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The Tarot Garden Library

About the Authors

Lee Bursten is is a professional tarot reader who has studied the discipline for over 25 years. He has contributed more than 70 deck review to the popular Tarot Passages website, and is the designer of the Gay Tarot (w/artwork by Antonella Platano), published by Lo Scarabeo.

Dan Pelletier is the co-owner of The Tarot Garden. An accomplished tarot reader with over thirty years of experience, Dan has also contributed to such publications as Aeclectic Tarot and Body Mind Spirit magazine.


Tarot Through a Different Lens:
A Tarot Garden Interview with Lee Bursten

Dan: To start with, I want to know the simple details. Who is Lee Bursten?

Lee: Well, I suppose I'm various things, and it's hard to know what order to put them in. I'm a 42-year-old man, a Tarot devotee, and a student of astrology. I was born and raised in Brooklyn Heights, New York. I've been on my own and supporting myself since the age of 17. Tarot had always been an avocation for me, yet in the last year I've become -- somewhat to my astonishment -- a professional Tarot reader and a published deck creator. This is the hardest question I've ever had to answer!

Dan: Tell me about how your journey from Brooklyn, to here...

Lee: My inner journey doesn't actually correlate much with my geographical journeys, which consist of various moves from my birthplace of New York City to the Southwest, back to New York, then to Washington, D.C. for a four-year stint working for the Federal government, then back again to New York, and finally back again to the Southwest. All of these changes were occasioned by job considerations. While working in D.C., I was offered the opportunity to work at home, which I accepted, for a substantial cut in pay. This meant I could no longer afford to live in the D.C. suburbs, and that's how I ended up back in the Southwest. At present, my life is a bit isolated, and I work the same long hours as I did before, but I have more free time due to not having to travel to work every day.

Dan: And more time for Tarot, creative pursuits, and studies.

Lee: Speaking of studies, I actually never attended college. My father died while I was still in high school, and my mother moved out of state to live with her niece, and so at 17 I found myself on my own and having to earn my own living.  Although I had been very much involved in community theater during my high school years (and in fact was accepted into a prestigious workshop for musical theater songwriting sponsored by the music licensing company BMI), by the age of 20 I found that I lacked both the talent and the determination to attempt to attain success on a professional level in that field.  I'll be forever grateful to the late Lehman Engel, a Broadway conductor and founder of the aforementioned songwriting workshop, who wrote in a book, that aspiring performers should ask themselves if they can imagine themselves doing anything other than theater. I could indeed so imagine, so I took Mr. Engel's advice and decided my path lay elsewhere.

After working as a typist, word processor, and legal secretary for several years, I undertook training for a more technical occupation, and having successfully completed that training, I began my present career, which took me to the different places I've lived. Part of my job with the Federal government required me to travel, and thus I had the opportunity to see much more of the U.S. than I would have otherwise. I also took business trips to Trinidad, Japan and Belgium.

Dan: Tell me a little about your inner journey.

Lee: My inner journey rides on two simultaneous tracks: one involving my sexual identity, and the other involving my interest in divinatory systems, including the Tarot. Although I spent much of my teen years working at a community theater where there were many openly gay men, it didn't occur to me that I myself might be gay until my early 20's. At that time, I came out to myself, and very quickly met my life partner, Larry -- a fortuitous meeting indeed, since we are still together after 20 years. I've never been much of an activist, although I've certainly experienced the sorrows of setback and the joys of advancement of civil rights for lesbians and gays. Although I personally tend to blend into the background and conform to societal norms in terms of how I act/dress/speak, I also honor and respect those people who are conspicuously "different," because it's largely as a result of their courage and determination that lesbians and gay men have the rights they have now.

