Deck review: Pholarchos Tarot
Updated: May 7, 2019
Pholarchos Tarot by Carmen Sorrenti
Published by: Arnell's Art, 2018 (First Edition)
Medium: Acrylic paintings
Card size: 8,9 x 12,7 cm (3.5 x 5 inches)
Cardstock: 350 GSM
Set includes: 78 cards, Booklet (soft cover 40 pages), sturdy 2-piece Box
Number of cards: 78
Major Arcana: Justice 8, Strength 11, Hanged One 12, otherwise trad. titles
Minor Arcana: Sparks (Wands), Coral (Cups), Wings (Swords), and Spirals (Coins)
Court cards: Dreamer (Page), Trail (Knight), Queen, and King
Card borders: black
Card backs: nonreversible
Carmen Sorrenti is an Italian-born artist, actress, painter, poet. She was trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. She has appeared in movies such as Gangs of New York(Martin Scorsese) and The Secret Passage, playing opposite John Turturro. Carmen has also trained in psychological astrology at Liz Greene's CPA, and is also a certified dream worker from Scott Sparrow's DreamStar Institute.
I had the pleasure of meeting Carmen in Italy in 2015 during the Tarot Art & History Tour. Our troupe got treated by seeing some of her paintings for the Pholarchos deck, and Carmen also delighted us with her poetry. I remember thinking that Carmen is one of those people, who live passionately from the very core of their being, and who isn't afraid to explore both the heights and depths of their soul.
Concerning the word "Pholarchos", Carmen writes in the booklet: "...it is not certain what the word means - this in itself is like a dream, already we are set to travel unknown territory. I like to go with Peter Kingsley's idea that what is literally a "Lord of the Lair" is one that enters a cave and waits for big dreams that can be taken back to the community. This practice developed into the healing dream temples dedicated to Asclepius and the snakes. [...] These islands [Dodecanese] float just off Turkey and look onto what used to be Caria. This is land dense with the original Pholarchos caves. Again I did not know this at the time but on the first night there I had a riveting dream involving the divinities of that very region."
Peter Kingsley writes in his book In the Dark Places of Wisdom(The Golden Sufi Center, 1999): "Those people called Phôlarchos were healers, and healing in the ancient world had a great deal to do with states of suspended animation. It was all tied up in a clumsy-sounding word: incubation. [...] What's important is that you would do absolutely nothing. The point came when you wouldn't struggle or make an effort. You'd just have to surrender to your condition. You would lie down as if you were dead; wait without eating or moving, sometimes for days at a time. And you'd wait for the healing to come from somewhere else, from another level of awareness and another level of being." (p. 79-80)
Suspended animation. Incubation. Healing. Another level of awareness - in the Tarot, Hanged Man and Death. If and when the cards of the Tarot pack are keys, then the cards in the Pholarchos deck are surely keys to unlock healing dreams within our psyche. I like what Carmen says about our beds, comparing them to the Pholarchos caves. We don't have to travel to the Dodecanese to spend time inside these mysterious caves, we can find one in our own bedroom, turn our spot of rest and recuperation into a place where we receive powerful visions from the deep well of the inner sanctum or pantheon.
I love the idea of the Ace of each suit being a human head; our heads become the chalice or vessel, bringing forth the development of each four suits. My head is like the ocean, from which all life springs forth.Corals are in need of urgent resuscitation across the planet. If rainforests are the lungs of the planet, then coral reefs are the lungs of the ocean. We humans need to learn how to breathe in the same rhythm with the forests and the oceans. The Ace of Sparks or Wands shows wild horses filling our head - the Fire power of life that needs to be directed, otherwise we'll get trampled by the fiery hooves. The blindfold is another interesting addition. The blind start of a beginning (incubation, as mentioned before), the birth of the element, folded in mystery. Eyes have turned to look inside, dreaming, receiving the vision - after all, this is the Pholarchos Tarot. The fact that certain cards are B&W (the Aces and the Trail or Knight of each suit) adds a certain dynamics and a dual layer or level to the deck. In reading practice this creates areas of colour and non-colour in the spread, almost like a landscape with lighter and darker areas... greener parts with occasional volcanic spots, a psychic terrain where one needs to pay attention to details along the path.
