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The Hieronymus Bosch Tarot

Our latest interview is with the creator of the Angel Tarot, Occult Tarot, Demon Tarot, Vlad Dracula Tarot and the Oracle of Heaven and Hell, Travis McHenry. We are talking about his latest creation, The Hieronymus Bosch Tarot. A deck of daydreams and nightmares, Travis has utliised artwork from 15th Century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch's paintings. They are not redrawings, but actual excerpts from his fantastical artwork, which he has then turned into a stunning deck of cards that would be a wonderful addition to any collection.

Where in the world do you call home?

I've lived in Los Angeles, California for the past 12 years.

What was your first experience with oracles and / or tarot and when did you fall in love with it?

I first discovered Tarot cards in 1993, when I was a teenager. It was a knock off Rider-Waite-Smith deck with a little interpretation of the card at the bottom. I didn't really understand the cards or how to read with them, but I slept with the deck beside my bed and put a different card of the Major Arcana inside my pillow case each night. That was the only deck I owned for many years until 2013 when I challenged myself to learn a new skill. I was originally going to learn how to read cuneiform, but that basically requires a PhD, so instead, I taught myself to read Tarot cards. After really immersing myself in the Tarot, its history, and the meaning behind the symbols, everything changed and I started reading for friends and giving myself readings each month.

What made you want to create your own tarot deck? What was your inspiration?

I created my first deck in 2017, the Demon-Possessed Tarot (now re-branded as the Occult Tarot). I made the deck because I felt that my knowledge and experience with the Tarot was deep enough that I could really start to share it with other people though the creation of a deck. Originally, I tried to create a deck based on the works of Hieronymus Bosch, but my skills as a digital artist weren't good enough to tackle that very complex project.

I had been interested in the Occult and demonology after being introduced to the subject while investigating the deceased leader of a coven of witches (Frederick Santee of the Coven of the Catta) in 1998. The coven turned out to be lovely people and I've since become friends with several of their members. But my studies into demonology and ritual summoning seemed to be a natural fit to the Tarot, especially because the 72 demons of the Goetia each have a link to astrology, as do the 78 Tarot cards.

After the tremendous success of the Demon-Possessed Tarot, I gained the courage to take another stab at the Hieronymus Bosch artwork and slowly found ways to work with it. It's a bit like taking a piece of clay and moulding it into a new form. You can't force it to be something that it's not.

Aside from your own deck, do you have a favourite deck? If so, which one?

I absolutely adore the Pagan Otherworlds Tarot by Linnea Gits and Peter Dunham (published by Uusi). I grew up in a tiny town out in the middle of the woods, so the nature-theme of the deck really speaks to me. Additionally, the quality of the cardstock and the tactile feel of the box put it into a different tier of decks. My only problem is that the cards are too big for my little hands to shuffle hahaha.

Do you have a favourite card (either from your deck or just the card in general). If so, why is it your favourite?

My favorite card from my own deck would probably be the Mistress of Terror from the Hieronymus Bosch Tarot. She's my version of the High Priestess, and it took a ton of work on my part to create the image because Bosch cut off the woman's hat, so I had to literally reconstruct about half of the image which was obscured by a weird boob creature holding a chessboard. So I love that card not only for the image itself and the meaning behind it, but also because of the work I put into making it.

From the Tarot in general: my favorite card is The Magician. I struggled with that card for a really long time, but when I finally started using it as the significator card during readings for myself, my entire outlook on life changed. Up until that point, I had always used The Fool (my second favorite card). For some reason, since I was young, I've had a secret crush on the Queen of Cups.

We are living in such crazy times. How has the pandemic affected your creativity?

The pandemic lockdown has greatly impacted my ability to travel, which has prevented me from doing some vital research for future projects. I've found I can only do so much research over the internet, and it's really important to actually visit some of these locations to do the legwork and see them for myself. For example, while I was creating the Tarot of Vlad Dracula, I went to Romania for a week and drove around the countryside by myself visiting all the locations that were featured in the deck. I was supposed to visit Spain and Egypt this year on research trips, but those plans have been put aside for the time being.

Aside from that, the lockdown has given me plenty of time to do the other work involved with creating a deck: writing the guidebooks, designing the cards, and thinking of new ideas for future projects.

What have been your challenges in creating this deck?

My concept for the deck was to allow Hieronymus Bosch to decide what the composition of the deck would be and which painting would correspond to which specific Tarot card. The problem was that his paintings fit really nicely into the Major Arcana, but the numbered cards of the Minor Arcana didn't really make sense for this deck.

So, I carefully studied his entire range of work and found common symbols and themes, and those became the suits of the Minor Arcana. It's quite different from a traditional Tarot deck, but it's important to remember that the 4 suits only exist because they're based on a game of trumps from the 1400s. If that game had featured 5 suits, then subsequent decks would use that number instead.

Rather than try to force a square peg into a round hole, I created a Minor Arcana comprised of 8 suits with 7 cards each. It might seem really radical, but once you flip through the deck, it works so fluidly, you'll soon realize it's superior to any pip deck and holds its own against a traditional numbered deck.

Did the idea of a tarot deck using Hieronymus Bosch’s art come to you instantly or only after studying his art for a while?

I can't really put my finger on the moment I was inspired to create a Bosch deck. I have loved his art and was blessed to see his painting Death and the Miser at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 2008. He was active as a painter during the general period the Italian and French Tarot decks were first created and the images used in the deck were common archetypes used throughout Europe. As a result, many of Bosch's paintings contain artwork that belongs in a Tarot deck. The Fool, the Magician, the Empress, Death, the World, and even The Last Judgement all have nearly perfect analogues in Bosch's work.

How will you celebrate when the deck is finally published?

I usually wait to celebrate until I've successfully fulfilled all the backer rewards from Kickstarter, which is generally 3 months after the end of the campaign. At that time, after the last box has been placed in the post, I get a nice bottle of single barrel straight Kentucky bourbon and enjoy a glass or two by myself. My preferred brand is Knob Creek.

What is on offer for people who pledge?

We've actually hit a lot of stretch goals for this project, so backers will be receiving a bunch of free stuff (like stickers, an enamel pin, two bookmarks, a velvet Tarot bag, and a Tarot / altar cloth) in addition to their deck. The basic pledge will receive a deck, or they can upgrade to get a deck with a really nice wooden deck box. The higher levels include a hardcover guidebook, but the top tier features a leatherbound book featuring completely original woodcuts of Bosch's creatures in the style of a Medieval bestiary. This is limited to 10 copies and they all already spoken for, but backers can opt for the more reasonably-priced linen bound version instead.

To add this amazing series of artwork to your tarot collection, pledge here:

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