Although I had mentioned my sexual identity in one or two of my deck reviews, becoming an openly gay author was just about the last thing I expected to happen. But when Lo Scarabeo offered me the opportunity to create a gay deck, I couldn't find it within myself to use a pseudonym. Doing so would have been completely impossible for me. It would have felt as if I were ripping my soul out of my body. So now I find myself a little more openly gay than I had planned to be. But it doesn't matter. If my deck helps even one gay person feel more comfortable with their identity, then that completely eclipses any petty discomfort I might have about being in the spotlight. In a society where some gay and lesbian teenagers are killing themselves -- and being killed by others -- because of their sexuality, my discomfort matters not at all.

My parents were very non-religious people. They felt that if their children wanted to be religious, it should be because we investigated different religions on our own and found whatever we felt comfortable with. I remember as a child tagging along while my mother took my older brother, who was in the midst of a passing infatuation with witchcraft, to a book signing by Sybil Leek. Of course I had no idea what a Sybil Leek was, but for some reason the incident stuck in my mind.  My brother graduated to other enthusiasms like Communism and computers, but I do remember that there was a Rider-Waite Tarot deck lying around the house, although I can't remember anyone actually using it for anything. I would occasionally leaf through some of my father's books, which included Blavatsky and Castaneda. My mothers' copy of Gurdjieff's Meetings with Remarkable Men was of no interest to me at all. 

Dan: Did reading Blavatsky and Castaneda trigger your esoteric interests?

Lee: My interest in the esoteric really began when I was a teenager and bought a set that consisted of Eden Gray's three tarot books and a Rider-Waite deck. I wasn't completely satisfied with her books, finding them too event-oriented and not psychological enough. Later, I bought Rachel Pollack's 78 Degrees of Wisdom, and liked it but found it too psychological. (I grew to appreciate it more in later years.) Another book I bought early on was Sallie Nichol's Jung and Tarot, which engendered an appreciation for Marseilles decks. And, in fact, that was my next deck purchase. I went to Samuel Weiser's bookstore in New York (which no longer exists) and bought a Grimaud Tarot de Marseille.  At this point, my collection consisted of my Rider-Waite, my Marseilles, and the Aquarian Tarot.

Dan: So you were hooked?

Lee: Not at all. My Tarot activities then went into hibernation for about 15 years. Then, I happened to be reading Tad Williams's fantasy trilogy, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, in which a major character performs divination with knucklebones. Something clicked in my head. I went and dug up a copy of Ralph Blum's Runes, but quickly realized that wouldn't satisfy me. So I got all my Tarot decks and books off the shelf, dusted them off, and began a love affair with the Tarot, which will probably last the rest of my life. I began buying decks like crazy, trying to find the perfect deck. Annoyingly, I never seemed to be able to find the "right" one! After subscribing to Mary Greer's newsletter, I wrote her a fan letter in appreciation of her deck reviews. In her gracious response, she suggested that I myself might like to write reviews, and she included the URL of Michele's Tarot Page, a site founded and maintained by Michele Jackson, herself an important Tarot reviewer. After reading all of the reviews on the site several times, I decided to write a few reviews and submit them, just to see what would happen. Michele posted my reviews, and I found myself writing review after review. Perhaps writing the reviews helped tp alleviate the guilt I felt in buying so many decks! When Diane Wilkes took over Michele's site (which then became Tarot Passages), she was also kind enough to post my reviews, so I kept writing them.  Thanks to Michele's and Diane's encouragement and friendship, at this point I have over 70 reviews on the site. So, Mary, Michele, and Diane set into motion a series of events, which eventually would culminate in my having a deck of my own, published by a major Tarot publisher.

Dan: Could you expand on how you went from reviews to having a deck published?

Lee: I wrote the reviews out of a simple desire to express my views about decks and to help potential deck purchasers in deciding whether a specific deck would be a worthwhile purchase. But an unintended consequence was that I got to know Riccardo Minetti, an editor and deck creator at the Italian publisher Lo Scarabeo. Riccardo wrote me and told me that Lo Scarabeo wanted to publish a deck with a lesbian and gay theme, and would I be interested in creating such a deck.  Needless to say, I said yes!

