Interview with Nigel Jackson


"Magic and divination were implicit in cards from their distant beginnings"

By Melanie Harris

You probably wouldn’t expect a man who had once been in a band called the Stockholm Monsters to moonlight in an academic holding library, but then again, Nigel Jackson is not exactly what one would call orthodox. An intensely gifted visual artist, this England native could professionally execute just about any kind of artwork, but he doesn’t—he’s always focused on his passion, esoteric art and ancient talismanic symbology. A highly accomplished and successful artist and author, Nigel’s works are very scholarly and well researched, superbly carried out with a unique ancient/modern flair that is the mark of his style. Author of The Celtic Oracle (with Nigel Pennick, HarperCollins 1992), Celestial Magic (Capall Bann Publishing 2003), and The Compleat Vampyre (Capall Bann Publishing 1994), and creator of Fortuna’s Wheel (limited edition art tarocchi published by Adam McLean, with a book by the same title offered through Renaissance Astrology), and Medieval Enchantment/The Nigel Jackson Tarot (Llewellyn Worldwide 2004), Nigel’s creations are popular for their depth as well as their beauty. He also illustrated Christopher Warnock’s The Mansions of the Moon (Renaissance Astrology 2006), as well as The Latin Picatrix (edited by Christopher Warnock, Renaissance Astrology 2007). He’s studied various modes of magic and spirituality extensively, and he’s now brought his affection for Sufism to light in a brand-new deck and book set, The Rumi Tarot Kit, out from Llewellyn Worldwide this May. When we saw the first images from this deck, we were floored—they’re absolutely stunning. We simply had to talk to Nigel to find out more.

Tarot Reflections: Now, if anyone can be called a Renaissance Man, it’s you—and not just because you’ve so thoroughly studied Renaissance magic. I understand that in addition to your art and writing, that you’re also a musician?

Nigel Jackson: I do play music, keyboards, zither, cymbala, etc. with my wife Patti. We have a home studio and have recorded several soundtracks for Renaissance Astrology videos and are developing material for a forthcoming CD album with an astrological theme. 

TR: You've researched magic extensively and also written about it—do you practice it? 

NJ: Along with tarot, magic is a long-standing pre-occupation. Medieval nigromancy, renaissance Hermeticism of the scholar-magicians, and the Masonic theurgy of the Counter-Enlightenment are special areas of interest for me. As for magic (or rather theurgy—‘Divine Action' which synthesizes Contemplation and Action), I am immersed in this spiritual world-view because I am in essential agreement with Paracelsus that 'Magic is a great secret wisdom just as reason is a great public folly.' Magical lore also provides incredibly rich veins of primordial symbolism for the visual artist to draw upon, much of it very curious and beautiful. Magic, like astrology and alchemy, is one of the traditional spiritual sciences. 

TR: Let’s talk about your latest project, the Rumi Tarot—I understand that’s coming out this May. What elements of the Sufi tradition or characteristics of Rumi's belief system are conveyed through these cards?

NJ: The Rumi Tarot was designed to convey an integral visual expression of the way, the tariqa, of Sufism; it meshes Sufic symbolism with a vision of tarot based on Middle Eastern muluk-wa-nawwab cards. So it's a nod toward the oriental origins of tarot and a pictorial exposition of Rumi's Sufi doctrine. 

TR: What medium did you use to create the images for this deck?

NJ: Egg tempera, used as a binder for the pigments. This enabled rich flat planes of color to be painted, and brings out a deepened luster to the hues. This project called for a color sensibility different from my usual, more translucent watercolor style. I researched the pigments and binders used in medieval Persian miniatures in art-conservation journals, and eventually settled upon egg tempera as a medium for the Rumi Tarot

TR: Tell me about your artistic process for this deck—What inspired you to make the Rumi Tarot at this time?

NJ: This project was actually commissioned by the publisher who'd seen some oriental-style designs I'd done previously and asked me whether I'd like to create the Rumi Tarot—I was very struck by the idea straight away and found it inspiring. It was a very rewarding project to work on, although certainly challenging at points. The main thing about this project was that the various visual elements, arch-border, internal images etc. were done separately then superimposed and put together by the design department at the publisher, where the text typography for each card was also done. For me, this was a relatively unusual way of working on the images…rather like creating pieces to be finally assembled into a mosaic.

TR: What's your favorite thing about these cards?

NJ: I like the opportunity it gave me to transpose and thus bring out the deepest meanings within tarot—such as 'poverty' for the 5 of Coins, which here becomes the principle of spiritual poverty, renunciation—al-faqr. It was a ta'wil, an exercise in symbolic exegesis. I also find it satisfying the way each card image corresponds with and reflects one of the Beautiful Names of God from Sufic tradition. 

TR: Did you write the guidebook that comes with it?

NJ: Yes, I have written the 300-odd page guidebook which accompanies the deck, a fairly comprehensive manual on the Rumi Tarot, its symbolism, and its esoteric teachings. 

TR: You've spent a lot of time studying the history and origins of the tarot. What's your theory on how the tarot came to be used for divination and magic?