The cardback features a nonreversible image, a painting showing a female figure, not entirely human. The snake climbing upwards through the heart seems to have its origin in the area of Svadhishthana or sacral chakra, Hara area, or the Dantian as it's called in Daoism / Chinese internal arts. Maybe this creature-being is the spirit of Pholarchos, presiding over this deck and guiding our hands as we choose the cards. The only card where the same being appears in the background is the Hermit, Major Arcana no. 9, the card of wisdom and introspection, the quest to find the answer.
Carmen writes of the Hermit: "Furrowed, dogged Saturn, gnarly as a tree and just as wise. Call on the old goat foot within you, deep within. He governs what seems permanent: bones, architecture and the contours of your incarnation, everything you build upon - from here, if you negotiate, you may travel your soul to the matrix of stars, the patterns spiraling in and out of form. The farther you would travel out, the farther you must travel in; discover what is needed and what is possible. Anchor well and let nothing stop you."
Whenever encountering a new Tarot pack-friend, I always like to check the Minor Arcana fives. Most clients (nor readers) don't like them too much, as the fives are the places of struggle. Yet it's in the fives where growth happens. Without fives we would be forever stuck in the (maybe too) perfect harmony of the fours, and not make it to the restructured and more natural harmony of the sixes - nor anything else following. All the number cards of the Minors have a lot of white in the background, this gives the images more space to breathe, and also room for the imagination. The images here bring to mind snapshots from a dream or a fairytale, or a still from a movie (remember the artist of this deck is also an actress). The union of natural elements and human figures remind me of a type of "biospiritualism" (sorry, couldn't think of a better word) which I've encountered before e.g. in Marie White's MaryEl Tarotor in the Shadowscapes Tarotby Stephanie Pui-Mun Law. Some of the acrylic colour schemes likewise bring to mind Ithell Colquhoun's Taroimages. The number and court cards feature symbols from astrology and alchemy, and there is a strong sense of "ethnobotanical spirit" throughout the deck. Wisdom of the plant and animal kingdoms come to life in the Pholarchos images.
There's a lot going on in these images - don't be fooled to think they are in any way "simple" or "straightforward". Look more closely, and you'll discover another layer, another world. The Tower and the Sun are among my personal favourites in the deck. I just love how the traditional lightning-struck tower has been transformed into a human, receiving or emanating the life/light-force from above and from below - a two-way street as the energy travels both ways, not unlike the two paths or directions within the Tree of Life. The Tower's corresponding Hebrew letter is usually assigned to Pe, "mouth", a voiceless labiodental (ex)plosive. What kind of a sound comes out of your throat looking at the image? We swallow the lightning-strike or Light-strike, and thus partake in the mysteries of Apollo, of the Sun card. "You may need to learn a new language that bonds you with the world. Here is the complete annihilation, the revisioning, a new incarnation in your old body. The ancients called this the "House of God" - are we ever prepared for such a meeting?", as Carmen writes in the booklet.
I wouldn't recommend the Pholarchos Tarot deck for a beginner. However, if you're already familiar with the basics of Tarot, this is a deep and rich deck to take you deeper within yourself and your own Work, and to access other states of awareness and being, opening doors into your inner chambers. Needless to say, this is definitely a dream work deck par excellence - meditation and / or visualisation with one or several cards before going to bed warmly recommended. I would imagine the Pholarchos deck would work really well in story-telling context, too, and also in a therapeutical setting, helping to create a temenos, a sacred working space. This is also a child-friendly pack (partial nudity in a couple of cards). Carmen as the Poet speaks through the card descriptions in the booklet, so if you're after a "traditional manual" (including keywords for upright and reversed meanings, etc.) you'll have to look for somewhere else. Personally, I'm happy the booklet is just as it is - there's just enough insight and invocation, to help bring the cards alive and support interpretation.