I never really knew what sort of deck Lo Scarabeo had in mind, other than the basic theme, so I worked up a proposal, sent it in, and it was accepted.

Dan: Some critics might say that your deck is too gender focused. Your response?

Lee: I decided to make it an all-male gay deck, for two reasons. First, I felt it would be presumptuous of me to try to write lesbian-oriented material, since I feel lesbians have their own story to tell and surely they would be the ones to tell it best.  Secondly, I had for a while been playing around with the idea of an all-male deck, to counter what I saw as a definite trend in tarot decks over the last few decades to emphasize women and the feminine. I have no argument with a trend toward the feminine; I just felt that men, and gay men in particular, were being left out of the equation. There are a few decks that hint at gay themes, some explicitly, some more covertly (examples are the Cosmic Tribe Tarot by Stevee Postman, the Tarot of Light and Shadow by Michael Goepferd and Brian Williams, the Renaissance Tarot by Brian Williams, and the Art Nouveau Tarot by Matt Myers). I guess I felt that if various ethnic and cultural groups could have decks of their very own, gay men could, too.  As it turns out, there are a few females who have found their way into my deck after all, so it's not militantly male-only.

Dan: Listen... I'm a straight man; why should I buy the deck? A straight woman... why should she buy the deck?

Lee: I absolutely think there are reasons why lesbians, straight women, and straight men would want to use the deck, although of course they might not want to, and that's okay too. The primary reason is that they may do readings for gay men, and it would come in handy for that purpose.

But there is a deeper reason. In the years that I've been collecting decks, I've had my horizons broadened considerably by investigating the art styles and ethnic cultures and mythologies explored by various decks. Usually that wasn't my intention; I just thought I was buying an intriguing deck. But along the way, I've managed to learn all kinds of interesting things. I think the Gay Tarot could help serve as a user-friendly way for straight people to begin to understand and feel comfortable when dealing with issues of sexual diversity, if they've felt uncomfortable with it previously. Or even if they do feel comfortable with it but are curious enough to explore it further. Also, Antonella's artwork alone, in my opinion, is reason enough to want to own the deck. And from a tarot perspective, I think there's enough material in it which is different and interestingly-done (if I do say so myself) so that many tarot aficionados will be interested in owning it, even leaving aside the issue of sexual identity.

Dan: Tell me about the how the Gay Culture, racial issues, and sexuality are explored within the deck.

Lee: Some gay folks may be disappointed because I don't deal with issues of sexuality or relationships in every card. But I was specifically trying to break free from the stereotype that gay men are obsessed with sex.  I think gay men probably don't think about sex any more often than straight men do, and in fact there is much in gay men's lives which is not about who they're having sex with, but rather simply about getting through the day and keeping a roof over our heads. That's why I showed many scenes of men in different professions, at different recreational activities, etc. I also wanted to drive home the point that any of the people one meets in daily life might be gay -- a police officer, a judge, an athlete. And that's also why I showed men of different ethnicities. I have no objection to a deck being entirely Caucasian, if that deck has a specific historical or cultural theme which dictates such homogeneity. But there are many modern decks that are all white, when they don't need to be. If a deck is going to have a modern setting, then I think the people on the cards should reflect the same diversity that we see around us in real life.

Dan: From one reader to another, I have to ask: tell me about sexuality and reading.

Lee: Sexuality and reading -- that's a good question. There are some correlations between a sexual encounter and a divinatory encounter. (I rather like that phrase, "divinatory encounter," I'll have to remember that!) Both require a level of intimacy, which is missing from normal everyday interactions.  Both require that the two participants give something of themselves (unlike the stereotype of the fortune-teller who rattles off a prophecy to the silent and awed client).

Dan: Can you expand a bit more on gender issues in context to readings?

