sketch I got the idea of writing “love” in the Cyrillic alphabet in the mandala so that is what gave me the theme for the picture. The stylized trees in the mandala were inspired by artwork on a Russian lacquer box. It seemed a peaceful thing after Nat’s experience at the grave site. I felt so sorry for these forgotten people and sent them love in their own language.
A SYMBOL OF FRIENDSHIP
There is something so connective in the hand of another person, so comforting. It always seems to be about hands for me, so it was no surprise that the card I initially felt drawn to in this deck is the Amity card showing two hands clasping. This is an old Masonic symbol, and in cemetery symbolism it can mean leaving earth to be welcomed into heaven by God or relatives.
I know it best as a symbol of friendship and marriage from a delightful book called Mary Martin’s Needlepoint. Mary Martin was an actress, very famous on the stage in the 1950s, and she was devoted to small sculptures and art that showed clasped hands, as they symbolized her marriage and commitment to her second husband Richard Halliday. She had a wonderful collection of art, including one tiny picture she made herself of petit point in silk thread. That book and her collection always stayed in my mind as it perfectly reflected my own feelings about hands and the creative spirit of making art with your hands.
My beautiful framed print of Amity, signed and numbered by Natalie, sits here by my computer desk. The word “amity” comes from the Latin “amicus” which means “friend.” We thirst for it, this simple thing, these two hands clasping in unity.
One of the strengths of this deck is the simplicity of the stone images. Yes, there are fancier grave markers in the world, but the simplicity of this oracle’s images allows for a deep, individual response. I think Natalie understood that when she took the photographs, and thus gave us the opportunity to weave the story ourselves, with these plain, strong images of stone touching our lives.
WHEN THIS YOU SEE, REMEMBER ME
Walk through a cemetery and you will see stones reflecting the need to remember a person’s hobby or favourite picture or poem. Remember me, remember this poem, this incident of my life, when this you see, remember me.
Cabinet photographs were done by professional photographers so that families would have a memento of the dead relative. Many of these old photographs are of children, posed so that it looked like the child was only sleeping, but often there was no way to disguise that the poor child had died, so there is a deep poignancy in these photographs. Nat and Kat both have small collections of these emotionally moving photographs, and there are exhibits of them in museums and online if you are interested. The Sleeper card best captures this awareness and idea that a child was only sleeping, waiting in heaven for the reunion with loved ones.
FOR ALL THE LAMBS
You will inevitably see the graves of children in any cemetery. In our day the grave of a child is horrifying, but in times past there were many more children buried, all part of a family’s growth, although still horrifying. There were no grief counsellors and medication for those folks, they were expected to mourn a reasonable length of time and then get on with life and have more children. I see such beautiful, tiny, ivory-coloured monuments with lambs and angels watching over dead children, asleep in peace.
Several times, I have used photographs or gravestone rubbings in my own work, and felt deeply satisfied by doing so. I had been thinking about doing a necklace to celebrate this deck, and thought about lambs and the many poignant monuments to lovely fresh-faced children, robbed of life, that are gathered in cemeteries. I have a ceramic planter that was a gift to my Mother when I was a baby. It’s a cheerful little lamb, but how different is the succour of the lamb on a grave. Did women overcome such grief to carry on? I don’t think as a human that you could; how terrible a grief for a parent to outlive their child.
I fashioned a small bead embroidery containing the poignancy of loss and memory, for all the lambs that had to leave their mothers. It has a picture of a bleating lamb, calling for its mother, and silk ribbon embroidery with baby’s breath, white roses, forget-me-nots, and lilies. I imagined as I stitched this that it might be worn by a grieving Edwardian mother as a memento to remind her of a baby that died too soon.
BOOK A READING FOR YOURSELF
I prefer books where the author has taken the time to develop a system that enhances the theme of a deck. Kat Clark has done that with a very thoughtful and engaging approach to using the deck. She states right up front that she does not use esoteric language; this is a deck of personal insight, not of occult mystery. There are no reversed meanings to cards, but rather a system of positive and negative cards within the five groups of cards. The easiest way to understand how positive and negative work within the positions of the main Pentagram Layout, is to pull some cards and take some notes as you do a reading for yourself.
It is a matter of organization until you become fully familiar with the system. Each position means something, each card means something, which is generally the way decks work, but Kat has introduced an extra punch with a breakdown of positive and negative influences on the five points, secondary to the main layout. For instance, in the spread example I did, my card in the first position was Oaks which is a Physical card and #11, so a shadow or negative card. However, a Physical Negative card in the number one position of the Divine, also means you are disconnected from your higher self and need to rediscover you inner light. Kat has a useful list to aid you in discerning these secondary meanings.
I wrote it down when I explored each card as I found it easier to get used to the interconnectedness of cards that way and to map the positive and negative influences more carefully. I also found I could make notations of my impressions of the cards and just use that and the position for a good reading. The extra layer of cards can be used or not, as you wish, and you’ll still have an insightful reading. I like the extra meaning myself, as I found some of the notes were not things that would occur to me.
The system is flexible and there is also a three-card Past, Present, and Future Layout by itself, or with one of more clarifying cards. A good, basic reading system that is sensible. I like that, in the same way I like the strength in the simplicity of the images. You can immediately tune into the deck and use it effectively. The symbolism on the cards is wonderful, and fascinating to read about in the book.You can augment study of the cards with a local cemetery trip or a browse through a dictionary of symbols, to get a overview of how much these symbols have meant to people over the years.
I found the clarity of the photographs really popped as I pulled each one for my reading. Some have soft, stone colouring, and others have bright grass or trees or light in them. Each card has a fresh sparseness that helps to focus the mind. In my reading I pulled the Book card with the Alpha and Omega symbols in the #6 position, the summation or outcome position. I thought this must be the most auspicious card to go in that spot: a Divine card in the Divine position, for the first and the last card.
These are not gimmicky cards, they are cards of life, how to cope with life, and discover your own journey through life. I like that attitude, and I really like this bright, inventive deck, rich with symbolism and history.
Update September 2013: Skelita was excited to learn that there is now an app at iTunes for this card deck.
The Graven Images Oracle by Natalie Zaman and Katharine Clark
Galde Press (October 1, 2007)
Web Site: http://www.gravenimagesoracle.com/
Publisher site: http://www.galdepress.com/