NJ: My view is, I think, a fairly heterodox one in the present climate, as it's my contention that playing-cards/tarot cards actually emerge in the first place from a background of shamanistic magic and divination, with gaming representing a later and secondary utilization of cards—in fact, gaming and divination are closely intertwined activities in pre-modern cultures. In this, I follow the view of the anthropologist and historian of games Dr. Stewart Culin, who traced the lineage of playing-cards/tarots to Korean shamanistic arrow divination in the 6th century, where the silk strips attached to the arrows, bearing symbolic devices (in 9 card suits with a single court card of a general) eventually replaced the arrows themselves and the distant ancestor of the card-deck emerged prior to its diffusion into China, Central Asia, Mamluk, Egypt etc. However, the esoteric side of cards, always inherent within their symbolism, emerges from time to time. Magic and divination were implicit in cards from their distant beginnings.

TR: What traditions or beliefs do you think are the basis for the symbolism of the earliest tarots?

NJ: The beliefs we find embodied within the tarot are (as both Gertrude Moakley and Paul Huson have indicated) the teachings and qualities that Plato tells us, in his Alcibiades, were inculcated into the archetypal priest-king by four masters: the first master teaches the 'magianism of Zoroaster' and the worship of the gods. The second teaches him to always speak truth, the third master teaches him 'not to allow any pleasure to be lord over him,' and the fourth teaches him to be valiant, 'bold and fearless.' These Platonist Cardinal Virtues of Wisdom/Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude (which have an esoteric side to them) are what the four suits teach as the basis of spiritual and temporal sovereignty, enthroned at the sacred center. The Major cards, emerging as a 'fifth suit' in medieval Italy, are based on the above virtues and incorporate Platonist, Pythagorean, Stoic, allegorical, and Biblical themes, along with the estates of man in a symbolic-hierarchic 'status mundi,' which is also a 'salvation journey.' The tarot is very precious because it presents an almost perfect pictorial encapsulation or emblematic 'mirror' of the traditional world-order. I think this is why the French Egyptian writer Rene Guenon described the tarot as preserving 'vestiges of traditional science.' 

TR: Do you read the tarot? 

NJ: Yes, I use tarot for divination and as supports for contemplation. I began engaging with tarot back in my childhood, as I was exposed to it quite early on around 1974, initially through seeing the Marseilles cards in the old Roger Corman film, Masque of the Red Death (which was a providential revelation), and through exposure to tarot imagery via the literature of the 1970’s pop-occult and tarot explosion. Absorbing the works of people like Kathleen McCormack, I drew an early and naively executed deck of tarot cards—that’s how I 'cut my teeth' with tarot, as it were. Things have carried on more or less in continuity from there.  

TR: I've heard you referred to as an ‘Illuminationist.’ What does that term mean to you, personally?

NJ: By Illuminationism, we mean the fusion of ancient Indo-Iranian spirituality and its symbolism of divine light with the doctrines of Greek Neoplatonism. This 'oriental theosophy of light' was formulated very elegantly and profoundly by the Sufi philosopher Suhrawardhi: it's an expression of the same perennial esoteric stream that we term 'hermetic' in Western traditions.

TR: Tell me about the different types of work you do as an artist and illustrator. What projects are you working on right now?

NJ: I specialize in esoterica as a visual artist and illustrator, and always have done, which naturally narrows things down somewhat. At present, I'm developing some outcroppings of the Rumi Tarot, a possible course, and I have some literary projects in process, too.

TR: Do you love being a professional artist?

NJ: I find the work very satisfying, which isn't necessarily the same as saying that it is straightforwardly enjoyable in any recreational sense! But as Rumi said so acutely, 'everybody has been made for some particular type of work.' 

TR: I know you do a lot of talismanic art. Explain to me the power, the effects, of these images.

NJ: I'd been exploring the Neoplatonic Image-Magic of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance when I connected up with the traditional astrologer Christopher Warnock about seven years ago, and as we both shared similar interests and aims, this led to an ongoing collaboration. The talismanic magic is part and parcel of electional astrology, and is a very elegant and precise discipline. The archetypal symbolism of the talismans is ancient, passed down through Arab and medieval civilization century after century, a very archaic iconology. Titus Burckhardt defined a properly prepared and consecrated talisman as a 'condensation' in the subtle realm, of a spiritual state. The range of influence of talismans is wide, from the attainment of concrete, mundane objectives to the sublime level of divine workings, 'god-making' as the Hermeticists termed it. The experiential process of creating, consecrating and using talismans is a highly pragmatic and results-orientated branch of traditional science. 

TR: You've described visual art as an ‘alchemy of the imagination.’ Tell me what this means exactly.

NJ: The focus upon traditional esoteric symbolism means that this kind of art has a definite purpose. It repeatedly presents specific symbols and patterns within consciousness that have an active or transformative power. Symbols simultaneously reveal and conceal their meanings, and the function of this kind of art is to induce a kind of deepened contemplative perception, which in Dante's definition of the anagogic sense, uplifts the mind toward realization of eternal verities. Such symbols open up onto and exist within the Mundus Imaginalis, the sphere of divine imagination where spiritual things are embodied and material things become spiritualized. This awareness of the active, initiatory function of primordial symbolism underpins my whole approach toward visual art. 

TR: What drives you? What are you passionate about?

NJ: I've been interested in art, magic and mysticism since my childhood years…this shows no sign of abating as I approach my mid-40s. Tarot has been and continues to be a veritable passion, the wisest of guides and an inexhaustible fountainhead of inspiration. 

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