Lee: Does the gender of the participants matter in a divinatory context as it does in a sexual context? I say it does, because as tarot readers, we must be able to see things from the other's point of view, even when the person we're reading for may have a different gender, a different culture, a different political viewpoint, or a different sexual orientation from our own.  And this is another reason to own the Gay Tarot -- it could help us as tarot readers in understanding viewpoints other than our own, which can only improve our reading abilities.

Dan: May I ask you the "Question from Hell?"

Lee: I'm ready.

Dan: Okay -- it'll be fun, stick with me a bit. In Ceramics Monthly (May 1999), Jon Britt writes: "The writings of Bernard Leach have inspired potters for decades. Yet his romantic notions of the potters role in the modern world are what is holding us back as the beginning of a new century dawns." He continues, "The primary assumption on which the entire system balances is that Orientals are more sensitive, intuitive and gifted humans. Leach writes in A Potter's Book: Children play with pebbles with a similar awakening of perception, and Orientals have lost touch with the fresh wonder of childhood less than we have."

It is explained that Leach's position is: "Orientals are intuitively gifted, mystical and enlightened... have perceived that utility is the first principal of beauty, and simple and restrained (poverty of expression) is the second principle. Simple and restrained are inexorably linked."

Jon Britt then states: "The original premise that Orientals are childlike beings who act in an egoless manner is a little bit troublesome... they are no more gifted or enlightened that any other human being on the planet earth. They are as ego-filled, as the course, as adult like as any other adults in any other culture. They are in fact merely human. They are not divined from a higher authority... their aesthetics hold no higher place in the kingdom of beauty than any other mortals vision of beauty."

"... At that time in history (1854-1935) this was a pretty easy premise to accept. You see, China had just opened up and Japan had just ended several centuries of self-imposed isolation. The Orient was still a mysterious place and people assumed a lot of things for the simple fact that not much was known about it.‚"

To this I personally add Egypt.

In 1909, Leach was teaching etching in Japan, and Waite published his Deck and Crowley published Liber 777. The world was adapting to an industrial age. Perhaps they romanticized that which they (Waite, Mathers, Crowley et al) did not fully understand.

We are now immersed in a digital age.

Would you like to see Tarot break its bonds from a past that never was‚ and move forward into a new age?

Lee: This is an interesting question. First of all, and I know this isn't specifically what you asked, but I can't help noting that Leach's condescending attitude toward Asians -- an attitude which, oddly, is simultaneously respectful and demeaning -- is similar to the way many different minorities, including lesbians and gays, have been seen throughout history. For example, while gay men are seeing an unprecedented exposure in Hollywood films and television, many of these depictions show a stereotyped fantasy of gay men as glib-tongued creatures of fashion, which, needless to say, does not reflect the reality of gay men, whose personalities are just as diverse as those of straight men.

To get back to your specific question: the way I see it, Mathers, Waite, Crowley et al., were trying to express something.  In order to express this thing, they had to find a vessel, so to speak -- some system or language already present in the culture of their time and place. They chose (and I don't mean to suggest that this was a conscious choice) then-current speculations about ancient Egypt, which we now know were completely imaginary. I'm not enough of a scholar to be certain of this, but my personal feeling is that most of them (except perhaps the most credulous) knew that there was a certain amount of invention going on, and knew that they were being perhaps not completely faithful to even the little that was known at that time about the culture of ancient Egypt. We must remember that they didn't subscribe to modern concepts of respect toward cultures different than one's own.

So, they found these pseudo-Egyptian concepts and symbols useful to communicate their occult ideas. I don't think this was necessarily a bad thing for them to have done. Just about any creative endeavor is going to rely to some extent on the cultural context of its time and place. But I think the gist of your question is this: now that a century has gone by, do we still need these pseudo-Egyptian remnants in our tarot decks?

