The Tarot of Austin Osman Spare

Exciting news for everyone interested in Tarot and magic: Strange Attractor launched a Kickstarter campaign to reprint Lost Envoy, a revised edition of their book on the tarot of Austin Osman Spare, and to reproduce a facsimile of the deck itself. Edited by Jonathan Allen, it presents a facsimile reproduction of Spare's cartomancy deck.

Spare (1886-1956) was an English artist and mystic. Hailed as a genius for his precocious talents as a draughtsman and a painter, his style was influenced by symbolism and art nouveau, and has been considered a precursor of surrealism. In his occult capacity he experimented with automatic writing, automatic drawing, sigilization, based on the theories of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious self. During his lifetime his work received modest attention and fell into obscurity, till he regained notoriety and admiration in the past decades. He is presently considered a key occulture figure and the godfather of the Chaos Magic movement.

Early in his life, probably in 1906, Spare worked on this tarot deck, which lay dormant in the collections of London's Magic Circle Museum, until its rediscovery by artist and curator Jonathan Allen, in 2013.

Lost Envoy and the AOS tarot

Quickly sold out after its publication, Lost Envoy is a wonderful collection of essays on the topics of cartomancy, fortune-telling, iconography, the occult revival, and a detailed analysis of AOS tarot deck. The book's contributors include Spare scholars Phil Baker and Gavin Semple, tarot historian Helen Farley, author Sally O'Reilly and legendary writer/illustrator team Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill.

Had it been published at the time of its creation, Spare's deck would have been a frontrunner in the modern history of tarot. Among its many interesting features, perhaps the most peculiar is the way the designs and decorations overflow the individual cards' borders: words, hands, snakes, moons, glyphs, and other arcane drawings often appear partly on one card and partly on another. When two or more cards are placed next to each other and their edges aligned, the fragmented shapes and forms become complete, creating a matrix of interconnected images, producing endless combinations. This built-in feature has a visually striking effect, amplifying the interpretative capacity of Spare's deck, allowing for a richer and more nuanced approach to tarot divination. This innovative and unconventional structure makes this deck unique.

The Art of Divination

All forms of divination and fortune-telling speak to the perennial human desire to know that which can never be known, a yearning for agency in the face of happenstance. As AOS wrote:

Scientists will never solve or prove anything relating to foretelling the future; it is a work for 'artists'. Science may subsequently prove more fully what the artists have already discovered.

Leaving aside the discourse about the "scientific" validity of any form of divination and fortune-telling, playing with AOS tarot (as with any other tools or procedures) is a way of inhabiting an imaginal space, temporarily summoning alternate worlds, where judgement is suspended and possibility abound. The Lost Envoy and AOS tarot are a feast for the eye, something collectors will rejoice in possessing. Kickstarter campaign.

Photo credits: Darren Martin, courtesy of Strange Attractor Press