The High Deck
By Arthur and Wald Amberstone
When I heard the concept behind this deck, I was intrigued. It was originally created by Arthur Amberstone, father of Wald Amberstone, back in 1947. Wald is well-known for organising the yearly Reader’s Studio in New York, setting up the Tarot School, as well as for his wonderful book “The Secret Language of Tarot” (Weiser Books, 2008). Wald also helped with the development of the High Deck, playing with his father and trying out different games and ways of using the cards.
The deck is touted as “an archetypal mirror for personal use”, which drew me to it. The basic idea is that most of the cards represent “characters”. The Majors are made up of the Father, Lover, Knight and Priest, while the Minors consist of the Vassal, Sinner, Child and Maid. All these characters exist within the four Houses (suits) of Sun, Flower, Arrow and Pyramid. A further division is the separation into Red (Sun and Flower) and Black (Arrow and Pyramid). In this way, there is a very yin-yang feel to the deck, and also a sense of personality types.
This sort of psychological focus was what drew me to the deck, and in fact Arthur Amberstone wrote a letter in the early 1960’s to a Jungian Academy in New York (included in the companion book). In it, he describes how he devised the cards, the ways he thought they could be used, and how his later discovery of Jung’s work had clarified his own understanding of the cards he had previously created. He says: “Within the realm of psychotherapy itself, it could be an invaluable tool in the labor of achieving greater self-knowledge and freedom, or what Dr. Jung calls individuation. It is not limited, as are methods like the Rorschach test and graphology, to a one-dimensional personality analysis, nor is it designed to enlighten the examiner alone.”
These are big claims, and I can see where he is coming from with them. However, while Arthur Amberstone claimed that the deck is capable “of unlimited symbolic amplification and interpretation”, for me it fails on its artwork, and due to the non-intuitive nature of both the characters and the symbols.
For one thing, the deck has all the drawbacks of Court cards, without even having the variety that most decks give to their portrayal of these “people”. All the Knights are exactly the same, with mere colour differences between black and red, and only House emblem variations between the two Houses of each colour. As for the Minors, they are simply pip cards, with no sense of personality at all.
In order to “read” the cards, there are descriptions given in the companion book, not just for the individual cards, but also for how they combine, and for how the House affects the character of each. These descriptions were written by Arthur Amberstone, and completed in the early 1970’s, and their age really shows. Even before we get to the fact that only one of the eight “characters” is female, we face descriptions such as: “The Maid in the House of the Arrow instructs the servants.” I’m not taking this out of context, that is the sum total of what is written about that card!
As for the “explanation” of the Father as a more general archetype, we get: “The Father and the Child emerge from the House of the Sun. The Father affirms the Sun, while the Child resists the Father. But the life of the Father is nonetheless secure. It is filled with the uses of wealth and the plaints of want, the keys of legitimacy and the crimes of the outcast, the radiance of fortune and the dullness of convention.” Personally, that really does not help me much!
There are also some games described at the end of the book, including a trick-taking game. However, even these are rather mathematical and convoluted. I’m someone who enjoys bridge and sudoku, but have to say these games hold little appeal to me.
The cards, totalling 38 (32 characters, 2 colours and 4 Houses), are poker-sized, thick and heavily laminated. They come in a nice, magnetic-close box, with a good-sized, 136-page companion book that is elegantly laid out with lots of black and silver. Some pages are almost zen-like in their simplicity, holding just a black-and-white scan of a card and a single-sentence description.
This deck, then, requires someone who likes working with very simple cards without much symbolism or personality, or else someone who enjoys the written descriptions and is willing to learn them and experiment with how to apply them to their own personality. Otherwise, someone who reads more psychically may find the cards work for them, in the same way that non-illustrated pips might.