I don't think it has to be an either/or thing. The trappings of 19th century occultism are a valuable reminder of the roots of our present-day tarot concepts. Also, many people find these elements to be intuitively evocative. At the same time, I would like to see tarot decks designed that choose different, more modern concepts and symbols to express the archetypal truths.  I would like to think that the Gay Tarot has been a small step in this direction.  Although there are some Minor Arcana cards in my deck that specifically comment on their Rider-Waite-Smith forebears, the majority of the cards use modern scenes, people, and objects. In other words, they show us as we live our lives now. But it's important to acknowledge that there already have been decks that represent a departure from the RWS mold. To name just one example, the Voyager Tarot is a deck that has many passionate adherents, as well as those who don't like it so much. But one can't deny that it takes a rather large step away from 19th century occultism, using modern imagery, multiculturalism, and a system of meanings for the Minor Arcana that is completely free of the Golden Dawn's system. Personally, I would like to see more decks moving away from the faux-medieval setting and the arbitrary Minor meanings of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. At the same time, I have a great fondness for the RWS, and I also enjoy seeing new decks which use it as a template but bring creativity and originality into the mix and thus make it something entirely new (I'm thinking of decks like the Gilded Tarot, the International Icon Tarot, and the Golden Tarot).  I must also admit that while I admire decks with non-RWS Minors, it's the RWS-based decks that I find myself using professionally.

While I welcome both traditional decks (that is, based on RWS) and entirely new decks (like Voyager), the realities of the publishing world dictate that we're more likely to see the former than the latter. I suspect there are many tarotists who won't buy a deck unless the Minors have scenes that conform to the RWS standard. My guess is that the publishers suspect the same thing, and they seem to have good reason.  Decks that have original meanings for the Minors are probably the ones that don't sell as well. Although in fairness, I must point out that Lo Scarabeo has published several decks, which don't conform to the RWS standard in their Minor Arcana scenes.

One example of an entirely original deck is Ellen Lorenzi-Prince's Tarot of the Crone (http://www.croneways.com/). This powerfully creative deck, which uses entirely original numerology-based scenes for the Minors, deserves to be published by a mainstream publisher, but as far as I know, to this date no publisher has accepted it for publication, despite the fact that the original limited self-publication generated much excitement in the tarot world and was quickly sold out. Until publishers are willing to take some risks with decks like the Tarot of the Crone, we are more likely to see mostly artistically innovative versions of the RWS, or else "theme" decks that still rely on the RWS for their Minor scenes (which, as I've said, I enjoy as well).

But here again, I find myself making it an either/or situation when it really isn't.  For example, the Gilded Tarot (http://ciromarchetti.com) uses RWS-type Minor scenes in a medieval setting, but the Majors are completely new and original imaginings of the tarot archetypes and don't rely very much at all on Waite. Does one classify this as an RWS clone or a completely new deck? It's definitely not a clone. It simply uses the Waite image-concepts in the Minors, while still being a wholly creative and original deck.  So it's not either/or. Deck creators and artists are finding ways to respect tarot tradition and create new works of art at the same time. The tarot doesn't need to break its bonds, as you say in the question. I see it more as a butterfly, continuing the slow but inexorable emergence from its cocoon that has been going on since its creation in the 15th century.

Dan: Okay Lee, as we close, I'd like to thank you for your time, I've had a great time. However, tell me the scoop -- the news -- what's in the works?

Lee: You're quite welcome, and I'd like to thank you as well. I've enjoyed answering your very thoughtful questions.

As it happens, I do indeed have something in the works. I'll be supplying the accompanying text for a new deck by Ciro Marchetti (creator/artist of the highly anticipated Gilded Tarot). This new project is still in its early stages, and so I really won't say anything about the nature of the project at this point, except that I've seen a few prototype cards, and they're absolutely gorgeous -- and very different from the Gilded Tarot. I'm excited and honored to be associated with an artist of Ciro's caliber.

Lee Bursten's Gay Tarot is available in the Tarot Garden Boutique -- click here for details.

© Lee Bursten and Dan Pelletier
30 July 2004


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