In “Two Dogs Howling at the Moon,” one of Leonora Carrington’s most haunting paintings, a black dog and a white dog face each other while howling at a thin sliver of a crescent moon. Blue droplets of water flow between them and land on a red lobster that faces upward at the sky. It’s opaque, gorgeous, and, for those in the know about Western occult practices, utterly tarotic in scope.
The two dogs howling directly reference the Moon card in the Tarot. While there is no one tarot design for any given card, the most famous and influential in modern times is that of Pamela Colman Smith, whose rendering in the 20th-century Rider Waite Smith deck depicts two dogs howling at a moon as a crayfish, symbol of the ego, emerges from the water. Smith herself referenced earlier depictions, such as that from the 17th-century Tarot de Marseilles.
Carrington, a beloved British-born Surrealist artist who lived most of her adult life in Mexico, has long been known for exploring feminist consciousness in her work. But as a new edition of The Tarot of Leonora Carrington, edited by Susan Aberth and Tere Arcq, argues, “The esoteric subject matter deeply embedded within her entire oeuvre, and arguably the most serious and groundbreaking aspect of her work, remained largely unexplored until very recently.”
Part of this was by design. “She was of a generation that did not openly speak about her belief,” said Aberth in an interview with Hyperallergic. “She told me always, ‘It’s in the work. You have to look at the work.’ Magic, as we know, is not an intellectual exercise. Her work contains power and images that reach people’s subconscious and magical core via different ways.”
Tarot was not just a part of Carrington’s work, but was a direct focus of all her artwork. Aberth had been working with her for decades as a writer and art historian, and they also became friends. After the artist’s death in 2011, Aberth came across a private deck Carrington had designed. “It was shocking,” Aberth explained. “I realized in a flash it’s not alchemy. It’s the tarot. The tarot was the synthesis of all of her occult knowledge. We looked at the paintings and were like, oh my god it’s everywhere. And you know that when you’re ready you’ll see it.”
In 2021, Aberth and Arcq released the first edition of this book with Fulgur Press, reviewed in Hyperallergic. It was printed alongside a deck, now out of print, that I happened to pick up that year in between COVID lockdowns. It quickly became one of my treasured tarot decks, a collection of only the Major Arcana, a smaller portion of the entire canonical tarot that’s focused solely on archetypal images and symbologies. The depth of the visualizations and their symbols carried me through some of the more difficult days of the pandemic. They come from both a darker and more gender expansive space, and they’re a beauty to hold, utilize, and share. I save them for deep discussions and explorations, when mysteries of a situation need to be unlocked. Even without the book’s explications, I could sense a careful exactitude with each card, informed by esoteric spiritual practices.
This second edition, printed by Spanish publisher Editorial RM, is a rich expansion of the authors’ scholarship, enabling a deeper dive into the cards. Most notably, the book contains a foldout that shows all the cards in place, along with a detailed examination of each card and its symbolism. It is also available in both English and Spanish, which the authors felt was important given that Carrington spent much of her life in Mexico.
The new, golden cover, for example, contains the Magician and High Priestess cards, historically depicted as masculine and feminine energies. This cover reflects Carrington’s interests in feminist spirituality and the alchemical possibilities of blending gender expressions (what we might today call nonbinary gender or genderqueer identity). The authors’ analysis helps illuminate the deeper meanings in the cards, alongside their connection to the artist’s broader work.
“Although the Magician appears deceptively simple in stark black and white,” they write, “for Carrington it is one of the most multifaceted of characters, who plays a prominent role in her artwork, albeit always shifting faces and meanings …. In Carrington’s El Nigromante, the magician is clearly being portrayed and black and white predominate, along with red, another important color for the artist.” “El Nigromante,” aka “the Conjurer,” is a painting not explicitly about the tarot, but thanks to this book, the symbologies are clear.
The High Priestess, on the other hand, reflects Carrington’s interests in the “feminine sacred” and ancient Egypt. According to the authors: “Seven Egyptian ankh symbols surround her High Priestess and, together with the headdress, make a link to the Egyptian goddess Isis, strengthening the notion that this is a companion card to the Magician that represents Osiris or Hermes.” This section of the book features a reprint of Carrington’s paintings that bring in themes from the Highest Priestess tarot, such as “The Giantess” (1947), depicting a feminine figure in red, and “And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur” (1953), which contains another priestess-like figure.
Another important thread in this book is the influence of Mesoamerican spiritual beliefs in Carrington’s art. In the Judgment card, for example, the artist portrays an angelic figure blaring a trumpet. But unlike the Rider Waite Smith version, which is very influenced by Christian symbols of judgment, Carrington’s angel has moth wings. As the authors note, in pre-Columbian Teotihuacán and Oaxaca, the black butterfly, or tlilpapalotl, represented the goddess Itzpapálotl, an obsidian butterfly and mother goddess who is a figure of protection.
Both the tarot and Carrington’s work are in the midst of a revival alongside an emergent consciousness that has the world re-evaluating our relationship with nature, the earth, and our place in it. I asked Aberth why she thinks we’re seeing this resurgence today, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
“I do believe in a changing of global consciousness,” she stated. “I think right now we’re at the end of one and the beginning of another. I’m not 100% sure that we’re gonna make it. That was Leonora’s really big worry, that we will change, but we might destroy the world in the process. It’s not looking good.”
“I feel that tarot is one of the forces that is being used. Maybe we’re being helped by other entities in other planes of existence. [A shift in consciousness is] the avenue for the only kind of change that will help. … That is the ultimate radical act and the only one that’s gonna work at this point.”
This perhaps is one of the great lessons of Carrington’s work — both the deck itself and its presence in her broader oeuvre point to ways of being and seeing and existing so radically different from our dominant framework that we need tools like the tarot to carry us through this change. The current pop cultural appeal of once-occult practices, like astrology, witchcraft, and energy healing, can’t be separated from the tremendous social changes we are experiencing, a place of 21st century turmoil not apart from Carrington’s own tumultuous 20th century but intertwined with it.
I kept returning to a poem by Carrington early in the book as I reflected on the importance of her work and its contribution to both contemporary art and contemporary spiritual practice. “I don’t paint dreams,” she wrote, “as far as I know.”
Dreams are in a different space. There must be many, many different spaces. Everything is interrelated. Everything in the phenomenal world Would be entirely related.
The Tarot of Leonora Carrington, edited by Susan Aberth and Tere Arcq (2022), is published by RM and is available online and in bookstores.